Honoring the Living and the Dead

Three things. First, the living.

I. Dr. G.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a celebration for Dr. Geneva Smitherman, known to most folks as Dr. G. Dr. G. is University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University. Her work in and advocacy for African American language has impacted so many people, myself included.

At her celebration, organized by David Kirkland, past and current students, and colleagues spoke not only to the importance of her work, but also to how Dr. G. created humanizing spaces within academic institutions that often feel dehumanizing. There were sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, and what’ s known in Lansing as crack fish.  Jeff and Tama Wray’s daughter, Jasmine, did an incredible rendition of Afro Blue. A slam poet from New York  spoke a poem about being trilingual that brought everyone to their feet. I learned MSU has a breakdance club. There was a DJ spinning old skool beats. Jeff Wray quoted Song of Solomon and talked about how Dr. G.’s work made us all believe we could fly. He presented her with a booklet that Terrion Williamson put together. Terrion put out a call to folks at MSU to submit original writing or writing by other writers that would honor Dr. G. and her work. I submitted a found poem that I wrote using the words from Dr. G.’s collection of essays Word from the Mother. Dr. G. spoke after everyone had testified, which is what the celebration was–a testament to her and to what her work has given so many of us. It felt like a house party, and all the things I miss about church (but not enough to make me start going again–just being real).

Some pics from the evening:

Another one of those Michigan moments that made me love being here.

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II. Toni Morrison     

The other event I went to this year was the celebration for Toni Morrison in Blacksburg, Virginia. I was going to post something about the celebration weeks ago, but what I started writing has evolved into a much longer essay about writing, memory, history, death, and really good bean pie (not a joke–in Alabama). Two years ago I took a solo drive across the country and drove through Blacksburg, Virginia. In the essay I’m writing, my earlier trip is merging with my most recent trip. We’ll see what happens with it.  But briefly, the event for Toni Morrison was wonderful. I’m glad I made the trip. I didn’t have a good camera with me, but I met a young woman from District Heights, Maryland who sent me the photos she took. Shout out to Anne-Sophie Amegah who’s a first year student at a small college in Virginia for these pics:

You can watch a video of the whole event here, or just a clip of Toni Morrison’s response to the event, which happened after  people read excerpts from all of her books–kind of amazing–right here. One highlight among many: India Arie sang a song she wrote when she was nineteen after reading The Bluest Eye.

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III. Now, the dead.                                                                                                                                                                                                       I recently finished reading d.j. waldie’s holy land: a suburban memoir. I learned about this book from my colleague Marcia Aldrich whose Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP prize in Creative Nonfiction. Marcia’s book, which I haven’t read yet, tells the story of “the aftershocks” of a friend’s suicide. When Marcia mentioned Waldie’s book, I was interested because his book is about Lakewood, California, which is near the city where I grew up.

Tokens from Waldie’s book: “Houses in Southern California are built as sketchily as possible, while still able to shed rain. Walls are a thin, cement skin over absence”; “The past is always slipping away, nowhere more quickly than in Los Angeles, but the past isn’t always distant”; “The work of every generation includes reconciliation with its past”; “I want the day to come when writers deal honestly with the divided heart that’s in every story of every American place.” It’s a beautiful, sad book about the death and renewal/change of a place.

The question that’s been on my mind this year: How do we honor the living and the dead, even in the face of the difficult? My question has to do with home, memory, with d.j. waldie’s “divided heart,” maybe not divided in the same way that Waldie imagines it, which I think has more to do with White American individualism, but divided nonetheless. I’ve been thinking about this question not only because of events I’ve attended this year like the ones above, but also because my father died last December. As the anniversary of his death quickly approaches, I’m not sure I’m any closer to answering the question. I know that telling stories matters. Remembering matters, even when it’s difficult. And while it feels as if I’ve spent most of this year trying very hard not to think about grieving, it’s probably true what a poet friend who lost both of her parents told me this past summer, that our subconscious is doing the work even when our conscious mind can’t. Dang poets. I try to avoid them. They’re all about truth-telling, and metaphors. I do know I wouldn’t have been able to write even this much about his death at the beginning of the year, or that I probably wouldn’t be writing the essays that have started happening, essays that are bridging past and present in ways I didn’t plan.

So on this Thanksgiving which celebrates family, but which also marks a history of genocide, I’m remembering the living and the dead. Thanksgiving I spend with the hubby’s family. We’re taking walks in the mountains near one of the places the hubby used to call home. We’re both enjoying the break from the flat, freezing Midwest, which has its own beauty but is flat and freezing and far away from both of our families. I’m looking forward to seeing my sister-in-law and her wife, and their two amazing daughters, and to the stories that happen when any of our families gather. And I’m baking pie. Sweet potato pecan.

Giving thanks.

A Good Day for a Zombi(e) Storie

There was no dancing that night, but the very cool Peter Johnston at MSU put together this lovely video of Roxane Gay’s reading. Roxane gives a shout out to Pete here.

And parentheses around the “e” because Roxane spells zombie with an “i.” But my people hail from New Orleans so that’s how we do.

 

 

Roxane Gay+Michigan+Chocolate+Gin and Tonics=Awesomeness

So this blogging thing. In order for it to work, I realize you have to actually write stuff.  It’s not that there haven’t been things to write about. So much has been happening. For example, last weekend I received the tickets in the photo to the left in the mail. Sheer Good Fortune indeed. I will be going to Virginia to hear Toni Morrison. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Let’s just say, I once made a pilgrimage to Lorain, Ohio. It’s that serious. The last time I heard her was years ago in Oakland. Even though the state of Virginia scares me (more on this later), I’m going to Virginia to hear Toni Morrison.

And also this: We were lucky enough to have Roxane Gay visit Michigan State for a few days. She read last night and killed it. Among the things she read, her story “North Country,” which is in this year’s Best American Short Stories. She also read her zombie story last night, which if you’ve read a previous post, you know I love her zombie story. I want her zombie story to have baby zombie stories. She also read about Morgan Freeman, Mr. Rogers, and yogurt. It was that kind of night. We recorded it, so you’ll be able to see the awesomeness. And then later, I brought her to our house and doused her with gin and tonics and chocolate as promised, and we laughed for four or five hours about all kinds of important things. Jeff and Tama Wray, and their wonderful cousin, and Terrion Williamson, and the hubby made it all happen. It was one of those moments where I remembered why I do any of this. I had a lot of those moments yesterday, thanks also in large part to the students here.  A few of my students brought me cookies yesterday.  Good times in Michigan.

Roxane recapped her time at MSU on her tumblr page in the awesomest of ways. Read about it here.

Here’s the intro I read for Roxane:

Welcome everyone. Thank you for coming out tonight.  It takes a lot for an event like this to happen. So I’d like to start off by thanking my colleagues Marcia Aldrich, and Robin Silbergleid. Peter Johnston, for his technical assistance. Sue Ann Plesko, Marilyn Duke, Linda Cornish, and Django Paris for their help with details. The past and current chairs of English, Steve Arch and Pat O’Donnell, for their support of this event. And to Al Bay at the Wild Goose Inn for making space available to students, to Cat Batsios, and Anna Goodson, the wonderful students selling books in the back. And finally thank you to all of the students who met with Roxane today.

We’re so lucky to have Roxane Gay visit MSU. This morning she met with a small group of students who are working on a project about Roxane and her work, she had lunch with another group students, and then she led a workshop with my intro to fiction class. And she drove all the way from Eastern Illinois last night. We’ve kept her way too busy. I’ve promised her gin and tonics and chocolate later and I’ve been force-feeding her diet cherry pepsi all day so hopefully she’ll leave East Lansing happy and with a hangover.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Best American Short Stories 2012, The New York Times, Salon, Wall Street Journal, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, American Short Fiction, Oxford American, Prairie Schooner, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK and teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University.

So that’s the brief bio she sent us. I’m always amazed at the way bios can sap the life out of people. Just to give you a sense of not only what she writes about but also things linked to Roxane I’m just going to read a brief list: race, class, gender, zombies, sex, sexuality, sexual abuse, easy bake ovens, Chris Brown, Rihanna, Haiti, hip hop, the bachelorette, Nebraska, love, curse like a sailor, Survivor, 1980’s, The Hunger Games, The Rumpus, one tree hill, Jherri Curls, Mitt Romney, Bill Clinton, panties, competitive scrabble, literary death match, Obama, and last but not least, diet cherry pepsi.  

And this doesn’t even cover everything.

Like her debut multigenre collection Ayiti, Roxane’s writing, both in form and content, pushes against what many think writing should do, or be, or sound like.

The first piece of writing I read by Roxane was her essay “A Profound Sense of Absence” in which she offers a thoughtful critique of the 2010 Best American Short Stories for its lack of representation of writers of color, and for its overabundance of stories about, in Roxane’s words, “rich or nearly rich white people.”  “How,” asks Roxane “do we talk about race, class, and gender and increasing the representation of the Other in the writing being published today, without alienating each other or being hysterical and reactionary?”

Roxane asks necessary questions, which because they are so necessary often make people uncomfortable. And, she also finds ways to make us laugh. If we only hear her critique, we miss her humor, and if we only hear her humor we miss her much needed critique, even when she’s writing about Jheri Curls.

But there’s something else I think her writing elicits from people, something so basic, but so crucial to her work. It’s a feeling of connectedness many people feel, when they read her writing, the feeling that not only do we know Roxane and her characters, but she knows us, all of us, frighteningly well—what we dream about, what we long for, what terrifies us, what we want to remember, what we wish we could forget, what we’ve lost, what makes us laugh, what we despise, and what we hold dear.  

This is only my second time meeting Roxane. The first was this past spring at AWP when I invited her to be on a panel about Black Women’s Contemporary Short Fiction. But it feels as if I’ve known her for a while.

But my students sum up this feeling best.

Last semester in English 353, Readings in Women Writers, Stacy Sutter, Cheyenne Roy, Elaine Johnson, and Sarah Semroc created a tumblr page about Roxane and her writing. On one page they write: “In short, we love Roxane Gay.  Not only did she inspire this Tumblr with her short fiction collection Ayiti, but she also inspires us as young writers who seek to engage and interact with current pop culture.  Her blog, I have become accustomed to rejection, is both thoughtful and hilarious.”

On behalf of the College of Arts and Letters, and the Department of English, and with the support of the Platt Ruble Endowment, please join me in welcoming Roxane Gay.

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It would be great if Roxane stayed in East Lansing, but she’s already up and tweeting about some woman singing in the shower.
And finally this: I’m super excited that Asali Solomon, Tiphanie Yanique, and Danielle Evans all may SKYPE in to my class this semester. All around awesomeness.

Rae Paris

Celebrating Toni Morrison

This past spring at AWP, Nikki Giovanni talked about this upcoming event to celebrate Toni Morrison.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012, 7-9 p.m (doors open at 6 p.m.)

Burruss Hall Auditorium, Virginia Tech campus

Tickets available today! It’s free.(If you purchase tickets online it’s $5.00 for a service charge.)

If you live anywhere near Virginia Tech, go and tell us all about how amazing it is.

I don’t live anywhere near but I may try to make it happen.

Black Space: Continuings

In the late eighties, way back when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I took a class with Barbara Christian who was the first person to provide a scholarly treatment of contemporary African American women’s literature. She was also “the first black woman to be granted tenure at Berkeley (1978) and the first in the UC system to be promoted to full professor (1986).” I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I’d heard was she was a good teacher. The packed classroom, crowded mostly with other Black students, was a testament to this (this was before foolios dismantled affirmative action). Of course the memory is hazy but some things remain clear. I remember sitting on the floor because there were no chairs available, and I remember her presence in the classroom. She spoke with the authority of someone who knew their scholarly work/the work of literature, the recovering/restoring of Black female narratives mattered. And it mattered that we were all there, together in a predominantly Black space, listening to her, a Black female professor at a prominent university. It all mattered. I sat on the floor, taking notes and didn’t stop until the class ended. But in the middle of her lecture I wanted to cry. I was angry and overwhelmed.  Why hadn’t I been taught any of this in high school? In four years not one book by an African American woman (or Chicana/Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous…). Not a one. Zero. The few books I read by Black women happened outside of school.

Much has been written about what this silence in curriculum can communicate to students who hold little power, and recently in the case of the courageous high school students in Tucson’s now dismantled Mexican American Studies program we’ve seen the power of what representation in curriculum can have on students’ sense of self and on their desire to learn. What this silence in my high school curriculum communicated to me, a Black girl who at times thought she might want to be a writer without really knowing what this meant: Good luck with that.

At the time of Barbara Christian’s class, I hadn’t yet made the commitment to the writing life. Again, I had no idea what this meant. But my exposure to Christian’s work had a profound impact on my ability to imagine a space I might inhabit, a space that others had been carving out for years. Christian’s work along with scholars/writers like her continue to inform both my creative writing/scholarship.Christian writes:

The question as to who the critic is and how that affects her/his interpretation was very much on my mind when I put together Black Feminist Criticism in 1983-1984. In thinking about my own attempts to do such criticism, I increasingly felt that critics needed to let go of their distanced and false stance of objectivity and to expose their own point of view—the tangle of background, influences, political perspectives, training, situations that helped form and inform their interpretations. Inspired by feminist discussions about objectivity and subjectivity, I constructed an introduction to my volume that, rather than the usual formal introduction found in most lit crit books, was intended to introduce me in my specific context. It was a personalized way of indicating some of my biases, not the least of which was the fact that the literature I chose to study was central to an understanding of my own life, and not only an intellectual pursuit. Such exposure would, I thought, help the reader to evaluate more effectively the choices I had made about the language I used, the specific issues I approached, the particular writers I emphasized. By then I realized I did not want to write about every contemporary Afro-American woman writer—some did not speak to me—and that the extent of my own personal involvement with the writer’s work was one aspect of my doing black feminist criticism.”

In this same essay, written in 1989, Christian asks a series of questions I still find relevant:

“Does history teach us anything about the relationship between ideas, language, and practice? By 2000 will our voices sound like women’s voices, black women’s voices to anyone?”

Since the eighties, much has changed for Black women writers, and for women writers as a whole.  And yet much remains the same. Take, for example, VIDA’s  2011 numbers illustrating the lack of women in major publications, numbers that aren’t broken down by race. Knowing these numbers would be helpful to show to people who believe all things are equal, but many of the responses to the VIDA count demonstrate even when we have numbers people will find all kinds of reasons (other than sexism or racism) as to why White women and people of color aren’t getting published or reviewed. (Recently,  Roxane Gay did the difficult work of compiling this list.)

But here are some numbers for people who like numbers. This spring (2012), I taught a course which focused on Black women’s short fiction, mostly recent collections. In the first week, I asked students to make a list of all the Black women fiction writers they had read. It was a predominantly White class of about forty students, mostly third and fourth year. There were four visible students of color–three Black, one Asian. Everyone struggled with listing Black women writers. There was nervous laughter, a few uncomfortable looks, but also a sincere desire to remember something, anything, they had read by a Black woman author. They asked if they could list poets and playwrights. List whatever names you know, I said. They were broken into ten groups of about four. The number in parenthesis is the total number of times the author’s name was listed.

Here’s their list:

Maya Angelou (7)

Alice Walker (7—listed twice in one group)

Toni Morrison (5)

Octavia Butler (5—listed twice in one group)

Zora Neale Hurston (4)

Assata Shakur (2)

Sapphire (1)

Edwidge Danticat (1)

Suzan-Lori Parks (1)

Gwendolyn Brooks (1)

Nnedi Okorafor (1)

Phyllis Wheatley (1)

Nikki Grimes (1)

Brenda Woods (1)

Lorraine Hansberry (1)

In one group, two people specified they hadn’t read any books by any Black women. The writers my class listed are so important. These writers names would have been absent from the dominant curriculum not too long ago. I remember when they were absent. My ability to do the work I do is a result of pathways these writers forged and continue to create. But there are so many more of us writing. How can we create more bridges between past, present, and future Black women writers? For those of us in positions of privilege and power in universities, or elsewhere, how can we create spaces for Black women’s writing?

So Black Space.

I’ve been thinking for some time about how little work exists on Black women’s short fiction, particularly recent collections. So far I’ve only been able to find one annotated bibliography of short fiction by Black writers (men and women), which was compiled in 1978. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to create accessible resources for writers and readers, while also trying to balance the time I need to give to my own writing. The University of Minnesota’s Voices from the Gaps, a site dedicated to “women writers and artists of color” is an incredible resource and was an important starting point, but I wanted a space focused solely on Black women’s writing. In 2012, I organized a panel at AWP that focused on Black women’s contemporary short fiction: “On the Move: Contemporary African American Women’s Literary Fiction,” which was moderated by Dr. Terrion Williamson. Spring 2012, I taught a course on Black women’s short fiction. I knew I wanted this blog (or something) to be one of the results of the course. I also wanted student writing/projects to be a resource for readers, writers, and scholars. More about that here. And I wanted Black Space to be a space where both my critical and creative selves could join with other critical/creative selves. What else Black Space can be I’m still figuring out with the help of really wonderful students, other Black women writers, and patient tech folks.

Hopefully, Black Space can be a resource as well, a space where questions can be asked and answered. I’m starting the conversation from a place that recognizes Black women’s literature and Black women’s identities are not monolithic or static, but ever-shifting terrains. I’m interested in the multiplicity of ways we’re defining ourselves, what it means to us to be called Black women writers, and/or African American women writers. What does it mean to write in this post civil rights, and supposed post-race era? As a child of parents who left New Orleans during segregation and headed West, I’m  interested in the stories that come out of our various migrations, particularly for those of us who came of age during the hip hop era. What are we writing about? How does audience impact our work? How are others talking about our work? What do we think about the critical reception, or lack thereof? As students, writers, and scholars in an age of rapidly changing technology, what’s the best way to research and present our findings about Black women writers? Who’s teaching our stories? What resources can we share? What types of bridges can we create between those of us writing about our work and those of us creating the work? As Terrion asked at the close of our panel at AWP: “What are we moving from and what are we moving toward?”

Terrion’s question echoes a similar question Barbara Christian asked in 1989:

“What do we want to do anyway and for whom do we think we’re doing it?”

Rae Paris