Friday, April 07, 2006

The Solstice Summer Writers' Conference

I am teaching fiction at the Solstice Summer Writers' Conference this summer, June 16-20, at Pine Manor College in MA. Please take a look at the workshop schedule and faculty, then kindly share this with the community. It's going to be a nice summer session!

The Solstice Summer Writers' Conference

Renew your creative energies with award-winning authors at the Solstice Summer Writers’ Conference of Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, MA, this June 16–24, 2006.

Offering workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, our faculty includes: David Bradley, Stephen Dunn, Julia Glass, Patricia Henley, Lee Hope, Barbara Hurd, Jacqueline Johnson, Jack Ketchum, Elizabeth Powell, Michael Steinberg, Sheree R. Thomas, and Mark Turcotte, plus guest writer Rick Moody. Panel discussions with agents, editors, and publishers will also enable students to learn about all aspects of the literary journey.

Applications for the 2006 Solstice Summer Writers’ Conference are now available at

Meg Kearney

Director, Solstice Creative Writing Programs

Pine Manor College

400 Heath Street

Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

(617) 731-7684 phone

(617) 731-7631 fax

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Feelings and Passages

"When I am asked who I am, I say, I am an African who was born in America. Both answers connect me specifically with my past and present ... therefore I bring to my art a quality which is rooted in the culture of Africa ... and expanded by the experience of being in America. I use the vehicle of 'fine art' and 'illustration' as a viable expression of form, yet striving always to do this from an African perspective, an African world view, and above all to tell the African story ... this is my content. The struggle to create artwork as well as to live creatively under any conditions and survive (like my ancestors), embodies my particular heritage in America."
--Tom Feelings

I woke up with Tom Feelings on my mind today.

Don't know exactly why. I was so tired yesterday that I couldn't tell you what my last thought was before I fell asleep. My body was tired but my spirit was lifted after a beautiful day teaching The Poem as Praisesong with some great young people and one elder at the Walt Whitman library in Brooklyn. If you don't know, the Walt Whitman library is a lovely old space, kinda gothic looking, right across the street from a lovely church, also kinda gothic looking, and both are completely surrounded by the Projects, 'the Walt Whitman Residency' that sits on a dead end street just a stone's throw away from Ft. Greene Park. We gathered in the basement of the library and wrote poems about the folk we loved and some we'd lost, read Michael Harper's praisesong to Sherley Anne Williams, among other works, sang songs, and wrote more poems. We were going to do a walk-about but I didn't want to lose the momentum. It had started off a lovely day, and I didn't want to lose nobody out in the streets! Imagine me chasing after folk, poems in hand. Instead, we let the words come, inside, and I left with a handful of poems so fresh they were wet and the promise that I'd type them up for everyone and return to work with them again, all willing.

Imagine how good it feels to see somebody 'cited 'bout Poetry!
Excited about putting their words on the page

and sharing them with somebody they love!

I left St. Edwards Street with all their words inside me, and their voices, too, them beautiful voices. Two sisters and their grandmama sang Gospels for us so sweetly, felt like I was in 'chuch!'. It's been a while and I felt truly blessed indeed.

And in this city where everybody is a nomad, you're bound to meet a kindred spirit along the way. Turns out, before I could get across the street good, I ran into a brotha who does promotions for the National Black Arts Theatre, and so I'm going to see David Wright's SHANGO, and I couldn't be happier, since I'd just picked up a flyer for the play at the National Black Writers Conference and was trying to figure out how I could fit this performance in with everything else I got to do. The Taxman Calleth. Talking with brothaman about the theatre reminded me of when I once co-taught a Center for Black Literature high school program on John O. Killens' The Cotillion with a wonderfully gifted actress and dedicated teacher, Yaa Asantewa.

Asantewa set the stage on fire, Asantewa inspired teens with skill!

No doubt she blew up the stage in Judy Anne Mason's Storm Stories production at the Billie Holiday Theatre, and she is a gifted educator.

And ain't nothin' better than working with a teacher who actually *likes* to teach! And ain't nothin' better than talkin' with somebody who don't mind tellin' it like it is, but still got enough hope to try the make the world what it could be.

Sometimes we'd leave the classroom with tears in our eyes, most days we were full of laughter and wonder, just really proud of how hard our young writers worked, despite the limited resources. It was there, in that classroom, that I first encountered folk who told me they had never owned a book, never been allowed to take one home and claim it as their own. Couldn't believe it. And folk want to blame the teachers, when they're the foot soldiers makin' do every day, spending their own money to bring in resources - dictionaries, disks, pencils, paper - tolerating brokedown this and brokedown that, and just doin' the best they can in a system set up to fail. Well somebody say Amen, 'cuz I'm spent like the rent. End of mini-rant.

So, I was knocked out last night, maybe a few random poem lines and storybits floating through my mind, and those girls sangin', when I wake up thinking about Tom's Middle Passage drawings. Now, it's been a little time since his Passing, and since they renamed a street after him in Brooklyn, since I first saw his work beautifully exhibited at the Schomburg when I first moved to New York ten years ago. The last time I spoke with Mr. Feelings, by phone, he was so generous, amazingly so, with his time and his knowledge, that I remember getting off the phone and thinking, that's the kind of elder I'd like to be one day. I'm noting this here because too often we take each other for granted. Too often we forget that in reality, don't nobody got to tell you Didley, don't nobody got to give you a single thing.

Marie had suggested I call Tom, to talk about some of his early work as an illustrator. I was doing some Dark Matter research, researching possible black writers and illustrators who may have worked on science fiction pulp magazines during the genre's Golden Era. Tom illustrated a comic strip for an independent black newspaper, Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History, in which a little African American boy would fall asleep while reading a historic work, then dream of living in those times. The conversation was rich and extensive. He shared insights about his great masterpiece, The Middle Passage, a work I was excited to learn was the first in what he hoped would be a trilogy - an impressive exploration of transatlantic slavery. During our conversation, he expressed concern about how challenging it was to do the work he needed to do and maintain his focus and commitment while earning his living and mentoring many others. He was a generous and dedicated artist who gave much to those around him, and he feared that his advancing age might prevent him from seeing his dream realized. He passed on before completing his life project, but what he has left us is truly a legacy. Like Octavia E. Butler, he certainly left an amazingly broad body of excellent work that will instruct and engage folk generations to come. His collaborations with Muriel Feelings, Moja Means One and Jambo Means Hello were my first introductions to him as a child, and I have had the pleasure of sharing them with my own family. Before he passed away in August 2003, he collaborated with poet Kwame Dawes on a beautiful children's book, I Saw Your Face. I feel truly blessed to have had an opportunity to talk with him and to listen to a little of his story.

I woke up with Tom Feelings on my mind today, and I think it was an important reminder.
We are not promised tomorrow, so we must continue to work hard on getting our vision out in the world today. Mr. Feelings did it. Ms. Butler did it. Now what will we do?

aluta continua

Tom Feelings Tribute Page

Monday, April 03, 2006

National Black Writers Conference @ Medgar Evers College

“If you want to know where a people are going, just look at the artists.”

-- John Oliver Killens

"What comes forth from you as an artist cannot be controlled. But you have responsibilities as a global citizen. Your history dictates your duty. And by writing about black people, you are not limiting yourself. The experiences of African-Americans are as wide open as God's closet."

-- August Wilson

We give our dead

To the orchards

And the groves.

We give our dead To life.


Is a great Change-

Is life's greatest Change.

We honor our beloved dead.

As we mix their essence with the earth,

We remember them,

And within us,

They live.

-- Octavia E. Butler, Earthseed quote

The 8th annual National Black Writers Conference held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn this past weekend was great, as in, sho'll glad I was a witness, sho'll glad I had this experience, well worth remembering and noting here. Dedicated to the memory of August Wilson and Octavia E. Butler, writers and readers from around the nation gathered to celebrate and expand discussions of race, identity, history, and genre in black literature. My panel with Samuel R. Delany, Tananarive Due, and Walter Mosley went very well, with some funny introductions by our moderator Robert Reid-Pharr (CUNY Graduate Center) who had a little struggle with pronouncing some of our names and wonderful questions from the audience. Tananarive talked about growing up in a civil rights activist family, living in the suburbs, being called an 'oreo,' and learning to write horror from her fears. I talked about growing up among storytellers and voracious readers in North Memphis, my experience of the genre as a young reader and later as a teen, revisiting it after reading Kindred in college, and writing works reflecting the language and the rhythm of my community. The discussion of Octavia E. Butler was very moving, with Delany and Mosley's talk serving as excellent bookends to the discussion. Delany read a little from an introduction (?) he'd written for Octavia in the past, interweaving his talk with reflections on how pleased he was to witness her development from being one of his students (introduced to him by Harlan Ellison) to being a cherished colleague in the field. He ended by sharing some of the eulogy presented at her tribute at the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.

Walter also shared a very funny and insightful story about being invited to a 'meeting of the elders' by Harry Belafonte, an impressive gathering held at a hotel that was also hosting a science fiction convention. He also discussed conservatism in the black community and how that impacts our literature. It was good to meet folk I'd only 'seen' online, and spend time with the Clarion '99 crew, Ama Patterson and Andrea Hairston, who was even cheered on by the audience to stand up and accept due praise for the recent publication of her novel, Mindscape, the latest debut from new Dark Matter writers. When asked about young adult spec fiction by black writers, I got a chance to give a shout out to Nnedi's Zahrah the Windseeker, Walter's 47, and of course, Virginia Hamilton (check out her trilogy, Justice and Her Brothers or her fantasy, The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, that explores African Gods and the Middle Passage). Could have kicked myself for forgetting Walter Dean Myers' Shadow of the Red Moon, but there it is. Time was flying and lots of folk wanted to share. Later I had a chance to offer additional recommendations at my writing workshop, but next time I'm bringing a flyer! Jaime Levine from Warner Aspect sent Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund flyers to the conference, and I invited folk to visit the Carl Brandon Society blog and join if the mission speaks to'em.

We also had a chance to hear Steven Barnes and Camille Yarbrough (Cornrows, Ancestor House) speak brilliantly on their 'Black Writer as Literary and Cultural Artist' panel with Carl Hancock Rux (whose novel, Asphalt seems quite speculative to me!). At one point, a young woman from the audience took issue with what she heard from Ms. Yarbrough as overgeneralized criticism of young Hip-Hop folk and a misreading of the L'il Kim 'situation.' She wanted Ms. Yarbrough to know that not all of her generation is unaware of the issues discussed and their impact on their community, and that L'il Kim is going to jail because she lied... I really appreciated this young woman sharing her thoughts, because there weren't many folk her age there, although there were lots of lovely babies and l'il bits (Steve and Tananarive's family is beautiful!). I was pleased to see that the moderator, Carlos Russell, gave Ms. Yarbrough an opportunity to graciously respond, acknowledging the young woman's comments and clarifying her thoughts on L'il Kim and her opinion on how easy it is for an artist to become a tool of oppression by complicity. Andrea said later that the two women's discussion reminded her a little of what she is exploring in her next novel, Exploding in Slow Motion, this idea that these two women from very different generations were talking a little past each other, but discussing the same thing - that elder Camille just wanted to know that her sacrifices and those of her generation hadn't been made for nothing and that somebody out there was willing to try to carry on. Later, this reminded me of the recent threads on FEM-SF, discussing whether or not a feminist science fiction community exists, and what that could or should like. Whether we all agree or not on this vision, it seems very important to continue to these intergenerational conversations, if only as a periodic pulse check. I know it can get weary for those who have added their voice to these talks many times before--quite possibly repeating some of the same thoughts, the same history, and bumping up against the same frustrations--but as a new journeywoman, these talks offer vital historical/cross-cultural context and I appreciate this opportunity to expand my own vision.

Here is a segment Brooklyn's News 12 aired last night. Part of it was filmed during my workshop and it includes Brenda Greene, the conference organizer and director of the Center for Black Literature at MEC, and an emerging writer, Doug McIntosh - who is in fact, a fan of sf&f and a spec fiction writer, despite the editing here. ;-)

All Best,

PS - The Center for Black Literature @ Medgar Evers College has sponsored two writing programs featuring Kindred and Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, where high schoolers read, discuss, adapt the books into plays, and perform for their peers. The last performance went on the road to other local high schools and the NCTE.