tv Author Discussion on Writing CSPAN August 22, 2019 3:06am-4:07am EDT
welcome, everyone to the seventh annual festival which is the signature program of the public library foundation. my name is abby and i run the project up the columbia journalism school and i'm thrilled to be here today with our prizewinners steve luxembourg and helen thorpe. before i give a formal introduction to the panelists, i want to encourage the attendees to share your experience on social media using the hash tag
both fast and there will be a signing of the books at the end of this session at the barnes and noble tend. there will be time to ask the authors to request an. please join me in welcoming the work in progress winners. the author of separate the story of plessy versus ferguson from slavery and segregation, which has been called absorbing and a story that was written with energy and elegance and i can confirm that myself. he is also the author of the critically acclaimed a journey into a family secret. a longtime editor of the "washington post" he was the
2016 lucas work in progress winner. joining him is how when thorpe who was born in one and irish pair in and she is the author of the new comers finding refuge and hope in an american classroom which was described as a delicate and heartbreaking mystery story. she's a journalist and author of the books just like us and soldier girls we host several journalism awards and one of them is the j. lucas and the project where every year we givt to 25,000-dollar prizes today the completion of significant works of nonfiction on the topics of american political or social concern. this was conceived as a way of
closing the gap between that time and money and author has an time and money finishing a book requires. you can tell us a little bit about the challenges and opportunities that have been when you begin on such a journey of writing a book. in speaking with you, you say the case matters mor taste mattw more than ever. it's a significant thing people should know about and i'm curious. is a vague notion, raise your hand because i had a notion myself until reading this book i recommend it to you. so, would you mind recapping briefly what was in that case,
what it meant and what it means to us today? >> is a case that is synonymous with separate but equal by the seven to one supreme court ruled the separatiothat the separatioa violation of the cushions the you might ask where those words came from the language in the law that required a separate railroad cars with equal but separate. how many people here you say you know something about the case, how many people here know what the race was? was he black, white? >> i don't think we should talk about people by their percentage but he was probably more one quarter but they wanted to make
and the attendant or income accumulation. for the people of color to catch up. >> you in your book write about your experience spending a year in a classroom with a group of 22 students immigrant and refugee children learning english together in a classroom. tell us the story how you ended up with this incredible access to these kids? >> it was unexpected and a surprise to me. previously i had written a book about some students growing up in denver colorado where i live
and you might not know if you are not living in colorado, but near denver, like many big urban cities is the most diverse places that you can find and 42% of the students are english language learners these days and we have plenty of undocumented students, so i followed a couple of documented students through high school and through college, six years total to see what it was like to come of age without legal status and after that book, i was trying to explore the subject of refugees because so many families were being displaced around the world, and i showed up at the high school and in are called south high school which is a place that has the largest concentration of refugees and asylum seeking students in our school system. i was trying to do a background interview and she was kind of a
force of nature, a visionary principle, and about 20 minutes into the conversation, she said i'd read your first book, why don't you sit any classroom you want and you will be welcome to spend as much time as you want. she ultimately invited me to spend a full year inside the school and it didn't occur to me to ask to be inside the school because it isn't something journalists are usually permitted to do. but earlier tha this summer, ths was august, 2015. donald trump has announced he was going to run for president and she was a passionate of the refugee and immigrant students in her building. and i think she believed the stories would just melt peoples hearts if only they understood the journeys of these kids that they were living through and shouldering and how resilient they were and funny and strong and smart and astonishing and full of potential.
so, i think that it was a larger political context that led her to invite me into the building. and then the challenge was to handle the situation well because being given so much access to kids who are not yet apple's got a vulnerable time in their lives as they are transitioning the united states i think was it presented me with some challenges. >> telchallenges. >> tell us about that. >> well, i think we have been chatting off-line about being others and i have a 15-year-old student, 16-year-old now and i think you have a child or not the same age, and it is about how old most of the kids in this room were. i would hate if somebody, a journalist showed up in my son's classroom and started asking him questions in the middle of this with a baby things that might be hard or difficult for him. i was aware if i did that with
these students, that it would be wrong. and that is a little counterintuitive for a journalist to not ask questions. so, i saw my job really is taking the opportunity to be in the room and welcoming whatever the students wanted to share with me, but getting the most i could to convey to them exactly who i was even though there were 14 languages and five alphabets represented in the students population in the classroom and so it was actually very hard for me to explain that i hired 14 interpreters and told them who i was and said if they wanted to share their story and so many of the kids really wanted to do that they wanted to help america understand the rest of the world and who they were in some of the things being said about them were wildly untrue.
if they wanted to share their story that i asked if they would invite me how to meet their parents and their parent could make that decision, not that the students would make the decision on her own or his own. >> you didn't show up with 14 interpreters in the classroom, did you? punipanic i sat in the classroom from a and tried to figure out what to do about it and ultimately realized that is what i needed to do. most of the interpreters were former refugees or asylum-seekers themselves have i learned so much from the professionals us will have that kind of background and the interpreters in the background they had decades to process the experience of coming here from difficult places or places of conflict. >> it sounds immersive, almost
overwhelming. >> this is a contemporary bir b. can you pull back the curtain a little bit on the process of the research that went into your book because you succeeded in bringing to life these four pivotal actors. you obviously must have felt personal letters or notebooks. what went in to read constructing these slides and the book? >> people were alive and she could interview them. i chose the subject where everybody had died and my colleagues said what do you do when you have a question you can't ask what they thought had tthe best you can. as a writer i told people in both classes every story has holes in them and you do your best to fill them up in the thee challenge is to turn a weakness
into a strength so the absence of something can also be part of the story why didn' didn't the n let us know what he or she was thinking, why aren't their letters. another thin thing we are missie of our panelists stuck on a plane in dallas but also did a story about the 21st century and i felt like the outlier and 92 to you a little bit about the 19th century and how different it is in the 19th century the supreme court is one example.
the cases were decided 90 and they are from the same class or property and wealth. they regard property rights as being paramount. so when you want to win the case and find ways to appeal to that group of people because those are the people you are trying to persuade that has something to o understand as well as the fact of the amendment. the supreme court had decided it had an extensive view o of the t
and had a narrow view that was frequently ruling again the civil rights cases. having the police powers that the term of art and law to keep it in the law and order that they could separate the white and colored passengers that was the word in the law as a part of the police powers. people who were mostly men, lots of women in the story but the wives are very important they thought they were going to be
somebody. you preserve your papers so somebody ca could write about yu after you die. there are letters and documents and in one case, 12,000 documents of one man's archives. i didn't read 12,000 documents. fortunately they guide you a little bit, but that is a little bit of the pulling back the curtain. >> you have an idea for the book and an opportunity to write a book. can you give us a sense of what's next if you write a proposal or find a publisher, how do you take this idea from your mind and turn it into a finished product? what are some of the steps that go into that?
>> it was very fortunate i was working with an editor at scribner who i had worked with on my two previous books and so i didn't have a contract with him but i was speaking to him maybe once a month about the fact that i had been invited into this classroom and how it was going in at the beginning, my phone calls went something like there is no way i could possibly write a book about this classroom, nobody is saying anything. i can't get to know the students died on stories where they are from. there'there is no dialogue, no character development, there's just a nice teacher going around saying basic things like how are you, what is your name, where
are you from, and very basic questions and i thought this would be a terrible book. and my long-time editor said this is really unusual for you to be in this room and i'm fascinated by the mystery. why don't you just stay there for a while. it wasn't until february or march that i actually ended up writing a proposal and at that point there were a couple of students in the room i felt fascinated with right away. there were a pair of students that showed up from iraq and one was wearing a headscarf covering his hair and the other was not. so i just was wondering what a muslim, are they not, why would one sister wear a headscarf and one would not. the whole back story was
completely fascinating to me after hiring an interpreter and visiting them at home with a choicchance to hear their storyr father was christian, their mother was muslim, they identify with both religion, one feels more strongly than the other, they both have christian name, but in the united states they identify more as muslims because they were in turn produces being muslim all the time by the rest of us. and we don't concede a mixed faith families coming from the middle east because we have a very simplistic idea. anyway, when i started getting to know the students at that level, i also got some brothers in the classroom from the democratic republic of congo similarly tha then i felt able o write a proposal, but it was almost six, seven, eight months into my time in the classroom, probably six or seven before i felt even i couldn't begin to say what i might read the book
about. my confidence booster was my agent, most people who do what we do have eight tell you that is a terrible idea. laughter is that you can get past the agent with a chance into the agents job is to find a proposal to put you in front of. when has that relationship with an editor and i had written the first book that i was cheating in publishers for various reas
reason. she was the one who kept pushing me on the proposal. when you are trying to write a proposal, bu what does that word mean? new york editors who are acquiring books are getting a lot of proposals and you are advised to give them a reason to say no. that is why she did the proposal and knowing something about what your story is as critical to the process. when i teach writing, i often ask what seems to be a trick question which is what is the most important paragraph in your book, the first paragraph with the last paragraph? i would say there are two different answers depending on if you are a reader or a writer and i would say most would say the first paragraph and most would say the last. not because the words in the last paragraph ar is so importat that the last is where the story
is going into debt up and if you don't know how to get there, if you don't know the story you are telling, then you have no idea how to write the book and so for me i saw the shape of the book after seven months, seven months of research in the classroom and i did this research in archives before i could write a proposal because i want to be able to show the editors in new york beginning of the middle and at the end of the story even if i didn't know all of the places i was going to fill with information. ..
division how to best handle the question of race. and it surprises a lot of people that would be a recipe for disaster and then regret lagging and railroad construction so yesterday how much of a connection between san antonio as a city in the world as a city with a case comes from. new orleans is a french and spanish city new orleans had a different union the union forces took over new orleans to say we cannot win this war without controlling new orleans san antonio surrendered to the confederacy.
so there is a link of understanding, must've been in the 19th century from the deep south. new orleans is a fascinating city it's the only place it could've come from because when the american take over happened in 18 oh three he has a big problem and discovers there are 6000 free people of color. not only free under the spanish and french but they have guns. they have a militia - - a militia takes a month to get a reply and says hey jefferson and madison what do i do with these free people of color and madison says i don't know you are on your own. they muddle through but it
creates a desire for equal rights and not desire is frustrated again and again throughout the 19th century culminating with the committee that says we won't take it anymore. we will fight this law that requires a separation of passengers. >> you describe really well the civil rights era. this movement we think of the 2h century version but you describe the 19th century movement. >> the 20th century version dealing in the fifties and sixties but people don't know there were civil rights acts three of them in the civil rights movement as well it was not as well organized but in that parallel narrative of the
white men who argue the case and the resistors to separation who throughout the 1h century are fighting against the attempt to discriminate. this is after slavery. >> and then as a sign of classroom and how they acquire language. especially someone studying foreign language that the english language has 250,000 words but the average speaker only uses 10000.
that is so interesting. what more did you learn how we acquire language especially the teenage brain. >> many of them arrived speaking languages already. that english is not one of the languages especially if they have multiple languages very good at learning other languages because the brains are younger and more plastic nobody my age biologically of that silent language acquisition and that's what you see with the baby when they learned their home
language. so a person's brain is listening really hard then trying to make sense of foreign sounds. and only when you can a sound mind - - assign meaning then you try to articulate the new words yourself. and it was amazing to behold because not only starting off and those that spend their entire lives with refugee camps and have never lived outside of the camp setting and then they found themselves in denver navigating with urban high school and donald trump.
but by the end of the year breaking into intermediate level acquisition and fluency to convey in english it would be a regular language because they said funny things one of the iraqi sisters there was the asylum seeker she kept calling the hair pasta because she did know the word for car also that would be fun as a quotation but they were being teenagers.
so you see them start to flirt and stay over at each other's houses and proposing one of the iraqi sisters to draw a blue ring on her finger and just being teenagers. one.i was in telluride it was called one book one canyon. is a pretty white school in one of the students set i just loved reading the book because i realized they were nothing like us at all. but they are exactly like is at the same time. so that a teenager is a teenager and that's the point i was trying to convey.
called the woman city club they were spectacularly good and one that anybody could speak english even before they talk to the coach they become a star runner over and over again. and those that have conflict and difficulty and with that level of exercise was determined and then the transition arriving in the united states.
and with those amid great kids to run for the school but it's also great for them. and this doppelgänger of the south there was a cross country coach that teaches english as a second language with 21 students in the class all running cross country and he arrived with his whole team to talk and the kids were all sitting in the front row and they were from afghanistan and the democratic republic of congo and i got to talk to them afterwards. they just kept saying thank you so much to say nice things about us. that they are spectacular kids who have learned from everything they have lived
through. and then they are eager to run cross country. and then our president should know better. that is the point. and then to say horribly untrue incredibly prejudicial things and on the people of the planet. [applause] >> i will ask for questions from the audience. if you have any advice out there and to an aspiring
writer. >> don't be shy about meeting other people. to say read her book and say how did she do that. i often ask myself writers want to their stuff to be seamless but i want to see this seems because that tells me how you are doing it. and those that are told the story before program at the first person to write about plessy versus ferguson but i'm apparently the first to write about it my way. or to think about how to write history or one insight that i have had it is important to storytelling, i'm not a constitutional historian or a
legal scholar, one of the things that i realized is that the writer is pursuing the seed. history that you know the outcome see you go back in time to find the seeds of someone's evolution. i basically reject the seed theory. and of this case of john marshall the only one with that ringing dissent to pose that separation. and then to define the man that he became. so i call it the evolutionary theory of history and then to tell her stories and those
>> journalist are reporters they are not writers. and then if i have those failed attempts and then to write the stories and then to tell the story and not to tell them how. and then to enjoy the success because that's what an editor does prick i have edited several prize-winning stories i'm not myself. >>.
>> one of the pieces of writing and he so interesting to read right now but he wrote an essay called politics and the english language it was fabulous for writers probably the most important piece of advice in the essay and there are five or six things that were all equally important to avoid say things the way they have already said them with a big bride definition any turn of phrase that is repeated over and over is a cliché. he would attempt to read the pros of anything like you have
heard already. to always come up with an original way to say what it was you were trying to say. then you are not really being very specific what you are trying to get across that borrowing from some common piece of language but if you can put it in your own words to say something much more specifi specific, your writing will have much more originality. >> my favorite part of the essay is to put out a set of rules that the rules are great but don't think that's the point.
>> i want to remind everyone they will be at the barnes & noble tent when we finish in 15 minutes and they are both winners of the progress prize which we start accepting proposals september through december. check it out. we are ready to take questions from the audience. we will call on you. >>. >> i am talking about this because of the refugees and asylum-seekers are so much in the news there is a deep hunger all around the country for a different conversation than the one taking place in the news media or twitter with
churches and schools and nonprofits to help be part of the gathering where people can learn about things differently. and remember we are a country that has a long history of welcoming people from all over the world and we have been enriched in the process. >> can you give us updates quick. >> i would love to. something joyous just happened. the students in the book i was with them during the 2015 through 2017 school year. now they are seniors getting ready to graduate. are the two brothers from the congo i got to know their family the best and ended up
traveling to the drc to understand what they were fleeing from and i visited the refugee settlements. i spent a lot of time with their family and met some of their relatives as well. so those two boys have been applying to college and i got a facebook message to say he was accepted to three top colleges in denver and didn't know which one to go to. so i went over and we were talking it became clear they didn't understand a lot about the schools that i would be happy to tour so at the end of the day he got a full ride to his dream school which is the university of denver. [applause]
is actually a private school and is expensive but a full ride full tuition and also room and board to live on campus. it is a fabulous school. he will be a credit to the institution and i'm just thrilled. i learned so much so fast and a student that learned more than any other but to see them four years later entering a top-notch university they are just kick ass kids i love to see his success. >> i was talking about him to my son and he said are they us citizens? >> there is so much conflation
around asylum-seekers and refugees people don't understand a refugee who has been designated a rough long i refugee and invited here by the department of state arrives with a visa and a path to citizenship after one year it expires and you must apply for a green card or leave if it did not work out so he got a green card after one year and then full citizenship a little while after. he is a full citizen now. it is important to understand the refugees we invite are fully vetted by the department of homeland security and go through extensive interviews. and then if they live in turkey or uganda they have the
very extensive vetting process before they are invited but yes they are on a path to citizenship. >> it's a miracle that they even arrived because the demand must far exceed the slots. >> we took more refugees in the immediate aftermath of the vietnam war than any other point in our recent history because of our role and the exodus. we played a similar role in the middle east to set off the iraqi refugee crisis and i wish we would have a similar response we took one quarter of a million refugees shortly after the vietnam war but that
has been cut back to 50000 with a number that said we would take but more like 30000. we are a big country and a generous nation and we can do better. >>. >> i'm in the early stages i will continue my exploration of the country's history with race and i will just leave it at that. was at book proposal i'm less likely to describe it but but in the state archives of austin working people that have died and who can't talk to me. [laughter] >> and that most things are
online but most are not. and those that have never been process. and then to discover something that was previously looked at telling those historical stories is a trap. and using the - - google i discovered on the use of jim crowe was in 1838 newspaper in massachusetts to describe a railroad car to describe transportation. my the first person to know that? probably not but i can't find any evidence except in a
footnote it was ever unearthed by anyone else but i will not claim the discovery because if i do some people say they did. so that's the point but the point of storytelling is to tell a good story and it's important to know that jim crow the newspaper article is amazing because there are no bylines the way the writer wrote about the two drunken sailors who were white and were banished to the jim crow car they needed no explanation they already knew it. the railroad was open one month and they were already talking about the jim crow car. >> i have a question for each of the authors.
so what does the scene immigration policy look like today given your experience talking with recent immigrants? and what can we learn about race and civil rights based on what we found on the plessy case? >> for me the same immigration policy would begin with rhetori rhetoric. i feel inspired to write because of my parents my mom grew up in the dairy farm in rural ireland one of ten kids and at one point her father loaned her out to his sister who never had children so she could do all the chores on that farm since he had neither the kids to help on his. like many irish immigrants my parents came to this country and we had this opportunity
that is available here. i think bad mouthing people that seek asylum here calling them less than human or bad mouthing refugees conflating them with terrorist when refugees are the very people running away from conflict in their home countries seeking peace and safety for their children, is just a terrible way to conduct a discussion. the first thing if i could wave a magic wand and do things differently, i would try to have a dialogue that is respectful to understand one another as human beings and only then do we have the right kind of relationships with other countries and stands on the border but it stems from recognizing on this globe we are all in this together we
are all human beings and need a respectful dialogue. >> race and the prejudice are deep-seated. we can go back to the emergence of the country but also it has continued since then to affect our views when i look at alien immigrant policy my family last at me because often i will say but in the 19th century, today i can talk about it and not get laughed at but the know nothing party was founded as the anti- immigrant party that was the rhetoric as a tool for gaining support but nothing new and i would say the same thing is true with white supremacy.
so where does white supremacy come from? this is what's most important for me but fear and anger anger this after the civil war after the loss of economic power there were whites in the south who were quite angry and they turn to violence as a result. looking at white supremacy today looking at charlottesville in 2017 i want to understand the fear and the anger that lies behind that white supremacy. and as a person who would like to see it go away what are you afraid of and what are you angry about? >> looking ahead speaking about the future and the role that these kids would play we founded the optimism we will age out of the current predicament basically.
if i look at denver which is a place where white students are in the minority it is a majority minority school system for quite a long time , the level of diversity that all the different places the students come from and the complexity that they hold in their minds around the question of identity is far greater than the simplistic notion that somebody of my generation has. i think brick i think the students in high school today as they become adults i think we have started to see in congress has just gotten incredibly more diverse than previously it's just the beginning and really we will have a renaissance as a country starting to see diversity fully represented the way it is right now in the