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Monday, November 21, 2011

8 Million Stories (Don't Worry, We're Just Telling Three)

I just got home from a friend's reading at Bar 82 where, apparently, every two weeks writers from all over the city read their work in the back room. I love that there are a million discoveries like this all over New York.

I tend to focus on the Ghana part of my story as a writer, but I was born in Plattsburgh, NY and have lived in Brooklyn, then Queens, then Brooklyn, then Queens again since I was two years old. When I wasn't in New York City (the three years I spent in High School in Ghana), I was in New York State (in college). So, needless to say, New York has had a huge influence on me as a person and a writer.

That said, every year around this time I'm usually plotting my escape from the island. I relish my annual holiday pilgrimage to Accra because it means time with my family, and a breather from the subway rat-sightings, cat calls, rush hour mob scene, and overpriced everything. (Of course, I spend much of that time lamenting all the things I miss about New York when I get there -- 24 hour access to reliable public transportation, any and every kind of food I want delivered, a plethora of museums, bums that hold the door for you at the ATM...)

But this December, I'm staying in New York and doing something I've been wanting to do since Powder Necklace first came out -- a reading and discussion at Hue-Man Bookstore with the poet Ben Hinson, and my sister scribe Ayesha Harruna Attah. We're all New Yorkers (for now anyway) by way of Nigeria and Ghana, respectively, with unexpected stories to tell. Come check us out, and let's trade "only in New York" stories together. City and State, Bridge and Tunnel, Ellis Island and Off the Boat New Yorkers welcome. Tourists too.

December 13, 2011
Hue-Man Bookstore
2319 Frederick Douglass Boulevard
between 124th & 125th Streets

Friday, November 11, 2011

Word. Up.

It has been a whirlwind few months! I've been writing Book #2, helping plan the annual Star 100 New York Fundraiser, working hard at where we just launched a new blog Fly & Mighty, and promoting Powder Necklace.

Back in September, the United Sisters Book Club welcomed me into their home. I had met the Book Club Secretary at "The Business of Books" event I did at the Akwaaba Mansion in March and she suggested it for her book club. (Thank you, Janice Stacy!) The evening was amazing. Not only did most of the women travel from far out Brooklyn to far out Queens to attend the event in one member's home, but they fed me too! (A huge thank you to Sandy Bright for opening her home to me!) They treated me to their special brew of Iced Tea, and a buffet of homemade food. We had a spirited discussion about the themes explored in Powder Necklace -- and how I could have made the book better! I so appreciated their candor and support. As a first time novelist, my goal is to improve sharply with each successive project. I hope you'll see that improvement with my second book!

The Iced Tea!

In October, I joined the "Beautiful Bibliophiles" of the Theta Chapter Book Club for an early dinner at a Brooklyn Applebee's. (Do not sleep on Applebee's spicy fettucini!) I had met one of the members at a Queens Book Fair in April and she suggested Powder Necklace to her group. (Akpe na, Ms. Cathleen Snyder!) We had a ball chatting about culture shock, the immigrant experience, and other topics that inspired the book. When dinner was done, we had a mini photoshoot on the Applebee's plaza as a gracious pedestrian we snagged on his way to/from work, patiently snapped us multiple times, with multiple cameras, iPhones, and Blackberrys. (Thanks, bruh--appreciate it!)

Later in the month, had another shoot in my home with the brilliant photographer Layla Amatullah Barrayn. Laylah is The Business. Period. She came to my home in Queens to photograph me for her exhibition on women writers and we had a mini fashion geek fest as she let me play dress up in the vintage green-lens goggles and a velvet square brim tie hat I found at a vintage store in Martha's Vineyard! It was so much fun!

I can't wait to see which image she ultimately chose for the upcoming exhibition "Her Word as Witness." The portraits she took feature black women writers of all disciplines and stages in their careers, with a focus on capturing us how we wanted to represent ourselves. When she initially gave me the challenge to decide how I wanted to represent myself, I had my characteristic over-think. I wanted my Ghanaian-ness, love for quirky fashion, and commitment to words to show through. I did a few costume changes and tried to look serious behind my goggles (I admit that I "smized".) Again, I got put on to this opportunity via a friend's recommendation. (Thank you so much, Ngozi!)

Please come out to Brooklyn on December 1st for the exhibit's opening reception and check it out!

Skylight Gallery
3rd fl
1368 Fulton Street
Brooklyn, NY 11216

Perhaps we can go to Applebee's after.

November is off to a great start. Last week, I had the opportunity to make a presentation about writing in front of another beautiful group of bibliophiles. The Fulbright Association's Greater New York Chapter had a reception and reading event at Sarah Lawrence College as part of their Youth Mentoring Initiative for International Understanding. It was an incredibly inspiring -- and tearjerking -- night. Teachers, Principals, parents, mentors, the Superintendent of Yonkers High Schools, other leaders of Yonkers Public Schools, and Sarah Lawrence Faculty organized the program for the student members, a bright group of talented teen writers that have only up to go from here. The opportunity came through a writer friend originally scheduled to do the event, who had an unexpected calendar conflict. (It was an honor to be your understudy, Kim! Thanks for thinking of me.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thank You, DC!

Love that Amazon shares with authors a city-by-city breakdown of where our books are selling! (I love that my publisher just started sharing sales data with authors too!) DC has consistently ranked in the top 3 cities buying my book, and this September in particular I saw a big bump from DC. Add that to the phenomenal reception I received from the Young African Professionals of DC , the good people who came out in droves to the Capital Bookfest in nearby Largo, MD , the loved ones who supported me at Georgetown's Presse Bookstore last year, and the recent MLK Memorial--I am officially renaming DC the District of Cheer.

Philly, LA, Idaho Falls, Colorado Springs, San Antonio, Chicago, Topeka, ATL, and New York: I see you too! (Wichita, where is the love?)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Auntie Flora Would Be Proud

Over the last few weeks, I covered several shows at New York Fashion Week for where I work. I always have a bit of anxiety over what to wear as the weather for the spring shows is in that split personality phase where it's hot one moment and cold the next. I also know the street style photogs will be out and about; and after getting played on a "like it or hate it" sideshow last season, I wanted to make sure I got caught looking as good as I could. To do that, I broke out the buubuus (embroidered caftans) and ruffle print frocks my mom often has made for us in Ghana. (It's relatively cheap, by US/European standards at least, to get custom-made clothing in Ghana.) And I reprised the batakaris my Mom and I play-fight about, rocking them as mini dresses. The looks were big hits as Glamour, New York Magazine's The Cut blog, Essence, and Vogue Black snapped me and my sister. My mom was so proud -- as I know "Auntie Flora" in my book would be. In Powder Necklace, I wrote Lila's fashionista auntie to wear Azzedine Alaia as stylishly as she would an emerald buubuu made in a small tailor's shop in Nima because part of the way I express my pride in being African is through dress. My last show at NYFW was Arise "Made in Africa". Seven designers presented interesting interpretations of traditional African silhouettes and shapes reflective of o many influences. It's always an incredible feeling to see Africa represented on the runway.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Writers Prayer

Anyone who knows me well, knows I love Beyonce. And JLo.

I relate to their 24 hour hustle because, as a kid, I watched both my parents work literally 20 hour days -- constantly -- toward their goals. (The immigrant hustle by necessity is a tireless one.) Instead of playing "house" when I was younger, I played "Restaurant" or "Modeling Agency" where I was always the owner of the company, taking calls and making decisions. And as an adult I thrive on multiple projects and hard work. Peak performance has been more important to me than sleep and sometimes my health; this philosophy encapsulated in a line of copy I wrote as a copywriter for a NikeWomen desktop wallpaper a few years ago: "Give the Performance of a Lifetime -- Every Time."

As I've gotten older, I've thought about what that line actually means and I realize that part of performing at your peak is conserving your energy -- long distance runner style -- i.e finding balance. So this summer, I sought my equiliibrium by taking a break of sorts from promoting Powder Necklace, and hit the beach when the weather permitted, hung with my friends, watched too many hours of reality TV, and just slept. A lot!

Of course, I shoehorned a lot of work in between. Outside of my day job, I've been contributing articles for JET Magazine and The Atlanta Post, and working on completing my second novel. I have over 500 pages that follow two complicated women from 1962 to present day in Ghana. It needs so much work, and cutting; I wish I could do it all tonight, but, alas, I must conserve my energy.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a poem with you that I started writing literally in a dream. The Saturday night/Sunday morning Hurricane Irene howled outside my window, I dreamt I was prepping to perform at an open mic and wrote the first line of the poem below. I call it "The Writers Prayer" because I pray that I never lose these inspired moments which I believe to be blessings straight from God.

The Writers Prayer

I stick a pen in my chest so I write from the heart
Splat dat on the screen before the editing part
Tap tap on the keys, till I find the right start
Most hours, most days, it's slower than BART

I stick a pen in my throat, s'why I'm not good at verbal
When I speak sometimes, s'like I swallowed the gerbil
That treadmills in my mind
I'm talking in circles
Get to the point.
"Madam, 50 cedis to Circle."

I stick a pen in my hand, it's a weapon of war
Slash, gash, bloodlet,
Apply tourniquet to sore
Then: "Father, may I do it some more?"
("Father, God, thank you.
May I do it some more?")

A pen's stuck in my brain, and it writes in my dreams:
"Wake up, bitch.
You need to tighten that scene.
Slash, gash; mop it up
Yup, wipe that shit clean."

It's a mighty pen, or should I say a laptop?
Fuck around, go ahead and make me miss my train stop.
The Murphy's of Flow: it only starts when I have to stop
Keep it real though
Sometimes it starts and I tell it stop
After my show, then I try to coax it back
Sometimes it comes,
Sometimes it won't call me back.

There's a pen in my eyes, and one in my ears
Both act as a filter to what I see & hear.

These chow pens, and sometimes I can't find one
Digging in my garbage bag till I have to ask for one
"Stranger, Crazy, Miss, can you spare one?"
Paper Mate, please, or a BIC or a Castell
If I must, though I hate,
I'll deal with a fountain
Whatever it takes to facilitate
Little nuggets of wise from the pen in my eyes
Labored pieces of art from the pen in my heart
Necessary surgery
by the scalpel in hand
and the pen in my brain
Serious op'ration
right there on the F train

Then the pen in my hoarse has to cooperate
Eloquent, smooth just like a candidate.
Stump, fly, sell, sell
Don't check your baggage
Damn, heavy as hell

Why do I bother?
S'not even a question.
There's a pen in my heart
hand, brain, and my throat.
If none of them wrote I'd find one that did
Laptop, blackberry, frosty window, kid

Since I was a child hiding at functions
Like Sam,
didn't know I had to answer the unction:
"Lord, Here I am."

Long before the agent "No"s began
Sister Barbara, Mr Hinksmon,
and of course Acquah English
I raise my "hend" not my "haand" to
Thad Z in Freshman English,
Mr. Gifford,
Mr. Mamiya,
Moore and Villmoare,
Constance Berkley,
And Sidney.
Davison, Diann,
Mr. Longman...
Silhouette and Harlequin.

There are pens in my... you know
And now there's one on Facebook
Another twies to tweet things that'll make you take a second look

Wherever the pen
Product's subject to the Spirit
Can I--will I be a conduit?
Sans inSpiration
It's just not legitimate

So like Moses did with the staff in
his hand
I throw my pens down
(Whether Mac or PC, or plastic and ink)
And watch the magic begin.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Summer Recess, Sort Of

Forgive the silence! After a non-stop year of promoting Powder Necklace, I've taken the summer off, sort of.


A few weeks ago, I joined some Ghanaian friends on a panel for Brotherhood SisterSol, an amazing organization that supports local black and Latino youth aged 8-21 with everything from after school programming to college prep. The group is taking the kids to Ghana and wanted the panel to share our experiences and give the kids ideas on what to expect. The young men and women had some great questions for us, one of them being: "If Ghana is so great, why are y'all here?" Touché. LOL. Our consensus answer was we've become too spoiled by America's creature comforts to deal with erratic utility services, regular blackouts, dirt roads, etc.

I've also been grinding on my second book, which is helping me understand a lot more about Ghana. Covering Ghanaian history from '62 to the present-day, I'm getting a crash-course in Ghanaian history, Ghanaian-American relations, the charismatic movement, and more. I've had a breakthrough with my writing process on this project! I've mentioned before that my discipline issues had been getting the better of me, thanks to my Basketball Wives/ Keeping Up with the Kardashians addictions, and my recent fixation with the Casey Anthony case and Jaycee Dugard's gripping interviews. BUT the bus has changed everything for me! I discovered a bus near my house that drops me off right by my job and now I spend an hour each morning writing on it. I've been leaving the house earlier than normal so I can continue writing in the library or park before work.

I'm also hard at work organizing a really cool end-of-summer literary event with two fellow authors. I'll tell you more about it as the date approaches.

In between, I've been doing interviews trying to keep the book out there. Check out my recent Q&A in Essence!!!! It's always been a dream of mine to be featured in Essence so please forgive the multiple exclamations.

Tomorrow, I'm doing an interview at 10P on WKCR. Please tune in!

And stick with me into September. I'm super-psyched to be reading at the OrphanAID Africa Benefit on September 15th. In Powder Necklace, there's a character named Enyo who is a maid in the home because her family couldn't afford to keep her. OrphanAID Africa, founded in Ghana by former Vogue stylist and author Lisa Lovatt-Smith, works to protect vulnerable kids by raising funds for families, offering job training services, and more. If you're New York-based, please RSVP. Damon Dash is co-hosting the party if that matters to you (does to me! would be cool to meet him.), and good people will be in the house for an even better cause.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I'm Reading at the Sunday Salon Series with Three International Authors

On Sunday May 15th, please join me and three authors who've penned continent-jumping tomes at Jimmy's No. 43 (43 E. 7th Street. We'll be reading as part of the NYC Sunday Salon Series.

Author bios and book covers are below. Forgive the thumbnail sized images. It's almost 2 in the morning, and really, this amounts to sleep-writing...

Cynthia Morrison Phoel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Bulgarian town not unlike the one in her stories in Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories.
Harmattan Rain, Ayesha Harruna Attah's first novel, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best First Book, Africa Region. She shuttles between Ghana and New York.
Jess Row is the author of two collections of short stories, The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost (just published in February 2011). His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, and many other journals, and has received a Whiting Writers Award, a PEN/O. Henry Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and three selections for The Best American Short Stories. In 2007 he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta.
You already know all about me!

I'll never forget something filmmaker Lee Daniels once said...

On April 15th, I had the opportunity to share the African Film Festival panel stage with Dr. Sheila Walker an anthropologist and documentarian whose film Africans Out of Africa screened at the festival, composer Onel Mulet, and moderator Michelle Materre a Media Studies professor at The New School who curates "Creatively Speaking", a forum committed to supporting films and other independent media that offer realistic and universal stories by and about people of color. Needless to say, as a Political Science and Africana Studies major with a concentration in the "politics of beauty", I was completely geeking out.

Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu's Restless City -- about an African immigrant surviving on the fringes of New York City -- will screen at BAM on Sunday, May 29th as part of the African Film Festival

We previewed clips of Dr. Walker's film, Joao Daniel Tikhomiroff's Besouro, and Carolina Moraes-Liu's Ebony Goddess: Queen of Ile Aye before diving into conversation about everything from the UN's declaration of the year 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent to the incredible power of pop-culture portrayals to shape people's perceptions of whole cultures, to diasporic food routes. The intimate gathering at Columbia University's Institute for African Studies lent itself to a true roundtable discussion. One particular aspect of our conversation that titillated me, questioned whether artists of color must produce work that is political/responsible/deep; and how to move beyond cultural ideas of what Africa/Africans/African-Americans/blackness is "supposed" to look/sound/read like, to move the entire culture forward.

Diaspora Food: Collard greens are an awful lot like Ghanaian kontomire stew

I might have mentioned this in a prior post, but I'll never forget something filmmaker Lee Daniels once said. He was promoting his then new film The Woodsman about a recently paroled child molester living next door to a school, and he said he considered casting Samuel L. Jackson for the lead -- but his mother begged him not to put a black man in such a wound-opening role. The part ultimately went to Kevin Bacon, with rapper/actor Mos Def playing the cop monitoring the title character's return to society. Daniels later told me in a phone interview for his film Shadowboxer, that his mother wishes he would do more family-friendly fare like Tyler Perry does.

If only Mama Daniels knew what a powder keg of criticism Tyler Perry's films ignite. With his depictions of middle class African-American life, the director has elicited conflicted emotions and sharp debate amongst a large group of blacks with many celebrating his immense success while lambasting him for mishandling the black story via soap operatic characters, over the top plot devices, and cringe-inducing catchphrases like "Hallelujer" that dredge up stereotypes about black dialect. The critique from fellow filmmaker Spike Lee in particular caused Perry to lash out.

Of course there was no resolution to our debate at the Film Festival panel about the virtues (or lack thereof) of films like Baby Boy (one of my faves by the way) and Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood for example, versus the work of helmers like Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, and Spike Lee. Partly because of the fact that there are so few successful black filmmakers, and mostly because of the human inability to please everyone, the real anxiety is rooted in the fact that the few depictions out there have so much power.

Author K.C. Washington founded her novelty postcard business Noir-a-Gogo featuring 1950s pin-ups because images of the times usually omit black sex symbols. "We were there!" her promotional materials shout.

This same debate is raging in black literary circles as so-called "street lit"/"urban fiction" titles share shelf space in African-American book sections next to literary classics by James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison; as well as contemporary works by writers like Zadie Smith and Edwidge Danticat. In the year that I've been working to promote Powder Necklace, I've had numerous conversations with other writers about this situation where I express my commitment to getting to a time and place where all of these really different stories can coexist without bearing the weight of upholding a narrow definition of blackness.

If Steven Spielberg can direct one of the most enduring depictions of black women, and Kathryn Stockett can write a story about black maids in the dialect of the black south, and Chris Cleave can pen a bestselling novel about a Nigerian girl, black artists must be free to put out work that reflects their inspiration.

with Cheetah Girls author Deborah Gregory and Harmattan Rain author Ayesha Harrunah at Delta Sigma Theta's "Reading Helps Your Imagination Bloom" Book Fair

On April 10th, I joined Cheetah Girls series novelist Deborah Gregory, Butterfly Rising author Tanya Wright (and Cosby Show alum who was Theo's girlfriend "before Justine" she reminded us), Christian career advice writer Carol Mackey, The Cheating Curve author Paula Renfroe, and my ace Ayesha Harruna Attah at the Delta Sigma Theta book fair at Medgar Evers college. As some of the writers in the room rose to introduce professors, parents, children, and book lovers to their works, it struck me that you could not have brought a more diverse assortment of authors together.

Likewise, on April 30th, two lawyers, an ex-con, an author and publisher, a bartender, a poet, a cat lover, the descendant of a black Civil War vet, and a fashion blogger -- all authors -- converged in the Harvest Room of the Jamaica, Queens Farmer's Market for the "April is Book Month in Queens" fair. K.C. Washington (who owns Novelty Postcard business Noir-a-Gogo), David L, Fabiola Sully, Cathleen Williams, Natasha "Mz Grammy Bear" Graham, Willie Cooper, and Sandra Glaves Morgan were among the disparate group selling their literary wares, each with a unique, yet equally rousing story to share.

The up-and-comers in the room were all at different stages of our literary careers, and we're taking different paths to advance; but as black authors we have to feel free to get there in our own way -- even if it's uncomfortable a la Samuel Jackson as child molester/a white woman writing in black dialect, even if it isn't terribly good -- but especially when it's great. Ytasha L. Womack's book Post-Black has awesome things to say on this topic.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Happy Birthday, Powder Necklace!

A year ago today, Powder Necklace was released!! Thanks to all who have cheered me along on this journey -- the Facebook posts, tweets and encouraging emails have been fuel; and to the writers, editors & friends who took the time to sit me down and give me advice, open up their networks to me, and share opportunities with me. The learning curve has been sharp and quick.

The 10 practical things I've learned this year are:

1. At a book signing, never ever stay seated behind the table and wait for people to come to you. Get up and get a book/promotional postcard in as many hands & faces as possible.

2. Always keep a promotional postcard on you & don't be shy about giving them out.

3. Don't be intimidated by the person you're trying to sell a book to (Amish people like books too)

4. Don't be intimidated by the opportunity. If they invited you to be part of it, you deserve to be there.

5. Your friends and family should not be expected to attend every single event you're having to promote the book. They have a copy already. Just let them know about the events that are really important to you.

6. Bring an envelope of singles to events so you/people don't have to wait or hunt for change. (I need to get better about this one.)

7. Keep it all in perspective. Yes, you must shill, but you also must chill.

8. Reach out to and support other authors. It's good kharma, plus they understand what you're going through on a completely other level.

9. Keep your eyes peeled for new opportunities to promote your work. Actively seek out book clubs/organizations/movements that would be into the themes of your book and pitch yourself as a speaker/panelist, etc; stay on top of your community events calendar.

10. Set up a Google Alert for yourself and book so you can stay on top of reviews and other mentions of your work and respond.

Thanks again for following along. It's been a dream come true.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

All in the Family

The National Ghana Parade Council's Distinguished Tongue Series launch and book signing at Nectar Wine Bar was fantastic. After nearly a year promoting Powder Necklace (the book turns 1 on April 6th!!), I never know who will show up to an event. My family and friends all have the book and have more than showed their support, trooping to different venues across the city, buying multiple copies, and spreading the word to their friends. It ended up being a mega-reunion for me.

A great friend from college that I haven't seen in years Facebooked to let me know he would be coming, so I was psyched to see him, but I was not expecting to see my play cousins from back in the day! When my parents came to this country, they formed a tight community of fellow Ghanaians that became our extended family and three of the kids I grew up playing with in upstairs bedrooms while our parents talked politics in Ga downstairs were in the house. It was so crazy to see my one cousin in particular whom I had not seen since she was like 12! I almost wanted to snatch the glass of wine from her hand, but alas, she's a woman now.

After I hugged fellow author Ayesha Harruna Attah and started to set my books up on the table, another ghost from my past strode into the room from behind the Employees Only area. Now one of Nectar's directors, she used to be my boss at one of my first jobs out of college!

Then a gentleman approached to let me know he had come to find out if I was related to Professor Abeeku Brew-Hammond (the same Uncle Abeeku I thank in the last sentence of my acknowledgments at the back of the book). My dad's little brother teaches in the College of Engineering at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and this young man was one of his students. But what was so cool about meeting him was that he had designed an energy-efficient car model under the encouragement of my uncle, and I remember Uncle Abeeku emailing us about this student's good work, complete with a jpeg of the car.

As I bounced around the room catching up with fam and friends from the past, and the contingent of friends who graciously listened as I repeated the spiel they've heard many times over, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment.

The Council did an amazing job creating an easygoing yet purposeful networking vibe. Business cards were swapped, funds were raised for a scholarship fund, and in keeping with the spirit of the series--a celebration of the many diverse languages spoken in Ghana and across Africa, with a mind toward encouraging dialogue and unity--a multitude of tongues were represented. Even though I got to the venue after a full day of work, I stayed long after the signing, chilling with old and new friends.

Anyway, I promise to post pics once I get them. My camera's flash died several months ago so I haven't been on top of taking pics at events as I should.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I'm Reading with Ayesha Harruna Attah at Harlem's Nectar Wine Bar as Part of Nat'l Ghana Parade Council's Distinguished Tongue Series

Happy First Day of Spring!

I hope you can make it out to Harlem's Nectar Wine Bar on Wednesday March 30th at 6pm. I'm going to be reading along with Ayesha Harruna Attah, the author of Harmattan Rain which was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers' Prize as part of the National Ghana Parade Council's "Distinguished Tongue" event series.

It's been an incredible International Women's History Month starting with Delta Sigma Theta's Ladies of Literature panel at Lehman College, then the amazing Business of Books panel hosted by Delta Rho Omega at Brooklyn's Akwaaba Mansion (I've always wanted to go there). I'm really excited to be rounding out the month with another sister scribe. I did my first official Powder Necklace reading with Ayesha, so it always feels great to share billing with her. Join us!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Business of Books: To Self-Publish or Pursue Publication by a House

"Wow" was my first word according to my mother, and all I can say is "wow" concerning the amazing Women's History Month program the women of Delta Rho Omega put together yesterday to support and promote the work of three-time author Jacquie Bamberg Moore and myself. Last night, I joined Jacquie in the gorgeously-appointed parlor of Stuyvesant Heights' Akwaaba Mansion to discuss the Business of Books, but first we each introduced ourselves to the packed house of women, sharing a bit about the inspiration behind our stories.

Tears sprang to my eyes as Jacquie spoke about her book The House on Monroe Street, a heartrending and ultimately uplifting story about a woman pursuing her healing after experiencing molestation. I finished the book yesterday morning around 3:40a and as I told Jacquie, if it wasn't for the hour, I would've called her. Jacquie's introduction was thoroughly compelling and as a three-time author, she seemed completely at ease as she held every eye and ear in the room.

I studied her closely. Three books! As I fight through fatigue and discipline issues (related to American Idol, Basketball Wives and E! News) to work on my second book, I was totally in awe of my co-panelist. Add to that the fact that she is self-published!

Now, the panel being a "Business of Books" panel, we discussed at length the pros and cons of being self-published versus being published by a major house. I have to say that everything I've learned about promoting myself as an author, I've learned from self-published friends. There is a misconception that once a publisher releases your book, they send you on a cross-country media tour of book signings that they pay for and that adoring fans are just waiting to greet you at said signings, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Once I got published, I basically entered into a small business that requires me to:

1. Pay for marketing materials
Thank God for free tools like Blogger, Facebook, and Twitter, but I also pay to print full-color double-sided postcards that give people a quick scan of some of the book's best reviews, and inform them where they can get the book and how they can get in touch with me.

2. Create a book budget.
At most book festivals booksellers service the event which means, since my book is sold at Barnes & Noble, I don't have to lug my books in my suitcase (which my sister has nicknamed "Pockets" as it has become my number one travel buddy). But when I do book signings for groups or in homes, I have to buy the books wholesale so I can in turn sell them at the event.

3. Create a travel budget
I pay for most of my trips outside the state so I thank God for the affordable Bolt and Fung Wah Buses and for friends who have graciously hosted me in their homes. When it comes to flights, I am that person that will jump up and say "I" when the airline announces they've oversold the flight and are looking for people who will give up their seats for a free voucher. That's how I ended up flying from New York to DC last year and when the airline misplaced my luggage, I negotiated a credit toward my next flight.

4. Promote myself strategically & aggressively
I keep the aforementioned postcards on hand so that when I'm on the subway commuting to work and spot someone reading a book/Kindle/iPad etc, I can slip them my card. Just the other day, I received an email from someone I gave a card to. She had purchased Powder Necklace and wanted to make it the focus of her college paper. I've also gone door-to-door in my parents' neighborhood, and even sold old skool rapper Fab Five Freddy a copy of the book. After I made my "You gotta support" pitch to him, he was like "Damn, girl. Alright!"

I write this all to explain, though I am blessed to be published by Simon and Schuster, I have modeled my approach and work ethic after a self-published author. I don't see any other way to succeed in this industry.

That said, there are many advantages to being published by a major house. During the editing process, I had the benefit of a rigorous editing, copyediting and fact-checking team that improved story flow and combed the book for grammatical errors and inconsistencies. Once the book came out, I didn't have to create new relationships with individual booksellers to get my books in bookstores across the country as I had the benefit of a team whose job it is to sell the books to individual bookstores. I also have the benefit of a wonderful publicist at Simon and Schuster (Hi, Yona!!) who pitches me to publications and for panels, and fields requests for other opportunities.

Now that the ebook business is growing at breakneck speed, Simon and Schuster has converted my book into all the necessary formats, which enables people to get the book in whatever format they choose. They've also created a web presence for me on their Author Portal (please "Like" it). In essence, Simon and Schuster and I are business partners. They have invested in me, and as a business, they are looking to get a return, which is where money comes in.

Simon and Schuster gave me an advance so I didn't have to front many costs, but they make their money off me in other ways. Meanwhile, self-published authors shell out at the front end, but they make a much larger cut of their book sales. In the end, anyone who is interested in becoming an author needs to weigh these pros and cons for herself/himself. Just know that either way, it is a hustle that requires HARD WORK.

Before I close this post, I want to say a big thank you to Sabrina Gates. I met her at the amazing Michelle O Brunch I blogged about at the end of last year, and she is the one who suggested my name to the committee programming Alpha Kappa Alpha's/Delta Rho Omega's annual Women's History Month Event. Thank you, sister! I also want to thank Sabrina's soror Yolanda Holmes who liaised with me to set up the event, and the amazing women of Delta Rho Omega who opened up their sister circle to me and supported me with words of encouragement and purchased the book. I really cannot thank you enough.

Pics from yesterday's event to come!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The "Toni / Terry" Challenge

I spent the afternoon sharing the panel stage with Victoria Christopher Murray, Donna Hill, and Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, and fellow newbie author T. Holland (she just wrote Aw, Shucks) as part of the 2nd Annual "Ladies of Literature" panel hosted by Delta Sigma Theta, Lehman College, and The Bronx Council on the Arts.

Delta Sigma Theta solicited questions to stimulate the discussion and our moderator Dr. Veronie Lawrence Wright opened the Q&A with a question about the immense popularity of the "street lit"/"urban fiction" genre. Each of the panelists had a different and valid perspective, but the consensus was this: shelving books according to the color of authors' skin versus genre is misleading. i.e. Just because Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan are both black doesn't mean their books belong in the same section of the bookstore.

The question of whether there should be an African-American section in the bookstore is one I've been mulling over a lot as author Bernice McFadden wrote a provocative op-ed on the topic, and it has come up a few times in recent discussions and appearances. At the end of last year, on her syndicated show on Blogtalk Radio, Ella Curry threw the question out to me and my fellow authors/panelists including Tina McElroy Ansa. I think I said we needed an Afr-Am section as well as placement in the general genre sections because I remember what it meant to me to discover the likes of April Sinclair, Joan Morgan, Edwidge Danticat, Zadie Smith, and others -- and I believe I found them in the Afr-Am section. However, Victoria Christopher Murray, Donna Hill, Donna Grant, and Virginia DeBerry have been writing professionally for the past 20 years and noted their books were exposed to a much bigger audience before the advent of Afr-Am book sections.

It's a tricky topic, especially when you have books like Katherine Stockett's The Help (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and Chris Cleave's Little Bee which have black protagonists and appeal to black audiences, that are written by white authors. I don't remember seeing those books in the black book section, but then I haven't looked for them there, and in fact, I usually buy my books via Amazon which raises an entirely different issue...

As we spoke, it got me thinking about something Monster's Ball producer Lee Daniels once said. At a symposium at Sony (where I used to work), Daniels was in the house promoting The Woodsman, I think, and he noted that he had considered casting a black actor to play Kevin Bacon's part but his mother implored him not to cast a black man as a child molester. Daniels obviously acquiesced, but he bemoaned his lack of artistic freedom as a black producer/director to do just that. Today's panel spurred me on to take that freedom -- as my fellow panelists have done in their careers.

Donna Grant mentioned, in particular, facing the "Toni/Terry" challenge in which black authors whose voices didn't mimic Toni Morrison's or Terry McMillan's struggled to find support from publishers. But teens of books later, they have each carved out their niches writing books that have expanded the scope of contemporary fiction. I left a little lighter after selling a few books, feeling incredibly inspired and encouraged to carve out mine.

[photo courtesy of]

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday at Chateau Afonja in Harlem

Promoting Powder Necklace has been so much about people generously opening up their networks to me, and this afternoon was no different. Osahon Akpata, a beautiful writer that has become an invaluable friend, introduced me to Funmi Afonja who in turn introduced me to her network via a delicious brunch and book signing at her apartment aka Chateau Afonja this afternoon. She made every delicious thing on the menu -- spicy shrimp omelet, diced fried plantains, salmon stew, chicken, chef salad, fresh fruit, warm fluffy croissants, scones, and more -- and invited me to share my book with her guests. I sold out of the books I brought,met an incredible group of people, and reconnected with some friends I haven't seen in a minute. It was an awesome end to a whirlwind weekend.

Friday & Saturday with the Young African Professionals of DC

On Friday, I had the honor of joining Caine Prize Winners Helon Habila and Olufemi Terry (Stickfighting Days) as part of a Young African Professionals panel discussion. In a word, the event was a dream.

The panel venue, Asafu's Restaurant, was packed to the gills thanks to Ehui Adovor and the team of Young African Professionals that put the evening together. (Thank you, Tinesha Davis and Harvetta Asamoah for coming!!) The event was tightly organized, again thanks to the organizers that led us to share a bit about ourselves and read from our works, before moderating a Q&A session that continued well into the signing phase. It was a thrill to chat about everything from the writing process to the impact of expat spending on the African economy. Then it was food and hang time!

We walked up the block to an Ethiopian spot called Etete where we shared a communal platter of tibs, yebeg, and other yums before walking it off to a bar called Marvin's (too loud, too packed) and finally settling at a wine bar called Vinoteca. I should add that my little roller suitcase was in tow the entire time.

The plan was for me to drop my suitcase off before the event and head with Ehui to Asafu's, but my bus hit an hour's worth of traffic and after trying to catch a cab on DC's 10th & H at the height of rush hour, my roll dog had to come with. I wheeled that jammy down several streets and drag-bumped it up (then down) stairs into the AM.

We ended the night trying to catch another cab (not an easy feat in DC; and apparently they charge extra for suitcases), but Ehui and I nabbed one and headed back to her apartment as she graciously hosted me for the night. On Saturday AM we went for brunch at Tabard Inn where my friend Robin met up with us. I got to meet her gorgeous baby boy and catch up briefly before I had to head back to the bus for the four hour ride back to the city. When I got off the bus, I was halfway down the subway steps when I realized I'd left my suitcase in the bus. Thankfully it was still there.

Pics are HERE!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I'm History (in the Making)!

On Thursday night, JWT's Differenter Committee honored 17 modern day black history makers, and I was one of them! It was a fabulous event which started with a crazy inspiring short documentary featuring my friend and fellow honoree Jacques-Philippe Piverger who started an organization called The Global Syndicate that raises funds to address urgent needs in education, health, and economic inequality; environmental activist Majora Carter, Living in the Village author Ryan Mack a financial planning expert committed to educating the community about sound financial planning; Una Clarke the first Caribbean-born woman elected to the New York legislature; and Hip Hop 4 Life femtrepreneurs Tamekia Flowers-Holland and Tanisha Tate who are committed to building self-esteem, confidence and sound judgment in young people. It was incredible to see and hear what people are doing to literally make the world better, and specifically how the point of different(er)ness ultimately inspired the honorees.

Majora Carter spoke about how she had been trying to escape her South Bronx roots for most of her life until she realized her call to return and make it better. The Majora Carter Group now works to bring green spaces to the South Bronx and similar neighborhoods across the country. Ryan Mack said he decided to turn down a job in finance when he was told the only way he could be a success is if he targeted high net worth individuals. Now he's providing critical financial planning services to the people who need it most.

After the screening, fellow honoree Eric J. Henderson spoke about how finding a 1950 Kodak Brownie Hawkeye on the corner of 125th Street & Park Avenue sparked a vocation in photography. Then I was up. I shared a bit about my experience being "differenter" as a kid and how it inspired Powder Necklace. I tried to keep it brief and thankfully I got through it without crying lol. Special shout out to JWT's Differenter group for putting together such an amazing event, and spurring me on to do more with what I have.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Encouragement via the Imani Literary Group

On January 29th, I had the opportunity to call in to a meeting of the Imani Literary Group. They'd read Powder Necklace (along with fellow Ghanaian author Kwei Quartey's book Wife of the Gods), and they were a huge source of encouragement to me.

I'm in the middle of working on my second book and it's been a particularly difficult process. I thought it would get easier after Powder Necklace, but it feels almost harder mainly because it's a completely different experience.

When I was writing PN, I had gotten into a very rigid routine: wake up at 5 in the morning and write till 7:30, write on the hour long train ride to work, write on the hour long train ride home, write till 2 in the morning. But now, 8 years later, I just don't have the energy I used to. Now, by 10p, I am nodding off. (Old age has also weakened my defenses against reality TV. Curse you Basketball Wives marathon!) And I've since moved which has cut my commute time considerably.

My second book also spans Ghana from 1962 to the present day so I have so much more research to do. I have spent literally days obsessing over the minutest details, and I have spent other days wondering if I'm slowly going insane because of it. The day I called into the Imani Literary Group's Q&A session, I was taking a break from that madness, and God knows I needed it.

I spent probably an hour on the phone answering the very thoughtful and incisive questions Angela Reid and the group of retired educators that belong to Imani had for me. They brought up details and themes in Powder Necklace that I had even forgotten about, and as I spoke with them I felt encouraged that every detail I'm currently obsessing over is worth it. So thank you, Imani Literary Group, for the encouragement and sending me pics of your meeting to remember the day!! The food looks amazing.

Now back to writing...

Monday, January 31, 2011

Talking Black Magazines on CUNY TV!

Happy February!! Last summer, Abi Ishola invited me and a group of black women in media to appear on CUNY TV's "Independent Sources". The focus of the discussion was the dearth of lifestyle print magazine options for black women. Abi did a series on this topic which appears on her website. Have a look and listen.

Watching it again after all these months, I'm struck by the fact that I'm wearing a buubuu. After over a month of weekly snow storms in New York, I'm missing the swelter of July. I'm also digging the fact I've learned my lesson and toned down the lip gloss :-) But on a more serious note, it's reminding me of the impact magazines had on me and, ultimately, my writing.

I was 20 when Alek Wek appeared on the cover of Elle, and I remember the schizophrenic range of emotions that singular moment in fashion culture elicited in me. I felt beat-my-chest pride at the sight of this black girl on the cover of a mainstream fashion publication. I also felt uncomfortable with the fact that she was bald, dark, and "African" looking. (I preferred the more Eurocentric presentation of Naomi Campbell, Kiara Kabukuru, Iman, Beverly Peele, and Louise Vyent...)

I had spent my youth absorbing, then wrestling with, the brainwashing that light skin, straight hair, and light eyes were more beautiful than dark skin and "nappy" hair. Elaine Brown explained this complexion politics in her book A Taste of Power: "If you white, you right. If you yellow, you mellow. If you brown, stick around. If you black, git back. Waaaay, back." At the time of Alek's cover, I was working through my brainwashing issues with my senior thesis which focused on the politics of the black beauty ideal. For a tangential reason, I shaved my head and went natural, wearing the short 'fro I'd been forced to wear as a secondary school student in Ghana -- not much longer than Alek's.

After college, I got my first big break working as an assistant editor for fashion and music publication Trace Magazine which published an annual "Black Girls Rule" issue -- long before Vogue Italia's black issue. At Trace, I not only got to hone my skills writing all manner of articles, but I was on the inside of an apparatus focused on depicting the global community of color with the utmost quality. Oluchi Onweagba was the cover model of the first issue I worked on, and when the issue printed, I literally went door to door in SoHo personally placing the magazine in different boutiques and coffee shops to increase its visibility.

All of these experiences were part of what inspired my short story "'Bush Girl" about a wannabe model living in Flatbush, Brooklyn which appeared in African Writing. (Similarly, my encounters with the incredibly diverse stories of writers like Edwidge Danticat, April Sinclair, Zadie Smith, Janet Fitch, Shauna Singh Baldwin, James McBride, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Chimamanda Adichie, Liza Monroy, Adam Mansbach, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo, Joan Morgan, and Buchi Emecheta spurred me on in the writing of Powder Necklace.)

It's so important that pubs like Essence, Ebony, and JET, Trace, Vibe, The Fader, Uptown, Arise, and the now defunct Honey and Suede exist in tandem with Clutch, YBF, FashionBombDaily, Black Voices, The Root, The Grio, AfriPOP, and so many other blogs and websites. They fill a hole in mainstream publication coverage. But it's even more critical that magazines which bill themselves as mainstream do a better job of respecting the diversity of the readers that support them. Black women, for example, shouldn't feel like they have to go to a black publication to get real hair care advice. Likewise, white women shouldn't feel that a magazine with a black woman on the cover won't have any relevant information for them. No one should feel ignored, marginalized, or pigeonholed...

Anyway, I could go on about this for hours. What do you think of all this?