I met Tamara Jorell at a Minnesota N.I.C.E. meeting. N. I. C. E. stands for Novelists Inspiring Christian Excellence. It’s our local chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers—except that Tamara doesn’t write fiction. She writes true stories—“narrative non-fiction,” as she refers to it. In a blog called My Blonde Life in the Hood she tells stories about her neighborhood in North Minneapolis. It’s a place that reminds me a lot of where we used to live in Indianapolis a few blocks from the Butler University campus. Tamara’s neighborhood is racially, economically and spiritually diverse, full of real people, not statistics or headlines. She and her family have made it a point to get to know those people and be available to them for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Tamara is a marvelous storyteller. You can check out her latest post or start at the beginning and keep clicking <NEWER> at the bottom to read it like a real book. (I am encouraging Tamara to make it into exactly that—one continuous story for publication.) When I started clicking, I found it hard to stop even though I had other projects I needed to get to. I was thrilled when Tamara agreed to be interviewed for this blog.
Tamara, what motivates you to raise your family in the inner city?
TJ: Both my husband and I grew up in small towns with populations of around 350, but we always had hearts for the city. In 2002, when we were searching for a home in Minneapolis, we told our realtor we wanted the diversity of an inner-city experience. And boy, did we get it. We live in a high-crime, low-income area. Our neighborhood brims with visible needs. We raise our girls in North Minneapolis in the hopes that they'll remember life isn't all about them and that they'll show mercy to those around them.
LH: You have changed names, but your neighbors know you write about them. How do they feel about that?
TJ: I invited my closest neighbors to choose their own names, and they were thrilled to do it and then later read about themselves. They think it's fun! I always ask their permission, though—especially if I'm writing about sensitive topics (like Glenda's cancer and story of healing). Most of the stories are positive ones, but in the case of negative experiences with those I don't really know, I try to change enough details to make the players unrecognizable.
LH: You call your daughters Flicka, Ricka and Dicka for the blog. I loved those stories when I was a child. How have you seen the girls impacted by your commitment to the city?
TJ: The girls, now ages 12, 15, and 16, don't know anything other than inner-city life. They're used to being minorities here. They're also used to the sounds of sirens and gunshots (unfortunately) because it's a way of life in this part of town. They're smart girls who don't take unsafe risks (like going for a walk at night), but they don't live in fear.
LH: You mention a homicide in the corner store you frequent and a break in. Does that kind of thing make you nervous? How do you handle your fears for yourself and your family?
TJ: We've lived in North Minneapolis for almost fifteen years, and I don't fear much anymore. At the beginning, I was often nervous. And I was afraid the time my husband was away on an international trip for work, and I came home with my three little ones and saw our front door had been kicked in. That night I acted calm, but I had the girls (ages 4, 6, and 8 at the time) sleep with me. While they dozed, I prayed hard. It was then I realized that my husband, a federal law enforcement agent, could provide safety for us when he was home, but only God could protect us all the time. More incidents happened after that, but I was never as fearful again.
LH: How have you most been changed by your experiences the past years?
TJ: I see beauty in the brokenness and wholeness around me. I'm touched by the good neighbors we have. We look out for each other, because it's crucial to do so. My favorite psalm, Psalm 16, fits my life. "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places" is how I see my neighborhood. "Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken" is how I focus on God when I hear the screams of sirens or gunshot blasts in the night. I hold onto Him more tightly because of where we live, and I've learned that since there's very little I can control in any area of my life, I might as well surrender it all.
LH: Many of your stories are very ordinary—like the Christmas tree you recently wrote about—but beautifully told. What do you hope readers will take away from your experiences?
TJ: I love writing about the mundane. I see God in everything—in the minutia of my life—and even the dullest things can take on meaning or humor. I've learned my readers span the spectrum, from crusty ex-cops to staunch atheists to Christian homeschool moms, and I wonder why they like reading about my often boring day-to-day activities. Maybe it's because we can all relate to regular things like vomiting, decorating the Christmas tree, getting up in the night with babies, or picking up litter. If they don't already, I hope my readers begin to see God in the small things in their lives too.
LH: Thank you, Tamara. I am still reading from both ends—current blogs as they come out and catching up on the wonderful stories in the past. That basketball hoop in your driveway has been a big help making friends. Thanks for the pic of some of them.
I understand that you have a novel in the drawer. While I suspect that your narrative non-fiction is more powerful than any fiction could be, you are certainly collecting experiences for a rich novel when the right door opens.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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