Thursday, October 21, 2010

Story Weaver: Patty Somlo

Patty Somlo tells here her story about becoming a story writer – and what a story. We are awakened emotionally and intellectually by what we read in these Profiles. Learning about a writer’s background, values, and beliefs really adds to an appreciation and better understanding of her stories. Patty has a book coming out 15 November: From Here to There and Other Stories (Paraguas Books). Be sure to support writers like Patty and small publishers by getting your copy!
In my early twenties, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico with my boyfriend, Marshall, who was working on a documentary film, and I started to weave. I had been drawing and painting for years but reached a point where I felt I had nothing to say in those media. The Navajo weaving I saw in New Mexico dazzled me, along with the light and amazing skies and landscape, and I attempted to capture that in some very rough, beginning work.

I was also teaching art at an alternative elementary school in Albuquerque and helping my boyfriend on two documentary films. The second of those films, Warpath Against the Devil, focused on Native American Pentecostal ministers. I traveled with Marshall and the rest of the crew to camp meetings on the Navajo reservation near Monument Valley, where Navajo and Jicarilla Apache ministers preached sermons to the beat of rock music that built to such a pitch that people – mostly Navajo women in their velvet shirts and long skirts – would get up and dance and speak in tongues, eventually falling on the ground and sometimes even fainting. I was so amazed by those experiences, I decided to write an article about it. I never got anything published but that experience led me to want to write more.

I thought the way to write was in a writing-related job, so I gradually worked my way into public relations, and eventually doing PR for a nonprofit organization. My work for The Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First), got me interested in issues surrounding world hunger and inequality, development and poverty. The organization published books and one in particular – about the dumping of banned pesticides in the developing world – got me interested in doing investigative journalism. I left the organization and started writing freelance articles, mostly investigative pieces, which led to a job as news editor for a weekly newspaper. A number of years later, after a pretty stressful year of researching and writing an investigative piece about the harassment of refugees from El Salvador by the FBI and the possible connections between the FBI and Death Squads in El Salvador, I went back to school and started studying poetry. A year later, I entered a creative writing program and started writing fiction.

Many of the ideas for my stories come from things I read in the news, or rather, my feelings about what is happening in the world, as reflected in the news. The craziness surrounding the debates over health care reform inspired me to write, “Emergency Room,” a story about a group of injured people waiting for medical attention that never comes. Political campaigns were the inspiration for my story, “Candidate of the Third Eye,” about a Gandhi-inspired, Indian-American candidate for governor, whose Policy on Right Living transforms him from a virtual unknown to the frontrunner.

I also get ideas from my own life – mostly from past memories. Having lived in Central America and fallen in love with the people, the landscapes and the culture, I often return there through stories. The landscape in my story, “Bird Women,” which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is the mountainous, coffee-growing region of Nicaragua. One of the closest stories I’ve written to my real life, “Even with a Stack of Dollars,” was inspired by my former Nicaraguan landlady’s walking outside on unpaved dusty sidewalks in her backless, gold lamé high heels. My father, who commanded an Air Evac squadron in Vietnam, was the inspiration for my story, “Neither Sweet Nor Sour,” which will appear in the forthcoming anthology, Battle Runes: Writings on War.

I am drawn to stories about people I don’t normally meet in life and places I may never go. The best stories, to me, are ones that take a surprising – and sometimes magical – turn, in which ordinary people, especially the excluded, find unusual ways to cope and survive. Humor is an especially attractive part of good stories, in my view.

Part of what draws me to write is a need to find some hopeful solutions through art to the terrible problems I see in this country and throughout the world. Having grown up in a military family – moving every year or two and living in places from Hawaii to Frankfurt, Germany – I have an odd sense that I don’t really fit anywhere but that I have a connection to all types of people throughout the world. I don’t actually have a message I want to convey in my writing, other than having readers see some of the issues that get so distorted by politicians and the media in a more truthful and compassionate light. I wrote a series of stories, one of which appeared in Common Boundary, that focus on an undocumented Mexican immigrant. As the granddaughter of Hungarian immigrants who were once as denigrated as Latinos immigrants are today, I have a great respect and empathy for immigrants and write many stories about them.

My stories are almost always completely fictional. Some of the settings, as in “The Island,” are mythical places. I rarely am a character in my stories but my views do come through in how the stories play out. In my story, “A Nightly Interruption,” about an unlikely relationship between a Jewish and an Arab man, my view that people can get past stereotypes that cause hatred if they get to know one another comes through. I occasionally base characters – their looks or mannerisms – on people I know. In that story, the Jewish character’s looks are based on a friend and the Arab character’s mannerisms are based on my Turkish hairdresser.

I get up every weekday morning at 5:00 and write. Before I met my husband, I used to make my coffee and write in bed. Now, I make the coffee and write in our finished basement. For some reason, I like to have the light very low when I’m writing. I adore that first cup of coffee (dark French Roast) and love the little cave I feel like I enter when I write, so this is just about the happiest part of my day. After the initial session, I shower and have breakfast, and then go back and either revise a story, continue working on one, or look for places to submit. I’m usually working on several stories at once, and I jot down ideas all the time that I keep in a messy pile on my desk. When I run out of ideas, I pull something from the pile.

I don’t really have any favorite stories, but there are stories I continue to like, no matter how many times I read them. Mostly, I continue to like the stories in which I feel connected to the characters. That is the case for the main character, Hari Shiva, in “Candidate of the Third Eye.” I also like the two women characters in “The Island.” I especially like the characters of mine who have an innocence about themselves.

When I first started writing short stories, the characters and plots were pretty depressing. I suffered from undiagnosed depression for many years and I see now that my own despair came out in the writing. After years of therapy, meditation and yoga, the depression has eased, and my stories, while frequently focusing on serious subjects, have lightened up, many now including a great deal of humor.

My favorite short story writer and the writer who I think has most influenced me is the late Julio Cortázar. Cortázar loved jazz, and his stories feel like improvisations to me. He had his own style of magical realism, in which he looked at life almost as a child and took situations to their not so obvious conclusions. I feel like I see the world in the same way Cortázar might have seen it, and that might be why I like his work so much.

I tend to gravitate toward foreign writers more than American writers. I went through a long love affair with Latin American writers and now am enamored of many Indian writers. Salman Rushdie and Aravind Adiga are two of my favorites.

My other favorites are the Victorians – Charles Dickens, all three Bronte sisters, and Thomas Hardy. I keep saying I’m going to spend a summer re-reading all of Dickens, but never seem to find the time.

My first collection of short stories, From Here to There and Other Stories, will be published by Paraguas Books on November 15, 2010. So, I’m deep into the least fun part of writing – preparing to market the book. I am also working on new stories for a possible second collection. I am hoping to work on a series of creative nonfiction pieces about my relationship to beaches and how growing up as a military brat and continuing to move around as an adult, beaches have been a strange sort of home place for me.
Copyright©2010 by Patty Somlo

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Peripatetic Author: Janice Eidus

Do you know about Janice Eidus? You should – and if you don’t, here’s your chance to read about her. Janice has just published a new novel, The Last Jewish Virgin (Red Hen Press). What follows is a guest biographical Profile written by Janice, covering her early years in the Bronx, her literary influences, her themes, and what she's reading now.

Although my Jewish atheist parents prided themselves on their rationality and secular beliefs, ours was nevertheless an irrational, volatile, secretive, and at times quite violent household. From a very young age, writing provided me with escape, not only from my unhappy family, but also from the Bronx public schools I attended in which indifferent, unprepared teachers did their best to stifle students' creativity and originality.

As an emotionally and intellectually hungry kid, my childhood reading and writing was all over the map. Louisa May Alcott showed me how to look deeply at the inner lives of female characters. I adored Noel Coward, who lived in a sophisticated, glamorous world so unlike mine, and I was influenced by him to write short, witty plays with dark undertones.

The Beats taught me how to rant and opine, and dig the rhythm of language, and I wrote free-form poems, emulating in particular Ginsberg's Kaddish and Howl. I felt I knew Ginsberg, the archetypal Jewish outsider from a dysfunctional family.

Patrick Dennis (author of Auntie Mame and Genius, among other books) inspired me to write manic-edged fiction featuring grande dames who were nothing like the often bedraggled, mah-jongg playing Bronx moms I knew.

Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis -- my parents' literary idols, and also major influences on me -- integrated their fiercely progressive values into compelling and imaginative -- sometimes risk-taking and innovative -- stories about decent, hard-working people, and I tried to do the same. (I still try to do this; if I have one concrete, unchanging goal as an author, this is it.)

My youthful writings, diverse as they were, reflected the writer I became -- a writer who prefers not to feel bound to one style or theme or message, a writer compelled to keep seeking new challenges, to try to "make it new."

So I wrote and wrote and wrote throughout my childhood and adolescence, never thinking much about getting published or earning money from my writing. Such goals seemed entirely unlikely from my vantage point as a kid in a Bronx housing project. I couldn't imagine becoming a "success" by any mainstream standards. I had a ferocious "me" versus "them" mentality, with them being anyone in authority. My rebellious, anti-authority streak influenced all aspects of my life -- creative, emotional, physical. (Of course, nowadays, as a mom and writer, I've become "one of them" myself, as Joyce Carol Oates says.)

Wild child or not, my drive and passion for writing didn't go away, and eventually I realized I wanted to be a "real" writer who reached readers beyond my own circle of rebellious, like-minded friends. So I applied to and was accepted by the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. It was there that I began calling myself a writer. For the first time, I was socializing with others also new to the writing world and forming writing identities. For the first time, I learned about literary magazines, literary agents, and prizes. I began submitting my work, and sometimes -- miraculously, it seemed to me then and seems to me still -- getting published.

Certain obsessions have always fed my work: a desire for social justice; the tragi-comic complexity of love in its many forms, including familial, romantic, and amongst friends; and the intersection and collision of classic myth and popular culture. I also love writing about the places I've lived: Manhattan, upstate New York, the Virgin Islands, the Midwest, California, Brooklyn, Mexico … I love traveling to new places, meeting new people, trying to make sense of cultures and customs that are at first unfamiliar. I'm drawn to understand that which feels different to me, and my reading choices reflect this: I read across landscapes, genres, gender, etc. And I'm always urging my writing students to do the same, to routinely expand their reading choices to include the works of writers much older and much younger than they are, writers of other races and religions, of the opposite gender, living in other parts of the world, writing in styles and with messages to impart that seem wholly unlike their own, although reading carefully and deeply will often reveal unexpected commonalities.

My two most recent novels are The War of the Rosens and The Last Jewish Virgin. The War of the Rosens is realistic, rooted in the autobiographical truth of my life, although not literally autobiographical. It takes place in a Bronx housing project and "stars" a left wing, Jewish family much like my own. It's told from multiple points of view: the Rosen father, mother, 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old daughter. While writing The War of the Rosens, I found that I needed to become each of my characters so that I could inhabit and express each character's particular voice and worldview. I also had to find a way to learn to love them all, as well as to forgive their imperfections, foibles, weaknesses, and even their cruelty.

My new novel, The Last Jewish Virgin (which I call my "Feminist Fashionista Jewish Vampire Novel") is rooted in contemporary New York City. It plays with reality and myth, and my intention is to subvert, honor, and tweak the traditions and tropes of the vampire myth, which I've long been fascinated by. The main character in The Last Jewish Virgin is Lilith Zeremba, a young woman determined to become a mega-successful fashion designer. Completely dismissive of love, lust, romance, and sex, she feels they all must wait until her career goal is met. Despite herself, she finds her true love in a totally unexpected way, replete with vampires, the supernatural, feminism, and a seriously funny exploration of contemporary Judaism.

I feel especially close right now to those two novels, as well as to the other writing I've done since becoming an adoptive mother of my beautiful daughter from Guatemala. Much of my recent work explores mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of adoptive, transracial families. (This includes my essay, "The Color of Cinnamon," which appears in Editions Bibliotekos' Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration.) Motherhood -- the complexity and the generosity of spirit it requires -- has helped me as a writer to merge the fiercely progressive and earnest side of myself with the playful, risk-taking side.

I wish I had a regular schedule, but mine is erratic: days devoted entirely to family, or doctors, or errands … or the business side of writing, or teaching … But throughout I burn with the desire to write. By nature, I'm very peripatetic, and so I love to write in cafes, hotel bars, diners, etc. I love being out in the world while at the same time feeling entirely alone and connected to my own work.

I used to do much of my best writing away from home at artists colonies such as Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I'm forever indebted to those colonies for providing me with the time and space to separate from the "real world," and to write uninterrupted and (almost) stress free.

In the writing I love to read most, I feel the author's passion -- for character, place, message … I love to see unbridled passion balanced by attention to detail; imagination balanced by keen logic; an original way of saying a universal and great truth. None of these are easy to do, and yet there are always new writers who figure out ways to "make it new."

I recently read a short story collection called Simpaticas: San Miguel Stories by Elva Treviño Hart, a child of migrant Mexican farm workers who's now a fiction writer and memoirist. I very much admire the way she tackles major issues of race and class in a deceptively simple style that's not simple at all. The stories all take place in the town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I own a home and live part time. It's a place I love deeply -- it's imbued with a complicated history and a thriving contemporary cultural scene. Not to mention that it's in the mountains and has spring-like weather all year round. While in San Miguel, I love writing the old-fashioned way, with notepad and pen, in the large, sunny sala of my house, while my husband takes long walks on the sun-splashed cobblestone streets, and my daughter attends a bilingual school where she sings songs about Tia Monica and learns to make tortillas from scratch.

At the moment, I’m reading Model Home, a novel by Eric Puchner, that takes place in the 80's and is set in the affluent world of Southern California, not so very far away geographically from San Miguel, and yet worlds away. It portrays one family's rude awakening from the American Dream. It reminds me a lot of Neal LaBute's dark, compelling film, The Joneses, in which characters played by Demi Moore and David Duchovny are nearly destroyed by their own materialism and greed.

I also recently finished A&R by Bill Flanagan, a novel about the music business. It's the third novel of Flanagan's I've read this year, so I guess I qualify as a bona-fide fan. I enjoy his wit, keen eye, and cynical-yet-ultimately-sweet insider's view of the world of pop culture, which he knows inside-out as someone who's been a top dog at both MTV and VH-1.

I've read some other wonderful books this year, including Bettina Aptheker's brave memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought For Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel, an amazingly honest and insightful tale of growing up during the 60's in a family that was considered U.S. Communist Party "royalty."

Finally, inspired by The Last Jewish Virgin, I've been revisting lots of my most beloved vampire literature, including Bram Stoker's Dracula, a tale that for me never grows old. I've also reread Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, written in 1872, an extremely sensual tale of an irresistible lesbian vampire. And Keats' Lamia, about another vampire enchantress, this one heterosexual. And The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, a terrific reinvention of the vampire genre about an intellectual anthropology professor/vampire seeking to understand his own nature.

And films, too -- Frank Langella in John Badham's sensual and intelligent Dracula … And The Hunger, a film in the tradition of Carmilla, with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. And Near Dark, the best (perhaps the only!) vampire/Western horror film ever made. And The Lost Boys, the teen comedy/horror film that speaks as much to adults as teens.

As for outsider Jewish vampires pre-dating mine in The Last Jewish Virgin, there's Roman Polanski's comic The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. Whatever Roman Polanski and I may not have in common, and clearly there's a lot we don't share, we apparently both take pleasure in creating fictional Jewish vampires.

Currently, I'm working on a number of things: a young adult novel that I like to describe as "Romeo and Juliet in Brooklyn -- with a Jewish twist," and an anthology related to living with and healing from illness, and stories and essays as they come to me, all surely drawn from one or another of the obsessions I harbor so lovingly.
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Copyright©2010 by Janice Eidus

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Certainty of Uncertainty: Short Story writer Mitch Levenberg

Interview conducted and written by Chandra Persaud
Levenberg is "A combination of Woody Allen and Franz Kafka." (Gregory F. Tague)

The journey begins when the cover is pulled back and you land upon a page with a title that leaves you eager for more. Then, in just a few sentences you find yourself captured in a world of dilemmas, secrets, and tales as though these characters opened their doors and allowed you into their homes. “Welcome to the strange world of Mitch Levenberg.” The mixture of humor and surrealism, all compacted in a few pages, will either leave readers speechless but with a smile upon their lips or puzzled about the underlying meaning of the work.

Even before the tender age of 10, Mitch knew he wanted to be a writer. Enamored with George Washington, Mitch’s earliest memory of his writing was a biographical piece he wrote about this founding father. It’s not surprising that Washington was this author’s first subject given the fact that his father was, what Mitch calls, “an amateur historian.” His father loved to read and while he never read aloud, he would share his new discoveries with Mitch. “I remember my father being so focused upon what he was reading that he would block everything else out…I always thought he should have been a history professor and not a podiatrist,” laughs Mitch.

Growing up, Mitch kept much of his writing exclusively for his eyes. Perhaps, it was because “I was a little shy or embarrassed and so I never really showed my parents my work,” says Mitch. He also explains that conventions at that time did not consider writing as a career. “When I was growing up writing was viewed more as a hobby and an emphasis was placed on finding a real ‘job.’” While Mitch was very secretive about his writing in his youth, he did allow one person to enter the realm of his thoughts. Mr. Piorkowski was Mitch’s 9th grade English teacher and “was the most encouraging and supportive” individual of his writing at that time. It was in his class that Mitch wrote his first official poem, verses describing what the world would be like 10 years down the road. The assignment sparked a deep interest in poetry and soon Mitch went out and purchased a composition notebook, jotted down about twenty titles, and then created a poem for each title. It was here, at the age of 14, that Mitch realized he “wanted to be a writer more than anything.”

Mitch says, “Writers usually start out imitating other writers” and he was no exception. At the age of 10, Mitch found Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” riveting. In fact, Mitch engaged in a “reading race” with a fellow fifth grader, each reporting to the other how many pages of the book he completed each day. Although he cannot remember who won that race, Mitch was extremely impressed with “To Kill a Mockingbird” and was amazed that it was possible to configure such a plot. “That is perhaps my earliest memory of being inspired,” he says. In college, Mitch drew inspiration from writers such as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Anthony Burgess, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway. While all these writers had a significant impact on him, Mitch identifies deeply with Kafka’s style of writing as well as his personal life. “I felt connected to him [Kafka] especially as a very young man from a Jewish family living in a big city, feeling alienated, having a dark vision of the world, a sense of foreboding, and yet personally [being] a prankster, a self-anointed comic, always maintaining a sense of humor, a sense of the absurd.”

Writing soon became much more than a hobby for Mitch. As he matured, Mitch realized that writing satisfied a deep yearning for expression, for human connection, for escape. Mitch describes his writing as an act of “submersion,” drowning in a world of characters that often experience circumstances that he knows all too well but who can sometimes take him to places he has never been. “Sometimes new emotions come up through my characters without me really knowing they are going to,” says Mitch. While he may know the ending of a story or have a good opening line, the journey before or after those points (respectively) is quite unknown to Mitch until he actually sits down to write. This unknown, this mystery waiting to be solved, is perhaps one of the most thrilling (and potentially frustrating) experiences for a writer.

In 1988, Mitch became a published author for the very first time. “The Cruller,” a short story surrounding a coffee shop whose balance is maintained by this pastry forever staying under a glass bowl, was published in Fiction. “The Cruller” conveys the message that change can sometimes be an upsetting factor in our lives; we are more comfortable, happier, with the known. While we may yearn for some kind of excitement, when our routines remain the same they bring a sense of serenity into our lives. His first published work gave Mitch a sense of joy and pride so much that he decided to drop out of graduate school (he would later return). “Whether or not it [his decision] was a mistake, I don’t know,” laughs Mitch, “but I always believed I would write the great American novel and who knows… it’s still not too late.”

Of all he’s written, Mitch’s favorite work is “The Cruller.” This may be so because it is the first work he’s written that was published and so he has a special fondness for it. Yet, another reason he feels connected to “The Cruller” is the fact that the short story is a reflection of a phase in his life. “In just a few pages it sums up what I thought about life up until that point,” Mitch explains. “The Cruller” is not the only story that made his favorite list. “Some stories I’ve grown to like” says Mitch. One of these stories is “Dyspnea,” a short story that has become much more meaningful to Mitch over time. The story follows a young woman, Dyspnea, who suffers from a breathing difficulty. However, Dyspnea’s life is about much more than just slow speech and gaps of silence. Her shocking past is revealed to her new love interest, the narrator, when he and Dyspnea attend Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ home. “I love that story because it has become more profound to me as I’ve gotten older. I used to think of it as dark humor and while it is that partly, it has really become much more than that. Now, I always tend to get choked up towards the end,” Mitch reflects. Another story that hits home for Mitch is “Vigo,” a tale based on an actual bus trip Mitch and his wife took from Portugal to Vigo, Spain. These stories and others appear in Mitch’s anthology of short stories Principles of Uncertainty and Other Constants.

Mitch is also proud of the work he’s done where the subject is his father. A World War II veteran and voracious reader, Mitch’s father has been a source of inspiration for some of his non-fiction work. Originally named “My Father’s Stains,” but renamed “At My Father’s Table” for publication in the Common Review, Mitch says that the short story derives from him observing his father read at the dinner table. With a glow in his eyes and occasional laughs, Mitch recalls how his father would eat and read simultaneously, leading to his books being forever scarred with food stains. “When my father passed away a few years ago, I inherited all of his books. It was comforting to go through them and see the collection of food stains, mostly from meat sauces, he left among the pages.”

When he is writing, Mitch does not have a specific routine or habit. In fact, the author works best with positive stimuli or noise. “I find it difficult to sit down at a desk in a quiet room and write.” Some of his best work was produced sitting in the main office of a departmental division at NYU, surrounded by students, faculty, and conferences. Mitch likes to have music playing in the background when he is writing, and his favorite lyrics come from Bob Dylan. “He has been a tremendous influence on my writing, especially my poetry while I was in college.” Mitch even does some “BlackBerry writing.” While walking his dog, Mitch will spontaneously jot down some ideas or lines for a story on this gadget, occasionally “making sure my dog is not jumping on any joggers.” Mitch sums himself up as “the kind of writer who likes to close the shades while writing and only see the beautiful view behind the shades when I’m finished writing.”

Although Mitch does not know what genre his work falls under, he knows that his writing style differs vastly from a New York writer. “I don’t write very realistic stories with a lot of description and really complex relationships. I try to write sudden or flash relationships…I try to conflate life as much as possible…I try to create a unique world” explains Mitch. “I would say my writing fits under the quirky genre, if there is such a thing,” he laughs. Mitch also believes that his voice is an important vehicle that gives meaning to his work and which ultimately affects the way his work is interpreted. That is why Mitch loves every opportunity he gets to read his work to an audience.

Mitch hopes to share some humor with his readers and listeners. He believes that is it very important for each of us to accept and appreciate the humor and absurdity in the world. He thinks that a sense of humor makes living in this world much easier. “If we want to live and survive in this world, we have to know how to laugh,” says Mitch.

The author is currently working on a play that he started this past summer. Entitled Ellipsis, the play is based on “a series of interviews with a woman of power who becomes involved in an ‘elliptical’ relationship with her interviewer,” explains Mitch. While he finds writing a play to be more difficult than writing a short story, he is enjoying the challenges and rewards of the process.

When he is not writing for his blog,, Mitch is rewriting or revising work that he has put aside. When he is not writing, Mitch says he is “agonizing about not writing” and when he is not agonizing, he enjoys reading and playing with his dogs. Mitch says he would have loved to be an actor or stand-up comedian, but he is more than satisfied with life as he knows it. He currently serves as Director of the Academic Enhancement Center at St. Francis College and teaches writing there as well. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, whom he calls one of his biggest fans and “loving” critic, and his daughter who at this point seems “more interested in math and science than writing.”

As for his advice to future writers, Mitch says “keep writing. Don’t ever give up, don’t ever get true to yourself and be honest about what you write…and always bring a pencil and pad or BlackBerry wherever you go,” smiles Mitch.

Copyright c. 2010 by Chandra Persaud - cannot be used without permission.