Oh, my. Seems like I’m all over the blogosphere this morning. I just posted my essay in Connotation Press, and here’s Susan K. Perry interviewing me about The Fiery Alphabet. And coincidentally, in the interview I mention an essay about the juvenile in/justice system that Connotation Press published a few years ago.
Thank you, Robert Clark Young and Connotation Press for publishing this essay about my personal experiences over the years with people incarcerated in America. (This was written before my trip to Northern Ireland and the chance to work in the prisons there.) If you’re interested, read it here.
Thank you, Douglas Glover, for publishing this write-up and excerpt.
Thank you to A Clean Well Lighted Place for publishing my short story, Free Throw. You can read it here.
My post today in Justice Not Jails.
Better Outcomes for Juveniles — Maybe
September 18, 2013 By Diane Lefer
Monday evening, Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 260 into law, making it possible for prisoners who received extreme sentences as juveniles to have their sentences reviewed and perhaps reduced after serving ten years. The news brought happy tears to my eyes.
Three years ago, I was in the courtroom when Tedi Snyder was sentenced 32-years-to-life following an incident in which no one was killed and for which Tedi was never convicted of being the shooter. The crime occurred months after this 15-year-old child had himself been shot in the head and was then shot again.
Mitigating circumstances and Tedi’s exemplary record in Juvie didn’t count. The judge who heard the case seemed fair and concerned. In fact, with Tedi facing a possible 80-years-to-life, he got the least extreme sentence the judge could hand down, constrained by mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements that left little room for judicial discretion.
Immediately afterward, in the hallway, Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition promised Tedi’s heartbroken father that the group would never give up on his son and would continue the fight to bring him home. Honestly, at that time I did not think there was any chance of success.
There are other potential game changers in the works for juvenile justice as I learned, also on the evening of September 16, when LA County Probation Chief Jerry Powers spoke at his first Town Hall at the meeting of the Public Safety and Justice Committee of the Empowerment Congress in the offices of County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Powers, who took up his post in December 2011, has already done what his predecessors failed to do: he has restored the role of Probation in juvenile arrest cases which now go first to his department instead of directly to the District Attorney’s office which had a penchant for charging kids as adults and seeking stiff penalties regardless of the circumstances of the case. Probation now does an assessment to identify young people who can safely be diverted to programs outside the court system.
His department is creating juvenile day reporting centers to reduce the number of young people who have to be sent to camps or juvenile halls. Ninety-day commitments to camps? “More disruptive to them than good,” he said, and as for juvenile halls, “You put a kid in an institution and that’s something you can never erase from their brains.” There are now several hundred fewer kids in camps and halls than when he took the job. “School-based probation officers and diversion programs are starting to take effect.”
As for the camps themselves, which are still being monitored by the US Department of Justice due to historically abusive conditions, Powers insists he will fire staff members who abuse children or enter into inappropriate relationships with probationers. “We deserved to get our butts kicked,” he acknowledged. “It was not a way to treat kids regardless of what they’d done.”
One deputy addressed the meeting to speak up for his colleagues who take a beating in the media in spite of their dedicated work and commitment to the kids. “We don’t need encouragement though it would be nice,” he said “But a knock on the head? We don’t need it!”
Indeed, Powers was very clear: While the media has rightly condemned the wrongdoers, what gets overlooked is that his department has 6,500 staff members “and 6,350 of them are great – the best you’ll ever see.”
Powers is working on school improvements in tandem with Arturo Delgado who assumed office (at about the same time Powers did) as Superintendent of LACOE (LA County Office of Education) which has responsibility for educating youth on probation. He wants to expand meaningful vocational training, such as the construction trades program introduced at Camp Challenger in Lancaster. Delgado has cut down on the use of substitute teachers, important because, as Powers said, “with kids, relationships are half the battle.”
This past summer, two camps welcomed Freedom Schools and became pilots for introducing to juvenile facilities the innovative educational program created by Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund. Powers said he was amazed to see teenagers standing up and participating enthusiastically instead of sitting around in the back of class. Asked if this meant he would expand the program to all probation facilities, he said instead of more summer programs, he’d like to incorporate some of the Freedom School’s approach into the year-round educational system.
Young people from the Youth Justice Coalition along with program coordinator Kruti Parekh were in the house and not so easily convinced. Youth told of abusive conditions they’d experienced in lockup and pushed for details on whether community college courses and vocational certificate training would be offered. Parekh asked what percentage of youth actually gets to participate in vocational programs such as the one at Camp Challenger.
Powers didn’t have figures to offer. He did say, “You’re probably not going to see 100% come out with a vocational certificate. It’s not appropriate for everyone.” He wants the camps to specialize more. “Now you have a full spectrum at each location,” he said, pointing out, for example, “Some kids need substance abuse treatment, some don’t.”
YJC wanted to know why youth of color are targeted by law enforcement and asked that statistics be kept. (Statistics on DMC – Disproportionate Minority Contact – are being compiled by the W. Haywood Burns Institute) Powers explained his department has no control over what stops and arrests are made by the police, but he hopes that having first look at cases and being able to divert kids away from the court system will reduce the disproportionate impact on youth of color.
Parekh asked if Powers would support the YJC’s campaign that would allocate 1% of the county’s law enforcement budget for intervention. But to Powers, intervention is Probation’s mission: “Your premise is that Probation doesn’t do any good.” (But her premise is that funding for 25,000 youth jobs, 50 youth centers and 500 full-time community intervention/peacebuilders could also reach young people before contact with law enforcement.)
Powers, whose department is responsible for adult probationers as well as youth, encountered other skeptics upon his appointment. He ran into disagreements with the union through his intention to hire about 500 new staff members and look for specific skill sets instead of allowing current employees to move into newly created positions. There were concerns that a man who’d spent ten years as chief in small Stanislaus County wouldn’t be up to managing the largest probation system in the country. But Powers, who has already lasted longer in the position than his immediate predecessors, also had extensive and valuable experience dealing with the legislature on justice issues.
Seven years ago, with the state then, as now, under court order to address overcrowding, he helped negotiate a deal to cut arrests and recidivism by putting money into prevention: education, mental health and drug treatment. The legislature shot it down, telling him no action was needed as no way would the federal court order California to release prisoners. The lawmakers were wrong. Jerry Brown now proposes sending prisoners out-of-state and into private facilities while the Senate is finally embracing the prevention plan, hoping the court will extend the December 31 deadline by which time the prison population must be reduced. Given the state’s failure to fully comply with the court order over the last 20 years, Powers thinks it unlikely the deadline will be extended. At best, he thinks, prevention must be a long term solution.
Prison overcrowding also presented Powers with one of his biggest challenges. When he arrived on the job in LA, AB 109 – “adult realignment” had sent 15,000 low level offenders from state prison to LA County jail and the probation department, rather than the department of corrections, was put in charge of their supervision. Again, contrary to media reports, “Not a single one of these prisoners was released a single day early.” Yes, once they’d served their full terms, many reoffended. But “These are low level offenders and they are more likely to reoffend than murderers.” Drug users, for example, who come home without any substance abuse treatment behind bars or in-patient treatment upon release, will typically go right back to drug use.
“I wish we’d had two years to prepare,” Powers said. “Programs, treatment, beds, staffing in place. I started work in December about 60 days after this thing started. so we’ve been scrambling.” Nothing was easy. Not only did he need to hire hundreds of new personnel, he had to find office space for them. Service providers that wanted to expand their programs to meet the new need ran into problems with neighbors who didn’t want that sort of population nearby.
To help with community relationships, Powers is moving top level managers out of the Downey headquarters and into the communities being affected and served.
The outreach coordinator for one of those potential service providers – the youth development program of CRCD (Coalition for Responsible Community Development) – wanted to know how to develop a relationship with Probation.
“We tend to be standoffish,” Powers admitted. “Many times we’ve seen individuals who have good intentions, but the worst thing we can do is hook a kid up with someone who fails them again, so there are hoops to go through.” But solid organizations shouldn’t be discouraged and he said he’d put her in touch with the right people to call.
A YJC member who was previously incarcerated at Camp Kilpatrick said, “The programs that helped me were by community members who weren’t paid and had to drive up there.”
“Show us the money!” said a community worker.
It can be a vicious cycle. Unfunded or underfunded programs are more likely to be short lived or less than 100% reliable. The more a program relies on volunteers, the less likely it is to win contracts and establish itself on firmer ground. (A model might be Susan Burton’s A New Way of Life Re-Entry project which provides services for formerly incarcerated women but has also begun to mentor and enter into partnership with smaller new providers.)
Whether dealing with youthful or adult offenders, Powers reiterated how important it is to start educational and rehabilitative programs to build learning into a daily routine when the person is still inside. Otherwise, “They just sit on their bunk, they get out, they hit the sunlight and the concrete and they’re gone.”
So what’s next?
Certainly, Powers espouses a refreshing philosophy. He sees the value in restorative justice programs. (Pepperdine University will soon introduce a restorative justice program in Camp Gonzalez.) Powers believes probation operates with a different mindset than the parole department with their law enforcement orientation: his department seeks to “engage offenders and deal with their risks and their needs rather than tail ‘em, nail ‘em, jail ‘em.” He sees the mission of probation as helping individuals who’ve made mistakes go on to redeem themselves as persons and he asks the public to believe as he does, that his organization, too, can learn from past mistakes. He gives credit to the DOJ and the advocates and community organizations that held Probation’s feet to the fire.
The question now is implementation.
Three years ago, Donald Blevins, the new (and short lived) Probation Chief thought his department had to be cleaned up before it could think about diverting juvenile cases away from adult court. And three years ago, when I wrote for LA Progressive about Tedi Snyder’s case and others like it, I did not have much hope that Kim McGill’s promise could be fulfilled. Though Tedi isn’t coming home tomorrow, now I believe he will come home long before 32 years.
So there has been progress. Today, I feel optimism, but no certainty. A new way of justice appears to be a possibility, but there are no guarantees.
As the Town Hall drew to a close, Parekh asked, “Can we do this once a month in different supervisory districts?”
“Can we do this with staff?” asked a deputy.
“All 6500 of them?” asked Powers.
Wednesday, 18 September 2013
Home > Book Reviews > Fiction > Historical > The Fiery Alphabet
The Fiery Alphabet
ForeWord Review — Fall 2013
This complex and thoroughly satisfying book tells of a time when womanhood was repressed, yet the repository of wisdom and secret knowledge gave them dignity.
Diane Lefer has dipped her pen in fire to create the story of a brilliant, impetuous, yet strangely naïve 18th century Roman girl whose mysterious antecedents are hidden from her until life, with its adventures, torments, and inevitable losses, reveals itself to her in all its pain, folly, and blazing beauty.
Daniela Messo, a mathematical and intellectual prodigy raised to be a freethinker and named for a mother she never knew, grows up on her father’s secluded estate, unaware of the suffering and degradation that exists just outside the walls of her enclosure. The young girl’s uncanny gifts, though a joy to her father, put her at risk of being scrutinized by the Church’s inquisitors, who hold life and death power over any that might pose a threat—especially gifted women, who are all too easily branded “witch” in 18th century Rome.
The unannounced arrival of Giuseppe Balsamo, a slight, disheveled young man of unknown origin, turns Daniela’s world inside out and becomes the catalyst for the young girl’s awakening, as the two escape the confines of the Messo estate and cross Europe, using their wits to swindle the unwary. But who is this strange, salvation-addicted Balsamo? Obviously an alchemist, Balsamo is bent on discovering the secrets of Daniela’s past, which he believes hold the key to the hidden knowledge of a long-dead Jewish mystic—knowledge that could lead to true salvation. But Daniela, having lived too long in the world of the mind, seeks not more philosophy but the lover’s touch that will allow her womanhood to fully blossom.
Daniela’s arduous journey to find her true home in the world brings her into contact with the most elevated and the most debased in human society, leading to some stunning realizations on the roots of men’s lack of esteem for women. In ancient times, a people only had the right to be considered human through their relationship with a god; if conquered in war, it meant that a people’s god had deserted them or died, and it was then considered proper and right to treat them as chattel. And women had been robbed of their goddess. “‘The Queen of Heaven,’ I whispered. Anne understood it in that moment just as I did: that we needed our Goddess, whether we believed in Her or no.”
Lefer has written a complex and thoroughly satisfying book, a work that, above all, is about the power of words to bring life or death, to create walls that imprison body and mind, or to break those walls down and open the gates to freedom. It is also the story of how, in a time when womanhood was suspect and repressed, it was, nevertheless, as Balsamo guessed and Daniela came to know, the repository of wisdom and secret knowledge.
August 31, 2013
Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Book Debut and Interview: The Fiery Alphabet by Diane Lefer
More than a year ago, toward the end of my time in Tucson, Diane Lefer sent her novel The Fiery Alphabet to me at Fireship Press. I loved it for all the reasons the COO didn’t: It’s smart, it’s not formulaic, and it tells a story most women today can sympathize with. When my colleagues and I all left Fireship for various personal reasons and got together to found Loose Leaves Publishing, I wondered if that crazy wonderful novel was still looking for a home and, with my new partners’ blessing, I asked Diane about it. (Insert incredible amounts of work and joy here.)
I’m inestimably proud of this book and the wonderful response it’s already received from reviewers. The Fiery Alphabet makes its official debut tomorrow, September 5.
Diane Lefer: Thank you for the introduction, Jessica. When I sent you The Fiery Alphabet, I didn’t dare admit the manuscript had been making the rounds of publishers for 26 years. I thought, who on earth would want to publish a book that had already racked up so many rejections? Well, you did. You know, years before, I had drinks with a prominent editor in New York. She said, “If I used my own taste, I’d be betraying the trust the company has in me.” That’s why I have such love and appreciation for small independent presses like Loose Leaves. You get to use your own taste and judgment. And I hope my experience can encourage other writers to never lose faith or give up.
JK: That’s exactly what Loose Leaves aims to do: give good books a chance in this bizarre new publishing milieu. What happened during the intervening 26 years?
DL: I had agents, I lost agents, I fired agents, and I tried to place the manuscript myself, but the policy in mainstream publishing changed and all of a sudden even editors who knew me weren’t allowed to read work I sent directly.
Even before that, The Fiery Alphabet had a long gestation period. It’s a book I’d wanted to write since I was a kid and saw a TV show about the occultist Cagliostro. I wasn’t that enthralled with his magical powers but very impressed with the idea that a person could be an actual historical figure – even a famous one – and yet shrouded in mystery. Like Shakespeare. As a kid, I loved Shakespeare because he wrote about witches and ghosts, and this unlikely pair became the creative polestars of my youth: Shakespeare and Cagliostro.
Then, in the early 1970′s, I was in Brazil during the brutal dictatorship. People were being detained, tortured, disappeared. Any gathering of students was dangerous and forbidden but what happened was, if you sat down in a cafe with a book, a student would join you, hoping for a good conversation. That’s how I met a young writer, Mauro Costa, who had just read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy and was eager to discuss it. Unfortunately, I had never read it. I hadn’t even heard of it, but I sought out a copy as soon as I returned to the US and the book awakened an interest in the Divine Feminine – the archetype with such beautiful names: Queen of Heaven, Rosa Mystica, Star of the Sea – and reawakened my desire to write about mysticism and Cagliostro. I learned his real name was Giuseppe Balsamo: one mystery about him solved. But another ten years passed before Daniela presented herself to my consciousness and I began to write.
I worked on the manuscript for several years. Once I started sending it out – and by the way, I avoid using the word “submit.” I think it was Muriel Rukeyser who said offer your work, but don’t give up your power. Never submit! – there was a lot of discouragement. The very first rejection began with the words, “Daniela is a passionate creature, but her passion is for learning. Intellectual women aren’t interesting.” As though there’s something wrong with being curious about the world and wanting to know and understand and experience as much as you can – which for Daniela definitely includes love and sexual desire. I took the criticism very personally because I came of age during an era when girls weren’t supposed to be smart. Some adults actually expressed their sympathy as they assured me I would never fit in and my life would be very hard. A few took a more optimistic view of my future: they said I might get to marry a doctor. Of course, in the novel, Daniela’s intelligence lands her in more trouble than mine ever did. But the manuscript (and I) finally lucked out to find a smart woman editor who had the authority to make an offer without having to sneak it past the gatekeepers.
Though I did a lot of research, I didn’t really think of my novel as all that high-brow. Several years before I began writing it, I was broke and had to borrow rent money. A nonfiction book project I was working on for which a contract was supposedly being drawn fell through. I ended up getting out of debt by writing two Regency romances, that is, romances set in nineteenth-century England during the time King George III was too mad to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his stead. (The books were published under a pseudonym because the editor said, “Diane Lefer isn’t a romantic name.”)
Writing those books was a great experience. Getting paid for my work? What a concept! But also, I admit, my orientation as a writer had always been to concentrate on my characters’ inner lives. I was not very observant of physical reality. The Regencies, however, had to be written to a formula which went so far as to specify not only when the romantic encounters were to occur (and how far they could go), but also how often descriptions of food and clothing and furniture had to appear on the page. This was excellent training for me. Of course, in The Fiery Alphabet, I wasn’t writing to formula and didn’t include quite that much sensory detail. Most of the novel is in the form of Daniela’s journals and a person writing a journal takes much of her world for granted and doesn’t describe everything the way an outside observer might. But the Regencies taught me to pay attention to the world of the senses.
JK: What first drew me in to The Fiery Alphabet was the fictionalized Translator’s Preface, in which you have a subtle adventure in Turkey. Tell me about the research.
DL: I went to Turkey to visit the harem and the archaeological sites associated with Goddess worship: Çatal Hüyük, the world’s most ancient city; Ephesus with its temple to Artemis. I brought home a small statue of the goddess and one day, trying to get all the dust off her, I made the mistake of washing her. The statue started to melt. I saved most of her!
In order to immerse myself in Daniela’s world, I tried to read everything she would have read, though often in translation as, unlike Daniela, I don’t know Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. I read Casanova’s memoirs – useful but boring. I needed special permission to access eighteenth-century obstetrical manuals. I stared at Piranesi’s etchings of Rome until I could dream myself into them. So, OK, I knew there was a lot of … erudition in The Fiery Alphabet, but I believe I’d also learned a lot about just telling a good story.
JK: Did you revise much during the 26 years?
DL: At some point I changed the title. The manuscript first made the rounds as “Ardent Fire,” which is actually a phrase Balsamo quotes from St. John of the Cross, but people thought it sounded like the title of a romance novel. Daniela does fall in love with Balsamo, but editors who expected a more familiar romance novel were disappointed. Marketing isn’t just about ads and blogs and reviews. I understand now it’s about a cover and a title that don’t mislead potential readers, that help a book find the readership that will most enjoy it. I’ve been happily stunned by all the positive reactions to the cover Loose Leaves designed and I appreciate the way you all wanted my input.
Over the years, I did some revising and cutting. I found myself simplifying the manuscript – without, I hope, dumbing it down. For example, in the original draft, Daniela writes two journals. One she leaves lying around hoping Balsamo will find it and read it and love her for it. The other is private and in it she writes what she really thinks and feels. Then A.S. Byatt published the novel Possession which also features a public and a private diary. I was afraid people would think I’d stolen the idea from her so I very reluctantly rewrote the novel. Daniela has only one journal now. And though I still think there’s psychological truth in the original concept, I ended up happy I made the change. The revision does make a somewhat complicated novel more readable, easier to follow. After all, we got that review from ForeWord calling the book “complex and thoroughly satisfying” – which sure beats someone saying it was too damn complex to read.
JK: That issue of ForeWord is out now in Barnes and Noble and many other venues. Johnny Depp is on the cover! Thanks for coming by, Diane.
Diane Lefer is the author of The Fiery Alphabet, her tenth small press book to be published. It was released on September 5th by Loose Leaves Publishing after making the rounds of publishers since 1986. She Writer Dorothy Bendel, author of Expatriate (poems) and a novel-in-progress, wanted to know more about Diane’s novel, as well as her thoughts on agents, the self-publishing option and, most of all, persistence. Here’s what Diane had to say.
Dorothy Bendel: Set in the 18th century, the story that unfolds in The Fiery Alphabet deals with faith, feminism, history… What inspired you to write this novel?
Diane Lefer: I hope you’re not expecting an erudite answer! Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, and one scary episode was about the 18th-century occultist Cagliostro. I became fascinated by the idea that Cagliostro was an actual historical figure and yet his life was shrouded in mystery. At the age of 10, I decided I would someday write a book about him.
Someday was a long way off! Decades later when I read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, it recalled Cagliostro to mind, but at that stage of my life, I was no longer so intrigued by charlatans. I was more concerned with the way people–especially women–get taken in by deceit. And so Daniela was born in my imagination. The more I tried to learn about the world she lived in, the more excited I got.
The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, of science and rational thought, but religious institutions and dogma still had great power while orthodoxy was being challenged by radical mystical movements in Judaism and Islam. Occultism–with the secret rites of Masonic lodges–played a role in the secular movement for democracy. As I tried to understand how these currents affected Daniela, I had to go back a lot further than the 18th century, to women’s pre-history, to books by Riane Eisler and Mary Daly, including Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, her radical feminist attack, not on men, but on patriarchy. Painful reading, but it helped fuel my writing.
Dorothy Bendel: Can you describe the long and winding road to publication?
Diane Lefer: I finished the novel in 1986 and it’s only being published now in September 2013. So that road truly did have twists and turns.
In 1986, I actually had an agent. A famous one. I lived in New York City at the time, so I brought her the manuscript in person. The Famous Agent said “It weighs too much. Cut 100 pages.” I said, “I wish you’d read it first.” She said, “If I enjoyed reading, I would have become an editor, not an agent.” Soon after, she called and asked me to come in. Of course my fantasy was that she’d actually read my work and loved it, maybe even sold it. Instead, I entered her office and found her standing on the window ledge throwing things and screaming she was too stressed out to get her hair done. When a sheaf of pages landed at my feet, I bent to retrieve them. She hollered, “Freeze!”, then jumped down, grabbed me with her fingers around my throat and started to squeeze. We struggled. When I broke free, the Famous Agent said, “Don’t you ever tell anyone what happened in this office.” It was Christmastime and I thought I should wait till after the holidays to fire her. In January, I sent what I thought was a polite letter. She phoned me right away. “No one fires me ever,” she said. “You are not getting your manuscript back.”
She had the only original. I had a messy carbon copy because I hadn’t been able to afford a photocopy. (Does anyone reading this remember carbon paper?) So I had to retype the manuscript–which back then was 500 pages long. That turned out to be a good opportunity to revise and edit what I’d written.
Then I made another change. In the original version, Daniela wrote two journals: one which she left lying around for Balsamo to find in which she presented a self designed to attract him, and the other in which she was honest. I thought this was psychologically important, but then A.S. Byatt published Possession which also features the split between a public and a private journal and I was afraid people would say I’d stolen the idea from her, so I reluctantly got rid of the concept. I now think simplifying the manuscript’s structure was not a bad idea.
I found another agent–a lovely person who was well respected in the business. Soon after she took me on as a client, everything started getting screwed up. Unfortunately, the problem turned out to be early Alzheimers.
I figured I could do a better job representing myself but overnight the policy in mainstream publishing changed. Only agent submissions were read and I had no luck finding a new representation. Since then, with the advent of POD and e-books, we have more small independent presses than ever and once again there are actually some editors out there who will consider your work. I started sending out queries and sample chapters. I also reread the manuscript and found myself cutting about 100 pages. The Famous Agent might have said “I told you so,” but if I’d tried to cut back in 1986, without guidance I don’t think I would have recognized which pieces needed to go.
Finally, in 2012, I heard from Jessica Knauss at Loose Leaves Publishing. She had loved the manuscript when she worked for a different publisher but her boss turned it down. Now she had the authority to make an offer and she wanted to know if the book was still available. YES! Besides being an astute editor, Jessica is a specialist in medieval history, especially medieval Spain–a place that’s figures briefly in the background of my novel because Balsamo believes Daniela has inherited the secrets of Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Jewish mystic who claimed to be the Messiah. Jessica and I both love Spanish language and literature. It really does make a difference when you find an editor with whom you share common interests.
It also occurs to me that the cultural tensions in the 18th century–science vs. religion; the subjugation of women–may have seemed irrelevant to contemporary life when I started sending the manuscript around. Sad to say, not anymore.
Dorothy Bendel: How has your writing process changed from the time you wrote The Fiery Alphabet to the way you write now?
Diane Lefer: The computer! In the old days, the chore of retyping made me reluctant to make changes even when I recognized awkward language or unnecessary paragraphs, or sections that would work better if moved. The computer made me–or let me–set the bar higher. But it came at a price. In 2003, I developed a severe case of computer vision syndrome from so much staring at the screen. My focusing muscles went slack and it was eight months till I was able to read, write, or drive again. These days I have to limit my hours at the computer. That may account for why I used to write from point A to point B but now find myself working in fragments that then have to be pieced together. Completed manuscripts still read as though they are more or less continuous–at least I hope so–but they aren’t created that way.
Dorothy Bendel: Daniela, the protagonist of the novel, is a strong and determined woman. While reading The Fiery Alphabet, the root of her character reminded me of the tenacity required to push the novel forward to publication. Do you see any parallels between your own journey and Daniela’s?
Diane Lefer: Not so much the tenacity as her weaknesses! The idea of the two journals got dropped but it came from my own memories of being 10, when I had a diary with a lock but even so I never told the truth in it. I wrote the sentiments that I thought a girl my age was supposed to have. And Illusion vs. Reality, Truth vs. Lie — it’s a personal obsession. Three times in my life, I’ve been duped by a pathological liar. Three of them! Once can be understood. But three times? And I don’t mean lies like “No, I did not have sex with that woman.” I mean Big Lies.
Dorothy Bendel: What advice can you give to those who are struggling to get their work published?
Diane Lefer: Never give up! Publishing is important. We write because we want to communicate with others, not just mumble (or scream) to ourselves. But don’t let that desire spoil your joy in the process of creation.
To tell the truth though, I did give up. Writing fiction had begun to seem thankless and pointless. And then there were the Famous Agent’s parting words: “You will grow old, embittered, and unpublished, and you will blame the publishing industry but it will not be the publishing industry’s fault.” I didn’t want to become bitter so I self-published my novel Radiant Hunger, decided That’s all, folks! and devoted myself to social justice work. But I have to write, so I started writing for the stage. It was reinvigorating to explore a new outlet for creativity and to see my plays brought to life, but I did miss the texture and heft of fiction. I decided So what if no one publishes me? I started writing new stories and began a new novel and also revisited old manuscripts. Some I cringed at and abandoned. Others, including The Fiery Alphabet, I still believed in.
Next year, Aqueous Books will bring out The Still Point, and that novel had been making the rounds of publishers since 1978. (It seems even when I write contemporary fiction, by the time it’s published, it’s historical.)
So I repeat: Never give up! There will always be people like the Famous Agent who will try to paralyze you with the curse of self-doubt. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been vulnerable at least for a while. I had to remember that writing well is a joy in itself–as well as the best revenge. Today I have three short story collections, three novels, and a co-authored nonfiction book in print. While I wonder if the Famous Agent found a safe way down from her window ledge.
posted today in LA Progressive
In May, when the LAUSD board voted to end the practice of suspending students for “willful defiance,” the blogosphere heated up. Monica Garcia, then board president, was called a moron, and students were referred to as thugs, animals, and savages. Well, guess what, haters? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
On Wednesday, after the school year began with LAUSD rolling out a plan to replace punitive disciplinary measures with the practices of restorative justice, Garcia was applauded by community advocates at a meeting at Loyola Law School. In return, she gave the activists their props: “It’s because of your advocacy,” she said.
The restorative justice initiative was championed by community groups including CADRE, Community Rights Campaign, Dignity in Schools, and Youth Justice Coalition, all committed to keeping kids out of the criminal and juvenile court system and in school. This approach asks, Who was harmed? How can that harm be repaired? What are the needs and responsibilities of the parties? How can the parties be held accountable in a positive and healthy way?
“Here lies the solution to a lot of issues that arise in juvenile justice,” said Donna Groman, and she ought to know. As a Superior Court judge serving at Eastlake Juvenile Court, she has years of experience with the current system. “I see 10-year-olds in court. Why are they there? They are arrested by school police,” and she pointed out, “We are not talking about crimes that endanger the community.” She sees young children who sit in a waiting room with older gang-involved youth. “They are missing school. Their parents are missing work.” She has seen how slowly the court system moves, so that a troubled family may wait months without anyone asking questions or providing services or taking action. In the meantime, children may be denied reentry to school. And school, she believes, is where the response to disciplinary infractions should happen. “School is the center of the community. Court is not the center of the community and the community is where the problems of youth should be addressed.”
A panel of administrators, teachers, and advocates then spoke of their own experiences in working for change.
Michelle King, Senior Deputy Superintendent, LAUSD, acknowledged there was resistance at first to discipline reform. Teachers complained that if they couldn’t suspend disruptive students, they wouldn’t be able to teach. But teachers now recognize the old ways don’t work and are asking, What can we do differently?
It starts, said Joe Provisor, with council circle. As the director of the Ojai Foundation’s Council in Schools initiative, he has trained more than 2,000 LAUSD teachers in the simple and ancient practice of people sitting in a circle and speaking from the heart. “For most of history, this is how we learned,” he said, “in circles, facing each other,” a model very different from what has become traditional in our education culture, with the teacher being “the sage on the stage.” In a circle, a talking stick is passed around so that everyone has a chance to speak. Everyone listens, attentively and compassionately, without judgment or criticism.
For skeptics who are averse to anything that smells like a therapy session or what they might consider New Age crap, King cites a simple solution. Administrators and teachers should participate in circles before introducing them in the classroom. What she has seen is not only do they gain competence in the technique, but they embrace the idea after they see it’s helped them resolve tensions and communicate and collaborate more effectively with colleagues.
Twenty-five LAUSD schools now regularly use council circles, either incorporated into instruction (so that personal responses and critical thinking can be encouraged, for example, in literature and social studies classes), or with specific times to address school issues allocated on the schedule, or called for when problems in the classroom arise.
Circles are a first step, says Provisor, to creating a web of connectedness, making sure each kid feels seen, listened to, and respected.
Cynthia Castillo, who uses circles in her South LA classroom, reported the response from a student: “You made me feel like I’m human and that you want to know who I am.”
Once the sense of community and of trust is created, successful school-based behavioral interventions become possible. Then the restorative justice model can be used to address disciplinary infractions and for conflict resolution or, as Provisor prefers to say, conflict exploration. It’s not as though students are allowed to get away with anything. They are held accountable for their behavior, but it’s “accountability,” he said, “in a context of care.”
That can make all the difference. “It’s relationships that change children,” said Schoene Mahmood, of the Center for Urban Resilience Restorative Justice Project at Loyola Marymount University. Before coming to LA, Mahmood facilitated conflict resolution and court diversion cases at the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and saw restorative justice successfully resolve problems in some of that city’s toughest (as per “The Wire”) neighborhoods.
Ben Gertner, assistant principal at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, first taught there in 2002 and was dismayed that, for years, students coming late to class were either sent to waste time in a “tardy room” or ended up in court with truancy tickets. Of course it looks easier (even if it’s ineffective) to send a kid to the tardy room than it is to address the real underlying issues. But, he reported, after two teachers attended training offered by the California Conference for Equality & Justice, they spoke up in a meeting of 120 RHS teachers and heartily endorsed the restorative justice approach. One said, “It has transformed my teaching.” Today, there’s a restorative justice coordinator at Roosevelt.
“Restorative justice is not just like this magic solution,” said Castillo. “You have to lay the groundwork with the community building, slowing down and really listening to each other. It’s hard. But we have to stop outsourcing discipline.”
“We have an addiction to over-policing and punitive measures,” said Julio Marquez who was, himself, pushed out of school. Now he’s a graduate of Free LA High School and an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. We call the police right away, he said, because “people don’t want to believe in this radical notion of just talking to someone.”
He shared a recent experience when he saw an old friend from elementary school who was bleeding and apparently suicidal. Relying on their old relationship and trust, Marquez talked him down and calmed him enough so that he could get him to accept medical care. But when Marquez phoned for the paramedics, the police arrived first. They immediately slapped on the handcuffs. So much for trust.
Marquez prefers to talk about transformative rather than restorative justice. It’s not enough to repair harm and go back to the status quo. He wants to see our society change in profound ways for the better.
All of the panelists believe that by whatever name, this new way of envisioning and implementing justice has ripple effects in the wider community.
When Castillo explains about circles to her students’ parents, they often react with excitement and say they are going to try it at home with their kids. Provisor has trained officers with the South Gate police department who now participate in circles with students at the International Studies Learning Center. He has also trained community members who then sit in on student circles, by their presence letting every young person know there are adults who listen to them and who care.
Face-to-face caring conversations in our classrooms: this is very different from teaching to the test.
For now, the change in our schools is just beginning. Full implementation of restorative justice will take years but LAUSD hopes to be a model for the nation in creating an educational climate in which students feel like valued members of the school community – open to learning academic subjects and life lessons in a way that is nurturing, respectful, and humane.