Archive for Books

National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 3, 2009 by thebibliophile

Author Carleen Brice. Photo credit: Gail Gudder

Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey, has launched a blog celebrating December as “Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black” month. Her blog, White Readers, Meet Black Authors, is designed as (a somewhat tongue in cheek) introduction of white readers to Black authors. You can hear Brice on Tavis Smiley, discussing her grassroots efforts, here

Brice, citing an online conversation post-election about whether white readers could be persuaded to read Black authors, and a viral letter to Oprah encouraging the mogul who fiercely celebrates reading, to incorporate and promote literature written by a more diverse spectrum of Black authors – not those just widely known (and accepted) by the literary canon like Toni Morrison, Stephen Carter, and Alice Walker, but also those writing experimental, accessible, or different kinds of stories. Authors like Brice herself, who received strong praise for her novel Orange Mint and Honey, Erica Simone Turnipseed who wrote A Love Noire and its follow up Hunger, Bernice L. McFadden author of Sugar, or Martha Southgate author of two critically acclaimed books for adults, The Fall of Rome and Third Girl from the Left. In her list of “Top 10 reasons white readers should read Black authors,” Brice balances a good deal of humor, while making some serious points, saying:  

6.You already like our music, dances, food, fashion and films.
5. Didn’t you resolve to try new things this year?
4. In October, Nikki Giovanni told me this was the best book of 2008 (so far).
3. Paraphrasing President-Elect Obama, we’re not black states of fiction and white states of fiction. We’re the United States of fiction.
2. We read your books.     

Underlying the humor is a reasonable question: why is it that Black readers are expected to read white authors, but white readers are seldom required to, or have rarely read or expect to read, Black authors?  Hidden behind this question is an assumption that what Black authors write, is not as good as what white authors produce, or that loving African-American or African diasporic literature means that somehow one isn’t “well read,” or the assumption is made that the only books you’re reading, must be under the now ubiquitous “urban lit,” publishing category.    

Supposedly, in this post-racial climate, all doors have been flung open, and race is no longer an indicator of access or success. But the publishing field is nothing if not a business, and right now, that business is enamoured with so-called “urban lit,” often rapidly produced literature that purports to portray Black urban street life. With its accessible language, urban dialect, focus on sex and the drug game, this novels at first experienced a grassroots level popularity. Then, by all accounts, the publishing industry took notice, and the rest was history. Now you can find such gems as Purple Panties and Pit Bulls in Skirts, in the same shelf as authors like Brice, Colson Whitehead, or even (gasp) Morrison.    

I’m of two minds about urban literature. One, it needs to be clearly understood that more now than ever “urban lit,” is controlled by the publishing houses – and it’s being used to lock in African American readers, so that publishers don’t necessarily have to venture out for talent or support current Black authors. Far easier to make money hand over fist. On the other hand, the revulsion of many in Black literary circles to “urban lit,” I think is sometimes informed by issues of class and appropriateness.  To be sure, I think the concerns and critique about urban literature are real and accurate. Urban lit glorifies violence, drugs, and hypersexualization of the Black community.    

Yet, I also think we have to find a way to talk about what makes this genre appealing , in a way that doesn’t demonize those who read and enjoy reading urban lit; in a way that seeks to understand the draw of the novels, while proactively trying to shift the focus away from the genre and onto novels that offer better writing, fuller story lines, more developed characters – and not just a longer version of a BET video.  I think we also have to be honest about whether or not readers are honestly seeing a reflection of themselves in these novels, and the very real impediment of literacy as informing what readers (who may genuinely love to read, but may be limited by their literacy) select to read.    

That’s why I love Carleen Brice’s grassroots effort. She’s actively working to promote Black authors, books by Black authors, and I think encouraging Black folks to continue our grand tradition of story telling.    

It reminds me of a great quote from Toni Morrison who said,    

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”    

An early edition of Octavia E. Butler's book Dawn.

 Both Brice and Morrison are challenging us, and specifically the publishing industry, on what is considered and labeled “universal.” Morrison hits the nail on the head when she points out that there is a “suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing.” Morrison is even bolder in her assertion of Black humanity and the right to story telling, when she says that from her “perspective there are only black people,” here she subverts and ultimately inverts the entire idea of universality, by centering black people as the sole protagonists of her literary universe – and unapologetically so. Black people are the people that concern Morrison.   

Erica Kennedy's book, Feminista

 The struggle by Black authors for attention and parity in the publishing field is not new. Science fiction great Octavia E.  Butler’s novels were often produced with white characters on the cover, even though the protagonists were predominantly of color (Black, Latino, Asian, multiracial), as a way to attract white readers – in a genre dominated nearly to exhaustive proportions by white male writers. Recently, while reading a review of Erica Kennedy’s book, Feminista, which has received strong early reviews, I recognized an unsettling trend on her book cover: though the book features Black protagonists, the cover features white-skinned people (literally, the color white) – erasing any sense of racial identification, perhaps in an attempt to broaden the “selling power” of the novel.  So! Get to your nearest computer, bookstore, or Kindle and find a book to give by a Black author. Do a search on a site like www.goodreads.com or check out Amazon. Below is a suggested list of titles  – classics and new books, to check out:    

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Intuitionist or Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead
  • Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, by Toi Derricotte
  • The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton – for Y/A readers
  • A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
  • Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice
  • Incognegro by Mat Johnson – a graphic novel
  • Bayou, by Jeremy Love – a graphic novel
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke
  • Advertisements

    Oh yes, the National Book Award

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 19, 2009 by thebibliophile

    Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

     Colum McCann was awarded the National Book Award for his fifth novel “Let the Great World Spin.” The book chronicles the impact on the lives of several New Yorkers who witness the daring tightrope walk of a man balanced between the Twin Towers in 1970s New York.
     
    Author Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward JusticePhillip Hoose was awarded in the Young people’s Literature category for his book, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” a biography of the life of Claudette Colvin who refused to give her seat up to a white man 9 months before Rosa Parks’ refusal, but whose story has been largely hidden, because she was deemed an “unacceptable” womyn to represent the boycott. She was deemed “inappropriate” for a test case because she was a teenager and because she was pregnant by the time her case went to trial.
     
    Colvin herself believes that her skin color, as compared to Rosa Parks, her class, and age also played a role in her erasure from history. 
     
    The NY Times article that announced the award winner’s after last night’s ceremony at Cipriani in New York noted that National Book Award winners receive far less attention than Pulitzer-prize winner or Man-Booker Prize winners. As a huge fan of Man-Booker Prize winning books, this rang true for me. I wait each year for both the short and long list of the Bookers and then eagerly add each to my reading list. But the National Book Award holds no similar pull for me. I am not sure why.
     
    I think it may have to do with the marketing – both of the National Book Award, but also of the publishers who are nominated, not doing enough. For my part, I stumbled onto Man Booker prize winners, reading over the course of a year, several books I truly loved, only to discover they were either on the long or short list of Bookers. No such discovery, or literary stumbling has happened for me for the National Book Award.
     
    I think the Times asks a good question though. It makes me want to explore more National Book Award winners.

    Fall – Winter Reading List

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 11, 2009 by thebibliophile

    Here’s a list of books I’m excited to read this fall and winter:

    Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

     The New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson

     
    The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
     
     
    The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
     
    image of the book cover The Line of Beauty

    Nalo Hopkinson

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 10, 2009 by thebibliophile
    The Salt Roads

    The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson

     Fantastic science fiction writer, Nalo Hopkinson, author of several books in the science fiction genre that center people of color, posted a great essay to her blog, entitled “Looking for Clues”  addressing the oft posed question: Why do you write science fiction? In her blog essay, Hopkinson tackles representation, the power of envisioning the future, and the importance of being seen and imagined into the future.  She begins her essay, originally a speech she gave at Wiscon, by saying,

    “There’s a thing that often happens at some point when I’m being interviewed about my writing. The interviewer, whatever part of the world or whatever       subculture they come from, will put on a curious look and say, “And why do you write science fiction?” the implication being, “Why are you, a black woman from the Caribbean, interested in a literature that still is largely by and about white people, largely men, using technology largely made by the dominant cultures, to turn the world and the people in it to their desires?””

    Hopkinson is a talented writer, creating powerful worlds where gender, sexuality, oppression, racism, and issues of power are not avoided but directly confronted, challenged, or reimagined. I’m (embarrassingly) new to Hopkinson’s work, but when I discovered her this summer through her book The Salt Roads, I felt much like I felt when I first stumbled upon Octavia Butler: as if I had been presented with a very special gift, selected specially for me.

    What I appreciate about Hopkinson’s essay is that her voice comes clearly through – and that she uses that voice, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, “in the service of her vision,” to directly address the lack of diversity, diverse stories, and the erasure of people of color in science fiction. She fully embraces the genre, while also pointing out the dangerous cracks in its foundation – namely the racism and sexism that are ground into the genre. Hopkinson shares a startling anecdote about a science fiction story she read as a child:

    There was a book I read when I was little; it was a story in which a group of children had to endure a number of dangers and travails. At the end, they reached a fantasy land where they would live happily ever after and they were each rewarded with their heart’s desire. The white children asked for horses, castles, jewels; in other words, property, title and money. And what words did the writer put in the mouth of the one black child to make the journey safely? He asked for a small everbearing watermelon patch and all the watermelon he could eat. And he got it. He spent the eternity of Paradise lying outdoors in a watermelon patch with a huge smile on his face, devouring slice after slice of watermelon the size of his head. The writer intimated that this was quaint and charming and oh so culturally specific and appropriate. My child’s brain understood it as the best to which I would be able to aspire.

    Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of SandWhat an analysis! I am particularly struck by Hopkinson’s incisive observation that,”The white children asked for horses, castles, jewels; in other words, property, title and money.” This captures, to me, the early indoctrination about what one as a child, can or should possess, and how that is conveyed and messaged using every available resource – even our literacy and imagination. We’re always told that reading makes us better – we can broader insights, and certainly, I would never truly disagree with this central principle as a reader. Yet, I also hold that it’s true that depending on who the author is, reading may also narrow what we can even begin to imagine for ourselves. Hopkinson throughout her essay, repeatedly quotes Samuel R. Delany, the Black gay science fiction writer who points out that, “we need visions of the future, and our people need them more than most.” 

    I’d argue that Black diasporic cultures are deeply familiar with the science fiction genre because of our history of syncretism, as a result of colonialization and slavery, and the importance of storytelling in many Black diasporic cultures. Both Delany and Hopkinson are right. And I hear echoes of James Baldwin in both of their sentiments. Folks of color must imagine and vision ourselves in the future, and in some cases, in a very different (and healthier) future than the present we currently inhabit. Hopkinson challenges the idea that having characters in science fiction who are solely white really represents an effectively imagined future, saying,

    My friend Ian Hagemann, a regular at Wiscon, once said on a panel that when he reads science fiction futures that are full of white people and no one else, he wonders when the race war happened that wiped out the majority of the human race, and why the writer hasn’t mentioned such an important plot point.

    Perhaps the science fiction futures where there are only white people represent a fantasy of sorts for a world without people of color – and that too is deeply disturbing, but makes it all the more important to have diverse representation within the genre. Hopkinson’s essay is a must read – not only for those who are fans of science fiction, but also for authors of color and readers thinking critically about representation. Thank you Ms. Hopkinson!

    I’d love to hear Hopkinson’s thoughts on Zane and the explosively popular “urban fiction” genre.

    Over at The Root recently published a piece titled, “The Root Rewrites the Western Canon,” in which staffers suggest 25 books that could replace/be considered part of the Western Canon of literature. I appreciate the list as it names some authors and titles that may not be well known, though it also neglects some key figures and gems, including Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Octavia Butler, George C. Wolfe, James McBride, Patricia Hill Collins, and Ann Petry – who in my humble opinion is consistently overlooked, though she was a mighty talent who’s naturalism rivaled (and outdid Wright).

    What do you think? What books would make your rewrite of the Western canon?

    Beautiful Place to Keep Your Books

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags on September 30, 2009 by thebibliophile

     

     

    Real%20Gabinete%20Portugues%20De%20Leitura%20Rio%20De%20Janeiro%203.jpg

    Real Gabinete Portugues De Leitura Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

    Libraries, who needs ’em?

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags on September 25, 2009 by thebibliophile

    An imagined rendering at the library at Alexandria

    I’m so confused – how can a university not have a vibrant library culture? Could Alexandria been a center of learning without the care given to the library? I thought that a university, in large part, was the care of the knowledge it is steward of, protects, collects, and ultimately shares.

    But according to Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs in the University of California System, in a recent Inside Higher Ed article,” The university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas.”

    Ok. We’re moving to new models of gathering, storing, and sharing information. Except, well, how does learning happen in a community then? Greenstein goes on to say,

    “There are national discussions about how and to what extent we can begin to collaborate institutionally to share the cost of storing and managing books. That trend should keeping continuing as capital funding is scarce, as space constraints are severe, especially on urban campuses — and, frankly, as funding needs to flow into other aspects of the academic program.”

    The article goes on to explain that under this system,

     “individual university libraries would no longer have to curate their own archives in order to ensure the long-term viability of old texts, Greenstein said. “What is the proportion of a library budget that is just consumed by the care and cleaning of books?” he said. “It’s not a small number.”

    If the university is no longer curating its own archives, then what precisely is its purpose? Why wouldn’t a university curate its collection – isn’t that a core piece to the university? To house knowledge – you know, the stuff we get in books and the internet and stuff.  Why does Greenstein speak with such disdain of the “care and cleaning of books?”

    Because books are less necessary than before, and we have other mediums, does that mean that we should dismiss them. What role does the library play in developing a space for an intellectual citizenry?

    Reminds me of Mark Slouka‘s September article in Harper’s Magazine “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.”  The language used by Greenstein, seems to echo what Slouka suggests about the value of certain disciplines – and whether those disciplines can be commodified. Slouka also discusses the insertion of business and consumption language (ROI -return on investment, outsources, decentralized, cost sharing, management of books) into education and what that means to how we value and think about learning – especially when it comes to the humanities.

    I actually see the role of libraries and librarians increasing in importance and usefulness, because librarians are trained to dissect, catalogue and understand what information is most useful. In an information age, librarians and trained researchers become scholars in and of themselves, and offer an invaluable service.

    Edwidge Wins!

    Posted in Uncategorized with tags on September 23, 2009 by thebibliophile

    Author Edwidge Danticat won the McArthur Genius award! The award grants the recipient $500,000 – with no strings attached.  Danticat, a graduate of Brown University’s MFA program, is known for her elegant, poetic to the point of tears writing, and her commitment to capturing the lives and history of Haitians and Hatian-Americans. If you’ve never read anything written by Danticat, I highly recommend her work – particularly The Farming of the Bones, which is powerful and heart breaking. It is also a good book to read in tandem with Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies.

    I am so happy, proud, and excited for Ms. Danticat. It is so wonderful to have her extraordinary talent recognized and rewarded. Danticat was on Michel Martin’s show “Tell Me More,” today talking about the award which such humility and grace. Check it out here. Her reading of her most recent book, Brother, I’m Dying, a memoir of life’s intersections, is a powerful experience and reminder about humans, the human condition, and how perceptions of difference are used to wound or are destructive.

    And if you missed it, check out Michel Martin, getting us all straight about race. Her “Can I Just Tell You?” segment on Monday, was all types of on point.

    Mark Bradford

    Mixed Media Artist Mark Bradford

    Other winners of the McArthur Genius award include Mark Bradford, a visual artist “whose signature work takes the form of massively scaled, abstract collages that he assembles out of signage and other materials collected, most frequently, from his own neighborhood in south-central Los Angeles.” Learn more about all of the awardees here.