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Hear Ye, Hear Ye! It has just been announced that this year’s reading selection for the city of Newark is THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker! I will be leading the discussion.
I’m still working the kinks out of the format, but it’s going to kick off with a dramatic reading from the text by Broadway actor, Rosalyn Coleman Wiliams. (She is five kinds of fabulous and is generously donating her time.)
But, if you are in the Newark area, bust out with your old copy and get to reading or buy a new one. The event is Wednesday, December 2, 6-8pm at the Newark Public Library.
Tomorrow starts NaNoWriMo– National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write a novel in thirty days. I have never been tempted to join in. One reason is that my birthday is in November and the last thing I want to do on my birthday is to slam for an arbitrary deadline. The second reason is more artistic. I cannot imagine that a novel written in thirty days would be any good to read, nor would it be any fun to write. I know someone will comment with some notable masterpiece written in three weeks. (Just as I am writing this, I think I remember someone saying that Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written in twenty-one days or something.)
I understand that imposition of a deadline as a way to motivate folks to actually sit down and write, but I don’t think that art really works that way. The idea of writing a novel in a month seems to be more motivated by the desire to want to have written a novel, than the urge to really explore an idea and to develop meaningful characters and plots. It seems more like an impulse to become an “Author” than to really be a writer.
I like the idea of the month of November being devoted to novel writing. I love thinking of thousands of people sitting at their computers and notebooks thinking hard. What I don’t like is the idea that a novel should be finished at the end of that month. Let us devote November to novel writing, but let us focus more on trying to structure the month in such a way to be nurturing to our artist-selves. Maybe you will spend the month just daydreaming. Or someone else will get a babysitter on afternoon a week to get some quiet time. Someone else will spend the month reading novels in translation. Yet another person may volunteer her month to reading friends’ drafts. You get the idea. Spend November being a more dedicated writer, whatever that looks like.
NaNoWriMo is almost like going on a crash diet to fit into a special dress. You spend two days eating nothing but cabbage soup and feel proud of yourself for dropping ten pounds in ten days or whatever. But have you been properly nourished? Have you learned any new sustainable habits? Nope.
I could also make the analogy about romance. I won’t go into the details- I think by now you get the idea. Instead, I’ll just quote the SOS Band. “Take your time, do it right.”
Last night, I went to the Whiting Awards ceremony. The Whiting has always been a little weird for me. As I understand it, the lucky winners get a magic phone call way back in September and they have to keep it under wraps until the ceremony. The winners are usually folks with one book, sometimes two. At the ceremony the ten writers were described as being at the “start” of their careers. This year, I figured I have sort of aged out of the running, so I could attend the ceremony without feeling like a kid who wasn’t picked for the kickball team.
So, with a light heart, I went to the ceremony. On the train ride over, Rigoberto and I were speculating about who the winners would be. I said JERICHO BROWN. Afterall, his debut poetry collection, Please, has won the American Book Award. He’s in Cambridge, as a Bunting Fellow. And, simply put, he’s brilliant, gorgeous, and everyone loves him. When I walked into the auditorium, there he was and I could not have been more pleased for him.
Another winner was Nami Mun. I was also tickled to death to see her wearing the signature white rose that says “I just won $50,000. I met her a couple of years ago at MacDowell when she was still trying to score an agent. Now look at her.
The charming keynote was given my Margaret Atwood. For the life of me, I can’t remember what she said. I thinkshe said something like this work won’t make you rich, unless it doees. But if you do it right it will repair your soul. (Or maybe that’s my fantasy.) Maybe said said that writing doen right will repair the world. Yeah, I think the latter. She kept glancing behind her at the winners with such affecton that made it feel like we writers are one big happy family and everything is going to work out in the end.
Last night, I participated in “Let It Bee”, the annual spelling bee to benefit the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. CLMP is an organization of literary magazines and independent publishers.
Things got off to a rocky start. I took the wrong train, so I had to walk about ten blocks to get to the Diane von Furstenberg Studio. (Thank goodness for Aerosoles!) Once I arrived, I had to give the name of my “plus one.” I have been friends with Tyehimba Jess for a million years, but I couldn’t spell his name for the guest list. I just blanked. This did not bode well for the bee.
In addition to the spelling bee, there was a silent auction of some really nice items. Fancy designer clothes, purses, and jewelery were available for bid. I also saw a spa weekend. I had my eye on an adorable handbag, but the bidding quickly got a little too rich for my blood. To take the edge off there were fruity drinks and fru-fru snacks.
But on to the bee.
All I really was hoping for was not to wipe out in the first round. My first word was “whirlybird”, which I spelled right. I almost blew it, thinking it was a trick question. Other first round survivors included the ultra-charming Victor LaValle and Francine Prose. First round losers included James Frey– I have to say that I developed some affection for him when I laughed so hard on stage that I spit out my drink. He didn’t mock me.
The winner was Ben Greenman, who sat beside me. He even helped cover for me when I was called out for having my blackberry on stage!
The word that send me home: HAWTHORN. I put an “e” on the end.
I saw this great piece in Slate about the black music that gets featured on NPR. I have long since held that black folks and white folks tend to have different taste in black artists. Well, Josh Weiner has broken it down. He calls it the DORF factor.
In short, he notices that the black music featured on NPR tends to be by artists who are DEAD, OLD, RETRO, or FOREIGN. He also noticed that NPR seems sweet on black folks making music that is associated with white traditions, like Jeez Louise! Black folks singing opera!
I have noticed similar trends in the books by black authors who receive mainstream attention, but I have been reluctant to post about it. The reason is that I wouldn’t want to seem to be begruding any black author the benefit of this attention. There is such an impulse to see an African or Carribbean writer getting lots of attention, and think “She’s taking my spot!” But the real question is why is there just one spot? Or, why do I feel the need to compete with the other black writer on the list? Why do I not feel that I have been passed over in favor of the other writers on this list? Why can’t an African-African writer be on the list alongside and African-Carribbean writer?
That said, the DORF factor is alive and well in literature, too. (The categories are a little bit different. For example, for “Retro” we should substitute “Historical”. There should also be a category for black people who are the ONLY ONE– in thier families, at their jobs, or somewhere.) But the main thrust of the article is that NPR doesn’t honor muscians that actual living black people enjoy. (You will see I am not naming any names because I have no grudge against any writer. We are all out here doing the best we can, telling the story that we have to tell.)
This is not to say that no black folks enjoy the books that are reviewed in the NYT or on NPR, but when I look at what people are reading on the subway or in bookclubs, they are seldom the same lists. Obviously there are rule-proving exceptions,but you get the idea. Please note, that I am writing this not to criticize the writers who are featured in these formats. Nor am I suggesting that black readers are unsophisticated, as I reject the idea that NPR and NYT are the arbiters of all things smart. All I’m doing here is pointing out the disconnect.
(Here’s the link to the Slate article that inspired this post)
On Sunday, I went to Ramscale Gallery for a fundraiser for Being Billie, a new documentary about Billie Holliday. I was mostly motivated to attend the event because I jump at any opportunity to visit RamScale and secondly because lovely Karma Mayet Johnson would be singing. I am so glad I braved the elements and traveled to Manhattan.
Being Billie offers a fascinating and empowering look at the life of Billie Holliday. Women artists and thinkers such as Angela Davis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Laylah Hathaway, Joni Mitchell, and Nikki Giovanni weigh in on the life and legacy of Lady Day.
All of them pointed out that women artists are so often reduced to the details of thier personal lives. (For contrast think of Miles Davis. His life was a disaster, but it has not tarnished his reputation as a genius.) Billie Holiday is remembered as a tragic figure– drug addict, bad relationships, etc. But what about her genius? And I am not using the word lightly. When you see this film you will ask yourself this question.
(One of the highlights of the film was Nikki Giovanni irreverently chronicalling the drug use of other stars of the same era. Why, she asks, haven’t these artists been smeared for all enternity. As she put it, “They act like Billie Holiday was the first singer to ever be a drug addict.”)
Film-maker Phyllis M. Croom was at the event, along with Producer, Rochelle “Rocky” Scott. I was very impressed with the dedication and just hard work they have put into reclaiming Billie Holiday from the “Lady Sings The Blues” melodrama. Of course, passion and dedication don’t pay the bills. You can imagine the expenses they have incurred trying to get the rights to music and film clips. They need to raise an additional $75,000 just to finish the project. Everyone one at the event was so moved that we all made donations, but more help is needed.
Visit the Being Billie website for more information. The website is a little tricky to navigate, but if you keep clicking, you’ll get to the donation page, so keep clicking.