|About the presenter: Kimberly Newton Fusco's is a lifelong stutterer, and a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Her award-winning first novel, Tending to Grace has been recommended by the National Stuttering Association and The Stuttering Foundation of America. The American Speech-Language Hearing Association has included it on its "Recommended Reading" web page. For more information, visit the author at: www.kimberlynewtonfusco.com|
I've done a crazy thing for someone who hated to speak, especially public speaking. If I had known what was ahead, I don't think I would have had the courage. You see, I've stuttered for as long as I can remember. And I've written a book about a girl who won't let me hide. Her name is Cornelia Thornhill. She is the main character in my young adult novel, Tending to Grace (Alfred A Knopf/Random House) which received the 2006 Schneider Family Book Award from the American Library Association for its empathetic portrayal of a teen girl who stutters. Tammy Flores, operations director for the National Stuttering Association, wrote recently in a review that it is a "must read" for all teenage girls who stutter.
As the story begins, Cornelia is in the ninth grade. But she is forced to forgo the remainder of the school year when her mother and the boyfriend impulsively decide to hit the road for the greener pastures of Las Vegas and they drop her off at her great-aunt Agatha's run-down farm in New England. Everyone thinks Cornelia is not that bright, but what she's doing is hiding her stuttering. Books are life itself for her, as necessary as breathing. Eventually, she finds she wants more than a life of books, though, and Tending to Grace becomes the story of her triumph as she quits hiding, and finds a voice of her own. But she doesn't get that at first. She doesn't find her voice, her wings, her strength, until the book is nearly over.
This is how she introduces herself:
We drive out Route 6 on a silent day at the end of May, my mother, the boyfriend and I. We pass villages with daisies at the doorsteps and laundry hung in soft rows of bleached white. I want to jump out of the car as it rushes along and wrap myself in a row of sheets hanging so low their feet tap the grass. I want to hide because my life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind at its heel.
But I don't say anything as we head east.
My mother is a look-away.
My teacher is a look-away.
I am a bookworm, a bibliophile, a passionate lover of books. I know metaphor and active voice and poetic meter, and I understand that the difference between the right word and the almost right word, as Samuel Clemens said, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
But I don't talk, so no one knows. All they see are the days I miss school, 35 one year, 27 the next, 42 the year after that. I am a silent red flag, waving to them, and they send me to their counselors and they ask me, "When are you going to talk about it, Cornelia?" I wrap myself into a ball and squish the feelings down to my toes and they don't know what to make of me so they send me back to this class where we get the watered-down Tom Sawyer with pages stripped of soul and sentences as straight and flat as a train track.
We read that the new boy in Tom Sawyer ran like a deer, while the kids in the honors class read he "turned tail and ran like an antelope."
I know, because I read that book, too.
When Cornelia is dropped off at the home of her great-aunt Agatha, she is in for the shock of her life. Agatha lives in a 200-year-old farmhouse, eats mushrooms she collects herself, cans fiddleheads and fries tofu. She rarely cleans her house and sleeps in a messy room in a bed with her feet sticking out the bottom. This drives Cornelia nearly crazy, and they begin to fight like two chickens in the same sweltering roost:
"I c-c-c-can't believe you live in such a m-m-m-mess," I scream, kicking the pumpkin plant in the row next to her, tearing half of it out of the ground. I run up to the fields above the house, sinking into the grass that now reaches past my knees, sobbing until my head aches. All I want is a life that is tidy, where the edges are hemmed and straight and the corners are tucked and tight as new cotton sheets.
But Agatha isn't concerned with tidy, neat lives. She grows to care about Cornelia deeply, and she wants her niece to learn to speak for herself. That's a messy job, never perfect. When they meet on that first day, Agatha gets a pretty good idea of what Cornelia is hiding.
"What's your name?" She waits for me to answer, but I turn away. I watch a dragonfly on a daisy, a beetle on a cobblestone. I think about the Yodels we bought when we stopped at the gas station on the way here and how the cream leaked out of the plastic package and I threw mine away after the first bite. I think about how I wanted a coffee, but my mother said no. Think about anything, anything else, I tell myself.
"Don't you talk?"
I look away. My stomach rises to my chest. I know what's coming and tears form in little puddles above and behind my eyes. I swat at them, pretending a gnat has flown too close.
The old woman pulls what looks like a sugar cube from deep within the pocket of her overalls. She doesn't bother to pull off the blue lint, just pops it in her mouth. "Want one?"
I shake my head. I want coffee. But I don't say anything.
"There are those who'd say a girl who don't talk is a dimwit. Are you a dimwit?"
I shake my head angrily and look at my crate of books and think about heading for the road. Or straight up that mountain.
"You know what I say?" the old woman asks. "I say that when you got a voice, you damn well better tell the world who you are. Or somebody else will."
I take a deep breath and that's all it takes for my throat to lock and I'm caught in the lonely place between what I want to say and what I can't.
I stop and turn away. My heart is a truck skidding crazily inside my chest. I gulp air, trying to loosen the silent knot that pulls tighter, tighter. The old woman does nothing but pull another sugar cube from her pocket and crunch noisily. "We'll be bored as two pigs in a pen if I do all the talkin' round here."
Let her see my voice then. Let her see my colors. Let her see the awful wound in my throat. "C-c-c-c. C-c-cornelia.."
My legs shake and I don't bother to check if the old woman is a look-away because tears fall in front of my eyes now and I'm looking at my feet."
"Only God's perfect," she says after a bit. "And sometimes I'm not sure about even that." She chomps another sugar cube, then hoists my crate of books on her hip, carries it up to her front step and kicks the door open with a bang.
"Come on in. I'll get some food on."
Much of Tending to Grace is made up. I have nice parents who didn't drop me off somewhere; I don't have a crazy old aunt Agatha. But the parts of the book about stuttering are experiences I've had: look-aways, reading out loud in class, people thinking I wasn't that bright because I stuttered. When I was the age of most of the teens who are reading the book, I hardly spoke and desperately tried to hide my stuttering. I was the one who would never raise my hand in class, who would rather die than talk on the phone and who would turn myself to stone before having to read out loud in class. Like Cornelia, I was caught in that lonely place between what I wanted to say and what I couldn't."
In college, I received speech therapy - eventually ten year's worth, and that made all the difference. But I still have trouble sometimes. I love one-on-one conversations, but group conversations are very difficult. I still don't like to talk on the phone. I have people laugh and ask if I have forgotten my name, or if I'm not feeling well. I've had people think I was making a hoax phone call when I was just trying to say my name.
The fact that I am a public speaker today is just an unbelievable miracle. I didn't plan on making Cornelia a stutterer. I wrote another novel, actually, one that took six years to write and when I gave that novel to an editor at Knopf, she said, well, I think you have the talent to write the kind of literary novels we publish, but it's not here yet. You've given me a plot-driven novel and we only publish character driven novels. Go home and rewrite it and I'll read it again.
I went home and wondered, how exactly am I going to do this? I was sitting outside watching my daughter playing in her sandbox when I realized I'd written the wrong book. If I had any hope of writing a character-driven novel, one that makes readers laugh and cry, I needed to have a character who faced adversity.
And then it hit me: I needed to write the book that only I could write. And to do that I needed to write about something I had been hiding my whole life. My stuttering.
I remember the moment I stood up and went into my computer and closed my file that held a complete novel, opened a new one, started over and never looked back. Friends said, "Are you nuts?"
"The story I came up with was about a girl facing mountains of adversity. And what I figured out was that adversity is universal. It seems to me that we all have something, whether we're stutterers or not. Sometimes whatever difficulty we're facing is out there for the whole world to see, like stuttering, and sometimes it is hidden. But the point is we all have a choice, are we going to let it smother us, keep us small, or are we going to stand up and put on larger boots and keep going? Cornelia puts on larger boots, and because she does, she blossoms."
When you write a book, you have to speak. That's something I didn't know. I thought I'd just be this quiet author. Well, was I in for a surprise! Tending to Grace got a lot of attention. I started hearing from people all over the country - children and adults - who identified with Cornelia. Many of them stuttered, but most of them didn't. It didn't matter. Everyone saw themselves in Cornelia. I couldn't believe it.
And then the American Library Association recognized it and it got more attention and people started asking me to speak, all over the place, and every time I was ready to say, no, I'm just this quiet author, I'd hear Agatha telling Cornelia:
"You know what I say? I say that when you got a voice, you damn well better tell the world who you are. Or somebody else will."
Near the end of the book, Cornelia is sitting all alone in a church, wondering about her life, and she has an awakening. The awakening is mine as well.
But I'll let Cornelia say it. She says it best:
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