NBWC: The Impact of War and Natural Disasters in Literature by Black Writers

Moderator: Richard Green
Panel: Chris Abani, James McBride, Maaza Mengiste
National Black Writers’ Conference
Saturday, March 27th, fourth panel session

(Update at end of post.)

I love the way Chris Abani connects African American writing with writing from Africa (Chinua Achebe couldn’t have written Things Fall Apart if it weren’t for the African American writing that came before).  And his comment that we have to “write against forgetting” … so powerful.  “We have to look unflinchingly at the truth, but the truth doesn’t limit us.”   And that we have to remember that every time a black person writes something, he or she isn’t writing about an entire people but about his or her own experience.  People write about the things that resonate for them, and we can’t be held up as examples of what all people who are in any vague way like us might be thinking or feeling.

I love that James McBride is here.  We had tried to have him come and talk with our students when we were reading The Color of Water years ago, but that didn’t work out.  And I’ve kept missing opportunities to hear him speak … until today.  He’s talking about the flat, “undemensional” stereotypes about black people that are “a cultural box” that keeps us hemmed in, that we have to fight to get out of.  That for us to write is to rewrite history in our own voices.  “Humanity is more powerful than any person’s culture, race, or religion.”  “It’s easy to fall into the trap of the self-hate, I-will-sell-books genre.”  Ok, I’m sad that he’s putting down Prince to tell us that Coltrane is great, but I’ll forgive him this time.  We all know that both Coltrane and Prince can be great at the same time.  They aren’t competing.

I love that so many people here today are referencing James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Ann Petry …  I like that the through line is always acknowledged, that no one is acting like our current literature exists or grew out of some kind of void.

“My biggest interest is fighting against erasure.” Chris Abani.  Erasure makes us feel more comfortable, but his job is to make sure we don’t forget.

“I envy the ability to cross borders with the imagination.” Maaza Mengiste, talking about what she feels is her inability to imagine her current reality and write about her Brooklyn block as opposed to the facility with which she writes about Ethiopia and compared to Abani’s ability to write about Los Angeles and Las Vegas, not just Nigeria.  At the same time, she sees the connection between her writing about war and torture and the current reality in this country of our own involvement with war and torture.

“You must really, really do the reserarch, no matter how good you are.”  James McBride talking about all the research he did that led up to the writing of Miracle at St. Anna

This panel is very different from the others.  In those, most of the time has been spent with the panelists talking.  In this one, we’re moving into the Q&A after only a brief set of comments from the panelists.

(And I’m already annoyed with our first questioner … he seems to think his job here is to teach the panel something.  Feh.  And he speaks in a really condescending way that pisses me off.  Whatever.)

Oh yea!  Someone just brought up Cornell West, who I love.  And I love his question: “Who writes for the people who we want to have silenced?”  He’s a journalist working on a story about two men in Malawi who are facing the death penalty because their homosexual relationship was discovered.  He talked about trying to help his daughter understand the need to practice safe sex, and not having any success until he talked to her about his own experience as a man who was married and gay and that she needs to know how many men are living the life he was living and that she needs to take care of herself.  And I am impressed with his comfort in this room full of strangers, disclosing so much about himself in order to make clear his question.    And that self-disclosure was part of his question: how much of himself should/must he reveal in order to tell the truth, and he’s worried about people not liking him very much if he tells all the truths he wants to tell.

I’m loving Chris Abani.  I would sit and talk with him for about forty-seven days.  He’s a very generous responder to questions and feels so much like someone I’m already good friends with.  Mengiste is smart and sincere and McBride is quite funny and real, but there’s just something about Abani in this setting that charms me.

He just quoted Percival Everett: “It doesn’t matter if your story is true or not.  It matters what you do with it.”

And this: In the states we think if healing as the erasure of trauma, but in Africa healing is seen as finding the way to live with the trauma.  That’s one I have to think about for a while.  The difference between those two is so powerful.  He talks about writing with vulnerability.  That’s one I have to think about, too, that level of nakedness is hard to imagine sustaining over the long haul.

McBride’s not making any friends in the room right now, putting down PUSH.  I get what he’s trying to say, but he’s got to find away to say it without putting down this book that so many people find powerful.  It’s like his Coltrane/Prince problem.  One isn’t good and that automatically makes the other one bad.  There is room for both.  The experiences that Sapphire wrote about in PUSH are just as real as the myriad other experiences of black women.  Yes, we want to hear those other stories, but getting those stories published doesn’t mean PUSH is invalidated. 

Ok, he’s going back to it and trying to clarify his point.  His point is the “based on a true story” part, the fact that that truth isn’t our only truth.  He’s not really digging himself out of the hole, however.  (He just won points from me for saying what a shame and embarrassment it is that we as a community haven’t embraced our gay brothers and sisters.)  He’s trying hard to make a point about how we need to widen our audience, that we need more black people to be reading a lot more.  A LOT more.  (He’s really not getting the job done.   I don’t know what’s happening in other parts of the auditorium, but there’s definitely some strong discontent over on this side!)

Chris Abani: “Writing should be done, regardless of whether you get published or not.”  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  I think I am officially in love with Abani now.  I just love the way he takes these questions, the compassionate way he responds to each person.

Maaza Mengiste: The danger of not having enough stories out, not having enough stories told … You need to write beyond the stereotypes.  Don’t limit yourself because of the ignorance of the larger community.

(Oh dear.  In an earlier panel Nick Charles said no blog post should be longer than 500 words, and the ideal would be 350 words.   Have you stopped reading yet?)

And we’re back on PUSH.  A gentleman from the Revolutionary Communist Party is standing up and saying we need to talk about this book because there are so many truths in the book, that we can’t dismiss it with generalizations because we think it will inspire generalizations for people reading the book.  But McBride can’t just let it go, can’t just let people have their love for this book.  He really wants to make his point.  And he has a good point, but he just has to move away from his this-one-is-good-so-this-one-has-to-be-bad thing.  He concludes with,  “That story always gets through.  It’s the other story we have a hard time getting through.” (oh, hey, that got a lovely ovation!)

Chris Abani to the rescue!  He brought it all home and articulated the point so well.  (Love him!)

Update: Want to read more on the PUSH debate?  The gentleman from the RCP just handed me a note with a link to an article about same.

“The Controversy over Precious: The Demonization of Black Men? Or, Shining a Light on the Squandered Potential of ‘Precious Girls Everywhere’ and Why Everyone Should Want That Realized” by Carl Dix and Annie Day


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