A Christmas meditation

I do not yet have a Christmas tradition. I have a faithful family, another family of faith, a good number of sweet, enduring, traditional friends who are vigilant about their colorful cards and eloquent letters, but I do not yet have a tradition. It is coming together.

Christmas is not traditionally my favorite time of year, but things are coming around. Three years ago, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed in an assisted living facility in Philadelphia and held her frail hand as cervical cancer eroded her once-heavy body, most of her hair, which she cherished, gone. I could not celebrate the life of any holy being while I watched the death of one, even if Mom had her demonic moments and even if I was on the receiving end of them. It feels, as I write this, and as I told friends without thinking about it, like that was only recently. It also feels like another lifetime ago.

Christmas past: I was probably 8 or 9 when I realized the thing about Santa Claus. (One never knows how old the readers are, I guess, so, no spoilers from me.) I knew because Mom brought her ungrateful daughter a fake Rainbow Brite doll. Her skirt was not a brilliant translucent material, but some dull, too-glittery cheap number. I knew because we were eating at the Salvation Army, except for that one time in 1994, when I won a writing contest and took the $500 I won to buy us winter coats and food to celebrate. I knew because the abundance around us did not reflect the barrenness of our lives. The closest thing to a tradition we had was crowding into the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Christmas Eve Mass after stopping for a moment to glance at the majestic tree outside of Rockefeller Center. It seemed to me as a kid that God had decorated this enormous thing. Sometimes, we saw our family, but for lack of money, our gift to them was carfare to and from where they were. When I became an adult, I worked Christmas for years in a row, trying to do something with my aimlessness, with a yearning that felt so large that it could engulf me in a kind of sadness I had no idea what to do with. My extended family, my friends, kept me warm with their invitations, their warmth, their understanding of their reclusive, wounded friend. It is a gift I am not sure I have done justice trying to repay.

Christmas present: For the first time in my adult life, I wake up in these long winter days with the light of the world glowing from a beautiful tree, talking to my best friend about reindeer (specifically, the monkey that she bought from Safeway that is dressed like a reindeer, which, tickles me more than I can ever say). I have been to hug my gigantic nephew and my beautiful niece and my incredible big sister and the love of her life, my big brother. I bought some stuff, perhaps not enough. Thank baby Jesus I have not been responsible for wrapping things because I have a genetic incapability in that regard. I have practiced the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah to sing at Mass tonight and tomorrow, to celebrate more light, and more joy. There are moments when I smell something delicious, when I hear “O Come All Ye Faithful,” when I try to keep from missing my mother and the tears fall. I have decided that I will limit my eye makeup until I can be sure I will not smear the stuff on my choir robe or alarm the revelers around me by letting the joy and sadness mingle. Being able to grieve does not always feel like a gift, but it means that I am still letting go. It means that my heart is still beating, it means in my memories of us, my mother is still with me. These are complicated gifts, but great gifts of the season nonetheless. They mean being able to gently consider what a gift it is to allow our lives to unfold with all of the darkness still in them, even while we keep hoping, praying and waiting for the light.

The futility of evidence

I grew up immersed in words that did not make much sense, but I was expected to decipher from the evidence of so many reams of paper, daily letters of love and instruction from my manic depressive mother, that someone in the universe cared for me enough to write such things, regardless of whether or not they made any sense.

I inherited this capacity for writing until I was weary but as I have gotten older, I have learned to rein it in. I keep my manic writing spells mostly confined to my journal, though sometimes it spills out here or on another blog. This time, the death of Tamir Rice sent me to the page. The naked injustice of a 12-year-old gunned down by an inept police officer because he was brandishing a BB gun poured salt in collective wounds, and one that I’ve nursed since I was old enough to remember.

There were some words that my mother crafted that stuck and that remain. My name, for example, is a word she made up. One of those machines that tells you what words mean defined it as something beautiful but the story behind it is dark.

I am named, partly, for my 12-year-old brother, Jose, who was killed by a city bus two years before I was born. I think I was born to replace him, but Mom is gone now and I will never know whether that is really true or not.

My mother, being the creative black woman she always was, reminded me so often that I was Jose’s namesake that I feel the responsibility to live up to his memory daily. It is an emotional quota, one that informs my seriousness and makes up the contours of most things I contemplate.

Anyway, I write this now because it explains how I have always carried the weight of the death of black children as the natural order of things. It isn’t normal for a girl or a woman to say goodbye while their brothers or sons are still living and to still fight for their lives and all of ours when they are murdered, but this is what it means to be a black woman in America. You accept that what you bring into the world is still treated as dispensable property or you weep openly as you fight that presumption, knowing that there is no way to make your tears proactive. Silence does not protect us, nor does wailing. We bring our worries to the altar, but in a war between God and man, man seems to win the battlefield.

There are many people who have written eloquently and with profundity about Ferguson, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. There will be many more writing about Eric Garner, about the epidemic of recklessness that leaves black boys and men dead. Everything in me has resisted joining this chorus because I know how futile words can feel when all you know you feel for certain is rage. I want to reserve the right to remain silent.

Out of respect. Out of duty.

But if we are to survive the daily onslaught of news reminding us that black life is not valuable enough to honor with fair legal processes, it is useful to remember that the whole of our history has brought us to this moment. We are reacting to each injustice, but also, the totality of them, the sum of every action that shows us the futility of evidence.

We can prove that we are human. We have evidence of our strength and stoicism by how numb we become at another outrageous example of how fear destroyed a life and chopped down an entire canopy of a family tree with one choke hold or several bullets or just a couple. What does evidence resurrect?

Everything about how I grew up was shaped, in part, by my mother’s reaction to my brother’s death. He was killed by a bus in Philly, and she received a financial settlement but she was forever changed as a woman. She squandered the money.  She unraveled emotionally and mentally and there was no community to help her stitch herself back together. She would outlive her boy for decades, physically, but most of who she was before he died went with him to the grave.

This is important for a few reasons, but mostly: Grief stole my mother from me, from my siblings, and altered the course of our lives. For the communities of black people around the slain, the impact can trickle through generations.

All of this builds in me a kind of sadness and rage that lashing out would not solve. But I’m a nerd, and any kind of lashing out usually ends up being subversive and sarcastic, an external-facing internal war. What I really mean to say is that I’m tired of mourning. That in the peaceful protests and the damaging riots, I understand the weariness and powerlessness that shows that there must be consequences for the belief that black lives are dispensable.

A few months ago, at a town hall meeting that featured the mothers of slain black boys and men, lined up in a row like seated pallbearers, I was struck by the fact there are so many black women who are at risk of unraveling in their grief. The embrace of their community, I hope, is one kind of comfort. It does not give their babies back to them, but at least they have those of us who witness, who know truth, and that is something. I hope that as we express our disappointments and our anger, our despair and our shared sense of powerless that we remember, too, how much the black women who survive these men need our attention, our sensitivity, our witness.

In some ways, these are all just more words. They are not evidence of anything but community, solidarity and love. Compassion. Impatience. Still, we live the mantra Black Lives Matter. Let us discover what our nation will become until it believes the truths we live.

Coming Soon — All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color

My life is now complete with the possibility that Junot Diaz actually may have possibly read my work to come up with this blurb. But even if not, I’m thrilled to have my short story, Sirens, included in this amazing anthology. (You can hear an excerpt at my friend Stacia’s great Bellow series link.)

Here’s more info about the collection, and the amazing company I get to be in:

All about Skin features twenty-seven stories by women writers of color whose short fiction has earned them a range of honors, including John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Flannery O’Connor Award, and inclusion in the Best American Short Stories and O. Henry anthologies. The prose in this multicultural anthology addresses such themes as racial prejudice, media portrayal of beauty, and family relationships and spans genres from the comic and the surreal to startling realism. It demonstrates the power and range of some of the most exciting women writing short fiction today.

The stories are by American writers Aracelis González Asendorf, Jacqueline Bishop, Glendaliz Camacho, Learkana Chong, Jennine Capó Crucet, Ramola D., Patricia Engel, Amina Gautier, Manjula Menon, ZZ Packer, Princess Joy L. Perry, Toni Margarita Plummer, Emily Raboteau, Ivelisse Rodriguez, Metta Sáma, Joshunda Sanders, Renee Simms, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Hope Wabuke, and Ashley Young; Nigerian writers Unoma Azuah and Chinelo Okparanta; and Chinese writer Xu Xi.

Zora Magazine: The Virtues of Lashing Out

I was angry with my parents for abandoning me, but I’ve always considered anger a luxury. It begins with how I look. I am chestnut colored with dreadlocks. I am almost six feet tall. I do not smile often or easily, which we know is considered a social problem of the highest order. I look like an Angry Black Woman.

You can read the rest at the link below. I’m looking forward to reading the work of my fellow authors for the Anger series.

http://zoramag.com/article/virtues-of-lashing-out/

My Writing Process: Forget what you hear about writing

Nicole D. Collier, one of my favorite members of my virtual writing tribe, asked me to participate in the blog tour. Since I love to read and write about writing (in lieu, sometimes, of actually writing) and I’ve noted that some other writers I admire and respect, including Tananarive Due, Tayari Jones and Daniel Jose Older have all participated, I thought I’d add my humble thoughts and impressions to the mix.

1) What are you working on?

I am working on a book about how racism and sexism have contributed to the demise of traditional journalism and how people of color (and organizations, websites and companies that recognize their value) are changing the media landscape in important but often unacknowledged ways. I have also written a memoir in progress (excerpts have appeared in Huizache, Gawker and TED, among other publications) and every now and then, the poetry that I love comes back. I have worked for years on a short story that turned into a novella about the daughter of a train conductor and the graffiti artist she loves in the Bronx that I know will be published in some form someday.
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

This is an interesting question and frankly, not one that I think too much about. I am willing to admit that not thinking much about it might work to my detriment. Because there are so few people of color who are published and promoted well for work that is for people of color, in that we are the main audience and about people of color that also includes class diversity and is concentrated on the African-American experience, my creative writing and poetry are different from others’ in the sense that I am tacitly aware of internal and external geographies, their impact on how and when and where we tell our stories and how those stories are positioned or excluded from mainstream and popular cultural narratives about people of color — specifically black women. I hope that my reverence, appreciation and empathy for the intersections of my experience are reflected in the work.

The same is true for nonfiction. The main difference in my nonfiction writing is that I am fully aware of the power of the truth, or a truth, to change a life because it is how I was shaped as a young reader who dreamed of being a writer. I love that saying that the creative adult is the child who survived — that is the internal location or spiritual location I write from.

It helps that I have a wealth of traditional newspaper reporting experience, which gives me the power of knowing how to completely own a deadline and the discipline of structure while also giving me the confidence that comes with having failed and made mistakes and learned that failure, or whatever is subjectively considered failure is not the end of the world. There is always something more to write. I think my nonfiction is different from others’ who write memoir, essays and other nonfiction in that I seek to offer information for others to investigate or parse through instead of as a definitive statement or argument.I try to be authoritative without being obstinate and lyrical without trying too hard. I also try not to be too hard on myself when I fail at either of those.
3) Why do you write what you do?

One of the things that brought me a lot of comfort and joy as a young woman and a budding writer was reading elegant, beautiful and clear work about people of color who are traditionally not given models of ourselves in literature that have these elements. I write about women, women of color, the poor and working class and other people of color so that I can be a part of creating the beauty in the world that is otherwise missing when it comes to these groups. Perhaps because of postracial and postfeminist rhetoric, to some people it seems to be redundant and outdated to state and restate how important it is to be committed to writing about black women, especially those who are the least visible in classical or predominantly white canons, but I know how significant it was for me to read Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, for instance, while I was self-parenting and supporting my mother in ways that were beyond my young years or to read bell hooks and Cornel West in seventh grade before I understood what they were even talking about in Breaking Bread. The same can be said of the multi-volume memoirs of Maya Angelou who showed me that while it took courage, confidence and grace to be a Renaissance woman (she was a tall black woman, too, like me — and Octavia Butler!) it was possible to overcome a lot of internal and external resistance to do so.
4) How does your writing process work?

I have multiple processes and I think all creatives do. I write all the time. I write on my phone. I write little notes in a notebook that I usually carry around with me. I prefer to write longhand, which is slower than typing, and to transcribe. I love to write longhand when something is particularly meaningful to me or requires the kind of granular detail that I need to retain. (The most recent example of one piece I did this with is this blog about leaving Austin.)

I don’t necessarily write everyday anymore but I used to, faithfully, for many years. I think you build writing time into your life in a way that is completely natural for you. Do it in a way that doesn’t make it feel like so much work. I actually love work and am addicted to work, so for me, working doesn’t carry a negative connotation in the same way that say, relaxation does (No pun intended, I am working on that. I realize that I ain’t like everybody that way.) But the main problem new and/or young writers seem to face related to process is that they associate writing with work. I say do whatever you need to do to get rid of that mentality and get out of your own way in whatever way you need to to go from being a person who has always wanted to write to being a writer…because writers write. I value my work and the luxury and privilege I have to do it so much that I approach the page as a way to share the gifts that were bestowed upon me and to honor the many different people I’ve known who wished that they had the luxury of sitting down at a page to write.

Writers write but they should also read. I read everything, which is a significant part of my writing process. I believe heartily in taking notes. For nonfiction, I take copious notes. Everywhere — in the book, in a separate notebook, on Post-Its.

I write at all hours, but my best writing gets done when I have the least distractions which is either early in the morning or in the middle of the night. I try mightily to get every last bit of doubt or concern about anything else out of my head while I’m writing a draft and then go back to it when I have some sense and some energy and I can revise. Revision is the heart of my work and the most enjoyable and the most irritating part of being a writer. I revise most things I write a half-dozen times — even blogs — before I am satisfied with word choice and structure and order. Outlines can be really helpful for big projects, but I am not wedded to them.

On June 9th, two of my favorite writers and favorite women are going to post on their blogs about their writing process. Both of these ladies are two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and their support has helped to keep me writing during some of my lowest points. I hope you’ll read and share their work widely.

Jo Scott-Coe is a fantastic nonfiction author, fellow tall woman and excellent teacher.

Juanita Mantz and I met at VONA in 2012 and her work has been published at xoJane and elsewhere.

 

 

Poem: For writers

Do not wait for validation

the language at war with currency.

Feast instead on self possession

& poems:

The stories of the ones before us,

The dreams of our descendants.

Narratives that remind our hearts how to soar.

 

No one is coming to proclaim your talent rough or refined.

You are your only true nemesis,

a house divided against its productivity.

 

Do not wait to write.

Not for love, nor money;

Not for attention nor glory.

 

Do it to heal &

because you are compulsive &

because the story claws at your attention &

because those words weigh down the gut,

& wring them from your core

until you can’t do anything but devour experience

or starve for want of stories

to give your language life.

 

Live deeply in moments that give to you

the broadest horizons

& make for yourself worlds that

delicately remind us

how powerful it is to reach beyond the limits we

dream for ourselves while we are yet

never sleeping.

 

Finally,

Forget this advice

& anyone else’s.

You are the best author of your destiny,

after all.

This, too,

is noise you’ve read

to keep from writing.

 

Genuflect only at the altar of creation.

 

Not a single thing

will ever match the importance of

your devotion.

4.29.14

 

An open letter to my mother

A couple of years ago, while I was in the Bay Area for VONA (which I highly recommend, as does Junot Diaz) I was deep in a draft of my memoir with the help of kind, excellent teachers. It was probably too soon after my mother’s death at the beginning of 2012. It was only May. Mary Johnson, author of the exquisite An Unquenchable Thirst, mentioned that it was brave to try to write about us so soon and I like trying to be brave. But there was something about the time that opened me up – there is something about grief that is special. It is always hard. It lingers. But it offers contemplation and shoring up if you let it. (I wrote about the deaths of my parents, especially my mom, for Gawker in 2013)  I was spring cleaning and found this letter.

 

Dear Mom:

In death, it turns out, there is so much meditation on life. When you know the contours of the end, what it smells like, the hollowness of the trivial, the meaning of a real friend, cleaning feces from fingernails and staring down the terror of the unknown, nothing else feels real or deep or confirmed.

I had to stop pretending I cared about facts when you made your quick transition. I used to think information and data were armor. Armed with facts, journalists and writers can get to feeling invincible and God-like. Omniscient. But all knowledge can feel futile in the face of a wounded soul. A broken spirit.

I have no gifts but being a witness to what life feels like, and that is subjective. It is reading the breeze. It is believing the voices in my head are you, ancestors and God. Maybe it means in my grief, I have become mad. My dreams are canvasses of picturesque beauty and upheaval.

When you were on the planet, living flesh, the story that propelled me was that we have parallel lives. That you had closed the door to a specific kind of joy but to be less like you — less mad, less unstable, less Maggie — I would open that door, stand at the threshold, investigate what it was you were rejecting. The intensity of joy and gratitude and not knowing and being still is an unwelcome bittersweet state. It is like living on another planet, or in another world, where time is not mapped in minutes but in how successful one is at navigating life events.

You taught me how to ignore the world and its milestones. How to follow my destiny. How to treat myself regally, no matter the attire or its cost or its worth. I thought you mad for so long for this disregard, considered you inept at life.

In your absence, I know better. Facts are not truth unless they can be felt. What we feel and what we create with what we feel lasts a lifetime. Everything else shifts, no matter our assessment of the shifts. We can be in our moments, owning them, or we can let life’s moments own us. I miss your lucid moments, maybe once a year, when I could drag your essence out of you for a little advice. I hear you, I feel you — it’s different, worse and better.

I feel you watching.

I will try to grow better and more vulnerable and so much stronger.

Stay there.

Love,

Your baby girl

 

Kirkus: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of our time. Even an abbreviated list of her publication credits is enough to make most writers sleepy: She edits for The Rumpus and PANK. She has edited a series of essays on Salon about feminists of color and written recently for The Nation about writers of color. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. She has published her essays everywhere from The New York Times Book Review to Necessary Fiction. Ayiti, a collection of her fiction, poetry and nonfiction, was published in 2011. This year, two of her new books will be published: An Untamed State in May and Bad Feminist later this year.

 

On top of all of this, she also keeps a lively and active Twitter timeline along with a very entertaining blog. One of the most frequent questions she gets from mere humans is: How is all of this output possible? “I wish I had an explanation for it. I live in the middle of nowhere and I’m an insomniac, I guess,” Gay says. Also: “I just make the time and I read and write really fast, so that makes a lot possible for me. I’m grateful for it.”

An Untamed State, her harrowing and beautiful debut novel, received a starred review for good reason. It centers on Mireille Duval Jameson, who is undone by graphic, unspeakable torture at the hands of a greedy man who is only referred to as The Commander. Her father has the power to pay her ransom, but he waits instead, sending Mireille’s husband, Michael, into a seething despair that is matched in intensity only by The Commander’s cruelty.

For better or worse we live in an era that favors trigger warnings. Gay has written about them as unhelpful barriers to healing in an essay included in Bad Feminist, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion.” She writes: “There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath, but I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I don’t believe people can be protected from their histories. I don’t believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others.” This explains why there isn’t one at the outset of An Untamed State, though early reviews have suggested that that might be helpful for survivors of sexual assault like Gay.

You can read the rest here.

Kirkus: Pearl Cleage

While fiction writers often investigate and proclaim truths in imaginary realms, African-American women writers are noticeably rare when it comes to nonfiction confessional writing in the vein of Joan Didion or Nora Ephron. In Cleage’s peer group, the only other black woman writer with plans to publish her journals is Alice Walker, whose selection of diary entries and new essays, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, is scheduled for publication in 2017.

Cleage says virulent attacks like the ones Walker and Ntozake Shange endured primarily from black men in the 1970s and ’80s for producing The Color Purple and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Was Enuf served to silence other black women writers. “We can’t air dirty laundry or talk bad about black men because that’s dangerous,” Cleage says. “It seems more important for me to ask, ‘Why is it we can’t talk about this?’ If it makes people angry, they have to deal with that.”

From our interview about her new book, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter. Read more here: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/pearl-cleage/