Saturday, June 11, 2016


The Alleys of Khan el Khalili
I remember the day I almost met Naguib Mahfouz.  I was a mess, cramping with excitement.  I had admired his writing, especially Midaq Alley, a book that both enchanted and horrified me.  On our first trip to Cairo, I begged Mario to take me to Khan el-Khalili, the Islamic marketplace that Mahfouz haunted, writing in coffee-houses with a pen and paper, drinking coffee like he was ordinary.  I knew he breathed atoms there; perhaps I could breathe the same ones.  I wanted to understand the hold that his words had on me. 

“Do you want me to take you to his coffee house?” Our eavesdropping taxi driver spoke perfect English, and I was surprised. “He should still be there.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, turning my attention toward him.  “Do you know him?”  I suddenly felt naked and exposed.  I sounded like some literary groupie, but Mario laughed. 

“This is perfect.  You know where he has coffee?”

The driver looked at his watch.  “If we hurry we can make it before one o’clock.  He goes home for lunch.”

We made it to the bazaar in record speed and parked.  I was shaking.  I was suddenly aware of how western I was.  My hair hung, black and uncovered, all the way to my shoulders.  My white skirt, in proper missionary fashion, covered my knees, but not my ankles.  

I followed our driver through the narrow alleys, passing hanging chandeliers and brass candlesticks to a doorway with an ornate carved entrance.  As soon as we stepped inside, an oil painting of Mahfouz greeted us; his books lined the walls.  Here, Mahfouz penned the entire history of modern Egypt in a series of books. 

My knees shook; I held Mario’s hand too tightly.

Naguib Mahfouz's nook at his coffee shop, Khan Khalili
The taxi driver took it upon himself to speak to the maître D, a man in a dishdasha and fez.  He looked over at me as our driver explained what an insane fan I was, and sized me up.  

Then. Turning to our taxi driver, he shook his head slowly and whispered something.  I knew I had been rejected.  Perhaps the master liked to write undisturbed- after all, I did.

Our driver returned to us with a sad look on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said, in a low voice.  “But he died last year.”

The moment makes me laugh now.  What was I thinking? I was going to meet a writer, a fellow author who wrote about his corner of the world.  What would I have said?  What would I have asked him?  

The truth is, it didn’t matter.  I loved the WORDS that Mahfouz gave me; I loved them, ate them, digested them.  They became part of me and I adored him for that.

Like all readers, I have the propensity to write.  I love words and find God in the detail of them.  Whispers of civilizations, friends I will never meet, cultures I will become temporarily attached to, are all in the safe pages of a book that I can buy and own and curl up with somewhere.

Michael Spurgeon, Josh Weil, Christian Keifer,
and Bich Minh Nguyen after the Friday Evening Reading
This year, I heard that Luis Urrea was coming to Summer Words, American River College’s event for writers and readers.  Summer Words is the brain child of two creative writing professors at ARC – Christian Keifer and Michael Spurgeon.  Both authors themselves, Spurgeon and Keifer are master networkers, and model the arts of researching, developing projects, and editing with fellow writers for their students. 

I had managed to power through ARC and graduate with an AAT without taking either one of these professors.  This was not purposeful, but as I wrapped up my time at ARC, it was one of my chief regrets. Going to the Summer Words conference meant so much to me.  I applied for a scholarship to Summer Words and was granted one, graciously, by the beautiful (and generous) English Department at ARC.

 Urrea is a Latino author and poet who somehow brings issues of identity—especially Latino identity—to the fore in order for us to realize similarities in our human condition.  His blunt expression of what is going on along the Mexican border in The Devil’s Highway earned him a Pulitzer nomination.  His newest collection of stories, The Water Museum earned him a Pen/Faulkner nomination.  NPR called him a “literary badass”, which makes me laugh.

Then. My knees started shaking when I thought about it.  Not only was Urrea coming, but I might possibly get to meet him.  Other notable authors were on the schedule, including those two writing professors who I had managed to elude in my rigorous schedule at ARC.

 I chastised myself.  Hadn’t I gotten over this starry admiration of fellow writers?  Hadn’t I realized (by the ripe age of 53) that we are all writers, seeking to connect with readers?  We were all seeking to impart secrets from the corners of our hearts to a readership.  We writers seek the same thing: connection with our readers.  Some of us have made it into that fragile thing we call notoriety; others have not.
Joshua Mohr explains "Plaracterization"
 to our full classroom.

Attending the conference was amazing.  Summer Words covered a broad range of topics, including “Morality in Fiction” “Writing from Your Gut” “Plaracterization: The Kiss between Plot and Character” and “The Organic Outline.”  And there I was, in the center of it all, with words swirling around me like spun sugar.  The presenters were amazing (three of whom signed their books and gave me advice); some were ARC professors. 

By the time Urrea showed up (on Saturday) I was busy having a ball.  I saw him in the hallway and had the shaky knee thing again, but I tried to ignore it.  

His keynote address on Saturday night reminded me why I needed to read him more. Writing about the USA and Mexican border is one thing; writing about the border in our identity is another.  These subjects are not light, they are necessary.  We don’t prohibit them in our country –this is the 21st century and we combine intellectual and cultural influences in everything we call Literary Fiction.  BUT what he is writing is unusual.  It is time-capsule stuff that we deem important and part of our country's identity.  “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” he told us, solemnly.  “There is only us.”

Summer Words 2016 presenters

I knew there was a scheduled Q and A on Sunday morning.  The night before I wondered. If I were to ask one question -what would it be? It was then that I realized I would ask the same question of Naguib Mahfouz.  It is the same question that I would ask any writer: how can I be better?  What is it about the craft of writing that you can impart to me?  I knew I would be “Shaky Knee Janet” on Sunday morning during Q and A, so I wrote the question down on my program.

I asked it, poised and ready to hear the answer.  Urrea raised his eyebrows and casually leaned against the wall as he answered.  “I would tell you that if you’re not going to fill your pen with love, don’t even bother picking it up.”

I began to weep. The answer was the cherry on top of the whole conference.

That’s why I loved Mahfouz.  That’s why I love Austen, Faulkner, Joyce, Urrea, Burroughs, Tan, Cisneroz, O’Brien, Lahiri, McBride, Morrison, Colson, Kingsolver, and Dickens.  Not only do they tell a story well, they love me and show me how they see things.  They respect that I have bought their book and that I want to be taken away.  I want to be loved and shown the corners of the heart…and they do it.

Time and again, they do it.

At the end of the conference, I managed to have Urrea sign the  stack of books he had written that I brought from home.  I even gave him an expired Zimbabwean dollar "A present from another border," I told him.  He was genuinely appreciative.  

Me and the "literary badass"
I managed to hold it together long enough to take my picture with Urrea, which was cool.  I am grateful that he didn't see me as a Kathy Bates kind of fan, which I really am not.  I know that one day I will get over my thing with meeting my literary heroes.  

One day.