Literary Ashland Interview with Michael Niemann, author of The Last Straw

Award winning author Michael Niemann is the author of six novels featuring UN investigator Valentin Vermeulen. Niemann grew up in a small town in western Germany before moving to the United States. He has studied at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn, Germany, and the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver where he received a PhD in International Studies.

His novels Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade came out in 2017. Illegal Holdings appeared in 2018 and won the 2019 Silver Falchion Award for Best Thriller at Killer NashvilleNo Right Way and Percentages of Guilt followed in 2019 and 2020. All are published by Coffeetown Press.

His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the 2012 Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Lee Child, and Mysterical-EAfrica Always Needs Guns, Big Dreams Cost Too Much and Some Kind of Justice are available as Kindle singles. You can learn more at

His book The Last Straw, set on the US-Mexico border, is available in November 2021.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed THE LAST STRAW and its plot ripped from the headlines. Can you tell us a bit about the story?

Michael Niemann: The tragedy of what was happening at the border over the past few years really gripped me. I’ve taught human rights for thirty-four years and so I knew that the US treatment of refugees was in violation of international law. The Refugee convention is binding for the US.

Talking about this with a friend of mine, she said, “You’ve got to bring Vermeulen to the border.” To which I could only say, “How?” He has no authority, no way of doing anything inside the US. That meant I had to bring him into the story apart from his regular job. Ostensibly he’s on a break, accompanying his partner Tessa Bishonga, who’s a journalist writing about the border. His vacation is interrupted almost immediately after he lands in Tucson. A skeleton is found in the desert. Next to the skeleton lies a notebook in a foreign language. It contains a Manhattan phone number. The number is Vermeulen’s. Since the skeleton was murdered, Vermeulen is drawn into the investigation of the local DA. It doesn’t take long before he realizes that a seven-year-old case has come back to haunt him, and he begins to investigate to get ahead of the authorities. In the process, he gets a closeup view of the mess that’s happening at the southern border.

EB: What was the biggest challenge for you in doing the book?

MN: After developing the premise—a challenge in itself—the biggest challenge was writing about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers with empathy, but also casting them as whole people with complex lives who are caught in a cruel machinery that has been built over the past decades.

The history of this border is complex and painful to read. It’s easy to do that with a “fact dump” that explains how things got to be so bad. At the same time, this is a thriller, exposition must be matched by action. So I struggled a little on how to weave that history into the story in a way that furthered the plot.

That’s the challenge of bringing current politics into a novel. It has to be in service of the story being told. If it isn’t, the story falters and readers will stop reading. Not because they don’t want to read about politics, but because they bought a novel, not a non-fiction book. So the novel has to satisfy those expectations.

EB: What was the research like? I noticed you had some forensic anthropology, some criminal law and more. Do you have a group of consultants you rely on for all that?

MN: No consultants for me. My royalties don’t quite add up to what it takes to make that possible. As I indicated, I’m pretty familiar with refugees and the legal rights to which they are entitled (despite the failure of many countries to honor those). As to the rest, the internet and especially Wikipedia is a wonderful source of detailed information. I had some prior knowledge of forensic anthropology—some of the worst human rights violations in the world were documented by forensic anthropologists who examined mass graves. It so happens that the medical examiner of Pima County (Tucson) does indeed employ such a specialist. It simply takes digging a little deeper to learn how determine the approximate age, sex, and other characteristics of a skeleton.

Learning about Arizona grand juries was a bit of a challenge, but I lucked out when I found a complete transcript of a grand jury session held in Cochise County, the very county where Vermeulen has to testify. A disgruntled citizen had put it on the internet. It gave me a sense of the questions posed, the role of the county attorney and the involvement of individual jurors.

EB: What was your favorite part of this story?

MN: I must say, I had a really good time creating the key confrontations and then developing strategies for the protagonists to escape from them. Delano’s confrontation with the Cartel De Jalisco Nueva Generación was a lot of fun to develop. It’s easy getting characters into trouble, but much more difficult getting them out again in ways that are plausible but not obvious. Who knew that potatoes are a cheap and effective means to disable cars?

But I had the most fun making readers root for one villain over another. At least that was my intention and I hope I succeeded.

EB: It was nice to see Camille Delano, who appeared in Illicit Trade, return. Was that part of the idea from the beginning?

MN: Honestly, I don’t remember. All I had was the skeleton. Then I needed to find a way to link it to Vermeulen. That brought back the memories of the sad-looking character from Illicit Trade. Once he was in the story, Camille Delano became the obvious choice since she disappeared at the end of the second novel.

EB: The book ends with some changes for Valentin Vermeulen. What’s next for him?

MN: Yes, the ending does bring changes. What those changes are is up in the air for now. I wanted to keep my options open because I like Vermeulen as a character.

EB: Where can readers get THE LAST STRAW and your other books.

MN: All my books are available where books are sold. Local readers can get them at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland. Readers farther afield can try the usual online places.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Good luck with THE LAST STRAW

MN: Thanks, Ed. I appreciate the opportunity of being a guest on your blog.

Posted in Interviews | Comments Off on Literary Ashland Interview with Michael Niemann, author of The Last Straw

An Interview with Arika Okrent, author of Highly Irregular

Arika Okrent has an undergraduate degree from Carleton College, an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet University, and a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics from University of Chicago. A winner of the Linguistic Society of America’s Linguistic Journalism Award in 2016 and a former contributing editor at Mental Floss, she writes about language for a popular audience.

She is the author of the 2009 book In the Land of Invented Languages, a sparkling tour of artificial languages from Blissymbolics to Esperanto to Klingon. Her latest book is Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, andDough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language, an illustrated history of English that reveals why the language is so weird.

Ed Battistella: How did you get interested in linguistics?

Arika Okrent: I was always interested in languages, their rules, and how they differ from each other. I didn’t discover linguistics until after college (a shame, because I went to one of the few small undergraduate colleges that actually has a linguistics department, Carleton College), but I was so relieved when I did. So I wasn’t just flaky, flitting from language to language! There was a whole field for what I wanted to study! Not languages, considered one at a time and independently from each other, but LANGUAGE, that thing that underlies them all (whatever it may be).

EB: In Highly Irregular, you managed to home in on exactly the questions about English that I hear from students –and relatives—weird spellings, unlikely meanings, the pronunciation of colonel. How did you determine what to include?

AO: I wanted to include a good distribution of questions, from different levels of language: letters, spellings, sounds, words, meanings, phrases, sentence structures. I think weird spellings are the most noticeable irregularities about English, but there is weirdness at every level, and it can get harder to see the more fluent you are. But kids and non-native speakers see it right away. The best questions come from them.

I also wanted a good distribution across time periods, of where in the history of the development of English the awkward bits originated. Some we can blame on the oldest layer; things that got stuck and didn’t change. Some come in later with developments in literacy, printing, and social attitudes.

EB: What was the research like in telling the stories of all these oddities? It seems daunting.

AO: There is a lot! But I could tackle each question one at a time, and after a while it became clearer from the beginning where each explanation would fit in the general, larger historical picture. It was interesting to me that some of the stories I already “knew” from my linguistics background turned out to be not exactly what I thought they were when looked at in the larger historical frame. For example I knew that there was an l in would and should because they come from will and shall, but I never thought about the fact that the l had already fallen silent by the time of printing and the spread of literacy, making it much easier for could to then acquire an l. Could got its l from the printed form of would and should and their frequency. But if the l was still pronounced there, it probably wouldn’t have picked it up.

EB: I really loved the way that the illustrations punctuated the prose. Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Sean O’Neill? You two have worked before.

AO: We worked together on a series of whiteboard videos for Mental Floss, 2 or 3 minute explanations of various language topics. These are on my YouTube channel. At first the idea was that I could pack more information in by having words+pictures going simultaneously, but what his drawings ended up doing was not just adding another angle to get at the information but really humanizing the things I was explaining. Linguists can get caught up in the abstractions of words, sounds, syntax, but all of those things only have identity through humans using them, and he brings that to life in a light, humorous way. For years our workflow has been this: I send him text, he creates drawings to go with it, and the work goes up. I almost never request any changes. I’m a word person, happy to have found a picture person who can come up with ways to visualize wordy concepts.

EB: I loved the unusual words you came up with—like the fancy-pants addubitation and the down-to-earth witcraft. Are there any words or forms you’d like to bring back to life?

AO: I think we could use some of the verbs from the old patterns that disappeared or became irregular. We could say, “yesterday I boke a cake.” Or “he already clamb that mountain.” Sounds more to the point somehow!

EB: You talk about some words that are trying too hard. I loved that idea. Can you give an example?

AO: The funny thing is that there are words that sound ridiculous to us now, and sounded a bit “too much” when they were coined, that have counterparts that are just as gussied up but don’t sound ridiculous at all anymore, maybe a little fancy, but not ridiculous. So there was the ridiculous inexcogitable, meaning unable (in-, -able) to be developed (-it) out of (ex-) thought (cog-). But we have inconceivable and incomprehensible which are just as cobbled together from Latinate parts. Are they trying too hard? Maybe a little, but we use them and don’t notice so much. Inexcogitable just couldn’t get over the usage hump. It’s trying way too hard.

Shakespeare made fun of this trend in Love’s Labour Lost with the word honorificabilitudinitatibus. It would mean something like “the state of being able to achieve honors” but it is used in the play to mock a couple of scholarly types. He didn’t make it up. It was a Latin word that people knew about and found very out of place in English.

EB: What’s your favorite oddity about English?

AO: I think the way that some words have been split into two words just because someone decided it should be so. Discrete and discreet, for example. We spend a lot of time learning the spelling difference and trying to keep track of which is which, but originally they were the same word. Someone decided to use one spelling for the “separation” aspect of the meaning and another for the “able to be discerning” aspect and a few people went along with that and then everyone not only decided to go along with that, but to enforce it as if it were some inviolable rule handed down from heaven. It’s similar to the way we are starting to use two different spellings for aesthetics (in art) and esthetics (in the cosmetic beauty business). The spelling difference is not yet really enforced as a rule, but some day people may say these are totally different words. We really want spelling differences to correspond to meaning differences!

EB: Are there some emerging oddities that you are tracking?

AO: It’s so hard to predict what future speakers might perceive as odd. Why would a 12th century English speaker think the silent k in knot would ever be odd? They actually pronounced it and didn’t know it would stop being pronounced. But there are some things having to do with technologies that have already disappeared that might seem odd someday. Or already do seem odd to a young person. For example, why podcast? What is that pod in there? If you’re a teenager you’ve probably never seen an iPod, and you listen to podcasts on your phone. My lifetime experience of technology as a middle-aged person means I know why we say “roll up” a car window, and “hang up” a phone, and “rewind” a video but a teenager will be using those words without any experiential connection to the technology that produced them. They’ll probably end up like “eggplant” words. There is a good reason why there’s an egg in there, but we’ve lost our cultural connection to it.

EB: I saw that you once worked in a brain lab. What was that like?

AO: It was exciting! Can you believe it’s actually possible to see an image of brain activity as people are performing mental tasks? (After the fact, with a lot of math involved, but still!) It’s also frustrating in that while it’s possible to locate tasks in the brain, to see what areas light up when tasks are performed, it’s a lot harder to say what that means or what the significance is, especially when it comes to language.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AO: Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate the thoughtful questions.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews, Language | Comments Off on An Interview with Arika Okrent, author of Highly Irregular

An Interview with Michael Rousell, author of THE POWER OF SURPRISE

Dr. Michael A. Rousell is a teacher, psychologist, and professor emeritus at Southern Oregon University. Rousell studied life-changing events for over three decades and established his expertise by writing the internationally successful book Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives (2007). His pioneering work draws on research from a wide variety of brain sciences that show when, how, and why we instantly form new beliefs. He lives with his spouse in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


Ed Battistella: Tell us about your forthcoming book THE POWER OF SURPRISE: HOW YOUR BRAIN SECRETLY CHANGES YOUR BELIEFS.

Mike Rousell: Formative moments always fascinated me, those moments that make us who we are, the ones that form beliefs about ourselves. But it’s hard to trace back a belief to when it first formed. For example, do you believe you are clever If so, how did that belief develop? Was it incremental, parents and teachers praising your efforts and commenting on your brilliant creative efforts? Did this belief erupt suddenly through a surprise? Here’s an example. Jane thinks she isn’t creative. One day her boss surprises her by saying, “You keep coming up with clever solutions.” While this isn’t all that stunning, it’s potentially transformative. If Jane already believes she is clever, she accepts this comment as praise. But, if it surprised her, a host of neurological and cognitive processes take place that just might generate an instant new belief: “I’m clever.” That’s what surprises do. And this all takes place instantly, usually outside our awareness because it happens so fast.

EB: You write about the evolutionary purpose of beliefs and your work involves neurological and cognitive research.

MR: Here’s the fascinating part. In our evolutionary past, a surprise often meant immense opportunity or imminent danger. Alert! Am I safe? Is this an opportunity? Those who stopped to think didn’t make it to the gene pool. Accordingly, evolution hard wired us to learn instantly during a moment of surprise.

Let’s take a look at the Jane example about being clever. Once the brain signals a surprise, it needs to make sense of the surprise so it doesn’t happen again. First, you need to know a little about dopamine. We usually think of it as our motivator neurotransmitter. High levels mean approach. Low levels mean avoid. But a sudden spike in dopamine is an error signal, our brain’s way of saying stop what you’re doing, pay attention, and learn. Neurologically, a surprise is a two-phase burst of dopamine, what scientists call phasic dopamine. Here’s how it works. Phase one is a sudden spike signaling that something important is going on. It only lasts milliseconds. Phase two produces a long-lasting change in the dopamine concentration, tagged to the cause or outcome. In Jane’s case, it means she shows signs of cleverness.

Here’s the cognitive part. If you see a monkey in your yard, you’d be surprised, and you’d check it out. We can confirm or disconfirm events in the concrete world. With beliefs about our identity, that doesn’t work. Our brains take a markedly different approach. They do an instant Google search in your repertoire of experiences. In Jane’s case her brain searches for and inevitable finds “times I was clever.” Also like any Google search, she will get pages of hits. That confirms her cleverness. And that’s not all. Now that her cleverness is confirmed, she starts to view life through the lens of “I’m clever.” She sees examples of her cleverness everywhere, more affirmation. That’s our friend confirmation bias at work.

Here’s a key aspect. If you asked Jane how she formed her belief about cleverness, she’d likely say she didn’t know. That’s the secret part. Her boss merely noted it. The belief formation happened so fast it bypassed conscious radar. Her instinctive Google search tells her she’s always been clever. Or her search may find an old memory when she won a coloring contest in third grade.

EB: How does surprise affect learning?

MR: Surprise boosts attention and facilitates long-term memory. So, use it as much as you can. Here’s an example I use in my teacher-preparation classes. I ask my students to predict the correlation between self-esteem and school success. Is it positive, as one increases, so does the other, and if so, is it strong, moderate, or weak? I give them a moment to think about it, then right down their answers, then discuss it within their groups. After a minute, I tell them to openly discuss their responses. The vast majority predict a strong positive correlation. They now expect me to begin a lesson on how to raise students’ self-esteem. I tricked them. I tell them that the correlation does not even exist. This surprises them, “What the,” and this surprise drives curiosity, a need to know. Now they listen thoughtfully as I give challenging examples. You know, the bully who loves himself but gets low grades, victims of ridicule that earn great grades but feel horrible about themselves. If I had simply lectured on the topic, it would have the same results as any lecture material. But because I surprised them, they will all remember this lesson and maybe even try to surprise other teachers. The media and entertainment use surprise strategically all the time to keep your attention. Think of news teasers, “And you thought dogs were your best friend—stay tuned. You won’t believe it.”

EB: How did you get interested in surprise and spontaneity?

MR: As a young man I was fascinated with hypnosis, so I gave it a try. I hypnotized everybody I could. People asked, “Can you hypnotize someone without them knowing? What if they never came out of it.” Epiphany! I started to think, are we all just hypnotized, acting out someone else’s inadvertent suggestions. That lead to a three-decade research agenda on formative moments, events that form beliefs we hold about ourselves. When I asked people to tell me about moments that changed a belief, they often told me about events in their lives that surprised them. Aha, I thought. So I started studying surprise as a catalyst of formative moments.

EB: This may seem like an odd question, but is it possible to plan surprise?

MR: If you mean, “Can we use surprise strategically,” yes, we can. Here’s an example from one of my graduate students. Karla taught junior English. Her student Jeremy regularly requested a library pass because he thought he wasn’t smart enough to participate in class. Karla knows he has impressive technical savvy because he helps his father repair computers. During one of his regular requests, she decided to surprise him by saying, “Are you kidding me? You’re one of the smartest kids I know. Anyone who can do what you do with computers is brilliant.” After that, his attendance improved, and he didn’t request library passes anymore. Karla surprised Jeremy by saying the opposite of what he thought about himself. If this comment surprised him, he has to make sense of it. He probably moved from “I’m not smart enough” to “I am smart enough, just not that interested.” And that’s a much more productive mindset.

Caveat: I don’t want to leave the impression just saying anything to someone that is opposite to what they expect will suddenly cause a character transformation. Most comments that challenge our beliefs get dismissed. The delivery of belief-changing comments requires artful and scientific wherewithal. But we can all learn it. For example, praise often sounds phony, and it’s easily dismissed. State something most others miss, like it’s an objective observation. Instead of “Wow! You’re creative.” Something like, “Your ability to think outside the box makes inventive ideas.”

EB: Do we ever surprise ourselves?

MR: That’s a fun question. Yes, we can surprise ourselves, but we can’t do it intentionally. Here’s an example. Someone challenges you to see how many pushups you can do. You haven’t done any in 10 years and think you’ll do 4 or 5 at most. You do 25. What! That surprised you. Here’s what happens instantly at a cognitive level. You instantly form a new belief, “I guess I’m in better shape than I thought.” And your brain does this Google search to understand why and it automatically finds pages of reasons: working on cabinets for the last few months, trimming overhead branches from trees in the yard, and so on. We surprise ourselves all the time.

EB: You’ve recently retired from teaching? How do you spend your time?

MR: I had planned a wonderful retirement, but COVID postponed it. I write, exercise, read, and make time to do interviews and podcasts.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I really enjoyed THE POWER OF SURPRISE.

MR: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s a pleasure to share my passion for making lives richer.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Michael Rousell, author of THE POWER OF SURPRISE

An Interview with Margaret Perrow, author of A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa

Dr. Margaret Perrow is Professor of English and English Education at Southern Oregon University, where she has taught since 2006. She has a BA from Yale University and an MA and PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture in Education from the University of California, Berkeley and is the co-director of the Oregon Writing Project at SOU. Prior to joining Southern Oregon University, she worked at the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools.

As part of its Perspectives on Education in Africa, Routledge has just released her book A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa: Learning in Transition, which draws on two decades of interviews and ethnographic fieldwork with a South African non-governmental organization called the Joint Enrichment Project.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa: Learning in Transition, which reflects your long involvement with education and democracy in south Africa. Can you tell us a little about your history and how this book came about?

Margaret Perrow: This book was nearly 25 years in the making! In 1997, I took an exploratory research trip to South Africa. I had both personal and professional reasons for that trip. My father, who’d passed away in 1982, was South African – but he had never really talked much about his childhood or his young adulthood there. I had relatives in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and I wanted to explore some family history.

On the professional front, I had been teaching in an alternative education (GED) program for young adults in San Francisco. My master’s thesis had investigated their perceptions of learning — what learning meant for them — and I was feeling around for a good related focus for my PhD dissertation. South Africa had recently held its first democratic elections after years of anti-apartheid struggle, and it seemed like an interesting place to do a similar study, looking at what learning might mean in alternative education settings for young adults in a country that was undergoing rapid socio-economic and political transition. Post-apartheid South Africa was also a good bet for finding research funding at the time. Several grants, including a Fulbright dissertation fellowship, made it possible for me to spend 18 months in Johannesburg. A series of fortuitous connections led me to the Joint Enrichment Project (JEP). JEP was a prominent youth-development NGO with strong roots in anti-apartheid resistance. I was privileged to be invited into JEP as a visiting researcher, where I got to know a group of young adults from Soweto, the townships outside Johannesburg.

I returned to California, completed my dissertation in 2000, and then did not follow the advice of my advisors at the time, to “write the book now!” But the friends I had made, both participants and staff at the NGO, tugged at my heart. I returned for several extended visits over the years, and periodically toyed with the idea of writing a book. By the time of my sabbatical from SOU in 2018, I was finally ready! In fact, the intervening years presented a unique opportunity to look back at how the lives of JEP’s participants and staff had changed over two decades. It was exciting and gratifying to reconnect with so many people who’d been young adults in the late ‘90s.

EB: I was intrigued by the idea that one of your interviewees had that they were “old youth”. What did that mean?

MP: Great question! In 1994, Nelson Mandela officially declared June 16 as Youth Day, making it a public holiday commemorating the young people who led and participated in the 1976 anti-apartheid uprising in Soweto. That man who wrote “we are all old youth” to me in a text message, replying to my “Happy Youth Day” message, was in his early 50s. The collective memory of the important role that youth played in the anti-apartheid struggle is still powerful today, 45 years after the Soweto uprising. You might even say that the idea of youth evokes a sort of nostalgia for agency and power that people today – particularly black South Africans, who make up the majority of the population – do not experience in their daily lives.

The people featured in my book were in their 20s when South Africa was emerging from apartheid. They were too young to have been leaders in the 1976 uprising, but as participants at JEP in the late 1990s they experienced a strong sense of purpose and agency. The memory of this feeling stuck with them – that’s one of the things I write about in the chapters on “repositioning” and “negotiating identity,” and also in the chapter titled “A time-being thing.” The NGO offered them the space and the language to gain an exciting feeling that they were in transition personally, in a country that was undergoing rapid transition. As adults today, that feeling remains an emotional touchstone for them, and they look back nostalgically at that period of their youth.

EB: How has South Africa changed since you first went there? You’ve got an interesting vantage point I think.

MP: With the 1994 elections came political freedoms, and also exuberant anticipation that socio-economic changes would be widespread and quick, especially for the majority-black population living in poverty. But change after 1994 was both astonishingly rapid and excruciatingly slow. Today South Africa is a better place in many ways for black Africans, who make up approximately 80% of the population: universal citizenship; legally desegregated education; business and employment opportunities theoretically available to all; an expanded social-grants program for pensioners and parents of dependent children; increased government housing; greater access to water, electricity and sanitation; more paved streets and streetlights in urban townships; a free press; business and government leaders who reflect the country’s racial demographics.

Yet the country is still plagued by an enormous and persistent gap between a well-off minority (which includes a growing percentage of black Africans) and the vast majority who continue to struggle with poverty and unemployment. The historian Colin Bundy has put it well, saying that in South Africa “the past permeates the present,” inhibiting real structural transformation. The JEP participants’ material circumstances have improved slightly over twenty years, but none have achieved the sort of upward mobility they hoped for when they completed the program in 1998.

EB: The subtitle of your book is “Learning in Transition.” How has learning been in transition in urban South Africa?

MP: I tried to make learning a kind of understated central character in the book. For decades under the system known as Bantu Education, education for black people in South Africa had the express purpose of developing a large supply of manual labor to support the capital interests of the minority white population. To greatly oversimplify things, it was this view of learning that young people were protesting in 1976. When high school students took to the Soweto streets in 1976, they were demanding “education for liberation” rather than education that systematically reproduced the racialized inequities of apartheid. Another significant shift in the meaning and purpose of learning took place in the 1990s, when terms like learner-centered education, a culture of teaching and learning, and learnerships became part of the language of education policy. These concepts – and a new curriculum that included “life skills” – suggested that learning could be viewed as a process of personal development. But in actual practice, learning in the schools attended by most black Africans has remained a matter of acquiring skills and information. That is, a view of learning as the development of human capital in service of the economy.

EB: The JEP or Joint Enrichment Project you worked with helped to construct identity for the Sowetan youth involved. Can you tell us a little about that identity construction?

MP: Yes, that is another shift in the meaning of learning that I tried to highlight: learning as a process of identity-construction. JEP modeled this in its youth-development programs, which emphasized what they called “personal development.” When education’s primary purpose is the producing human capital, development of the whole person is easily neglected. Emerging out of the violence and oppression of the apartheid era, young black South Africans had social and emotional needs that a human-capital view of learning did not address, even if the new curriculum had some content called “life skills.”

Many of the participants came to the Joint Enrichment Project feeling, as I came to see it, “stuck in-between” in their lives. Most were too young to have actively participated in the resistance movement, but too old to have benefited from post-apartheid changes in the education system. Many hadn’t finished formal schooling, and they all were unemployed. They had the feeling that the country was changing around them, and they didn’t want to be left behind. In addition to new skills, the NGO offered them new ways of talking and interacting that led to a personal sense of being “in transition” in a transitioning country. That shift in self-identity was palpable and powerful by the time they completed the program.

EB: In a couple of places you mention discourse paradoxes or discourse shifts. What was the role of language in the politics of education you studied?

MP: Any story about South Africa is at some level a story about language and languages – and which voices are heard or unheard. South Africa officially recognized eleven languages in its new Constitution. Eleven! You can imagine the challenge this creates for public education. Remapping the national discursive terrain, especially in education policy, is not as simple as legislating language protections.

English and Zulu tended to be the lingua francas at JEP. But all the participants were fluent to some degree in multiple languages. Language-meshing was common, with Afrikaans, Sotho, Tswana, and Xhosa woven into conversations.

My view of language in the book draws on critical discourse analysis, a methodology that analyzes how language use both reflects and constructs social realities. Shifts in the Joint Enrichment Project’s focus, purpose, and identity are visible in its shifting discourse over the years—from its formation in 1986 to its closure in 2008. It was fascinating to trace this history, especially as the NGO played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement and subsequent development of youth policy in South Africa.

I think JEP’s biggest challenge as an NGO was to shift from an anti-apartheid agenda to promoting a partnership with the government – a complete pivot in identity! Over time, a discourse of resistance gave way to a discourse of skill-building, which shifted to a focus on personal development, and eventually to a discourse of self-promotion in a free-market economy. What was fascinating to me was how these shifts in the institutional discourse were reflected in the participants’ own talk and interactions.

EB: As you point out, it’s difficult to write about race and privilege. Were there certain disciplines or perspectives that were particularly helpful for you?

MP: As a white, foreign researcher in a predominantly black African context, I worried a lot about committing what philosopher Miranda Fricker has called “epistemic injustice.” I’m acutely aware of the risk of misrepresenting people’s experiences, or interpreting their experiences in ways that would seem unfamiliar to them. At a couple of points, I almost actually gave up the project for this reason. But ultimately, I’ve come to believe that there is value in sharing my particular viewpoint, informed as it is by my whiteness, my foreignness, my position of relative privilege. So I’ve found Fricker’s concept of the researcher as “virtuous hearer” to be extremely helpful. It’s helpful to remember that in all our interactions, our relative social identities shape what people tell us, and also how we interpret what they say.There are some particular disciplinary perspectives that I think have helped me put this concept into practice. Providing readers with sufficient context is critical to writing about race, privilege, and oppression. This is why I’m a fan of the extended case-study method popularized by sociologist Michael Burawoy, which allowed me to situate particular events in a broader socio-historical context. As an ethnographic researcher, immersive participant-observation over many years helped me find an empathic stance. So did learning some isiZulu from the JEP participants. And as I mentioned earlier, critical discourse analysis has been a helpful lens for understanding how racialized privilege and oppression are reproduced or challenged through everyday language use.

EB: On a different note, how has the experience of studying youth development in South Africa shaped your understanding of learning in the US, especially in this time of pandemic?

MP: I must say first that it’s been difficult to hear the news from South Africa – they’re currently experiencing a third wave of COVID, with infection rates at an all-time high. Less than 5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Lockdowns are continuing, including school closures. This has been especially hard on people with young children living in townships or rural areas with limited or no Internet access at home. Like here in the US, pre-existing racialized inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Studying youth development through the lens of a South African NGO has strengthened my belief that learning is most powerful when it’s understood not as simply acquiring marketable skills and knowledge, but as a process of identity construction. The students in my classes are human beings first and foremost; how and what they learn is shaped by who they are, and affects who they’re becoming. As teachers, it’s important to remember that learning and identity are inextricably linked. And that the process of learning – our teaching techniques, our use of language, the way we help students connect with each other – affect who our students become as much as the content or skills they are acquiring.

EB: Thanks for talking with us and sharing your insights.

MP: Thank you for the thought-provoking questions!

Book (hardcover and e-book versions) available from Routledge here:

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews, Language | Comments Off on An Interview with Margaret Perrow, author of A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa

An Interview with Nathan Harris, author of The Sweetness of Water

Writer Nathan Harris has a MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon, where he won the Kidd Prize. He was a 2010 graduate of Ashland High School.

His debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, is the story of two brothers, formerly enslaved in Georgia, who form an alliance with a white farmer who believes he has lost his son in the Civil War. Oprah Winfrey selected it as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, calling The Sweetness of Water a “kind of a Juneteenth celebration.” Writer Richard Russo said: “Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.” And The Sweetness of Water is one of the recommendations on Barack Obama’s 2021 Summer Reading List.

Ed Battistella: When I read about your book, I ran right over to Bloomsbury Books and bought a copy. I really loved the book. How did you get the idea to write about this period and these characters?

Nathan Harris: A few years ago, I happened upon the transcriptions of freed slaves speaking with historians, and I was struck by how little I knew about the days that immediately followed the Civil War. If all of you could just Imagine, having spent your entire life in bondage, your every movement controlled by others, and suddenly waking up to the earthshaking revelation that the government has given you a new identity, one of being free – while you’re still occupying the same traumatized body, living with the same tortured history of your past, that has defined your entire existence. And now you must navigate the next chapter of your life with no guidance, no signposts to tell you where you might go next, or what freedom even means in this precarious, and even dangerous, new circumstance. The thought fascinated me, and I realized that no novel that I had read had covered that specific moment in time. My imagination started working then, and the seeds for The Sweetness of Water were planted. I imagined two brothers, just freed, standing before the plantation that had been their home, their workplace, their everything… and suddenly being given the option to roam the world as they pleased. Where would they go? What would they do?

EB: One thing I found myself noticing was how you kept the tension going. I was on the edge of my seat again and again. Is this building the tension something you consciously worked on as you wrote the novel?

NH: I think keeping the reader’s interest is at the core of storytelling. It’s definitely something I strive for, but I also follow the story to its endpoint organically. I’m not going to orchestrate some huge twist just to keep the reader intrigued… but at the end of the day, if someone is willing to pick up my book, it’s my job to keep them entertained to some degree.

EB: How did the characters evolve as you wrote it? I loved the ensemble of characters you created and the way that each grew and stood out at different times. Did you have that in mind from the start or did some of the characters take over?

NH: Like the storyline, the necessity of each character became clear over time. George and the brothers were always there. But then I thought, why is George grieving? What brings him to the woods that night? And so Isabelle and Caleb become more clear to me, then. Each chapter that follows simply tags along to the consciousness of the person who best represents that moment in the story. It’s almost magical to find out where the story will go, following its twists and turns naturally, and finding the proper tools to burrow into the respective characters’ mind that I must in order to progress things.

EB: What was the historical research like for The Sweetness of Water? It must have been extensive.

NH: Extensive to me! Perhaps less so for a historian. Whenever I needed to educate myself on some matter, I certainly researched it, and that work can take up a whole writing session… learning just enough to finish a paragraph at times. But it’s part of the job.

EB: Who are some of the writers whose work inspired you?

NH: I could go on for days. Edward P. Jones, James McBride, Toni Morrison, Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson, J. M. Coetzee, to name a few.

EB: Any thoughts on what the novel has to say about living in today’s world?

NH: We live in a country in flux. Somehow, still, we are going through a lot of the trials that these characters are going through in the novel. That’s a sobering thought, but we should also consider that our country survived that crisis. It can do so again. If only we empathize with one another. Try to overcome our differences. It’s possible.

EB: What are your plans for the future, writing-wise and career-wise?

NH: I imagine I’ll keep writing. I have little else to occupy my time. What I will write . . . now that’s the question.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope you get back to Ashland sometime.

NH: Ashland is home, and I’m always planning my next return. I only hope I can meet with some readers while I’m there.

Posted in Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Nathan Harris, author of The Sweetness of Water

An Interview with Margalit Fox, author of The Confidence Men

photo credit: Ivan Farkas

Margalit Fox is the author of three previous books: Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007); The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013), which received the William Saroyan Prize for International Writing; and Conan Doyle  for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer (Random House, 2018).

Ms. Fox enjoyed a 24-year-career at the New York Times, as an editor at the Sunday Book Review and a senior writer in the Obituary News department. She received the Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York in 2011 for feature writing, and in 2015 for beat reporting. She is one of four authors whose work is prominently featured in Steven Pinker’s 2014 best seller, The Sense of Style; in 2016, the Poynter Institute named her one of the six best writers in the Times’s history. With her Times colleagues, she stars in Obit, Vanessa Gould’s acclaimed documentary of 2017.

Her recently released nonfiction thriller, The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, published by Random House, tells the true story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill, two British POWs who orchestrated an elaborate con game, centering on a handmade Ouija board, that let them flee a Turkish prison camp during World War I. Publishers Weekly called The Confidence Men a “marvelous history” and the Washington Post said it was “enthralling.” (@margalitfox; #FoxConfidenceMen)

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed The Confidence Men, both for the story itself, with its wonderful writing, and for its insights about the history of cons and mentalism. How did you discover the story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill?

Margalit Fox: Thank you, Ed! This book, my fourth, is especially dear to my heart because of the eye-popping nature of its true story—the tale of a prison break so bizarre it should never have worked. What delighted me every bit as much as the story itself was the way in which I encountered it: thumbing through a dusty, long-out-of-print book, looking for something else entirely.

About three years ago, when my previous book, Conan Doyle for the Defense, was in production, I began casting about for what to write next. I was vaguely thinking of doing something about the nature of identity as seen through the exploits of pathological impostors—people like Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me if You Can fame, or Ferdinand Demara, the subject of Robert Crichton’s 1959 biography, The Great Imposter, and the Hollywood adaptation, starring Tony Curtis, released the next year.

From my home library, I took down one of my favorite volumes: Grand Deception: The World’s Most Spectacular and Successful Hoaxes, Impostures, Ruses and Frauds, a 1955 anthology edited by Alexander Klein. I knew it contained at least one piece on imposture, but what caught my eye was an essay with the most tantalizing title I’ve ever seen on a work of nonfiction: “The Invisible Accomplice.” That essay, written by my protagonist, the Welsh artilleryman Elias Henry Jones, and originally published in the 1930s, recounted his escapade in brief. It led me back to The Road to En-dor, Jones’s book-length memoir of 1919.

I’ve always been a huge fan of POW-escape narratives, both on the screen and the printed page—hardy perennials like The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse and Stalag 17. But Jones’s caper—rife with cunning, danger and moments of high farce that rival anything in Catch-22—was like nothing I’d seen before: It entailed no tunnelling, no weapons and no violence, all the stuff of traditional prison-camp breakouts.

Instead, Jones and his confederate, the Australian flier Cedric Hill, set in motion an ingeniously planned, daringly executed con game, worked bit by bit on their Ottoman captors—an elaborate piece of participatory theater entailing fake séances, magical illusions, secret codes and a hunt for buried treasure, with clues that appeared to have been planted by ghosts. If all went according to plan, the camp’s iron-fisted commandant would gleefully escort Jones and Hill along their escape route, with the Ottoman government paying their travel expenses. If their ruse was discovered, it would mean a bullet in the back for each of them.

Forget pathological imposters—here was my story! And to my wild delight, some quick research confirmed that with the exception of Hill’s own memoir, The Spook and the Commandant, published posthumously in 1975, there had been no book on the caper in the intervening hundred years. So in telling Jones and Hill’s story, I had not only the pleasure of levering it out of the crevice in history into which it had slipped, but also the privilege of a century’s hindsight, with its attendant advances in psychology. Those advances—in particular a spate of fascinating studies of magic, deception, confidence schemes and the implanting of false beliefs—let me answer the question that had beckoned since I first encountered Jones’s work: How could his escape plan, preposterous in all respects, actually have succeeded?

So began my enraptured involvement with Jones and Hill’s caper, one of the only known instances of a con game being used for good instead of ill. (On reading my proposal for The Confidence Men, my longtime literary agent, an elegant, erudite woman in her 70s, burst out: “Is this for real? These guys are wild!” I was happy to tell her that yes it is, and yes they are.)

EB: The Confidence Men was set roughly in the same time period as your book Conan Doyle for the Defense. Have you got a particular interest in British history of the early twentieth century or just in great mysteries of the past?

MF: I hadn’t planned to return to that period, so I can honestly say that the synchronicity is pure coincidence. But on second thought, one of the things that makes the early 20th century so fascinating (and a fount of wonderful real-life stories) is that it was very much a liminal time in social and intellectual history. On the one hand, you had the continued, hurtling onslaught of modern science, a development that had been a hallmark of the Victorian Age. On the other, you had the persistence—or, more accurately, the renewal, brought about by the Great War—of mass interest in spiritualism.

What seems counterintuitive to us, looking back from our 21st-century prospect, is that some of the most influential figures in both movements were one and the same. The distinguished English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, for instance, wrote a deeply influential book, Raymond (1916), about his efforts—successful, he believed—to contact the spirit of his son, who had been killed in Flanders. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a trained physician and the creator of the single most rationalist character in world letters, was also an ardent spiritualist.

Though the spiritualist beliefs of men like these look risible today, it’s crucial to remember that the mass-communications technologies of the period—radio, the telephone, the phonograph—had advanced to the point where they were beyond the ken of most laymen: To the general public, they seemed to be quasi-magical devices that let voices travel through the ether as if by magic, and bygone men and women speak, via wax cylinders, as if from beyond the grave. So among men of science of the period, an authentic empirical question was this: Given technology’s power to do all these miraculous things, why shouldn’t communication across the ultimate divide—between the world of the living and the world of the dead—be possible, too? I now realize that Conan Doyle and his cohort are the connective tissue that links my previous book to this one.

In addition, what unites all my books, from Talking Hands (about a team of linguists decoding a sign language newly emerged in a Deaf Bedouin community) through The Riddle of Labyrinth (the story of the race to decipher the mysterious Bronze Age script known as Linear B) to Conan Doyle for the Defense (about Sir Arthur’s real-life investigation of a wrongful murder conviction) is that they’re all heuristic: They all center on the step-by-step process of advancing from an agnostic state to one of knowing. All involve intellectual treasure hunts of one sort or another—and in the case of The Confidence Men, an actual, cunningly designed treasure hunt, engineered to spring our heroes from an isolated prison camp high in the mountains of Anatolia.

map credit: Jonathan Corum

EB: What was the most difficult aspect of this project? I was amazed at the level of historical detail.

MF: How lovely, thanks! I don’t want to say that this book practically wrote itself, because (a) no book is easy, and (b) that would be the most hubristic tempting of the Fates I could imagine. However … one of the most remarkable things about this story is that it cleaved naturally into the classic three-act structure: the men’s imprisonment, their longing for escape, and their building of the Ouija board in Act I; the conception and playing of the con game in Act II (culminating at the end of the act in a disaster that capsizes their entire plan on the eve of their escape); and the dark turn the story takes in Act III, with our heroes attempting to salvage their plan by having themselves committed to a Turkish insane asylum, before the triumphant resolution.

I literally had to do no restructuring of the story whatsoever to create the basic armature of the book—something that almost never happens when one writes narrative nonfiction. I also spent about a year, as I do for all my books, reading background literature on a host of subjects, including the relevant work in psychology and social history; the history of the war’s Ottoman theater—far less well known to Americans than the Western Front—along with memoirs by other POWs in that theater. But even so, I found I was able to interleave the material from these works in and out of the very sturdy structure that Jones and Hill’s story had given me.

So in the end, perhaps because I’ve been researching and writing books for some 20 years now, I found that The Confidence Men leapt onto the page with a kind of unitary ease that I hadn’t experienced before. And now that the book is out, it’s become apparent that its three-act structure is readily discernible by others: I’ve been spending a very happy summer in conference calls with a string of Hollywood producers who want to option it—a fascinating kind of occupational anthropology for an old-school print gal like me.

EB: In some ways, this story of pseudoscience, cons, and spiritualism is a cautionary tale as well as a thrilling escape story. Is there a lesson here for people today?

MF: Indeed, Jones intended The Road to En-dor to be a cautionary tale about how remarkably easy it is to become a spiritualist charlatan, a species of war profiteer that flourished between 1914 and 1918 to wring dividends from gold-star families. (Jones took his title from “En-Dor,” Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem of 1919. In it, Kipling, who had lost a son in World War I, decries such mountebanks: “The road to En-dor is easy to tread/For Mother or yearning Wife./There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead/As they were even in life. …” Kipling’s title invokes the biblical Witch of Endor, from the First Book of Samuel, whom Saul asks to conjure Samuel’s spirit.)

Though I hadn’t set out to relate Jones’s story to our own time, it turned out to be remarkably relevant. As I’ve written in The Confidence Men and elsewhere, the process by which a master manipulator instills and sustains belief (a subtle psychological art known as “coercive persuasion”) impeccably explains the wide popular delusions that have suffused our post-2016 landscape—from the contention that top Democrats are running a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor to the belief that Covid vaccinations scramble the recipient’s DNA. As Michael Dirda of The Washington Post wrote in his thoughtful review of The Confidence Men: “We are all vulnerable to psychological manipulation. More than ever, with no sure footing in our rabidly media-dominated world, the only sensible course left us is to tread very, very carefully.”

EB: As a writer, what do you keep foremost when you are drafting and revising? I think in some ways being a writer is like being a magician, where you have to attend to your task and to the audience.

MF: I’ve always loved best the two endpoints that bracket the actual writing of a book. The first comes after I’ve spent that initial year reading the literature. At the end of that time, I’ll have anywhere from five hundred to a thousand typed pages of notes. I then go through them, page by page, on a very large table (I usually hole up in the library at Columbia University, to which I have blessed access as an alumna of their journalism school), coding every paragraph thematically and marking the quotes and anecdotes I want to use. This process can take days—even weeks—but at the end of it, there is the great pleasure of getting to see what Henry James called the figure in the carpet. That gives me the first strong sense of what the structure and content of the book will be.

Fast-forward a year or so, to when the entire first draft has been written. The thing I love most of all in the entire process is the buffing and polishing one does at this stage—wielding finer and finer grits of sandpaper until the text shines like a mirror.

EB: You made your journalistic bones, so to speak, in obituaries, which is a fairly concise form of storytelling. Do you see some parallels between writing engaging obituaries and thrilling long form histories?

MF: Since I was trained in the Chomskyan tradition of linguistic innatism, I can say that I truly believe all writers come into the world hard-wired for either long-form or short-form work. I happen to be a long-form writer in my bones, and never in my wildest professional dreams did I imagine that I’d spend three decades on daily newspapers. But I can assure all would-be book writers that that life turns out to be sublime training for long-form writing … because a properly written newspaper article is simply a book in microcosm: A story of a thousand words, say, has only to be gridded up a hundred times until you find you’re holding a book in your hands.

The reason for this is fascinating, and it harks back to the early days of modern American journalism. The structure of the contemporary news story was established during the Civil War, thanks to the prevalence of one of those quasi-miraculous communications technologies: the telegraph. For the first time, war correspondents did their reporting in the field and then cabled their stories back to their editors in Boston or Baltimore or New York or wherever. But as with many new technologies, this one was buggy, and the lines often went down. As a result, reporters learned to triage their dispatches, sending the broadest-based, most essential information first, so that if the lines did go down, at least their editors would have basic information to put in the next day’s paper. If the lines came back up again later, the reporters would send finer and finer-grained information in succeeding dispatches—material that it would be nice for readers to have, but that wasn’t essential. And … voila! Thus emerged the classic “inverted-pyramid” structure of the modern news story—broad information at the top, progressively finer stuff at the bottom—which remains the standard today.

This structure has endured unchanged for a century and a half because it’s cognitively perfect: It is an information-processing model, pure and simple. Anyone who’s ever been a teacher knows this: You don’t start the semester (or an individual lesson) with the background detail. You start with the broad stuff, and work your way down over time. Nonfiction books turn out to rely on this model just as heavily: They’re identical in structure to news stories because to be accessible to the reader, they have to be—the only truly significant difference is one of bulk.

A last historical note: It’s absolutely fascinating to go back in the historical clips and see the inverted-pyramid form taking shape. If you look at the coverage of Lincoln’s assassination, for instance, you can see immediately that the form was still in transition in 1865: Some newspapers were already using the inverted pyramid, while others continued the former tradition of straight-ahead, leaden chronology. In those papers, you’ll get stories—shocking to read today—that start, in effect [my paraphrase]: “The president, Mrs. Lincoln and a party of distinguished friends sallied out last night to Ford’s Theater to see that entertaining play, Our American Cousin.” There follow several more paragraphs of blah-blah-blah-ing about the play, the theater party and the cast. Only then, in about Paragraph 4 or 5, does the reporter get around to “a shot rang out.” Talk about burying your lede—the cardinal sin of newswriting today!

EB: Along with your work at the Times, your background included training as a cellist and as a linguist. How do those experiences make themselves felt in your writing?

MF: I always tell young journalists that a life in music is the single best preparation for being I writer that I can conceive of: It gives you an acute sense of tone and color and cadence and pacing—all essential arrows in the writer’s quiver. The number of serious musicians one finds in big-city newsrooms is striking: At the Times, we have a delightful chamber-music group, in which I still play, called the Qwerty Ensemble. Our rehearsals have been in abeyance as a result of Covid, of course, but we’re all eager to resume playing together.

And needless to say, my linguistics training—I did bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field at SUNY-Stony Brook—helps me as a writer every hour of every day. When I was studying linguistics (long before I had any thoughts of a writing career) I was especially drawn to the subfields of poetics and stylistics—the analysis of what’s happening metrically, syntactically, semantically, phonetically, et al., that makes literary language resonate in the particular ways it does. Even now, nearly 40 years after that education, the conscious awareness of those factors aids me immeasurably in writing, particularly in the 10,000-grit sanding process described above.

EB: Did you ever have aspirations to be a mentalist or con artist? Or do you now?

MF: Good Lord, no! (Unless you’re willing to bake me a cake with a file in it.)

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope you find many more untold stories.

MF: It’s been my pleasure, Ed. But I’m now fascinated by the wonderful paradox contained in your last sentence. Any story that I’m lucky enough to come across in the literature, as I did with The Confidence Men, is by definition a “told” story. If it were truly “untold,” then I’d have no way of finding it to lever it out of that historical crevice.

This actually brings us back to pathological imposters. One reason (besides stumbling upon Jones’s story) that I ultimately decided not to write about them is that we can only ever know about the ones who slip up: the men and women who get caught in the act and have books and articles written about them. The most brilliantly successful imposters remain, by definition, indetectable.

So through the twin paradoxes of the “told story” and the “known imposter” we’ve come full circle!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Margalit Fox, author of The Confidence Men

An Interview with Nicole Walker, author of Processed Meat

NICOLE WALKER’s books include After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and Sustainability: A Love Story and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and The Normal School and has appeared in multiple editions of Best American Essays.

Walker grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and earned a BA from Reed College and both an MFA and a PhD from the University of Utah. Today she is a professor at Northern Arizona University in where she directs the MFA and a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts

Her most recent book is Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, available from Torrey House Press.

You can find Nicole Walker’s website here.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed the essays in Processed Meats. Can you tell us a little about the title of the collection?

Nicole Walker: The book went through many title drafts: Salmon of the Apocalypses and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse were among the two, but the apocalypse theme seemed to hit a little too close to home once the pandemic started. A pandemic isn’t quite an apocalypse, but making light of apocalypse when so many people were suffering felt offkey. The phrase “processed meats” covers so many aspects of the book—the way that so much food is processed and served in the U.S., the way raising children in a culture with so much conflicting advice feels like we process our kids as much as help them grow, the way so much of that advice is afflicted upon women for how to eat and cook and live. But there’s also the philosophical angle to the book that suggests we process our traumas and disasters by working through them, by being patient. That work and patience is akin to cooking—the small measures we take to get through the day are the energies that help of process those harder times.

EB: Processed Meats is very much a pandemic book. How did the pandemic affect you as a writer?

NW: I know a lot of people had a hard time writing during the pandemic, but, just like cooking, writing helps me process hard things. I wrote a lot. This spring, while teaching, I assigned myself 1000 words a day for a novel I’m working on. There’s something about being trapped at home that is very helpful to getting work done. I think of Salinger and how he was such a recluse. Of course, as far as we know, he didn’t write much in his most reclusive years. A writer needs some balance between real life and brain or it’s all just brain food and that’s only good for zombies. As we’ve begun to poke our heads back into the world, I’ve noticed how thirsty I’ve been just to drink in the presence of other humans. Zoom offers a lot of benefits but observing human behavior in its natural environment is not one of them. Everyone is weird on zoom. They’re weird in real life too but in a less self-conscious way.

The book went through a substantial reworking. Although disaster was always a primary theme of the book, immediate disaster wasn’t the central theme. I am grateful I had the chance to recast the book to touch on something we all shared. Individual disasters matter but a collective disaster made an impact on all of us. I weirdly feel honored to have had a chance to talk about that impact.

EB: The subtitle is “Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster” What is the relation between food and disaster—and coping?

NW: You anticipated my earlier answer! I spend a lot of time thinking about valences of words. “Coping” is exactly what we do when we try to navigate disaster. You put one food in front of the other. You chop one more onion. You make meal after meal and clean kitchen after kitchen until at some point, coping isn’t just coping, it’s living. Coping and living are two sides of the same coin. Once you start dancing in the kitchen, you know which you’re doing.

EB: Several of the pieces are about the body in sickness and wellness. Should we be thinking about food and health more? Differently?

NW: Just as with raising kids, there is so much advice on how to do it ‘right.’ Eggs are bad. Then good. Then bad again. I think they’re back to being good for you. But, because we are often far flung from our families and traditions, we have to rethink everything we do and everything we eat. It can be exhausting. But it can be good too. There’s something to be said for considering every choice and thinking through is this healthy for my body, for the planet, for my kids. Raising kids and feeding them are nearly synonymous, at least in the early years. They say that choosing what to eat is the only choice little kids get. I try to read as much as I can about nutrition and agricultural effects on the environment. Then, I like to give my kids as many options as possible within that research. More is better with both research and choice and I believe in people’s right to choose with enough research. So, I guess this is a very complicated answer to your question but Processed Meats provides some of the science behind our eating and agricultural habits. It doesn’t aim to be didactic. It says, now that you know the consequences of what you’re choosing to eat (and do and drive), choose well.

EB: You talk about some your past food experiences. What food lore do you want to pass on?

NW: Most of my food lore is about growing food more than cooking it. My mom always told me to plant peas in February. Usually, I forget. Who thinks about gardening in February? But I remembered this year and now, after snow, wind, deep freeze, the peas are going strong. My mom also said to pinch off early flowers from tomatoes so the energy can go into the plant. And then, when you have a lot of tomatoes, pinch off some of the flowers still so the energy can go into ripening the fruit you already have.

Also: use a lot of butter. My daughter cooks eggs in a pan without using any fats at all. I have to scrub that pan. Also, butter is delicious.

EB: For you, what is the best thing about food?

NW: The idea of abundance. I love going to the CSA (community supported agriculture), picking up my vegetables, laying them out on the table, cutting the tops off the beets, putting the greens in the fridge, roasting the roots. I love it when there are seven fresh carrots laid upon the table. I also love that, when I turn around, five of them are gone because my kids love fresh carrots. They like old carrots too but fresh carrots go quickly around here.

EB: What’s the worst thing?

NW: While there is sometimes an abundance of delicious vegetables, there’s often a scarcity of ideas of what to cook. I hate running out of ideas of what to make for dinner. As the end of the book articulates, chicken, chicken, chicken becomes the go-to and stand-by and the distinctly uninspired. We eat a lot of chicken and carrots. Sometimes, I run low on ideas for what to make because my kids don’t always love the same thing as the other. Sometimes, I’m just busy and what? There’s more chicken? Whoohoo. I hate the thought of going to the store too for one ingredient that a fancy new recipe has. But, after reading Tod Davies’ Jam Today and talking with her about Processed Meats, I remembered that shooting for culinary perfection is its own flaw. So, when I made asparagus soup but had not the sorrel the recipe called for, I used dandelion leaves, which I had in abundance reminding me that looking for what is abundant around you instead of searching out that which is scarce is the key to happiness.

EB: Can you tell us about some of the other projects you are working on?

NW: One of the things I mentioned above was some of the difficulties of families being far flung. I’m working on a book about how home shapes the kind of climate change future we see and how we cope with the effects of climate change and how loss of homes uproots us from that connection to land. Some of the essays have titles like “How to Be Happy When Your Favorite Tree Is Dying” and “Effluent: What Can We Do with All this Human Waste.” I try to be realistic about climate change and things like “going home.” That realism sometimes leads to hard reflection. It also sometimes leads to absurd realizations. I like the idea that even when confronted with hard things, we can cope with them with humor, as well as with delicious foods.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NW: Thank you so much, Ed! I loved these questions and had fun answering them. I’m so grateful to you for reading and talking about Processed Meats!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Nicole Walker, author of Processed Meat

An Interview with Nicholas Buccola , author of The Fire is Upon Us

Nicholas Buccola is a writer specializing in American political thought. His book, The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America (Princeton University, 2019) was the winner of the 2020 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction.

Buccola has MA and PhD degrees from the University of Southern California and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Oregonian, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, Dissent and Reason.

He is also the author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York University Press, 2012) and the editor of The Essential Douglass: Writings and Speeches (Hackett, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2016).

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on the Oregon Book Award and all the other accolades The Fire is Upon Us is receiving. I really enjoyed the book. What motivated you to dig into the lives of the lives of Baldwin and Buckley so deeply?

Nicholas Buccola: Thank you so much, Ed. I was really honored to see The Fire Is Upon Us (Fire) honored along so many great books (including yours). Many years ago, I watched the BBC recording of the 1965 Cambridge debate between Baldwin and Buckley and I became transfixed. It was such a dramatic and important moment. At the high tide of the civil rights movement and on an international stage, you have “the poet of the civil rights revolution” (as Malcolm X described Baldwin) and “the Saint Paul of the conservative movement” (as one of Buckley’s biographers described him) debating race and the American dream. The debate itself struck me as historically and politically compelling and as I dug into the archives, I soon realized that I had a much longer story to tell. Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries – born in the same city, in fact – and the “backstory” of their life experiences and intellectual biographies proved to be the heart of the book. By weaving their stories together, I hope the book reveals things that might be missed otherwise.

EB: A striking moment for me was the debate that involves Baldwin and Malcolm X and the emphasis on identity as living free of myth and ideology. Would you say that is central to Baldwin’s message?

NB: Yes, I see that as one of Baldwin’s key insights. Time after time, Baldwin explained that what concerned him most were “grave questions of self” or “questions of identity” and how those questions were related to the human quest for freedom and fulfillment. Baldwin’s basic idea was that human beings construct their identities in ways that they think will make them feel safe. One of the primary ways we tend to do this, Baldwin argued, is by relying on the idea of status; by trying to figure out ways to feel superior to others. Ideologies of exclusion and inhuman ways we treat one another – large and small – have their roots in this desire for safety. As Baldwin often said, the roots of racism are within the racist, not within the object of his hatred. The same is true of homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and so on. Baldwin did not think any of us would wake up one fine day and fully liberate ourselves from the myths and ideologies by which we live. But he did call on all of us to engage in the sort of ruthless introspection each day that might allow us to treat ourselves and each other with greater dignity than we might otherwise.

EB: Reading some of the arguments that Buckley and others made about stability, protest, Western culture, and limiting voting, it’s hard not to see their echoes today. Is Buckley really the key figure in American conservative movement?

NB: Many readers have been struck by the parallels between the ideas Buckley developed and popularized and the contemporary American Right. I try to be careful about overstating Buckley’s importance and making overly bold causal claims about the connections between his ideas and actions and the political world we see. With that caveat, I do argue in the book that Buckley played an outsized role in American political culture. He edited the country’s most important conservative magazine (National Review), he had a syndicated newspaper column published thrice weekly in over one hundred newspapers, he was on the road speaking forty weeks of the year, he was a constant presence on radio and television, he had the ear of many leading conservative politicians, and he played a key role as a kind of “gatekeeper” and organizer in the conservative movement. From this position of considerable influence, Buckley had a great deal of influence. In the book, I provide a deep dive into his racial politics and surrounding issues and many readers have found plenty of reason to credit (or blame) Buckley for some of what we see on the contemporary American Right.

EB: I enjoyed the way you brought out the parallels between Buckley and Baldwin and the use of the alternating narratives. Was it difficult to keep the two in balance?

NB: Yes and no. I feel incredibly fortunate in the sense that the material really told me how to tell the story. The fact that Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries made the “parallel lives” approach look rather well. And I was also fortunate that both men were compelling characters who led lives that were not only interesting, but also lives at the center of their respective movements. They were both so prolific as public and private writers so I felt like I could glimpse into their minds almost every day as they were living through and shaping this history. On the question of “balance,” there were moments when that was challenging. If, for example, one character had an especially interesting year while the other did not, I had to come up with ways of altering my “weave” technique to tell the story in the most compelling way. Sometimes that meant I would stick with one character a bit longer before switching back to the other a bit later in the timeline. I never had a real formula in mind. I did not, for example, track how many pages I was writing about Baldwin and then try to give Buckley “equal time.” I let the material guide me. In the end, I feel good about where we ended up. It’s a weighty book and earlier drafts were even weightier. I am grateful to my editor, Rob Tempio, and peer reviewers for helping me find places to trim.

EB: I hope you’ve had an opportunity to teach some of the material from the book, and I wonder what the reaction of today’s student is to the issues of the 1960s?

NB: I have had the opportunity to teach some of this material. I was able to teach a seminar on Baldwin and Frederick Douglass and it was the most extraordinary teaching experience of my life. Although the class was about two figures I have studied for a long time, it was probably the course in which I did the least amount of talking. The students were so engaged with these wonderful writers, so I got to sit back and listened to their brilliance for a few hours a week. What a joy. Baldwin’s words strike the students as so prophetic and urgent. I am now teaching him in my Introduction to Political Theory class (“Great Political Thinkers”) because I think he belongs right there alongside Plato and the other major thinkers. I think today’s students are fascinated by the politics and culture of the 1960s. Especially in the last year or so, they sense that they are living in a world in which the political culture is undergoing some major shifts. They see there is much to learn from other moments in which the ground was shifting beneath the feet of the culture.

EB: If Baldwin and Buckley were magically transported to the present, what do you suppose they would say?

NB: Oh wow. There’s a thought! They were both remarkably consistent as thinkers so I do not imagine their political philosophies would have changed very much as a result of the things that have happened since each man died (Baldwin in 1987 and Buckley in 2008). While I think Baldwin had the same moral lodestar throughout his life – the idea that we ought to pursue the conditions under which each human being can be free and find fulfillment – I think time did radicalize his thinking on how this might be achieved. Baldwin was always suspicious of ideologies and oversimplification so I resist the idea that he would fit neatly into one of our political boxes. But I do think he would call on us to think through the radical implications of the moral idea that each human being has the right to live in a world in which their dignity is respected and protected. That world is not this world and we have a long way to go. On the other side of the story, it would have been fascinating to see how Buckley would have navigated the Trump era. On the one hand, he did not like Trump personally and I think he would have been critical of Trump’s disdain for norms, institutions, and the rule of law. On the other hand, I think it is clear that he would have liked a great deal about Trump’s politics. Buckley was no stranger to the politics of racial resentment that was so key to Trump’s rise and he was, in fact, one of its architects and promoters. And he probably would have also been tempted – as so many conservatives were – to put up with Trump because he appreciated some of the outcomes he delivered (e.g., tax cuts, conservative judges, etc.) If you figure out how to magically transport them back, please let me know. I have some questions. Drinks are on me.

EB: How did writing the book change you as a writer and scholar? What’s next for you?

NB: This book has been a transformative experience for me in so many ways. Everything I had written before this was really for an academic audience of fellow “experts” or “insiders.” When I started doing the research for the book, I knew I could write another book like that, but I also knew I shouldn’t write another book like that. It was tempting to stick with what I knew how to do, but the material was pushing me in this other direction. What I had in front of me was a compelling story that was historically important and politically urgent. My job was to tell this story. This meant abandoning most of the forms and techniques of my training as a political theorist. But once I got in the groove, I never looked back and I don’t know if I ever will. I am still doing political theory (or political philosophy), which is, at its core, about asking big questions about how we ought to live together. I am going to keep doing that, but my primary method will be to address those big questions by way of (hopefully) compelling narratives.

Nowadays, I am at work on another book that looks at the same era I examined in Fire but from a different angle. As I worked on this book, I was struck time and again by the use of “freedom” or “liberty” by both the civil rights revolutionaries and the conservative counterrevolutionaries. These groups were both operating under banners of freedom, but they were viewing each other with suspicion and often downright hostility. I am using the “weave” technique once again to figure out what we can learn about the meaning of freedom – a concept we are still arguing about – by thinking about these two movements together. Who knows, this may be the second book in a trilogy about this era. We’ll see. The good news is I’ve never loved writing more than I do now and I think these stories are urgent for our politics.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NB: Thanks so much for the opportunity. These are great questions and I look forward to visiting Ashland to talk about the book!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Nicholas Buccola , author of The Fire is Upon Us

An Interview with Ellie Anderson of the Ashland Public Library

Ellie Anderson is Head of Adult Services at Ashland Branch of Jackson County Library Services, which she joined in 2020. She has a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University and a BA in theatre from Oberlin College, and she has worked in libraries in Monterey and San Mateo County in California, and in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ed Battistella: Welcome, Ellie. I suspect I’m not alone in saying that the e-books and audiobooks were two of the things that got me through the COVID lockdown of the last year. Have you noticed a shift in borrowing habits towards those resources?

Ellie Anderson: Thank you, Ed! I’m so glad the library’s electronic offerings have been helpful to you. E-books and e-audiobooks have been popular for some time, but COVID lockdown certainly encouraged new people to take advantage of how easy it is to access books and other materials electronically. Our library patrons love physical books, too, and are happy to be able to browse in the library again, but e-books have expanded options for a lot of people.

EB: What is the Library2Go?

EA: Library2Go is one of the ways library card holders can access our collection of e-books and other electronic resources. It uses the Overdrive platform, which may be familiar to long-time library users, and offers over 35,000 titles to check out on a variety of devices. In addition to Library2Go, library patrons should also take a look at Hoopla, Kanopy and TumbleBooks.

EB: As I explored a bit, I found all sort sorts of things available in the Library2Go.  What’s available in addition to audiobooks and e-books?

EA: We recently added over 3,300 e-magazines in multiple languages to our Library2Go service, accessible through the Overdrive platform. Library card holders can also stream e-books, e-audio, movies, TV shows, and music with the Hoopla App. Kanopy is a source for indie films, classics, and world cinema, as well as The Great Courses and PBS content. All the services I’ve mentioned offer content for children as well as adults, but Tumble Book Library specializes in animated books and read-alongs for grades K-6.

EB: Can folks use the Library 2 Go Resources on any type of device?

EA: Pretty much. Most of these electronic resources can be used on Apple and Android devices, as well as on a laptop or desktop computer. Library2Go e-books and e-audiobooks are compatible with Kindle devices as well. If you are using a smartphone or tablet, you will need to download an app (the Libby App for Library2Go) and do a little bit of setup the first time you access our collection but it is pretty straightforward.

EB: I noticed a new interface. What prompted the switch?

EA: As the services libraries provide grow and change, it makes sense for the ways we interact with our communities to change too. Our new website is designed to highlight those programs and services while making it easy for visitors to find the information or library materials that brought them to our site.

EB: Are the materials available forever or do they eventually go away, just as books wear out?

EA: That depends on the publisher. Some titles are a one-time purchase for the library and others are purchased for a certain time frame or number of uses. Since electronic materials don’t show wear and tear the way a physical book or DVD would, publishers and libraries have had to come up with new ways of doing business together for these formats.

EB: If people need more information or help getting started, what should they do?

EA: Library’s website,, is the best starting point. You can access Library2Go and the other services we’ve talked about here and find self-help guides for your device here. If you still have questions, please feel free to call or stop by the library or contact our Digital Services specialists for a one-on-one appointment. Digital Services can be reached at or by phone at 541 734-3990.

EB: Any personal recommendations? What are you reading?

EA: I’ve just started reading The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, which is a novel based on the real-life Packhorse Librarians who brought books and information to small communities in Rural Kentucky during the Depression. Next on my list is The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, a fantasy story about an orphanage for magical children and the power of chosen family.

EB: Thanks for sharing all this with us.

EA: Anytime. Librarians love to spread the word about our services.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Ellie Anderson of the Ashland Public Library

An Interview with Colby Elliott of Last Word Audio

COLBY ELLIOTT is an award-winning audiobook narrator and the talent behind ​​LAST WORD AUDIO. Originally from central Nebraska, he has a Master’s degree from The University of Denver and taught theatre before becoming a narrator. He was a finalist for a 2017 Audie Award for his narration of Coffee at Luke’s: An Unauthorized Gilmore Girls Gabfest and won an Earphones Award for Bill Fitzhugh’s Fender Benders.

You can follow him at @colbyelliott

Ed Battistella: Tod Davies introduced me to your work on Snotty Saves the Day and I’ve become a fan. I’m looking forward to the whole History of Arcadia series. How did you get into the audiobook business?

Colby Elliott: I fell in love with audiobooks at a young age, listening to cassettes like Tales of Poe narrated by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone on my Sony Walkman while walking to school in North Platte, Nebraska. Spooky stories made for a brisk walking pace.

As far as making audiobooks, I’d been a technical theatre teacher for a number of years and because I’d worked with microphones and digital audio workstations, I just kind of figured out that I could do it. So, I recorded an audiobook in my spare time, sent it to the authors and after they okay’d it, sent it directly to Audible. One became two, which then became nearly 40 now.

EB: I noticed that you do a variety of dialects and accents. In a book with lots of voices, how do you keep from getting lost?

CE: I always try to create a “Character Bible” for each project. Every character entry will have information like musical voice range (Tenor I through Bass II), placement within the mouth and throat, descriptors of different regions and accents or even occasionally actors whom I might keep front-of-mind while performing.

It can get confusing. It’s funny how there always seems to be “that one character” who makes a brief appearance in Chapter 2 and then mysteriously reappears in Chapter 42. At those times the Character Bible is vital!

EB: I notice a lot of popular culture in Last Word’s releases: Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls, Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound, The Psychology of Joss Whedon, and more. Does Last Word Audio have a specialty?

CE: We definitely concentrate on projects that are interesting to the geek lit and nerd lit worlds. Comic books, role-playing games, and pop culture are definitely things that are fun and rewarding to produce.

But looking at Last Word’s longer scope, many books tend to happen in distinct artistic clusters. There was a definite Comic Book Period, a more general Pop Culture Period, and most recently a Table-top Roleplaying Period. And in between are authors and publishers that I love to read and want to support their message. Tod Davies of Exterminating Angel Press and television producer and writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach both spring to mind. They have wonderful messages within their art and it’s a joy to narrate.

EB: How do you choose products for Last Word Audio?

CE: Every book I’ve chosen for Last Word Audio does have a point to it. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as “Bill Fitzhugh writes wonderful characters that I relish playing,” but it can also be as complex as, “I want to tell the history of the tabletop roleplaying industry because playing those games made want to become a narrator.”

I can usually tell if a book is one I want to do. If, while I’m reading, I think, “Why doesn’t everyone know about THIS? They SHOULD!” I know I have an audiobook I want to produce.

I’m also keen to find authors in the places I live and support them, especially if it’s a genre I haven’t yet recorded. Scott Lininger’s Guesswork was my first YA title when I lived in Colorado, My Peculiar Family was my first horror book, and Matt Herring’s Monkey See, Sea Monkey was my first Middle Grades fiction, the latter two done when I lived in New England.

EB: What’s the toughest thing about recording and producing audiobooks? I tried out once and could barely make it through a paragraph without a flub.

CE: It requires an awful lot from the actor for sure. Being “in the moment” for hour-long recording sessions can be grueling…and exciting. When you’re in the middle of a scene and the characters are saying things that bring you to tears or laughter, it’s just amazing.

And as far as flubs go, they are part-and-parcel of the performance. If you aren’t making errors from time to time in the studio, you aren’t committing to the emotional truth of the characters. In the moment, a “the” can become an “a,” which happens a lot, but weirder mistakes can happen, too. A narrator might see one word and say another. Then it’s the actor’s responsibility to “punch back in” to the recording mix and correct the error while also trying to achieve the same tone and energy. It can be a challenge!

EB: What makes a great audiobook? The writing? The narration?

CE: A beautiful alchemy between the two is where the art happens. I’ve listened to very average prose elevated by a wonderful narrator and I’ve heard wonderful writing absolutely throttled by a bad performance. For me, a great audiobook is one where I make discoveries at every level of the project’s narration. I’m initially inspired by the pre-reading, the performance itself reveals the characters inner lives, and finally, in the editing I discover ways to mold the performance, giving each scene poignancy.

EB: You’ve got sample of audiobooks on your website. What should folks try first?

CE: I always recommend Bill Fitzhugh’s Fender Benders for its characters and story. It’s a cool whodunit with moments made memorable by musical elements.

For those who love fantasy I think Snotty Saves the Day is an absolutely perfect place to start in the way it melds folktales, legends, and myth. A fortunate consequence of producing things in “periods” is that once a listener finds a title they like, there are usually a few others ready to be put in their listening queue.

EB: When I lived in Nebraska, I fell in love with Darren McGavin’s reading of the Travis McGee books. Who are some of your favorite narrators?

CE: Some of the classic British narrators really resonate with me. Patrick Tull who narrated the Aubrey/ Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, Frederick Davidson/David Case (the same narrator and pseudonym) narrating the Harry Flashman series. More recently, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith reading the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich are among my favorite listens and relistens. I love American narrators Susan Bennett, Barbara Rosenblatt and Tavia Gilbert on the female side, and Bronson Pinchot and the late, great Bill Dufris are always a joy for male voices.

Honestly, so many of my colleagues have narrative techniques that I love and want to emulate. I like Dion Graham’s silky smoothness and Julia Whelan’s deftness with romantic scenes, especially when reading her own work (not easy).

EB: I notice that LAST WORD AUDIO’s logo is a gorilla wearing earphones. Can you clue us in on that?

CE: When I first started Last Word Audio, I was concentrating on finding back-list titles, a bit like a literary archeologist, and I thought my audiobook recordings would be “The Last Word” on any book.

The gorilla in the headphones came about when I was talking to an artist-friend about logos, we wanted it to be formidable…but vaguely cuddly and cartoonish. Big and imposing but…relaxed.

It’s the 800-pound gorilla who is, in reality, a laidback dude who hangs out in the mists on the mountainside reading his books.

And I’m told if one squints a bit…it looks a little like me.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

CE: My pleasure and thank you for listening!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Colby Elliott of Last Word Audio

An Interview with Tod Davies: Talking about Talking Books

TOD DAVIES is the author of The History of Arcadia series: Snotty Saves the DayLily the SilentThe Lizard Princess and now Report to Megalopolis: or The Post-modern Prometheus, which Kirkus Reviews called “A philosophical fable.”

Tod is also the author two cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered.

Along with that, she’s the editorial director of Exterminating Angel Press and EAP: The Magazine. Tod lives with her husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, and their two dogs in Colestin, Oregon.

Ed Battistella: You have recently released the audiobook version of Snotty Saves the Day produced by Last Word Audio and read by Colby Elliott. What motivated you to release Snotty as an audiobook?

Tod Davies: I’ve been wanting to get more into audiobooks in a big way, since I think they are one of the fastest growing platforms for books. But I especially wanted to do The History of Arcadia series that way—it’s particularly good content for an aural experience, since it’s a bunch of different voices chiming in on how the world can change, and why. The series was conceived as a unified theme told by many different types of literary voice, including the early spoken story of fairy tales, legends, and myths. I knew it would be fascinating to hear, as well as see it on the page.

EB: Do you think more people are listening to audio books, these days? I know I am.

TD: Oh, absolutely. Anecdotally, some of my closest friends are addicted to them. For many good reasons: long commute drives, need to relax while doing other chores, less strain on eyes that have spent all day on the computer, etc. That screen time is an increasing drag. And the fact that the younger generation likes to travel light means they don’t want to pack up books for the next move. Audiobooks fit in perfectly with that ‘don’t want to own a lot of stuff’ ethos.

EB: This is the second EAP book you’ve released as an audiobook. Are you planning to do the whole History of Arcadia series? How about the Jam Today books?

TD: To have the entire The History of Arcadia series as a Last Word Audio production is an author’s dream come true. I think Colby Elliott is a dream narrator (and these books should be read, or heard, as a long dream). But the next two in the series are narrated by women, and I’m not sure Colby wants to take that on. It would be great if Last Word found a great woman narrator for those two.

EB: What makes a good audiobook in your opinion?

TD: A really engaging narrator is the main thing. One of my dearest friends is an avid audiobookphile, and she says she’ll listen to content she wouldn’t usually go for if the narrator is one she loves. She likens it to restaurants: “If the food is great but the service is terrible, you won’t go back. But if the food is only good and the service is wonderful, you WILL go back.” Of course you need good content, since if the food is great and the service is wonderful, it’s a perfect score. I do think you need content that lends itself to person-to-ear narration. Incidentally, I love that we’re coming full circle, and returning to bard recitation of story!

EB: Snotty Save the Day and The Supergirls were read by Colby Elliott of Last Work Audio. How did you discover him?

TD: Actually, he discovered me, or at least, EAP books. He got in touch after reading Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls, and said he wanted to do it as an audiobook. I even think it was one of the first that Last Word Audio did, though of course now they have a huge list. Anyway, we arranged a phone call, and I could tell right away that Colby was my perfect kind of partner. Usually I can tell pretty quickly, which saves a lot of time and angst. And Colby was obviously multi-talented, no-nonsense, and very human, which last is probably the most important. This was particularly lucky, since I’d been dreaming about doing audiobooks, though at the time I had my hands completely full with publishing our list. That’s slowed down now, fourteen books later, and I’m looking to expand our publishing horizons in a different direction. Audiobooks are a big part of that vision.

EB: Have you ever thought of narrating your own books?

TD: I think The History of Arcadia series needs another set of voices than just mine. The more the merrier, as long as they are, literally, on the same page. And you know, I never could have figured out how to handle the footnotes in Snotty Saves the Day, and you’ll hear that Colby did an enchanting job with them. I was thrilled.

I’d love to see Arcadia as a streaming series, and I can tell you, I would not want to be the showrunner on that! It would need another perspective. Other perspectives are always a great thing.

That said, I think I may be the best person to narrate the Jam Today cookbook/memoir series, since in great part it’s about my wistful desire to actually be in the reader’s kitchen, holding my glass of wine, and chatting about what they’re doing for dinner. So an audio narration would get me that much closer. It wouldn’t be tough for the recipes, since all of them in the Jam Today series are so flexible. I could adlib. I’d like that. That’s why you embrace as many platforms as possible—every one is a different way of looking at the material.

EB: Any Exterminating Angel news you can share?

TD: I’m focusing more on writing these days. I do find that all those years of endless multitasking have left me with my multitasking capability worn plumb out. So writing is more than enough for me right now. I’m working on the fifth The History of Arcadia book, narrated by a member of the next generation of Arcadians. She cannot understand why the older generation is so obsessed with defeating Megalopolis when there is so much to enjoy about life. Kali, my heroine, just wants to get on with having fun, and to be left alone to enjoy her hybrid monster companion and friends from over the forbidden border to imperial Pavopolis. She learns what she needs to do in her generation to evolve to something completely new, a solution never thought of before.

I’m also writing My Life with Dogs, which is kind of a memoir about dogs in the same way that the Jam Today books are about food—really it’s just a way to get into talking about my own experience of life in this time and place. It does feature some wonderful dogs, though, I will say that.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TD: My dear Literary Ashland, always a pleasure. Looking forward already to our next chat.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Tod Davies: Talking about Talking Books

An Interview with Stephanie Raffelock

Stephanie Raffelock is the author of Creatrix Rising, Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women, (She Writes Press – August, 2021). She also penned the award winning book, A Delightful Little Book on Aging.

A graduate of Naropa University’s program in Writing and Poetics, Stephanie was a contributor to The Rogue Valley Messenger in Oregon. She has blogged for Nexus Magazine, Omaha Lifestyles,, as well as

A former i-Heart Radio host, she is now a popular guest on podcasts, where she inspires women to embrace the strength and passion of their personal story. Her commitment to uplift women extends to teaching personal development classes for incarcerated women and non-profits, including Dress for Success, Austin.

A recent transplant to Austin, Texas Stephanie enjoys an active life with her husband, Dean and their Labrador retriever, Mickey Mantel Raffelock.

On May 20, 2021, she will host a panel feminist titled The Creative Surge of Midlife Women: Women’s History is a Her Story, sponsored by the Friends of Hannon Library

Ed Battistella: Tell us a bit about your forthcoming book Creatrix Rising.

Stephanie Raffelock: I was inspired by the women around me who were running for political office, starting businesses, creating art and living life vitally, all of them over the age of fifty. The culture’s perception of the midlife woman is a worn-out and sometimes toxic stereotype. So the book postulates a new and emerging archetype, the Creatrix.

The name Creatrix comes from the three Greek fates, the spinner, the weaver and the cutter. The weaver was called Creatrix. The name literally means: A woman who makes things. The older archetypes, especially that of the Crone, don’t fit. Nobody wants that title. Crone means disagreeable old woman. So Creatrix Rising, Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women, is about the shift that’s happening in midlife women that puts them in touch with their inner strength, power and wisdom.

EB: You tell your own story of growth in the book. What motivated you to write it at this point?

SR: Self-knowledge reveals all things. Somewhere along the way, I committed to living the examined life. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to appreciate the psychological and spiritual insights not only within my self, but within others as they walk the path of what we call the human experience.

Telling my own story is my credential. I’m not a theologian, a psychologist of a sociologist, so my credibility comes from sharing my most authentic experience of life’s unfoldment. The motivation for writing the book is inspired by the observation of women around me. Women are more willing than ever before to stand in the light of their truth and speak it. And, has there ever been a time when we needed a woman’s voice in leadership more?

EB: How have you evolved as a writer over the years?

SR: Slowly. Oregon was a writer’s incubator for me. I retired from fulltime work when I moved to Ashland, and for the first time in my life, I had the hours to dedicate myself to my love for writing. I became active in Willamette Writers. I was part of a writing circle. I went to classes and workshops. I wrote articles for The Rogue Valley Messenger as well a column for a large blog called Sixty and Me. I wrote seven full manuscripts. I wish I could tell you that they were all good. But the truth is, they were mostly rambling narrative. But that is the process. Study and practice – there’s really no way to replace that. My years in Oregon formed my discipline and respect for the craft of writing. Over a period of several years, I started to find my voice and more confidence in my ability to hammer out work that communicates and articulates the heart of the story I’m writing.

EB: The Dalai Lama has predicted that women will save the world. What’s the role of creatrixes?

SR: I have long believed that women hold the emotion of the world; that the gift that we bring to the table is a counter balance to the old, paradigm of bottom line profit. The Creatrix recognizes the power of her creativity and feeling tone. She leads with that. The Women’s March of 2017 was filled with Creatrixes. The 2018 midterms, where more women over the age of 50 ran for local, state and national office is an example of the Creatrix, rising. I believe that the greatest role of the Creatrix archetype is to give a positive title to the creative surge that women over the age of fifty are experiencing and demonstrating in our society.

EB: Tell us about your earlier book on aging, A Delightful Little Book on Aging.

SR: A Delightful Little Book on Aging, was just that – a delightful book. It’s a series of essays and personal stories about embracing the years, rather than fearing or disdaining them. One summer, I’d had the experience of a manuscript being turned down by thirty-five publishers and then losing my literary agent. I felt that if I didn’t pull together something and keep going, I’d give up. So, I put together a compilation of essays and stories that were about my experience of loving my age, and loving life. It’s a small hard back, gift type of book.

EB: What sort of feedback have you gotten about A Delightful Little Book on Aging, which I noticed received several awards.

SR: I was amazed at the positive feedback that I got, and yes, a number of awards. That little book, gave me a big boost of confidence and I’ve enjoyed sharing the message, which seems to be much needed – that of life doesn’t stop at fifty. Life gets better, more creative and presents to all of us a question worthy of contemplation: “Why does nature keep us alive after midlife?” It’s such a great question. And the answer to that bring me full circle to the beginning of this discussion – Self-knowledge reveals all things.

EB: You published with the wonderful folks at She Writes Press? What was that experience like?

SR: She Writes Press is dynamic sisterhood of women authors. Brook Warner who co-founded the company has created an environment of support and encouragement. She teaches all of her writers about the publishing experience. She offers continuing education classes with some of the finest writers in the country teaching them. She Writes Press provides a much needed platform for women to tell their stories.

EB: Can you tell us about some future creative plans or ongoing projects?

SR: I’ve recently started a new manuscript about secular spirituality, questioning how we come to believe what we do, and what informs those beliefs. I’ve been building a speaker’s resume and look forward to adding the Hannon Library event to that endeavor. I’m preparing to teach a class at the non-profit, Dress for Success, Austin, an organization that uplifts women, helping them with everything from business attire, to resume writing, to personal development. I’ll be teaching a class called Rewriting the Ending to Your Story.

And on a final note, I have a new puppy named Mickey Mantel Raffelock who keeps me out on the trails, daily. I’d forgotten how much energy a puppy has. My joyful experience is tinged with humor, because I have a dog who manages to sneak into the bathroom and grab the end of the toilet paper and run through the house, leaving a long trail of toilet paper behind him. He’s a pretty funny guy.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

SR: Thanks, Ed. It’s a very special experience to be giving a presentation in Ashland, Oregon. I love the town and the university. Both will always have a special place in my heart. I only wish I was going to be there live and in person. . . one day soon, I hope. Thanks for the interview.

You can find Stephanie at:





Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Stephanie Raffelock

An Interview with Scott Kaiser, author of Albert’s Adventures in Willy World

C:\Users\battiste\Downloads\Scott Kaiser Headshot.jpg Scott Kaiser is a director, playwright, master teacher of acting, and author who spent 28 seasons as a member of the artistic staff at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where he directed, adapted, coached, or performed in all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Kaiser is the author of more than a dozen books on Shakespeare, including Have Shakespeare, Will Travel; The Tao of Shakespeare; Shakespeare’s Wordcraft; and Mastering Shakespeare. He has also penned several original plays, including Falstaff in Love, Love’s Labor’s Won, Now This, Splittin’ the Raft, and Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues.

He has degrees from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

His latest book is Albert’s Adventures in Willy World, a fantastical satire of the commodification of William Shakespeare—which Kaiser refers to as “The Shakespeare Industry.”

You can visit Scott’s personal website here.

Ed Battistella: I enjoyed Albert’s Adventures in Willy World, which is a murder mystery but much, much more. I saw it as a good-natured ribbing of the Shakespeare industry, with a twist of acid. Is that what you had in mind?

Scott Kaiser: Sure, that sounds about right. Or perhaps, as Alice in Wonderland inspired the book, you might think of it a journey down the rabbit hole of the Shakespeare Industry.

EB: The setting is a fictional Shakespeare theme park, which casts Ashland in a whole new light. Do you see Ashland as a fantasy world?

SK: In my imagination, Willy World is actually closer to Walt Disney World, a place where every square inch of real estate is carefully curated to serve a purpose—that is, to make money for the Disney Corporation.

That fact is, if William Shakespeare were a corporation traded on the New York Stock Exchange, it would be just like Disney—a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, operating in every country on the planet, worth untold billions.

Luckily, Shakespeare is in the public domain, so he belongs to everyone. Which means that everyone can make a buck off of him. And they do!

Having said that, Ashland, where I’ve lived for 30 years, was certainly on my mind when I created Willy World. You can see the Bard’s influence everywhere in our town, in faux Tudor facades, and cutesy Shakespearean names like As-U-Stor-It, Oberon’s Restaurant, The Windsor Inn, and streets like Birnam Wood Road, Romeo Drive, and Elizabeth Avenue. And why not? Shakespeare is the life-blood of this community, bringing in waves of tourists, who see plays, book rooms, eat meals, drink wine, buy trinkets, fill their tanks with gas, and eventually return to buy a second home.

EB: If it were up to you, how would Shakespeare be treated differently, not just here but globally?

SK: Like most satires, the aim of the book is not necessarily to advocate for particular changes, but to hold a mirror up to all the absurdity that Shakespeare inspires in our modern culture. Such as endless movie adaptations, “translations” of his work into plain English, people who want to ban him from the curriculum, Anti-Stratfordians who believe in a centuries-old conspiracy, First Folio freaks, original pronunciation geeks, thousands upon thousands of books and dissertations about the Bard’s life and work, bottomless merchandising of every conceivable Shakespeare-related product, and so on, ad nauseam.

EB: The characters you introduced along the way seemed to have hints here and there of real people: Barry Heckler, Louise Quibbler, Elsie Phoneme, and so on. How closely were you channeling folks?

SK: My lawyer is grateful to you for asking this question! Please note: the characters portrayed in this book are fictitious. No identification with actual persons living or deceased is intended or should be inferred.

Seriously though, the characters in the book aren’t based on anyone in particular—they’re composites of people that I’ve gotten to know during my decades of working in the professional theatre, people with quirks and eccentricities and highly specialized talents. So I’d like to think that I’ve created my characters with affection, not disdain. If the characters remind my readers of someone they know, well, that’s not something I have control over, is it?

EB: What’s been the reaction from your former colleagues at OSF?

SK: My former festival colleagues easily recognize, of course, the inspiration for certain passages in the book, and tell me they’ve gotten a good laugh out of them. But they said this during the pandemic, wearing masks, so, who knows if they really meant it!

Anyway, it’s important to note that the book isn’t really about OSF, or any institution in particular—it’s about people all over the country, all over the world really, who make their living from the corpus of Shakespeare. Which includes most of my dearest friends and colleagues. As well as me, myself, and I.

EB: Where can readers get your book?

SK: Funny you should ask! Believe it or not, the book can be found on a remarkable website called by using this link. And here’s my author page if you want to peruse the other 16 books I’ve written. And here’s a link if you’d rather look at a cute puppy.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Don’t let the Oxfordians get you!

SK: Zounds! You’re not one of them, are you?

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Scott Kaiser, author of Albert’s Adventures in Willy World

An Interview with Amber Reed, author of Nostalgia After Apartheid

Amber R. Reed is the author of Nostalgia after Apartheid: Disillusionment, Youth, and Democracy in South Africa, (Notre Dame Press, 2020), part of the Kellogg Institute Series on Democracy and Development.

She earned a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and MA and PhD University of California, Los Angeles and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Among her specializations are the areas of South Africa, youth, democracy, race, nostalgia, apartheid, and visual media.

Dr. Reed is an associate professor of anthropology at Southern Oregon University.

Ed Battistella: In your book, you talk about the anthropology of nostalgia. What is the anthropology of nostalgia?

Amber Reed: The idea here is to apply the perspective of cultural anthropology to the understanding of nostalgia – something that I think most people instead think of as an internal, psychological experience. How can we understand nostalgia as a cultural and social practice? I write about nostalgia as a phenomenon different from other forms of remembering; it is about looking at the past with a desire or longing to return to it. But more than that, nostalgia recasts the past in ways that might not be truthful. In other words, we desire a return to something that may never have actually existed. This is a new but expanding area of anthropology; a few other people have written about this in the past few years as well.

EB: How did you get interested in South Africa and in Xhosa culture?

AR: When I started graduate school at UCLA in 2008, I knew I wanted to study the role of non-governmental organizations in promoting youth activism in South Africa. I had been to the country once before in 2005 as a volunteer doing wildlife rehabilitation, and was excited to return in a research capacity. I connected with a public health researcher at UCLA working on HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and she connected me with the Sonke Gender Justice Network. Sonke had been doing a bunch of programs in the rural Eastern Cape, and needed someone to do an assessment of one of them. I wanted to learn more about what they had done, so I traded my ethnographic skills for access and wrote a report on their Digital Stories project. That was my first introduction to the Kamva community, and they placed me with a family to live for a few weeks in 2009. That family became my second family, and when I returned to do doctoral research in 2012 I lived with them for the year.

EB: You talk about the way that nostalgia can be a form of resistance and how local cultural forms act as a prism for Western-based notions of democracy. Could you give an example?

AR: A clear example from my research is the nostalgia rural Xhosa teachers have for students during the apartheid era. They wax nostalgic for how the apartheid government was strict in schools and helped them manage their classrooms – students were well-behaved, the curricula allowed them to teach in ways they felt aligned with their cultural emphasis on rigid age hierarchies, corporal punishment was legal, etc. By comparison, democracy today in South Africa feels like an imposition; national human rights legislation has made corporal punishment illegal, the curricula demand active learning and student participation, lessons are supposed to include teaching about LGBTQ rights. These are all things many Xhosa people consider foreign and even immoral, and nostalgia becomes a way to recapture a sense of security from the past.

EB: You note that nostalgia tells us about the present. What are the implications to what seems to be a backlash among youth for the future?

AR: Yes, I see nostalgia as more about the present than the past: usually, it is a commentary on people’s dissatisfaction with now. In South Africa, this is largely about a sense of disappointment and hopelessness with how the state has enacted its democracy after the anti-apartheid movement and everything it promised. I think this has huge implications for youth and the future: for one thing, a lot of South African youth are parroting their elders’ nostalgia and talking about how life was better during apartheid – and they weren’t even alive then! Another implication might be political alignment: if people are waxing nostalgic for an authoritarian regime, is this going to change youths’ voting behavior in the future?

EB: I understand that the book came out of your 2014 doctoral dissertation. What are some of the difference between writing a dissertation and writing a book like Nostalgia After Apartheid?

AR: The biggest difference is that by the time the book comes out, you are usually really far removed from when you actually did the research! I did the bulk of this research in 2012, so it has been a long road and I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over the data again and again to get here. The dissertation is really about meeting the objectives of your doctoral committee; demonstrating your ability to synthesize ideas from your discipline, to discuss major schools of thought, to show that you did the fieldwork necessary for the degree. The book is really different – it is about introducing your readers to a new topic and drawing them into a world they might not have any familiarity with. For the book, I added a lot of stories and personal anecdotes that weren’t in the dissertation. I hadn’t thought of them as “data,” but in retrospect they were some of the more informative parts of my research experience.

EB: Are there lessons to be drawn about the US political scene from the anthropology of nostalgia?

Absolutely! Nostalgia is a political tool wielded in campaigns and by politicians constantly. “Make America Great Again” is all about nostalgia – a fantasy of a better past that relies on specific ideas of what America was and should be. It isn’t about facts, it is about painting a particular vision. I think the more we can recognize the role of nostalgia in politics, the more we can break down problematic assumptions and portraits of what America is or is not that might be harmful to particular communities or individuals.

EB: What other research projects are you working on?

AR: I have two major projects at the moment: one that is longer term and started pre-COVID, and the other that arose during the pandemic. The first is examining the movement of rural, Black families in the Eastern Cape to suburban areas that were white-only spaces under apartheid. I’m focusing on the port city of East London on the Indian Ocean coast to do this work, which is a really interesting smaller South African city that I think doesn’t get enough scholarly attention but sort of encapsulates a lot of the South African story in its history. This project is going to look at why people move to these spaces, and what they experience when they get there. I’m also looking at the role of visual media – television, Internet shows – in projecting a fantasy of multiracial suburban life that doesn’t necessarily match the reality of what people experience when they get there.

The COVID project is one I’m doing with a South African colleague who is a trained ethnographer and Xhosa person. She has conducted interviews and administered surveys with people in East London who were active in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and are today dealing with the lockdown orders from the South African government (they had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic). We’re asking about how the lockdown laws – keeping people in their houses, forcing them to show ID to move around, police enforcement – might trigger their memories of state violence and surveillance during apartheid.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AR: Anytime!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Amber Reed, author of Nostalgia After Apartheid

Pacific Voices, 2014 -2019

Pacific Voices, 2014 -2019

Edwin Battistella, Kristin Denham, Anne Lobeck

Progress report [12/2020]


1. Introduction 2

1.1 Challenges 2

1.2. Goals 3

1.3. Oregon and Washington 3

2. Pronunciation 5

2.1 The cot-caught Merger 5

2.2 Front vowels 7

2.3 Aaron and Erin, and Mary, merry and marry 8

2.4 Horrible 9

2.5 The pin/pen merger 10

3. Once-stigmatized forms: coupon and often 11

4. Two other problematic words: syrup and route 17

5. Lexical changes in progress 18

5.1 on accident and by accident 18

5.2 dude 20

5.3 legit(ly) 21

5.4 Hella 22

5.5 Your guyses 23

5.6 Jojos 24

6. Comparison with the Harvard Dialect Survey 26

7. A Reading Passage 30

8. What we learned and what’s next 32

8.1 Struggles 32

8.2 Learning opportunities 32

8.3 Next steps 34

References 35

Key words: Oregon, Washington, Low vowel merger, California vowel shift, Pacific Northwest speech, slang and language change.

1. Introduction

1.1 Challenges

One of the challenges of teaching linguistics, and especially of teaching linguistics to non-majors is to heighten students’ awareness of dialect diversity, dialect research, and dialect stereotypes. As professors, we discuss language variation in classes and elicit pronunciations, vocabulary and usage from students, but we often find students to be uncomfortable with the complexity of usage and sometimes nervous that they are not speaking properly. Students in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to learn that they have dialects and that the speech of the Pacific Northwest might vary widely according to features of region, age, gender, ethnicity, education and social class.

And it’s not just students. When we talk dialect diversity with members of the general public, they are sometimes skeptical that the region would have a discernable accent or dialect. A historian colleague who read an essay on Pacific Northwest dialect perceptions questioned whether bag-raising was a real phenomenon and asked how dialects compared to other regional styles, like clothing and architecture. An administrator from Texas, reviewing a grant proposal, opined that Oregonians didn’t have an accent, “not like Texas.”

Here we report on some survey and classroom techniques to bring linguistic research into the classroom and engage students in exploring their own speech variation. Taking Ashland, Oregon, and Bellingham, Washington, as end points along the I-5 corridor of the Pacific Northwest, we piloted a survey of about 887 (mostly) students during the academic years 2014-2019 (continuing into the 2019-2020 academic year), asking about perceptions of pronunciation with a long-term goal of collecting demographic information. After obtaining IRB approval, we used the Qualtrics survey software to develop an online survey asking students 35 questions, 22 of which had to do with language and 12 of which were demographic, and a final question about using their survey results.[1]

1.2. Goals

Initially, we had four goals. First, we wanted to give students an appreciation for the complexity of dialect data and the way in which representations of dialect (and data) are often abstractions. Thus, in class discussions, students often note that their own speech differs from textbook descriptions, and they cite various anecdotal examples and counterexamples from friends and relatives (“My boyfriend says EYE-ron and it drives me crazy,” said one student). By having students analyze actual data from their speech community, they can see where patterns exist and don’t, and they may become less judgmental about variation.

Second, we wanted to explore the various vowel shifts and the extent to which they might differently be showing up in the speech of northwest Washington (Bellingham is 21 miles from the Canadian border) and southwest Oregon (Ashland is 13 miles from the California border). We hoped that we might spark students’ interest in the topic of vowel shifts and phonetic variation more generally.

A third goal was to collect data on some potentially age- and social class-related items, such as the use of gender neutral dude, the double possessive your guys’s, hella, and legit, as well as the pronunciations of items like often and coupon.

Our fourth goal was to develop some questions, activities and exercises surrounding local dialects that would allow us to reinforce learning goals in linguistics as we discuss the survey results in classes.

Finally, in this initial phase of our work, we cast a wide net to experiment with the survey software and to determine both what was doable as researchers and what was important to teach in class. In the conclusion, we offer some suggestions for the future.

1.3. Oregon and Washington

The earliest languages spoken in the Northwest were those of immigrants from northeast Asia, traveling across the continental shelf into what is now Alaska and Canada, making their way along the Pacific coast and inland. As a result, the Northwest shows especially dense concentrations of pre-European languages. First contact by Europeans came by sea, when Spanish galleons landed along the coast of northern California in the mid-1500s. In 1778, on his third voyage to the Pacific, English Captain James Cook sailed to the central Oregon coast and in 1792, Captain Robert Gray of Rhode Island sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River, which Gray renamed after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. The famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the founding of Astoria in 1811 helped to further establish the American presence in the Pacific Northwest.

From 1818 to 1846, the Oregon Territory was jointly occupied by British and Americans. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 fixed the boundary between Great Britain and America at 49 degrees. Once the border was established, American settlement in the Oregon Territory took off. In The Willamette Valley: Migration and Settlement on the Oregon Frontier, William Bowen writes that those settling in that area tended to be “disproportionately from the ranks of unmarried men from the Northeast or abroad.” The census of 1850 recorded 11,873 Oregonians, 60% of whom were males and most of whom hailed from the states of Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio (Loy, et. al. 2001, 15).

According to Randall V. Mills, most settlers funneled through the Missouri and Iowa area while preparing to travel west on the Oregon Trail. The migration brought language to the new territory that incorporated the speech of many emigrants from New England or New York (Mills, 1950: 83). In Oregon, Mills proposed three broad founding dialect areas, a narrow strip along the Willamette River from Portland to Eugene, a more rural area extending from the Willamette River Valley to the Pacific Coast Range, and an area to the east of the Cascade Mountains and to the south of the Calapooya Mountains. As for Washington, Carroll Reed (1952) noted that while the Missouri element predominated in the areas of Washington adjacent to Oregon, spreading “all along the Columbia River, particularly in the areas east of Walla Walla,” other waves of settlers from Iowa, southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio predominated in the Pacific counties. According the Reed, “the speech of southern Illinois and Iowa may be considered typical for most of the state of Washington,” at least as far as the founder effect is considered.

Today both states are increasingly multilingual, though less so than much of the rest of the country. According to the data from the Language Map Data Center of the Modern Language Association, about 83 percent of the Oregon and Washington population speak English at home and about 17 percent speak a language other than English, with Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, and Tagalog among the most robust.[2] Apart from the founder effects and linguistic diversity, both Oregon and Washington have significant urban-rural divides and show the influence of emerging industries and of emigrants from other states.

Our subjects were 887 (mostly) students at Southern Oregon University and Western Washington University.[3] Demographic data collected included age, gender, ethnicity, hometown, perceived social class, college major, and family household income. We also asked students’ self-perception of whether they were urban, rural or suburban and to rate themselves as speakers and writers of English.[4]

2. Pronunciation

2.1 The cot-caught Merger

The Pacific Northwest is geographically situated between two current linguistic shifts in vowel production: the so-called California Vowel Shift and the Canadian Vowel Shift. The California Vowel Shift, shown below with the shifts represented by arrows, involves a fronting of the vowels produced in the back of the mouth—the long vowels boot and coat and the shorter vowels in could and cut being pronounced more toward the front of the mouth (approaching butte, key-oat, cud and ket), with the short front vowels being lowered and backed (kid toward ked, get toward gat and cat toward cot). At the same time, the earlier distinct vowels in cot and caught are merging. Linguistic shifts happen slowly over long periods of time, and are sensitive to style shifts and the performance of identity, but overall what had been a vowel trapezoid historically is becoming more of the vowel triangle.[5]

C:\Users\Brandon Aleshire\Desktop\CALshiftWARD41.png

(diagram from Ward, 41, from Hinton, et al.)

Not shown in the diagram is a counter-raising among the front vowels in syllables ending in velar consonants (g, k, ng). There, the lower vowels in the front of the mouth shift upward, yielding beg for bag, laig for leg, thenk (or even think) for thank, and so on. See Freeman (2013, 2014).

The elements of the California vowel shift are proceeding at different rates and are more prominent in different speech styles and some (such as the lowering and backing of /æ/ and the fronting of /uw/ have made their way into media stereotypes of the Valley Girl/Surfer Dude speech. Students are often aware of the fronting of /uw/ in their own speech as an aspect of speech style but seem to be less attuned to their backing of /æ/.

The Canadian Vowel Shift is similar to the California Shift in several respects. First described in 1995 by Clarke, Elms and Youssef, the shift also involves the lowering of the front lax vowels /æ/ (the short-a of trap and cat), /ɛ/ (the short-e of dress), and /ɪ/ (the short-i of kit). It also involves the merger of the cot and caught vowels, though the merged Canadian vowel is more rounded, slightly lower and slightly further back than the merged cot/caught vowel among many speakers in the U.S.

According to Charles Boberg, the retraction of /æ/ is being led by speakers from Ontario, in in east-central, and by women. The shift is somewhat less advanced among speakers from the other regions of Canada and among men (Boberg, 2005). In the Atlas of North American English, (Labov et al., 2006), it is suggested that about a quarter of speakers in the Western U.S., exhibit the Canadian Shift. [6]

C:\Users\Brandon Aleshire\Desktop\CANshiftWARD42.png

(diagram from Ward, 42 from Clarke)

When we discuss the vowel shifts in introductory classes, students are fascinated but also sometimes unsure of their own pronunciation. Thus we begin by collecting data on some of the more easily identifiable of the vowels involved in the shift, the vowel sounds in the names Don and Dawn. The don/dawn pair is salient for students because the orthography indicates the word difference and thus highlights the phonological merger. And often, someone knows in a class knows both a Don and a Dawn and can attest to the possibility of confusion arising from the merger. Two of our survey questions looked at this pair and at hock and hawk:

Q2 – How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words DON and DAWN? The same or differently.

Q19 – Do you pronounce the words HOCK and HAWK the same or differently?

81% said they pronounce don/dawn the same and differently and 83% pronounce hock/hawk the same.

It is worth asking at this point whether students are accurately able to self-identify their pronunciations in response to prompts. More research is doubtless needed on this topic, but in section 8 we report on a sub-study comparing actual pronunciation to reported pronunciation for 23 speakers. Here we found an 89% accuracy in identifying their own pronunciation.

2.2 Front vowels

We also asked a set of questions about the pronunciation of the front vowels in the words Craig, leg, and egg, where the vowels may be tensed /e/ or a lax /ɛ/. The name

Craig is word of Celtic origin and related to the Scottish Gaelic creag “rock,” and thus also to the word “crag.” The pronunciation varies in the English-speaking world, and in the U.S. and Canada it is often pronounced with the lax /ɛ/. Historically the pronunciation of Craig falls outside of the California/Canadian shift and the alternate pronunciations appear to be in fairly evenly distributed among Pacific Northwest speakers.

Q5 – Do you usually pronounce the name CRAIG as crAYg or crEHg?

59% reported pronouncing the name as crAYg and 41% as crEHg.

In leg and egg we were looking for evidence of raising of the vowel lax /ɛ/, to a tensed /e/. This is part of the counter-raising aspect of the California vowel shift in particular.

Q7 Do you usually pronounce EGGS more like EHggs or AIggs?

Q20 Do you usually pronounce the word LEGS more like LEHggs or LAYggs?

The results were:

Non-raised /ɛ/ Raised /e/

64% EHggs 36% AIggs

62% lEHgs 38% lAYggs

Most speakers reported pronunciations with a lax /ɛ/ though just over a third were egg and leg raisers.

In classes (and conversations, especially those with individuals in the service professions) we also find evidence of raising of the /æ/ vowel in thank, which is in a closed syllable before velar /ŋ/ and /k/. Thank you is sometimes pronounced /thɛŋkju/ or even /thInkju/. We return to thank you in section 8.1 below.

2.3 Aaron and Erin, and Mary, merry and marry

We also examined the pronunciation of the pair of names Aaron and Erin, which makes a nice pedagogical contrast with Dawn and Don. In most of the U.S., the pronunciation of Aaron and Erin is the same, with a mid-lax /ɛ/ rather than a low /æ/. American English merged the two sounds before /r/ while they remain distinct in the U.K.[7]

Given this, we expect the American West to show the merger of these sounds quite robustly.

Q17 – Do you say the names ERIN and AARON the same or differently?

78% reported pronouncing the names the same.

The Aaron/Erin merger opens the door to classroom discussion of the three-way contrast before /r/ in the words Mary /e/, merry /ɛ/, and marry /æ/. In New England, New York City and Philadelphia and parts of the South, the three words are often distinct. In the Inland North and mid-Atlantic (excluding Philadelphia), there is often a two-way contrast of with Mary and merry pronounced as /mɛri/ and marry retaining the /æ/ (/mæri/). See Labov, et al. (2006), Dinkin (2005) and Gordon (2008), and Kretzschmar (2008) for more background and discussion. In much of the rest of the country, the three are merged as /mɛri/. For simplicity’s sake in the survey, we took for granted that Mary and merry would be homophones (pronounced as /ɛ /) for many speakers and focused on marry and merry.

Q 9 How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words MARRY and MERRY? The same or differently.

83% reported pronouncing them the same. 82 respondents reported pronouncing both marry/merry and Erin/Aaron differently, but 110 of those who pronounced marry/merry the same pronounced Erin/Aaron differently and 70 of those who pronounced marry/merry differently pronounced Erin/Aaron the same.

2.4 Horrible

The pronunciation of the word horrible (and similar words (such as orange, florist, and Florida) with /ɑr/ is common in the area including New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Carolinas. Elsewhere the pronunciation tends to be the /ɔr/, with the exception that Oregonians typical have an /ar/ in the state’s name. We expected the pronunciation of horrible to have the pervasive /ɔr/ we represented as HOAR-ible.

Q6 – Do you usually pronounce HORRIBLE as HAR-ible or HOAR-ible.

97% reported HOAR-ible.

2.5 The pin/pen merger

The pin-pen merger is a merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ŋ], which predominates in the South, resulting in a near homophony in words like pen and pin, gem and gym, him and hem, kin and Ken, bin and Ben, and so on. Bailey and Maynor (1989, 13) report that the merger began “in the last part of the nineteenth century and worked its way to completion during the last half century.” The pin/pen merger is found in the Midland Regions (Labov, et al. 2006), has expanded west, and is widespread through Kansas City, Houston, Seattle, and Bakersfield, California (Strelluf 2014 and Koops 2008). Since parts of Oregon and Washington were settled by emigrants from the South, we were interested in testing the robustness of this merger in the Pacific Northwest. Impressionistically, it appears to be most prominent with speakers who have Southern roots or close relatives. [8]

Image result for pin pen merger

pin/pen merger areas in purple

We approached this obliquely by asking about the pronunciation of center, rather than pin/pen directly.

Q18 – Do you usually pronounce the first vowel of CENTER as sen or sin?

Speakers overwhelmingly selected the non-raised vowel. 96% reported the pronunciation SEN-ter. Of the 4% of respondents whose responses suggest that they have the merger (34 individuals) 8 were from the South or had lived in the South several of the Oregon, Washington, and California speakers reported rural identification.

3. Once-stigmatized forms: coupon and often

There is of course more to speech variation than pronunciation of vowels, so we have also been collecting data on the pronunciation and use of lexical items that seem to be social variants. One of these is the pronunciation of coupon, which in American usage is pronounced with or without a glide following the initial /k/. The glide is a twentieth century development and was for a time stigmatized (and it remains a shibboleth for some speakers and in some pronunciation guides), though current dictionaries give it as standard. But while, dictionaries of American English give both pronunciations, older dictionaries and more prescriptive guides still treat the glide pronunciation as substandard (the Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, for example, calls it “Spurious” and Bryan Garner says that it “betrays an ignorance of French and of the finer points of English”). Nevertheless, in the U.S., pronunciations with a palatal glide (a /j/) before long /u/ are common after velar consonants (as in cute, cube, cue, Cupid, skew, factual, regulate, angular, and argue). [9]

In the case of coupon, we offered speakers the third option of reporting that they pronounced it both ways.[10] The speakers we surveyed reported a slight majority pronouncing the word as COOP-on but roughly a quarter consistently pronounce it with the glide (CYEW-pon).

Q8 Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as COOP-on CYEW-pon? Or both ways.

58% reported the pronunciation COOP-on; 21% reported pronouncing the word as CYEWpon or CUEpon; 19% reported pronouncing coupon both ways.

In classes, the coupon item can lead to a discussion of the misleading role of etymology in judging pronunciation. Coupon can be traced back to the French word coup (meaning a blow, as in coup-contrecoup or coup de grâce and later an impressive act (as in a publishing coup). Coupon entered English in the 19th century, with a first OED citation from 1822. It was initially a financial term related to certificates attached to bonds. The meaning evolved to refer to prepaid ticket for travel and in the early twentieth century to the familiar sense part of an advertisement redeemable for a discount or free offer.

We also looked at what connections there are between self-perceptions of social class and of speaking/writing ability and pronunciation of coupon? There was relatively little difference across class.

Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:
COOP-on CYEW-pon I pronounce it both ways
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 40% 42% 44%
Lower Middle Class/Working Class
Middle Class 13% 19% 19%
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 47% 38% 37%
Total 493 206 174

We also looked at the self-reports of speaking and writing, and again there is very little difference. Interestingly the CYEW-pon speakers did not consider themselves less good English speakers or writers, suggesting that it is not stigmatized for them.

Do you consider yourself _____ speaker/writer of English
a better than average an average a worse than average Total
COOP-on 292 211 9 501
CYEW-pon 117 82 6 205
both ways 102 62 1 165
Total 511 355 16 882

58% of COOP-on speakers considered themselves better than average as did 57% of CYEWpon speakers and 61% of those who pronounce coupon both ways. COOP-on is still the marginally dominant pronunciation but about 40% of respondents either pronounce the word CYEWpon or alternate. The results are consistent across social class and gender.

The situation for often, another former shibboleth, is somewhat more complex than that of coupon. The formerly stigmatized form AWFten is vastly preferred, though somewhat less so by females and urbanites. The preferences of the self-described middle class speakers are fairly close.

Historically, often comes from oft, and the /t/ was lost among educated speakers in the 17th century. But the /t/ was retained or reintroduced as a spelling pronunciation. Merriam Webster cites the pronunciation as \ˈȯ-fən, ÷ˈȯf-tən\, with the ÷ sign (the obelus mark) indicating “a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.” [11]

Others commentators are less diplomatic about the /t/-less pronunciation, with Elster’s Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations calling it “less common in educated speech and far more often disapproved of by cultivated speakers—particularly teachers of English, drama, and speech.” Elster cites early twentieth century commentators who called it “vulgar” and “sham-refined,” or in Henry Fowler’s terms, practiced by “the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours … & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Garner refers to it as non-U usage (following the terminology of Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford for upper-class and non-upper-class usage and social practices in England).

Nevertheless, the speakers we surveyed pronounced the word without a /t/ by about three to one, though some noted in class discussion that they sometimes pronounce it either way.

25% reported pronouncing the word with a t (AWFTen)

75% reported pronouncing it without a t (AWFen)

When we cross-tabulated this split for social class we found little difference in the percentages according to class self-perception.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 14 26 40
Lower Middle Class/Working Class 79 236 315
Middle Class 39 121 160
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 96 270 366
Total 228 657 887
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 35% 65%
Lower Middle Class/Working Class 25% 75%
Middle Class 24% 66%
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 26% 64%
26% 74%

Gender did not appear to be a factor either: the percentage of females with the AWFEN pronunciation is about the same as the percentage of males.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
What is your gender? Male 69 178 247
Female 151 463 614
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten
What is your gender? Male 28% 72%
Female 25% 75%

However, rural speakers appear to prefer AWFten, 82%, as compared to 65% of urban speakers and 76% of suburban speakers.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your background? Urban 50 91 141
Rural 26 115 141
Suburban 80 257 337
Total 156 463
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten
How would you characterize your background? Urban 35% 65%
Rural 18% 82%
Suburban 24% 76%

Finally, we looked to see what the preferences of COOP-on and CYEW-pon speakers were with respect to often and vice versa (the preferences of AWFen and AWFten speakers for the pronunciation of coupon.)

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as: COOP-on 150 363 513
CYEW-pon 41 166 207
I pronounce it both ways 37 128 165
Total 228 657 885

About 10% more COOP-on speakers preferred AWFen than AWFten and 10% more AWFen speakers preferred COOP-on suggesting a clustering of the former prestige forms for some speakers.

Say AWFen Say AWFTen
COOP-on speakers 30% 70%
CYEW-pon speakers 20% 80%
Both 24% 76%
Say COOP-on Say CYEW-pon Say both
AWFen speakers 65% 18% 16%
AWFTen speakers 55% 25% 19%

4. Two other problematic words: syrup and route

How do you say the words syrup and route? The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) gives the pronunciation of the former as “Usu. [‘sɪrəp, sɝəp], Sth SMidl [‘sʌrəp, ‘sɝp],” noting that there is additional regional variation and evidence from spelling pronunciations. The DARE coding indicates a usual pronunciation with a high lax vowel or a mid-lax rhotic [ɝ] with somewhat different pronunciations in the South and South Midlands. Merriam-Webster offers the pronunciations [ˈsər-əp, ˈsir-əp, ˈsə-rəp] as variants and the Harvard Dialect study points to the widespread use of the variants with the [ʌ] or [ə] in the first syllable.

The various transcription systems make for a sticky situation, but the key question is whether the word is pronounced with a higher front vowel (as in SEER) or a lower more back vowel (as in SIR):

Q3 – Do you usually pronounce the word SYRUP as SIRup or SEERup?

72% reported SIRup

In American English, the word route can be pronounced as either /ru:t/ (rOOt) or /raut/ (rAWt), making the word polyphonic like economics, either, garage, and Celtic. Pronunciation may be affected by cultural influences like the iconic Route 66 and by competition from the term router for the networking device that moves data packets between computer networks. According to DARE, the usual North Eastern and Central Atlantic pronunciation is /ru:t/ with some variation in specific uses like a rural free delivery mail route or a paper route (/raut/).

DARE respondents for /ru:t/

DARE explains that the /raut/ pronunciation (they give both [raUt and [ræUt]) is “scattered but chiefly IL, OH, wPA, WV, MD.” DARE cites an Oxford English Dictionary comment that “Down to c 1800 the usual spelling was rout,” and that the pronunciation appears in 19th century still “remained in military use, and by many speakers in the U.S. and Canada.” DARE also observes that in the west, route has an additional sense in which it means the length of time working in a logging camp. Our tentative hypothesis was that westerners would prefer the /raut/ pronunciation, but also be well aware of the /rut/ pronunciation from the media. We asked

Q4 Do you usually pronounce the word ROUTE as rUWt (like boot) or rOWt (like out) or do you say both?

However, in the first two years of the survey, we forced a choice between the two pronunciations.

60% ROWT when there was a two-way choice. When there was a three-way choice, 33% reported ROWT and 42% reported pronouncing route both ways.

Add a map of route in OR & WA

5. Lexical changes in progress

We also asked about several lexical and grammatical changes in progress including the spread of gender-neutral on accident, dude, your guyses, legitly, hella and jo-jos.

5.1 on accident and by accident

If you do something accidentally, is it on accident or by accident? According to Leslie Barratt (2005), younger speakers in different parts of the country are moving toward saying on accident while older speakers tend to use by accident, a form that is still prescribed by some traditionalists. Barrett and her students studied on accident in four communities differing in size and demographics: Terre Haute, Indiana; Farmington Hills, Michigan; Irvine, California; and McRae, Georgia. Barrett’s project surveyed actual usage (with a reading passage), reported usage, and reported acceptance of the two phrases. In Indiana, for example, the use of on accident was largely nonexistent for speakers older than 30, while both by accident and on accident were used by those younger than 30. Reported use was not identical with actual use, with about 29% of those who used on accident exclusively saying that they would use by accident, a confusion which suggests that “some speakers are not aware of the form that they in fact use.” Results were similar in Michigan, California, and Georgia, though California speakers (in Irvine and Laguna Beach) showed some divergence:

While on accident occurs more frequently than by accident among the 11 and 12 year olds surveyed (22 to 13 for I did it ___ accident), it is completely absent among those surveyed over age 34. Likewise, in reported use, Californians were slightly less likely to report that they used on (21 responses) than they were to use it (26 responses). Finally, people who reported that they used by were less likely to accept on than the reverse.

Barrett concluded that on accident was found nationally among younger respondents in all four states and suggested that the use of on accident in different parts of the US dates back to at least the late 1970s. [12] Students in our classes have sometimes proposed a distinction in the use of on and by, depending on whether the speaker is responsible or someone else is. We tested this with the following two questions, one in which contrasts a third person she with first person I:

Q11 – If your roommate does something wrong unintentionally would you say:

She did it ON ACCIDENT 65%

She did it BY ACCIDENT 11%

I could say either one 24%

Q21 – If you did something wrong unintentionally would you say:

I did it ON ACCIDENT 62%

I did it BY ACCIDENT 13%

I could say either one 24%

It seems that the proposed 1st person/3rd person split distribution is mythical rather than actual, at least in this group of respondents.[13] Overall, younger speakers overwhelming prefer on accident and the few younger by accident speakers often report being explicitly scolded on the distinction when they had used the innovative form.

5.2 dude

If you have seen the 1969 film Easy Rider, you may recall the jail scene where the Harley-riding protagonists Wyatt and Billy find themselves in the lockup with boozy lawyer George Hanson, played by a young Jack Nicholson. When George talks the guard into giving Billy a cigarette, Billy says,You must be some important dude. That treatment—”. Here George interrupts, “Dude? What does he mean, ‘dude’? Dude ranch?” and Wyatt explains “‘Dude’ means a nice guy, you know? ‘Dude’ means a regular person.”

The dialogue encapsulates the development of dude. The first DARE citation is an 1877 one from painter Frederic Remington who wrote fellow artist Scott Turner, with whom he was swapping sketches: “Don’t send me any more women or any more dudes.” He was referring to drawings of men and women in evening dress that Turner had been sending him. Remington said Turner should “Send me Indians, cowboys, villains, or toughs. These are what I want.”

Dude in Remington’s use means a man or boy pretentiously concerned with his clothes and grooming, as was the case for a city person new to the West, someone who might come to a dude ranch. The sense of being an out of place novice is also found in later uses in military, where dudes are new recruits. A 1936 DARE citation finds: “All right, you dudes. Fall out.”

Early on, dude could also just mean an ordinary male—a guy—and this usage picked up steam by the 1960s, according to both DARE and the OED. [14] And along the way, dude came to be used for either sex or even for inanimate objects. From 1968, we find “When the FAC pilot gets the green light to go in he fires one of these dudes to mark the target,” and a 1985 citation is “Mom asked me and I said ‘No way, dude’.”

There’s more to the story of dude, no doubt, including its popularization by The Big Lebowski, and its emergence as a term of address. But stripped to its essentials, dude seems to have evolved from a mildly pejorative term to an neutral one and from being semantically male to increasingly generic. Our survey asked

Q12 If you use the word dude, can it refer to males or females?

Yes, it can refer to both sexes.

No, it refers only to males.

88% reported that dude can refer to both sexes. Of the 103 speakers who reported that they would not use dude generically, 76 were in the 18-29 age range. One student suggested that guys would be his preferred usage for mixed-gender groups.

We will return to the question of guys as mixed gender in section 8, along with the competing form y’all.

5.3 legit(ly)

The word legit represents a change in the part of speech as well as a clipping of legitimate. In its use as an adjective short form, Merriam Webster dates its origin to 1907 and labels it “informal.” MW also includes the adverb form, labelled as “slang,” with a first citation from 1998.

Merriam Webster doesn’t, however, include legitly, the –ly adverb. Anne Curzan, writing in her Lingua Franca column in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, reports being contacted by an Michigan teacher who noted students saying things like:

“I legitly left my homework at home!”

“I legitly bombed that quiz.”

At the time, Curzan found disdain for the –ly form in both the Urban Dictionary and the popular press but concluded that “adding an –ly to legit to make a new adverb is, from a linguistic perspective, far from morphologically rebellious.”[15]

Legit, it is worth noting, was first recorded–as a noun–in an 1897 issue of the National Police Gazette: “Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit.’ It pained him to see Jim strutting through four acts of a real play.” The reference is to boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett, who became an actor after his boxing career ended. The clipping legit seems to have originated in the theatre, where it meant regular, normal or standard. The OED gives a 1908 citation to “Scene shifters, stage carpenters, actors, everything and everybody strictly ‘legit’. In the early citations, the quotes indicate the novelty of the form.

We noticed the adverb uses of legit and legitly around 2013 and were curious. At first we asked about legitly, but based on feedback from students and respondents, who indicated that they used the flat adverb legit rather than the –ly form, we revised our question in year 2 of the survey.

Q16 If you are trying to explain to your friend that you really like something, would you ever say “I legit love that book.”

Yes, I can use LEGIT that way: 27%

I’ve heard this but do not use it myself: 44%

No, I do not use LEGIT this way and haven’t heard it: 28%

Based on the low numbers, it seems, however, that legit is still not quite legit.

5.4 Hella

Hella, along with its middle-school counterpart hecka, is an adverbial intensifier that apparently emerged in the 1970s Bay Area. Linguist Ben Zimmer (1986) gives an early citation from an August 1986 interview in the magazine Thrasher in which Metallica band member James Hetfield used hella twice.[16] As youth slang, it is an index of coolness, and according to Bucholtz (2006) was “used among Bay Area youth of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and both genders, much as teenagers in other parts of the United States use the intensifiers wicked and mad.” Bucholtz cited examples from a 1995-96 Bay City High School yearbook, suggesting widespread use from across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and gender. [17] Among them:

I love ya’ll hella tite. (African American girl)

I wont to say I had a hella fun time Playing with every one from the football team. (African American boy)

this year was hella fun! (Latina girl)

my big sista, known you for hella years, you were alwaysthere for me. (European American girl)

haven’t seen ya for hella long (European American boy)

Bucholtz saw hella as “a very stable regional marker” in the Bay area and northern California at that time with “only isolated use outside of this region.” Writing in 2006, she noted that hella “currently enjoys a much wider circulation, thanks to its occasional use in popular music, television shows, and films aimed at a youth audience … but outside California it appears to be a marked, trendy term, in contrast to its enduring use as an unmarked feature of Northern California youth speech.”

We asked our subjects:

Q15 If you are trying to explain to your friend that something is very, very good, would you ever say “That’s hella good.”

Yes, I can use HELLA that way: 57%

I’ve heard this but do not use it myself: 40%

No, I’ve never heard HELLA used this way: 3%.

From these results it is clear that hella is pervasively known (by 97% of respondents) and has clearly gained traction in the Pacific Northwest youth culture, being used by more than half.

5.5 Your guyses

Since the loss of the second person singular thee, thou, and thy/thine, the standard Written English forms have been the formerly plural forms you and your. A similar process of plural- to-singular is underway with the third person they/them/their, which is widely used as an indefinite and today is increasingly used as a singular personal pronoun as well (see Baron 2020). To attenuate the ambiguity of you in the second person, various forms have emerged that distinguish singular you from plural, such as you/y’all, you/yinz, and you/you guys. [18] Yinz (from you ones and sometimes spelled yuns) is a regional form (DARE) while y’all has seemingly spread to a general friendly second person form. These plurals can be used in the possessive as well, giving yall’s, yinz’s, and you guys’s, and for many speakers your guys’s, with the possessive marking on both parts of the compound. Prescriptivists sometimes object to your guys. Here is Paul Brian’s view, from his Common Errors in English.

your guys’s: Many languages have separate singular and plural forms for the second person (ways of saying “you”), but standard English does not. “You” can be addressed to an individual or a whole room full of people.

In casual speech, Americans have evolved the slangy expression “you guys” to function as a second-person plural, formerly used of males only but now extended to both sexes, but this is not appropriate in formal contexts. Diners in fine restaurants are often irritated by clueless waiters who ask “Can I get you guys anything?”

The problem is much more serious when extended to the possessive: “You guys’s dessert will be ready in a minute.” Some people even create a double possessive by saying “your guys’s dessert. . . .” This is extremely clumsy. When dealing with people you don’t know intimately, it’s best to stick with “you” and “your” no matter how many people you’re addressing.

We approached your guys’s obliquely, by asking about the double possessive and giving speakers the opportunity to say that they don’t use you guys.

Q13 – If you do say “your guys’ party?” or “you guys’ party” do you pronounce it with one s or two?

I say YOU(R) GUYS PARTY: 17%


I might say it either way: 21%

I don’t use “you guys” or “your guys” this way: 6%

Only 6% of the respondents said they did not use possessive you guys, and the majority did report using two sibilants in the possessive. Of the 53 respondents who eschewed your guys, 39 were in the 18-29 year-old age-group and the remaining 14 were older. We have no survey data on whether speakers use you guys or your guys, though informal observation suggests that the latter predominates.

5.6 Jojos

According to local-lore and the popular press, jojos (with or without a hyphen) are a regional specialty and perhaps even an Oregon term for deep-fried, lightly breaded potato wedges. Anne Marie DiStefano, writing in The Portland Tribune in 2013, confessed to growing up in California and never having heard of jojos before moving to Oregon. She tracked the usage to the early 1960s, suggesting that “the term jojo potatoes was used widely across the country. But not universally. They also were called home fries, wedges, spuds or tater babies — and Shakey’s Pizza trademarked the term ‘mojo potatoes.’” Jojos arose from the popularity of the broaster, invented in the 1950s, which sped up the process of frying foods. According to DiStefano, the Flavor-Crisp company of Creighton, Nebraska, claims the word. She interviewed Ron Echtenkamp, retired president of a company that sold Flavor-Crisp pressure fryers, who explained that the dish arose when salespeople at a trade show used Idaho potato wedges from a nearby vendor to clean the oil in the fryer. Someone set the wedges out on the table and, according to Echtenkamp, one of the salesmen called them jojos. A similar story is told by Paul Nicewonger of Nicewonger Co., a restaurant-supply company in Vancouver, Washington. Nicewonger attributed the story of jojo being coined at a food trade show to his late father, whose company introduced the name into Pacific Northwest markets. In any case, the earliest ad found in seems to be in The Evening Review (of East Liverpool, Ohio) from July 14, 1962, for Kennedy’s Restaurant in Ohio. The ad refers to Kennedy’s “New Flavor-Crisp ½ fried chicken and New jo-jo potatoes.”

Curious about the term, we included the photo below, limiting our question to jojos, steak fries, O’Briens, and potato wedges, but other terms for such fare includes the trademarked “mojos,” “tater babies” or “tater boys.”

Q22 – What name do you use for this food?

Steak Fries


Potato Wedges


44% called them jojos and 43% potato wedges with another 8% opting for steak fries. Among Oregon speakers, the percentage of identifying the spuds as jojos rose to 52%.

6. Comparison with the Harvard Dialect Survey

The Harvard Dialect Survey, an online survey developed by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder consisted of 122 questions about phonetic, lexical, syntactic, and morphological differences in English in the United States. The questions were multiple-choice with a write-in option and used rhyming words to narrow the options for participants. The total number of participants was 30,788, with 385 from Oregon (1.24%) and 860 (2.78%) from Washington. Vaux and Golder’s state breakdown page gives results for 166 respondents from Oregon and 511 from Washington.[19]

Below we consider selected results from their study.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
as in “coop” 56.91% 57.89% 58%
as in “cute” 40.06% 39.70% 21%
19% (both ways)

The number of COOPon speakers is consistent between our 58% and their 56.91% and 57.89% results. Some of Vaux and Golder’s 40% CYEWpon speakers likely alternate.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
as in “say” 52.63% 59.63% 59% (crAYg)
close to “say” 22.99% 18.55%
as in “set” 12.47% 13.02% 41% (crEHg)
close to “set” 11.63% 8.18%

Our two-way distinction yielded about a 60%-40% split between [e] and [ɛ] as compared to the 75.62%-24.1% and 78.18%-21.2% splits in the Harvard Dialect study.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
Mary & marry the same 83%
all 3 are the same 79.44% 78.39%
all 3 are different 2.22% 3.13%
Mary and merry are the same; marry is different 4.72% 5.48
merry and marry are the same; Mary is different .56% .63%
Mary and marry are the same; merry is different 13.06% 12.37%

For simplicity’s sake, we assumed (based on our observations) that Mary and merry were identical for most speakers and asked only about the pronunciation of marry. Vaux and Golder’s 78-79% for all three being pronounced the same is close to our 83%. However, they found 12-13% percent of speakers reporting a Mary/marry homophony distinct from merry, which suggests that the situation is more complicated that we had anticipated.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results

(3 way)

rhymes with “hoot” 17.56% 15.13% 25%
rhymes with “out” 25.78% 35.11% 33%
either way interchangeably 34.84% 32.01% 42%
like “hoot” for the noun and like “out” for the verb. 16.15% 11.78%
like “out” for the noun and like “hoot” for the verb. 4.82% 4.06%
other .85% 1.91%

Details of the percentages aside, our results and Vaux and Golder’s suggest that most speakers either alternate or prefer the ROWT pronunciation.

When we forced a two-way choice, our respondents reported using ROWT 60% of the time. We did not test for a correlation with part of speech.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results (2 way)
sear-up 23.01% 23.81% 28%
sih-rup 14.49% 11.46%
sir-up 61.36% 63.61% 72%

Our results are very close to those of Vaux and Golder, assuming that their “sih-rup” group corresponds to people who opted for our “sir-up” choice.


V & G (Or) V & G (Wa) Our results
Same 87.22% 83.67% 82% (don/daw, hock/hawk)
Different 12.78% 16.33% 18%

The [a]-[ɔ] merger comes in as robust in both surveys.

You guys

Vaux and Golder also asked what words people us to refer to “a group of two or more people” with about 57% responding that they used you guys.

V & G (Or) V & G (Wa)
you all 8.48% 8.59%
you guys 56.73% 56.65%
You 24.85% 27.47%
y’all 6.43% 4.21%

In our study, which asked If you do say “your guys’ party?” or “you guys’ party” do you pronounce it with one s or two? Only 6% of the respondents said they did not use possessive you guys. 94% responded in a way that implied use of you guys.

on accident/by accident

V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
by accident 66.47% 67.63% 11-13%
on accident 11.66% 14.87% 62-65%
Both 18.66% 13.97% 24%

There is a puzzling split between our results and those of Vaux and Golder. We found nearly two-thirds preferring on-accident while their reported results indicated the opposite.

bag, leg and egg raising

V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington)
[bæg] (like “sat”) 86.30% 75.47%
[bɛg] (like “said”) 0% .74%
[beg] (“like “say”) 11.08% 20.49%
Other 2.62% 3.29%

The greater percentage of raising in Washington respondents is intriguing. We did not test for raising of [æ] in bag, though we did consider the [ɛ]-raising in egg and leg.

Our results
EGggs 64%
AYggs 36%
lEHgs 62%
lAYggs 38%

Looking just at Oregon and Washington speakers, 39% of our Oregon respondents said ayggs and 42% responded that they said layggs; 37% of Washingtonians responded with ayggs and 39% with layggs.

Overall OR WA
EGggs 64% 61% 63%
AYggs 36% 39% 37%
lEHgs 62% 58% 61%
lAYggs 38% 42% 39%

7. A Reading Passage

Subjects completing a survey such as ours may have misperceptions about their own pronunciation or usage, the may be unsure or guessing, they may be unduly influenced by spelling, or even misled by clumsily worded questions or transcriptions. As a check, we developed a short reading passage intended to elicit some of the Pacific Northwest distinctions we surveys as well as some others than might not be amenable to a survey method or that might be interesting for class discussion purposes. These are indicated in bold in the passage below, though of course they were not bolded in the actual reading passage. We collected 23 usable samples from speakers, most from speakers from the Pacific Northwest.

Several items in the reading passage parallel ones in the survey: Dawn, marry, Aaron, horrible, coupons, egg, legs, syrup, route, hawk, and center. The items not in the survey such as dude, food, and new reflect the /u/ and /o/ fronting found in the California Vowel Shift. The items both, wash and Washington are possible terms in which we might find an intrusive [l] or [r]. The words that and dad relate to the backing of /æ/, while menu, tent and rented to the pin-pen merger.

The repeated Thank you, thank you, thank you was an attempt to collect data on the counter-raising of [æ] and to use the allegro repetition of the phrase to induce the raising of that vowel. A few words, such as Ian and Ann, aunt, mountains, salmon, almond, greasy, poem, Saturday, and roof are indicators of dialect features not typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. Culinary and Josie were added to contrast with coupon and greasy.

Here is the passage:

Last year my friend Dawn decided to marry this dude named Ian. Both of her brothers, Aaron and Harold, helped plan the wedding menu. That was a horrible mistake.

So, the guests arrived—from Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, and there was even one aunt from Florida. Her Mom and Dad had arranged for the wedding to take place in a tent they rented. It was a cool setting, in a park with a view of the mountains.

Anyway, back to the food. It turned out that Aaron and Harold had gotten all the wrong food for the reception. They had supermarket coupons and bought random stuff: little hot dogs, salmon with almond sauce, milky egg salad, greasy chicken legs, and melting ice-cream cake covered with chocolate syrup. It was a culinary nightmare. Luckily Dawn’s friends Ann, Mary and Josie retraced the route to the store, and bought some real wedding food. It was a miracle that everything worked out, and Dawn’s parents just kept saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Then just as the ceremony was ending and Mary was reading a poem called “Saturday,” a red-tailed hawk swooped into the center of the tent and snagged some of the salmon. It almost got stuck under the roof but didn’t. Dawn and Ian got married and went on their honeymoon. As for Dawn’s brothers, their new job was to wash the dishes from the party.

As a check on the Qualtrix survey, we also asked the passage readers to respond to the short survey below, which was checked against their recorded pronunciations.

  1. How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words DON and DAWN?

the same differently

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word SYRUP as


  1. Do you usually pronounce the word ROUTE as

rUWt (like boot) rOWt (like out)

  1. Do you usually pronounce HORRIBLE as

HAR-ible HOAR-ible

  1. Do you usually pronounce EGGS more like EHggs or AIggs

EHggs (with the EH vowel in get) AIggs (with the AY vowel in say)

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:

COOP-on CUE-pon I pronounce it both ways

  1. How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words MARRY and MERRY?

the same differently

  1. Do you pronounce THANK YOU as more like

thAHnk you (like the vowel in drank) thEHnk you (like the vowel in pen)

  1. Do you pronounce OFTEN as

AWFen AWFten

  1. Do you say the names ERIN and AARON

the same differently

  1. Do you pronounce the words HOCK and HAWK

the same differently

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word LEGS more like LEHggs or LAYggs?

LEHggs (with the vowel in less) LAYggs (with the vowel in lay)

Comparing actual pronunciation to reported pronunciation for 23 speakers, we found that an 89% accuracy in identifying one’s own pronunciation.[20]

8. What we learned and what’s next

8.1 Struggles

There were some rough spots. In the initial survey, we collected demographic data in a relatively open-ended fashion, asking about hometowns and parents’ hometowns, with respondents giving both leaving both gaps and giving answers like “military brat” or “moved around a lot.” We did collect zip codes, which facilitates the eventual mapping task, but we first collected age as numbers, which required us to regroup the data later to get age ranges.

Asking about social class and their perceptions of their own speech also proved to be interesting in that most self-identified as middle class and self-identified as “a better than average speaker/writer of English” (not surprising since many were English or linguistics majors). The later iterations of the survey (2015 forward) supplemented the self-identification of social class with a question about income levels, though many subjects preferred not to answer that. Later iterations of the survey also contained fewer questions, age ranges, a full list of US states and regional universities, and a question about whether hometowns were urban, rural and suburban.

We struggled with the best folk orthography for questions. From 2015 onward survey we added some homophones to the answers in the hopes that questions would be easier to follow. We initially collected data on the pronunciation of thank, but stopped because it seemed that respondents were unduly influenced toward thAHnk by orthography; only 98 responded identified thEHnk as corresponding to their pronunciation suggesting that thank might be better studied in a reading passage.

Going forward, we might drop some of the questions related to issues that seem well-resolved among young Pacific Northwesterners and add some new items, such as bag and beg, and bit and bet. The reading passage too could be simplified (respondents especially struggled with the phrase “salmon with almond sauce” and other tongue twisters that arose from our trying to do too much).

8.2 Learning opportunities

The most rewarding aspect of the research has been the way in which the work of studying data on regional speech—and their own speech—has engaged students in language study and critical thinking about language. By involving students in a local survey and discussing the issues connected to language variation and change that they can observe, we are able to engage them at several levels—as consumers of surveys and media, as thinkers about language and linguistic diversity, as speakers of a particular region, and as co-investigators in research.

The in-class discussions that arise from the survey debriefs are especially rich. Since many of the students are planning careers in fields in which they will be working with language, the survey experience gives them a first-hand look at the variability of speech and at language change in progress. Students think about their own usage, about where they came from about what has influenced their speech, and about the codes and styles that they switch into and out of. They also think about language they encounter in their lives and become curious about language and less prescriptive in their outlooks.

Various activities and discussions that can be tied to the survey questions. Here are a few we have attempted (but certainly not honed to perfection).

  1. Discussing the loss of the old singular second person (thee, thou, thy) forms and the re-emergence of the plural (you guys) in relation to the extension of the third person they, them, their, a topic which is on the minds of students. Discussion of pronouns can reinforce the idea that such forms have shifted for social reasons in the past.
  2. Introducing and critiquing the principle of “one form—one meaning” as it relates to by accident and on accident, and other terms. One reader of an early draft of this report commented that it seemed like a dumb thing for language change to create “confusing” homophones like Dawn and Don and Erin and Aaron. We have the opportunity to illustrate that the logic of language change does not always match our preconceptions of what makes sense communicatively.
  3. Identifying and documenting other instances of preposition variation, which tends to be less remarked upon than other types of variation (such as waiting “in line” or “on line” or getting something “on the internet” or “off the internet”).
  4. Taking jo-jos as the point of departure, exploring further variation among other culinary terms (including server slang, as described by Adams (2009). Students might design and administer their own food term surveys or research local eateries.
  5. Extending the analysis of selected terms using dictionaries and databases, such as the OED, The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) or the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA).
  6. Researching the history of parallels between guys and dudes, the history of guy (Metcalf 2019) and some of the contemporary criticism of the term’s use (Carey 2016, Pinkster 2018).
  7. Studying intensification and the emergence of hella and others forms (see for example Ito and Tagliamonte 2003).
  8. Introducing acoustic analysis of select vowels via Praat (Van Lieshout, 2003, Wassink 2016, Freeman 2013, 2014, Becker, et al. 2016).
  9. Research on local communities and on identity and affiliation, perhaps involving map tasks (Hartley 1999, Evans 2011, 2013), local history (Denham 2019), or dialect Story Maps (Szukalski and Carroll, 2019).

8.3 Next steps

What is next? We are considering relaunching the survey in the fall of 2020, perhaps inviting a wider swath of participants from Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. Along with this, we may wish to add a simplified reading passage and a (short) wordlist that can be used for acoustic analysis, and which can be recorded on a phone. Eventually, we might identify key communities in the Pacific Northwest for a comprehensive survey to be done in conjunction with presentations on dialect and linguistic diversity to include audio and video samples. An ideal next step would be an app that provided some feedback and a systematic expansion of the survey to other Oregon, Washington, and Northern California universities. We also will want to promote the work and the connection to teaching, diversity, and local history in order to generate interest in the survey from potential participants and partners.


Adams, M. (2009) Slang: The People’s Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press.

Al-Hatlani, A. (2019) “Potato wedge? French fry? Not quite. How the jojo became a Pacific Northwest staple.” The Seattle Times, (Aug. 7, 2019).

Bailey, G. and N. Maynor (1989) “The Divergence Controversy.” American Speech. 64: 12-39.

Barratt, L. (2005) “What Speakers Don’t Notice: Language Changes Can Sneak In.” In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

Baron, D. (2020) What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She. New York: Liveright Publishing.

Becker, K., Aden, A., Best, K., & Jacobson, H. (2016). “Variation in West Coast English: The Case of Oregon.” In Fridland, et al. eds, Speech in the Western States, 1, 107-134.

Becker, K. ed., (2019a) The Low-Back-Merger Shift: Uniting the Canadian Vowel Shift, the California Vowel Shift, and Short Front Vowel Shifts across North America. Publications of the American Dialect Society, 104 (1).

Becker, K. (2019b) “What Oregon English Can Tell Us Abot Dialect Diversity in the Pacific Northwest,” in Denham, K., ed. Northwest Voices: Language and Culture in the Pacific Northwest. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 135-150.

Bigham, D. S. (2005) The Movement of Front Vowel Allophones Before Nasals in Southern Illinois White Vernacular English (The PIN-PEN Merger). Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Texas, Austin.

Boberg, C. (2005) “The Canadian Shift in Montreal.” Language Variation and Change, 17(2): 133-154.

Boberg, C. (2008) “Regional phonetic differentiation in standard Canadian English.” Journal of English Linguistics 36, 129-154.

Bowen, W. A. (1978) The Willamette Valley: migration and settlement on the Oregon Frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Brians, P. (2003) Common Errors in English Usage. Wilsonville, Oregon: William James & Company.

Brown, V. (1991) “Evolution of the merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before nasals in Tennessee”. American Speech. 66 (3): 303–15.

Bucholtz, M. (2006) “Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture”. In Goodman, J. and Monaghan, L. (eds.). A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication: Essential Readings. Malden, Mass.

Bucholtz, M., Bermudez, N., Fung, V., Edwards, L., and Vargas, R. (2007) “Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal?: The perceptual dialectology of California.” Journal of English Linguistics, 35(4):325-352.

Butters R. R. (2001) “Data Concerning Putative Singular Y’All,” American Speech 76: 335.

Carey, S. (2016) “How Gender Neutral Is Guys, Really?”

Ching, M. K. L. (2001) “Plural You/Y’All by a Court Judge,” American Speech 76: 115.

Clarke, S., F. Elms, and A. Youssef. (1995) “The third dialect of English: Some Canadian evidence.” Language Variation and Change, 7:209-228.

Conn, J. (2000) Portland Dialect Study: The story of /æ/ in Portland, Portland State University Department of Applied Linguistics MS, Oregon. Master’s thesis.

Curzan, A. (2014) “Legitly Legit.” Chronicle of Higher Education (Lingua Franca)

Denham, K., ed. (2019) Northwest Voices: Language and Culture in the Pacific Northwest. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.

Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) (1985-2013) Cassidy, F.G. & Hall, J.H. (Eds.). Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Dinkin, A. (2005) “Mary, darling, make me merry; say you’ll marry me: Tense-lax neutralization in the Linguistic Atlas of New England.” U. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 11.2: Selected Papers from NWAV 33, ed. S. E. Wagner, 73–90.

DiStefano, A.-M. (2013) “Restaurants add another chapter to jojos’ long history,” The Portland Tribune,

Esling, J. and H. Warkentyle. (1993) “Retraction of /æ/ in Vancouver English.” In Focus on Canada, ed. S. Clark, 229-246. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Company.

Evans, B. (2011) “‘Seattletonian’ to ‘Faux Hick’: Perceptions of English in Washington State.” American Speech, 86(4):383-414.

Evans, B. (2013) “‘Everybody sounds the same:’ Otherwise overlooked ideology in perceptual dialectology.” American Speech, 88(1):62-80.

Foster, D. W. and R. J. Hoffman (1966) “Some Observations on the Vowels of Pacific Northwest English (Seattle Area)” American Speech, 41(2): 119-122.

Freeman, V. (2013) “Bag, beg, bagel: Prevelar raising and merger.” Master’s thesis, University of Washington.

Freeman, V. (2014) “Bag, beg, bagel: Prevelar raising and merger in Pacific Northwest English.” University of Washington Working Papers in Linguistics, 32. Seattle, WA: Linguistics Society at the University of Washington.

Fridland, V., T. Kendall, B. E. Evans and A. B. Wassink, eds. (2016) Speech in the Western States: volume 1, The Coastal States. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Fridland, V., A. B. Wassink, T. Kendall, and B. E. Evans, eds. (2017) Speech in the Western States: volume 2, The Mountain West. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Garner, B. (1998) Garner’s Modern English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gordon, M. J., (2008) “New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities: Phonology.” Varieties of English, 2, 67-86.

Hartley, L. C. (1999) “A view from the West: Perceptions of U.S. dialects by Oregon residents.” In Handbook of Perceptual Dialectology, ed. D. R. Preston, 315-332. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hinton, L., B. Moonwoman, H. Luthin, M. Van Clay, J. Lerner, and H. Corcoran. (1987) “It’s not just the Valley Girls: A study of California English.” Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 117-128.

Ito, R. and S. Tagliamonte. (2003) “Well Weird, Right Dodgy, Very Strange, Really Cool: Layering and Recycling in English Intensifiers.” Language in Society 32(2): 257-­‐79.

Kennedy, R. and Grama, J. (2012) “Chain shifting and centralization in California vowels: An acoustic analysis.” American Speech, 87(1):39-56.

Koops, C., E. Gentry, and Pantos, A. (2008) “The effect of perceived speaker age on the perception of PIN and PEN vowels in Houston, Texas.” University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 14(2), 12.

Kretzschmar, W. A., (2008). “Standard American English pronunciation.” Varieties of English, 2, 37-51.

Kuhlman, P. (2000, January, 18) Online posting “Re: on accident.” ADS-L archived at

Labov, W., S. Ash, and C. Boberg. (2006) The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Loy, W. G., S. Allan, J. E. Meacham, and A. R. Buckley. (2001) Atlas of Oregon. Eugene: University of Oregon.

Luthin, H. W. (1987) “The story of California (ow): the coming-of-age of English in California.” In Variation in Language: NWAV-XV at Stanford, ed. K. M. Denning et al., 312-324. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Department of Linguistics.

Maynor, N. (1996) “The Pronoun Y’all: Questions and Some Tentative Answers.” Journal of English Linguistics, 24(4): 288–294.

Metcalf, A. (2019) The Life of Guy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mitford, N. (ed.) (1956) Noblesse oblige. London, Hamish Hamilton.

Mills, R. V. (1950) “Oregon Speechways,” American Speech, 25(2): 81-90.

Modern Language Association. The MLA Language Map Data Center. Retrieved from

O’Conner, P. T. and S. Kellerman (2010). “Is ‘legit’ legitimate?” The Grammarphobia Blog

Pinsker, J. (2018) “The Problem With ‘Hey Guys’” The Atlantic.

Pronunciation of Aaron vs. Erin: Ask a linguist. (2007) The Linguist

Reed, C. (1952) “The pronunciation of English in the state of Washington.” American Speech, 27(3):186-189.

Reed, C. (1961) “The pronunciation of English in the Pacific Northwest.” Language, 37(4):559-564.

Richardson G. (1984) Can Y’all Function as a Singular Pronoun in Southern Dialect? American Speech, 59 (1): 51-59.

Ross, A. S. C. (1954) “Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 55, 113–149.

Spencer, N. J. (1975) “Singular Y’all,” American Speech 50: 315

Strelluf, C. (2018) Speaking from the heartland: The Midland vowel system of Kansas City: Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

Szukalski, B. and A. Carroll (2019) The Myriad Uses of StoryMaps.

Tillery, J. and G. Bailey (1998) “Yall in Oklahoma,” American Speech 73: 257.

Thomas, C. K. (1958) Introduction to the phonetics of American English. New York: Rondal Press Company.

van Lieshout, Pascal (2003) Praat: A Short Tutorial.

Vaux, B., and S. Golder (2003) The Harvard dialect survey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Linguistics Department.

Ward, M. (2003) Portland Dialect Study: The fronting of /ow, u, uw/ in Portland, Oregon. Master’s thesis. Portland State University. Conn, Jeff. (2000) Portland Dialect Study: The story of /æ/ in Portland, Portland State University Department of Applied Linguistics MS, Oregon. Master’s.

Wassink, A. B. (2015) “Sociolinguistics patterns in Seattle English.” Language Variation and Change 27:31-58.

Wassink, A. B. (2016) The Vowels of Washington State. Publication of the American Dialect Society 1; 101 (1): 77–105.

Wassink, A. B. (2019) “English in the Evergreen State,” in Denham, K., ed. Northwest Voices: Language and Culture in the Pacific Northwest. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press, 95-116

Zimmer, B. (1986) [Ads-l] hella (Aug. 1986)

[last rev. 7/22/2020]

  1. The earliest versions of the survey had 46 questions, 35 of which had to do which language and 10 of which were demographic.
  2. The MLA Language Map Data Center provides information about over three hundred languages spoken in the United States, using data from the American Community Survey and the 2000 US Census. See
  3. Since the survey was available by link, some students invited roommates and others to participate and we know of at least one faculty member who took the survey along with a class.
  4. Additionally, we asked about parents’ hometown but the results were too unsystematic to be helpful other than anecdotally.
  5. See also Conn (2000), Esling and Warkentyle (1993), Foster and Hoffman (1966), Denham (2019), Becker (2019b), Wassink (2019), Fridland, et al. (2016, 2017), Kennedy and Grama, James. (2012) and Luthin (1987)..
  6. According to Ward, “both Canadian and California English share the low back vowel merger, a lowering of front lax vowels, a retraction of /æ/, a centralization of / ʌ/, and some degree of fronting in the tense back vowels /ow, uw/ and the back lax vowel /u/” (Ward, 42). The California Shift parallels the Canadian Shift, with the apparent distinction that the Californian /ɒ/ is more centralized and less rounded than Canadian /ɒ/. Those studying the Canadian shift are also still trying to resolve the details of the shift of the vowels in kid and dress, particularly focusing on regional variation within Canada, on whether the shifts are lowerings or retraction, and whether both the /i/ and /ɛ/ are involved. Boberg (2008) also notes that /æ/-raising before /g/ is a regional indicator for the Prairies. See also Becker (2019a).
  7. The exceptions are New England and parts of New York City and New Jersey. See the discussion on the Linguist List ( There is considerable variation in the U.K. pronunciation of Aaron and Erin.
  8. See Bigham (2005), Koops, Gentry, and Pantos (2008), Thomas (1958), and Brown (1991) for more discussion.
  9. Palatalization before /u:/ tends to occur in some relatively well-defined phonetic situations, such as when the /u:/ occurs at the beginning of a work as in university or usual. Palatalization is especially robust after labial consonants in American English. These include the stops /m/, /p/, and /b/ (as in mute, amuse, pew, pure, puerile, repute, beauty, bureau, vocabulary, constabulary) and also the fricatives /f/ and /v/ (as in fuse, fuel, fuel, futile, view, revue, uvula). Palatalization is not automatic after these sounds, however, and spelling is often a clue: pew and pooh, beauty and booty, feud and food, mute and moot. Not long ago one of us heard someone pronounce the name [Stanley] Kubrick as CUE-brick and the name Pulitzer often has a glide (though Joseph Pulitzer insisted it did not). Aside from such pronunciation, it turns out that the palatalized versions of many common words are often the older forms, still used among many speakers of British and Canadian English: due, tune, dune, news, lewd, and so on. Twentieth-century American speech tended to drop these palatal glides.
    Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:
    COOP-on CYEW-pon I pronounce it both ways Total
    How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 18 11 11 40
    Lower Middle Class/Working Class 174 76 65 315
    Middle Class 68 40 34 142
    Upper Middle Class/Affluent 233 79 64 376
    Total 493 206 174

  10. Some of the speakers who report pronouncing coupon both ways also report having different meanings for the pronunciations: physical ones that you would cut out would be CYEWpons but other kinds, such as internet coupons, are COOPons.
  11. See Merriam Webster adds that “We are definitely not advocating that anyone should use those pronunciations [ … ] or that they should abandon the others that are regarded as more acceptable.”
  12. Barrett notes that one poster to the Linguist List (Patricia Kuhlman) even recalled its being used in the 1950s in a rural area outside Chicago, Illinois. Barrett adds that the rise of on accident remains unclear and that analogy with on purpose is at best a partial account. Other suggestions include reanalysis of “an accident” as “on accident.”
  13. One speaker suggested that on accident is used when a person is involved and by accident is used when animacy is not involved, which is worth exploring.
  14. There’s also a later development in which dude means “a foolish or obnoxious fellow,” and the DARE gives a 1970 citation of “There were a lot of good kids in that school. Also, a lot of dudes, but a lot of good kids, too.” So perhaps dude expanded that pretentious newbie sense for some speakers.
  15. Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, in a 2010 post on their Grammarphobia blog, note that both legit and legitly are used as adverbs, but say, rather too prescriptively in our view, that “we find them clunky, and wouldn’t recommend either one.”
  16. See Thrasher, August 1986, p. 71, Asked if the drug scene scared him, Hetfield replied “Yeah, hella,” saying later that “If people are into it that’s cool, they wouldn’t mind about the subject we’re talking about. I was at that party and it freaked me out and I’m hella paranoid.”
  17. Bucholtz explains that the data were written by graduating seniors as part of paid personal messages to friends, family, and others printed at the back of the yearbook. See also Bucholtz, et al. (2009).
  18. On the plural second person forms, see Richardson (1984), Maynor. (1996) Spencer (1975), Ching (2001). For singular “y’all” can be singular, see Tillery and Bailey (1998) and Butters (2001).
  19. The Harvard dialect study was the basis for Joshua Katz’s Heat Maps which took population density into account for data visualization; see Katz (2013) and media coverage in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. The New York Times dialect quiz (based on the Harvard Dialect study) was one of that newspaper’s most successful interactive links.
  20. We included the item often in the survey but not on tape as a further check of our online survey; here 30% responded with AWFEN and 70% with AWFTEN, close to our online results of 25%/75% AWFEN/AWFTEN.
Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Language | Comments Off on Pacific Voices, 2014 -2019

Susannah Perillat remembers Vaughn Davis Bornet

“I tried to do the best with what I had.” Favorite Words- Erudite. Anyway.

Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet (VDB or Dr. B.) was born October 10th, 1917, and passed away peacefully, October 5th, 2020, five days before his 103rd birthday. This is a tribute to a man who gained creditability in his academic domain as a historian and a scholar. Bornet published many works in the field of presidents, social welfare and in health with the American Heart Association. Dr. Bornet continually pursued his passions outside academia, including music, photography, outdoor life, and volunteering, for the health of himself, his family, and his community large and small.

I was hired to assist him nearly five years ago, and the more I endeavor to share the bird’s-eye view I was privileged to have, the more a few highlights stand out. As we started working more closely together on his manuscripts, he would test me by asking me to argue my point. Gradually, I began to have more confidence. I started winning him over to my suggestions or objections, so much that he started saying, “You just go ahead and do it!”

He rarely complained about himself, he stuck to his rhythms, and he didn’t take himself too seriously, except when he did. I would often rub my arm against his and say, “Please rub off on me – just a little.” He harnessed a stick-to-it-iveness that was enviable. People were always asking him what the secret to his long life was.

Writing predominated his thoughts. Sometimes I’d arrive early in the morning, trying to get to editing work before he’d arise. I often told him one had to be an octopus to accomplish all that he had ready to work with at a moment’s notice. He had me constantly use his well-worn dictionary and make it a habit to look up information in his encyclopedias. Encyclopedia Britannica had hired him to write the section about American presidents. Dr. B., as he let me call him, immersed himself in his writing, research, reading new books on his subject and corresponding with those willing to accompany his present journey of writing.

He had grown up academically at Stanford University, working with think tanks and brilliant minds. He had a slew of professionals at his fingertips: secretaries, researchers—though he did most of his research himself—proof-readers, editors and very importantly—publishers. He found his stride teaching at Southern Oregon College, as it was called back in the sixties. Vacation time was a mix of play and work. Together with his wife, Beth, he would tool around the country in their RV, along the way writing, gathering information, and getting ever closer to their destinations, our presidential libraries. He had secured approval to study the contents for one of his books.

Being a child of the Great Depression, he welcomed an opportunity to save on finances and have a good time doing so. Vaughn would often reminisce how his wife provided one of the most important tools for his writing: reading those manuscripts out loud together. TV was non-existent those days in an RV. I would gladly step in to read for him and build upon a new tradition of editing and proof-reading. Still, nothing would interfere with his eight-decade long habit of listening to the opera on Saturday mornings. The outdoor life nourished his inner life and creativity. Along with listening to music, he also played the cornet since childhood and he could remember the words to almost any tune, especially spirituals. I used to call him a living juke box!

He spent hours writing every day. He didn’t put much thought into eating after Beth passed. Four eggs, half a grapefruit, which we ordered a box at a time online, and a cup of coffee with two packets of fake sugar for breakfast. He defended his no-sugar idea until the end, except for the dark chocolate Hersey bars we also ordered online. This morning routine would be followed by the exercise bike, which he insisted be placed on most difficult gauge and he wouldn’t stop until he completed one hundred and forty repetitions. He never smoked. He sang. A lot. And laughed.

Writing poetry was a lifelong passion and hobby; his reading preferences were non-fiction. He didn’t see the sense of fiction as life, for him, was so full of history and amazing stories filled with comedy and tragedy. He had his share of tragedy. He felt it kept him humble.

With that said, his favorite companions were dogs because of their unconditional love. He actually did write a children’s book loved by all who read it. It is about one of his favorite dogs, Blaze. Here, I learned how to diplomatically argue the edits and the rearrangements of the illustrations. I found out how helpful the folks at the copyright office were on the phone. He encouraged me to never hesitate to ask for help.

He had a bittersweet relationship with his computer and printer. You would become his hero if you could get him out of whatever his present jam might be: his computer glitches, his printer not working, or learning how to update his website, His website is a compilation of thousands of pages of his writings, mostly published. Another one of his legacies.

Dr. B. kept in touch with his peers until they died off, then he kept in communication with the younger generation, eighty years or younger, a new audience for his oratories. Within his writing, he would refer to his previous works and awards.

He regularly published at History News Network and sent material out to those who mattered to him for their points of view, corrections, and praise. Founder of History News Network (HNN), Rick Shenkman, wrote, Vaughn Davis Bornet, RIP at 102. During Mr. Shenkman’s thirteen years working with Dr. Bornet, he noted that VDB published over sixty articles on the HNN website. His first article in 2007 was written about race relations, a subject Vaughn often fought for by writing, thus exercising his civic duty. His last article, published in May 2020, was about the havoc being wreaked upon world affairs by the current president. He optimistically titled that article, “‘This Too, Shall Pass’. History and Life, Say So!” (Schenkman).

He would often call or email Elisabeth Zinser, past president of SOU (2001-6) and president at Ashland Rotary (2017-18), to talk about his works in progress, requesting her valued feedback. She appreciated that he always respected her edits. Elisabeth would visit from time to time and bring something for his sweet tooth and share a cherished glass of port. At his memorial, she also shared with us that His best speech was for his 100th birthday celebration while I was President at Rotary. He had us in stitches.” He always wrote and prepared for his innumerable speeches but delivered them off the cuff. She said Vaughn was a dear colleague, scholar, academic, and Rotarian: they became friends (Zinser). He portrayed the Rotary motto, Service Above Self. His writing was his civic duty. Volunteering was essential!

Perhaps most important to both he and his wife, Beth, was their sense of civic duty. He was constantly looking for ways to be of service. Ron Bolstad, a meaningful friend and colleague at SOU, Ashland Rotary, and a musician, says he never knew what Vaughn had up his sleeve when he would call. Once, from Vaughn’s hospital bed at Linda Vista, he saw a man in the rain at the bus stop and insisted that Ron get right on it and have a shelter constructed for that bus stop. After many months of effort, the lack of funds stopped his good idea (Bolstad).

Many times, when I would tell people who I was working with, they would exclaim, “Oh did you know his wife Beth?” Ellie Holty, another caretaker, and assistant, said in my recent interview with her that she loved his “enormous dedication to Beth and how it remained untouched by time.” He expressed that same dedication and love for his family.

He had had professionals to tend to his previous erudite work, including secretaries and university publishers like University of Kansas, who published his work on President Johnson. Thanks to them, he could pride himself in footnotes, indexes, table of contents, and perhaps even a glossary, but he was an incessant editor as well as endlessly working on probable titles. When he thought something was finished it had to be printed at least five times. Needless to say, he had a constant stream of ink supplied by Amazon and reams of paper and new printers. I took on the task of making sure all that paper got recycled. He earned his indulgences.

He stuck with two fonts, New Times Roman and Bookman Old Style—probably the latter because it filled pages faster—after the age of 100 insisted on size 14 font. His typewriter habits were hard to break. Back in the day italics didn’t exist. Rewriting his typewritten manuscripts onto Word, we had to replace all the underlines for the new and improved—italics. Yet whenever he would type on his computer he would continue to underline as well as constantly inserting his thoughts in parentheses. One could not, would not, and absolutely should not leave one word at the end of a paragraph, nor empty space at the end of a page, nor begin a sentence with a preposition—no arguing with him. In the dark of the night, he would fill up those empty spaces.

Ellie Holty worked for Dr. Bornet for four and a half years. She was more than happy to be interviewed for this paper about Vaughn Bornet on Sunday, 29 November 2020. I had prepared several questions and honed them down to one most pertinent to me as a human being. I chose the guiding question to be centered around how this “Cantankerous Centenarian” (from the title of a John Darling article in 2017 for Vaughn’s 100th birthday), influenced our lives today and earned the long-time admiration of those near and far, myself included. He could challenge her unconscious limitations or fears. He would encourage her to do better. Not only because he was used to high standards but because he believed in her and needed to get this book published. Today, she has co-authored the book Humane Leadership with a headstrong man and has found that she is able to stand up for herself thanks to the training and internship with Vaughn. Ellie learned an enormous amount about putting together complicated timelines and dealing with intimate letters, proof-reading, and editing, all the way through to working with the publisher. Today she knows she will stand up to the task at hand. (Holty).

Like Ellie, those of us at his memorial, and the many who shared a part of Dr. B., it takes a village of stories to feel the breadth of his long life and big personality. Personally, my time with Dr. B. is felt every day as I come across challenges, push myself to act even though I feel afraid, and continue learning and writing. I told him when it came time for me to graduate that I would dedicate it to him. What rubbed off on me was his spirit, something that can never be destroyed. When you have the spirit of doing your part yet staying connected to people, no matter what your profession or place in life, you have community. When you also create or participate with community, together you have love, that love is creative, and it inspires you how to improvise, adapt, and adjust to whatever circumstances present themselves. Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet’s life embodies an ever-expanding community for myself and I dedicate this effort of tribute to him.

Works Cited

Bolstad, Ron. Vaughn Davis Bornet Memorial. Ashland: Ellen Gribbon Bornet, 10 October 2020. Zoom.

Holty, Ellie. Small Business Owner Susannah Perillat. 5 November 2020. Phone interview.

Schenkman, Stone Age Brain aka Rick Schenkman. “History News Network.” 15 October 2020. History News Network (HNN). Ed. Rick Schenkman. Online blog. 5 December 2020.

Zinser, Elisabeth. “Former President at SOU and Ashland Rotary.” Memorial for Vaughn Davis Bornet. Ashland: Ellen Gribbon Bornet, 10 October 2020. Zoom.

Susannah Perillat is a senior in the Creative Writing program at Southern Oregon University. She worked with Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet for four and a half years. He was one of her biggest cheerleaders to keep up the good work.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on Susannah Perillat remembers Vaughn Davis Bornet

Daniel Alrick remembers Stephen Weiner

Daniel Alrick is a graduate of the Professional Writing English program at Southern Oregon University and Chair of the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities.

EB: Tell our readers a little bit about Stephen Weiner and his work.

         Stephen Weiner

DA: Stephen Weiner was the publisher of the local newsletter The Suspicious Humanist, a newsletter of literature and political writing. He was a Stanford graduate and journalist who wrote extensively on mental health in personal essays that were published in Classics of Community Psychiatry and The Oxford Handbook of Psychiatric Ethics. Throughout his life, Steve was active in left-wing politics , counterculture, and Jewish identity. He also wrote about the experience of living with schizophrenia and being an “adult in need of the welfare state” to quote one of his articles, and social programs for the disabled.

And Steve was a community librarian, who kept a library of hundreds of books in his small apartment, often keeping multiple copies that he would loan out to others.

EB: What was The Suspicious Humanist and how did it come about?

C:\Users\battiste\Desktop\282E37080D624898AAA4C86E77619D1D (1).jpg

        Milton Weiner

DA: The “suspicious humanist” was his father, Milton Weiner, who was the original publisher, editor, and author of the newsletter in 1970 out of San Francisco and Sausalito, California. Steve inherited the newsletter and title from him.

Milton was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, which he had fought in as an American volunteer on the Republican side.  He believed in fighting fascism in Spain because he had experienced anti-Semitism from the Ku Klux Klan while growing up in New Jersey during the 1920s. But while in Spain he discovered the war against Franco nationalism was sidetracked by the warring factions of the Communist party. When he returned to America, he enlisted in the Army and fought in WW II as a soldier in the Dixie Division.

Milt was wounded in both wars and was later an advocate for disabled veterans. After Milt’s service in WW II he was a soil scientist before he was blacklist and labeled a “premature anti-fascist” for his time in Spain and his membership in the communist party.

All these political disillusionments and betrayals led him to conceptualize the notion of being a “suspicious humanist,” a sort of ancient mariner of the old left who was skeptical of the new radicalism emerging from California in the 1960s–a political movement his son Steve would become a part of in his youth. In Milt’s view, he had fought in the battle of peace and fascism for real, while the New Left was just talking about revolution in a pretentious way. He believed that he had dealt with matters of existential importance and survival, so his children did not have to. Milt’s world-weary philosophy of humanism summed up was “Just like you, I was born without pockets and a fair share of my urge to help my fellow man.”

Steve embraced those values, but he was torn as a child of the sixties between his idealism toward leftist politics and his own challenge with understanding mental illness. Steve also experienced his own personal sense of betrayals in radical politics. On top of that how does he measure up to the looming presence of his massive father figure in Milt, a bona fide war hero. Being a suspicious humanist, as both father and son would come to believe, is marching to your own drum in politics and humor, a sort of ronin for having both survived and fought in the arena of life.

EB: How did you get involved in the publication of Stephen Weiner’s book When Nothing is Real: Notes of a Humanist?

DA: Steve had worked on his memoir for many years as a handwritten manuscript on notebook paper, which was then edited by local author Richard Seidman. I got involved with Steve primarily from our friendship and interest in politics and books. Through our conversations I gradually became interested in the story of his father, Milt. And through compiling research into Milt’s biography I became more involved in the stewardship of Steve’s papers from The Suspicious Humanist. As Steve became ill with stage four kidney cancer it became a race against time to complete his own memoir and secure the surviving records of Milt. What became apparent to me was that Steve was living out a lot of his own life in the shadow of Milt, whether or not his father loved him, and how he had measured up to the old man in terms of his political journey. It was in a way a release of two ghosts upon the end of that life cycle.

EB: How would you characterize his work: political theory, psychology, philosophy, advocacy, memoir?

DA: The book contains all of those elements. But it is primarily a philosophical memoir. What Steve undertook was a life of letters, reading and writing, to understand both his personal, mental condition and his times as a Baby Boomer and Jewish man in left-wing politics. Readers will find much to relate to in terms of Steve’s chronicle of the political upheaval in California of the 1960s, but also frank admission of loneliness and weariness at the hand he had been dealt. In comparing the lives of Milt and Steve, I was struck by how much more existential Milt is about matters of his security and survival, while Steve is drawn much more intimately into the anguish of family trauma, his parents’ divorce, the death of his sister, spiritual fulfillment, and his thoughts on sexuality, health, and mortality. Milt had a less enlightened view on mental and emotional illness. Steve was more the humanist, while Milt was the suspicious ronin.

EB: What’s the significance of the book’s title?

DA: We talked about the title in the days leading up to his death. “Nothing is Real” referring primarily to Steve’s struggles with paranoid schizophrenia, in reference to the Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Which goes to show how Steve was very much a product of the 1960s. Steve believed in enlightenment values and secular humanism but rejected postmodern ideas.”. He resisted and resented the notion that life was an illusion or that objective reality was an ephemeral space, but he also wanted peace of mind in the basic common decency of kindness and thoughtfulness. He had joked to me that he wanted the quote “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different” to be his epitaph, but decided on a quote from Henry Miller instead.

EB: What was the process of putting the book together like?

DA: It was a struggle of the sundown in Steve’s life. He was very ill with diabetes and COPD and then was dying quickly of stage 4 cancer. His memory remained sharp, even in his weariest moments, up until the final weeks in which those synapses started to fail. Richard Seidman did the work with Steve editing the manuscript and designing it for final publication in approximately the last two months of Steve’s life, while I was doing much of the final interviews with Steve and trying to trigger any bits of useful info. I was also collating all of Steve’s surviving papers, along with old records from Milt he had forgotten about. I wrote a draft of the afterword for the book while visiting Steve in the hospital and was watching a video tape of Milt when I received a phone call that Steve had died later that day.

EB: What’s been the reaction so far?

DA: Steve’s friends and family were very supportive, and the people who knew him in Ashland fondly remember his political advocacy and involvement in the Jewish community. Like Milt, Steve was strongly opposed to what he felt was anti-Semitic language on the political left. And what has become clear is how much resonance there was among people who knew Steve from his diligence to remain active and generous with his community in his knowledge and insights. Everyone who knew Steve remembered him as one of the brightest individuals they knew, as well as one of the most honest.

EB: Any plans for further publications?

DA: I have worked on and hope to finally publish a comprehensive biography of Milt. In recent years, concepts like “antifa” and the use of WW II metaphors to describe our political moment have reminded me of Steve and Milt’s struggle with political conflict both in their personal fight, while also a struggle to rise above ideology. Steve and I began our discussions about Milt during Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination during the 2016 Presidential election. What Steve heard in Sanders was both a callback to the kind of Old Left rhetoric that Milt intoned, while identifying Sanders as exactly the kind of guy Milt was frequently skeptical of in the 1960s. The constant war between ideas and the yearning to carve out one’s place in the pantheon of “the good fight” remains a potent issue.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

DA: Thank you.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on Daniel Alrick remembers Stephen Weiner

An Interview with Cara Black, author of Three Hours in Paris.

Cara BlackCara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 19 books in the Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris.

From the California’s Bay Area, she travelled widely in Europe and Asia, studying Buddhism in Dharamsala in Northern India and studying Chinese history at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Her love of all things French was kindled by the French-speaking nuns at her Catholic high school, where Cara first encountered French literature She has been to Paris many, many times entrenching herself in it secret history.

Her 20th book is the standalone thriller Three Hours in Paris, published in April 2020 by Soho Press, which the Washington Post put on its Best Thrillers and Mystery Books of 2020 list.

You can visit Cara Black’s website here:

Ed Battistella: This is your first standalone novel. How did it feel to venture away from your Aimée Leduc Investigation series?

Cara Black: Quite scary at first. I’ve written Aimée Leduc for a long time and at first felt I was being ‘unfaithful’ but once I got writing it was a wonderful challenge. A great chance to write something new about a story that I became passionate about.

Three Hours in ParisEB: Where did the idea for the novel come from? What are the three hours in the title?

CB: The idea came from a historical footnote. Doing research I came across a footnote that detailed Hitler’s brief, one and only visit to Paris. It struck me as strange that he never returned or had a big victory parade on the Champs Elysées. It was only for three hours. Hence the title

EB: Were there really female snipers in World War II?

CB: Yes, the Russians had a whole unit of female snipers. The story of Ludmilla, who got 309 kills, inspired my idea for an American, like Kate, to also be a sniper.

EB: I enjoyed the way that the two main characters, the assassin Kate Rees and the policeman Gunter were both doing their part, as they saw, it and staying true to themselves. What’s the larger message?

CB: War is complex and so is the truth. I wanted to show a German man, a family man who is good at his job like Kate who is good at hers, doing his best. Gunter didn’t like his boss, the Fuhrer, and it was important he not be a cliché Nazi.

EB: What was the research like for this novel? There was a lot of spycraft, firearms, and military history.

CB: Research is the best part of writing. I started with the idea for this book about ten years ago, so research along the way was in fits and starts. Four years ago when I got the contract then I concentrated of going through 20 years of notes I took in Paris to do with the war, began purposefully visiting french Archives and war collections. I interviewed several female Résistants, now sadly who’ve gone, but felt very lucky to have spoken with them. Also in London, I went to the Churchill war rooms underground and the Imperial war museum. Stanford University has the Hoover Institute where I found WW2 spycraft gadgets – treasure trove.

EB: Can we expect more stories about Kate Rees in the future? The ending is open?

CB: I’m certainly thinking there’s a whole rest of the war for her to possibly work in.

EB: Perhaps an older Kate Rees might someday be a client of Aimée Leduc?

CB: Who knows?

EB: It was nice to see a protagonist who was a cowgirl from Oregon. Is ranching good training for being a spy?

CB: Definitely. Ranching fosters resilience, self-reliance and thinking on your feet. Three qualities a good spy needs.

EB: This is your 20th book. What’s next?

CB: I’m just working on the edits for the next Aimée Leduc novel – title TBA – set after 9/11 in Paris. This will come out in November 2021.

EB: Thanks for taking with us.

CB: Thank you.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Cara Black, author of Three Hours in Paris.

Grad School: An Interview with Dante Fumagalli

Dante Fumagalli is a 2017 summa cum laude graduate of Southern Oregon University, with a double major in English and Art History. A member of the founding class of SOU’s Honors College, he was the 2017 student commencement speaker. 

Ed Battistella: What is your graduate school experience like so far, both in New York and now in Eugene?

Dante Fumagalli: I’ve had very different experiences in New York and in Eugene! I only made it through one semester in New York attending the Art History master’s program at Hunter College. It was a very academic program and I enjoyed all of my classes a lot, but I came to the realization that I rushed into graduate school without giving more thought to my long-term goals. I wasn’t sure what I planned to do with my Master’s so I came to the difficult decision to put off graduate school after that first semester.

Ultimately, I’m very glad I did that! I spent the next two years living and working in New York and realized that what I appreciated most about my work in museum education was the connections I would make with students with disabilities. This prompted me to check out the Master’s program in Special Education at the University of Oregon, where I’m now in my second year. I love the mixture of application and theory that a program like this provides – it’s really fulfilling to be able to use concepts we discuss in my graduate courses practically in my practicum site!

EB: What’s are your long-term plans?

DF: I went into this program with the idea that I would work specifically on reading interventions with students with reading disabilities. I think that this would be a great way to combine the skills I acquired during undergrad studying English with my current studies in special education. However, this term my practicum site is with a functional skills classroom at a local high school and I’ve been really loving it. I’m teaching a unit on functional reading skills which has me considering whether a life skills or functional skills setting might be a better fit for me. I want to make sure I keep my options open because I know that I will be graduating with this degree and entering into a field with great need so there is room for flexibility in where I go from here.

EB: What has been the most interesting part of your studies so far?

DF: My favorite thing about my program has been applying course content into my practice with my students. I’m currently taking a course called Design of Instruction and I feel like each week I’ve learned about a new principle of design that I can use to improve the instruction I am providing my students. It feels really gratifying to be able to apply the things I’m learning and see results with my students.

EB: What courses have you taking?

DF: During my first year, I took: Foundations of Disabilities, Behavior Management, Assessment in SPED, SPED Law, Diversity in SPED, Supporting Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities, SPED Math and a year long sequence on literacy. This year, I have taken Advanced Behavior Management, Design of Instruction, Practicum, and Professional Practices. Over the next two terms I will be taking a two-course sequence on transition programming which I’m very excited for!

EB: What’s been the best thing you’ve read as a grad student?

DF: We recently read some very interesting articles by Lisa Delpit regarding intersections between equity, access, and inclusion with traditional skill-based teaching methods and the liberal ethos of fluency-based instruction. She argues that many students of color already exhibit fluency but within different dialectical contexts than their white peers and that this liberal mindset does not address the skill gaps between these students properly, leaving students of color at a deficit. I would highly recommend that educators read Delpit’s writing!

EB: What has been the hardest part of grad school?

DF: The hardest part has definitely been time management and finding time for self-care. Especially now that school is all done remotely, I find myself sitting at my desk for hours upon hours each day and have a hard time pulling myself away to take mental health breaks.

EB: What’s next for you?

DF: I would love to find a job within the 4J school district here in Eugene at the end of this year when I graduate. I’ve grown to really like this city and I would like to continue to foster the community relations that I’ve been able to establish through my practicum here so far.

EB: What do you know now that you wished you knew earlier?

DF: You don’t need to rush into graduate school! It’s okay to take the time to figure out exactly what you want before applying.

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

DF: Thank you!

Posted in Grad School, Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on Grad School: An Interview with Dante Fumagalli

Grad School: An Interview with Kendall Meador

Born in Lewiston, Idaho, Kendall Meador moved up and down the west coast before completing her BA in English at Southern Oregon University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in American literature at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. In her free time, she enjoys writing poetry and cooking.

Ed Battistella: What is your graduate experience like so far?

Kendall Meador: It’s difficult to describe very succinctly, but I’ll try. It’s been at once thrilling, disheartening, emboldening, devastating, inspiring, and excruciating.

EB: What’s been your intellectual focus and how has grad school changed that?

KM: I initially went in wanting to do Chicanx lit, especially focusing on what I think of as “messy” bodies — feminine bodies, wounded or disabled ones, queer ones, fat ones, etc. I am still very interested in working with representations of those bodies, but not specifically in Chicanx lit. The questions that drive my interests have shifted and are now really questions of citizenship. That is, whose body do we think of when we think of a citizen? And I’m interested in how our conceptions of citizenship impact reproductive rights and choices about sex and sexuality.

EB: What courses are you taking and what sorts of things were you reading?

KM: This term I am taking an archival research course and a Chicanx literature course. For the former, we’ve read a lot of interesting texts like Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages (much better than her recent op-ed), and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale. I enjoy reading the fruits of these long research projects that reconstruct the lives of historical women. In the latter class we are reading texts from Caballero by Jovita González and Eve Raleigh, to Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, to Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper. We’re really tracking the development of Chicanx identity and culture over the term, and it has been a lot of fun.

EB: What has been the most fun so far?

KM: I just love talking about books in seminars. I love it when something a colleague says transforms my understanding of a passage, or when I have a moment of realization in class and get to share this thing that I’ve just seen that’s really exciting to me.

EB: What has been the weirdest?

KM: This year, it’s been working remotely. When I do go to campus occasionally it’s practically deserted, and that feels very peculiar and a little eerie.

EB: What’s next for you?

KM: Wrapping up my first term as an instructor, writing a couple of long papers, and celebrating a year with my partner, who is also in my program.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

KM: First off, apply for a GRE waiver! That waiver will qualify you for graduate program application fee waivers and those bad boys add up. A less cheery piece of advice is that if you’re interested in going to grad school because you want to work in academia, you need to recognize early on that the job market is dismal. COVID may make it much worse for the foreseeable future. So, if you do go to graduate school, go to a program that will not require you to take on any additional debt, and do it to enjoy every available opportunity to develop and indulge your interests. Make the program a worthy end in and of itself, because that’s what you can control. Last, I would also advise new grad students to make friendships with their cohort mates and other peers as soon as possible. You have no idea how crucial those relationships can be, especially when imposter syndrome and multiple deadlines conspire to crush you. Just knowing other people are feeling or have felt as you do can make all the difference. Good luck!

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

KM: Thanks for the opportunity.

Posted in Grad School, Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on Grad School: An Interview with Kendall Meador

Grad School: An Interview with Alexis Noel Brooks

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fullsizeoutput_3c1.jpeg

Alexis Noel Brooks is a fiercely feminist learner, dog mom, graduate student, coffee addict, “novel in progress”ian, wannabe chef, t-crosser, i-dotter, and lover of all things writerly. After graduating from Southern Oregon University in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, Alexis went on to pursue a Master of Arts in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Ed Battistella: What has your graduate school experience been like so far?

Alexis Noel Brooks: Grad school has been exhilarating, stressful, exhausting, challenging (in the best possible sense of the word), and deeply rewarding. Honestly, I am just trying to soak it all up, to learn everything I possibly can from anyone who is kind enough to teach me. I feel really lucky to have ended up at UNLV. When I left SOU, I was terrified that I’d show up to grad school only to discover I had inadvertently chosen a program where my professors and colleagues didn’t really care like the people I studied with through undergrad. What I found instead, though, was a community of scholars who are excited about what they do and excited to learn along with me. Grad school is endless labor, but a welcoming, warm environment makes it exponentially more pleasant to do good work and be human in.

EB: What is your focus as a scholar?

AB: Maybe I am reading into this question too much, but my scholarly focus and my focus as a scholar are actually two different things to me. That said, they definitely inform one another. Let me explain. My scholarly focus—as in, my research area—is in Black women’s literature and Black feminist theory. My research has been centered around the ways that Black women writers negotiate and reimagine spaces of literary fictionality. My focus as a scholar, on the other hand, is this: how can I amplify the perspectives, voices, and feelings of Black women as they continue to work toward equality in a culture that actively works against their freedom, joy, and very existence? The difference between these two definitions, to me, is that the first is the product of my research and the second is the undercurrent, the driving force, behind my research.

EB: What sorts of things are you reading and writing?

AB: I am currently reading so much amazing stuff, and a lot of it all at once (because that is grad school for you). I am almost done reading Morgan Jerkins’ beautiful new release, Wandering in Strange Lands. It is fantastic. Most of my reading is thesis research these days. I love it. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have the flexibility to choose what I read. In academia, reading loses some of its magic. When your reading choices are dictated by packed syllabi––even if they’re packed with great material––it simply does not leave much room for literary exploration. Now, I can read that random monograph or sci-fi novel I’ve been dying to read, all in the name of possibly using it in my thesis. As for my writing, most of it is academic writing right now. I spend most of my time working on my master’s thesis, which explores how Hannah Crafts reimagines fictionality in The Bondwoman’s Narrative and situates Crafts within a long tradition of Black women writers who use creativity as a tool for subverting the master narrative. I do set aside small batches of time for creative writing, which is one way I practice self-care.

EB: What has been the most interesting of graduate work so far?

AB: I work for the UNLV Honors College as a writing consultant, which essentially means I tutor students one-on-one, teach writing workshops, and guest lecture in Honors classes. One of the most interesting things about my job is the variety of students I get to work with. In a given day, I read first-year students’ papers on anything from mythical cosmogonies, to exposés on “home,” to education reform. I love getting to read and discuss their personal takes on life. They have so many interesting things to say and ways of expressing their unique styles.

EB: How has your graduate study experience changed you?

AB: I am a first-generation college student, which I think is part of why I felt relatively lost and self-doubting entering into graduate school. In my head, it was the most formidable of intellectual spheres. I didn’t know what to expect or whether my ideas would “measure up.” My graduate study experience has made me a far more confident person, not because I haven’t made mistakes but because I’ve been supported along the way. I think it was my first semester, when I sat silently afraid that I’d be asked to read “Goethe” out loud and a fellow student admitted to not knowing the pronunciation either, that I realized we are all in this learning journey together. “Imposter syndrome is real” is something I’ve heard regularly from grad students and professors alike. We all live it. I’ve learned to be okay with this and to put myself out there anyways.

EB: Is there anything you know now that you wished you knew earlier?

AB: That it is okay to not know and to admit to not knowing. I re-learn this constantly.

EB: Can you share any long-range plans?

AB: What are “plans” even, in the middle of a pandemic. It is so hard to know. What I know for sure: I will graduate with my MA in English in May 2021. What I hope for: a career that allows me to put my unique skillset and interests to positive use, and eventual international travel again.

EB: Do you have any advice for undergraduate students considering going on for more school?

AB: Do what makes you happy. This cannot be said enough. Practical tips: If you don’t get accepted into any grad schools the first time around (which I didn’t), try again (which I did, successfully). By the way, if you still want to go to grad school after this, that’s a pretty clear indicator that it is where you need to be. Don’t just research schools’ and professors’ credentials; it is equally important to research the environment. Talk to professors you think you might want to work with and to current graduate students. Ask what they think of their department. Ask whether they feel supported. Ask whether they feel they’re given the tools to thrive. Trust me, it makes all the difference.

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

AB: Absolutely! Thank you!

Posted in Grad School, Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on Grad School: An Interview with Alexis Noel Brooks

Grad School: An Interview with Sabrina Sherman

Sabrina Sherman is a 2016 cum laude graduate of Southern Oregon University with a BA in English. A native of Grants Pass, she is completing a PhD in English at the University of Oregon, where she teaches college composition.

Ed Battistella: What has your graduate school experience been like so far?

Sabrina Sherman: It has been challenging, but most of my challenges are outside of coursework and academics. It’s important to recognize the toll it takes on a person’s finances to be in school for so long; alongside the financial sacrifice is the sheer amount of time spent enduring academic gatekeeping. On that note, I should point out that most of my graduate school experience has consisted of heaps of imposter syndrome in which I constantly question if I deserve to be in a program that has awarded me a six year tuition waver, a stable income, and many other career opportunities. So, obviously, someone thinks I deserve to be here.

EB: What’s been your focus as a scholar?

SS: I am an African Americanist with a focus in theories of passing, mixed race identities, and black feminisms. I am particularly interested in early 20th century US ideas about colorism and its role in mixed race or white passing women. The texts I look at mostly deal with black women who pass for white or are mixed race. The time period I focus on is 20th century, mostly, or the Harlem Renaissance to present. So, I am looking at the narrative echoes of Nella Larsen’s novella Passing.

EB: What sorts of things are you reading and writing about?

SS: Well, I started my grad school career reading lots of post-structuralist theory such as Foucault and Derrida. Now that I’m getting more specialized, I’ve moved into reading Black Feminist theorists and writers such as Morrison, Walker, Spillers, Davis, and Christian, to name a few. I’m in my final year of coursework and my third year of a six-year PhD program. I am currently (in fall 2020) taking a class/seminar on nonfiction comics (which is totally out of my wheelhouse) and I am working on revising a term paper into an article for a publication course. I am also teaching a first-year writing composition course, and I do the readings I assign for my students. I write stuff for my classes, both as a student and instructor. So, lots of writing, always!

EB: What has been the most interesting aspect so far?

SS: Interesting for me is such a loaded term, but then again I learned to question the word “interesting” in a seminar. Go figure. So, I find it interesting (and frustrating) how what I consume on a cultural level—so, Netflix shows, memes, Instagram posts, YouTube videos, etc.—gets circulated into my academic life as relevant material. Everything you do seems to matter, but that also means that it can be hard to compartmentalize personal and academic/work lives. I tend to establish boundaries in good faith and spend a good amount of time trying to enforce “fun” time that is purely inconsequential to my graduate work.

EB: Has graduate school changed you?

SS: Yes, beyond what I can see or notice right now. It has changed everything for me. I can’t emphasize enough how much “grad school” sort of attempts to consume your entire identity such that you often refer to yourself as “just a grad student.” But, actually, grad school just emphasizes the ways in which you can ask better, more specific, and consequential questions. Maybe I’m oversimplifying that idea, but I’m sticking with it. Also, I’m convinced that grad school makes you second guess everything.

EB: Not to be nosy, but what’s are your long-range plans?

SS: I’m assuming you’re referring to my career goals. If so, to answer your question, I will attempt to apply for and attain a tenure track position somewhere. I plan to finish my PhD in the allotted time of six years from entering my program at UO. So, hopefully, by 2023, I’ll be able to call myself a PhD holder. At that point, I will try to get a job to whatever extent that is possible in whatever way that is the most mentally and financially viable. In other words, I don’t want to take a job (mostly, I’m thinking adjunct professorships) that requires me to teach 5-6 sections of 30 students per section and in which I am barely scraping by. Being a professor isn’t that important to me; however, mental, physical, emotional, and financial stability, are.

EB: Do you have any advice for undergraduate students considering going on for more schooling?

SS: My biggest piece of advice is to take a gap year between undergrad and grad school. Especially if you’re considering applying for a PhD program like I did, take a long, hard look at why you want to go to grad school and what you think it’ll offer you. I have never regretted my decision to wait to apply to graduate schools after a gap year. Especially if you’re a Writing or English major, it might be intimidating to take a break from writing, and you might worry that you’ll lose those skills. I’m convinced that life experience guides a more focused statement of purpose and that is precisely what application committees love to see. They want to know why you want to be in their graduate program, which for me took a year or so to figure out.

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

SS: No problem. I am proud to represent Southern Oregon University, and I am grateful for my experiences there. Seriously. I don’t know how I could’ve done grad school well without SOU English instructors’ teaching me the foundational strategies that I still use today! So thank YOU!

Posted in Grad School, Interviews | Comments Off on Grad School: An Interview with Sabrina Sherman

An Interview with Melanie Stormm

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is OIP.jpg

Melanie Stormm is a poet and writer of short-fiction. Her novella, Last Poet of Wyrld’s End is available through Candlemark & Gleam. Her short story “A Mohawk Place for Souls” was a finalist for the Hamlin Garland Award for Short Fiction in 2018 and published by Beloit Fiction Journal. She is also a singer and spoken word performer and is the editor for a special issue of Star*Line, the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. She lives in New Hampshire, where she works in marketing.

Ed Battistella: Welcome Melanie. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background?

Melanie Stormm:  Thanks, Ed! Glad to be here. I’m a multiracial writer of both speculative poetry and fiction. I’m also the marketing coordinator for the SFPA and the current guest-editor for a historic issue of Star*Line magazine centered on Black speculative poetry.

EB: When did you first begin writing?

MS: I grew up in a household that didn’t have a television and only limited access to radio. We told each other stories so I began writing when I was six. By the time I was about ten, I was writing in earnest: poetry, genre fiction, essays on weird things I had no business writing essays about.

EB:  Where does your poetry come from?

MS: That’s a very interesting question as I also write fiction. I think I reach for poetry when I need to explore the multidimensionality of something without having an agenda. I think my poetry has always come from a place that needs to be as faithful as possible to what I see, to not offer judgement, and to explore the way language can cast shadows. Also, sometimes I write poetry because a line pops into my head, makes me snicker, and so I write it down with some perverse glee. I love language.

EB: Who are your poetic influences? Or your literary influences generally?

MS: I studied as a teen with Shari Jean Brown and she’s the one who really drew me more deeply into poetry. She made sure to put Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo into my hands which was incredibly insightful because I got to read poetry with accents and hues drawn from my own life. Both are poets that pull zero punches and I think that shapes some of what I do. As for content and approach, my favorite poets are John Ashbery and William Trowbridge. Both have their own sense of humor, absurdity, speculation, and mastery of language. Trowbridge’s mastery of narrative is the bar I try to jump up and touch (but let’s face it, I need a step stool and a bunch of phone books on top of that.)

EB: I notice that you have a fascination with Tom Petty. Can you elaborate on that?

MS:  His music speaks to people and reads like good poetry. Be specific, let the language do the work, leave room for the reader. But it’s a little more than that.

Years ago, when I was stressed and life was taking more out of me than I could refill, I found myself throwing myself and my kids in the car, picking a direction that offered long roads and few people. I would drive for hours through rolling countryside, dilapidated farmhouses and ones that had been painted bright red, past remote nuclear power plants, people’s hideaway cottages on flooded coasts, under wide open sky. Tom Petty’s music sounds like those drives, feels like them, too. I think that’s the easiest way to explain it. It sounds like America and like the 50s and 60s rock and roll that I used to sometimes listen to when my parents gave me a chance. It sounds like longing, grit, and sunshine on sugarcane. Even now, he is a giant, and an underdog, and it’s a very American juxtaposition, it’s the nature of American magic.

EB: You are also a vocalist yourself. Is there a difference for you between performing as a singer and performing as a poet?

MS: I don’t mind performing as a singer. I hate performing as a poet and tend to avoid the spotlight. I think it has to do with the way I prefer to consume poetry: it has more dimension for me on the page and hearing it from the author is sort of supplemental. It’s very hard to give a sound to line breaks and form that sounds natural and not like “poet voice.”

EB: Tell us about Star*Line and the issue of Star*Line you are editing.

MS: Star*Line magazine is actually one of the oldest speculative poetry publications out there, if not the oldest. It’s the flagship publication of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association which is a global, member-supported organization. It’s been in print now for 42 years. This issue of Star*Line is completely dedicated to giving voice to Black speculative poets as we are drastically underrepresented in the field. The decision from the SFPA executive committee to go in this direction is a historic one. It’s the first themed issue they’ve done with Star*Line. I’m super excited about the issue as it comes out in just a couple short weeks. I think readers will be blown away by the diversity of subgenre, style, and subject matter, not to mention the skill present. I can’t wait because Star*Line has diverse readers and both they and SFPA members have really wanted to see and hear from Black poets.

EB: As a poetry editor of an issue on Black speculative poetry, what do you look for in work?

MS: I look for things I haven’t read before, voices and approaches to the genre that will offer something different but important and expand the genre. I’m looking for skill and for a sense of wholeness to the poem. Bringing Black pantheons, cultural heroes, and culture to the page is also desirable.

EB: What do you do when you are not editing poetry?

MS: I’m a marketer, a mum, and I write fiction in a bunch of different forms. I sometimes write and create fiction where it’s not supposed to be, but that’s fun.

EB: There are also a lot of trees in your poetry, it seems to me. Is that a recurring theme for you?

MS: I think Environment is always a character for me. I have a slew of speculative poems that are about cities. Woods are important to me and I spent a lot of time in them growing up. I always felt a friendship toward trees, lol. I have a worldview, I think, that sees them as their own ambivalent consciousness or entity and so there’s always that thread in my work. I’m naturally drawn to juxtaposition and, now that you point it out, it seems fitting that I reach for both cities and trees.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MS: It’s an honor. Thanks again, Ed.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Melanie Stormm

Summer Reading 2020

Summer reading 2020,204,203,200_.jpg

What Fresh Hell is This? by Marion Meade

I’ve been wanted to tackle this for a while – and Parker has been a fascination since I learned about the Algonquin Round Table. Meade brings DP alive in all her glory and got me interested enough in the period of publishing history to restart Thomas Kunkel’s Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

A readable exploration of why we fall for things – and why con artists do what they do and get away with it—the mark, the put up, the play, the rope, the tale, and more.

The Girl Who Lived Twice: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series Kindle Edition

The Girl Who Lived Twice, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Propulsive page turners with workmanlike plots that don’t disappoint. But Lagercrantz is turning Lisbeth Salander into Jack Reacher. Or maybe she always was.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (Millennium Series Book 5) Kindle Edition

The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series Kindle Edition,204,203,200_.jpg

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

One of the things I love about Colson Whitehead is his range—everything from woo woo to and history–this was a real stretch. Engagingly weird and metaphorical—a plague generates a zombie apocalypse we follow a protagonist—a sweeper clearing the city of zombies– who consider himself overwhelmingly average.

The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead).png

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

A true history horror story of racism and brutality in the not-so-old south. The main character finds redemption and truth but with a twist.

Paperback The Best I Saw in Chess : Games, Stories and Instruction from an Alabama Prodigy Who Became U. S. Champion Book

The Best I Saw in Chess by Stuart Rachels

A multifaceted memoir by the youngest American every to become a chess master. Part instruction manual and part memoir in the narrative tradition of Korchnoi and Tal, but better written.

The Flanders Panel

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Revert

Art restoration meets chess analysis. Tedious characters and disappointing in lots of ways but the chess problem was interesting if you like retrograde analysis.

How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

How to Have Impossible Conversations by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay

A philosopher and a mathematician offer useful conversational techniques necessary for opening minds and navigating controversies. Useful material but the style if kind of self-helpy.

Understanding Beliefs

Understanding Beliefs by Nils Nilsson

I reviewed Roger Kreuz’s excellent book Irony and Sarcasm for Choice, which prompted me to reread Nils Nilsson’s Understanding Beliefs, which is a terrific and readable book on epistemology, the scientific method and problems of thinking by a computer scientist. I feel like working through the entire MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.

Irony and Sarcasm,204,203,200_.jpg

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

2044. A dystopian future with a nostalgia for the 1980s and combined with a fantasy quest. Better than the film version, which was also good, so it’s worth reading.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick

More dystopia, this time in an alternate reality 1962 in which the allies had lost world War II; lots of interesting features, but the story seems to flag at the end. It would be interest to teach this book though.,204,203,200_.jpg

Making Sense of “Bad English” by Elizabeth Peterson

Clear and excellent textbook on language ideology and world Englishes and probably not too expensive to assign in a class.

Mutual Misunderstanding: Scepticism and the Theorizing of Language and Interpretation (Post-Contemporary Interventions)

Mutual Misunderstandings by Talbot Taylor

A deep dive into common sense and technical understanding of understanding. It turned me into more a of communication skeptic. Academic and historical, covering Locke, Saussure and more

The Wrong Case by James Crumley

1970s Montana noir. Crumley is a great writer but the story has an old school tough guy and doesn’t age well. Stick with James Lee Burke.


A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

Le Carré’s thought provoking espionage thriller—packed with possible terrorists, bankers, lawyers, and agents–of works especially well as an audiobook, which has the right pace for all the intricacies. Now to watch the movie.

The Night Fire

The Night Fire Jonathan by Michael Connelly and The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman 

Two great police procedurals and listening to them was like begin with old friends. I prefer Harry Bosch to Alex Delaware as a character but the solve in The Wedding Guest was neater.

The Wedding Guest: An Alex Delaware Novel

1984: New Classic Edition

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I’ll be talking about this in class so it seemed like time to reread it; great performance by Simon Prebble and the audio brings out some new aspects of the book, including some flaws.

. Three Hours in Paris

Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black

This is the wonderful Cara Black’s 20th novel—and first stand alone?—featuring a female sharpshooter from Oregon who becomes an assassin in World War II. Her mission stalls and she must escape from France. Fast paced, intricate and sharply written

What Rose Forgot: A Novel

What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr

An intergenerational thriller in which a women breaks out of a corrupt memory care facility and enlists her granddaughter in helping her on the run. Started out a little slow but ended up a fun romp.

Educated: A Memoir

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

A colleague recommended this and I’m glad I read it. A harrowing tale of the effects of trauma, family dysfunction, gaslighting and conspiracy ideology—and the power of education. It gave me a new appreciation for some of the aspects of students’ lives.

Still working on Jonathan Lethem’s Men and Comics and Stephen Greenleaf’s Strawberry Sunday.

What was on your list?

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on Summer Reading 2020

An Interview with Tea Krulos, author of American Madness

Tea Krulos is a freelance journalist and author from Milwaukee, WI. He writes about art and entertainment, lifestyle, and food/drink for publications like Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, and Milwaukee Record. Other publications he’s contributed to include Fortean Times, The Guardian, Boston Phoenix, Scandinavian Traveler, Doctor Who Magazine, and Pop Mythology. You can find his a weekly column, “Tea’s Weird Week,” on

Tea Krulos - Wikipedia
Megan Berendt Photography

His books include Heroes in the Night: Inside the Real Life Superhero Movement ( 2013, Chicago Review Press), Monster Hunters: On the Trail With Ghost Hunters, Bigfooters, Ufologists, and Other Paranormal Investigators (2015, Chicago Review Press), and Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers (2019, Chicago Review Press).

His most recent book is American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness (2020, Feral House).

Ed Battistella: American Madness is a bio of sorts of Richard McCaslin. Who was he?

Tea Krulos: Back in 2010, I was working on my first book, Heroes in the Night, which is about a subculture of people who adopt their own “Real-Life Superhero” persona. Richard had seen that I was working on the book and contacted me, saying he was one of these Real-Life Superheroes and called himself the “Phantom Patriot” and that he had been arrested in 2002 when he started a fire in a secret retreat in northern California called the Bohemian Grove. It quickly became clear that he was a hardcore conspiracy theorist. I was interested in his life story and how he got there and began a long process of interviewing and researching.

EB: What’s your goal in the book?

TK: I think the first thing that really appealed to me was that Richard’s story hadn’t been told and I was in a unique position to be the one to tell it. As time went on, though, I found there was a bigger picture to this story. I found that Richard wasn’t alone in his views and that some of his beliefs and inspirations were becoming more prevalent. When I first started working on this book, people like Richard were really fringe and isolated. Now you have big social movements like QAnon that follow these ideas.

EB: I wanted to ask about your earlier book Heroes in the Night. Is there a connection between what you call the real life superhero movement and conspiracy theories.

TK: Real-life Superheroes (or RLSH) are a really eclectic group of people that share the desire to invent superhero personas and do good in the world. Most of them aren’t into conspiracy theory, but a couple of them are willing to entertain the ideas. Richard had a tough time breaking into the RLSH community, at first most of them didn’t want to be associated with him because of his beliefs. Eventually he did make a few RLSH friends and joined them on some meet-ups. But he really was, as he himself described it, “the black sheep of the RLSH.”

EB: Is there a particular type of person who is attracted to conspiracy theories?

TK: I think a lot of people have conspiracies they believe in, they’re just usually much more small scale– a conspiracy against you at your workplace, for example. I think people that get in deeper are really looking for meaning and order in this crazy world. There’s some appeal in thinking that a satanic network of Illuminati or “Deep State” is causing everything bad to happen. The Internet has really caused the widespread of some of these ideas. I quote a study in my book that found that almost 100% of flat earthers got sucked into the idea via YouTube. In Richard’s case, and other stories I examined I found that conspiracy believers had gone through a rough time in their life and conspiracy kind of filled the void they were feeling, almost like taking solace in a religious faith.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is EfPUoSgWsAAW5a8.jpg

EB: You also talk about super conspiracies theories, where various conspiracies connect together, like Q-Anon.

TK: Yes, I think this is something that’s evolved. You used to find more theorists that had a conspiracy they focused on– “Assassinologists” are mostly interested in the JFK assassination. But most conspiracists now are super-conspiracists which means they’re likely to believe most conspiracy ideas they’re exposed to and believe that all of them are connected together, all perpetrated by this evil Deep State league.

EB: Is it possible to engage with someone who believes in conspiracies? What’s the best strategy?

TK: Sadly, it’s difficult to engage with someone after they make the conspiracy plunge. Almost anything you present to them– legit journalism or even photos or video will be dismissed as “fake news” or a “hoax.” It’s frustrating because how can you argue a point with someone like that? I think the best strategy is to not mock the person or get angry, but to listen and present why you think that they are wrong and point out the credibility issues with their sources. Hope for the best, but don’t expect them to budge in their thinking.

EB: Is the US more prone to conspiracy thinking that other countries or is this a world-wide phenomenon?

TK: It is world-wide. I just read a report about how QAnon has started to get a foothold in the UK, Germany, and other European countries. Other countries have long used conspiracy as a form of propaganda. That being said, conspiracy is very American. It’s gotten to be prevalent here, especially in this Trump era. From Bohemian Grove to Area 51 to Dealey Plaza, it’s part of our landscape.

EB: How do politicians respond to conspiracy theories? What should they be doing?

TK: Well, some conspiracy theorists are getting elected to office! Trump himself knows very well the power of using these theories as a weapon, whether it’s Birtherism, alleged voter fraud, or blaming his orange skin tone on energy efficient lightbulbs. The Trump effect has led to a number of QAnon inspired candidates to run– Marjorie Greene, a QAnon believer, is poised to win a seat in Congress this year and others look like they have a chance of winning, too.

That’s why I think it’s important to look at your local elections. It’s exhausting to keep up with all the misinformation, but I think media and politicians should be calling out Trump and other politicians spreading conspiracy every time. There is a war on reality about politics and the pandemic, and that should concern us all.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TK: Great talking with you, thank you!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Tea Krulos, author of American Madness

An Interview with Stuart Rachels, author of The Best I Saw in Chess

Born in 1969, Stuart Rachels grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and began playing chess when he was 8. At 11 he became a chess master and was the US Junior Champion in 1988 and the US co-champion in 1989. At the age of 23, he retired from competitive chess.

A former Marshall Scholar, he has a PhD in Philosophy from Syracuse University and teaches at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. This year he published The Best I Saw in Chess (New in Chess, 2020).


Ed Battistella: When you were not quite 12,  you became the youngest chess master in US history. How did you learn to play and how did you get so good so fast?

Stuart Rachels: My brother David taught me the rules. I have no idea how I got good. It was just something my brain took to. It was also my most enjoyable period as a player. Getting good is more fun than being good.

EB: Reading The Best I Saw in Chess, it occurred to me that good chess books are equal parts narrative and analysis. Did you think about this balance as you were writing the book? Or think about the memoir genre more generally?

SR: Yes and yes. Here are some tips I gave myself. (i) In telling stories, just say what happened. Don’t give commentary. Commentary is boring, and anyway your readers will prefer their own interpretations, so don’t waste their time giving them yours. (ii) In writing your life story, don’t start with your birth and end with you sitting there writing your life story. Skip around in time. (iii) Autobiographical writing is about taming one’s ego. Write a lot of drafts; take a lot of time to gain perspective. (iv) Chessplayers don’t want to hear your life story. They want to see cool moves. Make it less about you. Every story you tell, you must earn with cool chess moves. (v) Don’t make yourself look good; let yourself look human. Aside from Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Tal was the best blitz player in the world during the 1960’s. Yet when Tal recounts a blitz tournament in his autobiography, the only position he gives is one in which he made a silly blunder. Does this make you think less of Tal? Not at all; just the opposite. (vi) Your main obligation is to your reader, not to yourself. Don’t suppress uncomfortable truths. They’re uncomfortable for you, not for your reader. And though you hate it, include games that you lost. Guess what? Some of the coolest moves you’ve ever seen were ones that kicked your butt.

EB: What was the toughest part of writing The Best I Saw in Chess?

SR: Finding the right title. Stuart Rachels’ Chess Career is too conceited. Also, the book is primarily about chess, not about me; it is a book of instruction, where the lessons come from my games. So the title should not cry out “autobiography.” Yet it shouldn’t ignore that element; How to Think about Chess Positions isn’t right, either. And the title should contain the word ‘chess.’ Also, it should say something about me, because, who am I?—I haven’t played chess in 25 years. (I covered that desideratum with a self-promoting subtitle.) It took me months to find a title I was happy with.

EB: This is one of the few chess books I’ve seen that has footnotes, which I think is great. What does your chess library look like?

SR: Disorganized. I’ve acquired so many chess books in the last few years that they’ve outgrown their bookshelf, and now that I’m writing another book (about fortresses), my books tend to wind up in stacks, relating to some theme. Footnotes are important. I use them for references and for jokes.

EB: Who are some of the best chess writers out there? Do they have anything in common?

SR: I was trying to combine the virtues of John Nunn and Mikhail Tal. Nunn explains chess ideas perfectly (accurately, succinctly, insightfully), but he displays no personality—no humor and nothing too personal. Meanwhile, Tal has never edited a sentence in his life (he dictated his books, and it shows), but his wit, affable nature and lack of pretension are manifested on every page.

EB: You mention that you don’t always calculate a lot of variations, but also that you sometimes run into time trouble. Can you say anything about your thought process during a game?

SR: My trainer once told me that I would get into time trouble even if I began the game with five hours on my clock. There’s always lots to think about, but my time mismanagement probably derived from my neuroses—a useful neurosis. I was always motivated by the fear that I was about to make a bad move. This anxiety helped me focus, but it also slowed me down. … As for my thought process, I’ll just mention the only thing which (I think) was unusual. Often, there would be the move I wanted to play (the move I was most comfortable with) and then this different move, which I didn’t want to play, but it might be best. At those moments, I would silently give myself a speech, arguing that the move I wanted to play was best—and then I’d see whether I found the speech convincing.

EB: You’ve played several former world champions—Kasparov, Anand, and Spassky. Who was the toughest?

SR: Kasparov is the greatest player ever, in my opinion. However, I can’t say who was toughest for me, because I played these players at different strengths, under different conditions. When I played Anand, we were both 14; when I played Spassky, I was 16 and was too nervous and starstruck to think clearly; and then I played Kasparov in two clock simuls. I will say that my most awesome experience was playing blitz with Anand. He thinks several times faster than most GMs. “Touched by God” is an apt phrase.

EB: You have a day job, as a professor of philosophy. Do you still find time to play chess?

SR: I play a little on the internet, but not much. It isn’t about time. I prefer in-person play, and the nearest grandmaster is 150 miles away—my friend Ben Finegold, who runs a great club in Atlanta.

EB: Thanks for talking. Good luck with The Best I Saw in Chess.

SR: Thank you!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Stuart Rachels, author of The Best I Saw in Chess

An Interview with Neil Nakadate, author of Looking After Minidoka

Neil Nakadate is a graduate of Stanford and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Indiana University.  He is University Professor Emeritus from Iowa State University, where he received the Iowa State Foundation Award for Career Achievement in Teaching. He is a past president of the Board of Directors of Humanities Iowa.  His writing has appeared in various publications, including Aethlon, Cottonwood, ISLE, and Annals of Internal Medicine; he has co-authored two books on rhetoric and writing and has written a critical study of novelist Jane Smiley (2010).  His most recent book is Looking After Minidoka:  An American Memoir (Indiana University Press, 2013), which links his Portland family and Japanese American experience from immigration through the 20th century. 

Ed Battistella: Tell us a little about yourself and your career.

Neil Nakadate: I went to high school in Portland, then to Stanford. After that it was Indiana University for my M.A. and Ph.D. I taught American literature, courses on fiction, and various nonfiction writing courses, first at Texas and then at Iowa State.

EB: Your father was a doctor. I’m curious how you chose to become an English professor.

NN: My father wanted me to follow him into medicine, but in high school my affinity was for English and history—an inclination that was reinforced by some excellent teachers. In college I was pre-med until the second quarter of my sophomore year, when I gave up lab reports for writing papers on poetry and fiction. I eventually concluded that my family’s economic stability, established by two preceding generations, enabled me to make that choice.

EB: What prompted you to write Looking After Minidoka?

NN: I had been trying for years to write about my family, with a focus on the World War II years. But it became clear to me that my family embodied many of the key aspects of the larger Japanese American story—and that explaining “internment” would require discussing what preceded it and what came after. Meanwhile, I had become impatient with superficial historical accounts of the incarceration that reduced the experience to dates and statistics. I knew that the stories of individuals could provide texture and depth for the collective story. So I interviewed family members, engaged in research, read new material as it became available, and wrote and otherwise contributed in support of Redress. I organized my files. I wrote a few of the poems that would appear in the book. But I was preoccupied with teaching and writing about American literature—including multicultural American literature(s)—and rhetoric and writing. So my progress on Looking After Minidoka was fitful; more than half of it was written in the two years after I retired.

EB: What was the process of research like for a memoir spanning three generations?

NN: It was challenging but rewarding. For example, the family record included anecdotes, letters, memorabilia, interviews, ephemera, and photographs. The public record included census data and immigration records, maps, city directories, military history, and so on. I had to figure out how to sort through, organize, and present what was most valuable in all this without getting distracted and sidetracked. This was a challenge because I would periodically encounter a subtopic or detail that required me to modify my initial understanding.

EB: You were born in the Midwest and your family returned to Oregon after World War II. What are your recollections of growing up in Portland? Was the racism different than in the Midwest?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Mindoka_smallpostcard.-cover-copy.jpgNN: When I was a boy growing up in Northwest Indiana, it was ethnically diverse and the fathers typically worked in the refineries, steel mill, or shipyard. My father had gone there because that’s where he was offered an internship upon completing medical school in Portland. The diversity of East Chicago was largely Central and Eastern European in origin. Ours was one of the few Asian families, but (according to my parents) we were accepted as part of the general mix. My memory of elementary school in Hammond is of a brief race-related incident but no ongoing problems. This was in the decade after World War II. On the post-war West Coast the “unwelcome mat” had been put out for Japanese Americans returning from the camps, and that made returning to Oregon a challenge for many, even by 1956. My parents were able to buy a house in Southwest Portland, but only after having some offers wither under the objections of potential neighbors and vacillation on the part of realtors.

EB: In your book, you include a lot of your own poetry. What’s the role of poetry in a memoir like this one?

NN: The poems convey my personal connection to and feelings about elements of the larger story, and they help explain what inspired me to juxtapose my family’s story and the larger Japanese American story. Early on I knew I wanted to include the poetry, but I was also aware that publishers were resistant to mixed-genre books. Interestingly enough, by the time I finished writing, that resistance had diminished.

EB: What did you learn about yourself while writing the book?

NN: Who I am in relation to other Japanese Americans who are strangers, yet related.

EB: Today, as in the 1960’s, we are seeing a surge of civil rights protests and anti-racism. Do you see current controversies and struggles as coming out of 1960s activism or was something else at work. Or both? Are there lessons for today’s struggles against racism?

NN: What’s happening today seems in part a legacy of 1960’s protests and activism against war in Southeast Asia, for civil rights, in support of women’s rights. And both then and now what we see and say is amplified by mass media. During the 1968 Democratic Convention one salient chant heard on TV was, “The whole world is watching!” Today we have social media as part of the mix. At the core of Japanese American experience, 1960’s civil rights unrest and activism, and current issues and protests (regarding immigration, displacement and dispossession, citizenship, voting rights. . .) are some basic, ongoing questions: “Who gets to be an American?” and “Does everyone here have an opportunity to pursue the American Dream?” and “Who gets to decide, and on what grounds?”

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NN: Thanks for asking.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Neil Nakadate, author of Looking After Minidoka

The Em Dash, a guest post by Rachel Harris

Rachel Harris is studying English and Shakespeare Studies at Southern Oregon University. She proofreads all her text messages and inserts the correct dash even when the person she’s texting won’t  care. 

The Em Dash: A Survey

Despite its proliferation in modern texts, the em dash is not present in the majority of early writing curricula. It is one of the most versatile punctuation marks in the English language, with many different functions and the ability to act as an alternative to a number of other marks, but, though most can likely recognize it on sight, few English readers would be able to identify it by name. Its absence in education is likely due, in part, to its rocky past, as well as to the unflattering whims of public opinion, which now seem to be shifting. As the em dash returns to favor, it is worth exploring the history and merits of this valuable punctuation mark.

The Chicago Manual of Style describes the em dash as “the most commonly used and most versatile of the dashes” (333). It is most often used to “set off an amplifying or explanatory element,” and, in this way, can take the place of a comma, a semicolon, a colon, a pair of commas, or a pair of parentheses (333–334). Though the em dash can be mechanically interchangeable with these other marks, it carries a different tone. For example, it tends to be read as less formal, particularly compared to the colon and semicolon (Norris 145–146); when it comes to paired punctuation used to set off an interruption, em dashes emphasize the contained information, while parentheses deemphasize it, and commas, read as neutral, do not act on it at all (Einsohn 89). Because the em dash is effective in so many contexts, it is prone to overuse; it should be employed carefully and sparingly. Einsohn states that, especially when taking the place of a semicolon in joining independent clauses, it “is best reserved for special effects” such as “prepar[ing] readers for a punchline or a U-turn” (81).

The em dash has other purposes, as well, including some that only it can fulfill. It is commonly used to indicate an interruption or other sudden break, particularly in dialogue; in this role, it can be placed at either the end or the beginning of a thought, to indicate that the thought is being either cut off or picked up partway through (Norris 135). It is used to lend a sort of breathless urgency to writing (136) and to represent stream-of-consciousness thinking (Truss 158); it is effective in setting certain tones, and has, thus, been a popular punctuation choice for poets, including Emily Dickinson (Norris 137–138). In playwriting, the em dash is also employed to “secure suspense” and emphasize a word or phrase at the end of a sentence (Smiley and Bert 206–207). More technical uses include the replacement of bullet points in lists and the replacement of quotation marks in dialogue, particularly dialogue translated from a language that prefers guillemets over quotation marks (The Chicago 335).

In order to fully understand the em dash, one must first understand the em. The Chicago Manual of Style defines the em as a “unit of type measurement equal to the point size of the type in question” (895), meaning that, in a twelve-point font, the em—and, therefore, the em dash—will be twelve points wide. It is largely accepted that the em is so titled because it is the width of a capital letter M (“Glossary of Typographic”); while this may have been true at one time, it is not reliably true now, as the M in most modern typefaces is narrower than the em. In fact, the length of the em cannot be measured by any text seen in print or on screen: It is the height of the type, which comprises the character and a small space used as a buffer between lines of text—the leading. In the days of metal type, each piece of type would include a narrow piece of lead at the bottom of the letter or mark; the height—and, therefore, the em—includes this leading and the negative space created by it (Phinney).

The etymology of the em dash, though not relevant to its proper usage, is interesting. It is named for the em, of course, because it is the length of one em; the word dash, though, is more intriguing: Dashes, as a group, were likely given this title because of the action used to create them. “Dash” comes from the Middle English verb dasshen—to knock, to hurl, to break (Truss 159)—and means “to strike violently”; dashes were used in handwritten text even before the age of metal type, and were produced with a sharp dash of a pen on paper. Though usage of the dashes as punctuation marks has evolved over time, this definition has been in evidence since the middle of the sixteenth century (Houston 150).

Variations on the em dash exist in certain contexts. In the past, the em dash was often paired with other punctuation marks, forming such creations as the comma-dash or “commash”; though these “dashtards” were, at one time, employed by writers as venerated as Shakespeare, they have been considered nonstandard for over half a century (151–153). In British writing, the em dash is itself nonstandard; in its place, a spaced en dash is used (145). There are also 2-em and 3-em dashes, which have their own purposes and are, respectively, two and three ems long. The 2-em dash is used to omit words or parts of words, such as names or expletives, or to represent missing or illegible information in quoted text (The Chicago 335–336). It was regularly employed to censor names of politicians in mid–eighteenth century England, in order to circumvent a ban on parliamentary reporting (Houston 158–160), but has since fallen out of style; at that time, it was also so commonly used to censor expletives that the word “dash” itself became a mild epithet (158). The 3-em dash, meanwhile, is used in scholarly bibliographies, to indicate that the author or editor of an entry is the same as that of the previous entry (The Chicago 336).

Since the days of metal type, the em dash has had a rocky history. Though it was common enough during and prior to that era, it saw a decline when Christopher Latham Sholes patented the first typewriter in the 1860s. Due to spatial limitations and the lack of a shift mechanism, Sholes’s QWERTY keyboard had to prioritize certain characters over others; there was only room for one dash, and Sholes chose a version of the hyphen (Houston 160–161). The hyphen, then, had to act for all dashes—it entirely took the place of the en dash, and in order to create the em dash, typists would have to type two hyphens in a row. Modern word processors now have helpful shortcuts for typing the em dash, and will even autocorrect a double hyphen into an em dash, but the remnants of this reliance on hyphens can be seen in comic books, where it is still lettering practice to use the double hyphen instead of the em dash (Klein).

The em dash has also experienced shifts in attitude; as with all aspects of the English language, it has both its proponents and its detractors, but there have been clear trends in its popularity. Its informality and versatility were, at one time, viewed as drawbacks; as Norris explains, “[t]he sheer range of its use suggests that it’s a lazy, all-purpose substitute for more disciplined forms of punctuation” (136). Truss similarly describes how it was “seen as the enemy of grammar” because it is so prevalent in email and texting communication, which are often characterized by “overtly disorganized thought” (157). Norris also notes that women often use em dashes (136), which is, in itself, an explanation for the contempt it has faced, since things used and enjoyed by women tend to be derided in modern society.

The em dash is, however, seeing a return to popularity, and an increase in respect. As Gopen describes, beginning in the 1960s—when using the em dash would have gotten him “sent straightaway to the headmaster’s office to be reprimanded for [his] act of moral turpitude”—first fiction writers, and then journalists, began employing the em dash (13). As the em dash became useful to writers, it “slowly assumed a rightful place in writing,” and eventually even grammar books began to accept it (13). It is no longer disparaged—except, perhaps, by the stuffiest of grammar snobs—and this is a victory for writers, as it presents them with “better ways to send interpretive signals to their readers” (13), as has been demonstrated by the earlier comparison of different tones expressed by various punctuation marks.

The em dash is, once again, a staple of English punctuation. It is found in many genres of modern writing, and whole sections of grammar and editing texts are devoted to it. It is a valuable mark to study: Its wide variety of uses and ability to shape a text’s tone endow it with great potential when used effectively, and an exploration of its fascinating history provides insight into a range of topics, including typographic origins and political censorship. Like other punctuation marks, the em dash has endured the changeability of popular opinion, but it is currently on the rise, and perhaps, someday, this wonderfully versatile character will be considered acceptable and useful enough to be taught in middle and high school English classes.

Works Cited

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2010.

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 3rd ed., Berkeley, U of California P, 2011.

“Glossary of Typographic Terms.” Adobe, Accessed 5 June 2020.

Gopen, George D. “A Once Rogue Punctuation Mark Gains Respectability: What You Can Now Accomplish with an Em Dash.” Litigation; Chicago, vol. 46, no. 1, Fall 2019, pp. 13–14.

Houston, Keith. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Klein, Todd. “Punctuating Comics: Dots and Dashes.” Todd’s Blog, 23 Sept. 2008, Accessed 5 June 2020.

Norris, Mary. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Phinney, Thomas. “Point Size and the Em Square: Not What People Think.” Phinney on Fonts, 18 Mar. 2011, Accessed 5 June 2020.

Smiley, Sam, and Norman A. Bert. Playwriting: The Structure of Action. Rev. and expanded ed., New Haven, Yale UP, 2005.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York, Gotham Books, 2004.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on The Em Dash, a guest post by Rachel Harris

Who’s got the best COVID Mask?

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on Who’s got the best COVID Mask?

From the Notebooks of Raymond Chandler

Drawn from journals kept through his career, The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler contains some of Chandler’s descriptions and ideas that would later appear in his classics novels. Included are observations on slang and more. Enjoy.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on From the Notebooks of Raymond Chandler

An Interview with Alissa Lukara, author of Secrets of the Trees

Alissa Lukara

Alissa Lukara is the author of the novel Secrets of the Trees, set in Latvia.  Her memoir, Riding Grace: A Triumph of the Soul (Silver Light Publications), was called by the Midwest Book Review “a transcendental story about the immeasurable powers of redemption and compassion.”

Alissa Lukara has been a professional writer and writing coach for more than thirty years and founded Transformational Writers. She teaches workshops and speaks on writing as a transformational journey. She is also co-author of NightDancin’ (Ballantine Books).

She grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, and has lived in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.  She now makes her home in Ashland.

Ed Battistella: Your book Secrets of the Trees struck me as an engaging hero’s quest combined with recent history. How did the book come about?

Alissa Lukara: After completing a memoir, I knew I wanted next to write a novel. One day I was hiking in Lithia Park when a young boy ran up to me, asked me if my name was Nikkie and if I was lost in the woods. Nikkie had carved her name into a tree, he said, and he was looking for her with his father and sister. They had made a game of it, the boy’s father explained. I went along with the fantasy and that encounter sparked the idea for the novel with a main character named Nikkie, who had been lost in a forest as a child once and now had also lost her way in her life. The first scenes I wrote were set in a forest in Oregon.

But a year into the writing of the book, scenes set in Latvia emerged. As long as I had written, I had known I would one day write a novel that included Latvia’s recent history and my own family’s history. Their life in Latvia, their uprooting during WWII and their own hero’s quest to escape the Soviet takeover had shaped my life and perspectives on the world growing up. It was then I knew Secrets of the Trees would be that book about Latvia. And while the novel is set in 2003, my family’s life and quest were fictionalized as part of the backstory.

EB: Tell us about the protagonist Nikkie, who is a dancer with visions. How did you conceive of her?

AL: The day after my encounter with the boy in the park, I did a free write asking Nikkie to tell me about herself and a spontaneous piece emerged about her that started with her whirling and dancing. It ended up with her pretending to be lost in the forest with her brother.

Then when I was a couple years into writing the novel, her visions in Latvia started to appear in scenes of the book. At that moment, I knew the main action of this novel about Nikkie’s hero’s quest would take place in Latvia and include pieces of my family’s history. I made her ancestry Latvian, like mine. I knew her transformational journey to re-inspire herself as a dancer and solve the mystery of her vision would now also involve an exploration of her Latvian roots and a deepening of her recognition of the divine in all creation, most notably nature and trees, a concept central to Latvian spirituality, and to the Latvian goddesses Māra and Laima, who guide her.

EB: And Nikkie has a twin, Tom. Why a twin?

AL: After the boy asked me if I was Nikkie, I continued my hikes in the same park to think about the novel. I carried a notebook and pen to jot down ideas. Several days in a row, I saw twins of various ages. It happened so often, I commented to a friend that there must be a twin convention in town. Then, I realized that Nikkie had a brother who was a fraternal twin.

Some years into the writing, I also discovered that twins had run in my maternal family. One great grandmother had been a fraternal twin whose brother drowned when he was a teenager. She had also given birth to fraternal twins, who had died as toddlers from a flu.

EB: What is your connection to Latvia, Latvians spirituality, and Latvian history?

AL: I am a first generation American with several generations of Latvian ancestry. My parents and grandparents and other members of my maternal family escaped Latvia in 1944 during WWII when the Soviets took it over. They walked across Latvia, were refugees and lived in a Displaced Persons camp in Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany for five years before emigrating to the U.S. Some remaining family members were arrested and sent to Siberia, where most died. I still have relatives in Latvia who lived through the Soviet Occupation and remain there now that it is free. This family history has struck a deep chord throughout my life. Growing up, I was active in the Latvian culture and community in Cleveland, Ohio, learning to speak, read and write Latvian, speaking it at home, attending Latvian events and camps. Since the Soviet Union was trying to destroy the culture in Latvia itself, many Latvian parents, mine included, taught their children that it was up to the Latvian diaspora to carry forth the culture so it would not die. I participated in Latvian Song and Dance festivals in the U.S., Canada and Latvia, and as a young adult was part of the Latvian community in New York City. A few years ago, I became a dual citizen.

My mother was active in the Chicago Latvian community for decades, studied Latvian politics and arts, was part of a Latvian literary group, talked to me often – always in Latvian – about Latvian current events and culture. I was fortunate to travel to Latvia with her three times before she died last year and gain her insights there. Through her connections, I met not only my family there but her friends including many well-known Latvians in the arts and culture. In researching Secrets of the Trees, I realized that much of what was important to me in fact had its roots in my Latvian heritage: my love of the arts and nature, spirituality that sees the divine in nature, poetry, dance, music, a longing for freedom, my resilience.

EB: What should readers understand about Latvia?

AL: Latvia is a country most people know little about. Yet its culture is rich. It’s been said that every Latvian is a poet, and a Latvian without a song is a Latvian without a soul. I love that and can so relate.

Too often, our world seems to value only the accomplishments of the superpowers while ignoring or discounting what smaller countries have to teach us. The novel offers a look at what Latvians have to share globally through the filter of what has most touched me about it. They value and support the arts. For instance, they have managed to create and preserve their cultural identity and identification as a singing nation despite living through centuries of oppression and serfdom.

During Glasnost and Atmoda, Latvians’ conscious decision to stage a nonviolent Singing Revolution led to the dissolution of fifty years of Soviet Oppression. They continue to hold a Latvian song and dance festival every five years, as they have since 1873, that is on the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list. It involves mass choir and dance events of forty thousand plus participants (fifteen thousand singers, fifteen thousand dancers) from a country with a population of two million. Numerous Latvian classical music and opera stars grace the top opera houses and symphony halls in the world and the country’s choirs repeatedly win gold medals in world competitions. Latvians, even those who live in the city, also maintain a deep soul connection to and respect for nature, the land and its forests.

EB: Can you tell our readers a bit more about the title—Secrets of the Trees?

AL: From the first pages I wrote, scenes were set in forests, and the trees became like characters themselves. And when the visions in Latvian forests appeared to Nikkie, their role stood out even more. The forests draw Nikkie, are central to solving the mystery behind the recurring visions, hence the title, which came to me spontaneously a few years ago.

Also interwoven in the novel and inspiring the title are the ways Latvia’s forests play a key role in its collective history and culture, in Latvian’s day to day lives and specifically in the lives of my novel’s characters. Forests still cover 42 percent of Latvia. Trees are key images in many of Latvia’s folk songs and folklore. Over the centuries that Latvia was oppressed by one nation after another, Latvians in peril escaped and hid in the country’s dense forests. During WWII, resistance fighters, known as the Forest Brothers, lived and operated out of the woods. But over the years Latvians have also gone to the forest to find solace. My grandmother, like many Latvians, learned to give her pain to the trees and ask them to heal her. When Latvians were not free to speak out in real life, they could speak out to the trees and rocks and plants of the woods. Several Latvian deities are associated with trees. There are even lists of sacred trees to visit in Latvia.

EB: What are you working on currently? Will there be a sequel?

AL: I’ve been getting the word out about Secrets of the Trees and taking a much-needed break. But I am planning to start a new writing project soon. I might write a screenplay of the novel. I have always envisioned it as a film and have had several other people tell me they see it that way as well. Also, the first draft of Secrets of the Trees included several chapters of Nikkie in Egypt that I cut out but am now considering turning into a sequel. At present, though, I’m being called simply to do some free writing to explore what wants to be expressed in what is a whole new chapter of my life. I am excited to see what comes from that.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AL: You’re welcome, Ed. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Alissa Lukara, author of Secrets of the Trees

An Interview with Bethroot Gwynn, Honoring Women’s History Month

Bethroot Gwynn graduated from Duke University and Union Theological Seminary. She lives on women’s land in the forests of Southern Oregon, where she has been writing, growing food, making theater and ritual since 1976. She has taught, directed, and performed Personal Theater for Women, crafting experience into physical symbol and personal myth. Her first theater production was Feathers in My Mind, an autobiographical play. She created several one-woman performance pieces, including Theaterwoman, Immaculate Decision, and A Mind Play — celebrating lesbian-feminism and Goddess spirituality at conferences, festivals and other venues. She directed some of her students in two performance pieces —Pieces of Truth, and Childtracks and Amazon Wings, and created an ensemble piece called Women: The Longest Revolution — A Performance Documentary.

 Her poetry and essays have been published in WomanSpirit, Manzanita Quarterly, MoonSeed, Sinister Wisdom, The Poetry of Sex, and other publications. Bethroot is a longtime editor of We’Moon: Gaia Rhythms for Womyn, and her writing is featured regularly in the We’Moon datebook. She published a chapbook in 1990 — Under the Heartstone: Poems from a Lesbian Love Spell. In 2018, We’Moon published a collection of her work — PreacherWoman for the Goddess: Poems, Invocations, Plays and Other Holy Writ.

Bethroot Gwynn
Bethroot Gwynn
photo by Hawk Madrone 2017

We'Moon 2020 front cover art "Lioness" by Saha Taj 2014


We’Moon 2020 front cover art “Lioness” ©Saba Taj 2014

For those readers who may be unfamiliar, what is We’Moon?

We’Moon is a unique datebook, graced with art and writing submitted from women all over the world. It reflects a spirituality that honors Earth/Moon/Sun/Stars — and Woman. Gaia, the primal mother earth Goddess in Greco-Roman mythology, interacts with her celestial neighbors every day, and We’Moon keeps track of those actual rhythms. It is a daily/weekly calendar and appointment book packed with astrological, lunar and Sun-seasonal information. It’s also a book of devotions: sacred space where women share written and artistic inspirations from their life-experiences, their love and concern for the world, their delight at saying Goddess! out loud as a name for divine energy. “We’Moon” = we of the moon, we whose bodies cycle in Moon rhythm.

We like to say that “If Mother Earth needed a datebook, She would choose We’Moon.” There is really nothing quite like it. I’m thinking of it as a spiritual Rorschach: there is something for you to be gifted by, depending on what you are looking for. Thousands of folks rely on We’Moon for its detailed astrological and lunar data. Every day’s calendar space includes lunar phases and detailed astrological entries (the movement of the Sun through the signs of the Zodiac, planetary travels through those signs: aspects, transits, ingresses, etc.). This information is important for people who take sky activities into account as they make plans and write in their appointments and seek to understand unseen multiplicities in their lives. Insightful articles by women in the Introduction and Appendix serve as a primer for deeper explorations of astrology, eclipses, Tarot, herbs, and the solar cycle of seasons.

Others are more drawn to We’Moon’s poetic and artistic qualities. For some it’s like a spirit-filled coffee table book; opening to any week may reveal an oracle of color and verse that offers guidance and wisdom. I’ll say more about We’Moon magic shortly.

The We’Moon calendar honors eight Holy Days: the two solstices and two equinoxes marked by how the Sun and Earth play with each other and create seasons — and the four in-between, cross-quarter days from the Celtic calendar: Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), Lammas, Samhain (Hallowmas). Each holyday receives a double page spread of art and writing, and each year a gifted writer accents our travel through this Wheel of the Year.

Every year the datebook has a theme, a touchstone to inspire our contributors and our organizing of the material we receive. For the past 21 years, our annual theme has been drawn from a card in Tarot’s Major Arcana. We’Moon 2020 spins off from the Judgment card, #20, and proclaims Wake Up Call as the thematic clarion. And within the datebook there are always 13 Moons or chapters, from one New Moon to the next, with art and writing threaded through the daily/weekly pages, following a sub-theme of that year’s wider focus.

In order to give readers a bit of a sample of what one would find in the We’Moon datebook, would you share a few favorite pieces?

Enough talking about the book already!

Let’s look at a couple of actual pages from We’Moon 2020.

Here is a poem by Lorraine Schein, companioned by an art piece from Sudie Raskusin. It is on page 77 and is part of Moon IV Awakened Woman.

From Moon VI Earth Answers, we are sharing here a poem from Cindy Ruda, and art by Rachel Houseman. You can see that this page has no daily calendar space. It is part of the Moon Page VI spread, accompanying the title page for that Moon chapter.

I chose these selections as examples of the now provocative, now reverent material that We’Moon publishes. There are clearly political stirrings among We’Moon writers and artists. We hear impassioned alarm about the state of the world, offerings of hope about building global community. Sometimes there is quirky relief, wit to shake us up. And we also get to bow in gratitude for the prayers and paens that remind us of benevolence at the heart of reality.

How do these contributions of art and writing come about? How are they gathered and chosen?

This part of the story is quite remarkable. There are other astrological moon calendars, a few dedicated to women. What makes W’e’Moon so unusual, I believe, is this wave of art and writing submissions every year — more than 3000, from 400-500 women around the world. From that treasure trove, approximately 150 pieces of art, and 150 writings, wind up in the datebook. The wave comes in response to the Call for Contributions that we send out in the spring, spinning an invitation based on our chosen theme and a bevy of questions to spark creative impulses: what imaginative uplift, visions of truth might women create from their pens and paintbrushes, keyboards and cameras?

“We” who gather this rich material together are a staff of 7 women, most based in Southern Oregon, a mix of full- and part-time employees with years of longevity among us. We’Moon staff are sometimes a little bonkers about what year we are in. Calendar-makers have to be far ahead of the game. Right now in mid-March we are selling/using We’Moon 2020; We’Moon 2021 was sent to the printer last week, and we’ve just completed and released the Call for We’Moon 2022.

Those thousands of submissions will come in over the summer. And here is Part 2 of We’Moon’s unlike-any-other-datebook story: a democratic layer of women’s community participation in the process of selecting art and writing. In September, women are invited to join us to review the material, at about a dozen Selection Circles held in different parts of the region. Each piece of art/writing has an easy rating code on the back, and women come together in these small “study halls” to register their druthers about the material — about 200 participants in all. The final circle, held in Ashland, also includes feedback about possible covers, and Moon theme subjects. We’Moon staff spend months in fall and winter reviewing the materials, firming up Moon theme clusters, choosing and placing art and writing on calendar pages of the next We’Moon, changing our minds 300 times. We consult the circle druthers for advice as we go along. We also go searching for additional pieces if crucial topics need more focus than we find in the mix of submissions.

And women’s community participation comes full circle in the fall when we hold an Unveiling in Ashland of the new We’Moon. This is a public-invited event where local area contributors of art & writing in the brand-new datebook share their work. The Unveilings are vibrant with creativity, resonant with appreciation and celebration.

What are the origins of We’Moon? How did it begin?

The story of how We’Moon came about is a fascinating tale. You can read about it in detail in an exquisite book: In the Spirit of We’Moon. It’s a 30 Year Anthology of Art and Writing from We’Moon 1981-2011. The anthology is narrated by Musawa, co-founder of the datebook and owner of We’Moon Company. She was there from the beginning!


In the Spirit of We’Moon front cover art
“Beauty” ©Jeannine Chappell 2006

We’Moon began as part of the late 20th century feminist revolution, the lesbian back-to-the-land movement, the emergence of eco-feminism, and the rebirth of Goddess spirituality. The datebook’s actual birth began on women’s land in Denmark, where 50-60 lesbians were living close to the earth, creating community, and exploring spiritual connections with each other and with natural earth-sky cycles. Astrology became a common language among these women from different countries, speaking different native languages. I’ve heard it said that, for instance, the Libras might cook dinner together, or the Pisces women do a harvest day. Their natal astrological charts hung in the living room and deepened their fun and wonder with each other and the cosmos.

Suddenly, the land was commandeered by a corporation, and this nurturing experimental community had to disband and separate. Musawa and Nada, her then-partner, in diaspora, took on creating a novel way for these women to stay connected: We’Moon! “Faced with loss of our home base, we turned to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with ourselves, each other and the Earth’s cycles” (Musawa, In the Spirit of We’Moon, p. 24).

The first We’Moon was wee: a pocket-sized astrological moon calendar for 1981-82, hand-written in five languages. Copies traveled around Europe in backpacks and travel bags, creating a new kind of community, one in which women could turn the page and know that other women, wherever located, were greeting the same sun, dancing under the same full moon, in the same cyclic rhythm. The Libras and Pisces and other signs could continue to be in cosmic communion. And women could sense their dreams and struggles connected even at a distance.

Musawa brought We’Moon back to the US in the late 1980s when she returned to the women’s land she had founded in Oregon, and after some bumps on the publishing road, production of the annual We’Moon datebook grew in the 1990s to become a cottage industry for the residents of We’Moon Land. Over time, the datebook flourished as a channel for women’s creativity, an everyday anchor for connection with earth rhythms, and a touchstone for Goddess celebration. New technologies made it possible to expand circulation and develop new products: greeting cards and a wall calendar; the In the Spirit of We’Moon Anthology; The Last Wild Witch, a children’s book authored by Starhawk & illustrated by Lindy Kehoe; and in more recent years, my own book of poems, PreacherWoman for the Goddess; a Spanish language edition of the datebook; and — coming out in fall 2020, A We’Moon Tarot!

Production shifted to Southern Oregon in 2007, and We’Moon made itself at home again in the hands of countrywomen, several of us living on lands in the area, working at We’Moon’s hub.

What challenges has We’Moon faced in its 40 years of publication? What challenges does it face currently?

Challenges? For sure! Small independent publishers don’t have an easy time of it, and the ups and downs of business cycles always involve taking risks.

A dramatic setback occurred in 2001 when the Main House at We’Moon Land burned down, taking with it the We’Moon offices with reams of records and documents, art and archives, production capacity. A magical story emerged from the ashes. Four of us had just completed choosing the art and writing for the 2002 datebook. The notebook where we had recorded our choices was destroyed, as was every piece of writing submitted for the 2002 datebook. How could we make a new We’Moon? We sat together for hours and days, and we entered into the sacred realm of collective Memory. A scrap of phrase would come to someone, a fleeting image would partner it in someone else’s mind, and Voila! we would restore the visual, the verbal, page by page. We wound up recalling art and writing for all but about 3 out of 153 pages; charred release forms helped us re-find our contributors. That We’Moon of 2002, Priestessing the Planet, remains one of my favorites.

Not every challenge has an inner magical story. But We’Moon continues to defy the odds. Think of it: here is a hard copy daily planner made of paper — how quaint! — in an age when digital information and interaction are the yardsticks by which millions of people measure, record, plan their every day. We’Moon swims upstream in the roiling river of electronic media. And our natural home among other feminist publishers and booksellers has shrunk drastically. 13 feminist bookstores remain in the US and Canada. In the 1980s, there were as many as 350; by 1992, less than 100. The same sharp decline has affected feminist presses and publishers. The big fish have eaten the small fry; Amazon and the big box stores have snapped up the alternative books market. Even the big publishing houses have had to scramble to stay viable in an age when print media has become archaic in many quarters. And feminism has become backlashed into disfavor, as though misogyny and abuse of women had been vanquished, as though women’s empowerment had been fully achieved.

We’Moon has continued to offer itself as a Challenge: to a mainstream clogged with sexist, racist detritus from an imperial and patriarchal system of control by white, Western, male power. Yes, an astrological lunar calendar can do this! And women have continued to discover and adore this publication. Hard copy or not, We’Moon has 50,000 customers buying products, 80,000 followers on facebook. We know that there are thousands of women hungry for an electronic version of the datebook. We’ll get there, when the budget can support such an enormous expense. But meantime, what a hoot that we are thriving! For that matter, thousands know that there is nothing like running your hands over the smooth full color pages of exquisitely designed artistry that Says Something!

That print vs. digital edge nudges a generational challenge. We’Moon came of age among women like myself now in our elder years. It will survive only if younger generations of women reach out and claim it. That is happening to some extent. Our staff group has some mixed generations, and that makes for vigorous instruction for us all. We see women of different ages at Selection Circles, and at the annual Unveiling. But there are a great many grey-haired crones at these gatherings. We’Moon has outreach work to do among the mothers and maidens. We know that some younger women are submitting their art. Edgy images are arriving, a modern flair that takes risk. Reflection of risky times, an edgy world.

The challenge for We’Moon about racial and cultural diversity is acute and rich with opportunity. We’Moon was born into a multicultural and international cradle and had especially strong and enduring connections with women in the UK and Germany (a German language datebook was published for many years until 2016). Although there are Women of Color who have been We’Moon devotees and contributors all along, We’Moon’s cultural bases have for the most part been Euro-centric. That we use the Celtic Holy Day calendar reflects our kinship with Dianic Wicca and European pagan traditions.

We’Moon culture has always been eagerly open to participation from Women of Color, but the demographics and the geographies of unconscious racism have surely been a part of We’Moon’s history. We are actively committed to interrupt these patterns, working with some Women of Color to reach out in their communities and among indigenous women, seeking contributions of art and writing, and participants in Selection Circles. We particularly seek art that represents people of color created by women artists of color. The pages of We’Moon 2020 and 2021 reflect this work: a new harvest of multicultural offerings, and a more comprehensive weave of the We’Moon web.

The international story shifted enormously in 2018 with the publication of a Spanish edition of We’Moon, involving a far-flung multi-national team of translators. We hope that new marketing alliances can support this more global outreach. And: of the 150 contributors in We’Moon 2020, 35 are from countries outside the US. Yes, most are English-speaking. But the web does reach wider and wider. My favorite proofing task is to take a careful spin through the biographic notes in the We’Moon Appendix. It is fascinating to read about the varieties of women world-wide who are practicing their creativity, healing arts, Goddess devotions, earth-tending.

We’Moon has clearly meant a great deal to a great many women. What need does We’Moon fill? How does We’Moon impact women’s lives?

How would we know how to answer this question? The anecdotes give us some information, the stories that filter in through love notes, phone order conversations, appreciative emails. I was near the shipping office a few weeks ago and heard about this plea: “Please rush my order. I can’t live without you!”

I know a woman who gathers all her many years of We’Moons around her every Holy Day and makes it part of her ritual to call in We’Moon wisdom and inspiration from the Equinoxes and Solstices of the past.

Often women call or write looking for a particular piece of art or poem that touched them years ago. They remember and hold onto those deeply meaningful inspirations long after the year has closed. One woman spoke of saving an old We’Moon for years; there was a specific poem that moved her, and she wound up reading it aloud as she spread her mother’s ashes. And then there is the classic remark from a reader who called We’Moon “Church in a purse.” That one says it all.

Stepping back, I see that We’Moon gives women a chance to speak and listen to one another. There is a community of discourse, a town hall of spiritual conversation as women reflect, write, paint, unload, share at deeply personal levels. In a time of social dislocation, vitriol on the digital airwaves, planetary degradation, unabated violence — and now pestilence! — it is comforting to turn the page and be bathed by another woman’s wisdom in these unnerving times. Maybe she helps me sleep; maybe she inspires me to plan a march of resistance. We don’t know precisely how women respond to each other’s work. We know there is a world wide web that pulses among women as we share the common ground of Earth rhythm and the blanket of sky.

For decades you have been involved in artistic and creative endeavours in the Oregon women’s community. How did you come to be involved with We’Moon and how have you contributed to We’Moon over the years?

I don’t remember when I first encountered We’Moon, but it was definitely on my Goddess-loving path. I was on land in Southern Oregon in the late ’80s, creating ceremony and feminist theater, when Musawa was introducing We’Moon to women’s land communities and inviting participation in the annual datebook project. I attended and hosted some Selection Circles (we called them Weaving Circles in those days, a more imaginative title but baffling to literalists).

My more formal, staff relationship with We’Moon began in the winter of 1996-97. Women at We’Moon Land were beginning work on the 1998 datebook. The Tarot card offering theme guidance was The Crone; Wise We’Moon Ways was to be the theme of We’Moon 1998. Those in the staff group looked around at each other and decided they needed a woman older than they were to be working on the datebook and its invocation of Crone magic. They asked me to be the honorary Crone that year — I was only 55! — and to be a Special Editor for that issue. That was 24 years ago, and I am still called Special Editor for We’Moon.

Some of my tasks remain the same: I work with the submitted art and writing after “the cream has risen to the top” in the Selection Circles process. We call this my “broody hen” stage: I go through the material, sometimes diving into the “reject” boxes to see what jewels may be hiding there. Often they do sparkle. I let art and writing find each other and can frequently suggest pairings of words and images. Some other staff women are beginning to take on some of the broody hen work. I am Really a Crone now, and we want to be realistic about generational succession for We’Moon’s long term future.

A big part of my work is refining the 13 Moon themes and clustering the art and writing thematically. When our “Creatrix” group meetings begin, I’m bringing rough draft possibilities for how this voluminous amount of material can be organized. We meet in the fall making tentative art and writing placements, and then refine our choices weeks later during another stretch of meetings.

Meantime, feature articles from astrologers, the Holy Day writer and others who write for the Introduction to the datebook are coming in. My inner grammarian is joyfully released into this job. I get to be precise about semi-colons and commas, except for the exceptions.

A particular gift has evolved in my work with We’Moon which I both offer and am blessed by. Each year, I create the Invocation for next year’s We’Moon: a poem/prayer that summons Goddess energies specific to the datebook’s guiding theme. I get to prowl around online discovering arcane Goddesses from many parts of the world, Goddesses rarely known of outside the culture in which they are or were honored. And then, it turns out, I know how to pray out loud. My priestess vocation speaks up. My sister editors help burnish the language; we word-wrestle with sacred expression. The Summons resounds — printed in the Call for Contributions and in the Datebook, read aloud at Selection Circles and the Unveiling. Those Goddesses show up! They serve as Muses for the work that fills We’Moon. They travel the world and touch women with power, love, magic, compassion, imperatives, hope.

Would you describe your journey toward earth-based/goddess spirituality? Where does your spiritual vision come from and what does it mean to you?

I don’t think I can speak to these questions any more clearly than I did in the Introduction to the PreacherWoman for the Goddess book. So here are some excerpts from that writing: PreacherWoman for the Goddess front cover art
“Dancing with Lightning” ©Deshria 2006

“I come from a long line of back-country Protestant ministers, and something in the inheritance must have stuck because I wound up in theological seminary in the mid-1960s — drawn to passionate conversations about the great Life/Death questions and the socio-political revolutions at hand. But when my revolution came — the Lesbian-Feminist one — I was done with patriarchal religions. I was on fire with female-centered spirituality and joined other women to create women’s lands as Sanctuary for empowerment and imagination; to make art, culture and community devoted to a spirited embrace of earth-life and celebrating the Female as Holy. The domination of divine metaphor by male deity was Over!

There is no simple switch here from patriarchal God to a matriarchal version of Chief Deity … In theological terms, we veer toward immanence: divine spirit infuses all existence — the far reaches of cosmos, the inner quantum depths, the immaterial mysteries of consciousness, time, energy. And when we reach for imagery to reflect the Inexpressible, it is high time we look into the mirror. There you are. There I am. All the varieties of us. Woman. Holy.”

And from my apologia for the Spirit that inhabits my work as a creator/performer of Personal Theater: “The Spirit of Theater/The Theater of Spirit”

“Theater is a way of Opening. Ritual is a way of Opening …


We Beat the Drums.

We Call In the Gods and Goddesses. Make a Joyful Noise in the House of the Lord …

In Theater, as in expressive worship,

We imagine. And most important: we embody what we imagine …

We pretend that we can even speak about the Ineffable. — God? …

We can really only point to The Divine.

All we have is metaphor. And that is Perfect for Theater! …

My calling is to redress the balance of the last 5000-50,000 years, when divine metaphor has been occupied by male deity. It is long past time for Her to take focus. I am Her Priestess.

Theaterwoman, serving the Goddess MetaPhora.

I have enactments for you–In Her Honor.”

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions taken directly from the We’Moon website. “Where and how are womyn transforming the dominant world order, and reclaiming Herstory? What is happening as more womyn move into power? What is the priority work on your To-Do list as an empowered woman?”

We are at the cusp of extraordinary change in the world as more and more women take power in their lives, in their communities, on the world stage. Sexual abuse and violence are called out as never before. Powerful male predators are brought down. Women fly airplanes, repair space stations, push research at the edges of scientific inquiry, govern (some) countries.

Because misogyny still survives, the glass is both half empty and half full. There are women murdered in the Amazon precisely because they have taken leadership in the environmental movement to protect the forest. (A special feature in We’Moon 2017 honored a number of these women.) Feminists in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries have been killed because they insisted on women’s rights. Femicide — of all archaic brutalities! — is on the rise in Mexico! Thank goodness that the women of Mexico en masse are refusing to tolerate it. Pictures of their marches are on my mental screen as soon as we enter the empowerment discussion. Half empty, Half full. Women marching on International Women’s Day in other countries were attacked — generally by Islamists — for celebrating female power. How can this be? The entrenchment of hatred for women should they defy servitude as sexual and reproductive objects continues to be rigid and virulent, even in the 21st century.

And yet . . . Women Are taking power in public life all over the world. Many parliaments and city councils look different now, with female decision makers actively visible, even and most especially in some third-tier countries. Hospitals, clinics, labs, courtrooms, graduate faculties are staffed by women who did the training and secured their expertise. I’m amazed to see group photographs of US Congresspeople: look at all those women! There were so many articulate women at the microphone during the presidential impeachment hearings.

Ahem . . . . There’s that pesky glass. 75% of the US Congress is still male. 76% is white. We have come so far, and we have so far to go.

Yes, the campaigns to empower women as voters and officeholders, professionals, athletes, scientists are vigorous and successful. And No: girls are still refused education in die hard Islamist regions. Sexual slavery and trafficking of women have not diminished one whit. I believe it is imperative to keep naming the inequities and abuses that women face, to shout them, cry them out.

Feminism in America took a back seat not only because of male backlash, not only because uppity women are maligned, and many women are afraid to be uppity. Feminism faded also because of a classist narcissism: many women who progressed into some semblance of personal power and responsibility forgot their impoverished and mistreated sisters. Careerism and focus on Me inoculated a couple of generations of young women against commitment to collective wellbeing. The early Women’s Liberation Movement insisted: There are No Personal Solutions. Women’s liberation is about collective empowerment. So long as there are women anywhere in the world who are denied liberty, we cannot rest.

We’Moon is part of the Yes — celebrating women’s empowerment — and part of the No — calling out female oppression. How wonderful to affirm women’s rise to power and responsibility for shaping the world we live in! How fiercely we must insist that All of Gaia’s daughters must be free!
We’Moon 2020 back cover art by “Crescendo” © Cheryl Braganza 2010

Finally, what do you foresee in We’Moon’s future? Any final parting thoughts?

And now, in these very days of March 2020, the global human community shivers with fear. A new biocide targets our species. Pandemic. The Cassandras have long been saying that this day would come. Some dreadful planetary spasm would end life as we know it; we would join the polar bears and snow leopards and tigers and honeybees whom we press toward extinction in a mighty struggle to survive.

What can a lunar astrological calendar do? What can We’Moon offer in such drastic times?

I open the spiral datebook for today, March 17, and this Spring Equinox week. An elegant poem excerpt reads:

” I come up for air

whipping my hair

in an arch of splintered light

and I am humming

raw and incandescent”

(by Meredith Heller)

No matter what, the Sun will arch her light to give us Equal Day, Equal Night on Thursday, Equinox. “The return of spring, time of holy equality,” writes Oak Chezar, our Holy Day writer for 2020. “Walking in the woods, see that trees aren’t isolated individuals. Each one is Forest, Forest, Forest. I walk in the world, and I’m not even me: I am World. Gaze through the mirror. World. World. World.”

We may not be able to gather in person this Equinox. But we are gathered, held in mysterious Balance. And like the women who founded We’Moon, we turn “to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with each other and the Earth’s cycles.”

Blessed Be.

We’Moon website

Mary Gently is an aspiring historian based in the Rogue Valley. She recently graduated from Southern Oregon University with a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with Departmental Honors and is the recipient of the Arthur S. Taylor Award for Outstanding Student in History 2018-2019. She will begin a Ph.D. program in History at Rutgers University in the fall of 2020. Mary enjoys traveling, watching classic movies, and drinking beer.   

This blog post was made possible in part by a grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to Southern Oregon University, to document the Rogue Valley Women’s Movement, 1970-1990.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Bethroot Gwynn, Honoring Women’s History Month

A Linguist’s Guide to Internet Fluency–A guest post by Levi Coren

I don’t enjoy most social media, but I will admit to spending time on Tumblr, a social media platform with a penchant for encouraging tight-knit communities based around books, television shows, hobbies, and other special interests. My time on Tumblr has allowed me to become fluent in a new form of language, a type of English that exists only in digital spaces. Without access to facial gestures or vocal tonal shifts, written language has needed to evolve for a setting as informal as ordinary speech. Internet users have created a grammar out of misspellings, carefully placed punctuation, capitalization, and emoji. It is not limited to Tumblr; my time on other social media platforms, communicating with people through online messaging systems, and interacting with friends through texting all use the language of the internet. In spite of its prevalence, I rarely see people older than myself recognizing the ability of language to communicate casually through texts, emails, or posts on social media. The internet represents a new frontier in language, a wild west of communication that needs a dedicated linguist to categorize, analyze, and understand.

Gretchen McCulloch is one such linguist. Her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, takes the internet’s ways of communicating as its subject. McCulloch, a self-described “internet linguist,” is a millennial fluent in internet-speak. She also has the resources, education, and grit to attempt to capture the internet into a single compact volume. Having encountered attempts to analyze internet communication in the past, I was hesitant, but McCulloch won me over in about eleven pages. During the first chapter, McCulloch discusses social, as opposed to formal, acronyms, including omg (oh my god), btw (by the way), and lol (laughing out loud). When I use these acronyms, I never capitalize them. Capitalization in internet communication is already a tricky thing, with some people I know going out of their way to write all in lowercase, but traditional acronyms like NASA, DNA, and AIDS are displayed in all caps. Some publications consider it proper to capitalize all acronyms in this style, regardless of how they are actually used. To me, this is an immediate giveaway that the writers, editors, and publishers behind articles about newfangled acronyms never use the acronyms in their daily lives and have no actual understanding about their use. When McCulloch writes that she “made the stylistic decision to write social, internet acronyms in all-lowercase,” I know that this was the book for me. Because Internet is not a discussion of internet language from the perspective of an outsider, but rather from someone who is not only fluent in internet-speak but also passionate about it.

I am an outsider to the field of linguistics, but McCulloch made me feel welcome. Part of this is the subject matter, which I know well, but much of it comes from her informal tone and willingness to explain specialized concepts. She discusses every idea in just enough detail for me to understand without drying up the subject matter. She also contextualizes the terminology that she uses, framing it in such a way that I felt connected to her ideas. For example, McCulloch divides internet users into five categories. She starts with the Old Internet People, who got involved with the internet in the earliest years, when a person needed programming skills to do anything online. She continues on to the Full Internet People, the group that she includes herself in, who got involved with the internet as a way to engage with new communities. In the same wave as the Full Internet People are the Semi Internet People like my parents, who treat internet culture as an extension of their real-world personal or work lives. Finally, the last wave of internet people includes the Pre Internet People like my grandparents, who have as little interaction with the internet as physically possible, and the Post Internet People such as myself. Initially, I resisted her classification, but she explained that Post Internet People are internet users who “don’t remember the first time they used a computer or did something online” much in the same way that previous generations don’t remember the first time they watched television or used a phone. I found that her classification made sense and helped me to understand how people interact with the internet. I feel comfortable communicating on the internet, but McCulloch reminded me that there is still a lot I can learn.

Because Internet covers a wide range of topics, from internet people and tone of voice to emoji and memes, because the internet is a complex place with a specialized and challenging language. Without that language, navigating the internet is difficult. Because Internet is both a key to that language and a celebration of it. It takes a little-understood topic that I see almost no love for in the world at large and elevates it to something worth studying. It acknowledges and embraces the internet as the future of language. Above all, it is a testament to the idea that in order to understand something, one must first appreciate it.

Levi Coren is a Post Internet Person. He spends objectively too much time mired in a small variety of toxic social media cesspools. In spite of his passion for the growing legitimacy of internet culture, he is completely out of touch with the internet lingo of people only a few years younger than him.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Language | Comments Off on A Linguist’s Guide to Internet Fluency–A guest post by Levi Coren

An Interview with Morgan Pielli

Connecticut-born Morgan Pielli has a BFA from BARD COLLEGE and an MFA from THE CENTER FOR CARTOON STUDIES. He works as a Graphic Designer with KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP and his comics have appeared in The New York Times Online. He is also a voice-over actor and storyteller who has performed on RISK! LIVE, WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?, and TALES FROM THE COSMOS. He co-hosts the monthly show storytelling and live therapy show RELATIONSHiT.

You can find more of his work at If you’re in the NYC area, come see him perform at QED in Queens every third Friday of the month at 7:30.

Ed Battistella: Welcome, Morgan. How did you get interested in art and in the arts?

Morgan Pielli: In kindergarten I watched in awe as a classmate drew a house. When I tried to draw a house, all my brain could make my hands do was scribble squiggles everywhere. I became obsessed with cracking the mystery of how making art works and started drawing constantly, wherever I went.

EB: I love the caricatures you’ve done for Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels, in the New York Times, and elsewhere. What goes into a good caricature?

MP: Thanks! I think one key element is posture. Everything comes from a person’s posture; it magnifies their mood, tugs or pushes at their facial features, it dictates the hang of their clothes, which in turn creates the illusion of motion(or lack thereof). So much of a person’s personality can be conveyed by the way they carry themselves.

EB: You also write and publish comics. Can you tell us about that? Where can readers can find them?

MP: I used to self-publish a quarterly minicomic called “Indestructible Universe,” that featured short science fiction and horror stories. I’ve also had my political cartoons published on The Nib and through Joyce Brabner’s Comixcast. More recently I’ve been focusing on my first graphic novel. Right now people can find my work on my website:

EB: Who are some of the influences or inspirations for your work are an artist?

MP: Lately my big influences have been cartoonists Paul Grist and Phil Hester. Beyond them: illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, writer Kurt Vonnegut, and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. And like a billion others that I’ll remember tomorrow morning.

EB: Beside storytelling through comics, you are also a story teller vocally. What’s the relationship between story telling with pictures and with words?

MP: Telling stories on stage forces you to be looser and to find the story in the moment. There’s a great expression that cartoonist Nate Powell (another influence!) either said or quoted: “Think with the ink!” The idea being that the decisions you make on the fly are often better than those you labor over. I’ve also heard this called “first thought, best thought.” It’s the very basis of improv comedy, and live storytelling isn’t much different. I walk on stage with a loose outline of what I want to say, and I often find myself making connections and forming the shape of the story once I start talking. This has inspired me to take a more loose and expressionistic approach to my comics.

EB: What’s your superpower?

MP: I can wiggle my ears back and forth and up and down. Because as a kid I spent every night for a year in front of the mirror trying to figure out how, for reasons only a kid would understand. This is how I will rid the world of crime.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MP: My pleasure! Thanks for writing the book I got to illustrate; it was a blast!

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on An Interview with Morgan Pielli

An Interview with Dennis Baron, author of What’s Your Pronoun?

Dennis Baron is an emeritus professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and the author of eight books, including Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language (Yale University Press, 1982); Grammar and Gender (Yale University Press, 1986); The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans? (Yale University Press, 1990); and A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2009).

His most recent book is What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020), which Publishers Weekly called “entertaining and thoroughly documented.”

A former Guggenheim Fellow, Baron, who tweets as @DrGrammar, is a regular media commentator on the English language.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed reading What’s Your Pronoun?—and several of my students are reading it as well. Tell us about the “missing word” of the English pronoun system. What’s missing?

Dennis Baron: What’s missing is a third-person singular pronoun that is gender-neutral and nonbinary. The pronoun it is neuter, to be sure, but it typically refers to things, or maybe also animals. We used to use it for babies, but I think that’s not very common any more. In 1808, Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested it as a common-gender pronoun (today we’d call it ‘gender neutral’), but using it for people is generally insulting—both desexing and dehumanizing. In the 19th century, American politicians sometimes called their opponents it. And it’s still common for political rivals to insult one another’s sexuality.

EB: I was fascinated to read about the legal wrangling surrounding women’s rights and the selectivity of the law when it came to rights versus responsibilities. Can you tell our readers a bit about that?

DB: The masculine pronoun could be ambiguous when it appeared in statutes: does he mean ‘he or she’ or ‘only men’? To try to clarify the law, England (1850), Canada (1867) and the US (1871) passed statutes which declared that in any law, a masculine word (words like he and man) referred to women as well. Suffragists seized on that inclusivity, arguing that if he in penal statutes meant that women could be punished for a crime, then he in the voting law meant women could vote. Unfortunately, judges and legislators—at the time, all of them men—disagreed. In their view, he included ‘she’ when it came to penalties like going to jail or obligations like paying taxes, but when it came to privileges like voting or becoming a doctor or lawyer, each right had to be conferred specifically to women or they were excluded.

EB: You note that top-down directives about language invariable fail in the face of usefulness. Why has singular they proved so useful?

DB: Singular they works because it is not a top-down regulation. The form has been acceptable in English speech and writing since the 14th century, appearing regularly and without comment in the works of well-respected writers like Shakespeare and Austen. It wasn’t till the 18th century that grammarians and usage critics began labeling singular they as ungrammatical. But even then, most people, including well-educated, careful writers, used the form. Today most of the major language “authorities”—dictionaries, grammars, usage guides, and publishers’ style books, accept singular they for an indefinite: Everybody forgets their passwords. Or for a member of a class: The writer should always revise their work. And more and more of them accept nonbinary they as well: Alex likes their burger medium well. Singular they is used by people who don’t give the current debates over gender any thought at all. It’s used by people deeply concerned with gender rights and inclusivity. And even people who still object to singular they use it when they’re not paying attention. Singular they comes close to being the one-size-fits-all pronoun, and it arose naturally, in popular usage, rather than being imposed by a grammarian, a law-giver, or a well-intentioned person in HR.

EB: Has there been a turning point in public acceptance of singular their?

DB: The public has accepted singular they for centuries—probably ever since English borrowed th- pronouns from Old Norse, a borrowing that occurred because the Old English third person pronouns, which began with h-, had all started to sound alike. It’s the “experts” who are now accepting it as well.

EB: I was fascinated by the number of gender-neutral pronouns you have documented, which must have taken years of research. Why do people feel compelled to invent new pronoun?

DB: People are constantly coining words and expressions. It’s part of the creativeness of language. The fact that so many people over the past couple of centuries, whether amateurs and crackpots or well-educated writers and public figures, tried their hand at inventing pronouns, suggests that there is a serious need for such a word. Only singular they has been successful, overall, but there are still a significant number of people using one or more of the coined pronouns like ze and hir, which suggests that at least in the near term, we will be dealing with multiple answers to the question, what’s your pronoun? And that’s great, since English has many ways of saying the same thing.

Remember too, though, that some people don’t want to be asked their pronouns, and others prefer no pronoun at all—just say their name.

EB: What’s been the response to your study? Have you heard from prescriptivists?

DB: Response has been favorable. Yes, a couple of prescriptivists/purists remind me that singular they is wrong, even though it’s not wrong. Others object that their freedom of speech is at stake. Both of these objections are easily answered.

Singular they no less grammatical than singular you. In fact, singular they is actually much older than singular you. Starting in the 17th century, plural you began to appear as a singular as well, pushing out the long-established singular thou, thee, and thy. When that started to happen, purists objected to singular you, calling it ungrammatical, illiterate, and ambiguous. And grammar books through the 19th century insisted that thou is singular, you, plural, long after standard English speakers and writers had abandoned thou. (Though not considered standard, the th- second person and h- third person forms persist in some British varieties of English.) Today, just as no one wants to revive thou, no one wants to go back to the days of generic he.

As for the free-speech issue, in terms of personal interactions you are free to say whatever you like, but the First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your speech. As for official requirements to use inclusive language, they are designed to create a non-hostile environment in classrooms, offices, and places of public accommodation, where the regulation of behavior, including language, has long been accepted as legal and useful to ensure effective human interaction. More and more businesses have discovered that pronouns are good business, and that kind of public acceptance goes a long way toward making singular they and coined pronouns a part of everyday English.

EB: What advice have you got for writers and students about using singular they?

DB: Use singular they if you feel it sounds right, and be prepared to explain it if you are questioned. Editors will accept singular they if their style guides do (the new edition of the American Psychological Association Publication Manual is the latest of the major publication guides to approve singular they both for gender-nonspecific and nonbinary referents in both scholarly writing and when dealing with clients and patients).

If your pronoun is they, your employer or your teacher should respect that. As for general “tips for writers,” many teachers may still reject singular they, though they themselves use the form all the time. Students generally give the teacher what they want (see what I did there?). They is not a hill to die on—and of course not every sentence can be recast in the plural to avoid the singular they problem. But even if a teacher suggests it, don’t go with he or she, which is a form that everybody always hated for being too long, too awkward, too repetitive, and today, too binary.

EB: What other things are you working on?

DB: I am going back to “Unprotected Speech,” a project on language and law that I interrupted to write the pronoun book.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Best of luck with What’s Your Pronoun?

DB: Thanks.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Tagged | Comments Off on An Interview with Dennis Baron, author of What’s Your Pronoun?