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I am delighted to post the link to my recent NPR interview. It was such a pleasure to sit down with Michele Norris, who is just as amazing in person as she is on the air. We talked about bigamy, Girls Write Now, Toni Morrison, “invisible” girls, Spelman College, magic wands, Johnetta Cole, writing, mentoring, and SILVER SPARROW.
Over at The Nervous Breakdown, I interview myself. Yes, you read that right. Me, talking to me, about me.
ME: How much of this is autobiography? Is your father really a bigamist?
ME2: The dedication to my book is: “To my parents, who, to the best of my knowledge, are married only to each other.” It’s funny—when it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie. For fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth.
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.
and other madness
I get a lot of email, tweets, etc. from young writers, many of them African American, who want to know how to get published. A few weeks ago, a really interesting young woman told me that she has been advised to self-publish her novel in order to get a following and only then would she be able to find an agent. I asked her if the person who had given her that advice had even seen her work. She said he hadn’t, but that because she was a black writer and wasn’t writing “street lit”, self publishing was the only way to see her work in print. (I called her right away and told her that she had just as much right to traditional publishing as anyone else. If I could do it, she could do it.)
Then, today, a twitter pal, sent me a link to her own blog. Here is a paragraph, to give you the feel for the piece:
Last month, while attending the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Conference, I spoke to a fellow black writer about the novel she planned to pitch. She flat out said, “ It’s a hood novel”. I wanted to say “I’ve never seen that section in Borders” but I thought against it. Turns out, she openly admitted that she’s tried to pitch other novels before, but most agents wanted an author with previous experience. So in order to gain that experience, she decided to write a hood tale, create some buzz, build a following, and then publish a book she’s actually passionate about. It occurred to me that I was talking to a genius.
Both these young writers’ stories have been bothering me.
Simply put, it seems to me that only black writers are put in these situations and given such extreme advice. I talk to a lot of young writers, and the black ones are told to self-publish. As for the “hood novel” issue. I don’t even know where to start.
Here are some quick bullet points:
Okay. I am getting off my soapbox now. I think I need a new category on my blog… “tough love.”
Keep writing, people. Write to your passion. Write what needs to be written. Write what you think needs to be read. All this cynical stuff.. well, to quote a character from my novel, The Untelling– That is NOT what Dr. King died for.
I saw some tweet-tweet here and tweet-tweet there about someone having stolen the cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes from the hugely popular DC poetry venue, Busboys and Poets. I can’t say that I gave it a whole lot of thought, but I did wonder who had stolen it and why.
Well, the culprit has come to light. It’s THOMAS SAYERS ELLIS. I was totally shocked and then I wasn’t. And that reminded me of the best advice I have ever heard for fiction writers.
The ending to a story should be surprising, but at the same time inevitable.
If you know TSE, you know he’s a hardcore DC man and only someone from DC would be sufficiently invested. And you know he’s a but, well, demonstrative when there is something he believes in. And you know he was in DC at the time of the heist. (We all were in DC, actually.) And when you really think about it, it sounds like something he would do. (The point of the theft was to protest the compensation that Busboys offers it’s poets.)And, of course, the issue of the gentrification of U Street gives the story the gravitas it needs to sort of hold it down.
I am not blogging this to say who’s wrong and who’s right. I just don’t know enough. But the way the story unfolded was, well, art.
So there you go, fiction writers. Take notes.
You may wonder what “Roshanda and Keith, Prom 1989″ has to do with getting your act together in the New Year? It’s about love and fear. For me 2011 is all about facing the blank page. One word next to the other. Details, here.
As 2010 winds down, I know a lot of us are busy with our resolutions. I’m all for making plans for the new year, don’t get me wrong. But I want to think a little bit about the year that is passing us by. More specifically, I want to think about what things from 2010 do I want to carry with me into 2011.
My dear Spelman sister, Brigette (oh how I love her!) has a lovely New Year’s party and the highlight is that you write down the things you want to leave behind on little scraps of paper and then you gleefully toss them into the fireplace. Then, we all write down what you want to accomplish in the new year and put the paper in tiny envelopes which Lady B will mail to you around June 15, so you can chart your progress. (2010 was aces for me. 10 out of 11 things on my list—DONE!)
But there is one little piece missing and I am adding to the ritual to make the assessment more whole. Ask yourself: what went right in the year behind us that you want to carry into 2011?
The thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they are a little bit too handed. Sometimes, thinking about what you want to get done in 2011 can also be a way of beating yourself up for what you didn’t do in 2010. I’m all for improvement, but sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit. So, to sort of balance things out let’s make a list of what we did right and pledge to keep on doing it.
I am cooking tonight and there will be every kind of champagne cocktail you can think of. (So drop by!) But will be making our lists of what we want to take with us into this new year. I have these pretty little note cards and envelopes which I will give to each person. Then when everyone has written something on card—and everyone will write down something. It’s so easy to forget the good stuff, but I know that each one of us has something worth holding on to! So then, once the lists are written and tucked into the envelopes, each person will tie a ribbon around her envelope. This symbolizes a tether, holding to you. I think of the tether like the string on a child’s balloon, connecting it to you, while still letting it soar.
Sorry for being so MIA, but my life has been a three-ring circus, and I mean in it a good way, sorta. There have been dazzling high wire acts, but also a fair share of elephant dung, if you know what I mean.
But in this post, I am just going to share Silver Girl news:
This is all fabulous news, but it’s keeping me really busy and a little away from the blog. But I’ll be back soon.
At the last minute, I changed the names of one of the characters in The Silver Girl. Dana’s best friend used to be named Brucetta. I imagined that it would be pronounced, Bru-setta. The idea was that she was named after her dad, Bruce. One of the themes I am playing with in this book is the southern tradition of Jr.-ing sons. And when you don’t get a son, you make-do with a girl. So, for this, the name was perfect.
I noticed some readers were pronouncing it Bru-scetta. Like the tasty dish that involves Italian bread. I corrected the first couple people, but then I decided to change the name all together. It was a hard call because I liked Brucetta as a name. To me it really captured the awkwardness that happens when folks try to give a girl a boy’s name and with that awkwardness it was emblematic of the way it feels to be a girl born to a family who “never had a son…” (cue the violins.) But ultimately, I realized that I had to come up with something new.
The main reason is that I didn’t want to seem to be poking fun at my characters.
Black folks’ names are constantly mocked in the media and in literature. have you heard the one about the substitute teacher working in a low income school who sees on her roll the name “Shithead.” Turns out, you should pronounce it “Shi-theed.” (This was told me as though it were true. The guy swore that it happened to his sister when she subbed in the Bronx.) There are a million of these stories and the butt of the joke are always people– usuallly working class– who are “too stupid” to “properly” name their child. Hilarious.
This strikes really close to home because my own name sometimes strikes people as stupid, particularly when I was a young person growing up in Atlanta. I once had a (black) teacher say to me, “You should change the way you spell your name. Because the way you spell it now, just shows that some black people can’t understand phonetics.” When I explained that actually my name is from Kenya and that my parents’ dear friend discovered it while she was travelling on a Fullbright fellowship… well, things got different. In other words, I whipped out a can of privilege and she shut the hell up. (But her words stayed with me for years and for a while I experimented with new spellings, paranoid that people thought my parents were ignorant.)
Dolen and I talk a lot about writing from a place of love, particularly love of your own community, your family. This is not to say that we can’t be critical—that’s the writers job, but we try to write with open and full hearts. About a five years ago, Dorothy Allison gave a keynote address at the Southern Women Writers Conference. In this talk she cautioned us against writing books full of wacky, ignorant characters. “Don’t make a punch line out of your family,” she said.
So, I ended up changing Brucetta’s name to Ronalda. Her daddy had to get his name changed, too. (He’s Ronald.) In my heart, she’s Brucetta, and I keep thinking of her by her original name. But I am sure I’ll get used to it. And I am sure that I made the right call.
I am so excited to announce “Surviving The Draft,” a weekly column that I am publishing over at SheWrites. The column is mostly about process and craft, but I will also be blogging from time to time about how to organize your life to be more productive. I like to think of it as sort of personal training, but for writing. And also, gentler than a personal trainer. (My trainer yells at me sometimes.)
The first post is up today. It’s a sort of introduction. This column is open to everyone, not just SheWriters. BUT, if you’re a “she”, thinking about join SheWrites and leaving me a comment. Tell me what craft issues are more interesting to you. I already plan to post about naming your characters, pacing and how to know when you get to the end. I’ll also talk about going to residencies to get away from it all and also how to get away from it all without getting away. But maybe there is something else you’d like to talk about.
In the meantime, how I came up with the name, “Surviving The Draft.”
The title of the this column, “Surviving The Draft,” is inspired by a piece of advice given to me by my mentor, Ron Carlson. When I met him, I was a great admirer of his work and I hadn’t yet written my first novel. R.C. was such an excellent teacher and a beautiful craftsman that I would have done anything that he said would make me a better writer. Sometimes, I would ask him questions about process. I was writing with pen and paper, was that okay? And how often should I go back and revise? Is it okay to read other authors while I am trying to write? Finally, he smiled and said, “Tayari, do whatever you need to do to survive the draft.”
Surviving the draft is getting over the finish line however you can. I’ve written three novels and for one I sprinted across the line, for another I limped, and for the last one, I crawled, but the point is that I did it. Surviving the draft often ain’t pretty, but it’s always possible.