An Interview with Jessica Powers of Catalyst Press

Jessica Powers is the publisher and editor of Catalyst Press, founded in 2017, which seeks “to publish books that reveal the world from different perspectives, tilting or reversing or tweaking our own understanding of what’s real, true, necessary, or beautiful.” She is also the co-founder of Story Press Africa with Jive Media Africa. Jessica is also a publicist for Cinco Puntos Press . She writes under the name J.L. Powers and her author websites include and

Ed Battistella: This Catalyst Press’s inaugural year. How did your press get started?

Jessica Powers: I’ve worked in publishing for a long time, for Cinco Puntos Press (, an independent press that operates out of my hometown—El Paso, Texas. I knew I wanted to publish my own “stuff,” so to speak, a long time ago. But I also knew I wanted to write, and I loved African history, so I wasn’t sure how it would all come together, especially when I started a Ph.D. program in African history at Stanford University. Getting a Ph.D. prepares you for one type of career—in academia—and I wasn’t at all sure I wanted that career, but I did love the subject. My first novel, The Confessional, was published two years into the graduate program, and I think that propelled me out of the program faster than any eject button could have done. I realized I couldn’t write the kinds of things I wanted to write and continue in academia, or at least, I couldn’t do it all at the same time. I would have to give up one or the other for a period of time and I simply wasn’t ready to give up writing. So I left academia and started to teach part time and write. Eventually, I realized I wanted to publish too, and because I was obsessed with African literature, I realized that I wanted to publish African writers and/or African-based literature. Also, as I was looking for African-related books for my child (he is turning 7 this fall), I realized anew the absolute dearth of historically-based books for children that deal with Africans’ experience and stories. That got me started on this journey.

EB: Can you tell us a little about your own professional background?

JP: I started out earning a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I was twenty-five when I graduated, with 3 years of teaching experience, some writing skills, and not a lot of knowledge or life experience with which to offer my books gravitas and real meaning. So I went on to earn a master’s in African history. Then I came back to my hometown in El Paso, Texas, where I worked for Cinco Puntos Press as a publicist. But small presses allow you to do a lot of everything, so one of the things I did there was urge Cinco Puntos to start publishing young adult literature—something they are now renowned for. I continued to teach and eventually left to start a Ph.D. in African History from Stanford. I did not finish that degree because my writing career started and I felt trapped by the expectations of academia. When you have a real passion for research and writing academic articles and books, then those expectations don’t feel like a burden—but for me, they were a burden. I was grateful for my time there and very grateful for the mentors I had, but I felt freed upon leaving—freed to do what I am really called to do in life, which is to write, and also to help others write.

So here I am, cobbling together a living as a writer, publisher, publicist for Cinco Puntos Press, and a teacher. (I teach writing for Skyline College in California’s Bay Area).

EB: The name Catalyst suggests a particular mission. What’s the intention of “catalyst?”

JP: My passion for books is life-long. When I was a child, and immersed in a world of fear—fear of spiritual entities, demons, Satan, etc.—books were the thing that saved me from both the fear and from losing my mind. They became a lifelong companion. Books are my friends, my mentors, my spiritual advisors and my spiritual practice, my intellectual stimulation, my downtime. I believe strongly in the power of books to change individuals and, by changing individuals, to change communities and institutions and perhaps even nations. So I do see my books as a “catalyst for change,” specifically, change in mindset, values, and understandings of North Americans & Europeans towards Africa and Africans. It is an important part of my mission to publish books that are accessible to Africans and distributed within Africa (or at least, the country where they are set), but my primary purpose, as an American publishing in North America, is to introduce authentic and varied stories of Africa to a public that doesn’t yet understand how important they are. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, Africa has been denigrated and oppressed by western domination—but there is so much more to the continent than that story. I want to open hearts and minds to one of the most beautiful places with the most beautiful people.

EB: Along the same lines, how do you see the role of small independent presses? Are they a catalyst of new ideas and new voices?

JP: I have actually become political speaking out about the importance of small independent presses. So many writers are still oriented towards the so-called “Big 5” of New York publishing—those conglomerates and amalgamations of publishing companies that have coalesced into a small number and which dominate publishing. And I would be hesitant to say that they don’t publish good books because they do! And I am very grateful for the good books they have published and will publish. But much of what they publish carries a sameness to it in look, in vision, in scope, in style, in ideas. And so much of it is pure, utter crap. Certainly, they aren’t out there risking the publishing of truly marginal voices, not until small independent publishers have some success with somebody and then they swoop in, like vultures, and take them away.

All publishers are dominated, to some extent, by the need to be profitable. But small publishers are much more willing to risk our capital on books we believe in, and sometimes we make the choice to take a loss because we realize the book is that important. We have strong ideals and those tend to be more important to us than the possible money we might make (or lose). There are many good people in publishing in New York but they are hampered by the corporate agendas of their overlords—those who actually run the company. A small press doesn’t have those kinds of constraints. At Catalyst, it’s just me and my part-time colleagues. It doesn’t get any more streamlined than that.

EB: Your debut list features both adult and YA novels focused on Africa. Is that a particular emphasis for Catalyst?

JP: I want to feature voices that have been excluded and marginalized throughout history. I’m starting with African voices and African-based literature because that is a particular love and passion of mine, but I hope to expand in the future to also publish indigenous voices from other parts of the world—First Nations in North America, for example, or Maori writers from New Zealand, etc.

EB: Do you have some favorite African authors?

JP: Yes! I really really love Andrew Brown, a crime writer who also happens to be a part-time police officer and a lawyer in Cape Town. I love his layered, complex plots that reveal a South Africa we don’t often see or expect. He also has a lovely novel set in Rwanda, and a couple of memoirs about the culture of being a police officer. He was an anti-apartheid activist who actually spent time in prison for his activities and he joined the police force in post-apartheid South Africa so that he could effect change from the inside. I love his perspective as an outsider now on the inside, trying to make a difference. He brings that understanding to all of his books.

I also am a big fan of Niq Mhlongo, a novelist who writes about Soweto and who, I’ve heard, has an unusual way of making sure Sowetans have access to his books: by pedaling his books on the streets of Soweto much the same way somebody might sell ice-cream out of mobile freezers in parks and on beaches in the U.S.

And I love love love Sifiso Mzobe’s book Young Blood. It’s an astonishing novel about a young man growing up in a township outside of Durban, South Africa, a township where all the young men learn early the skills of being a car thief.

EB: What do you look for in a book? And in an author?

JP: I look for characters and ideas that touch me, for writing that elevates my spirit, and for plots that I find exciting and compelling. I want to publish and read books that are fast reads, on the one hand, but layered with multiple and complex meanings.

EB: I see that you also have a novel coming out soon called Broken Circle. What’s that about?

JP: Broken Circle is a young adult novel that explores western culture’s fear of death. It does so in sort of a humorous, dark way. Fifteen-year-old Adam is terrified of dying and believes that his death is imminent. Then he discovers that in fact his father is the Grim Reaper and he’s about to inherit the family business. This astonishes and terrifies him but propels him on a journey that is unlike any you can imagine. Kirkus called it a “gripping philosophical paranormal thriller” and I like that it is both gripping AND philosophical! I co-wrote it with my brother, and we both knew we wanted to think about death, and the ways that Americans avoid thinking about or talking about death—even though it is something we all, eventually, must do. We treat death as a failure, a personal failure—“I didn’t beat cancer” etc—but why is it a failure if it’s something we all eventually do? We are afraid of it. I’m afraid of it. But I want to be less afraid of death and more willing to see change in this world, even if it puts me in personal danger. I want to be fearless. So I’m exploring this fear of death in a novel…..

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Good luck with Catalyst Press.

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An Interview with Kirsten Johanna Allen of Torrey House Press

Kirsten Johanna Allen is the publisher and editorial director of Torrey House Press, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher dedicated to publishing diverse voices with transformative stories of the American West and developing literary resources for the conservation movement.

Ed Battistella: How did Torrey House Press get started?

Kirsten Johanna Allen: Mark Bailey and I have long loved writers like Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, and as we got more familiar with the degradation of the West’s mountains and deserts due to public land management problems, we realized one of the best ways we could help is by publishing the works of the next Stegner and Carson. We founded the press as co-publishers in October 2010 and published our first title the following summer. Mark has stepped back from day-to-day operations and I am now publisher.

EB: Torrey House is unique in that it has not just a regional mission but is organized as a non-profit. How did you decide on that model?

KJA: Creative work always has to be subsidized because it doesn’t pay for itself. Big publishers subsidize their economically risky fiction and creative nonfiction with blockbusters, and many terrific hybrid publishers share the financial risk with their authors. We’ve admired the work of independent literary presses such as Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Press, and, as it typical for them, Torrey House Press book sales revenues cover only about 50% of expenses so contributions are critical to publishing the books that fulfill our mission to promote conservation through literature. We became a nonprofit so donations could be tax-deductible for our contributors and so we could apply for grants.

EB: Tell us a little about your background?

KJA: I first fell in love with the outdoors as a child visiting my grandparents’ ranch in eastern Nevada, and I think I’ve always loved books. I combined the two in college, writing a thesis on Wallace Stegner’s use of landscape. My education and professional background includes a master’s in public health from the University of Utah School of Medicine and a bachelor’s in English from Westminster College; 25 years of private piano instruction, 25 years of freelance editing experience, and five years teaching college English composition; board membership with nonprofits; and a lifetime passion for the West’s fantastic landscapes.

EB: Torrey House publishes both fiction and non-fiction. What do you look for in a book?

KJA: In both fiction and nonfiction, I want a book that draws me in transparently. I want to not realize I’m reading, to be engrossed in the story without distractions. I find that often it’s common errors that trip up the writing, especially repetition, multiple verb phrases, and thinker attributives like realized/thought/remembered.

EB: What do you look for in an author?

KJA: Because Torrey House Press is small—we’re two unpaid staff and two part-time paid staff—deciding to work with an author is adding a new family member so we want to be sure we’re a good fit. We care deeply about every title—each one feels like a new baby we’ve midwifed—so writers get our whole hearts as well as our expertise. Authors who sign with Torey House Press need to believe in our mission to promote conservation through literature as much as we do, and need to demonstrate their commitment to working as partners with us in the all-important work of developing a readership for their book.

EB: You been involved in the campaign to save the Bear Ears and have a books out called EDGE OF MORNING: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears and RED ROCK STORIES: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands. Can you tell us a bit about those books and some of the events surrounding them?

KJA: RED ROCK STORIES was first printed as a limited edition, art-as-advocacy chapbook, Red Rock Testimony, and editor Stephen Trimble and I went to Washington, D.C. took copies to Obama Administration officials in June 2016. Chapbooks were also sent to every member of Congress as decision-makers deliberated between a destructive public lands bill and a national monument proposed by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. On December 28, 2016, President Obama established Bears Ears National Monument, and in June 2017, this historic collection was expanded and published as a trade book, RED ROCK STORIES, in celebration of protecting exquisite and sacred landscapes. I first started looking for an editor for EDGE OF MORNING in August 2015, contracting with Navajo/Yankton Dakota journalist Jacqueline Keeler in January 2016. Jackie contacted Native writers, activists, leaders, and poets, and the collection she developed speaks to the power of sacred landscape and the importance of Native sovereignty for Native and non-Native Americans alike. The book has anchored events and conferences including the White Privilege Conference where Jackie was a keynote speaker. She is now working on a book exploring sovereignty and sacred lands through the the 2016 standoffs at Standing Rock and the Malheur Refuge.

EB: Let me ask about independent publishing more generally. What’s the role of independent publishers like Torrey House in American book culture?

KJA: Independent publishing brings a variety of thought, stories, and authors that keep our culture lively, rich, and diverse. Just as a healthy meadow or riparian area requires both dominant plants and animals and a host of less dominant flora and fauna to function successfully, the world of books and ideas needs both big and small publishers to expand human thought and experience.

EB: What have you learned since beginning your press?

KJA: That it’s difficult and expensive to sell books. And that the best thing about publishing is the people—from authors and readers to librarians and booksellers and other publishers, the community is comprised of the most interesting and generous folks on the planet.

EB: What advice have you got for potential authors?

KJA: Workshop your book with other authors or editors many, many times before considering submitting it to a publisher or agent. When querying an agent or publisher, remember that your pitch needs to be about them not you. Understand what that particular agent or publisher is looking for and show how you and your book fit with their needs and culture.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

KJA: Thank you for all you do for books and ideas!

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An Interview with Laura Stanfill, publisher of Forest Avenue Press

Portland’s Forest Avenue Press has a unique community mission aimed at empowering authors and publishing page-turning literary fiction. Publisher Laura Stanfill serves on the PubWest Board of Directors and on the advisory board of Atelier26.

EB: How did Forest Avenue Press get started? And what have you learned in the last few years?

LS: I founded the press in 2012 to publish and promote Oregon writers, then opened to national submissions in 2014.

In the past five years, I’ve learned a lot about the industry and have dedicated myself to teaching and mentoring other publishers and writers through volunteer work, speaking gigs, and PubWest, where I serve on the board.

One of my biggest passion topics is distribution. How a press gets its books into the marketplace matters because of visibility and sales. Some distribution models are more effective and far-reaching than others. If authors go into a publishing contract truly understanding how their books will be sent into the world, they’ll be more effective advocates for their art.

I spent two years selling books out of the back of my car—and toting boxes to bookstores for consignment—before signing with Legato Publishers Group, an affiliate of distributor-heavyweight PGW, now owned by Ingram. We have sales conferences and reps that sell our books in across the U.S., which makes our marketing and publicity efforts even more crucial, because the risk is higher. But the potential reward is higher, too.

EB: Is Portland especially hospitable to independent publishers and writers?

LS: I don’t think I would have decided to start a press in another city. Portland’s literary community inspired me to build one more home for novelists, and its publishers made me believe that I could actually do it through their examples, advice, and encouragement. We celebrate each other, honor others’ accomplishments, connect and turn out in huge numbers for book events.

We also have incredibly dedicated booksellers who write excellent shelf talkers and hand-sell local titles to browsers. When I showed up as a new publisher, I found friends and allies in the indie bookstore world because I had been buying books and attending events for a decade. My mission with Forest Avenue was to urge in-person conversations about literature, so I created an events-based marketing plan that I still use today. My whole business model is centered on independent bookstores. I support bookstores; bookstores support our authors. It sounds obvious, but it’s important. Essential.

I should add that I just found out I’m a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Top 45 honoree; Rosanne Parry, a local author and Annie Bloom’s bookseller, nominated me for the award, which recognizes up-and-coming publishers. She took the time away from her own writing, bookselling, and family life to ask the panel to consider me. I’m so grateful. Moments like this continue to motivate me to do my part to uplift and amplify others in the literary community.

EB: Tell us a little about your background?

LS: My background is in community journalism; before transitioning to publishing, I was managing editor of a weekly on the Oregon coast, covering education and business beats and managing a five-person newsroom. I’ve won numerous journalism awards, including the Consumer Issues Reporting Award from the Oregon Department of Justice. I also worked in public relations and manuscript editing.

EB: Forest Avenue Press is also the home of the Main Street Writers Movement. What that?

LS: It’s a movement geared to encouraging writers to build community at the local level by supporting each other, their indie bookstores, and local presses and magazines. If we can create these invested hubs of community goodness, then the whole national literary ecosystem will become stronger. And touring writers will be able to activate Main Street communities in the places they travel.

It’s easy to join. Take the pledge——and then look around and see what you can do to genuinely support the authors in your community. We use #mainstreetwriters as our hashtag to help members find each other.

Being genuine is an important piece of this movement; if a friend’s book isn’t to your taste, don’t write a chirpy false review. You can still support your friend in genuine ways: show up at an event, share a link to an interview, or take a few photos to share on social media. I run a not-quite-monthly newsletter with links and information about community building, and signing the pledge will add you to that list.

EB: Many of your book seem to have a Portland connection, like City of Weird and A Simplified Map of the Real World by Stevan Allred. What do you look for in a book?

LS: When we signed with Legato and went national with submissions, I knew I wanted to continue promoting Northwest writers, so our catalog is a blend of regional writers and national ones; we have books set in Portland, Seattle, and Alaska, but also the Philippines, New Orleans, and Delaware.

I have a committee help me choose titles when we’re open for submissions; we love literary language, page-turning plots, and diversity, and we’re also partial to magical realism. There’s often a joyous, ebullient quality to our titles, whether due to the playfulness of the language or the wild ride of the story itself. Our tagline is “Literary fiction on a joyride.”

EB: What do you look for in an author?

LS: I look for someone who has been actively building community, because it’s really hard to sell books by authors who are only invested in promoting their own work. Debut authors are a favorite, because so many of them have spent years honing their craft, and it’s a huge honor to launch an author’s first title.

I love working with authors who have a strong sense of their own craft and want to work together with our team to get the book to reach its full potential. That kind of collaborative spirit is essential.

EB: Let me ask about independent publishing more generally. How do you see the role of independent publishers like Forest Avenue in American book culture? What does the future hold?

LS: There are many amazing presses doing great work, putting out worthy titles that deserve a place on the shelf. I visited the giant Ingram warehouse in Tennessee last fall, and instead of panicking at the number of books, I left feeling ever-so-satisfied and a bit giddy. Publishers are making books, and readers are choosing them, and that allows us to make more books.

As far as the future of the industry, margins are tight in this business, and that’s a concern. So many people tell me, “I don’t have time to read,” because of busy lives and/or choosing other forms of entertainment. There’s a gap between the number of people out there hoping to find a publisher and the number of readers actually buying books. Writers have to be readers too for this system to succeed, for existing presses to flourish and for new ones to get a strong start. That’s really why I’m so invested in community building.

EB: What advice have you got for potential authors?

LS: Read widely. Show up on the local literary scene by attending events and buying books from indies. Checking titles out from the library—or requesting a title that isn’t in the system yet—are wonderful ways to support the publishers you hope may publish you. Build a brand and a social media presence, but not at the expense of the work. The work—the words—must come first. And when you have a book deal, and are making that leap from potential to actual product, find other writers with similar projects or pub dates, and befriend them. You’ll celebrate together and commiserate together, as needed. My authors Renee Macalino Rutledge and Michael Shou-Yung Shum are both in the ’17 Scribes, an international debut author collective that’s been doing impressive work promoting 2017 debut novels.

EB: Where can readers get your books?

LS: At independent bookstores across the country. If a backlist title isn’t in stock any more, you can ask a bookseller to order it. You can find them online as well, but we’re strongly commmitted to having our readers support their local indies.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

LS: Thank you for the opportunity.

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An Interview with John McWhorter, author of Talking Back, Talking Black

photo by Eileen Barroso

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, Western civilization, music history, and American studies at Columbia University. A New York Times best-selling author and TED speaker, he is a columnist for Time and regular contributor to the Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post and the host of Slate’s Lexicon Valley. His books on language include The Power of Babel, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, What Language Is, The Language Hoax, and Words on the Move.

John McWhorter earned his B.A. from Rutgers University, his M.A. from New York University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Stanford University.

We talk about his latest book, Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America’s Lingua Franca.

EB: Thanks for writing this book. You’ve managed to show both the complexity of African American Vernacular and the complexity of the issues surrounding public attitudes about vernacular language and correctness. As writer, how did you choose the material to discuss—which goes far beyond the usual textbook treatment?

JM: What moved me was two things – 1) that I don’t think we linguists have made a dent in the public’s reception of the dialect in pointing out that it is systematic in its grammar (and I really mean “we,” as I wrote a book on Black English in the 90s and have written on it fairly often since), and 2) that I don’t think racism is the only thing keeping people from understanding.

So, I decided to approach Black English from the perspective I have seen laymen to have, rather than trying to give them a kind of “Linguistics 101,” which is the foundation of the “systematicity” argument – you’ve taken some phonology and syntax and you want to talk about GRAMMAR, but the public hasn’t had those courses and can’t hear what you’re saying in any real way. I gathered the kinds of questions the public usually has and frankly, the misimpressions they often so earnestly insist upon (that Black is “minstrel,” that there’s no such thing as a black “sound” except that black men have deep voices, and so on) and address them head on. That meant showing how the dialect is COMPLICATED, not just “systematic,” addressing what minstrel speech actually was and how there was a delicate, but real, intersection between that and how black people in the nineteenth century actually spoke, and also getting at something that we linguists can forget that the general public in America does not readily understand: diglossia. Most laymen think you speak one way, and that how you talk in your kitchen signifies how you talk when giving a speech. I’m not sure there is a pop source that teaches the public what diglossia is and how common – even universal – it is in how people speak. I tried to help out with that.

EB: I was particularly fascinated by the intimacy marker up, as in your example “We was sittin’ up at Tony’,” which I had heard used but never understood before. When did you first figure out the nuance to that?

JM: I’m not sure when that occurred to me, actually – sometime in the 90s, I think – probably in 1999 when the person I mentioned said “There was buck naked people up in my house.” That person was, as it happens, a white guy doing a fond kind of imitation of black speech (in the vein today often called appropriation although, as I have written, I find that analysis strained when it comes to speech). I was struck that his mimicking was good enough that he used that “up” – it struck me as especially authentic and then the “linguist hat” goes on and I thought “He is using that UP spontaneously but really, what is the function of it?”

I always have my ear cocked to vernacular constructions and am always trying to figure them out – I think it’s part of my being first, hardwired to be a linguist sort and second, black, such that I grew up hearing a certain variety of speech styles. An example would be that, as I describe in the book, when I was a kid and heard my cousins using the narrative HAD, my natural impulse was to quietly try to figure out how that usage made SENSE, rather than just dismissing it as “slang” that “they” use.

EB: What the significance of the title? I have to admit, when I mention the book to people I have to stop and think about the order of the words BACK and BLACK.

JM: Honestly the publisher thought that one up and I have rarely given it much thought! I had a different title – “How Do You Sound Black and Why?” That probably wasn’t good enough – book titles don’t come easily to me.

EB: You also describe Black English as America’s Lingua Franca. What do you mean by that?

JM: That since the nineties especially, ASPECTS of Black English have become a part of the speech repertoire of people beyond black America. First, Latinos, but now even many Asians and finally whites, especially young men. Pragmatic markers (yo, naw for no, etc.), aspects of inflection, and associated gestures are now so embraced by such a wide variety of people that to many young people the idea of Black English as specifically “black” sounds off. Now, as a linguist I specify that it isn’t that people beyond blacks (and Latinos) are actually using the full blown phonology and syntax of Black English. However, a lot of white kids, using a certain amount of the slang and intonation, consider themselves to be using “Black English,” which was all but unheard of until the 90s. It’s been part of the browning of the culture, as some have called it.

EB: Why do you think Black English is so difficult for Americans—Black and White—to wrap their heads around? Because of the complexity of race or the obscurity of linguistics, or both?

JM: Obviously both, but I honestly believe that the linguistic aspect dominates. It rankles some for me to say that – our moment encourages academics to stress racism over all, and at times that’s necessary. But the general public finds rural white Southern speech quite absurd, often, as well, and if there had ever been a push to use it as a teaching tool Fox News would have had a grand old time with that as well. Americans, because English is RELATIVELY homogenous here compared to England where it has had longer to differentiate, have a hard time processing that English can come in assorted flavors and still be legitimate. There is also an Anglophone First World bourgeois obsession with grammatical “correctness” in general – people are quite vicious about supposed grammatical errors. Does the viciousness step up some when black speech is involved? Perhaps, the race part is, in itself, just one part.

EB: Are there some common misconceptions about Black English shared by Black and White speakers?

JM: Certainly. Most people think Black English means slang, which makes any discussion of its “legitimacy” seem absurd. Linguists talk about the grammar of the dialect, but to laymen, “grammar” is a matter of things people do WRONG, not all of the complex ways that we put words together otherwise. So Black English seems to be slang and mistakes to most.

EB: You mention the Blaccent, as your call it, and that there are several different levels of the African American accent. Can you tell our readers a little about that?

JM: Most black Americans have vowel colorings that are subtly different than other Americans’, which is much of what we hear as the “black sound.” Then, some black people do not have those colorings, but still produce their speech with a slightly different “timbre,” in the sense we usually use re singers, than others. That signals another aspect of the black “sound.” These differences are internalized quite subconsciously from infancy on, and have nothing to do with right or wrong, anymore than the different vocal “placement” of British English is. I was struck by how absent from public writings this interesting aspect of black speech is beyond a certain point, and one of the things I most wanted to get across in this book was that there IS a such thing as sounding black and that there’s nothing wrong with it in any way. If the book leaves any shred of difference in public perception I hope it is that.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Congratulations on a fine book.

JM: Thank you!

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My Dinner with Harlan

When I was in high school two of my favorite books were Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on Television and The Other Glass Teat. They were feisty books of cultural criticism based on Ellison’s weekly column for the Los Angeles Free Press in the late 1960s. The title vision of TV viewers fit my high school mindset (along with Herman Hesse and Franz Kafka, you know the type), and the books sent me to the dictionary every other page so I was convinced they were a serious read.

I read more Harlan Ellison, graduating to the Dangerous Visions collection and Again Dangerous Visions, with their equally abrasive introductions. I cheering from the sidelines when Ellison wrote “City on the Edge of Forever.”

College and grad school intervened, with linguistics taking the place of speculative fiction. But I still kept an eye on Harlan’s career, enjoying a wonderful Comics Journal interview where he confesses to sliding down a conference table to deck Irwin Allen, the producer of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Because why not.

Year later—maybe a dozen—I was surprised to learn that Harlan Ellison would be speaking at the university where I was teaching—the University of Alabama in Birmingham His visit was cosponsored by the Honors Program and Ada Long, the chain smoking honors director, was looking for an English professor to chaperone (as it were) the honors students who would go to dinner with Harlan after his talk. As it turned out, of the 25 or so English professors in the department, I was the only would who would admit to knowing who Harlan Ellison was, so it was on me.

The dinner, which included Harlan, my wife and me, and a half dozen students went pretty much as you might expect. Harlan argued with the students about just about everything. I sat at the far end, sipping a beer and keeping my head down. I remembered the story about Irwin Allen.

After dinner as we walked back to the cars, we heard a shout and saw a man running with a purse. The students took off after the purse snatcher, and I took off after the students. It turned out that the runner with the purse was trying to return it to a woman who’d left it behind in a restaurant.

We got back to Harlan, who was waiting with my wife, and shaking his head ever so slightly. I never asked why, but I always imagined that we had all expected something dramatic to happen at a dinner with Harlan Ellison—a crime, a brawl, the apocalypse, whatever. Harlan, it seemed, knew better.

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What People Are Reading This Summer

It’s almost summer and graduating students get a little time to finally read what they want, professors have an opportunity to read things they do not have to grade, and even professional writers get some summer reading in the extra daylight.

It’s been an exciting year for books in southern Oregon—James Anderson’s The Never-Open Desert Diner and Midge Raymond’s My Last Continent came out in paperback, Macmillan released Victor Lodato’s Edgar & Lucy and Sandra Scofield gave us Swim: Stories of the Sixties.

For those of you who have been falling behind on your reading, those are all great choices for the summer.

Also on my list are Kory Stamper’s Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, John McWhorter’s Talking Back Talking Black, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, Brian Doyle’s Chicago, and Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog.

What are others looking forward to?

Tod Davies says she is “Rereading everything I can get my hands on by Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin.” She also plans on catching up with on Neil Gaiman’s books and is going to reread Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization.

Diana Maltz too is planning to read everything she can by Margaret Atwood to choose novels for the single-author class in the fall. “It might,” she says, “be a grim summer.”

Allegra Lance, soon to be in grad school at PSU says she is hunting down a copy of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet right now, and rereading the Tiffany Aching series, A Night in the Lonesome October, and a few other books. She also just bought Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and a bunch of Sarah Waters books.

Bill Gholson is going to read lots of poetry this summer, and, he adds, “I am also planning to read The Book of Joan by Lidia Yukanavitch, because “I like a good dystopian novel to take the edge off of summer happiness.” Also on Bill’s list: two novels by Don DeLillo–Falling Man and The Body Artist.

Allie Sipe is heading off to Teach for America in Rhode Island. She says: “I keep trying to read 1984, but it gets too realistically discouraging. So I switch to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for comic relief, but I can’t seem to finish that, either. I’m also reading a short story collection full of iconic authors to try and narrow down the list of authors I probably should have read as an English major but somehow never did.”

Alma Rosa Alvarez says she is planning on reading some books connected to her teaching, like Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees but is also planning to finish Amy Stewart’s The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms.

Dante Fumagalli writes that “It feels pretentious to say almost, but I’ve been trying to read Infinite Jest on and off for a few years now, so I’m hoping to use this summer to finish that!” [Good luck!] Also on his list more by Colson Whitehead.

Nicole Eichsteadt is going to dig into The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer and Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. And she is working on a novel of her own.

Laura Payne
is planning to read Teach: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta by Michael Copperman and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. She adds: “I figure Copperman’s book will be good for me since I’m about to travel to do a couple of years of teaching away from home and I’m interested in See’s book because it has to do with tea making and I’ve been working at a specialty tea shop for about a year now. On top of that, I really want to finish Stephen King’s, It, because the movie is coming out soon and I want to geek out about it with my dad.”

Margaret Perrow is tackling Straight Man by Robert Russo, Thin Blue by Johnny Steinberg, about the unofficial ‘rules’ of policing in post-Apartheid South African townships, The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi, “because she writes about the importance of literary fiction to freedom and democracy,” The Wisdom of Tich Nhat Hanh by Tich Nhat Hanh, “to slow me down and put things into perspective,” Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, because he’s funny and smart at the same time, and he knows how to ‘write short.’ And she’ll be dipping into How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark.

What are you reading?

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An Interview with Sandra Scofield

Sandra Scofield is the author of seven novels, including Beyond Deserving, a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Chance to See Egypt, winner of a Best Fiction Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters.

She has written a memoir, Occasions of Sin, and a book of essays about her family, Mysteries of Love and Grief: Reflections on a Plainswoman’s Life. She is also the author of The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer and in the fall Penguin will release her book The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision.

We sat down on the internet to talk about her new book of short stories, Swim: Stories of the Sixties, just released by Ashland’s Wellstone Press.

EB: Swim is a trilogy of stories about a twenty-something woman who negotiates dangerous travel—hitching, crashing at the ranch of a bullfighter in Mexico, and with two young soldiers on leave in Mykonos. How did you come to write the stories?

SS: Each one began in a different way. All took years of brooding, sketching, writing, fussing. Still, I think a story always starts with an image or impulse you can’t escape. In the case of these stories, those images became part of who I am, and as I slipped into old age I saw my young self with great empathy; I wanted to figure her out. A friend had saved my hundred+ letters to her during the 60’s, and in 2005 she gave them to me. (I’m going to be posting some on my website starting in July: They are packed with detailed observation and also with a naive, passionate, earnest scavenging for stories. In my letters–and they are long–everything is a story. I was keeping a journal, writing those letters, and, I think, memorizing a lot of life as I lived it. I can’t say what a gift her stewardship and generosity is.

More specifically, I’ll tell you that “Swim” began as an extension of my Mykonos notes that I brought back; I worked on them in 1968, when I was studying theatre in Illinois. Some years later I tried a story. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I picked up those old efforts and saw what the story was, and that the soldiers’ stories were the vehicle for it.

“An Easy Pass” was clearly an outgrowth of the dozens of letters from Mexico, full of detailed observations, and also an almost hysterical fascination with bullfighters (especially the young beginning ones). I had done a lot of what I think of as “younger” Mexico stories. They are archived. I did one a few years ago for Image, too.

“Oh Baby Oh” was in a way the most personal of the stories, because it arose not just out of some experience (none of the stories are “true”) but some thread of resentment toward a whole string of young men who wanted to advise me on how to be a better person.

In the last couple of years I found myself going back to the stories, fussing with them, and, if I can say this, falling in love with them in a way I never have with a story before. I longed to see them between covers, and I asked Jonah to read them and tell me what he thought. His enthusiasm was such a relief!

EB: The main character, who is called Baby, keeps a writer’s journal and carries a copy of The Stranger. It makes me wonder what pieces of your own experiences might be reflected in her stories—and how she is like the younger you?

SS: Well, sure, I kept a journal and carried Camus around. (I just read Alice Kaplan’s Searching for the Stranger, a kind of biography of The Stranger; it’s a marvelous read.) And I had a “fall” when my hair was growing out. (Ouch.) I hitchihiked from NYC to SF. I don’t think I was capable of just being, just doing; I always had to interpret life, day to day. At the heart of all my ruminations was my conviction that no one understood me, which is probably true, since I didn’t either. Guys either liked me or couldn’t stand me, based, I think, on my own attraction to them. If I didn’t like a guy–jocks, slick guys, big shots, etc.–I was snotty. I felt that all relationships, friendships, however short or long, were my choices. I didn’t think I was pretty but I could get a guy talking about things he’d never thought about before. And I was joyful, eager. I didn’t expect anything in return; sex was never a negotiation in my mind. I suspect I shocked a lot of boys–well aren’t they boys, in college?–because I also brought a lot of joy, a sense of fun, a freedom to sex and friendship. I was never seduced; nobody could make me do what I didn’t want to do before they even thought of it. I felt superior but on the other hand I was kind of generous. I wasn’t looking for any kind of attachment. I lived with someone in Chicago because I was broke, but regretted it. I wouldn’t say I had a real boyfriend, a real lover, until I met my first husband in a crazy sort of accident in Ithaca NY. I was in an acting troupe at Cornell, and Al had come to see an old Coast Guard buddy who lived in my house. We were like magnets. My whole life went off-track and it was years before I had any kind of stability, but those years with him were the electrical storm of my life. I wrote about him in Mysteries of Love and Grief, which is made up of essays, and he’s the basis for “Fish” in my novel Beyond Deserving, which was a NBA finalist, but mostly I’ve kept him to myself. For one thing, I’ve been happily married since 1975 to a man I wouldn’t dream of writing about. I wouldn’t want to analyze us or betray his privacy. And I think my stories are all far in the past. My present life is totally mundane, happily so.

EB: Many of the characters—not all, but many, seem on the verge of losing their innocence and learning to make their way in the world. For me, Baby seems most aware in the middle story, “An Easy Pass.” What trajectory did you in mind for the order of the three pieces?

SS: I knew “Swim” was last because I wanted its ending to end the book. The other two? I agree about your assessment, but I had “An Easy Pass” first until Jonah suggested we switch the first two stories. I took his advice and came to agree completely.

EB: The prose of the stories is taut—and especially the sentences, which ironically reminded me of Hemingway. Your sentences create a unique, almost aerobic, pace to the stories and I found myself wondering about the craft of these. Do you sometime revise a sentence several times until it feels just right?

SS: I think the story is in every sentence. And every sentence leads to the next. It’s slow work. Deliberate, and largely aural. Remember I’m of an age of reader who grew up on long novels with beautiful prose, lot of winding sentences in some, taut in others. I would never think of Hemingway as kin to me, but I adored James Salter’s work and feel he had an influence on me. As did Camus. Mavis Gallant. Jane Bowles. Jean Giono. Robert Stone. Rebecca West. And remember I grew up Catholic–boarding school Catholic–and language was a huge part of the practice of Catholicism, and of expectations of Catholic school students.

EB: I was intrigued by the stylistic choice you made not to signal dialogue with quote marks or italics. That seemed to signal remembered speech to me, or some attempt to disorient the reader. Did you have something particular in mind?

SS: You seem to have identified my intention well. In a way, everything is a dream, a fiction; the stories are outside of time; in another way, Baby doesn’t connect with anyone, and dialogue is connection. I certainly wasn’t trying to be precious or anything; it just felt inevitable and right.

EB: The nineteen sixties seems to be perpetually interesting to readers—both those who lived them and those who know them from history. What is the attraction of the sixties?

SS: It’s wild, isn’t it! All of a sudden, SIXTIES books–from the New Yorker, from the New York Times, and others. I just got the New Yorker one and am reading James Baldwin, whose great essay, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” blew the lid off the staid New Yorker. I guess there are lots of us with roots in that time. I also think something about the awful politics right now sends us back to the conflicts and inventions of the sixties. It was exciting to be young then, and scary, too. Baby, of course, isn’t involved.

EB: Looking at the cover art. “The Weight of Water,” by southern Oregon artist Abby Lazerow reminded me that you are also a painter. Is your painting like your writing?

SS: Ed, that is a wild question. I’ve never considered it. Maybe. I don’t follow many rules, but I spent a couple of years learning them. I’m more interested in color than in form. I like certain kinds of precision, and then I love wildly free gestures, too. Every painting is a discovery. I have an idea, I might even be working from a photograph, but no painting ever turns out like something I imagined or planned. Don’t misunderstand: I consider myself to have a lot of deliberateness, of control, but I like to break it open at some point. I’m much influenced by British Modernists like Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Joanna Carrington, Mary Fedden, Margaret Mellis. Lots of wit and freedom and interpretation of what is apprehended. I’m making a second trip to St. Ives to paint in October, and will do a workshop on the Modernist landscape.

I started so late, I had to make a choice: settle on a style and try to get deft at it; or widen my range, and reach for discovery, luck, freedom. So now that I think about it, I’d say I’m a hell of a lot more controlled as a writer than as a painter. But as a writer, I’m still not willing to follow many rules. And by the way, one thing I love about painting is that THERE ARE NO WORDS.

EB: You are also coming out with a book The Last Draft about revision. Can you tell us a little about that?

SS: December, from Penguin. It would have been dead in the water if I had called it: Sandra’s Poetics of the Novel, but that’s a lot of what it is. It’s what I’ve learned the hard way. Nobody taught me to write a novel. I never took a novel workshop or class. I don’t have an MFA. I learned to write by reading, by writing, by revising. So I decided that if the world needed anymore writing books, one would be on revision of the novel. I think of myself as speaking one to one to the reader, a kind of coach and cheerleader; I mean to be encouraging and demystifying, but I’m also serious. There’s a lot in that book. It’s really step by step how to describe what you wanted to do in your first draft, and how you tried for it; how to analyze what’s strong and what’s not in that first effort; a deepening of your vision and your sense of direction; a plan for redoing or integrating old material with new writing. It all comes from my teaching and analysis of how my instruction and exercises and guidance worked. Kisses to my students! Someone could sort of whip through the explanations and exercises and do a revision. Or someone who really wants to be a writer could use it as a guide to a whole journey of learning. Janet Burroway very generously said of it, “We need this book.” I guess that’s what I thought, after over twenty years of working with aspiring novelists. Now I’m trying to write a new novel and all I write rings in my ears! It’s helpful, yes; it’s also humbling. Writing a novel is huge and hard.

EB: Any final words of advice for writers?

SS: I don’t know that this is advice, but I want to say that not everyone is going to write a bestseller and even a big house paying a lot can’t make it happen very often. The work of writing is going to be happy if it makes you happy to do it. What happens next is a big duck shoot. With “Swim” I knew I wanted to work with Jonah because I knew he loved my writing and these stories and I knew we would be a great team. I chose to publish with a small press without trying for a big one, and it’s been more fun, more productive, happier than any experience I’ve had in publishing. I hope readers will buy my book and tell others about it but I’m not putting a kid through college on the proceeds. If we made a little money I’d probably do another book this way. More Stories from the Sixties, anyone?

EB: Thanks for talking with us. It’s good to have you back in the area.

SS: This is so nice. I think what a writer really really wants is for someone to want to talk about her stories!! So here we are.

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Rhoticity within American English a guest post by Zachary Cagle

Zachary Cagle is a senior at Southern Oregon University, where he will be graduating this spring with a degree in English. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career as a writer, and this essay is his first published piece.

Dating back to the 15th century, non-rhotic speech (a variety of English in which /r/ is not pronounced unless followed by a vowel) originated in Southeast England in a handful of Old and Middle English words. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the postvocalic /r/ began to be deleted systematically, and by the 1790’s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation became common within London; although, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that this Southern British pronunciation became the British prestige standard and, subsequently, a fully established non-rhotic variety. However, due to the rising popularity of the /r/-less pronunciation in the early seventeenth century, as the English began to immigrate to America the majority of settlers came from areas of non-rhoticity. Ergo, the areas of Boston, New York, Richmond, Savannah, and Charleston all became /r/-less, with the only exception being Philadelphia. Consequently, the majority of the Northeastern and Southern areas of what would later become the United States of America were largely influenced by this non-rhotic variety, which ultimately became the accepted standard and remained so until the 1940’s. In essence, the end of World War Two triggered a shift in prestige from non-rhotic to rhotic speech within American English, resulting in a transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech within the North and later the South due to a variety of socioeconomic/regional factors.

In contrast to the adoption of the British English non-rhotic standard in the seventeenth century, the change in prestige that occurred after World War Two was a result of the declining influence and prestige of England in America. This change in prestige, rather than evolving slowly over many generations, was abrupt, occurring first in the North with the South following suit shortly after, and resulted in a loss of the /r/-less pronunciation within three generations. However, the social motivation behind this transition differed between the Northeastern and Southern populations. In the North, this realization of the rhotic norm occurred within the upper middle classes and was, therefore, a case of change from above, whereby r-lessness received a negative connotation and consequently low social evaluation. Whereas in the South, due to a history of /r/-less speech gaining prestige among the upper classes with the spread of the plantation system from 1750 onward, the change to /r/-fullness was and is, consequently, a case of change from below – both below the level of consciousness and moving from lower to higher social classes.

The question, therefore, is: how did this transition occur systematically and, secondly, how did such drastic change occur in such a short span of time? Two studies – one conducted by Crawford Feagin on the dynamics of sound change within the South, and a second study conducted by Thomas Schönweitz on the role of gender and the postvocalic /r/ in the South –provide answers to these questions. And, despite focusing primarily on the loss of the postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation within the Southern United States, they nonetheless provide insight into some of the factors that likely played a role in this transition within the North as well.

In the study titled “The Dynamics of a Sound Change in Southern States English: From r-less to r-full in Three Generations,” Feagin examines the changes that were taking place in the realization of /r/ within the community of Anniston, Alabama. Using the interviews of ten informants “divided by age, sex, social class, and – for the older informants – urban/rural” (Feagin 130), Feagin deconstructs the linguistic ordering of change – i.e., the /r/-shift – and examines it for four linguistic environments representing the various degrees of rhotic speech (three vocalic environments, one postvocalic), after which he extracts and analyses all words containing potential /r/ in said environments. For example, “Environment 1. Stressed vocalic r followed by a consonant as in work, person, university, Environment 2. Stressed vocalic r in word-final position as in fir, her, were” (132-133), etc. In essence, Feagin’s findings corroborated the former prediction by linguist C.J. Bailey regarding language change:
Change appears – variably – first in restricted environments, begins slowly, then simultaneously speeds up and expands to more and more environments, going to completion in first one environment then another, until the change has gone through all linguistic environments for all members of the community (qtd. in Feagin 132).

Accordingly, Feagin identifies four stages regarding the degree to which an individual integrates rhotic pronunciation within their own speech: “Stage 1. No vocalic or postvocalic tautosyllabic r at all, Stage 2. Low occurrence of r in Environment I, stressed vocalic r followed by tautosyllabic consonant, with even lower rates of r-occurrence in Environments III and IV, Stage 3. Categorical pronunciation of r in Environment I, with rapidly increasing proportions elsewhere, Stage 4. Nearly 100% r in all positions” (137). These stages illustrate the way in which the transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech occurs systematically.

Before delving into Feagin’s analysis of the social ordering of change, it is important to first address the study by Schönweitz, titled “Gender and Postvocalic /r/ in the American South: A Detailed Socioregional Analysis.” In this study, Schönweitz looks at the correlation between sex, ethnicity, age, education, social status, and region with regard to an individual’s level of tendency towards standard pronunciation features within speech. In essence, Schönweitz set out to determine whether the general consensus regarding these traits, which is prevalent in the results of various small studies conducted in the past, holds true for all of the Southern states, and whether /r/-fullness is observed in a variety of social groups in all the Southern regions concerned. These characteristics are highlighted in a study conducted by Levine and Crocket (1966):

Women, young people, the newer residents, and higher status persons take the national /r/-norm as their speech model, while the linguistic behavior of males, older people, long term residents, and blue-collar respondents is referred to a southern prestige norm – the /r/-less pronunciation of the coastal plain (qtd. in Schönweitz 260).

Furthermore, most studies also showed that those with higher educations tended to be /r/-full, that the higher the social class the more likely for individuals to be /r/-less, and that whites tend to be more /r/-full when compared to blacks.

Utilizing information on more than 100 words and phrases collected from more than 1,100 interviews of informants, which was conducted during the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s for the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS: a linguistic map describing the dialects of the American Gulf states), Schönweitz used multiple programs to analyze the data in order to determine if the characteristics of rhotic pronunciation were an atlas-wide phenomenon; i.e., a pattern seen throughout the majority of the Southern states and, therefore, not confined to the restricted environments of previous studies. It was discovered that some of the overall patterns found in the LAGS area – regarding the aforementioned social factors – are not present when the data is broken down by sector; however, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t still have a considerable role within the transition, such as the case with social class. In other words, some social factors may not be atlas-wide according to Schönweitz analysis, but they still played a significant role within the transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech within both the South and the North. Therefore, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, Schönweitz analysis found that only sex, ethnicity, and age showed consistent atlas-wide patterns with regard to rhoticity and the pronunciation of /r/. The results of the study are as follows: females are more rhotic than males, whites more than blacks, and young more than old.

In relation to Schönweitz findings, Feagin’s analysis of the social ordering of change provides some insight into how this transition occurred so rapidly and why it was, and still is, characterized by the social factors illustrated by Schönweitz and others. In one southern family studied by Feagin, the grandmother showed 0% /r/ pronunciation while the grandson showed 91%; however, interestingly, they were both from the upper classes. According to Feagin, there are a variety of factors that likely contributed to the rapid transition, which emanated from the general trend regarding the change to rhoticity, especially within the South; that is to say, “the change began in the urban working class…spread out to the rural working class and welled up socially to the upper class teenagers” (Feagin 138). Given the level of prestige associated with /r/-less speech within the South, the transition originated with teenage girls in the urban working class, which, as Feagin points out, adheres to the normal pattern in developed countries in the west with regard to language change. However, the conclusion of World War Two brought prosperity to the South and, subsequently, new opportunities that gradually influenced speech through social change. And when these effects became prominent, it sparked a rapid transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech due to the fact that this transition – as a result of a variety of social factors – now had influence on the upper classes. Accordingly, Feagin postulates that there were four factors that likely contributed to this rapid change: a rise in association of /r/-lessness with femininity; the amount of contact between whites and blacks decreased; an increase of mixing with people from other areas; and more travel, which exposed children to a larger variety of speech.

Looking specifically at the factor of ethnicity, Feagin suggests that “Southern White /r/-lessness might have been reinforced by the /r/-lessness of the large black population” (Feagin 139). In essence, prior to World War One Southern upper-class children had close relations with blacks due to their presence as servants within households. However, after World War Two “contact with blacks was curtailed, both because of black migration to Detroit and other Northern cities and because of the institution of minimum wage laws” (140). As a result, the majority of children studied during this period were almost 100% /r/-full, while those who still had black servants were noticeably more /r/-less.

In looking at these studies, it becomes apparent why any remaining non-rhotic speech within American English is currently typically found amongst older Southern and Northeastern speakers, and even then only in a few select areas, with the exception of a few dialects from New England, Boston, Main, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. In essence, the current nature of non-rhotic speech within American English is due to the fact that this transition began amongst the youth – largely due to a variety of social factors that arose at the end of World War Two, as aforementioned. However, one question remains: Why then is non-rhoticity a staple feature of African American Vernacular? In short, according to a study by John Myhill, much like how the rise of /r/-full speech had ties to the relations between blacks and whites, the retention of non-rhoticity among African Americans is directly correlated to their level of integration and association with the white community. Hence, the more interaction between African Americans and whites the lower the probability of /r/-deletion, and vice versa.

While the topic of Rhoticity and the transition that occurred may seem daunting and overly complex due to the myriad of factors at play, in the end, they are merely a handful of interworking socioeconomic/regional factors that had the combined effect of bringing forth a transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech. This transition ultimately emanated from a decline in England’s influence and prestige within the United States at the end of World War Two. And, consequently, a shift in prestige occurred that swept the Northeastern and Southern United states, which was a change from above in the North and below in the South with regard to the factor of socio economic status and the realization of the rhotic norm.

Works Consulted

    Elliott, Nancy C., A Sociolinguistic Study Of Rhoticity In American Film Speech From The 1930S To The 1970’s. n.p.: Dissertation Abstracts International, 2000. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

    Feagin, Crawford. “The Dynamics Of Sound Change In Southern States English: From R-Less To R-Ful In Three Generations.” Development and Diversity: Language Variation across Time and Space. 129-146. Dallas: Summer Inst. of Ling. & Univ. of Texas at Arlington, 1990. MLA International Bibliography.
    Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

    Lass, Roger (1999). “Phonology and Morphology”. In Lass, Roger. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 56–186.

    MacNeil, Robert, and William Cran. “Toward a Standard: Putting the “R” in “American”” Do You Speak American? New York: Doubleday, 2005. 49-87. Print.

    Myhill, John. “Postvocalic /R/ As an Index of Integration into the BEV Speech Community.” American Speech: A Quarterly Of Linguistic Usage 63.3 (1988): 203-213. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
    12 Mar. 2016.

    Schönweitz, Thomas. “Gender And Postvocalic /R/ In The American South: A Detailed Socioregional Analysis.” American Speech: A Quarterly Of Linguistic Usage 76.3 (2001): 259-285. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

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An Interview with Michael Copperman, author of Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta

author photo: Ed Croom

From 2002 to 2004, Michael Copperman taught fourth grade in the Mississippi Delta through Teach For America. Today, he teaches writing to students from diverse backgrounds—primarily low-income and first-generation college students—at the University of Oregon. Michael also frontlines The Oregon Writers’ Collective, which fosters a vibrant writing community where emerging writers can connect with one another, discover audiences, and develop their craft.

His writing has received awards from the Munster Literature Centre, the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Literary Arts, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. Some of the places his work appears include The Sun, The Oxford American, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and Copper Nickle.

Michael’s recent memoir Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta illuminates his experiences teaching in rural black public schools in Mississippi, depicting clashes between educational ideals and realities. Mario Alberto Zambrano (Lotería: A Novel) called the book “heartbreaking and crucial,” and Katie Williams (The Space Between Trees) called it “a work of tremendous skill, honesty, and heart.”

Allie Sipe is a senior at Southern Oregon University who will graduate at the end of June, after which she will teach in Rhode Island through Teach For America.

AS: Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to serve as a corps member for Teach For America in the Mississippi Delta?

MC: I graduated Stanford, where I’d been a college wrestler and also the chair of the Hapa Issues Forum, a multiracial Asian-American advocacy group—that is, I was driven and social justice oriented.  TFA sounded like a good next step, a worthy cause.

AS: Can you talk about translating your experiences with Teach For America into writing a memoir? What did that process look like?

MC:  It took me many, many years to write well about the experiences—I needed the clarifying distance of time to be able to reflect and reckon with what the experience came to mean.  I wrote long emails to family and friends when I was there which was valuable source material—and I wrote many of the pieces of the memoir discretely, publishing piece by piece.

AS: Did you discover anything intriguing or surprising about your time in the Delta when revisiting your experiences to write your memoir?

MC: I found that while I thought I was full of regret and guilt, what I was finally experiencing was longing to be back there with the kids I taught, who I cared about so much that I had been unable to let go of.  I found out that perhaps I had been a good teacher after all.

AS: When reading your book, I was particularly struck by the gap between educators’ idealistic goals for students and the incredibly difficult realities those students endure. At one point, you refer to this as teaching “children with so much promise and so little opportunity.” Can you speak a little more about that?

MC: I went to Mississippi imagining that I could remake the world—take the burden and consequences of slavery and racism and segregation and poverty and create justice, which is to say, give deserving children a chance to learn and so realize the American dream through education.  That proved far more difficult than I knew, as teaching is an art, and while what teachers do does resonate out of sight, it does so invisibly through years and years.  I left believing I’d failed.

AS: One of my favorite parts of your book was reading the notes that students wrote to you and left in your mailbox, as well as reading the poems students wrote in class. Especially in the poetry assignment where students used metaphors to write about their past, present, and future, students’ authentic voices came to life. Why was poetry such an appropriate vessel for students’ voices and stories?

MC:  Those kids, who spoke AAVE in the particular Delta variation of Southern idiomatic English—well, they had style and verve and an ear for rhythm, and they knew the world they inhabited, which was rough and bleak at times, but also beautiful, and richer for the intensity of their experiences.  Their voices were dazzling because poetry freed them from the burdens of grammar conventions which were not native, and because poetry, when freed from the stuffy halls of academia, values life and affirms it, raw and vital and present.

AS: Near the end of your book, you write that, “Teach For America’s merit is that it bridges the gap between worlds.” After reading your book, your work now as a professor at the University of Oregon who works with low-income, first generation students seems to be a commitment to this work of bridging gaps. How would you say that your experiences with TFA in the Delta inform you as a writing teacher today?

MC: The lessons I learned in Mississippi are the lessons I relearn today, again and again, in teaching students who have often come from difficult backgrounds—not to make assumptions, but to listen.  To value students’ experiences and try to make them matter in how learning happens, so that one’s identity is not erased.  Patience, compassion, kindness.

AS: Do you have any advice for emerging teachers and writers?

MC: Teach with passion—if you don’t care, why should your students?  Write from the heart—puffery, tricks, and cleverness don’t hold up, but the truth does, even it is itself insufficient.

AS: Thanks so much for talking with us.


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An Interview with Jan Wright

Jan Wright is the founder and director of Wright Research and Archives, the archivist for Harry and David in Medford, Oregon, and the former Director of the Talent Historical Society. She is the author of Images of America: Talent (Arcadia, 2009). She is working on a book project to be titled Imperfect Apostle John Beeson, Advocate for Native Americans.

EB: Can you tell our readers a little bit about John Beeson?

JW: Injustice made John Beeson squirm. When he saw something that inflicted pain or wrong on any group of people, particularly the American Indians, he took action. Regardless of the personal consequences to himself or his family, he went straight to the source of the problem and confronted politicians, Indian agents, volunteer Indian fighters, newspaper editors and unfeeling ministers. His fire kept a smoldering camp of Beeson haters who belittled him and his mission whenever they could. Somewhat of a mystic, he fell into Spiritualism and was visited by ghostly messengers who guided him from beyond the grave.

EB: How did you get interested in his story?

JW: I resisted John Beeson for years. I was more attracted to telling the locally significant story of his son, Welborn Beeson, as it unfolded from his amazing diaries. Of course, Welborn wrote about his father’s whereabouts in the east and what he said about the father son relationship fascinated me. My research trips to New York, Illinois and DC turned up so much information about John Beeson that I gave way to the story that had a more national appeal and was so intertwined with the fate of Native Americans.

EB: Beeson wrote the Plea for the Indians in 1857. How was that received?

JW: Written after he was forced to leave Oregon, a Plea for the Indians launched his long career as an advocate for the Indians. He used the book effectively as an introduction to the the East Coast lecture circle. To the city dwellers, he was considered a credible witness of the far west experience but generally the people of the West, derided and condemned him as too soft on “savages.” He eventually became a reliable speaker at suffrage gatherings, abolitionist meetings, churches, government councils and as a form of entertainment with a troupe of Indian singers. One of his speeches in Buffalo, NY was attended by President-Elect, Abraham Lincoln, on his way to his own inauguration. After Lincoln moved to the White House, John Beeson, was invited as a guest to deliver his Indian message along with his favored Indian songstress, Larooqua.

EB: He returned to Oregon later. How was he received by his family and the community?

JW: After being gone for 8 years 8 months and 1 day, John returned (in 1865) to his family on Wagner Creek near present day Talent, Oregon. It was not an easy adjustment to be once again in a rural setting with farm work to do. He was used to crowds of people paying to get in to see him, to making appeals before Congress, to organizing peace groups at the Cooper Union in New York, but on Wagner Creek he was a farmer behind the plow like the rest of his neighbors. His attempts to give lectures in Jacksonville and Ashland were not well attended and though people tolerated his presence, he was out of his element and not generally respected.

His wife, Ann, died while he was home but she only wanted her son, Welborn, to be at her side. John was in the field plowing corn and was unaware of her death until he saw the neighbors gathering at their home to prepare her body for burial.

In the fall of 1867 John left for the East Coast again, hoping he could still be of use to the Indians on a national level. He was 77 years old and nearly deaf on his final return to Oregon in 1880.

EB: His life—and his story–seem to be very relevant today, I think. What connections do you see to current affairs?

JW: He told the truth as he saw it, blew the whistle when he had to, and was willing to stand alone to face his enemies. He envisioned an America that stuck to its stated values and principles and engaged in a non-stop quest for justice as a full-time occupation. He lived on the stranger’s dime, traveled in stage coaches, trains and on foot to school houses, churches, state houses, mansions and cabins to organize a national movement to seek a better outcome for the Indians. His story was a microcosm of what was going on all over America. He walked up the steps of each state capitol, each neighborhood, and visited each congregation with the news of the day and with the same old story. He wore the mantle of leadership without seeking exorbitant compensation. That kind of leadership is manifest in today’s organizations (such as Indivisible) that keep the pressure on local representatives to mind the will of the people. Beeson’s struggles show us that each generation adds a personal narrative and a new baseline from which to start but each has to vigilantly improve the workings of democracy and combat greed, corruption and racism.

EB: There must be some interesting local sources on Beeson in the Talent and Southern Oregon Historical Society archives. What sorts of material are you finding?

JW: The Welborn Beeson diaries are the single most outstanding source of information about the Beeson family and the historical, social and political events in Southern Oregon. They span the years 1851-1893 and began when the Beeson’s still lived in Illinois. The diary was tucked away at the University of Oregon Special Collections until 2006 when the Talent Historical Society had them microfilmed and repatriated to Talent.

Southern Oregon Historical Society has a photo album which includes some photos of John Beeson and his family and copies of correspondence from friends and relatives. The living descendants of John and Ann Beeson are very much engaged with the progress of the book and have shared family photos and archived information.

EB: Are there important sources about Beeson elsewhere? I understand he lived in New York for a time.

JW: British born John and Ann Beeson arrived in New York in 1830 on the ship Samuel Robertson. John who had been trained as a confectioner in England, followed that occupation in Ithaca and Troy, NY until the family moved to Illinois. I have visited the New York state archives in Albany to do research on the Beeson family and have been in contact with the New York Public Library and the Cooper Union to obtain more information about John while he lived in that state.

I also visited the site of the farm in Illinois where Beesons lived for over 20 years and corresponded with the family who live on that property. My sister and I did extensive research at the courthouse in Ottawa, IL and elsewhere to document that portion of their lives. Newspapers from Maine to Rhode Island, from New York to Philadelphia, from Minnesota to Illinois and of course, Oregon all have multiple articles about John Beeson’s lectures and performances, his resolutions and petitions.

EB: You’ve launched a kickstarter campaign to support the research project. What was that experience like?

JW: The Kickstarter experience has changed the way I view the book. When the campaign ends on June 12th, I will know precisely who my audience is. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and responsibility to make the book meet expectations and to follow the truth with accuracy and finesse. From the Mayor of Talent to a widow lady in Ashland, from my former boss, to my own children, people have come through for me and joined in the dream to resurrect John Beeson’s voice. I acknowledge that my journey has been a bit backwards, that the cart is before the horse when I talk about a book that does not yet exist.

In a sense, I am taking up my mission in much the same way as John Beeson did by asking for financial help to relieve me of the worry of earning my daily bread with a 9-5 job while I write the book.

Community support has made me a bit nicer and more disciplined and made me more likely to support others in their dreams as well.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JW: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

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