During the last class of my writing for children course, the students shared bear-shaped chocolates and wonderful final projects, and I answered some questions about what may come next. For twelve weeks we focused on craft, but now we squinted at what they might do with their work. I tried to sound casual about the time that publishing might take, but I’m afraid some were counting years with some alarm. I shifted the focus to what they could do to withstand rejection, which almost every writer experiences. Read Art and Fear and most importantly, stay in touch with each other, and form a writing group or pair up with partners. It’s important, I said, to meet in person or online partly to critique, but also to share the process of what happens when sending, or avoiding sending, writing into the world. Doubt can creep in, and it’s wise to have friends to help put uncertainty in its proper place. When you can’t rustle up your own confidence, good friends can remind you of your worth.
We can use a thin skin to write, but may want a thickening skin to publish. I did not mention that I started sending out Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis, the book that’s coming out next month, so long ago that it was printed on computers that are historic and made its way through the post office, rather than in attachments. I was writing in an era of different dogs and a daughter still living under our roof, first in prose then in verse, draft after draft after draft. There were lots of revision and rejections before it landed on the desk of the right person at the right publishing house at the right time. What remained constant was my love for its subject – and that’s something I mentioned more than once to my students, too: write about people, real or imaginary, who you crave as company for a long time.
We don’t need to count the months or years of work, but to stay true to the fictional or real or in-between people who matter. Edmonia Lewis’s courage called to me when I read about her life and art fifteen or twenty years ago. In l862, she attended co-educational classes in Oberlin, where students of color could earn degrees for the first time, though perhaps not made entirely welcome. Some of what happened to Edmonia Lewis in one dormitory seemed close to the kinds of discrimination and violence sadly still familiar today. With enormous determination, she grieved, fought, and moved past horrific acts to become a sculptor famous in her time. She was forgotten for decades, but brought back to attention largely by feminist and black art historians in the 1970’s. Now her work is displayed in museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which currently displays busts of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and The Smithsonian, which holds eight marble sculptures, including Dying Cleopatra.
There are gaps in the historical record, making her life seem a good subject for verse, since I could start with research and use empathy to fill in lost scenes. Poetry reminds us that questions are often as powerful as answers. I honor the word Maybe as much as fact. Writing about women I believe should be better known gives me a drive – I mean to get to the work and get it right – that I hope also propels a narrative. And there’s a deepening because of all the time it takes, going back again and again, that creates some lyric in the work, the imagery and rhythms.
I studied Edmonia Lewis’s statues, asking what might have compelled her to choose her subjects. Some reflected the sculptor’s background and drive for social justice, and her best known works of Hagar and Cleopatra are powerful women who faced exile or its threat. Since Edmonia Lewis left little and conflicting records about her childhood with Ojibwe aunts in upstate New York, I researched the sorts of homes they might have lived in, the food they likely ate, and how they might have struggled to make their way. I read about the ways Oberlin College, its preparatory school, and the community dealt with integrated classes, and what it was like to live as a free person of color in Ohio during the Civil War, then afterward, in Boston and Rome. I read about the complexities of being biracial and the damage that racism wreaks. There’s a round of research, respect for a life and time that’s different, but never entirely so, and remembering feelings we might have in common.
At last I got my author copies! Here I show it with flap copy I got to write as a poem.
I’m grateful for starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, which says, “How this brave, driven young woman overcame prejudice and trauma to pursue her artistic calling to the highest level . . . is a story that warrants such artful retelling.” The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books writes: “Written with sensitivity and grace, this compelling title of injustice and vindication will leave readers pondering the complicated relationship between pain and art.” Stone Mirrors is not an easy read, but I hope Edmonia Lewis will show readers one amazing way of moving forward. Knowing history can make us stronger.