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.