I have a Quran in my home

booksThe recent Muslim travel ban, which has no credible national security rationale for it, reminded me of the ignorance and hate against immigrants and refugees that I encountered when I lived in Manassas, Virginia.

I was working the counter at a local government office one day, when an elderly white man came in. I can’t remember what set him off, but he went on a long-winded rant about radical Islamic terrorism, ending with “Read your Quran!” as the bell-jangling door closed behind him.

He didn’t know it, but I have a Quran in my home.

When my first husband, Martin, was senior warden at Trinity Episcopal Church, he visited Manassas Mosque with our rector, Rev. Stuart Schadt. On that visit, Imam Abu Nahidian gave him a copy of the holy book.

I know Martin read it. After his death in 1998 I found his bookmarks and handwritten notes on legal paper throughout its pages. I cherish it because he studied it. And while I didn’t read it at the time, I believe I see it revealed in the people who live its teachings.

Like Mr. Nahidian. When his mosque grew into a new location at an industrial park near I66, it was spray-painted with graffiti numerous times. In 2014, when it happened again and a glass door was also broken, he welcomed Unity in the Community, an outreach group of which I was a member, to come and talk about ways we could counter these hate crimes with education.

Or like Taalibah Hassan, the chair of Unity, who welcomed us to Dar Al Noor Islamic Community Center on Hoadly Road in Manassas for numerous community events, including the showing of a film about the rise and fall of Islamic culture in (now) Spain. I went there with a fellow writer, Adelaida Lower, a native of Morocco, who was working on The Red Ribbon, a novel set in 1491 Spain. I admit, I was anxious about the unfamiliar customs at the center – walking through a door separate from men, leaving our shoes in a cubby, covering our heads with scarves – until, once inside, we encountered the familiar – a Girl Scout troop selling cookies in the foyer. After the film discussion, we were invited to prayer and a shared meal of kebabs, pastry pies, vegetables, figs. Delicious!

Or like Afzal Nasiri and his wife, Marie Khalili. I met Al through the Prince William Chamber of Commerce. He hired me to help edit an English translation of Marie’s book, Memoirs of Khalilullah Khalili, An Afghan Philosopher Poet: A Conversation with his Daughter.

khaliliI sat typing on a notebook computer with Al – a former editor of the Kabul Times – while he translated from Persian. I was fascinated at how Marie’s father, an eyewitness to eight decades of Afghan history and the reign of four kings, from British rule to Soviet coup, could end up sitting in a lawn chair in New Jersey, talking into a tape recorder as she interviewed him about his life. He was once ambassador and secretary to King Zahir Shah. He authored 70 works of poetry, fiction, histories and Sufi studies. He had even been unjustly thrown into an Afghan prison at one point. In his words:

“It was evening and darkness fell. I picked up a few pieces of coal and wrote a poem on the wall of the prison cell … In the morning … as soon as [the guard’s] eyes fell on the wall he said, ‘Are you trying to have me killed? … Your right to write has been taken away. The investigators will come and I will be in trouble!’ He wiped my poetry from the wall and cleaned it, despite my pleas to leave it there. ‘It’s only a poem,’ I said.”

As a writer, I couldn’t think of anything worse than being confined without the means to write, and censored by a government. I learned Khalili died in exile and was buried in Pakistan, near the tomb of Pashtu poet Rahman Baba. In 2012, Marie’s father’s remains were finally returned to Afghan soil and re-interred in a place of honor near Kabul University.

In 2017, I am living in eastern North Carolina. Now the rants about radical Islamic terrorism are coming from another elderly white man in highest government office. His words, ringing in the House Chamber at the center of the U.S. Capitol, are as sharp as the spray-painted words and broken glass that confronted the children of Manassas Mosque that summer day. He protests he’s not talking about American citizens like Mr. Nahidian or Taalibah or Al or Marie, but his words stir up hate and fear, all the same.

The Rev. Laurie Brock, in a Lenten meditation on her popular blog, Dirty Sexy Ministry (because faith is…), suggests that we consider experiencing other faith traditions as part of our journey toward Easter this year:

The religious literacy of most people in this country is limited. Lent is a wonderful time to experience and learn about other faith traditions. Visit a synagogue or mosque. Attend another Christian denomination. Read the holy writings of other faith traditions. For a great primer on this, explore Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy. Further, offer yourself to experience other faith traditions not to feel superior about our own traditions, but to see the truth in their expression of God.”

One such opportunity is an open house hosted by the Islamic Association of Raleigh on Saturday, March 11. The event is 11 am to 4 pm and includes tours of the Mosque, lunch, and a keynote address by Imam Abu Taleb, PhD. The location is 808 Atwater Street in Raleigh.


If I don’t attend the open house, I have another opportunity – to hear Nida Allam speak. She’s the newly elected Third Vice Chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, and has been vocal about politicians who use the rhetoric that attaches Muslim to ISIL, which only feeds into the narrative of us vs. them. Nida will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Democratic Women of Johnston County/Democratic Men of Johnston County, on Thursday, March 16 at 6:30 p.m. in the Fellowship Hall of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 218 S. Second St., Smithfield, NC. The group is collecting donations to Harbor, Inc. Use this link www.harborshelter.org/donate to see what items are needed.

And yes, I will read my Quran.

I was inspired to write this after reading Barbara Presnell’s “Muslims who have changed my life” in the Lexington Dispatch.


On Being a Literary Citizen

When my friend Barbara Presnell invited me to The North Carolina Writers Conference on July 29-30 in Greensboro, I didn’t want to go. I was still wallowing in rejections. How could I hold my head up among an assembly of the state’s leading writers, editors, publishers, educators and literary professionals?

I forced myself to go, and all it took was a few conversations in the lobby to realize the struggle for acceptance and valid pay for valid work never ends, even among those accomplished writers with a vast body of work.

magsObserving the sessions was like running my fingers over a bas relief of “the writingest state.” I heard from those working to document the legacy (North Carolina Literary Map), showcasing the latest work of outstanding writers (magazines like Our State, Pinestraw, Salt and O Henry, and online journals like storySouth) and bringing writers out of isolation to write in community (North Carolina Writers Network). I also heard about the gaps that need more work. For example, a panel of Andrea Selch, Kimberly Becker and Krista Bremer spoke of their personal experiences in confronting discrimination due to sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion. Moderator Jaki Shelton Green challenged the gathering to “bring diversity to the room” by next year’s meeting in Rocky Mount in July 2017.

Even now, I can’t stop thinking about young Andrew Saulter of Unicorn Press, demonstrating how he can sit at a table in a coffee shop and mak20121206-113933e books by opening his metal artist’s box and drawing out a spool of linen thread, which he strings on a needle to weave through awl-poked holes of paper to hand-bind a chapbook of poetry. He does this, book by single book, until a stack of 400 are ready to sell. Looking at his simple tools – etching knife, steel ruler, bone folder, glue brush – made me more determined to return to Pine Level and be someone who ekes out a piece of literary landscape here.

That evening, amid testimonials and red velvet cake, Poet Betty Adcock was honored by her peers. The speakers – Jim Clark, Noel Crook, Al Maginnes – pointed out that for someone who never earned a college degree, she managed to garner major literary prizes 0806160947a_resizedand fellowships (including the Guggenheim), and mentor generations of rising writers as a resident writer, faculty member and visiting professor. Katherine Stripling Byer shared literary gossip, sidestepping a skinny dipping incident until Adcock brought it up herself. Noel helped her read her latest poem, soon to be in her seventh collection. Past honorees Ann Deagon, Ruth Moose and Bland Simpson were among those present; Adcock’s name joins a distinguished roster of honorees that includes Paul Green, Doris Betts, Reynolds Price, Fred Chappell, Shelby Stephenson and Margaret Maron.

I gleaned the book tables for take-home treasures, settling on Malaika King Albrecht’s Lessons In Forgetting, Jo Maeder’s When I Married My Mother and Good Country People: An Irregular Journal of The Cultures of Eastern North Carolina from the famous R.A. Fountain General Store. I also picked up an Anti-HB2 bumper sticker from Literary Lantern Press. (This ridiculous anti-tourism measure confronts me every time I volunteer at the Selma Visitor Center and have to tell a timid traveler, “yes, it’s okay to use the restrooms.”)


My best memory of the conference will be sneaking away to visit the UNC-G campus with Barbara, 40 years after we graduated. We found our dorms, the Quad, nearby Yum-Yum’s. The Holy Grail was the Presby House where we both took Fiction Writing 101 with Lloyd Kropp, and after graduation, where Barbara was married to her husband of almost 36 years, Bill Keesler. We skirted one-ways and dead ends to find it, a squat 1960s building dwarfed by high rises; now labeled the Graduate Welcome Center. We parked and walked the perimeter. “This is it,” she said. “This is where my wedding picture was taken.” We walked up the steps and cupped our hands against the window. There was the fireplace. There was a similar circle of chairs.

Jean hung up the pay phone in the dimly lit hall. The weight of her body wanted to pull her through the warped tile floor. “Papa’s dead,” she said, half to herself, and half to Mrs. Hobgood, her landlady, who stood in the doorway, clutching a blue chemise robe to her breasts.

Forty-plus years, and the anxiety of a 19-year-old, reading her work aloud for the first time burned the opening paragraph in my brain.

Now I’m back in Pine Level, toiling away at my computer as I have always done, published or not. I’ve marked my calendar for Sept. 18, when Barbara launches her latest book of poetry, Blue Star (Press 53, 2016), at the Lexington Public Library. I plan to be there, as she has been there for me, even when I whine and complain about not being published.

“I think you are doing the work you are supposed to do! That’s my new philosophy,” she said.

Thank you, Barbara, for inviting me to The North Carolina Writers Conference.


A Brush with Literary Excellence

My friend, Lexington poet Barbara Presnell, invited me as her guest, to attend the sixty-sixth meeting of the North Carolina Writers Conference in “Little” Washington on July 24-25, 2015.

This was a summer meeting-of-the-minds for the state’s most dedicated novelists and poets, playwrights and historians, editors and educators. Many are literary hall-of-famers and their works are preserved in the state literary collection at Chapel Hill.

So I might have been intimidated by this brush with literary excellence, but I wasn’t. I was among many guests, and the distinguished members made us feel welcome in the Old Atlantic Coastline Railroad Station of this coastal town. The rafters resounded with their kind words and music, inviting us in.

Where else would I have heard “Wilson” Jim Clark read excerpts from conference honoree Michael Parker’s short story collection, Don’t Make Me Stop Now, peppered with a boom-box mix of tunes? Aretha Franklin singing I Say a Little Prayer for You is still, gloriously, in my head.

Bland Simpson followed him on keyboard at the Friday night opening, performing selections from King Mackerel and the Blues Are Running in tribute to the late Jerry Leath “Jake” Mills, who contributed original lyrics and stories to the musical and, among many other accomplishments, was well loved by many writers and wrote the classic Southern Literary Journal essay, Equine Gothic: the Dead Mule as Generic Signifier in Southern Literature.
Liza and Charles (2)
Liza Wieland and Charles Dodd White

Saturday craft talks included:

• Historical fiction (Valerie Nieman moderating a discussion with Charles Dodd White and Liza Wieland),

• Graphic design (Dana Ezzell Gay, art director for the North Carolina Literary Review, which celebrates 25 years with the 2016 issue),

• Research (Gregg Hecimovich presenting his detective work on The Bondwoman’s Narrative), and

• Memoir (Jim Grimsley moderating Michael White — Travels in Vermeer — and William Price. William, the literary executor for Reynolds Price, shared the afterword he composed for his brother’s posthumous book, Midstream: An Unfinished Memoir).

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Dr. James W. Clark

Jim speaking (2)

At lunch, the assembly honored “Raleigh” Jim Clark, Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State University. Clark was recognized for what I would call “literary farming” – decades of grassroots work to cultivate and nurture the environment for writing in the state. He leads – or has led – many foundations, societies and historical associations. What a natural connector – he not only knew exactly where Pine Level is (most didn’t), he gave me the names of two people, scholars and fans of Thomas Wolfe, who live in my new hometown. Clark teaches “life writing” in his so-called retirement – and encouraged others to do the same. He echoed what Wingate Lassiter told our Johnston County Writers group this past winter; that writers are needed to document their own stories and the everyday stories of people in our community, especially our elders.

The conference-ending banquet – really, an informal barbecue with “pig pickin’ cake” for dessert – was a warm tribute to Michael Parker, a native of Clinton. You can find his seven books online, or read his regular articles in Our State magazine (the current editor is one of the many former students whose lives he has touched). Watching Parker honored by his peers for his significant contributions to North Carolina literature, was very humbling. You can’t walk away from such an experience and not feel changed.

Through all this, my brain was electric with ideas. I filled page after page of my pocket-sized notebook and frequented the book sale tables for Margaret Maron’s Designated Daughters and Ruth Moose’s award-winning Doing It at the Dixie Dew, as well as several copies of the North Carolina Literary Review. Barbara took home Jim Grimsley’s memoir, How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood.

Barbara Presnell

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From left, Janice Sullivan, Ruth Moose, Cindy Brookshire

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From left, Sara Claytor, Susan Laughter Meyers and Sally Logan

I took home things you just can’t pack, sharing a meal at Down on Mainstreet with a round-robin of women writers: Barbara Presnell (Lexington), Sally Logan (formerly Whispering Pines, now Chapel Hill), Susan Laughter Meyers (formerly Albemarle and Greenville, now Summerville, SC), Sara Claytor (Chapel Hill), Janice Sullivan (Greensboro) and Ruth Moose (Pittsboro).

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NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson

I liked watching NC Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson whip out a poem to recite about the ordinary – getting a hunting license – and making it extraordinary. If you haven’t seen this poet traveler as he criss-crosses the state, taking his song-and-verse to as many North Carolinians as possible, consider visiting Manassas, Virginia on Oct. 11, when he gathers with poets laureate from four states at the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

I also took home the memory of Barbara and our afternoon stroll on the boardwalk overlooking the Pamlico River. We stretched our legs along the brick pathway to the NC Estuarium, sat in a double swing to track the loud party boats puttering by and leaned over railings to snap iPhone photos of a turtle sunning herself on a rock. Lily pads shook like a hand bell choir with the underwater maneuverings of other turtles. Under tree branches, we spied a brick monument to the former iron forge or foundry, the centerpiece of which was a cast iron furnace door. When I told my husband about it later, he suggested we may have found the gates of hell, teasing me.

I’m back in Pine Level. I’ve come “down from the mountain” even though my return was from the coast. I feel invigorated. I submitted the first two chapters of my fourth book draft to a critique group I joined in Goldsboro, and I’ve started weaving a new short story. Time to get back to work.

A Year of Books

Start a Year of Books with local authors - these are available at The Heritage Center in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Start a Year of Books with local authors – these are available at The Heritage Center in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is staking out “A Year of Books,” encouraging participants to read a new book every two weeks and discuss it in an online community. The first book is Moises Naim’s “The End of Power.”

I like the idea, but with a “buy local, read local” twist.

I’m new to Pine Level, North Carolina. Since moving here nine weeks ago, we haven’t even hooked up a TV. Instead, I’ve been reading stacks of Manassas, VA authors I didn’t make time to read – Victor Rook, Tamela Ritter, Dan Verner and Claudia Lefeve, to name a few. And I’ve begun to wander the literary landscape here, finding, with the help of new friends, a rich abundance to explore:

Little Free Library
In the next housing development, within sight of my front porch, a Pine Level neighbor has a chartered Little Free Library in her yard. I have already visited three times on dog walks to “take a book, return a book.” My current read is “Holes,” by NY author Louis Sachar. In Manassas, if you’re walking on South Grant Avenue, off Hastings Drive, you’ll find a Little Free Library on your right.

Meg Scovil, a part-time assistant at the Selma Public Library, told me about a writers group that meets the third Thursday of every month at 6:30 p.m., facilitated by educator Gary Ridout. I’ve been to two meetings so far and met other storytellers, ranging in age from middle school to lifelong learning. Ridout uses Piedmont Poet Laureate Carrie Knowles’s blog posts as a springboard for discussion.

A fellow writer, Rev. Rico Diamond, invited me to hear him as a guest speaker at the Dec. 28 services at Edgerton Memorial UMC in Selma. I look forward to reading his life story some day; for right now, he is leading a Prophetic Biblical Research Bible Study Program at Edgerton on Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:45 pm, starting January 8.

Yesterday, I took the advice of journalist Wingate Lassiter and visited The Heritage Center in Smithfield. Lassiter talked to our writers group about the pressing need for local writers to preserve the stories of Johnston County. He is a former director of the center, and co-author of “Johnston County: Its History Since 1746” with Thomas J. Lassiter.

The Heritage Center is housed in a former bank building, with first floor exhibits on Johnston County history, especially on how the settlement along the Neuse River became rich in agriculture and the advent of the railroad helped it to prosper. I viewed cotton, dried tobacco and a local student’s depiction of the manufacture of moonshine. I looked into the glass eyes of local wildlife – fox, black bear, deer and birds mounted in a display case. (So far we’ve encountered fox, rabbits, roosters and vultures in the fields near our house). Upstairs (there’s an elevator in the bank vault) in the third floor reading room, there is a modest glass display case featuring the life work of Shelby Stephenson, who was recently named the 2015 North Carolina Poet Laureate.

He lives just 20 miles down the road in Benson. The state press release said Stephenson “hopes to pursue three projects during his tenure: writing workshops in assisted living and retirement communities; raising awareness of local archives and family histories, and promoting writings about farm life in North Carolina.”

While there were no Stephenson books for sale at The Heritage Center, I picked up five books by local authors, including Lassiter’s history book and Julia Allen McCullers’s “A History of Smithfield, NC High School, 1903-1969, A Small Town, A Good School.”

I also picked up another copy of Billy Yeargin’s “Remembering North Carolina Tobacco.” I gave my autographed copy, which I’d bought at a TWM Antique Mall in Selma, to my friend and Lexington, NC poet, Barbara Presnell, when she came to visit on Saturday. She’s the one who told me about Johnston County’s reputation for moonshine. So I also bought Perry D. Sullivan’s “Lost Flowers: True Stories of the Moonshine King, Percy Flowers.” Finally, I added to the stack the last display copy of Dr. Elsie M. Collins’ memoir, “Blessed Are the Meek, the Humble, and the Bold.”

As if that wasn’t enough to keep me reading for months, I subscribed to the digital version of the News & Observer – which has its own Books section, as well as a “Tell Us About Your Book Club” prompt.

I found out my new church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Smithfield, has a book club that meets after the 8 o’clock service. Up for discussion at the Feb. 1 meeting is “Necessary Lies,” by Diane Chamberlain (set in North Carolina) and “Ukraina, Songs of a Beloved Land” by Jim Melnyk and Will Melnyk. That’s The Rev. Jim Melnyk’s book. He’s the rector at St. Paul’s. The book club also placed a Rubbermaid tub of donated books in the church’s Lawrence Hall, with a “take a book” sign. I helped myself this past Sunday to “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe – the true story of Will and his mom, who started reading books together as a way to connect after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I started reading it while I spent hours in the doctor’s office Monday, being passed from exam room to test equipment to lab, with lots of waiting in between, for my annual physical – which I hadn’t done in about four years.

As you contemplate your own Year of Books, consider exploring the authors who live in your community first. Look for their books in local independently-owned bookstores or museums. See if the public library has a local author shelf. Be on the lookout for Little Free Libraries popping up in neighborhoods – or build your own. It’s worth the time to explore your own literary landscape.

Happy reading in 2015!