wet earth

Unafraid of Emotion

In several of the stories in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, the 2005 collection by Yiyun Li, what connects one character to another is often vanishingly slim: the sight of “a wisp of hair” on a hard-to-manage, disabled adult daughter is all it takes to restore love to a weary mother’s heart; another mother looks at her gay, unmarried son with loving eyes “so eager and hopeful” the man must look away; a pregnant young woman, far from home and planning to abort, bursts into tears at the smallest movement of the growing life inside her.

These small human moments often provide the climax to Li's tender and truthful stories, as if the ability to bridge the gap between two people—or the inability to do so—were the single most important thing to say about a character.  Such stories generate real emotion in the reader like few other works of contemporary fiction can; Li, who appears at an author reading and signing in Carmel next week, is as unafraid of emotion as many of her characters are wary of its power.

Yet the emotions on display in Li’s work never sag into sentimentality.  Indeed, as she showed in The Vagrants (2009), her brilliant debut novel about life in a provincial Chinese town in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, she is remarkably unsentimental about children.  In The Vagrants, an entire community of men and women, boys and girls, is shaped by a shifting yet nonetheless unyielding political and social system that leads some to sad and surprising acts of cruelty and betrayal.  It is rare to encounter a book at once so sorrowful and so exhilarating; I was reminded of the novels of Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy, ambitious, carefully constructed works that set vivid individual characters into their environments like pieces of a puzzle in order to reveal a larger design about the nature of human suffering during a particular time and place.

In Li’s work, that time and place is mostly contemporary China.  Her second collection of stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010), continues many of the themes found in A Thousand Years.  But if the emphasis in A Thousand Years was on the elusive, fragile nature of connection, in her latest book such connections are even more tenuous, if they exist at all.  In the title story, a gay man returns to China to live with his mother, a widowed, retired professor who is intent on seeing him marry one of her former students for reasons the story probes with extraordinary delicacy.  Such a marriage will not be founded on romantic love, but as in several other stories, Li explores how love is shadowy and unknowable, yet also tenacious.  “They were lonely and sad people,” Li writes, “all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

Li’s radiant stories enlarge the reader’s world, making our own human tragedies large and small more transparent, and so more bearable.

Yiyun Li, author presentation and book signing, Tuesday, April 10, at 7:00 p.m., at Carpenter Hall, Sunset Center, 9th & Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea.  Presented by the Carmel Public Library Foundation as part of its Annual Arts & Literary Series.  $10 suggested contribution.

Finding the Women

When Jane Press was growing up in the 1950s, she noticed two things.  One, that she was living in a man’s world, where it was not usual for mothers to work outside the home, and two, that there were fabulous roles for actresses, women like Shirley Booth who were no longer young starlets but were not yet old.

Today, Press surveys the acting landscape and asks: Where are the women?

“I’m interested in actresses of a certain age,” she says.  “Acting is an art, a craft.  We rehearse, we practice, and over time we presumably get better, more skilled.  But then, in their fifties and sixties, women seem to disappear.  Jessica Lange is now playing old ladies.  Jessica Lange is not an old lady!  We’re relegated to pretending we’re older or younger.  Just at the age where women come into their own, have a wealth of experience and something to say, we’re not being given the roles to say it, except for playing mothers—most often portrayed as trivialized stereotypes or caricatures.”

So instead of looking for roles that didn’t exist, Press had another idea.

“I thought to myself, where are the women my age?” she says.  “Well, I’ll write them.  I’ll write about the most memorable women I knew.”

As a girl, Press would sometimes spend the night at her grandmother’s when she was hosting Mah Jongg games; Little Janie would help set up and serve.  When Press began to write her play, the voices of those women came back to her so clearly it was like taking dictation.  “I remember everything!” she says.  “They had such a keen sense of humor, based upon the foibles of human nature.  I know it’s a cliché, but I would hear them talking in my head, grab a pen and start writing."

Press’s play, “My Mother’s Keeper,” is about those women and the significant events that can shape a family across the generations.  “Every family has its craziness,” she says.  “I decided to trace my family’s craziness back through the matriarchal lineage to the source of ‘What happened.’  This led to an investigation of motherhood itself, with all its inherent blessings and curses that are passed on, most often unconsiously, from mother to daughter.”

The play revolves around a single shattering incident in 1914 which continues to reverberate down through the generations.  “I had written the entire play around it before I was able to go back and address the event head on,” she says.  “That part was enormously challenging.”

Press is interested in what she calls “our matriarchal inheritance.”  “All women are daughters” she says.  “Just as men know that the father-son dynamic is unique, the mother-daughter relationship is a very specific dynamic and that’s what I focused on in my play.”

She began by asking questions: who was my mother? and who was her mother? and who was her mother?

Both her mother and grandmother were actresses; Press herself has been on stage since childhood, carrying on a family tradition.  She vividly remembers her mother taking her to see Dame Judith Anderson perform in “Medea” in a theatre-in-the-round performance when Press was 15.  “It was tremendous—a huge impact,” she says.  Other favorite performances include Maggie Smith in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Lotte Lenya in “Cabaret” and Sada Thompson as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”  Press describes the character of Frankie in “Member of the Wedding,” which she performed as young woman, as her favorite role.

Since coming to the Monterey Peninsula eleven years years ago, Press has been very involved in the local theatre scene.  She says that her favorite place to perform has been the Magic Circle Theatre, where she has been in productions of “Lend Me a Tenor,” “The Laramie Project,” “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Rumours,” “My Son the Lawyer Is Drowning,” and “I Hate Hamlet.”  In September, she will appear there in “The Last Romance.”

She also enjoyed appearing in “Sidemen,” at the Cherry Center and “The Day They Shot John Lennon” at the Studio Theater at MPC.  While she was working on her play, she presented a scene from it at the Cherry, as a work-in-progress.  “It got a wonderful reception,” she says.  “The play is about a Jewish family, about women, but both men and women came up to me, and people were saying, ‘I’m Italian, I’m Greek, I’m Irish, and this was my family.’”

In addition to her stage work, Press has focused on theatre education for children since coming to the Peninsula.  Press teaches acting at the Carmel Academy of Performing Arts, and a summer program with the Community Partnership for Youth.  She was also the lead instructor at the Children’s Experimental Theatre for the last five years of its existence, working closely with CET founder Marcia Hovick, who passed away in January.

“I’m carrying on in my own way,” she says, “continuing her work, our work together, and the work I’ve developed.”

A major element of that work has been with girls ages 6-12.  “The last three years I happened to have all girls in my classes,” she says, “and through that I’ve developed a very specific work, helping girls navigate the transition, when bodies start to change.”  Press uses her own experience to help shape how she teaches girls.  “I was born in 1950,” she says.  “We had a childhood then; divorce was rare and grandparents were very much a part of the family.  It all changed when President Kennedy was assassinated.  The country lost its innocence. In the 60s, all hell broke loose.  In the 70s Gloria Steinem was my hero.  Now to see our little girls today so sexualized at such a young age—it assaults the natural sense of modesty they have and robs them of their childhood.  My work is to mitigate that. In my Acting for the Stage class, we explore what it means to be a female human being telling the stories of our lives.”

To help tell the stories of her mother’s, grandmother’s and her great-grandmother’s generation’s lives, Press has assembled a cast of seven women and an eleven-year-old girl.  “The play is dedicated to my grandmother, who will be played by Suzanne Sturn, a fabulous actress and director.  It’s a helluva part.  Well, my grandmother was a helluva woman, and a huge influence on me.”

“My Mother’s Keeper” will be directed by Robin McKee, featuring a group of accomplished actresses that includes the author.

Press hopes that her play will come to be performed in many venues annually on Mother’s Day, in the way that “The Vagina Monologues” has become a popular choice to perform on Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps it is fitting that Press’s daughter is scheduled to give birth during the show’s run, making Press a grandmother herself.

“My Mother’s Keeper” plays at the Carl Cherry Center for the Performing Arts, 4th and Guadeloupe, May 4 – 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m.  There will be a special Sunday evening performance on Mother’s Day, May 13, at 7:30 p.m.

Making a Good Impression

When Alissa Bell left her L.A. corporate job in the fall of 2010 and returned home to San Benancio Canyon, she was guided by a very specific mantra: be creative.  She started a blog in which she explored some of her favorite topics: fashion, gardening, cooking, design.  She took a creative writing class at MPC.  Most of all, she thought about paper.  Before long, she was studying letterpress printing at the San Francisco Center for the Book, meeting with Napa master printer Glen Bower, and searching for a press of her own.

Today, Alissa Bell Press occupies a small warehouse space near the Marina airport.  Her letterpress, a 1919 Chandler & Price built in Cleveland, sits next to a California jobcase containing slim wooden drawers of letters, waiting to be arranged into words.  Though only in business a few months, Bell is already busy printing wedding invitations and business cards for people who want to send a specific message: this is important.

Letterpress printing speaks to the ancient belief that words have not only meaning, but substance.  When you hold in your hand a piece of paper and you can see the words printed on it in three dimensions and can move your finger across the words and feel them as something real, the words take on a weight and value that is both literal and symbolic.  As more and more of our reading and writing happens on screens—screens in which our words seem to float, untethered, easily erased—it’s not surprising that the art of letterpress printing is undergoing a rejuvenation.

Bell enjoys the meeting of old and new technologies in letterpress printing.  In addition to using the traditional letters in her California jobcase, she also works with a company in New York to design custom-made handset designs for more contemporary or individualized styles.  She also has fun with color.  “I can mix any color in the rainbow,” she says.  “It’s really fun to play with colors and stay as custom-designed as possible.”

Bell investigated numerous paper sources before settling on a small paper mill in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  “In yumminess it’s just a little yummier,” she says.  I watch her print a wedding announcement card in cool silvery ink, first with a light impression, then a second one with a slightly heavier imprint.  The contrast is striking.  In studying printmaking, Bell learned that traditionally the ink would lie gently on the page, “like a kiss,” she says.  Today, many people are looking for a heavier impression, which highlights the handmade, unique quality of letterpress printing.

“I love giving people tools to communicate,” she says.  “I love paper, envelopes, sending mail, getting mail, magazines, all of it!”  When Bell was a girl, her mother made sure that she and her sisters always sent thank-you notes for gifts.  “I wish more people wrote letters today,” she says.  “It’s a lost art.”  She hopes one day to create a website that will be a resource for letter-writing.

For now, she is focused on her press.  “There’s definitely a learning curve,” she says.  “It’s a one-woman show.  I mess up and I just have to be okay with that.”  Bell says that the MPC creative writing class (which is where I met her) was a big step.  “It was my first writing class ever, and I felt vulnerable putting my work out there.  But I was able to get over that and share my work and be happy with it.”  Her favorite part of the job?  “I love working with clients,” she says, “helping them make their vision a reality.  And I love being alone in the studio, working on prints and listening to podcasts and feeding peanut butter to Barley the dog.”  Sounds to me like what life can be when you say be creative to yourself, and then just do it.

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