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afterearthOn Friday I learned that the editor who agreed to acquire The Deep has since left the imprint. Another editor is willing to take a look at the manuscript, but the acquisitions board has decided to pass on my book. On Saturday I went to see After Earth (spoilers ahead); the reviews haven’t been good, but I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since the previews started last year. I’m not a huge fan of Will Smith (he’s talented but overexposed, in my opinion) and I didn’t enjoy his last collaboration with son Jaden, but After Earth intrigued me. I didn’t know M. Night Shyamalan was the director, nor did I realize that Will Smith came up with the story himself. I knew it took place long after humans had abandoned Earth but I didn’t know there was an alien menace…basically I decided to see the film because I’ve never seen a black family in space on film. Yes, there’s Uhura from Star Trek but I was never a Trekkie and I didn’t care for the recent film prequel—now that I think about it, I’m not sure I can even name any black women who got to be in space in something imagesCA8FZJ3Bother than a miniskirt. Can you? The women in After Earth (Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz) were mostly treated like eye candy, which was annoying, and the film was a bit slow and poorly written. But it was fairly original—at least it felt “new” to me because I haven’t seen a teenage black boy in a space suit fighting aliens. As Kitai, son of a gifted and revered military commander who’s injured in a crash, Jaden Smith gets to be on screen alone and much of the time he’s frightened, making mistakes, and desperate for the help his father can’t provide. We even see him cry, which is important since black boys aren’t often seen as vulnerable in our society. All boys face penalties for showing weakness, and so I liked that Kitai wasn’t stoic like his father and in the end rejects a military life despite learning he is actually stronger than he thought.

As I watched the film, I thought about my books and the kind of intervention I’m trying to make in the field of sci-fi/fantasy. My writing is rooted, in part, in an understanding of the history of misrepresentation of black people, yet when white editors/readers/reviewers engage with my work, they don’t always “get it.” And that’s ok, in a way, because I’m not writing for them. I wonder how the Smith family feels about After Earth and the reviews it has received so far. I understand why Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith founded their own production company, and while I don’t like silver platters, I appreciate their decision to develop projects for their kids to star in. If they waited on Hollywood, Jaden and Willow would be nothing more than sidekicks to white actors who may or may not have as much talent. I hope kids of color go see this film; it’s solid family fare, and who knows how long we’ll have to wait for another film that lets a slender black boy be the hero…

PS Jada, please do for black girls what Will’s doing for black boys.

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imagesSomebody keeps moving the goal line post. And that somebody, of course, is me. I’ve written 3,000 words this weekend and figure if I continue to write a thousand words a day, I will finish The Deep before this month ends (exceeding my self-imposed 40K-word limit). I’ve worked the ending out in my mind but getting there isn’t as easy as it seems—or as quick. I’ve got Nevis on the brain, possibly because I met with my faculty writing mentor last week and I know I am *supposed* to be working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue this semester. Then my mother sent me an email and asked when the sequel to A Wish After Midnight will be ready—her friends are eager to read more about Genna and Judah. Then yesterday, while waiting for the train, I started sarahforbesbonettathinking about my niece and how she hasn’t yet read The Secret Garden. I have an illustrated copy and wondered if I should send it to her, but then I wished I could send her a book that could serve as a mirror for her pretty brown self. Could I adapt the story and set it in the Caribbean? Or what if I combined my interest in Sarah Bonetta Forbes with my love of magic and gardens? A little girl is brought from Africa to England and is placed at an estate where she discovers a secret and makes new friends…This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a project—my anxiety kicks up and I start looking ahead instead of rooting myself in the moment. Yesterday I came home from grocery shopping and found a sequel to The Secret Garden was on TV. I started to watch it and then switched to the 1949 black and white version of the original, which is on YouTube. Then I watched a three-hour special on gun violence in schools, imageswhich included an interview with a teary Arne Duncan. Then the news. Then Death in Paradise, this problematic British crime show set in the Caribbean. Then my favorite Irish film Once. The amazing thing is that all this television consumption doesn’t stop me from writing. In a way, the background noise helps me to focus on the novel. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. My students turn in their papers on Monday so then I’ll have to switch gears again and get my grading done. And, of course, our diversity panel at the NYPL is this coming Saturday. “There’s enough time.” That’s my new mantra. I’m having lunch with a group of friends today and part of me wants to bail. I need time to write! But I also need to get out of my head for a while—and I need to get these cupcakes out of my apartment. This is day twelve without cake…only 28 days to go!

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For me, being alone is a luxury. Being in London for Xmas was wonderful, but the real indulgence was the days I spent indoors, seated next to the window with my laptop warming my legs. If the curtains were open there was a draft, so I sometimes shut the drapes, turned on the lights to fight the winter gloom, and delved into The Deep. I watched a lot of TV while I was over there, though I managed not to get sucked into watching Lord of the Rings again. Instead I watched back to back episodes of (US) Law & Order, and three or four episodes of Time Team. A writer is a kind of digger and so it’s no surprise that I should be fascinated by archaeology. I’ve got a London novel u_48284861_-29 - Copybrewing in my mind. Ever since I found out about Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Walter Dean Myers’ nonfiction book about her, I’ve been interested in fictionalizing her story. My original idea was to focus on the mulatta sugar heiresses who came to London from the Caribbean hoping some desperate second son would overlook race in favor of wealth. Then I learned there was a large black population in Wales and that intrigued me. Now I feel like anything’s possible since black people have lived in England for hundreds if not thousands of years. For now I’m focusing on Nyla and her initiation into the league of “pressers.” I wrote for hours on Xmas, reaching 10K words, and then did some structural work on Boxing Day. The next day I cleared out of the flat and met my friend Mary for a full English breakfast. I’m so grateful to have friends who love literature as much as I do, and Mary’s a scholar of African American women’s fiction so we talked for hours about black authors and their books. On the flight home I thought about our conversation and the way motherhood impacts a woman’s ability to make art. I’ve blogged before about the film Who Does She Think She Is; mothers are unbelievable multi-taskers and parenting doesn’t preclude making art. But it changes things. I watched Miss Potter while I was away imagesand couldn’t help but frown at the way wealth enabled Beatrix Potter to develop her charming characters and highly profitable book series. She was encouraged to sketch and paint as the child of wealthy parents, she was taken on annual holidays that nourished her imagination, and then she had the choice of accepting an aristocratic suitor or remaining unmarried in her parents’ home. She had the time and means to produce art—something a working class woman wouldn’t have had. I love Peter Rabbit and I know it wasn’t easy for even a wealthy white woman to become a published author at the turn of the 20th century. But most women in the world can’t afford the luxury of a room of one’s own—never mind a home full of servants who silently cook your food and wash your clothes. Mary and I discussed my future as an author and she encouraged me to stay in the academy. I became debt-free this year and plan to work hard at staying debt-free for as long as possible. But as someone who doesn’t write commercial fiction and struggles to place each manuscript, the academy is a decent home. What other job would give me five weeks to write over the holidays? This past semester nearly broke me but I’m developing a new course for the spring and hope that finishing The Deep will lift my spirits. I’m working on my end of year slideshow and was surprised to see how productive 2012 was—I fell short of some goals but achieved others and have a long To Do list ready for 2013. Jayne Cortez passed away yesterday and the death of a great woman artist always reminds me to press on. Tomorrow isn’t promised so produce TODAY…

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We’re five weeks into the semester and I’ve already caught my first cold. Stress weakens your immune system, so I suspect that the confrontation I had with two students last week probably contributed to my health breakdown. Or rather, not the incident itself but the fact that I dwelt on it for days afterward. Someone just posted this article on Facebook: “Why I Quit Teaching.” That struck a chord with me. This is the most challenging semester I can remember, and even though the vast majority of my students are following the rules and making progress, I still have a couple who are raising hell. And somehow that makes me want to leave the classroom, which is irrational. On Saturday night To Sir, With Love was on PBS—Sidney Poitier always reminds me of my father: the pencil tie, the fitted suit, the handsome smile. My father taught for more than 30 years, and he taught special ed students here in NYC. He fussed about his students (like I do) but loved them (like I do) and definitely saw himself as a father figure (I certainly don’t). In the film, the students give “Sir” a hard time until he cracks the code and figures out how to connect with them despite the difference in race, class, and culture. He finally gets the dream job offer he’s been waiting for, but then realizes that teaching is his true calling and so tears up the letter. Hollywood still makes those kind of films but the reality is that teachers aren’t meant to SAVE students—we’re there to SERVE students because that’s what professionals do:

A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve.

But what do you do with the ones who don’t want to be served? Or think of you as a servant to be given orders? And of course this is about gender because female students never challenge my authority the way some male students do. And perhaps this is a “hypercritical woman thing” where I expect perfection of myself and so continue to focus on the ones who aren’t really trying to grow or learn. I applied for a fellowship today that would give me one full year without teaching. That prospect used to scare me, but these days…it’s looking pretty good! If that acceptance letter comes in the mail some day, I will definitely NOT tear it up.

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On Thursday I ordered my new bookcase from Gothic Cabinet and then went to the new visitor center at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my cousin and purchased this little pin…we then went next door to the Brooklyn Museum and saw the Question Bridge exhibit—I will definitely be going back to watch more of this expertly integrated video installation (you can watch excerpts on the website *and* there’s an educator guide). Black men ask and answer questions of themselves and one another, and though their answers are interesting, it’s almost more fascinating to simply watch them processing and articulating their values and beliefs…and they’re beautiful! I joked with my cousin that they need to put names and numbers in captions, but really it’s quite moving just to hear so many thoughtful black men reflecting on issues that matter. I wish I heard those voices more often…it’s somewhat sad that it takes technology and a degree of manipulation to create/simulate this kind of dialogue among men. Still, it’s very creative…I’ll be teaching two sections of The Black Male this fall, and will definitely use this in the classroom.

On Friday morning I went up to East Harlem to join the party—my Behind the Book students at JHS 13 were celebrating the publication of their full-color short story anthology, Remembering Our Loved Ones. These are stories they wrote after completing my “Postcards from Far Away” workshop. It was really gratifying to listen as each student went to the front of the classroom and read part or all of her/his story, which was a tribute to someone s/he loved and lost. At the end I asked the students to autograph my copy of their book…I felt really lucky to be able to share that moment with them. Chris from Behind the Book then gave me a packet of letters written by a group of 6th graders I’d worked with at Thurgood Marshall Academy. Their teacher already sent me a moving email, but there’s nothing like hearing from the kids themselves:

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Up before dawn on the first day of spring break, hoping this headache doesn’t bloom into a migraine. Lots to watch online (episode one of Great Expectations at PBS.org) and Amy Bodden Bowllan has posted Part 1 and Part 2 of our conversation about race and representation in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin. I use this poem by Sharon Flake in my poetry workshops, but think I’ll include the cover image from now on…

I showed Pratibha Parmar’s brilliant film, A Place of Rage, in my classes yesterday. As always, the students were deeply moved and impressed by the profound statements made by Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and June Jordan. Pratibha posted this important Ms. Magazine blog article on Facebook this morning:From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: How Black Women Turn Grief Into Action.” And the students are writing on Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” It’s not enough to mourn. You have to channel the pain that is the core of rage into something constructive that can help others in addition to yourself…

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I watched I Will Follow this weekend—it’s a gentle, quiet film by Ava DuVernay. It was a bit slow and could’ve used tighter editing, but it was also a refreshing view of black women and their rich yet complicated relationships—something we rarely see on the big screen. No T&A, no cursing, no black men mocking or abusing black women…there’s laughter, tenderness, emotional honesty. It’s on DVD so check it out:

We spend a lot of time critiquing negative portrayals of black women in Hollywood but we don’t do as much as we can to support those filmmakers who are trying to set the record straight. In a few weeks I’ll be showing my students A Place of Rage, a hugely important film by Pratibha Parmar. She’s currently making a film about Alice Walker, Beauty in Truth, and YOU can help bring this film to the big screen. Go to IndieGoGo to support this progressive feminist filmmaker.

Nathalie also has information about another woman filmmaker who needs your help; if you saw Pumzi, you know just how good Wanuri Kahiu is—help bring her latest project to life.

Lastly, I got confirmation late last week that Ship of Souls, my next novel, will be published in March 2012. If you’re a book blogger or reviewer, or if you work for a literacy org and would like an advance copy, please let me know.

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