All I Want for TKD …

It’s the first frigid days of 2018. A new year. Where I’m sitting, the “real feel” temperature is -30. Yes, if I step outside, it will feel like 30 degrees below zero. There is so much wrong with that, I don’t have time or energy to describe it. But … where I’m sitting, it’s beautiful, and it’s quiet and calm, and I have a gorgeous space to myself for a few days of writing and dreaming and staring at the snowy landscape and organizing my brain.

This is a gift I’ve bought myself, these four days of contemplation and work. The drive up with my friends yesterday was lovely. The first moments of walking into this glorious space and seeing just how fabulous it is was lovely. Waking up to see sunlight creeping over the mountains out my window was lovely. Remembering that the only things I have to do are the things that I want to do was best of all.

These few days are the third DIY writing retreat I’ve made. Each retreat has been very different, and each has been just what I needed. In some version of a perfect world, all of my time would be like this. But I don’t live in a perfect world, so I have to create my moments of perfection when and where I can.

It’s Three Kings Day, the day Melchior, Balthsar, and Gaspar presented their gifts to Mary’s new baby. What gifts would I have of the Magi this year? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are nice, but my needs run a little different from those of the newly-born Christ child.

  1. Energy. I have a lot of plans for myself this year. If I have any hope of getting through even half of them, I’m going to need lots of energy. Lots of it.

These plans I have for myself run in all kinds of directions. When I set my new-year intentions before my birthday (the official start of the new year for me is my birthday, so January is a time for me to review first quarter success and re-up for the rest of the year), the primary focus of all my goals was my health. I’ve had a few years of non-stop crap, and I’m more than tired of it. So I started working on the most pressing items and focusing on maintaining the gains I’d already made. Dealing with the healthcare system and with healthcare providers exhausts the mess out of me, however. That’s one place the need for energy comes in. Pushing back against a system that wants to blame all my ills on my weight, insisting that providers actually listen to the things I tell them are happening with my body, fighting with my insurance company so that care I need is paid for … it’s a job of work.

I need physical energy, too, however. I have some clear and intensive goals around strength training and getting my body ready for the trip I’m planning in the fall. I need to be stronger, need to be a little less fearful of injury and pain, need to have a little more trust in my physical capacity. So, speaking of jobs of work … yeah.

And there are some things that need to be done, that only I can do, that I have no desire to do. I need to find the will to power through them, day after day after day. If I can’t do them, most of the rest of my plans for the year will have to be set aside, and I’m not here for that possibility, so I have to step up and get those things done.

  1. Pigheadedness. If you know me, you know I can be annoyingly stubborn sometimes. That’s true enough as far as it goes. But I struggle with not being stubborn enough to hold onto things that are for myself, things that feel selfish because they are just about me. I let plans for myself fall by the wayside all the time. I regret those falls later, but that regret doesn’t bring opportunity back. So I want some selfish stubbornness, I want the ability to keep my needs as my primary focus and direction this year. That doesn’t mean I want to ignore other people and their needs. It means I want to stop putting other people and their needs ahead of myself every time. I want to be pigheaded in my belief that I am worth that focus, that my needs are important and deserve my time and attention.
  2. Confidence. This one may be the most important one of all, the one that gives me the ability to have the other two.

I struggle with Impostor Syndrome on the regular. There are times when La Impostora is my constant companion. She is far too good at keeping me down, keeping me back, keeping me in a box of self-doubt. And I’m sick unto death of her power over me.

I wanted to say that the third gift should be “Wakandan pride.” And maybe that’s still right. Wakandans know they are the shit. I have never had that fierce a sense of myself and my value … and I want some of that. I’m not getting any younger. What am I waiting for? Mother Toni said it right in Beloved. I am my best thing. Me. I am. And I need to see that and know it and believe it and live it. And I need to start right this instant.

*

And so, Gaspar, Melchior, Balthasar. There are my wishes, my gift requests for this Three Kings Day: energy, pigheadedness, confidence. Work your magic, magi. Come through.

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Opening the Door — SOLSC 30

I am notorious for letting excellent opportunities pass me by. I hold myself back. Shyness, fear, shame, lack of confidence … so many reasons for not saying yes to so many things.

But when I was asked to interview Natalie Baszile, refusal never crossed my mind. And thank goodness for that. It introduced me to Baszile’s beautiful debut novel, Queen Sugar. And it gave me the chance to have a great conversation with a thoughtful, generous, intelligent person.

I’ve done a couple of interviews before this one. First, I jumped into the Great Interview Experiment and interviewed Jade. Next, I interviewed my then co-worker (and today’s birthday girl!), Heidi Sabertooth, who was in the middle of very Slice of Life-like project: writing, recording, and posting online a new song every day for 100 days. Yes, Slice of Life on steroids!

So I’d done a couple of interviews. And I’d struggled mightily with both, but I still didn’t pause to think before agreeing to interview Natalie. And again, thank goodness for that! Because I learned something. I like doing interviews. I still struggled mightily, agonized over whether my questions were “good enough,” over how to start and end the interview, over how much of her time I was taking up, over whether I had to ask her permission to record our conversation so I could transcribe it later … over just about any and every thing I could think to agonize over. But despite all my stressing out, I so enjoyed myself!

I’ve been waiting for the interview to go live on the VONA newsletter page, and this morning it did, so now I can share it here. It’s quite long — Natalie was stunningly generous with her time. And if you haven’t read Queen Sugar yet, I definitely recommend it!

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Why Is Everyone Black? – Finding Home with Natalie Baszile

Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, unfolds over the course of the sugar cane life cycle — planting to harvest — charting those months in the life of Charley Bordelon and her adolescent daughter, Micah. As we speak, Ava DuVernay is turning Queen Sugar into a series for Oprah Winfrey/OWN.

I fell headlong and heart-full into Queen Sugar. From the first beat, I wanted to know Charley and Micah, wanted to go where they were going, see what happened to them. The novel isn’t all southern charm and endearing characters, — though it has plenty of both — and I struggled with the way it caught at my heart and wrenched me. I saw myself and my family in every character, and struggled with my emotions as I read. But for all that, I didn’t want the book to end. I could have read Charley’s story for years.

Baszile, a 2012 memoir alum, sat down with me over Skype, and we talked about character development, process, politics, and the power of VONA.

STACIE: First, I have to say how much I loved Queen Sugar.

NATALIE: Thank you.

STACIE: It’s an amazing book. It was also, actually, a very hard book for me to read. Right away, from the very first moment we meet Ralph Angel, I had a pain in my chest –

NATALIE: Ah.

STACIE: And I had it for the rest of the book … which is not a bad thing, it just made reading difficult at times. One of my co-workers asked if it’s easier to read stories like the story in Queen Sugar if it’s fiction rather than news. And I want to say yes, but that’s a lie. Because the pain I’m feeling is just as real because what’s happening in the story feels entirely real.

NATALIE: I’m glad about that. (half laugh) I mean, I’m sorry

STACIE: No, no, don’t be sorry! I hadn’t actually thought about it until he asked that question. I know it’s easy to think of reading fiction as being kind of escapist, but no. Some fiction, of course. But not this.

NATALIE: Right. That’s such an interesting thought. I can see how fiction hits you differently than nonfiction or journalism. When we watch these things on the news, we read about them and we know that they’re real, there’s no filter. If that same reality is surrounded in some kind of poetry, I think it does hit you differently. It comes in through a side door, you know?

STACIE: Sticking with Ralph Angel, I was surprised that a lot of the reviews I’ve read describe Ralph Angel as a bad person. One reviewer actually described him as a “ne’er do well.” I was surprised because that’s not how I saw him at all. And I was wondering how you respond when you hear those descriptions of him.

NATALIE: Ultimately, I always go back to what my desire was for him, and what my intention was in creating his character. I’ve lived with the book long enough at this point that I’ve come expect a range of reactions. Some readers say, “Oh I hate him,” or “Oh, I don’t like that character.” I’ve gotten that from some readers. But I’ll say this: soon after the book came out, I also had people coming up to me and say, “Oh my God, I’m so glad he’s in the book.” They seemed to get the heartbreak, and they really connect with that deep sorrow, which is what I always thought about. There’s also a kind of sweetness about him, you know? He’s not a ne’er do well at all. I am most gratified when readers have come to me and said, “I know somebody like this.”

STACIE: Yes, yes. Because that is, of course, why the pain is in my chest. Because Ralph Angel is my older brother.

NATALIE: And that’s what I was going for, something more nuanced. Not the villain, not the antagonist. Nothing that’s that straight-up cardboard and one-dimensional. A real human. With real humanity. That’s what I always go back to. I take comfort in those moments when readers tell me how deeply touched they were, even in the pain of reading about him, that they really tuned into his humanity. That’s what I always wanted.

STACIE: That’s why I’m so surprised when I read these descriptions because I think, “Well, did you actually read the book?”

NATALIE: Exactly.

STACIE: I know it took you 12 years to write Queen Sugar. First of all it would have taking me that long just to do the research on cane farming because – oh my God so much to know! – so I assume part of it was research time, but was it also finding your way to the story?

NATALIE: For me it was two things. It was finding the story and honestly, just figuring out how to write a novel. I was certainly that person who sat down and thought, “Oh, I’m going to write a novel,” without any idea of what that entailed. I think that was a blessing, because if I’d known up front what I was up against, I don’t think I would have continued. I don’t know; maybe I would have. It also took me 12 years because I had to find the story. For the first five years, the book wasn’t even called Queen Sugar, wasn’t even set in sugar cane country. The story had nothing to do with sugar cane. For those first five years it was really just the story of this young woman and her daughter who were going back to this little town in south Louisiana.  It was more about the family dynamic.

But there was something so deeply flawed in those early drafts. I found that people didn’t understand why Charley was going back. I remember someone even asking me, “Is she running from the police? Is that why she’s leaving?” “Is she on drugs?” She was by far the most difficult character to write. It took me five years to figure out why was she going? And it wasn’t until I really got that piece that the novel really fell into place. Before that, the book was really episodic. It just didn’t have the feeling I felt in my heart.

Plus, I had part time jobs, and two little kids. I remember hating summers because the kids were out of school, and it was like, “Oh my God, now I’ve got to take this little kid to summer camp and by the time I drop them off, and they cry, and I sit with them for a little while and finally get home to my desk, I’ll have to turn around.” So, there were years when I wouldn’t even bother to write during the summer. I would think about the book; I would do little revisions, but I couldn’t really sink in until school started again. On top of all that, I went back to school. So, even though I was pretty much at the desk all the time, there was lots of life happening.

STACIE: Thinking about Charley and why she would leave LA. I didn’t question why she would leave, I was interested in how completely able she seems to be to leave California behind. She calls her mother once, but she doesn’t contact friends. I get why she’s not calling Lorna [her mother]. But she doesn’t stay in touch with anyone, and that was a surprise to me, made me wonder if she’d been that alone while she was in California? Because in that case, it makes even more sense that she would go to Louisiana.

NATALIE: Honestly, I think I was struggling to hold the whole universe of this book in my head for so long and was trying to develop the characters and make the story rich that, I could only focus on Charley. And it’s funny because I’ve actually never thought, “Wouldn’t she have friends in LA? Wouldn’t she have connections?” On a creative level, it took all of my energy to hold those four characters together. I think to add another relationship, say a best friend who she’d call back in California, would probably have driven me over the edge.

STACIE: I wondered – I mean, I know this is not the story of your life, obviously – but do some of your family members see themselves in characters in Queen Sugar and did worrying about the possibility of that give you pause in any way while you were writing?

NATALIE: Miss Honey, the grandmother, is absolutely inspired by my grandmother. No question. Some of the characters are more composites of people in my family or people I met along the way. There are seeds of real people in all of the characters. Did I worry about it? Not so much. What I did worry about were the bigger questions. When I would allow myself to sit back and fantasize about the reader’s reaction, that’s when I got worried. Especially with Ralph Angel, I worried about how are Black people, specifically Black men, were going receive him. With Charley, too, I was very worried about dodging all of these cultural stereotypes about Black women. I’d think, “So I’ve got this single mother. Oh God. And then I’ve got this single Black father who has some addiction issues. Oh my God. How are Black people going to receive this? Am I going to be criticized for this?”

I was more worried about Black men’s reception than Black women’s because I knew there were a variety of Black women characters in the book. I got to the point where I was so worried about how I was portraying Ralph Angel, that I was paralyzed. It’s impossible to write a character when you’re worried about everyone’s expectations. I finally confessed this to one of mentors from Warren Wilson, David Haynes, who really watched over me during those early years. I remember calling him and saying, “How am I going to write this?” And he finally said to me, “Natalie, just write the book. Stop worrying.” And I realized he’s right. I had to allow the characters to be who they are and not craft them in a way that I was anticipating somebody’s reaction because then they wouldn’t be fully realized. So, no, I wasn’t so much worried about family members as much as what my imaginary readers would think. That was on my mind.

STACIE: Taking a detour away from the book for a second. Do you by any chance listen to the podcast Another Round?

NATALIE: Yes. Not often. But yes.

STACIE: There was something – I don’t remember if it was Heben or Tracy who said it – early in the show. They were talking about things they were interested in reading, and one of them named it their FUBU Book Club reading list – the For Us By Us reading list. So what’s on your FUBU reading list?

NATALIE: Recently, it’s been, of course, Ta Nehisi Coates’s book. Between the World and Me.  And Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.  I loved that book. Painful, intense, but so powerful and inspiring. Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus. Loved, loved, loved that book. I love Roxane Gay, of course. Those are the most recent ones. . I have not read Marlon James, [A Brief] History of Seven Killings, but I heard him speak and was just totally like, “Oh my God.” So, those are the people who are on my radar screen at the moment. I have another book on my bookshelf, The Fisherman by [Chigozie Obioma], which I actually bought months ago, that I feel myself circling around now. It’s rising to the top of the stack.

STACIE: Going back to how the book came to you, I just got through reading the first three installments of Marjorie Liu’s new comic, Monstress, and after the first comic, she talks about where Maika, the central character came from, and she said that the character just appeared to her – this angry young woman standing on the edge of a battlefield – and she had no idea who she was, what the story was, and couldn’t figure it out. She said Maika just stayed with her until she was finally able to see, oh, here is the story this young woman is supposed to be telling. And I’m wondering if characters come to you first, does the story come to you, how does that work for you?

NATALIE: Characters first. And always a single image. So, with Charley, what I  first imagined was that opening scene with when she and Micah are making their way over the border from Texas to Louisiana into sugar cane country. It’s an image I saw from above.

But I have to say, even before that, the image that came to me was of a father and a son sleeping in a car in LA. That even pre-dates Charley and Micah, and of course those two characters turned out to be Ralph Angel and Blue. I was living in LA at the time, and I was taking a writing class at this little community center on La Brea. Just as I walked under this overpass, I got this image of a father and a son in a car. That’s what started it. So, character always comes first. An image, some flash of a picture. I’ve never written a story in first person so there’s always a little bit of distance between me and the character. I always see them from the outside. I don’t hear their voice at first, ever. It’s always visual.

STACIE: I like that for both Charley and Ralph Angel that the car was connected, that sense of movement away from LA or through LA. That’s interesting.

NATALIE: That is interesting. I never thought of that before.

STACIE: I read Warmth of Other Suns a couple of years ago – an amazing, amazing book – and I had this really weird head-smack moment about midway through, where I was like, “Oh wait. I’m a child of the Great Migration! How have I never actually made that connection before?” I had been to Louisiana a few times and was surprised by how connected I felt there, even though I wasn’t vising family. Why would I feel at home? Not only am I completely a northerner, I am also a bit of a northern snob. How am I feeling at home in this place. And it wasn’t until I had that moment with [Wilkerson’s book] that I was like, “Oh, maybe this is what that connection is.” Because this is where my mother’s family comes from. And I’m wondering if that’s part of what makes you feel that connection to Louisiana, the fact that it’s in you, even when you’d never lived there.

NATALIE: Definitely. No question about it. As a matter of fact, just like you feel very much like a northerner, I feel very much like a westerner. My dad was from Louisiana, but my sister and I did not know Louisiana growing up as kids. It may as well have been a foreign country.  I think it was because my upbringing was so suburban and so … white, in the sense that we lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly white, that when I started interacting with my southern family, I just loved how warm and welcoming they were, how forgiving they were. That’s the thing the really surprised me. No matter what you did, you were still family, and you always had a place. I really love that. My dad’s people are real salt-of-the-earth folks, not people of means at all, but their devotion to each other and their willingness to welcome me and my kids was really striking. It was such a welcome contrast to the fairly antiseptic suburban experience – loving within my household, but otherwise antiseptic – that made me feel connected. I was tremendously grateful for it, actually.

STACIE: There’s a line that Micah says early in the book when she’s voicing some of her frustration with being in St. Josephine, and she says, “Why is everyone black?”

NATALIE: (laughs)

STACIE: Which is the best question. That’s so great that she says that, because there’s so much in that question. And I haven’t heard anybody talk about it in any of the things that I’ve read about the book.  I found that so powerful. In that moment, there’s clearly no space for Charley to unpack that with her because that’s not where they are – but I was hoping that somehow it would come back, and that we would get to see how Charley navigates that with Micah. I mean, we get to see other ways that that comes back, just not that direct conversation. But I have to say that I really loved that that question was there, and I hope that it plants something for other folks who are reading the book, too.

NATALIE: Thank you very much. It’s funny. You remind me of a story: My husband and I have two girls. One year when they were in middle school we took the to New York for spring break. In San Francisco – where there are hardly any Black people anymore – we had been telling them, “Okay, look. When you see another Black person on the street, you don’t just walk past that person. You acknowledge them. Say hello, give them the nod, something.” So we took them to New York, and we rented an apartment in Harlem, and naturally, you walk outside and … everybody’s Black, right? So our kids were walking on the street literally saying, “Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi …” to every Black person they saw, and we had to tell them to pull back.  It was hilarious.

STACIE: In moderation.

NATALIE: Exactly. So that moment with Micah really reminds me of the experience of learning those unspoken – I don’t want to say “rules” – cultural mores, and begs the question, how do you give that to a child if they’ve never had that opportunity. Micah’s just such a little devil that I thought it was funny. In that scene I was seeing the world the way she would see it. And it seemed like yeah, she would wonder what’s going on here? What have you brought me to?

STACIE: I loved that. I was like oh, okay, Micah. I feel you. I know you’ve done a few different residencies. How has that been helpful to you?

NATALIE: I have found residencies to be invaluable. They are an opportunity to just climb inside of my work and live in that world I’ve been carrying in my head.  I love it.  I haven’t gone to a residency in a few years because after the book came out, I was busy doing book stuff, and it hasn’t been until recently that I even had new work to apply with. But I always found that even if I just went away for two weeks, I was three times more productive that I could be at home. I actually sat down and calculated it.  At a residency, I typically work 14 hours a day. Multiply that by seven days a week, times two weeks or three weeks. That’s the equivalent of two or three months of work at home.

I have a writing office at the Grotto here in San Francisco, but by the time I pack my stuff, commute down there, walk to the office, set up my stuff, work … the day is interrupted and segmented in this way that it’s not at a residency. Even at The Grotto, I rarely have the experience of being totally lost in the work. If you can do it. If you can afford the time, I think a residency is the best gift a writer, or any type of creative person can give to herself.

You’re there with so many other interesting people. They may be visual artists or musicians or some other kind of creative type, but just being in that atmosphere is so inspiring. I remember going to Ragdale and meeting a composer. I knew nothing about music, but I remember being in his studio where he shared his composition with me. He showed me a place in his score where he’d erased so many times that the paper had worn thin. I was like, “Oh, I totally know what that is.” I knew exactly what that experience was like. It was so mind blowing that, there he was in a totally different medium, and yet we could connect over that experience of revision. It was great. I love residencies.

STACIE: Which of course leads me to a VONA question. What was the value for you of going to VONA, what did you get out of going to VONA?

NATALIE: I’d heard of VONA, and I’d thought about applying in other years, but something always came up, or the timing wasn’t right. By the time I actually applied, I’d already sold the Queen Sugar manuscript, so I ended up taking Faith Adiele’s Memoir class, which was so different for me. It blew my mind. I had never written any nonfiction before that but I was interested in personal essays. The rules were completely different, and that was refreshing and inspiring.

And then there was the community. I really loved  being with my people, with other people of color, and comparing what was on their minds as artists versus what was on the minds of residents of other programs and residencies. I loved that there was clearly a political question or a political thread – something personally political – running through so many of the conversations and so much of what people were writing and exploring in their work. I knew I had my own personal conversation with these larger questions, but it was so inspiring, and comforting to be with other writers of color who were grappling with these same questions … or questions I hadn’t even thought of. It just felt different.  I’d always found these residencies to be inspiring, but there was a different kind of richness at VONA that I had not experienced before. I feel like I missed out on a lot of that richness because I went to VONA when they were still at UC Berkeley. My kids were home, so I didn’t stay on campus. I commuted for Faith’s workshop, maybe hung out a little bit, but I had to get back home. So I feel like I missed out on some of the really good stuff. What I was able to get was totally different and nurturing in this whole other way that I was really grateful for.

STACIE: What would you say to POC writers who are thinking of applying to VONA?

NATALIE: A place like VONA is important because once you get onto that writing circuit, and you start going to a bunch of other residences and conferences … how do I say this? The value of VONA becomes even more apparent. Other places have certainly have things to offer. There are residencies that are all about the community of women, not necessarily women of color but women, and I think that’s important, too. But in my experience, I found that VONA was a different kind of a conversation. The people there, the atmosphere, the work, was saying something slightly different that I had not seen. I had not seen people come together at other residences and operate on an unspoken frequency about why we were there.  Sometimes, you go to a lot of those places and it’s all about jockeying and positioning, and the ego, right? And some of those places can be terribly hierarchical in a way that I think is really destructive, especially for writers who are just starting out. VONA is one of the few places where people come, and that sense of wanting to support each other and celebrate each other takes priority. That’s what you’re there for. You’re there for connection. It’s not about posturing to see who has the most books published, or who has the hottest agent.  I think that that allows people to relax and connect in a way that can be challenging at other places where you have writers gathered. I’m not discouraging people from applying to other residencies and conferences. I think they all offer something, but knowing that you have VONA in your back pocket is a good thing. It gives you perspective that you won’t have if you’re out there on that circuit. You can carry that feeling of home with you. You need to be able to do that. So that’s what I would say to someone who’s thinking of applying to VONA. You meet people and you carry those people with you. So that, no matter where else you go, you know you have a home. VONA grounds you. You know you have people backing you up.

But, this is a conversation that people have been having for years, right? Junot Diaz’s essay, and the whole question of the dominant voice, the dominant perspective at MFA programs, that’s a huge issue. If you’re a young writer and you’re in an MFA program and the tone of that program, the writing in that program, the direction of that program, which experience is more valued, which voices are more privileged . . . it can be challenging.  So VONA is a counter balance to that. I think you need that. Because this writing life is tough. It’s tough, and it can be isolating, and so to not have some kind of anchor, can really be challenging. That’s why I would say people should apply – as they should apply to Cave Canem or Kimbilio, you know you have a place that’s going to offer you a warm embrace, so you can get out there and duke it out.

STACIE: You were talking about people who were dealing with different political questions. I’m just wondering how what’s happening in the news is impacting what you’re writing. And even if it’s not the painful stuff because … yeah, that … but even like … Beyonce’s “Formation” video and the crazy, America’s-mind-is-blown reaction to the “Formation” video. How is that filtering in?

NATALIE: I’m so glad you asked that because it is top of mind for me. And it actually has caused me to switch – I had an idea for another Louisiana novel and I’d started it, but recently I switched to something else.  The rage that I have felt in the last year has totally changed and informed my work.   There was a point at which I was feeling so much rage that I actually couldn’t write because my whole body felt like it was on fire. I had to remind myself to breathe.

Last fall I was reading Between the World and Me, and I was reading, Citizen, I was looking at Kara Walker’s work, and I felt my whole chest collapsing under the weight and the intensity of those works. I felt this searing pain that was difficult but essential, and it totally changed what I’m thinking and writing about. What I’ve had to do is allow – I can’t even say allow enough time to pass because we’re still in the midst of this – I’d say it’s say only been in the last few months, since like … January 1st, that I’ve been in a place now where I can actually start to think critically and somehow translate that into fiction. I’m not a nonfiction person, I mean, I’ve written a couple of personal essays, but for me it’s all about fiction first, and it’s taken me all this time to figure out how I can possibly begin to explore these questions in fiction and not be shouting all the time.

STACIE: It’s so amazing that you just said that. I am first a fiction writer, but I do also write a lot of nonfiction. And in the last … year and a half … I have felt myself moving further and further away from my fiction. Whereas my nonfiction voice has been this really angry voice. But in the last month or so, I’ve been feeling frustrated because … where are my stories, where’s the fiction that I feel so close to but now I can’t seem to write. And I feel like what you just said … I haven’t given myself that time because I’ve just been so angry and in so much pain.

NATALIE: I’ve never felt anger that has just penetrated my entire, my soul, my spirit, my physical body before. It’s a searing rage. I love books, I love the physicality of books, I love book stores, books are my refuge, my sanctuary, my comfort – but last fall, for the first time ever, I remember looking at my bookshelf last fall and thinking, “some of these books don’t have any meaning for me whatsoever.”  I tossed out a lot of books that I’d been holding onto.

It’s something, I tell you. I have no choice but to sit with it; to try to figure out how to live in that place of rage and deep hurt, and I don’t know what else, and try to be creative in that space. That’s been the real challenge for me. I think I’m there now, finally.

STACIE: The anger in my writing has been too challenging for some people, and they’ve pulled away, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, but this is me. All of those things before were me, but this is me, too.”

NATALIE: Absolutely. I think that is critical. It’s what inspires me about the books that I’ve named, you know? They’re just saying it like it is. Unapologetic. Unflinching. Bam, that’s it. And that is so inspiring to me.

STACIE: I’m curious to know what were the books that came off your shelves?

NATALIE: Mostly novels that I had been hanging onto thinking that I would read one day and finally decided, you know what? I’m not going to read them. Novels that I’d outgrown or that spoke to me at a different time in my writing life.  A lot of times what happens is a book gets a lot of attention, and I run out and I buy it because I think, “I need to read this.” But even as I’m buying it, I know that that author has a different set of concerns. A lot of times this happens with the young, hot, writer of the day. But I’ll still buy that book, knowing that it does not speak to me. And sure enough, that book just sits on my shelf, even though they didn’t have the weight of the staying power. Those were the books I finally decided I didn’t need.

STACIE: And finally, what brings you joy? How do you move your brain away from all the pain?

NATALIE: Oh, so many things. My children are a great source of joy for me. I have two girls, and they are just fabulous in their own right – which has nothing to do with me as their mother. I love watching them move through the world. That gives me a tremendous amount of joy. Of course, books give me a tremendous amount of joy. There’s nothing better for me than losing myself in the world that somebody else has created, you know? That, and being in the work. Spending time with friends, traveling whenever I can, getting out of here and having my eyes opened to a different kind of life, a different kind of experience. This is a challenging time. No question, but I think … day to day, for me, it’s the connections that I have with people that make all the difference. That really does it for me. That’s it.

STACIE: Thank you so much!

NATALIE: Thank you, Stacie. It’s been really fun. I enjoyed it.


The Slice of Life Story Challenge of 2016 is almost finished! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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Apologies and Disclaimers — SOLSC 8

In her comment on yesterday’s post, Ramona said: “Stopping by your blog reminds me that it’s time to try another arun. Such a fun form for me and I love that you introduced me to it.” I had a whole other post in mind for today, but reading that changed everything. I can’t say how happy it made me to read that Ramona was thinking about aruns, thinking about writing some come April. I guess I really did create a poetic form! That is still so crazy to me.

I’ve been thinking about April on the horizon, too. I have many writing deadlines for March:

  • Submit my VONA application next week
  • Keep up with my comics homework
  • Post a slice of life every day
  • Prepare a story to tell at How to Build a Fire on the 31st

(Yikes! Seeing it all written down is a bit alarming!)

But still I’m thinking about April. Part of me wants to go back to prose poems, or go even further back to rhyme royals. There is still the trusty arun … or maybe I should just create something new!

Every year, about halfway through April, I start to think I’ve lost my hesitations, that I can finally say I write poetry without offering up a series of apologies and disclaimers. It’s never true, however. I always come back to this sense that “POET” is a hat I’m not qualified to wear. For the last two years I’ve been reading fiction and non-fiction at a reading series run by two wonderful young women I met (of course?) through the Brainery. I got an email from them not long ago asking if I write poetry, if I’d like to be part of a poetry festival event with them this summer.

Yeah. Can I tell you how quickly I tried to push away from that table? Me? Write poetry? Read poetry at a festival that’s all about poetry? At a festival where people would assume that anyone on the mic sees themselves as a poet? Oh, that’s clearly taking things to extremes.

I did push myself, but toward instead of away. I sent some sample poems (and a full serving of disclaimers) to the series ladies and let them judge. So, this summer, I’ll be reading at a poetry festival. Me.

How many times am I going to acknowledge that I need to get out of my way before I figure out how to do it? Sigh.

So, with April looming, I was already worrying about how I have the nerve to call myself a poet and take on a 30/30 poetry challenge. But then here is Ramona talking about writing aruns and thanking me — me — for introducing her. It may just be time to set aside my disclaimers and apologies.

Maybe.

Possibly.

We’ll see …


It’s week two of the Slice of Life Story Challenge! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to yourown slice!

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Fundraising A-Go-Go

Tonight I’m doing something I have a hard, hard time doing: asking for help … specifically, asking for money. I am beyond happy at being accepted into the graphic novel workshop for this summer’s VONA Voices. The cost of the workshop, room, board, and travel are a bit stiff for me this year, however, so I’ve turned to Indiegogo.

For the next six weeks, I’ll be trying to raise the cost of this workshop and trip. And you can help! If you can donate, that will be so very much appreciated. If you can’t, please consider sending the link for my campaign out to your networks: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram … and all the cooler, newer social media hot spots I have yet to discover.

Here’s the link to my fundraiser!

I’ll be working on Adventures in Racism in this workshop, getting a better handle on how to move forward with the comic, how to most effectively use comics to tell the stories I want to tell. AIR has potential, but I need a lot of work, and I need the kind of help VONA can give me.

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But tonight’s post isn’t just about me with my hand out.  It’s also about poetry.  And knee surgery.  I continue to work on my Aruns this month, and tonight’s is in honor of the fact that today makes exactly one year since I had my knee replacement surgery!  I can’t believe it’s already a full year.

One
year. One
long, short, hard,
easy year. One
knee — seems a simple
thing.
But not
simple, not
snap-of-fingers.
Not.  This year is gone.
Gone
quickly.
Gone easy.
Gone.  A new knee —
year in the making.

natpoetrymonth1

 

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Silence Broken

Tonight I went to the New York launch of Lisa Factora-Borchers’ anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. There was a great introduction/process description and reading — including a recording sent from Belgium — and a Q&A.  My time and my calendar said I shouldn’t go, couldn’t go, but I had to ignore them.  And I’m so very glad I did.   I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m going to say that all of us should.  This is a conversation we need to be having, work we need to be doing.  I’m so grateful to Lisa and all of the writers in the anthology who were brave enough to share their stories, and I’m grateful to the women in the audience who stepped up with the same bravery during the discussion afterward.

Tonight’s Arun.  It didn’t quite do what I wanted, but I felt less hampered that single-syllable line tonight.  Not sure why that might have been true. The Poetic Asides writing prompt for the day is to write a message poem. And so:

Girl,
your voice —
broken-glass
nails on chalkboard —
needles through my brain.
You
have words
no one wants.
Words that open
doors, that open wounds,
fly
in faces,
tell the truth:
lifting all boats
from pain to praisesong.

natpoetrymonth1

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Girls Write … Right Here

Every year, Girls Write Now puts on a reading series called Chapters.  Tonight was the first of the four … and Naima and I were in the lineup of readers. There were two other mentor pairs that read together.  The remaining almost-dozen young women read solo pieces. We opened the night with a poem on street harassment, self awareness and self esteem, and ended with a shared mentor pair memoir about food and family relationships. In between were all kinds of things … including the pieces Naima and I wrote about close friendships ending.

Wow, but this was fabulous fun!  The girls read wonderfully, the audience was appreciative, and Amy Fusselman — our guest author for the night– was warm and funny and read a great excerpt from her forthcoming book, Savage Park.  A good time was most definitely had by all.  

I am so honored to be part of this amazing organization, to have the chance to work with these talented, intelligent, funny, and sweet girls.  Can’t wait for Chapters 2, in April (with guest author, Farai Chideya)!

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Don’t forget to check out more  slices at Two Writing Teachers!

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(I know, I know: again with the painfully short post.  But my eyes are closing.  I’ve been trying to write this for over and hour, and keep falling asleep at the wheel.  I’ll try to be a little more expansive over the weekend.)

Change

Happy first day of spring! It’s felt so long in coming this year. I know winter might have one last breath to blow our way, but I’m not worrying about that now. I’m thinking about warm breezes, bright green new leaves unfurling, and the blooming of the forsythia — always my favorite sign of spring.

I’m also thinking about this:

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I was looking through photos from my last Jamaica trip, and came across this guy and realized I never posted many (any?!) of my pictures from that trip.   This is from Falmouth, where I stayed for just a couple of days at the end of my trip.  I was sitting on the verandah of my little shack on the beach writing, saw something out of the corner of my eye … and there he was.  Slow-slow-slowly, I reached for my camera, hoping not to scare him off.  Not only did I not scare him away, I got to watch his excellent little show:

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And I thought about the ways in which we are often required to change so completely to fit our environments, the times when we wish we could change that completely, the times when blending in with the background is anything but desirable.  And I wondered what the lizard feels when he’s changing, how he knows he’s changed enough.  And I tried to remember how I’ve felt in those times when I’ve made a conscious effort to step out of the wallpaper and become visible.

I’ve been focusing on change for a while now, since I made the decision to have my knee surgery, since I began to recover.  Not just the “simple” change of learning my life with this new joint, but deeper and more complex changes to who and how I am and what I want for and from myself.  I’ve been stumbling with a whole lot of one step forward, three steps back, letting fear hobble me.  I’m looking to do the lizard in reverse, step finally and fully away from the wallpaper and embrace my technicolor.  Yes, it means the birds will be better able to see me.  I say: Bring it.

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All the other slicers are hanging out over at Two Writing Teachers!

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