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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy NEW Year!!

It's been an exhausting, eventful, educational, productive, AMAZING year. I'm looking forward to more of the same in 2014. Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. God bless your new year and beyond!!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Danger of the "I Worked to Get Where I Am" Narrative

The next time I hear a celeb has passed out "due to exhaustion," I won't be so quick to cock a skeptical eyebrow. 
The past few months have been incredibly busy for me. Meeting copywriting and article deadlines into the night (and morning) during the weeks, zipping to different cities and states on the weekends shilling the book, and emailing countless pitches in between. Add appearances, fellowship and residency applications, and research for book number 3.

Last week, my body exacted payment for all this work.

Very dramatically, I collapsed. Blacked out and bumped my head. When I came to, like a movie, faces hovered over mine asking if I was okay.

I was rushed to the ER, strapped to an orange chair with wheels, rolled into the ambulance van, and given a battery of tests. The $5,000 prognosis? I was tired. Oh, and I need to drink more water.

I've spent the past few days doing major reassessment. I've always prided myself on "doing the work," and I've always believed the "I worked to get where I am" narrative. But I've come to realize that working yourself into the ground does not lead to success.

Work implies control. But the truth is, success is a confluence of so many factors, besides the work you put, in that are completely outside your control.

It's been tough for me to accept this. But I have to. I have bumped against this lesson my whole life, and particularly in the last year and a half as I've driven myself at dizzying speeds to get where I want to go faster. ("Faster," twin to "impatience," is my problem.) It's time to learn this lesson once and for all.

I'm working on it. Slowly.

Monday, September 30, 2013

DC, Matteson, Chicago, Detroit, Nairobi

the inn I stayed at in South Holland, Illinois

Back in June, I embarked on a "bookstore tour" of sorts with the goal of getting the word out about Powder Necklace in key markets. I'd been studying my sales and noted that my performance was best in the cities I'd actually been to so I found lists of African-America, African and Independent bookstores across the country and started pitching signings at their stores. 

Since I'm paying for these trips, I was focused on making these trips cost effective. I have a phobia of printed bedspreads, for example, but I decided to put away my princess tendencies and deal with a little pea for the cause. 

My first stop was DC which didn't require me to make any comfort sacrifice. My good friend has a spot  in the heart of Foggy Bottom right near the Whole Foods and she let me crash on her couch. 

Then there was Matteson, Illinois. I didn't know anyone in the area that I felt comfortable bunking with so I booked the cheapest hotel I could find online. I figured it was so cheap ($39/night) because they weren't inflating for cost of living. There was a printed bedspread in the photos, but I calmed myself down. "It's only one night, Nan." Plus, the room came with free wi-fi.

I landed in Chicago, made the 45 minute journey to Matteson's Lincoln Mall where I was to sign at Kevin Roberts' Azizi Books; and stood on my six-inch platforms for literally six hours pitching my book and signing copies. At the end of the day, I was so ready to tumble into bed.

When I got to the hotel, 20 minutes drive outside Matteson, the attendant at the desk registered shock when I told him I had a reservation. He tried to let me know I might have made a mistake.

"Why don't you go check out the room first. It's non-smoking, but you might smell smoke." 

Huh? I was so exhausted, I didn't argue. I went to look at the room.  It was dark and I didn't see any immediate skid row signs, though the room did smell of stale smoke. I told him it was fine but on my way back to my room, I got it when I saw two prostitutes exit the room next door.

I studied my room properly now. There were kick marks and dents in the walls, and there was a cigarette hole in the (printed!) bedspread. Also, there was a kick dent in the door. 

I tore the curtains across the double pane windows, bolted the door and pushed a chair up against it for good measure. I also pulled the bedspread off and prayed there weren't any bed bugs lurking. 

I got on the free wi-fi and literally prayed as I Facebooked and emailed--there was either a heated argument or a banging party going on next door. 

The following morning, I was up and at 'em and out. I called a cab and waited for it by the empty fountain in the parking lot. That's when I noticed the upstairs veranda lined with men. One approached me, asked where I was from. Another asked if I needed a ride. When I finally got in the cab, I promised myself, Scarlett O'Hara-style, I would never go cheap again.  

So when I returned to the Chicago area for the annual GhanaFest celebration a month later, I booked a relatively swank boutique hotel. Since I was in the center of town, public transportation was nearby and a short ride to the festival venue. Azizi Books agreed to be my book selling partner at the festival and  it was a successful day. My sister joined me for the trip and was such a huge help selling. 

Ten days ago, I flew to Detroit to sign books at Underground Railroad Reading Station Bookstore and Gift Shop. Again, I booked the hotel ahead of time and resisted the urge to go cheap. I was so focused on a hotel, I forgot that my dad's cousin lives in Michigan and I could have stayed with him. I text my dad for Uncle's number the afternoon I was flying out. 

The hotel was amazing. I think because I paid in advance, I got upgraded to an executive room. The bedspread was fluffy and pristine, and the bathroom was as big as my living room. The only thing that made me take pause was the directive on the door to deadbolt it whenever I was in the room. 

I was so bored though. I Instagrammed aimlessly, ate a lonely dinner in the bar and called my uncle. He wanted to pick me up that night, but I had already dropped all this money on the hotel so I declined.

The good deal was the hotel was a ten minute walk from my signing. I walked to the bookstore which happened to be inside not just any church, but one of the oldest black churches in the country, and a stop on the freaking Underground Railroad! As in Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. 

I thought the bookstore's name was a nod to the history, not an actual part of history. As people straggled in and out for the Saturday tour, I decided to join the tour before my signing. 

Ms. Bobbie, the bookstore proprietor and tour guide took us on a walk that started in 1837 in the old church building and ended in the church basement where my reception was. My uncle was waiting for me and after I signed the books and took a bunch of pictures, he took me to the hotel to get my stuff. I had to check out.

I would lose the money I'd paid, but my aunt had fufu and light soup waiting. He took me on a quick tour of a few spots in Detroit, including the waterfront that separates the city from Canada. I imagined the relief the passengers on Tubman's railroad must have felt when they made it to the other side.

It was a relief to wake up the next morning at my uncle's place. Even though I would have slept in, had I been at the hotel, it felt good not to be alone in a strange city worrying for my safety. Ironically, that was the morning I learned about the mass shooting at Nairobi's Westgate Mall.

For the next few hours, I was in Kenya's capital city as I read the horrible news of hostages held and dozens dead--Ghanaian poet and statesman Professor Kofi Awoonor among the fatalities. I had met Professor Awoonor last year when, on the referral of a mutual friend, he agreed to write a letter in support of a project I was working on. 

He was so cool. He was incredibly busy, but he took the time out to speak with me about my book and the project I planned, and recommended a book I should read. He told me his door was open to me anytime...

My uncle told me the same when we said our good-byes at the airport. As I waited in the terminal, I interviewed Ghana's High Commissioner to Kenya and began working on a story about the massacre. 

My journey resumes this month. I return to the Chicago area on October 19th at 2p for a book talk at Oak Park Library. If you happen to be in town, please come by. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Trayvon Martin & Nelson Mandela

Rest in peace, Trayvon Martin

A few years ago, I was walking home from work. It was a warm night and a group of young black boys were crowding a narrow sidewalk. I crossed to the other side, anticipating harassment -- I was not in the mood for any "Yo, ma"s or "'Sup, Shorties" or "Smile"s which I believed they would harangue me with. As I expected, one of the guys called out to me, but what he said was completely unexpected.

"Miss, we weren't going to do anything to you," he told me.

"I know," I said, seeing my little brother in him at that moment.

My brother is a skinny kid (not really a kid anymore) with a ready smile who loves to travel, hates reality shows, and is entirely too loose with his life on social media as far as I'm concerned. But in that instant with the boys on the street, I realized my brother and any of the black men in my life could be pre-judged as a potential harasser or a threat just for standing outside with their friends.

I started to think about what it would mean to have people instinctively clutch their bags around you, tense up when elevator doors close, or cross the street when you and your friends are just chilling outside on a hot evening. And I started to understand, in a personal way, the many ways black boys and men are criminalized every single day. I promised myself I would never cross the street again.

It breaks my heart that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and so many other young black men are routinely pre-judged to death. I believe George Zimmerman's own pre-judgment of what and who is suspicious led him to kill unarmed Trayvon last February. It's also part of what enabled the officers on the scene to accept Zimmerman's version of events, let him go home without arrest, and ultimately what led a six-woman jury in the resulting trial to acquit Zimmerman this past Saturday. 

Listening to Juror B37 explain her mindset in acquitting Zimmerman in the murder of an unarmed teen, and particularly what she had to say about the way "they" talk and the way "they" live in reference to Trayvon's friend Rachel Jeantel, whom she admitted feeling sorry for in her subsequent interview with Anderson Cooper, spoke clearly to me of a pre-judgment she didn't even realize she was admitting to. As did her converse empathy with George Zimmerman. 

The injustice meted in this case is even more depressing to me in light of recent history and the distant past. So many black men and women have been the victims of racist pre-judgment. 

But as Nelson Mandela turns 95 years old today, I am reminded that that which seems impossible to change can in fact become a thing of the past. The prejudices we all hold don’t have to outlive us. But things don’t change by themselves. We’ve all got a lot of work to do, from patient conversations with people who don't agree with us on this issue to opting not to cross the street.

Friday, June 14, 2013

On the Road Again

Hi! I'm going to be in DC, IL and MI over the next few weeks. If you're in the area and/or have peeps in the area, please spread the word!

Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe
2714 Georgia Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20001
Store: 202-234-4755
Cafe: 202-332-1084

SATURDAY JUNE 29, 2013 2-5PM
Azizi Books
258 Lincoln Mall Drive
Matteson, IL 60443


SATURDAY JULY 27, 2013 10-6PM
Chicago, IL

461 Monroe Street
Detroit, MI 48226

Main Library, Small Meeting Rom
Oak Park, IL 60301

Thursday, June 6, 2013

I'm on Africa Art Daily!

Check out my recent interview on the site Africa Art Daily! It's part of an expansion to online destination for what's cool on the continent called Africa Style Daily. Founded by Huffington Post Style Correspondent Zandile Blay, ASD now covers everything from music to tech to business to travel and much more under the Africa Daily Group banner -- style being the flagship.

Monday, May 27, 2013

You're Invited: Poems & Previews - Jimmy's No 43 (43 East 7th St), Thursday May 30th - 7pm

Join Minda Magero, Ayesha Harruna Attah & me for an evening of poetry and previews of new work.

The Writing Waiting Life

At a reading for Chimamanda Adichie's latest book Americanah
It's been almost a year since I made the decision to go full-throttle with my career as a writer and author   i.e. quit my full-time gig and figure out how to live off of my writing. I thought the move would be about cutting the corporate cord and living a life of freedom and writing, and to a large extent it has been -- but mostly this new life has been about waiting.

Waiting for checks to arrive. Waiting for word from editors, agents, clients, book store owners, educators, freelance staffing agencies... Waiting to get to a place where I'm not on the way, but have actually arrived, you know?

I knew writing required patience. I pitched agents for four years before I got one, and when Powder Necklace was sold some two months later to Simon and Schuster, I waited two years for the book to be released. As I wrote my second book, I waited throughout my sleep for morning to come so I could repeat my ritual of writing on the bus on the way in to Manhattan, then writing in the library till I had to log off and go to work.

But it wasn't until I left my day job that I had a "mirror moment" with the level of patience required. It turns out my job offered more than a steady check; it kept me sufficiently distracted from how much I need to write. It kept the stakes relatively low. Now, everything has changed.

This change is for the better, I know. But better is hard work. As is waiting. Thank God for the sign posts along the way, those moments, that indicate I am on my way.

This weekend, I attended an amazing brunch hosted for its contributors. Even though the voice of insecurity (and the multiple glasses of wine I'd drunk at a get-together with friends the night before) had me doubting whether I really belonged amidst the group of fiercely intelligent, purposeful, powerful women in the room; I reminded myself that all the years of pitching editors who would ignore my queries, all the free articles I wrote back in the day, the credits I slowly added to my byline had led to that moment of pause and celebration. Those moments bookend the work. And the waiting.

Totally unrelated (though it's all related, I believe), I attended a conversation Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had with her editor in promotion of her fourth book Americanah. It was so inspiring to see her mainly because I think she's a good model for how to be when you do "arrive". As she notes in the video, you remind yourself and others that you worked for it, you acknowledge the privilege, and then you get on with the work.

I share my thoughts on Chimamanda at the 11:20 mark.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pictures from Imagenation and Telem Center for the African Child Readings

Me, Imagenation founder Moikgantsi Kgama, & Ayesha Harruna Attah

Imagenation founder Moikgantsi Kgama, Ayesha Harruna Attah & me

Saturday April 6, 2013 marked the third anniversary of the release of Powder Necklace and I got to start the celebration a week early on Saturday March 30th in a joint discussion on African Writing with fellow author Ayesha Harruna Attah. Imagenation founder Moikgantsi Kgama moderated the conversation in her Rawspace Gallery with questions ranging from a tribute to China Achebe's work and impact, to how to define "African" writing with writers like me and Ayesha living and working in the Diaspora. Ayesha and I shared the mic at my first ever reading of my book and we have done several events together. I think we make a great team. 

Ayesha reading from her upcoming book

Ayesha reading from Harmattan Rain

The Imagenation event was a great gathering, made even more exciting because Pariah actress Adepero Oduye was in the house! (If you haven't seen the film, you should know that Oduye turned in an effortless performance that garnered the praise of none other than the grand thespian herself, Meryl Streep.) 
Reading at Telem's Fundraiser

Singer Azania, Telem board member Veralyn, me & Telem founder Diana
This past weekend, on the actual birthday of my book, I read at the Telem Center for the African Child's "Taste of Africa" fundraiser. It was an amazing event featuring Sierra Leonian, Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Haitian bites (among others!) as well as South African, Ethiopian, and Moroccan wines. Sierra Leonian soul singer Azania warmed the gathering with her live vocals. I left full of food and mirth.

The last three years have been an incredible journey. I look forward to many more years, and books under my belt.


Me, Diana & Telem board member Judy

You're Invited: Fiction Forum at the New School

Glen Finland
Deborah Henry
Join Glen Finland, Deborah Henry, and I in a Fiction Forum moderated by Jeffery Renard Allen:

TUESDAY APRIL 16, 2013 AT 6:30PM
$5 Admission (Free to New School students, faculty & alums)

Monday, April 1, 2013

In Celebration of National Poetry Month: An Ode to the Library

National Poetry Month - peoplewhowriteApril is National Poetry Month. Founded by the American Academy of Poets in 1996, the monthlong celebration presents multiple suggestions and opportunities for experiencing poetry including attending a reading, sharing your favorite poem on "Poem in Your Pocket" Day, and reading your own poetry at an open mic. In celebration, I've written a poem in honor of the library, one of my favorite places to write. Please share your favorite poems and poets in the comments section.

A Library is
By Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond

A library is
A choir
Of voices hallowed and profane
Whispering cheers and subversions
Preserving stories like griots
Like songs
Making sure you remember
So we never forget
Put your ear to the shelves
Not a spineless one

A library is
A federal reserve
Bullion bars of research and data
The keeper of theories proven and debunked
Hoarding relics and memories
Of the way we thought and think
The way we were
On rolling carts in musty stacks
On oak tag cards and rubber stamps
Broadband connections churning centuries of words and ideas

A library is
A shelter
The fallout from earnest and wicked shrugs about what to do with our homeless and mentally ill
See the line that stretches in the morning
Before the doors open
Men and women ragged from roaming the streets of their minds
Waiting for a warm, quiet place to be crazy
Where others go to be sane
From the craziness at home
And for the wi-fi

 A library is
A junction
Where race, class, and generations converge at the intersection of homework, research, and resume triage
A free after school program
A NICU for concepts and dreams that need more time to develop
A daycare for the over-qualified
A place to go and feel productive
While you wait for the call Because you will get the call

A library is
A luxury
Of a nation so rich
Not only the rich are entitled to a library
A necessity
Of a society committed to a future that builds on the wisdom of the past
A safe house for learning
A beacon
On a neighborhood block

Friday, March 22, 2013

Rest in Peace, Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People is one of my all-time favorite books. It's a slim novel set in what I assumed to be Nigeria, and it follows an idealistic teacher named Odili who begins as a staunchly incorruptible character right after the end of colonialism. Slowly, he concedes his moral high ground. It's an unflinching observation of human nature, and it is funny.

It is the first book I read about Africa that made me laugh. A Man of the People didn't make light of the corruption that helped derail the promise of many West African nations in the wake of the wave of Independence that started with Ghana in 1957; it looked it in the eye. In "Man", before the characters were African, they were human. This seems like an obvious observation, but, perhaps because I grew up hearing Ghana romanticized by my immigrant parents, the story resonated deeply with me -- more so than Achebe's best known novel Things Fall Apart.

But as a writer of African heritage, I know it is Things Fall Apart that is globally recognized as the benchmark for the African story. African writing is rarely mentioned apart from Chinua Achebe and this book. For many readers, "Things" is the first and only novel about Africa / by an African that they've read. It is taught in so many universities and high schools; and has been passed from my parents' generation to mine. I and my peers will likely share it with our own children. It is canon.

So when I heard Achebe died yesterday, I cried because the man who wrote "Man" and "Things" is gone; and because I felt the weight of a new responsibility to this writing craft. He has done his part and now he rests, leaving it to the next generation to pick up where he left off.

Friday, March 1, 2013

In Her Words: Emerging African Writers in the Diaspora

Ayesha Harruna Attah (she wrote Commonwealth Writers Prize Finalist Harmattan Rain) and I invite you to join us in discussing our experiences writing about Africa, while living in the Diaspora.

African Literature is global. It's African-American, Afro-Latino, Afro-European, Afro-Asian... as much as it is African. Like the "duckoonoo" and greens the Africans that made the Middle Passage found and reinvented in the Americas, Africa's literature has traveled with many of its authors; evolving into new narratives. But, can a literary work borne in the Diaspora claim authentic African identity? Are there specific characteristics that make literature African?

We'll be having the conversation at ImageNation's rawspace Gallery, an amazing venue located under the umbrella of the ImageNation Cinema Foundation. The Harlem-based media arts organizaton was founded by Moikgantsi Kgama "with the goal of establishing a chain of art-house cinemas dedicated to progressive media by and about people of color."

Saturday, MARCH 30, 2013 3-5PM
ImageNation rawspace Gallery
2031 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. (7th Avenue between 121st & 122nd)

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

African Wine, Food, Music & Words--You're Invited!

New York Friends, come celebrate the 3rd Birthday of my firstborn book with a "Taste of Africa". On  April 6, 2013, I'm going to be reading and signing books at an intimate gathering in the West Village complete with tasty eats and wine, and a performance by Sierra Leone's own Azania. Please say you'll come -- all ticket sales will benefit Telem Camp 2013.  You can buy a ticket ($25) here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My New Writing Life

Forgive the silence! I've been adjusting to my life as a full-time writer.

Back in June, I resigned from my day job to focus on figuring out how to "just write". It's been a grind and a half.

I imagined myself flying through my third book (which I've started!) with all this new time devoted to my craft. Instead, it's been a balancing act of pitching editors to write articles, selling my copywriting skills to ad agencies; then writing the work I've been blessed to get, and chasing the resulting checks.

When I add up the time I spend pitching, writing articles/copy, and check-hunting, I have just a little more than I used to to work on my personal projects. But even that sliver has been precious. I feel myself becoming more observant and in tune with my creative self/voice, and more attentive to what's happening beyond my life. I'm also taking more time to keep up with the business of the book industry and how it affects writers (see my blog People Who Write), taking classes, and connecting with others writers (I recently became active in my church's writers group).  

Again, it's a major hustle. I do not want to sugarcoat this new life of mine. But the fact that it has been possible to pay my bills has been exciting. It has completely changed the way I think about money, work, and my time. Now that I'm paid per hour, everything I choose to do with my time "counts." Alas, my time has become money. It's helped me to get better-ish at prioritizing, more aggressive about pitching, and a little more fearless about "putting myself out there".

In the meantime, I've had to have many talks with myself about money. I used to be so bad with money -- a huge spender. Then, I started saving to move out of my parents' house, and became a Suzie Orman disciple, a constant "Can I Afford This?" refrain in my head. That mindset helped me cut a lot of the frivolity out of my life, but as I've gone through this new round of cuts, if you will, I've learned to allow myself more indulgences, and appreciate them without chiding myself.

Above all, I've learned how much I love writing. I've always known this, but I feel a new respect for the gift and the craft. I'll try to be better about keeping you posted.