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.