"What I come from has made me who I am."
Author Janisse Ray is Keene State’s Writer-in-Residence
"Turning back to embrace the past has been a long, slow lesson not only in self-esteem but in patriotism – pride in homeland, heritage. It has taken a decade to whip the shame, to mispronounce words and shun grammar when the mispronunciation and misspeaking are part of my dialect, to won the bad blood. What I come from has made me who I am." – from "Shame." Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
Janisse Ray, whose memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is Keene State College’s summer reading book for 2004-05, will also serve as the College’s first writer-in-residence this year.
Now in its fourth year, the summer reading program is a shared academic experience for first-year students. During the summer, the entering class and their parents are encouraged to read the book and think about a series of discussion questions. The book is then discussed in English 101 (essay writing), and other first-year courses.
The intention of the summer reading program, says Mark Long, chair of the English department, is to prepare students for the demands of college reading and writing, to develop critical thinking skills. This year, students will also discuss class and bioregional diversity.
"We also want students to make connections between their lives and where they live, and the people and geography of the United States," says William Stroup, assistant professor of English and head of the program this year.
In Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Ray examines place as a force in shaping character. "How can you lead a better life," she asked recently on campus. "What holds up, what is hollow? How can we live on this planet – be engaged with communities and landscape – in an industrial society?" She intends to help each student get at these questions through writing and narrative.
Ray grew up in a junkyard along U.S. Highway 1, hidden from Florida-bound travelers by the hedge at the edge of the road and by hulks of old cars, stacks of blown-out tires, and primeval jumbles of rusted metal. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood tells how a childhood spent in rural isolation—living in the country but not even knowing how to swim—grew into a passion to save the almost vanished longleaf pine ecosystem that existed before the region was ever called the South.
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood introduces readers to the world perceived from a junkyard by a child reared in a fundamentalist religion with relatives as colorful as any character from fiction. Ray’s exploration of her own family story reminds readers of the complicated connections between humans, communities, and the natural world. The vanishing longleaf pine ecosystem and the harsh life of the southern "cracker" (poor but resourceful, proud but sometimes careless with resources) provide Ray and her readers with a glimpse at the regional and bioregional diversity of the United States; at the same time, Ray’s story invites readers to consider their own tangled legacies—through the recovery and reassessment of their family history and the meaning these stories hold for our lives.
Ray earned a graduate degree in creative nature writing from the University of Montana, where her chapbook, Naming the Unseen, won the 1996 Merriam-Frontier Award. She has been an assistant editor at Florida Wildlife and has taught English in Colombia and has served as a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. Ray has published essays and poems in Wild Earth, Hope, Tallahassee Democrat, Alaska Quarterly Review, Missoula Independent, Natural History, Orion, Orion Afield, Florida Wildlife, Florida Living and Georgia Wildlife, among others. She has been a nature commentator for Georgia Public Radio.