Art and biology

October 21, 2011

Lynda Barry's 'Babble, Babble, Babble' comes out in November.

The Wisconsin Book Festival continues through October 23, so I wanted to share a couple of personal festival highlights with our blog readers. Whether you’re from upstate or down the block, you can enjoy these writers with me, thanks to the wonders of streaming audio and video.

First off, Wisconsin-based writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry. Part book festival, part radio show, her appearance Friday morning filled the house at Overture Center for the Arts, where WPR‘s Veronica Reuckert was broadcasting the event. Topics included coping with the ‘vampire of doubt’ that sometimes plagues writers; the importance of teacher instinct in an era of test fixation; and Barry’s soon-to-be released book, Blabber Blabber Blabber: Volume 1 of Everything. She also spoke to our creative impulses–how dance, poetry and music have a biological function for humans. They’re part of our wiring, she says.

From the presentation:

When I ask people, ‘Do we need the arts to survive?’ People say, ‘No, to survive all you need is air, some water, and you need, like, food.’

And then I’ll say, ‘Well, you personally, do you need music?’

[Addressing the crowd, many of whom are high school students:] You guys sitting in the audience right now, do you need music?

Absolutely! … When you play your song in the morning it makes you able to get to the bus stop.

If you listen to the entire segment at the Veronica Reuckert Show archives, you’ll be treated to what I’m betting is Barry’s WPR singing debut, a sweetly imperfect rendition of “Oh” by Ciara.

And, speaking of biology, poet Erin Ruzicka Trondson will join two other Midwest authors for a Saturday evening mix of fiction and poetry readings called ‘Voices of Motherhood.’ Nesting, her small book of poems published earlier this year, gets at the knot of maternal experience–entangled as it can be in bliss and tenderness, isolation and vulnerability all at once.

Here she is at a reading last spring:


Two full days of book festival remain. Check out the online guide to map out your itinerary.

Also through Oct. 23  in the Eau Claire area, the Chippewa Valley Book Festival has authors, activities and writing contests on tap.

–Tammy Kempfert


The Warmth of Other Suns

May 27, 2011

Milwaukee was a frank and clattering workhouse of a town, a concrete smokestack of a place with trolley cars clanking against a web of power lines and telephone cables filling the sky. Curls of steam rose from the rooftops and factory silos and from the gray hulk of the Schlitz brewery over by the Cherry Street Bridge.

“It was the other side of the world from the wide-open quiet land of the cotton fields.

This was Milwaukee in 1937 as described by Isabel Wilkerson in her wonderful book, The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The book attracted a lot of attention when it appeared in 2010 and it merits continued notice even if newspaper critics and talk show hosts have covered it and moved on.

Its subject is the migration of millions of African-Americans from the states of the old Confederacy to the cities of the Northeast, Midwest and California that began prior to World War I and continued into the 1970s.

They fled from an all-encompassing environment of relentless dehumanization, economic impoverishment, and arbitrary, brutal violence. It wasn’t just segregation on buses, in bathrooms and at water fountains, although that was bad enough. It was impeding, hampering, denying “colored” children access to education. It was keeping their parents enserfed on sharecropped farms or in the lowest-paying, lowest-skilled jobs. It was making a fiction of the constitutional right to equal protection under the law that thousands of Americans, black and white, had fought to preserve,

So they left, by the million. By Wilkerson’s estimate, six million boarded the “colored only” cars of the Seaboard and Illinois Central railroads, crowded into the back seats of Greyhound buses, or set off in autos not knowing if they would find a restaurant where they could eat, a hotel with a room they could rent, or a gas station with a restroom open to them.

Six million is a statistic. One life is a story and Wilkerson focuses on three that add to her work’s power and meaningfulness. Only one touches on Wisconsin, that of Ida Mae Gladney. She came north with her husband George from Mississippi to Milwaukee in 1937 because her sister was already in town. George was unable to find work, so the Gladneys moved to the south side of Chicago, but their lives played out like that of many who settled on the north side of Milwaukee.

They did not strike it rich, raise daughters who sang for Motown, or sons who played for the Bulls. They worked at low-skill, blue collar jobs, skimped and saved for decades until they could afford a modest home of their own in what would prove to be one of the most racially segregated cities in America. It was not the Garden of Eden, but it was better than the Mississippi they had left.

Milwaukee and other Wisconsin cities were not major destinations for southern states’ migrants, but the African-American population of Milwaukee increased from less than one thousand to nearly one-quarter million in the 20th Century. Those are statistics. Each life is a story.

We cannot know them all, but Isabel Wilkerson gives us a taste and whets the appetite to learn more.

–Michael Goc

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