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Writing as a form of international activism: An interview with Janet Johnson Anderson.

An Eye-opening Adventure into Nepal: An Interview with Janet Johnson Anderson about Avhi’s Flight.

“Having escaped a forced marriage, a girl’s difficult journey from the countryside of Nepal to Kathmandu sheds light on a suppressive culture, and discovery of purpose beyond self.”  That’s a unique storyline. How did you come up with a story that is in and about Nepal?

Though it’s a fictional story, it is based on facts I learned years ago when I served as a board member for Global Women. Our organization was at work in Nepal, Thailand, Moldova (the poorest European country) and other countries where sexual trafficking and enslavement is high. We helped support efforts to rescue and rehabilitate young women, and teach them job skills so they could become self-sufficient. Women in these regions already lack resources to combat poverty, injustice, and lack of educational opportunities, but often those who have escaped and returned home, are rejected by family and fellow villagers. I was touched by the stories I heard, and after meeting the owner of a sewing school called 777 Pokhara, I felt compelled to write a novel that could introduce American women, in particular, to the plight of women living in difficult places in the world. In my small way, I wanted to lend a voice to the many who are voiceless, who are abused, abducted, sold into brothels, sold into slavery, with little recourse.

That’s a large issue to take on. What do you hope your book can do?

It is a big issue. My story aligns with a central moral challenge of our time. When the Women’s March on Washington took place in January of 2016, I cried. I thought about the fact that no one is protesting or marching in the streets in Nepal for Nepal’s women and girls…and I decided that day to start writing this novel, to create a piece that I hoped could not be ignored. Because in Nepal there are not plentiful shelters, or food pantries. There are not lawyers working pro bono, and there are no authorities to turn to.

I know I am just one small voice, but I believe we are at a place in time when an understanding of such hardships might lead to change. I hope my book will further lines of communication, offer a springboard for discussion, and encourage more voices to rise up for those who remain voiceless in Nepal.

Are there other books like this story?

I don’t believe so. This is sort of an eye-opening adventure that is both beautiful and bittersweet. I don’t think any other book’s storyline weaves together the complex threads of one girl’s search for wholeness, the reckoning of lives left behind, and a culture’s disregard for its women. It’s sort of a fictional version of the nonfiction bestseller Half The Sky, except that my story is about one girl, not many girls from many different countries.

I believe there are not many, if any, novels about the societal underbelly of Nepal, a country known for great hospitality and “Namaste”.  I have the endorsement of The Women’s Foundation Nepal, which is at work tackling these issues by trying to raise awareness in their own country, and by trying to empower women with their rights. They wrote me that they were pleased about my book because it addresses some of the sad realities that accompany women and their children there on a daily basis. I don’t think they’ve endorsed any similar books.

So, only five sentences into your story, and your lead character has just killed a man?

Yes. That’s an exciting way to start a novel, isn’t it? We learn right away that fourteen-year-old Avhi Tharu has been promised to Mr. Singh in marriage, but instead, she clubs him in the head and flees with his ox and cart from the village. Women are not allowed to travel alone, so she is plagued right off the bat with some major decisions. Days later when she slips through a mountain pass and into the lives of some American travelers on their way to Pokhara and Kathmandu, she has more time to reflect upon her past choices, her village life, family and friends left behind, and the path for her future. I thought that would be fun to set most of that up on the opening page. People might want to read more.

Then how does your main character and the story speak to the world, if that’s your intent?

Well, Avhi represents many who come from the lowland Terai region or very poor countryside of Nepal. Americans and other foreigners regard Nepal as a peaceful country with a warm spirit. Hikers and mountain climbers yearn for the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. But most oppression in the world stems from poverty and lack of education. Nepal is no different. There is a tyranny of poverty, suppressed education, child marriage, slavery, sexual trafficking, and a caste system that subjugates women. Women and their daughters are deemed worthless, and there seems to be no cure. Many girls are sold or rented as indentured servants to pay a family’s debt. Girls have even been traded for an ox or a pig. Think about that. Girls in these poor regions have never been permitted to hope. We are all aware of many similar countries, where poor women are struggling, but there are no news headlines, no banners in the streets, no multitudes coming forth to stand in opposition or resistance. This story is one that many in the world can relate to, and those of us who are doing well in first-world countries should know about.

Your website says that your books reflect community and global needs. That they provide a voice for the voiceless, hoping to inspire other to lend a hand and heart in the world. What about your other books?

In June of 2011, I self-published a book of poetry as a fundraiser. I have children with special needs. After the April tornadoes, I wanted to help, but couldn’t go do clean-up with my children…not with noisy chainsaws. So, I thought as a writer, I could put together a book to sell and raise money to benefit those families affected by loss. I started writing in the dark by candlelight that April and by June I had a printer in Austin, TX, and a commitment from the owner of Books-A-Million to place my book in every store throughout the state of Alabama. Neither the store nor I took a penny, that way every bit of the $20 price tag went to victims. I printed 5,000 copies and we sold 3,000 netting $60,000 which was distributed through a few charities in North Alabama and the Birmingham area.

That book was quite the ordeal. It was hell every step of the way because in order to get a barcode and ISBN number, you have to be a publisher. So, I became a publishing house, Mirror Press, and then had to get a small business license and I knew nothing about starting a business, or a publishing business. The task to write, edit, print, distribute quickly and by myself, was daunting. BUT, it was also such a blessing to know the books were selling for two reasons. First, obviously, to raise funds for families in need.  But also, to lend a voice to these families about their loss and grief, and the feelings facing recovery. The media was strictly concerned about records…biggest storm, largest tornado since…numbers of deaths, length of destruction…numbers. No one was giving credence to the emotional toll. So, I was very pleased that we could raise money, but especially pleased that my words could offer comfort and a voice on behalf of, and for, those families suffering loss.

That book, by the way, is still available at my website: jjabooks.com.  I gave books to the hundreds of Army volunteers, to several churches whose buildings were completely destroyed, but obviously, I still have some left over. New and signed!

I have a novel coming out next summer that coincides with the 15th anniversary of Katrina and lends a voice to the despair New Orleans communities dealt with for years. It takes place four years after the storm, touches on black injustice amid two family sagas, corrupt politicians, and a murder investigation…just as Obama has made history as our first African-American president.  Ha. I do not like to simplify. Again, I hope to lend a voice to the families who were devastated for years and years after that disastrous hurricane.

When or how did you become a writer?

I became a writer the moment I lived alone as a young adult, and discovered there are not many you can call at 2 a.m. to talk with and work out life’s issues. The cat was good some of the time, but mostly, I needed to just pour myself out on paper to find some relief from my feelings and worries. I was a poet for decades. I am sixty now, so forty years ago…it was all poetry. It’s been all poetry up until about five years ago when I began writing my story The Ray of Hope about Katrina. I was regularly winning the AWC and ASPS poetry contests, contests in the Midwest and other areas of the South. I have been in forty literary journals, and won a couple hundred poetry awards. For nearly a decade, I was a regular contributing writer for The Upper Room’s Alive Now magazine, and spiritual journal Weavings. But all poetry. Avhi’s Flight is the second novel I’ve written, but the first one to be published.

Do you have anything else in the works?

I am currently trying to find a publisher for a children’s book I’ve written and illustrated about acceptance. I am also trying to find a publisher to do a fine arts book about my daughter’s paintings. The last few years I’ve been the marketing agent for my youngest daughter. She is 26 and has Down syndrome and autism. She is the South’s first artist with special needs to be given her own solo gallery art exhibit. She had a two-month exhibit in Huntsville, AL, and a three-month in Atlanta, GA, and we are on our way into several other Southern states. The cool thing, besides that she is breaking past barriers to make history, is that she has a voice. She is low-functioning…she cannot care for herself, she cannot read, write, or speak…until now. Painting has become her voice. And with recent national publicity, she is speaking to the entire country. So those events, her story and her work, and I hope soon…her book provides me a platform to address many societal issues regarding people with special needs, which again, allows me to speak up for those who don’t often get to speak up for themselves. I am trying to help the public get used to the notion that persons with special needs can do amazing things if they’re given the opportunity.  I hope her more than 200 paintings in the last two years can find a home with a publisher soon. Then, I guess I’ll go back to poetry for a while.

Besides writing, what is there to know about Janet?

Well, I am a Chicago girl. Born and raised along the North Shore about six blocks from Lake Michigan. Consequently, I love sailing, and cold weather. I have been in Huntsville thirty-four years, but I still miss the cold and snow. I played competitive racquetball for twenty-five years. Several years before children, allowed me the great opportunity to tour through most of Europe and the Mediterranean. I took up skydiving in college…the real thing, not this tandem stuff…the kind where you have to have days of training, practice arching as you fall, learn how to roll upon landing…all the scary stuff. I enjoyed a career in advertising and I love jazz. Jazz does for my ears what art does for my eyes…and it has been in the background egging me on when I write. I am a full-time caregiver for my youngest daughter, which means I am a night owl because I don’t get to start my own work until after most of the house has retired.  I became a member of AWC when I first moved south in 1984 (Yes, the year my Chicago Bears made it to the superbowl!) and have since, been a member on and off…when I can remember to renew my membership.


Janet Johnson Anderson

Janet Johnson Anderson

Janet Johnson Anderson was born and raised along Chicago’s North Shore.  She has been an advertising executive and public relations professional for more than 30 years.  She moved south in 1984, and is presently active as a free-lance writer and consultant to area businesses where she resides in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a public speaker and has taught poetry workshops within the Huntsville City School system to elementary, middle, and high school students.  She is a painter and literary writer as well, with more than 40 works in literary formats including Poetry Today, Piedmont Literary Review, Earthwise Publications, Dream Int’l Quarterly, Fine Arts Press, Winewood Women Anthology, The Poet, Crosscurrents, Backbone, American Poetry Anthology, Nimrod, Quill Books, The Beacon Review, Ordinary and Sacred as Blood: Alabama Women Speak. She was a regular contributing writer for both The Upper Room’s Alive Now magazine, and spiritual journal Weavings for more than a decade. Her 2011 book, After the Tornadoes, Reflections for Recovery, raised $60,000 for charities supporting storm victims in North Alabama and Birmingham.

Janet is both an advocate for the special needs population, and for women and girls worldwide where there is a lack of resources to combat poverty, trafficking, injustice, and lack of educational opportunities. She hopes her book, Avhi’s Flight, will encourage dialogue, and lend a voice to the many in Nepal who remain voiceless. Learn more from her website.

Alina Stefanescu
Alabama State Poetry Society Spring Contests and Workshops

Alabama State Poetry Society Contests are now open for submissions

Deadline is March 9, 2019.

The contest rules are posted online and available to everyone.

Submissions to contest are now being accepted electronically as well as via snail mail. For those who prefer to submit online, you can do so right here.

The list of contests (and information for snail-mail submissions) can be downloaded in PDF here.

Alabama State Poetry Society is so proud and grateful for the long service and mentorship offered by 2018 Poet of the Year, Jeanette Cale Willert.

Alabama State Poetry Society is so proud and grateful for the long service and mentorship offered by 2018 Poet of the Year, Jeanette Cale Willert.

Spring Meeting of ASPS in Orange Beach Alabama

Apr 13, 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Workshops with hot buffet lunch followed by business meeting and awards!

Orange Beach Public Library, 26267 Canal Rd, Orange Beach, AL 36561, USA

For those arriving on Friday, April 12th, there will be a Round Robin meet-and-greet the night before at the Gulf Restaurant from 6:00 to 9:00 pm. Bring poems to read.

You can register for tickets online. New members welcome. Or, you could be like many of us who became ASPS members in order to attend a workshop.

Learn about how to nominate a member for Book of the Year or Poet of the Year..

Alina Stefanescu
This is the story of his life: A conversation with T. J. Beitelman.
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In his own Confessions, St. Augustine wrote, “The punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.” This is the story of his life—is just this: a rite of reconciliation, a penance of prayers that might pull a new order out of the chaos of any ordinary, twenty-first-century Self. The aspiration: a new set of psalms in the voice of a ventriloquist, shouting into the residual wind God used to exhale the whole world. The realization: one small poem or mantra—recited, re-seen, re-made, over and over and over again—can somehow make this a life worth living.

Wherein Alina Stefanescu chats with T.J.Beitelman about his recent book, This Is The Story of His Life (Black Lawrence Press, Dec. 2018).


 ALINA: “This Is the Story of His Life” read like a fascinating spiral, a recursive circle of turning and returning that excavated an event horizon. Since the “spiral” is not yet acknowledged as a genre by the literary establishment, how would you classify this fascinating book? Why? And how does genre inform or disinform your writing?

 T. J. When the production process started, I wanted to be more overtly coy about genre – call it a lyric memoir or even a novel – but my publisher (rightly, I think) thought that would be misleading to potential readers. I certainly didn’t want it to seem like a gimmick to sell more books.

 The truth is, it’s not a memoir. It’s not a novel. Is it poetry? It’s not not-poetry. (I mean, it even rhymes in places!) And then there’s my answer to question two (below) —its influences are, for the most part, books of poetry. Then again, it announces itself as a story. A life story, no less. And I think the whole is probably greater than the sum of its parts. So to call it a collection of poems—to call each individual iteration of the “story” a “poem”—that feels a little misleading to me too.

 In general, I’m a poet (by training and also by sensibility) who prefers to write (and read) novels and other long-form prose. So my books tend to be whole things, commonplace books if you like. More or less connected by narrative elements and if not narrative ones then thematic ones and if not thematic ones then formal/structural ones. Everything is allowed in.    

 

In general, I’m a poet (by training and also by sensibility) who prefers to write (and read) novels and other long-form prose. So my books tend to be whole things, commonplace books if you like. More or less connected by narrative elements and if not narrative ones then thematic ones and if not thematic ones then formal/structural ones.
— T. J. Beitelman

ALINA: “A poet by sensibility.” I appreciate the sense and sensibility. Given the scope of the narrative and the interesting ways in which the narrator is placed and displaced, I thought of Fernando Pessoa a few times while reading. I’m curious about what were you reading while writing this—any inspirations or tandem conversations or dialogues with other texts?

T. J.: I had recently discovered the work of Darcie Dennigan, which turned out to provide an invitation back into writing poems. I had just been writing prose – a weird memoir/cultural-commentary-type thing and a weird novel. I wasn’t sure I’d write poems again. Then I read Dennigan’s first book, Corinna A-maying the Apocalypse, and I felt the pull back into the lyrical impulse. I used to tell people that I wrote poems when I got tired of trying to make sense. It was a cheeky claim, but it was more than half true. I think I had “given up” writing poems because I, in turn, got tired of not making sense—of not connecting with readers. Dennigan’s book showed me that it was possible to engage/indulge a wild lyricism while still making a certain kind of sense – particularly in terms of emotional accessibility. To operate with a clear and coherent logic, albeit one that is intuitive, intense, rhythmical and not linear or bound by the limitations of cause-and-effect. Also, I just love the language of that book: it’s a book with narrative impulses (poems that have characters, settings, causes, effects, climaxes), but on some level its attention to sound, to individual words and their relationship to other words, is its alpha and omega. In that way, I guess it operates somewhat more like music does. (Music with lyrics, I mean.)

Looking back now, I can see some other influences: Robert Hass’s Human Wishes, particularly the form and structural arc of a poem like “Spring Drawing 2.” Also the multi-voiced ventriloquism of Berryman’s Dream Songs, its unreliable narration, the veil of neurodivergence. But those weren’t conscious influences at the time. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is probably in the vicinity, too. Again: not consciously, but maybe moreso than the others. Just because I do see my book as a dramatic dialogue, of sorts. (Is that the proper classification? Maybe-yes-no? Hmm…)

 

ALINA:  I love how the cover matter of this book skipped out on blurbs. As a physical, text-based object, it felt closer to a work of art than a work of sale (or a product). This inspired me to wonder about the extent to which blurbs distract us from immersion in the book—from leaving the short of our daily lives and checklists in order to experience an embodied text. I can’t explain why there was a certain reticence to the quality of the presentation that made space for reverence. I can, however, ask what you think about the future of blurbs? Do they matter? Why or why not?

T.J. It does my heart good to hear that. This goes back to your first question: what is this thing? If it doesn’t have blurbs, it becomes more of an artifact than a product. And if it doesn’t announce itself as poetry or fiction or whatever – and there are no context cues (i.e., poets blurb poets; novelists blurb novelists; etc) – the burden (opportunity) becomes the reader’s to decide how to process this thing she holds in her hands. Or (and) you’re forced to take this somewhat unreliable speaker at his word when he recites, like a mantra, over and over again: “This is the story of his life he drew up around himself: …” He says it’s a life story (or a collection of them), so that’s what it must be.

At any rate, this lack of blurbs or much artifice on the cover or in the front or back matter -- that was a conscious decision on the part of my publisher and me.

With that said, I think blurbs can matter; there are books for which they do important work—either in terms of sales and promotion or sometimes even in terms of providing those context cues I was talking about. And I definitely read blurbs, and I enjoy writing them. They’re odes, mini-essays, ars poetica. I think you can tell when somebody really loves a book And if a writer you love loves a book – if Zadie Smith or Darcie Dennigan or Michael Ondaatje loves a book, I want to know about it, and read it. Admittedly many blurbs don’t convey this sort of enthusiasm, and so they seem immaterial – a rote exercise of sound and fury signifying not very much at all.       

 

ALINA:. Two or three words that kept coming up as you wrote this book. Why? In what context?

 T. J. Well, I mean, literally the mantra that starts each (for lack of a better term) poem – “This is the story of his life he drew up around himself: …” – kept reverberating in my mind. I didn’t know what that meant. How does someone draw up a story around himself? And yet each iteration is an attempt to show how this “he” (and who is this “he”?) did just that. The odd thing was that this reverberation/reiteration would intrude on me so insistently, like it wasn’t my voice at all, like I was channeling something -- such that I found myself having to write these new iterations on receipts, menus, even in books…whatever I had on hand. Sometimes dangerously so: a fair bit of the last poem was jotted down in stop-and-go interstate traffic; I wrote it in the white space of a literary magazine I happened to have in the passenger’s seat of my car. (Do not try this at home!) And I did write them all by hand – at least in first-draft form. That was an important part of it, perhaps even a literal connection to the act of “drawing.” The physical and visual aspects of handwriting.   

 

ALINA: That makes sense. The book really feels hand-written…. it feels personal, intimate, and yet ethereal. If I needed a name for style, I might call it Cosmic-Confessional.  Given the unique sonic effects and musical elements of the poems, I imagined Arvo Part in the background. Did you listen to any particular music that influenced this text as you were writing it? Alternately, is there music you think accompanies this text in an interesting way?

T. J. Probably In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel – it’s wild and weird in the way Dennigan’s Corinna is wild and weird – with its oblique gestures at narrative, its strange mix-and-match of sounds and instruments, and its clear commitment to emotional accessibility, authenticity. I don’t know that it was a conscious influence, but I was listening to almost exclusively to that album, on repeat, in its entirety, as I often do (no wonder lines repeat in my head…) for the better part of a year, around the time I was writing this book. That album is also, in a very loose way, a redaction of another text (The Diary of Anne Frank). Not only does that sort of thing happen, on a smaller scale, in This Is the Story of His Life (allusions and hat-tips to other seminal texts), each iteration of “This is the story of his life he drew up around himself: …” is, in itself, a redaction, a retelling of “his” story. I’m increasingly fascinated by that impulse to tell and retell, allowing for (even inviting) the inevitable alteration, amendment, re-emphasis, re-invention that is an inherent part of that process.   

ALINA: I want to end this with a poem from the book, and to thank you, T. J., for taking the time to share with us.

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TJ Beitelman is a writer and teacher living in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s published a novel, John the Revelator, and a collection of short fiction, Communion, as well as two collections of poetry: In Order to Form a More Perfect Union and Americana, all from Black Lawrence Press. His stories and poems have appeared widely in literary magazines, and he’s received fellowships from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham. He taught writing and literature at Virginia Tech, where he earned an M.A. in English, and at the University of Alabama, where he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing and also edited Black Warrior Review. He currently directs the creative writing program at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. He can be found on-line at tjbman.me.

Alina Stefanescu