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.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Review: The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The last Oprah Book Club book I read was a recent translation of Anna Karenina, and that was only because I had been meaning to read the book for awhile. Beyond that, I'm persnickety about what I read because I believe writers should be as exciting for their readers as possible, and we can't do that if we're reading what others are reading. I also haven't made up my mind about whether I think reading is fundamentally public or private, though I lean toward the latter.

As a result, I actively ignore bestseller lists. It's easy for me to do since I've collected advanced reader's copies as a book reviewer now for more than 10 years, and my friends all know about my bookish ways, so they give me more. Part of how I chose where I live has to do with the library branch that isn't far from my home.

But every now and then a book comes along that I'm so curious about that I can't wait to read and The Twelve Tribes of Hattie intrigued me from the start. 

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the first novel I've read since Salvage the Bones. There's been a lot of creative nonfiction and memoir since then - Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, bell hooks Writing Beyond Race,  Ruth Behar's Traveling Heavy and I just started Mary Karr's The Liar's Club.  Fiction is a luxury, a way to visit somewhere else without packing up and heading out of town. Tribes is anchored in Philadelphia, though it wanders through the South.

It's been called an allegory of race that draws on Biblical symbols. There are natural comparisons drawn to Toni Morrison because of the depth and reach of the characters in Tribes. The matriarch, Hattie Shepherd, is a tortured soul. She makes peace with her failings, but only after she's had 11 children, a lover, a no-good husband who finds his solace, eventually, in the Lord and her share of heartbreak. Writer Edward P. Jones comes to mind, not just because Mathis shares his skill re: imaginative detail, but because she homes in on what is most interesting about Hattie's children while also finding ways to render their failings beautiful.

Like Jones, Mathis has a strong grasp of history (she acknowledges Isabel Wilkerson's important and necessary book, The Warmth of Other Suns), but she is not overbearing. She makes us feel the lack of humanity in racism before one couple crosses the Mason-Dixon Line and encounters a group of menacing white men who steal the China they use for their picnic at a rest stop. Instead of simplifying the scene into a trite display of bad white men versus a virtuous and victimized black people (think Crash in book form, as much as I loved the book) her skill shows us in the aftermath how fear and loathing as a result of bias can drain and warp a black American's spirit.

There is sexuality and sensuality in the novel, but not as a plot device as much as a characterization of failing in other areas. The beauty of the story is that is a people's narrative, and no one is left out. I'm certain more women will read this than men, but I respected the way she brought to life complicated men who were trying to make ends meet, to be good friends to their women and other mates, how they were trying to repair irreparable damage done to their bodies or their spirits in spite of adversity.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a good read. Its popularity and praise for the book is all well-deserved. I'm excited to read what Mathis publishes next.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

13 More Black History Titles You Rarely Hear About

It helps to have really smart friends who also love books. And since we only have a few days left in February, I hope you'll use this list well beyond the confines of February.

By the way, my informal call for other books that should be on a list like this one led to the question, "What counts as modern?" To me, a modern black history book is one that was published in the past 20 years and is frequently overlooked in stories about black literature that are passed around during Black History Month.

Here are some of the titles that came up:

Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall (And I would add that anyone interested in black masculinity and its challenges also read Cool Pose : The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America and Manchild in the Promised Land.)

To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War by Tera W. Hunter

Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class by Robin D.G. Kelley

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Gender and American Culture) by Barbara Ransby

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Vintage International Original) by James Baldwin

Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought Edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (For related books, specifically anthologies, I also recommend The Black Woman: An Anthology and Daughters of Africa)

Call & Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition Edited by Patricia Liggins Hill

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday by Angela Davis

Ida: A Sword Among Lions by Paula J. Giddings

I would be remiss if I didn't recommend Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, the first in a trilogy of books about America during the King Years. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

5 of my favorite multicultural books on love

It's been 20 years since the publication of Like Water for Chocolate. Let's just let that sink in for a minute.

OK, so now that I've made some of you feel really old, what I loved about the book and the movie was that I hadn't read romance from the perspective of anyone but white writers for pretty much all of my young life back then with the exception of Nikki Giovanni's Love Poemsand Alice Walker's The Temple of My Familiar.

So the discovery of Like Water for Chocolate and Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel was amazing. I could finally read love stories that I saw myself in. There's an impact that fiction in particular has on the reader, and I loved developing empathy and understanding for protagonists in love as a nerdy romantic.

The Law of Love by Laura Esquivel
I'm not ashamed to tell you that I loved this book very much, although in retrospect it was more Harlequin-like than literary. It was all New Agey and unrequited love. It was also my first multimedia experience, but only because the paperback came with a CD in the back that I never listened to. I lost the original hardcover, but found the paperback on sale and I still have it in the house. I don't know why. But it should give you some indication of the romantic nature of the title, at least.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 
If you don't know the story of Janie and Teacake, please don't tell me that you saw what you needed to see if you watched the Halle Berry reproduction because it just doesn't do the love story that Zora crafted justice. This was my first experience with a romantic story written from the purview of a black woman in love as she came of age and I feel lucky that I get to say that.

The Captain's Verses: Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
My perpetual crush on poetry began with Ntozake Shange and Audre Lorde, but it completely soared when I was somehow introduced to Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. My Spanish still leaves a lot to be desired, but somehow, when I read his poetry in English or Spanish, it hardly matters. If you haven't seen it, Il Postino will make you love Pablo Neruda even more. (Should you need further evidence of my obsession with him, here you go.)

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The first book of Murakami's that I read was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running , which is very entertaining, but not nearly as beautiful as this endearing and funny love story. I'm reading it now and I have a feeling I'm about to fall down the Murakami fiction rabbit hole. I can't even think about that last 1,000-pager he just published without needing to sit down.

What are you favorite love poems and books? For even more, check out my twin-book-brain strong cookie's list from the 15 authors meme. She includes Paulo Coelho, Sandra Cisneros and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among many others that I'm also big fans of.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Next Big Thing: The Beautiful Darkness

My writing sister Vanessa Martir, who I met at VONA last summer, my first writing conference, mentioned the Next Big Thing Meme to me in an email a couple of weeks months ago, so I thought I'd try it out.

1) What is the working title of your book?

The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. The subtitle will likely be A Memoir of the Seasons or something like that, since it's a little more accurate. As I've been writing it, I've realized that A Handbook for Orphans would make a better fiction collection.

2) Where did the idea come from for your book?

I've written a couple of drafts of the memoir over the past decade but it wasn't until I had the opportunity to read Mira Bartok's great book, The Memory Palace, that I saw in the manuscript a description of winter in another part of the world referred to as The Beautiful Darkness.  Since the book is about survival and overcoming adversity and grief, it seemed like the most appropriate title. I believe that there is something beautiful about coming through darkness and working our ways toward light. For me, it's a tall order but a very worthy endeavor.

3) What is the genre of your book?


4) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie version?

I would love it if the great Quvenzhane Wallis played the younger me, since I saw so much of my younger resilient self in Hush Puppy (from Beasts of the Southern Wild). I admire the elegance and grace of Angela Bassett, so that would be my first choice for me as an adult. I've been told I favor everyone from Tracy Chapman to Whitney Houston (I miss her) to Lauryn Hill, so I'm not sure who would play the adolescent version of me. I'm quite the actress, so I could do it.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Beautiful Darkness is the story of how one survives without a traditional safety net.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

When I'm done with the writing process, I'll look for an agent for awhile. If nothing shakes out, I will self-publish it as both an ebook and as a print-on-demand title.

7) How long did it take to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I've written several drafts of this memoir in one shape or another for 13 years. So the truest answer is 13 years. The most recent answer to that question is that it took me about six months to come up with a fresh draft that was closer to my final vision for the book.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I didn't think about it until after I fell in love with my title, but I enjoy Ta-Nehisi Coates' writing and I think there may be some similarities to his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. My hope is to write a classic coming of age story about a young black girl overcoming adversity in a crosscultural way - so Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars by Lauralee Summers meets The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls meets I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou meets Claire Bidwell Smith's The Rules of Inheritance.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I've had so much inspiration over the years, but I have to say that the death of my parents - my father in 2010 and my mother in 2012, was the catalyst for a new urgency and a better understanding of the narrative arc of my life. What really helped me survive more than anything else was reading the work of great women writers like Alice Walker, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde and many, many more. I'm inspired both by my ancestors and by the well-crafted work of my memoirist peers, as well as by a number of black musicians and filmmakers who have offered up narratives that have elements of what I'm working on that have helped me craft a more cohesive story.

10) What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

As a side note, I'm so happy that you spelled pique right, meme-starter!
There is no other memoir that I've been able to read that writes deeply about how young black women in particular, but people in general who are self-parented can navigate the many complicated factors that come with the territory. In my case, that was mental illness, resentment, poverty and to some extent racism, sexism and anti-intellectual boosterism as I found mentors, friends and angels along the way to help me along the path. We know much about self-reliance and the Horatio Alger narrative in our culture as it relates to the white male hero's journey, but very little about people of color who manage to cultivate the same kind of individualism and rugged determination that is so praised in other races and/or groups. We have all been, in one way or another, abandoned or left to fend for ourselves, either figuratively or literally, at some point in our lives. The Beautiful Darkness is about learning to lean into that pain, to transform it into something light enough to carry without letting the burden weigh us down, to know that darkness is only the temporary absence of light.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mark Anthony Neal: Love in the Stacks

I am a fangirl for Mark Anthony Neal's scholarship. This started over ten years ago when I first read his work at PopMatters and continues as I get to read his posts on his blog at NewBlackMan (in exile) and on Tumblr and everywhere else. Like he writes here, I fell in love with black history at the library - first the New York Public Library, then at boarding school, then when I worked in the stacks at Vassar. Bibliophiles will feel him on this:
I still have vivid memories of my first Black History Month in 1984, which was highlighted by speeches from Chicago educator Marva Collins and writer, poet and publisher Haki Madhubuti, who had just published his collection Earthquakes and sunrise Missions:Poetry and Essays of Black Renewal, 1973 – 1983 (Third World Press). That book began a constant companion; decades later there are still cadences of Madhubuti’s writing in my own. My immediate response to meeting and reading Madhubuti (the former Don L. Lee) was to track down his earlier works like Don't Cry, Scream! (1969) and We Walk the Way of the New World (1970),m many of which I found in the E 185 section of the library. It was then that I began a life long love affair with E 185, which within the Library of Congress’s call system is the “Black” section.
It was not unusual in those days to find me on lazy Sunday or Saturday afternoons on the floor in the stacks—the E 185 section of my campus library—literally pulling books from the shelf onto the floor, as if I was pulling pieces together of some giant puzzle—and indeed I was; In the absence of a Black Studies curriculum and even Black professors, E 185 was my Black Studies Department. Years before Google and Youtube, E 185 was my search engine, and sitting on the floor in that space, Black History Month was indeed every month, everyday.
The discovery of those books now is different, less tactile than I'd like it to be. But I wonder if there are other kids out there making space for those narratives the way some of us did back in the day. I hope so.

Jamaica Kincaid on See Now Then: It's Not About My Life

Novelist Jamaica Kincaid, whose spunk I admire even if her work sometimes loses me, is interviewed by Felicia Lee at the New York Times. There are parallels between her and the main character of her new book -- it sure sounds a lot like her -- but, alas:
“I’m so used to being misunderstood,” she said. “They say, ‘She’s angry.’ ‘Her sentences are too long.’ One reviewer accused me of not dealing with race and class. I think in my next novel I should say, ‘They’re black and they’ve been beaten,’ something like that.”
The words “See Now Then” are repeated throughout the 182-page novel, which is as much mythological as domestic. There is little dialogue and no real plot. The Sweets’ home life and the earth itself are unpredictable. Mrs. Sweet, like Ms. Kincaid an avid gardener and writer from the Caribbean, at one point reads her son, Heracles, a story about 100 million years of rain.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

7 Modern Black History Books That Should be Required Reading

Book blogs and publishers have started recommending Black History Month titles, but those titles tend to be imprint/publishing-house specific. There's nothing wrong with that, but it means that some titles might escape your notice. I love big books, but I especially adore giant books about black history, which I read for fun. So, there will be at least one other list like this before February is out. But for now...

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration This is one of my favorite books from the past 20 years. I can't recommend it enough. Ta-Nehisi Coates agrees. As a work of superior journalism, it has few peers. You've certainly heard about the Great Migration before and maybe your grandparents or parents told you all you need to know. But the narrative power and style of Isabel Wilkerson as applied to more than 1,000 interviews is educational and inspirational nonetheless. Here's my Q&A with her from 2010 ahead of her appearance at the Texas Book Festival.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
There were some big questions that remained unanswered in Marable's book, but it's still an incredible biography. I'm sad that he didn't live to see its publication. My 2011 Q&A with Zaheer Ali.

Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter
This was worth reading to find out more about the woman beyond her "Ain't I a Woman" speech. Not only did she bare her breasts in public in the context of this speech, since her audience was treating her like she was a man, but she was also a shrewd marketer of her image. The photograph we associate most with her says beneath it, "I sell the shadow to support the substance."

Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom This is one of my favorite biographies in the past decade, in addition to Alice Walker: A Life and Wrapped in Rainbows, the biography of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd. Catherine Clinton writes about Tubman not just as the Moses of her people, but also as a woman who was married multiple times, including once when she was past retirement age, and adopted many children with her last husband.

At the Dark End of the Street by Danielle McGuire 
I was profoundly moved by reading this thorough history of black women like Rosa Parks and learning a fuller history of how sexual assault was used against them (us) in the racist South. It was jarring and well-researched. In comparison to most black history lessons and stories, it was far more nuanced. 

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
There isn't a black person in American who is unaffected by the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration of black men and women in our country. Michelle Alexander's important book shows just how bleak modern incarceration is and how racism impacts not just prisoners and ex-convicts but society at large. 

Disintegration by Eugene Robinson
A lot has been made of the post-racial nature of America - are we or aren't we? Eugene Robinson doesn't answer that, and for good reason - instead he looks at how black America has become so diffuse that its impact from decades past, mainly during America's segregated era, has disintegrated along class and geographical lines.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Adam Mansbach: Hell is my own book tour

When you've written about writers and books for a little while, authors tell you stories about book promotion that are pretty sad. We all know that Junot Diaz is a rock star, but that kind of following is rare. What happens more often is what Adam Mansbach, author of Go the F**k to Sleep and the new book, Rage is Back, describes at Salon:
A lot can go wrong on a book tour. For instance – stop me if I’m getting too technical here – nobody shows up to the reading. When this happens, you’re forced to spend about 20 minutes with an apologetic, pitying bookstore employee, attempting to strike the right blend of self-deprecation, cavalier disregard, and passive-aggression toward the bookstore for failing to promote the event in any way except by placing posters in the bathroom of the store itself. This bathroom is not for customer use.
Ultimately, the bookstore employee will treat you to a coffee drink of your choosing (quadruple espresso) in the bookstore’s cafe, which generates 83 percent of the bookstore’s annual revenue. You will cast spiteful glances at all the people sitting in there chilling and sipping lattes and not attending your reading a mere 75 feet away.
Because I've been one of four people who showed up at a reading, I thought the honesty and self-deprecating humor here was entertaining. I do wonder about the business of book tours, though, and how they'll evolve. Indie authors like myself can't afford them and there are lots of us out there - some writers don't do them at all and still manage to sell books. I'd be curious to see any data that show that book tours are actually moving books these days.

The Double V by Rawn James

I got to talk to Rawn James Jr. for Kirkus and the story is up today:

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln has revived discussion of the Great Emancipator's unique empathy for the freedoms of African Americans, but for blacks in the armed forces, at least, President Harry Truman may be deserving of a similar title. In his encyclopedic and compact history, The Double V: How Wars, Protest and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military, Rawn James Jr. writes that Truman desegregated the military by making the case for "the brotherhood of men before the law."
In The Double V (which stands for victory abroad and victory over racism at home), James writes about how tenuously white commanders and soldiers regarded the law when it came to African Americans. In a culture that regularly relies on the Tuskegee Airmen to symbolize the presence of African Americans in the military, the bloody clash of African American soldiers with racist Houstonians at Camp Logan in 1917 (which led to extended racial tension) is an uncomfortable revelation. The same is of stories from the frontlines in France, where black servicemen were treated with more equality by the French than by their American peers.

You can read the rest of it here. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Roe v. Wade and Grown Women

As we think about the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade this week, I wanted to mention that I contributed an essay to the collection Get Out of My Crotch! Twenty-One Writers Respond to America's War on Women's Rights and Reproductive Health. The essay I wrote, Grown-Woman Swagger, is about the way we think of confidence and power as associated with white men, when in fact, women of color may have the best understanding of what it means to have swagger. The essay is about my personal stake in reproductive rights for women and that is at the center of the narrative, but it is also a story of surviving between a rock and a hard place, like lots of women do. Here's an excerpt: 

Physically, I was the scrawny, bummy outsider on the block, but inside, I had the same defiance embodied by the dudes who hustled crack or coke whether they sweltered under the sun in long-sleeves or they hid their wares in baggy shorts. I would survive, no matter what the world tried to do to destroy me. Period.
We were all just surviving the world we were born into. And if I intended to live long enough to leave the Bronx in anything but a casket, I needed to hold on to that swagger, that sense that anything was possible if I believed.
All women need to enforce that kind of swagger now, the ephemeral B-girl stance that says we will survive even if it is just against the world. The world, in this case, includes the overlapping systemic forces that suggest that women beneath the middle and wealthy classes in America aren’t entitled to control choices about their destiny, future and present. While feminists discuss whether to use the words pussy, vagina or vajayjay, the real questions are, what about the other parts of us? What about our minds and souls? What about our hearts? Swagger is heart. It is heart enough to give birth to another generation or to birth books and movements instead, or to be woman enough to do both. It is heart enough to intentionally choose to do everything or nothing and anything in the middle.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sonia Sotomayor's 'Beloved World'

I hope one day to read this because Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a fellow Bronx girl, along with being an inspirational success story.

There's been a ton of publicity, a crush of book love that is as rare as Sotomayor's story itself.  I've learned a lot about her already and it's refreshing. Few other Latina memoirists may get the same attention or accolades that will come with Sotomayor's book, which reportedly earned her $1.2 million.

I listened to one of her interviews featured on NPR earlier this week. Here's a bit from the NPR review:
In the forward to her book, Sotomayor writes: "I have ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court, and with that candor comes a measure of vulnerability. I will be judged as a human being by what readers find here. There are hazards to openness, but they seem minor compared with the possibility that some readers may find comfort, perhaps even inspiration, from a close examination of how an ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey."
I also love that her book was released in English and Spanish. It'd be interesting to see statistics for how many copies it sells in both languages. In her interview with NBC Latino, she said:
 ”When people look at me on television, especially young Latinos-they make me an icon,” she explains.  ”But I don’t know that when the times get tough — that image on television is really going to give them strength. And that’s why I wrote this book,” she says.

Handy eBook Links for those experimenting with self-publishing

As eBooks become increasingly popular, writers curious about self-publishing will need a good collection of resources to turn to.  I was just working on a story about discoverability of Christian fiction titles for a Publishers Weekly piece that will be out in February. But I also double checked some of the formatting and iBookstore styles before I formatted and published my first book, Single and Happy.

It took a couple of hours of deep concentration to fix everything in the document, but it wasn't too painful. I wish I'd had links like the ones below to help me find everything in one place.

This GalleyCat link, Free eBook Formatting and Marketing Guide for Writers, has a lot of links to Style Guides in different formats. I've only used the Smashwords Style Guide and I perused the final link on the page but I didn't read it thoroughly.

This CNET article is a great resource for deciding how you want to self-publish, online or in print: How to self-publish an eBook.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Root: Ayana Mathis' 8 Favorite Books

I briefly cracked The Twelve Tribes of Hattie on my way back to Texas from the East Coast and promptly had five other books to read for freelance assignments, so I haven't gone back to it yet. I know a couple of people were excited about it, and I noticed Isabel Wilkerson's review of it in the New York Times Book Review.

The Root compiled 8 of Mathis' favorite books, which includes Toni Morrison's Beloved and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, along with some great titles from black poets like Rita Dove.  

She says that Beloved is necessary to return to and, while I'm not actually a big fan of re-reading works, I can see what she means. I don't return to Toni Morrison's work often because it's dense and challenging - along with the fact that I'm reading new work and writing some at the same time. But I'm also not a big fan of re-reading books.

I wonder about the benefit of writers returning to their favorites, though. I've heard that it helps them with structure in their own work, depending on what they're working on. Because Zora Neale Hurston's birthday was this week, I was thinking of cracking open Their Eyes Were Watching God again. Maybe I'll get to that sometime in February.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Laina Dawes on the life of a black female metal fan

Check out this NPR piece about Laina Dawes. I first read about her in Bitch Magazine:

Music writer Laina Dawes is a die-hard Judas Priest fan. She's all about the band's loud and fast guitars, the piercing vocals — and she loves to see the group perform live.
Now, a fact that shouldn't matter: Dawes is a black woman. This, she says, can make things uncomfortable on the metal scene. She says she's been verbally harassed and told she's not welcome.
"There's still a lot of resistance in terms of who should be listening to what genre of music based on their gender and their ethnicity," Dawes says, "which does not make any sense to me."
Dawes writes about the issue in her new book, What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal.
So, metal's not my thing, I have to say. But I love the cover. And I know a lot of black folks who can relate to this - especially in a town like Austin that tends to attract the "alternative black" set. (I put it in quotes because I'm not sure what it means, but I bet you know what I mean when I say that.)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Clutch Magazine's 100 books every black woman should read

I'm a big Tami Winfrey Harris fan, so I was excited when she got this discussion started on Twitter & Facebook. I've read a lot of these, but not all, so I'm excited to have a few others to read. I don't do so great with book clubs or reading challenges, since they conflict with the review schedule, which continues to go well, it just means that books I'd like to read get put off indefinitely. Anyway, looks like the Clutch has a Goodreads group for its 2013 Reading Challenge if this list interests you.
  1. Krik! Krak! by Edwidge Danticat (Fiction)
  2. Caucasia by Danzy Senna (Fiction)
  3. Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris Perry (Nonfiction)
  4. Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall (Fiction)
  5. The Upper Room by Mary Monroe (Fiction)
  6. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (Children’s Books)
  7. Ugly Ways by Tina McElroy Ansa (Fiction)
  8. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Lori Tharps and Ayana Byrd (Nonfiction)
  9. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Fiction)
  10. Small Island by Andrea Levy (Fiction)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Salvage the Bones by Jesamyn Ward

Over the holidays, I was writing a profile of Vassar professor and writer Kiese Laymon, who has become better known for his wonderful essays published on his blog and at Gawker. I love his voice and honesty, and I'm looking forward to checking out his books when they're published this summer (Long Division is available for pre-order on Amazon and as of now, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America the autobiographical essay collection is scheduled to be published in August.)

Anyway, during our discussion, he mentioned Jesamyn Ward, a fellow black Southern writer, and it reminded me that her second novel, Salvage the Bones was on my list of books that I wanted to read last year but didn't get around to.

I miss her so badly I have to swallow salt, imagine it running like lemon juice into the fresh cut that is my chest, feel it sting.

There are descriptions like this throughout the book, which is the story of Esch and her family in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina. Her brothers Skeetah, Randall and Junior are always into something. Her dad is a broken widower with a fighting spirit. Ward didn't win the National Book Award for nothing - there is poetry and depth and sweetness even in her descriptions of mischief and betrayal. I hate to call it poetic, actually, because that seems so vague.

I like how Ward uses metaphors and analogies, the restraint in her details and, in places, the lavish nature of her descriptions.

She is in love with a manchild from the Pit, a part of town where they all live on the Gulf, Bois Sauvage. There are two narratives, here, almost three. Esch is becoming a woman, Skeetah is a dog fighter in love with his pit bull, China, and Hurricane Katrina is the shadow in the distance.

It is a little less than 200 pages - I read it as an ebook - and it reads like a companion to the triumphant Beasts of the Southern Wild. What you find in Salvage the Bones is the grit and heart of a black girl, her gumption and yearning of a black teenage girl and the rejection that stings and burns.

The book also contains humanizing and heartbreaking sex scenes. I wince while reading most fictional sex scenes and rarely mention them in reviews, in part because most literary sex skirts the often awkward corners of intimacy, but Ward does not.

Finally, there is the terror and shame of Katrina, a modern memory that made visible to America a racial and class wound that black Americans know all too well, is so recent that it is difficult to humanize, to believe that there is a story to be told about it that would evoke any further understanding, sympathy or insight.

Salvage the Bones is about waiting and worry, it is about fighting to live, whether storms are metaphorical or literal. It's a joy for readers because it makes beauty out of wreckage.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Obama's Presidential Library will probably be in Chicago

I find it amazing that Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize and former poet laureate of Illinois, is not named at the very top of this story, but forgive that:

Bronzeville, the historic African-American community on Chicago's South Side, is where the stories of writers and musicians through the ages -- including Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Lorraine Hansberry, Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon -- have been told. Now residents hope it will be home to a Barack Obama presidential library, the Chicago Tribune reports.

Here's Politico's excerpt from the Tribune story - shout out to Dahleen, who I've had the pleasure of breaking bread with during my fun trips to Chi-Town:

Getting an early read on Obama library sites: Proponents tout benefits of housing presidential archives in Chicago," by Dahleen Glanton : "[H]is library would have unique historical significance and likely would become one of the nation's most popular attractions ... It also would provide a platform from which Obama could continue or expand the work he began as president. ... The University of Hawaii, where the president's parents attended school, has made no secret of its campaign to lure the library to Honolulu. ... The [University of Chicago], where Obama was a member of the law school faculty for 12 years, is widely considered the front-runner ... A U. of C. spokesman raised the possibility that a presidential library could be built off campus. That would open the door, some South Side community leaders said, to enter into a joint venture with the university to obtain the library. ... Clinton's library cost $165 million. The George W. Bush Foundation raised more than $300 million ... The cost of Obama's library could spiral to $500 million."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Women of color writers on Flavorpill's Most Anticipated of 2013 list

The list is short, as it has been for a lot of anticipated 2013 books, (the Atlantic's list of the best books of 2012, though, has no women of color on it - not even the acclaimed Zadie Smith for NW) but I'm looking forward to these nonetheless:

Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then (February 5)
Isabel Allende, Maya's Notebook (April 23)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (May 14)

Other releases that are worth mentioning include Sonia Sotomayor's memoir,  My Beloved World, which will be released on January 15th and former editor Raquel Cepeda's Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, which comes out in March.