Literary citizenship isn’t just about engaging people who already love to read or write and talk about books, but also about expanding the literary world. Books can change lives and influence attitudes for good or ill.
Last year I was invited to do my first public reading. Before anything, I was really excited, but I am also very much like a chihuahua, so that was immediately followed by extreme nervousness. I had so many questions that I felt dumb asking anyone. What should I read? How long should I read for? Should I read prose or poetry? Can I even be in the bar where I’m supposed to read (I was 20 at the time)?
If you’re about to do your first reading, you might be having the same sorts of questions, the same jitters. WELL I’M HERE TO TELL YOU THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THAT ANYMORE. Because I have some tips that I’m going to throw at you with no particular system of organization.
Practice reading out loud before the reading. This is a good way to get a feel for how much emotion you want to put, or not put, into each piece. It’s also a good way to weed out those words that you never realized you’ve only read in your head and you’re not sure how they sound (ie. “pumice.” Is it pyoo-mus or puh-mus? We may never know) so you can get that nice robot voice to help you.
Take more pieces with you than you think you’ll read. It’s good to have more than you think you need to give yourself some room. Sometimes you can get a feel for the mood of the room when you’re reading and you might decide to switch up your next pieces. I’ve done this almost every time I’ve read.
Q: What should I read?
A: It really depends on the nature of the event. For example, I recently read with the Poet Laureate of Indiana (not bragging or anything) for National Poetry Month. Because of the occasion, I only read poetry. Likewise, at the Ball State Literary Death Match, it was a little more open so I read poetry and prose. Mostly though, just read things that you are proud of and want to share.
Q: How long should I read for?
A: Superb question! Again, this depends on the nature of the reading. If there are a bunch of other readers, try to keep it fairly short. If there are less people, you have a little more time. Sometimes the host might tell you how long to read for. When I opened for the Poet Laureate of Indiana (I guess I am bragging a little), I was advised to keep it at about 10 minutes. Generally I just leave the podium after a big applause because it feels like the audience is enthusiastically herding me off stage.
Q: Should I preface my pieces or introduce myself?
A: This is entirely up to you. Sometimes someone will introduce you before you read, but you are still free to throw in a little something about yourself if you really want. And if you feel the need to preface a piece you’re reading, go for it. If you think it adds to it to say, “This is a poem about how I broke my whole leg. Here it is,” then you just go right ahead and do it.
For the love of Steinbeck, don’t apologize for what you’re reading. Please don’t do this. If you don’t seem jazzed about your work then neither will the audience. You’re obviously talented enough to have been chosen to do a reading, so just own it. If you’ve written something really angsty, read it. If you’ve written something about horses, read it. If you’ve written a manifesto about leaf blowers, read it. There’s no room for self-deprecation here, not in my house (or whichever house it’s being hosted at).
Be sure to thank the people who hosted the event and the audience. Being invited to read at a public event is a really great experience, and anyone who supports it is a literary citizen. And we all know that they’re the coolest cats.
Doing a reading will make you feel like a superstar, and they’re great to put on your CV. If any of you want to share your experiences or your own tips, or if you have any questions that I haven’t answered, feel free to comment or tweet them with the hashtag #litcitizen.
What would you do if you spent your entire life thinking that you father was a king, only to find out after his death that he was actually a fearsome dictator? In The Tyrant’s Daughter, fifteen year-old Laila struggles with this realization as well as with learning how to fit into American culture after what’s left of her family is forced to leave their country. Laila faces the daunting world of American high school and dating while also trying to figure out her mother’s web of lies that includes a CIA agent and a rebel group. While she attempts to adjust to the strange new world, Laila also must try to keep her family from being swept up in the political mess surrounding her father’s legacy in this wonderful young adult novel.
Talented writer and former officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, J.C. Carleson gives the reader a look into the mind of a young woman trying to survive in a new culture in spite of the complications of her former life. From the beginning, the reader is pulled in by the intriguing notion of a royal family living in a small apartment in an urban American city. Her brother’s young age and her mother’s emerging alcoholism show the reader that Laila must take on responsibility for her family’s well-being even as she attempts to navigate this new way of life. In one scene with her younger brother, Bastien, he illustrates his naivety to their mother’s addiction, and Laila’s protective instinct.
Bastien sits in the hallway in front of our door, carefully sorting glass from paper. He learned about recycling in school, and he’s been a fanatic ever since. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I saw the building maintenance crew toss all the bins into one giant Dumpster, mixed together and headed to the same place….I inspect his handiwork. Four clear and three green glass bottles. All alcohol except for a single empty jar of mayonnaise. Wine and gin and whatever else my mother now drinks in place of tea.
The introduction of CIA agent Gansler complicates the story further when it is revealed that her family’s safety in America is in his hands and dependent on their cooperation. Her mother must help him with an unknown plan involving a rebel group from her home country. Laila is forced into a strange alliance with the youngest member of the group, Abed, who clearly hates her family for being a part of the system that caused his family so much grief. As Laila attempts to juggle all of these issues, she must decide where her loyalties lie and what she must give up in order to make things right.
Carleson keeps the reader engaged from start to finish with the seemingly never ending series of complications for poor Laila. Readers quickly become attached to Laila through her first-person narration and budding love for American culture, as portrayed in a scene where she talks about what she loves about her school.
I like my locker. It’s a small space of my own–the only one I have. I like my classes, with their lessons so different from those at home. World history is reinvented here–the same stories retold upside down. English class, where contractions are allowed and books are not banned, is a pleasure. I even like PE–boys and girls mixed together, their bare legs so casually mingling.
Reading scenes where Laila experiences things for the first time—high school dances, kisses, false bomb threats—was like experiencing them for the first time myself. Every time Laila overheard a new piece of information about her family’s plight, I felt my heart race with the urge to know how she would react and what it meant for her family. This story is a wonderful coming-of-age tale that I think anyone would benefit from reading as it illuminates so well the complications of adjusting to a new culture and learning how people and American values work. It’s hard to decide which route you want Laila to take, and by the end you feel as if you’ve made the journey with her.
To be published in the Midwest Book Review in May 2014.
I Needed A Good Book As A Kid
When we talk about Literary Citizenship, it seems like we say a lot about making the world a better place for writers, and getting people interested in books. Which they definitely should be. But maybe we should start talking about how to make the world a better place for readers too. Let me explain. As a kid, reading was such an important part of my life. I read on the toilet, at recess, when I should have been sleeping, during church.
One series that I loved with all of my heart was A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. What made it so great was that Violet Baudelaire, the oldest, was a girl like me and she was the one who was generally in charge, saving the day, fixing everything. As a kid who was also, incidentally, a girl, and someone not very in control of the events in her life, this was the coolest of the cool to me. I gobbled by way through the entire series and then started looking for others like it.
What I found was a little disappointing. Most other books had male protagonists or were about things that didn’t interest me. I found one book with a woman in high heels, one leg cocked, holding shopping bags and decided to give it a shot. In one of my classes, some guys behind me saw the cover and started snickering. I was so embarrassed that I walked back to the library with it tucked under my arm, cover hidden, and turned it back in before I’d finished it. Laurel Snyder really does a better job of talking about this in her article than I do, but more or less the problem was that, despite the wonderful worlds that books could offer me, the culture surrounding them was making it hard for me as a reader.
We All Needed A Good Book
That was a really roundabout way to get to my point. What I mean to say is that books shape us. The things we read growing up teach us how to think and feel about ourselves and those around us. The books that we read now can open our minds to new ideas or teach us about things we might otherwise have never encountered. Why then couldn’t I find more books about women that didn’t make me feel ashamed to be seen with, or why did they have to be something I should have felt ashamed of in the first place? I know that those books are out there, and that people are out there who wouldn’t laugh or turn their noses up at certain genres. I think it’s our duties as readers and writers to help people find those books, and to recognize how important they are.
When I suggest books to my little brother or younger relatives, I try to think, “Which books would have been great for teaching me about gender roles and what a load of malarkey they are? Which books would have eased some of my confusion about liking boys and girls? Which books would have encouraged me to never let a romantic partner mistreat me instead of romanticizing it?” I want to promote books that I needed growing up. Or books that I read today and think, “Hey, yeah. That stuff.”
So what are some books that you needed and didn’t know about? What are some books that you had that helped you figure things out? And how are you making sure that other people know how great they are? Feel free to share your suggestions either in the comments or on Twitter with the hashtags #litcitizen and #THATbook, or follow @litcitizen (on tumblr too) where we will be posting ideas of our own.