A Taste of Judith

I have been editing and writing. Writing and editing. Next week I’ll be participating for the first time at LitCrawl, a kind of pub crawl where we take literature to the streets. I’ll be reading from my new manuscript about the Nicaraguan Revolution, and with my Writing Co-op. It is a dream come true to read at this event, so to celebrate I thought it would be fun to share a feLitQuakew paragraphs about Judith, since I haven’t yet shared anything publicly from For You and All of Us. This is from a scene that has been cut, so no spoilers. I’d love to hear from you! 

On our goat hair mattress in the early dawn I rested one hand on my aching belly and felt the sticky blood on the fingers of my other hand. I knew I should rise to find a rag, but I wanted to savor the moment of change. I had plans for my womanhood. I would be expected to leave this house soon and have children of my own. I would have many. For, although I could not weave like Raisa, I was of strong build. And I was good with the little ones. I often entertained them in the courtyard so my aunties could finish their chores.

A fine man would choose me and my parents would be proud of so many grandchildren. I would bring my sister to help me and she would be happy again, like the old Raisa. She had stopped talking with me about our future together. She had mostly stopped talking with me at all. But maybe now things could change. We would live in Jerusalem where there were not so many rules. Where a woman could study and engage in trade. Where we could live in a solid house that did not need a new roof after every rainy season. Where there was entertainment other than watching the antics of baby goats.

Although, I would miss the baby goats.

But I knew my plans were tenuous. What if the Seleucid soldiers appeared again on my wedding night, horses stomping on the packed clay of our courtyard? I was overwhelmed once again by the rancid smell of horses sweat, as though I couldn’t wash the scent from my skin.

If I did marry, I would take my sister with me, so that we could be friends again.

Raisa’s breath was sweet. With her eyes still closed, she rolled over and rested her hand on mine, on my belly. Her fingers were rough from weaving. “Has your time come?” she mumbled.

“How did you know?” She always knew what I was thinking.

I hoped she would speak, and we could talk like we used to. I pleaded silently for another moment with my sister.

She pushed me off the mattress onto the cold dirt floor.

 

You Have Been Here Before

A few years ago I was in the kitchen of my bungalow in Dobbs Ferry, New York when my El Salvadoran housekeeper, let’s call her Alma, came downstairs holding a necklace I brought home from Nicaragua. It was a carved tagua nut, painted with a little black and red flag and the tiny letters FSLN that stand for Sandinista National Liberation Front.

Until then, Alma hadn’t realized I was a Sandalista, the friendly term for the foreign volunteers that supported the Nicaragua revolution in the 1980’s. Alma found me and described saying goodbye to her brother when he left home to join the ‘muchachos’ fighting to overthrow the dictator. He never came home.

“He was a martyr,” she said, “but for what?” Within minutes we were sitting on the kitchen floor bawling in each other’s arms. We both had lost loved ones in the Central American wars of the 1980’s. Both of us both of us lived in quaint, safe small town American and tried to keep those memories at bay. But that deep connection we felt, the flood of emotions got me thinking that someday I would need to go back to Nicaragua.

Living in Nicaragua chLI-AIC-femmefatale-004banged me, and set me on my life journey. I was a young college student. It was deep, challenging, beautiful. The Nicaraguan people gave everything—their homes, their families, their lives—to overthrow the dictator and build a more just society. Afterwards I wrapped a protective box around that time of my life. I rarely visit it, because to do so leaves me in a weeping puddle of mess.

In 2015 I will turn 50 – it has been thirty years! And now it is time to return. I find Nicaragua very difficult to write about. I feel naïve or sophomoric, yet nearly all my idealism and all my cynicism stems from my time in Nicaragua. Those people and that time taught me to fight for a better future, for something bigger than myself, for an ideal.

My next novel is going to be about Nicaragua. About a woman going back the tiny country that changed her life, finding a lost love in a scarred world. There will be mystery, adventure, and the struggling bond between a teenaged girl and her mother.

It’s terrifying to think about sharing these stories. Part of me says no, don’t go there, it will tear your heart open. But then I think, what would Judith do? Go there! That experience is as much a part of me as my family, as real to me as the ocean I grew up with.

This morning my yoga teacher said, “You have been here before, but it is different this time.” She was only talking about my cobra pose, but her words spoke to me about this journey. I am counting on you, my dear friends and readers, for encouragement! The Central American wars continue to impact us politically, socially, and emotionally. I’m ready to talk about it!

Slut-Shaming Judith

D.W. Griffith “What happened in the room?” That was my big first question when I started writing Judith and Holofernes. Judith is a widow, she is sexually experienced, and she has spent three days getting close to this man, building his trust, flaming his desire. And he is a formidable man, powerful and intelligent, leader of the Syrian King’s largest army.

Does she find him attractive? Do they have sex? Does it matter?

These questions inspired me to sit down and write. It was years until I stood up again for a fresh look. I had sent the manuscript to an interested literary agent and she suggested that I ‘embrace the eroticism’ inherent to the story. I was shocked. Of course it was erotic! Except that when I looked at the pages, it was not there. The agent was right. I was not only protecting my character, I realized then that I was slut-shaming her.

I did not want anyone to call Judith a slut – or in the case of a biblical legend – a harlot. Truth is, I spent too much of my own life trying to prove I was smart so no one would call me a slut. I guess I tried to do the same for Judith. She is really intelligent and calculating. I wanted her to be notable not just for seducing the general, but for fooling him that she had important information – forget about the sex, mostly she outsmarted him.

When I was a college student I went to Nicaragua during the revolutionary period. I went to study social change, but in reality, I also studied how to have love affairs with revolutionaries. Sex and politics go together in delicious and scandalous ways. I embraced it then. So why was I intent on keeping all of Judith’s clothes on?

There is certain hesitancy in literary circles to write sex scenes. Also, it can be difficult to be original and sincere with family members reading over your shoulder. I asked friends to suggest their favorite erotic scenes from books. I read a few beautiful crafted literary love scenes. One of my favorites was The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which has some breathtaking moments. I am a little ashamed by how much I enjoyed Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I was just looking for some good examples to learn from, but that book was an unexpected pleasure.

I noted that, whatever the story, sex is an important driver of tension. Who wants the curtains to go down on the good part? So I went back to my manuscript and allowed the reader to see Judith take her clothes off. And guess what? She is still smart, heroic and awesome. She is also a sexual being, like me, like you, and like most of us.

What happened between Judith and the general in that room? You will soon find out!

Five Steps to a Brilliant Book Swap Party

A few months ago I accidentally bought two copies of a novel I was anxious to read. I should give it to someone, I thought. Wait, I should trade it with someone. Wait, no, I should have a book trading party!

I have been challenged by the solitude of my new writing life. I love it here in San Francisco where we have such a vibrant community of writers (SF Writer’s Grotto, Litquake, 826 Valencia, and so much more.) Still, I do miss seeing my friends from other walks of life.

So, in a fit of haphazard craziness, I sent out an electronic invitation and held a book swap party! It was satisfying. It was entertaining. I visited with a diverse group of friends. We each left with an exciting new book to read, and I donated a box of books to a local shelter. I will definitely host another party, and you should too! Here is how:

bookswap Five Steps to a Brilliant Book Swap Party

  1.  Invitation list, think book-lovers! Who have you spoken with about a great read? They need to be there! If you know a lot of families you might want to welcome kids. My daughter hosted a less formal children’s/ YA book swap in another room.
  1. In the invitation describe your guidelines—maybe a genre or time period. I requested guests bring a fairly recent favorite book of any genre. Remind everyone it is not a book dump. It is an opportunity to share a favorite book, the one they can’t stop talking about.
  1. Ask guests to write a short review of their book. Remember to provide pens and (recycled!) sticky notepads on the book table.
  1. Serve snacks so guests can mingle and discuss books before the actual swap. You can even make it fun with a literary theme. We served Mint Juleps. Can you guess why?
  1. Determine a swap process. It should reward those who brought desirable books. Our process was the following:
  • Whoever has the closest birthday chooses the first book they want.
  • Whoever brought that book gets to choose next. And so on.
  • If someone gets a second turn before everyone has selected a book, they get to choose who goes next.

I hope to see you at a book swap soon!

 

A Poem to Say Good-bye (written for Uncle Harvey)

IMG_1772With Me
By Melina Selverston

Every time I hug my children
So they know they are loved
You are with me
Because you gave me hugs

Every time I relieve stress with humor
So we can laugh instead of fight
You are with me
Because you laughed with me

 

Every time I smile with my partner
Instead of letting anger take us away
You are with me
Because you always smiled

Every time I give someone a dollar
So they can be less afraid
You are with me
Because you gave me a dollar

Every time I touch someone’s back
So they know they are not alone
You are with me
Because you touched my back

Every time I hold my head up high
And value myself
You are with me
Because you valued me

Every time I stretch my fingers out to embrace life
Every time I dance, every time I sing
You are with me
Because you danced with me

Inspiration to Cross the Finish Line

I am so inspired.

Judith has inspired many great artists

A few days ago, at a day-after-Thanksgiving-after-party, I was explaining my manuscript to a charming young woman when she exclaimed, “Judith of Bethulia? Of course I know her. She is part of our Hanukkah celebration. What a strong woman!”  Her mother had long ago incorporated the story of Judith into their annual ritual, and they recount the story each year.

“Which account?” I asked, thinking there might be a version I haven’t yet seen. “Where did you find it?” Blank faces. “I mean, is there a bibliographic reference?” They laughed, because they had just written the story themselves, for their own holiday book.  A book that guides their own family celebrations.

That it what my Judith project is about: sharing the story, telling each other inspiring stories, our founding myths. Each time we retell a story it changes, it finds new meaning, new relevance to the community sharing it. Judith proudly held a sword atop candelabrum in European ghettos, secretly inspiring dissent. Donatello sculpted his iconic statue of the beheading as a symbol of revolt against the tyrant Medici in fifteenth century Florence.

Scholars believe that the Judith story we know was written before the Maccabean war, possibly to inspire Hebrews to stand up to the oppressive King Antiochus. In that case, the story was certainly successful. The Maccabees successfully wrested back control of Jerusalem, which we celebrate during Hanukkah. At the end of the Judith story her people promise to sing her name for eternity.

A random encounter with someone who knows Judith brings me the same excitement experienced by a teenager meeting a friend who shares the same taste in music. Really? You like the Led Zeppelin too? Awesome! Wait until I tell you about Judith and Holofernes!

Finishing a project as immense as a novel has its challenges. Writers try not to worry too much about the imaginary readers looking over our shoulders. It can prevent us from taking important risks. But it helps me tremendously to know people are interested in this story and will want to share it. This blog helps me stay connected during this lonely stage of writing. I can see the finish line up ahead and I just received a beautiful dose of the inspiration I need to sprint across it. See you there!

Trying to write? Turn Up the Music!

It took awhile for me to figure out just how important music is for me to feel totally immersed in the world I am creating. Now I can’t imagine writing without tunes transporting me.

biblical dancingI started writing Judith and Holofernes before there was such a thing as Spotify which lets you hear almost anything anywhere.  When I sat down to write the only CD I had on hand was Rusted Root. So I put it on and tried to imagine I was in the ancient Middle East. That was six years ago.  Interestingly, to this day, when I am having trouble getting back into my fictional world I can put on that first track and instantly forget everything else: office politics, loud conversations at the café, or the pile of dishes in the sink.  (That pile of dishes that for some reason never affect my husband’s productivity.)

Music produces dopamine in the brain. (As do flirtation and text messages.) Many studies have linked music to happiness, and more recent research links music to productivity in the workplace. There are also studies that link music to stronger focus for studying.  I know it helps my tween daughter significantly in her effort to sit in her chair and study. 

For me, the Rusted Root track has become sort of a trick to tell my brain we are back in ancient Israel. But to write powerful scenes for a number of hours I often listen to movie soundtracks. There are a number of free lists on Spotify, or just think of a movie that looks like the scenes you are writing and download the track. For Judith and Holofernes I often listen to  Passion Sources from Peter Gabriel, his inspiration for the soundtrack of the Scorsese film the Last Temptation of Christ. African music also evokes the instrumentation that I need in my scenes. As long as there has been human civilization there has been music but since there are no recordings we have the pleasure of relying on our imaginations. In Judith and Holofernes I get to imagine the sultry twisting rhythms of harem dancers, and the celebratory marches of battle. The right music can completely transform the cadence of my thoughts, of my sentences, of my words.

The jazz pianist Oscar Peterson has also always been there me, allowing me to forget about the passage of time while I write. I don’t recommend that you listen to your favorite music. That might make you get up and dance around when the goal is (always) to sit in your chair and write.

What music do you turn on to evoke emotion in a scene?