This Week in Literary History: Dec. 28-Jan. 3

Recognizing the birthdays of Maaza Mengiste, Jane Langton, and more

Let’s count down 2020’s final days with a new issue of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. Below are this week’s stories and your list of notable literary births and events.


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The Children’s Author Who Found Goodness In All

By Andria Kennedy

"You're not writing for some ideal child reader, but for real children. Be readable now." Jane Langton used these words to encourage writers attending her workshops for children's writing to focus on crafting manuscripts for genuine audiences.

She would then produce photographs collected over the years of actual children - sporting realistic traits one expects to find in an elementary school - and implored the writers to look over the faces and recognize that they were the intended audience. Focusing on lofty, imaginary children with impossible standards violated reason.

As a stout believer in transcendentalism, Langton dismissed the notion of writing for idealized - and often critical - audiences. Whether that meant her mystery books or children's books, she sought to find and express a sense of truth about the natural world; real things she could lay her hands on. Her works and influences came from nature and the experiences around her. This is likely why her fans came from every corner of the book store.

Kate Mattes used to run Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass., and she observed, "Large numbers of her audience do not consider themselves mystery readers, but enjoy her because they want to learn something from their reading. If you're really looking to experience a place and ponder the uniqueness of it, then Jane Langton is the person to read."

Jane Langton brought that gift of knowledge to her many diverse fans. Never content to settle for "good enough" for her characters (or her intended audience), she delved into research for every project. Her son David remarked, "I think she wrote in order to allow herself to continue studying. She loved to dive into a subject and know all about it and become an expert." 

Whether that meant the exploration of Darwinism alongside Homer and Mary (Dead as a Dodo) or flying with geese and Georgie in her Newberry Honor-award winning book The Fledgling, Langton promised accurate information to her devoted readers - and stunning descriptions of every book's location.

"A novel grows out of a sense of place. A story might have some pompous theme, but, really, its meaning must come from an organic relationship with its setting." Langton spoke those words passionately in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1995.

Langton held a deep fondness for her home in New England, close to the famous Walden Pond, and one need only pick up one of her Hall Family Chronicles to taste the bite of autumn on the air or see the glazing of frost on the ground. Her passion for nature came from transcendental roots; she transferred that zeal to her writing - for young and old.

Reading a Jane Langton book confirms an ancient and deep-abiding truth - one she believed herself and confessed to her son Christopher, "There is a fundamental goodness out there that will prevail. You can find it in anybody if you dig deep enough."

Jane Langton

  • Born on Dec. 30, 1922, in Boston, Mass.

  • Died on Dec. 22, 2018, in Lincoln, Mass.


A Dominican Immigrant Who Found Himself In Reading and Writing Literature

By Emily Quiles

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Junot Díaz remembers only seeing one book – the Bible. “I’d never seen two books together,” Díaz told PBS journalist Bill Moyers. It wasn’t until after Díaz’s family immigrated to New Jersey he would step foot into a library.

It was his first day at Madison Park Elementary School in 1974. Upon arrival, Mrs. Crowell, his first-grade teacher, showed Díaz the rows of books in their school library. “She made it clear to me that I could take out any of these books I wanted,” Díaz said.

“I mean, it was an astonishing thing for a young kid who grew up in a society where I didn’t have access to libraries to be told, ‘Here, this is part of our civic resources. This belongs to all of us.’” Curious, six-year-old Díaz pulled out the children’s version of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle, from the shelf, “and I never looked back,” he beamed.

By seven, Díaz was an avid reader. “I just tore through everything that my little elementary school library had,” he said. “I fell in love with books that transported me far away from my world, which for me was very stressful.”

As an immigrant in Central New Jersey in the 1970s, Díaz buried himself in Conan Doyle’s and Edgar Allen Poe’s literary worlds, biographies of famous Americans, and books on building a campsite.

“The library for me represented—or was—what the World Wide Web must mean to people of later generations,” Díaz said. “In many ways, it was a plane, a passport, a lens, wisdom, and experience.”

While works of realism helped Díaz learn English’s grammatical barriers, he didn’t find it explaining his immigrant reality. “Realism doesn’t always do a great job of describing what we would call ‘extreme realities or ‘extreme lives,’” Díaz said. “We think of immigration in simplistic terms. But really, immigration sometimes is hard to get your mind around.”

Díaz instead found his reflection in science fiction and fantasy, specifically in books about time travel. “In my mind, as a kid, time travel felt like a much more honest description of what it meant being transported from Santo Domingo ’74 to New York and New Jersey in ‘74’.”

In Díaz’s realm of honorary science fiction, Star Wars tops them all. He explained to Moyers, “Watching those movies, you see somebody making a hard choice. There isn’t a young person who hasn’t felt the choice between, ‘I’m going to stay and help my family’ or ‘I’m going to go and do something else,’ that’s more personal, that’s more me.’”

Luke Skywalker had to choose between being a star pilot or being loyal to his family. “[In the end], the fact that he’s more loyal than he is ambitious, is something that many of us as kids were not always encouraged to be,” Díaz said.

When Díaz approached adulthood, he found himself in the same moral dilemma. “As an immigrant, it would have been easy for me to have picked a profession and to have lived in a direction that would have separated me from my community,” he said. 

Díaz’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer or doctor. Instead, he took to the creatives. Díaz earned his bachelor of arts from Rutgers University and then obtained his master of fine arts from Cornell University. 

As a writer, Díaz became interested in understanding why people use language to make moral judgments about another person’s character. For example, why do we not allow Spanish to be spoken at school – unless you are in your designated Spanish class, that is. Later, Díaz co-founded the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, an organization that empowers writers of color through multi-genre workshops.

In 1996, Díaz published his first book, a short story collection, Drown. The book focuses on a teenage narrator’s impoverished, fatherless youth in the Dominican Republic and his struggle adapting to his new life in New Jersey.

Since then, Díaz has published many books, including the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The book won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008.

Díaz currently teaches the joys of creative writing to engineering students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Every time I convince a bunch of MIT folks that [creative writing] is important, that it matters, that you don’t have to be a professional writer to enjoy this form of exploration, I feel like I have made an important gain,” Díaz said.

Junot Díaz

  • Born on Dec. 31, 1968, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic


An Author Who Struggled, and Found, a Way to Put War in Fiction

By Andrew Sanger

Maaza Mengiste's work features harsh, realistic depictions of the tolls of war on families, which is unsurprising considering how her life was altered significantly by the forces of violence surrounding her. Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1974, the Ethiopian Civil War of the 1970s — a brutal coup that overthrew the then-emperor of the country — overwhelmed her earliest days. 

Mengiste's family fled Ethiopia for Kenya, briefly, and then relocated again to a small farming town in Colorado. Mengiste's published two novels to date, Beneath the Lion's Gaze and The Shadow King. Both focus on the history and long-term effects of war on Ethiopian citizens, and both books received widespread critical acclaim. 

Mengiste spent years researching, writing, and rewriting both her novels. The author relentlessly examined the events she wanted to write about, from the Ethiopian Civil War to Italy's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. 

Mengiste's research involved traveling around Ethiopia, and other countries, absorbing as much primary-source information as possible. Despite this rigorous attention to historical fact, Mengiste's initial work fell short of her storytelling standards.

"Everything that I wrote was absolutely accurate, and the book that emerged was dry, and it was boring, and the characters were wooden, and I was completely defeated by what I had done," Mengiste said about an early version of Beneath the Lion's Gaze

It seemed to Mengiste that the uncompromising fidelity to historical truth came at the high cost of the story's emotional truth. Mengiste realized she would have to find a different approach to the story to write something truly meaningful.

In her short essay, "Fiction Tells a Truth that History Cannot," Mengiste describes struggling with the problem of honoring the capital-T Truth in fiction. Mengiste tells how she sought out the wisdom of her professor Breyten Breytenbach, an accomplished South African poet, and presented him with her misgivings over her perceived responsibility to the deeply scarred histories of those affected by the traumas of war. 

"I felt I had no language to address those ghosts that hovered across every page I tried to write," Mengiste recalled. "I had no way to approach them, and it seemed that it was my own fault. This was not a story to be rendered through creative writing. This held too many sharp edges. The wounds, as I witnessed when I asked family and friends to speak of their experiences, were still too raw." 

Breyton is no stranger to speaking and writing about intensely political subjects. He spent seven years in prison for his work against South Africa's apartheid government. The poet helped provide Mengiste with the fundamental wisdom she needed to write honestly about historical trauma, telling her that "sometimes, fiction tells a truth that history cannot." 

Breyton taught Mengiste that fiction could help provide the space necessary to process historical atrocity in a way that we otherwise would be intellectually and emotionally incapable of handling. Or, as Mengiste put it, "It offers us a mercy not found in history. History is ruthless and full of noise; it must be reduced for us to bear the burdens of its many truths."

Mengiste's two novels' success is a clear testament to the truth of Breyton's statement. Both books have stood out as critical works of African fiction and in the larger sphere of war-literature. The Guardian selected Beneath the Lion's Gaze as one of the top ten best contemporary African literature books. And The Shadow King was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 2020. 

I'll leave you with one final quote from Mengiste's essay which encapsulates the ethic Mengiste adopted in her writing: "As writers we like to say that imagination moves faster than awareness, but I realize, too, that awareness is shaped by imagination. There is no other way to understand what is contained in a certain moment in history—those 500,000 gone, those three wars fought—without first imagining the individual stories unfolding at its center."

Maaza Mengiste

  • Born on Jan. 2, 1974, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


The Many Stages of Jan Slepian’s Literary Life

By Christine Kingery

In the 1990s, parents across the country worked to ban Jan Slepian’s children’s book, The Alfred Summer. The book centers around the friendship of two young men with disabilities—Lester, who has “this perfectly ordinary, noncontagious cerebral palsy,” and Alfred, who is mentally disabled and “sits…like a bundle in the Lost and Found.” Lester and Alfred construct a “getaway boat” to escape from social norms. 

Parents took issue with the story’s profane language and claimed the book endorsed unwholesome values such as stealing, smoking, and drinking. Despite these objections, the book was a finalist in the American Book Awards. And many praise The Alfred Summer for its characters’ ability to learn more about themselves (or, as Lester ironically puts it, how to be “one of God’s poor creatures”) and cope with their afflictions. 

Although Slepian is well-known for her young adult books featuring society’s outcasts, she didn’t start her career as a writer. She was a speech pathologist and worked as a speech therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital for many years. Slepian was 43 when she wrote her first book, along with co-author Ann Seidler. That first book was the beginning of a series called the “Listen-hear books,” teaching phonemic awareness. 

Slepian’s brother Alfred, who had cerebral palsy, inspired The Alfred Summer. “I wanted to show that such a person shares the same fears, the same need for love and friendship, that he yearns for and responds to much the same things as we all do,” Slepian said in an interview for Herbert N. Foerstel’s 2002 book Banned in the USA

In a poignant autobiographical sketch, Slepian shared her memories of growing up with Alfred. “Only aware that Alfred was the cause of fights between my parents, I hated him,” Slepian wrote. “People acted funny around him, and he made my mother cry and my father angry. Yet at the same time I was attached. He was sweet and laughed at my jokes and he was my brother. I learned early that you can hold within yourself contradictory feelings.” 

The Alfred Summer’s story is rooted in a real-life experience, when Slepian’s mother tried to find Alfred’s friend. The mother of the other child, Lester, refused to let her son play with Alfred because “she wanted her son to play only with normal kids.” 

Slepian continues in her autobiography, “My mother and father thought [Alfred’s] life was blasted, wasted. In a sense it was, of course. He still sits in a hospital like a bundle from the lost and found. But in another sense his life wasn’t a waste. Because of this book, that’s all turned around. He has reached and affected many, many people, more than most of us’ normals’ have. Such is the power of words.”

What makes Slepian unique is the phases of her writing career. In 2008, when Slepian was 88 years old, she released a book called Astonishment: Life in the Slow Lane. The book is a collection of 20 essays that she wrote for the retirement community where she lived. The essays provide a humorous look at aging. 

Slepian followed up in 2012 with How to be Old: A Beginner’s Guide. In 19 chapters, Slepian gives newly-minted elderly hot tips on how to age well, like in the chapter “Exercise” where she champions forgetting your glasses or the newspaper, so you have to make multiple trips around the house searching—a “geriatric marathon.” 

The third phase of Slepian’s writing career began when she was 94. After moving into an assisted living building near her daughter, she began attending a poetry class. What resulted were two books of poetry that express Slepian’s whimsical personality—her ability to experience with a sense of awe, humor, and irony. In one poem, “Loneliness,” she writes: 

Or, say that loneliness
can make a sound,
an echo
so muffled that a ping
doesn’t register. 
I can’t even hear the sound
of my own voice.

Slepian’s poetry teacher, Jessie Brown, commented on the shift in literary genre for Slepian: “Without a lot of self-consciousness, Jan let herself play with the words until they sang, until they made her laugh. She had much more courage, maybe because of her age, than some other folks. She was able to let go of a lot of worries and concerns about doing things right and really just fly.” 

Of this time in her life, Slepian’s daughter, Anne Ellinger, said quite simply, “The discovery of poetry has given her the will to live.” 

Slepian made her mark on the literary stage in the young adult, essay, novel, and poetry genres. She faced each stage of life with bravery, style, and grace, seeing the irony in life and the beauty of it. And Jan Slepian made it to 95, passing away in 2016.

Jan Slepian

  • Born on Jan. 2, 1921, in New York, N.Y.

  • Died on Nov. 2, 2016, in Arlington, Mass.


Sources

Significant effort goes into ensuring the information shared in Bidwell Hollow’s content is factual and accurate. However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know by emailing nick@bidwellhollow.com. I’ll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you.

Jane Langton

Junot Díaz

Maaza Mengiste

Jan Slepian


Notable Literary Births & Events for

Dec. 28

  • Carol Ryrie Brink

  • Shen Congwen

  • Emily Cheney Neville

  • Charles Portis

  • Manuel Puig

Dec. 29

  • William Gaddis

  • Katy Munger

  • Robert Ruark

Dec. 30

  • Glenda Adams

  • Douglas Coupland

  • Theodor Fontane

  • Daniil Kharms

  • Rudyard Kipling

  • Jane Langton

  • Elyne Mitchell

  • Timothy Mo

  • Lewis Shiner

  • Patti Smith

Dec. 31

  • Joe Abercrombie

  • Edward Bunker

  • Marie d'Agoult

  • Junot Diaz

  • Giovanni Pascoli

  • Bob Shaw

  • Susan Shwartz

  • Nicholas Sparks

  • Dal Stivens

  • Sri Lal Sukla

  • Connie Willis

Jan. 1

  • Mariano Azuela

  • Ally Carter

  • Maria Edgeworth

  • E.M. Forster

  • Hari Kunzru

  • Maaza Mengiste

  • J.D. Salinger

Jan. 2

  • André Aciman

  • Isaac Asimov

  • John Hope Franklin

  • Moyshe-Leyb Halpern

  • Leonard Michaels

  • Robert Nathan

  • Leonard B. Scott

  • Jan Slepian

  • Lord Byron completes his poem “The Corsair” in 1814.

  • National Science Fiction Day

Jan. 3

  • Alma Flor Ada

  • John Gould Fletcher

  • Erik Larson

  • J.R.R. Tolkien