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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

c08_000peterI haven’t blogged much lately. Partly because I was trying to finish Judah’s Tale (I didn’t) and partly because I can’t stand to spend too much time thinking about all the bad news in the world lately (I’m looking at you, SCOTUS). Right now Gasland II is on in the background but I’m not really watching because I’m thinking about islands—England and Nevis. I spent an hour earlier this evening perusing the correspondence of esteemed British gentlemen on either side of a gruesome 1810 case in Nevis in which a planter was accused of cruelly punishing 32 of his enslaved men and women. Their crime? Not doing their work and threatening to leave the plantation. I leave for my fourth trip to Nevis soon and I’m not sure what to expect. A year has passed since I was there last and I haven’t done much writing on The Hummingbird’s Tongue. I’ve given it a lot of thought, however, and will be presenting on experimental writing at a Commonwealth literature conference in early August. It’s time to give these ideas some kind of form, but what do you do with this?

Witness went and sat down in Dr. Crosse’s gallery–Says, that two drivers continued flogging said negro man for about fifteen minutes.–Says, that as this man appeared to be severely whipped, he was induced to count the lashes given the others, conceiving the country would take up the business.–Says, that defendant gave one man 115 lashes; to another 65; to another 47; to another 165; to another 242; to another 212; to another 181; to another 59; to another 187; to a negro woman 110; to another woman 58; to another woman 97; to another woman 212; another woman 291; another woman 83; another woman 49; another woman 68; another woman 89; and another woman 56.

Witness says, that the woman who received 291 lashes, appeared to be young, but most cruelly flogged.

I’m hoping to find the original court documents. I have a few names: Quashy, Ned, William Coker, Nellys Juba, Madges Juba, Catherine, Castile, and Range. Then a slew of witnesses—all white men, of course—testified that they had seen punishments just as severe elsewhere. In other words, this kind of torture was not unusual or extraordinary in the Caribbean at that time. The planter, Edward Huggins, was found not guilty by a jury of his peers but abolitionists back in England used reports of this case to further their cause. I don’t know if I’ve got all my facts straight, but I believe these brutalized men and women worked on the Montravers Estate, and I will be touring the ruins sometime this week. I used some of my grant money to buy a video camera but I’m not sure if there’s any point filming the ruins of a plantation. It reminds me of Claude Lanzmann’s footage of demolished concentration camps. Why document an absence, show what’s no longer there? Because there’s a residue that persists. I need to write…

P7015625Last night I was angry, wishing I hadn’t scheduled the trip for this month. I haven’t finished Judah’s Tale and I can’t gain momentum when I’m constantly shifting my attention to other projects. I have yet another article to revise and swear I will NEVER submit my work to another academic journal. My bad mood took a turn for the worse when I realized that given the choice, I’d rather go to Oxford. I’ve been watching Inspector Lewis lately, which is filmed in Oxford, and there was one shot where two characters were walking by the river and the path went past a golden, walled building that had a gorgeous border of shrubs and flowers. It was a gloomy day, the actors were wearing autumn clothes…one of the suspects worked in a tea shoppe. And the truth is, that is my dream. I don’t like hot weather; I’m not a tropical kind of girl. We’re in a heat wave right now, which might account for my miserable mood. And I realize that when I think about Nevis, I don’t think about serenity. And perhaps that’s why it has taken me so long to start writing this book. My own discomfort around this history, my own family history, the climate, the landscape–it’s hard to look at sometimes (my discomfort, that is). And that’s how I know this book will be SHORT. It’s too hard to balance my shameless fixation with British culture against my righteous indignation at the lasting damage of slavery and colonialism–part of which IS my fixation with British culture…

So bear with me. It could be a bumpy ride.

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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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lag

IMG_1819I woke at 3:30 this morning—7:30 in Ghana, which was the time I woke each morning for the conference. We touched down at JFK just before dawn yesterday; ten hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean, half a day to fly over 5000 miles. So much about this trip has to do with contrast—between here and there, then and now. I didn’t think of our visit to Elmina Castle as a homecoming; I didn’t stand in the narrow Door of No Return and think I had somehow performed a gesture of reconciliation. I said a brief, silent prayer and tried to keep moving—there were so many rooms, so many levels to explore, so many facts to absorb. The governor’s chambers were at the very top of the castle—and it is a castle, even though that seems like a misnomer to me. There’s a moat and a drawbridge, there are cannon pointedcannons out at sea and inland at “the natives.” And rightly so, since the local Africans helped the Dutch to overthrow the Portuguese, not that that was much of an improvement. The British took over after 250 years but regardless of the colonial ruler, enslaved Africans continued to be marched from the interior to the coast and at any given time at least a thousand people (400 women, 600 men) were held in dark, filthy, airless cells on the ground floor of the castle.  When soldiers condemned2drank too much or abused their “privileges” with the enslaved women, they were locked in a cell that had three windows and plenty of light. But when a slave rebelled, he was locked in the condemned room and left to die—no window, no air, no light. From atop the walls of the castle you could walk in the sun, enjoy the refreshing breeze, look out over the sea and almost forget about the dungeons below—forget about the interior courtyard and the governor’s balcony where hegovernorsbalconycistern stood to survey the enslaved women in order to select his next rape victim. She was then bathed by soldiers with water from a cistern beneath the courtyard before being led up a private staircase the conveniently ended at a trap door right in front of the governor’s chambers. It was hard to stay angry—you felt disgust and rage but then your sorrow outweighed everything else. I was ready to leave Elmina before the tour IMG_1824even ended. Our guide Ato was excellent; I asked him how he managed his emotions and he said he used to come to work early and stand in the dungeons to cry. What did we do? We piled back onto our little bus—after buying books or crafts or fabric from the shops located throughout the castle—and went to a stunning beach resort to have lunch. As soon as we stepped off the bus at Elmina we were surrounded by young men trying to learn our names so they could make personalized bracelets or sea shells for us to purchase after the tour. Elmina’s main industry is fishing but it remains a place of commerce and trade. Tourists pay admission to enter the castle (double if you want to take photos); Ato felt tourism had dropped off since 9/11 but noted that the flight is also expensive. It’s a strange irony that the descendants of those whose ancestors were once enslaved here in West Africa now have the means (some of us) to return and “pay tribute”…IMG_1814

Here comes the rain. I have a library presentation this morning and final exams this afternoon so I’m glad I had yesterday to rest and reflect on my trip. The Yari Yari Ntoaso conference was great—so much talent and wisdom and possibility packed into four days! I know I won’t be able to recall everything that happened since I last blogged on Friday. One of the things about being abroad is that you have to surrender AND adapt to a different way of life. Now that I’m back in Brooklyn I’ve got uninterrupted internet service and no blackouts to contend with, so when I feel like blogging I just sit down and start typing. But in Accra I often couldn’t get online at the hotel, and instead of writing in a journal I just didn’t write at all. It may take me a while to catch up but this is a start…

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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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imagesIf you were at the NYPL yesterday for Betsy Bird’s Children’s Literature Salon then you know that we had a full house (all 80 seats were filled!) and people came ready to both listen and share their insights and experiences. Betsy is an expert moderator, which made it easy for those of us on the panel to share our thoughts on diversity in children’s literature. I met editor Connie Hsu for the first time, and learned about how her experience growing up in Alabama continues to influence her decisions as an editor. Connie’s aware of the importance of tradition but she’s also looking for what’s new, which is encouraging. I was *so* excited to finally meet Sofia Quintero, fierce author/filmmaker/activist and cancer survivor—I had to stop myself from reaching over to high-five her every time she made a brilliant point about the coded terms (“mainstream,” “cross-over”) used to conceal racialized power dynamics in publishing. Sofia works with Book Up and she told us about an experience taking a group of kids from the Bronx into the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca. “Why are there more pictures of zombies on book covers than people of color?” After the panel ended, I met Allie Jane Bruce, a children’s librarian at Bankstreet College of Education who let me know that she works with children who are just as outraged about the lack of diversity in publishing. I’m hoping to meet those young people and hear about their strategies for creating change. During the Q&A session we revisited the issue of David Levithan’s Teen Author Festival, which continues to be overwhelmingly white despite repeated complaints. So how DO we create change?

makers_women640_mediumI watched Makers: Women Who Make America last week and at the end of the 3-hour documentary on the women’s movement found myself feeling rather blue. A couple of black feminists were included in the film and one Latina, but no Asian Americans and no American Indians. It was basically white middle-class women talking about white middle-class women. One scholar was asked to identify the movement’s limitations and she said that the feminist movement had failed to address the needs of working-class women, which has only increased the suffering of women and children living in poverty. White middle-class women have a long history of working with people of color to create change (abolition, the civil rights movement), but there have also been times when white women chose to throw people of color under the bus in order to preserve their own privilege. White middle-class women seem to dominate the children’s publishing industry, and so it was heartening to have several white women approach me after the panel to share their activism and/or to ask about where to start. When white women rise up, they’re a formidable force so I do hope we can stir them out of complacency and into action. We need more allies!

Speaking of allies, it was great to see Lyn Miller-Lachmann at yesterday’s event. Lyn is an award-winning YA author and core committee member of See What We See, the social justice advocacy group that generated a lot of interest during the panel. She’s got a new book, Rogue, coming out next month and I was thrilled to get a copy yesterday. Please support the writers who are fighting for change!

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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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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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osiris god of the underworldI’m 1200 words away from reaching my 10K-word goal for this month. I was a little worried that this novel, unlike Wish and Ship of Souls, didn’t have any connection to African American history. The Deep feels much more contemporary—it picks up a few months after Ship of Souls ended (in March 2011) and so I’m writing about the tsunami that devastated Japan and the mass shooting in Norway. Yesterday I worked on a scene that takes place at the Central Library here in Brooklyn; Nyla has been chosen to join The League but she resists her guide’s efforts to lead her underground. I was somewhat obsessed with ancient Egypt as a child so I don’t know why it took me so long to make the connection between the deep and the underworld. I’ve decided to name the guide Cyrus/Siris/Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. Far better than Alistair, which is the name of the annoying, yappy dog in my building. My theory of Afro-urban magic requires me to incorporate African spiritual practices into contemporary urban fantasy. There isn’t much room for that in The Deep but maybe I can tweak the plot. That’s the good thing about having a third of the novel still to write—there’s plenty of room for improvement…

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…and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I first heard this years ago, back when I was an avid NBA fan. Marc Jackson told a reporter that his father had given him that advice when he was young, and it made absolute sense to me at the time. I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, however, and I now know that loving what you do doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard—it just means that at the end of a busy day you don’t feel defeated. You DO get tired, and some days you DO dread getting out of bed. But for the most part, having a job you love means you feel the time and energy you spend are an investment in something important. I spent last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and was impressed over and over by the enthusiasm and dedication of the librarians and educators I met. On Friday I had dinner with three black women academics (Rachelle Washington, Michelle Martin, and Dianne Johnson) and a recent grad just starting her career in communications. It was an interesting moment—Jasmine laid out her plans for work/life/family and we elders talked about the need for self-care. Rachelle runs a “Sistah Doctah retreat” at Clemson University that provides mentoring and support for black women scholars and graduate students. There have been a lot of articles online lately about the specific challenges black women face in the academy. After my mid-week migraine I had to admit that self-care has not been high on my list of priorities this semester (I just had leftover cake for breakfast). I felt guilty lounging in a hotel room last weekend (I did grade midterms for a couple of hours) but I know that if I don’t slow down, eventually I’ll crash. The semester gets going and you try to “hold on” and “push through,” but that’s not healthy. I haven’t gotten any writing done lately, either, and that just makes me mean…

On Saturday I got some books at the Robert Mills Museum and then walked over to the Richland County Public Library to meet Michelle’s graduate students. They had compiled a list of more than *fifty* questions after reading Wish and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the novel, my writing process, and the challenges of getting published. I also got to learn about their literacy projects, which include books clubs, book drives, and puppetry! The library has its own puppet theater and I melted a little when I saw all their puppets hanging on the wall. I immediately recalled the raggedy old monkey puppet my mother saved for me when she retired from teaching. I need to figure out how to be the kind of professor who gets to play with puppets now and then. Or maybe I should’ve become a librarian! The ones I met in Columbia were so energetic—especially when talking to or about their teenage patrons. The best part of my author presentation was the Q&A and the two young women who talked about their own struggles with writing. “Did your parents support your decision to become a writer?” Uh—no! Not at all. They eventually came to tolerate my writing but you can’t expect *your* passion to mean as much to other people. I often say that being around teachers is like being around family, but the difference is that the teachers and librarians I meet *now* truly value my work. Having dinner with RCPL librarians Heather, Sherry, and Jennifer was a lot fun—we talked about Game of Thrones, trauma in picture books, having immigrant parents, and (of course) the election. Sunday was a day of rest and then I spent Monday at Westwood High School—a beautiful, brand new school just north of Columbia. My librarian host, Marti Brown, is also a student of Michelle Martin so she was familiar with my work and planned an amazing visit for me with her co-librarian Cathy. How often do you show up at a public school and find hot biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, and bacon?! I ate my fill and then gave a short talk to a nice group of teachers—as long as their day is, they still showed up early to hear about my books. Then I gave a presentation to about three hundred students in the school’s state of the art auditorium—complete with cordless mic and remote so that I was able to roam around and still advance my slides (all tech stuff was handled by members of the broadcasting club!). I told the students later that I wished the kids in Brooklyn could see Westwood High—*every* child should be able to attend a school like that. Before leaving for the airport I had a pizza lunch with the book club and heard a powerful poetry performance by Marshay, the Miss Westwood pageant-winner. They sent me off with a portable Redhawk blanket that kept me warm on the chilly flight home…one of my best school visits ever.

It was lovely to be spoiled like that but it was also good to come home. Getting out of NYC wasn’t easy—we’re still recovering from “Superstorm Sandy” and it was hard to hail a cab since most of them were taken and/or were in line waiting for gas. I got gouged by the cabbie (and lectured on why I should have kids) but I made it to the airport on time and even made my connecting flight despite a one-hour delay leaving JFK. I stepped off the plane in Columbia and looked up at a clear, blue sky—there was sunshine and a strong breeze—and I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Everyone I met asked how I had weathered the storm and I shared how blessed I felt not to have experienced any flooding or power loss. So many New Yorkers are still homeless, still without power and heat—and it’s FREEZING right now. We had a snowstorm yesterday and there are plenty of empty seats in my classroom because my students are struggling to recover from the storms. I woke up on Monday morning and there was no hot water in the hotel; I immediately went on Facebook and typed up a complaint to post on my feed and then had a reality check. This week has been rather overwhelming but I don’t have the additional challenges faced by those who live along the coast. I have heat, power, internet access, and food. I’m busy, but I’m also blessed. Trying to focus on that fact as I do what I can for those in need.

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Collage is harder than it looks! I’m trying out an art project with my nieces in Nova Scotia—the Mickalene Project. They couldn’t see the exhibit at the BK Museum so I thought this would be a fun way for them to learn about her work and make some art of their own. I’m a writer and I haven’t been writing lately, which sucks. Apparently I wrung the sponge dry in September; I wrote about 10K words but fell short of my 20K-word goal. This month I’ve barely cracked 1K, yet here I am cutting and pasting and playing with glitter. On the train I’m reading Hanging Captain Gordon, which is about the only slave trader hanged for his crimes against humanity in NYC in 1862. I *loathe* naval history but have to become familiar with the blockades and revenue cutters and smugglers operating along the Atlantic coast. Putting Judah on a ship is hard but having him on a slave coffle is harder. How far did they walk? Were battles being fought all around them? Sometimes I wonder why I write historical fiction—all the fact-checking is time-consuming and tedious. And I only wind up using 10% of all this research. I started reading Sugar in the Blood last week and immediately began dreaming of Nevis again. But I need to focus on Judah’s Tale right now so those dreams will have to wait…

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