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Looking in the Mirror: Children Need More Diverse Books

by Melissa Bradford

Vampires don’t have reflections. When these “monsters” look into a mirror, they see no image of themselves staring back at them. I recently read an analogy by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Diaz who compared a vampire’s lack of reflection to how some people cannot see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Those people include the young children—children who are African American, Asian, Latino, and Native American—who visit a library looking for books with characters like them on the cover only to find shelves and shelves of white protagonists.

When these children don’t see themselves represented in media, they begin to ask themselves the same questions Diaz asked himself growing up: Is there something wrong with me? Does society think that people like me don’t exist? They begin to think that since they have no reflection, they must be monsters too.

This of course is not true, and the blame for lack of diverse publications falls onto the publishing industry. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, out of 3,200 children books published in 2013, only 93 were about African Americans, and the numbers are even lower for Asian, Latino, and Native American children’s books. The number of children’s books published about non-white characters adds up to less than 10% of the total, yet the U.S. Census reports that minorities make up almost 40% of the U.S. population and that figure is only expected in increase over the next few decades.

One of the reasons big name publishers aren’t producing more culturally diverse books is because they believe that those books won’t sell as well or that there isn’t a market for them. However a recent social media campaign has set out to prove them wrong. After scrolling through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on Twitter for the first time, I saw people from all different races sharing their personal experiences and explaining why their cultures deserve to be published too.

This is why, when I first started interning for Truman State University Press, I was thrilled to find out about their Notable Missourians children’s book series. The series focuses on the stories of significant people who have contributed to Missouri’s history, including former slave Sam Nightingale and Native American leader Great Walker. Whereas some history books only highlight the triumphs of white people, this series makes a point of featuring people not found in the typical textbook, showing young Missouri students that everybody—whatever their skin color, religion, or ethnic background—is part of our state’s history.

In an industry where it’s easier to find more children’s books featuring talking animals than multicultural protagonists, every book counts. Each diverse book published has the chance to be a young child’s mirror. Children will pull the book off of the library shelf, open the pages, and see themselves reflected back at them, reassuring them that they are not the monster here—they never were. They just needed the right book to show them.

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Our Prison Fixation

by Heather Ernst

Prison life and the practice of incarceration has been a subject of interest among the public for years. When public executions and punishments were no longer a public spectacle, interest in the subject did not falter. People began to wonder: What is life like behind prison bars?

It’s part of the human condition to be curious. Prisoners are outliers, the ones who broke societal rules and expectations. A prison has a distinct culture, but over the years, the barred doors have swung open to let us see what life is truly like for the convicted. Many prisons, like Alcatraz and the Tower of London to name a couple, have become tourist hot spots, drawing crowds from all over the world.

Prison life has been featured in many popular movies: Cool Hand Luke (1967), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Green Mile (1999). More recently, television shows about prisons like Oz, Prison Break, and the popular Netflix show Orange Is the New Black have used prison and its inmates as subject matter. Documentaries have covered numerous prison-related topics, from daily life to psychological makeup of high-profile felons, to haunted/abandoned prisons. Why do inmates behave the way they do? How do they act once they’re locked up?

In Unguarded Moments, maintenance worker Larry Neal presents an alternative, first-person account of his interactions with inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary in the 1980s. In contrast to melodramatic presentations in media and television about prisons, this down-to-earth account focuses on Neal’s daily interactions with felons whose crimes aren’t notorious enough to merit a “high-profile” status. Neal’s candid narrative about his interactions with inmates sheds light on these “everyday criminals.”

Since Neal was, in convict slang terms, a “square man” (a staff member who is not an officer), he developed a different kind of relationship with the inmates. He was not a threat; he was there to improve their quality of life in the prison. Often maintenance workers and inmates pulled pranks on each other and would work together on maintenance projects all over the penitentiary. In one instance, a confident younger prisoner continued to bet against an older, more seasoned one, and the stakes were much higher than the normal currency of push-ups.

“One of the bets that became popular for a while was for losers to do a song and dance. That consisted of a shuffling of the feet, a clapping of the hands, and a rendition of the “Quack quack! I’m a duck!” song in a high, quiet, embarrassed voice. … It’s an amazing sight to see some time-hardened, rough, old convict, red-faced and humiliated as a crowd gathered at the plumbing shop door to cheer and whistle.” (58–59)

Stories of harmless practical jokes fill the pages of this memoir, which is surprisingly lighthearted for a work about a major state penitentiary. However, Larry Neal does delve into the more macabre in the chapter “The MSP Gas Chamber.” Even with his inside experience, Neal is not exempt from preoccupation about the room where 40 inmates were executed. He writes:

“I found the chamber fascinating and wondered if that meant I had a twisted mind (something most people took for granted), but I later realized that if so, there were a lot of other similarly warped people. Almost every public tour given of the pen would bog down at this place where men and women had been forcefully launched from the here and now into eternity.” (154)

Our appetite for knowledge on prisons will probably never be satiated. There will always be a burning curiosity about incarceration and the inner workings of a place where society’s worst are kept locked away from the rest of the world.

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Show Yourself Missouri

By Jason Offutt, author of Haunted Missouri & What Lurks Beyond

A few years ago, I got in my car and drove to Canada simply because I’d never been there. It was an amazing experience, and I discovered something on my trip: the inch and a quarter that my wall map said separated me from our friendly neighbors was 700 miles in real life. On that trip I also learned Midwest history, tried new food (if you go to Canada, eat the Poutine once. I think once is all a body can take), and got my feet wet in places like the source of the Mississippi River. Literally. The water there’s cold.

The next summer I tried England.

Yes, travel can get expensive, the vernacular can be a problem (Travel Tip 271: a draw of beer in Wisconsin is called a “tapper”), and there’s that inevitable house in the road. Seriously. On my way through Iowa, I got stuck behind a tractor-trailer pulling a house on a rural highway. You think getting behind a guy driving the speed limit in the passing lane is bad, try a house.

But travel, especially local travel, is also worth it. There are places right here in Missouri you can’t see anywhere else. If you’re thinking about taking a little drive, try these Ten Places to See in Missouri (in no particular order). You’ll notice I’ve left off sites like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, but those are no-brainers. Some of my ten spots you may have never heard of.

Ten Places to See in Missouri
1. City Museum, St. Louis. If you have children, go here. Go here now. The City Museum is located inside, outside, and atop a 600,000-square-foot building that once housed the International Shoe Company. The tubes, slides, mazes, and toys (two built out of actual airplanes, and one out of a school bus) give this place a Willy Wonka feel. The Ferris wheel on the roof gives riders a terrific view of the city, but not if you’re afraid of heights.

2. Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, Lexington. Trenches, and the scars of war can still be seen over these 100-acres where a three-day Civil War battle raged in 1861. The Anderson House, fought over by Union and Confederate forces between Sept. 18 and 20, retains bullet marks and a hole where a cannon ball ripped through the attic. This is one of Missouri’s most well preserved Civil War battle sites.

3. Mizzou Botanical Gardens, Columbia. The campus of the University of Missouri contains an arboretum, butterfly garden, Asiatic and Oriental lily garden, a statue of Beetle Bailey (the cartoon’s creator Mort Walker went to Mizzou), Thomas Jefferson’s original tombstone, and a native Missouri tree collection. While you’re in Columbia, go downtown and enjoy Shakespeare’s Pizza. I said, “enjoy” because you don’t have any other choice. The pizza is that good.

4. Arrow Rock, Highways 87 and 187 in Saline County. This well-kept village is a National Historic Landmark because of its role in Westward Expansion. It was also the home of artist George Caleb Bingham and of Dr. John Sappington, who discovered quinine was effective in treating malaria. While there dine at a local restaurant, stay at one of the town’s many bed and breakfasts, visit the Arrow Rock State Historic Site Museum, and take in a show at the Lyceum Theatre.

5. Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale. Nestled in the heavily wooded hills of Southern Missouri, and overlooking the 43,000 acre Table Rock Lake, this 246-room lodge is not only beautiful, it owns a haunted history. The wife of one of the founders, Harry Worman, supposedly haunts the grounds. Guests have reported seeing a spectral woman in white walking though the grass at night, gazing out at the lake.

6. Rockcliffe Mansion, Hannibal. This beautiful, immaculately preserved 13,500-square-foot structure, built in 1898, was at the time regarded as one of the biggest private homes in Missouri. Now a bed and breakfast, its more than thirty rooms are also open for tours. In 1902, Mark Twain, a friend of owner and builder John Cruikshank, gave his good-bye speech to Hannibal inside the mansion to more than 300 people.

7. Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque, Kansas City. Arthur Bryant’s is what people mean when they talk about Kansas City-style barbecue. Don’t visit KC without trying the original restaurant at 1727 Brooklyn Avenue. You’re welcome.

8. Weston Brewing Company and O’Malley’s Pub, Weston. Reopened in 2005 after a bit of problem with Prohibition (yes, the brewery had been closed since 1919), the Weston Brewing Company produces 20,000 kegs of beer each year. The brewer is open for tours (the free sampling at the end was my favorite part). The brewery (part) and pub (all of it) are in the original limestone tunnels carved in 1842 to store beer.

9. The Hornet Spook Light, south of Joplin. Not so much of a specific place as it is any number of spots on a gravel road overlooking Oklahoma, Spook Light Road is said to be home to a ball of light that mysteriously travels up from the Sooner State, through your car, and disappears. Said to be the ghost of a local American Indian who died looking for his love, this light has been seen by the curious since the late 1800s. It’s creepy.

10. The James Brothers tour, lots of places. This is cheating, because it’s more than one location, but let’s just go with the theme here:
Jesse James Home, Kearney, the boyhood home of Frank and Jesse James.
Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Kearney, the final resting place of Jesse and his wife Zerelda.
Hill Park Cemetery, Independence, Frank James’ grave.
Jesse James Bank Museum, Liberty, the site of the first daylight bank robbery in the United States.
• The 1859 Old Jail and Marshal’s Home, Independence, Frank James’ home for six months. His cell was kept unlocked, and he often dined with the Marshal’s family.
Jesse James Home Museum, St. Joseph, where Jesse was assassinated by Bob Ford, a member of his gang.
Richmond Cemetery, Richmond, where Bob Ford is buried.
Mark Twain Cave, Hannibal, Jesse once used this cave as a hideout, and scrawled his name in the rocks to prove it.
Meramec Caverns, Sullivan, Jesse and Frank also once sought refuge in this cave system, escaping the law by squirming through an underground river.

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A Core Change in an Uncommon Way

by Sarah Andrews-Weiss

When I was first introduced to the new young readers’ series that Truman State University Press is publishing (Notable Missourians) at the beginning of my internship, all I really knew about it was that it would focus on successful Missouri residents, and that the series would “meet the Missouri Learning Standards.” As an English major who has shared more than a few classrooms with numerous teachers-to-be, this was when the ominous scary-movie music began to fill my ears.

“Fiction will be de-emphasized.” “Informational texts will be given the classrooms’ attention.” “Good literature will disappear from elementary assigned reading lists…” When it comes to criticism about the new Common Core State Standards, I’ve heard and read it all. So when confronted with this series, I couldn’t decide how to feel. On the one hand, as the books will meet the requirements teachers will be looking for, the series is likely to do well. On the other, it will be doing well by falling in line with a system many find problematic. Left feeling ambivalent with both sides, I did the only thing I could think of: I familiarized myself with the Notable Missourians series…and what I found surprised me.

The series is lovely. People like clowns, athletes, and frontier women are introduced with such fascinating stories that I was surprised they had never been introduced to me before. Eras such as the Great Depression and westward expansion are depicted using specific experiences to help the reader more fully understand how these time periods affected people on an individual level. And clear, understandable writing along with imagery (literary techniques that have been emphasized throughout all of my creative writing courses) are utilized. As I took all of this in, I wondered how a series that utilizes so many narrative elements could possibly comply with an educational change in favor of dull and lifeless “informational texts”?

Confused, I looked at the actual requirements of the core standards, and found that the Grade Level Expectations (or GLEs) for fourth through sixth grade social studies material expects a focus on “individuals from Missouri who have made contributions to our state and national heritage,” an ability to “locate and describe settlements in Missouri,” and information on the causes, effects, and events of the westward expansion… all of which are included within the individual stories in the series.

Instead of taking the new requirements asked for from the Missouri Learning Standards and creating dull accounts of overused historical figures, this series has managed to take these standards and create an end product both informational and enjoyable to read. If other book publishers take the Notable Missourians’ lead when it comes to these new educational guidelines, I am sure the quality of literature our children will be exposed to will be as high as it has always been.

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500 Years of History in 500 Words

by Rachel Goodwin

It’s easy to assume that books have always existed and that you could always pick a book off your shelf or download one onto your e-reader. Most people today take books for granted. Haven’t there always been libraries filled with shelves upon shelves, volumes upon volumes? Haven’t lawyers and scholars always had their offices lined with books or even stacked haphazardly?

The simple answer is no. Books have not always existed. For centuries, information was stored on the clay tablets of Mesopotamia or the painted hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt or the scrolls of ancient China. Fast forward several centuries and we see European monks laboring by hand in scriptoriums to painstakingly create beautifully illuminated manuscript books on calfskin called vellum. (Yes, this means that even the earliest books weren’t on paper!)

So how did books become what they are today? It wasn’t an easy process. The first movable type printing press appeared in the Western world in 1439. This was the first major change in the development of the book. The printing press allowed more books to be printed at a faster rate. Scribes could make mistakes as they tried to copy books in dim candlelight, and type-setters would make the same mistakes as they set the layout for the books in the same dim conditions. But in the time it took a scribe to copy a single book, thousands could be printed by the hand press.

The Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought another major change. Steam power meant that presses could crank out more pages than by hand. Cheaper paper meant that book costs would decrease but the quality of the books also decreased because the paper was so poor quality. As a result of the cheaper paper, publishers started to offer binding on their books. (Yes, this meant that books previously weren’t nicely bound. If you wanted your book to be bound with a cover and spine, you had to pay for someone to do it for you!)

The mid-1940s brought yet another change to book publishing: the paperback. Now books were even cheaper because the binding didn’t have to be the cloth over cardboard hardback editions. Paperbacks were cheaper to produce and buy. But this didn’t mean that hardbacks disappeared, just like manuscripts didn’t disappear immediately after the printing press made its debut.

The new millennium brought even more new changes to book publishing. Books had started going through a more rigorous process to being published so that formatting and errors were caught before the book was even printed. As technology and the Internet appeared on the market (also at a more affordable price) books began to appear on the computers. E-books and e-readers have gained popularity for the convenience of carrying a lot of books in one small tablet and for being a lot cheaper than hard copies (since they don’t have to be printed at all!)

So here ends our (roughly) 500 years of history in 500 words. We have seen books go from being hand-copied and expensive to printed and expensive to printed on paper and less expensive to hundreds available on your brightly lit digital screen. Over these 500 years, books have become more accessible to more people. What will the future of the book be? Will the dream of every student come true? Will we someday be able to put a book (in whatever form it takes) under our pillow at night and in the morning have all the information in our brain ready to go? Who knows? We will just have to wait and see what the future holds in store for the book and for us.

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“See You in the Gumbo”: Mona Lisa Saloy’s Second Line Home

by Kirk Schlueter

It seems odd at first to realize that the best word to describe Mona Lisa Saloy’s Second Line Home is “thanksgiving.” Saloy’s work is, after all, poems written in the wake of (and about) Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of her beloved New Orleans. Nevertheless, in the Crescent City’s survival and resurgence in the aftermath of the storm, Saloy finds plenty to give thanks for.

The book’s title comes from the New Orleans tradition of “two lines” at funerals: the first line, where the mourners carry the body in a grieving, dirge-singing procession to the cemetery, and the second line, where the mourners return from the graveyard singing loudly, celebrating a life well lived, and the ascent of the deceased. It is easy to see the connection to Saloy’s beautiful book of poems, whose sections loosely follow this tradition, first mourning the devastated post-Katrina New Orleans, and then moving to the survival of the people and their attempts to rebuild.

Saloy’s style prizes music; her lines often lack traditional punctuation, but neither the poem nor the reader care. Instead, the eye (and ear) are drawn to the cadence and beauty. It is a unique style, and helps capture the vitality and uniqueness of New Orleans. I know of no other book of poems quite like it. Saloy’s emotion and passion are fluid on the page, and contagious. After even a few poems, you begin to think of New Orleans as your city too.

In the introduction to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Luc Sante writes, “Auster has the key to the city … like the key to dreams or the key to the highway. It … allows him to see through walls and around corners, that permits him entry to corridors and substrata and sealed houses nobody else notices. …” The same could easily be said about Saloy and New Orleans, and the Black Creole culture she inhabits. Her manner is always familiar, always inviting, always warm as she shows readers the city she knows and loves, a city with “more churches than bars.” Especially for an outsider to both New Orleans and Black Creole culture, Saloy’s open manner is comforting, and makes for a beautiful and friendly introduction. I won’t say I was able to stand in Saloy’s shoes, but I was certainly able to look right over her shoulder. You couldn’t ask for a better tour guide.

By showing her readers the city through her eyes, Saloy shows without ever directly telling the damage and trauma the survivors of Hurricane Katrina went through. “New Orleans,” she writes, “is everybody’s business,” and her joy at finally returning home shines through every poem in the collection, even those dealing with grief and mourning. I very quickly lost track of how many poems in the book ended with some variation of either giving thanks or praise, because Second Line is replete with those phrases. The poems sing their joy straight off the page.

For Saloy, it is clear, New Orleans is heaven. For those who think New Orleans drowned in August 2005, Second Line Home shows it is rising again, and still singing, still dancing. Second Line Home is not your average book about disaster. It’s a work about death in which resurrection takes center stage. It’s a book about loss and grief in which more time is spent on joy. In Saloy’s eyes, the Crescent City is not Atlantis. It is New Orleans—a city easy to recognize, hard to define, and impossible not to love.

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Expanding the Parameters of Literary Nonfiction

by Monica Barron, Book Series Editor, Contemporary Nonfiction Series

The first publication in the Contemporary Nonfiction Series, Trout Streams of the Heart by Chad Hanson, was published in April. It is a lovely collection of narrative essays with a first-person narrator and an ecocritical bent. The second volume, Bodies, of the Holocene by Christopher Cokinos, is due out this October, and pushes the boundaries of the essay firmly into the lyric essay category and affiliates even with prose poems. Over time the books in this series will define the series. But we are pleased that the initial books in the series suggest the broad territory we are interested in: traditional literary essays, researched nonfiction, memoir if it is firmly situated in a cultural/literary/social context, and lyric essays.

A few months ago at the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) Conference in Boston I attended a session hosted by AGNI journal, “Options of the I: The Post-Memoir Memoir.” I went to that session because I feel AGNI and The Seneca Review have done incalculably valuable work to enlarge our conception of literary nonfiction, creative nonfiction, and to expand the parameters of the lyric essay. Panelist Lia Purpura spoke of the palette of gestures she drew from in the “atmosphere of lyric permissiveness” necessary for her work. It seems to me she’s pointing at not just the work she’s done in her life to make writing possible, but also the work editors do to enlarge or define the literary territory their magazines and presses inhabit.

As I sit down this summer to read manuscripts for this fledgling series, contact writers, or arrange upcoming visits with writers, all of it is in the service of finding manuscripts that contain what at least one of those AWP panelists referred to as “new configurations of the contemplative and narrative self.” I know there are writers out there ambitious to situate their work in magazines with a track record of publishing the full range of nonfiction. If you are building a collection of such work, please see the author guidelines for our Nonfiction Series and send us your book proposal.

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E-books: A Promise, Not a Threat

by Liz Fifer

E-books are a gimmicky, inferior alternative to traditionally paperbound books. They will make bookstores and mass-market paperbacks to be novelties of the past.

That was my fear, at least.

I was as skeptical as anyone else when e-books first hit the market. Reading from a computer-like monitor seemed so unappealing. I didn’t want my favorite local bookstores, rich with personality, to be replaced by online, impersonal booksellers. The next generation would never cozy up and escape with a good book—they would be forever distracted by their email on their tablets.

But working as an intern at TSUP, I had more exposure to them. TSUP produces and distributes their e-books to various vendors (Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s, iTunes, etc), and their profits have benefited from the new-found market. I worked with assigning styles to manuscripts to be turned into e-books and witnessed the intensive preparation a manuscript undergoes in the transformation to an e-book. It garnered my respect, and I began to reconsider e-books.

I found that e-reader monitors had changed and bright screens no longer strain my eyes. New advances in technology allow them to resemble paper and are easier to read under sunlight. And while I thought that the price of e-readers and tablets weren’t reasonable comparative to real books, their prices have fallen and e-books are generally cheaper than their hardback or paperback versions. With online marketplaces, it is also convenient and simple to buy books.

But my most important discovery was that e-books are revolutionizing the industry of publishing. Because of the appeal of e-readers and tablets, readers are enticed to read and buy more books—as books have become easier to transport and acquire. While hardbacks and paperbacks are still the huge majority of sales for publishers, e-books provide additional revenue and are boosting the industry. They’re also a foolproof use of resources. Publishers don’t have to worry about overprinting electronic copies of their books.

In addition to publishers making more money, authors find it easier to self-publish and make some money too. It is relatively easy for an author to self-publish electronically. While they certainly won’t hit the New York Times Bestseller List with self-publishing alone, they can still make money for low production costs. Readers can connect with these authors and quickly get the next book in a series. Most significantly, the author can retain their independence and promote the spirit of writing without relying on big publishing houses to do so.

E-books, I have realized, aren’t a replacement for a book in hand—they are a supplement. It isn’t the medium of storytelling that is important. It is that we are still communicating stories. While I thought the newfangled technology was threatening my traditional paper-turning ways, I have reconsidered. E-books are another avenue for publishers, authors, and readers. For storytelling, they are promising for the future.

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The Lure of Missouri Noodling

by Cody Anthony

Noodling has been gaining much media interest in recent years as a curious tradition of rural Southern United States. The sport, which consists of men and women plunging barehanded into submerged river holes to pull out catfish, has been featured on popular TV programs such as Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, History Channel’s Mudcats, and in its own Animal Planet series named Hillbilly Handfishin’. Noodling is fascinating for its high stakes as an extreme sport; not only must the participant battle strong currents and hidden dangers below the water, but in states like Missouri one must also do this as an outlaw because noodling is banned for its unknown effects on catfish populations.

So who are the noodlers exactly?

Mary Grigsby, an intrigued University of Missouri researcher of rural sociology, explores this question in her book Noodlers in Missouri: Fishing for Identity in a Rural Subculture. Grisby interviewed 20 men and 10 women noodlers in order to hear what the activity means to them.

In an interview with The Maneater, Grigsby said she started with the questions, “Why had people persisted in doing this from 1919 to 2005 when it was illegal? Why do they keep going in a river, going under water, using their hand as a lure to get chomped and bleed? What would make someone really want to do this, even though it is illegal? I think my book answered that.”

The penalty for noodling in Missouri is no small sum either. A noodler who was active in Noodlers Anonymous told Grigsby about the legal issues noodlers must face. “If you’ve never been caught before you can’t understand the feeling that I have when I go because I was caught in ’91 by the conservation agent. Cost me $500 and the maximum is 1,030 days in jail. If I get caught again that’s where I’m going, probably to jail. Whoever gets caught with me is going to face the same penalties and I don’t want to be responsible for that” (90).

With the threat of legal action constant, noodlers are motivated by more than just the fish they catch. Grigsby found in her research that the noodling subculture is quite different than the images portrayed by the generalized culture in popular media. “For people involved in noodling, the activity transcends the realm of sport. The intimacy with members of the group, the immersion into the natural environment, and the ‘primitive’ closeness that noodlers experience with their prey are parts of a web of cultural meanings and values that illuminates what noodling means in the noodling subculture and why it has persisted despite its illegality” (8).

Most noodlers see noodling as an important opportunity to spend time with families and to teach their children important cultural values such as teamwork, trust, respect for the environment, and overcoming difficult adversity in daily life. Grigsby said the noodling tradition is part of a cultural identity that defines noodlers as a unique group of hardworking, rural people and establishes their worthiness in the face of a dominant culture that grants higher worth to middle class suburban and urban values.

For these reasons, Noodlers Anonymous continues to lobby for legalization of noodling in Missouri. Primarily through their efforts, noodling was legalized in 2005 as part of a 5-year experimental study, but was halted in 2007 after the Missouri Department of Conservation stated that the catfish population was under duress. Of the 646 tagged catfish caught that season, only one had been captured by noodling.

“They’re all about the money” Connie, an avid noodler, told Grigsby. “And they can’t make money off a hand-fisherman because there’s nothing that a hand-fisherman needs but a rope. That’s it” (84).

There is no evidence that noodling will become legalized in Missouri again in the near future. But for devout noodlers these obstacles have not dampened their spirits. “It’s like I told the UPS man the other day, it’s the challenge,” Howard Ramsey told The New York Times. “Anybody can throw a trout line in the river and hang a perch on it. But very few people are going get in the river, and wade around and look for a hole in the bank, stick your hand in there, and hope it’s a catfish.”

As long as challenges persist, noodlers don’t see noodling dying out anytime soon.

 

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Preserving a Native Language

by Ashley Butner

Within the span of the next fourteen days, one language will die. If this rate continues, then by the year 2100, nearly half of the world’s seven thousand languages will disappear (Rymer 60).

With every language forgotten our culture sphere shrinks. And in an increasingly homogenized world, what we risk losing is far greater than words. We relinquish songs, delineations of seasons, myths, terms of endearment, names for animals (and on and on) into a black hole of terminal silence. What hangs in the balance are priceless facets of living heritage that not only endow native speakers to name their own part in existence, but enrich the global community as well. For with each language removed from our comprehensive lexicon, we forfeit a unique and essential square in the quilt of human experience. When mother tongues become homeless we sacrifice diverse worldviews.

Ahtna, a group of people surrounded by the Chugach, St. Elias, and Wrangell Mountains, amidst the valleys of the Copper River in southeast Alaska, is one such perspective. The place Ahtna calls home—much like the language itself—is remote and enduringly beautiful. As one of less than twenty remaining speakers of this Athabaskan Indian language, Dr. John Smelcer’s bilingual book, Beautiful Words / Kasuundze’ Kenaege’: The Complete Ahtna Poems, is a linguistic and creative landmark. To understand why, we must first examine Ahtna’s (relatively brief) history as a written language. In the poet’s own words:

“The first Ahtna word ever written down was ‘naa-taakie,’ most certainly nadaexi, the Ahtna word for snow. That was in 1787. A few others were written down by Russian explorers over the next few years and decades. But, largely, our language remained hidden from the Western world. Little by little, word by word, over two hundred years, our language was partially documented by Russian, French, German, and American explorers, miners, missionaries, and, eventually, by trained linguists. Serious work didn’t really begin until the 1970s.”

As the past so often begs for serious and immediate responsibility, “The Poet / C’etsesen” (4–5) brings us up to speed with Smelcer’s present role.

I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.

Only elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.

There are not many words anyhow.

Dahwdezeldiin’ koht’aene kenaege’
ukesdezt’aet.

Yaane’ koht’aene yaen’,
nekenaege’ nadahdelna.

While most of Ahtna is documented now—including James Kari’s impressive list of place names—Smelcer comments on the comparative scarcity of his language to other major languages such as English, Spanish, or Chinese:

“When a high school or college student buys a popular English dictionary, the cover will often boast, ‘Includes over 30,000 words!’ Indeed, the English language contains many times that number. In contrast, the entire Ahtna lexicon contains a fraction of the entries in one of those cheap paperback versions; I’d go so far as to say less than ten percent, which makes translating from Ahtna into English very difficult. For me, I have to think of a poem in Ahtna first, because the lexicon is so restrictive. Imagine colors, for instance; Ahtna really only counts a handful of basic and primary colors. Even then, brown and green are confused, almost as if Ahtna didn’t really see much of a difference between the two. Words fundamental to any poet worth their salt, such as love, does not exist in Ahtna, yet, quite understandably, we have numerous words for the various conditions of snowfall or, say, for the names of the parts of a snowshoe or a dogsled.”

While the lexicon is sparse in many areas, the ones in which it is abundant deserve to be remembered, to be written and passed down. Until these bits of culture are lastingly sewn into the fabric of our consciousness, then generations lose access to their own unique context and position in the world. For it is these special points of emphasis that customize cultural and geographic experience, and in doing so, add color and distinct patterns to our greater quilt. As Ahtna is rooted to its own landscape, the poems that emerge from it are tinged both with mourning and joy “A salmon weeps in a fish trap / Luk’ae tsagh yii tiz’aani (19); The earth laughs in flowers / Nen’ dlok’ tah c’et’aan ‘unetniigi (31).”

In this collection, Smelcer has pieced together a map of Ahtna culture and history that is a signpost to the present as well as the past. By interspersing poems about current problems such as “A Polar Bear Tries to Adapt (to Global Warming) / Tsaane’ Ggay Dzes Cu’ts’endze’” (22) and “Soda Pop Song / Tuu Nelnesi C’eliis” (67) between works about trickster and creator Raven, Owl, Fox, and Mouse, Smelcer emphasizes that cultural pride and rejuvenation are the first step toward progress. What is lost in translation is everything.

“Aside from my own writing, no other literature has ever been produced in the Ahtna language,” Smelcer said. “There are no models. No teachers. So, when asked to provide specific passages that were difficult to translate, my reply is that every line of bilingual poetry I write is difficult. And sometimes, I simply discard a poem after realizing it simply can’t be translated effectively.”

In this way, the poem, “The Indian Prophet / Uni’di C’ilaenen” (3) expresses the grave and undeniably lonely position of the speaker of an endangered language, “Almost no one remembers. / I am sick and lonely / and weak from crying. / K’aagu kenaege’ niic kole. / Ts’iye ‘est’aat ‘el sneyaa / ‘el stiye’ kole tsagh. But, as if in acknowledgment of his own contribution, “The Poet / C’etsesen (4–5) reminds us that there is hope, too, “I do not speak like an Ahtna elder, / but I hear the voice of a spirit, / hear it at a distance / speaking quietly to me. / Sii ‘e koht’aene k’e kenaes, / Sii ndahwdel’en, / dandiil‘en / s’dayn’tnel’en.

When a language disappears from our collective lexicon, so do the idiosyncrasies of our world. The opportunity for linguistic variety both authenticates and elevates our ability to render our own universe. And without this opportunity we will find that at times, silence can be deafeningly louder than words.

John Smelcer reading “Heart”:

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NOTE: Because of font limitations, some special characters may not display properly in this work.

Works Cited

Smelcer, John. Beautiful Words / Kasuundze’ Kenaege’: The Complete Ahtna Poems. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011. Print.

Rymer, Russ. “Vanishing Voices.” National Geographic July 2012: 60-93. Print.