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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.
Rutgers-Newark University is delighted to host Toni Morrison tomorrow, at 5:30 in the Multi-Purpose Room of the Paul Robeson Student Center. Get there early– we do plan to fill up.
As you can imagine, I am so thrilled that I don’t know what to do with myself. Really. As you can imagine.
Human Traficking is an epidemic in the United States. When I say that, you probably have a hard time getting your head around what I am talking about. I am talking about teen age girls who are forced into prostitution. These girls are on the streets of every city in the country. When they are apprehended by law enforcement, they go to jail, ruining their lives. I have always felt uncomfortable when people toss the word “pimp” around in casual conversation, for example “Pimp my novel”, “Pimp my car”, etc. Pimps enslave women and girls. It’s not cute. It’s not funny. It’s not manly or sexy. It’s cowardly and criminal.
GIRLS LIKE US is a new memoir by Rachel Lloyd who was, herself, trafficked, but managed to escape. She is the founder of GEMS, an organization that helps traficked girls. It’s an amazing book and this is a serious problem. Buy it. Read it. And then do something.
Today is the 130 anniversary of the founding of Spelman College, and African American woman’s college in Atlanta. As you may know, this is my alma mater; I will celebrate my reunion this year. Alma Mater literally translates to “nourishing mother.”
Since Silver Sparrow will be published in about six weeks, I am doing a lot of interviews. One question that comes up again and again is “How did you become a writer.” For me, this questions gets serious when I talk about my time at Spelman. Spelman is where I took my first creative writing class. Where I first learned to say, I am a writer.
Before I went to Spelman College, I was an invisible girl, average in every way. I knew that was “bright”, whatever that meant, but I never thought of myself as someone with something important to say. I knew that I enjoyed writing and always got good grades in English, but I didn’t really feel like a young woman on the verge.
Almost immediately after walking through the ornamental front gate, everything changed. All of a sudden, I was known for my writing! People were constantly asking for my opinion. I ran for editor of the school paper! I because the student-faculty liaison on the student government.
I tell people this story all the time and they poo-poo it. It wasn’t Spelman, they say, it was YOU! I am not downplaying my own role. I did work hard, but Spelman let me know that it was possible. Without this shift in my thinking– at such a crucial time in my developments– I know I would not be the woman I am today.
The picture you see above was painted for Spelman by Vanette Honeywood, who graduated from Spelman in 1972. Sadly, she passed away earlier this year. Ms. Honeywood was one of many alumnae whose names were always in the air, reminding us that black women who had stood where we were currently standing had gone one to do amazing things. Marian Wright Edleman, Alice Walker, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pearl Cleage, Tina McElroy Ansa, Esther Rolle.. And many others.
Happy Birthday Spelman, from the woman I am, but especially from the girl I was in 1987. I never could have done it without you.
I know that i haven’t been blogging like I usually do. It’s because I am *completely* consumed with the pre-publication of SILVER SPARROW. As you may know, I spent five years writing this novel and I want to make sure that everything goes just right. I’ve got a great team– Algonquin Books is all over it. We’ve got an exciting tour scheduled and excellent media hits. My independent publicist, Lauren Cerand, thinks of everything. So, I am good hands, but there is still so much to do. (Don’t even get me started on the Quest For The Perfect Traveling Hairstyle and guess what, I am going to be on the road six weeks with just a carry-on bag!)
But to keep you in the loop, here is a little excerpt from SILVER SPARROW. I hope you like it. She’s my baby.
When the Center For Fiction asked me to make a literary list to celebrate the publication of Silver Sparrow, I wasn’t sure which way to go. I almost made a list of my five favorite southern novels, but the decision was too weighty. Among other challenges, I would have had to define what I mean by southern… and that was just too deep for a short form list.
So I thought about it.
And I decided to make it a little fun and list my five favorite cheaters in literature. After all, SILVER SPARROW is about a one man who has two wives. The idea of romantic multi-taskers really intrigues me. For my list, I only put the ones who are not destroyed by guilt. I love The Awakening, but when Edna drowns herself in the ocean, it was sort of a buzz kill.
So, check out my list, and if you want, add your faves in comments. And don’t be shocked by the first cheater I site. You know NO list is complete without a little ToMo.
Once you have done all you can to your novel, story, or poem, you need someone to look at it. Over at SheWrites I give some helpful hints on assembling the group of people who can help you take your work to the next level. And as a bonus, I offer five tips for writerly ettiquette!
In my graduate workshop last week, there was a student struggling with a memoir. He was frustrated about how to wind from one moment of his life to the next. What he submitted in class was a long piece, weighted down with a lot of logistical details and back story on his family. I couldn’t tell he hadn’t had a lot of fun writing it and, I sort of felt that as a reader. When I spoke to him about the piece, he gave me the idea that he wanted to get to the “good” parts—when the story heated up, but he had to get himself there, and this was the problem. I advised him to just write the parts he wanted to write. The metaphor was that his life was like a box of Lucky Charms cereal. He was being a good boy and eating everything in his bowl, writing down everything that happened. But to capture the full emotional intensity of his experience on the page, he needed to just pluck out the marshmallows, and leave the flakes behind.
By this I meant that he should write only the good parts, the irresistible moments—the marshmallows. Once he is done with those, we will organize it into a shapely draft.
I am sharing this because I think that there may be readers out there who are making the same mistake. You think you have to write the story in a chronological way. But I saw write whatever you feel like writing. Don’t think of new ways to steal your joy from yourself. Write the parts of the story that are burning to be told. We’ll worry about the rest later.
Sometimes, we just need to laugh.