Shelter from the Storm at the Travelling Book Café

My Travelling Book Café sailed across Georgia Strait to Victoria during an uncommon monsoon in that relatively dry city in the rain shadow of Washington's Olympic Mountains. No matter, the hostess, Paisley Aiken, founder of the Story Studio Writing Society, had chosen the cozy back room of the Penny Farthing Pub,  a perfect venue: warm, quiet enough to talk and listen, and with yellow light from the wall sconces almost bright enough to read by (a cell phone flashlight aimed at my page by a board member helped things along). The Story Studio is a non-profit dedicated to helping kids and teens improve their literacy by writing their own stories, and most of the Book Café participants were board members or Story Studio interns. As it has with other groups, the theme of identity that is central to my novel You Again,
Cover art by Steve Harlow
proved to be an incisive tool for opening the vault of feelings and stories about personal identity and how it is formed in families. This group of intelligent, mostly 30-something women first focussed on family position. Does the middle child always fit the role of appeaser? Is the youngest always the most spoiled? Who is/was the most influential, mom, dad, big brother? One woman, a self-described former cell phone writer (a technical writer who worked for a cell phone company and claimed credit for having actually written, among other words everyone scrolls by, the word "Exit") is the oldest of six siblings, someone her mother thought of and called "my right arm." While it sounds flattering, it meant that her mother relied on her oldest daughter for heavy house chores from the time she was six. Getting out from under "the arm" of this strong parent has been a lifelong challenge and something the speaker has been doing by identifying with work.

No doubt the parts I read from You Again spurred the discussion. I regularly choose a paragraph in which Lawreen, the oldest sister, discovers that she has based her self-worth on her relationship with her actress daughter. In a longer section, Annette, the middle child, ruminates on how it was to grow up with a single mother, how she felt the odd one out until she left her mother's house as a teenager and joined her father on his goat farm in Northern California. Later in the book, the youngest sister Elfie's sense of herself expands when she learns that her true father may be a pianist. Family position and parental recognition have come up at every Travelling Book Café, but as rain continued to pelt the leaded glass windows and the conversation rolled later into the evening, we started talking about how it often takes getting away, travelling, to discover who one is, and that reminded me of the First Nations tradition of a vision quest, which young people undertake in some cultures as a way of coming to learn their life's purpose. Paisley, The Story Studio founder, for example, travelled and worked with at risk youth in the Caribbean before she became interested in publishing and worked as a book publicist. Now she combines her teaching chops with literary pursuits.

The importance of place to self-definition also came up. This group included people from far off Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island, New York City, Colorado and they agreed that their places of origin seemed to have become more important to their identity after they left.  The same woman who had travelled to two dozen countries, often as part of her duties with the Lonely Planet Travel Guide, summarized the conversation by saying, "I think we all feel like black sheep."

The Travelling Book Café has turned out to be a kind of pre-book club, with small groups and a genuine opportunity to connect with potential readers. Many of them leave with a copy of You Again, and leave me envisioning a web of human lives connected by experience, stories.