|Charlene Willing McManis,
photo by Pam Vaughn
If the collective noun for writers is a plot, then several subplots are mourning the loss of one of their own.
Charlene Willing McManis died May 1, 2018, at home in the small Vermont town where she had lived for the past 30-plus years. In addition to her family and friends, Charlene leaves a Vermont writing community, a Native American writing community, and a forthcoming middle-grade novel, Indian No More, to be published by Tu Books in fall 2019.
Born in Portland, Oregon, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (Umpqua), Charlene moved to California with her family.
After graduation from Inglewood High School and a brief stint in banking, Charlene joined the U.S. Navy. That she would choose this branch of the service made a lot of sense, because Charlene loved the ocean.
While stationed on Guam, she met fellow service member Roger McManis. Such was the depth of her love for Roger that when they left the service in 1986, she moved to land-locked Vermont and made it home for the rest of her life.
Charlene was only 64 years old—and how she would have disputed that “only.” Charlene’s approach to life was unfailingly positive and she lived life fully. First came family: She and her husband had five children—four from his first marriage and one together—and seven grandchildren, and she loved nothing more than to be surrounded by as many of them as possible.
Charlene was also deeply involved in her community. On the veterans’ side, she was a member of the American Legion and VFW. On the artistic side, she directed musical theater and theater at a number of central Vermont venues, served briefly on the board of the League of Vermont Writers, and never failed to volunteer for the New England SCBWI conferences she attended.
|Charlene (right) volunteering at the registration table
for 2014 New England SCBWI conference, photo by Pam Vaughn
If Charlene was sitting, her hands were busy with handwork, including Native beadwork and crafting Native dolls. In her last months, Charlene completed graduation feathers for her grandchildren.
Education was most important to Charlene. She made sure students at her local elementary school had the energy to learn by starting the breakfast program there; that breakfast program led to the school’s hot lunch. In 2011, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Native American Education from Union Institute and University’s Vermont College.
She also served three years as a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and was always ready to contribute a Native American perspective—when “We are all immigrants” was filling social media, Charlene provided the succinct reminder, “Some of us were already here” when the first Europeans landed.
Charlene, The Writer
Storytelling was another of Charlene’s talents, and while she was working in schools, she began to write.
Kate Ross, a long-time educator and one-time co-worker, remembered,
“We shared stories about our young daughters and about life in general. I knew Charlene’s heart was in the right place—caring about the well-being of children and others, filling bellies and souls. She shared her cultural background, passing valuable information on to next generations. Years later, we were both pleasantly surprised to meet at the NESCBWI conference, where we began writing adventures and our critique group together.”
Kate was one of the first, if not the first, to see the story that would become Indian No More.
Charlene talked Kate into attending one of the early Writing the Novel for Children and Young Adults retreats held at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I met them both.
Vermont is a small state, and plenty of children’s writers call it home, but in the days before social media, it wasn’t always easy to find “your people.”
Charlene began her open mic with: “My name is Charlene and I am a writer. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and I can’t get it out of my head. I have to get up and write it down.” Her confessional had us all howling with laughter and recognition, and at that moment, I knew I needed to know her better.
Charlene, Kate and I met for coffee and to talk writing several times, but eventually life got complicated, as it often does when children are teenagers, and our meetings ceased. Most years we’d catch up at New England SCBWI conferences, which Charlene attended regularly.
Charlene not only volunteered at conferences, but gave wonderful critiques and was generous with her praise and laughter. When news of her death went out on the regional listserv, she was also remembered for her kindness.
Sarah Rosenthal hosted a more recent local writers’ group Charlene belonged to. Sarah recalled:
“I remember reading her first draft of Indian No More and thinking that it was a story that needed to make it into classrooms throughout the United States. Written from the perspective of a young girl, Charlene crafted a beautiful story of Indian identity during the tribal termination in the fifties.”
When We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) announced its inaugural mentorship contest in 2016, Sarah immediately sent the information to Charlene, who applied.
“Several months later, I received a text from Charlene that she had won the middle grade division of the contest and was matched with author Margarita Engle. This began Charlene’s journey into revisions and reshaping her novel.”
“I was so honored to work on ‘Indian No More’ with Margarita Engle as my mentor. It was a wish come true! She was so insightful in my work and helped me tremendously to improve my storytelling.”
The pairing with was particularly apt, because, in addition to basic writing advice, Margarita could provide the perspective of Charlene’s Cuban-American classmates, who faced their own difficulties and challenges.
When she learned of Charlene’s passing, Margarita wrote,
“I love her like a sister, and I love her book. I learned as much from her as she learned from me.”
Encouraged by the validation of the mentorship, Charlene took another chance and submitted her manuscript to Lee & Low Book’s New Visions Award. She also signed up to attend the 2016 Kweli Color of Literature Conference.
|Charlene with Laura Kaye Jagles (Tesuque Pueblo/Western Shoshone/Paiute) (seated), Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe), Traci Sorell (Cherokee), Natalie Dana (Passamaquoddy), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee) at #Kweli16 conference.|
“Charlene was such a bright light and generous spirit. I am so very grateful that I had the chance to meet her at #Kweli16. I gained another sister that day.”
Laura’s words are echoed by playwrite, poet and freelance writer Marcie Rendon’s (White Earth Anishinabe):
“From our first meeting Charlene was a warm and generous person.”
And Traci, who is a Cynsations reporter, wrote,
“Charlene brightened any space she entered. Her smile, warmth and authenticity embraced you and made you feel welcome.”
|Charlene at #Kweli16|
At the same time, writer Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee) noted,
“In the brief time I spent with Charlene, her passion for telling her nation’s story was clear. She emanated with a kindness and a devotion to teaching using her talents and knowledge.”
Traci spoke for a host of Charlene’s friends when she wrote:
“I grieve the loss of her physical presence deeply. But I take comfort that her book, Indian No More, will be part of her legacy in addition to the love and encouragement she gave to those who knew her.”
“I was drawn to the book, as I’d been actively looking for Indigenous voices. There are so few books out there about Native Americans from a Native perspective that I gave it a second look just knowing she was Umpqua, and hoping the book would be good. I took a second look at her book after the contest for that year was over and asked her if she’d like to send me the full manuscript outside the contest.”
Charlene did. Stacy’s reaction was strong:
“Knowing what I know about Native American history and how the U.S. treated Indigenous people—and how little I was taught about this in school—reading this book hit with a gut punch.
“I did not know about tribal termination, despite the remedial reading I’d done over the years, and to hear about the personal experience of it from the point of view of a young girl who doesn’t quite know who she is yet, or why the government is telling her she can’t be Indian anymore, was just such a powerful read.
“This is such an important book—I can’t wait to share it with the world.”
Stacy sent the manuscript to Elise McMullen-Ciotti (Cherokee), Native freelance editor/sensitivity reader. Elise said,
“I was asked, ‘Would you let us know what you think about this?’ I printed it out, stapled it together like a book, sat on my couch, and read it almost clear through in one sitting. Because I read with a pen, I began marking the margins with hearts and ‘love’ and ‘true,’ and stars and underlining.
“There were times when I cried, sitting with the manuscript next to me just to be with it for a while. There was still work to be done, I marked that, too. But I knew that this was what I call ‘true true.’ A true representation of our history and present lives without trope or stereotype for Non-Natives, and a heart-true story for Natives—a mirror, a knowing.”
Charlene’s friends rejoiced when the announcement appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, Publishers Weekly.
Indian No More is slated for publication in Fall 2019.
Charlene’s life on this earth may have ended May 1, 2018, but the ripple of her impact runs far and deep. She leaves a loving family and friends, and memories of generosity, warmth, laughter, and caring.
“I only met her the one time at Kweli, but as she was dying of cancer, she was as concerned about the health issues I was dealing with as she was with her own situation.”
It was so like Charlene to be concerned for someone else’s welfare.
Marcie speaks for me and for so many of Charlene’s friends when she said,
“I was humbled and honored to be included in her journey as she beautifully showed all of us how to fully embrace the life we live each day and how to graciously and generously shift worlds.”
These are intangible legacies. Charlene leaves tangible ones as well.
Laura Pegram, editor-in-chief of Kweli Journal, recently announced:
“Kweli plans to honor Charlene’s memory with a scholarship in her name for emerging Native writers interested in attending the Color of Children’s Literature Conference.”
The next conference will be held in spring 2019.
Charlene also leaves her book baby, Indian No More, scheduled for publication in fall 2019.
As Traci said,
“Charlene’s book will help educate others about the impact of two federal policies—termination and relocation—on Native American tribes and their citizens nationwide. Unfortunately, this is not a well-known area of our national history. But Indian No More, drawn from some of her own childhood experiences, shines a light on this era and the ramifications of those policies that we still live with today.”
Elise recalls a line from the book:
“Chish, Regina’s grandmother, says, ‘Regina, just remember this. It is your heart that makes you Indian. It is our stories that keep you Indian.’”
Charlene kept the stories, and shared them. Sarah Rosenthal said:
“As we say good-bye to a woman who kept her culture alive through her writing, we welcome the birth of her book Indian No More into the world. I look forward to next year, when I can revisit my friend again in the pages of her book.”
If you live near Charlene’s beloved ocean, next time you are at the shore, honor the final wish she posted on Facebook: “I will become the ocean. When you see the ocean, please think of me.”
And when Indian No More comes out in 2019, please join us in celebrating Charlene’s achievement.
Author Interview: Charlene Willing McManis on Mentorships & Believing in Your Work by Traci Sorell from Cynsations.