Less than a month ago on the evening of January 30th, a mixed, warm crowd of readers, fans, friends and family gathered on the 15th floor of the New York Times building located in Times Square for the annual Reading and Conversation series designed by Kweli Journal, an online quarterly created to celebrate cultural kinships and the role of the literary imagination in writing. Featured artists included LaShonda Katrice Barnett, who read from her novel Jam on the Vine accompanied by pianist John Davis, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, who read a story entitled “Powder and Smoke” from her forthcoming collection of stories Blue Talk and Love and Tiphanie Yanique, who read from her novel Land of Love and Drowning. We also heard from Kweli Pushcart Prize nominees, Kaitlyn Greenidge, reading from We Love You Charlie Freeman and Nicole Dennis-Benn, who read from her forthcoming novel, Here Comes the Sun.
With seats facing the Hudson River and the setting sun, I recall marveling at the wondrous colors in the sky and feeling primed and ready for a good story or two. And what stories and gifts did we receive that evening! Each writer shared rich and full stories in such a way as to paint deep and beautiful pictures of black womanly life. Being a listener and on the receiving end of this conversation proved to be an added component to this enchanting evening. At times it felt, as we leaned in to be that much closer to the artists’ words, that we were actively lifting up and building community, our community as Africans and the wider community of human beings in need of stories to affirm identity. While this reportback comes in written form, I so wish that the evening could be replicated so that others, especially our young and emerging adults, could be amongst such good reading and conversation. Surely this would encourage them to pick up a novel for insight and guidance at the same time opening new, unseen and undiscovered worlds weighing hefty issues such as race, sexuality, class, environment, familial ties and struggles.
As a community-oriented person myself, the intersection between everyday writers, storytelling, and community readings as displayed at this reading led me to feel very inspired by the ways our stories and histories—maps of our lives—can be shared in communal ways. I hope that such readings continue and that bridges form so that forums can be held where young and old audiences can sit beneath the writer’s feet and hear from today’s urban griots.
In giving a glimpse of the evening, it might be good to start with the very last writer who shared, Nicole Dennis-Benn, who also runs the Stuyvesant Writing Workshop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. She shared a few lines of dialogue from a mother speaking to her daughter, the protagonist, that for me stood out for its truth, “Nobody loves a black girl, not even ourselves.” Reading that now cements the truth that few tend to the soul and body of the black girl and woman. However, the lives of these artists, their work proves that there are a few out in that garden tending to our selves. Love pours forth for the black girl as evidenced by the love and beauty in the writing of these artists and the beautiful women that they are. Despite the inherent truth in what Dennis-Benn’s character says to her daughter, the other truth is that there are women out there applying salve to the race, modern day healers. These writers love themselves, black women and black community.
Interestingly, each of the writers who shared demonstrated their efforts at tending to the notions of fulfilling their dreams. Indeed, Barnett lets us know through the lives of one of her characters, Berdis, an accomplished pianist in her novel, Jam on the Vine, that a “dream without love is the most dangerous weapon” in the world. Set in the 1900s, Jam on the Vine features a young woman, Ivoe, who contributes to the world and the needs of her people through newspaper writing and journalism. As a woman-loving woman, Ivoe carries her deep passion into her work and we see that the activism and revolutionary movement work we see today are the fruits and flowers of seeds planted in Ivoe’s day. Throughout Barnett’s reading that evening, pianist John Davis treated us to a few sprite, blues-like selections of American roots music, folk music coming from artists like Blind Tom and Tom Turpin that was not usually notated or written-down music but, as John contends, was foundational to the development of early jazz and rock n’roll.
In her story, “Powder & Smoke,” Mecca James Sullivan continued in the vein of writing that expresses an unspoken beauty for the everyday woman. Remarking on one of her characters, she noted, “her smile, when coaxed, must be wide.” In her story, Sullivan transported the reader to that galactic world of college, friendship, budding romance on a 90’s hip hop soundtrack. I felt that one of the last writers to share, Tiphanie Yanique, a writer from the U.S. Virgin Islands, expanded on the concept of love when she remarked from her novel, Land of Love and Drowning, that “family will always kill you, bit by bit…it is the love that does it.” She lays down the tragic crossroads between family and love in plain language allowing me to sit back and wonder how this might be true for me.
During the reading, one of the ideas discussed was the notion of respectability and the politics surrounding just how a woman should be characterized in a novel or story, how she should live her life, who she should love, whether and how close she sticks to a paradigm of sainthood frequently ascribed to black female life. The featured writers agreed that full characters cannot be written while ascribing to the politics of respectability. Barnett truly wanted to break free from the homo-normative lives she saw in life and books and set out to “write the characters I need to read.”
One of the writers also mentioned the efforts of Audre Lorde, the Caribbean-American writer, radical feminist, womanist, lesbian and civil rights activist, who had urged social movement workers not to view life and struggle in terms of a single issue. In doing so, we risk reflecting a single-issue movement when, in fact, as individuals dealing with both race, class, gender, and sexuality, the movement begs a multifaceted approach. Bucking up against the notion of living life that sticks to laid out patterns, each of the featured artists fed and stoked embers of the movement we live today where so many, especially our young people, ask, in their music, in their style, in their choice of who they love, for mirrors reflecting their varied and beautiful lives.
As Yanique mentioned that evening, it seemed like we were all in class and truly loving it. She also shared the fact that with such scarcity in literature of the U.S. Virgin Islands, she “wanted to write towards that.” In her novel, which took eleven years to write with the final product layered with the type of complexity she desired, her young female characters serve as the body politics of large conversations about the reaches and effects of colonialism.
The title of Sullivan’s story, “Powder & Smoke” puts me in the mind of the magical world writers grant us access to and the very real leaps they take, alongside other movement workers, to right the wrongs of history. Barnett mentioned, for example the fact that despite the presence of many homo-social activities, harmful untruths have been spoken about homosexuals and that they have been “divorced from history.” She writes characters such as Ivoe, a social activist race woman, to place gay people into our history.
In writing this brief report, I hoped to share some of the enchantment of the evening with a wider community. Before I close, I include here a brief Q&A I did with the writers via phone/email, for more perspective from the artists themselves.
Q: How do you feel about people receiving your work in public format such as in a public reading versus if they received it in a private reading of their own?
LaShonda K. Barnett, Jam on the Vine
I think public readings are great because they call community into being and literary culture is significant to me. As a person who attends over a hundred live performances a year–concerts, plays, poetry and literature readings you couldn’t find a better proponent for the act of witnessing a creator share their work: it’s special. However, it is no more special than the deeply personal relationship formed between a novel or piece of art and the consumer. Luckily, people don’t have to choose: we should all indulge in both.
Tiphanie Yanique, Land of Love and Drowning
I believe strongly in both modes of receiving stories–oral and scribal. As a writer I do my best to write with the sonic experience in mind. Whether the reader is alone in a room or whether the “reader” is listening in an audience, she is having an experience of sound. On one hand it’s the author’s sound and rhythms being received in a community of other listeners, but on the other hand it’s the reader’s own interpretation of the text’s rhythm as it sounds in her own mind. I have never considered them to be competing modes of appreciating literature. But I come from a story telling family and a reading family–and those things always seemed complimentary.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Blue Talk and Love
I enjoy sharing work in public spaces, partly because I’m very much drawn to voice, both as a writer and as a reader. In my own fiction, the main character’s voice is usually the first piece of a story that comes to me, and it’s often the thing that pulls me to the page. The same is true for me as a reader. I fall in love with characters’ voices, and that connection with voice is usually what keeps me reading. So I like sharing my work out loud because it allows me to connect with the characters’ voices in new ways, and to hear how other people respond to them.
Q: Public readings provide the opportunity for the writer to act and become the storyteller; what do you like best about being a storyteller?
I enjoy rendering the narrative in the exact voices that I heard in my head for years while working on the novel, which is to say that public readings are a gift because I FINALLY get to share the cadence, inflection, emotive quality I’ve associated with my story for a long time–a long private period of association.
Narrative is a basic and latent element of how we come to know ourselves as individuals, as communities, as nations…even as a humanity. What we call history is a created narrative of humanity. Novels, poems–those are all versions of that over-arching narrative. What I like best, or perhaps what I simply feel most, is a deep private, aesthetic and even political responsibility to do my very best with my role as a creator of narratives.
There’s so much that’s important about telling stories. I think about Toni Morrison’s statement, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This has always meant a lot to me, as someone interested in contemporary young black women’s bodies, desires, and imaginative lives. I suppose what I like best about being a storyteller is also what’s hardest about it—amplifying voices and highlighting life experiences that don’t get enough serious attention or shine. It’s an absolute joy, but it’s also a challenge. How does one write against hard centuries of silence? I think the answer is to find the joy in it, and keep your finger on the pulse of that joy. And so when I read, I always try to enjoy myself, enjoy the characters. Even when they’re in pain, I can enjoy they way they articulate their pain, and the creative, transformative things they do with it.
Q: How did your academic studies enrich you as a writer? Could you have made it without the advanced degree?
I don’t come to fiction writing with an advanced degree, or any degree in creative writing. However, I do have a Master’s degree in History and a Ph.D. in American Studies; learning how to effectively use the historian’s tools and how to do archive-based research of primary source material has advanced my writing more than I can say. Since I plan to write as many historical novels as time will allow, I’m particular grateful for the advanced work I did in history.
My situation has very little bearing on what is relevant for other writers. I am a book nerd. I love school. Once I figured out that I could stay in school forever by becoming a professor, I knew that professor is what I would be. For me, the community that can come with school, the mentors that can come and also the opportunity to hash out complex ideas and ideals in a classroom, was most definitely vital to me becoming a published writer. That being said, everyone harps on the writer’s life as a solitary one. My version of the writer’s life has never been that solitary. I am writing this with my husband and infant daughter just two feet away dancing to some Elmo songs…and now she’s crying…I’ll have to go. But hey, I wrote this anyway. I’m the type that thrives within community. Getting a degree might be a version of community. But not everyone thrives off of that.
My fiction and my academic writing definitely shape one-another. In my scholarship, I look at how black women writers like Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Jamaica Kincaid and Ama Ata Aidoo use ruptures of voice and genre to challenge prevalent ideas about identity and humanity. In many ways, my fiction takes up the same concerns, although in different ways. Actually, a number of the stories in my collection, Blue Talk and Love, came from research projects I began at various stages in my academic career—one story, “A Strange People,” follows a pair of conjoined black women twins born in to slavery in South Carolina, which is a story I probably wouldn’t have thought to tell if not for my academic research. So, absolutely, my fiction writing guides my academic interests, and my scholarship opens my fiction to new worlds.
LaShonda Katrice Barnett was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1974, and grew up in Park Forest, Illinois. She is the author of the forthcoming debut novel Jam on the Vine (Grove Atlantic Inc., Feb. 2015) and a story collection (1999). She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New York Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and the College Language Association, among others. She is twice-nominated for the 2015 Pushcart prize. www.lashondabarnett.com
Tiphanie Yanique is the author of the short story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, published by Graywolf Press in 2010, the picture book I Am the Virgin Islands, published by Little Bell Caribbean in 2012) and the novel Land of Love and Drowning, published by Riverhead/Penguin on July 10th. BookPage listed her as one of the 14 Women to watch out for in 2014. Her writing has won the 2011 BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Fiction,Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize. She has been listed by the Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for and by the National Book Foundation as one of the 5 Under 35. Her writing has been published in Best African American Fiction, The Wall Street Journal, American Short Fiction and other places. Yanique is also the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship. www.tiphanieyanique.com
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, Blue Talk and Love. Born and raised in Harlem, NY, she has received the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, and several other honors. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, and is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass, Amherst. www.meccajamilahsullivan.com
bwg is a principal investigator of poetry, a pip. Author of self-published chapbook,“A Brown Girl Breathes Golden,” her next book of poems, tentatively titled, “From Harlem, With Love” will be out soon enough. Her boldest dreams are written in Harlem where she was born and grew up. Her literary movements can be found at www.bigwordgirl.com.