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OMG! OMG! OMG! I’ve just gotten the word that TONI MORRISON will read at Rutgers-Newark next year!
You all know that I am obsessed with ToMo. I was so dialed up over the news– which came via txt message from Jayne Anne Phillips — that I was unable to sleep. I wanted to call Cozbi and say, “Make me the baddest suit, ever! Start looking for fabric now!” Even typing this now, I have a tight feeling in my throat, making it hard to drink my coffee.
Toni Morrison at Rutgers-Newark.
Jayne Anne is amazing. You got to hand it to her. Our MFA program is only three years old. But we have charged forth with our mission which is to have the most diverse and dynamic MFA program in the country. And when we say diverse, we aren’t just talking about race, we mean nationality, sexuallity, and age. Our motto is Real Lives, Real Stories and we mean it. Our budget has always been modest, but with new cuts, it’s been slashed to ribbons. But still, one of the best reading series in the NYC area is on our campus, in Newark, New Jersey. We’ve hosted Junot Diaz, Patrica Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rick Moody, Jaci Jones Lamon, E.L. Doctorow, and now: Toni Morrison.
It’s time for me to order my Joe Biden T-shirt.
This Toni Morrison interview is fantastic. She takes on the issue of being called a “black writer.” Why do you call yourself a black writer, a woman writer? Because it’s true. Then she gets down to the nitty gritty.
I’m back from AWP in Denver. It was good but not great. I am trying to decide how much of my feelings are about the actual vibe of the conference, or just the fact that this is my eleventh AWP.
There were great moments. For example, I got to meet Attica Locke, author of Black Water Rising, a gorgeous debut. Also, Dolen was there and I finally got to meet Carleen Brice. The receptions were lovely. Any day that gives me face time with Rita Dove is a lovely day, and how often do I run into George Saunders, about whom I am crazy?
So that’s the good.
On the other side, there was a sort of creepiness this year. I don’t know if it’s the economy, but the back biting and competitiveness seemed heightened. I saw and/or experienced insanity, racism, passive-aggression, and old fashioned meanness. I’m not going into detail because I hate to give negative experiences new life by writing them down. (Another blog post on that idea later.)
But the point is that I am home now.
I was in such a rush getting out of town on Monday, that I didn’t get a chance to tell you that I am going to be out of town until Monday. Right now, I am in Atlanta, spending some time at Spelman College, by beloved alma mater. I know I’m getting old because I keep wanting to hug the young ladies that I see walking accross campus. Also, they call me “ma’am” which is another indication that clock in ticking.
Spelman women who read this blog, listen up. PLEASE give a donation to Spelman THIS WEEK. Any amount. There is a mysterious donor who will give 300,000 to the college if 5000 Spelman Women give a donation before Founders Day. Click here to give now. Don’t let Spelman down.
The reason I am still in Atlanta although AWP starts tomorrow is that Spelman is honoring my mentor Pearl Cleage and I will make a tribute to Pearl this evening at 6:30 pm in LLC2. Not to be overly dramatic, but Pearl taught me how to be writer. I love her very much.
After that, it’s off to the AWP conference to talk about my other passion, GIRLS WRITE NOW.
More later, and hopefully pictures from the Spelman events. I have my camera, but not my cord…
This is a piece I wrote a few years ago about visiting the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot on this day in 1968.
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, right downtown, just off Peachtree Street. You can’t get more Atlanta than that.
As you can imagine, the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King is everywhere in my home town. After all, he grew up there. He’s buried there.
There’s another city in this country that cannot forget Dr. King: Memphis. Although we claim him as a native son of Atlanta, Memphis is where he died on April 4, 1968.
I had never thought much about the burden of Memphis until I was on my first book tour in 2002. I was headquartered in the legendary Peabody Hotel for an entire week. The Peabody is known for its lavish appointments and the ducks that swim in its opulent fountain. My ten days in the Peabody were uncomfortable. For one thing I was homesick and longed for the stripped-down accommodations of my little apartment and also, I was the only black person in the hotel that wasn’t working there. I felt under intense scrutiny each day– I imagine I was something of a oddity to the white people staying there the black people were counting on me to represent.
I was raised in a “movement” household, so you know I wouldn’t have been in the Peabody with my nose in the air, treating the black employees like servants. Instead, I called everyone “ma’am” and “sir” and tried to need as little help as possible. I eventually got to know everyone on staff and soon people wanted to know where I was from. When I said, “Atlanta,” everyone wanted to talk about Dr. King.
Up on the roof, where the famous Peabody ducks live in their “penthouse”, I was sitting at a little table. The view wasn’t spectacular or anything, I just wanted to be in a space where I could be myself, where I didn’t have to sit up straight, cross my legs and the ankle, and be a good talented-tenther and make everyone proud. I was tired, lonely, and depressed over a crappy review in People Magazine. (The caption under my photo read: “Jones: a partial success.”)
While I was sitting there wondering why I signed up for this life in the first place, the “duckmaster” lead the pampered birds up to their cages. After they were all squared away, he sat himself down at my table. He was wearing a red jacket with gold braid, but close up I could see that underneath was a regular janitor’s uniform.
“Quackers,” he said. “I’ve had about enough.”
“I hear you,” I said.
“You the one from Atlanta?”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“I sure hate that Dr. King was killed in Memphis. I hate that it happened on our watch. He never should have come here. They set him up.”
“Who?” I asked.
“THEM,” he said and gestured at all we could see from the rooftop. “I sure hate it.”
“Oh,” I said, with that weird feeling you get when you understand what someone is saying, but not quite.
“You been to the Lorraine motel yet? I pass it on my way to work everyday. It’s just up the street. It’s a museum now. You should go on over there.”
I was pretty tired and didn’t feel like going anywhere. Sensing my hesitation, he added, “It’s free.”
Being an Atlanta girl, I have visited all the King memorial sites in my hometown. I visited the boyhood home with this small signs telling you that these were not “ML’s” actual toys but toys like the ones he would have played with. When relatives came to town, they always wanted to visit the white marble crypt on Auburn Ave. I’ve seen all those things a million times, but I can’t say that I FELT anything.
The museum at the Lorraine hotel wasn’t free, but I paid the entry fee. At first it was like any only civil rights museum. If it had a brand name it would be “struggle-lite”. There were no really disturbing images, just the segregated water fountain signs, etc. I was bored. Why had the duckmaster sent me here?
At the very end of the exhibit was rooms 306-307, where Dr. King had stayed in on the last day of his life. The curators took care to recreate the atmosphere. There was a coffee cup half-full, an unmade bed and other personal touches that made it seem like Dr. King, Andy Young, Jessee Jackson, et al had just been in here making plans. When I crossed the threshold of the room, I tripped a switch that caused Mahalia Jackson to sing “Amazing Grace.” I felt it all over my body. I closed my eyes for a moment and took a careful breath before looking out onto the balcony.
We have all seen the famous photo of Dr. King’s compatriots pointing in the direction from which the fatal shots rang out. At the Lorraine motel, saw the view as they must have seen it. I saw with my eyes what Dr. King must have seen in the last moment of his life. There was nothing so memorable in that view.
The parking lot has been recreated: three fin tail cars are parked at an angle, just like in the picture. I stared out until my vision blurred with tears maybe and fatigue. Behind me, I the voice of Mahalia Jackson poured out of invisible speakers. This was hallowed ground. I took a cautious step out onto the balcony.
I cannot remember leaving the museum or the walk back to the Peabody. Back at the hotel, I ran into the duckmaster; this time he was wearing the janitor’s uniform.
“Did you go?” he said.
“It got to you?”
“Course it did,” he said. “You from Atlanta. Just think how it feels for those of us who live here.”
I have never been a good proofreader. This has been true since I was a kid in grade school. My teachers used to get so angry with me over it and I admit, as a professor myself, I sometimes get personally offended when students hand in work that is full of typos, and other goofs. However, I have since come to the conclusion that a lack of proofreading isn’t always a lack of respect for the project.
Sometimes people don’t proofread because they can’t stand to read their own work. It’s like listening to your own voice on a tape recording. There is also the fear that you will read over the story closely and find out that it’s terrible and then what would you do? The story is due? So you just print it out and turn it in.
Insecurity manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some people’s insecurity makes them perfectionists. They sweat every little details for fear that one typo or error will somehow invalidate all of their hard work or cause people to mock them. These folks may hang onto a manuscript way longer than they should have for fear that it’s not perfect.
Because I am not a good proofer, I hired someone to proof my manuscript before I submitted it to publishers. ($600. More than mere chump change.)Imagine my dismay when I made a mistake with MS Word and accidentally left a few “notes” in the margin! I think one said, [Should I double space here?]
I called all my friends hoping that one of them would say, “That doesn’t matter. No one is going to disqualify your manuscript because of that little mistake.” Rather, almost everyone said, “Oh no! Can you get the manuscript back?!?!?! Certainly there is something you can do!!!!!” I was really freaking out about it. I felt as though a few little margin notes from a professional proofreader would somehow undermine the five years of work I had done on this book.
Finally, I called my agent who wasn’t all that upset. “That’s too bad,” she said. “But we’re not going to worry about it.” I called my publicist. “How about you act like you never even noticed. It’s not a big deal.”
The difference in the reactions is that my agent and my publicist are professionals, not artists. They don’t have the same insecurities. They had distance and promised me that no one was going to say, “I reject this manuscript because the professional proofer asked about double-spacing on page 104!”.
The other day, at Greenlight Books, Tiphanie Yanique told us about a story that had been chosen as a prize-winner by Junot Diaz. She said he contacted her and said, “I am about to choose your story as a winner, but you really need to clean up these typos! This is ridiculous.” Everyone laughed, because everyone loves a happy ending. Tiphanie is a great writer. Of course Junot would see it despite some carelessness.
I guess the obvious lesson is that you don’t want to turn in a manuscript full of errors. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too obsessive about the details either. When I met with my editor for the first time, I sheepishly mentioned those margin notes, and she didn’t even know what I was talking about.
Monday, April 5 is the deadline to apply to Voices, the exciting summer workshops for writers of color held at The University of San Francisco.
I’ll be teaching a one week fiction course from June 20-26. Other faculty members include Mat Johnson, Chris Abani, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Suheir Hammad, David Mura, Tannarive Due, Elmaz Abinader, M. Evelina Galang, Ruth Forman, and more! You can visit the website for more information.
And, also, check out this guest post by LeConte Dill and Terri Elam about their amazing experience attending the workshops, “VONA Saved My Life.”
This rest of this week is going to be crazy intense for me, but there is a lot of really cool stuff going on, so let me post a quick bulletin before I run to work (where I will be treated to back-to-back meetings. Ugh. I thought I was suppossed to be an artist or something.)
THURSDAY-SUNDAY: National Black Writers Conference. Super-sexy line-up including **swoon** Toni Morrison, but also Dolen Perkins Valdez, Bernice MacFadden, Victor LaValle, Colson Whitehead, and me! The NYT did a really cool profile of the conference. Please check it out and leave a comment. The comments that are posted are pretty, well, disturbing.
FRIDAY: Girls Write Now Chapters Reading Series, featuring Nami Mun. I am crazy about Nami. Miles from Nowhere is a heck of a debut. And all of your know how I feel about our amazing teen writers. The event is free. The event is cool. So come on out. 6pm, The Center For Fiction, 17 East 47nd Street. NYC
SATURDAY: Girls Write Now Day at Eileen Fisher. Gussy up for the cause! 20% of all purchases in NYC will go to GWN!