Sojourner Truths

Writer-environmentalist Mary Sojourner speaks out on 'living right.'

Mary Sojourner sent out her first piece of writing, to The New Yorker no less, at a tender age: a poem in the style of Dorothy Parker, "which is a little bizarre for a 12-year-old," she admits.

Many years later, in 1986, she took her first public environmental stand by joining other Earth First! women and men, all wearing hazmat suits, in blockading a Grand Canyon road in protest of a proposed uranium mine. They were arrested.

Today, Sojourner is known for both her writing and her environmental and social activism. After being bowled over by the Grand Canyon's magnificence on her first visit west in 1984, she relocated to Flagstaff. Her love of the canyon grew to encompass the Southwest, and she became a staunch environmental defender when heedless development began destroying the beautiful places that had nurtured her. Understanding that we cannot separate ourselves from place, she became fearless in expressing her opinions of those despoiling what's left of the Southwest's natural world.

When mansions under construction near Phoenix were torched in environmental protest several years ago, Sojourner declared in an NPR commentary that, had she known who set the fires, she would have provided the matches. Many outraged listeners protested, including the president of the National Homebuilders Association. But her comment flowed from the radical truth-telling Sojourner has developed as part of "living right."

Calling herself "a biased witness" to social and environmental injustices, she says, "I've been accused of being obsessive, of being unforgiving. And I think part of living right is that you're obsessive, and sometimes, you do things that are unforgivable."

She lives what she preaches. She drives a 13-year-old truck, buys clothes at Goodwill (but admits she will spend $70 on a pair of earrings) and absolutely will not enter a big-box store. She despises all of them: Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Sam's Club, Office Max, even Borders and Barnes & Noble. While she can't stop publishers from selling her books through the megastores, she prefers the independents, such as Tucson's Antigone Books or Reader's Oasis.

"I'm always hoping that I'll write the sentence about cutting up your Sam's Club card that's actually going to touch somebody, and they're going to understand why that's important," she says. "I know what big boxes to do local business, and I believe in local business."

Sojourner came to writing through reading, which helped her survive the terrible realities of a suicidal, bipolar mother. Day after day, she escaped to the library in her small town in upstate New York. "Reading saved my life," she says. Despite that early first poem, she did not become a professional writer until 1986. Now, she explains, "Writing is my life. Writing is what I came here to do. And if I don't do it, I'm miserable."

The versatile Sojourner writes in several genres. Delicate: Stories of Light & Desire is her collection of short stories, and Sisters of the Dream her first novel. Her second novel, Going through Ghosts, is due out in 2005. Her collection of personal essays, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest, appeared in 2002, and Scribner's will release her memoir, Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire, in March 2004. In addition, she is a contributor to Writers on the Range and NPR.

As with most good writers, the writing process is tortuous for her. "When writers enter their writing deeply and wholeheartedly, it becomes a spiritual practice," she says. "It requires you to face everything you never wanted to face. It asks you to face surrender--absolute surrender. What I believe in is heartbreaks. Because in a broken heart, there's room for stuff to happen. And if you surrender to writing, you will break your own heart."

Sojourner says she teaches writing "from the same surrender I write with. In my workshops, people seem able to dive into the richness of their own stories and their own poems and images, to wallow around in there and get them out. I believe in this kind of non-process process." She'll teach that process at a workshop Oct. 18 at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Most of us shop at big boxes, even if we don't like them in theory, because it's convenient or the prices fit our budgets. Most of us worry about environmental and social issues. Yet few of us have clarified our beliefs strongly enough to actually live true to them, as Sojourner does. She makes it clear that her choices do not come out of some noble or spiritual stand. Instead, she says, "I am where I am because as I moved through my life, the more comfortable way produced in me such anxiety and depression that I couldn't occupy it. Eventually, my life became a series of choices between comfort and depression or being terrified and feeling fully alive. It absolutely shaped me to be the writer I am."

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