The F Words: The Gift of Fire

After the 5,000-year-old body of the Iceman (later named Otzi) was discovered preserved in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, scientists began examining  everything they could about this person — in order to better understand the past and its importance to the present. Among the many things they discovered about the Iceman was this: he carried with him fire-lighting tools which included tinder fungus, flint, and pyrite. Fire enabled him to cook food, to stay warm, and to ward off wolves and other predators. It was a life-saving gift.

What does this have to do with today’s struggles for social justice and my current-day YA novel, The F Words?

Everything.

During the Sixties and Seventies I participated in and helped build demonstrations for social justice: calling for an end to the war in Vietnam and demanding equal rights for Black Americans, Latinos, women, and other oppressed groups. Although the majority of us demonstrating then, as now, were young people (in their teens and twenties), there were many, many older adults present. Some in their forties, some in their eighties. And every age in between.

Many of these adults had fought in and built massive demonstrations and strikes during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and even into the McCarthyite Fifties. They fought against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. They helped build important strikes led by the industrial unions: Auto Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, and others. These adults were heartened by the student radicalization of the Sixties — and they were eager to impart their knowledge of how to organize and how to protest. They carried with them the gift of fire and knew they had to share it.

Those adults are no longer with us. But we who were students during the Sixties are now adults, and so many of us are eager to share our gift of fire — the lessons we learned from those who came before us, and the lessons we learned on our own as we built mass demonstrations for social justice in the Sixties and Seventies.

And that is what The F Words has to do with the Iceman and his gift of fire. The F Words, set totally in the present, nonetheless has gifts from the past imbedded in it. When teen Cole Renner is unjustly suspended because he fights back against a bully, he, with the help of his friends, comes up with slogans; constructs protest signs with those slogans; prepares a sign-up list; contacts the media; and divvies who-does-what tasks with his friends. Although this all takes place in the present, it is based on the lessons of the past. Constructing picket signs today (2×4’s, poster paper, liquid marker, staples) is not very different from constructing them during the Sixties. Or, for that matter, the Thirties. 

Cole’s father is in Cook County Jail for supposedly inciting-to-violence. While serving his 120-day sentence he leaves his new bullhorn at home, where Cole decides it’s just what he needs to talk to fellow students. And in talking to them, Cole relates his problem of being unjustly suspended to the fact that all students face suspension, just or unjust, while having no say whatsoever in their fate. Cole moves the struggle forward (as we did in the Sixties) by demanding student control over suspensions. If he had simply demanded his own reinstatement, he would have been fighting for social justice, yes. But only in that one spot, for that one thing: his suspension. But Cole and his friends Felipe and Treva discuss the things that affect all students, not just Cole. They come up with demands that benefit all students.

And just as we learned in the Sixties, so Cole learns in the present — social justice  needs to include everyone. In order for there to be social justice for, say, working class kids (the students in The F Words), there must be justice for Black Americans. For Latino/Latina, Native, Asian-Americans, and Arab-Americans.  For  gays and lesbians and trans. In The F Words Cole and his friends understand the oppression of others (immigrants being deported, hijabs being snatched off the heads of Muslim girls and women) and support the struggles against those injustices.

Did I ever think, back in the Sixties, that I would write a novel about students who protest social injustice? No: the thought never crossed my mind. But the experiences I had and the valuable lessons I learned never left my mind. They were always there: part of the events and beliefs that shaped me. It stands to reason that, even though I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel, my most deeply-held principles and most vivid experiences would eventually come to the fore — that the fire that shaped me would also help shape a novel.

Fire, when kept alive, does not die out. It lives to be rekindled by others.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Bilingualism

Not counting the US, approximately 65-75% of the world’s population is bilingual. In the US in 1980 only 10% of the population was bilingual. Today that number has risen to 20%, possibly to 25%, primarily through immigrants, largely Spanish-speaking.

Many different cultures have positive proverbs about knowing more than one language. An old Persian proverb states: “A new language is a new life.” But this respectful attitude toward bilingualism and even polyglotism did not make its way across the Atlantic and into North America. Up until recently there was a stigma attached to speaking a second language (one that wasn’t English) in the US and Canada.

Yet many different studies have shown that bilingual people have many advantages over those who are monolingual. 

In no particular order, here are a few of these advantages:

  • Greater Brain Power — Bilingualism improves memory, multitasking, problem solving, and creativity.
  • Increased Academic Skills — Bilingual children score better in literacy, emotional development, and social skills. 
  • Greater Cultural Awareness — Being exposed to the language and customs of other cultures helps a person develop more empathy. As Charlemagne put it 700 years ago, “To have another language is to possess a second soul.”
  • Greater Job Opportunities — people who speak two languages are more competitive in the job market because they have more language skills.

Canada has a partial policy of bilingualism, assuring the right of the French minority to instruction in their own language. And students in the publicly funded schools of Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick are required to study French from grades 4 through 8. (Apparently this is not an educational requirement in Canada’s other provinces.)

Because this is not a nation-wide requirement, only 18% of Canadians are truly bilingual. The rest, for the most part, speak only English, though they may speak and read French to a lesser degree. That is, not a full-fluency degree.

I can identify with people who have studied other languages but don’t have full fluency in them. That, in fact, identifies me. I do not have full fluency in Croatian or German or Russian or French (though my high school French really helps me when it comes to solving crossword puzzles!). I suspect, though, that I subconsciously yearn for fluency in a second language. 

This subconscious yearning and my actual language experiences resided within me for decades and, even though I never consciously thought about the question of bilingualism, they bubbled forth and formed a strong subtext within my YA novel, The F Words. To my surprise the whole question of bilingualism revealed itself in a way I never would have thought of had I been making a conscious decision.

Let me explain. The main idea, the thrust and theme of The F Words is not bilingualism. The novel is about a working class high school teen, Cole Renner, whose father has been sentenced to 120 days in Cook County Jail for “inciting to violence” while leading a public protest against the closing of a neighborhood school. Cole fears for his father, and that fear drives part of the plot. At the same time, Cole works to help his best friend, Felipe Ramirez, run for class president.

The F Words is about student rights, immigrant rights, freedom of speech . . . and poetry. The poetry is an assignment: when Mr. Nachman, Cole’s English teacher, catches Cole tagging the high school wall with the F word, he requires that Cole write two poems a week, each about a word that begins with the letter F.

But the issue of bilingualism and the advantages of bilingualism are woven into the story. (As is the poetry.) First, there’s Felipe, who is fluent in both Spanish and English, able to converse on equal terms with all of his fellow students. Felipe, who is very sociable, wins the votes of his classmates.

Because Cole and Felipe have been best friends since first grade and spend time at each other’s houses, Cole has learned Spanish and is able to converse with Felipe’s entire family. Like Felipe, Cole can switch back and forth between languages easily. Both characters are more flexible, in many different ways, than they would be if they were monolingual. And although I never gave a single consideration to something called “mutual bilingualism” while writing The F Words, it seems to me that this is what we should want for ourselves and our country. Felipe needs to be able to speak English, but Cole (and others) needs to be able to speak Spanish. Bilingualism is a two-way street.

Cole and Felipe aren’t the only bilingual characters in The F Words. There’s also Emerald Jackson, who speaks two kinds of English: Standard and Black. Cole notices this and admires it, as when they are in English class and Mr. Nachman is asking questions about Walden.

Emerald Jackson is nodding her head up and down, up and down. “We the richest country in the world, not counting some of those little Arab emirates like Qatar. Everybody should have a huge house and three cars.” Sometimes Emerald talks in Black dialect. Like now. I always like it when she does.

Later in the same class:  

“Money rules our lives,” answers Emerald. “We need to earn it to buy food and housing. And clothes. And go to college. He’s saying we need to make decisions about what we’ll spend our lives doing.” Sometimes Emerald speaks in standard English. Like  now.

If these examples were the only bilingualism running through The F Words, the story might imply that there are no problems with being bilingual in the United States. That, sad to say, is not the case. Those who speak two languages are, unfortunately, frowned upon and discriminated against by many — even by teachers.

All my life I’ve heard monolingual people say things such as “If you can’t speak English, go back to where you came from.” It’s hard to say what’s worse about such an attitude: that it’s self-righteous, or that it’s ignorant. Almost every time I’ve heard this said, it has been said to a person who is an American. That is, born and raised in the United States, but able to speak two or more languages.

This myopic monolingual attitude is depicted in The F Words. Cole and Felipe have just been called to the principal’s office, and during the course of her interrogation Ms. Delaney asks Felipe if he’s related to Bianca Sanchez. He is. She’s his cousin, and she was expelled from their high school because, when a teacher told her to speak English or go back to Mexico, Bianca retaliated. 

Although I created the fictional situation in which this occurs, the fact is that such things are still occurring in our school systems. As I was writing the second draft of The F Words, students in a New Jersey high school walked out of class when a teacher implied that a bilingual student had no right to speak Spanish: that her only “right” was to speak “American.” As I was writing the third draft an Illinois third-grade teacher punished Spanish-speaking students (when they spoke in Spanish) by making them sit on the floor, apart from other students. There are many other examples.

When I was writing The F Words and had Bianca retaliate against the teacher, I wasn’t aware that in so many cases today the bilingual students are fighting back, using the cameras on their phones to record the incidents, then reporting to the principal and their parents and the media. I’m aware of them now. Clearly students who speak two languages are proud of speaking both languages and feel that they have a right to do so. 

Which takes us back to one of the main advantages of bilingualism — increased brain power, leading to greater creativity and skills at problem solving. I’m so glad I was able to capture and depict this situation in The F Words, and I would like to see every young person have the opportunity to move freely and happily through another language, growing in understanding and ability. As a Chinese proverb puts it: “To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.”

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Minor Characters

I often enjoy minor characters in literature, and as a writer I thoroughly enjoy creating minor characters. In literature minor characters play a variety of roles. One of their major roles, of course, is to help move the plot forward. If they weren’t there, then the major characters would have no interaction with anybody but themselves — which could become boring.

Another important role of minor characters is to help characterize the major characters — either in being like them, or in offering a different viewpoint or a different behavior. Minor characters often help us understand one of the major characters better. Minor characters are sort of like reflective screens: they help the light illuminate the major characters.

And in addition to aiding in plot advancement and character development,  minor characters help develop a novel’s tone. By tone I mean the novel’s mood, the emotions it evokes, and the perspective it presents. A minor character who exists in a romance is going to be very different from a minor  character who exists in a serious novel such as Paulette Jiles’ News of the World. In each genre, minor characters serve to reinforce the traditions of the genre and the expectations of the reader.

In She’s on First I created a lot of minor characters. This was necessary because the protagonist, Linda Sunshine, was a major league baseball player, and MLB teams have a roster of twenty-five players. In The F Words, I didn’t need as many minor characters, but I did need quite a few.

For starters, I needed Cole’s parents: Hank and Stacey. Then I needed Mrs. Green, owner of the greenhouse where Cole works. I needed fellow students of Cole’s. I needed the coach of the cross-country team. And I needed a neighbor or two: somebody who was part of the Committee to Save Public Education.

There are two kinds of minor characters: ones who have “major” roles in the book and are part of several scenes; and ones who don’t have major roles and may or may not be part of scenes. I really enjoyed creating and developing each of these many characters . . . but it would take me a long time to analyze each of them.

So, I’m going to look at four of the minor characters: Emerald Jackson; Nikki Zurlo; Coach; and Ethan. Nikki, Coach, and Ethan fall into the minor minor character roles. Emerald is a major minor character. I want to talk mostly about minor-minor characters to show that there should be a reason for every minor character you create, and that character should play some sort of role in helping develop plot, character, or tone.

Ethan — It’s not always necessary to give full names to minor characters, and Ethan is one of the other six runners on the high school cross-country team. None of them receive last names. It would be too cumbersome to do so: readers wouldn’t remember the characters’ full names.

On one of the bus rides to cross-country practice, Cole and Ethan talk about empathy. The reader sees empathy from Ethan’s perspective. Later, when Cole wants to invite friends to the pro-immigrant rally, he invites Ethan and reminds him: EMPATHY. 

Ethan comes to Felipe’s party and he listens to Fatima and Hasna talk about how they carry extra hajibs because theirs are sometimes snatched off their heads by people who hate Muslims. Ethan is a fellow student who listens and absorbs what he’s seeing and hearing. I think he’s typical of many of the students at August Mersy High School. Mostly I think Ethan contributes to creating the tone of the book — ordinary people can be inquisitive, can think, can learn, can change.

Coach — When I was writing the book, I tried to come up with a name for Cole’s cross-country coach. Nothing seemed right. Then I thought, “Well, the runners are apt to call him just ‘Coach.’” And so I went with that.

The fact that he has neither a first nor a last name puts the emphasis on this character’s function. He trains young runners. He helps them improve their skills as well as their analytic abilities. And he especially helps them improve their thinking of their group as a team. 

Coach challenges the runners to do more than they think they can. This is evident in the scene where he tells Ricardo and Cole to pass Palatine in the last half mile. He expects them to stay in the lead for that entire last half mile. 

Coach also delivers ironic statements, though neither the Coach nor Cole nor the reader know they’re ironic at the time. An example is when he tells the team that winter runs are fun runs. For Cole, they turn out to be anything but fun runs.

And Coach is also an adult character who really cares about the students he’s entrusted to teach. He takes one look at Cole in the hallways in December and tells Cole to cut back on the running. Even though he has no idea why Cole is looking stressed, Coach does recognize the strain that Cole is under and wants him to not be under that strain.

Emerald Jackson — Though Cole is white and Emerald is Black, they are good enough friends that they exchange texts, and it’s Emerald that Cole turns to when his father’s visitation privileges are cut off. Cole respects Emerald because she’s very intelligent and widely read.  Emerald in turn thinks highly enough of Cole to speak openly to him about matters such as Black people being political prisoners. 

Emerald happens to be the nearby classmate who Cole, Felipe, and Treva start their photo campaign with. She grasps the situation instantaneously, grabs two fellow tenth graders, and — the campaign is off to a fun start. In fact, it’s Emerald who sets the tone for the campaign photos.

I think that Emerald’s main role is to set the tone for where the political struggle should be. She wears a Black Lives Matter button and goes to BLM demonstrations. She is on a higher plane of political understanding and commitment than are most of the students. But she’s also a member of her high school class and seems to be able to relate to everybody. Emerald is incredibly observant and can summarize a situation instantly and wittily.

When Mr. Nachman brings members of the English class to watch the cross-country meet, Emerald utters one of my favorite lines in the book. “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.” While I thought that was typical of Emerald’s wittiness, I didn’t realize, as I was writing it, that this statement is also full of foreshadowing. Only later did I see that.

Emerald’s role is a a bit like Treva’s: a fellow student who’s slightly ahead of others in her level of commitment and understanding. In this way she’s a contrast to Ethan.

Nikki Zurlo — Nikki is secretary to Ms. Delaney. She lives in Cole’s neighborhood and is friends with his parents because she, like them and like Mrs. Green and Mr. Cafasso, is a member of the Committee to Save Public Education. Her children go to Euclid Grade School.

That these three minor characters are members of the committee is something I think most readers won’t notice. But they are, and all three serve part of the same function — to show that ordinary people are affected by the school closings, and to show that ordinary people can (and do) think and act. They can be brave . . . thereby surprising those who think such people are forever subservient. Nikki’s function is to show the quiet heroism of common, working class people. She is an adult and she functions as an adult: she takes responsibility for her own actions and, most importantly, she does what Spike Lee urged us all to do — the right thing.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing can be delicious, as in anticipating a birthday present. Or it can be terrifying, as in anticipating a hurricane. In literature foreshadowing works to indicate or warn the reader that something may happen. It’s never as exact as the date of a birthday, nor as specific as “Hurricane winds exceed 160 mph.”  

And — unlike a birthday or a hurricane — the happening that readers anticipate may not happen at all. Not everything is foreshadowing. However, when something is foreshadowing, the reader is usually very, very satisfied: anticipation has been realized.

Probably my favorite foreshadowing in one of my own books is the pitchfork in Sound Proof. I like that so much that I’ve considered carrying a pitchfork with me wherever I go.

That, however, would be cumbersome, and maybe even weird, so I’ve resorted to fewer specific-object foreshadowings in my recent work. And, next to the pitchfork in Sound Proof, my favorite foreshadowings are in The F Words.

Without telling you exactly what the words foreshadow (wouldn’t want to ruin your reading pleasure), I’ll list some of my favorites from The F Words.

page 1 — But as it turns out he has fast reflexes or maybe just knows which direction to move in . . .   That’s Cole Renner, the 15-year-old narrator, reacting to the fact that he can’t escape from Mr. Nachman, his English teacher.

page 39 — And that’s when I notice something in my sideways vision.
Tall and straight, like a pillar.   That’s Cole noticing Treva Soldat for the first time.

page 55 — “You don’t want to be a cabbage. A coleto is a jacket.”   That’s six-year-old Felipe telling six-year-old Cole what cole and coleto mean in Spanish.

page 123 — You need both kinds of muscles, so you’re ready for any situation.”  That’s Cole’s Coach, talking to the cross-country team.

page 170 — “. . . in jail you’re punished no matter which end of the fight you’re on.”  That’s Della Kazarian, Hank Renner’s defense attorney.

page 192 — “Holidays can be tough. Very tough.” That’s Mr. Nachman.

page 214 — “She organized it. He was merely the chauffeur.”  That’s Emerald, describing how members of Cole’s English class ended up at his track meet.

These are just a few of my favorites, but they’re far from being the only examples of foreshadowing in The F Words. Other foreshadowing includes Jared Anderson threatening Cole; ICE’s appearance throughout the novel; Felipe’s mother being worried about his attending the pro-immigrant demonstration.

And more. In fact, there are probably foreshadowings that I don’t even recognize as such, mainly because I wasn’t conscious of writing them as such. 

The fact is, I’m almost never aware of consciously writing a foreshadowing in the first draft, and often in the second draft as well. It’s only when I get into the third draft, where I’m starting to tie things together and make connections of all kinds, that I begin to recognize some of the foreshadowing. This is fun for me as a writer, and I hope it’s fun for you as a reader.

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The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.