By Anne K. Kaler, PSBVA
When Pearl Buck arrived at Randolph-Macon College, she realized almost immediately that her clothes were not fashionable or suitable for a college girl of 1910. What was she to do? On her limited budget, she could not purchase new ones so she did what women have been doing forever – she transformed the clothes she had into more fashionable ones by using her skills in sewing.
So also do writers transform their awkward memories into pieces of written art for their reader. That’s why this Journal is in existence – to showcase the growing skills of our Writers Guild. That being said, let’s inspect just how Pearl was able to transform her outdated wardrobe into suitable college attire.
Having spent most of her life in China as the daughter of missionary parents, Pearl’s clothing resembled the styles her mother remembered from West Virginia of the late 1800’s. Pearl was a quick learner and applied the same sewing techniques throughout her life when she met similar problems. Below is a list of how she transformed the old into the new.
Imagine, if you will, Pearl’s life as a giant quilt made from snippets of fabrics from her life, her travels, her joys and sorrows, her family, her writings, her obstacles etc. As far as we know, Pearl never actually quilted but the image of what her life’s activities suggests to me that a Life Quilt of her activities might present itself as such.
Her quilt would not be even-edged or square. Rather, it would bulge out the sides of a rectangular form with expansion of her energy trying to break through accepted cultural boundaries. As such, it would have irregular edges, like handles for children to grasp onto.
Her choice of fabrics would be as eclectic as her interests – silk from China, woven homespun wool from West Virginia, vivid batiks from East Asia, paisleys from India, canvas from her camping trips, soft sateen from the Far East, checkered cottons from the South and woven plaids from the North, delicate laces and velvets from Europe. Yes, all these colors and weights might clash in one quilt but all are bound together by strong willful stitches of an experienced seamstress.
Her quilt would have only curved edges – no straight lines or squares – each curve representing Pearl’s arm around her subject, comforting and embracing that activity. Each piece of cloth would have a word or phrase on it declaring the activity she was engaged in. (the list of those words is below.)
- She STITCHED together the patches torn from her own life’s fabric.
- She TRIMMED the rough edges of her own life to fit the quilt.
- She KNITTED families together across racial and cultural borders.
- She SPUN raw material of her memories into useful prose, turning sows’ ears into silken purses.
- She WOVE stories into linear narrative designs, like Charles Dickens did, through storytelling,
- She EMBROIDERED memorable characters in each culture.
- She HIGHLIGHTED social injustices and helped eradicate them.
- She SHIFTED cultural viewpoints toward helping the marginalized.
- She DESIGNED the change in our perception of injustices.
- She TRANSFORMED our world for the better.
Remember that during the Civil War, quilts were first called comforters because they brought the soldiers on both sides a reminder of the warming comforts of home and safety. Pearl’s quilt then should rightly be called a comforter because of the energy she expended in bringing comfort to those who needed it. The power of literature, such as hers, lies in the fact that it “comforts” the reader long after the author is dead.
It is in that spirit that the Volunteers Association’s Writers Guild produces our version of this issue of our Literary Journal. May it comfort and encourage our readers.
Possible patches and words on the quilt itself:
Pearl / silk-knitter / sculptor / mother / writer / peace advocate / mental disabilities / multi-culturalism / racial protest / civil rights / immigration / Chinese / diversity / America / women / family / historic house / tolerance / acceptance / biographies of parents / Pulitzer / Nobel / teacher / playwright / friends / biracial adoption / children / education / travel / psychology / publisher / humanitarian / celebrity / transformative force / leader / . . .
Which ones would you suggest, dear reader?
Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D. As a life-long reader, Anne (always with an “e”) is now attempting to read every book in the universe, while helping to publishing more. Surprised to learn that she was actually a teacher, she persisted in that field for nearly fifty years until she started volunteering at PSB.