The Monday after Thanksgiving Links

Huffingtonpost has posted 29 of the Bart Simpson chalkboard scenes in celebration of the 21st season of The Simpsons. My favorite one: Bart writing It’s “Facebook” not “Assbook” over and over.

Author Virginia DeBerry writes an open letter to Oprah about the plight of black writers.

I recently wrote about my growing interest in nonfiction. For more discussions about fiction vs. nonfiction, which is better, check out essays by Maud Newton and Zadie Smith. Salon also recently published this article about the rise of memoirs and the supposed death of fiction.

Holidays, Princesses + Frogs

I am relieved to be spending this Thanksgiving at home with family. I'll miss spending time with relatives from Indianapolis and Atlanta, but I won't miss the stress of traveling east at Thanksgiving. Me and the fam will travel east but not that far. We'll drive east on the 60 freeway to a mountainside house in Apache Junction, Arizona. We'll watch the sunset from the roof and if we're lucky catch a bat flying by. And we will see Disney's The Princess and the Frog because Ava asked and I promised.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving! Look for new posts next week....

The Pull of Nonfiction. Part Two.

Some days ago a girlfriend reminded me that we are “way woman now.” At forty-two, I’ve had many life experiences both good and bad. I’ve lived through an unwanted pregnancy, the birth of my children, the deaths of relatives and high school friends. I’ve had employers who respected me and I’ve worked, too, for a few brain-dead reptilian jerk-offs. I’m better for it. The artifice I wrapped myself in when I was young (as I sought the rewards the world gives for the inauthentic, the charade, the illusion) has been slowly chipped away by these real life events.

One result has been a change in what I like to read and write. I will always read fiction and poetry because it helps me make sense of the world, but I’ve been increasingly drawn to nonfiction. The books that are catching my attention are memoir and essays, and the films I’m watching are documentaries. Being “wired” may have something to do with it. As I navigate the internet I am constantly immersed in nonfiction news stories and video clips. I also think my attraction to nonfiction is just where I am in life: busy enough to want to sit down with a book that tells me up front what it’s about. Novels force me to consider themes and poetry makes me grapple with metaphor and allusion, but nonfiction—even creative nonfiction that uses literary techniques—is straightforward. A grown woman likes straightforwardness.

So over the last months I’ve watched:

Tyson, the documentary about the boxer Mike Tyson;

the Katrina documentary Trouble the Water;

The Thin Blue Line, a docudrama about the wrongful imprisonment of Randall Dale Adams;

Food Inc., a documentary about the food industry;

Valentino: The Last Emperor, a documentary about the fashion designer Valentino;

and this wonderful archived film of James Baldwin interviewing black San Franciscans circa 1963.

I recommend all of the above!

Still on my list are a documentary about the making of A Chorus Line titled Every Little Step, and Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.

The nonfiction books on my “to read” list include Cornel West’s memoir, Living and Loving Out Loud, Irene Vilar’s memoir about abortion, Impossible Motherhood: Testimony of an Abortion Addict, David Small’s graphic memoir Stitches, and Chinua Achebe’s The Education of a British Protected Child.

Being way woman means that I no longer have time to sit with my girlfriend as we did years ago eating salad with Annie’s Naturals Goddess dressing and talking about poetry. Being young was a wonderful trip. I hope to land somewhere near grace.

A Poem by C.K. Williams

The Dance

A middle-aged woman, quite plain, to be polite about it, and
somewhat stout, to be more courteous still,
but when she and the rather good-looking, much younger man
she's with get up to dance,
her forearm descends with such delicate lightness, such restrained
but confident ardor athwart his shoulder,
drawing him to her with such a firm, compelling warmth, and
moving him with effortless grace
into the union she's instantly established with the not at all
rhythmically solid music in this second-rate cafe,

that something in the rest of us, some doubt about ourselves, some
sad conjecture, seems to be allayed,
nothing that we'd ever thought of as a real lack, nothing not to be
admired or be repentant for,
but something to which we've never adequately given credence,
which might have consoling implications about how we
misbelieve ourselves, and so the world,
that world beyond us which so often disappoints, but which
sometimes shows us, lovely, what we are.

from Repair by C.K. Williams (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000)

More Inspiration

Breath of Life ( has an inspirational mixtape for the week of November 2nd that features music by Kirk Franklin, Chrissie Hynde, Grace Jones, Erykah Badu, Jhelisa, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ani DiFranco, Concha Buika, Nina Simone and more.

Medicine for Melancholy...and Writers Block

This movie just came out on Netflix and it's lovely. It reminded me of Love Jones because the couple is urban, artsy and black, but it's much different. Very subtle and smart. I've been inspired to write --

Three Powerful Women

On Monday writer Marie NDiaye won France's top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for her novel Tres Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women). She is the first black woman to win the award. NDiaye, 42, has published novels, stories and is also an accomplished playwright. For more on NDiaye go here.

Thanks, Tayari!

Grants, Fellowships & Residencies...Oh My!

I wanted to share this great resource, Mira's List, that I learned about. A description of Mira's List from the site:

Grants. Fellowships. Residencies. Resources. Mira's List is a free blog for artists, writers, composers and others in the arts. Here you will find up-to-date information, resources and deadlines for grants, fellowships and international residencies. Money, time and a place to create.
I've added it to my list. Thanks to Ruth for this tip!

The Root's Canon

The Root, an online magazine about black culture, has "rewritten the western canon." The site lists 24 books, beginning with Chinua Achebe's The Education of a British-Protected Child, that should be mandatory reading in schools.

What do you think?

Light Rail Readings + Caitlin Horrocks

Yay for success!! Caitlin Horrocks (shown above), who graduated from Arizona State's MFA program in 2007, has her first book coming out on Sarabande Press in 2011. It's entitled This Is Not Your City and the stories in the collection have appeared in the Paris Review, Tin House, The PEN/O Henry Prize Stories 2009 and elsewhere. Caitlin is super talented, funny, humble, smart...I could go on. She is definitely a writer to watch.

Caitlin will be reading on Wednesday, November 4 at the Piper House at ASU in Tempe, Arizona. The reading starts at 7:45 p.m.

Books that I've spied on the light rail:

Bram Stoker's Dracula (it's the Halloween season after all)
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

The "Push" and Pull of Nonfiction. Part One.

I am re-reading the novel Push by Sapphire. I’ve always appreciated the importance of Push and thought Sapphire brave for writing a story in the voice of a poor black teenager who is raped by her father. But I didn’t love the story when I read it in 1996, not the way that I loved The Color Purple a book to which Push is often compared. For me, The Color Purple was both brave and beautifully rendered. Push was brave but it read more like reportage than fiction and not in an intentional genre-blurring way.

Now that Push has been made into a film, I’m re-reading it to see how I feel this time around. One thing I’ve realized is that I’ve always been more interested in the background story surrounding the book than in the book itself. From day one, I’ve been curious about Sapphire, the experiences she had that inspired the story, the circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication, the public reaction to Push. I remember reading in 1996 that Sapphire received a $500,000 advance for a two book deal. That was a lot of money in 1996. Given the depressed state of publishing in 2009, I think a first time novelist would be more than happy to receive that amount today.

(On another note, try to think of black literary writers who have scored big advances. ZZ Packer got $250,000 for 2003's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Knopf paid Stephen L. Carter $4.2 million for 2002's The Emperor of Ocean Park. Who else? Edwidge Danticat, who just received a MacArthur Genius Award, was given a paltry $5,000 advance for Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994.)

Perhaps I was so invested in the publication of Push because it came out the same year that I changed careers to pursue writing. In 1996 I began freelancing, I went to my first writing conference at Chicago State University, I began meeting other writers. I was so excited back then to be on the writerly path that reading about Sapphire’s advance made me believe that I’d made an inspired choice.

Later, I would hear stories that Sapphire had not finished writing Push when she signed the book contract and that she was pressured by her publisher (Knopf) to develop the story in certain ways. I took that as advice to have my book finished before shopping it. A couple years later I interviewed Sapphire by telephone and listened to her describe, in retrospect, her frustration with the marketing of the book. She didn’t like the dust jacket photo that showed her staring into the camera, unsmiling. In that photo, she is dressed in a leather jacket with a fresh fade, a nose ring, and her expression is intense. She thought the photo was not flattering but provocative and that it was chosen to create controversy or hype for the novel. I remember ending the interview with the feeling that media attention had been a mixed blessing for her. I also remember talking with writers who hated Push. They mocked Precious’s illiteracy as portrayed in the book, the use of “fahver” for "father," for example. There were people who complained (as they had with The Color Purple) that the book demeaned black people and black men in particular.

The controversy around the book took on a life of its own.

Today I’m interested to know why Sapphire has not published another book of fiction. Is it perfectionism or life getting in the way? In a recent interview with Katie Couric she says that she’s currently writing a novel, but what has taken so long? Does she still have a deal with Knopf? I also want to know how Sapphire made the transition from writing primarily poetry to writing a novel. Many writers do both (Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Ntozake Shange, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros) but most writers are much better at one than the other. I want to know how her narrative skills and her use of point of view have changed since publishing Push.

In the Couric interview, Sapphire talks about bringing the novel to the screen, of finding a director (Lee Daniels) whom she trusted with the story. Again the process of creating the art is fascinating to me, but I expect that the movie won’t be as interesting as the background story or the people involved in making it. Lee Daniels' dark artistic vision intrigues me. In a NYT article Daniels is portrayed as a director who likes nontraditional casting and who gets actors to give unexpected performances. That's one way to view it. The casting of Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and the inclusion of Tyler Perry as a producer also seems calculated to target a certain urban audience, and that makes me nervous about this adaptation.

After watching the Couric interview and thinking about Push, what I’d like to see is this: a documentary about Sapphire! That would be an interesting story. Imagine watching a documentary about an artist named Ramona who is born during the baby boom and whose parents are in the military. A film about a woman who works as an erotic dancer and literacy instructor. A film about a woman who witnesses the AIDS epidemic first hand, who forges her way into the New York poetry scene then the literary scene and who in her fifth decade of life conquers Hollywood. As they say, the real story is sometimes better than fiction.