|Maria Padian, at her writing desk.|
It snowed several inches overnight, and Portland was gray and gorgeous. A block away from my home, the street slopes and the neighborhood changes. It’s where much of Portland’s refugee population lives. A group of women stood in front of a mini-mart, snow boots peeking out from under long hijabs. They looked cold. I was cold. It was 20-something degrees out, a cold day in a season of cold days. I guessed they are from Somali, and later, I Googled the day's weather in Mogadishu. It was 86 degrees there. I wondered how they might have felt– their history in a warmer, more unsteady place and their present in an unforgiving Maine winter.
I headed North toward Brunswick, where I had plans to meet Maria Padian in one of her favorite coffee shops. It’s a place she likes to write. Her most recent book is a young adult novel about a boy named Tom Bouchard, a senior in high school, the captain of his soccer team at the top of his class. His Maine hometown has become a home for new Somali refugees, including many of his classmates and teammates. Through Tom and her other characters, Padian discovers her own neighbors: the teenagers, the Somalis, the sports players, the Catholics, and the Franco-Americans.
The book, called Out of Nowhere, is a cultural thriller, a page-turner about a boy growing up amidst the conflict of a changing community. It will be released nationwide in bookstores in mid-February, and will be part of Portland’s upcoming city-wide reading progam.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Relationships are important to me. So that covers a lot of ground. Relationships are the most important to me– any kind, friendships and family. I think professionally, creating work that matters is important to me. My husband and I are lucky in that we have work that we feel good about and that pays our bills. We are fortunate to live where we want to live, the way we want to live, and not have to make compromises in our work. My husband is a clean-air advocate and environmental attorney. And I’ve been able to live a creative life. We have health benefits. I’ve been very, very lucky that way. But it’s always been something that’s very important to us: to do work that makes a difference.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
I want relationships. Yeah. When I think about my family– my immediate family, which would be my husband and two kids– we’ve all identified that our happiest moments in life have been when the four of us are sitting at a table, all laughing really hard at the same thing. I could die at that moment. When I’m with other people, and we are gathered together and laughing, or when we are sharing stories and someone is talking and we are all listening, to me that’s what this is all about. Truly.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING OR HAVE LEARNED?
I’m in a variety of different book groups. In one, we’re reading Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow because she is very spiritual. I love her brand of spirituality. Every one of us in this book group has said ‘I wish she was my friend!’– we just love her! She talks about entitlement, and what a barrier it is to feel entitled. When hard times hit, we say ‘Why me?’, and what you have to do is say ‘Why not me?’ It happens to everyone. I’m not entitled. As soon as you let go of entitlement, your attitude becomes one of gratitude. Attitude of gratitude is cliché, but it’s a better, more serene and more peaceful way to live. That chapter resonated with me. It is something I have learned to recognize in myself: I had not learned to appreciate what an entitled life I have lived. I grew up in an intact family, with loving and supportive parents, who put my education as one of their top primary goals. I’ve had this incredible education, I’ve married a terrific man who is my best friend, I’ve had two kids, I live just where I want to live, and I get to do the work that I want to do. I’m profoundly fortunate. And sometimes I go about my day and I just assume that I’ve earned it. No, I’m lucky. I’m lucky.
HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THIS BOOK? WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS FOR TURNING IDEAS INTO A CREATIVE PRODUCT?
Stories come to me from a lot of different directions. I think in metaphors. If I had to come up with a metaphor for how a story comes together, I’d say it is a lot of different little threads and when they all come together, when it’s enough to get a hold of, I find a narrator who pulls the rope. And then we are along for the ride.
One of the first threads for this story began ten years ago, when the Many and One Rally took place in Lewiston (more about the rally here). And I was just a bystander. I went with my husband and we brought our little kids. We thought it was just important to be there for that rally. All we had done was read the press to know what was going on in Lewiston, and then we went to that rally, and it was a wonderful, wonderful day. People were wandering into the auditorium with looks of amazement on their faces because there had been so much fear surrounding what was going to go on. We had hate-mongers coming into town and it was the largest police action in the history of the state. And people were walking in from all over the state, all kinds of Mainers, to show support for Lewiston and for this group of refugees. Strangers were looking at each other, just grinning in amazement, saying, ‘Look at this crowd!’ It was bitterly cold, and a thousand people stood outside in the cold just to hear the speeches piped outside. They were willing to brave that weather to be present in that moment. So, it was a seminal moment for me a person who lives in Maine, in this community.
I live in Brunswick: this is the home of Joshua Chamberlain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. So it just resonated. And, I’m the granddaughter of immigrants, so the immigrant story to me is the story of America. And I looked at the Somali refugees, and thought wow, this is the same story of America with a new and challenging twist. Not only because it’s a post 9-11 world, but because they are black and Muslim. My relatives, they were all Christians in a mainly Christian country. There were lots of ways for them to find common ground. And for these folks it is so much harder. I have kids who are the same age as many of the Somalian kids who are playing sports. So I’m taking my kids to cross country meets, soccer games etc. And I’m starting to see the Somali kids, thinking ‘What is their story? What is it like for them to come into this country?’ That was where I got the germ of the idea.
THERE ARE SO MANY CULTURAL VOICES IN THIS STORY: TEEN CULTURE, SOMALI CULTURE, FRANCO-AMERICAN CULTURE, AND MAINE CULTURE. HOW DO YOU CREATE VOICES FROM ALL OF THOSE PERSPECTIVES?
For me, this book was a leap in that I narrated from the voice of an 18-year-old boy. All of my other books have been narrated by girls. So, that was a leap for me. Luckily, I had a 19-year-old boy living in my house at the time- my son. I was able to hear the ways boys that age speak. And I would check in with my kids.
Also, I’m Catholic. So, I just knew that. I have a very close friend here in Brunswick who has been teaching me a lot about growing up Franco. Her parents worked in the mill right down the street. Several of the anecdotes in the story have come from things that she has told me. Her name is Bouchard-Klein, so I took the name Bouchard for my character because it’s her name.
In terms of the Somali stuff, I would do interviews. It took a while to find the right people to speak with. I had a lot of false starts. I started by going to Bates College and talking with anthropologists and people who had been researching these folks. It was very helpful, but it was too academic. And then I started touching base with adults, but everybody had an agenda. If you were a teacher in schools, you had a beef. If you were an administrator, you didn’t want me anywhere near your schools. I talked to people who were advocates for Somali people in town, and they had an agenda. Finally, a couple adults put me in touch with the right kids. And once I started speaking with the kids, I got a refreshing honesty. I realized: kids are kids, it doesn’t matter who they are. They want to make friends, be accepted, and fit in. They want to make the team. They want to score a goal and hear the cheers. They want to win at foosball. They are all the same. I would sit down with these boys, and I was amazed at how accepting they were of each other’s differences. There was almost a lack of curiosity on their part. They were just boys, just chilling. One of the boys said to me, ‘He doesn’t eat bacon, he eats goat. Goat is his bacon. Whatever.’ And then they move on, they begin talking about the next game.
It was so refreshing and eye opening. We, as people, have so many points of contact. We just have to sit down and eat a meal together. I recently when to Mt. Ararat High School, where Lewiston was playing Topsham for the semifinals, a big rivalry. You see all these moms in hijab, sitting next to white moms in their North Face jackets, and everyone is screaming ‘Go Blue Devils!’ It’s their team. It’s the American story, and I love it.
MOST YOUNG ADULT BOOKS WOULD SURPRISE ADULT READERS WITH THEIR SALACIOUSNESS. AS AN ADULT, HOW DO YOU APPROACH WRITING FOR YOUNG ADULTS?
As my narrators are getting older– my first group of characters were 8th graders, then they were sophomores, now they are seniors– they are growing up with my kids. This is the reality: this is how teenagers are living. If I wasn’t authentic to what I was seeing teenagers experience, I couldn’t get a teenager to read my book. I always have to remind myself that I’m not writing for their parents, although their parents are buying the books.
One of my toughest first readers was handing the book to my own mother. She has more traditional values, and I don’t think she wants to think that this is the way teenagers today are behaving, and that these are the relationships that they are having. She certainly didn’t like any of the F-bombs that Tom was dropping. I had to really ask myself, ‘Is this language necessary?’ I really thought about that very consciously in my books. My first book, about 8th graders, I was very cognizant of the fact that sixth graders were reading my book. I intentionally cleaned up the language. An 8th grader doesn’t necessarily speak like that, and it would be gratuitous for me to put it in. I want younger readers to have this book in their hands, so I’ll keep the language out. The second book, I think there is an F-bomb in there at a very difficult and upsetting scene, when it was completely appropriate. Then there is Tom: he is just sprinkling it in there. I think my mother flinched every time she read it. My son is reading the book now, and he doesn’t miss a beat of any of it. I thought ‘Okay, I got the boy right.’ My daughter reads it, and she would say ‘No way. Take that out. There’s no way a kid would say that.’ I had a character calling pizza ‘za’ at one point, because I’ve heard adults say that. My daughter said ‘No! No!’ and so I took it out.
WHY DO YOU WRITE?
I have no idea. I can’t help it. I was a reader. I’ve always been a book worm. I tell stories. And I think the older I’ve gotten, I find the truth in stories. In the truth of human experience. It’s how I relate. I relate by using metaphors when I speak. I have a mother who is the family storyteller, always narrating and telling a story. It’s my natural way of communicating. I guess I’ve always thought that one of the best things I could ever do was to be a storyteller.
WHAT BOOKS HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE TO YOU?
The books that Anne Lamott has written. As a kid, growing up, I’d say my favorite book of all time was Charlotte’s Web. I think it’s the perfect children’s book. Anything E.B. White wrote: his books, his essays. Other books I loved when I was a kid... I loved historical fiction like Johnny Tremain. Or Snow Treasure, about kids in Holland escaping the Nazis. As an adult, the books that I would not want to part with are Anne Lamott, and E.B. White.