Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Interview with memoirist Annie Laurie Harris

Today's guest Annie Laurie Harris, talks about her personal story, including her love for Penn State, which she's published in her memoir, It's Easier to Dance

Annie Laurie Harris, the oldest one of her ethnicity who lives independently, was born with cerebral palsy. She has defied the odds and challenged the medical prognosis since early childhood. She continues to live a full and active life in her 6th decade. After achieving her Master's Degree at Penn State University in 1985 she worked as a counselor and advocate for those with a history of chemical dependency.

In 1990, she was recruited by the prestigious World Institute of Disability to be the Assistant Director of the first HIV/Disability Project. Her grant writing expertise is second to none as private foundations funded her innovative research projects again and again. 

Since returning to her home state of PA where she lives near her beloved alma mater, Ms. Harris continues to be involved in her community and avidly supports the Penn State athletic program. Once again,her love of writing helps to supplement her income. Her groundbreaking memoir, It's Easier to Dance, is provocative and thought provoking.

Welcome, Annie. Please tell us about your book.
Because my book, It’s Easier to Dance, is a memoir, I wrote it in a conversational style that allows the reader to travel through history with the main character, myself. Each chapter describes a challenge I had to overcome for not only a person with cerebral palsy but for an Afro-American woman being educated and part of the work force in the sixties. Here is an example:

 “Academics proved to be not much of a challenge, even at the main campus. Mostly I enjoyed the interaction and opportunity to learn and socialize with other people. I carried around a piece of carbon paper and asked whoever was sitting beside me to put the carbon paper in their notebook. That’s how I got my class notes. My having nearly a photographic memory made it easy for me to pass mid-term and final exams. Everybody at the branch campus thought it would be academically more difficult at the main campus, but I soon began to receive honorary academic awards. “

What inspired you to write this book?
Nothing was written by or about an adult with cerebral palsy. As I was beginning to experience the same misconceptions and stereotypes from my childhood, I realized that a book must be written. 
I wanted to give at least one real life example of an African American woman’s life who continues to live successfully with this complex, socially stigmatized birth defect. I wanted others to know that a full, rich life IS possible if YOU decide that’s how it will be!

Excerpt: Femininity
As the group was saying their good-byes, Robert invited me to visit him at his community. As he walked me to the door, he slid his hand along my arm in a gentle caress. That summer was the end of my graduate school course work. I was taking 6 credits, one 3 credit course and one independent study. I hardly went to that class; it was on death and dying. Instead I spent the summer days sitting in the sun at the nearby community watching Robert go about his daily life. He worked on cars and cut wood in the sawmill. Every now and then he would come and see if I needed any water, I always took my lunch and we would chat.
Robert found it difficult to articulate ideas and feelings, as I found it difficult to walk. We came to know each other through touch, dance, smell, and the sound of each other's laughter, and the countless expressions that cross the human face. There was a new baby in the community - Rose and her two-year-old brother Joshua. Robert would carry me piggyback up the hill to their house where we would eat a meal with that family. Like me, Robert loved small children and babies. So we frequently took care of little Rose, who was 3 months old at the time.
 Although there was a strong physical attraction growing between us, it was real slow. It wasn't "I've got to have you or I'll die.” It wasn't like that. Since we were older, there seemed to be some physical intelligence that said it just wasn't time to act on that attraction. Not yet, it just wasn't time. Dusk would come and I would say that it was time to go home. And he would drive me into town. At some point during that summer we took a trip to Maine. Robert drove a truck. He invited me to go with him when I told him my plans to vacation with a friend who lived on a nearby island. We left late in the day and drove all night. Being around him was interesting, it was different. My slowness didn't seem to bother him. He could slow down to my pace as if it were his own. So I never felt rushed with him and he never got in my way with quick movements. He was the first man I knew where my disability wasn’t a significant barrier to being with me for long periods of time. 

What exciting story are you working on next?
I was going to write about my experience with practicing yoga for 14 years. However, I think a book on the importance of self advocacy and how it works is “calling” to be written.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I had written poetry since my teenage years. In college and graduate school, I enjoyed writing. When I realized about 15 years ago that there wasn’t anything written by or about an African American with cerebral palsy, I decided to write my memoir. When I first realized the first 4 chapters were actually going to be a book. I remember thinking, “This is going to be a book, and I’m the author!”                         

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I am nearly always writing “in my head.” Ideas and images come spontaneously at any time. Having a near photographic memory, I “file” things away until I can sit at my computer. Does that make me “full time?” It sure feels that way!

I like to write in the morning because I find myself slowing down at night. I am very busy. I am active in the community. I am very active in supporting Penn State's Athletic Department. I go to all the home football games. I am very social. I am going on a cruise to the Bahamas in December. Also tending to my personal needs takes time.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Being able to draw analogies to things in other cultures so many people can find relevance in what I write.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A wife & mother.

However, my most immediate goal was to become an educated person, a college graduate. This was something my mother wanted for me. She told me there was no such thing as "can't. So rather than dream about a profession, I wanted more than anything to overcome the attitude of people who dismissed my goals because of my disabilities and prove to myself that I could become a college graduate and I did.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I wrote my memoir to inspire hope in others who live with unimaginable challenges. With an attitude of hope, faith and a healthy sense of humor, a rich, full life can be had, if one decides that’s how it’s going to be. No one lives life independently! False pride, self pity, blaming others, and looking backwards (except to bring lessons learned forward) are “luxuries” that will cost one dearly. To the degree one can leave them behind, will be what others remember about your life.

I would love for the readers to enter my Book Launch Contest for the chance to win a Kindle Fire HD. The contest will be live throughout my virtual book tour. If you buy my book, half the proceeds go to a cerebral palsy charity. The Kindle version is on Amazon and the hard copy is on my website: http://www.annielaurieharris.com.

Thank you so much for this interview. It was very nice of you to host my virtual book tour.

I'm happy to be one of the hosts for your tour, Annie. Thank you for sharing so much.

Readers, you can connect with Annie through:
And don't forget to enter to win a Kindle Fire HD:


Rita Wray said...

The book sounds wonderful

Unknown said...

I am DELIGHTED with ths interview and enjoyed responding to your questions, Thank you so much for posting it and allowng me o share part of my life with your readers. I very much look forward to responding to commdents and questions. I so appreciaate your encouragement!

Thank you!

Unknown said...

Wow, no wonder the author wrote a memoir, it sounds like her life was pretty amazing from beating the odds medically to having a rich inspiring career as well. Thanks for sharing the interview

fencingromein at hotmail dot com

Lisa Haselton said...

Happy to be one of your tour hosts, Annie. Your passion really comes through in the interview. Thanks so much for sharing!

Unknown said...

It is my pleasure.

Unknown said...

Thank you for hosting Annie :)

Suzie said...

Great book. Wondering if you plan on writing more in the future?

Unknown said...

Thank you. I do plan on writing a book on Self Advocy. No title yet.

Unknown said...

I have enjoyed your excerpts and look forward to reading the book. Annie, I met you in the parking lot on the Baylor campus. You rode up to me on your cart and spoke with me about no ramps on the curbs. My son has Cerebral Palsy. Thank you for visiting with me that day.

Unknown said...

karen, Thank you for remembering me and following my book tour. If you would like a signed "hard" copy for your son, just click the "DONATE" button on my blog and I will mail it to you. 50% of all funds through the end of my book tour are being donated for cerebral palsy research and direct services. Please feel free to contact me by email if I can be of help to you as an advocate as you raise your son.
many blessings