Learning to Relish Research with Kim van Alkemade

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As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the idea that we are only being productive if we are, well, writing. But there are large parts of the creative process that are just as important as putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) that should also be given their due. Last September, I was fortunate enough to attend a craft talk by author Kim van Alkemade, who published her debut historical fiction novel, Orphan #8, in August of 2015. On the docket for discussion: the ins and outs of researching.

First of all, van Alkemade stressed that research is not a tedious, dimly-lit backroom affair. It is a vibrant, engaging process meant to enliven your creative energies—not squash them. So to be a successful researcher, the first things you need to get rid of are any preconceived ideas or traumatic memories from those high school history projects that had you banging your head against a wall. Try looking at research as idea generation, a way to spark new ideas that would otherwise never have crossed your mind..

Once you’ve exorcised the ghosts of past research experiences, van Alkemade stresses that research must be fluid. You may go in looking for one thing, and come out with something completely different. Rather than brushing new ideas off as rabbit trails, she encourages writers to at least jot these digressions down for later. If you’re looking up the fauna of a particular region for one story, and end up at a website about the aesthetics of lamps that sparks another idea, embrace it! Keep track of your wanderings because you never know when something will be useful down the line. Tying into this fluidity of research, she also recommends something a bit counterintuitive: taking bad notes.

Van Alkemade’s example of bad note-taking working in favor of the creative process was drawn from her own work. In fact, she discovered the idea for her book, Orphan #8, completely by accident while researching the orphanage where her grandfather and great uncle grew up. She had gone in with the aim of writing a nonfiction piece about her family history, but her research led her elsewhere. While sifting through the expenditure records she came across an entry about wigs ordered for Jewish orphans who were involved in medical experiments. She jotted down the information—in poor handwriting—and moved on, thinking nothing of it at the time. When she rediscovered her note, enough of the details had faded that she only vaguely recollected the names of the people involved, but the makings of a story formed in her head. Instead of renewing her research about these specific people, though, she wrote while inspiration struck, allowing herself to create around the facts she recalled and filling in gaps with her imagination.

After getting a solid start on a piece, van Alkemade also encourages writers to overcome their fear of archives. Formal research institutions, museums, libraries, and historical societies can all be helpful, depending on your work’s specific focus. She also recommends other techniques, including reading psychology, philosophy or medical books from the period you are writing about and looking at pictures from that time (if you’re tackling something historical). If you have a specific location in mind for a piece, visit it to soak in details that are only available through direct contact. Although formal research institutions and archives are certainly an invaluable resource, they should not be the only things that spring to mind. Research can be, well, just about anything, so don’t discount modern tools like the internet. A trip through videos on YouTube can be just as helpful as a jaunt through a library—if you go in with a goal.

Van Alkemade’s next step in researching is vital: stopping. Van Alkemade admits that when research becomes engaging and dynamic, it can also become addictive or distracting, standing in the way of your writing instead of augmenting it. Rather than getting bogged down in the exact details of her main character’s factual life while writing Orphan #8, she made up what she couldn’t remember and formed her own unique character. Her main character was born in the US, while the real woman she was based on was born in Austria. Her character went to school in New York, the real woman when to Cornell. Van Alkemade was glad she didn’t remember the specifics. If she had, the book might never have been written, overrun instead by overly-meticulous facts that would have inhibited van Alkemade from running with her own fictional story.

Of course, once she had created a firm understanding of her character and formed the basic plot for her novel, the real research began—this time with a focused time period to examine and reproduce. This is where research should become a bit less fluid. Although marking down random ideas and inspirations you might run across is important during the idea generation phase of writing, it is equally important to stay on task if you are looking for a very particular fact for a story or novel that is already complete and in the accuracy-ensuring phase of production.

Although some of van Alkemade’s tips centered on historical fiction writing in particular, almost all of these lessons extend to other genres as well. I learned that research can take you anywhere. You may begin on a mission to write about your own family, and end up with a novel. The important thing is getting out there and finding information. You never know what random tidbit will inspire you. The material itself will dictate, in many ways, the type of piece you write.

Website: http://kimvanalkemade.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KimVanAlkemade

Twitter: @KimvanAlkemade

By: Emily Woodoworth

Traveling to Lady Doak College

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Photo credit:Olivia Barrows

 

            Tempting, exotic, striking: three words that describe India. For Olivia Barrows, a freshman at Pacific University, it was all of that and more. Intrigued by the spiritual aspects of the vibrant Indian culture, as well as women’s rights in other countries, Olivia was encouraged by Dr. Martha Rampton, the Director of the Center for Gender Equity and a veteran of the trip, to take the plunge and travel to India. With the opportunity in hand, Olivia traveled with a class to India over the winter term this past January to visit the Lady Doak College in Madurai, India, and experienced all the unique aspects that Indian culture has to offer. 

Lady Doak was a college founded in 1948 by an American missionary who sought to empower the women of Madurai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. It stands as a symbol of education in the face of adversity for women. After only thirty years, Lady Doak was fully commissioned into an autonomous college in 1978 with ties to the Madurai Kamaraj University and has been flourishing ever since. With a motto of ‘Semper pro Veritate’ and or ‘Always for the Truth’ the college upholds its core morals and values of integrity, love, and service. 

For Olivia, the experience was transformative. Welcomed into the home of a student at Lady Doak, she and her classmates were invited to join in the harvest festival Pongal, one of the most popular Hindu festivals of the year, which gives thanks to nature. Together they watched as the family made the traditional sweet rice dish Pongal. They were then invited to join in on part of the ceremony by tossing rice and praying. The village invited the class in as well, and set up a game of musical chairs for them to play so that they would feel a part of the celebration. 

Culturally however, it was a bit of a shock when she first arrived, with differences from food to language and clothing. And yet those differences are what made it such an exciting experience, “With the clothing, it was fun to be able to wear such bright colors because I don’t do that when I’m at home.” The clothing wasn’t just a freeing experience however, as it also served as a form of protection to keep the girls from getting preyed upon. “There’s the conception that India is a very dangerous place for women to travel and though we never experienced any outright harassment, I could feel that I was being stared at in a different way than I am in the US.” For Olivia however, this wasn’t so much a frightening or ominous experience as it was a wakeup call. Ever since she’s been back stateside, she’s reflected upon the social attitude towards women, trying to understand and decide whether she should judge the situation or attribute it to a cultural difference, ultimately settling on the latter. Though the stares unnerved her at times, the welcoming atmosphere of the village and students was far more impactful on her experience.

 Visiting the Lady Doak College was probably the most influential on her decisions regarding the cultural divide. “The students at Lady Doak value their education with a fire that I’d never seen before.” For the students there, education is upheld as the undying belief that they can improve their own lives, and the country as a whole. Inspired and in awe of their plans for the future despite the social barriers that are lined up before them, Olivia’s trip to India was one of great cultural and emotional reflection and something she’s not likely to forget anytime soon.

By: Gillian Reimann

Bridging the Immigration Culture Gap with Language

 

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Image Credit: WikiCommons

My sophomore year of high school I traveled to Mexico for a fifteen day trip. I had one year of Spanish under my belt, and on the way I felt like I could already speak the language.

“Hola ¿Cómo se llama?” said a stranger with a friendly smile and an outreached hand. And then, with a still friendly, but slightly impatient look: “¿Cuál es su nombre?”

I could only stare blankly. Hombre? Was that man or hungry? No…wait, that’s hambre.

With a more impatient expression this time, he asked, “Hi, what is your name?”

I was flooded with relief at the sound of English. For the rest of the trip I couldn’t even bring myself to try to speak in Spanish to anyone. Surrounded by Spanish posted in street advertisements, scrawled across the sides of buildings, and thrown between the shops of the open air market, I couldn’t escape my insecurity in the language.

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Image Credit: WikiCommons

Putting aside the comforts of familiarity and home, I had wanted to understand the people of the small unfamiliar Mexican village we stayed at.

This feeling however, of being the stranger, unable to speak in the way I wanted to, was a better insight into the lives of hispanic immigrants and their children in the United States. In the social systems of the United States, speaking English, especially with the general American english accent, is considered a privilege.

This fall, after four more years of Spanish studies, I listened to hispanic staff at Pacific University as they went about their days. These friends and coworkers, speaking to each other in Spanish, conversing and sharing stories, I realized I wanted to be a person that meets people in their culture, their perspective, and with their language–if possible– to hear the stories that make them who they are.

Gloria Anzaldúa, one of the foremost scholars on feminism and chicana culture,   discusses the process of her language being taken away from her in her writing, “Cómo domar una lengua salvaje.” In U.S. schools she was punished for speaking Spanish or put down for speaking English like a Mexican. For many chicana people, Spanish may not even be a relief or safe haven.

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Image Credit: K. Kendall Flickr

A few weeks ago I finally challenged myself to speak Spanish out of my comfort zone. All I needed was a simple, “I’m doing well, thank you. Y, ¿Cómo está usted?” in response to a greeting to find out more about the people living around me as they are. I recognized the feeling of excitement and relief of hearing one’s fluent language on the faces of the people before me. A few words opened an important door.

For me, Silk Road is a place where we meet to share our stories and learn about international perspectives. When the fall 2015 staff first met, we read over the Asia issue, describing what we liked about the entries. Those pieces exemplified Silk Road: relevant, interesting, diverse, well-crafted, a new perspective, cultural. The most effective submissions, and published pieces, are those that share a new story, bring a new and rich setting to the forefront, and come from the heart of a culture. Silk Road is the opportunity to give voice to the displaced and hear about the lives that make up an international culture.

By: Karissa Mathae