Oomen presents Lake Michigan Mermaid at Glen Arbor Arts Center


By Ann Byle

Sun contributor

For Empire resident Anne-Marie Oomen, Lake Michigan and all of our state’s water are part of her soul. The legend of the great Sleeping Bear is also embedded in her, as are legends of mermaids and mermen kept by indigenous peoples, particularly those along Lake Superior.

So it wasn’t a stretch for Oomen, writer of short stories, memoir and poetry, to become the voice of Lyk, a young girl searching for herself and her life in the waves of Lake Michigan. Oomen is coauthor with Grand Rapids poet Linda Nemec Foster of The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems, recently published by Wayne State University Press as part of its Made in Michigan Writers Series.

“I’ve always had water on my mind in terms of an issue, and a great love and appreciation of water,” said Oomen, who will be at the Glen Arbor Arts Center on Friday, June 15, at 7 p.m. “I always wished for a way to celebrate or honor it, or use the Lake as a character in my writing.”

The opportunity came when she met Foster at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts in 2007; both were reading their work that appeared in “Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes.” An audience member asked if there were mermaids in Lake Michigan, which got Oomen thinking.

Late that night while driving home, she called Foster and suggested they write a story in poems and in two voices about a young girl and a mermaid. Foster became the voice of the mermaid, with Oomen writing in the voice of the girl.

More than a decade later—after writing, exchanging, excising and rewriting the poems—The Lake Michigan Mermaid was released in March, with illustrations by Saugatuck artist Meridith Ridl.

“We want to connect with readers by creating an experience that absorbs them and takes them to a new place,” said Oomen. “Linda and I talked a lot about the mermaid’s loneliness, the girl’s loneliness. We hope readers connect with the familial and relational part.”

This is the story of three generations of women who live beside Lake Michigan, each alone in her own way. Lyk longs for the way things were and to find a friend; her mother is burdened by caring for her daughter and her mother; the grandmother battles dementia, yet senses Lyk’s dreams of a mermaid out there waiting for her.

The 27 poems move between the girl and the mermaid, 13 in each voice and one contrapuntal poem in which they speak together.

“We wanted the story to be realistic,” said Oomen. “It’s a resolved ending but it’s not a happy ending; everyone doesn’t live happily ever after like in a Disney mermaid movie. We want readers to read in the spirit of looking at something deeper, thinking about the fluidity of life.”

For Oomen, water is hugely important. She’s at Lake Michigan almost every day, often paddle boarding just like Lyk does in the book. The grandmother is in dementia, just as Oomen’s mother is. She also pictured her favorite shorelines, particularly Sleeping Bear Dunes, as she wrote of Lyk and her longings.

“All of that is in a sense autobiographical; my love of water, of looking at it everyday, is part of my life,” she said. “How do you describe how you long to see that water every day? We’re so mesmerized by water, yet it’s so deeply threatened right now.”

Oomen and Foster will talk about and sign copies of The Lake Michigan Mermaid, which will be available for purchase, from 7-9 p.m. on June 15 at the Glen Arbor Arts Center, 6031 S. Lake St., Glen Arbor. The event is free and open to the public.