“I want to write something that matters”: Eleanor Morse visits with White Dog Fell from the Sky

February 27th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher

 

In stark contrast to what meets our eyes as we look out our Maine windows these days, the landscape that Eleanor Morse lays out in White Dog Fell from the Sky is one where the water of the ocean is a figment only to be imagined, where “the heat, the dust, the gray-green foliage, the skinny cows, the goats…,” combine to form a backdrop that is, as she says, itself a character in this story of Africa during Apartheid.

Morse made a generous visit to the MWWC last week to discuss her book, and she began by reading from its first chapter. Isaac, a South African medical student, arrives in Botswana near death and is dumped in a dusty heap on the side of the road, having been smuggled across the border in a hearse to escape the wrath of the white South African Defense Force. He awakens to blue sky and the face of White Dog, who assigns herself as his companion for the journey that follows.

After reading from the book, Morse gave some background on the setting. White Dog Fell from the Sky takes place in Botswana in the mid-1970s, about the time that she herself lived there. Botswana was then still a young country, having gained independence from Britain just six years before, in 1970. It was a fortunate country, on a firm financial footing with an educated, enlightened first president — a good place to be in those days. Radically different, however, was the neighboring Republic of South Africa, which at that time was consumed with Apartheid. Refugees were coming into Botswana from South Africa, and though not modeled on anyone in particular, Isaac is one such seeker of safety.

Morse started the discussion with a question possibly on many minds: “How did I get to Botswana?” “Probably the way many people get to places they don’t expect to: love. I met a man from Botswana while I was going to college at Swarthmore and he was in graduate school at Bowdoin.” When they eventually married, Morse moved to Botswana and both she and her husband took on hectic jobs in national offices, working on issues of health, education and literacy. “We were both fortunate to be engaged in work that mattered,” Morse reflected.

The couple returned to the United States in 1975 with their young son, had another child and eventually parted ways. It took Morse these nearly-four decades to write this book, publishing two others in the interim. “Something in me knew that I needed more experience, that I needed a wider vocabulary of emotional range to write the story. I didn’t know what the story was when I started the book but I knew that it was going to require something of me.”

“What was that?” a member of the group probed.

“It required a good deal of courage, for one thing,” explained Morse. “It wasn’t an easy book to write because of what ended up happening to Isaac. Through a series of mishaps, Isaac ends up being sent back over the border to a prison in South Africa. Those are harrowing scenes and they were harrowing to write. I felt as though I needed every bit of courage I had in me to go there.”

Another issue gave Morse pause when approaching the project. “There was a question when I started writing this book as to whether I had the right to tell the story of a black person as a well-educated white woman…Isaac was a well-educated South African man but he’d grown up in a very different culture and in very different circumstances. There was quite a bit of soul searching before I plunged in…but Isaac’s voice kept coming to me.” Morse asked a writing buddy about her dilemma and her friend said, “That’s what writers do. They cross barriers and make worlds come alive that people don’t know or understand.”

Morse shared that during the writing of White Dog Fell from the Sky, she experienced the abrupt end of a relationship that she had expected would last the rest of her life. The pain of that loss made it “a darker book than it might have been otherwise, but also a deeper book and a better book.”

“How long did it take you to write it?” one guest wanted to know.

“It took three and a half years to write the book and then another year for copy editing, final edits, and deciding on the cover image,” which was quite an engaging process in itself.

Another group member wondered how might the story have changed in the editing process, and Morse described trimming about 14,000 words from the book. “Quite a bit of that was backstory and some broke my heart to let go of…One thing I felt really strongly about was that Botswana and the landscape really be like a character.” Morse was glad that her editor at Penguin was open-minded and honored the frequent reestablishment of setting to keep that character present. And because the editor herself was born in one country and grew up in another, she understood the recurring theme of passing through boundaries that is key to the book.

“I didn’t want the book to be overly political, even though it has to do with the politics of southern Africa at that time. I wanted to be faithful to that but I didn’t want the characters to be existing just to tell a political story.”

Morse said, “The hardest part in writing the book for me is the very beginning, because I don’t have a story that I impose on the characters. For me, a book starts with the characters, sometimes with their voices. It’s a period of puzzling things out, asking, who are they? When I sit down to write, I don’t have a firm idea of what I’m creating. I want to be true to what’s emerging. There’s a lot of listening that goes on, open-hearted listening…I didn’t know that a lot of the things that happened in this book were going to happen. I was sorry that some of them did, but that is part of the process.”

Much of the process has to do with being curious, she says. “When I’m teaching I sometimes talk about following the heat or the energy of something…I want to write something that matters. When I think back in my life, I think I’ve always wanted to get under the surface of things… If I knew what was going to happen in a story, I would never write it.”

Morse pointed out that the main characters in all of her three books have a certain marginality about them. “I am much more interested in marginal characters than in mainstream characters, partly because they are just more interesting.” She describes her childhood self as a figure on the margins, having been the new girl in a number of schools as her family moved with her father’s work as an engineer for GE.

Anne Zill asked Morse if she had a favorite of her three books, and if she saw anything in the first two that might relate to this one.

“I like them all for different reasons,” Morse says. “This is the biggest book and I think for that reason, if I had a favorite, it would be this one, because I feel as though I really stretched my legs in this book and opened my heart in a way. I did so in all three books, but I might have had more to work here with because of life experience. It all enters in.”

Learn more about Eleanor Morse and her books at eleanormorse.com.

Sorting out traces of our history

February 21st, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

For a number of years now, I’ve been meaning to get to fully processing our administrative files, which document the past 50+ years of collecting at the Maine Women Writers Collection.  In some ways, though, it is good that I have waited.  Now I understand how I use the collection, what kinds of documents we need to find easily, and how best it might serve us to organize it.  It’s a bit daunting, but the time has come.

 

For several days this week, I have taken advantage of the slow, snowy energy and put our focus on these papers.  Laura and I have been pulling out all the boxes, looking through all of the folders, and stacking everything in rough series to be more thoroughly organized later.  I have enjoyed the opportunity to look through the incredible correspondence that Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy carried on with numerous authors, donors, and other friends of the Collection.  I have been confused and dismayed by some of the odd things we’ve saved–the question “Why?” often hanging in the air between Laura and I throughout the process.  But the real “Why?” is the reason we are doing this at all–so that we can find the gems amidst the invoices and randomness; so that we can trace provenance and answer questions of how we acquired each collection.

 

It is an interesting process to look through the eyes of people who were not trained to think in terms of subject headings and organizational schema.  Grace and Dorothy built an amazing collection with little experience to guide them.  They were pioneers–warm, generous women who believed in the power of women’s words and women’s ordinary realities.  As I read through the letters that fill many a box, I feel an incredible sense of gratitude for these two thoughtful, determined women.

The tenderness and friendship that existed between the former curators and their correspondents always reminds me to write more thoughtful emails, to devote more attention to the ways that I portray our work in words, and subsequently causes me to lament the fact that volume has replaced quality in our communications.

I pulled this letter from one folder and the first line grabbed me right away.  “The trouble is, before starting a letter to you everything has to be just right, sun shining, outlook relaxed and still with it,” Florence Burrill Jacobs writes to Dorothy Healy in 1973.  She continues, “And that happy conjunction doesn’t often come about!”  Imagine if we waited for a sunny day to write an email to a friend!  (Well, this winter, we’d never write at all — let’s be honest here!)  Later in the letter, the conversational tone pulled me in further, making me just love Mrs. Jacobs’ style of corresponding. “And the stars!  Have you been where you could see the evening sky since September?  Hour after hour we have stood out back where no street lights intrude, and just gazed up.  Jupiter, Venus, M[a]rs, myriads of smaller ones, more brilliant than I ever saw them.  I am sometimes awakened in the night by a blazing west.”

I am looking forward to getting to a place in the processing when I can start to relabel folders with titles that will point to the contents clearly so that I can put my hands on these letters more easily.  The amount of information about acquisition procedures that resides in the correspondence alone is quite astounding.  That the letters are an incredible pleasure to read is just a bonus.  If you want to start up a correspondence with me, write to me about how the stars look when you go to bed at night, and I will write back to let you know that the stars here are sometimes dimmed by streetlights, but that your poems light up my world.  Yes, this is what keeps me in the archival profession, these beautiful private moments between people.

A Valentine from the National Woman’s Party

February 12th, 2014 by Tegan Talbot

With Valentines Day upon us it seemed as though timing was in my favor. I was reading newspaper clippings from the National Woman’s Party collection when a specific article caught my eye. But first, I shall give you a small background into my research at the Maine Women Writers Collection. I am a history student at the University of Southern Maine, interning at the MWWC, and working towards creating an exhibit for the collection at the end of the semester. I expressed my interest in studying woman’s movements in the 19th and 20th centuries, having previously done research on the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. When Cathleen suggested that they had a collection on the National Woman’s Party, I jumped at the opportunity to learn about a different women’s movement.

The National Woman’s Party was first formed in 1916 to fight for women’s suffrage in all states of the U.S. The party gained much of their influence from Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Nation Woman’s Party collection holds newspaper clippings, photographs, pamphlets, and reports of conferences and meetings held by the party. The “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” was the party’s main focus when they first formed. The Amendment would later become the 19th Amendment in 1920, when it was finally ratified and women gained the right to vote.

The clippings I came across in the collection, were Valentine’s Day poems and images. The National Woman’s Party used these poems and images in the hopes of persuading politicians and businessmen to support the women’s suffrage movement. The Image in the clipping is the valentine they sent to President Wilson to gain his support. The women are holding little hearts that say “votes.”

Clipping from a National Woman's Party scrapbook

These valentines are a very different way to look at the holiday most people associate with flowers, chocolate, and loved ones. The women of the 1916 National Woman’s Party were much more concerned with gaining their right to vote than who they would be spending their Valentine’s Day with. The clippings from the collection allow us to glimpse back at a world where women’s live were much different than ours today.

Arts + Health: finding the words

February 3rd, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

Over the past few months here at UNE, there has been an upsurge of energy around connecting the arts with health and health professionals. There have been exhibits, webinars, some talks, and a mixer. In all of this, I felt mostly like someone on the outskirts because the juicy action was happening in the School of Social Work. I went to connect with colleagues, to make the Maine Women Writers Collection visible in small ways at these events, but my real motivation was personal. Over the past years, I’ve been playing, exploring, grappling, but feeling mostly unprepared to produce “real work” on the subject of health.

from "Paper Passages" by Allison Cooke Brown and Martha Hall

What does “real work” mean, anyway? Well, that’s a question I explore quite often, too. I want to make poems and multimedia work that speak to the personal experience of illness without focus on the woe is me aspect of such experience. I think about the work I see and read here at work and I imagine myself in a more polished form. But then I look closely and see the raw emotion that makes these works powerful.

a page from "Prescriptions" by Martha Hall

When students come to the Collection to look at our artists’ books, they are visibly moved by the personal narratives contained in these works. It is there in the diaries and letters we hold, too, but these visual representations are far more accessible to most, and require no deciphering of handwriting. It is a privilege to introduce people to these books, and my appreciation for their power grows every day. While the complexity of bindings and printing techniques is often stunning, the simplicity of human emotion is enough to make these books worth collecting.

a page from "She Tells Me" by Sissy Buck and herbal remedy cards

Our new display in the Collection highlights a few of the resources we hold that relate to art and health, but there are many more, including many diary collections that chronicle women’s struggles with illness, mental health, and living satisfying lives. As I spend more time with these materials, I find the threads of my own words and imagery to explore these themes.

"Phlegm" from "Old Physiology" by Rebecca Goodale