By Jenna Dennison
A group of 13 islanders’ writings will be featured in the new book “Where We Came From,” edited by local author Jeanie Okimoto.
The islanders are part of a local memoir writing group that has met regularly on Vashon since 2008. Since the pandemic, the group has met virtually, on Zoom, every two weeks.
The group is comprised of Lynne Ameling, Colleen Brooks, Alix Clarke, Cherry Champagne, Tom Craighead, Michael Monteleone, Jane Neubauer, Kathy Olsen, Trudy Rosemarin, Jessika Satori, Arlene Schade, Barbara Wells and C.G. Zantz.
Islander Jenni Wilke, the owner of a now-closed local bookstore, Books by the Way, started the group when she noticed how popular memoirs were with her customers.
“It wasn’t uncommon to kind of stand around and talk to people and have them talk about ‘I should write my memoir,’” said Wilke.
This prompted Wilke to create the memoir writing group, and she had asked Okimoto to help facilitate the group. According to Okimoto, Wilke said she could bow out once the group was established.
“Well, obviously, I stayed,” said Okimoto. “I just really loved the people and loved listening to their stories.”
When originally starting the group, it was key to Okimoto to make the group “as open and as free as possible.” Members of the group could bring in whatever they had to read, and members could listen to their fellow writers.
She also wanted to organize the group in such a way that it would not be a class or critique group — rather, a place where those interested in writing their own stories could have a place to be provided with structure and support.
Okimoto believes that encouragement is the best thing that the writers in the group can offer one another. She includes in the introduction of the book a quotation from journalist Elizabeth Drew about longtime New Yorker editor, William Shawn: “the most important thing William Shawn ever gave me was encouragement.”
“People have picked up from one another in a lot of the writing,” said Okimoto. “You can just tell that it gets richer, or more lyrical, or with more wonderful details, and people have been incredibly open in telling their stories. So there’s been really an amazing level of trust that has been built up among the members.”
Okimoto was inspired to publish some of the group’s work when she began to notice how often other members would request to be sent each other’s writings when they heard something they particularly enjoyed.
Okimoto is also the owner of a small publishing company, Endicott and Hugh Books. She felt that publishing a collection of the memoir group’s writings “would be important, or a good thing…to put some of their writing into a book to preserve it for their families, their friends, and future generations.”
As with a majority of books published by Endicott and Hugh Books, the proceeds of the book’s sales will go to a nonprofit organization. In the case of “Where We Came From,” the proceeds will be donated to Vashon Community Care (VCC). VCC means quite a bit to Okimoto, as her mother lived there before she died.
“Where We Came From” is only available for purchase at Vashon Bookshop, unlike most of the other books published by Endicott and Hugh Books.
“This one seemed so private and personal that it seemed to make more sense to keep it on the island,” said Okimoto.
For those who pick up a copy of the book, Okimoto hopes “it might inspire people to write their own stories, about their lives, or their friends and family.”
Wilke, who is now a first and second-grade teacher in the Seattle Public Schools, draws on the idea of “windows and mirrors” in what she hopes readers will take away from reading the book.
“In teaching, we call it ‘windows and mirrors’ when you read about someone else’s life. You either look in the mirror and kind of see something that connects to yourself and make a connection that way. Or, it’s a window, it is a way to look into someone else’s life and connect that way,” said Wilke.