28 May, 2015

Desert Zen

While much of the desert theme belongs on my other site, www.thedesertwarrior.com, I decided to share this morsel of arid goodness here.

Since being back from Iraq, this was one of the most therapeutic things for me in dealing with post-war trauma. I found a sense of peace in the desert and driving through such surreal vistas provided a sense of comfort in which little else could remotely compare. This is what peace of mind looked like through my eyes.

Song: "En el muelle de San Blás" by Maná

27 May, 2015

A Bit of Education That's Missing from the So-Called "Asian American Pacific Islander Month"

Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Ad by the US Census Bureau
The following is an excerpt from "Quixote in Ramadi" on the ridiculousness regarding combining Asians and Pacific Islanders into one group - and even more so for a celebratory month.  When you see Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), you only tend to hear about the Asian side and sometimes we're not even in the acronym and Asian American groups continue to focus on their issues and exclude Pacific Islanders.  Pacific Islanders, an underrepresented and marginalized group with social issues akin to Native Americans, are in their own category and should not have to tolerate cultural hijacking and misappropriation by Asian groups.  Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders simply do not belong in the same group, so why keep up the charade any longer?

Combining Asians and Pacific Islanders into one group is drowning out the voice of an already small percentage of not only the U.S. population, but in the world as a whole. Pacific Islanders have a different set of challenges altogether and since we get stuffed into the same box so often, even by so-called Asian-Pacific groups, we get lost in the shuffle.

All the socio-economic problems of Islanders evaporate in the vast sea of Asian progress and achievement when it comes to combining the two statistics. Islanders are several times more likely to drop out of high school than Asians on top of coming up drastically short in comparison on both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

When I see Asian-Pacific, my eyes see imperialism all over again. Combining the two groups only provides more marginalization and invisibility for Pacific Islanders in general, whom are already a grossly underrepresented minority. If there’s anyone shaking their heads right now, let’s clear the air by making the distinction of who’s Asian and who’s Pacific Islander:


Asians, as presented by the US Census Bureau, are from East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, i.e. Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, etc. On the other hand, Asia isn’t limited to these specific regions. Asia is the largest of the seven continents. Regions included are the Middle East, Asia Minor, Central Asia, Russia, as well as the regions the Census Bureau suggests.


On the other side, the Pacific Islanders’ Cultural Association’s definition of Pacific Islanders explains that the three following Pacific regions are classified as being Pacific Islander:

POLYNESIA The islands scattered across a triangle covering the east-central region of the Pacific Ocean. The triangle is bounded by the Hawaiian islands in the north, New Zealand in the west, and Easter Island in the east. The rest of Polynesia comprises Samoa (American Samoa and Western Samoa), the Cook Islands, French Polynesia (Tahiti and The Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Austral Islands, and the Tuamotu Archipelago), Niue Island, Tokelau and Tuvalu, Tonga, Wallis and Futuna, and Pitcairn Island.

MELANESIA The island of New Guinea, the Bismarck and Louisiade Archipelagos, the Admiralty Islands, and Bougainville Island (which make up the independent state of Papua New Guinea), the Solomon Islands, the Santa Cruz Islands (part of the Solomon Islands), New Caledonia and Loyalty Islands, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), Fiji, Norfolk Island, and various smaller islands. 

MICRONESIA The islands of Kiribati, Guam, Nauru, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI), the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, and the Caroline Islands).

If it's not in one of those three boxes, it's not Pacific Islander. Period.

While you may or may not be fascinated with Pacific culture or heritage in general - I don’t expect you to be a professor of Pacific studies - if I’m asked, that’s the real deal. I don’t expect anyone to know the average rainfall of Saipan per year or a detailed list of indigenous flora and fauna, but it shouldn’t my job to be Rand McNally to everyone I meet. Especially when my native land is owned by the United States, it’s a bit embarrassing for an American not to be aware of US land.

If one wants to know more about the Pacific, I have a few good recommendations as to where one can begin their research. But half the time, the pursuit of my ethnicity by others is not so innocent. I usually get a tantrum-like sigh when I explain there is a difference between Asians and Pacific Islanders, followed by, “Well, aren’t you all the same thing?!” No. We’re not.

One my former neighbors in Hawaii, a tall Samoan woman named Tupe once told us a story that illustrated this difference. At a party where a variety of people were attending, possibly a military function, Tupe was introduced to a group of people who were from the mainland US and a Filipino doctor. The doctor then asked what ethnicity Tupe was and she responded that she was originally from American Samoa. Unfortunately, he made the fatal mistake of asking the question that many Islanders have heard that none of us like: Are your people civilized? 

Without a blink, Tupe grabbed the much shorter doctor by the neck, lifted him in the air, and stated, “You’re from a third world country, stop bullshitting just because you’re in front of white people.” 
When she told us this story, my mom’s family nearly died – of laughter.

In Hawaii in the early 1990s, there was an unarmed Hawaiian man on O’ahu, the third largest but most populous island in the Hawaiian Islands, robbed a convenience store and as a result, was shot to death by local police. Not too long after that incident, a Japanese businessman in the financial district held his office hostage, shot fellow coworkers and was not fired upon once, but ended the standoff by suicide.

Native Hawaiians are a small portion of the population in Hawaii, but if you examine dropout rates and the prison system, you’ll find that Islanders, not just Hawaiians, have socioeconomic issues that need to be addressed. Yet when Pacific Islanders are lumped together with Asians, our problems disappear due to being grouped with an exponentially larger racial category.

One shouldn’t have to be quizzed so much on something that has nothing to do with one’s work ethic or mores. Simple inquiries, if so desired, are fine but please keep them brief. There’s much more to me than the shape of my eyes and body or the color of my skin and hair. I’m sure others out there in my shoes feel the same way. Yet no matter how much other people make a big deal about my facial features, I do my best each and every time to be polite.

Even though I’m getting questioned, I try to make the person full of questions feel comfortable for two main reasons. One, I may not really know the person and whether they’re curious, ignorant, or just plain racist, it’s not wise to judge that right away and if they have any bit of intelligence, they’ll at least deal with the answer to the question like an adult. Two, if I don’t give them the neat answer they like, which is usually the case as Pacific Islander in many people’s eyes is brand new to them and people are typically uncomfortable with the unknown, I want to prevent a pointless and heated discussion where someone completely ignorant to my heritage is trying to convince me that I’m something I’m really not.

Perception is funny like that. Even though I know what I am, people who know little about me perceive that it is fitting to tell me who I am and what I’m allowed to be. Euphemisms, for example, are one of the forms of speech in American culture that affects perception. The word genocide is not a popular word in American History texts because it demands the reader to take a deeper look at history and what it means to really be an American. It calls the reader into guilt and actually doing something about it.

Why are so many people afraid of guilt? The United States is not alone in this. Not too many countries that I’ve seen like to reflect on their mistakes and, in turn, divert their attention to someone else’s problems. The critiques and analyses of another nation’s issues ensue, but the U.S. has been great at publicly airing its dirty laundry while others kick their dirty clothes into the closet. We are not alone, and every country’s media has an agenda.

Some may argue from the guilty, “post-colonial” standpoint that there is enough guilt, but I disagree. There is a lot of talk of guilt and not enough accountability and action, which is something that should be embraced by more of us. Therefore words like genocide are replaced with watered-down sentences of terms like ethnic cleansing - sounds like something my mom used to do working as a housekeeper for white families.

Why are we so afraid to call things as they really are? It’s not the fault of the any one group of people as a whole, as I really believe anyone who resorts to groupthink, no matter what race one is, is at fault. Therefore, anyone who tolerates bigotry agrees with the behavior. As coddling a child too much can lead to a spoiled brat, the same principle applies in race relations. If you are constantly coddled by your own group or any group for that matter, you can become entitled, complacent, and yes, spoiled.

As for me, I don’t really have a single group, amidst Irish or Anglo folks, I’m too dark, too "exotic", and simply not one of them (although, technically, I am). Amongst Chamorros or other Islanders, I’m much more accepted, but still a halfie (although, I’m still one of them). I’m a visitor to both of my groups, which has ultimately formed a different perspective on life. I don’t have the comfort of my own group, so I’m not exactly dependent on any cliquish safe-haven as I have nowhere to run and hide. So I’ve needed to adapt in order to survive in various situations more than some, learn to be grateful for what I have and laugh things off more quickly, even out in the streets of Ramadi. Yet I never imagined getting pushed into survival mode by people wearing the same uniform. Laughing didn’t save me later.

Read more of "Quixote in Ramadi" on Kindle

22 May, 2015

11 Tips for Memoir Writing and Other Lonely Pursuits

There were several lessons learned in writing my first novel, Quixote in Ramadi.  While many of those lessons were learned the hard way, and through the solitary pursuits of researching literary agents late into the night or tearing through Writer's Digest, those concepts that were so alien to me years ago are now coming in handy for writing my second book, The Desert Warrior.

Let me tell you that memoir writing can feel like quite the lonely process - but it doesn't have to be.  The following is a list of tips for those who are beginning the memoir writing process or are merely contemplating the arduous task of documented introspection.

1.  It's a memoir, not an autobiography.  Unless you're an internationally-known public figure or celebrity, you are probably writing a memoir, not an autobiography.  While you may wail and grind your teeth over not sharing your detailed ancestral history and everything you've done since birth through the present, take comfort in the fact that memoirs can cover specific periods of your life.  This means that you can write more than one memoir, and in accordance with a different period of your life.  In short, autobiographies cover detailed background information and historical accounts in addition to a person's life from beginning to the present, and a memoir is a snapshot of a period of your life.  You can choose to narrate from beginning to end but, through a literary agent's eyes, you will still be writing a memoir.   What aspects of your life do you find extraordinary or unique?  How do you think your memoir will help or entertain others?

2.  The quality of your writing is directly related to your reading list.  Sherman Alexie, one of my favorite authors, said, “Read. Read 1000 pages for every 1 page that you write.”  While that may seem like an impossible task - and no one is expecting you to tally that many pages each day in order to be published - you can accomplish quite a bit of reading through literary journals, blogs, and articles in addition to a pile of books.  What's on your reading list?  Do you think your reading list is conducive to the subjects addressed within your memoir?

3. Read other memoirs.  Considering that The Desert Warrior is laced with delicious morsels of insight on intersectionality, I not only had to compile a diverse reading list on race, gender, and socioeconomic status, but I also had to find memoirs that covered the contemporary female veteran perspective of the post-war homecoming process.  Say that ten times, fast.  For that, I chose Kayla Williams' Plenty of Time When We Get Home.   While our experiences were different, even as women veterans who served in Iraq, it also gave me insight as to what readers may want to know as well as how I personally connected with the story.  What do you want your readers to know?  What makes your story unique, and why?  Were there any memoirs in which you felt a connection, and how?

4. Read books on how to craft your memoir.  While I found that Stephen King's On Writing provided exceptional insight into the writing process in any genreI found a few other books that assisted me in understanding how I should structure my memoir (see Additional Resources below) and what mattered in the storytelling process.   One of the memoir how-to books that stood out to me above all else was Paula Balzer's Writing & Selling Your Memoir.  She explains the memoir writing process from start to finish while providing fantastic examples of successful works and why they were successful.  Which memoir writing books have you read?  What did you learn?

5.  Take a memoir writing class.  In my home city of Las Vegas, Nevada, the pickings for memoir writing classes are pretty slim.  One in which I took through the College of Southern Nevada was not what I expected.  While there were a few decent writing exercises, there was a lot more pontificating from two authors who wrote one book each in the spans of their lives, one in which was self-published - and it was painfully obvious as to why.  If you can't find a class in your vicinity, read as much as possible on the genre and try to attend writers' meetups or related workshops to sharpen your skills.  Are there memoir classes or writers' meetups in your area?  Is there anything about the memoir writing process that leaves you with many more questions that have yet to be answered?

6. Create your hook.  According to Writing & Selling Your Memoir, a hook is defined as a "certain something that makes your book marketable."  The hook is not only designed to capture the interest of a literary agent - you'll need one if you want your manuscript to be published through a traditional publisher like Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, etc. - but to capture the interest of your audience as well.  You don't have to be an extraordinary hero of epic proportions, but your story should have a unique angle.  What is your unique angle?  Why is it important to you that your story is read by the general public or a specific audience?

7.  Don't get too caught up in ritual, but be disciplined.  There are writers who have their specific rituals before they begin writing.  Whether it's an OCD pattern of behavior or a set of steps to perfectly set the scene for writing the next great memoir, I would argue against taking too much time to prepare yourself for actual writing.  Some of my best writing is done on my phone through Evernote - and between the hours of 1-3am when I'm in bed with DVR humming in the background.  Sometimes I make an espresso and have it on my nightstand to indulge the insomnia and my chatterbox of a muse - but I do NOT recommend this for anyone else.  The more time you take to prep for writing is time spent not writing.  Figure out when and where you do your best writing, and stick to it.  Make deadlines for yourself and be disciplined. Write something, anything, every day.  But don't create too much of a fuss over pageantry and rituals that you cut into valuable writing time.  Where and which times of the day or night do you do your best writing?  Do you write every day, and if not, why?

8.  The first draft is for you.  The second draft is for your readers.  In Stephen King's On Writing, King says he discovered the differences between the first and second draft from his first newspaper editor, who said, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In Quixote in Ramadi, I realized long after I released it that it was really for me, not for potential readers.  It was a collection of excerpts from my journal, painful details of different periods of my life, but I could have pared it down a bit.  It's easy to get caught up in your own content before realizing someone else will need to be able to understand it too.  What's important to you in your memoir?  What is important for your readers to know?  Is there anything in your first draft that might be considered trivial to your potential readers?

9.  Find a good editor.  On a similar thread in On Writing, King mentions a response from an editor he received regarding his fiction: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”  I had a tough time finding an editor - one that I felt comfortable working with and didn't cost me a kidney - for the second draft of The Desert Warrior.  I didn't have one for Quixote in Ramadi, but for War Trauma and Its Wake, I worked with a team of editors that collaborated with Routledge.  However, I was lucky enough to find one for my current manuscript who not only has the credentials to edit, but also comprehends the subject matter.  Rates may vary, but don't be too afraid to dish out between $35-$60 per hour for their time.  It may seem like a lot, but consider it as an investment in your success.  Have you looked into copy or content editors - or both?  Are you aware of the differences between copy and content editing?

10.  Research literary agents.  It might seem like a daunting task, but there are a few decent databases in which you can find an agent that represents authors in the memoir genre.  AgentQuery, Poets & Writers, Publishers Marketplace, and Writers Digest are just a few that may assist you in finding representation.  However, bear in mind that agents can receive hundred of queries per day, so take your time in writing your query letter.  Know the difference between a query and a book proposal.  Also, do a bit of research on the literary agent and the agency. Background knowledge on the agent and agency can go a long way and help you in not only crafting your query, but helping you decide if this is who you might best represent you.  Create a list of agents you would like to approach and learn more about the query letter writing process.  Which agents did you find?  Were there any that you felt could adequately represent your work?

11. Overcome fear and insecurity.  So you're not Hemingway.  Big deal!  He's dead and you're alive reading and writing today, so get to it!  Sure, you might not be a celebrity or some other public figure, but you might have an important story to tell.  Don't get caught up in who you are now; focus on where you want to be and plan accordingly.  While writing Quixote in Ramadi, I was a bit concerned about being misunderstood as well as potential backlash.  After numerous rejections from literary agents, one agent finally had the stones to tell me what was wrong - but after I had already self-published.  The story, which was critical of the Iraq war, was one that would most likely scare off agents who don't want to deal with any potential PR fallout that might be construed as unpatriotic.  Additionally, it needed to be edited, edited, edited.  It was, as Stephen King was told by his editor, "too puffy".  There was a different way to tell the story without losing substance or straying from the facts.  He also recommended I publish it as a novel to avoid specific types of backlash, something in which I was able to change quickly via Amazon.  While I watched other veterans share their story and gain representation over the years, I felt muted.  Yet I didn't give up - and neither should you.   Is there anything stopping you from writing or publishing your story, and if so, what is it?  What are your fears or anxieties in the writing process?  Are you writing for yourself, or to tell the world a story?

After regrouping and gaining further insight into the memoir genre, I did receive more responses from agents as well as even better news that I'll share as soon as a few more details are finalized.  All the information above was acquired over the years and not though a single source.  So make note of what lessons you learn and which resources you acquire throughout your memoir-writing journey.  In the meantime, keep writing, keep reading, don't stop believing in yourself or the value of your story, and most of all, don't give up!

Additional Resources:

The Desert Warrior, my art site and book list

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir by William Zinsser

On Writing by Stephen King

Writing & Selling Your Memoir by Paula Balzer

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Writing your first draft from Standout Books