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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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061913122422Being the descendant of slaves gives you a clear sense of perspective. I already know that my anxiety sometimes leads me to have a disproportionate reaction to certain things, but I wasn’t overreacting yesterday when my new tablet shut off unexpectedly and I lost FOUR days of writing. That’s almost 4000 words! I managed to write 400 words last night (I’m trying to write 1K words/day) and then got up this morning hoping the tech people at work would be able to recover my lost document (they couldn’t). First I stopped at the African Burial Ground National Monument in order to participate in their Juneteenth events. I helped to read aloud the names of 1300 abolitionists and then went back outside to see some Civil War reenactors 061913123653representing the 26th United States Colored Troops. Judah encounters Union soldiers in this novel and so it was good to see an example of the uniforms, weapons, tent, and other supplies (including food) that African American soldiers would have used. By the time I got to work, I no longer had much hope that the lost document would be recovered. And you know what? It’s ok. I was on the verge of tears yesterday but today I know that in the grand scheme of things, losing a couple chapters of my novel isn’t a real hardship. Imagine those poor folks in Texas who should have been freed in 1863 but were kept in bondage for another two and a half years. They didn’t fuss and complain—they moved forward (and set up an annual party to remind them of their blessings). People suffered so much for me to be where I am today, to have the kind of life where I can dream about the past and write books that give voice to some of those who were unfairly silenced. So I will simply start over and visit the Mac store tomorrow to get the replacement laptop I should have bought a month ago…

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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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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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cv041968My grandmother was an ardent admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A “colored” woman raised in Canada to pass for white, my grandmother proudly displayed a framed copy of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the wall of her home. As a teenager in Toronto I took a class on American history in order to learn more about the “Negro” ancestors my grandmother so often discussed, and I was devastated when she made a gift of the speech to my frivolous older sister. I was the one teaching the Civil Rights Movement to my high school classmates; I was the one who could recite portions of the speech by heart. My grandmother did give me her carefully preserved copy of Life magazine and though I admired Mrs. King’s sorrowful yet elegant profile, I still harbored resentment over the allocation of the speech. That piece of parchment went from a place of honor in my grandparents’ manse to the wall of my sister’s apartment; it hung next to the stereo, which blared lyrics by Jay-Z that would have made Mrs. King blanch. It took years for me to realize that my grandmother gave Dr. King’s speech to the granddaughter who needed it most. I wrongly thought that my investment in social justice entitled me to inherit the framed speech, but my grandmother knew that I was ready for something more and she was right—by my last year of college I was critiquing the “I Have a Dream” speech in the campus newspaper.

BirdwinnerSince penning that editorial twenty years ago I have worked to develop my skills as a black feminist cultural critic. In 1994 I reversed the migration that brought my African American ancestors to Canada in 1820. Unfortunately my grandmother passed in 2002, months before I earned my PhD in American Studies from NYU; my dissertation, which focused on representations of racial violence in African American literature, was dedicated to her. I currently teach courses on race, gender, and sexuality in the Center for Ethnic Studies at BMCC, a community college in lower Manhattan that serves mostly immigrant and working-class students of color. Many are reluctant readers and so I’ve had to develop innovative ways of introducing them to black literature, which they wrongly expect to be irrelevant, outdated, and uninteresting. In addition to my teaching I’ve published scholarly essays, short fiction, and poetry in various anthologies, and my plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. I’ve also published three books for young readers—one of which, BIRD, won numerous awards after its publication in 2008, including a Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for the illustrator, Shadra Strickland. Though she hoped at least one of her grandchildren would follow in her footsteps and become a preacher, overall I think my grandmother would approve.

imagesI speak to hundreds of school children every year and my author presentation always begins with the shiny stickers on the cover of BIRD. Here in the US, children always know who Coretta Scott King was and they know that, like her husband, she believed in justice and equality for all. We talk about the way awards draw attention to a particular book and often ensure that it won’t go out of print. Then I ask the children to guess how many books are published in the US each year. Once we settle on the figure (about 5,000), I ask the children to guess what percentage of those books have black authors. They’re natural optimists, children. Most of the students I meet attend majority-black schools—urban schools that are just as segregated as those that predate the Civil Rights Movement—and it’s not uncommon for them to have black-authored books in the classroom. So there are always gasps of amazement when I hold up three fingers and inform them that less than 3% of all the children’s books published each year are written by authors who look like them. I add that Asian American, Latino, and Native American authors each represent less than 1% of the total, leaving 95% of all books for children written by members of one racial group. “Does that sound fair to you?” I ask and invariably I hear a chorus of indignant NOs in response.

todd-duncan-coretta-scott-king-and-rosa-parks_i-G-65-6570-AZ82100ZWhen I saw the list of CSK Award recipients on Monday, I wondered what Coretta Scott King would think. I never had the privilege of meeting Mrs. King and all I know about the award is what I’ve read on the ALA website. I know that in 2009 the CSK Book Award celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and I do believe that black authors and illustrators are better off today than they were in the “all-white world of children’s books” of the 1970s. But when we look at the small number of authors and illustrators who seem to win a CSK Award year after year after year, are we looking at a picture of real diversity? Is the award helping to increase the overall pool of black authors and illustrators, or is it merely upholding the status quo by feeding a few big fish in a very small pond? Publishers no doubt realize the committee’s seeming preference for books about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and (a few) other historical figures. Does an editor’s desire to win yet another shiny sticker deter her from publishing other authors of other kinds of books that also “demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values?”

The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.

Self-published author and quilter Kyra Hicks has conducted an analysis of the award recipients and her findings indicate that the past four decades have produced a sort of winners club, an African American artistic elite whose insider status affords them creative opportunities too often denied their emerging and/or aspiring peers. It would seem as if the John Steptoe Award for New Talent, “occasionally given for young authors or illustrators who demonstrate outstanding promise at the beginning of their careers,” was developed to help remedy this situation and yet it was not given out in 2011 or 2012, which puzzles me. The African American authors and illustrators at The Brown Bookshelf annually publish a list of 28 contributors to the field of black children’s literature. Is it possible that the CSK Book Awards Committee found no one worthy of recognition for two consecutive years?

Perhaps it is easier to look backward at the past, which is familiar and safe, than it is to look forward where new possibilities—frightening to some—extend across the shifting terrain of the future. Yet the recent presidential election revealed the danger (and ultimate futility) of holding onto a romanticized version of the past, and the 2008 election of Barack Obama demonstrated that eventually the old guard must yield to the new. The publishing world is gripped by upheaval right now and many steadfastly cling to old models for fear of embracing innovation and developing new traditions that will respond to and reflect the realities of the twenty-first century. With so-called minorities expected to make up the majority of the US population in thirty years (minority babies already constitute the majority), what can the CSK Book Awards Committee do to ensure that equity—an ideal cherished by Dr. and Mrs. King—is not undermined by the children’s publishing industry? If 95% of children’s book authors were men, white women across the country would mobilize to create change. But where is the outrage over racial dominance in the children’s literature community?

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

In the past I have defended the CSK Award against claims that writers of all races should be eligible. With less than 3% of the publishing pie, though we constitute 13% of the US population, I felt that black authors and illustrators deserved something to call their own. Today I am less convinced of the relevance of the CSK Awards and wonder if I ought to revise the portion of my author presentation that claims the award reflects the values of Dr. and Mrs. King. The award-granting process is often controversial and generally shrouded in secrecy, though a 2010 article in School Library Journal lifted the veil on the Caldecott Medal. The CSK Book Awards Committee considers all genres, I believe, but the Caldecott focuses on one genre illustrated books only and still jury members can expect to review more than 700 titles each year. I am not entirely convinced of the link between quantity and quality in books, but there is something to be said for competition and I think creativity truly flourishes when more (and more kinds of) people are invited to the drawing table. As television’s numerous talent competitions demonstrate, the US has a deep pool of gifted individuals who are simply waiting for an opportunity to shine.

Last year I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to write a family memoir about my African American ancestors; I am anxious to explore the social pressures that first led them to flee slavery in the US only to further escape into whiteness in order to avoid racism in Canada. In my country of origin, an average of two black authors manage to publish a book for children each year, making a race-based award like the CSK impossible. Things are better here in the US, which is why I chose to relocate, but after more than a decade trying to publish my twenty manuscripts for young readers, I’m ready to throw in the towel and move on. I am close to completing two young adult novels, both speculative fiction, and once they’re done I plan to leave the world of children’s literature behind. I am disappointed by the complacency of so many individuals and institutions that claim to have children’s best interest at heart, yet I am encouraged by the fact that a small group of activists is currently in the process of reviving/reinventing the Council on Interracial Books for Children. I will do what I can to assist with the launch of this endeavor, and I hope its emphasis on social justice will truly honor the transformative vision of Dr. and Mrs. King.

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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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