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Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

The past few days have been all about the youngins.

On Thursday, I went to Philly as part of the Free Library's Field Family Teen Author Series where I spoke with two sessions of three classes of high school seniors. It was pretty awesome -- especially considering how anxious I was about the event beforehand.

I wasn't sure how prepared/formal I needed to be so I peppered my contact at the Free Library with too many emails I'm sure. In the end, I decided to bring some visuals. I figured if I bored the kids out of their skulls, they would have something else to focus on for the hour session I had with them.

My fretting turned out to be unnecessary. While the slide show of images looped via the projector, I spoke briefly about my inspiration for Powder Necklace and read a tiny excerpt. When I looked up after reading, no one was sleeping. LOL. Then I opened it up for Q&A. I was delighted to find the kids had not only read the text, but they'd read it closely.

One of the first questions I got in the second session was something like "So, do you still keep in touch with the dude your mother sent you to Ghana for messing around with?" :-) I also got: "Did you really have to cut all your hair off?" Followed by, "Your hair didn't look that bad." Some of the questions yielded important tangential discussions about the "Black" story (the black story is not only African-American, it's African, Afro-European, Caribbean...too); survival ("Did you really drink brown water?" One student asked. "I could never do that." His friend sitting next to him noted, "You would if you didn't have a choice.") Needless to say the Q&A was my fave part.

After the questions we posed for pics. "Are these pictures going on Facebook?" "No," their teacher assured. (Hence, no pics of the kids.)

On a high from Thursday's success, I went to Poughkeepsie on Friday to do a session with a 4th grade class from Krieger Elementary in Poughkeepsie, NY. Staring at the wide-open faces of these miniature people, I suddenly feared an expletive would fly out of my mouth causing the three parents on chaperone duty to escort me up the stairs of the Vassar College bookstore where the event was held. But again my fears were for naught.

Leaning on the workshop leadership training I got as a mentor with Girls Write Now, I led the kids through an "Ice breaker" exercise that totally warmed them and me up. They shared with each other where they were from and one thing no one knows about where they come from which became the perfect jumping off point for discussing the dangers of making assumptions about people and as a result being disrespectful and insensitive. The kids were immensely, enviably honest as they shared from their hearts -- and they were totally up on their vocabulary words. "Do you guys know what 'murky' means?" Yeeeesss, they chorused. "Know what 'assumption' means?" "It's like guessing, right?" Yes! They were great. And they got even better during the Q&A session.

Their little hands shot up and they started firing questions at me: "How old are you?" (They were shocked to here I was more than two decades older than them. One kid generously said I looked 15. That young man is going straight to the top if I have anything to say about it.)

"In Ghana did you get a lot of presents for your birthday? What kind?"

"In Ghana did you ride on horses?"

"What did you wear?"

"What did you eat?"

"You were bald?!"

They were adorable. It all ended too fast. The good news is I got to catch up with a great friend from college who works at Vassar now, and meet her gorgeous little girl too.

Today, I returned to the Valley Stream Borders Books in Green Acres Mall for an in-store signing. Many a parent was corralling his/her kids through the pre-Black Friday semi-calm before the storm so I had to make my pitch fast as younger kids alternately squirmed out of their parents' grasps or launched into the store for the fantasy books on display. In many cases, parents would ask their older kids if my book sounded interesting. If they nodded yes, I was in; if not, they'd sashay away. LOL. It was great fun.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Charleston, I'll Come Back Now, You Hear?

Last week, I took Joe Biden's favorite mode of transportation -- Amtrak -- down to Charleston, South Carolina for the Capital Bookfest's last 2010 date. I've never taken Amtrak overnight before, but flights to Charleston were running at near $700 when I was ready to book, and I figured the night I'd spend on the train would save me a night's hotel charge. Also, after my "doobie"-precipitated pat down and luggage debacle in Maryland/DC, I was excited to be able to skip the whole airport metal detector process and keep my little roller bag tucked right under my sneakered feet.

I've always loved road trips for the scenic shifts so I settled into my seat, head trained out of the window trying to absorb all I could before the afternoon sky faded to black. But the real scene was happening on my train car.

My neighbors plugged in their portable DVD player, pulled out a buffet of Dunkin' Donuts coffee and sandwiches, and commenced to chomping and watching a Martin Lawrence movie with the volume on loud. As I watched them eat and cozy up under the comforters they'd brought with them, I looked down at my flimsy pink wrap that was doubling as my duvet (and covering my growling belly), and realized I had brought a knife to a gunfight, as it were.

After they polished off their packed dinner, I ventured into the snack car pissed at myself for not thinking to pack any food. I also wondered what would be on the menu in this car right next to the pissy restroom. But it was actually pretty palatable. Nothing scary at all. I ordered a DiGiorno pizza and a beer. While I waited for the pizza to be microwaved, a slurring, splotched-faced, bloodshot-eyed woman tried to convince the snack car attendant to sell her a screwdriver. "Ah cah walk a straight lih," she boasted. Very responsibly, he advised her to return for her orange juice and vodka once we got to DC -- two or three hours away at that point.

Bus stop near the train tracks in Charleston

DC is where the train had to refuel/switch to Diesel and apparently, the train we were supposed to get the fuel from had derailed. I never got he details on what exactly happened, but we were stalled for two hours. I believe the conductor who'd been with us from Penn Station also ended his shift and so, for the new conductor, we had to show our tickets again. This was a problem for the old man sitting behind me.

He was traveling on a Thursday ticket, but we were on a Friday train. Lawdamercy, the new conductor argued with this inebriated 76 year old man (I'd overheard him tell his age to the guy sitting next to him) about the ticket for damn near the entire two hours we were waiting for the fuel change to happen. My Martin Lawrence movie neighbors even offered to pay the difference in the ticket just to end it all, but in the end, the conductor let it go with a warning and soon we were back on our way.

As we approached South Carolina in the wee hours of the AM in the pre-Daylight Savings pitch black, panic suddenly seized me. I was originally scheduled to arrive in Charleston at 5am. It would have been black as night and I was alone; thank God for that that unexpected two-hour layover! I ended up getting to Charleston station just as the lights were turning on in the sky.
It was going to be a 40-minute wait for a taxi -- "It's a Saturday morning," the station attendant explained, helpfully calling other cab companies for the packed station of haggard travelers -- so I followed Mike, a vet who grew up in Charleston, and "Mike" (Michelle), the Baltimore-raised wife of a Nigerian man who was surprising her son, a student at Citadel military college to the nearby busstop.

We waited by a train track for like 20 minutes before a bus came, during which time Auntie Michelle explained how she got the nickname "Mike" growing up in B'More in the '60s and '70s then leaving America behind in the '80s for Nigeria without knowing a soul in the country. "I always knew I would go to Africa, from a young age, and it's where I am. Whatever you want, wherever you want to be, speak it, and you will get there," she told me before we parted ways.

Mike & "Mike"

When I got downtown, the city loudly advertised the book festival. A banner streamed above Calhoun Street, and people were already streaming toward the Charleston County Library which was hosting the event. By the time I'd finished my southern breakfast of "fluffy" pancakes and made my way to the venue, the library was packed. One of the officiants said the library clicker broke at 300 people; the Charleston Post and Courier got the final headcount at 5,000! The place was packed as parents corralled their kids through the book-lined rooms for face painting and storytelling sessions while booksellers and vendors set up. And many many many people were already buzzing about the marquee guest: Nikki Giovanni!

I co-hosted a panel on "Getting an Agent and Getting Published" with publisher Lily Herndon-Weaks that was really well-attended, and had the good fortune of doing my post-panel signing right next to the table Ms. Giovanni was scheduled to sign at. People had already started lining up so I got up from behind my signing table and took advantage of the crowd, pitching just about everyone on that exponentially expanding queue about Powder Necklace. I was just a pitch machine. My goodness. I don't think I've talked that much or that fast in my life. LOL. I thank God that I was able to give my pitch unbroken on camera for a local Charleston magazine. A gentleman watching not only bought a copy of the book, but invited me to visit his church afterward as his priest is Ghanaian and he thought it would be nice if we could meet.

I was hesitant at first. I was exhausted and also didn't know this man from Adam, but I saw him chatting with the festival founder and many people who looked respectable greeted him warmly, so I went with him to church which ended up being a nice break from the non-stop my day had been. I'd spent the past to weekends out of town so I had missed my own church, perhaps God sent this man my way. After the service, I met the priest (who ended up randomly knowing a family friend!), and joined the congregation in the basement for chili and gumbo (!) for a fundraiser. I was so psyched to have some authentic gumbo and chili in the South! I gobbled my gumbo up and took the chili as a doggie bag for the Amtrak ride back.

The following day, I was the one chomping my chili and rice loudly as my seat mate expressed regret at not packing a snack. He grew up on a farm so he became my unofficial eco-tour guide, pointing out tree types and explaining water tables and patiently letting me lean over him to catch a shot of the cotton fields that were whirring by. The cotton looked like marshmallows! So fluffy and white standing on those straw-brown stalks. I got chills imagining great-great-great cousins and aunties and uncles plucking the white blossoms, marsh and swamp nearby...


As the lansdcape slowly changed from cotton and cattle, colored weaves, clapboard houses, and covered cars to tall buildings and bubble jackets, I marveled at how it always seems to go faster when you're returning home than when you're leaving home. I got a little wistful as we drew closer to New York. I felt my guard going up too with each stop, especially as the gentleman in the opposite row of seats loudly expressed his desire for some "f*ck and s*ck" action to whomever he was speaking with on his cellphone. When the train doors finally slid open at Penn Station, I split for the subway, making sure Mr. F*ck and S*ck was nowhere near -- familiar territory for the NYC Girl that I am. It felt great to be back home and know exactly where I was going, but I'd definitely like to visit Charleston again with more time to be a tourist.

(I've got more pictures on my Facebook page.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thank You, African Women's Book Club of Boston!

When I think back on the sheer awesomeness of my lunch with the African Women's Book Club of Boston, my face hurts from smiling, and like the sap I am, my eyes well up.
These women welcomed me into their sister circle with the warmest bear hug. Many of them traveled from far flung suburbs of Boston, one came from Pennsylvania, and one made it with her gorgeous newborn to congregate with each other, and congratulate and indulge me as I rattled on about the book, and read a short passage.
But lest I think it was all about the book or me, one of the organizers pointed out, the food had a lot to do with the awesome turnout. :-)
Seated around the glossy wood tables of Teranga Senegalese Restaurant on Boston's South End, we each tucked into our respective plates of grilled tilapia, stewed lamb, ripe plantains, croquettes, and vinaigrette-drizzled salad as we discussed what it means to be African in America. (Barbados, Botswana, Belgium, China, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Georgia, Ghana, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Malawi, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Nigeria, New York, Senegal, and Tanzania were in the house.) We recounted personal tales of being sent to an Africa we didn't know or leaving home in Africa for Europe and the States. We discussed parental expectations; traded business cards; talked babies, husbands, and dating; then cracked up about the bad hair weave Auntie Irene (one of the characters in the book) had.
It was effortless and it was excellent.
And yet I know a lot of effort went into the event. My friend, talented filmmaker Thato Mwosa suggested Powder Necklace as a read for her book club, organized the venue and event, and emceed. As I mentioned above, the members of the book club traveled from near and far to attend and support me, sharing three precious Saturday hours with me -- the day before Halloween, when many of them had activities planned for their kids. Also sharing with incredible generosity was my dear friend who hosted me in her home. Like the super-mom, wife and producer that she is, she added my agenda to her and her husband's packed itinerary, making sure I was picked up and dropped off exactly when I needed to be.
I have the most amazing friends -- and I just made new ones.