Are You Smart Enough to Be a Citizen?


I came across an article in The Atlantic, which begins like this:

To become a citizen of the United States, naturalizing immigrants must take a test. Many native-born Americans would fail this test. Indeed, most of us have never really thought about what it means to be a citizen. One radical idea from the immigration debate is the repeal of birthright citizenship—guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment—to prevent so-called anchor babies. Odious and constitutionally dubious as this proposal may be, it does prompt a thought experiment: What if citizenship were not, in fact, guaranteed by birth? What if everyone had to earn it upon turning 18, and renew it every 10 years, by taking an exam? What might that exam look like?

You can take the exam here:

I missed a score of citizenship attained, with distinction by one point 😦
Out of interest, here are the questions I really had for my citizenship interview:

Who has the right to declare war in the U.S.? 

What is the supreme law of the land? 

How many Senators are there in Congress?

What is the highest branch of the Judiciary in the Government? 

Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death?”

What was the 49th state added to the Union?

When was the Declaration of Independence adopted? 

In what month do we vote for President? 

Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights? 

How did you do? Here are the answers:


The Constitution.


The Supreme Court.

Patrick Henry.


July 4, 1776. 


All people living in the United States.
(This was the only one I missed; I said “citizens of the United States,” and was glad to be corrected.)

Truth to tell, my exam was not as difficult as the Atlantic one, but still some of my friends made the same point: I needed to know a lot more about our country than natural born citizens are required to do.

Philip Glass on reading in Baltimore

From By the Book with American composer, Philip Glass, in this week’s New York Times Book Review:

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?

My mother was a professional librarian. By the time we were 7 or 8 we all had our library cards from Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Every Friday, my sister, my brother and I would go there and get our books for the week.

I especially love this, given the valiant way that the branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library that was at the epicenter of the riots in Baltimore last Monday stayed open, offering shelter and support.

Carla Hayden CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore MD
Carla Hayden CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore MD

“I Am an Immigrant”

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My friend, Charles Whaley (via James Whyte), posted these pictures on FaceBook. The accompanying comment is, “Bloody immigrants. Coming over here, making a massive contribution to our society.” It warmed my heart.

The organization behind the poster campaign is called Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX) and @NoXenophobia. It is based in the U.K. but the issues, of course, are universal – the current resurgence of violent xenophobia in South Africa is simply heartbreaking.

I was speaking the other day to a journalist who was doing a write-up of Beyond the Baobab, and he asked me about anti-immigrant feeling. I do understand that countries can’t just indiscriminately open their borders to all comers, but it is true that those of us who are driven enough to undertake the mammoth process of immigration are likely to carry that drive into our immigrant lives to make a contribution to our societies. These are just a few of the people on a Forbes list of “Immigrants Who Made It Big” in the U.S. – Madeleine Albright, Czechoslovakia; Charlize Theron, South Africa; Mikhail Baryshnikov, USSR; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Austria; Elie Wiesel, Romania; Michael J. Fox, Canada. I rest my case, as I climb down from my soap box.

More thoughts on the immigrant theme

Time has published a list of “29 Books That Will Enrich Your Inner Literati”

Getty Images
Getty Images


Naturally, this segment of the list caught my attention (no nonfiction books listed yet):

Immigrant Experience (U.S./U.K.): ah, the magical experience of being thrust into a new culture.

  • Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri): say hello to our recent Indian arrivals! (For our tea-drinking cousins across the pond, try Monica Ali’sBrick Lane.)
  • Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan): the book that inspired a movie and furor in the Asian American community about stereotypes and Tan’s possible self-loathing. (For a less controversial read, try Ha Jin’s Waiting–and yes, there’s a lot of longing and waiting there.)
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Julia Alvarez): how four sisters start to forget their Spanish and their native homeland of the Dominican Republic.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s affirmation

Moving in the rarified circles of a creative writing MFA, where writers like David Foster Wallace and Jack Kerouac are gods, I tended to keep a low profile about my abiding love for Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.” Ever since, as a teenager, I first read my mother’s small hardbound copy, published by Collins ­– which became mine after she died – the set pieces have stayed vividly with me. Helen Burns’s death at Lowood School; the meeting with Rochester when he falls from his horse; Jane saving him from the fire in his bed; Mason’s terrible scream in the night; the summer night when Rochester entreats Jane to accept him as a husband and the great horse-chestnut tree splits in half; the strangers at the church who say the wedding ceremony cannot go on; Jane wandering on the moors; the call of “Jane!” that compels her back to Thornfield. Of course, I know the elements that would make it questionable by today’s standards of fiction – a protagonist who is so wholly good and all-seeing, the far-fetched plot twist that has her resuced on the moors by her only living relatives. And then there is the Gothic novel madwoman in the attic. But it is a book that I return to again and again, and it never disappoints.

So, I was delighted – and surprised – to read the By the Book Q&A with Kazuo Ishiguro in the March 5th issue of The New York Times Book Review (to coincide with the release of his new novel, “The Buried Giant”).

Charlotte Brontë Probably by George Richmond, 1850
Charlotte Brontë
Probably by George Richmond, 1850

Who is your favorite novelist of all time? 

Charlotte Brontë’s recently edged out Dostoyevsky. As I reread in maturity, I’m less patient with Dostoyevsky’s sentimentality, and those long improvised meanderings that should have been edited out. But his take on insanity is so wide-ranging and profound, one begins to suspect it’s a universal condition. As for Brontë, well, I owe my career, and a lot else besides, to “Jane Eyre” and “Villette.”

Well! “I owe my career, and a lot else besides …” How intriguing. That was all there was, no further explanation, so I started wondering how and why. It’s true that Ishiguro’s books are also written in the first person, but there seemed more to it than that, so I went on a search. I came across an Art of Fiction interview with Kazuo Ishiguro by Susannah Hunnewell in the Spring 2008 edition of The Paris Review. Towards the end, there is this:


You are, in fact, a fan of Dostoyevsky 


Yes. And of Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins—that full-blooded nineteenth-century fiction I first read in university 


What do you like about it?


It’s realist in the sense that the world created in the fiction is more or less akin to the world we live in. Also, it’s work you can get lost in. There’s a confidence in narrative, which uses the traditional tools of plot and structure and character. Because I hadn’t read a lot as a child, I needed a firm foundation. Charlotte Brontë of Villette and Jane Eyre; Dostoyevsky of those four big novels; Chekhov’s short stories; Tolstoy of War and Peace. Bleak House. And at least five of the six Jane Austen novels. If you have read those, you have a very solid foundation. 

I think of the penetrating impact that “The Remains of the Day” had on me, and how thrilling it was to hear Ishiguro read from “When We Were Orphans” and have him sign my copy. If this writer, whom I admire so much, believes that he owes his “career, and a lot else besides” to “Jane Eyre” and “Villette,” then I feel free to indulge my love of Charlotte Brontë to my heart’s content.

Meanwhile …

While I have been working on an expanded draft of Beyond the Baobab to submit to my agent – and not paying any attention to this website or blog! – this has also been happening …

Sunday, September 21st 2014

After an evening out with friends, I look down at my laptop and see a greyish blank where my vision should be in my left eye. Since the collapse of my vitreous a couple of years ago, and the resultant floaters large enough to obscure my vision at times, I have been primed about what to expect should my retina detach. I know what this is, and I contact the eye doctor on call. We set up an appointment to see him first thing in the morning.

Monday, September 22nd 2014

The optometrist suspects a further collapse of the vitreous, and sends me to an ophthalmologist for a second opinion. He diagnoses a detached retina and a hole in the retina. As I leave his office, he says, almost in passing, “Don’t have any lunch, just in case.” I am referred to a retinal specialist, who says, “Your vision, with prescription lenses, is good and it’s my job to keep it that way.” He schedules emergency surgery, saying, “You did the right thing to come in.”


At 4 o’ clock I look up at the clock in the O.R., and think, “Well, this isn’t how I expected to spend my afternoon.” Under a local anesthetic, the retinal specialist performs a vitrectomy: he suctions out the vitreous gel from my eye, reattaches the retina and repairs the hole with laser, and injects a gas bubble into my eye to replace the vitreous gel.

Tuesday September 23rd and 30th, and October 7th 2014

I return to the retinal specialist for post-op check ups.

Friday, October 10th 2014

The gas bubble, which has been getting smaller and small as its been gradually replaced by the new vitreous gel my body has been manufacturing, finally disappears. I can remove the medical bracelet saying, “WARNING: Gas bubble in eye … change in atmospheric pressure may cause an increase in IOP resulting in blindness …” In order words, I couldn’t fly.

Thursday, October 30th 2014

The retinal specialist gives me the go-ahead to fly to Africa.

Tuesday, November 4th 2014

Leave for Cape Town.

Tuesday, November 18th 2014

In Johannesburg, I notice that the vision in my left eye is blurred and distorted. I take a calculated risk, and decide to go ahead and fly back to the States on Wednesday 19th. The minute we touch down in Washington D.C. on Friday 21st I call the retinal specialist, and set up an appointment for Monday.

Monday, November 24th 2014

The retinal specialist breaks the news that I have fallen into the small percentage of people who develop post operative scar tissue on the retina.

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

I find myself back in the O.R. under local anesthetic in order for the retinal specialist to remove the scar tissue and reattach the retina with laser. The good news is that the damage hasn’t reached my macular.

Tuesday, December 2nd 2014

scleral-buckle-300x300I return to the retinal specialist for a one-week check up. He exclaims. The scar tissue is “proliferating aggressively.” So I’m back in the O.R., this time under general anesthetic, for a three-hour surgery. The retinal special must perform the procedures he had tried to avoid the first time around: he uses laser again to reattach the retina, he attaches a scleral buckle around my eyeball to relieve the traction on the retina, and he fills my eye with silicone oil. Post op, I have to maintain a face down position so that the oil will push against the retina to keep it in place. The scleral buckle will probably be left in place permanently, but the oil has to be surgically removed.

Tuesday, April 14th 2015

The retinal specialist will remove the silicone oil, and we will keep our fingers crossed that the retina doesn’t re-detach.

Then … we can begin the process of trying to correct the double vision that is the result of the trauma to my eye …




“A marshy place across”

An early autumn getaway to the barrier island off the Maryland Eastern Shore – Assateague Island, named by the Native Americans for “a marshy place across.”


We motored down through driving rain, and our first foray onto the beach was cut short by a squall blowing, dramatically, across from the mainland.



A quick retreat to the town of Berlin (stress on the first syllable) and the Victorian Hotel Atlantic.

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Sunday lived up to its name. The Atlantic Ocean unbelievably warm for one used to the bone numbing current off the Cape Town coast .

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The sunshine brought out Assateague Island’s famous feral horses – legend has it they were originally survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish galleon.

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Reclaimed by nature.




Channeling Virginia Woolf

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own



Since I don’t have much of the first, I spent the weekend making a room in which to write creative nonfiction.

One of the truly lovely things about sharing your life with someone is that, whenever a random thought pops into your mind, you can share it spontaneously in between the long spaces of companionable silence. If, however, you are wrestling to find just the right word and your beloved shares a popped thought at just that moment, the word vanishes into the ether, and trying to get it back is like trying to squish toothpaste back into the tube. So, after years of sharing a study, I have created this little corner in a freshly painted room, where I can gaze out at the trees … and close the door, if necessary, as I wrestle with the words. And, who knows? Maybe I’ll have a windfall some day. Stranger things have happened.

A rich fantasy life



Stonesong. It’s such an evocative name. It can mean what you want it to mean. I’m not sure if I love the name or the delicately balanced logo more.

In the essay, Cape of Good Hope, in Beyond the Baobab, I wrote that I “discovered the value of a rich fantasy life; if you dream and fantasize and imagine enough, sometimes it – or an approximation of it, at least – will come to pass.” I’ve just rediscovered that this is true. All the time I was working on the manuscript for my MFA, my hope – my dream, my fantasy – was that it could serve as the basis for a full length book. Now, a literary agent at Stonesong has offered to represent me to do just that. I am so lucky that it is almost shocking! My brand new agent has her own transnational background, and now my deepest wish is to work very hard, and write and write and write, to try to make something that will touch her story – and the myriad other stories of criss-crossed nationalities.


Coming to America


I am so excited to be invited by LitMore to be part of this!

Alan Marcus and I will read from our work and discuss the experience of immigrating to the U.S.

Alan is a geographer who has focused his research on Brazil and Brazilian migration processes. His work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Journal of Cultural Geography, and Geographical Review, and in anthologies. In Growing up Transnational: Identity and Kinship in a Global Age he described his life and family growing up in Brazil. Currently he is an Associate Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Planning, Towson University. He is also a musician and is interested in blues and rock and roll, and poetry.

LitMore address: 1702 South Road, Baltimore, MD 21209