Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Penn State rocks!

Just got back from a wonderful literary conference at Penn State called "Celebrating Contemporary African-American Novels since 1988" It was fabulous--the level of discourse, as the theorists like to say and the excitement about engaging seriously with literature was truly inspiring. This conference was particularly exciting because I, Mat Johnson and Alice Randall were all there as contemporary practitioners, mixing it up with the theorists. Here are some photographs and impressions from a fellow conferencee (and Penn State prof.)

Particularly impressive was the level of thought that went into the various papers presented--check out these abstracts. I was also in attendance at a panel on teaching Af-Am literature that raised interesting questions about how to engage with the place of hip-hop literature in the class room--does it have one? If so, what is its place? As uncomfortable as it might make some of us, students coming up have this literature as a frame of reference. They've got to be taught to look at it thoughtfully. Also interesting was a panel on pedagogy that looked at a number of ways that contemporary texts can be taught--I was particularly interested in the various approaches taken.

All in all, the conference was a beautiful thing. I can't wait until the next one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

2009 National Book Award Finalists



Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)

Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)

Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton & Co.)

Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)

Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar Straus and Giroux)


David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the
Origins of Species
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
(Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)

Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates,
Rome's Deadliest Enemy
(Princeton University Press)

T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Alfred A. Knopf)


Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)

Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)

Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)

Young People’s Literature

Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)

Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar Straus and Giroux)

David Small, Stitches (W. W. Norton & Co.)

Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)

Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)

Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
Gore Vidal

Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community
Dave Eggers

The Winner in each category will be announced at the 60th National Book Awards Benefit Dinner and Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on Wednesday, November 18. Satirist, comedian, and actor Andy Borowitz will emcee the event.

For more information about the Finalists as well as National Book Awards Week events, visit www.nationalbook.org

Press inquiries, call Sherrie Young (212) 685-0261 or email syoung@nationalbook.org.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Victor LaValle Reads His New Novel, Big Machine

Feel free to come out to any and all events! It would be great to see you.


OCTOBER 14 6:30 PM New School
Wollman Hall, Eugene Lang Building, 65 West 11th Street, 5th floor (enter at 66 West 12th Street)

OCTOBER 19 7:00 PM Barnes & Noble
86th & Lexington Ave - Writers on Writing: In Conversation about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man w/ Asali Solomon and Michael Thomas

OCTOBER 20 5:30 PM Rutgers-Newark
Paul Robeson Gallery, 350 Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, Newark NJ w/ Salvatore Scibona

OCTOBER 27 7:00 PM Pacific Standard Bar
82 Fourth Avenue - Brooklyn, NY - between St. Marks and Bergen Streets. w/Robert Lopez

Monday, October 12, 2009

Novelist Sarah Wright Passes On

We are mourning the passing of Sarah Wright. Her obituary from the New York Times is enclosed for your information and also her obituary from the Amsterdam News. Please save the date -- November 14th --for a memorial service to celebrate her life. More details to follow.
October 4, 2009

Sarah E. Wright, Novelist of Black Experience in the Depression, Dies at 80

In 1969 Sarah E. Wright, a Maryland-born writer living in Manhattan, published her first novel, “This Child’s Gonna Live.” Issued by Delacorte Press, it portrays the lives of an impoverished black woman and her family in a Maryland fishing village during the Depression. Often compared to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, the novel was unusual in its exploration of the black experience from a woman’s perspective, anticipating fiction by writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

“This Child’s Gonna Live” was hailed by critics around the country and named an outstanding book of 1969 by The New York Times. Reviewing it in The Times Book Review earlier that year, the novelist Shane Stevens called it a “small masterpiece,” adding: “Sarah Wright’s triumph in this novel is a celebration of life over death. It is, in every respect, an impressive achievement.”

Ms. Wright never published another novel. She died in Manhattan on Sept. 13, at 80; the cause was complications of cancer, her husband, Joseph Kaye, said. Today “This Child’s Gonna Live” remains highly regarded in literary circles though little known outside them.

The novel centers on Mariah Upshur, the wife of a black oysterman on the Maryland shore. Set in the fictional community of Tangierneck in the early 1930s, it unsparingly depicts the hunger, disease, racism and hard labor that were the stuff of daily life.

Capable, sensual and fiercely determined, Mariah engages in an interior dialogue with Jesus throughout the book. In the opening passage, she prays for a sunny day so she can earn money in the fields, where the young potato plants “weren’t anything but some little old twigs and promises.”

Mariah is pregnant with her fifth child. She has already lost one child in infancy and before the book is out will lose another. She dreams of escaping Tangierneck, “a place of standing still and death,” and is adamant that her new child will live.

While novelists like James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison had explored the black male experience, Ms. Wright’s novel was among the first to focus on the confluence of race, class and sex. Republished by the Feminist Press in 1986 and again in 2002, “This Child’s Gonna Live” remains in print today.

Not every reviewer embraced the book. Writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1969, the critic Irving Howe called its style “overwrought.” But many others praised Ms. Wright’s densely interwoven poetic language, her deft use of local dialect and her ability to convey the extraordinary predicament of being black, female, rural and poor.

“It’s a very difficult novel in a lot of ways,” Jennifer Campbell, an associate professor of writing studies at Roger Williams University, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. (Professor Campbell wrote the afterword to the novel’s 2002 edition.) “It’s very, very painful to read: the pain of not being able to keep your children safe, of not being able to feed them properly, of not being able to give them two pennies for the Halloween celebration.”

Ms. Wright spent about 10 years working on a second novel but did not complete it, her husband said last week.

She scarcely seems to have had time. Besides working full-time as a bookkeeper, Ms. Wright taught, lectured and was a past vice president of the Harlem Writers Guild. She published critical essays; a volume of poetry, “Give Me a Child” (Kraft Publishing, 1955, with Lucy Smith); and a nonfiction book for young people, “A. Philip Randolph: Integration in the Workplace” (Silver Burdett, 1990). She was deeply involved in political causes, protesting everything from the Vietnam War to South African apartheid to the present war in Iraq.

There was something else, Ms. Wright’s husband said, that kept her from the second novel: the anguish of writing the first. For the story of the Upshur family, though its characters were composites, was in large measure Ms. Wright’s own.

Sarah Elizabeth Wright was born on Dec. 9, 1928, in Wetipquin, Md., a historically free black community on the eastern shore. Her father, like Mariah’s husband, was an oysterman; her mother, like Mariah, shucked oysters and picked crops. Sarah had nearly a dozen siblings, several of whom died in childhood. She began writing poetry when she was about 8.

After graduating from Salisbury Colored High School, Sarah entered Howard University, where she became editor of the newspaper. She left before graduating, her husband said, “because she was literally starving.” Her parents had no money to send her for food.

“When Sarah went off to Howard, they had no idea what it meant in terms of the financial requirements,” Mr. Kaye said last week. “They gave her oilcloth that they thought she could barter with other people to obtain what she needed.”

Ms. Wright moved to Philadelphia in the late 1940s and to New York a decade later. There, in a three-room apartment on the Lower East Side, she began work on “This Child’s Gonna Live.”

“That took such a toll on her, because she was forced to dredge up painful childhood memories that she thought she had run away from when she left the community,” Mr. Kaye said. “Death just seemed to be a constant companion in her childhood, and the spirit of death just hovered over the community.”

Besides her husband, Ms. Wright, who was known in private life as Sarah Wright Kaye, is survived by a son, Michael; a daughter, Shelley Chotai; three siblings, Wanda, Howard and Gilbert; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

She also leaves behind a box containing the manuscript of her unfinished novel, the second installment in a planned trilogy about the people of Tangierneck. During the decade she worked on the book, Ms. Wright never discussed it, even with her husband.

Mr. Kaye has not opened the box. To judge from the heft, he said, it contains several hundred pages. From a chapter he found elsewhere, the novel appears to concern Bardetta Upshur, Mariah’s daughter — the child who was meant to live, and did.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company


Sarah Wright, noted author and activist, passes

By Herb Boyd

Special to the AmNews

Photo: Paul Robeson, center, shares a moment with Sarah Wright and an unidentified onlooker.

In Sarah E. Wright’s magnum opus, This Child’s Gonna Live (1969), her protagonist, Mariah Upshur, is in the process of wrestling with Satan before finding her special sanctuary. “I’m in your service, Lord,” Mariah prayed. “Clean my soul. Clean my mouth that I may speak your words.”

The Lord heard Mariah’s prayer in the same way He must have attended to Wright’s artistic quest because the novel is a prose-poem of beauty and eloquence that will have to stand since Wright is no longer with us. Wright made her transition September 13 after a prolonged illness.

A writer of extraordinary feeling and compassion for the downtrodden, a woman and activist of unwavering honesty and conviction, Wright was as committed to her writing as she was to the struggle for civil and human rights. Still, closest to her heart were the causes of peace and the liberation of her people.

Like her idol Paul Robeson, she saw no separation between her art and her politics—they were a unity of resistance against injustice.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Philadelphia in the 1950s from the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she was born and raised, and from Howard University which she attended, Wright immersed herself in the fight against racism and homegrown fascism. With her poetry and picket signs she was a constant presence along with those who demanded freedom and justice for W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson and others targeted and arrested during the dark days of McCarthyism and the Cold War.

This determination continued with renewed fervor when she became a member of the Harlem Writers’ Guild, joining her considerable talent and integrity with John Oliver Killens, Rosa Guy, Grace Edwards, and Louise Meriwether.

In his assessment of her signature novel, Killens’ noted that it wasn’t a “pretty book,” but an “overwhelming metaphor of the Black experience…all the more powerful and truthful for having a protagonist who is a Black woman of unparalleled heroism in this white, racist, capitalistic, male-supremacist society.”

Together, as you might imagine, Killens and Wright were a formidable duo in the Guild, organizing seminars and conferences, conducting workshops, and the list of writers who acquired their skills and launched their careers under their stewardship provides a glimpse at the African American literary canon.

“Sarah was a great help to fledgling and established writers,” said Grace Edwards, a prolific author and current executive director of the Guild. “Whenever she showed up at our meetings, people paid attention because they knew she was a serious artist with a deep concern about their development. We respected her as a writer and her leadership, which was invaluable.”

Louise Meriwether, another stalwart in the Guild and noted for her novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, was equally expressive in her praise for Wright and her contributions to the Guild. “Sarah was exceedingly generous with her time and interest,” she said in a phone interview. “What a remarkable spirit she possessed. She was a very meticulous author and poet, very concerned about getting the right word in the right place. And she was a good cook.”

Wright’s ability in the kitchen was only exceeded by her work with the pen, something her husband, Joe Kaye is quick to confirm. “Yes, Sarah was a fantastic cook, but she could do so many things around the house; she could fix things and make things; her versatility was practically unlimited,” Kaye sighed.

“But what I will miss most about her is her unimpeachable integrity, her sense of honesty and always seeking the truth,” Kaye continued.

Some of the that truth can be found in her poetry, and her other books, including Give Me a Child, a collection of verse co-authored with Lucy Smith, and her biography of A. Philip Randolph.

A public tribute to her life and work will be held on Saturday, November 14 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Ethical Culture Society where all those who, as she did, believe in the possibility of achieving a “world worthy of human beings” may pay her tribute.

Marcela Landres Interviews Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa About her Debut Novel

1. Saludos
While many Latinos have African roots, our literature doesn't always reflect
this. In addition to the glorious writing, Daughters of the Stone by Dahlma
Llanos-Figueroa is a notable debut novel because it represents a beautiful
and substantial addition to the legacy of Afro-Latino stories and storytellers.
To learn more, read this month's Q&A with Dahlma.

Helping Latinos get published,
Marcela Landres

2. Q&A
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York
City. She taught in the New York City school system before becoming a
young adult librarian. Dahlma has won the Bronx Council on the Arts
and BRIO Awards, as well as a Literary Arts Fellowship. She lives in the
Bronx. For more information, visit http://www.llanosfigueroa.com/

Q: Which author or book inspires you, and why?
A: Isabel Allende and Toni Morrison are my greatest inspirations. They
use innovative and lyrical language to tell stories that help readers come
to a new understanding or connect them with very personal aspects of
their lives. I especially love the fact that their books can be read on many
levels and therefore can be revisited over and over again.

Q: Why do you love to write?
A: I love to write because I love exploring the lives of my characters. I
enjoy creating a world in which they can grow and share themselves with
my readers. Once they are created, they often take me in directions that
are new and totally unexpected. The outcome is a wonderful surprise and
a learning lesson to me.

Q: Who is your agent and how did you meet him/her?
A: My agent is Susan Schulman and I met her at the annual International
Women's Writers Conference at Skidmore. It's a wonderful environment for
supporting and inspiring women writers.

Q: What is your writing ritual?
A: I get up at the crack of dawn, light a candle and some incense, and do
my meditations. Often, my writing comes out of images that come to me
during this quiet time. Then I turn to my journal and record all the thoughts
that have come to me. By the time I get to my computer, I have already
done the most creative part of my work.

Q: Other than honing their craft, what advice would you give to Latino
writers looking to land a book deal?
A: My advice to emerging writers is to find a writing community. Given
the realities of writing today, our world could so easily become a
computer screen and a room in which we sit alone. I've found that while
these are important, opening myself up to the constructive criticism and
supportive response of other writers is just as important. Also, this is the
way to make connections and begin the networking you will need in the
future. Silence and contemplation is crucial, but community is as important.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

ringShout's Martha Southgate Hosts Panel with Three "Young, Gifted, and Black (Male) Writers"

Young, Gifted and Black Men: Writer’s Who Rock (In Brooklyn)

By Chinyere Osuala

There’s an exclusivity that Park Slope, Brooklyn boasts, that makes it different, makes it stand out. No, it’s not the strollers, or the young married couples, or the yuppie-ness, it is the amount of writers, famous writers at that, who call this affluent Brooklyn neighborhood home, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Pete Hamill. The number of cafes and writers’ spaces—even for kids—make this college-town-without-a-college a place where writers can thrive and focus on their next masterpiece.

This is the environment that esteemed Brooklyn writer Martha Southgate, author of Third Girl from the Left, thought would be a great place to feature innovative and diverse black voices.


Author Martha Southgate, left, presents the "Young, Gifted Black Male Writers" gathering in Brooklyn on October 1, with fellow authors, from left, James Hannaham, Clifford Thompson, and Victor LaValle. Photo: Chinyere Osuala

On October 1, Southgate curated the book reading and discussion,” Young, Gifted and Black (Men),” in the Old Stone House, a Park Slope recreation center. The featured writers were James Hannaham, journalist and author of God Says No; Victor LaValle, author of The Big Machine; and essayist Cliff Thompson, whose first novel, Signifying Nothing, was released in April. The event was hosted by Brooklyn Reading Works, a program that seeks exposure for emerging and notable scribes living in the area.

“I thought it would be really exciting to bring three African-American writers here,” Southgate said, “There are some interesting writers in the community, out there and I like to get them out there.”

The reading took place in a salon-like room inside the reconstructed Dutch-stone farmhouse located inside of Washington Park. Under its two-sided sloped roof, the lights beamed down on the thirty black chairs set up for guests and on the Trader Joe’s cheese and wine that host Louise Crawford, founder of Brooklyn Reading Works, made sure to mention on her blog OnlyTheBlogKnowsBrooklyn.com.

Please read more about Martha's evening with Victor LaValle. James Hannaham, and Cliff Thompson by going to TheDefendersOnline.com: http://www.thedefendersonline.com/2009/10/02/young-gifted-and-black-men-writers-who-rock-in-brooklyn/.