Archive for the ‘African American Literature’ Category

The only good thing about having a summer cold during a heat wave is that it keeps me at home, which is where I get most of my writing done. Last week I was out and about every single day, but since waking with a sore throat on Monday, I’ve pretty much been out of commission. I had one day of fun on Thursday, but I’ve been housebound otherwise and that’s led to increased productivity: last week I wrote 4500 words and so far this week I’ve written 6000 words. I’m hopeful that between naps and coughing fits, I’ll be able to write at least 1500 words today and tomorrow. That would put this first draft of Judah’s Tale at 85K words. I am determined to NOT go over 90K. On Friday I got an offer for The Deep. I’m not sure how/if that’s going to work out, but I’ll keep you posted. Right now I want to get my voice back so I can read at tomorrow’s festival and plead my case for greater diversity when I meet with my publisher on Tuesday…

If you’re in Brooklyn, stop by St. Francis College tomorrow afternoon for the WORD Caribbean Book Festival. My reading & panel starts at 5:30. I’ve been listed as a Nevisian author so the first thing I’ll have to do is break that down…


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IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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imagesThe park was beautiful this morning but I’m paying for it now–the tissue box is nearly empty and my nose is sore from constant blowing. I’ve decided not to venture back out, which means today is the day I *finally* sit down and start working on my latest round of revisions. For the past month I’ve been working on three academic articles, all of which are to be published this year. One essay (on Richard Wright) was actually written while I was in graduate school in the late ’90s! I worked it into my dissertation and then recycled it again when they held the centenary conference on Wright in 2008. And now, in 2013, the essay is going to be included in an anthology on the brilliant but problematic (for me) African American author. Revising something you wrote more than ten years ago is hard, and converting a conference paper often means taking out all the conversational bits that personalized your point of view. Preparing these essays for publication reminds me why I don’t like academic writing, yet in my profession it’s a necessary evil so I’ve refrained from reminding my editors that “the personal is political.” The other two essays are on children’s literature, which also feels odd since that’s not my area of expertise, but once they’re published I will close that chapter and return to critiquing adult lit. I’m waiting on a contract for The Deep and another offer may be on the way…or not. So instead of ruminating on the possibilities I’m trying to remember what my agenda was when I first wrote these essays. I know I had a different voice in the ’90s, but was I a different person last summer? I don’t think so, but I was writing under duress after accepting a last minute invitation to contribute to a different anthology. Those editors wanted me to act like I wasn’t the author of my own books so I withdrew the essay and now have a chance to expand it for a Canadian journal. That also makes me a little uneasy, considering the cool reception I’ve received as an author in the Great White North. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Back to work…

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Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:

DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?

ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.

On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.


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imagesBitch Magazine is running a new discussion series on their blog: “Do Girls of Color Survive Dystopia?” Asian mama Victoria Law worries that her daughter—a voracious reader with a penchant for speculative fiction—won’t see herself in the books she loves. In the comments section I left a link to our African American spec fic list of novels, and Stacy Whitman posted her list too. An anonymous teen left this comment at the end:

I’m a teenager and your daughter might like Legend by Marie Lu, which has an Asian American protagonist and love interest. It’s a dystopian retelling of Les Miserables, and it’s quite good. I read religiously and even I can’t think of a YA book with a black girl hero. When I grow up, I’ll write one.

Please do! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that The Deep, with its kick-ass black girl hero, will be out before the end of this year…

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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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IMG_1716My good friend Gabrielle says an artist must learn to “cultivate selfishness.” This is particularly difficult for women of color artists, but my friends and I are actively working at making space in our lives for our art. I wrote 1500 words this weekend and spent part of today cutting sections of The Deep that no longer work with the constantly evolving narrative. I’ve completed eight chapters, which means I have just three to go (according to my outline, which also changes), and last night I had a vision of the novel’s conclusion—yes, I *saw* it and only hope that image stays in my mind *and* works with the unfolding chain of events. Creating time to write means leaving plenty of time in each day for dreaming, and that means I’ve had to learn to say NO even when part of me wants to say YES. Last November I was set to moderate a panel at the second A Is for Anansi conference at NYU when I received an invitation to conduct a writing workshop for Girls Write Now on the exact same day. I accepted the invitation and in the middle of the conference dashed up to 34th St. to talk about how I write historical fiction. Today I made it until 4pm before a chronic condition required me to lie down. I’m on a twelve-hour cycle it seems, because the same pain woke me up at 3:30am this morning. When the pain subsided, I decided to run some errands. The store was just two train stops away so I decided to walk home and I’d only gotten two blocks up Flatbush Avenue when a breathless young white woman popped in front of me and asked, “Are you an author?” I nodded and she told me that she and her mentee had attended my writing workshop at Girls Write Now last fall and they had used my definition of sankofa (“there is no shame in going back to retrieve something of value you’ve left behind”) as the opening line of their short story. That made my day and I told Samantha (the mentor) how much I respected her commitment to mentoring a young woman—I was there for just 45 minutes, but she’s doing the real heavy lifting, showing up week after week to help that young writer grow. I do worry that some of my NOs will catch up with me someday, and Scorpios do tend to have an “all or nothing” approach to life. I’ve given up cake for Lent, which is good, but that seems to have increased my consumption of caramels. I’m aiming for balance—I bought two bags of caramels at the store *and* two snack packs of fruit (with no sugar added). I took the train to the store but walked home. I had friends over for Downton Abbey‘s finale last night but managed to enjoy a sumptuous tea without breaking my cake fast. I pulled out of a faculty writing group but found a faculty mentor who shares my scholar/novelist identity. I’m withdrawing from an advocacy group but will continue to contribute until a replacement can be found. It’s all about balance and making sure that I continue to do for others even as I reserve dreamspace for myself…


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