JUVENTUD a thought-provoking coming of age story set against complexities of Colombia

Juventud cover  Vanessa Blakeslee 2014

Juventud

By Vanessa Blakeslee

Curbside Splendor: Oct. 27, 2015

$15.95, 338 pages

As serendipity would have it, I ended up reading two books set in South America back to back. After a steady diet of fiction set in the U.S. and Europe, spending time in Colombia and Brazil constituted a much-needed change of scenery for my Westernized imagination.

Juventud (Youth) is Vanessa Blakeslee’s first novel after a stellar short collection, Train Shots. The standout story in that book was set in Costa Rica, so it’s not surprising that she would write about the manifold issues of life in Colombia at the turn of the millenium.

The story is narrated by its 30-year-old protagonist, Mercedes Martinez, who guides us through a multi-level coming of age story. The novel begins in 1999, as she looks back 15 years to the period in her life when everything changed. Mercedes is the 15-year-old daughter of a wealthy Cali landowner and an American mother who long ago fled to her home country. She adores her father, dreams of her long-absent mother (about whom she knows little and has had no contact with), and frets about her social life. She is, in other words, a fairly typical adolescent.

Mercedes’ opening observations set the stage for the textured depiction of a young woman navigating a complex set of conflicts in her personal life and her homeland.

“Along with most of the professional- to upper-class, I moved through my daily routine largely unaffected by their troubles: one in five residents out of work and unemployment rising, the streets jammed with listless young men, guerillas and government still at war after four decades, one- to two-million Colombians displaced from their villages by the bloodbaths….Otherwise, the disparity outside my windows didn’t faze me much. I was still mourning the loss of my first crush, whom I’d met at a Valentine’s dance and whose parents had swiftly enrolled him at a military school in the United States a few weeks later, after the FARC [the dominant rebel army] captured and assassinated three indigenous-rights activists, all American. That was my luck, I thought, almost sixteen and still no boyfriend. Like any teenage girl, I yearned to fall in love. Beyond that, I had few desires.”

Soon Mercedes meets Manuel, a handsome 21-year-old activist and devout Catholic, who shows her the brutal reality of the economic and cultural woes of her country. She experiences an awakening of her social conscience and now views the desplazados (displaced ones) who camp on the fringes of her family’s sugarcane plantation with new eyes. But a greater awakening awaits her, as the social justice work of Manuel causes her to examine her assumptions about her father and the past he has left shrouded in silence and misdirection.

As Mercedes becomes increasingly involved with Manuel and his activities, the fog of her youth lifts and she begins to see more clearly the circumstances of her privileged life, especially the precarious nature of her father’s financial success and social status.

An explosive event (no spoilers here) forces her to flee to the United States. The second half of Juventud follows Mercedes as she navigates culture shock, completes her education, and moves into life as a young professional. Her memories of life in Colombia remain a powerful presence and an unshakable part of her character. Her mother may have been American, and she may have lived there from age 16 on, but she is Colombian. After 15 years, events call her home, where she confronts the truth about her father and the life she thought she understood.

Blakeslee has written a multi-faceted novel that combines a coming of age story, a socio-political exploration of modern Colombia, and a sympathetic fish out of water story full of cultural conflict. It seems well-researched and accurate (to the extent I am able to judge that) and never struck a wrong note in its detailed descriptions or crisp dialogue.

What struck me as I read Juventud was that, with some judicious editing, it would make a terrific Young Adult novel about a time, a place, and a set of social and economic issues that the adolescents of 2016 know little or nothing about but would certainly find involving and enlightening.

Juventud is a satisfying and thought-provoking read, intelligent fiction that informs as it entertains.

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Vanessa Blakeslee — On My Honor: How to Be a Good Literary Citizen

Vanessa Blakeslee 2014  Train Shots  Juventud cover

Just over a year ago, as this blog hit the nine-month mark, I was brainstorming ideas to diversify the content by bringing in voices other than my own. I didn’t want to add additional book reviewers, as the central concept of Read Her Like an Open Book was one man reading and reviewing literary fiction by women.

I hit upon the idea of having women writers contribute guest blog posts in the form of essays. I proposed this idea to writers whose books I’d reviewed (and thus who knew of my blog), those who’d expressed support for it, and those whom I thought might be interested in some additional exposure. In some cases, a single writer met all three criteria. 

The first writer to respond positively was Vanessa Blakeslee, whose debut story collection, Train Shots, I’d reviewed in February 2014. She contributed a piece entitled “The Ten Best Books on Writing.” It was very well-received, and the idea of a weekly writer-as-guest-blogger feature was off and running.

Today, April 20, marks one year since Vanessa’s essay was posted on April 22, 2014. Over the past year, 48 authors have contributed pieces on a wide range of topics. Some even managed to go viral: Rebecca Makkai on Literary Mansplaining, Robin Black on men buying her book for their wives but not themselves, Lily King on her “hand-crafted” writing process, Caroline Leavitt on her “life in lawsuits,” and Lisa Lenzo on turning real life into fiction

To observe the one-year anniversary of what I think we all agree is the best aspect of this blog, I invited Vanessa Blakeslee to contribute another essay, and she graciously accepted. We both hope you enjoy it and that it inspires you to be an even better literary citizen than you already are.


 

The subject of literary citizenship is one of those areas that would have left me dumbfounded starting out. In my early twenties, I was wrestling with craft concepts and shitty first drafts, and the prospect of “giving back” didn’t carry much pull. But now, a decade later and hopefully, wiser, I’ve got a few thoughts on the ways writers can give back to their creative communities, and why they should. The task is hardly daunting, the act of fostering community ultimately worthwhile, if not outright fun. Many of the suggestions I’ll list are low-commitment, or can be modified as such (e.g., you can write one book review a year, or ten). What matters is that you contribute.

It took me an astoundingly long time to realize that if we, the lovers and keepers of books, don’t feed the literary arts, if not fight for them, we’ll lose them. Maybe this is obvious to others — the sobering, frightening reality that literature only stays alive as long as people keep reading, keep writing, and keep talking about what we read and write. A rich literary culture could end in a generation, if that generation stops reading. Only through accident and necessity did I come to run a reading series and review books; the latter I fell in love with and wish I had come to much sooner. I’ve always been a thoughtful reader and was entirely capable of writing and publishing reviews at twenty-five. And I would have been that much more plugged-in to contemporary literature. But the thought just didn’t occur to me. In my twenties I was too often narrowly and obsessively focused on survival, on paying bills, to see the bigger picture. Similarly, I shrugged off the chance to intern at a literary journal because the $10 an hour pay was nothing near what I could make hourly, slinging margaritas at the Tex-Mex joint.

But I digress. Back to the why, which is much more fundamental. The question you’ve got to ask yourself is this — how important is it that you live in a city or town with a thriving literary community? If you like living in a place without readings and workshops to attend, then it’s up to you to create that. Because if you don’t, who will? The regulars at the local bar? Your retired neighbors down at the pool? Not likely. No, it’s up to you, just as it’s up to the musicians to hunt down bars to play in and actors to put on plays (these other artists may come across as cheerily interested, but if they’re at all serious they’ll be far too wrapped up in their own medium to give energy to yours). Again, up to you.

I know what you’ll say. You don’t like speaking in front of a crowd as it is, so how could you be funny and witty and host a reading series? (Answer: nobody expects you to be funny and witty if you aren’t already — just be yourself). You already have so many books you want to read but can’t, so how could you possibly take on assigned books to review (Answer: ask to review new books you’d like to read anyway). You don’t know enough people to organize a book fair (Answer: the very act of putting together events will cause you to widen your circle and bring people to you, many of them delightful souls you’ll later on be very grateful to have met).

The silver lining to all this? The Beatles got it right when they said, “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” Naturally, over time, the relationships you build will circle back and feed your own literary career. Case in point: from 2009 to 2011, I partnered with a local nonprofit that wanted to provide community writing workshops two Sundays a month, along with a reading series. Although my stint as Director of Maitland Poets & Writers was brief, several of my former workshop participants came to the release party for my first book, Train Shots, last spring. My enthusiasm and instruction had made an impression; one woman, a technical writer by profession, is now penning her first novel. I had spent less than ten hours a week running the workshops and reading series. Yet those relationships persisted.

Likewise, I’ve reviewed more than a dozen literary titles in the past several years. When it came time for my book launch, I already had my list of publications where I’d like a review to appear. I got busy contacting editors and freelance reviewers about ARCs. I’m certain I wouldn’t have been as savvy about critical exposure had I not written a few review essays myself.

Here’s my list of top 5 avenues through which you might consider exercising literary citizenship:

1) Read/volunteer for a literary magazine. You may already be connected to a journal if you’re a student or alum of a writing program. Even if not, reach out to a journal you admire and ask if they’re considering new screeners; eventually you might work your way up as an editor. You’ll gain valuable experience about the submission process and where your own work falls in the queue.

2) Interview emerging authors and/or review their books. You might take this opportunity to consider writers you think are deserving of more exposure. I tend to review a 50/50 split of male to female authors, and if I’m undecided on prospective titles will tend to lean toward reviewing a book by a woman, as statistics reveal that male authors get more critical attention than female authors. Additionally, so few foreign titles are translated into English each year, yet alone reviewed, that I review translated works as much as possible, thereby widening my knowledge of international literature.

3) Lead writing workshops for an under-served population. Again, consider a population that speaks to you. Perhaps you’ve got a family member in the prison system, and writing in prisons appeals. Or you really enjoy interacting with older people; you might contact a local senior center or assisted-living community. In Orlando, the nonprofit Page 15 offers summer writing workshops to underprivileged children and after-school programs throughout the year. Even within a small or rural community, the possibilities are many.

4) Host a reading series, radio show, or podcast, or volunteer to host or co-host an existing one. If your area already has a full weekly events calendar, you might not feel the need to launch something new. But you might approach the host of an existing series and let them know you’d be happy to substitute if they’re out of town, or co-host. If that host has been running the series for a while, he or she may very well be looking to pass the mic to someone with fresh energy. Either way, it’s a great way to see if hosting a reading series might be a great fit.

5) Organize a book festival, conference, or fair in your city or hometown. This is an invaluable opportunity to bring book-buyers and authors together, and may just be a one-day event or symposium. Again, participating at an existing event before launching your own may be ideal.

An essential rule-of-thumb before undertaking any endeavor of literary citizenship is to ask yourself what you’re intending to add to the mission or conversation already underway. Those to whom you reach out will appreciate your familiarity and conscientiousness.

These are mere suggestions, by no means all-inclusive nor to be undertaken simultaneously (unless you’re feeling particularly ambitious). If you’ve chosen the literary life for the long haul, you likely find that certain seasons bring about certain opportunities and not others — the writer who has just had a baby probably won’t be clamoring to launch a new reading series, for example. But the recently divorced writer might, or the freshly-minted MFA-grad. You may find that you never desire to read for a journal, or volunteer as a judge for a grant cycle or contest when asked; perhaps you’ve happily found your niche reviewing for a few select publications. I don’t particularly feel compelled to interview other writers, but that doesn’t mean that I never will. The great news is that whether more introverted or extroverted, you likely possess a bevy of skills that you can successfully apply to furthering the literary arts in various ways. And don’t sell yourself short: just because you have some stage fright doesn’t mean you won’t find speaking on the radio enjoyable, or interviewing one of your literary idols before an audience post-reading. The point is to stretch yourself and discover who you are, aspects of yourself as a writer, thinker, and literary citizen that might otherwise be left untapped.

I’ve engaged in nearly all of these “associated literary endeavors” by now. While I don’t feel that I’m the best live host for a reading series or radio show, I do enjoy co-hosting now and then with my friend John King at The Drunken Odyssey podcast. I certainly don’t possess the technical acumen to put a podcast together. But John does a terrific job (plus has the equipment). Nor is leading community workshops a passion of mine. But over the past year I began to volunteer as a bookseller at the Local Roots authors’ festival put on by my friend Kim Britt, owner of Bookmark It in Orlando. Had I not done so, I would never have discovered that I have a passion for bookselling and a knack for connecting with readers of all types. In this case, my volunteer stint turned into a part-time job that I love and can fit into my burgeoning career. I love designing and promoting events like our Wine & Sign on Friday nights, and am constantly learning about what draws readers to certain books and not others. More often than not, book-browsers end up asking about what else I do, and I point out my collection, Train Shots, on the shelf. Bookselling is built on genuine rapport and connection, and I’ve sold dozens of copies of my book that way, by casually chatting with customers.

Be open. Quit when you’ve learned what you can and given all you could, and dive into something else. The circle comes around, as long as you, the citizen, engage.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) is the winner of the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Juventud, her debut novel, will be published by Curbside Splendor Publishing in Fall 2015. Vanessa’s writing has appeared in The Southern ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. A finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Vanessa earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.  

Guest blogger Vanessa Blakeslee: The Ten Best Books on Writing

Vanessa Blakeslee  Train Shots


Top Ten Books on Writing

By Vanessa Blakeslee

With the launch of my debut story collection, Train Shots, this spring, I’ve been reflecting upon the many mentors, workshops, and exchanges that have shaped me into the writer I am today – which resources I find myself revisiting, and why. Without staring too long at my bookshelves, these are the texts on craft and the artist’s life by wise masters of both sexes that have made the greatest impression. I predict I’ll return to them for years to come.

They are, in no particular order:

Aristotle’s Poetics: The great thinker’s nuts-and-bolts breakdown of dramatic basics, comedy and tragedy, lays the foundation for the plethora of narrative forms that arise through the centuries – the novel, short story, screenplay, graphic novel, and more. I urge my students to seek him out, with the promise that he’s accessible and best of all, a quick read – my copy contains just under fifty pages.

Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell: A confirmation of the universality of the “hero’s journey” coupled with the revelatory evidence and analysis of why, make this a mind-blowing, unforgettable read. Campbell gathers stories from myths and religions the world over, splits them open and lays them bare, so that while you’re wading through you know that this is a book you’ll want to return to again for its liberating power and insight. Have patience with the many examples; Campbell’s study, albeit dense, makes its revelations all the more worthwhile.

The Gift by Lewis Hyde: Similar to Campbell’s book in its broad spectrum of cross-cultural study and dense analysis, The Gift should be required reading for all artists. Hyde illuminates how throughout human history, art has been part of the “gift economy” and spends time on a topic many lofty “writing life” books, as well as those narrowly-focused on craft, sorely neglect – just why it’s so difficult for artists to earn a living by making art. You’ll finish this book emboldened and reaffirmed, able to see your vocation and the challenges that come along with it much more clearly.

Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood: With her trademark sharp humor and lively wit, Atwood raises salient, scary questions and tackles them unflinchingly. A fan of Hyde’s book, she refers to and expounds upon some of his points from behind a writerly lens; refreshingly, she also addresses the pragmatic economic realities the artist faces. “Negotiating with the Dead” refers to the writer’s journey into the subconscious as akin to the shaman’s trip into the Underworld – one has to spend time in the dark, because that’s where the story is, in order to bring wisdom to light for the rest of the “tribe.”  The title essay on the spiritual task writers undertake gives me shivers in my belly whenever I read it – a stark reminder that beyond talent and discipline lies the question of character—the writer’s—and if he or she has the courage to remain submerged for long stretches, in the dark, facing all of our demons.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner: A longtime teacher of writing, Gardner’s language may come across as dated but his principles, examples, and exercises hold up resoundingly. First introduced to this text as an undergrad, I don’t think I grasped the full concept of Gardner’s “fictional dream” until years later; in the last semester of my MFA program I went back to him, this time gleaning wisdom anew. Ever since, I’ve found myself combing through his extensive list of exercises in the back of the book, and something about his casual yet pointed tone makes me feel like I could take on any of them—especially those I’d never before considered.    

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke: For years I’d heard about this slender volume of letters, and picking it up, one is tempted to ask, what’s the big deal? In short, Rilke’s advice applies to any artist and his words are ones you’ll hunt down in the middle of the night, in despair over a career rejection or in doubt over a project in medias res. For a time Rilke served as secretary to the sculptor Rodin, and a keen reader can tell that these are spiritual insights gleaned from his observations of working with the great master.

Writing Alone and with Others by Pat Schneider: I was first introduced to this soulful and practical book at a training session for Amherst Artists and Writers, and have returned to it again and again. While the latter half of the book is geared to those who want to lead writing workshops, you won’t find better prompts anywhere else to jump start your own writing, or your students’ or peers’. Heartfelt and reminiscent of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Schneider wins out for her welcoming attitude and wisdom, clear how-to’s for teachers, and range of cross-genre exercises to suit any setting or mood.

Lectures on Literature by Vladmir Nabokov: Collected from his series of novel lectures given at Cornell, these close-studies are indispensable for understanding plot, sub-plotting, theme, and more via analysis of novels as diverse as Mansfield Park, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Swann’s Way. You can absorb his points without having read the novels themselves, although of course having familiarity with some if not all will greatly hammer home his illuminations. I’ll probably revisit this one before sitting down to write my next volume, and strongly urge you to do the same.

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor: These essays on regional writing, teaching literature, and the writer and religion compiled from O’Connor’s unpublished papers are oft-cited among literary writers, and with good reason. Like Atwood, O’Connor delivers her take with sharp humor and straight talk, and what she has to say will stick to your bones if not irk you at times. Yet I find myself driven back to this book, if only to hear O’Connor in her own voice as she boils down storytelling to the heart of the matter.

Rhythm in the Novel by E. K. Brown: This hard-to-find, out-of-print paperback ranks up there with Nabokov’s book if you can find it. Published in 1950, Brown’s essays shine a narrow beam on what sets the novel apart from other forms—its unique treatment of time (for a novel cannot be read in one sitting), how it must employ the unifying devices necessary to create resonance. He discusses how symbols arise and change as a novel progresses, the culmination of which is his essay on A Passage to India, which breaks down how all of these devices are at play in Forster’s masterpiece.

Attack of the Copula Spiders by Douglas Glover: I was fortunate to study one-on-one with Glover at Vermont College back in 2007, and he pointed me to several of the books on this list (Nabokov, Brown, plus a few others), for which I’m forever grateful. I know I wouldn’t have managed to draft my first novel successfully without their expertise on form and technique. Glover’s own essays on writing rate just as highly—namely “How to Write a Novel” and “How to Write a Short Story.” Lucky for you, these plus a handful of others are gathered in Attack of the Copula Spiders (if you’re wondering what’s that? even more reason to pick up the book). Glover’s dissections of literature are as practically illuminating as they are refreshingly—and often simply—brilliant. Other essays include “The Mind of Alice Munro” (yes, please) and “The Drama of Grammar.” Especially noteworthy is his mind-bending final essay titled “Don Quixote, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Meditations on the Ideology of Closure and the Comforting Lie.” Glover’s is the best “craft book” to come along in years—and, I’ve just realized, has managed to make itself #11 on this Top Ten List. A worthy bonus indeed.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut short story collection, Train Shots, was released in March, 2014 by Burrow Press. Her writing has appeared in The Southern ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. For more information, visit www.vanessablakeslee.com or http://burrowpress.com/train-shots/.