Tag Archives: Providence

Story Research: What’s in a Name?


There is much to be said about the origin of words and especially, names.


Whenever I hit a snag in getting a writing idea off the ground, I brainstorm some concepts and look up the etymology of the words.  Almost always that sparks inspiration and a clearer sense of direction for my writing.

For example, take a look at the etymology of name:

one’s reputation”             “well-known,”             “the essential thing or quality”

When you know someone or something’s name, you know the main, or essential quality of the thing… or I could take this to mean that one’s name could also describe qualities they are well-known for… this would hopefully help me with naming characters.


As a mom, I’ve had the opportunity to name these little people who are my children. I was taught this was the single most important task as a parent as the name has the potential to describe a child’s personality and place in the world. I probably feel this way because of stories my grandmother told me as a child.  A little bit of family folklore:  my grandmother used to say that parents think they name their children, but the name actually already exists out in the world and parents only hear it when the creator wanted them to hear it.  Apparently, the name was their destiny anyway as it reveals information about how they would be in the world. She told me that it was no coincidence that my name is Nada, meaning hope. Yes, very nice, thank you Grandma!  I could get into an interesting debate regarding fate versus free will and all the opposing views that often exist side by side, but that’s for another day!

So what’s in a name? For my creative writing, I am inspired by looking at whether names run with or opposite of what is expected. I think it would be fun to create imagery, settings, and characters based on this concept. There is lots of space here to create multilayered meaning, or irony.

Also, I can’t talk about naming without seeing it from a post-colonial lens: that which you name, you own and control. luckily, many of the original names of places in and around Rhode Island survived all these years.

Roger Williams and the Narragansetts

                               Roger Williams and the Narragansetts

In 1636 Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, settled on the east bank of the river and was told its name by the local Narragansett Indians. The name “Moshassuck” means “river where moose watered”.

Here’s some more name info I’ve gathered:

  • Woonasquatucket River (pronounced /wuːnˈɑːskwəˌtʌkᵻt/, Algonquian for “where the salt water ends”
  • Quinnipiac River: (Quinnipiac) “where we change our route”
  • Conanicut Island: (Narragansett) named for a 17th-century chief Canonicus
  • Conimicut: (Narragansett) thought to be named for granddaughter of Canonicus
  • Hockomock Swamp: (Natick-Abnaki) “evil spirit” or “hellish place”
  • Siasconset: (Narragansett) “at the place of many/great bones” (whales?)


  • Pawtuxet: Little falls confluence of north and south branches of the river at river point village in Warwick. empties into Providence River at Pawtucket River.
  • The place we call Federal hill,  was known as Nocabulabet: place between the ancient waters
  • Moshassuck : river where moose watered source: pond in lincoln’s lime rock preserve.
  • Woonasquatucket: where the salt water ends, Where I wrote about Here!   

This post wouldn’t be complete without a break down of the name I choose for the blog itself several years ago: Now Approaching Providence.

Providence means God’s grace-and grace could mean- among other things- favor, esteem, regard, pardon, mercy.

Turks Head in downtown Providence; looking graceful.

Turks Head in downtown     Providence; looking graceful.

The name fit as I often feel like I might be approaching, but not quite arriving at… Providence.


Happy Writing!


We Are Providence: Featured Essay!


Learn more about Devon, the “Lonely” tagger and support his campaign: https://life.indiegogo.com/fundraisers/lonely-as-i-have-ever-been-providence/x/12087612

One of my essays has recently been featured in Frequency Providence’s first ever anthology, Missing Providence.

Order the Missing Providence Anthology Here! It’s chock full of local talent and great writing:



art and the post-industrial city

art and the post-industrial city

“She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island Where the old world shadows hang heavy in the air She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee Just as her father came across the sea “

– The Eagles, “The Last Resort”

He lives downtown...

He lives downtown…


We Are Providence

Each section of the city of Providence holds magic for me. Mount Pleasant is home to some of the only old growth oaks in the city, Federal Hill’s original Narragansett name is Nocabulabet, which means place between the ancient waters, and Fox Point was a major international shipping center, with slave ships and all. While the sycamores, forgotten bridges, and the layers of history are fair game for any artist searching for inspiration, Providence has burrowed her way into my dislodged center, setting it right again. She has made me feel at home against all odds.

Growing up Palestinian in Rhode Island, my need for relevance and connection was fierce. While undoubtedly this is connected to Palestine’s longing for statehood and international recognition, its also because Rhode Island is not an easy place to immigrate to. Directions are impossible to deal with unless you happen to know “where the old Dunkin Donuts used to be.” Sometimes the same road has several different route numbers and locations are referred to by their “unofficial” name. No, South county is not an actual county. I never set foot in Palestine, but with my Teta’s grandmother stories I at least got to feel like I did. I know the fishermen and orange groves in Yaffa well enough to imagine the sights and sounds of our ancestral land. I remember her countless retellings of that ill fated spring in 1948, with it’s thunderous bombings and dismembered bodies vividly enough to feel as though I witnessed them myself. While my grandmother’s stories were already seeding my identity, my own experience with fleeing Kuwait as a six year old added to the entanglement of roots.

My mother and I fled Kuwait a few weeks after the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Despite the whirlwind of narrowly escaping plundering soldiers, intense dessert heat, and a custody battle that included a thumb-less kidnapper hired by my father’s family, (a story for another day), I was thrown into this new world without so much as a guidebook. In elementary school while my classmates ate peanut butter jelly sandwiches, I ate Zaet and Zaatar pita my mom packed. In second grade you could easily spot me in the school cafeteria. I was that girl with the frizzy braids and thick rimmed pink glasses, (before they were cool) patiently explaining in broken English that no, I wasn’t eating bird poop, just herbs mixed with olive oil. My mother, finally freed from stifling gender norms could raise me without fear. Since she was divorced, it was law that I would only be with her till age eleven, after which my father-a distant but not wholly unpleasant accountant, would have been my legal guardian. Had my mother remarried or was caught out on a date, she would be deemed an unfit mother, losing custody even sooner, perhaps even securing my fate as a math whiz instead of a writer.

       As the months grew into years, the novelty of Rhode Island faded. I hungered after stability in people and places. I envied my classmates for the simple routines that involved sport practices or family vacations. While they went along their seasonal routines, in my family there was still talk of moving away, of new schools, new relationships, and yet another world to get accustomed to. I ached for a predictable life. I still find myself in awe of people who have the notion that life will unfold in exactly the same way it had for generations. I knew the comfort was an illusion. I understood that friends had some flavor of childhood trauma or economic insecurity rippling beneath the placid surface of their day to day lives, but I envied the illusion. My experiences were too raw to be hidden. They had marked me with a discordant vibration; amplified by the cadence of my mispronounced name. I recognize this discordance is others, in fact, Providence is abuzz with it; all those layers of old world muck latticed through downtown’s polished center. You can see it in people and places like the half collapsed Moshassuck bridge; centuries old, dark in the shadow of newly constructed luxury condominiums. My insecurities mirrored by the city itself. I might not have fit in where I wanted to, but at least Providence understands.

I could never experience home in the same way my Teta did but I could lean on Providence for support. Like so many before me, I have been seduced by this haven for those “distressed for conscience” and I’ld like to think that it’t no mere coincidence. While researching the history of State Pier One’s role in immigration for a story idea, I came across some surprising information.

The Fabre Line, a fleet of steamships, supplied Providence with immigrants well into the twentieth century. Immigration quotas threatened to put the Fabre Line out of business, but they decided to redirect the routes and pick up immigrants and visitors from cities like Beirut, Alexandria and Yaffa. Yaffa! The same city my family was forced to flee in 1948. This steamship came from Providence and went to Yaffa as part of it’s journey, to pick up goods and people way back before my disoriented self ever stood on that Providence pier.

Fabre Line

      Could it be that after several years of defining myself as a misplaced and misunderstood outcast, that I actually been home in Providence after all? Do I have ancestors floating around having a good laugh; chuckling ‘oh silly girl! nothing is random.’ ? I remember downtown before the mall, before Water Place Park and well before those luxury towering condos. The tourism council will have you thinking that Providence always had a glowing face of fancy restaurants and Waterfire, but I knew her before the Botox injections. Before she tried to hide her puffy post-industrial eyes and walk in Boston’s high healed pumps. Maybe if we sit by the Providence River at dusk and look down toward the smoke stacks and consider the gentle lapping of its briny water we could hear the voices that came before us. If we hold still and listen closely we might even hear H. P. Lovecraft famously proclaim, I am Providence. To which we can now respond: “No Mr. Lovecraft. We are Providence”.

misty Providence River

misty Providence River

Fabre Steamship in Providence Hatbor

Fabre Steamship in Providence Hatbor


***PUT PROVIDENCE ON THE LITERARY MAP!!   Support Frequency, order the anthology, check out the featured workshops: http://frequencywriters.org

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Power of Memory: Avi’s “Something Upstairs” and Our Responsibility to Remember


“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to relive it”  Santayna

Avi opens up his young adult historical fiction novel, Something Upstairs, with this fitting quote.

A geek for local literature,  I am glad I finally stumbled on this book ( while, umm… subbing 5th grade).

Providence is small but is layered with a complex, ever emerging history ( Native American resistance, African slave trade, several waves of immigrants)  So, it’s always exciting for me to read something set in Providence. I geek walking around being like “that’s the street so and so was chased down in chapter 10”  

You know that’s cool.  Dont front.

Back when I was teaching 9th grade, I created my own local history curriculum (cue Don LaFountaine voice):  which took my students on an epic and mysterious journey through the hidden history of Providence… There were thrills and chills! and secret slave transportation tunnels!!

Well, anyways, I could go and on about the importance of teaching history of marginalized people to their still struggling decedents …

Old Providence underground  tunnel-was it just used for trains…?hmmmm...

Old Providence underground tunnel-was it just used for trains…?hmmmm…

But, I think its also important because our memories and interpretation of history help shape our future.

Something Upstairs-give or take...

Something Upstairs-give or take…

The evil time traveling slave owner turned librarian says:   “After all, I am a historian, a guardian of memory, memories which I choose and shape. When I arrange things as I want them the newspaper story also changes.  You read the revised version.”     YES!!!

So, who ever controls the past also controls the present interpretation AND the future! This is why we all need to be historians-of our personal truths, our family history, our planet’s history– this is our collective responsibility.

go ahead, snatch that young adult lit from a 5h grader...

go ahead, snatch that young adult lit from a 5th grader…

“People, said Caleb scornfully, “abide by the memories they chose.”  Oh yes, Caleb was scornful because he didn’t trust that Kenny would choose the memory he needed to be set free… what memories would you choose?

What the Providence River looked like back in Caleb's day...

What the Providence River looked like back in Caleb’s day…

I believe it is our responsibility ( as teachers/parents/people in the world), to guide young people towards more balanced discourse on history and to encourage critical thinking. (Remember when that was an education goal more vital than standardized tests?)  This is vital for our viewing of   history in general, as well as remembering our own personal history (which is on my mind as a craft my memoir…)

ooo spooky house

ooo spooky house

While expressing ones side of a conflict ones reflection on childhood trauma or events…having power to choose and shape one’s own history, is vital.

oh yes, we still have the "plantations" in the our state name...

oh yes, we still have the “plantations” in the our state name…

At the closing of the novel, Kenny asks,  “do you really think he’s free yet?” “I mean, really free?”

Good question. What makes us “really” free?


Works like “Something Upstairs” remind me how important it is to abide by memories we choose, and to choose memories consciously.

With imperilalism, the 1st step to claiming was naming- whether that was renaming streets in Palestine, or carving roads in Rhode Island, naming was usually the precursor to colonizing.

And now?

Its our right to take back our ability to name- our land, our experiences, our history.

Providence Journal's series on the RI slave trade

Providence Journal’s series on the RI slave trade

When will Caled truly become free? When we reclaim our right to remember.

The real Tillinghast's grave in Providence...

The real Tillinghast’s grave in Providence…

‘Where the Salt Water Ends’


Unfortunately many of us become numb to our natural environment. Even I, who as a child searched for answers in the natural world around me, eventually tuned out.   In my early years, I found my refuge from a strange and quickly changing world at the edge of nature trails, at the top of cliffs overlooking the ocean, or at the end of wooded bike paths.  I prayed for inner peace, for an end to family feuding, for a sign.  It wasn’t long before I felt that the world made sense after all and I was able to return to my life, revived and hopeful. I don’t remember when I lost all of that but for a long time I did.  Was it when I got a car and I wasn’t forced to find shortcuts in the woods anymore? Was it as a college student when I ran along the roads instead of bike paths?  Or, was it after I became a mother and was too scared to wander too far off main roads with a small child?  Adulthood had severed the connection to a reliable source of comfort and I wasn’t even aware of it.

             In late March of 2010, Rhode Island was being pounded by relentless heavy rains that    would cause the infamous ‘100 year flood’ that destroyed homes and business.  Rivers were cresting at record breaking highs.  For those who lived near a body of water, the fast moving water destroyed everything, for those who didn’t,  they still had to worry about flooded basements and damaged property.  The news was crowded with images of people being pulled out of their homes onto rafts.  Even parts of interstate route 95 had to be shut down due to the unprecedented flooding.

                     That was also the exact time my marriage began falling apart.

The economic recession was bottoming out and so was my husband’s patience with the cutbacks and restrictions we had to make just to meet our basic needs.  I was an out of work teacher and he was a soon-to-be-laid off community organizer  (at least he was warned)  and we, like many people at the time were feeling the  pressure.  Despite the fact that our son just turned one, those days felt heavy…not celebratory.

Between the two of us, I assumed that our past experiences had prepared us well for having to make more with less.  After all, I was an immigrant raised by a single mother and he was an inner city success story, rising out of public housing and graduating from college.  I figured between the two of us, we had more than enough coping skills to get through this. I had no idea how different our perspectives really were.

I was looking on the bright side.   It was only temporary….  We might have been lacking in financial resources, but we had plenty of other resources.  Like perseverance, friends and family, and knowledge bases that would surely come in handy.  After all, we were both college educated, wasn’t there a rule out there that said we would find amazing jobs by now…?

how bout now….?


He, on the other hand, was coming from the perspective of someone who only narrowly escaped the throws of  generational poverty. He often cited the downfalls of not having a father figure, he was taking on a heavier emotional burden than I anticipated.  To him, the thin line between making it and not making it, between rising above and falling deeper, was only getting thinner.  Our interactions became saturated with fear.

Patience was leaking  out of widening crevasses.  I was tired and exhausted from carrying the burden of all household tasks and baby care.  Having little to no interaction with adults left me feeling isolated and undervalued.  I never anticipated that the tough part about being a mother would have very little to do with the actual child, but with the rapidly changing world around me, friends who no longer felt comfortable in my stressed presence, a vastly different connection to myself and my partner.  The sheer physical exhaustion.

Feeling the pressure to make things work, I held much back.  I didn’t want to be another statistic, or worse, to have to repeat my mother’s fate as another single mother.  But all this mounting pressure was sure to burst eventually…

Day after day the rain continued to come down in sheets. I didn’t leave the house much, and living in a third floor apartment, it was easy to tune out the rising flood.  One day I decided to pick up my husband at work.   I was shocked to find my usual through street to the south side was shut down due to the flooding.  Atwells Avenue and the Woonasquatucket River were one.  Bridges and the surrounding side streets were shut down.  I pulled over to stare in awe.  How could this usually traffic congested part of town be so completely abandoned?  The silence was extraordinary.

Another stark contrast to my expectations.

One of the final days of the rain was marked with yet another argument, more suppressed frustration.  I left the house in tears and drove aimlessly through the city.  I found that once my tears started, I couldn’t stop.  I drove towards the river, vaguely recalling a once familiar source of comfort.   Soon I couldn’t tell the difference between my tears or the rain.

I noticed that I wasn’t alone. Curious city residents flocked to the swollen river to witness the water speeding downstream.  A crowd was gathering around the quickly disappearing banks, eager for a glimpse of nature’s power.  I overheard a passerby speaking to the crowd nearby,  “This is terrible for property damage, but for the river, this is great.”  Apparently all this water serves the river by loosening debris that had been settled on the riverbed for decades.  All this water…these endless tears…was in fact a good thing.

The rain eventually stopped and in time, the tears did too.

And the name of the river? ….Woonasquatucket?

It’s Algonquian for ‘where the salt water ends’.  How’s that for a sign…