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Speaking for the Unrepresented

In her new book Piano Glass/Glass Piano, USC College’s Marjorie Becker scripts the stories of the voiceless.

By Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody
February 17, 2011

Marjorie Becker, associate professor of history in USC College, creates the stories of individuals often overlooked by the general population in her new book, <em>Piano Glass/Glass Piano</em>. Portrait photo credit Jie Gu.

Marjorie Becker, associate professor of history in USC College, creates the stories of individuals often overlooked by the general population in her new book, Piano Glass/Glass Piano. Portrait photo credit Jie Gu.

Writing for Marjorie Becker is not such an arduous task. Rising at 6 a.m. each morning, she grabs a pen and welcomes the emotions and thoughts that flood her mind to flow onto the paper.

Although she has honored her longstanding appointment with her craft for years, her approach to writing is not as structured as others. Rather than draft outlines or force herself to find something — anything — to write about, the creative writer and poet allows words to guide her.  More often she creates the stories of individuals from the Deep South, Latin America or Spain, such as in her new book, Piano Glass/Glass Piano (Tebot Bach, 2010). 

“What I am trying to do in all my writing, my hope, is to lend voice to voiceless people or unvoiced people,” explained Becker, associate professor of history in USC College, in a soft southern accent. “I write from my unconscious and with these poems it was not so much that I, Marjorie Becker was writing the poems it was that they were writing me.”

So, she wrote. Becker was propelled by a realization that groups in the Deep South of her native Macon, Ga., were often overlooked by the general population — particularly Jewish and African American peoples. She was also moved by the story of a woman who touched Becker with her kindness before being driven to suicide by her husband.

In time another element that caught the historian’s attention arose during her time with the Peace Corps in South America where she, the often intuitive observer, was provided a deeper glimpse into the lives, struggles and kindness of prostitutes in South America. Experiences she weaved into the fabric of her poems.

What began as a novel, continued to evolve ultimately emerging as her third poetry manuscript and second poetry book, Piano Glass/Glass Piano. As an expert in Latin American history, each trip or bout of research has led Becker to new discoveries that result in passionately written literature.

“I have no idea where this stuff comes from,” admitted Becker who holds a doctorate and two master’s degrees in Latin American history with a third master’s in history with a focus on the Deep South and African American history. “It is sort of like my database is this life surrounded by these fascinating other people.”

As though responding to her determination to provide a voice for the unheard, the poems sing with complex and rapturous cadences. Each one opens the door to the lives of characters, particularly to that of the narrator, Marnie, a Jewish woman from Macon, whose family left her to be raised by African American relatives. In poems varying from half-a-page to four pages in length, Becker tells the story of a woman who is figuring out how to make a world out of her emotional and physical skills.

Divided into five chapters, each section brings the characters to life as their stories unfold. The kind Suzannah cares for Marnie after her family leaves. The graceful, sad and beautiful Amanda is driven to suicide by her husband, Carlton. If only for a moment, these characters emerge as real people as their passion, kindness and emotions are the center of attention.

Many of these voices fought to be heard by Becker during what proved to be the toughest of the writing process. Figuring out what to keep, toss or revise was difficult for the self-proclaimed perfectionist since she was guided by the poems. “These people felt like they had gone unheard,” Becker said. “They really wanted someone to pay attention and let them speak.”

Becker’s characters can be heard when she officially launches Piano Glass/Glass Piano this spring in Santa Monica. She has also been invited to read at the Second Sunday Poetry Series in Pasadena and the Los Angeles Times Book Festival to be held at USC April 30 to May 1.