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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.