Crossing Over

The Website of Author Marina Budhos

Category: Young Adult

9/12: The World We Have Woken To

9/11 is our day of marking, our day of mourning.  At dinner last night, our older son told us about his school’s annual assembly, how affected he was by the grim sequence of images—the smothering dust, the tiny figures plunging to their death.  Every year at his school the president of the student council gives a talk; this year they have come to the waning moments where soon none of those young people will have been alive on that day.  For them it recedes into memorialized history, not entirely lived and felt history.

And yet.  I have always felt that the significance of 9/11 is 9/12 and thereafter, the world we live in now and that our children have inherited.  Sasha was just over a year that bright blue sky day, and I will never forget leaving him with his father at home, biking down the West Side with phone chargers in my back pack, looping to the Red Cross where I’d hoped to donate blood.  Instead there was a momentary stop at the heliport where Pataki and Clinton were just then disembarking to be greeted by Guliani (yes, that kind of bipartisan resolve did exist) and we all cheered as they were whisked into cars, down to the site.  And then there was no need for chargers, no need for blood, just a police barricade, plumes of ashen smoke blotting that perfect sky.  That night, our son snuggled in our carry-on, we joined others at the Sailors and Fallen Soldiers Monument and sang and sang, almost wishing we could never leave each other, this fellowship, on such a painful and numbing day.

It is no secret that I did not want to leave the city.  It is the place of my birth, my blood connection, my charge and vibe.  I’m an urban girl through and through.  But somehow one year later we encamped to Maplewood, NJ, waking up stunned in an empty house on a quiet street on a hot August morning in 2002.  Our move was not connected to the event—we were not fleeing the city because of the attack.  But we did , in some way, need to rebuild, rethink, remold ourselves.  And I often think I experienced a rebirth as a writer then, one that was directly connected to 9/12.  I was now a writer in the world we have woken up to, the world our children are shaped by: war, terror, counter-terrorism, Islamophobia, fear, immigration panic, security.  Soon after a novel tore out of me, about the crackdown on undocumented immigrants—which became Ask Me No Questions.  At the end of the novel, the sisters’ fate remains unclear, as they are lofted out into that 9/12 world.  In real life, they would probably have become beneficiaries of DACA, which was just so cruelly torn away.

I had thought my story—of an undocumented family in the wake of 9/11—would become a kind of historical document.  Instead, in 2017, under this current administration and divisive mood, we are once again in the same crisis being lived afresh.  The world of 9/12 is not about linear progression.  It is about these same unresolved conflicts erupting again and again.  It is about the submerged re-emerging, with a vengeance.  That is how trauma works.  It is circular, often unresolved, getting worse before–and if–it gets better.  I cannot help but think, that with the attempt at the Muslim ban, the elimination of DACA, the events in Charlottesville, we are now in the descending plunge of the spiral.  When and how we circle up and out again, toward light and resolution—hard to say.  That may be too Pollyanna a vision.  9/12 is here to stay.

But there is one sweeter note to end on, for me, personally, as to what it’s been like to live in 9/12.  The community we so impetuously moved to a year after 9/11—Maplewood—has proved to be a nurturing bath for that newly re-formed writer self.  It is where I have raised my children; amidst the hub bub of family life, I carved out book after book, some out of the anguish and concern and puzzlement at the times we are living through.  Some are just the drive toward curiosity or shadow pockets of history or personal obsession.  Living in a house means there are that many more corners to stack up research books and novels.  I often think our house is one great heaving ship taking in more book cargo, while chucking out others to create better ballast, so we don’t capsize and drown in print.

And that is why, with great pleasure, I tell of receiving the 2018 Maplewood Literary Award, the brainchild of our remarkable library director, Sarah Lester, who also created the Maplewood Ideas Festival.  Fifteen years ago we decamped, we rebuilt, and re-envisioned.    Nearly every day I wake up to this street of porched houses, and children scattering toward school, commuters racing for the midtown direct train. From my desk, just beyond the trees, I glimpse the rooftop of novelist Pamela Erens‘ house, the 2017 award recipient.  It gives me quiet comfort to know she too is facing the page, so nearby.   And solace too for a community that so values art and words and expression, even in the face of our worst darkness.  This is my 9/12.   This is how we begin.

We’re Ready for Immigration Reform: A Novelist’s Perspective

A new Op-Ed in the Huffington Post:

With the bipartisan proposal on immigration just announced, and President Obama’s speech on reform delivered recently, we’re all braced for the polarizing winds of anger to rage.

But that’s not what I’ve found. For several years, I have been talking about illegal immigrants, all over the country. Every time I finish my talk, I wait for a blast of hostility.

It never comes.

More …

First Stop: Barcelona

On August 5th, 2012, Marc, myself and our two boys, Sasha and Rafi flew to Barcelona—exactly 76 years after Capa and Taro when arrived to begin their photo-journey into the Spanish Civil War. Within a few months, Capa would become a world-famous war journalist. Both would reinvent modern photojournalism as we know it today. And in less than a year, the daring Taro would be dead.

We spent nearly three weeks in Spain, tracking, as best we could, some of the key sites and in some cases, visiting some of the exact locales where they shot photographs. Our last research day was in Brunete, where Taro was sideswiped by a swerving tank, and ultimately died in a hospital 30 kilometers away.

In this blog, I’ll be filling you in on our travels, our journey into the story of Capa, Taro, and Chim as we developed this book. Enjoy!

*****

Barcelona, August, 2012: This is the Barcelona I remember from 1983-84 when I backpacked through–and it isn’t. Still the same frilly-edged art nouveau buildings rising off the grand avenues; still the winding streets in the old quarter; and still good Serrano ham and manchego cheese to be found at all hours.

Yet there is a difference. Gone are the old women washing on the balconies, the clamoring parakeets and teeming plants; gone are the old men and women on Las Ramblas benches, the smokey-eyed gypsy children; the seedy, red light district, the dark mouths of nightclubs, where you walked downstairs and were never quite sure what you would find; gone is the morning wake up when we stayed in the old quarter—a bakery where fat-armed women shoved aluminum trays of quivering flan; the men in their slightly ill-made suits and hair wet down; the shoes thicker, sturdier; so much less polish and high-strung tourist sheen as I had encountered in Florence and Sienna. I could feel, in this city, the sense of the peasant, of the rustic.

At that time—28 years ago—my friend and I were at the edge of their lives, observing. Now it is throngs of tourists driving down Las Ramblas who are the center of the action; now they are flanked by shiny stores, tapas places that seem like remakes of the dark wood dives I drank in and ate before. When we reach Placa de la Catalyuna, I feel as if I’m in Times Square. We’ve stopped off at the official FC Barcelona store, where Sasha understands that I am not spending 100 dollars on a Messie shirt.

But we are here for history, and so we oblige, with Alan Warren, our chipper and cheerful guide who is obsessed with Spanish Civil history, knows it down to his bones, and leads tours throughout the region recreating Orwell’s steps, battles, particular regiments.

He has arrived at our large, atmospheric (and slightly odd) Eixample flat in his floppy khaki hat, his folder of images and notes, and marches us past the elegant art nouveau buildings, shows us the Hotel Majestic, which at the time was taken over by the Republican forces, and where long tables of food were served for free. Now it is swathed in scaffolding; I peek through the revolving doors to see the lobby is completely renovated—sleek marble, barely adorned—and intimidatingly pricey in look.

Another doorway is where deserters from the Nationalist side straggled in, along with recruits from abroad. This is the international surge that brought Capa and Taro to Spain in the early days, along with George Orwell, who would immortalize his time in the classic Homage to Catalonia:

“When the fighting broke out on the 18 July it is probable that every anti-Fascist in Europe felt a thrill of hope. For here at last, apparently, was democracy standing up to Fascism.”

Most certainly this is what Capa and Taro felt, back in Paris. Both were refugees from Hungary and Germany respectively; both were Jews who had begun to see the iron hand of anti-Semitism start to choke the political life of their countries. Indeed Capa had already had his run-ins for political activism, as did Taro, which is how they wound up in Paris, mingling among the many artists and emigres who had flocked to the city at this time.

Capa and Taro were also opportunists—in the best sense of the word. They sensed a chance, an opportunity, to make their mark through the growing field of photo journalism. They had met when Taro worked for Maria Eisner, who ran a photo agency, Alliance Photo. Taro helped to groom the scruffy Hungarian so he might better sell his work. Then she too took up the camera. It was only a matter of time before they felt the siren call to Barcelona, to Spain, where already, international volunteers were pouring in to fight Franco.

The Barcelona they would have encountered would have been similar to the city George Orwell described:

“… when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt.”

“The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town were crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night.”

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Certainly, Taro’s photographs during this time capture the revolutionary fervor, the joyous and ordinary ways that residents had taken up arms and were remaking their very city, their society. Taro shot children happily scampering on sandbagged walls, donning anarchist caps like any children playing made-up war games.

She followed Republican militiawomen training on the beach near the city—one of her most iconic a silhouetted woman, crouched, aiming her pistol—a symbol of equality promised women during this halcyon period, a time, as Orwell noted, when people did not address anyone as “Senor or Dona” or even use the formal “Usted.”

My favorites of Taro’s during this period are those of people laughing, relaxing in the August sunshine (Catalonia is indeed hot during those months). In one, a man and a woman lean back in two wicker chairs, heads tilted to one another, exchanging laughter; he casually holds a rifle between them. There’s an easy grace to the photo, men and women as comfortable compadres, as Taro and Capa were themselves.

In August 1936, when Taro and Capa and Orwell arrived in Spain, to join what they saw as the greatest struggle of their generation, they did not yet detect its dangerous and self-destructive undertow, nor did anyone anticipate the terrible destruction that would be unleashed with ariel bombing. (Indeed Barcelona was used as a testing ground for this new technology and the brutal air raids gave way to something called the “Barcelona Effect”—the more a civilian population was bombed, the more they in fact resisted) We pause at the reconstructed Coliseum, which now has a stark black steel memorial in front to memorialize those killed in the dreadful pounding that pummeled these grand streets.

“There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

Yet if anything characterizes the Spanish Civil War, it was the deadly factionalism that would eventually splinter the Left, particularly as the Soviets played a deadly game of suppressing the Anarchists and undermining their hold on the local population.

Less than a year after that optimistic period that Capa and Taro recorded visually, a stand-off between the Communists and Anarchists was taking place: “The word flew round the town that the workers’ buildings were being attacked, armed Anarchists appeared on the streets, work ceased, and fighting broke out immediately.”

Today, we stand in the thronging Placa de Cataluyna to see the Telefonica Building, the tallest building at the time of the Spanish Civil War, a blank modern building that juts up over the teeming plaza.

We press onward, past the fountain where everyone descends after a Barcelona soccer team game (No, we tell the kids, you cannot drink the water), and stand just opposite Café Moka, where Civil Guards were holed up inside. Across the way was the Poliorama, where the P.O.U.M. (the party Orwell fought with and more or less came to support) patrolled on the roof domes.

“I used to sit on the roof marveling at the folly of it all,” Orwell writes. “From the little windows in the observatory you could see for miles around—vista after vista of tall slender buildings, glass domes and fantastic curly roofs with brilliant green and copper tiles; over to eastward the glittering pale blue sea—the first glimpse of the sea that I had had since coming to Spain. And the whole huge town of a million people was locked in a sort of violent inertia, a nightmare of noise without movement.”

The Eyes of The World: Work-in-Progress

Ongoing updates about our work-in-progress, “The Eyes of the World: A Story of a Man, a Woman, & a Camera”, to be published by Henry Holt for Younger Readers in 2014:

Last summer, while sitting at lunch at the Vermont MFA program, chatting with many veteran children’s book authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Leda Schubert, I was suddenly thunderstruck with inspiration: I knew what my next young adult nonfiction book would be–the story of photographer Robert Capa, the less-known Gerda Taro, and their friend Chim, as they set off to photograph the Spanish Civil War and create modern photojournalism–and war journalism–as we know it today.  Nothing like the company of other authors, bubbling with their own ideas, to set one going.

Indeed, given that this is very much a story of a man and a woman collaborating–as equals, as compadres, as artists–it seemed the perfect next book for Marc and I to write.  We had been casting about for a new idea and had touched on the idea of collaboration–various duets in history that have joined forces to create something they could not do on their own.

The story of Capa and Taro had caught my eye a few years ago when I went to an exhibition at the International Center for Photography–“This is War!”–a huge retrospective of Capa’s work.  I’d always been fascinated with the Magnum photographers, and fell in love with those images from the Spanish Civil War–the molded, strong faces staring up at a sky strafed with war planes; children playing see saw amidst rubbled buildings.  At that exhibition, I became acquainted with Taro’s work, which also shared a smaller exhibition space.  I learned that in fact she and Capa were an artistic team–Capa & Taro–and they had gone off together, as lovers, as friends, as co-conspirators in the aim of telling the world about the Republican cause.  Like so many of their generation, they believed that the Spanish Civil War was the war to stake a claim–that if it was not won–Europe would surely fall to fascism.  (And of course they were right in this regard)  Armed with their new, lightweight Leicas and Rolloflexes, they set off, arriving in Barcelona on August 5th, 1936.  Sadly, Taro would not live more than a year, as she was killed during the Battle of Brunete in July, 1937.  This is one of the reasons her work is not as well known–she died very young, just as she was emerging as a daring and canny photojournalist in her own right. Continue reading

Young Adult Lit Comes of Age

I came over to young adult many years ago, with my first nonfiction book, Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers, arriving like a shy newcomer. But it was only when I published Ask Me No Questions several years later, that I understood the world of young adult and its lively appreciative audiences. And, happily enough, I’ve been watching the rising tide of interest from all quarters–adults and young adults alike, as evidenced by this article in the LA Times today: Young Adult Lit Comes of Age.

As someone who devoured young adult literature when I was a teenager, lounging on hot days to read Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger or S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, this is cheering. What I loved then–and still do–is the immediacy of this fiction, the sense that they are creating complex, literary worlds where a young person is at the very center. To this day those books flicker like old favorite movies in the back of my mind, mysterious, yet familiar. That did not mean I was not reading great literature written for adults–what is Jane Eyre but a coming of age novel? Or Oliver Twist? Or even Tess of the D’Urbervilles? All of those were consumed in that same bedroom when I was a teenager, too. Yet young adult novels evoked the Raider: depth and strangeness of that period in one’s life–the awkward, half understood truths; the shimmering, jagged edges of self that are just emerging. For me, all of those books have a gratifying lack of completion, because, of course, they are capturing someone who is still on their way somewhere; still forming.

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