new england literary news | nina maclaughlin

Poems recall shameful Malaga Island saga; organic farming for a new generation

An image of a family on Malaga Island in Maine.
An image of a family on Malaga Island in Maine. Herman Bryant/courtesy of Maine State Museum

Ghosts of Malaga Island

The 40 acres of Malaga Island rises out of the water at the mouth of the New Meadows River in Maine. Pine trees, seaweed, silence. No one lives there. But they used to.

In the late 19th century through the early 20th, a group of people of mixed races inhabited the place, fishing, catching lobsters. Eugenics was winning converts in the universities and grand parlors, and prejudiced mainland Mainers feared miscegenation. So in 1912, the population of nearly four dozen was evicted by the state, some  of them unfairly sent to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded.

In her austere and breathtaking new poetry collection,  Midden (Fordham University), Julia Bouwsma, who won the 2018 Maine Literary Award for her collection “Work by Bloodlight,’’ explores this place, its history. Bouwsma, who lives off the grid in the mountains of Western Maine, conjures the landscape with precision — the blackberries, mudflats, brambles, the fish hooks, the frost-heaves shifting corner posts, a frozen beaver in the barn. The whole haunted, haunting collection reveals the hidden histories, lets us talk with the ghosts.

She writes of “an animal scenting storm/under the door crack, sniffing for God,” and there’s a fog-chilled sense in the line “I know soon we will be gone.” Bouwsma will read and discuss the book on Oct. 4 at 5:30 pm at the Chace Community Forum in Waterville, Maine.


Growing organic

When “The New Organic Grower” came out in 1989, most fridges didn’t hold tubs of organic strawberries or wide splays of organic rainbow chard. Organic wasn’t a household word  in most places and now it is as a multibillion-dollar industry, encompassing much more than veggies. The third edition of The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener” (Chelsea Green), just out, marks the 30th anniversary of Maine resident Eliot Coleman’s clear-eyed and comprehensive text on organic farming and gardening. The new edition has been updated with loads of color photographs, information on tools, bringing flowers into the fold, and discussion on how Coleman’s farming techniques and practices have evolved over decades. Coleman writes of the value of a life spent learning the earth and  notes how many of us dream of growing our own food, writing to the “farming urge behind an urbanized façade.”


‘History vs. Women’

In 2009, Anita Sarkeesian started Feminist Frequency by uploading short videos that examined pop culture from a feminist point-of-view. She’s best known for the series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,’’ which launched the #gamergate hashtag. Feminist Frequency has since grown to an educational nonprofit that looks at how women are represented in pop culture, and Sarkeesian recently teamed with author and activist Ebony Adams to write History vs. Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know (Feiwel & Friends). The book looks at 25 strong, defiant women throughout history who worked to change the world, including the 11th century Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu, credited with creating the first novel, as well as a potent gang of artists, politicians, criminals, murderers, and leaders. Sarkeesian and Adams will discuss the book with Jaclyn Friedman on Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Brookline Booksmith.

Coming out

Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly by Joshua Rivkin (Melville House)

The Taiga Syndrome”  by Christina Rivera Garza, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (Dorothy)

Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart by Alice Walker (Atria)

Pick of the week

Jamie at Crow Bookshop in Burlington, Vt., recommendsNight at the Fiestas (Norton) by Kristin Valdez Quade: “Set in the singular landscape of northern New Mexico, the stories in this collection offer a surprising narrative, each with its own unexpected emotional pull. The faults of the characters — the pain they’re capable of inflicting — seem all too human to not deserve the sympathy of the reader. Quade’s writing style is lyrical and perfectly paced, and the collection as a whole is enthralling.”


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Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.