Archive for the ‘writing life’ Category

My essay on African Canadian authors is up on the FedCan blog:

If the Canadian publishing industry only opens the gate for two black novelists each year, what happens to all the other talented and aspiring writers? Twenty novels written by twelve African Canadian authors have been published in Canada since the start of the twenty-first century – and only two of the twelve were first-time authors. A rather astonishing percentage of those novels have won or been nominated for major literary awards, including Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, which won the 2011 Giller Prize. Yet can you name three black Canadian women novelists under the age of forty? I couldn’t do it when I emigrated in 1994, and I still can’t do it now that I’m nearing forty myself. I can name black women novelists from the United Kingdom (e.g. Helen Oyeyemi, Diana Evans, Zadie Smith) and the United States (e.g. Jesmyn Ward, N.K. Jemisin, Heidi Durrow). I adore the novels of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, an amazingly talented writer from Nigeria. But when I think about young black Canadian women novelists, I draw an unsettling blank.

My scholarly field, Ethnic Studies, is very much in the news these days since the Tucson Unified School District complied with an order from the Arizona state superintendent for public instruction to terminate the Mexican American Studies Program. It infuriates me to know that books are being banned – books that empower so many students of color by opening doors to an alternate, more inclusive view of the world. I know from experience – both as a student and educator – how it feels to finally find yourself in a classroom where people who look like you take center stage. How often does this happen in Canada for black children or children of color more generally? How can it happen when gatekeeping in the Canadian publishing industry keeps the flow of diverse voices to a trickle?

My longer conference paper is still under construction, and I’m thrilled that at least five authors responded to my request for an interview. Now I just have to knuckle down and pull it all together…

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I don’t want to talk about the situation in Arizona—the white woman governor poking her finger in the president’s face, the need for brown-skinned immigrants like me to carry ID at all times, and now the banning of books that do nothing more than tell the TRUTH. I wrote about the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies Program in a post I’ve submitted to a Canadian government blog—if it gets published this week, I’ll let you know. I wrote about Wednesday’s “Teach-in” in emails to my colleagues at work. I plan to talk about it when classes start tomorrow because I doubt my students are aware of the pressure across the country to do away with Ethnic Studies in schools AND universities. But I’m sorry to say that right now I don’t want to blog about it here. I’ll just point you to Edi’s fabulous list of links, which includes the important work Debbie Reese is doing over at AICL. I’ve asked my college to order a copy of Precious Knowledge and will screen it this semester as part of our Ethnic Studies Film Series. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. Because we all have a choice at moments like these: do something, or do nothing.


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There’s nothing like submitting to present at a conference and learning that your paper (a vague idea in the back of your mind) is due TWO MONTHS before the conference takes place. This month was supposed to be dedicated to working on The Deep, but instead I’ve spent much of my time on the BPP site, a faculty grant application, and now this conference paper. Next up is the academic book proposal—the book I no longer think I want to write because I’ve got at least THREE novels that keep getting pushed back by all this other “stuff.” At any rate, I know some Canadians read this blog so please take a look at my list and let me know if I’ve missed anyone. Does anyone know if Tessa McWatt identifies as black? Not sure what to do about Dany Laferriere; it seems only some of his books are translated from French into English—have I left out lots of black Canadian authors who write in French? I’ve excluded short story collections, though I listed them just for your information. I also found (but did not include) two black women authors, Sophia Shaw and Kayla Perrin, who are based in Canada but seem to publish exclusively with US romance publishers.

African Canadian Novelists (2000-2011)

  1. Dragons Cry by Tessa McWatt (Riverbank Press 2000)
  2. Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill (HarperCollins 2001)
  3. Loving This Man by Althea Prince (Insomniac, 2001)
  4. Behind the Face of Winter by H. Nigel Thomas (TSAR 2001)
  5. Dry Bone Memories by Cecil Foster (Key Porter 2001)
  6. The Heart Does Not Bend by Makeda Silvera (Random House Canada 2002)
  7. The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke (Thomas Allen 2002)
  8. Kameleon Man by Kim Barry Brunhuber (Beach Holme, 2003)
  9. Kipligat’s Chance by David Odhiambo (Penguin Group Canada 2003)
  10. George & Rue by George Elliott Clarke (HarperCollins 2004)
  11. Waltzes I Have Not Forgotten by Bernadette Dyer (Women’s Press, 2004)
  12. The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan (Knopf Canada 2004)
  13. This Body by Tessa McWatt (HarperCollins 2004)
  14. Venous Hum by Suzette Mayr (Arsenal 2005)
  15. What We All Long For by Dionne Brand (Knopf Canada 2005)
  16. The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades by Nega Mezlekia (Penguin Canada 2006)
  17. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (HarperCollins 2007)
  18. Return to Arcadia by H. Nigel Thomas (TSAR 2007)
  19. Soucouyant by David Chariandy (Arsenal 2007)
  20. Asylum by Andre Alexis (McClelland & Stewart 2008)
  21. More by Austin Clarke (Thomas Allen 2008)
  22. The Reverend’s Apprentice by David Odhiambo (Arsenal 2008)
  23. Heading South by Dany Laferriere (Douglas & McIntyre 2009)
  24. Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro (Random House Canada 2010)
  25. I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferriere (Douglas & McIntyre 2010)
  26. Step Closer by Tessa McWatt (HarperCollins 2009)
  27. Dancing Lesson by Olive Senior (Cormorant 2011)
  28. Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt (Random House Canada 2011)
  29. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen 2011)
  30. Monoceros by Suzette Mayr (Coach House Books, 2011)
  31. The Return by Dany Laferriere (Douglas & McIntyre 2011)

Total: 31 novels by 20 authors

  1. Lawrence Hill
  2. Makeda Silvera
  3. Austin Clarke
  4. George Elliott Clarke
  5. Esi Edugyan
  6. Tessa McWatt
  7. Suzette Mayr
  8. Dionne Brand
  9. Nega Mezlekia
  10. David Chariandy
  11. Andre Alexis
  12. Dany Laferriere
  13. David Odhiambo
  14. Carole Enahoro
  15. Olive Senior
  16. H. Nigel Thomas
  17. Althea Prince
  18. Bernadette Gabay Dyer
  19. Kim Barry Brunhuber
  20. Cecil Foster

I was quite surprised to reach 20 titles, and I now know that I’ve got some catching up to do in terms of my reading. You may have heard that McClelland & Stewart was recently acquired by Random House. If my list is correct, M&S has only published one black Canadian author in the 21st century, so I won’t be shedding too many tears for them…

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Happy New Year! I rang in 2012 by writing, which is—for me—the most auspicious way to start the year. I was actually annoyed by the thunderous fireworks in the nearby park and had to remind myself that not everyone craves silence on new year’s eve. How was I keeping watch? Coldplay was performing live on PBS; I had watched Afro-punk earlier in the evening. I finally set the computer on my lap and got down to business: Nyla’s story is tentatively called The Deep; like Ship of Souls it will have fifteen chapters and about 30K words. Right now I’ve got nearly 6K words written; I’ve mapped out the chapters, named my cast of characters…I’m on my way!

Finally, I wrote these words back when I used to make my own Xmas cards; last year I posted them on my blog and that post has been getting a lot of hits as of late so I thought I’d repost this wish today:

May you have

a resilient spirit,

and a compassionate heart,

the desire to heal,

and the will to forgive.

May you never exhaust

your capacity for kindness.

May you always find peace

in your home and in your mind.

May your eyes be awake

to the beauty all around you.

May your ears be tuned

to the hush of falling snow.

May your arms always be ready

to embrace those needing comfort,

and may even the simplest blessings

fill your heart with gratitude.

I wish you joy, health, and prosperity—

for this season, and for the new year.

~ ZE

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Canada in a box

Happy Holidays! I love Xmas but I refuse to shop for presents; my family is blessed in many ways and I prefer to donate to a good cause rather than buy items my relatives don’t truly need. I also enjoy spending Xmas on my own, which also hasn’t made me too popular with my family. But as I always like to say, “There’s family and there’s people you’re related to.” Yesterday I received a lovely card from my cousin and her four kids; Ship of Souls is dedicated to her eldest boy, Kodie, and he messaged me on Facebook to let me know a package was on its way. Sure enough, it arrived yesterday as well and so this morning—for the first time in years—I sat down to open the presents under my little tree. I *love* that they sent me a kind of Canadian capsule—note the moose cookie (ok, it’s probably a reindeer but we have a moose thing in Canada), the Toronto Maple Leaf pencils, the candy that you can’t get down here (I don’t think). Plus four groovy gel pens, a journal that’s *perfect* for a lefty like me (I can’t write in books with a spine), and a lovely scarf in my favorite colors…plus the card had numerous penguin stickers and a *fox* stamp (we love foxes! and notice how the post office printed “Santa” and “Père Noël” on it). So I’m feeling very festive right now and will head to the park soon before gluing myself to the laptop for a day of writing. Yesterday I was grading exams on the platform at Union Square and as the train pulled into the station, the woman next to me said, “Excuse me, aren’t you the author of…” and she reached into her bag and pulled out a copy of Wish! Sometimes a series of small things can have a big impact…

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…brave as winter roses…

I’ve been writing down bits of verse lately. Last month I went to the garden and saw a bright yellow rose named Obedience. That’s a haiku waiting to happen, right? But I couldn’t settle long enough to compose anything. Today in the garden I was contemplating the soft jade moss that grows between the cobblestones when I noticed that some rose bushes still have buds despite the chilly temperatures. Somehow that led to the above simile, though I don’t quite know where to place it. I thought of Genna and the sequel to Wish that I haven’t yet finished. I’m ready to start Nyla’s book, but that’s set in the summer. I wrote a grant for a book I want to write about my enslaved ancestors who bought their freedom and moved to Canada in 1820. And I’ve got an academic book—Magical Blackness—the proposal for which is due in January. So why have I spent the entire day planning yet another book set in the Caribbean? Last week I checked the price of a flight to Nevis and then last night I met Terry Boddie, a Nevisian artist who is part of “AQ/Art Quake,” an exhibit in Brooklyn designed to “honor Haiti’s history in artistic leadership, and address the impact of the January 12, 2010 earthquake.” I was at the gallery to see my friend Gabrielle Civil‘s performance art/installation—you can watch some of it here—but I knew Terry was part of the exhibit and hoped to have a chance to speak with him. I very rarely meet people from Nevis. At the post office last week a woman revealed herself to be Nevisian but she was “going postal” at the moment so I chose not to introduce myself. She wanted to cash a check and three postal workers turned her away from their window because it was almost closing time and they didn’t have enough cash on hand. She walked off muttering to herself (quite loudly) about how it was no wonder the postal service was facing bankruptcy. Then one black male clerk sent another customer after her; she came back to his window and handed him her check and ID but within seconds they started bickering…she claimed her taxes paid his salary; he insisted he paid more taxes than she did and then added, “And I was born here!” Which, understandably, set her off: “MY FATHER WAS BORN ON THE ISLAND WHERE THE FIRST TREASURY SECRETARY OF THE UNITED STATES, ALEXANDER HAMILTON, WAS BORN! I AM PROUD TO BE WEST INDIAN!”

So am I. But I’ve got a lot of digging to do and outside of my immediate family, the Caribbean people I encounter generally see buried roots as no roots at all—you’re a piece of flotsam adrift in the sea. But last night Terry talked about his connection to Nevis (where he spent the first fifteen years of his life) and how he sometimes uses hair in his work. “Because it’s in your DNA,” he said, “and your blood.” What binds us to a particular place? And what gives us the right to call that place “home”? For me, I had to spend time in Brooklyn; I had to watch the seasons change and become part of the history of this place. I wrote about Brooklyn before I moved here, but I couldn’t truly weave a compelling narrative until I knew the city intimately. I need to develop that kind of intimacy with Nevis, and meeting Terry last night gives me hope. To some, I will always be an outsider. But not to all. Maybe people from a small island are too accustomed to being dismissed to be dismissive themselves. Time to test the waters…

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I can feel myself slipping into dream mode. When I was a child I tried to watch The Hobbit on TV—for some reason I don’t remember my older siblings being around, but I remember being so terrified of the scene with the spider that I ran from the room. When I woke at 5am on Saturday, I went to You Tube and tried to find that animated movie; turns out it was made in 1977 so I would have been around 5 years old. Bilbo looks familiar but I didn’t remember it being a musical and everything else about the movie was foreign to me. Still, once I’d watched The Hobbit I moved on to the animated Lord of the Rings...and I was sorely tempted to pull out my LOTR trilogy—but that’s for Xmas day. Instead I searched for The Phoenix and the Carpet but could only find snippets on You Tube and the full episodes were available on a download site that looked too shady to try. I’m getting ready to write, which means I’m thinking about my childhood and the ways I responded to magic then…and by “magic” I mean anything glowing, glittery,tinkly—Christmas is the season that has it all: ringing bells, shiny ornaments, twinkling lights, and stories that leave you starry-eyed. Of course, the semester hasn’t ended yet so I’m trying to keep everything compartmentalized: baking, tree-trimming, grading, reading, shopping, and endless trips to the post office. Now it’s off to the park for some exercise. These peanut butter cookies with kisses are *dangerous*….

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Dear Author

We still don’t have a cover for Ship of Souls, which is frustrating, but I just went through the line edits and really appreciated how thorough yet practical “Emily” was. Here are some of the remarks from her editorial letter, which was only a page and a half:


This manuscript contains a lot of value within a relatively small number of pages. There are adventure, budding romance, history, and messages about religious and racial tolerance and healing, as well as true friendship. The only edits necessary were consistency of format or punctuation, which I have detailed below.

Structure/Plot Flow

The scope of this book is incredible. It not only informs readers about the history of the Revolutionary War but also about the African Burial Ground, and it ties in the tragedy at Ground Zero.


The characters in this book are quite unique—real people, each with his or her complexities. The characters convey important messages in a way that readers understand: how teamwork and sticking together can change the outcome of a difficult situation, and that everyone wants respect, compassion, and friendship. The fact that D, Keem, and Nyla are young but capable of accomplishing so much is sure to be inspiring to readers.

You also introduce elements of everyone’s home life that are not resolved when the book ends: Keem’s strict father, Nyla’s stepmother’s gambling issues, and D’s difficulty being himself with Mrs. Martin and the challenge of a new baby. This is true of real life, where problems and conflicts do not go away overnight, and it also suggests the possibility of a sequel.

I hope these edits and comments are valuable in helping the manuscript achieve your publishing goals. Good luck in your revision, and I wish you all the best for this manuscript and future books.

—Emily, Editor

Emily, you’re my kind of editor…

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(l-r: J.E. Franklin, Rosamond King, Louise Meriwether, Angela Davis, Pamela Booker, Rashidah Ismaili, me)

On Monday I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Angela Davis; she was being filmed by OWWA (Organization of Women Writers of Africa) and that interview will be added to their collection at the Schomburg. We gathered at NYU at the Institute for African Affairs and Rashidah Ismaili started the interview by asking Dr. Davis to reflect on her childhood and the early influences in her life. We learned that both of her parents were school teachers and so Davis grew up in a home where she was encouraged to read and grow—she and all of her siblings left home as teens, with Dr. Davis going to New York for her last two years of high school. She moved in radical circles and learned from her family members not to talk to the FBI—a lesson that came in handy when she was later arrested as a fugitive. The remark that most stood out to me was Dr. Davis’ assessment of her parents’ vision for her; more than once she stressed the importance of the imagination and the need for young people to “not be too ensconced in the present.” Dr. Davis’ mother fought to secure an education for herself and then made sure her children understood that they had to prepare for a reality that didn’t yet exist. The interview ended with a Q&A and Pam asked an intriguing question about the Buddhist principle of mindfulness: how do you stay present in each moment if you’re constantly looking ahead? That’s a big challenge for any creative writer because we spend so much of our time dreaming; as a writer of historical and speculative fiction, I’m often lost in the past or the future, and it can be difficult to stay on top of your responsibilities (like grading!) when you’re trying to produce work that will hopefully create change. My question was related to an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with some friends on what it means to be an “ethical professor.” One friend’s college is considering merit pay, but if all faculty at the school are being underpaid, what does a two thousand dollar bonus for a handful of profs do to advance equity? Some friends teach two courses per semester and some teach three; right now I teach four, and others in the community college system teach five or six. That kind of teaching schedule doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for activism! The academy is a conservative institution, so how can one be a radical and/or create change without being changed by the institution? Dr. Davis said she often heard academics who insisted they would do the work they really wanted to do just as soon as they got tenure—or just as soon as they got promoted—or just as soon as….and on it went. “What matters,” she said, “is to do the work wherever you are.” In other words, don’t make excuses and don’t let institutional constraints hold you back. Build community—that was her advice—build a network so that when things go awry, you’ve got people who will lift you up and support your work. Later at lunch I talked to the elder members of OWWA and told them about the challenge of teaching effectively with 38 students in the class. Yes, one professor can make an impact, but how much greater would that impact be if the students who most need quality instruction had a lower student to professor ratio? I’m often torn between wanting to do more for my students and wanting to get my own work done—that’s been especially true this semester since my next book’s in production and certain things need my attention. I wrote three sentences last weekend and wished I could disappear and immerse myself in that new project but I can’t. Not until winter break. And maybe that will be my new writing schedule; maybe I’ll only write short pieces that can be completed while I’m not teaching. Audre Lorde says poetry is the most “economical” art form because women can write it on the train, while doing laundry, while the kids are napping…maybe poetry and novellas are in my future. Today would be my day off but I’ve got a training at work so off I go. If I grade my last midterms on the train, I’ll have a weekend FREE of grading!

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blues woman

It’s been that kind of month. Today there’s rain, I can feel a migraine lingering around the edges of my eyes, and I turned two sets of papers back only to collect two more sets of midterm exams. In the midst of all this grading, I’ve also been working on revisions for my next novel. This time around, I was assigned an external editor and I *thought* the process was rather painless. But I just had some unpleasantness with my acquisitions editor, and that’s got me thinking—again—about the role of an editor. Did you see that piece in The New York Times on how Amazon is transforming the publishing process? This is the quote I extracted to post on Facebook—it comes from an Amazon executive:

“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader,” he said. “Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.”

Hm. There’s obviously something very appealing about that kind of direct connection between reader and writer. But I’m extremely grateful to have an agent, and it does still take a team of people to successfully launch a new book. I’ve worked with half a dozen editors at this point, and my last experience (writing a short story for an anthology on bullying) set the bar VERY high. It was my first time working with an editor who was a woman of color and I can’t say whether or not that made the difference (though I suspect it did!)—what I know for sure is that she was clear about her ideas and expectations AND she respected my intelligence. She pushed me, but she also let me push back.

With Wish, I wasn’t pushed. They took it “as is,” and I felt proud to offer readers “organic writing.” Not perfect, but genuinely my work. I guess some people find it odd that I’d be willing to offer imperfect writing to the world—arrogant, even. Personally, I find it odd (arrogant, even) that anyone would expect me to change my work “just because” an alternative was suggested. Or because someone was paid to look for flaws and point them out to me. What’s a flaw to you isn’t necessarily a flaw to me. And if reviewers tear the book to shreds, then I will still own my work. It’s mine, and I’m responsible for it. No one else. AmazonEncore’s motto is “author first,” so we’ve moved past the unpleasantness. And when the reviews start coming in, you can remind me that I said I could take the heat…

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