In 1974, during a summer vacation from teaching biology, I told Sara Brooks I was designing a course in cultural anthropology. Brooks responded with recollections about her childhood life mule farming in Alabama. Moved by the substance and poetry of her stories, I asked Brooks to collaborate with me on a book. Intermittently for 10 years—with tears, laughter, and knee slapping—narrator and editor worked side by side in Brooks' kitchen. You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks is the outcome.
That same summer, to experience agricultural life first hand, I lived in a village in Greece. Because interviewing Sara Brooks had satisfied the listener and awakened the storyteller in me, I returned frequently to Greece to record villagers' stories and my own. I published these accounts—along with gossip about the “American girl” and photographs I made—in Dancing Girl: Themes and Improvisations in a Greek Village Setting.
Somewhere between traveling red ribbon roads in Sara Brooks’ rural Alabama in search of potato banks to photograph and writing down the details of my first experience picking olives in Greece, I began to foresee writing personal essays that would link pivotal moments in my childhood to my life as an artist. About the time I began penning these essays, I retired my camera and picked up a brush. My third book, Dances in Two Worlds: A Writer-Artist’s Backstory, is both literary and visual.
Thordis Niela Simonsen
by Thordis Niela Simonsen
Funded in part by a grant from the Kittredge Educational Fund
Winner of the Colorado Book Award 2012 in creative nonfiction
Dances in Two Worlds is a writer-artist’s backstory composed of two parallel narratives, one verbal and one visual. Each of the twenty essays begins with a detail from Thordis’ childhood—postcards her grandmother sent, admonitions from her mother, scraps of wood found in her father’s workroom—and spirals forward in time.
The works on paper span twenty years. Vibrant color and decisive strokes define Thordis’ paintings, which are often dreamlike. The early images, made in a Jungian therapy setting, are introspective and have a naïve, psychological quality. Recent pieces, based in nature, are more open and lyrical.
The paintings do not illustrate the text; the writing does not interpret the paintings. That said, both written and painted images spring, broadly speaking, from the same life experience. It is not surprising, therefore, that the solo traveler described in the essays paints solitary figures, that recollections of a childhood deprived of touch are reiterated in the form of hands painted on paper, that crimson resides in the color palette of someone who knows and writes about anger, that the hand that penned stories about bold steps toward freedom paints strikingly confident lines.
In the book’s first essay, “Fireflies,” Thordis recollects a summer activity familiar to anyone who grew up in the Mid-west—collecting lightning bugs in a jar. The jar that Thordis evokes is a metaphor for the light trapped in each of us. Every painting and essay in this luminous memoir represents a firefly released from that jar. Radiant and intimate, Dances in Two Worlds is both a testimony to this writer-artist’s irrepressible creative spirit and a catalyst for the reader-viewer’s own bold adventures in life and in art.
The Fundamental Note, 2011, trade paper, 128 pages, 57 plates, ISBN 978-0-9629766-7-4.
Available by check from astragreece inc. and from PayPal.
This is a stunningly beautiful book. Radiant and intimate, the paintings and essays are luminous reflections on Simonsen’s life. Together, the images and the writings reveal a joyful and generous and questing heart.
—Meredith Hall, Without a Map
Very many thanks for your lovely essays and pictures. I am very moved [by] your approach to the dance and the story and life.
—Sir Laurens van der Post, A Mantis Carol, A Far Off Place, A Story Like the Wind
Thordis Simonsen is a soul worth knowing. Her art and artistry ignite a flow of grace. Like May Sarton, she bears witness to the life well-lived.
—Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way, The Right to Write
by Thordis Simonsen
Funded in part by a grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust
On July the Fourth, 1974, Thordis Simonsen went for the first time to Elika, a village in the Greek Peloponnese. She observed the village scene, made photographs, and wrote in her journal. In 1982, Thordis left her job teaching biology and anthropology, sold her middle-aged car, placed her beloved cat in a carefully chosen foster home, and moved to Elika. One day Thordis sat with an itinerant saddlemaker. When a village man passed by, the saddlemaker called out, "She tells me she has lived in Elika for over a year now." The villager proclaimed, Yes, it's true. She's an Elikiotissa now! The villagers call Thordis an Elikiotissaa woman of Elikabecause she participates widely in village life. She attends weddings and pig slaughters, goes to sea with fishermen, roams the hills with shepherds, picks olives, and reaps wheat. She also bought and single-handedly restores a roofless peasant dwelling long used as a sheep corral. In 1991, Thordis published Dancing Girl: Themes and Improvisations in a Greek Village Setting. Rendered in details down to the patches on a farmer's work shoes, this collection of forty-four vignettes interweaves stories villagers told Thordis with stories Thordis told about Elika and gossip she overheard about the American girl. The result is a portrait of a Greek village in transition and an American woman's metamorphosis. Thordis learned the meaning of hospitality from a goatherd who inhabited an exalted mountain realm; she learned patience from a local carpenter who defied his own deadlines; she learned the meaning of wit and wisdom from a great-grandmother who was unschooled. Above all, Dancing Girl acknowledges the ties that bind us all: feelings that need to be expressed and a human spirit that wants to be set free.
The Fundamental Note, 1991, trade paper, 200 pages, 16 photographs, ISBN 0-9629766-4-4.
Available by check from astragreece inc. and from PayPal.
This muted, gently moving memoir [is] closely written, precisely described, simply toldwith no punches pulled.
Each of the vignettes is an epiphany. Some of them made me cry for their purity. Some made me laugh out loud. Dancing Girl is a genuine encounter.
Ramona Gault, Northwest Ethnic News
An anthropologist who gave up classroom teaching for the opportunity to live with her subjects in the field, Simonsen makes the reader privy to the intimate details of people’s lives—her subjects' and hers—in a style that is both journalistic and sympathetic. Simonsen can write. Well.
—Green Valley News and Sun
A delightful ode to a people and their homeland.
edited by Thordis Simonsen/foreword by Robert Coles
You May Plow Here: The Narrative of Sara Brooks records the life of an African-American woman, the daughter of a freeholder, a migrant North. Born in 1911, Sara Brooks was raised alongside seventeen other dependents by her father and stepmother on a fifty-three acre farm in west-central Alabama. To some extent protected by land ownership from the harshness of Jim Crow, Sara Brooks led a lively, hard working childhood. At eighteen, she married a man who abused her. Separating from him, she followed her brother to Mobile and then to Cleveland, where she settled permanently in 1944. Working in the domestic service, she saved. In 1957, in the tradition of ownership established by her father, Sara Brooks purchased her own home. Her dispossessed children rejoined her; the restoration of her family was her ultimate solace. Sara Brooks had undertaken city life prepared solely with the values her father had instilled in her: honesty, work, faith in God, and respect for others. You May Plow Here attests to her father's goodness and to Sara Brooks' spirit for lifeespecially to the hope and determination she set against hardship.
W.W. Norton, 1986, trade paper, 224 pages, $8.95, ISBN 0-393-30866-9
A powerful story of survival that will live for generations.
The San Francisco Chronicle
A joy and revelation.... A story about immense courage, faith and spirit.
The Washington Post
You don't just read You May Plow Here, you listen to it. Brooks' vivid pictorial memory allows her to conjure up scenes from 70 years ago as though they had occurred an hour ago.
The Denver Post
A prideful, joyful outpouring.... To read You May Plow Here is not so much to read a book as to meet a woman of exceptional character.... This book fits neatly onto the shelf of what Alice Walker calls "womanist prose."
Longtime friend Simonsen edited her tapes of Brooks so sensitively that there is little distance between reader and storyteller; she activates voice on the printed page in much the same way author Studs Terkel did in his book Working.