Interview with Jesmyn Ward in Guernica

I interviewed Jesmyn Ward recently for Guernica. Can’t even describe the thrill! I think everyone should read her memoir THE MEN WE REAPED, but I also feel that way about SALVAGE THE BONES, her new novel SING, UNBURIED, SING and her essay collection THE FIRE THIS TIME. One of the craft questions I asked her was about a comment she had made about her first novel, WHERE THE LINE BLEEDS (she’d said she’d been a benevolent god with her characters); it was fascinating to go back and read that book with her answer in mind.

Ward and I are both the oldest of four. We both grew up in Mississippi in the seventies, and we both share an appreciation for the classic cars of our youth such as the Caprice Classic and the Buick Riviera. I loved every moment of our conversation.  Enjoy!

In Revision

I had this dream the other night I was walking in a Delta forest. The sun was shining golden green. The birds were singing.  All around me frogs croaked.

I walked down to the brake. Trash was floating up against the knees of the cypress.   I looked down at my feet. An iPad was lying facedown next to a clump of pussywillows.  All of which goes to confirm this ongoing need I have to withdraw from the digital world.

However, I have been revising Unreformed. I signed with an amazing agent in December.  She’s guiding me through another round of edits, which could be daunting. However Fiction School had a great episode on revising a book-length project. My favorite trick: opening a new document and retyping the draft. There’s no way I’m wasting time typing one unnecessary scene or word.

Also, Dinty Moore’s The Story Cure was recently published by Penguin.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

Manifesto 2017, #WritersResist- Athens,GA

I wrote and delivered the following manifesto for the #WritersResist event at Avid Bookshop.  I also read it at the Athens, GA Women’s March.  We must speak out.


Manifesto 2017

We are gathered here because we dream. Like many of you, I grew up believing in this dream.  I grew up believing in the dream of an America founded 12 score and five years ago as a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.

Like many of you, I grew up to realize that this dream of the America which I loved was flawed.  I grew up to recognize that my America was stolen from indigenous people, that my America’s wealth was built upon the backs of those brought here in chains.  I grew up to understand that in my America all men were not created equal, that in my America, women were viewed as property, that in my America those who practiced homosexuality were persecuted, that in my America, a country founded on the idea of religious freedom, the only religion respected is Judeo Christian.

I, like so many of you here, have dedicated my adulthood to creating my vision of America, an America of tolerance.  I, like so many of you, have striven just by being and living and working and doing, to create an America where all people are equal, one where black lives matter, to create an America where immigrants and refugees are welcome, an America where those with disabilities are respected, an America where women can take ownership over their bodies, an America where diversity and inclusiveness are celebrated, one where our people and our planet are valued over profit.

This view of America is being challenged.  And I am here to remind you, we are all here to remind each other, that we need to fight back in whatever way possible to protect the America that we love, even when others would chide us to imprison ourselves by not speaking out.

We need to speak out- we must speak out now against injustice and repression- for the sake of those of those not yet born, for the children here now, for my son.  We need to speak out- we the living must be dedicated to exercising our privilege, no matter what it may be, and speak out against fascism and tyranny, no matter the risk.  It is only by speaking out and committing ourselves to the fight that we may ensure that our nation will rise and thrive and have a new birth of freedom, that our government of the people, by the people and for  the people shall not perish.

We must speak out now to protect our vision of America. We must speak out to protect our way of life.  We must speak out to protect our water, our land, our air, and our planet.

I thank you all now for speaking up and joining me in this fight.

#WritersResist: Silence- Athens, GA

Because our democracy is at risk, a group from Athens is joining with writers throughout the nation to focus attention to the ideals of a free, just, and democratic society  for all on Sunday, January 15, Martin Luther King’s birthday.  More about national events can be found here.

Here in Athens, we will have

  • a workshop at the 1493 Prince location of our beloved Avid Bookshop  at 3 p.m. for all ages.  We will create peace flags.
  • a reading from 5 – 6 p.m. at Avid, featuring a wide variety of speakers throughout the community, reading from works celebrating the ideals of democracy.
  • an oratory orchestra, with people reading works celebrating democracy throughout the community.  More details to be announced.


Please mark your calendars and plan to bring your friends, your family, and all those you love.

We are possibly adding more events.  Check back for updates.  If you would like to be involved, please contact Deirdre Sugiuchi at athenswritersresist@gmail.com

Suffer the Little Children: Mike Pence’s Disturbing Connections to the Teen Treatment Industry


When I was fifteen, my parents sent me to Escuela Caribe, a fundamentalist Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. At this school students were forced to exercise for punishment, sometimes until they vomited or collapsed from exhaustion. Students were beaten with a leather strap for minor infractions. Staff members would slam students into the wall if they thought we were out of line. It was a school where students of color were punished more severely than white students, a school where it was taught that homosexuality was immoral, equated with pedophilia or bestiality, and a school where we girls were taught that having sexual feelings meant we were whores.

I had never been in trouble with the law. I was well-liked by my teachers and grandparents. Yet the Republican platform, which supports “the rights of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children,” would support my parents’ decision to send me away.

You would think a place like this couldn’t exist in 2016, but even now, 27 years after I was sent away, the troubled teen industry is not regulated. Furthermore, Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence is directly tied to Escuela Caribe, a school which, due to negative publicity arising from Julia Scheeres’ memoir Jesus Land, has been since reorganized and is now known as Caribbean Mountain Academy. Pence appears in a fundraising video for Crosswinds, the parent organization of Caribbean Mountain Academy, thanking the audience for “standing behind all the vulnerable families…and behind this extraordinarily important ministry.” He encourages the audience to reflect deeply on the work that Crosswinds does, and to think of ways they can become more involved.

Pence doesn’t just fundraise for Caribbean Mountain Academy. Pence’s former deputy finance director and one time assistant to Indiana first lady Karen Pence is Brenda Gerber Vincent. She is now Vice President of Development at Crosswinds. Pence also appointed Mark Terrell, the director of Crosswinds, to Indiana’s Allen Superior Court Judicial Nominating Committee. This panel selects judges who may decide what kids to send to Crosswinds’ boarding schools or to its detention center, the Pierceton Wood Academy.

Understand, even though Caribbean Mountain Academy initially kept five of Escuela Caribe’s staff members to assist in the takeover, it is not the same organization as Escuela Caribe. Based on interviews with former students, CMA is not overtly physically abusive. However, it is located outside of the jurisdiction of the United States, it operates on a level system, and it restricts communication between students and the outside world, all warning signs of abusive programs.  Most disturbingly, to be employed as a houseparent at Crosswinds, which entails supervising several “at-risk” adolescents on a daily basis, one only needs a personal relationship with Christ, references attesting to this personal relationship, and a high school diploma or a GED.

Having untrained staff leads to abuse. One alum reports of being sexually assaulted by Crosswinds staff and then being blamed for it. Another told me about a fellow runaway student who was captured by Dominicans wielding machetes and taken back to campus in the trunk of a car. Both incidents happened in 2014. Abuse like this happen because there is no oversight at off-shore facilities like Caribbean Mountain Academy in the Dominican Republic. No one is there to speak up for the children when abuse occurs.

When I think about the children enrolled in Crosswinds and in faith based schools, and when I think of all the faith based schools for troubled teens which would be empowered to open under a Republican administration, schools which are to this day unregulated by Democratic administrations, I feel overwhelmed. Tough love tactics such as isolation, humiliation, and emotional attacks are regularly employed at troubled teen institutions, even though most psychologists agree that these tactics should only be used as a last resort. In-state facilities have little oversight. In 2005 alone, the last year statistics of abuse at troubled teen facilities were recorded, over 1,500 children in 30 states reported abuse. At least 28 states had deaths occur in one or more facilities the same year.

In the years that followed my graduation, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I spent years silent about the abuse that happened to me because I was ashamed, because I felt like no one would believe such abuse could happened to me at a Christian institution. I’m not alone. Many of the thousands of graduates of the troubled teen industry suffer long term trauma. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I read accounts of former students on message groups, alumni wondering “Does it ever get better?” Alumni wanting hope not just for themselves but for their children.

I moved to a supportive community and created a wonderful family and a fulfilling life. I have scars, but consider myself to be lucky. Yet I worry about the children, children who are caught in the crossfire of a country with leaders like Mike Pence, who prioritize strengthening an authoritarian concept of families as opposed to actively protecting children.


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