"Shark Girls" by Jamiee Wriston Colbert


People don’t know too much about sharks; we’re probably too frightened to do thorough research.  Not all members of the species are dangerous and — as is often the case — humans put sharks in greater peril than vice-versa.  A recent report on the CBS News program “Sixty Minutes” even told of a “sharkman” in South Africa who plunges in to seek out “playful” great white sharks, which he observes are intelligent, curious and not necessarly hungry for human blood.  But if we don’t understand too much about sharks themselves we do keep fastidious records of encounters with sharks.  In the Pacific waters around Hawai’i there have been 114 unprovoked shark attacks in the past 127 years, eleven of them fatal.  But sharks are still scary and turn up in the folklore and the psychology of humans who live near shark-infested waters. http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/national/local-national-896111.mp3

The new novel “Shark Girls” was inspired by an actual event, the 1958 death of a 15-year old boy off Lanikai Beach on the island of O’ahu.  Divers could not rescue him. He quickly became part of the shark mythology and especially fascinated one local girl named Jaimee, who would later write, “This I remember: the fear, what was unseen, violent and predatory, our every nightmare lurking in our ocean waters, and how, we were assured, these brave men (for of course they were men in those days) would save us.”  Sections of the novel are introduced by a quote from folklorist Martha Beckwith’s authoritative “Hawaiian Mythology”. Hawai’i native Jaimee Wriston Colbert is today a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University and an award-winning novelist.  Her previous work includes “Dream Lives of Butterflies”, winner of the gold medal in the 2008 Independent Publishers Awards, and “Climbing the God Tree”, which won the Willa Cather Fiction Prize.  “Shark Girls” is a finalist for this year’s Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award and nominee as a Notable Book of 2010 by the American Library Association. In “Shark Girls”, pretty Wilhelmina “Willa” Beever, age 8, has lost a leg in a shark attack and though she survived she descended into silence till she was eighteen years old.  Her experience is paralleled by that of Gracie McKneely, who as a baby had the right side of her face burned away when her father (a professor at a university that clearly resembles Binghamton) accidentally dropped her onto a flaming barbeque grill.  Thus mutilated, both women grow to adulthood incomplete in both body and soul.  Willa the “shark girl” develops a reputation as a faith healer while Gracie seeks a stabilizing relationship while trying to keep her face half hidden.  Their wanderings bring them to the State of Maine (where Jaimee once lived) and the same bizarre boarding house occupied by “a line of muscle-tongued women.”  The story is told through Willa’s sister Susan Katherine “Scat” Beever, whose dismay at Willa’s injury helped drive her to alcoholism and debauchery but who has developed a reputable career as a disaster photographer.

"Walk With Us" by Elizabeth K. Gordon


A poor teenage couple struggling to provide a decent life for a small child would engender feelings of sympathy and charity in most people.  But not many would take the step to become a principal source of support, especially if that step had to be made across long-standing racial, religious and cultural chasms — and especially if that child were actually triplets.  Even under the best of conditions they would be triple the trouble.  But in her autobiographical account “Walk With Us”, Elizabeth K. Gordon shows that the struggle may be as much spiritual and psychological as it is physical and financial. http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/national/local-national-834360.mp3

“Walk With Us” is sub-titled “Triplet Boys, Their Teen Parents, and Two White Women Who Tagged Along”, but it is much more than that.  North Philadelphia is the setting and its crumbling neighborhoods are a principal character in the drama.  The unwed teen parents are (names slightly altered) Tahija and Lamarr, and they are bright and strong individuals who know they must resist the mean streets.  Tahija converted to Islam when in the eighth grade and dresses in traditional Muslim garb.  Lamarr is a devoted father, and both teenagers are constantly striving to better themselves and their situation despite the barriers. The “two white women” are Elizabeth and her partner Kaki Nelsen. Motivated in large part by the tenets of justice and compassion of their Quaker religion they took Tahija into their home, and with both love and frustration they remained close through the birth of triplet boys.  Triplets arrive about once in every 8,000 live births.  In this case the delivery itself is difficult and Elizabeth’s account is worthy of being read in medical schools.  The relationship between the teenage parents and the “two white women” is often strained.  Concern about the triplets’ well-being brings the attention of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.  (Tahija wryly comments that if she’d had quadruplets the city would have bought a house for her).  Facing a threat of the boys being split up, Elizabeth and Kaki become legal guardians. The boys were kept in the nursery more than ever.  Tahija cut out all meetings and social activities, coming straight home from school and going straight up the stairs.  I wrote her a letter trying to explain my view and asking for more for them — more food, water, exercise, encouragement, stimulation, affection.  I wrote that childhood is like the eyepiece end of a telescope.  If you move it the tiniest fraction, the view at the other end, adulthood, moves millions and millions of miles.  She had the telescope in her hands, could point their future up at the stars, or down at cement. The nursery began to feel like a separate house.  A house with very thin walls.  When they cried I felt I knew what it was they needed; felt it in my molars, in the cartilage of my spine: needs I could not meet, perhaps had no right even to want to meet.


Expressions welcomes the worldly music of Samite for this performance. Originally from Uganda, Samite has made his home in Ithaca, New York for many years. Billboard Magazine says “Samite wraps his warm voice around melodies that seem to rise up off the Ugandan plateau, caressed by his kalimbas (thumb pianos) and other native instruments.” Percussionist Jeff Haynes accompanies Samite on djembes and congas among other instruments. This web-only version of the concert features performances not seen on the televised episode.