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Posts Tagged ‘where we’re from’

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On New Year’s Eve I learned that a couple I was close to for years, parents of a friend I had from college until my early 40s, had voted for the Hate Monger. I knew they’d had a souring experience that had nudged them to the right, but I wouldn’t have guessed how far adrift they’d gone. They are a white couple and have many children, two of whom are married to POC. Yet they voted for a man who would happily deport one of those in-laws and would see the other as representing a country he accuses of cheating and mistreating the US. They have daughters. Yet they voted for a man who actively harms women and can’t be trusted to respect or strengthen women’s rights. One of their sons is a small business owner whose insurance likely comes from the ACA. Yet they voted for a man who vowed to get rid of that legislation on his first day in office.

The souring experience? Their youngest son missed out on an opportunity years ago … and they decided that what should rightfully have been his had been denied him because of Affirmative Action.

Yes.

Their youngest son is smart and capable. I’m sure he’d have taken complete and successful advantage of that opportunity. Do I automatically assume he was more deserving of that opportunity than any of the people who actually received it? No, but he’s not my son. Still, it’s a significant leap of faith.

Anger over Affirmative Action doesn’t puzzle me. It’s coming from a very clear and basic place. What should suprise me about that anger is how blatantly racist it is. Think about it: One hundred people are accepted into a program, and maybe five of them are POC. How are you — the angry, left-out soul — certain it’s one of those five POC who “stole” your spot? Why aren’t you assuming it’s one of the 95 white folks?

What was that?

I couldn’t hear you.

You aren’t looking at the white folks because … why?

Oh. You assume they deserve the same gifts and accolades you think you deserve?

Yeah. Thought so.

It’s the thing that always gets caught in my teeth with Affirmative Action haters — that instant assumption that they’d be riding high if it weren’t for some POC bogarting their position. And you know, maybe those five POC did take a white person’s place. But who said it was your place? Can we just acknowledge that there could have been dozens — nay, hundreds — of more qualified white folks ahead of you in line? Don’t forget the glistening, high-court-confirmed mediocrity of Abigail Fisher.

And while that youngest son moved on — is still moving on — his parents set their hair on fire and have let it burn to this day. Hearing about the end result of their anger and resentment made me wonder. Their bitterness drove them to embrace the same presidential candidate as the Ku Klux Klan, as the Neo Nazis. Could this loss for their child really have turned them from staunch Democrats to hardline Republicans? They’ve been on this path a while, voted for both McCain and Romney. Could their son’s disappointment really have been the initial push?

Were they sliding to the right all those years when they smiled in my face and welcomed me into their home? Did they question whether I had earned any of my successes? Did they see those as gifts, handed to me because I was Black?

I was close to their daughter for more than 20 years. She and I went to college together, studied abroad together. We moved to New York at about the same time, went to grad school around the same time. She stayed in academia, and I became a teacher, but we were still in each other’s lives. I was in her wedding and attended her sister’s.

When I think now about my interactions with her parents, they all become suspect. If their daughter hadn’t gotten into the college where we met, I would be exactly the kind of person they would have blamed for her failure, the kind of person they would have accused of stealing her seat. If I had gone to Paris junior year and she hadn’t been accepted into the program, would their anger have bubbled up then? Would they have assumed I’d taken her place?

Fortunately for their ability to maintain a relationship with me all those years, they always found me lacking. I am a collection of things they wouldn’t want to see in their kids. I’m not their style of clever. I’m fat. I’m not ambitious. I didn’t get a Ph.D. I didn’t get married. I’m childless. Did they treat me well because I posed no kind of competitive threat to any of their children? How quickly would they have turned on me had any of the facts of our lives put me ahead of my friend on the path to their idea of success?

I guess what I want to know is: how long? For how long was this belief in the inferiority of POC finding a warm, safe home in their hearts? How long was racial prejudice alive and well in these people I thought of as second parents?

Prejudice doesn’t just appear from nowhere. One of the scripts I’m working on for Adventures in Racism is about how children learn prejudice and how — or if — they can unlearn it. It’s been a challenging script for me because I keep waiting for the light-bulb moment, the bright flash of realization that will show me how to “unteach” those kids … but it doesn’t come because there’s no handy movie magic to solve this problem.

I was in kindergarten the first time I met people who disliked me because of my color. We were five, but my classmates had already learned their lessons well. I have since had the same experience with children even younger. Kids learn early. So, did my friend’s parents have seeds planted in childhood?

But prejudice isn’t only learned in childhood. It’s just as easy to internalize, over time, the steady drumbeat of inferiority that is the narrative surrounding Black people, particularly in this country.

Still. Something existed in both of these people before The Great Disappointment. Something strong. Something that made blaming people of color their first response to misfortune, something that instinctively spat up the assumption that an undeserving Black or brown person was being lifted up in their son’s stead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen or learned of someone I know fully blossoming into their racial hatred. But in those other instances, those people showed early signs — I can’t really be surprised to find a friend from high school posting racist memes about Mr. My President when, in 8th grade, she explained that she found Mick Jagger so sexy … except for his “nasty nigger lips.” Those early warning signs were helpful. I knew exactly who I was dealing with, how far to trust them, just how much not to let down my guard. This change in my friend’s parents — despite taking effect over many years — feels like an ambush.

I don’t know if I’ll see anyone from that family again. It’s been 12 or 13 years now since those friendships ended. I have a hard enough time thinking of what I’d say to my former friend, to her siblings — people with whom I still, presumably, have things in common. I can’t imagine having anything to say to her parents.

Maya Angelou’s quote keeps running through my head: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” But these people never showed me who they really were. And that’s the thing that’s poking me. That “how long?” really has its foot on my neck.

In the end, it can’t matter. People I felt deep affection for harbored ugly, racist beliefs. Maybe the whole time I knew them, maybe only toward the end of that time. It can’t matter … still, I feel cheated. I feel as if they’ve stolen something from me, my memories of them, all the ways they made me smile — their jokes, their chaotic family meals, their insistence on having large pets in a house full of expensive artwork and delicate antiques — all of that is made grimy by the truth of who they are.

I see them now. And no repetition is required. I believe them this first time.


Two essays down in this 52-essay challenge!

And don’t forget to head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what other folks are posting for Slice of Life Tuesday!

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Nine years ago today, I woke up surrounded by boxes, the sound of my kittens chasing each other up and down the length of my new apartment.

I’d moved in on December 30th, surely one of the worst times of year to move. I got lucky, though: no snow, no ice, a brilliantly sunny day. And the move went super smoothly. I’d hired a real company for the first time, not 1) a man-with-a-van (though that nice Russian van-man who’d helped me three moves prior had been great), or 2) a fly-by-night mover who uses 20 rolls of tape to “secure” your already taped boxes and charges you double the normal price for each one … and still manages to break stuff getting your boxes into your new space. No. I’d hired a for-real mover. And the difference was absolute. I’d never had such a stress-free move.

Still, when they left, I just sat on my bed staring. So many boxes. And only two days before I had to be back at work. And where were my clothes?

But then I woke up on New Year’s Eve. Yes, surrounded by boxes, but so relieved. I was in a space so much bigger than my old apartment, so much more like a home than my old apartment. I was in a place with all of my things — unlike having most of my furniture in storage for the whole time I’d lived in my old apartment. Yes, it was a mess, and I had a lot of box-living to do until I sorted it all out, but it felt good. I woke up smiling.

Nine years is a long time for me to live somewhere. A LONG time. When I first moved to New York, I was moving pretty much every year. Really. I lived in one apartment only six months … and that was 5½ months too long — it was a terrible place! That year-after-year pulling up of stakes meant that I never really unpacked because I knew I was probably going to move again in a short while, so what would be the point? That’s a way to make your whole life feel impermanent. And, while there’s probably something spiritual and meaningful about that, it’s also a lousy way to live. For me, anyway.

Today, my kittens, are 9½-year-old cats. I have added new furniture to the beloved pieces I took out of storage. I’ve added more bookshelves. I’ve set up my sewing table. I’ve framed (some) pictures and put them on (some of) the walls. I’ve gotten to know neighbors. I’ve settled in. I live here. And there aren’t a lot of things that could make me happier.


I’m saying goodbye to 2016 remembering my arrival in my cozy abode and looking forward to a deep dive into my writing and other creativities in 2017. Get ready for #52essays2017! I hope you’ll all join me!

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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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Last night was the Big Words reading … which means that I went out at lunch yesterday and wrote something to read. Seriously. I couldn’t think of how to approach what I wanted to write, couldn’t think of how to talk about all my talking and thinking about schadenfreude and the realization that I couldn’t sustain the feeling for more than a moment. The pressure of being only a few hours away from a reading can be powerful, however. So — while enjoying some truly yummy broccoli and edamame soup — I wrote this:

Schaden-Fraud

I tend to be a Weltschmerz girl at heart. Weltschmerz, to my mind, is the emotional opposite of the “damaged pleasure” that is schadenfreude. Instead of pleasure in another’s misfortune, us schmerz-y folks feel more pain. To be exact, we are made sad when we see the reality of world awfulness in comparison to the kinder, gentler world we hold as an ideal.

But then there was February 11th at Malheur, the end of the armed take-over of that wildlife refuge, and I was hit by a twinge of … of … what was that almost giddy sensation? Ah. Schadenfreude. There it was, salty-sweet and satiating.

As plenty of folks did, I followed the story of the armed white terrorists who rode into Burns, Oregon and took over the federal site. The Bundy brothers and their followers generated in me a choking anger with their wanton display of white privilege. Because that was what we were watching: a bunch of self-important white folks big-bellying around, secure in the knowledge that their whiteness would allow them to do just about whatever damn thing they wanted — hold press conferences, make demands, use revered Native land for latrines. White privilege. Text-book example. As I posted on Facebook early in their 41-day incursion: “Tell me a group of armed Black militants would have been allowed two weeks to hang out after occupying anything — a federal wildlife refuge, a 7-11, a community garden, a home of their own on Osage Avenue in Philadelphia.”

Black and brown folks, armed with grief and righteous indignation get called terrorists when they protest the killing of an unarmed child, but the Bundy Klan — yes, with a “K” — are called “patriots,” are called a “militia.” Law enforcement meets with them to negotiate, announces the determination to get everyone home without firing a shot. While police officers take less than three seconds to assess Tamir Rice’s threat level before gunning down that baby as he played in a neighborhood park.

A choking anger. A vise grip of fury, despair, and disgust closing around my throat.

I have no interest in being an armed militant. I would, however, like to be able to feel at ease walking in the street when there are police officers around.

But let us get us back to the big word, back to schadenfreude. For all the brave talk and bluster, I was interested — though not at all surprised — to see how quickly Ammon Bundy told his followers to give up and go home once there was some gunfire. These people had proclaimed their willingness to fight, to die for their right … to land that hadn’t ever been theirs, in a place where none of them lived and no residents had invited them or their guns and attitude.

They were so ready to fight … as long as all they had to do was talk about fighting. The moment some actual fighting started, all they wanted was to strike their tents and get home. Instead, they were met with arrest. And when Papa Bundy jetted in, thinking he had something of value to offer, the authorities grabbed up his entitled ass and threw him in jail, too.

And there it was: schadenfreude. The powerful desire to poke at the Malheur insurgents through their jail cell bars and laugh in their faces, to ask: “How’s that privilege working for you now?”

But that’s as long as my dip into schadenfreude lasts. Because before I can even fully imagine myself asking my snarky question, reality pokes me. Because what’s actually true is that their privilege is working perfectly well, and will continue to.

Forty-one days they vacationed at Malheur, lived on land to which they had neither claim nor connection. In Harris Neck, Georgia, unarmed descendants of enslaved Africans moved to take back land the government had deeded to their ancestors. Three days later, they were forcibly removed, dragged to waiting vans and arrested. Three days. No peaceful negotiations, no elevated titles like “patriot.” The Harris Neck claimants were denounced as “squatters.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrested on his front porch. Ramarley Graham shot to death in his bathroom. Aiyana Stanley-Jones shot to death as she slept on the sofa in her living room.

I had a moment’s flirtation with schadenfreude, but that pendulum took a painfully short swing before sending me careering back to Weltschmerz. The Bundys and their crew might pay some small price for their violence-mongering. Will their actions change anything, wake this country up to the threat represented by armed, angry, selfish, and self-important white people who place themselves above the law? I won’t hold my breath. But if that could happen, maybe I’d be able to enjoy more than a nanosecond of the tamarind candy of schadenfreude.


It’s 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 your own slice!

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I did it! I got through all 24 hours of the 24 Hour Project!

Simpsons fans will know that my title means I’m standing and walking … but it’s a close thing. I am in a significant amount of pain today, and will probably need another day or two to fully recover, so completing the 24 hours was hardly a forgone conclusion. I wound up having to cheat a little — pictures from in front of my house during my first self-care pit stop, pictures from out my office window during the second pit stop … and one utterly shameless selfie.

Those pit stops saved my life, I think. Coming home to put my leg up and ice my knee got me through the whole afternoon. Stopping at my office to put my leg up and massage my knee got me through to midnight. I’ll need to think about how to build in more frequent self care next time.

My pictures are hardly award-winning. There are a few standouts, but mostly not. That said, I like all of them, and they all gave me stories to tell. Spending a full day thinking about how I take picutres, and having a few opportunities to watch my very talented friend take his pictures was great. He and I have very different styles, but I learned so much from him, even in the short time we were together.

Definitely a good day. I was able to write mini stories for most of the pictures I chose to post. I was able to meet up with five friends over the course of the day, which was great. I am trying to figure out how to share the slideshow I made of the pictures and stories, but my to0-sleepy brain isn’t quite getting there. Maybe tomorrow. You can see all of them on instagram (@girlgriot), where I’ll also be posting alternate images that didn’t make into the 24-hour stream. I’ll leave you with one of my favorites to give you an idea:

2pm_24Hr_2015

Jaime loves doing “my first cuts” best. He still remembers his own, the ritual, the respect for process and artistry. He likes passing that on to the young ones in the community.

2:05pm #NewYorkCity “Tradition” by @girlgriot as part of the #BLM247 #24hourproject #24hr15#24hr15_NewYorkCity

 


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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My Saturday is going to be a little different this week. I’m finally participating in the 24 Hour Project! I’ll be out and about from midnight to midnight, taking pictures all over the city. This year, there will also be a #BlackLivesMatter Edition, and I’ll be tagging my photos for that as well.

I’m turning my 24 hours into an extended friend date, meeting up with about half a dozen folks throughout the day to share my wandering.

You can follow my progress @girlgriot on instagram! When I first started posting on instagram, I had a whole photos-and-mini-stories thing going on. I’m thinking I’d like to try getting back to that on Saturday. Mostly, I’m looking forward to getting to wander through some neighborhoods I don’t see in my day-to-day and spend my whole day playing the artiste!

I took this photo a month ago in Downtown Brooklyn, and I’m hoping I’ll find some happily-perfect shots to rival it over the course of my day:

Negotiations

So excited to get started!

But … (because isn’t there always one?)

I’m having a hard time figuring out how to do the late-night hours. It’s generally true in most places in the world, and my city is no different, that a woman alone on the street in the middle of the night needs to have some extra care for her safety. I don’t normally hang out alone on the street after 12 or 1am, and I’ve been trying to plan for locations where I know there will be lots of people … or at least some people. Still working on that.

And …

I’m trying to figure out how I need to look, what image I have to project so that big, tall, black me on the street at night isn’t seen as a danger, a threat. I’ve been so preoccupied with worry about my safety, I hadn’t thought about this bit of fabulousness until a few hours ago. But this is all wrapped up in thinking about my safety, isn’t it? It has to be. It’s kind of ridiculous that I need to worry both about being safe and making strangers feel safe around me.

Right now, it’s time for me to grab a few hours of sleep before taking on my city, my fears, and my excitement about participating in this excellent project. I hope I’ll see you on Instagram!


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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The Undoing Racism training I’m attending is two and a half days. Ours will also have a day-long follow-up session next month. It’s been really interesting so far. In part, because the information and the way it’s shared is great. In part, because the facilitators are strong. In part, because I’ve met people I’ll definitely want to keep knowing after tomorrow’s session ends. In part, because some of those people are people I’ll get to work with, and it’s great to know they’ll have the same anti-racist foundation/vocabulary I have as we work on policy and programs. And in part, because two of the group members have had the courage to open themselves and be vulnerable in front of the group.

There’s the brave honesty of one of the white men in the group who is struggling with much of what he’s been hearing. I’m impressed with this man because I think other people reacting as strongly as he is would already have left the room. But he stays. He gets red in the face, and he’s having a hard time, but he stays.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not giving this man some kind of approval cookie for sharing his anger/pain/guilt-manifesting-as-frustration/whatever. I have no cookies — other than the snickerdoodles I bought for the group this afternoon. This man will have to deal with his feelings — or not — on his own. He’s clearly challenged and uncomfortable, and he’ll have to work out what to do about that.

No. I have no cookies, but I so appreciate him because, with his decision to be open in his resistance to the training, he gives the rest of us so much to talk about. There are other people in the group who seem equally challenged — a young white woman who has shut further and further down in her inability to express her discomfort, a biracial man (European and Asian) who seems conflicted about claiming an identity — but they are much more quiet in their struggles.

When I mentioned this training Tuesday, I said I was afraid that I’d walk into the room and see only people of color. I’m quite happy that didn’t happen. Yesterday we were a group of about 30, split almost equally, POC and white. We lost a couple of people today, but were still pretty evenly split. And maybe the evenness of that split makes talking up easier for that struggling man. I don’t know.

Our second brave one is a Black woman who talked about recognizing herself yesterday as a person who protects white people, who soothes and reassures them so they will feel comfortable, so that they can know we’re not (heaven’s forfend!) talking about them when we say all this stuff about implicit bias and white privilege.

I appreciate her for her own sake but also for mine, for the fact that I recognized myself as a protector, too, but chose to process that in my head and not aloud. While it’s true that I haven’t been much of a protector of late, the pull is still there. As soon as I hear the hurt in someone’s response to what I’ve said or written, I want to reach out and let them know how great I think they, individually, are. I’ve mostly been able to refrain from doing that. And hearing the facilitators talk directly about that yesterday was a harsh spotlight for me. And a necessary one.

I knew before I’d gone through a full hour of yesterday’s session that I would want to take this training again. Today cemented that knowledge. People often take it more than once — one of the men in our group has been six times already! — but I hadn’t expected to be ready to re-up so quickly. There’s a lot to learn about how to have these kinds of conversations from watching the ways our facilitators guide conversations and push people out of their comfort zones. And the conversations change each time because, even though the training stays the same, the facilitators and groups change each time.

So curious to see what tomorrow’s work will be. And what our one-month-later session will be in April.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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