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U.S. DepArtment of StAte / febrUAry 2009
VolUme 14 / nUmber 2
International Information Programs:
Coordinator Jeremy F. Curtin
Executive Editor Jonathan Margolis
Creative Director George Clack
Editor-in-Chief Richard W. Huckaby
Managing Editor Lea Terhune
Production Manager Chris Larson
Assistant Production Manager Sylvia Scott
Web Producer Janine Perry
Copy Editor Rosalie Targonski
Photo Editor Ann Monroe Jacobs
Cover Design Timothy Brown
Cover Illustration Phillip Hua
Reference Specialist Martin Manning
The Bureau of International Information Programs of the U.S. Department of State publishes a monthly electronic journal under the eJournal USA logo. These journals examine major issues facing the United States and the international community, as well as U.S. society, values, thought, and institutions.
One new journal is published monthly in English and is followed by versions in French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Selected editions also appear in Arabic, Chinese, and Persian. Each journal is catalogued by volume and number.
The opinions expressed in the journals do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of State assumes no responsibility for the content and continued accessibility of Internet sites to which the journals link; such responsibility resides solely with the publishers of those sites. Journal articles, photographs, and illustrations may be reproduced and translated outside the United States unless they carry explicit copyright restrictions, in which case permission must be sought from the copyright holders noted in the journal.
The Bureau of International Information Programs maintains current and back issues in several electronic formats at http://www.america.gov/publications/ejournalusa. html. Comments are welcome at your local U.S. Embassy or at the editorial offices:
Editor, eJournal USA IIP/PUBJ U.S. Department of State 301 4th Street, SW Washington, DC 20547 United States of America E-mail: eJournalUSA@state.gov
Front Cover: A few of the contribu- tors to our journal: 1) Susan Power; 2) Jennifer 8. Lee; 3) Gerald Early; 4) the late Agha Shahid Ali; 5) Diana Abu- Jaber; 6) Tayari Jones; and 7) Ha Jin.
Photo credits: Agha Shahid Ali, courtesy David H. Bain, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont; Diana Abu-Jaber © AP Images/Greg Wahl-Stephens; Tayari Jones, courtesy Lillian Bertram; Ha Jin © AP Images/Vincent Yu; Courtesy Susan Power; Jennifer 8. Lee, photo by Nina Subin, courtesy Twelve Publishing; Gerald Early, courtesy Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Cover artist Phillip Hua is an American-born Vietnamese visual artist who lives and works in San Francisco.
For 500 years, immigrants from diverse cultures have sought freedom and opportunity in what is now the United States of America. The writers among them recorded their experiences in letters, journals, poems, and books, from early colonial days to the present. “We are a nation of many voices,” writes Marie Arana in her essay, and that is what this eJournal USA on multicultural writing is about: to show how voices from various ethnic backgrounds have enriched American society through art and cultural sharing that invites understanding.
Newcomers may write of loneliness, like the anonymous Chinese immigrant to the “land of the Flowery Flag” who scratched a wistful poem on a barracks wall at the Angel Island Immigration Station near San Francisco, in the early 20th century:
the west wind ruffles my thin gauze clothing.
on the hill sits a tall building with a room of wooden planks.
I wish I could travel on a cloud far away, reunite with my wife and son.
Challenges are inevitable as immigrants adjust to life in a new country, with a new language, and as their new neighbors become acquainted with them. The articles in this journal examine that process of mutual assimilation and the interactions that broaden perspectives, regardless of ethnic heritage.
Ha Jin, Immaculée Ilibagiza, and Lara Vapnyar are relatively new immigrants who choose English — their second language — in which to write about their mother countries and the country that is their new home.
Ofelia Zepeda and Susan Power, descendants of indigenous American nations – the original inhabitants of the Americas — draw on ancient traditions of their tribes.
Gerald Early — writing on “What Is African- American Literature?” — taps hundreds of years of creativity that evolved through slavery and the civil rights movement to the current, popular Hip-Hop Fiction. Early argues that “urban literature has democratized and broadened the reach and content of African-American literature.” African-American writers Tayari Jones and Randall Kenan call on their firm roots in the American South for the special regional flavor in their work.
Akhil Sharma writes of how his bicultural life and Ernest Hemingway helped shape his writing. “Because this wave of Asian immigrants has created curiosity within American society as to what exactly it is like to be in Asian families, I have been lucky to have had my books read,” he writes. Persis Karim and Diana Abu- Jaber, half Iranian and half Arab, respectively, recall coming to terms with two cultures in their own families, while Jennifer 8. Lee describes American
assimilation of cultures as a story wrapped in a fortune cookie. These and other contributors write about the ways they belong to America while they retain the uniqueness of their original heritages.
More than ever, Americans want to participate in the multicultural experience, whether it is through appreciation of music or art or sampling ethnic food — and along the way forming friendships with the Arab, Korean, or Guatemalan restaurateur. Often they simply immerse themselves in vibrant cultures depicted between the covers of a book.
— the editors
About This Issue
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We Are a Nation of Many Voices Marie Arana Diversity in the United States has created a fresh, dynamic literature with new kinds of American stories.
Literature at the Crossroads Tayari Jones The crossroads is a sacred space where the specific and the universal meet and where African-American writing happily exists beside the transcendent, universal nature of art.
Ghost Dog: Or, How I Wrote my First Novel Randall Kenan North Carolina ambience and wisps of old legends infuse the work of this native son.
Rwanda to America: Writing as Transformation Immaculée Ilibagiza Writing helped this survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide come to terms with her horrific experience and loss while allowing her to fulfill a mission of forgiveness.
What Is African-American Literature? Gerald Early Urban or Hip-Hop Fiction may signal a new maturity and broadening of African-American writing.
Writing to Bridge the Mixed-Blood Divide: An American Indian Perspective Susan Power A young girl comes to terms with her Dakota Sioux and Anglo heritage with the help of stories spun by her American Indian mother.
Simple Memories as Poems Ofelia Zepeda Poet Zepeda finds inspiration for her work in childhood memories, events, and her native Tohono O’odham language.
Pulling Down the Clouds Ofelia Zepeda
The Toughest Indian in the World Sherman Alexie Life on the Indian reservation and the relationship between father and son are the themes of these vignettes.
Teaching the Art of Being Human: Ancient Indigenous Storytelling Thrives Interviews by Lea Terhune The ancient art of storytelling still thrives in American Indian communities today. Two practitioners tell how stories teach basic lessons of morality and humaneness.
Sidebar: Blackfeet Troubadour Sings Traditions A Storyteller Jack Gladstone talks about his heritage.
U.S. DepArtment of StAte / febrUAry 2009/ VolUme 14 / nUmber 2
Multicultural Literature in the United States Today
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eAst AsiAn AmericAns
American Fortune Cookie Jennifer 8. Lee The fortune cookie, believed by most Americans to have come from China, in fact, did nothing of the sort.
Finding Allies in Books Bich Minh Nguyen Icons of literature helped this young Vietnamese immigrant learn about American culture and ultimately led her to becoming a writer.
The Language of Betrayal Ha Jin Writing in a second, very different, language is both a challenge and a statement — and a way to pursue one’s vision.
New Immigrant Tales: Junot Díaz and Afro-Latino Fiction Glenda Carpio The writer of Junot Díaz breaks new ground by easily moving between Afro-Latino ethnicities and his American identity formed in urban New Jersey.
An Interview with Junot Díaz The writer speaks about growing up Dominican American.
Lost City Radio Daniel Alarcón The scene is set for turbulence in a sleepy, fictional Latin American town.
middLe eAstern And sOuth AsiAn AmericAns
Netting the Clouds Diana Abu-Jaber Being half Arab meant a rich life of good food, lots of vivacious relatives, and a sense of being different while being fully American.
Writing from a Complex Ethnic Perspective Persis Karim This Californian daughter of an Iranian father and French mother became fascinated by her Persian heritage, and exploring the nuances of her complex ethnic background became her mission.
One Indian Writer’s Experience Akhil Sharma Immigration, South Asian culture, luck, and Ernest Hemingway are all milestones on the path of this Indian-American writer. Influences on My Work Tamim Ansary Afghan poetry traditions, legends, and old illustrated books primed the imagination of Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary.
The Dacca Gauzes Agha Shahid Ali The late, influential Indian-American poet Agha Shahid Ali drew from his Kashmiri heritage, Urdu poetry, and his life in America for inspiration for his works.
Sixty-Nine Cents Gary Shteyngart A trip to Disneyland for a family of Russian immigrants becomes a generational tug-of-war between Old and New World food cultures, at least in the mind of the young protagonist of this short story.
My Literary Crushes Lara Vapnyar Although many authors vied for her affections as a girl, Chekhov won Lara Vapnyar’s heart for a lifetime.
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one in four Americans has strong ties to a foreign past, and from these diverse cultures, a new, vibrant American literature has sprung.
marie Arana is the author of the memoir American Chica, as well as two novels, Cellophane and Lima Nights. She is also the editor of a collection of essays, The Writing Life.
We glory in an America of diversity,” U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey (1965-1969) once said, “an America all the richer for the many different and distinctive strands from which it is woven.”
At no other time has this been more true. Today, one in four among us has a strong tie to a foreign past. More than one in five was born elsewhere or has an immigrant parent. We are a nation of many voices, myriad histories — a hotbed of artistic possibility. It’s little wonder that from this vibrant and variegated culture, a new American literature has sprung.
The birth of American multicultural literature was not easy; much might have stunted it; but it had the good fortune to grow in a land that had a fluid sense of identity. Even the bedrock novels of Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald capture three entirely distinct Americas. Still, by the 1950s, a different writer had begun to emerge — one whose works attempted to reflect not the nation at large, but a single ethnic sensibility. First came Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, with their deeply felt Jewish-American novels; then Ralph Ellison, with his harrowing tale of racism, Invisible man.
The literature of black America had begun almost one hundred years before with the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass. After slavery was outlawed, it passed from the fiery rhetoric of W.E.B. Du Bois to the striking imagery of Langston Hughes. It would go on to many great works by James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that black voices began to flow freely through America’s literary bloodline. With Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, Maya Angelou, and Jamaica Kincaid,this singularly American literature became part of the mainstream.
Bridging the cuLturAL divide
But multicultural literature took a few more years to arrive, and it involved more than black-white America. That new wave was heralded by Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1976 bestseller, the Woman Warrior, a highly imaginative memoir that dared speak in an entirely new way. Filled with ghosts of Chinese ancestors, it broke all the rules, mixed dreams with reality, juggled identities freely, and put a firm foot across the cultural divide.
“I read that book as a young woman and thought ‘Wow! You can do that?’” the novelist Sandra Cisneros once told me. “You can think in another language with
We Are a Nation of Many Voices Marie Arana
Novelist, editor, and literary critic Marie Arana.
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another mythology, but write it in English?” And so, a new era of American literature was born.
For Hispanics, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. Precisely at the same time, a Latin American boom was in progress. The works of Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa were being translated furiously into English. They quickly penetrated the North American consciousness. Márquez’s one Hundred years of Solitude was soon followed by Fuentes’s the Death of ArtemioCruz and Vargas Llosa’s the time of the Hero — each book a watermark in the rising tide of our awareness.
The first Hispanic American to break onto bestseller lists during this time was a writer who didn’t need to be translated: Richard Rodriguez’s eloquent memoir Hunger of memory, published in 1981, was fierce and elegiac, a striking work that challenged the tired stereotypes of Chicano identity. Three years later, it was joined by Cisneros’s the House on mango Street, a spare and affecting novel about a seven-year-old Mexican girl in a poor ghetto in Chicago. Readers received it as a glimpse into an America they hardly knew.
By the 1990s, the interest in Hispanic-American letters had become brisk commerce. After Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for his sizzling novel of Cuba, the mambo Kings play Songs of love, publishers competed to bring out books by Latinos from a variety of backgrounds: Julia Alvarez’s vividly told How the Garcia Girls lost their Accents, about four Dominican sisters in the Bronx; Cristina Garcia’s sprightly Dreaming in Cuban, about her immigrant family in Miami; Francisco Goldman’s the long night of White Chickens, set during Guatemala’s military rule; When I Was puerto rican, Esmeralda Santiago’s dreamy paean to her childhood; Drown, Junot Díaz’s prickly stories about Dominican street punks.
Our notions of American culture were morphing quickly. Amy Tan’s the Joy luck Club, published a scant decade after the Woman Warrior, gave way to a vigorous industry of Asian-American letters. Soon there were Gus Lee’s China boy, a novel about a boy on the mean streets of San Francisco; Lisa See’s Snow flower and the Secret fan, a historical novel set in ancient China; Gish Jen’s typical American, focusing not on the Chinese but on what it means to be a citizen of the United States. Today, that literature has expanded to include works by the children of immigrants from other Asian backgrounds: Japanese-American Wakako Yamauchi; Vietnamese- American Fae Myenne Ng; Korean-American Chang-rae Lee.
writing new AmericAn stOries
But America’s romance with diversity is still unfolding. Today, multicultural writers include Americans of South Asian ancestry: Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of maladies), Manil Suri (the Death of Vishnu), and Vikram Chandra (love and longing in bombay). Or African Americans with roots in foreign places: Edwidge Danticat, who writes about Haiti, and Nalo Hopkinson, born in Jamaica. Recent years have brought, too, the work of Americans of Middle Eastern heritage: Khaled Hosseini (the Kite runner), Diana Abu-Jaber (Crescent), and Azar Nafisi (reading lolita in tehran).
What do these writers have in common? They share an impulse to honor their ancestors — a desire to hold fast to roots. Unlike American immigrants of an earlier era, they balance assimilation with a staunch ethnic pride.
W.E.B. Du Bois called it a “double-consciousness;” Richard Wright, a “double vision.” Whatever we choose to call it, this new literature, born from black experience, forged by an immigrant will, can no longer be considered alien. It is American now.
My own appreciation for my roots came late in life and not until I became a writer. As an editor for many years in New York’s book publishing industry, I had little reason to dwell on having been born in Peru and growing up half-Peruvian. I was too busy trying to be all-American, publishing books by wonderful writers, focusing on the “typical” reader. What did Americans want?
Well into my forties, I went to work at the Washington post, first as the deputy of the book review section and then as editor. The newspaper’s management, deeply aware of the burgeoning culture of American Hispanics, urged me to write about it. I began with opinion pieces on Latin America, then moved on to articles about the immigrant population, the lives of migrant workers, the intricacies of the Latin American mind. Eventually, I began to recall the observant 10-year- old I was when I arrived in this country. By the time I sat down in the late 1990s to write my memoir of growing up bicultural, there was a vast population of people like me, a strong and lively fellowship of hyphenated Americans.
There is no turning back now. This is a nation, as Humphrey so aptly put it, that glories in diversity. We are the richer for it: The literature of multiculturalism is wildly original, steeped in a wider world, yet unmistakably American. Junot Díaz’s brief and Wondrous life of oscar Wao, a bodacious novel about Dominican
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identity, cannot have been written without its New Jersey streets. Edwidge Danticat’s stirring memoir of Haiti, brother, I’m Dying, would not exist had her family not moved to New York City. What these pioneering writers do is reach behind to fashion a new America. One foot
lingers in a distant country, but the other is firmly here.
the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.
“You may not see it, you may not feel it, but the next thing
you say, the next way you move, the next thought that enters
your head, pacu, will go like a ripple into a great river. We are
all bound together in that way. You breathe in, you talk, your
words ride the air toward me. I take in that same air, breathe it
out, send it on.”
— the shaman yorumbo to Don Victor Sobrevilla, from
Cellophane: ANovel by marie Arana
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A native of Atlanta, Georgia, tayari Jones writes about the urban South. Her first novel, Leaving Atlanta (2002) won the Hurston/Wright Award for Debut fiction and was acknowledged as one of the best of the year by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Washington Post. Her second novel, The Untelling (2005), won the lillian C. Smith Award for new Voices. recipient of prestigious fellowships, including yaddo, the macDowell Colony, and bread loaf Writer’s Conference, she is currently an assistant professor in the master of fine arts program at rutgers University in newark, new Jersey.
If you go into a large chain bookstore in the United States, you will find my books shelved under a sign that reads “African-American Interest.” Every few
months, I receive an e-mail from an outraged (usually white) reader who is dismayed by what she sees as the denigration of my work. “Your work should be in the front of the store with all the regular authors!” By “regular,” she means white, but she doesn’t even know that yet. I also receive messages from younger black writers who worry about the status of books they haven’t even written yet. “How will I get my book off the black Shelf ?” they worry in advance. After a few weeks of class, my own creative writing students work up the nerve to ask me how I feel about my novels being “Jim Crowed” (referring to pre-Civil Rights Act de facto discrimination). And like many other people, they can’t understand why I am not particularly upset that my work is shelved almost 10 full feet away from the likes of American legends the late John
Literature at the Crossroads
Novelist Tayari Jones, an Atlanta native, likes to place her characters in a southern urban setting.
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Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. Some readers wonder aloud how, in this age of Barack Obama, a bookstore would have the nerve to note the race of an author and organize the shelves accordingly. One well-meaning reader even went so far as to offer to write a letter to the bookstore owner on my behalf. Although I was touched, I urged her to calm down. I am not sure that I want to shed the label of “black writer” in favor of the indistinction of being just a “writer” or even an “American writer,” minus the hyphen that makes my life interesting.
Unlike many of my peers, I approach labels with an amused fascination. As far as I am concerned, the more labels, the better. tayari Jones is an African-American woman, southern, middle-class, right-handed writer. She is the writer in her family. She is the writer who wears a green sweater and eats crème brûlée for breakfast. I don’t mind being identified by descriptors as long as they are true and as long as I am allowed to choose as many as I like. The trouble with labels is not with the label itself, but with the reactions some readers have to those labels. Traditionally, labels have been used to designate a lesser status. Simply avoiding the label doesn’t address the caste
system that gives rise to the labels in the first place. To the contrary, eschewing the label “African-American writer” can actually reinscribe hurtful assumptions. There is a reason that people sometimes say, “Your writing is too good to be in the ‘black’ section of the store!” as though merit is what separates the blacks from the rest. The kind reader seeks to rescue me from racism, rather than attack the beast itself.
Even as I write this, the very questions feel a little irrelevant, even though I feel very strongly about the words that I have written. It seems impossible to answer any questions about being an African-American writer without addressing the issue of what it is to be read as an African-American writer or, even more fraught, to be marketed as an African-American writer. The artist in me is annoyed by the question, as it doesn’t really address the thing that I do with my paper and pen.
Writing itself is a spiritual labor of the imagination. Alone with the page, I do not think of the shelving practices of large chain bookstores, I do not worry about the language that will be chosen by reviewers. When I wrote my first novel, leaving Atlanta, I was driven by a desire to tell the story of the African-American children of Atlanta who lived — and died — during the child murders of 1979 to 1981. The novel documents an emotional history of a generation at a particular time and place — and much of its value comes from this function. Although the events of that terrible time are now considered historical, to me it felt more like memory than history. In 1979, I was a 10-year-old girl with over- large teeth and not enough friends. By the time I turned 12, two boys in my fifth-grade class would be dead and the corpses of dozens more strewn across the landscape of my hometown, the “city too busy to hate.” Coming of age against the backdrop of this horror was how I came to understand the cost of Blackness. When I sat down to write my very first novel — my baby, I call it — the project felt more like an urgent matter of truth-telling rather than the academic task of “filling in the gaps of history,” which is often seen as the “work” of the African- American writer.
While I do applaud those writers who have used their imagination to render in fiction the lost voices of generations past, I believe that African-American writers must also embrace contemporary narratives. Although African-American writers have beautifully reconstructed the past — Toni Morrison’s brilliant beloved comes to mind — we must not become so obsessed with filling the pages left blank by an incomplete historical record, that we leave no record of our own meaningful lives. I do not
An Atlanta landmark, the Underground Atlanta tower draws attention to the historic old city and glorifies Georgia peaches.
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like to imagine my own granddaughter forced to rely on library archives to reconstruct my life because I exhausted my resources and talent pondering the past. At some point, serious writers must commit ourselves as fervently to transforming our own experiences into art.
* * * *
The transformation of experience to art, observation to art, emotion to art, or even idea to art is the alchemy of the writer. This magic happens midway between the brain and the heart. Perhaps the enchanted site is the throat, where voice is born.
All of my novels are set in Atlanta, Georgia — my hometown. My favorite settings for my work are the urban centers of the American South. I love them because they are the spaces where old world meets new technology, where the goalposts of race, class, gender, and politics are often shifted in the night, so when my characters wake up in the morning, they have no idea where they are and must spend the rest of the novel looking. We are together in this — my characters and me. We are always searching for the truth. And the truth, as we all know, is universal.
It’s possible that I seem to contradict myself in this essay. At first I am speaking of the specificity of my experience as an African American. I’ve even embraced the separate section in American bookstores. But then, just a few paragraphs later I am waxing in the abstract about the universality and transcendence of art.
For me, these thoughts hardly contradict. They intersect. In many traditions of the African Diaspora, the crossroads is a sacred space where the mortal and spirit worlds overlap. I think of African-American literature as art that finds its home at the place where two roads meet. Connected with physical word, African-American writers
speak of the reality of our brilliant, diverse people. The ways we interpret this tangible reality are as various as our faces. There is no authentic reality that marks African- American literature, but there is such a thing as authentic witnessing, which is determined by the writer and her conscience. But on that spirit road is the thing that binds us all as human beings, that is more significant than our constructed realities.
To end this story where I’ve begun, let us return to the bookstore with its separate sections. To my friends and readers who are dismayed to find my books in a section they deem “irregular,” I encourage you to become a bit more circumspect. The sign above the shelf designating my novels, my human stories about love, family, and home, does not declare them “irregular.” The sign just reminds the shopper that I am African- American, that my work comes from a certain rich historical tradition. It is an invitation to experience the humanity of the lives described in these diverse, yet bound-together, works of art. I do not believe that truth is ever the enemy of art, and the sign hanging there states a complicated, but unequivocal, truth. When you stand before that marked shelf you are at that magical, mythical crossroads. Do you dare feel both things at once? Whatever emotional response you may have to the frank racial description of the author represents your foot on that solid, earthy road, but do you dare experience that other thing, that extra-human thing? African-American literature, like all literature, is food for the souls of all people. Can you embrace the label and come forward, taking in its simultaneous relevance and irrelevance? It is difficult to walk along both roads, but you can do it. And I believe you will. All you have to do is admit your soul’s hunger, and hunger is an expression of the most human need of all.
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randall Kenan’s critically acclaimed works include A Visitation of Spirits (1989) and Let the Dead Bury the Dead (1992). He traveled America for several years, interviewing African Americans from every walk of life to write Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty- First Century (2000). His most recent book, The Fire This Time (2007), is a timely homage to James baldwin. Kenan teaches creative writing at the University of north Carolina, Chapel Hill.
I never saw the ghost dog, but I can see it, nonetheless. Some said it was actually a wolf, grey with flashing red eyes. Some said it was a very large “sooner” (a southern term for mongrel or mutt, meaning “as soon this breed as it is that breed”). But in reports about ghost dog sightings, people remarked that the dog was white, ghostly so, and more often than not a shepherd, the kind with a keen nose and pointy ears. Noble. Resolute.
In every account I heard as a child, the dog was always helpful: My great-great-aunt told of how the dog had led her out of the woods once when she was lost. There was even a long story featuring my own great- great-grandmother, a storm, a mule, a broken-down cart, and the heroic ghost dog. One woman reported being set upon by a pack of canines and how this beautiful white dog leapt to her rescue, appearing out of nowhere, and escorted her safely home. When she turned around in her doorway, the dog had vanished.
The sightings always occurred along a particular stretch of asphalt highway — once a trail for Native Americans, then a dirt road, and, by the time I was a boy, a main route to the beach. Highway 50 cut through an astounding forest of old-growth timber. Oak. Poplar. Pine. Especially the majestic, soaring, massive-limbed longleaf pine that has recently become endangered. For me, as a child, this forest was primordial, full of mysteries, dangers, witches and goblins, and all manner of wonders I had read about in Grimm’s fairy tales. And that amazing white dog. The dog I had never seen. But he lived in my imagination. He still does.
It makes perfect sense to me, now, that one day I would write about that ghost dog and that world
of southeastern North Carolina. Duplin County. Chinquapin. A town of only a couple of hundred souls. Farmers, poultry factory workers, marine base laborers, largely. But that seeming inevitability was not so obvious to me at the time.
When I first left my small, ghost-haunted North Carolina town, I matriculated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s oldest public university, a bastion of classical thinking, progressive social thinking, high art, and most important for me at the time: scientific thought. My goal in those days: to become a physicist. My interest in science had been provoked by my having gotten lost for hours in space operas like Isaac Asimov’s foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune, in Star trek and fantasies about alien cultures and faster-than-light travel, black holes, worm holes, and cool ray guns. (I’ll never forget the day my physics advisor said to me when I was a junior: “I think you really want to be a science fiction writer, my boy.” When I took umbrage, trying to explain away my C in differential calculus, he
Ghost Dog: Or, How I Wrote My First Novel Randall Kenan
Author Randall Kenan is inspired by the people and places in the rural South.
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quickly said to me, “There is no shame in being a writer. More scientists,” he said, “would be writers, if they could. So be grateful you can,” he told me.)
Truth to tell, my interest in science fiction led me to study creative writing, and studying writing led me to the study of literature. But we are talking about the high falutin, canonical type of literature, Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Makepeace Thackeray. It became clear to me early on that there was an orthodoxy afoot here. Being in the American South, and at a premiere southern American university, southern literature was king and queen: Thomas Wolfe. William Faulkner. Flannery O’Connor. Richard Wright. Eudora Welty. Southern literature meant social realism. These were the iconic figures held up to us aspiring young southern writers. Any penchant for the phantasmagorical was met with discouragement. Ridiculed even. Real writers, good writers, wrote about the world as it was. “Write what you know” was the mantra of the creative writing courses nestled in the bosom of the English Department, and my major, by my senior year, was no longer physics but English. I was writing what I knew. I knew about ghost dogs.
Ten things about Chinquapin: 1. Soybean fields 2. Two black Baptist churches 3. Rattlesnakes 4. Turkey houses 5. Cucumber fields 6. Deer 7. Summertime family reunions 8. Tobacco barns 9. September revival meetings 10. Cotton-mouth moccasins
When I arrived at Chapel Hill in the fall of 1981, the percentage of African Americans was in the single digits — around 4 or 5 percent. Yet those hundreds among thousands made their presence known. For whatever reason, most of my closest friends were fellow African Americans. Was it a need for familiarity? A sense of bonding? The comfort of kin? To be sure, I had many good, close, and true white friends — and Japanese and Hispanic and Indian friends, and with many of whom I am still close — but the gravity of African-American
culture drew me. I wrote for the black student newspaper. I sang in the Black Student Movement Gospel Choir.
I never felt any actual pressure to “write black.” I had great respect for the Gospel of Social Realism and its Canon, and I knew it well. But for every autobiographical story I turned in to workshop, I would also pen a story featuring a root worker (a practitioner of African- American Folk Magic) or a space station or a talking dog. Moreover, by that time, I had encountered three writers who gave me what I like to call permission.
The best training any writer can receive is reading, reading, and more reading. Even more than writing, this is also essential. And though I drank down the aforementioned canonical writers of the South with great alacrity, and added to that mix a deep investigation of the Great African-American Book of Fiction — Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks — I would stumble upon writers beyond those garden walls who had enormous impact on the way I looked at the world of prose fiction. Issac Bashevis Singer. Yukio Mishima. Anthony Burgess. Writers who were not, at first glance, the obvious heroes of a young black man from rural, southeastern North Carolina.
It was Toni Morrison, already popular, but years before beloved and the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel, who taught me something of mind-opening importance. With few exceptions, African-American literature fell under the umbrella of “protest” literature, going back to the 19th century and the plethora of famous slave narratives. Even as late as 1970, the year Morrison’s first novel was published, most important African-American novels dealt largely with issues of civil rights and social justice for black people. But Morrison took as her primary subject matter black folks themselves, not racism or politics. She instead chose to focus on personal and family dynamics, matters of the heart and soul. In her world, the perspective of white folk could go unmentioned for hundreds of pages. For my 18-year-old mind this was a revelation.
The writings of the great Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez were my first introduction to what has become popularly known as magical realism. I would never be the same again. (In his Nobel lecture, García Márquez stressed that there is nothing fantastical about his work, the world he writes about is uncompromisingly real. I understood right away exactly what he meant.) Here was a writer who wrote about ghosts and a town suffering from mass amnesia and storms of butterflies and women flying up to heaven with the same matter-of-fact language of social realism — in fact, his three favorite
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writers are Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf.
Zora Neale Hurston, whose long-neglected works were just beginning to be rediscovered when I was in college, hit me like a neutron bomb. Here was this trained anthrolopologist, this Floridian, this African American, who seamlessly integrated folklore with folklife, social realism with the fantastic. Like Morrison, who learned much from Hurston, she did not put the politics of race above the existential essence of black culture.
Song of Solomon. one Hundred years of Solitude. their eyes Were Watching God. It was as if they were collectively saying: Go write ahead, boy. Do your own thing.
For my honors thesis, I turned in several chapters of a proposed novel set in a small North Carolina town very like Chinquapin called Tims Creek. It featured a young lawyer, a native son, who had become a successful Washington, D.C., lawyer. But one fateful summer when he returns to Tims Creek full of a certain emotional turmoil, he runs across a root worker who curses (blesses?) him, and the next night, in the full moon, he becomes a werewolf! I called it “Ashes Don’t Burn.”
Mercy, mercy, me.
V. Imagine what it is like to have as your first job out of
college working for the publisher of two of your literary heroes. Alfred A. Knopf. New York City. The long-time publisher of Toni Morrison. The new publisher of Gabriel García Márquez. 1985. I would soon become the assistant to the editor of the author of love in the time of Cholera. For an aspiring writer, this was like studying at the feet of Merlin.
But there was another education happening for me. I would come to spend years living in Queens and then Brooklyn. I was now rubbing shoulders daily, in the subways, on the streets, in the stores, and eventually in homes, with black folk from all over the African Diaspora. I got to know black people from Ghana and Trinidad and Haiti and Toronto and Houston, Texas. This exposure challenged all those closely held notions of what it means to be black, and made me look back at the world in which I had initially grown up with brand-new eyes. Suddenly the fish fries, the out-of-tune church choirs, the hours spent toiling under the sun in tobacco fields, Vacation Bible School, hog killings, and stories of ghost dogs
A tobacco barn in the countryside of the American South.
es , J
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became important somehow, important to be written about.
“Ashes Don’t Burn” had one fundamental flaw, and, in hindsight, I thank my teachers back at social realism- saturated UNC [University of North Carolina] for helping me to realize that roadblock. The impediment had nothing to do with lycanthropy. Simply put: I was not a thirtysomething lawyer going through a crisis upon returning home. I was not writing what I “knew.” But I had been a boy in that same home, so, by and by, the narrative I had been laboring over changed. I kept the supernatural cast that I’m sure inhabited those dark woods. The landscape did not change at all, in fact it probably richened and deepened, partly from my nostalgia for it, and as a response to the six-billion-footed city, dreaming of the woods and the deer and the cornfields.
The story I scribbled at doggedly, in the evenings, on subways, on the weekends, would ultimately be published
in the summer of 1989 as A Visitation of Spirits. There are no ghost dogs in it, amazingly, but plenty of other ghosts and creatures, spirits of the world and of the mind, mingled in with a healthy dose of social realism as I had been scrupulously taught, and which I respect with great admiration.
For me, now, this approach seems inevitable. Right. The only way for me to do it. Yet the path toward that fictional vision was neither straight nor easily achieved, but worth every twist and bend and cul-de-sac.
I hope to return to lycanthropy one day soon. There is something in that mythology that fits well in Tims Creek, in Chinquapin. And of course, soon and very soon, I hope a ghost dog will make an appearance in one of my stories. Leaping to the rescue only to vanish again into the imagination.
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Immaculée Ilibagiza immigrated to the United States in 1998. Her first book, Left to Tell (2006), chronicles her experiences during the rwandan genocide. Her most recent book is Led by Faith (2008). She gives inspirational lectures on peace, faith, and forgiveness.
I’ve always loved to write. The most prized posses-sion of my childhood was a notebook of sayings and proverbs that I had compiled over the years. Despite my love for writing, I never dreamed anyone would ever read the private thoughts I poured out in the pages of my notebook. Everyone has a story that is unique to them, but not everyone has the opportunity to tell their story to the world.
In 1994 I lived through an experience that created in me an unquenchable desire to share my story with people everywhere. That year I was home for my week-long Easter holiday. Two days before I returned to school, I found myself in the middle of one of the bloodiest, most efficient genocides in the history of the world. On the morning of April 7, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and the genocide began.
My parents, who were both teachers, agreed with my brother when he suggested that I should go and hide. I was one girl among three boys, and when I resisted hid- ing, my two brothers and my parents insisted that I go. Luckily my brother Aimable was studying in Senegal at the time so we all knew he was safe.
Against my will, and strictly out of respect and obedience to my parents, I went to hide in the home of a nearby Lutheran pastor who was a member of the Hutu tribe. I was a Tutsi and it was my tribe that was being hunted. Upon my arrival at the pastor’s house, he put me in a 1-by-1.5 meter bathroom with five other women. Later two more would join us.
The pastor instructed us to keep quiet and assured us that he wouldn’t even tell his children, who lived in the house, that we had taken refuge right under their noses. He told us that the war would likely last a few days and certainly not more than a week. Three months later we were still in that bathroom, sitting in complete silence for fear of being discovered. During that time we had very
little food and the house was searched multiple times by our tormentors.
We emerged from the bathroom to find our tiny country littered with a million dead bodies. That night I discovered that everyone I had left behind had been brutally murdered. I kept thinking that it was all part of some terrible dream and that at some point I would wake up, but sadly I was living in a new reality. The reality resembled what I had envisioned the end of the world would look like.
During my time in the bathroom, I went through a physical and spiritual transformation. My body had withered away to a mere 65 pounds but my faith and will
Rwanda to America: Writing as Transformation
Immaculée Ilibagiza writes and lectures about her experiences as a survivor of the Rwandan genocide.
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were rock solid. I can remember the exact moment when I begged God to make it possible to tell my story and the lessons I’d learned during my confinement to the world.
The desire to share what was transpiring in my heart and in my country was something I couldn’t ignore. Yet culturally Rwandans don’t typically write books or stories. Our country is sometimes referred to as “the land of words.” Traditionally my people have passed on our news and history from generation to generation at family gath- erings through oral tradition. Yet there would be no one to pass stories along to now that my family and neighbors were gone.
I never thought I was capable of writing something that others would read, yet the thought wouldn’t leave me. I couldn’t begin to think how my dream to write my story would come true. I didn’t know anything about writing and I had never met an author. But when I put my faith in God I knew that nothing was impossible. My faith allowed me to keep hope alive.
I yearned to share my parents’ story and the lessons that they had taught me, right up until the last day I saw them. Their wise words had molded me into the woman I had become. I wondered how I would go on without being able to speak to them or to seek their advice. I knew that their words and their memory would stay with me forever, but I wanted to tell people how my beautiful family had ended.
During my time in the bathroom, I went from rage and hatred towards those who hunted us to a place of forgiveness. I experienced the pain of anger as I fantasized about killing those who sought to kill me and those I loved. My anger was like poison in my soul. It was simply too heavy and too painful to carry the burden of hating millions of people. It seemed as though evil and hate were smothering me until I begged God to show me how to see the good in people, how to love, how to smile.
I remember distinctly the moment when my heart was freed from anger. Forgiveness is the only word that comes to mind when I try to express what I felt in that moment. If we weren’t in hiding, I would have shouted with joy to my fellow captives in the bathroom how beau- tiful they were, even though in reality we all looked like living skeletons and none of us had showered in months. I realized that the killers were truly blind with anger and hatred. I saw that I could not change what was in their hearts and that I would change nothing by competing with them in hatred.
Forgiveness didn’t mean that I was supposed to make myself a victim by allowing another person to hurt me. It also didn’t mean that I should ignore the truth or that I
should be naive. Justice can also be a form of forgiveness if done with the intent of changing a person and not with the intent to hurt or take revenge. I kept these lessons in my heart, and I intuitively knew that they were not for me alone but to share with the others, but the question still remained, how would I share this story?
At the end of 1998 perpetrators of the genocide threatened to kill me, just as they had killed many other survivors, because those who had witnessed the killing were a threat to them. I would be proud to give testimo- ny but the truth is, I had not reported any of the killers. I hadn’t witnessed any killing firsthand, and I knew that those who had hunted me had undoubtedly killed many others, and I trusted they would be duly prosecuted. Like many other survivors, I visited the prison to see those who killed our people. I met a man who had killed some of my family members and I offered him forgiveness. I knew that I wouldn’t make a good witness, but, even so, my name appeared in the newspaper soon after my visit. I was identified as a witness who was accused of putting innocent people in prison.
Knowing I was at risk, and advised by American friends, I decided to leave my home in Rwanda and to immigrate to the United States. At the time I was work- ing for the United Nations in Rwanda, which was one of the best jobs in the country, but I knew I must make the move.
I strongly believe that my move to the United States was inspired by God. However, my first months there were not easy. I found myself living in a completely for- eign culture and I had difficulty integrating with my new environment. I had never experienced winter before and I arrived just as winter began. To make matters worse, I was pregnant for the first time in my life.
It was the first time I experienced short days, long nights, and vice versa. In Rwanda, the weather is always between 18 and 21 degrees C all year-round. Every day the sun goes down at 6:00 PM and it rises at 5:00 AM. Kigali and New York were like day and night. The two cities couldn’t be more different.
Although I had to make many new adjustments, I felt strongly that I was born to live in the United States. It was a country where every race and every tribe felt at home. When I looked at the people around me, free- dom was apparent in every face I saw. It was almost as if I could smell freedom in the air. People wore and did what they liked and no one seemed to be surprised by anything. The number of schools and opportunities was overwhelming. Every class I wanted to take or job I wanted to try was at my fingertips. New York seemed to
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be the center of the world. There were more varieties of clothes, cars, and people than I had ever seen in my life.
People’s warmth and willingness to help was very sur- prising. I will never forget the day I had a flat tire. I didn’t realize I had a flat until a car passed me and blocked me and forced me to stop. Two boys in white T-shirts came out with smiles and tools to fix my car. They fixed the car, gave me a tire, and left with a warm smile. To this day I still wonder if those boys were angels from heaven or real people.
After some time, I felt an overwhelming desire to write my story. It took me three weeks to write my first draft. When I revisited my writing some time later, it
took another three months to go through my initial draft because by that time I had a job and I was trying to man- age my editing and my job. My American friends who knew my story encouraged me to write.
Three days after I finished writing, I went to a work- shop in New York. I didn’t expect anything more than spending time with friends. At the end of the workshop, I met a writer who asked me how I was doing. I responded, “Fine,” and after that one word, he asked where my ac- cent came from. I told him that I was from Rwanda. At that he opened his eyes and asked me, “Do you know what happened there?” I told him what happened in a few words. We were both in a hurry. He was signing his books and I didn’t want to hold up the line. He then told me that if I finished my book he would help me find a publisher. As he promised, a short time after our meeting he introduced me to his publisher and to an editor. Eight months after we met, my first book, left to tell, was pub- lished. To my great surprise, it became a new york times bestseller only two weeks after its release.
I’m so grateful to the American people, who have received my story with open arms. I wondered how Americans could relate to such horror. Yet they did relate. They cried for my parents, laughed with me, and related to my struggles with faith. Telling my story has allowed my heart to heal.
In America I’ve found my home, and I found my shoulder to cry on. My children are Americans and I am proud that they are. I no longer feel like a stranger. I cheer for every victory and I cry for any bad news that befalls my new home. Most importantly, I look to the future of this country with hope and I pray for its well- being. As a little girl growing up in the tiny Rwandan village of Mataba, I was taught that America was the land of opportunity. Today I believe that to be truer than ever. In America I could tell my story.
Rwandan refugees near Kigali return from Tanzanian camps, where they fled to escape the 1994 genocide.
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emergence of a new, black pulp fiction may indicate the maturity, rather than the decline, of African-American literature.
Gerald early is the merle Kling professor of modern letters at Washington University in St. louis, missouri, where he directs the Center for the Humanities. He special- izes in American literature, African-American culture from 1940 to 1960, Afro-American autobiography, nonfiction prose, and popular culture. Author of several books, includ- ing the award-winning The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture (1994), early has edited numerous anthologies and was a consultant on Ken burns’s documentary films on baseball and jazz.
African-American writer Nick Chiles famously castigated the publishing industry, young black women readers, and the current state of African- American writing in his controversial 2006 new yorktimes opinion piece entitled “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut.” (The article’s title is, clearly, a parodic paraphrase of the classic 1937 Zora Neale Hurston novel their eyesWere Watching God, a feminist staple of the African- American literature canon, considered by many liter- ary scholars to be one of the great American novels of its era.) Although Chiles was happy about mainstream bookstores like Borders devoting considerable shelf space to “African-American Literature,” he was more than a little nonplussed by what the store and the publishing
What Is African-American Literature? Gerald Early
Gerald Early leads a lively class discussion at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
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industry considered “African-American Literature” to be. “[All] that I could see was lurid book jackets display- ing all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life,” wrote Chiles. These novels have such titles as Gutter, Crack Head, forever a Hustler’s Wife, A Hustler’s Son, Amongst thieves, Cut throat, Hell razor Honeys, payback with ya life, and the like. The well-known authors are K’wan, Ronald Quincy, Quentin Carter, Deja King (also known as Joy King), Teri Woods, Vickie Stringer, and Carl Weber. They occupy a genre called Urban or Hip-Hop Fiction, gritty, so-called realistic works about inner-city life, full of graphic sex, drugs and crime, “playas,” thugs, dough boys (rich drug dealers), and graphic violence; lavish consumption juxtaposed to life in housing projects. In some instances, the works are nothing more than black crime novels told from the point of view of the criminal; in others, they are black romance novels with a hard-edged city setting. In all cases, they are a kind of pulp fiction; despite their claim of realism, they are actually about fantasy, as their readers are attempt- ing to understand their reality while trying to escape it. Mostly young African Americans, primarily women, the gender that constitutes the greater portion of the fiction- reading American public, read these books, and the books are marketed exclusively for this clientele. Some of these novels sell well enough to support a few authors without the need of a “day job,” a rarity in the writing trade.
The existence of these books proffers three aspects of change for African-American literature from what it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago. First, despite problems with literacy and a dismal high school drop-out rate among African Americans, there is a young, mass, black reading audience of such size that a black author can write for it exclusively without giving a thought to being highbrow or literary or to crossing-over for whites. Second, the taste of the masses is distinct from, and troubling to, the taste of the elite in large measure because the elite no longer control the direction and purpose of African-American literature; it is now, more than ever, a market-driven literature, rather than an art form patronized and pro- moted by cultured whites and blacks as it had been in the past. The fact that blacks started two of the publishing houses for these books, Urban Books and Triple Crown, underscores the entrepreneurial, populist nature of this type of race literature: by black people for black people. Third, African-American literature no longer has to be obsessed with the burden or expectation of political pro- test or special pleading for the humanity of the race or the worth of its history and culture as it had to in the past.
(This is not to suggest that African-American literature has abandoned these concerns. They are most evident in African-American children’s and adolescent literature, which is frequently, as one might expect, highly didactic.) This is not to argue that the books that Chiles deplores have some neo-literary or extra-literary worth that com- pensates for them being trashy, poorly written novels. But these books do reveal some of the complicated roots of African-American literature and of the construction of the African-American audience.
Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s — such as Melvin Van Peebles’s independent classic, Sweet Sweet- back’s badass Song; Coffy, foxy brown, and Sheba, baby, starring Pam Grier; Hell Up in Harlem, black Caesar, that man bolt, and the legend of nigger Charley, star- ring Fred Williamson; Superfly; the Shaft movies, star- ring Richard Roundtree — created the first young black audience for hard-boiled, urban black, seemingly realistic art centered on hustling, drugs, prostitution, and anti- white politics (in which whites — particularly gangsters and policemen — are destroying the black community). The literary roots for this came from two streams in the 1960s. The highbrow, mainstream literary and leftist types endorsed such nonfiction, black prison literature as the Autobiography of malcolm X; Eldridge Cleaver’s essay collection Soul on Ice; poems from prison, compiled by in- mate and poet Etheridge Knight, which includes Knight’s “Ideas of Ancestry,” one of the most famous and highly regarded African-American poems of the 1960s; and Soledad brother: the prison letters of George Jackson. All of these books have become part of black literary canon and are frequently taught in various college literature, creative writing, and sociology classes. On the pulp, populist fiction side in the late 1960s and early 1970s were the novels of former pimp Iceberg Slim and imprisoned drug addict Donald Goines — including trick baby, Dope- fiend, Street players, and black Gangster. These novels are the direct antecedents of the books that Chiles found so dismaying in 2006. They occupied a small but compel- ling portion of the black literature output in the 1970s. Many saw them in a far more political light at that time; now these books dominate African-American literature or seem to. Then, as now, there is a strong belief among many blacks — poor, working-class, and bourgeois intel- lectuals — and many whites, as well, that violent, urban life represents “authentic” black experience and a true politically dynamic “resistance” culture.
Chiles probably would have preferred if Borders and other bookstores would not label urban or hip-hop novels as “African-American Literature. “ It would be
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better for the public if such books were called “Afro-Pop Literature” or “Black Urban Fiction” or “Mass-Market Black Fiction.” Then, the category of “African-American Literature” could be reserved for those books and authors who are part of the canon: writers ranging from late 19th and early 20th century novelist Charles Chesnutt, poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, and novelist and poet James Weldon Johnson, to 1920s and early 1930s Harlem Renaissance figures like poet and fiction writer Langston Hughes, novelist and poet Claude McKay, novelists Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, and poet and novelist Countee Cullen, to the great crossover figures of the 1940s through the 1960s, like novelist and essayist James Baldwin, novelist and short story writer Richard Wright, novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison, novelist Ann Petry, poet and novelist Gwendolyn Brooks, and novelist John A. Williams, to the Black Arts-era writers like poet and children’s writer Nikki Giovanni; poet, playwright, and fiction writer Amiri Baraka; and poet Haki Mad- hubuti (Don L. Lee), to post-1960s writers like novel- ists Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Walter Mosley, Colson Whitehead, Ernest Gaines, and Charles Johnson; poet and novelist Ishmael Reed; and poets Yusef Komunyakaa and Rita Dove. A few additional figures, like playwrights Lorraine Hansberry, Ed Bullins, Charles
Fuller, and August Wilson, and some diasporic writers, like novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka, poet Derek Walcott, novelists Chinua Achebe, George Lamming, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, and Edwidge Danticat, could be thrown in for good measure.
Chiles’s concern about the supposed decline of African-American literature reflects the elite’s fear that the rise of hip-hop and the “urban” ethos generally represents a decline in urban black cultural life. The “urban nitty- gritty,” as it were, seems like a virus that has undone black artistic standards and a black meritocracy. Now, there is only purely market-driven drivel aimed at the lowest, most uncultured taste. This is clearly a position of some- one like novelist and culture critic Stanley Crouch. The sensitivity on this point is not by any means wholly or even mostly a matter of snobbery. It has taken a very long time for African-American literature to reach a level of general respectability, where the general public thought it was worth reading and the literary establishment thought it was worth recognizing. Now, for many blacks, blacks themselves seem to be denigrating it by flooding the market with trash novels no better than Mickey Spillane. It is by no means surprising that blacks, a persecuted and historically degraded group, would feel that their cultural
Rappers Mos Def, Flavor Flav, and Chuck D (left to right) are driving forces in socially conscious hip-hop music. They are performers, musicians, and composers of rap lyrics: messages delivered in rhyming couplets to a 4/4 beat. Mos Def is also a noted actor and appeared in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play top Dog, Underdog, replacing Don Cheadle for the Broadway production. Hip-hop, which began in urban African-American and Latino communities in 1970s New York, has influenced not only music and film, but black pulp fiction.
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products are always suspect, precarious, and easily turned against them as caricature in the marketplace.
Another way to look at this is that urban literature has democratized and broadened the reach and content of African-American literature. In some ways, urban lit may show the maturity, not the decline, of African-American literature. After all, African-American literature is the oldest of all self-consciously identified ethnic minority literatures in the United States, going back as far as 1774 to Phyllis Wheatley’s first book of poems, to the slave narratives of the antebellum period that produced such classics as the narrative of the life of frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl (1861). African Americans have thought longer and harder about the importance of literature as a political and cultural tool than other ethnic minorities in the Unit- ed States have. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement by blacks, helped by white patrons, to gain cultural access and respectability by producing a first-rate literature. The rise of urban lit does not repudiate the black literary past, but it does suggest other ways and means of producing black literature and other ends for it as well. Moreover, some urban lit authors are far from being hacks: Sister Souljah, a well-traveled political activist and novelist, is a more-than-capable writer and thinker, however provoca- tive she may be. The same can be said of the lone novel of music writer Nelson George, Urban romance (1993), clearly not a trash novel. Some of the books of Eric Jerome Dickey and K’wan are worth reading as well. A major figure who straddles black romance and urban lit is E. Lynn Harris, a popular writer whose books deal with
relationships and other matters of importance for blacks, particularly black women, today.
When I approached Bantam Books two years ago to become general editor of two annual series — best African American essays and best African American fiction — I wanted to make sure that the books had crossover appeal to various segments of the black reading pub- lic, and so I chose Harris to be the guest editor of best African American fiction of 2009, the first volume in the series. I see these volumes as an opportunity not only to bring the best of African-American letters to the general reading public — from younger writers like Z. Z. Packer and Amina Gautier to established voices like Samuel Delaney and Edward P. Jones — but also to forge a sort of marriage between various types of African-American literature. I wanted to use E. Lynn Harris’s reach to bring serious black literature to an audience that might not be aware of it or even desire it. It is far too early to say whether this attempt will succeed, but the mere attempt alone acknowledges a level of complexity in African- American literature and a level of profound segmentation in its audience that shows that African-American experi- ence, however it is made into art, has a depth and out- reach, a sort of universality, dare I say, that actually bodes well for the future of this and perhaps of all of American ethnic minority literature.
the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.
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Writing to Bridge the Mixed-Blood Divide: An American Indian Perspective
Descended from American Indians and Scots-Irish/ english who colonized the United States, Susan power, a Harvard-trained lawyer, turned to writing about her Dakota Sioux heritage. Her first novel, The Grass Dancer, won the 1995 pen/Hemingway Award for best first fiction. Her books include Strong Heart Society (1998) and Roofwalker (2002), and her work has been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Story. power teaches creative writing at Hamline University in St. paul, minnesota.
My mother was born in 1925 in Fort Yates, North Dakota, a dusty town on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. Her Dakota name is Mahpeyabogawin, which in our tribal language means Gathering-of-Stormclouds Woman, and so she came into this world like a premonition of all the black storms that were soon to follow, as overworked soil on the Great Plains became a dry, loose, killing powder. She grew up in a small log cabin just across the road from the origi- nal grave of our famous Chief Sitting Bull.
“He was our protection. If we were in trouble, or scared about something, we’d run over to his marker of piled stones and call, ‘La La, La La, help us.”’ My mother has a long Sioux memory, “like an elephant,” she says. I’ve heard this story many times.
“Of course. It’s short for ‘Tunkashila.’ Grandfather.” “That’s right.” I wasn’t raised speaking Dakota but learned enough
words, enough phrases, to appreciate what a visual lan- guage it is — each word a picture nestled in a tangle of stories that I have carried into my life and my art. I wasn’t born on a reservation but in the sprawling city of Chicago, and my mother’s memories are only half of me since my father was born in New York state, descended from Englishmen, Scots-Irishmen, who left Europe in the 1600s for the adventure of America. He was 10 years older than my mother, college-educated, raised in privilege, and when
I was little I liked to imagine how strange and shocking it would have been for them if they’d met when my mother was 10 years old and my father 20. Would he have pitied her then? Seeing her dust-covered, barefoot, hair cut sim- ply in a boy’s bob, and wearing a worn pair of bib overalls? Would she think he’d landed from another world, to see his dapper clothes and elegant pipe, clean-shaven face that always smelled of Old Spice? Somehow, in their separate journeys, my parents did come together, fellow book lovers who had jobs in the publishing business. And this is where
Traditions of Sioux Indian culture are poetically rendered in author Susan Power’s fiction.
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we always converge, no matter how different we were, and are, from one another — in this love of words.
My mother was one of the original founding mem- bers of the American Indian Center in Chicago, and I grew up embraced by the intertribal community, learn- ing to dance washboard style like the older Winnebago ladies, hearing true ghost stories and cau- tionary tales of misused magic. I learned how different tribes wor- shiped, many interweav- ing their traditional beliefs with Christianity. This was my life on weekends, evenings, summers, but it wasn’t my only life. My par- ents also exposed me to mainstream American culture, took me to bal- lets and theater, libraries and museums. I “dis- covered” Shakespeare when I was 12 years old, browsing through the extensive record collec- tion at the main public library downtown, heavy sets I lugged home and listened to for hours. I memorized long dramatic passages, favoring the death scenes, and would gasp around the house, “I’m dying, Egypt, dying,” in a speech that never seemed to end. I thought Shakespeare would have felt at home with Indians, master storyteller that he was, and it seemed quite natural to me to take him as a relative, a familiar, and draw inspiration from him as easily as I did Stella Johnson, who told me Winnebago stories of the Snow Shoe brothers.
In school I was always the only Indian student, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, and I saw society change from year to year, so that my difference evolved from a stumbling block that challenged teachers to some- thing they cherished and nourished. In my early years, a teacher might give me a perfect grade for a well-written and carefully researched paper but wasn’t entirely sure she wanted me to read the text aloud (as everyone else was invited to do) because my vision of history was not the commonly accepted model. But by high school, my teachers would purposely call on me in class when they
wanted another viewpoint expressed, a challenge to pre- vailing opinion. Friends who had earlier been wary of a classmate who didn’t seem to fit in, eventually claimed I had a secret life they envied, weekends in New York attending a traditional Mohawk wedding in a longhouse, the Thanksgiving break where I came back with a beaded
crown and the title of Miss Indian Chicago. I am heartened to see that increasingly readers, like teachers, are interested in all the stories of America, all the voices, and so as a writer I have opened the doors to my secret life and invite anyone to enter.
After my father died and I moved with my mother into an apartment building, she wanted me to feel connected to his side of the family as well as hers. She set up our long entrance hall as a kind
of ancestral gallery, a place where East and West, Indian and white, could come together as a visual reminder of different stories and hopes, all merging in me. On the eastern wall she hung land grants and tintypes of my father’s people, in the center of their number an older man with a lush white beard and mischievous eyes: my great-great-grandfa- ther Joseph Henry Gilmore, Baptist min- ister, university profes- sor, poet who penned the lyrics to the hymn “He Leadeth Me” and
whose father had been governor of New Hampshire dur- ing the Civil War (1861-1865). On the western wall she affixed two beaded drumsticks, oil paintings of Sioux chiefs, aromatic braids of sweet grass, and, dead center in this collection, a photograph of my great-great-grand- father Mahto Nuhpa (Two Bear), hereditary chief of the Yanktonnai Dakota, respected orator, defender of his band during the Battle of White Stone Hill in 1863. The two men stared across the chasm of our dark tile floor, their cultural divide, contemporaries who never met in life meeting now in this unlikely place. My mother’s imagination must have found the tableau irresistible, and
Susan Power’s mother Susan Kelly Power, age 16. Mother and daughter wear traditional Dakota dress.
Susan Power at 18, around the time she won the Miss Indian Chicago title.
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she began telling me stories of how they argued some- times at night.
“They’re all good people but they just don’t under- stand each other, so they fight. Even Two Bear, who was such a revered council chief, can’t keep the peace. War has broken out between them so you should be careful at night not to walk through the hall. Both sides love you, of course, but they’re angry, firing bullets and arrows, and they don’t always see what they’re doing. You might get caught in the crossfire!”
When I was little I believed everything my mother told me. I avoided the hall late at night, after we went to bed, but in the morning I would check to see if I could find evidence of the battle — bullet holes in the plaster walls, splashes of blood on the floor. It didn’t matter that the hall was always tidy; I just figured my ancestors cleaned up after their wars because they worried they
would scare me with their violence, their mistakes.
Years after I moved from this apartment and hallway, my mother reminded me of her tales regarding ancestral division by telling me how it all came out in the end.
“That’s right!” I scold- ed her. “You had me com- pletely afraid to go through that hall at night, thinking all kinds of mayhem were breaking out.”
“I know, I know. That was terrible,” she chuckled. “But there is a happy end- ing.”
“Really?” “Yes. Ever since your
book came out, the Grass Dancer, I’ve noticed that at night there’s peace and quiet in the hallway. No more arguments or mis- understandings, no more
anger. Both sides are so proud of you, of what you’ve written, and both sides feel as if they’re playing an important part in your success. Nobody’s left out. That gives them a lot to talk about, a lot they can agree on. They’re probably realizing they have more in common than they thought.”
When I began writing fiction, I never would have imagined that my stories and words, my love of literature reproduced on paper and magical narratives passed on by a chain of voices, would unite my blood — the fas- cinated ghosts of those who came before me. This is the best result, in my opinion: My work is a bridge between divides, where everyone feels honored and included, con- sulted, everyone has a voice at the table, everyone has a stake in what comes next.
Monument to famous Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull (c. 1831-1890), who led his warriors to victory against the U.S. cavalry in the Battle of Little Big Horn. Originally buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota, some claim his remains were removed and reburied here, in Mobridge, South Dakota. He is called “Tunkashila,” or grandfa- ther, by the Sioux.