Guest Post: Amber J. Keyser on Heritage and Healing

 

WayBackFromBrokenToday, we’re thrilled to have a guest post by Amber J. Keyser, author of The Way Back From Broken (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015). Amber’s debut novel earned a starred review from Booklist, which described it as “an exquisite and enthralling exploration of loss, love, and healing” and concluded that “this vivid, moving exploration of grief and recovery hits all the right notes.” Here’s the publisher’s description of The Way Back from Broken:

Rakmen Cannon’s life is turning out to be one sucker punch after another. His baby sister died in his arms, his parents are on the verge of divorce, and he’s flunking out of high school. The only place he fits in is with the other art therapy kids stuck in the basement of Promise House, otherwise known as support group central. Not that he wants to be there. Talking doesn’t bring back the dead.

When he’s shipped off to the Canadian wilderness with ten-year-old Jacey, another member of the support group, and her mom, his summer goes from bad to worse. He can’t imagine how eight weeks of canoeing and camping could be anything but awful.

Yet despite his expectations, the vast and unforgiving backcountry just might give Rakmen a chance to find the way back from broken . . . if he’s brave enough to grab it.

And now, here’s Amber.


My debut novel, The Way Back From Broken, is about two young people thrown together by shared tragedy who find healing in the Canadian wilderness. When I set about writing it, I knew I wanted to explore the different ways people navigate the difficult terrain of loss. How do we grieve? What helps us heal? Where are the pitfalls that can trap us? I wanted to write about how loss reverberates through families and threatens to tear them apart.

There are two families at the center of The Way Back From Broken—the Cannons and the Tatlases. Their lives intersect at Promise House in a support group for families who have lost children. Loss is their common ground. It links these families across differences of race and religion.

Fifteen-year-old Rakmen Cannon is biracial. His father, Michael, is black, and his mother, Mercedes, is a Catholic from Mexico. Ten-year-old Jacey Tatlas’s family is white. Her mother, Leah, is an agnostic who would rather be hiking than in church and has little use for organized religion of any kind.

The story that I’ve written belongs to Rakmen and Jacey. The Way Back From Broken explores what happens to them, but in this post, I wanted to write about the relationship between their mothers. Although it is touched upon very lightly in the final version of the book, it is still foundational to the story.

When Rakmen and Jacey’s mothers first meet, Mercedes (Rakmen’s mother) has been coming to the support group for nearly ten months after the death of her infant daughter. She is a woman of faith who does not shy away from the hard work of grief. She goes to group and therapy; she also finds comfort in prayer. She embraces Leah, whose loss is much fresher.

Leah has never been a religious person. She is a biology teacher who likes to hike and canoe. For her, comfort and solace are found in nature. But the loss of her stillborn son has shaken her to the core. She feels as if her own body has betrayed her.

As she and Mercedes become friends, Leah sees the comfort that Mercedes finds in her faith and wishes that she were able to access the spiritual sustenance that Mercedes does. Desperate to find a way to make some sense of her loss, Leah decides to return to the cabin where she spent many happy summers as a child.

This decision—and the trust these two women share—sets many things in motion during the course of The Way Back From Broken. One of the powerful things to come from the crucible of their loss is the way their families become connected, which sets much of the rest of the story in motion. Mercedes chooses to send Rakmen along with Leah and Jacey to Canada, where the stories of their families become even more intertwined. The differences that too often hold people apart make all of them stronger, especially their children. And in the end, they forge a new kind of family.

 

AmberKeyserAbout the author: Amber J. Keyser is an evolutionary biologist-turned-writer, who loves stories about heroes, scientists, and adventurers. She grew up in Oregon backpacking, fishing, and white-water rafting. Now she lives on the dry side of the mountains with her husband, two kids, and dog named Gilda. Every summer she returns to a cabin in Canada that was built by her grandmother, Algonquin Park’s first licensed, female canoe guide. If she had a choice, she would travel everywhere by canoe or on horseback.

Some of Amber’s forthcoming and recent books include The V-Word (Beyond Words, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first time sexual experiences, and Sneaker Century: A History of Athletic Shoes (Twenty-First Century Books, 2015). She is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the middle grade series Quartz Creek Ranch (Darby Creek, 2017). She can be reached by email at amber.j.keyser@gmail.com. Information about upcoming appearances can be found on her website at www.amberjkeyser.com.

Kickin’ Back With #KidLitCon

By Libertad Araceli Thomas

There’s always this anxiety I get when I attend book and writing conferences. While in my everyday non-bookish life I’m pretty extroverted, when I step foot in these places, where most likely, if not for my sister, I’d be one of the few people of color (POC) as well as the only Latina, I shut down and go into hermit mode. I’ll admit the first day was a little tough for me. I did remember a ton of folks from last year, but Kid Lit Con moves around every year, so there’s always tons of new people that you’re not going to know. As I predicted, I closed off. I felt lonely. I thought here are all these people who like books just as much as I do, but I always have this fear that people aren’t going to like me because here I am, this inner city negrita with these big hoop name plate earrings (that I personally cannot live without) and this big hair and very awkward in my own way.

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There’s this feeling deep down inside me that I feel awful for admitting being a POC. I have this immense distrust for white people. I’ve never trusted white people to make me feel comfortable. I’ve never trusted them to understand my experiences and worst of all, many opportunities I’ve had to challenge a white person’s way of thinking, I’m almost always shot down, left feeling lesser than and invalidated to the point where sometimes it’s just easier to not say anything at all.

Last year’s theme was a subject very dear to me: Diversity. Sometimes as book bloggers, my sister and I feel very disadvantaged because we’re not blogging about the latest Stephenie Meyer books or the ones that are deemed the next big thing; the books that speak the most to me are books that feature non “default” characters. So I prayed we’d get a chance to bring up diversity before our panel the next day. It unfortunately didn’t happen, so I was feeling a little down on my luck.

My sister and I kept score on how many things had gone wrong with this trip and then the day of our panel, the worst thing in the world happened. Our moderator, Dr. Zetta Elliott, who created this amazing thought provoking presentation, was unable to make it and we’d found out just moments before our scheduled slot.

The show went on with our other lovely panelist/author Mary Fan (who was totally awesome and poised to perfection) reading in Zetta’s place. Our pressing topic?

Intersectionality

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Sharing personal stories is hard on paper, but it’s especially hard vocalizing them to a room full of people when you’re on display. A key point I felt passionate about was how perception leads people to believe there’s one way to be something.–one way to be black, one way to be queer, one way to be a person. Being Afro-Latina, Queer and Buddhist, I suffer from a severe case of unicorn syndrome. No one really expects me to be all these things, but I am and there was a librarian named Maureen (who was also Latina, yay!) whose words really stuck out to me: To be Latina is to be intersectional because there is no one identity.

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*Guinevere and I with our fellow panelist, Mary Fan*

After our intersectionality panel all the apprehension washed away. One minute, I was feeling like no one saw me and then the next I had an overwhelming amount of people thanking me for challenging their thoughts.

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*Me, Marissa, and Guinevere*

And turns out, we weren’t actually alone. The Latinas were there representing. A young and amazingly beautiful boricua named Marissa (who blogs @Marissa Reads) was just so full of life and loved to read so much that she had to start blogging about books to find others like her!

While our intersectionality panel could have been the very best panel I’ve ever spoke on, I have to say my favorite moment of that day had absolutely nothing to do with any of the panels themselves but a member of the audience during a panel about professional blogging. The father of the young lady we’d met earlier was just so proud of her, filming and taking photos, silently encouraging her love for books.

It brought a tear to my eyes because just a month ago a friend of mine confessed he didn’t push his son to read because “Dominicans don’t read.” Maybe it’s just he doesn’t see Dominican kids in books. Either way, the moment gave me so much hope for the future and plans to incorporate a Dominican character in my next WIP. Just one person’s mind challenged about race, culture, gender, and disability is a battle won in my book. Next year, I pray I won’t be so afraid to tell people my story because my story is one of many that I hope can diversify people’s perceptions about the world we live in today.

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*From left to right Marissa, Guinevere, Maureen and me representing for the Latinas*

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Libertad Araceli Thomas is one half of Twinja Book Reviews, a book blog that celebrates diversity. Between mastering her handstands and perfecting her butterfly kicks, she can be caught reading and promoting a good book! Tweet with her @afrocubansista and @dos_twinjas