Monday, August 5, 2013

Cultural historian Wil Haygood on The Butler and the power of consistency

The Butler: A Witness to History is the story of Eugene Allen, as told by veteran journalist, cultural historian and master biographer Wil Haygood. I spoke with Haygood for a forthcoming print Kirkus Reviews feature weeks ago, and in preparation for our talk, I realized that I had a galley of his Sugar Ray bio, Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson and King of the Cats: The Life and Times of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in my personal collection.

Reading through the part of his oeuvre that he seems most proud of, I noticed his tendency to elevate forgotten aspects of the black male experience in America to a level of grace and style that we rarely see in literature or cultural works of art. This was true of the well-known figures like Sammy Davis Jr., the subject of Haygood's bio, In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr. You get the sense that while history may have tried to ignore these men, Haygood is intent on not just remembering them, but congealing their achievements in amber; preserving their achievements for generations to come.

The Butler is the slimmest of all Haygood's works, but just as powerful. Unfortunately, I saw the trailer for the movie when I went to see Fruitvale Station. I think that's unfortunate because I love many of the actors in the film, and I think Mr. Allen's story is an important one to tell, in book-version and on screen. But The Butler is a very different slice of black history than the one of unchecked violence against black children and racial fear, so the bad timing was the first thing that I noticed. It is difficult to keep a new racial dialogue going in the aftermath of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case while also, in the view of a moviegoer, amplifying the story of a man who worked as the help for decades.

All the same, Haygood's book, and hopefully the movie, aim to infuse a job considered by my generation as a less horrific but still problematic iteration of slavery with the humanity and complexity that books/movies like The Help were unable to.

Here's part of what Haygood had to say about Eugene Allen and the book:

Eugene the least known subject of a biography that I've ever tackled. It's a much smaller book, but in his own way, he's just as important. He was there during Little Rock, he was there during the killing of Medgar Evers, he was there during the bombing of the four little girls... by there I mean he was at the epicenter of power, where people expect our leader to do something about it, in the White House. Eugene Allen saw the writing of the speeches in the White House. He was there when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and he stayed there throughout the night to offer comfort. He was there for 34 years. Very consistent. There's power in being consistent.
He was there during segregation and during integration. Unlike the others, he had no power behind him. He was a humble servant. He had no power. He worked at the most powerful address in the world. He had no power and yet he worked at the most powerful address in the world and he believed in his country. While he was serving LBJ, he had to contend with the fact that LBJ had sent his only son Charles, into the jungles of Vietnam. That's almost Shakespearean - you're serving tea to the president who sent your son to war. 
Haygood is also working on a script for the Sugar Ray Robinson book, which will also be a movie, and a biography of Thurgood Marshall. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Meditating on Memoir: My Beloved World, Traveling Heavy and Men We Reaped

We are not publishing our journals, or imagining ourselves to be so important that people are actually interested in the details of our lives.  No.  We are taking those details and lining them up, amazed, astonished, rapt the way a child might be, building blocks to form a tower.  We are attempting to make sense out of what we can -- to reach out a hand to the reader across a rough sea of isolation and separateness and offer up something that has shape, integrity, even beauty and symmetry.
Just like life?  Hardly.  But that isn't our job. ~ Dani Shapiro, On Memoir

In April, I started working on my memoir in earnest.

Maybe this sounds like a simple thing, but it was complicated. I have written this story before, so many times, so many different structures. It's a little like watching the same movie over and over. I feel like I've lived a thousand lives since I was little. My parents were around, then they weren't; Mom smothered me with love, then she snatched it away, last year for good, forever.

I have never been able to empathize with people who complain about writer's block. I have writer's diarrhea. I can, and have, vomited on the page, a flash flood of emotions, random memories, dreams, fears and when I look up, an hour is gone, and I've written 5,000 words and I realize that even though I was grounded in place at my kitchen table, I was transported back.

A friend reminded me of the funny exchange between Adam Sandler and an elevator guy in the movie Mister Deeds. Adam Sandler asks the man how its going and he says, "It has its ups and downs." This is what writing memoir is like. It has its ups and downs.

The downs: In the face of the second anniversary of my mother's death which I've written a bit about in a few places, there is the downer of Mother's Day. What to do with myself. How to be. Maybe deciding to do nothing. Possibly doing everything that I can so that I exhaust body and brain. Writing through it, no matter what. I wrote a piece about it I hope will be published on the monumentally sad/frustrating annual reminder of the mothering I didn't receive, the day that makes me wrestle with the fact that I was nurtured in other ways by other mothers. That I am a kind of mother -- to my craft, to my dog, to my family, to my friends.

The ups are incredible. Not manic, euphoric or even particularly beautiful. But noteworthy.

I interviewed Ruth Behar about her beautiful book, Traveling Heavy. Ruth reminded me of the power of being a professional nomad. Though I have been making travel plans for summer and fall, I am actually physically grounded in a place in Austin in a way I never have been anywhere before.
The photographs and details of her memories in the book, as a little girl leaving Cuba and later as an adult who returns, remind us that while we may not physically bring things with us on each journey, we still carry much more than baggage and things. "We travel heavy with our memories, our histories," she says. "In that sense, we all travel heavy with the things that make us who we are. We travel with all our traumas and maybe we relive them when we're elsewhere with strangers. The emotional baggage may be heavier than all the things we carry with us." 
Behar is an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan and, among other things she has been awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant. Her work takes her around the world and she estimates that she travels an estimated 50,000 miles annually. Anthropology has allowed her a passport to all the places she's ever wanted to go.

There is also, too, at the center of Traveling Heavy, the question of whether we ever return home. I mentioned to Ruth during our discussion that I think we all have multiple homes -- at least I know I do. My spiritual home, my physical home (where I grew up) and the place where I am located in the present that feels most like home.

I've been thinking about this as I slowly make my way through Sonia Sotomayor's beautiful memoir, My Beloved World. This has been a great year for Latina memoir - Raquel Cepeda's compelling Bird of Paradise, along with My Beloved World and Ruth Behar's book to me, all published in the first quarter of 2013 to me signals the growing diversity of women of color telling our stories and they all have unique power and of course, a unique perspective to bring to the craft.

I am a huge fan of Sotomayor, and as I await -- like most people -- the outcome of the Fisher vs. University of Texas case, I found it particularly interesting to read about her personal experience with affirmative action. She is a master storyteller and I love that she embeds Spanish in the text without translating it. Her story reads like New York City. She is a New York City girl, even when she visits Princeton, even when she is navigating academic spaces that no one ever really encouraged her to pursue. It is inspiring.

On the horizon is a beautiful memoir by Salvage the Bones author Jesamyn Ward. Men We Reaped is elegiac, heartbreaking and harrowing. It is the story of Ward losing five black men she loved deeply, but it is also the story of the black men we all lose to depression and violence. It will be released in September. It was a devastating but important read.

Reading these memoirs while writing my own has revived a sense of commitment that I hope will show in the work. Writing is such a solitary, often lonely pursuit. You wonder, "Who cares?" But you still can't stop writing. It's strange and beautiful in its own way, a process that feels heavy but it worth the weight of the journey.

Friday, April 12, 2013

7 Black Poets who make me love National Poetry Month

My first black poetry love was Langston Hughes. Before him, I didn't realize it was possible to even love poems, to make words rhyme and incite that way, to turn stanzas into emotions. His poetry taught me the value of persistence. I fell in love with Langston because he taught me about holding fast to dreams and the devastation of deferred ones. At my middle school, De La Salle Academy, we sang his poetry. "Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird/ that cannot fly."

I think of him every April, when the poets among us take note that spring offers us National Poetry Month. (Here's a little more about it on People Who Write) Along with Hughes, I can chart parts and pieces of my past by what poets I was reading or, in the case of spoken word/slam poetry in the 1990s, listening to. It was Jessica Care Moore on Showtime at the Apollo who made me want to perform what I wrote, though I was often too shy to grab a mic, if I wasn't too timid to pen a piece.

Sonia Sanchez
Please just watch her talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and stars in his eyes, our cities of alphabets. I'm pretty sure it was a Sonia Sanchez line that I read, maybe it was in Wounded in the House of a Friend, where she wrote a line about walking above the world. It stayed with me for so long I used to have a recurring dream about it.

Gwendolyn Brooks
Not just because she was the first black writer to win a Pulitzer in 1950, or because she put Chi-town on the map, or because she wrote, "We Real Cool" -- but all three. And much more.

Saul Williams
The only reason I saw Slam or went to Brooklyn back when I was a full-time Bronx Girl. My first spoken word crush.

Elizabeth Alexander
When I heard her read "Praise Song for the Day" during President Barack Obama's first inauguration, I think I expecting something far more...ostentatious than the quiet beauty in lines like these.
I know there's something better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see. Say it plain: that many have died for this day. - See more at:
I know there's something better down the road. We need to find a place where we are safe. We walk into that which we cannot yet see. Say it plain: that many have died for this day. - See more at:

Alice Walker
Because she reminded me to be nobody's darling...and to live frugally on surprise.

E. Ethelbert Miller
I found one of E. Ethelbert's poems in an anthology years ago, when my Dad and I were going through it. There's a line in one of them, "let love grow through the weeds" that kept me trying to pull our father-daughter thing together -- that's what the best poetry does.

I'm looking forward to reading Angles of Ascent, a new Norton Anthology of black poetry, which includes some of my favorites that I haven't mentioned here and The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton. I could go on and on about Paul Beatty and Kevin Young and many more. Who are your favorite black poets?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bookmarks: Chinua Achebe, Beyond Belief and Poetry

  • I haven't read Things Fall Apart and I'm irritated that it wasn't required reading for me throughout college, high school, even middle school. But I still appreciate the legacy of Chinua Achebe - I don't think you have to be familiar with a writer's entire body of work to understand their importance and resonance. David Ulin wrote a wonderful piece in the Los Angeles Times; The Paris Review has a longer interview with Chinua Achebe, in which he talks about whether he believes it's possible to teach writing and much more. I've put off reading Things Fall Apart for too long, so I hope to get to it soon. 
  • I'm proud to say this is the fifth Seal Press anthology I've been published in - copies of the collection just arrived this week. It will be published next month, but some folks have it on their e-readers already. Check out the blog and the other contributors here.  
  • This week, I published a short story I've been working on for awhile, Sirens, about a girl who gets bullied at home and at school and eventually strikes out in an unusual way. Tasha is a character I can relate to a lot personally, so I was sad to send her out in the world. But Sirens is part of a longer collection of stories called Madwomen of the Boogie Down. I've been curious about experimenting with Kindle Direct Publishing, so this is an exciting venture for me -- and I sketched/designed the cover, which I suppose will set a precedent for the other books/chapters in the series. 
  • Of all the theme months, I think that poetry month is among my favorites. It allows me to  revisit Pablo Neruda, Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove with purpose, and get all in my feelings with love poems that make me feel like a schoolgirl. If you're a romantic in love with love poetry, I urge you to find She Walks in Beauty before April begins. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Womanist Booklist for Women's History Month

Before I was a feminist, I was a womanist. I wish the definitions were interchangeable, but they're still not...for the same reasons it's impossible to be colorblind even though the intention is nice.

I wrote a little bit about this for Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists, but when I read Alice Walker's collection, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens and I read her definition of womanism, it seemed to include me in a way that definitions of feminism did not. She explained a vision of women's equality that was more holistic and appropriate for me that wasn't incorporated in outdated understandings of what it meant to be a woman:

Alice Walker’s Definition of a “Womanist” from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose Copyright 1983.

1. From womanish.  (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.)  A black feminist or feminist of color.  From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman.  Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior.  Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one.  Interested in grown up doings.  Acting grown up.  Being grown up.  Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.”  Responsible.  In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually.  Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength.  Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually.  Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.  Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.  Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.”  Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music.  Loves dance.  Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness.  Loves struggle. Loves the Folk.  Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

I was thinking about this as I noted coverage of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. I haven't read it, which I sometimes feel feminist guilt about, but I've noted that fair-minded feminists who've read it note that it leaves out my main demographic -African American women and working class women - so I'll probably never get around to it.

Privilege is a hard thing to fight against. When you have it, you want to keep it. It's like a cozy blanket you've had forever. This is what I imagine, anyway. But for those of us who don't cling to privilege, or cling to different kinds of privileges, we have different sources of inspiration.

Mine have been the following:

Homegirls: A Black Feminist Anthology (edited by Barbara Smith)
I found a copy, maybe a first edition, somewhere and I have hoarded it ever since. This was the first time I saw a collection of like-minded women from a generation or so before me in one collection. It was transformative to see that it was possible, even though the Kitchen Table Press was no more by the time I first read it. So many of my heroes are contributors that I can't mention them all - Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and June Jordan among them.

This Bridge Called My Back: Radical Writings by Women of Color (edited by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga)
Aside from a James Baldwin collection I mention below, back when I would permanently borrow titles (better known as stealing, though I'm ashamed of it now) the only collection I remember being so absorbed in that I felt like I needed it by my side all the time was This Bridge Called My Back.
(I wrote for Warscapes on the importance of Gloria Anzaldua to me as a writer and kindred spirit on the page.)

The Price of the Ticket (A Collection of James Baldwin's Nonfiction)
Sometimes people call me brave on the page, which I am sheepish about, in part, because my first writing mentor was James Baldwin. I have always been and will always be indebted to him for his honesty, his wit, his beauty -- the way he found elegant ways to write difficult truths.
 I found this collection in the school library of my middle school and never let it go. Because I was in 7th or 8th grade when I first started reading this book, I did not understand most of what Baldwin was writing or saying. But it was the power of his writing that gave me something to aspire to, to say nothing of the political implications of his position as a gay preacher's son down in Harlem, fighting for a space to simply be a writer instead of a black writer, a black gay writer, or name the adjectives.

Love Poems by Nikki Giovanni
The young romantic in me adored these poems, but I also appreciated Nikki Giovanni's embrace of hip hop as poetry. She was the first poet outside of my generation to write a poem for Tupac Shakur, for instance (as far as I know.) I know most people think of Beat poets as white and centered around Allen Ginsburg, but for me, Nikki Giovanni is our generation's Beat poet - it's just a hip hop beat that she writes too. She gave me permission to write free verse and to be eccentric and funky on the page in a way that few other poets have and do.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow was Enuf by Ntozake Shange
I was an actress in high school. In some ways, I was an actress before that, but I really flourished as an actress and a would-be director when I was at boarding school. We didn't have enough women of color to play all the roles, but our white feminist friends performed some of the roles beautifully during our production of this play. To find god in oneself is a still a revolutionary act, I think, which is why this remains a classic. (You can skip the movie version, as far as I'm concerned, and you probably should.) [I also fell in love with her poetry in The Love Space Demands, and her novel, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo.]

Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
While I was deeply affected by The Women of Brewster Place, which was a mini-series on ABC when I was a little girl, the mysticism and magic in Mama Day resonated with me on a different level. The writing was vivid, searing and real in a way that few things I read had been. It was nice to read about Southern ways that weren't strictly Christian, and to see a novelist tackle the spiritual ways of a black family in an unconventional way that wasn't necessarily science fiction.

The insinuation related to the omission of books written by and for womanists during women's history month is that they are somehow not quality or not numerous enough, but this blog post could go on forever. Critical to my development as a womanist, intellectual and writer were titles like bell hooks' Sisters of the Yam, Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Sister Outsider, along with her poetry collection, The Black Unicorn. It is impossible to delineate and name all of the ways Toni Morrison impacted my imagination as a young womanist and still does, but so, too, did writers like Evelyn C. White, Margaret Alexander, Shay Youngblood and Jamaica Kincaid.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bird of Paradise by Raquel Cepeda

I've been a fan of Raquel Cepeda's journalism for a long time, so I was excited to get to interview her for Kirkus Reviews. The first time I interviewed her was a decade ago, and it's nice to see a powerful writer and presence emerge in a different way on the page. I thought the book was engaging and charming, and particularly important given the absence of contemporary books that blend a hip-hop aesthetic with an emotionally honest and compelling personal story of being Latina. 

Here's Dr. David J. Leonard, too, with an insightful take on Raquel Cepeda's new memoir, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina:
Bird of Paradise speaks to the growing intersections of ethnography, memoir and science. It points to the changing nature of looking backward not only for exploring personal histories but those of the communities. The work points to a growing willingness among the hip-hop generation to push aside conventions, to expose personal vulnerability and uncertainty alongside of scientific discovery.
At one level it is a story of hip-hop, and how it influenced her life. Hip-hop offered acceptance otherwise unavailable outside of paradise. As with many books on the history of hip-hop and memoirs about members of the hip-hop generation, Cepeda highlights the environmental factors that gave rise to the hip-hop generation. Violence, alienation, invisibility and failing schools all shaped Cepeda's childhood, which was defined by instability resulting from abandonment, abuse, and difficulty finding acceptance and peace. For Cepeda these painful experiences didn't simply define her childhood but contributed to her love of hip-hop, which spoke to her, have her voice, and provided a nurturing home that had been absent through her early years.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

7 Books on Writing and Craft

When I was a young writer, I had amazing teachers. Most of them were writers I never met.

I believe books are the best teachers, and the ones I chose and loved most were those by bell hooks and James Baldwin, among others. What you learn when you're reading as a writer is that there is something about absorbing the sentences that really resonate with you and re-reading them (sometimes re-writing them in your own hand) that makes for the most adventurous education for a writer.

I'm reading The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long. I read somewhere that it was a good book and my sister gave me a copy as a gift this year. I realized when I started reading it that haven't made time to read a book about craft for a long time. There's a school of thought that suggests that writing every day is enough, but I think like any craft, you want to have a number of tools in your toolbox, not just writing and/or publishing, but also learning how to get sharper.

I had a separate meditation practice from writing daily in the mornings. Now I'm blending my meditation into my writing - I write with a timer, a free write for 15 minutes every day --  and I can already see that the words that I'm writing are much clearer. The quality is different.

Beginning and advanced writers looking for recommendations for good writing books should check out the following. As an addendum to this list, I advise writers to attend readings and speeches by writers they admire. I started doing that as a teenager because I adore hearing writers talk about their process and/or routine. I also read interviews with writers in The Paris Review whenever I get a chance. What you'll notice over time is that everyone has some similarities (routine and ritual) even if the specifics differ.

I Know What The Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black American Women Writers Editor Rebecca Carroll's 1994 anthology collected the wisdom on writing from black women back when copy on the back of the book referred to us as "Afro-American women writers," which gives you a sense of the time and context in which it was written and published. Still, women of color writers like June Jordan, Rita Dove, Lorene Cary and Marita Golden all talk in the book about their work and perspective as writers. It's a valuable collection because it is still unfortunately rare to read black women writers talking about their philosophies on craft. (I had to literally blow the dust off my copy, which means I need to go back to it soon, I think.)

remembered rapture: the writer at work by bell hooks

I re-read this last year after disagreeing with bell hook's take on Beasts of the Southern Wild, a movie that resonated with me deeply and that I appreciated. I think most people think you have to turn your back on a whole canon of someone's work if you disagree with one thing they say now, but I think that's silly. I also needed to draw on the strength of her perspective as a black woman creator and academic. It soothed me to know that the most prolific and profound black feminist writer and teacher of our generation faced some of the barriers and confusing messages about the production of her work (she calls this the idea that one "writes too much" though she believes, as do I, that there can be no such thing, particularly for writers of color and those of us who generally write from the margins) in a marketplace that is largely only friendly to white male authors. Black woman academics, in particular, will really appreciate this one.

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Vintage Contemporaries) by Edwidge Danticat
I am a big Danticat fan and I wonder why her work isn't more widely cited. I think this probably has something to do with the use of immigration in her work, and our country's fraught relationship with that. But Danticat has a lot of offer even those of us who didn't immigrate here, per se (ahem). It's an inspirational text for creatives of all types, not just writers. 

The Writer's Book of Hope : Getting from Frustration to Publication by Ralph Keyes

Ralph Keyes also the author of The Courage to Write and I loved both of these so much that I still recommend them to friends and mentors. Their titles say everything you need to know about them. They're useful reading every couple of years.

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I love reading whatever Stephen King writes about writing and publication. I think people assume that he doesn't have any problems because he's internationally known and a best seller, but Stephen King -- Stephen-freaking-King! -- has his detractors in the literary establishment because he's popular. The most memorable thing I've heard him say is that he usually has more than one project going at a time - the main thing he works on in the mornings  and a "play" project in the afternoon.  That explains how he's been so incredibly productive, which I admire, even though I've probably read 1/15th of his work.

If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland

I remember being really inspired by this title, but it's been a long time. 

This list could go on forever, and omits classics like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, which is also a film and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, which was my first writing book when I was in high school. The New York Times published a book of these columns on writing years ago. I also recommend checking out anything written by Roy Peter Clark and William Zinsser. Some of the blogs I really love are Men with Pens, Steven Pressfield, Nana Brew-Hammond's People Who Write and Jane Friedman's blog.