Remembering Maya Angelou

Yesterday the great writer Maya Angelou passed away.  I saw the news on facebook and I was felt so sad that I put away my writing, made myself some cocoa, and called up a good friend.  It was inevitable, I know.  She was 86. She lived a good life.  All of that.  I read that she had cancelled a speaking engagement a couple of days ago, so she was active all the way to the end.  It was a good life, and she enjoyed every moment of it.  This is the kind of passing that calls for one of those New Orleans style funerals where you dance instead of weeping, or at least dance while you weep.  But still.  I had to lay down for a while.

When I think about Maya Angelou, I think about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.  I hardly ever teach it anymore because the students have read it already by the time they get to college.  For my black students especially, it is as essential as To Kill A Mocking Bird.  And speaking of my students, how many of the have tattoos reading “Phenomenal Woman” or “And Still I Rise.”  She was a beloved writer, and a beloved citizen of the community, and a true citizen of the world.

Her life was a magic trick.  She did the impossible thing.  She looked at the world clear eyed and without sentimentality.  She talked about rape back when folks didn’t talk about it.  She talked about single motherhood back when “nice girls” didn’t.  I read all six volumes of her autobiography when I was probably too young for them. My mother had them and I was a naturally nosy child.  It was my first glimpse into womanhood and the life of an artist, the life of a black woman artist.  But the impossible thing is that she did it, wrote about it, and continued to live a glorious life.  I see the photos of her dancing, singing, wearing dark shades, or a cool hat and I think– Still, she rises.  And she makes me believe that it’s possible to honor your vision, tell hard truths, make mistakes, and still be worthy of great love and great joy.

Maya Angelou.  We will miss her.  And there will never be another.

[video] My video chat with the LATimes about Dr. Angelou

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The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

“With The Valley of Amazement (Ecco), Amy Tan reaffirms her reputation as a master storyteller, creating intriguing settings, unforgettable characters, and twisty plotlines.”

You can read my complete view at

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Retreat Reading– Ucross Edition

Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley:

In her captivating debut story collection, Casper-raised author Nina McConigley examines with wit and empathy what it means to be “the wrong kind of Indians living in Wyoming.” Although prejudice and ignorance surface, there are few bad guys in this game of cowboys and Indians, only complicated human beings.

The characters in Cowboys and East Indians must explain themselves frequently — they are never quite what those who encounter them expect. In the story “Dot or Feather,” a foreign exchange student from India tells a Wyoming kid dressed up as a Native American, “There are two kinds of Indians. Some wear dots, others wear feathers. You’re a feather Indian. I wear a dot.  – High Country News

You can read the title story here.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

Granted, a novel about a dude stuck in an airport isn’t for everybody, but I picked it up quite by accident in the Ucross library and I was sucked in by the voice.  Miles is a writer who seems to be unafraid of being himself.  This is a book that manages to be sarcastic, but still really vulnerable.  I’m digging it.

The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant

This one isn’t out yet, but I managed to get my hot little hands on a review copy.  The first story, Lizard Man, knocked. my. socks. off.  Poisssant has a way of using premises that may make your roll your eyes, and then sneak up on you, knock you over the head and steal your heart.  Example with Lizard Man: these two down on their luck dudes go on a roadie because one of the dude’s deadbeat dad has died.  When they get there, they try and kidnap this alligator.  (I can hear you rolling your eyes as you read this.)  But then, as you’re reading it, you’re all of a sudden weeping into your latte, and somehow filled with hope at the same time.  Well played, DJP, well played.

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More Retreat Reading

Turns out that my muse wasn’t really trying to hang out with me a La Muse. (More on that later.)  Instead of writing, I took long walks, drank excellent wine, and read. A lot. I am hoping that all this reading rekindles my love for novel and inspires me to breathe life into my characters.  So here’s what’s new on the reading list:

Foreign Gods Inc by Okey Ndibe– It was like the love child of Chinua Achebe and Victor LaValle.  A Nigerian ex pat, reduced to being a cabdriver in NYC decides go back home to Nigeria in order to steal the local diety and sell it to collectors.  Half satire, half not. Foreign Gods, Inc., tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery. 

Raw by  Mark Haskell Smith– This one reminds me of Erasure by Percival Everett, but without the complication of racial politics. Imagine if one of the dudes from your MFA workshop were to ghostwrite a novel for “The Situation” from Jersey Shore.  Then imagine a young woman from that same class, she’s a blogger now, and is determined to unmask the ghost writer. That’s the plot here.  Soapy, goofy, but smart fun. Reality TV hunk and People magazine’s “sexiest man alive”, Sepp Gregory goes on a book tour to promote his debut novel, a thinly veiled autobiography. Not that Sepp has actually read the book, he doesn’t have to, he lived it! The book becomes a sensation, a New York Timesbestseller, and, surprisingly, it even gets rave reviews from serious critics. Aside from Harriet Post, that is.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile– Did you read Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season? (You should! It just won the Ernest Gaines Award, but I digress.)  Well, Queen Sugar covers similar territory– a black woman ends up running a sugar cane plantation in Louisiana.  While Locke’s book centers around a murder, this is more of a family story.  It’s a good read lots of plot twists, action, romance.  Why exactly Charley Bordelon’s late father left her eight hundred sprawling acres of sugarcane land in rural Louisiana is as mysterious as it was generous. Recognizing this as a chance to start over, Charley and her eleven-year-old daughter, Micah, say good-bye to Los Angeles. 



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Retreat Reading: Week One

This pretty little corner is my reading look while I am at La Muse.  I write during the day and in the evenings, I read to fill the well and relax.  Here is what I have been reading lately.

Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois:  This is a novel inspired by the Amanda Knox triall.  An American exchange student is accused of murdering her roommate.  Dubois seems to really “get” her characters.   While it has some issues here and there, I stayed up all night reading it.

In The Blood by Lisa Ugner:  Page turner falling into my favorite category of thriller– evil children.  Great writing. Twists and turns to the last page. Excellent travel real.

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan: A bazillion pages. Lots of great characters and many thrilling adventures.  Perfect for a cup of tea, or a glass of wine.  Very very satisfying story.



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Men We Reaped By Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward, a native of DeLisle, Miss., chronicles our American story in language that is raw, beautiful and dangerous. Her National Book Award-­winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” claimed the Gulf Coast as her literary territory, but with “Men We Reaped,” it’s clear the region has claimed her in return. Ward’s memoir is an elegy for five young men dear to her who died in Mississippi between 2000 and 2004. Chapters are announced with each of their names, along with the dates of birth and death, giving the reader a feeling of winding through an overcrowded cemetery. The death of her younger brother, Joshua, is at the core of the book — “This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”

–Tayari Jones, NYTBR, September 15, 2013.

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

I reviewed Edwidge Danticat’s new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, for O Magazine.  It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Full review here.

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“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well.”

“…the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well. The writer must trust the reader to be at least as intelligent as he is. Only in such well wishing and trust, only when the writer feels he is writing a letter to a good friend, only then will the magic happen.

I have done the other thing. I have written bitter and cruel things and even published some them and I regret every one.”

from Falling Through Space by Ellen Gilchrist

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The Color Purple At 30

It boggles my mind to think that The Color Purple was published thirty years ago. I was about twelve years old when Celie, Shug, Sophia, and Mister entered the American conversation.

I have heard many black women writers confess that they were adults before they knew that black women could even be writers at all.  Right now, I am thinking about how fortunate I am to have never doubted that it as possible for a black woman to be a writer.  Like everyone, I had to go through a lot until I realized that I, myself, could be a writer, that I had something to say.  But thanks to Alice Walker, I never thought that I was excluded because of who I am.

Watching Alive Walker, I knew that the life of the writer would not be easy.  Yes, she was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the only one– to this day– to have won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.  Still, she faced immense criticism for The Color Purple.  I have never heard any writer spoken about with the venom with which some African American critics attacked Alice Walker.  At the same time, I have never seen anyone stare down the hate with such love, generosity, and bravery.

Alice Walker is a trailblazer.  She opened doors for writers who came after, but I want to give her credit for what she did for all of us as readers.  The Color Purple is a gift.  Those characters touched all of us deeply.  They are bright purple patches in our American quilt.

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The Case for the Book– The Paper Book That You Can Hold in Your Hand

I Love BooksI recently took a trip to Brazil. It was meant to be a work-cation– sightseeing, beaches, but also writing time. It also involved about twelves hours on a an airplane.  I llike to think of myself as a with-it person, so I decided that I would read e-books while I was away.  Afterall, I am a superfast reader and I wouldn’t want to be carrying two weeks worth of books.  No, not hip super-techie me! iPad baby. Nook app.

I ordered the books from but forgot to actually send them to my device.  No worries, I thought.  I’ll just zip them from the cloud when I get on the place.  Didn’t the promo material say the jet was WiFi enabled?  Well, there was no WiFi on board, but that was okay. I entertained myself with the movies offered by my friends at American Airlines. (Young Adult wasn’t bad.) When I got to the villa in Brazil, there was no WiFi there, either.  (Moral of this story– don’t believe anything you read in promo materials.)  So there was was, stranded for two weeks with nothing to read.  Keep in mind that this was a communal living situation– think The Real World.  And everyone that was ever a nerdy child knows that a good book can give you privacy in your head, even when you have no privacy in real life.  And I had NOTHING.  Before you can suggest it— there was no sense looking for a bookstore since everything would be in Portugeuse.

Yes, I know that this falls under #firstworldproblems, but it was a little bit of a wake up call to me.  The ebook requires a certain amount of infrastructure and privilege. Not everybody in America– let alone the rest of the world– is plugged in 24-7.  And let’s say that I been able to download my ebooks, I wouldh’t have been able to share them with my new friends in Brazil.

The ride back was a nightmare.  For one, No movies because I lost my upgrade. (That’s a long story which I will only tell over cocktails.)  And second, I had nothing to read, having exhausted the SkyMiles catalog on the outbound trip.  All around me people were flipping through paper books with what looked to me like joy.  Glee, even.  On my lap, my iPad mocked.  I know this sounds dramatic, but I was in flight twelve hours!  There is only so much solitaire and Texas Hold ‘Em a person can take.

Next time, it’s real books all the way.

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