Sunday, May 24, 2015

12. The Problem is No One Likes a Snitch: A Book Review


Do you have a new idea almost every day for a writing project?... Are you a short-story writer one day and a novelist the next? A memoirist on Monday and a screenwriter by the weekend?...Do you blab about your project to loved ones, coworkers, or strangers before the idea is fully formed, let alone partially executed? (Lerner, Forest for the Trees
For the past decade, the opening paragraph of Forest for the Trees has been my refuge.
 
I presumed, perhaps correctly, that Betsy Lerner understood me in a way that my father and my sands and all my unrequited crushes could not. In college and in New York City, I read the first chapter, "The Ambivalent Writer" in rapid succession, every time I felt depressed. Misunderstood.
 
In my young adulthood as a self-published poet seeking literary journals that would have me, I was the ambivalent writer.
 
A funny thing happened to me on my way to becoming a novelist. Part of the descriptions in the first chapter ceased to apply to me. The whole notion of ambivalence deterring completion doesn't fit any more.
 
Now, I can finish poetry books and novels and screenplays and essays.
 Asking for advice about what you should write is a little like asking for help getting dressed. I can tell you what I think looks good, but you have to wear it. And as every fashion victim knows, very few people look good in everything... But in my experience, a writer gravitates toward a certain form or genre because, like a well-made jacket, it suits him.
 I've been contemplating this assertion for the last decade. Trying to see if it fits.
 
Almost a decade ago Sonia Sanchez appeared at Louis Reyes Rivera's Brooklyn writer's workshop where she encouraged people to write everything. She said the opposite of Lerner. Sanchez, a poet, was asked if she could write plays and she said Yes! She encouraged all the Black folk in attendance to do the same...
Finding your form is like finding a mate. You really have to search, and you can't compromise--unless you can compromise, in which case your misery will be of a different variety... The James Joyces of the world, those who can move from short story to novel to epic, are rare, but then again, few writers master each form the first time out of the gate.
 Not to be a racialist, but I am hyperaware of there differences between the path of a white writer, male or female and that of a writer of color. In the case of Black writers, I don't think I have any writer on my bookshelf who only writes in one form. Most of my favorites write in at least three... but everyone writes in at least two.
 
I have Morrison novels and Morrison essays, Adichie novels, short stories and essay, bandele memoir and poetry (and soon novel), Angelou memoir and poetry and essays, Madhubuti poetry and essays, Baraka poetry and essays and plays, Danticat novels and short stories and biography, Hughes poetry and short stories, Brooks poetry and novel, Alice Walker novels and short stories and essays, Giovanni poetry and essays.
 
This doesn't feel so rare for the Black writer.
 
Perhaps the Black writer can't afford to be stuck in one form. There is not guarantee that the establishment will validate Black poetry or that the publishing companies will profit off of Black narratives; there is no guarantee that Black novels will be adapted onto Hollywood screens. Who will read a Black memoir?
 
And so my brother told me, Just Write. Don't worry about the critics and the academy; just write.
 
My favorite quoted quote in this book is by Mark Twain: "There is only one form for a story, and if you fail to find that form the story will not tell itself."
 
This, I've found to be true. As a poet, I have stories within me that cannot be explicated or imagined in a single line or a single verse. I need the essay, the memoir, the short story, the novel. I need to break away from the 10 line poem, the 3 minute spoken word piece.
 
And I've been battling, as Twain predicted, to find the perfect form for every narrative and philosophy presently untold.
 
 
 
"Let's face," Lerner writes, "if in your writing you lift the veil on your family, your community, or even just yourself, someone will take offense. Call it fiction, call it poetry, call it creative nonfiction..."
 
And how does the writer handle those who are offended? I have no idea. I have been very paranoid over the last decade of being ostracized from the Black community. I figure once my first novel is published, if it is noticed at all, all of the Black Christians and Black Greeks and Black Masons and Black Feminists would hate me.
 
This paranoia hasn't stopped me from writing any of the drafts; but, the idea of desolation and exile sits with me daily.
 
Lerner understands, "You think you can't write, but the truth is you can't tell. Writing is nothing if not breaking the silence. The problem is, no one likes a snitch."
 
And aren't I a snitch? Let's talk about Black herpes and Black homophobia and Black brain-tapping and Black eurocentrism and Black sellouts.  Let's talk about Black incest and Black rape and Black domestic violence and Black child abuse. Blacks who hate themselves. Let's talk about Black self-esteem.
 
I'll go first. I'll talk about myself.
 
Rarely do I think of my body except for as a vehicle to hold up my thoughts. I only adequately wash my hair or my body, shave my arms or my nether regions; I only change clothes on a consistent basis when I have a man in my life. I try not to offend him.
 
And since I haven't dated in months, I figure why go through the motions of, what do they call it, self-care?
 
I am a horrible woman. Horrible at being a woman. I don't cook or clean or color-coordinate. That is, I don't unless I have a man.
 
Left to my own devices, I spend my entire day evaluating my own thoughts, mining my own brain for sentences which might outstand eternity.
 
"If you become a successful writer, these ritualistic behaviors will become known as your 'process'. The paper you write on, the time of day you compose--these details will actually seem interesting to some segment of your reading public as well as to a few graduate students as they labor to unravel the mystery of your genius... Should you fail to achieve success, all of these behavior look like only excuses or sick behavior."
 
Yes, should no agent accept Order of the Oppressed, should no publisher by it all of the months I didn't retwist my locks and all of the years I didn't buy clothes and all of the shoes that I wear for a decade, all of the unarched eyebrows and unglossed lips and unmanicured fingernails and all of the perfume that doesn't exist; all of the books on the floor of my apartment and all of the raman noodles and yogurt all of the unused sponges and mops and rags and scowering powder will just look like one long explanation for why one brown-skinned, nappyheaded college flunkee could never get a man.
 
Actually, even if my novel was accepted into the post-modern lexicon of random Black American women with shit to say, my writing habits which are my life habits will still be a pretty damned good reason for why I will be the only one on my line who never marries.
 
For the first 10 years of owning this book, I always focused on the first half of the book which described, quite perfectly, the writer's nature. Now, that I've finished a novel, I am attending to the latter portion of the book.
 
Okay, so maybe I shouldn't compare my novel to literary blockbusters in my query letters. And Grisham bought 1,000 copies of his own book. So E. Lynn Harris had to self-publish because no one would publish his work. And Terry McMillan road-tripped her own book tour.
 
And so I'll try to go the traditional route. I'll try to get the literary journals publications that lead to an agent that lead to a book deal that lead to a book tour.
 
And if that doesn't work, then I'll try to get a Black or Independent to publish me.
 
And if that doesn't work, I'll self publish my own book with paperback flap covers and deckle edge pages... because it's really not about the profits is it? It's about having a product that is worthy of someone's time.
 
I highly recommend The Forest for the Trees for all writer of all forms and genres... perhaps this might guide you for the next 10 years of your writing career, too.

Monday, May 18, 2015

11. Understanding Herpes by Lawrence R. Stanberry, MD, PhD

I reckon,
this is the sort of book that you don't admit to reading. This is the sort of book you hide in your own house, you don't mention in your book blog and you don't file in your electronic library.

However,
since the author Dr, Lawrence Stanberry notes that 40% of African American have herpes. I figure there are a lot of people in my community who might need to read this book as well, whether they tell anybody or not.

When I have an illness, I like to understand the physiology of it all. Once I understand how my ailment operates, I can understand what in my lifestyle needs to change.  Stanberry does an excellent job at laying out this DNA based viruses.

Since, most people treat Herpes very lightly, it is important to know in which cases Herpes becomes fatal. Stanberry states those circumstances very clearly.

He discusses diagnostic tests, current treatments and future vaccines in very clearly written detail.

The most important thing that I learned from the book were the legal implications. I was aware that it is illegal to have sex with someone, knowing that you have HIV or AIDS, and not disclose it to them. For whatever reason, I did not know that various states have similar laws pertaining to all sexually transmitted diseases.

There were a few things that I still don't know. He never specified which bodily fluids are contagious. genital secretions and saliva, of course. But what about tears? Sweat? Snot?

How long can the virus survive outside of the body on an inanimate object?

Although there were questions left unanswered, this is still a very thorough overview of a condition affecting 20% of all Americans... And now some reports say 50% of African American women.

So if you need to know more about it, and hopefully you don't, here is an excellent source of information.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

10. The Elements and the Styles

Last year when I began rereading The Elements of Style, a poet-friend who spotted me reading on the bus mentioned that he didn't care for grammar. For him, the comma, the semi-colon, the em-dash was not what it's all about.

For my friend, who I adore, it's about the message.

At thirty, I was not as repulsed as I would have been at twenty when I first started reading The Elements of Style. At thirty, I am more understanding.

I am an intricate balance between the protest-novelist and the art-for-arts-sake [Black] aesthete. In the last decade and a half, I've realized, if a certain writing style isn't there -- either lyrical or transparent -- I'll never get the message. I'll never finish the work.

And so Strunk and White has helped me decipher commas and colons, phrases and clauses. Now I have the language to describe what works and what does not, for me.

I am not a blind believer in The Elements. I HATE Oxford commas. Outside of my greatest pet peeve, I love The Elements of Style.

I enjoyed rereading this slim selection, this time with pictures, this year.

I will admit shamelessly, I am tortured when I write of Black oppression or even Black love in English or German. Almost daily, I wish I had an African tongue which was my own.

But, since I have been given English just as I was given America with all its hatred toward everything Black and Brown and Dark, I strive to one day write literature at the level of Frederick Douglass, who as Imamu Amiri Baraka rightly noticed, wrote at the highest possible level of the English language.

Until then, I'll pick up a few books on beginners Swahili, a few books by May Ayim and I'll read Strunk and White as I try to find the highest level of my own style.

9. Coptics and Moors and Houngans

Black folks are a spiritual people. We bleed out culture and rituals and music and dance. Everything we do is religious -- even our sins.

"This recurring interplay between the sacred and the secular is a distinctive hallmark of African spirituality, which still finds expression in African American folk religion, and in Black cultural productions."

Mumia Abu-Jamal's Faith of our Fathers is the perfect book to read during a crisis of faith. Actually, it's simply just the perfect book to read. It fills in the silences of one particular religious walk or another.

It's amazing that Mumia covers, quite thoroughly, thousands of years of Black thought. And, he does so without being overly intellectual, difficult or boring.

 
As a Christian, I wonder
how can I worship the God of my oppressor?
 
As a mother, I consider
what will I teach my daughter?

"This intensely  spiritual sense has led to an interbreeding of the creative and numinous in Black America as some among the poor developed their own religious practice, a reflection of their alienation from the more bourgeois-oriented 'high' church."

In Mumia's words, I realize that my fears and concerns are not isolated; I am not alone. I highlighted through out this book, especially all of the organizations and peoples I did not know. Omar ibn Said. Imperium in Imperio. Damballah.

I look forward to rereading this book, as I reread myself, over and over again.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

8. A Subtle Art


Recently, I have decided that asha bandele's The Prisoner's Wife is my favorite memoir, my favorite biographical piece of all times.

Yes, I reckon it's blasphemous to put bandele above Angelou and X, above Douglass and Northrop. Surely, blasphemy.

I stand on my truth.

Two days ago, I read asha bandele's The Subtle Art of Breathing. When Haki Madhubuti said, "A good poem will wake you up at 3:30am to again contemplate its content." I realized, I was yearning for that feeling. I wanted to experience words which linger long after the book is closed.

Honestly, I was scared before the book even began.

In the "purpose" section of the book, asha bandele says, "My daughter will know the safe passage. This is my purpose." I was frightened. I think of violence -- domestic and physical and sexual and emotional -- in terms of myself, and even my friends. I've never thought of it in terms of my 4 year old daughter. I never thought that my friends and I were once untouched at 4 and didn't we grow to know the unwanted hands of fathers and step-fathers, cousins and uncles, boyfriends and bestfriends who hit and raped, drugged and drank?

As I type, I'm still scared shitless.

It took courage to turn the page. It takes courage to read.

I loved the way the poem "when you're smiling" slants across the page. I felt conflicted, how could I love a poem about "the pinch of terror"?

The saddest thing was reading "after diana died" and realizing this isn't about Dent or Martese, Ferguson or Garner. This book was published in 2004. Our men are still being killed.

Madhubuti was right, I was moved, too, when Rashid said: "I'd rather be in prison and with you, than free and without you." It is unbelievable, ain't it? Unbelievable enough to believe.

It's funny, I never thought about making love to myself and calling out my own name: Lhea. But I swear to whomever, I'm gonna try it.

Of all the things I read in the book, of all the things I loved, I found the line, "can you meet me in the center of the ocean/ when the day is new" to be the most beautiful opening line I've ever read in my life. The type of line a reader wishes she had thought of herself.

I highly recommend the purchase of The Subtle Art of Breathing. Not only are you supporting a brilliant poet, a beautiful mind; you are supporting a Black woman owned publisher as well.

Hotep.

Monday, March 30, 2015

7. Several Short Sentences

Books about writing excite me.

Texts that explore the writer's mind, the writer's process excite me as much as action or thriller narratives, as much as erotica and pornography. Seriously. Perhaps books about writing are a writer's porn.

Sheer narcissism.

When I first began Verlyn Kinkenborg's book Several Short Sentences about Writing, I wish I had written the manuscript myself. It was as perfect as a poem.

I loved her advice:

"Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn't say,
And what it implies."

"Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization."

"The difference between talking and writing
Is the difference between breathing and singing well.
It takes years of work to write well,
And only part of that is learning to type."

"Peruse clarity instead."

"But you can only run out of material
If you haven't been thinking or noticing."

"Imagine a cellist playing one of Bach's solo suites.
Does he consider his audience?
                   (Did Bach, for that matter?)
Does he play the suite differently to audiences
Of different incomes and educations and social
backgrounds?
No. The work selects its audience."

Okay, now that last quote I have to disagree with. In classical music there are definitely different arrangements ... and a cellist or a conductor will choose the arrangement, or the phrasing, which best meets the occasion.

Once, I heard to Black violinists who together are known as Black Violin who played the hypest version of Brandenburg Concerto (number 4, I believe) that the world has ever known. I'd like to think there would be occasions, perhaps with a full orchestra when they would be willing to the original piece. And then there are other time's like at the Black Star (hip hop) concert, when they would play their own arrangement.

Perhaps a writer shouldn't change himself for his audience. However, perhaps if an author is submitting to a literary journal or reading before an audience, he would take into consideration his audience before selecting his own pieces.

All in all, I enjoyed the book.

I thought it was much too long.

It gave me the impression that the original manuscript was 100 pages and they stretched it to 200. They should have left it short.

This book would have been perfect if it was the length of Elements of Style.

Even so, this book can be a great addition to a writer's bookshelf!

6. The Brown Bookshelf

When my state of homelessness devolved to the point where I was actually sleeping outside on a regular basis, there were four books which I carried in my bag with my underwear, my soap and my toothpaste. One of these books was Nikki Giovanni's The 100* Best African American Poems (*but I cheated).

This book saved my life.

Until I read Giovanni's piece "The Brown Bookshelf", I didn't realize that this anthology contained 221 poems! Whoa. In my head there might have been about 110.

Reading Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid was an absolute pleasure. I highly recommend it for any Nikki Giovanni fan, follower. This was the first time I've read Nikki Giovanni's prose since The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni, which I've been reading for over a decade.

I enjoyed the poems, the prose and the prose poems, equally.

It was not until I read "Our Job Safety is Your Priority with Coffee" that I realized how much Nikki Giovanni's style has influenced mine. I always  knew that I loved Giovanni, after all it was the night I saw her at Stanford that I decided to become a Delta. However, I've never looked at my own poetry and saw Nikki's face.

In the "Our Job Safety is Your Priority with Coffee" piece, she explores an unedited poem and a final version. She talks about her editing process.

When I read the second edition of the poem "Coffee", I realized that my line breaks were her line breaks. She structured the poem EXACTLY as I would have, had those words left my mouth, my hands, my brain. There were a few slight differences: I never italicize in poetry; I rarely indent.

But the more I reread this piece, I wonder, why couldn't see how heavily influenced by Giovanni I was, I am, until now?

My favorite parts of the book where the times she mentioned meeting Toni Morrison and Nina Simone, individually, for the first time. I would have felt the same way. And indeed, that's how I've felt about Giovanni the time(s) I have shaken her hand.

She has a homage poem entitled "For Sonia Sanchez" and while many of the writers mentioned in the poem have past, I love that Sonia Sanchez is still alive. I definitely believe in giving people their flowers while they are here. I'm glad that she did not wait for another funeral before publishing this piece.

When I read poetry books, one thing that I find interest is poetry placement. I love the way in which poems are ordered.

My favorite placement in this book is the fact that "Robert Champion" is followed by "Allowables". The scene described in the Champion poem laid the foundation for understanding the end of "Allowables": "I don't think/ I'm allowed// To kill something/ Because I am/ Frightened"

And that poem could be the slogan of now. Those last 5 lines, those last four stanzas made me think about all of these Black men killed by police officers... and the officers say they were so scared of these unarmed Black men! Whew! I can't handle it; I'll move on.

There are many things that I love about poetry: I love rhythms, line breaks, one lined stanzas. I love a well placed comma, appositives, a fitting title.

But with Giovanni, again and again, I love her endings. I loved the endings of "If a Lemon", "I am at that Point", "I Hate Mondays", "Fear: Eat In or Take Out", "Biscuits", "Poets" and many others.

I can't wait to read this book "Chasing Utopia" and the anthology "The 100* Best" all over again.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

5. Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men

Adichie is, by far, my favorite writer of our generation. And as she continues to write outstanding works of literature, I'm sure she will become my favorite writer of all time.

However, reading We Should All Be Feminists made me realize just how different the two of us are.

And that's okay.

I have much to say about this short, short piece. But since, I'm sending it around to publications, I should probably keep this review short.

It was, as is all of Adichie's writing, a pleasurable and informative read.

4. Letters to a Young Novelist


I loved Letters to a Young Poet and Letters to a Young Artist by Smith and Cameron; thus, I was delighted to discover Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa in Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

The most important thing that I learned from this slender book is that I have a lot more reading to do. In nearly chapter he makes at least one reference to a major author who I have not read yet. In mentioning each author, Llosa is unafraid to state, quite plainly, what he does and does not appreciate about each writer. His straight-forward honesty gives me permission not-to-like the work of those others consider to be great. His transparent critique makes me more likely to try read Moby-Dick and Madame Bovary, both of which I assumed I would hate. Llosa has given me permission to read and dislike, to read and disagree.

I trust his sentiments based off of who calls great: Faulkner, Hemingway, Malraux, Dos Passos, Camus and Sartre -- who impacted his youth -- and Borges, Calvino, Rulfo, Pierre de Mandiargues, Kafka, Garcia Marquez and Alejo Carpentier  -- who he refers to as the most distinguished authors of fantastic literature of our time.

I enjoyed the first letter the most. In this letter Llosa calls into question existentialism at least as far as it pertains to the free choice of an artist. As an existentialist, I appreciated the nuances of Llosa's argument. With Llosa's encouragement, each reader should evaluate their own inclinations against their own choices. Perhaps understanding themselves better will positively influence the writer's work.

I agree with Llosa's balance of emphasis on the stylized technical aspects of writing with the other important components of a strong novel. Llosa mentioned Balzac and Joynce among others as making all kinds of grammatical mistakes. It was important for me to read that even those who break all the rules can be considered a great writer.

This is an important book for a beginning novelist. This book forces you to question: have I read that book Llosa mentioned? Do I agree with Llosa's literary theory?

As Llosa walks a budding novelist through the process of writing a novel and being a novelist, both, the reader will take note of gaps in their knowledge base and with the assistance of this text, begin to fill them.

This is definitely a book that a new novelist should own.

Friday, January 30, 2015

3. 12 Keys to Good Health

The primary difference between Joyce Meyer and most other Christian writers that I have read is that Joyce Meyers couples all of her biblical knowledge with concrete facts. There are a lot of ministers who know the bible; there are very few ministers who can educate as clearly and as succinctly as Meyer has on topics that aren't directly related to religion.

I am thoroughly impressed.

I am impressed at Meyer's discussion of metabolism and hormones and diseases; I am impressed that she covered so much in such a short volume

This was one of the most efficient books that I have ever read.

After reading Good Health, Good Life by Joyce Meyer over the last few days, I have walked away with concrete things that I can do to improve my health. I will drink more water; I will ask God for help; and specifically, I will work on loving my body.

"The best exerciser of all may have been Jesus," Meyer writes. "He routinely walked from His home in Galilee to Jerusalem--a distance of about 120 miles." I appreciated this sentence so much. I appreciated this sentence, this entire section, because I had never stopped to think about exercise from a biblical point of view.

This slim book was the perfect volume. It allowed me to focus on God while providing me with valuable information on how the human body works and what it takes to improve my health.

I highly recommend this to Christians who are concerned about their health; and, that should be all of us.

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