NBWC: Literary Encounters: East Meets West — A Dialogue

Moderator: Margaret A. Cox
Panel: Marina Budhos, MG Vassanji, Shelly Eversley, Meena Alexander
National Black Writers’ Conference
Saturday, March 27th, third panel session

Budhos immediately has my interest.  She’s working on a both a fiction and a non-fiction book about the sugar industry in the Caribbean.  After my mind-blowing introduction to the history of the sugar trade (watching the flawed documentary Big Sugar several years ago), this is a topic that is very important and interesting to me.  She’s approaching this story from the point of view of the Indians that were brought to the Caribbean as indentured servants after the end of the slave trade.  This is a history I don’t know much about.  I have friends who are the direct descendants of this history, but it’s still very unknown to me.

Vassanji makes the interesting point that, to people outside the country, the deep divisions of the US aren’t always visible.  That the idea that there are (at least) two Americas isn’t clear until you live here and live in the middle of it.  He’s definitiely coming from an experience I haven’t even imagined: a man born in Tanzania to Indian parents (who weren’t born in India, either), who has lived in Africa, in Canada and the States, an older man most people would see and immediately profile as Indian who never saw India until about fifteen years ago.

Alexander points out something that my Jamaican friends always bring up: going to the US is, in part, an introduction to the idea of race.  This is a constant topic of conversation when I’m in JA, the way we in the States look at and think of race.

Shelley Eversley shared a chapter from her forthcoming book.  The chapter was about Richard Wright, and The Color Curtain, dealing with Wright’s attendance at the Bandung Conference (a meeting in 1955 with Asian and African leaders — leaders of the world’s people of color — a meeting called to address the fact that the powers of the West weren’t communicating with Africa or Asia about issues that directly affected both continents). 

Meena Alexander’s focus is language, another topic that is very powerful for me.  She talked about her use of English, the ways she was made to use/learn English, the ways that knowing English gave her no context in which to approach living in the US.  I won’t lie.  Her wide-eyed wonder in the way she talks about the revelation of her being perceived negatively here, of someone calling her ‘black,’ of her teenaged son being stopped and frisked by police after 9/11, of the idea that she — as an Indian — would be marked in a particularly negative way here … well, it kind of turned me off.  More than a little.  Just seemed falsely naive or something … which is, surely, because I have grown up with my very American lens on race.  Isn’t that wholly unfair of me?

I’m glad the moderator has brought the panel (Shelly and Marina in particular) back to the issue of invisibility.  I’ve just finished an essay for the next WE LEARN book that deals with invisibility.  Marina’s YA novels sound incredibly interesting.  Both deal with people of color, with the invibility of certain people in our society, with the  lives of girls who are living that experience.  Shelly focused on invisibility as dispossession in society, and how many of us feel that inside and how it manifests in our lives.

Interesting that we’re actually having a conversation about “Negro” being added back to the Census.  I’ve already written my thoughts about that, but I like that a young man got up at the mic and asked what’s the problem with using the word.  I know there are plenty of young people who really don’t know why that would be an issue, and I appreciate him getting up to ask the question.

As a writer, I love Marina Budho’s comments about use of autobiography in your writing, about how we start off using our own lives for fodder but that we eventually have to move away from that, that we become interested in people who are different from us, that the autobiographical elements become more subtle.  MG Vassanji picked up on that with the idea that of course we are part of what we write but that the use of autobiography changes as your writing becomes more seasoned.  This really resonated for me.  There was a period when I tried to write stories that had not one thing in them of me.  And I wrote lots and lots of stories, churned them out like a machine … and every single one of them was awful.  I write stories now that have people in them who aren’t anything like me but who have pieces of me and my experiences woven into them. 

(Maybe I’ve been sitting in panels for too long?  I’m finding myself getting annoyed with people easily. The woman who got up and demanded that MG Vassanji say how he would identify himself on a Census form — excuse me? — and the look of disbelief that I saw on the faces of some people sitting around me when he said Asian-African, as if they couldn’t believe he could be African or could claim any African-ness.  Feh.  The woman who got up and asked the panel to identify her.  What was that about?  The people who get up and make a speech but don’t have a real question.   The professor from BMCC who talked about taking this experience back to his students … why didn’t he bring his students to the conference?  Ok, sure, I’m not here with my students, so I should just be quiet, but my annoyance is there.  Something in the way he made his comment made me think of him — as a white man — interpreting the conference for his students.  Yeah, I really should just shut up …)

I’m not sure how I feel about this live blogging thing.  I’m a fidgeter and this gives me something to do with my hands during the panel (usually I’d have some knitting with me, but I swapped it out for the computer), but I’m not sure I’d say I’m enjoying this experience.  I was enjoying it during the hip-hop panel, but now …Maybe I should make this my last ‘live from the panel’ post for the day.

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