Bibliotherapy: Anger

It started with Jericho Brown’s reading at Northwestern a few weeks back. Someone asked about Brown’s relationship with the church. I don’t remember the question but I remember thinking she wanted him to reference a tension between sexuality and religion. Whatever the prompt, he responded:

If God is everywhere then why would I be the exception? If God is everywhere then I have to allow God through me and to see God in others… There is no separation between God and me… I am capable of creation in my own sphere.

I immediately thought of the chaos of my own spiritual life. As he spoke, I felt an urgent need for its order, for the sake of my creativity and my being.

Not long after Brown’s reading, I picked up Kiese Laymon’s book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. It’s been on my to-read list since I read the eponymous essay. Laymon is an excellent thinker and writer. I want to be an excellent thinker and writer. It turns out I very much needed to read this at this time. I’ve been in too many spaces lately where people are unsure of my anger. People who live in black or female bodies who doubt when I say this is a thing that is both political and inherited.

In Laymon’s collection, he talks quite a bit about love, and anger and reckoning our worst selves with our best ones. It’s a confrontation from the very first page:

One cold night in New York, someone I loved told me that I was precisely the kind of human being I claimed to despise. I defended myself against responsibility, as American monsters and American murderers tend to do, and I tried to make this person feel absolutely worthless, confused, and malignant as I was. Later that night, I couldn’t sleep, and for the first time in my life, I wrote the sentence, “I’ve been slowly killing myself and others close to me.”

It’s the type of writing that lets you know you are seen but it’s not going to do the work for you.

So now I’m reading Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions by Thích Nhất Hạnh. A therapist recommended this as one way to address my anger. I’ve been taking notes as I read the meditations. I’m doubtful. How can I take care of my anger as I would a baby if I’m so wary of motherhood, or rather of giving so much time to anything outside of my indulgences?

bell hooks provides some encouragement to keep trying. In her interview with George Yancy she talks about the necessity of a spiritual practice:

Feminism does not ground me. It is the discipline that comes from spiritual practice that is the foundation of my life. If we talk about what a disciplined writer I have been and hope to continue to be, that discipline starts with a spiritual practice. It’s just every day, every day, every day.

In other words: I’m woke so any sense of stability has long been disrupted. If I practice it with discipline, spirituality can be a grounding experience.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Finding homes in art // ‘juke’ by Nate Marshall

Last month, Akosua Adoma Owusu screened a collection of her short films at Black Cinema House. Following the screening, she and Professor Terri Francis, spoke a bit about her work. At a point, Owusu mentioned that the initial motivation for her film work was a search for home and belonging. She’s Ghanaian but was born and raised in the United States.

Professor Olasupo Laosebikan, who was in the audience, replied that he believes Owusu had found a home in the art she creates. Francis added that she’d felt like she found a home of her own within Owusu’s work. There was something illuminating about this idea of finding/creating home in your own work or others. It explains why I revisit certain works, why I keep them close even when I’m not reading them. It adds purpose to my own work.

This past Saturday night I was reading the latest issue of the Indiana Review. I’ve been reading it for the past week or so and and it’s filled with some good-weird fiction. It’s been entertaining and a series of craft lessons. But Saturday night I was reading it because I wanted to avoid the fact that the NYPD had just officially declared war against civilians. When I came to this poem by Nate Marshall ‘juke’, I immediately thought of what Laosebikan said. I kept going back to it, wanting to stay inside of it:

20141222_134114

Writing an Immigrant Narrative

BeautifulThingsI have these three works-in-progress — melancholic short stories of people in search of something and hoping that some place (other than where they are) will give them that thing. The protagonists are all Africans, they are all displaced (away from home), and two have become immigrants in the United States. I recently workshopped one of these pieces at a two-week creative writing program. One of the workshop instructors suggested that I read Dinaw Menegestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears as a way to see how a narrative about Africans living in the U.S. could be constructed.

I was a bit hesitant at first, given the book’s low rating on GoodReads, but browsing the reviews gave some insight as to why it only averaged 3.5/5. Quite a few people have very specific expectations of what an immigrant narrative should be. One reviewer stated that the first person narration didn’t work because it was too insightful for someone who was a shopkeeper. Another reviewer didn’t like how downbeat the novel was. There was another reader who was frustrated that the protagonist could not help himself enough, that it was his own mind holding him back, not his environment. You get the picture. These people want the ultimate immigrant narrative. The escape of death in a dark country, the commitment to work hard regardless of circumstance in the new country, then the humble yet exciting rise to success or some other type of fulfillment. They want something insightful and evocative, but not in the voice of the actual man who has become an immigrant.

Mengestu disrupts these expectations with his debut novel. His style of writing is both uncomplicated and unassuming but his characters are in no way as simple. They are navigating displacement on multiple levels. The protagonist, Sepha Stephanos was forced to leave Ethiopia during the revolution. Nearly two decades later, he plays a Name That African Coup Leader game with two of his other friends who are also navigating displacement. Joseph, who is from the Congo, works as a waiter at a restaurant called The Colonial Grill. Kenneth, originally from Kenya, works as an Engineer. The three men met while working at the Capitol Hotel. Now, they often gather in the shop that Stephanos owns — a convenience store located in the gentrifying Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Mengestu idealizes nothing in the narrative. Even Sepha’s attempts at romance are far from any romanticized notions of love. Judith is a single mother and professor of American history currently on sabbatical. She and her daughter have moved into a large, reconstructed home in the Logan Circle. Sepha and Judith are near opposite ends of the economic class spectrum, yet equally matched in their loneliness. Together they are awkward and uncomfortable. As a reader you may want them to win, just as you may want your own unsuitable relationships to win. You know it’s not a good thing for anyone involved. Not to spoil the story, but the narrative around the romance is as real as every other aspect of the novel.

I don’t know that this novel has directly impacted my work, other than to reaffirm that “immigrant” is a label that doesn’t characterize one’s identity in any universal way (or maybe not at all). If I were to put (black) immigrant narratives on a (non hierarchical) scale of 1 to 5, 1 being a novel like Teju Cole’s Open City and 5 being like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. I think The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears lingers around a 2. If you like quiet stories with many layers of subtext, you’d appreciate the narrative that Mengestu has created.

I picked up this copy from my local library. You can purchase a copy from
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound
Powell’s

On Being Unpublished & Not Winning

The ‘About Me’ page of the Life As Fiction tumblr reads, “My name is Nicholas Ochiel. I am an unpublished Kenyan writer, striving to be published. Mostly, I read a lot and quote things. I have an opinion about everything.”

In the past few months I’ve felt the weight of what it means to tell others that I’m a writer. On many occasions, my declaration is followed up with questions — the most dreadful thus far: “where can I read your work?” Beyond For Harriet, I have not submitted my work anywhere, but I imagine that if I did, I’d be using my “rejection is redirection” affirmation a lot more. I am a writer who spends a lot of time reading and writing and trying to discern what is good and what is not so good as both reader and writer. In not even attempting to explain this to others, it sometimes feels like the embodiment of non-achievement.

On a recent post entitled, “On not winning literary prizes” Nicholas shares some thoughts on writing after not making the shortlist of this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize:

For those of us who lose (because it really is losing if one does not win: judgement has been passed; “the shadow remains cast”) the publication of yet another list on which our names do not feature is an opportunity to remember that writing fiction is to embrace an absurdity: one writes with the conceit of hope that one’s words and thoughts matter, that one’s imagination is bright enough to illumine the hearts, minds, and lives of a small cohort of unknown kindred others, that perhaps the writer is in fact brilliant, her output perspicacious or even vatic, her existence necessary. However, those of us who remain unpublished write not because we really believe these things which we hope but because there is not an alternative: the hand that holds the pen propels itself, wending its way across the page, and it matters very little if anyone else reads these words.

A good reminder.

Chicago as a Galaxy

Probably the most important thing I heard this weekend during the Black Collectivities Conference (which at times was overwhelming in the way that the academy is):

“Like a galaxy giving birth to stars, that’s what Chicago is to black people” – Cauleen Smith, experimental filmmaker, afrofuturist

Whenever I tell folks from my past that I live in Chicago now, there is almost an immediate reference to the city’s problem with violence. I’m not naive; but I know that I’ve had some of the most healthful encounters and relationships with black people since I’ve been here. I also know that my artistry has grown exponentially in the past several months. So as a black woman exploring herself as an artist in a city with black population often denigrated by the media, Cauleen’s statement was perfectly timed and thoroughly felt.

AfroFuturism with Kibwe Tavares & Keguro Macharia

Jonah (trailer above) premiered at Sundance 2013. A synopsis of the film from its creators follows:

Mbwana and his best friend Juma are two young men with big dreams. These dreams become reality when they photograph a gigantic fish leaping out of the sea and their small town blossoms into a tourist hot-spot as a result. But for Mbwana, the reality isn’t what he dreamed – and when he meets the fish again, both of them forgotten, ruined and old, he decides only one of them can survive. Jonah is a big fish story about the old and the new, and the links and the distances between them. A visual feast, shot though with humour and warmth, it tells an old story in a completely new way.

The visuals alone captured my attention, but reading up on the director, Kibwe Tavares, got me excited. On the TED Blog, Tavares discusses the relationship between his training as an architect and the science fiction aesthetic of his films:

As an architect, you’re always thinking about the future, too. You build in narratives that are in the future, because you’re always thinking, “When I design a building, I’m designing it for what happens 10, 15 years into the future.” And when you start looking at the future, it’s hard not to have that kind of science-fiction element.

Tavares’ commentary took me back to my initial impression of the film trailer. Afrofuturistic.

Hopefully you haven’t grown too tired of the word’s (mis)use because I think it’s really important here, especially after I’ve read Keguro Macharia’s Imagine in Black. In the blog post, Macharia offers a parallel between our everyday lives and those in dystopia:Read More »

Notes on Writing: Writing the Sex Scene

I was just joking with my sister that she’d be writing any sex scenes for my novel because I’m just out of touch. For different reasons, Tayari Jones is struggling with writing sex scenes as well.  On her blog she explains how she tried to get around her shyness:

I thought about going the innuendo route, sparing myself from having the write anything hot and sweaty.  Afterall, I reasoned, sometimes you can convey a lot just through describing touches, glances, etc.  But I had to face it– I was pretending to take some sort of high ground because the scenes that needed writing made me uncomfortable.  And let’s face it, when you feel uncomfortable while writing, it probably means you really MUST write that scene.  What famous person said tha literature is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

Read the full post here and her follow up post in which she includes helpful links on how to write sex scenes.