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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Readings as Networking Events

So another thing about readings: they're awesome networking events. Where else can a writer meet and exchange info with authors she admires, meet these authors' friends (who are usually in the biz), meet the bookstore owner, share info about her own book, and wrangle an invitation for a post-reading dinner?

l to r: Kwame Alexander, Victoria Christopher Murray &'s Troy Johnson

Readings as Performance Art

I've been going to a ton of readings lately to support friends and also to study "reading performance" technique since as I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm still trying to get the hang of this reading/interviewing thing. Last month I went to Isabel Allende's reading at Barnes & Noble and I definitely filed that in my "when I'm a rockstar" folder. Ms. Allende took the stage--after a Barnes & Noble rep gave the packed house a full preamble about what was and was not going to go down including no individual pics with the author and no personalized autographs, the room was just too packed for all of that--and read like a star, joking with the crowd about the presence of kids cramping her plans to read certain lovemaking scenes and fielding all manner of questions (there were a few crazies in the house) afterward with the deftness of a pro.

I went with my dear friend Daphne and her friend and when we went to get our books signed we were instructed to have the books open to the page she would sign so we could keep the long line moving. When we got to the table Ms. Allende's eyes lit up at us and she let us take pics of her signing. For the two seconds that we personally interacted with her, she made me feel like I knew her.

A few days later I went to my girl Kseniya's group reading. Kseniya is one-third of the writing group I was part of that helped me get Powder Necklace in shape and her writing is incredible. Reading her work made me want to read Pushkin and Dostoyevsky and all the other literature coming out of Russia/inspired by the tradition. In a darkly poetic bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Ks read under a single spotlight to a room of filled seats. I stood on the sidelines wearing my camera like a backstage pass snapping away. In other words, it was very rockstar too, in an underground artist sort of way.

So I always subconsciously knew readings were about "performing" for the crowd in much the same way a musician or actor commands a room, manipulating the audience with body language, eye contact, inflection, and personalization, but last night I went to a reading at Hue-Man that inspired me in all the right ways to find my own reading performance style. I went to see my new writer friend Tinesha Davis read from her book Holler at the Moon. She read alongside Victoria Christopher Murray (who was doing an advance reading of her 14th book Sins of the Mother!) and poet Kwame Alexander who recited vulnerable and rhythmic pieces from his latest And then You Know and what was cool about what they did was when one finished, the other picked up, as if they were continuing where the other left off. Though their books seemed very different from each other as far as content, you got the sense that they were sharing different strands of this intricate story. It was exciting! And it made me want to buy all three books which I did.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My First Out-of-State Trip for the Book!

I felt very author-ish this weekend, y'all. I did my first out-of-state trip for the book to the Afr'Am Festival in Norfolk, VA. I hadn't heard of this fest before but apparently it's been going on for 27 years. It's super-fun.

There were food trucks selling seafood, funnel cakes and smoothies; there was a bazaar of arts, crafts, and clothing tents; and there were two performance stages set up across Town Point Park. Less than 30 feet from the Literary Cafe tent where I spent the bulk of my time, Mario asked the screaming teens (and their moms) in the crowd if they wanted to "Braid [His] Hair". Fun.

The Literary Cafe was awesome. I got there on Saturday (5/22) just in time to listen to the panel on Self-Publishing. I like to think I'm driven, but these authors had me beat. Each one of them had not only written and independently published their books, but they had also worked to establish and negotiate individual relationships with booksellers across the country including Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon to carry their books. Later that day there was a "Black Love Today" panel that featured erotica author Bridget Midway and other writers whose books deal with family and love. Conversation got real as talk turned to marriage stats for black women and definitions/expectations of "submission" in marriage. There were a lot of platitudes being shared so my favorite part was when moderator and Literary Cafe chair Tiffany Smith asked each panelist to share their current relationship status; definitely put their comments in perspective.

I spoke on the "Teens & What They Want" panel on Sunday which Tiffany moderated with her teenage daughter. Four teens joined me and author Jonathan Queen to share what kinds of books pique their interest and what makes them pick up a book in the first place. I took mental notes mostly -- the cover is mui important, the synopsis on the back of the book should leave them with questions about the story that they want answered, they're more apt to read a book recommended by a friend versus their parents or teachers -- and chimed in with what about Powder Necklace would appeal to the young adult audience.

I mentioned that it was important to me to add a story about the first-generation American experience, specifically the experience of children born to African immigrants, to the discourse. I saw the adults nodding in appreciation, but what really seemed to resonate with the teens in the tent was the theme of moving/being uprooted that's in my book. They all related to the awful feeling of leaving the familiarity of friends, school and neighborhood behind to be "the new kid" somewhere else.

Festival volunteer Fran Taylor wearing a kente stole embroidered with the words "Powder Necklace"

After my panel, there was the "Little People Doing BIG Things" panel which featured a team of brothers who had published 7 year old author Jayla Watts and fellow author 17 year old Bree Thomas who published her first book at 15 -- preceded by Tiffany Smith's youngest daughter's performance of Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise". They were so adorable.

In between panels, I got to meet several of the authors. Many of them had written several novels and they were all so encouraging and generous with their advice and info. I'm definitely looking forward to returning to Norfolk and next year's fest.

This Writing Thing Is All About Sharing

Prior to getting the good news that the book was being published, I'd focused all my energies on finishing the book, finding an agent, and praying for a publisher so when Powder Necklace came out I have to 'fess up to a "now what?" moment. What happens after/alongside the readings, the launch party and the press? I can't thank enough the peeps that stepped up to help me answer this question with advice, contacts, and information. These extremely generous souls emailed friends and colleagues about me and the book, directing them to help me promote Powder Necklace however they could; put me on to ways to extend the book's reach; offered to give me their conference badges; shouted out the book to their networks via their Facebook pages; and even shared information on their percentages and other contractual terms. Wow. I look forward to the day when I can pay this generosity forward.

Monday, May 10, 2010

My Mother, Myself

Yesterday, Harmattan Rain author Ayesha Harruna Attah and I did a joint reading at Bluestockings Books as both our novels explore the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. Against a backdrop of Bluestockings' intellectual candy store of tomes we each read excerpts that revealed our characters' complicated relationships with their moms, and in the process hinted at our own relationships with our mothers.

My mother and I are incredibly close and my relationship with her is much different from the one Lila has with her mother, but one thing that Felicia and my mom do share is a desire to define themselves as more than a mother. My mother made many sacrifices for us (I think it just comes with the mom job description), but I also saw her being a woman and wife. When we were kids, she and my dad would double date with my friends' parents. I loved watching her get spiffed up for these outings in her wide-brimmed hats, A-line mini dresses or puff-shouldered blouses tucked into cigarette pants, and stilettos. She was THE woman to me.

And as I got older I watched her really work to figure out how to balance her ambition to complete her degree while working like mad to help pay my insane college tuition and her own all while trying to make sure we ate breakfast and dinners as a family. Getting to see that up close, prepared me for the realities of womanhood and I feel it has given me a focused picture of what to expect when I eventually add the responsibilities of wife and mother to my plate.

Additionally, my mother made sure to pursue her passions. She made time to do the things she loved and as I get older and struggle to manage my time better, I don't know how she did it. I think she got it from her own mother and the circle of women that mothered her to womanhood.

Like the protagonist of Powder Necklace, my mother and I had several mothers. Our biological mothers as well as aunties, women who married into the family, older cousins, and family friends who shared their slice of woman cake with us, and in the process helped make us the women we are. None of these women were perfect. In many instances they didn't get the work-family balance right and they didn't always make the right decisions for their children or their families. But they were real women who loved and lived and continue to do so with passion and jokes and (now that I'm older) candid advice I can use as I confront the hard choices of womanhood.

One day, Lila will grow to appreciate her mother's choices (maybe not understand, but appreciate),; and she will love Auntie Irene, Auntie Flora, step-mother Joo-Li, Miss Nikki, and the other women in her life in ways she can't even understand right now. She will grow to reflect her Auntie Irene's pragmatism, her Auntie Flora's fabulousness, her step-mother's sweet spirit, Miss Nikki's "it takes a village" approach, and she will find herself relating to her mother's desire to find happiness for herself -- just as I have grown to become the woman my mother and the women in my life inspired me to be. Happy Mother's day, Mommy!

(There's more mom-gushing here.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Still Getting the Hang of this Reading/Interviewing Thing

This past weekend I packed in three Powder Necklace-associated events.

On Friday, I went up to my alma mater Vassar College to join two fellow alums in reading from our recently published works. Torrey Maldonado was to read from his book Secret Saturdays a gripping and vulnerable account of boyhood in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Tanikka Price was to read from her book of soulful and heartfelt letters Love Letter: A Black Girl Song and I was to read from my book. But first we had to present our works to the audience of Professors, Financial Aid Counselors, Desk Attendants, and others who knew us back when. There were a few students in the room who opted to skip the sun-soaked pre-Founders Day campus parties, but it was the Faculty in the room who had sweat trickling under the festive red buubuu I was wearing. I felt like I was doing my thesis defense all over again. LOL Of course, it was all in my head as my favorite professors sat beaming at us with pride and support as we each took turns explaining how they helped us each "navigate the duality" of being a person of color and modest means on a mostly white and wealthy campus. In the end my anxiety was for naught. It went really well. In between saying a gazillion "thank yous" I managed to articulate what inspired my book and read an excerpt. Books were signed and sold, and reconnections were made. Fun!

But back to excerpt reading for a sec. I never know how long is too long or short. On Saturday, I read at the Borders in Glendale, Queens. It was a pretty intimate audience of Laptop Tappers, studying kids, and people deciding on which book in their collected stack they wanted to read with their water/coffee/juice so I read two chapters. They were short chapters, but as I crossed one chapter and moved into the next I wondered if I was being self-indulgent. Thankfully, when I looked up, no one was sleeping on me. :-)

On Sunday, I went up to HueMan in Harlem to be interviewed on Urban Literary Review TV. Two authors were being interviewed before me so I watched them for inspiration on how to conduct myself on camera. Both Carmen M. Colon and Candi Sparks kept it easy and natural in front of the camera, alternately laughing and answering questions about their books. When I came on I was tense. An actor I recognized but couldn't quite place as far as which show/movie I'd seen him on, stopped to watch us tape at the precise time I took my seat opposite the camera. Nerve racking! But whatevs, I think I did my thing.