The author who introduced us to environmental memoirs and neurodiversity explores how we are remade by parenthood
Story by Claire Sykes ('81)
Her dog on one side of her and the cat on the other, Suzanne Paola sits on the living room sofa with her laptop, words filling the screen.
“I don’t remember ever not writing, as soon as I could form letters,” says the award-winning Bellingham poet, author and Western creative writing professor. “But I wouldn’t say I love writing. It’s always a complicated relationship. I feel as if things get stuck in my head, and if I don’t write they’ll never get unstuck. And I love connecting with people who may feel a kinship with one of my works.”
Readers certainly have a choice with Paola’s books – poetry, fiction, memoir and creative nonfiction, along with the textbook that that she co-wrote with fellow Western English Professor Brenda Miller. Her writing has been included in numerous poetry and prose anthologies, The New York Times and Orion magazine. Her subjects are just as diverse: from neurodiversity, the environment and mental health to parenting and spirituality. Even lipstick, shoes and handbags show up. Paola strips them of their chick-lit tropes and dons them with a deeper meaning in her recent e-book novella, “Stolen Moments” (Shebooks, 2014), published under the pen name Susanne Antonetta Paola.
She drops the Paola for most of her prose, including her latest book, “Make Me a Mother” (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014), which tells her story of adopting a six-month-old South Korean boy. But it’s more than a memoir.
“Ever since childhood, I thought I’d adopt. I was always aware of too many humans on the planet, many not taken care of. Adopting made sense as a way for me to form my family,” Paola says. So she and her husband, Bruce Beasley, also a poet and English professor at Western, decided on Asia, where Jin was waiting for them in Seoul.
The first thing she learned as a mother was “just how much you can love a child. You know that, but it still takes you by surprise. And when you adopt, you fall in love with someone with the awareness of how they’re different from you, physically and intellectually,” she says. “And more expansive topics, I’m surprised at how much we’ve culturally taken on Korea.”
She has been there many times, also with Jin at age 12 to meet his foster mother.
Paola and her family enjoy their ties to Bellingham’s Korean community, as friends, members of the First Korean Baptist Church, and eager learners of the language. She also teaches at the low-residency M.F.A. program at City University in Hong Kong.
“I’m intensely aware of the adoptiveness of life. To a certain extent, your friends, your family, all the people in your life are those you’ve adopted,” says Paola, whose book also explores adoption, culturally and historically, and motherhood, in general. Being a parent has expanded her notion of family, shed light on her own troubled childhood, and helped her heal her relationship with her now-elderly and infirm parents. “My mother had a hard time having a daughter. Now she’s got Alzheimer’s and is very needy. I think it’s the mother side of me that’s come through to help take care of her,” she says.
Paola visits her parents multiple times a year in New Jersey, where she was born. Growing up there in the late ’60s to early ’70s, she spent part of each summer in the Pine Barrens area, one of the most environmentally contaminated places in the country. Its leached chemicals from corporations and a nearby nuclear plant assaulted the neighborhood, and for Paola that meant pollution-related illnesses.
She talks about this in “Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir” (Counterpoint, 2002). Her first nonfiction work, and with her pen name (originally “to have some distance from my family”), it was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the year and won an American Book Award.
The pages turn through her teens: Paola struggling with bipolar disorder, which runs in her family, dropping out of high school and getting a G.E.D.; and being dependent on drugs. “When I was 17, I took an overdose of methadone and was sick for a week. When it was over, I just couldn’t do it anymore. And I didn’t ever go back.”
Somewhere in there, she wrote – poems, plays, songs. “It was such an escape route and safety valve for me. But neither of my parents was particularly interested in literature, and no teachers were, either. I didn’t have huge plans for my writing, or know where I was going with it.”
After Paola’s bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College, where she met her husband, the two went off to the University of Virginia, he for a Ph.D. and she an M.F.A. in poetry. “First I primarily wrote poetry, then I started dealing with more expansive topics, but I’d still pound them into poems. They were getting longer and longer and didn’t fit, and so I just started doing them in prose.” Eventually, she received a Pushcart Prize, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and other awards.
“Teaching was the occupation that went along with writing, but I discovered that I really loved it.” Half-time tenured at Western since 1992, Paola teaches mostly creative writing, as well as research-based and environmental writing, women’s studies and literature. She says, “As a
writer, I’m very much words on paper, but as a teacher, I’m fascinated by alternative forms,” with multimedia writing(video, graphic essays, animated artwork and hypertext) and digital publishing.
While her students “constantly give me focus and ideas,” for her own writing, she gives them “an enormous amount of my time and attention,” says Paola. “I try to understand people’s strengths and teach them how to use them. I definitely push and challenge them, but also nurture.”
“Suzanne is a dynamic teacher. She’s always bringing in new material, and on the lookout for how the field is evolving, regarding ethics, pushing boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, and the digital age,” says Brenda Miller, coauthor with Paola of “Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction” (McGraw-Hill, 2012).
“I’ve structured an entire course around this book,” says Julie Marie Wade (’03, MA, English), an assistant professor of creative writing at Florida International University and former student of Paola’s. “I was floored by the way she taught. She has this huge range, open to all kinds of poetry. And I loved that she had a plan, but she could also interact with your work on the fly. She’s a model for a lot of how I want to be as a creative writing teacher,” a profession she never considered until Paola. “She’s living the life that a lot of people told me you couldn’t have – the life of the literary person.”
It’s a life that often means spending more time promoting your new books, with author appearances and readings, than writing. “That can be a little bit frustrating,” admits Paola. But now, along with working on a poetry manuscript, she’s expanding her Shebooks novella into a novel.
So when she’s not in the classroom, out in her vegetable garden or in the kitchen making strawberry jam – or being mother to a “typical teen,” as she puts it – she’s on the living room sofa, her fingers tapping away. And there’s always something furry nearby.
Claire Sykes (’81, Community Service and the Arts) is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., who covers the arts, wellness, health care, philanthropy, business and general interest for national publications and regional organizations. Her most recent story for Window was a profile of poet Kate Lebo (’05). Claire fondly remembers her Fairhaven independent-study course in poetry with Annis Hovde.