Sabbatical

The Wanderer

Seven years ago, I was a solitary professor living in Wisconsin with my three cats. Last month, Steve and I headed up into the mountains with our doggy to celebrate our seventh anniversary. Seven is a magical number, often referenced in fairy tales, and seven years is enough time to see into the heart of the matter. So here’s the truth as I see it: these past seven years have been improbable and miraculous, the very best years of my life. Certainly, we’ve experienced grief and illness and loss–much like any protagonist in Andersen or Grimm–but we’ve also felt more joy than we ever expected, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’m grateful every single day.

“Happily ever after” sometimes involves a bit of work, and we did work hard on our anniversary, hiking up to the iconic Crystal Mill and encountering a real-life avalanche on our way. But we also loafed about in the town of Marble (famed for its stunning white Yule marble), and had lunch beneath the towering peaks of the Maroon Bells.

Meanwhile, back at Avalanche Ranch, we played a politically relevant game of Scrabble, toasted marshmallows while singing “Seven Bridges Road,” splashed around in the hot springs, evicted a bat from our tiny cabin, and fed the local sheep. We took the long way home, driving over the Kebler Pass to Crested Butte, where there were scones in the coffee shop and wildflowers on the slopes. We’ve now returned to everyday life, but we’ll remember this sabbatical, and we’ll remember how miraculous and improbable it is that we found each other.

Maroon Bells

Marble 6

Marble 3

Scrabble 2

Avalanche Ranch 2

Avalanche Ranch 3

Crystal Mill 3

Making Art in the Dark

jonna tiger

These are dark days, but that is no reason not to dress up.

On International Women’s Day, I went to Fancy Tiger Crafts in Denver and I wore pretty clothes and I made beautiful things with a group of fellow knitters, because making art is the best possible antidote to political and personal despair.

I’ve been busy making art on the professional front as well, and I have a secret project related to my forthcoming novel that I can’t wait to be allowed to share. [Hint: an award-winning book illustrator is involved.]

On the personal front, there are plenty of projects that I can share, so here we go:

First up, I finished a silk memorial quilt to honor my friend Solveig Haugland. The quilt is called Sol Invictus, and it is very shiny and sparkly, and later this year, it’s going to be in a museum show! More about the show when the time comes, but for now, enjoy this sneak preview.

sol invictus detail

Sol Invictus quilt jonna

Yes, my hair is blue. I decided that since the apocalypse has already happened and my heart is broken and our democracy is under attack, I may as well try something new. It’s all fun and games until I have to wash it, and then my bathtub looks like the site of a Smurf assassination.

In related sewing news, I spent my spring break in Houston, where I taught my nieces to sew drawstring bags and laminated pouches. We also went horseback riding and visited the circus. My sister and my nieces are the ones with the great hair.

sewing lesson

polka dot

circus day

Finally, as part of the Denver Metro Modern Quilt Guild, I participated in a silk-screening workshop at Ink Lounge. We all printed our own fabrics, and I used one of my favorite Henry Moore sheep sketches, because sheep are magical creatures, and because every household needs a golden fleece.

ink lounge 2

ink lounge 4

Henry Moore sheep Ink Lounge Print

I wish I could tell you more about the artwork for my forthcoming novel. But for now I will simply say that there are enchanted sheep, and there are characters who make art in the dark.

A Journey to the North

Barn 2011

After my friend Michael Levy died, we decided to spend a week in Wisconsin and Minnesota, visiting loved ones and attending Mike’s memorial service. Crossing the Mississippi River at Wabasha, we drove up to Lyster Church in nearby Nelson, Wisconsin, where my grandparents are buried. There’s an old barn nearby that I’ve always loved.

But the barn that seemed so solid in 2011 is now a ruin. Goodbye, old barn.

barn 2017

stave church

In Minnesota, we visited one of the most beautiful stave churches in North America. Being new, it’s still standing, which is somehow very comforting. So much of my hometown has changed. My childhood home is gone, and whole neighborhoods have been torn down, replaced by flood walls to hold back the Red River.

My parents took me to the Sons of Norway for lunch, and the lefse and the rømmegrøt were still on the menu, watched over by carved Vikings and trolls. But even the Sons of Norway has changed. My parents used to eat dinner there every Tuesday with a large group of friends, and now those friends have passed away, one by one.

lefse sign

viking carving

Time marches on, and it takes so much away. Some things never change, however, and I’m happy to say that Fargo still has its ugly painted bison and its late April snowstorms. So there is that.

fargo bison

Back in Wisconsin, we met up with my friend Kelly McCullough, who graciously signed his most recent book for my nieces. It’s called School for Sidekicks and it’s my favorite of Kelly’s books.

kelly signing

Kelly and Laura also showed off their kitty Chamomile, who cannot hear but has a heart filled with love.

chamomile

On the morning of Mike’s memorial service, we drove over to the cemetery, which is on an island in the middle of a lake, with old graves and tall trees. A narrow land bridge connects the island to the rest of the town. There’s a steep hill overlooking the lake, and a wild woods along the opposite shore. You can hear the wind when you climb to the top of the ridge. It’s beautiful there, and it’s a good place to come back to.

island cemetery

Remembering Michael Levy

Mike Levy

When we want to express love and grief, language is always inadequate. This is something I’ve known for a long time, but my words seem especially futile today, when I’m faced with the need to honor my dear friend, Michael Levy.

I first met Mike in 2001, when I was a new faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. Mike immediately took me under his wing, showing me the ropes and giving me advice about teaching. Supportive, generous, and caring, he was the ideal colleague to an overwhelmed new professor.

But when my beloved kitty Cinders collapsed with kidney failure, Mike became more than a supportive colleague: he became a friend. He saw that I was heartbroken and distraught and all alone, and he drove with me to the veterinary hospital and held my hand as I said goodbye. I knew then that Mike had the biggest heart in the world.

For years afterwards, Mike was my mentor and my friend. At the time, I was frustrated with my academic scholarship, but afraid to pursue what I really loved. Mike realized that my true passion was for literary fantasy, and he gave me books to read–books by Jo Walton, Franny Billingsley, Kelly Link, Diana Wynne Jones, and so many others. He encouraged me to write fiction, he read multiple drafts of my novels, and he championed my work. And when I decided to give up tenure and become a full-time writer, Mike was the one who told me it was okay. He was endlessly accepting, and he loved people for who they were, not who they thought they should be. Without him, I wouldn’t be the author (or the person) I am today.

I’m not the only writer that Mike mentored. He supported and encouraged so many people that he’s left a huge hole in our world. He was the president of both the IAFA (The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts) and the SFRA (The Science Fiction Research Association), and both organizations became more open and more diverse as a result of his leadership. He reviewed thousands [yes, thousands!] of books for Publisher’s Weekly and other publications, promoting the work of LGBT writers and people of color. He was an advocate, a champion, a guide.

After leaving academe, I kept in touch with Mike over email and Facebook, but I generally saw him only once a year. The last time I shared a meal with him and his wife Sandy, we were at the 2016 IAFA banquet, sitting at a table with a group of young academics. Mike was being Mike–listening intently to our concerns, encouraging everyone he met. Mike never made it all about him: he always made it all about everyone else. As a result, he was the one we all wanted to be with. He was so tolerant and accepting, so generous and compassionate, and I just assumed that he would always be there.

If I had known it was the last time we would share a meal together, I would have told him what I said last month, when he spent his final days in hospice, and I flew to Wisconsin to be at his side. I told him I loved him. I told him I was grateful. I told him I didn’t want to say goodbye.

Thank you for being my friend, Mike. I’m going to miss you.

Children’s Fantasy Literature

My beloved mentor Michael Levy passed away on Monday. I’m struggling to find words to express how much he meant to me. He was the best and kindest of men, and I loved him dearly.

Below is my review of Mike’s book with Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature.

levy book photo

An engaging narrative history, Children’s Fantasy Literature (2016) illuminates and contextualizes the English-language tradition of children’s fantasy. Keep a notebook handy as you read this fascinating study, because you’ll want to head to the library when you’re done.

Authors Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn draw upon a range of critical traditions to classify children’s fantasy, distinguishing Tolkien-like high fantasy, for example, from what Brian Attebery calls the “indigenous fantasy” of everyday life. The authors frequently reference the categories of the fantastic (immersive, portal-quest, intrusive, and liminal) that Mendlesohn describes in her acclaimed study Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008). As the authors show, children’s fantasy literature runs the gamut from self-contained magical worlds to journeys through portals into magical realms. But children’s fantasy also includes stories in which magic intrudes suddenly into ordinary life, as well as indefinable flirtations with the surreal.

An impressive number of books are discussed in this study. Rather than focus solely on the greatest hits of the field, the authors have chosen individual works for their significance to the narrative trajectory. Thus you’ll find the usual warhorses—J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Ursula Le Guin—but also such lesser-known authors as Franny Billingsley, Nnedi Okorafor, and Hiromi Goto.

Levy and Mendlesohn use a textile metaphor to describe their approach, broadly covering the overall fabric of the field in early chapters, while tracing individual “strands in the weave” as they move chronologically toward the densely populated present.

What the authors are doing in this book is showing us how children’s literature has been shaped by the changing role of children in society, by historical shifts in values, and by the legacy of groundbreaking texts. In their own words, they have “traced changing ideas about who children are and how they grow to adulthood . . . [examining] the ways in which this evolution has shaped the genre of children’s literature.”

It goes without saying that as the experience of childhood has changed, so have children’s books. But Levy and Mendlesohn are able to illustrate this vividly. For example, they demonstrate how the disruptions of British childhood during and after WWII fostered a preoccupation with evil, agency, and consequences in the work of C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) and Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising).

Along with C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones is the most thoroughly discussed author in this text, in part because her work is so wide-ranging and impinges upon so many different threads in the tradition. Her book Fire and Hemlock is discussed in a section on “A sudden flowering of heroines”—which also includes Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

A few other highlights in this study are Ursula Le Guin’s “rejection and reworking of Tolkien,” the questioning of “destiny” as a narrative construct, the decolonization of the imagination, and the increasingly visible role of LGBT writers and authors of color.

For this reader, the most fascinating chapter in Children’s Fantasy Literature is the final one. Addressing the “bitterness” of contemporary Young Adult fantasy, Levy and Mendlesohn show how far we have come from “consolatory” or escapist fantasies. In David Almond’s Skellig, readers encounter a fallen angel and a boy whose little sister is critically ill. Philip Pullman’s The Dark Materials trilogy takes young readers on a brutal journey with few consolations. Writing for increasingly sophisticated teen readers, Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels) references loss and isolation and sexual abuse, while Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games describes a world of inescapable violence and injustice. In reading these books, young readers are struggling to “find their own lives and gain agency in the world they live in.” Childhood is more difficult than adults remember, and the bitter fantasies of the current age allow children and teens to see their experience reflected in a truthful way, without coddling or deception.

To read this valuable study is to have a seat at the table while two of our most insightful scholars share their passion for children’s fantasy literature. Farah Mendlesohn is one of our most brilliant critics, and Michael Levy was a giant in the field of fantasy scholarship, a generous mentor, and an inspiration to a generation of scholars. This book is highly recommended.

Yarn: A Documentary

Tags

yarn-documentary-2 In Yarn, Icelandic/Canadian director Una Lorenzen follows four artists who are using textiles to promote social change. I’m the sort of person who watches an entire documentary about yarn on purpose, so I absolutely loved this.

Polish performance artist Olek, perhaps the biggest personality in the film, has created costumes and mermaid tails for a Hawaiian project raising awareness about the state of our oceans.

yarn-documentary-4

Olek argues that the universality of yarn makes it an ideal medium for inviting interaction, because viewers are attracted both to the tactile nature of yarn and to its history. “They all have some stories to tell, because everybody has something like a horrible scarf or hat made by grandma,” she says. It’s easy for people to interact with yarn as an artistic medium, because so many of us have associations from childhood.

yarn-documentary-7

The Danish circus troupe Cirkus Cirkor revels in its skeins and knots, creating movement and music in their imaginative show promoting peace. Performers climb ladders that continuously unravel, they spiral through tangled webs, and they walk tightropes. This segment of the documentary was mesmerizing.

yarn-documentary-9

yarn-documentary-8

An artist/engineer, Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam crochets brightly colored nylon cord into playground structures for children. She observes that crochet allows for organic hexagonal shapes as found in nature. That is to say, she’s deliberately copying a spider’s web. MacAdam previously made art installations that were meant only to be viewed, but textiles call out to be touched, and she quickly realized that what she really wanted was to give children the opportunity to climb and play.

yarn-documentary-11

In Iceland, feminist craftivist Tinna Thorudottir Thorvaldsdottir creates yarn graffiti or “yarn-bombings.” She says that when you see an embroidery or crochet piece at your grandmother’s house, “you just ignore it.” But when it’s placed in a public space, its meaning is transformed. Both playful and potent, this particular graffiti says “Not my government, not my president” in Icelandic wool.

yarn-documentary-1

Speaking of Icelandic wool, there were sheep in this film! Frankly, I could have used more sheep and less of author Barbara Kingsolver’s cloying poetry (the only major weakness in this documentary), but I will take my sheep where I can get them.

yarn-documentary-13

This final image from the film is my favorite. Olek, the flamboyant performance artist, pays a visit to Iceland and learns how to spin. This moment captures her pure joy when she realizes that she is actually turning a humble clump of fleece into a magical thread of yarn.

yarn-documentary-5

With a piece of string, you can make anything. That’s the magic of yarn.