Author, educator Jana Laiz still busy keeping local history, literature alive through her work

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EGREMONT — Jana Laiz approaches her work with a mother's passion and a child's heart.

Her oeuvre of work is at once topical — touching upon themes of refugee resettlement, environmental activism, civil and human rights — yet tender. She nurtures readers and budding scribes through book clubs and writing circles, and in her own work, writes of a granddaughter's love and admiration for her grandfather; a boy's caring of a chicken; lullabies sung beneath a "Blanket of Stars."

Now, Laiz is combining her past and present work to pave way for the future.

Laiz, who, in 2012, was the inaugural writer-in-residence for Berkshire County Historical Society at Herman Melville's Arrowhead, was appointed in April to the position of education coordinator there. Her new role involves deepening and expanding the link between Berkshire County Historical Society, Melville's work and local history and literature as it's taught and learned in area schools.

While Arrowhead is closed to the public to help stop the spread of COVID-19, Laiz is preparing to launch some virtual reading and writing groups this month. One project will be geared toward adults featuring "Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick" by Michael Shelden. The other is a multi-generational program she's designing around her youth historical fiction novel, "Billy Budd in the Breadbox: The Story of Herman Melville and Eleanor."

"One of the reasons I wrote 'Billy Budd in the Breadbox' was because of Eleanor, the 9-year-old girl who had this incredible, warm, loving relationship with her grandfather. We would not have known his work — Melville died in obscurity and would have remained there — if the relationship with his granddaughter would not have been really strong. She wanted her grandfather's name to live," Laiz said.

Prior to this pandemic, Laiz had been a writer-in-residence with St. Agnes Academy in Dalton, working with children across grade levels who were reading her works. This spring, they were supposed to participate in an oral history project, interviewing older adults in the town.

"My grandparents never told me anything. Sharing stories, having this oral history, is so important," Laiz said.

Jennifer Browdy, a fellow author and educator with whom Laiz co-founded Green Fire Press in 2014, writes in an email interview about Laiz: "There's a part of Jana that is still a little kid, and that's why she's such a terrific children's and young adult author and elementary/middle school teacher. She feels things very deeply, and she is always looking for opportunities to make the world better through her writing and teaching. She's also very sensitive to how present-day culture is rooted in the past — you can see this in her historical novels and her work with Arrowhead, the Colonel Ashley House and other local cultural organizations."

Child writer turned children's writer

The author is a self-described "Jewish girl from Long Island " who grew up in Queens and Westchester, N.Y., before moving to the Berkshires in 1986. "I'm full Berkshire now," she said during a phone interview from her Egremont home.

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It's where she's raised her now-adult children, Zoe and Sam.

"I've been writing since I was a child and I wrote a lot of books for my children," Laiz said. "They would look at me and say, tell me a story, and I would write so many stories for them. Some of them better than others," she said with a laugh.

Before deepening her teaching and writing career, Laiz was a Chinese studies major at New York University, who then went on to work as a refugee resettlement counselor, and once operated an Asian art and antiques emporium from her front parlor. She got her master's degree in education from Westfield State University, along with the certifications to work with English language learners.

Laiz has immense compassion for the environment and human welfare. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, she and her Berkshire Country Day School students partnered with visual artist Karen Arp-Sandel to create handmade books to sell at The Bookstore in Lenox to help raise relief funds for those affected by Australia's wildfires.

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Now, in this pandemic, Laiz says, "Frankly, I don't know what to make of this." She said she's stayed focused on being grateful for the resources she has, on continuing to work, and keeping students connected through a virtual writing group.

"But I'll admit, I was in the grocery store the other day, standing there in my mask in front of the hummus, and began to weep," she said.

Which she's OK with, and wants her students and readers to be OK with too.

"Your feelings are also important. Going deeper into writing about stuff, and allowing myself to be really afraid, or really angry — it's really powerful to take all those feelings and put them down on paper," Laiz said. "Some people dance. Some people dig in the garden. I write."

Her stories, re-imagined

Laiz does not leave her work to a passive shelf life, rather she actively promotes and adapts her stories as live readings, writing workshops, audiobooks, stage work and even screenplays.

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Back in November, to toast Melville's 200th birthday, Laiz launched her third audiobook, "Billy Budd in the Breadbox," recorded by Shakespeare & Company actors Caroline Calkins and Tom Jaeger. Previously recorded are "A Free Woman on God's Earth: The True Story of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, the Slave Who Won Her Freedom" and "Weeping Under This Same Moon," the latter narrated by actress Caroline Huang McLaughlin and Zoe Laiz (Jana's daughter and actress), and produced under the locally-based studio, Alison Larkin Presents.

"A Free Woman on God's Earth" was co-written with Ann-Elizabeth Barnes, a historic site interpreter for the Ashley House in Sheffield where the legacy of Mumbet, the African woman who in 1781, successfully sued for her own freedom from slavery. The audiobook version is narrated by acclaimed actress, Adenrele Ojo.

Film options for both "A Free Woman on God's Earth" and "Weeping Under This Same Moon" are currently in development.

Laiz and Browdy are in the process of publishing the 10th book under Green Fire Press, tentatively titled, "35 Days to Baltimore," the story of an undocumented man's journey from Honduras to Charm City. It's written as told to Laiz and is also being translated into a Spanish language version by Berkshire Country Day School teacher, Miguel Silva.

"I feel really honored to write down the words that he gave me," Laiz said of the story's source.

The unceasing author is also working on her most challenging book yet — her own memoir.

"It's about figuring life out after a divorce, about immigration and climate change. I basically lay my heart and soul out there. It's a little bit scary," she said.

Still, she said, she's looking for an agent while continuing to press on with her other projects.

Said Laiz to herself, "Now's the time get over your fear, woman."

For projects and updates about Jana Laiz's work, visit www.janalaiz.com.


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