Monday, 16 May 2022

South Writ Large Anthology Launch on Wednesday May 18th!

It’s exciting indeed to see our South Writ Large Anthology finally in print and on bookshelves wherever books are sold! Twenty-six splendid pieces selected to represent the hundreds of essays and art contributed by well over a hundred writers and artists featured over eleven years of quarterly publishing. Lavishly illustrated, it includes an Introduction by novelist Michael Malone. It has been seven years in the making, a labor of love on the part of all concerned, from contributors to editors, and all proceeds go to benefit the UNC Center for the Study of the American South. Our launch date is May 18th at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. In addition to two of the anthology editors, Robin Muira and myself, several of the contributors will be reading excerpts from their pieces in the anthology, including NYT best-selling novelist Jill McCorkle and legendary Southern Cooking Chef and cookbook author Bill Smith. If you’re anywhere in the vicinity,  as they say here in the South, y’all come on down!

Book Review: Divining Women by Druscilla French

 Druscilla French’s Divining Women, the most recent in her Wheel of the Year series, takes place at a time of year when the harsh Colorado winter begins almost imperceptibly to turn the corner to Spring. The extended family at the heart of the novel, related by blood or friendship or need, struggle separately and together with their own demons and challenges, from matriarch grandmother Cate to implacable justice-seeking lawyer Mattie to gifted, brave but often ignored granddaughter Chrysaor. This youngest is the emotional locus of the story, heartbreaking in her valiant efforts to hold the family together and carry burdens far beyond her years. In keeping with the wheel of the year theme, the ending, without give away too much, closes on a note of plenty, a presage of the Spring that follows the barrenness of Winter. 

The writing is elegant and evocative throughout, and a palimpsest of sorts reminds the reader of the earlier two novels in the series, although this third book very much stands alone. By the time the last page is turned, the reader is left looking forward to following the fortunes of the family in the next book in the series. 

Sunday, 27 March 2022

Book review


“In Marse: A Psychological Portrait of the Southern Slave Master, H.D. Kirkpatrick brings his near forty years of forensic psychology practice to bear on a highly disturbing but fascinating topic, the legacy of which, although reaching back to the 17thC, still plagues us today. Kirkpatrick dissects a mindset that could encompass referring to enslaved dependents as “family,” and yet sell members of that “family” for profit or punishment, cruelly separating them from their real family, their parents or spouses. Perhaps hardest for some of us to imagine today is that a slaveholder might make slaves of his own flesh and blood, the children he fathers on an enslaved woman. And yet, these acts, unimaginable, indefensible and inexcusable as they seem to us today, routinely took place, for centuries. How did “Marse” justify them to himself and to the planter class to which he belonged? For Kirkpatrick, who discovered as recently as 2014 that some of his own ancestors were slaveholders, the answers are essential. Marse is a necessary book, dense, meticulously researched, sourced, annotated and illustrated. It makes for compelling reading. Highly recommended.”

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Death in a Rose Garden

If a man drops dead in a rose garden, and nobody notices, does he make a sound? 


There is a wooden pavilion in a rose garden I cross through regularly on my way to the walking trail. Yesterday morning, as I hurried through the garden, I noticed a big, burly man supine on the bench in the rose pavilion, one foot still on the ground, the other on the bench, one arm across his forehead, the other on his chest. About forty. Wearing an immaculate white t-shirt, blue running shorts and new running shoes. Catching his breath, I guessed, after pushing himself too hard, out of shape and overweight as he clearly was. He seemed actually to have fallen asleep, not just resting. 


An hour and a half later, having completed my walk and looped back to my starting point at the park, I saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. Still, I didn’t make a connection with the man until, striding through the rose garden, I saw him lying on the bench in the exact same position, but now three police officers surrounded him, and a fourth spotted me and shouted: “Ma’am! Get back!” As I turned and scrambled away, I heard another policeman say, “We have a heart attack victim here.” Others were blocking off the path with the yellow “Do Not Cross” tape. Then it was that I realized the man was dead.


They had just discovered him. He hadn’t moved a hair since I’d seen him an hour and a half earlier, so he must have lain there immobile for at least that long, in a public park with people passing constantly and children playing on the swings nearby, and no one had noticed or bothered to call for help until a few minutes ago. I hadn’t . What does that say about our society, even here, in a small, safe, southern college town? What does it say about me?


If he had looked like a person in distress, if he had been old or frail or a woman, would I have approached him and asked: “Are you alright?” I believe I would have. But I should have known he was in trouble nevertheless. Only homeless people sleep on a park bench in the middle of the day, and he was clearly not that.


This man looked like a family man, he had that look about him. He also looked like he’d once been athletic but had put on about fifty pounds over the years. Maybe his wife and kids finally talked him into taking care of his health and he decided to take up running, and pushed himself too hard. And now he would never come home.


One question torments me. Was he still alive when I first saw him? If I had called 911, would there still have been time to save him? I don’t know. I’ll never know. And not knowing will haunt me. 



Saturday, 11 September 2021

How do you commemorate 9/11 twenty years later?

How do you remember an event that was a personal trauma as much as a global one? I was spared the loss of anyone close to me, thank God, although for the first few hours, I did not know that, until I received that reassuring phone call: “Mom, I’m alright.” Nothing can compare with that. 

But I lost other things: my right to my heretofore perfectly integrated, happy life as an “ordinary American,” unqualified by hyphenation and its accompanying stigmatization. I lost one friend I truly cared for, but was blessed by the support from so many, many more. I lost my voice, as a writer, for what seemed like a long time, but I found it again and published two books since then, partly inspired by 9/11 (Love is Like Water) or wholly inspired by the Iraq invasion (The Naqib’s Daughter.) 

So how do you commemorate 9/11? For me, reflection and solace in a morning walk in the woods today. Last night, watching the play Come from Away. Tomorrow, September 12th, giving a talk at Duke Divinity School about 9/11 Twenty Years Later: What has Changed? 

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Afghanistan today, Egypt in 1801: History Repeats, Tragically.

 Today, it’s Afghan collaborators with the American forces of occupation who are abandoned by the evacuating Western troops and fear retribution at the hands of their countrymen. Over two hundred years ago, the same scenario played out in Egypt when Bonaparte’s army of the East scrambled to evacuate after three years of occupation, as I described in my book, The Naqib’s Daughter. Arguably, the French withdrew with less precipitation and more consideration for their collaborators: they embarked some with them, and tried to negotiate amnesty for those they left behind. Ultimately, though, many Egyptians paid a heavy price in retribution, especially the women who, willingly or against their will, consorted with the French in Egypt. 

Monday, 18 January 2021

The Cataclysmic First Year of the Decade

 What is it about the cataclysmic first year of every decade of this third millennium? Events that permanently shake and shape the world stage. September 2001 needs no reminder. January 2011, the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square, Cairo. January 2021, the sacking of the Capitol in Washington DC. As I watched the inconceivable spectacle of a mob charging the very seat of American democracy, the sense of déjà-vu was acute and yet overpowered by the far more alarming implications. When a million Egyptians gathered in the streets to demand, first the reform, then the ouster, of the thirty-year autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, the uprising fell into the category of the familiar, the rational, and even the expected, along the pattern of similar popular revolutions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world. But the mob assault of a few thousand

on the hallowed electoral process in the iconic Capitol building on January 6th, 2021, was truly unprecedented, an earthquake opening a chasm under our feet. Above all, irrational: a response to an alternative, conspiracy-fueled version of facts. And consequently, the chasm opening under our feet is dividing the nation into two camps with irreconcilable world views. Egypt’s 2011 Revolution presented no such challenge to reality, only irreconcilable positions on whether, or how, to bring about change. In America today, there is no consensus on reality. 

The contrast is particularly salient to me right now, as I am in the process of writing a novel set in Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

A Silent Fall


Come September, you wake up one morning to a bracing chill in the air, you look at the time and realize the sun is sleeping later and later every day; you thrill to the promise that our muggy, buggy Southern Summer is gathering its mosquito foot soldiers and its hurricane storm troops and preparing to migrate to the far hemisphere. Fall, the glorious season, with its coat of many colors, the payoff for surviving the dog days of August, whispers “soon, soon,” with every breeze. But the sounds of September are silent this year. The morning grinding of school buses up and down the streets is eerily missing. Missing too, the bustle and commotion of thousands of college students flocking back to summer-sleepy campuses, standing in line with overflowing carts at checkouts in supermarkets and home goods stores, and cramming every restaurant table or bar stool up and down the downtown strip. Fall, the real season of renewal, when our town is jolted back to life. It is eerily silent this year.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Remembering Randall Kenan.


For two years, whenever I ran into Randall Kenan and he gave me an especially big hug in greeting, I worried. It meant he was feeling guilty for not having turned in his essay for Mothers and Strangers, in spite of my regular emails hounding him, as editors are wont to do. But Randall had a mischievous sense of humor, and I appealed to that by comparing him to Michelangelo, who replied to the pope who had commissioned the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, that “he would be done when he was done.” In return Randall compared me to “that mean old pope who nagged Michelangelo, but much nicer.” Our UNC Press editor, Lucas Church, even went ahead with the peer review and the board approval, without an essay from Randall; we had faith in him to come through after the eleventh hour. And so he did, with a delightfully breezy essay about food and family and the village it took to raise him. “The mean old pope” quote made it into the Acknowledgments at the back of the book when it was published. The great talent and sweet spirit that was Randall Kenan passed away on August 26th.  Today I cherish that permanent record of our playful exchanges.