Alisse Waterston: Making Theory Accessible with Intimate Ethnography

This is my sixth post in my Year of Women’s Voices blog
series, and features my review of Alisse Waterston’s ethnography My Father’s
Wars: Migration, Memory and the Violence of a Century 
(2014).  In this intimate ethnography of her father, Dr. Waterston
has written a frank portrayal of her father as a man, a survivor, a soldier, an
entrepreneur, husband, and father.  Her
writing honors her father without maudlin sentiment.  She frames her father’s lived experiences
with migration and violence, and uses his experiences to illustrate social
theory in a way that makes it accessible for non-academics.
Her writing is crisp, clear, and rich with detail. She
chooses a concise series of her father’s life events that create a reading
experience that is informative, and moving. The reading experience is enhanced by the companion website that
contains photographs, documents, audio files, and videos of her interviews with
her father as she worked on this ethnography. The book becomes a much more intimate experience through watching the
interactions between Dr. Waterston and her father, observing their body language, and listening to their voices.
 As a writer I appreciate Dr. Waterston’s explanation of her
struggles in her dual roles as daughter and ethnographer, and her process of
conducting research. I truly appreciated her discussion of the discipline it
took to not be distracted by the numerous ideas for other projects that called
to her during this project, especially when the experience of the project
became difficult.
If you are interested in ethnographic studies, social
theory, history, Judaic studies, anthropology, or if you are looking for an
extremely readable book that might help you understand how the experience of
violence shapes lives, this is the book I would hand you.
 What I have learned as a writer:
  1.    It is okay to include yourself in the story.
  2.    Stick with the project even when it is hard, or
    other projects beckon seductively from your research.
  3.   It is possible
    to portray unflattering behaviors in a way that is not overly sympathetic, nor  vindictive.
  4.  Multimedia
    can make a non-fiction project a richer experience, and allows the writer to
    include    research material that would be otherwise not be available.
  5.   Write the story that is hard to write, be
  6.    Don’t be trapped by conventions of disciplines
    or genre.
 I am grateful that
Dr. Waterston has created a work that is compelling, and readable on a subject
that is difficult to read about. When
confronted with violence, most of us want to turn away, to shield our eyes and our minds from horrific events. Dr. Waterston reminds us that even if we
want to look away, we must not, we need to understand.
For a biography and more information about Alisse Waterston and her other books, this is the link to My Father’s Wars website and this is the link to Dr. Waterston’s home page



A Year of Women’s Voices: Patti Smith’s Just Kids



I have been a Patti Smith fan since high school. I wore out my copy of Horses. I could not get enough. In college I played Patti Smith loud to annoy the preppys and the narrow-minded.
I loved her lyrics and punk sound. The gender bending album cover and lack of make-up made me want to be in her world.

Later I found her poetry and have remained as enamored of her as I was in high school.  In 2010 her memoir Just Kids won a well deserved National Book Award. I say well deserved because she is an engaging story-teller and writer. She brings a poet’s rhythm and word craft to the story of her young life, and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. She is humble and honest. I have read a number of memoirs that are maudlin, poorly written, or deify belief. Just Kids is all that a memoir should be, a true telling of events that engages your senses and soul.

What I have learned as a writer reading and listening to Patti Smith:
1. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.
2. Ugly can be beautifully written.
3. Be honest.
4. Pay attention to the rhythm of your words.
5. Not everyone will understand your work, don’t let it stop you.

Here is a link to one of my favorite Patti Smith songs. I want you to imagine it played at top volume on a turntable in a tiny dorm room with punk posters on the wall, and illegal beer stashed in the shower. Enjoy!


A Year Of Women’s Voices

Halong Bay, Vietnam 2009

 Starting this week, I am embarking on a year long reading project that will focus on women writers as a way of acknowledging that women encounter resistance in getting their work published, reviewed, and taken seriously.

I was inspired to start this project after reading this post 100 Best Lesbian Fiction Memoir Books of All Time . After a little research I also found these two lists,  10 Novels / Memoirs by and about Black Lesbian, Bisexual, and Queer Women and Feminista’s 100 Great 20th Century Works of Fiction by Women .  I am not alone in dedicating this year’s reading to women writers. There is a Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014, and this Note from the Editor: Critical Flame Dedicates One Year to Women and Writers of Color .  After reading through each list with a highlighter, I felt like I had been living in a cave.   I had only read about half of the books listed.

I should explain that I read four or five books per week.  I am as likely to be reading a natural history of earthworms, as I am the latest release from my favorite romance/erotica writers.  I read literary fiction, memoir, non-fiction, creative non-fiction, mystery, romance, suspense, erotica, fantasy, science-fiction, and horror.

As an obsessive reader of all manner of books, and not content to follow someone else’s list, I decided to create my own list.  I asked my friends for recommendations in person, and on my Facebook page. The response was wonderful. I have so many suggestions that I may have to do this again next year!  I am looking forward to reading new books, and rereading a few books that are favorites.

Why reread? Books speak to you in different ways at different times in your life. You can’t step in the same river twice, and you can’t read a book again for the first time.  This time when I reread some of my favorites, I will also be reading as a writer.

Prior to a recent milestone birthday, writing for publication was a nebulous idea.  I wrote in journals, and spiral notebooks. I never considered myself a writer, or showed anyone my writing.  It was my secret.  Then I hit the half-century mark. I decided to gift myself a writing conference, and to take the craft and work of writing seriously. It was the best gift I have ever given myself.  Reading a book as a writer is different than reading as a reader.  As a long time reader I knew I loved some books, as I study the craft of writing, I understand why I love them. My posts will talk about the books I read in two way. One as they resonate, or not, with me as a person, and how the books are crafted.

Thank you to my friends who contributed ideas for the book list.  I appreciate your help.  Each month on the blog I will publish the list of books for the month.

Books have been my refuge, my solace, my escape, and my teachers for as long as I can remember. They have inspired me to take great adventures, change my thinking, and appreciate life. 
Do you feel the same way about books? Come along on the grand adventure. 
Halong Bay, Vietnam 2009