Post-Racial Era Discussions About Race

If you are getting tired of the shrill discussions about race that were sparked by the Shirley Sherrod firing, I suggest you check out these thoughtful pieces on race and publishing written over the last three years by black women writers:

"Writers Like Me" by Martha Southgate

"Reading Too Much Into Race
" by Carleen Brice

"Black Writers in a Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making
" by Bernice L. McFadden

"Readers, Rise Up"
by Tayari Jones

Last week, author Lori L. Tharps wrote a provocative piece on the networking site SheWrites where she asked for white ambassadors to help get the word out about her new book. I think Tharps intended for the piece to be a humorous and informative essay about the challenges black writers have in marketing their books, but based on the responses to the piece, I'm not sure her intentions were clear.

People have noted that Sherrod's NAACP speech was nuanced and talked about race in a way that was not simple. I think that anytime you're aiming for the truth, and not a soundbite, what you say will be nuanced. This is why writers and literature are so important, especially today amidst our fast paced media culture. Sometimes the quieter and more reflective voices have the most to say.

Dog Update Number 1

Seymour at the rescue shelter

Seymour, a three year old chihuahua mix, has been at our house for six days now. Incidents of pee in the house: three. The shedding has been minimal. I didn't want a goofy dog who runs, jumps, and aims to please all of the time and I'm happy to report that Seymour is more of a depressed neurotic like the rest of us which is quite nice. He's more like a cat than a dog but he's warming up to us as time passes. He growls at Paul, tries to intimidate Ava with his tiny teeth, but is usually friendly to me and Amir. He treats me like the alpha dog of our house and is kindly rewarded for this with chicken flavored treats.

I fought against a pet for many years even though I grew up with a poodle (Muffin Pierre Renee Richardson) and owned three cats as an adult. But I'm glad that I gave in to the kids' request for a pet. They are learning responsibility, the nonverbal language of animals, and how to be compassionate towards another living being. It's cool to watch the kids bond with this little dog. The other day, Seymour began laying on his back, exposing his belly for a rub, which I tell the kids is always a good sign.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I am reading this book now, a little bit after it was the featured book of a book club that I belong to in Phoenix, Sisters of the Desert Sun. I'm sure you've heard of The Immortal Life... since it's been highly publicized . It's the story about Henrietta Lacks, a black Southern woman who had her cancer cells taken without her knowledge and used as an important tool in medicine. Her cells were the first to become immortal, they've been replicating for half a century.

Anyway, I am struck by the poetic vision of the author, Rebecca Skloot. This could have been just a science story with a little narrative about the Lacks family thrown in. Instead Skloot seems interested in the social justice angle of the story and uses juxtaposition, irony irony, and other literary techniques to dig into the heart of the story. Take this passage about the white male researcher, George Gey, who takes the HeLa cells as they are known and starts distributing them:

He sent shipments of HeLa cells to researchers in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam, and many places between. Those researchers gave them to more researchers, who gave them to more still. Henrietta's cells rode into the mountains of Chile in the saddlebags of pack mules. As Gey flew from one lab to another, demonstrating his culturing techniques and helping to set up new laboratories, he always flew with tubes of Henrietta's cells in his breast pocket. And when scientists visited Gey's lab to learn his techniques, he usually sent them home with a vial or two of HeLa. In letters, Gey and some of his collegues began referring to the cells as his "precious babies."

--from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Copyright 2010 by Rebecca Skloot

A Little of This. A Bit of That.

Here's an interesting essay in Slate magazine about taking ten years to write one novel.

Honoree Jeffers writes about the problems of contemporary black hip hop poetry in The Kenyon Review.

The winner of the Passion Project Contest on SheWrites will give an emerging writer all the tools she needs to put together a winning nonfiction book proposal.

The Idlewild Writers and Poets Conference will happen August 12-14 in Idlewild, Michigan. The focus of the conference is "the rich literary legacy associated with this historic African-American community known as one of the premier entertainment and performance venues during the 50s and early 60s."

An article in The Guardian chronicles how abandoned property in Detroit is being converted into farmland. I've been hearing stories about an increase in wildlife in once strictly urban areas. A friend who grew up in Southfield, Michigan with me says that her parents have a family of deer that visit their backyard regularly.

"This was Once All Underwater"

That's what Paul and I kept saying to friends while we drove around Sedona recently. The city is 4500 feet above sea level, but if you ever take a guided tour of the famous red rocks, you'll learn that it was "once all underwater," and that you're walking in a prehistoric seabed. The gradations in the rock are supposed to be evidence of the water as it receded over time.

All I know is Sedona is one of my favorite places on earth, followed by Paris. The scale of the place, like the Grand Canyon, is mind boggling. I'm trying to carry the bigness and three-dimensionality of Sedona around with me because everything looks so small and insignificant in comparison. In other words, it was a good vacation.

The photo is courtesy of Daily Venture.

R.I.P. Harvey Pekar

I was so sad to read that Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer of the American Splendor series has passed away at 70. I loved how he embraced being ordinary, midwestern, awkward, and how he found humor in very ordinary experiences. The Washington Post has a piece about Pekar that includes this quote about his writing philosophy:

"The humor of everyday life is way funnier than what the comedians do on TV," Mr. Pekar once said. "It's the stuff that happens right in front of your face when there's no routine and everything is unexpected. That's what I want to write about."

If you've ever felt like a misfit, you've got to read Pekar's work or at least rent the movie American Splendor which stars the actor Paul Giamatti.

Organization is Key

This is not a sexy post.

It's about organization. I've spent this summer doing work that I've ignored or avoided for years, like figuring out what that stuff is that's crammed between my bedroom wall and headboard (one hundred dusty gift bags) or what that stuff is pushed into the far corners of my closet (photographs and school papers from college). I've thrown away tons of paper, and bought plastic filing drawers for the papers that I could not throw away. There are Paul's papers, my papers, Ava's ENDLESS drawings and Amir's ENDLESS school papers. Getting all of these things filed in a drawer system is important for two reasons, so we can find them and because Arizona is dusty, dusty, dusty and papers attract dust.

I've been to Goodwill several times to unload. I've painted two rooms (well I served as the general contractor and gave instructions). I've bought furniture, rearranged stuff and de-cluttered the house in general. On the side of the refrigerator I placed a huge calendar that shows all of our schedules for the next four months. I've included writing deadlines in this large calendar which has helped me see how I can merge what's a priority for me (writing and publishing) with my kids' many commitments. I can't emphasize enough how helpful it is to see where I have empty blocks of time. It has helped me visualize when I can sneak time to write other than in the middle of the night.

Last year, I made a vow to make writing a priority in my life in a way that I had not before then. I'm glad that I did and I'm starting to see the fruits of my effort, but oowee! the stress that I endured trying to finish a manuscript while working full time and toting kids to extracurricular activities. The stress was unbelievable. For the first time in my life, I experienced total exhaustion, chest pains, and migraine headaches. For the first time in decades, I had to see a doctor for symptoms and not a routine visit. I realized then that keeping four calendars in my head and not sleeping was insane. A friend, Dawn, laughed with me that multitasking is overrated. In fact, I'd say its not multitasking but more like ADHD.

This doesn't mean that my life is less busy or that I have more time to write. It just means that I can negotiate the chaos with more ease, which will be important when, on July 20, our family adopts Mr. Seymour Simms shown below.