gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month - guest post from Alma Alexander

Born into a world that was poem and story, wrapped in swaddling cloths of words and dreams, I could only become what I became - a herder or words myself, a writer, a teller of tales, a seeker of dreams.

But one does not end up walking this road by accident. Sure, there was family involved, at the earliest of times - people whose blood I shared, and who loved me, and who saw me reaching for the moon and tried to pluck stars from the heavens to put into my grasping little childish hands. However, once you're put onto your own two feet and you start stumbling forward by yourself, you discover others along the way - others whom you may or may not have met, but who influence your journey in a hundred small ways.

And they are legion. Some of them are role models, some of them eventually become friends, some of them you get a chance to tell how important they and their lives and contributions were in the shaping of your own existence, and some of them remain forever beyond your reach. They are many. Here, in the context of the Women's History Month, are a few who mattered to me.

When I was a child, my family had several of those "collected works" stacks of books, five or eight or ten novels by a single writer issued in neat serried ranks of identically bound novels which look so good and organized on a bookshelf. One of "our" writers was a woman named Pearl S. Buck.

I knew little about her, back then. It would be a while before I found out that she was a winner of the Nobel Literature Prize. But that never mattered, and neither did the fact that at seven or eight or nine years old (which was the age at which I first picked up her books) I may have been way too young to understand everything that was in there. I understood better, later, when I re-read the favourites of my childhood - but when I was a girl nothing in my house was ever forbidden to me, and I devoured Pearl Buck with a voracious appetite. I think her set had some nine books in it. I read them all, some several times. Her exotic worlds and the women who inhabited them were rich and strange to me, these may have been "real" books but to me they were (at least in that very beginning) as much fairy tales as Hans Christian Andersen's works were. Pearl Buck was perhaps the first writer - the first WOMAN writer - to teach me that there was wider and bigger world out there that I knew, and it was she perhaps at whose feet I can lay my hunger for knowing that world as I grew older. I haven't actually gone back to her books for a while. Perhaps it is high time I returned there for a visit to the vistas of my childhood country.

But, partly, she began it.

Later, others stepped up to take their place in the ranks.

People have heard me tell the story of my encounter with Lynne Reid Banks, back when I was fifteen years old and she came to talk to my English class at school. I was already a "writer" by then, and by that I mean that I was an inverterate scribbler who already had at least two finished novels under my belt by this age and was deep into the next one. But I was yet to be a WRITER, the kind that lives by it, because I was an innocent and I knew nothing about the practicalities of the matter. Until Lynne Reid Banks came to our school, and told it like it was. She spoke of the joys of her world and her art - but she also told of the frustrations, of the fear, of the lingering anxieties, of rejection, of long agonizing waits for a word (any word) from a publisher, about the blood and the sweat and the tears that went into what only looked on the surface to be a perfect finished draft. And she told all of this with the light of angels in her eyes, and it was clear to me that there was nothing else that she wanted to do with her life except this, that there WAS nothing in life except this, and the fifteen-year-old me sat up with the same light kindled inside of me and said to myself, "Yes. This. I want this." And from there on I wrote for a reader other than myself, I began writing for the world. It was this moment that made me who I am today.

Later, when I began to be asked interview questions about my own work , I often tell people that I would like to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow up, and that is actually rather no more than the truth. I deeply admire her passion, her spirit, her mind, her imagination, her articulate and deeply felt writing (and that, no matter whether she is writing YA novels or scholarly essays on the craft of writing. I have devoured both, with different but equal pleasure). She has taught me, and continues to teach me, grace, and wisdom, and quiet power. This was a writer whom I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting in person several times and the woman is just as wonderful as the writer is. And all I can say is, live long and prosper, great lady, and may there be more words still that will flow from your pen which I can drink like an elixir and let them enlighten and enchant me.

And may I beg the indulgence of including somebody whom many people - perhaps most people reading this piece - will probably never have heard of.

Back in the last fading years of the last century (ye gods that sounds so very very old, but it isn't, not really, just do the math...) a novel by the name of "Letters from the Fire" was published in New Zealand - a thoroughly modern epistolary novel, written in emails instead of letters, emails exchanged between my own character and that written and personified by a man who lived in the United States of America - and whom I would eventually marry. The novel dealt with the NATO bombing campaign in what was the last crumbling dregs of Yugoslavia, the land of my birth; it told of shattered lives, smashed buildings, destroyed bridges, despoiled rivers, stolen land. To me, it was a deeply personal story - but that full power of it could perhaps be obvious only to somebody who also shared my background, who shared my Slav heritage. It was with a sense of utter shock and surprise, then, that I received a phone call, a little while after this book was published, from a woman I did not know, a New Zealand writer who was born in Dargaville in New Zealand to settlers from the Dalmatian coast back in 1915.

She was eighty four years old when she called me, a complete stranger to me, and she said to me, "You don't know me, my name is Amelia Batistich and I am a writer. I just read your book, and I had to call to tell you that I thought that this book is the 'Bridge on the Drina' of our times."

'Bridge on the Drina' is a seminal book for me and mine, and its author, Ivo Andric, ALSO received a Nobel Literature Prize in his own turn (and here we close the circle, back to where we started, back to a Pearl Buck and her own laurels...) Being compared to Ivo Andric was breathtaking to me, and humbling, and I think I probably began crying right there on the phone. But we met, after that call, Amelia and I, and although our encounters were very few (I moved to the States not too long after this, in order to marry that aforementioned collaborator of mine on "Letters from the Fire") but during that time Amelia Batistich became something of a second beloved grandmother to me, and we sat in her kitchen at her small kitchen table and she gave me praise, and advice, and love, and pride.

She died in 2004, and I mourned her like one of my own. Sometimes, love is just enough. Hers was not a large fame, but that which she gathered she treasured and received with humble gratitude and appreciation. She was a warm and giving soul, a wonderful woman, a writer from the very heart and soul of her, and someone who gave me a huge gift which I still carry with me to this day. God Speed, Amelia, it is always good to remember you, and may you have found your rest and your peace.

I have no doubt that there are still great women waiting to be discovered on my life's journey, which is not yet done. I look forward to meeting them. To those who offered me words or visions or praise or encouragement or a hand along the way so far, thank you, all of you, and I forget none of you - the reason I stand where I stand is because you walked the road before or beside me. I salute you.


Alma Alexander was born in Yugoslavia, grew up in Africa, and went to school in Wales. She has lived in several countries on four continents, and is quite comfortable in the new continent of cyberspace. She was living in New Zealand when she met a man on an Internet bulletin board for writers, married him and moved to America.

She now lives with her husband and two cats in the Pacific Northwest, in the city of Bellingham (directions to her home include the phrase "Aim for Canada and just before you get there, turn right"). Her office looks out onto cedar woods, and she has frequently been known to babysit young deer left just outside her door while their mothers vanish off on some urgent deer errand.

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