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Author Guest Blog North American Review

Thoughts on Writing from an Island in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean

Perle Besserman

I was born in Brooklyn but am currently living on the island of Oahu, part of a group of nine Hawaiian islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, furthest away from any landmass on earth. Some days I wake up and wonder how I got transported from one of the fastest-moving cities on the planet to find myself in Lotusland. Truth to tell, I never did adjust to the slow pace, never developed the uniquely Hawaiian skill of "hangin' loose." As they say, you can take the girl out of New York, but you can't take New York out of the girl. Or the writer. . . I come from a family of book lovers, writers, readers, storytellers, poets, translators, and professors of literature. So, in a sense, my entire life, from as far back as I can remember, has been one continuous narrative. Stories accompanied me everywhere — starting at breakfast and ending at bedtime — Dickens or Jack London, or Walter Scott, Joseph Conrad, or Herman Melville (my father’s favorites) or something Dad would make up himself or a chapter from Mom’s ongoing Siberian memoir. My father taught me to read, in a fashion, when I was two. I wrote my first published story when I was nine and haven't stopped writing since. Originally trained as an actor, singer, and dancer, I still bring my performance skills and lifelong love of the theater to everything I write. As a kid, I spent so much time “making up stories” — living them, actually — that, in order to keep me from continuously jabbering in class, an extremely perceptive elementary school teacher appointed me “class narrator” — entitling me to summarize (and embellish) the daily events in our classroom. So, oral storytelling, or, as we in Hawai‘i call it, “talking story,” was the start of my writing career. Eventually, my English teachers encouraged me on the path to becoming a writer. This is not to say my childhood wasn’t without its bumps in the road. As you can imagine, finding and projecting my voice in a family of such articulate, emotional, strong-minded, dramatic, and highly opinionated individuals took some effort. In my case, childhood wasn’t so much an effort to “survive” as a willingness to “perform” the role of “heroine in my own novel” — as my father put it. I think that’s why, to this very day, I prize my “sovereignty” above everything else.

What I love most about writing is being visited by characters who invite themselves onto the stage of my mind (or heart, or imagination, or dream life, or whatever you choose to call that place that is no actual "place" but is more real than the desk or sidewalk or traffic light in front of you) to enact their life dramas in their own words for me to write down. Sometimes, like my favorite poet, William Butler Yeats, I'm a medium at a séance, channeling people out of the akashic ether, people neither alive nor dead, past nor present, factual nor fictional--but oh so palpable--moving, breathing, gossiping, fighting, laughing, crying; storying forth, each in his or her own inimitable voice--tugging at my sleeve, Ancient Mariner-like, desperately spilling over with stories that I've been honored with telling.
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