Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Jeannine Atkins

Jeannine Atkins is the author of several books for young readers about courageous women, including Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis; Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science; and the highly praised Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters. Atkins teaches children’s literature at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and writing at Simmons College.

Recently I asked Atkins about what she was reading. Her reply:
You’d think finishing a novel based on the life of Edmonia Lewis would mean I could let her go, but even while my writing days are now spent with another woman, I’m still preoccupied with the ways that the nineteenth century sculptor’s biracial background shaped her life.

Some of these tensions are beautifully expressed in The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow. The novel works around an incident of a mother and her children falling from the roof of an apartment building, and the resulting deaths, a girl saved, and the mystery of how those falls came to be. Birds are always in the picture, too, and the ways memories mimic flight – veering, falling, rising again. We try to learn what “really” happened along with the young narrator, who misses her mother, a white woman from Denmark, and her father, an African American in the military, though we comes to believe that the truth may be less in what happened, than the voice shaped by attentive experience and unknowing.

Eula Biss also addresses some of these themes of identity and displacement in Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays. These essays are both deeply personal and political, as the author investigates where she comes from, who she loves now, where she lives, the students she’s taught, and more. She juxtaposes well-researched facts not usually shown together, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. For example, in the first essay she instructs us on telephone poles, explaining their history both as connecting people across land and their place in the history of lynching. Some essays mix her personal and family history with public stories. In “Land Minds,” the history of slavery is combined with memories of her experience teaching in public schools. Eula Biss discusses variously colored dolls, Toni Morrison, Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Conrad, and a contemporary custody battle in “Relations.” The book ends with a compilation of public apologies mixed with some harrowing history of racism.

The author’s reflections on New York City and California, as she moves from one city to others, offer a sort of conversation with Joan Didion, an essayist who has inspired her by the way she investigates story and place. In her theme of looking for home, Eula Biss veers from the outlooks of Joan Didion, and we find her at the end of the book in Chicago, making a home in the Midwest with love and uncertainty, represented by the baby she and her husband are expecting, but who’s yet to be named. It is hard to make one choice.
Visit Jeannine Atkins's website.

--Marshal Zeringue