What I’m Reading on the Plane: THE FAMILY FANG

I just finished reading THE FAMILY FANG by Kevin Wilson.  I scored a free copy at ALA this summer but I was too busy moving and touring to settle down to read it.  About a month ago, I heard Kevin give a delightful reading at Harvard Bookstore so I scooted it up my to-read list.  I am so glad I did.

If you are a person who enjoyed The Royal Tannenbaums, this is a book for you.  It has all the idiosyncrasy of that film, but the richness that makes a novel really satisfying.

I started off reading it just for the quirkiness.  Here’s the plot– two kids have grown up in a most bizarre family. The parents are performance artists and use the kids as part of the act.  Sometimes, the children don’t even know there is a act.  Now Buster and Annie, grown up and messed up, are forced to move back home.  (I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil.)  I chuckled my way through the first third of the story– what wacky parents! But somewhere around page 150, the narrative snuck up on me and got deep.

This is a novel that made me re-examine my own childhood and childhood as a concept–  To what extent are kids bit players is all of our parents’ performances?  Can you ever really grow up? And while we’re at it, what is art, anyway? What is love? What is sacrifice?

All of this, and it’s damn funny, too.

Bravo, Mr. Wilson. I am so proud of you!

and it’s not just me:
NPR loves it
and so does the NYT

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Silver Sparrow Flies Back to DC

Busboys & Poets

Tuesday Night!

So, DC is one of my favorite cities.  I lived there for a couple years and I enjoyed every second of it.  I am thrilled to be going back next week for three appearances.  If you are in the area, come on out.  It will be fun. I promise

  • Monday, September 19, 12:00pm and 4:30pm– Fairfax, Virginia
    Fall for the Book at George Mason University
    Workshop, Reading, and Signing
  • Tuesday, September 20, 6:30pm– Washington, DC
    Busboys and Poets, 14th and V
    Reading and Conversation with Martha Southgate
  • Thursday, September 22, 4:00pm– Washington, DC
    Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference
    Panel Discussion with Booker Matison, Kwame Alexander, Tananarive Due, and Karl Evanzz
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    We Were Girls Together

    My childhood friend, Carmen Nicole Clark, has passed away.  We went to the same elementary school, middle school, high school, and even college together.  She came to my birthday party when I was five.  She wore lace dresses sometimes.  I asked my mother if I could wear lace dresses and my mother would never let me dress so extravagantly.   Like me, she had an older brother and a baby brother.  She called me “T”. Her hair was really soft, so she couldn’t get a relaxer.  She wore it pressed or wavy, brushed smooth and fastened with a clip.  We both still rode the school bus when the cool kids had started driving.She taught me how to apply liquid eyeliner. I still remembr us blinking away the black dye clouding the whites of our eyes.  In the fifth grade, the boy that I had a crush on liked her instead and asked her to “go” with him.  Her aunt was the gifted teacher, and I thought that it was amazing to be related to someone as wonderful as Mrs. Elmore.   When I was twelve my parents decided to take the family to live in Nigeria for a year. I was miserable to leave my friends behind just because my parents wanted to have an “experience.”  I wrote letters to my friends almost every day and Carmen always wrote back.  I remember her pretty slanted handwriting on pale blue envelopes.  Once she sent a care package of M&Ms. Her daddy was a professor, so was mine. I cannot find a single picture with her in it.  She played piano and accompanyed me for my solo recital eventhough I was terrible on my flute.  Carmen was absent at our 20th college reunion this past May.  When I was in Atlanta last month I got in touch and she said she would be glad to see me and catch up. I was going to see her after my signing, but I got so frustrated trying to hawk my book at Costco, that I just got mad and went home.  I told her that I would see her next time and she said that she was looking forward to it.

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    In Praise of Songwriters: RIP Nick Ashford

    There was a time when you couldn’t tell me that Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell were not madly in love. The evidence, I believed, was all in the duets. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, “Your Precious Love”. I could go on and on. That was love on the radio.

    But the love was in the writing. Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson created those iconic love songs from their incredible talent merged with thier own incredible love. It was reported that Nick Ashford died last night. We have lost an American genius.

    I have been thinking quite a bit about song writers lately. Many people I know sneer at “remakes” or “covers” of famous songs. They want new artists to come up with new music. Simply re-singing an already popular song is cheating.

    I disagree. It is a mistake to think that a singer owns a particular song. Someone write that song and that person deserves to have that song performed by as many people as choose to perform it. It is a real compliment to the writer that a song is beloved in the hands of multiple artists over years and years. (Did you think that Whitney Houston was singing Chaka’s Khan’s song when she released “I’m Every Woman”? That, too, was another Ashford & Simpson creation. Amazing, right?)

    Songwriters are an amazing group of artists. In the world of jazz there are standards, fine pieces that are expected to be performed by a variety of artists, which much credit given to the writer. But in the world of pop music, only true fans know who wrote what. Can you imagine having your masterpiece associated not with you, but with the singer? Songwriters are the hearts and minds behind the scenes.

    Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson wrote the songbook of a generation. Here’s a list. Won’t you play one of the songs today? I bet you have them in your collection. (“You’re All I Need to Get By” is a classic, be it Marvin and Tammi or Mary J and Method Man.) Or just hum a bar or two. Then, light a candle, give thanks for the experience, and say a prayer.

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    Win A Copy of the Silver Sparrow Audiobook

    **To enter, leave a comment on this post**.

    Heather Alicia Simms and Rosalyn Coleman Williams
    Heather Alicia Simms and Rosalyn Coleman Williams

    When it came time to record the audiobook for Silver Sparrow, immediately knew which actors I wanted for the job—Heather Alicia Simms and Rosalyn Coleman Williams.  Both are exquisitely trained actors; you may have seen them on Broadway in August Wilson roles.  In addition to their technical expertise, both are women who put their souls into their work.  I was honored and delighted when they agreed to record the voices of Dana and Chaurisse—the bigamist’s daughters at the heart of Silver Sparrow. And I was delighted that BBC AudioGo allowed me to have so much input.

    Here are the highlights of an email conversation I conducted with Heather and Rosalyn about their experiences voicing Silver Sparrow.

    Tayari:  I just want to thank you for doing this project.  I listened to it straight through which is rare for me.  Usually I feel like the audio book really changes my intent, but you two did an A+ job.  Thanks for taking such good care of my baby.

    Heather:  I love, love, love this book.  You are an incredibly beautiful writer with a gift for ensnaring the reader into what may seem like an unpalatable situation and providing us with an outlet to be empathetic toward it in spite of our personal mores. Wonderful, wonderful!

    Tayari: Silver Sparrow is divided into two sections, one from the point of view of Dana the “secret” daughter and Chaurisse the “legitimate” daughter.  Heather, what did you enjoy most about recording Dana’s world.

    Heather: I had a great time trying to capture Dana’s youthful spirit. I loved seeing the world through her eyes. I especially loved when she figured out how to maneuver  through her complicated and quite painful world of being an outside child. The fun for me was in the complexity of the character.

    Tayari: Was there anything about the part that was challenging?

    Heather: Uncle Raleigh’s voice was the most challenging because I didn’t want to give away too much of the story through his intonations.  I was very aware about his tone when he spoke to Dana and especially Gwen. I remember thinking that although James had the stammer which is technically challenging to record, I didn’t want to reveal Uncle Raleigh’s emotional intentions prematurely.

    Tayari: What about you, Roz?  What was the highlight of recording the experience from Chaurisse’s point of view?

    Rosalyn: Getting lost in the story and experiencing it again for the like the first time.  Feeling the love of the family. 

    Tayari: You read Chaurisse’s part which involves a lot of minor characters.  Was that challenging for you?

    Rosalyn: The women in the salon were a challenge because I had not really thought about them and I didn’t want to capture them without making a comment on them.   And not take away from the reader’s imagination of them. 

    Tayari: As the writer, people always ask me which of the characters I identify with most.  What about you two? Which character did you relate to most closely?

    Rosalyn:  The first time I read the book I related to Dana’s isolation and loneliness, as a teen I felt lost in the same way.  When I recorded the book I was on the other side and felt a curious attraction to Dana. But my heart was with my mama. When I recorded the book I was Chaurisse. I am really more of a Chaurisse anyway, flawed, loved, sheltered. Regular hair. Brown skin. Hard working.  That’s me.

    Heather:   I would say that I related to Dana the most.  I wanted to give her the wisdom of someone well past a first love but recognized that some of the indiscretions were those that I and many of my friends made in the past.  Her intelligence, drive and ability to be self-sufficient were characteristics that were comfortably familiar.

    Tayari: Thank you both so much being so beautiful and so brilliant.

    If you would like to win a copy of the audio recording of Silver Sparrow, just leave a comment and I will enter you into a drawing.  I’ll announce on Tuesday, July 26th.

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    By Popular Demand: More Fancy Hat Photos

    About two weeks ago, I posted about the amazing experience I had at Mama Fancina’s Fancy Hat Luncheon on Amelia Island.  So many people got in touch and said they wanted to see MORE HATS. And everyone wanted to see Ms. Jennie Blue– the grande hostess who made it all happen.  Well, ask and you shall receive. For the fancy hat motherlode, click on the mosaic below. (And that’s “Jay Bee” in the center in all her fabulousness.)  And to read the original post on the most extravagant bookclub ever, click here.


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    Silver Sparrow Takes Off

    On May 25, Greenlight Books hosted the launch party for Silver Sparrow.  It was a magical night, as you can see from this wonderful photo collection taken by Rachel Eliza Griffiths who was kind enough to shoot the event. Thank you, thank you, to everyone who came out to bless this boat.

    Silver Sparrow Launch

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    This is YOUR Writing Life– Live it Your Own Way

    My last “Countdown to Publication” coloumn is up at SheWrites.

    My publicist, Lauren Cerand, recently shared with me an email I sent her back in 2005 when we were first working together on PR.  She asked me to put together a wish-list that would serve as our working goals. With Silver Sparrow, we’ve been able to mark almost everything off the list.  Yesterday, I received an email from an “aspiring” writer who had one simple question, “How did you do it?”

    It’s a question I have asked myself. My philosophy goes against of almost everything that I have ever read about having a successful writing career.  I don’t want to have a one-sentence elevator pitch.  I don’t want to go anywhere just for the sake a making connections.  I don’t even subscribe to Publisher’s Lunch.  I am not saying that all those how-to books are wrong, but I do believe that there are other ways to go about having the literary life you want.

    I use the term “literary life” instead of “career.”  About four years ago, I was feeling very frustrated because my books were not selling enough. I don’t know what “enough” was, but I knew that I was nowhere near it.  This worry was taking the joy out of my writing life.  When I gave readings, I was looking at the bookseller when I should have been looking at the audience.  This is not to say that I don’t want to sell books, but I didn’t become a writer just to move units.

    A writer friend of mine told me, “This is an ugly business, but a beautiful life.

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    More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Me..

    As the pub date for SILVER SPARROW draws near, I have been lucky enough to sit down with some amazing women and talk about SILVER SPARROW in particular and writing in general.  We talked about plot, the “black” section of the bookstore, hair, and The Next Big Thing.

    • Rochelle Spencer interviewed me for a feature in Poets and Writers. You have to go to the newstand to read the article, but take a peek at the photo taken by the amazing Christy Whitney.
    • Roxane Gay and I talk over at Bookslut.  Let me tell you. If you ave an opportunity to sit down with Roxane, do it. She’s brilliant.  We really go there on everything to Toni Morrison to the politics of hair and the reality of life in the “new” south.
    • Caroline Leavitt, wants to know what I’m working on now
    • Over at Curl up and Write, Katrina Spencer and I talk about books, writing, and hair. Lots of hair..
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    Southern, But No Belle

    Recently,Vanity Fair published a photograph of the literary women of Atlanta.  The women are posed in front of the Swan House which is not a plantation house, it just vibes like one.  This is one of Atlanta’s hallmarks, these not-plantations.  Since Atlanta was burned in the Civil War, there are no ante-bellum structures to romanticize, so the good citizens of my hometown make do with lavish Victorians.  My favorite example is the Margaret Mitchell House.  It was built in the 1900s, long after Rhett Butler said he didn’t give a damn, but it feels like Tara and that’s all that matters.  When we agree to accept an illusion, it takes on a kind of truth and this is why the photo spread is so disturbing.

    Atlanta is one of America’s “Chocolate Cities.”  Along with Washington, DC and Detroit the city was famous for its critical mass of black folks doing anything you can imagine— I grew up believing that any range of human experience could be enjoyed by a black person.  My parents never had to wring their hands over whether I saw teachers who “looked like me.”  Growing up in Southwest Atlanta, I had no idea that black Americans were a numeric minority.  And even when I was old enough to know this, I never believed it in my soul.  It’s like when you are told that your body is 75% water.  You believe it, but you don’t believe it, since you know yourself to be solid flesh.

    Of course, I was glad to see Natasha Trethewey included in the photo—as a Pulitzer Prize winner, if she is not a literary celebrity of Atlanta, then who is? But everything else about the spread stuck in my craw.  In the photo, you see half a dozen white ladies—and I use this term deliberately. The way they are posed does not evoke “women”.  I see “ladies”.  And there is Natasha tucked in there, the one woman of color. (Is “ladies of color” even a term?) 

    The title of the piece is “Belles, Books, and Candor”.  I never call myself a southern belle, though many people here in New Jersey try and put that label on me.  It’s not that I deny my southerness, but “belle”, for me evokes images of slavery and hierarchy.  I know black women who have reappropriated the term, but I would rather not be wrapped in that filthy blanket.  I do sometimes call myself a Georgia Peach, which is what girls at my high school called ourselves.  Once, a man called me “Georgia” when he was feeling affectionate and it’s one of the reasons I fell for him, because knowing where I am from is key to knowing who I am.  I am not from the world of this photo.

    I would love to ask Kathryn Stockett, author of the blockbuster THE HELP how she feels about the problematic optics of this photo.  Fans of her work say that she is an advocate for the black women who worked as maids in Mississippi.  I’ve been told that she is a fierce critic of white privilege. How does she feel to be touted as leader of “Atlanta’s literary sorority” which does not include any black fiction writers.  Did she say to the photographer, “Wait! Where’s Pearl Cleage?”

    Today marks Confederate Memorial day in the state of Georgia. This “holiday” is characterized by a nostalgia for a fictional past in which the (white) men are all gentlemen, the (white) women belles, and the fallen Conferderates heroes, all. I shudder to think about how the rest of us fit into this fantasy. So, on this day, I look at this photo and see an opportunity lost. What a powerful rhetorical statement would be made if standing before the Swan House were a group of writers representing the real Atlanta. Imagine even that the net were widened to include women writers from other southern cities. I would love to see Shay Youngblood, Olympia Vernon, Lorraine Lopez, Dolen Perkins Valdez and Alice Randall featured in the pages of Vanity Fair. The south has never been mono-racial, and as the demographics of the country have shifted, the face of southern writing is becoming increasingly diverse– and increasingly rich.

    I am aware that many white southern writers feel pigeonholed by the term “southern.” They complain that their publishers will send them to Square Books in Mississippi, but will never send them to City Lights in California.  They feel that the “southern” label keeps them from being seen as American writers.  Black southerners can feel their pain, because we, too, know what it’s like to be excluded from the American canon.  But we know another pain, which may cut deeper: we know how it feels to have our roots dug up, to be told we don’t exist.

    Posted in Current Events, Uncategorized, Writing | 17 Comments