MULE & PEAR
WILLIAM MELVIN KELLEY
L I T E R A R Y M A G A Z I N E
EDUCATOR LESSON PLANS
Winter 2013 $6.00 MosaicMagazine.org
Texas, The Klan, murder... Special agents Wesley Charles and Louis Boron, and sexy DEA agent Wendy Weisman and Police officer James Allen discover whatâ€™s really behind the facade of the governmentâ€™s inter2 MosaicMagazine.org agency cooperation. The Complex by Donald W. Tucker Purchase at www.dontuckerbooks
Interviews William Melvin Kelley by Steve Kemme ..................................................... 10 Lorna Goodison by Clarence V. Reynolds ................................................... 18 Ayana Mathis by Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn ..................................................... 36
Poems Betty Boop by Angel Nafis .......................................................................... 16 Ghazal for My Sister by Angel Nafis ............................................................ 17 Reba at the Funeral by Rachel Eliza Griffiths ............................................... 31 Guitar Soliloquy by Rachel Eliza Griffiths .................................................... 44
Mosaic Lesson Plans ........................................................................................ 24 Lesson plans for high-school educators Designed by Eisa Nefertari Ulen
Reviews .......................................................................................................... 28 Mule & Pear by Rachel Eliza Griffiths NW by Zadie Smith
Excerpts NW by Zadie Smith .................................................................................... 34
Around Town by photographer Marcia E. Wilson ............................................. 42
Cover painting: Robert Trujillo This page: A group of Florida migrants on their way home to Cranberry, New Jersey, to pick potatoes, near Shawboro, North MosaicMagazine.org Carolina, July 1940. Photo courtesy of Jack Delano. Farm Security Administration, Prints & Photographs Division, The Library of Congress.
Editor & Publisher Ron Kavanaugh email@example.com FB/Twttr: mosaicliterary Mosaic Literary Magazine (ISSN 1531-0388) is published by the Literary Freedom Project. Content copyright ÂŠ 2013. No portion of this magazine can be reprinted or reproduced in any form without prior permission from the publisher. Ubiquity Distributors Brooklyn NY 718.875.5491 Subscribe online: MosaicMagazine.org 3 Issues: $16.00 Institution Subscriptions EBSCO 1.205.991.6600 or WT Cox 1.800.571.9554 Contact the editor We welcome comments. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Please visit MosaicMagazine.org for submission guidelines. Colophon Layout Software: Adobe InDesign CS5 Graphic Software: Paint Shop Pro 12 Mast Typeface: Whomp Editorial Typeface: Zapf Humanist Mosaic is made possible with the support of members and subscribers as well as with public funds from the Bronx Council on the Arts through The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Greater New York Arts Development Fund Regrants Program and The New York State Council Arts Decentralization Program. Program support has been provided by Poets & Writers. POSTMASTER Please send address corrections to: Mosaic 314 W. 231 St #470 Bronx, NY 10463
Lorna Goodison signing books at the Museum of 4
Contemporary African Diasporan Art, Brooklyn NYC MosaicMagazine.org
Susan Peters immigrated to Mother Africa to embrace Liberia’s rich culture. Years later she barely escaped with her children . . . and her life. Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot is a delightful, painfully honest memoir that chronicles the thick slice of humanity sandwiched between Liberia’s April 12, 1980 coup and the Civil War in 1989. This touching memoir is set against the author’s personal growth, her cultural struggles, and her triumphs, and is an informative, personally revealing, and often-comical account of her family’s eleven-year journey immersed in the rich culture of Liberia, West Africa. Now, as Liberia stands on the threshold of rising under the leadership of Africa’s first elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Susan writes about the wisdom, beauty, and resilience she witnessed during her sojourn.
available on Kindle, Nook, e-book or trade paperback order online or wherever books are sold
Award-winning author, Susan D. Peters aka, Ahnydah (pronounced ah-NIE-dah) Rahm, worked tirelessly for the Liberian National Red Cross Society, then opened a school, First Steps, Child Development Center with a Liberian friend, only to close its doors in May due to the encroaching war. She and her children were stranded as the conflict described by The British Broadcasting System as, “The bloodiest war in West Africa since the Biafran War,” raged. Despite the carnage of the Civil War, she feels that Liberia will rise from its ashes due to the remarkable pride and the indomitable spirit of the Liberian people.
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When The Night Whispers by Savanna Welles A riveting, modern gothic tale Jocelyn’s life feels empty, devoid of passion and purpose. After she finds a journal written by her “doomed” grandmother Caprice, she is spellbound by her story: the escape from a loveless marriage, her seduction by a nameless lover who is both “demon and savior.” Then Jocelyn meets Asa, her mysterious next door neighbor. Asa is charming, handsome and daring, and, as if by magic, Jocelyn is drawn into his hedonistic lifestyle. Yet there is something unsettling about him. Luna, Jocelyn’s best friend, is suspicious of this man; Jocelyn dismisses her dire warnings. But the closer Jocelyn and Asa become, the more power over her he gains until Jocelyn realizes his affection-and his bond to her past-- carry a terrible and devastating price.
Valerie Wilson Wesley
Savanna Welles is a pen-name for New Jersey-based writer Valerie Wilson Wesley.
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contributors Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn received her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, and teaches writing at CUNY and the College of New Rochelle. Her work has been awarded Honorable Mention for the Hurston Wright Award for College Writers. She is currently at work on her first novel, Run Free. Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and photographer. She received the MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware and the MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She is the recipient of fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Soul Mountain, The Millay Residency, and others. In 2011, Griffiths appeared in the first ever poetry issue in Oprah’s O Magazine as a new emerging poet. Steve Kemme is a recently retired Cincinnati Enquirer news reporter who lives in the Cincinnati area and now freelance writes for various publications. He has a B.A. degree in English from Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky., and an M.A. degree in journalism from Ohio State University. After working three years for a weekly newspaper and three years for the Cincinnati Post, a now-defunct daily afternoon newspaper, he wrote news and feature stories for nearly 30 years for The Cincinnati Enquirer. Angel Nafis is an Ann Arbor, Michigan native and Cave Canem Fellow. She is the author of BlackGirl Mansion (RedBeard/ New School Poetics 2012). Her work has
appeared in FOUND Magazine’s Requiem for a Paper Bag, Decibels, The Rattling Wall, Union Station Magazine, GirlSpeak Webzine, The Bear Rivers Writers Review, and MUZZLE Magazine. In 2011 she represented the LouderArts poetry project at both the Women of the World Poetry Slam and the National Poetry Slam. She is an Urban Word NYC Mentor and the founder, curator, and host of the quarterly Greenlight Bookstore Poetry Salon reading series. She lives in Brooklyn.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning. She has contributed to numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Heart & Soul, Vibe, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, and CreativeNonfiction. org. Ulen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she teaches English at Hunter College in New York City. www.EisaUlen.com.
Clarence V. Reynolds, an independent journalist, is the assistant director at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and a contributing writer for The Network Journal.
Tracey L. Walters is Associate Professor of Literature in the Department of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University where she also holds an affiliate appointment with the Department of English and Comparative Literature. Dr. Walters works in the areas of Pan African Literature, African American Women’s Literature, and Black British literature. She has published a number of articles on the subject of African Diasporic Women’s literature and two books: African American Women and the Classicists Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison (Palgrave 2007) and edited the collection Zadie Smith: Critical Essays (Peter Lang 2008). Walters is currently working on a multimedia project on Caribbean nannies in New York.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Ph.D. is from Harlem, New York. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Best New Writing, American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Crab Orchard Review, Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing and others. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the William Gunn Fiction Award, and scholarships, residencies, and other honors from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Hedgebrook, Yaddo, and, most recently, a 2011 Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. She received her Doctorate degree in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, and currently teaches at Williams College. Her short story collection, Blue Talk and Love, will be published later this year.
Born in London, England; Marcia Wilson’s photography has documented many writers of the African Diaspora. Her photos have appeared in Vibe, Publishers Weekly, Black Issues Book Review, LA Weekly, and QBR. She has exhibited at The National Black Writers Conference, Medgar Evers College, New Haven Public Library, New York Public Library (Flatbush branch), and Air Gallery. She currently resides in Brooklyn. Visit www. WideVisionPhotography.com for additional MosaicMagazine.org 7 information.
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Photo credit: Jesi Kelley
An air of mystery clings to the writing career of William Melvin Kelley like a morning mist. In the 1960s, Kelley produced three novels and a book of short stories that established him as one of America’s most talented young fiction writers. With his first novel, A Different Drummer, published in 1962, he made a resounding splash in the literary world, winning awards and earning comparisons to William Faulkner. But after his third novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, was published in 1970, the books stopped. Such a long publishing drought usually means the writer has nothing more to say or has died. Kelley, a 74-year-old African-American who has lived in Harlem for the past 30 years, understands the confusion caused by the perception that he’s been silent for the past four decades. “My name just kind of faded away,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home. “There are still people today who say to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were dead.’” But Kelley, who speaks in a rich baritone voice, is very much alive and active, although he has battled serious health issues during the past 13 years. He survived bladder cancer and receives dialysis treatments. Three years ago, circulatory problems led to the amputation of his right leg. Despite his medical problems and book publishers’ apparent disinterest in his work, Kelley has never stopped writing. His short stories and essays have appeared in anthologies and in periodicals,
by Steve Kemme
including The New Yorker. In 2008, he received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cleveland,Ohio. Philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf established the annual awards in 1935 to recognize authors whose work has contributed to racial understanding and cultural diversity. The August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine carried Kelley’s perceptive memoir, “Breeds of America,” in which he recounts his personal quest to understand and cope with a race- and color-conscious society. He has written two unpublished novels and two half-completed novels, and has been keeping a daily diary since 1959. To help promote his work, his oldest daughter, Jesi Kelley, recently started a Facebook page for him. He’s posted some poems about his close-knit family that includes his wife, Aiki, and their two daughters, three grandchildren and great-grandson. Teaching has been as vital a part of Kelley’s life as writing. Since 1989, he has taught creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in the Bronxville. It has served as a satisfying outlet for his intellectual passion and creative energy as well as a source of steady income. The roots of Kelley’s writing talent lie in his upbringing in the Bronx in a family that valued education and achievement. From 1922 to 1933, his father, William M. Kelley, was the editor of the Amsterdam News, an African-American New York weekly newspaper. The influential position brought the Kelley
family in contact with the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance. But the younger William says he learned the art of storytelling from his maternal grandmother, Jessie Marin Garcia, and from the radio. His grandmother, whose mother had been a slave, told him stories about the family’s complex history. His family tree includes a Puerto Rican revolutionary (his grandfather) and a white man from Savannah, Ga., who became a Confederate colonel and was killed in the Civil War (his great-great-grandfather.) Radio programs enthralled Kelley in his youth. He loved the Lux Radio Theater, a popular, long-running series of one-hour programs that featured actors from Broadway and the movies engaging in live, dramatic readings from script adaptations. “The Lone Ranger” was another of his favorites. “I always say I learned to write from the radio,” Kelley said. “When you heard the Lone Ranger stories, you knew how to write. Because of radio, I was always good with voices. I could always write believable dialogue.” Kelley entered Harvard University in 1956 with the intention of becoming a lawyer to contribute to the Civil Rights movement. But reading difficulties caused him to drop those plans and switch to English. Kelley’s reading comprehension was excellent, but he read twice as slowly as the average person. His grades suffered because of this, and he left Harvard without earning a degree. But while at Harvard, he benefited from the instruction of two prominent authors, John Hawkes and Archibald MacLeish, who taught there. His short story, “The Poker Party,” won Harvard’s best-story award. As a result, he
soon began receiving inquiries from literary agents. Kelley says he got the idea for his first novel, A Different Drummer, from a conversation he either overheard in Harlem or read in one of Langston Hughes’ newspaper sketches. In the novel, all the African-Americans in a mythical Southern state decide to leave and move North. This mass exodus is sparked by Tucker Caliban, a farmer who decided to spread salt on his land, burn down his house and head North with his family to start a new life, escaping from his state’s paternalistic and violent racism. While in Harlem with his father one day in the early 1950s, Kelley believes he overheard two black men discussing the South. “We see white people, and they keep running away from us,” one of the men said. “We shouldn’t even try any more. We should just take a bunch of trucks, drive down to the South and just leave the white people.” But Kelley said it’s possible he read the conversation in one of Hughes’ newspaper sketches in The New York Post about his fictional Harlem character, Jessie B. Simple. When Kelley was a high school senior, he wrote a short story about blacks fleeing a Southern state. In Hawkes’ class at Harvard, he wrote the chapter about Caliban’s destruction of his own property and his flight to the North. He later expanded it into the novel, A Different Drummer, published in 1962. The novel established Kelley as a new literary star and helped him break through what he calls “a literary ghetto.” “There was a literary ghetto — certainly at that time and it still exists today — where African-American writers are really only compared to other African-American writers,” he said. “But (the white critics) had to compare me to
Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Penn Warren.” His impressive book of short stories, Dancers on the Shore (1964), marked the debut of several fictional characters that would reappear in his work. One of most entertaining is Carlyle Bedford, a Harlem hustler who could be a literary cousin of Jessie B. Simple. Kelley’s second novel, A Drop of Patience (1965) revolves around Ludlow Washington, a blind AfricanAmerican jazz musician, thrice alienated from society-atlarge by his blindness, his race and his occupation. Kelley uses Washington’s life to reflect the progression of black Americans from slavery to sharecropping to integration. Washington suffers many painful setbacks as he seeks his personal identity and a sense of his self-worth. To prepare to write this novel, Kelley drew on his memories of a blind Harvard classmate and performed some field research. Accompanied by his wife, he walked around New York City pretending to be blind to get a sense of how a blind person experiences the world. “I would keep my eyes closed,” he said. “I would listen to the sounds of the subway. I used to think there was maybe only one loud sound in the subway. But I could hear about three or four different sounds.” His next novel, dem, required no field work. He already knew the subject very well. This wickedly funny 1967 satire skewers the many myths the white characters harbor about blacks. Kelley had spent much of his life observing the ways of white folks. He grew up in a predominantly Italian working-class neighborhood in the Bronx and attended grammar and high schools as
well as a college with very few black students, “I know rich white people. I know poor white people,” he said. “I know white people.” In dem, a bored white woman, Tam Pierce, takes a black lover and winds up giving birth to twins, one black and one white. Her husband, Mitchell, a middle-class white man, sets out to find the black co-father. Mitchell’s hunt requires him to enter Harlem, a world that’s alien, fearful and repugnant to him. As he does in much of his fiction, Kelley dramatizes in dem the absurdity as well as the inhumanity of racist attitudes. By this time, Kelley had become part of the black arts movement, which sought to boost black pride, enrich black culture and encourage blacks to be more self-reliant. Unlike some writers in the black arts movement, Kelley’s work transcended politics and never became polemical. In the early 1960s, he listened to a Malcolm X speech exhorting blacks to stop trying to look like white people. “He said, ‘Who taught you to put a stocking cap on your hair? Why do you put whitening cream on your face? Why don’t you like your nose? Why don’t you like your lips?’ It really hit me. That began an investigation of self and of the indoctrination into the (racist) system of America.” To escape the stress of racism in America, Kelley lived abroad for varying periods of time, first in Europe and then in Jamaica. He and his wife wanted their two children to grow up in a culture that wouldn’t make them continued on page 54
Betty Boop Is what we called it. From my favorite pair of undies: pink, clean, with Betty winking; lips blooming over and over. Once the Mom who made us passed and the one who raise us got tired of how small she had to be to stand next to Daddy—we didn’t own proper wash cloths. So we picked Betty. We’d giggle, Time for Betty Boop. I’m the littelest, so I’d go first: Against the tub, open my legs, and feel Dal part the warm, brown, sex that is not sex and press the cloth ‘til there is no smell but soap and salt. I’d protest—duty of a child—but my heart know I love when Dalya lay hands on me. Big sister flawless. Big sister rogue mom.
Ghazal for My Sister A little darker than me/ love by the mass sister Pale birthmark on ya neck/ with so much sass sister Almost my reflection/ through mirrored glass sister Heels and creased pants/ on the go/ niggas harass my sister twin bodies forked path/ a year astranged/ alas sister My world is hers if she knew she my last sister Worth unmeasured/ though neither of us can pass sister White boy friend curse between your eyes/ but you got class sister I hold my breath and tongue pretend I don’t see, “Sonny’s Girl” tatooed on your ass sister He cleans his boots on your dreams/ he is an ass sister (the) black freckle on your nose/ could teach a class sister Ima miss you when I go but return religious like mass sister.
Poet and author Lorna Goodison has a contagious laugh. Whether she is sharing a moment that enlightened her early in her literary career or retelling an incident that involved a family member or a neighbor while growing up in Jamaica, the richness and fullness of her joviality embraces whoever happens to be in her company. Goodison confessed that in Jamaica having a sense of humor helps many people cope with lifeâ€™s difficulties. This past September, Goodison visited the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, NY, where she read from her latest book, By Love Possessed: Stories (Amistad/HarperCollins). The heartrending and oftentimes risible tales Goodison presents in By Love Possessed, including the Pushcart Prize-winning short story for which the book gets its title, explore the wide range of complex feelings that are kindled by loveâ€”its heartaches, its obsessions, and its passions. Many of the fables in the collection were inspired by people and instances in Jamaica, she said. Goodison is a detailed and thoughtful writer in every sense; and in these short stories she wields a cast of mem-
by Clarence V. Reynolds MosaicMagazine.org
orable characters, animated descriptions, and Caribbean patois to convey a truthfulness and a universality through her storytelling. Before she decided that writing was indeed her calling, Goodison’s creative spirit had been drawn to painting, and she studied at the Jamaica School of Art and the school at the Art Student’s League in New York. (In fact, her artwork graces the covers of some of her books.) She also worked for a brief time in advertising. In the end, she surrendered to her literary voice. Goodison published her first collection of poetry, Tamarind Season, in 1980; and over the next thirty-plus years she has written ten volumes of poetry, which includes Selected Poems; Controlling the Silver; and To Us, All Flowers Are Roses: Poems, for which she was awarded a Gold Star by Booklist magazine. Her second book, I Am Becoming My Mother, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas; her newest collection, Supplying Salt and Light, is scheduled for publication in spring 2013. She is the recipient of the Musgrave Gold Medal by the Institute of Jamaica, the author of two collections of short stories, and her work appears in several publications such as the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces and the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry. Goodison’s highly acclaimed From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island is a beautiful and tender narrative of her family history and one that also examines a history of Jamaica. From Harvey River won the 2008 British Columbia National Award for Canadian NonFiction and was shortlisted for that year’s Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. The memoir also received accolades from The New York Times and named a Wash-
ington Post Book World Best Book of the Year. At one point during the reading and discussion with the audience in Brooklyn, Lorna Goodison praised many of today’s writers and described them as “solidly brave.” She added, “I respect so many of them [especially young authors]…Writers today take on subjects such as domestic violence and rape that I would stay away from.” The conversation later worked its way to our discussion about her life and her writing. Clarence V. Reynolds: Growing up in Kingston, can you recall your wanting to become a writer, or describe when you actually began to identify yourself as a poet or a writer? Lorna Goodison: Okay… I think I was first conscious of wanting to be a reader. One of my first vivid memories of any kind of relationship with the written word was as a small child wanting to read so very badly. I’m eighth of nine children. And everybody was reading in my house; my sister was a journalist. So everybody was reading the newspaper, and I just thought that was what you do. But I remember not being able to read. And I would pay my brothers to read the comics to me. I have six brothers, and one in particular would take terrible advantage of me and I would give him whatever money I had to read for me. One day, he took a large sum of money, which was like a shilling at the time, and promised that he would read. And he never did. I then realized I was being had. (Laughter) And there was something in me at that moment that said, “You have got to learn to read so that people won’t take advantage of you in this way.” Anyway, my mother taught me to read before I went to
school. And once I started reading, I was taken with the idea of what could happen to you once you read something. I don’t actually remember thinking that I wanted to be a writer, but I remember thinking I wanted to be a part of this world where people put down thoughts on paper, and when you read it back you could feel all of the emotions: you could be sad, you could be happy, you could be repulsed—all of those things. And I knew I wanted to be a part of that world. It was some time later when I decided exactly that I wanted to be a writer. And I probably credit my own feelings to my writing. A lot of my poems come from a sensitive state in me that triggers some kind of writing. I remember feeling, when I was about eight or nine, being really taken by how different everything became after rain. Are you from the Caribbean? Well, rain in the Caribbean context is entirely different from rain as you would imagine in a North American context. [In the Caribbean] It is always hot and the rain comes and then everything gets renewed and revitalized afterward. And I remember thinking I really wanted to write something about that. And for the first time, I was able to document how I felt after a shower of rain. I still write poems about rain. Poems about regeneration. A lot of my writing tries to be about revitalizing things and regeneration, especially from despair. How does your writing process take place internally, do you begin with an emotion, an idea, or a story you want to share? And in the case of a short story, is there a particular character you want to speak through? Any and all of the above. (She laughs.) Sometimes, especially with the poetry, it begins where there is an acute feeling or a response to something. Say the rain, for in-
stance, can generate an idea for a poem. And then there are times that I just don’t know. I believe in the definition of poetry by William Wordsworth, which was drummed into us at school because we were good colonial subjects. Wordsworth said: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” And I think there is some truth in that, in that you absorb all these sensations and you see these things and at some point it overflows. In his case, he says, “recollecting in tranquility.” But I simply feel that writers and artists end up paying more attention to the world around them. I certainly do… I was always like that. I was always the one saying, “Did you see that, did you hear that?” Because I pay particular attention to everything, there are a lot of things I see and hear. You’ve just published your third collection of short stories, and have written a well-received memoir and several books of poetry. How did you approach or prepare to work on each of these projects that are of different genres? Was writing one any easier than the other? No. I know that there are writers who say—and I don’t know if this is true— that they are just writing something and that is it. I have never been that fortunate. I have never had a work of writing that was ready after sitting down with it just once. I revise constantly. I rework. I revisit. I change. All of it is not easy. I am not one of those writers who have an easy time. I write when I have to. If it comes, I try to make room for it. That’s my process.
I might be out shopping and all of sudden I’m writing a poem on the side of a supermarket bag one day. Some poems and parts of the memoir came to me like that, right there—in a sort of demanding way, wanting to be let in. And I just had to write it down. With poetry, there are some poems that came about simply because, and I had to pull over on the side of the road a few times to write them down. With the memoir, when I was writing about my maternal grandfather and my maternal great-grandmother…when I was writing about those characters, words and descriptions about them would come at me in such an insistent way that I knew exactly what they would say and what they were thinking. It was quite exhausting. What was the overall experience of writing the memoir like for you? There is a lot of history in From Harvey River. I almost studied history but attended art school instead. I realize, in retrospect, I have a long life of following my own ideas about writing. I have always wanted to write a history of Jamaica somehow. When I went to school, we were taught history from a book written by a Cambridge historian, an upper-class British historian; and as I look back it was probably a waste of time, as we spent so much time reading about the Anglo-Saxons, the Jews, the Tudors, and very little about my own history. But what I did learn was that of a good writing style. It was a social history and the author made a story out of history. Somehow, he made the characters come alive. And what I got from reading history like that was a sense that you could make history into a story that people could enjoy.
And so my own memoir is a history of Jamaica; it’s my attempt to show that history happens to real people; how history affects ordinary people. It took me twelve years to write my story. (I could actually write a book about writing that book.) But I was not the same person when the book was finished as I was when I started it. Writing it taught me patience; it taught me resignation because there was a point when I almost gave up on it. There was a point at which I called everybody who was somehow connected with it and I said, “I’m shutting this down, it’s not going to work.” And there was one person who got it. And when I called the last person to say I wasn’t going on with it, she said, “I never said that I was finished reading the manuscript, just be patient.” Ellen Seligman, editor extraordinaire at McClelland & Stewart, ended up publishing it. Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul once commented, in an interview, about being a writer that: “You are writing a book to satisfy a need, to leave a fair record behind.” What are your thoughts about your desires and your role as a writer? Well, I’ve never had that sort of sense of myself as being a big important writer who tried to set huge changes in anything. My particular role, as I see it, is to accurately represent my people. I have this real concern about how sometimes Jamaicans, and Caribbean people, are represented. And in my own writing, I want to tell their stories, but I want to do it in such a way that I think accurately portrays them. That’s the only ambition I really have. And if I do that, then I’ve fulfilled my job as a continued on page 45
Fat from Papa’s Head Tony Lindsay
Tony Lindsay’s ‘Fat from Papa’s Head’ is a wonderful collection of short stories targeted at young adults. All of the protagonists are young African-American male teenagers and young adults. available at
Winter 2013 MosaicMagazine.org Mosaicâ€™s lesson plans give high-school educators ways to connect literature to history and social studies while also serving to increase the importance of books and reading. Designed by Eisa Nefertari Ulen
Lorna Goodison’s By Love Possessed is a collection of short stories that explore Jamaican life. These lesson plans can be used to engage younger readers across skills levels, as they offer opportunities for both reluctant readers and more confident readers to discuss the literature and examine specific narratives in a more substantive way. Students will be given the opportunity to study symbol, character, and theme. These lesson plans also provide the opportunity for students to research Jamaican artists, Jamaican music, and aspects of Jamaican history. Students may also use Goodison’s fiction to express their own creativity through art, photography, and/or writing.
I. Topics for Discussion A. What is a collection of short fiction? B. Define these Terms 1. Fiction 2. Nonfiction 3. Anthology 4. Collection 5. Novel 6. Narrative 7. Story C. How is this book different from a novel? D. Which is easier for you to read, a novel or a short story collection? E. Do you enjoy longer narratives or do you prefer shorter narratives? F. Which story do you like the most in this collection? Which one is the most vivid? G. In her interview with Clarence Reynolds, Goodison says, “My particular role, as I see it, is to accurately represent my people. I have this real concern about how sometimes Jamaicans, and Caribbean people, are represented. And in my own writing, I want to tell their stories, but I want to do it in such a way that I think accurately portrays them.” Do you think she succeeded in accurately representing Jamaicans in By Love Possessed? H. Consider the theme of freedom in “God’s Help.” The male character is sent to prison, and the woman character is compelled to go to church. In what ways is the church like a kind of prison, at least for the female character forced to go there? Do you think the characters are both free when the story ends?
II. Essay Idea Write a book review of Goodison’s collection. Think about the themes that reoccur in By Love Possessed. Decide which stories to mention in your review. Re-read the introduction to the interview with Goodison that appears in this issue of Mosaic, and consider Reynolds’ work as you start your own.
III. Additional Activities A. Choose a character that Goodison has developed in one of her stories. Write another story using that character. In your story, the character might be older or younger. You might re-imagine Goodison’s character moving from Jamaica to your community. Write your own short story based on a character Goodison has created in her book. B. Look at a poem, short story, or essay that one of your classmates has written. Write a list of questions based on your classmates’ work and interview her / him. Share your interview, along with the poem, short story, or essay that inspired it, with the class.
C. Find a map of Jamaica and identify the places Goodison mentions in her stories. Highlight or mark those areas. Share your literary map with the class. D. Goodison mentions Peter Tosh in her interview with Reynolds. Identify the musicians the author references in her collection of short stories. Choose one or two and listen to their music. If you are able to find video(s) of the musician(s) you choose performing live, watch those videos. Think about the way Goodison uses music in her stories and write an essay about the author’s use of Jamaican sound in her writing. E. Think about the title of this collection. What does it mean to be possessed? What, exactly, is love? What does it mean to be possessed by love? What kind if love is expressed by characters in Goodison’s stories, especially in the title story? Create a visual representation of Goodison’s book title. You might want to make a collage using pictures cut from magazines, or a painting, or a sketch or drawing. You might also want to use a camera to take a picture of an image that you think conveys Goodison’s idea of “by love possessed.” Share your visual representation, your art, with the class. F. Form a group and discuss these lines: 1. “… bigger than the governor’s washing tub” on page 18 in “Jamaica Hope.” 2. “…whiter than pelican sh**” on page 62 in “By Love Possessed.” What do these figures of speech mean? Think about what happens in the stories where these lines appear. Do these forms of expression help the careful reader better understand the main themes of the narratives in which these lines appear? Come up with a list of colloquial and quirky figures of speech that you and your friends use. Come up with definitions to help someone unfamiliar with these forms of expression understand what people mean when they use them. Share your list and your definitions with the class.
“The Helpweight” I. Topics for Discussion A. The female protagonist looks at a George Rodney landscape for four minutes before entering the restaurant. What does this suggest? What does the landscape painting symbolize? What about the tree outside the window, with blossoms that “created their own painting” on page 1? What might this tree, an element of the natural world, symbolize? B. Examine the Hatshepsut quote on page 5. Why do you think it is significant that “Queen Hatshepsut had written that about herself”? In what way(s) is the female protagonist in this story like the Egyptian queen? C. What role does the sister’s voice play in this narrative? D. Consider the references to the male protagonist’s physical appearance in this narrative. Think about Nathan’s dark skin color, his large nose, and the natural hair of his youth. What has happened to his skin, profile, and hair over the years that these two high school sweethearts have been apart? Is he more of a man as an adult, or is he less the man he was in high school? Is he stronger or weaker? Has Nathan grown as a result of his experiences in England, or has he been diminished?
Mule & Pear by Rachel Eliza Griffiths New Issues Poetry & Prose Review by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan The black woman is “de mule uh de world.” So says the world-wise and work-weary Granny, Janie’s grandmother in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In making this now famous declaration, Granny not only has her say on black women’s place in global history; she also bequeaths a sort of heirloom gift, boxing in a few short syllables the gristly self-understanding that ushers whole decades of literary black girl protagonists into womanhood. Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs (Beloved, 1987), Edwidge Danticat’s Tante Atie (in Breath, Eyes, Memory 1998), Gayl Jones’s Great Gram (Corregidora, 1975), Meriama Ba’s Ramatoulaye (So Long a Letter, 1989)—all these women have said it, one way or another: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” And implicit in that message is a warning to the listener, breath quiet or lash-sharp: it won’t likely be any different for you, so get ready. In each of these novels, as in the famous line from Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” above, black woman wisdom takes center stage. These writers clear their throats and invite the reader to pull up a chair, a crate, a phoneline, a footstool, and listen in while the experienced black woman speaks. And while the writers above reflect only a part of the black female literary canon many contemporary young black women writers admire, few of us have attempted literally to speak back to this wisdom, swish it around in our own mouths and call their
fictional conversants by name as we pass the dialog on. This is precisely Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s project in Mule & Pear, her third poetry collection, published by New Issues Press (2011). Bending Granny’s dictum into her title, Griffiths offers thirty-eight original poems, each responding to the pearls, prayers, and perplexities of the black female literary pantheon. Most of the poems in Mule & Pear—and certainly the strongest among them—echo and respond to some of the most important black women characters of the past 100 years. The poems give voice to a cross-generational dialogue that includes protagonists from American classics like Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), Jones’s Eva’s Man (1976), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), as well as from lesser-known American texts like Valerie Martin’s historical novel Property (2004), and contemporary African classics-inprocess like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). Yet while Griffiths’s focus is on the most poignant, memorable and troubling characters of black women’s fiction, black female characters from male-authored works like Jean Toomer’s hybrid New Negro text Cane (1923), and August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running (1992), as well as voices from Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) and Nina Simone’s classic 1966 song “Four Women” share the pages of Mule & Pear with foremothers of the black female novel. Plucking chords from each of these voices, Griffiths orchestrates collaborative testimonials and incisive debates about the most pressing issues facing black women’s writing and black women’s lives. Her structuring conceit of a poetic conversation with literary history does
important work in making the collection cohere. The themes that have characterized these histories—the ownership, commodification, and exoticfication of black women’s bodies; regimes of femininity, and Eurocentrically-defined beauty; the impossible confluences of love of self, love of other, and commitment to an unloving world—are conjured and contested by all of the collection’s speakers, even the few whose literary lineages are obscure. Yet the strongest poems in the collection are those that further the conceit, reminding us explicitly of the tragic and gorgeous sameness of black women’s experiences over time. The haunting of history echoes most clearly in poems like “Sarah Suckled By Her Mistress, Manon Gaudet,” in which Griffiths reconsiders the narrative of Martin’s Property from the perspective of the novelistic protagonist’s black female slave. Newly escaped to the North, Sarah relives the experience of “suckling” her childless white female owner at the mistress’s command (a brand of cruelty under-examined though not undocumented in accounts New World slavery, and reflective of the intersections of capitalism, racism, dehumanization and deep stigmatizations of same-gender desire). Describing the creaming and sugaring of her coffee in the emancipated North, Sarah speaks from the vantage point of a freedom continuously haunted by the terrors of her bondage. “My mistress knows nobody going listen if I tell it,” she says. Then, to the reader: “Listen to me.” Her message here resonates throughout Mule & Pear, telling of a black female freedom that is as bitter as it is sweet and a moment of transcendence that is total and incomplete at once.
But as the second half of the collection’s title suggests, black women may be the “mules uh de world,” yet they are also heirs to a special joy– the insight, love, and selfreplenishing pleasure Janie finds under Granny’s “blossoming pear tree.” An exquisitely quiet joy undergirds Mule & Pear’s movement through literary history. Loss may weight the mule’s lids, Griffiths reminds, but pain can sprout blossoms in the blink of an eye. So insists the speaker of “Leg Done Gone,” an imaginative ventriloquization of Morrison’s infanticidal mother character Eva Peace. For her, the people, thoughts, and feelings black women kill to survive are never really absent. Instead, they find themselves “all here in my universe./ They tell me things/ about the past & future/when I think God’s gone/ in the present. Tell me/ to come home to them. Come home/& love us, they say.” And as the speaker of “Risa Takes a Look & Gives it Back,” (inspired by Wilson’s subversively self-mutilating Risa in Two Trains Running) puts it, “meanness in this earth/ is as pleasurable as beauty.” Making sure to bring the paradox home, Griffiths’ Eva demands “you listening to me, girl?,” calling the reader to join in her universe of voice and vision, in which joy and tragedy, love and violence, are two lights cast on a single slice of living. Griffiths herself is no stranger to the travails and triumphs of the black girl alighted on words. Her first two collections, Miracle Arrhythmia (2010) and The Requited Distance (2011) show the impressive range of her imagination, a range which spans artistic genre and media. Also a photographer and painter, her close attention to light and visual contour explains the unusual eyes of some of her speakers. The speaker of “Ester Courts King Barlo,” for example, declares: “I see how color beats me,/ stole
the gloss from beauty.” And the speaker of “Dear Celie” confesses to Walker’s protagonist her wish “… to see/ a smile knock/ at each door/ in your mouth.” These moments of sight stuffed into sound are not interruptions in Mule & Pear—they stud Griffiths’s poetics like seeds, reminding the reader of the smoothness and the bite of the stories her women tell. At the close of this collection, the major thing one is left wanting is more—more women brought into the conversation, more voices from genres beyond fiction, or from more locations in the African Diasporic world. “What would Griffiths’s speakers say, one wonders, to Billie Holiday’s passed-down parables in the blues classic “God Bless the Child” (1941)”? How would they respond to the hardwon woman-wisdom of Nnu Ego in Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979), or to the defiantly direct courtroom testimony of 19th-century Caribbean-born slave autobiographer Mary Prince (1831)? But that is not Griffiths’s goal in this collection. This conversation is more or less local in its geographic and temporal spans, but it’s expansive in its scope of thought and feeling. The want you feel at the end of Mule & Pear is just the kind of want you hope for in turning the last page of a good book. It’s the wish that the voices you have been sitting with will not leave, the promise that the conversation will continue. H This review first appeared in Cerise Press Vol 4. Issue 10
Reba at the Funeral for Miss Lucille It ain’t about your Christ having his way. It ain’t about pews glistening under the gone-breath of my child. It ain’t about black people knowing more about true home-going. It’s about the gray-dove touching skin that can’t feel silk. Nothing’s amazing about grace or dying. How young is silence? It’s about a mother, stitching close a child’s eyelids. It’s about throwing out a broken tube of new red lipstick. It’s about what I had to give her, which that flying nigger took, calmly as a dollar bill in a gutter. Picked dreams off my eyes. How many houses grief need? There’s room in that casket for me. I said loved. There’s straw under Hagar’s cheeks. Somewhere between her neck & shoulder blade I could fit.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths
NW by Zadie Smith Penguin Press Review by Tracey L. Walters Ten years ago when Zadie Smith wrote her first novel White Teeth, she proved that she was a gifted writer. Three novels later, Smith has maintained her brilliance and has returned to form with a novel that is as exciting and impressive as her first effort. NW is a novel about fear, deception, and reconciling with the choices we make in our professional and personal lives. Similar to previous works, NW introduces readers to angst ridden, awkward characters who struggle with their identity and their place in the world. The novel also features many familiar themes found in Smith’s work, such as the immigrant experience, cultural hybridity, infidelity, and class disparity. Like White Teeth, NW is situated in Smith’s hometown of Willesden, NW London. In comparison to White Teeth though, Willesden in the new millennium is less quaint. In NW, Willesden is a gritty, unsafe place rife with drugs and crime. In a moment of nostalgia, Smith gives us a glimpse into the glory days of old, describing a church dating back to 1315 situated in the middle of a roundabout: “Out of time, out of place. A force field of serenity surrounds it.” Quickly jogging us out of this romantic reverie of the past, she reminds us that while the church remains the same the parishioners are different. The pews once filled with Anglo-Saxon worshippers have been replaced with a Polish, Caribbean, and South Asian congregation.
Avid readers of Smith’s novels will have grown accustomed to protagonists who are usually white and male (Archie Jones in White Teeth, Alex Li Tandem in The Autograph Man, and Howard Belsey in On Beauty). Surprisingly, in NW the narrative perspective is given primarily to two female characters: Leah Hanwell and Natalie Blake. Life-long friends Leah and Natalie are born in the same government housing estate. Both are granted the same opportunities for their lives. Although Leah is white and lower-middle class and Natalie is black and working class, race and class differences do not favor Leah, in fact it is Natalie who advances into middle-class life. Leah chooses to lead a simple life working for a small government agency that allocates funds for families in need. After college she puts aside her wild life of drugs and casual sex, political activism and high-brow friends for a quiet life with her dog, Olive, and her exotic French Algerian hairdresser-turned-husband, Michel. Michel, a true believer of the idea that in England everyone has the chance to improve their station in life, is desperate to move out of their government apartment into a place of their own. Leah is too afraid of the unknown and refuses to move out of her childhood neighborhood. Natalie, who changed her name from Keisha to Natalie (possibly because it sounds less ‘black’), is a successful lawyer. Natalie lives in a luxurious home on the right side of the tracks. She is married to her college sweet heart, Frank, a wealthy, handsome banker of Italian/Trinidadian heritage. Natalie and Frank are the parents of two beautiful children. On the surface both women seem to have it all, but as the story unfolds it’s clear that despite their
achievements they find life rote and unfulfilling. Leah feels like her life is meaningless. She never put her philosophy degree to good use and she hates her job, but has no clear goal of what to do with her future. While she loves and adores Michel, she feels a strain on the relationship and she’s is terrified of bearing his children. Even her mother’s constant nagging about grandchildren can not persuade Leah to become a mother. Leah’s relationship with Natalie is one of the most meaningful relationships in her life, but as the years pass this friendship is compromised by Leah’s envy of Natalie’s success and her disgust with Natalie’s superficial nature. In comparison to Leah, Natalie has orchestrated every facet of her life. She fought hard to gain respect as a top lawyer. Despite her high-powered job and her seemingly perfect family, Natalie is insecure and shallow, and constantly feels as if she has something to prove to the world. Natalie notices her relationship with Leah is fragile, but consumed by the problems in her own life she risks breaking up the friendship. In an effort to gain control over their lives, both women turn to deceptive means to cover up their sense of fear and failure and risk losing everything and everybody who is important. At times one can easily become impatient with Leah and Natalie who are portrayed as whiny, self absorbed, and ungrateful women. Fortunately, Smith drives home a larger point that doesn’t allow this novel to rest on selfindulgence. Against the backdrop of the women’s lives is another narrative about pressing social issues such as the endless cycle of poverty, illiteracy, absent fathers, the drug plague, and the failure of the criminal justice sys-
tem. Although they were granted the same opportunities, many of Leah and Natalie’s friends and family members are caught up in a lifestyle of crime and reckless behavior. Characters like Felix, for example, is a reformed street criminal who wants a fresh start in life but can’t escape the harshness of the streets. Cheryl, Natalie’s sister, continues having children out of wedlock and is therefore forced to live at home with her mother. And finally, heroin addict Nathan Bogle chooses a life on the streets as a pimp and a hustler. These characters are all accountable for the decisions they make in their lives, however as Smith shows us we can’t discount the fact that for some growing up in a certain environment jeopardizes one’s future. As the character Felix says, “[I]n the end, you just got to be the best you that you can be. The rest will follow naturally.” Despite a tragic conclusion to the story, the novel is rife with humor and irony. Smith also draws on her signature style of including a healthy dose of pop cultural references and a lively array of authentic dialects. Devoted fans of Smith’s work will also be thrilled by intertextual references to her other stories like Hanwell in Hell and Martha Martha—a couple of characters from White Teeth also make a brief appearance in the novel. NW showcases Smith’s creativity and masterful storytelling that’s evident in all her novels. Like White Teeth, the novel draws on realism to offer an authentic view of contemporary life in London. NW’s fragmented plot line and moments of stream of consciousness bring to mind the experimental style of The Autograph Man. And similar to what she achieves with On Beauty, Smith manages to handle complex issues with an air of simplicity. H
excerpt NW by Zadie Smith
1 the sole The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line—write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides. Four gardens along, in the estate, a grim girl on the third floor screams Anglo-Saxon at nobody. Juliet balcony, projecting for miles. It ain’t like that. Nah it ain’t like that. Don’t you start. Fag in hand. Fleshy, lobster-red. I am the sole I am the sole author Pencil leaves no mark on magazine pages. Somewhere she has read that the gloss gives you cancer. Everyone knows it shouldn’t be this hot. Shriveled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burned paunch rests on the railing. Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party. Not this century. Cruel opinion—she doesn’t share it. In marriage not everything is shared. Yellow sun high in the sky. Blue cross on a white stick, clear, definitive. What to do? Michel is at work. He is still at work. I am the
Ash drifts into the garden below, then comes the butt, then the box. Louder than the birds and the trains and the traffic. Sole sign of sanity: a tiny device tucked in her ear. I told im stop takin liberties. Where’s my cheque? And she’s in my face chattin breeze. Fuckin liberty. I am the sole. The sole. The sole She unfurls her fist, lets the pencil roll. Takes her liberty. Nothing else to listen to but this bloody girl. At least with eyes closed there is something else to see. Viscous black specks. Darting water boatmen, zig-zagging. Zig. Zag. Red river? Molten lake in hell? The hammock tips. The papers flop to the ground. World events and property and film and music lie in the grass. Also sport and the short descriptions of the dead. 2 Doorbell! She stumbles through the grass barefoot, sunhuddled, drowsy. The back door leads to a poky kitchen, tiled brightly in the taste of a previous tenant. The bell is not being rung. It is being held down. In the textured glass, a body, blurred. Wrong collection of pixels to be Michel. Between her body and the door, the hallway floorboards, golden in reflected sun. This hallway can only lead to good things. Yet a woman is screaming PLEASE and crying. A woman thumps the front door with her fist. Pulling the lock aside, she finds it stops halfway, the chain pulls tight, and a little hand f
lies through the gap. – PLEASE—oh my God help me—please Miss, I live here—I live just here, please God—check, please— Dirty nails. Waving a gas bill? Phone bill? Pushed through the opening, past the chain, so close she must draw back to focus on what she is being shown. 37 Ridley Avenue—a street on the corner of her own. This is all she reads. She has a quick vision of Michel as he would be if he were here, examining the envelope’s plastic window, checking on credentials. Michel is at work. She releases the chain.
square of the city as other people are to their families, or their countries. She knows the way people speak around here, that fuckin, around here, is only a rhythm in a sentence. She arranges her face to signify compassion. Shar closes her eyes, nods. She makes quick movements with her mouth, inaudible, speaking to herself. To Leah she says – You’re so good. Shar’s diaphragm rises and falls, slower now. The shuddering tears wind down. – Thank you, yeah? You’re so good.
The stranger’s knees go, she falls forward, crumpling. Girl or woman? They’re the same age: thirties, mid-way, or thereabouts. Tears shake the stranger’s little body. She pulls at her clothes and wails. Woman begging the public for witnesses. Woman in a warzone standing in the rubble of her home. – You’re hurt? Her hands are in her hair. Her head collides with the doorframe. – Nah, not me, my mum—I need some help. I’ve been to every fuckin door—please. Shar—my name is Shar. I’m local. I live here. Check!
Shar’s small hands grip the hands that support her. Shar is tiny. Her skin looks papery and dry, with patches of psoriasis on the forehead and on the jaw. The face is familiar. Leah has seen this face many times in these streets. A peculiarity of London villages: faces without names. The eyes are memorable, around the deep brown clear white is visible, above and below. An air of avidity, of consuming what she sees. Long lashes. Babies look like this. Leah smiles. The smile offered back is blank, without recognition. Sweetly crooked. Leah is only the good stranger who opened the door and did not close it again. Shar repeats: you are so good, you are so good— until the thread of pleasure that runs through that phrase (of course for Leah there is a little pleasure) is broken. Leah shakes her head. No, no, no, no.
– Come in. Please. I’m Leah. Leah is as faithful in her allegiance to this two-mile
Leah directs Shar to the kitchen. Big hands on the girl’s continued on page 47
By Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn Ayana Mathis has an innocence about her that makes it hard for other writers to envy her success. Unlike other writers who list names of literary journals they’ve published in, Ayana quietly worked under the radar, and her first book has quickly become an overnight sensation. The Iowa Writing Workshop MFA graduate who had once considered a career as a baker could not believe that Oprah Winfrey of all people sniffed her book out from the thousands she comes across each year to be in her book club. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has garnered major attention, receiving two magnificent reviews in The New York Times as well as a myriad of articles in other media --including the magic touch of Oprah Winfrey. However, after reading Ayana’s book, it’s evident that she did not need any magic. Her lyrical prose, which reads like poetry, captures the life of Hattie Shepherd
and her eleven children and one granddaughter; hence the book’s title. Twelve Tribes is a fearless work that not only tackles The Great Migration, but also reflects on issues such as abandonment, depression, sexuality, and religion. I read the book in two days, and so deep were the characters’ resonance that I found myself stopping in the middle of daily routines to conjure a line, a description, or the souls I met on those two hundred and fortythree pages. Their stories continue to haunt me. Long after reading you will sit with it for a good long time, just to allow your mind time to ruminate through the doors it will open inside you. I could not wait to discuss this breathtaking book with the mastermind behind it. Given her hectic schedule, (She was still in the midst of the Oprah Winfrey hurricane) Ayana agreed to a morning phone call. Our past conversations had been less structured, more like a mentor/mentee dynamic where I sought her advice about writing, agents, and anxiety over getting published. My role as interviewer was new. By now every journalist has asked their questions; she’s spoken of her writing journey, which entails work as a fact checker at New York Magazine, and living in Italy where she did no writing at all. She has even talked about her childhood where she recalled living with a mother who suffered from depression. What was unique about this conversation was that, Ayana must deal with a success few first-time authors receive and I wanted to know what this success means. Has she processed it all? A few days after our conversation I attended the launched of her national book tour at Brooklyn’s Greenlight bookstore. As I waited for her to
walk to the front of the crowded room, I could not help but observe how humble she was about this experience. Before she read, she took a deep breath. The room was still. All eyes were on her. As her voice filled the quiet room, Twelve Tribes’s characters Hattie, August, Pearl, Benny and Ella floated around us. They moved chairs and made their way around the room, captivating what seemed like hundreds of people who turned out to get their books signed in the small independent bookstore. Nicole Dennis-Benn: What made you decide to start the novel with Floyd—well after the twins died—as opposed to the other siblings? Ayana Mathis: Some of the considerations in the book were chronological—some of stories were written in other time periods. And when I was putting it all together, Floyd was not the second story. I forget where he was in the line-up. In some ways I wrote the story where they move forward through time. But the actual years in which they took place, quite literally, were assigned after the fact. In a couple of cases I knew. With Franklin for example, with the Vietnam War, I knew for sure what year that was. But some of them were kind of an ethos of a time period. And later, I kind of went back and put them in order. Floyd ended up being second because he fit in the birth order. And in certain ways—there was a lot of what I like to call novel mass where you have to figure out the ages of people, their relationship with Hattie, the year they were born—[Laughter] Nicole Dennis-Benn: I know! Oh my goodness! Ayana Mathis: Very convoluted! [Laughter] Ayana Mathis: So a lot of it was novel mass. And some
of it was because I wanted Floyd to have a very special relationship with Hattie. And I didn’t see how he could’ve had a special relationship with her had he been born later after her other children, at which point she was incapable of forming singular bonds with anyone. But she could do that with Floyd. That’s why Floyd came second. Nicole Dennis-Benn: You touched on something with Floyd that resonated with me, which was Floyd’s attraction to men in an era when it was frowned upon. I think you captured his internal conflict beautifully. As a Jamaican lesbian who had struggled with my sexuality while growing up as a teenager in a homophobic country, it definitely resonated with me. I was like “Wow! She got it!” Can you talk about that a little? Ayana Mathis: Certainly I had motivations in writing Floyd. I wanted there to be a gay child because it would’ve not been representative—it seemed unrealistic to me to have that many kids and not one of them turn out to be gay. There were a lot of gay men in that period living very closeted lives and it seemed very important that one of Hattie’s children would be gay. In terms of how he was created or inhabited, those things remain kind of mysterious. Certainly, one of the goals of fiction is always to tunnel as deeply into a character as possible so that one can write as truthfully as possible about them. But where one’s conception of them or where their thoughts might be, one can draw from imagination, things you read, things you’ve seen, and all of that. But the kind of act, or pure imagining, is kind of mysterious to me—to all writers, it’s a bit mysterious.
photo credit: Elena Seibert
Nicole Dennis-Benn: I love the way you challenged
religion in the book with Six, a young preacher who struggles with his own connection to God and thus uses his talent as a good orator to get him through sermons; and again in the end when Hattie surprised us in the church scene, snatching her granddaughter away from the altar. Those scenes were hilarious but definitely laced with truth. Was it a decision on your part to poke fun at religion or did it just happen? Ayana Mathis: I think in certain ways, this is the autobiographical part of the novel—not so much the actual conversion, or the church scene at the altar, and certainly not being a child preacher [Laughter]—but I did grow up in the church. I think certainly some of my own grappling with what it means to grow up or move with a kind of deeply religious sentiment with its own beauty and its faults is something I think about a lot and grapple with a lot. And in some ways, it came out in the book.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: [The character] Cassie. Ayana Mathis: Yeah.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: OK. All the children were affected in significant ways by their mother, Hattie, which is by far, one of the most beautiful and complex character I’ve ever seen. Well not since Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I was in love with her as well. What was it like writing Hattie on the page? Ayana Mathis: It was an interesting thing. You kind of have to—for me—she was so complicated that in many ways she was just very hard for me to understand. Some of the ways that I could sort of get at her and flush her out were really through—kind of—well the best way for me to write her or to get at her was through the sort of prism of her children’s experience of her and her children’s relationship with her. Just because she is so kind of multifaceted and larger than life, you know. She would’ve been very difficult to approach head on, I think. Also because her life is so difficult that, had I approached her in a more linear narrative kind of way, I think it would’ve just become a list of terrible woes, you know what I mean? [Laughter]
Nicole Dennis-Benn: And how her daughter, Sala, was affected by her mother’s mental state. Ayana Mathis: Joy—yeah.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Yes. Absolutely. Ayana Mathis: Not settled at all. And almost sort of unreadable. I think.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: So has your life story informed your novel in any way?
Nicole Dennis-Benn: Wow. It was brilliant. Ayana Mathis: Thank you.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: You had mentioned in several interviews that you were raised by a single mother who struggled with mental illness. In your novel you touched on mental illness, particularly depression and in one case, schizophrenia— Ayana Mathis: Uhm-hmm.
Ayana Mathis: I think that certainly all writers draw on a kind of well-spring of personal experience and also of everything we’ve read and people we’ve known and that kind of stuff. So in that sense, certainly, yes. But Cassie and the other characters are purely fictional. They’re not autobiographical stories.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: What are your hopes and fears about what you want your work do in the world? Ayana Mathis: Great question. I think my hope has always been that Black women, in particular, would read the book. I think it has something to offer, to be said, or some kind of familiarity --especially to Black women of a certain generation. And at the same time, my sort of equal hope is that everyone would read the book. It’s really difficult the ways in which cultural products become segregated. So people see literature that is written by people who are not white, and sort of think “Oh that’s not for me,” and “Oh I can’t access that,” or “Oh that doesn’t have anything to do with me”. And certainly this is not something we do with literature written by White people. So I think my twin hopes, obviously, are that Black women read the book, but also that it is seen and perceived as literary work that display certain aspects of the human experience, and so is accessible to everybody.
something like that. Nicole Dennis-Benn: Wow. Beautiful. Did you think Hattie would’ve been this successful? One thing that struck me was your command of storytelling and lyricism. So, what was the real surprise for you when Oprah Winfrey called? I can’t imagine you ever doubting this book would have gotten this far. Ayana Mathis: I mean it’s just a shocking thing, you know—[laughter]—you can’t ever possibly expect it, I don’t think. But yeah—just a completely—not a thing you can plan for or ever anticipate. Just a complete xfactor out of nowhere. H
Nicole Dennis-Benn: What does it feel like now that you’ve made it as a writer? Ayana Mathis: To me, there is no such thing as making it as a writer. I think you always are sort of aware of the ways in which the book maybe didn’t quite live up to your sort of goal and ideal of what it would be. And then of course, there’s always the next book. So I don’t really think there’s such a thing—at least not in my conception as making it was a writer. Each book is its own independent thing. And so, the next book has to be written—[Laughter]—and that’s it own sort of journey, and its own sort of standard that is completely different from this one. So I think it’s always just sort of a progression as opposed to thinking “I have arrived” or
Freelance photographer Marcia E. Wilson gallivants around NYC looking for literary events to spotlight on the "Around Town" page. She may be at a reading near you. For more visit MosaicMagazine.org. September 17, 2012 - Under a gorgeous sky, the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival presented it’s largest line up of authors, literati, and vendors. From the BKBF website: The Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York City, presenting an array of national and international literary stars and emerging authors. One of America’s premier book festivals, this hip, smart diverse gathering attracts thousands of book lovers of all ages to enjoy authors and the festival’s lively literary marketplace. A record 280+ authors participated in over 150 panels and readings, which began on September 17. Authors included: Paul Auster, Carol Higgins Clark, Tony Danza, Jimmie Walker, Edwidge Danticat, Pete Hamill, Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, Dennis Lehane, Esmeralda Santiago, Terry McMillan, Sapphire, Billy Collins, Earl Lovelace, Christopher Hayes, Dan Savage, Isabel Wilkerson, Pankaj Mishra, Karl Ove Knausgård, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Gordon Korman, R.J. Palacio, Judith Viorst, Libba Bray and many, many more to headline Festival. This is a sampling of the many authors, publishers, vendors, and book lovers who made the day a success.
poets Aracelis Girmay and Samantha Thornhill
September 12, 2012 - Shirley Sherrod, former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture, sat down with Esther Armah to discuss Ms. Sherrod’s memoir The Courage To Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear. The event was part of Ms. Armah’s “Emotional Justice Unplugged” series of conversations, and was hosted at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem NY.
For additional “Around Town” coverage of literary events visit mosl.it
In 2010, Ms. Sherrod became a household name when conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart labeled her a “reverse racist” after he edited a video to alter a speech she was giving to the NAACP. She was accused of discriminating against white farmers; condemned by the NAACP, the Tea Party, the Obama administration, CNN, Fox, and a host of news outlets. She was ultimately forced to resign. Once the speech was viewed in its entirety it became clear that Mr. Breitbart was leading a smear campaign and both the edited speech and Breitbart were discredited.
E. Is Deirdre stronger or weaker than the male protagonist? Think about the way she carries him when he’s sick, her IRA background, and her defiance when her father and brother express racism when they learn about her relationship with Nathan. F. In what way(s) is the female protagonist weak? In what way(s) is she strong? G. Consider the descriptions of Deirdre’s skin color and attire. Contrast the wife’s appearance with the descriptions of the female protagonist. In what way(s) are these women the same, despite the differences in the way they appear? In what way(s) are these women different? H. When they were in high school, the female protagonist was willing to defy her friends, grow an afro, and join the Black Power Movement with Nathan. Does it matter that he marries a white woman after they graduate? I. What happens when the clock strikes midnight? What begins one second past midnight? What do you think Nathan’s nickname, King Quarter Past Midnight, really means? Consider the last paragraph of the story. Is the female protagonist still Queen Quarter to Twelve as she says on page 6?
the movement, and the way(s) Jamaicans expressed resistance to British power. Were members of the Black Power Movement terrorists or were they freedom fighters? Create a timeline of significant Black Power Movement activities and write a report about the influence of this movement. C. Read the play Smile Orange by Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone. If you can, try to watch a video of one of the staged productions of this comedy. Read an article or review about the history and influence of this play. Share a report that summarizes the information you uncover with the class. Choose a scene in the play that is particularly resonant for you. With a few classmates, present a staged reading of the scene to the rest of the class. Remember that you don’t act during a staged reading. The actors simply sit in chairs and read the lines out loud.
“The Big Shot” I. Topics for Discussion
Goodison refers to several Jamaican artists in her story, including George Rodney, Patrick Waldemar, and Gene Pearson. Research the work of these prominent artists and choose one to write about. Craft an essay that focuses on the work the artist you select has produced and the way(s) Jamaica and Jamaican culture have influenced his art.
A. What went wrong in Albert’s life? B. What were some of the mistakes that he made? List them. C. What do his dreams symbolize? What causes him to have his dreams? D. Think about the ways the other residents of Albert’s childhood community encourage him and express pride in his achievements. Does Albert owe them anything? E. Does Albert owe anything to his son? What about the woman and man who raised his son?
III. Additional Activities
II. Essay Idea
II. Essay Idea
A. Research the IRA. Think about the history of this organization, its stated goals and objectives, and the way(s) the IRA expressed resistance to British power. Were members of the IRA terrorists or were they freedom fighters? Create a timeline of significant IRA activities and write a report about the influence of this organization. B. Research the history of the Black Power Movement in Jamaica. Think about the history of this movement through the mid-20th century, the anti-colonial focus of
Imagine yourself as a lower-income child who is able to achieve financial success in your career as an adult. What would you do for your old neighborhood? What would you do for the people who encouraged you to succeed? continued on page 52
Guitar Soliloquy The woman in blue overalls rubbed her fingers over my open mouth. A woman whose eyes gone away to a different time of blues. Time before water. Time before bite, dog & bullet. She rubbed my neck, murmuring, Us can’t fly Us can’t fly, mah Teacake, mah sweetbread boy. In my mouth I tasted Lake Okechobee’s apology, forty miles wide & sixty miles long. The jook of water washed over my dusky jubilee. This dead boy’s old music box lost somewhere in those waters. I felt it all in her hands rubbing me the night before she washed him down for the last time, singing in his ear. His ghost is here too, giving me a try & hum. Both of them weeping at this split of spirit. Her hands gripped his stone-cold hands around my throat, making angels pluck their cat-gut lyres. Her hands beckoned the brass ghosts of Bahaman drummers to leap, fly, walk along a field of low clouds with dusty feet. O morning woman, I want to say to her when they get ready to pull the lid over me & this boy. O woman, I got to say, love ain’t even quiet in here. Not long as I’m in this boy’s hands, opening a strawberry mouth over his half-smiling stitched lips. Woman, me & this white silk canopy, going to bear your man ‘til he wake up again. When he wake up again, singing to you. Us can fly, heah Janie, Us can fly for certain. Gal, just wait for us to wake up in your arms.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths 44
writer. I am happy when people respond to my writing in a certain positive way because then I think I’ve done that. My job is done. How much does your relationship with your homeland influence your writing? A lot. I was committed to writing about Jamaica [with Harvey River]; but once I finished the memoir, I had a sense that maybe I could do other things, or try to do other things. But I suspect that I might always write about Jamaica. I don’t know. The stories about Jamaica…they never stop. They are familiar and they are funny. And the humor in most of what I write and that comes across in my stories comes from the people themselves. Jamaicans are very comical people, and laughter is a way of coping with life’s displeasures. Also, when you make something of it [a hard situation], it says that you are in control. There are incidences when we have no control; all we can do is make some sort of a gesture. Sometimes, the world can throw things at you that are so cruel and so devastating that you are in no position to have any kind of real response but to make a gesture. And I think that sometimes laughter is a gesture saying that you have not completely annihilated me; you have not robbed me of my ability to respond as a human being. So with that in mind, how important is cultural identity in your poems and stories? It’s very important. For me, some of the greatest responses to my work have come from people who are not from the Caribbean. For example, they look at a piece of writing and see that the work is a lot about family. And they connect with that. So I have ceased to try to formulate any opinion or any conclusions about who likes my work anymore. The most unlikely people sometimes respond to my work. And I think that is true of any writing. I mean, I didn’t live in London, England, at the time of Dickens, but people all over respond to the human conditions and the realities he wrote of.
Are there any writers or stories that you admire, and what is it about them that connect with you? I like it when something rings true, even if it is imagined. I can tell if someone has written something that just resonates with me in a way that I cannot even put into words. I think Toni Cade Bambara is an amazing writer. I love Bambara’s work because there is a certain fineness of feeling in her voice. She has a loving sympathetic imagination as well as a great deal of negative capability. There are also currents of redemptive love and joy that run through her work. And she makes me laugh, really, really laugh. Also, one of the early things I read, when I was about maybe twelve, was an excerpt from what turned out to be Go Tell It on the Mountain [James Baldwin]. I had no idea what I was reading at the time, and I believe it was in a magazine. It may even have been in The Saturday Evening Post or one of the magazines my sister brought home. But I remember reading this excerpt; it was a very powerful scene that takes place in a kitchen, and I remember feeling like the top of my head was being lifted. And many years later, as an adult, I realized what it was I had been reading. I like writers whose words can have that kind of affect on you. One of my delicious reading experiences as a teenager was reading Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. I just loved that book… I love Tolstoy. I love Russian writers; that sense of drama and the idea of ordinary people who were living these huge interior lives; how small, seemingly insignificant things can set about a chain of events that you could not have possibly imagined. I also enjoy many Latin authors, Jorge Amado, for example. And who doesn’t like [Gabriel García] Márquez. One of my absolute favorite collections of poetry is by Antonio Cisneros. His book The Spider Hangs Too Far from the Ground is such a beautiful book. But I have no shame when it comes to reading. I like reading everything, even some of the rubbish. If I find
it interesting enough. But of late, I have had this urge to return to books that I now see have shaped my voice early in my life. I’m finding great comfort in some things I read a long time ago. I am one to revisit books from time to time. What is next for you? I really don’t know. I do have a book of poetry that is due to come out in early 2013; and those are very strange poems because they begin in Spain. There are times though, I think I’d like to attempt to do a Part Two of the memoir because Harvey River ends around 1960s, with Independence; and I did have quite a lot of experience on the ground in the 1970s in Jamaican politics. I was around a lot of it. But it was a complex and strange time, so I’m wondering if I could tackle that. Does politics have a role in literary writing? Politricks as Peter Tosh would say. Ah, politricks. I used to be very politically active, but I never wanted my poems to be freighted with political rhetoric. Absolutely, politics has a place in literature. Read Things Fall Apart. Politics certainly plays a role in both African and Caribbean writing. A fine example of that is A Man of the People [Chinua Achebe] because it captures the African culture and politics. What I like about these books is that the story is often familiar and there is an engagement with the dialogue. I believe it was Eduardo Galeano who said that “writers should not speak to their readers as if they were hard of hearing.” I believe my own writing to be very political. Maybe it is mostly below the surface, but it is still there. In one of my stories, “For My Comrades Wearing ThreePiece Suits,” a young man is in prison because he attempted robbery because of his political activities. Now he doesn’t actually say it that he did it because of his political involvement. Yet I caught a lot flak from the Left in Jamaica for that story. You see, there is, or was, a generation of people who were so committed to the politics of the time that a lot of them made big errors in the own lives because they were so committed to this idea
of politics and change. And I wrote that story because I think there are often young people in that particular situation. And I wanted to express my thoughts about it. You’ve been teaching at the University of Michigan since 1991, in the disciplines of Caribbean studies and poetry, and in the M.F.A. program. Do you have any specific ideas about teaching writing? I think what you can do is give people the benefit of your experience. Let me give you an example. I like to give examples. I was both extremely fortunate and unfortunate in that Third World culture with a family friend who went to the university with my brother-in-law. I was about eighteen at the time, and he wanted to see some poems I had written. He had said to me, “You, show me your poems.” And I said I wasn’t going to do it, because he came at me very harshly, intimidating even. But a friend of mine said, “Are you crazy…How can you miss an opportunity like that?” So I did. I took the poems to him, and as he read over them he then told me, “Throw this one away…sell this one to Hallmark… this one is rubbish.” And the ones that were left, he went over them very carefully with me. And I’ve been living on that experience ever since. The thing is this, a very gifted and very experienced person can help you in whatever field of endeavor you are engaged in; especially if that person is able and willing to pass along their knowledge. And I think that is what the teaching of writing is about. Maybe some students will arrive at skills and development at a certain rate pretty much on their own, but it might probably take them a little longer. But as a teacher, you can just only guide them, help them, and shape them. I try to give students the benefit of my own experience; tell them of things that I think they might want to read to help them along. H
narrow shoulders. She watches Shar’s buttocks rise up and against her rolled-down jogging pants, the little downy dip in her back, pronounced, sweaty in the heat. The tiny waist opening out into curves. Leah is hipless, gangly like a boy. Perhaps Shar needs money. Her clothes are not clean. In the back of her right knee there is a wide tear in the nasty fabric. Dirty heels rise up out of disintegrating flip-f lops. She smells. – Heart attack! I was asking them is she dyin? Is she dyin? Is she dyin? She goes in the ambulance—don’t get no answer do I! I got three kids that is home alone innit—I have to get hospital—what they talking about car for? I ain’t got no car! I’m saying help me—no one did a fuckin thing to help me. Leah grips Shar’s wrist, sets her down in a chair at the kitchen table and passes over a roll of tissue. She puts her hands once more on Shar’s shoulders. Their foreheads are inches from each other. – I understand, it’s OK. Which hospital? – It’s like . . . I ain’t written it . . . In Middlesex or—Far, though. Don’t know eggzak’ly. Leah squeezes Shar’s hands. – Look, I don’t drive—but— Checks her watch. Ten to five. – If you wait, maybe twenty minutes? If I call him now, he can—or maybe a taxi . . . Shar eases her hands from Leah’s. She presses her knuckles into her eyes, breathing out fully: the panic is over. – Need to be there . . . no numbers—nothing—no money . . . Shar tears some skin from her right thumb with her teeth.
A spot of blood rises and contains itself. Leah takes Shar again by the wrist. Draws her fingers from her mouth. – Maybe The Middlesex? Name of the hospital, not the place. Down Acton way, isn’t it? The girl’s face is dreamy, slow. Touched, the Irish say. Possible that she’s touched. – Yeah . . . could be . . . yeah, no, yeah that’s it. The Middlesex. That’s it. Leah straightens up, takes a phone from her back pocket and dials. – I’LL COME BY TOMORROW. Leah nods and Shar continues, making no concession for the phone call. – PAY YOU BACK. GET MY CHEQUE TOMORROW, YEAH? Leah keeps her phone to her ear, smiles and nods, gives her address. She mimes a cup of tea. But Shar is looking at the apple blossom. She wipes tears from her face with the fabric of her grubby t-shirt. Her belly-button is a tight knot f lush with her stomach, a button sewn in a divan. Leah recites her own phone number. – Done. She turns to the sideboard, picks up the kettle with her free hand, fumbling it because she expected it to be empty. A little water spills. She replaces the kettle on its stand, and remains where she is, her back to her guest. There is no natural place to sit or stand. In front of her, on the long windowsill that stretches the room, some of the things of her life—photos, knick-knacks, some of Dad’s ashes, vases, plants, herbs. In the window’s reflection Shar is bringing her little feet up to the seat of her chair, holding her ankles. The emergency was less
awkward, more natural than this. This is not the country for making a stranger tea. They smile at each other in the glass. There is goodwill. There is nothing to say. – I’ll get cups. Leah is naming all her actions. She opens the cupboard. It is full of cups; cups on cups on cups.
Leah perches her backside on the counter and gives her dates. Shar is impatient with chronology. She wants to know if Leah remembers when the science wing flooded, the time Jake Fowler had his head placed in a vise. In relation to these coordinates, like moon landings and the deaths of presidents, they position their own times. – Two years below you, innit. What’s your name again?
– Nice place. Leah struggles with the stiff lid of a biscuit tin. Leah turns too quickly, makes irrelevant motions with her hands. – Not ours—we rent—ours is just this—there’s two flats upstairs. Shared garden. It’s council, so . . . Leah pours out the tea as Shar looks around. Bottom lip out, head nodding gently. Appreciative, like an estate agent. Now she comes to Leah. What’s to see? Wrinkled checked flannel shirt, raggedy jean shorts, freckled legs, bare feet—someone absurd, maybe, a slacker, a lady of leisure. Leah crosses her arms across her abdomen.
– Leah. Hanwell. – Leah. You went Brayton. Still see anyone? Leah lists her names, with their potted biographies. Shar beats a rhythm on the table-top with her fingers. – Have you been married long? – Too long. – Do you want me to call someone? Your husband?
– Nice for council. Lot of bedrooms and that? The lip stays low. It slurs her speech a little. Something is wrong with Shar’s face, Leah notices, and is embarrassed by noticing, and looks away.
– Nah . . . nah . . . he’s over there. Ain’t seen him in two years. Abusive. Violent. Had issues. Had a lot of problems, in his head and that. Broke my arm, broke my collarbone, broke my knee, broke my fuckin face. Tell you the truth—
– Two. The second’s a box. We sort of use it as . . . Shar meanwhile burrows for something else entirely; she’s slower than Leah, but she’s there now, they’re in the same place. She points her finger in Leah’s face.
The next is said in a light aside, with a little hiccupping laugh, and is incomprehensible. – Used to rape me and everything . . . it was crazy. Oh well.
– Wait—you went Brayton? She bounces on her chair. Elated. But this must be wrong. – I swear when you was on the phone I was thinking: I know you. You went Brayton!
Shar slides off her chair and walks toward the back door. Looks out on the garden, the parched yellow lawn. – I’m so sorry.
– Ain’t your fault! Is what it is.
The feeling of feeling absurd. Leah puts her hands in her pockets. The kettle clicks.
– Boy? – No, I mean—I haven’t got that far.
– Truthfully, Layer, I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy. It’s been hard. But. Got away, you know? I’m alive. Three kids! Youngest is seven. So, good came, you get me?
Leah blushes not having intended to speak of this delicate, unfinished thing.
Leah nods at the kettle.
– Does your mans know?
– Got kids?
– I took the test this morning. Then you came.
– No. A dog, Olive. She’s at my mate Nat’s house right now. Natalie Blake? Actually in school she was Keisha. Natalie De Angelis now. In my year. Used to have a big afro puff like—
– Pray for a girl. Boys are hell.
Leah mimes an atomic mushroom behind her own head. Shar frowns.
Shar has a dark look. She grins satanically. Around each tooth the gum is black. She walks back to Leah and presses her hands flat against Leah’s stomach.
– Yeah. Up herself. Coconut. Thought she was all that.
– Let me feel. I can tell things. Don’t matter how early. Come here. Not gonna hurt you. It’s like a gift. My mum was the same way. Come here.
A look of blank contempt passes over Shar’s face. Leah talks into it.
She reaches for Leah and pulls her forward. Leah lets her. Shar places her hands back where they were.
– She’s got kids. Lives just over there, in the posh bit, on the park. She’s a lawyer now. Barrister. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. They’ve two kids. The kids love Olive, the dog’s called Olive.
– Gonna be a girl, definite. Scorpio, too, proper trouble. A runner.
She is just saying sentences, one after the other, they don’t stop. – I’m pregnant, actually. Shar leans against the glass of the door. Closes one eye, focusing on Leah’s stomach. – Oh it’s early. Very. Actually I found out this morning.
Leah laughs. She feels a heat rising between the girl’s sweaty hands and her own clammy stomach. – Like an athlete? – Nah . . . the kind who runs away. You’ll need one eye on her, all the time. Shar’s hands drop, her face glazes over once more with boredom. She starts talking of things. All things are equal. Leah or tea or rape or bedroom or heart attack or school or who had a baby.
Actually actually actually. Shar takes the revelation in her
– That school. . . . it was rubbish but them people who went there. . . . quite a few people did all right, didn’t they? Like, Calvin—remember Calvin?
– Yeah you looked different in school, definitely. You’re better now innit. You was all ginger and bony. All long.
Leah pours out the tea, nodding fiercely. She does not remember Calvin.
Leah is still all of these things. The change must be in other people, or in the times themselves.
– He’s got a gym on the Finchley Road.
– Done well, though. How come you aint at work? What d’you do again?
Leah spins her spoon in her tea, a drink she never takes, especially in this weather. She has pressed the bag too hard. The leaves break their borders and swarm. – Not running it—owns it. I go past there sometimes. Never thought little Calvin would get his shit together— he was always with Jermaine and Louie and Michael. Them lot was trouble . . . I don’t see none of them. Don’t need the drama. Still see Nathan Bogle. Used to see Tommy and James Haven but I aint seen them recent. Not for time. Shar keeps talking. The kitchen slants and Leah steadies herself with a hand to the sideboard. – Sorry, what?
Shar is already nodding as Leah begins to speak. – Phoned in sick. I wasn’t feeling good. It’s sort of general admin, basically. For a good cause. We hand out money. From the lottery, to charities, nonprofits—small local organizations in the community that need . . . They are not listening to their own conversation. The girl from the estate is still out on her balcony, screaming. Shar shakes her head and whistles. She gives Leah a look of neighborly sympathy. – Silly fat bitch. Leah traces a knight’s move from the girl with her finger. Two floors up, one window across.
Shar frowns, she speaks round the lit fag in her mouth. – I was born just there. – I said, can I have that tea? Together they look like old friends on a winter’s night, holding their mugs with both hands. The door is open, every window is open. No air moves. Leah takes her shirt in hand and shakes it free of her skin. A vent opens, air scoots through. The sweat pooled beneath each breast leaves its shameful trace on the cotton. – I used to know . . . I mean . . . Leah presses on with this phony hesitation and looks deep into her mug, but Shar isn’t interested, she’s knocking on the glass of the door, speaking over her.
From there to here, a journey longer than it looks. For a second, this local detail holds Shar’s interest. Then she looks away, ashing her cigarette on the kitchen floor, though the door is open and the grass only a foot away. She is slow, maybe, and possibly clumsy; or she is traumatized, or distracted. – Done well. Living right. Probably got a lot of friends, out on a Friday, clubbing, all that. – Not really. Shar blows a short burst of smoke out of her mouth, and
makes a rueful sort of sound, nodding her head over and over. – Proper snobby, this street. You the only one let me in. Rest of them wouldn’t piss on you if you was on fire. – I’ve got to go upstairs. Get some money for this cab. Leah has money in her pocket. Upstairs she walks into the nearest room, the toilet, closes the door, sits on the floor and cries. With her foot she reaches over and knocks the toilet paper off its perch. She is rolling it toward her when the doorbell goes.
pink, Michel appears, walking up the street, on the other side. Too hot— his face is soaked. The little towel he keeps for days like this pokes from his bag. Leah raises a finger up in the air, a request for him to stay where he is. She points to Shar, though Shar is hidden by the car. Michel is short-sighted; he squints in their direction, stops, smiles tensely, takes his jacket off, throws it over his arm. Leah can see him plucking at his t-shirt, trying to shed the the remnants of his day: many tiny hairs, clippings from strangers, some blonde, some brown. – Who that? – Michel, my husband.
– DOOR! DOOR! WILL I? – Girl’s name? Leah stands, tries to wash away the redness in the tiny sink. She finds Shar in the hallway, in front of a shelf filled with books from college, drawing her finger along the spines. – You read all these? – No, not really. No time nowadays.
– French. – Nice looking, innit—nice looking babies! Shar winks: a grotesque compression of one side of her face. Shar drops her cigarette and gets in the car, leaving the door open. The money remains in Leah’s hand.
Leah takes the key from where it sits on the middle shelf and opens the front door. Nothing makes sense. The driver who stands by the gate makes a gesture she doesn’t understand, points to the other end of the street and starts walking. Shar follows. Leah follows. Leah is growing into a new meekness.
– He local? Seen him about.
– How much do you need?
– Originally. Look—do you want me to come with you?
There is a shade of pity in Shar’s face.
Shar says nothing for a moment. Then she steps out of the car and reaches up to Leah’s face with both hands.
– He works in the hairdressers, by the station? From Marseilles—he’s French. Been here forever. – African, though.
– Twenty? Thirty . . . is safe. She smokes without hands, squeezing the vapor out of a corner of her mouth.
– You’re a really good person. I was meant to come to your door. Seriously! You’re a spiritual person. There’s something spiritual inside you.
The manic froth of cherry blossom. Through a corridor of
Leah grips Shar’s little hand tight and submits to a kiss.
Shar’s mouth is slightly open on Leah’s cheek for thank and now closes with you. In reply, Leah says something she has never said in her life: God bless you. They pull apart—Shar backs away awkwardly, and turns toward the car, almost gone. Leah presses the money into Shar’s hand with defiance. But already the grandeur of experience threatens to f latten into the conventional, into anecdote: only thirty pounds, only an ill mother, neither a murder, nor a rape. Nothing survives its telling. – Mental weather. Shar uses her scarf to blot the sweat on her face, and will not look at Leah. – Come by tomorrow. Pay you back. Swear to God, yeah? Thanks, seriously. You saved me today. Leah shrugs. – Nah don’t be like that, I swear—I’ll be there, serious.
A. Is Shilling a good girl or a bad girl? What makes a girl good? What makes a girl bad? Consider the way the boy she has a crush on treats her. Is he good, or is he bad? Are the rules regarding sex and relationships different for boys and girls? B. Think about Shilling’s different hair colors. Consider the line on page 160, that “it seemed she wanted to change herself so badly.” What does the constant change in Shilling’s hair color represent? C. What has happened to Shilling’s innocence and her dream to marry a nice man and have a family? Do any of the character express sympathy when they talk about Shilling? Does the narrator express sympathy for Shilling? How do you think the author wants you to feel about Shilling? D. How does Shilling get her nickname? How much is a shilling worth? Why do you think Goodison chose this nickname for the title character?
– I just hope she’s OK. Your mum.
– Tomorrow, yeah? Thank you!
Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain The Hills Were Joyful Together by Roger Mais Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid Prospero’s Daughter by Elizabeth Nunez Salt by Earl Lovelace
The door closes. The car pulls off. H
Excerpted from NW by Zadie Smith Copyright© 2012 by Zadie Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Shilling” I. Topics for Discussion
Garces Puppeteria, The Edy Martinez Big Band, Peggy Robles Alvarado, Layding Lumumba Kaliba, Tony Mitchelson, Sandra Maria Esteves and more
2640 Grand Concourse at East Kingsbridge Road
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feel inferior because of their race or color. That’s why they chose to live in Jamaica from 1968 to 1977. In his last published novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970), Kelley creates a mythical foreign country that practices apartheid on the basis of whether a person has chosen a blue or a yellow clothing color scheme on a particular day. Chig Dunford, a Harvard-educated African-American who appeared in some of Kelley’s previous works, tours this strange country with friends. Dunford struggles to reconcile his Harlem roots with his Ivy League education and his white friends. Inspired by James Joyce’s linguistic gymnastics in Finnegan’s Wake, Kelley plays with language in the novel’s dream sequences. He combines standard English with African-American Creole patois and ghetto street argot — often to great comic effect. Dunford also is the focus of Dis/Integration, a novel Kelley recently completed. He’s still seeking a publisher. In that novel, Dunford lives almost entirely among Euros (Kelley’s preferred term for Caucasians or whites) and only occasionally sees his family. Kelley likens Dunford’s situation to Leopold Bloom’s in Joyce’s Ulysses. “He’s in society, but he’s not really a part of that society,” Kelley said. “I see African-American kids now who have grown up in the suburbs with Euros, and they’re not African-American any more — culturally, anyway. They don’t know any more about the ghetto than anybody else.” Kelley doesn’t know when or if Dis/Integration will be published. He can’t pinpoint exactly why he hasn’t been able to get a book published in the past 42 years. “My wife thinks I was blacklisted because I was an early opponent of the Vietnam War,” he said. “I’m not sure about that.” He believes he might have earned a reputation in the publishing world of being hard to work with because he staunchly resisted changes his publisher, Doubleday, wanted to make in Dunfords Travels Everywheres. His absence from the United States for nine years and the
emergence of other talented African-American writers in the 1970s such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker may have worked against him, he said. But it’s all speculation. No one knows for certain why a writer of his talent and stature hasn’t been able get a book published in 42 years. So the mystery lives on. And so, happily, do William Melvin Kelley and his literary legacy. H
MUSEUM OF CONTEMPOARY AFRICAN DIASPORAN ARTS
e MERGING VISUAL ART & MUSIC IN A POST-HIP-HOP ERA
FEBRUARY 14 - MAY 26, 2013
| CURATED BY JAMES BARTLETT
OPENING RECEPTION | THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2013 | 6-9PM KUDZANAI CHIURAI, STILL FROM IYEZA, 2012 COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GOODMAN GALLERY
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK