The Practice of Creativity

Archive for the ‘black feminism’ Category

As you know by now, the country has lost one of the greatest writers ever to use the English language–Toni Morrison.

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

In the Paris Review: Creative folks (writers and a photographer) remembering Toni Morrison. Made me laugh and choke up. Fran Lebowitz’s memories about Toni are funny (who knew how much Toni loved dessert–can’t we all identify with that?) and poignant as she talks about Toni’s ability to forgive.This is how we all wish to be remembered by those who knew us well–as living big, full and messy lives and giving all we have to our art and each other. And, of course the peculiarities that our friends love about us.
(credit to Austin Kleon’s newsletter where I first saw the link)
https://www.theparisreview.org/…/20…/08/06/remembering-toni/

My wonderful AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) friend, Cassandra Lane wrote a powerful homage:

And this from The New Yorker feature with several writers reflecting on Morrison’s legacy:

If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.

—Jacqueline Woodson

(thanks to Heloise Jones for posting on her Facebook page)

I thought I would write a very short memory about Toni Morrison, one that I have been carrying around for some time. Well, it turned out a lot longer than anticipated. It’s really a beginning meditation on creativity, my alma mater, Bard College and being a student of color in the 1980s. It turned out deeply personal:

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

I discovered Toni Morrison in the Language and Thinking program that was required of all first-year students admitted to Bard College. The year was 1987. ‘L&T’ took place a few days before the start of the semester and provided an opportunity for students to socialize and experience humanities classes in the traditional, intimate seminar style that defined Bard. I see myself then, a fiercely proud young woman, excited to be at Bard, but already feeling a bit off kilter by the extreme affluence and whiteness of the student body. [To give you a sense of this, Bard’s student body during the years I attended, 1987-91 was around 900 students. I would say that at any given time there were about 50 or fewer self-identifying students of color. I remember 3 Black faculty on campus, one tenured, one a visiting professor and the other person was Chinua Achebe, who came during my junior year]. I remember being the only African American student in my L &T group of about 12 students. We had a wonderful instructor, a white guy, whose name is now lost to me who had us read different selections from novels during the week. Typically, the L&T professors were not Bard professors and I believe they brought much needed fresh perspectives and new texts into this endeavor.

On one of the days, the instructor had us read the opening pages of Sula. For those of you who have read Sula, you may remember that it begins with exposition of how Black residents in a small fictional town in Ohio came to occupy ‘The Bottom’. It’s beautifully written and deftly reveals the horror of disenfranchisement and segregation that marked much of 19th and 20th century America. I felt exposed and vulnerable, both as a reader and a student. Who was this writer to expose truths and ideas so deep that it cut to the core? I’m sure the teacher wanted to demonstrate how a writer could so thoroughly and expertly engage questions of history, community and identity in a few short pages. The educator in me is almost positive that he said that the author was African American. I don’t actually remember, but I know that at some point in the class I thought the author was white. I somewhere along the line, in realizing Morrison was Black, then turned my anger on her—how dare she write about these difficult things! How dare her that I have to read them? How dare the power of her words to completely refashion my psyche in the midst of a classroom, in front of strangers?

I’m not proud of this memory, but there it is.

[I was still coming out of my young adulthood pre-racial consciousness in wondering why there had to be a magazine like Essence, instead of one for ‘all of us’. I was slowly realizing that color-blind approaches didn’t work in confronting systemic oppression]

It was probably the first time that I so powerfully experienced being in a classroom being both hypervisible and also invisible because of the intersection between the text taught and my own subjectivity. I don’t remember saying one word during that class. Of the white students who did talk, I wonder of their experience. Did they have to treat the text as distant and almost ethnographic or did it shatter their ideas of America, too? Most of them did look at me at some point in the class to say something and what did they make of my refusal? Defiance? Ignorance? Embarrassment?

I am, of course, grateful to this instructor who had us read and think about Toni Morrison’s words. He went on to become an early champion of my creative writing. As an instructor now, I am very attentive to thinking about who is in the room when I am assigning various texts, especially fiction. I think about not just the analytical points I want the work of the text to do, but how will it land with students across their multiple and intersecting identities.

By sophomore year, I did embrace Toni Morrison and devoured her work. I have fond memories of summer vacations reading one of her books.

Toni Morrison-ness was also invoked in my creative writing classes. Although I graduated a political studies major, my true love was English and creative writing and I came very close to being a double major. In most of my creative writing classes, every writing assignment I turned in leaned toward ‘non-realism’ or speculative fiction. This was not always appreciated. And, trust me, at the time, few of my English professors (except one teaching ‘Women and Writing’) had heard of or read Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler. Some of my writing professors, however, also struck me as fundamentally lazy in their reading habits. They did not appear to have read widely in 20th century African American literature. So, they would say things like…”you write so well, it reminds me of Toni Morrison.” This happened several times. I guarantee you that I did not write as well as Toni Morrison—it was just the only Black female author they had bothered to read. They weren’t reading Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Jean Toomer (male) and others whose work I was also consuming and trying very hard to emulate.

As much as I loved attending Bard, Bard for many students of color was a difficult place to exist socially, politically, and aesthetically.

In writing about Morrison, I see that I am also writing about how my generation of creatives of color (now in our late 40s or early 50s) were often not nurtured by our PWI college environments. Many of us were tokenized, our creative work often dismissed, ignored or trivialized. This is not necessarily news, but important for me to say at this point in my life.
We ultimately had to find our own role models and build our own canons. Toni Morrison, despite our rocky start became part of the bedrock of my canon. I love her work and when I can, I teach her novel, Love, to our Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Many fall in love with her right away and many have already read some of her work in high school or other college classes. Times do change, thankfully.

I will, like so many Black creatives, always be in her debt.

 

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I’m taking a break from my weekly post to share this interview that rocked my world and is worth a listen. It is led by Brooke Warner, author and co-creator of SheWrites Press and Tayari Jones, NYT bestselling author. Brooke interviewed Tayari during the recent Bay Area Book Festival.

Jones gives an incredible interview that details what happens when the publishing world gives up on you and how she not only continued to believe in herself, as a writer, but also thrive. She talks about writing her recent novel, An American Marriage and how she created characters and a story line that challenge notions of what makes a marriage and relationship work. She also discusses why she used fiction to explore the inequities of the criminal justice system and class dynamics in the African American community. It’s a compelling interview because Brooke is a fantastic interviewer who poses substantive questions and Tayari brings warmth, honesty and humor in sharing her writing journey. I found out about this interview because it was posted through the Write-Minded podcast. If you don’t know about Write-Minded with Brooke (and co-host Grant Faulkner), check it out–they offer a great format (e.g. writing actions and “green light” moments), they interview a wide spectrum of authors and they also provide inspirational writing advice. Listen to the interview here.

Hi folks,

A few weeks ago I announced that I am participating in Greensboro Bound, a new and amazing literary festival. The festival is May 16-19. All events are FREE, though for some workshops and talks you’ll need to get tix ahead of time including for Zadie Smith’s talk and the conversation between musicians Ani DiFranco and Rhiannon Giddens. The organizers have poured their hearts and souls into this schedule and have planned an incredible array of workshops, talks and panels across all genres that tackle subjects from climate change to yoga. There’s something here for every kind of writer. Take a look at the schedule here.

This is my lineup for Saturday, May 18. I’m psyched!

  • 10 am  The Real and the Unreal: Speculative Fiction  with Valerie Nieman, Michele Tracy Berger, and Jamey Bradbury.

Excited to meet Jamey. Thrilled to be on this panel with Val. She also has a new book coming out this summer which I can’t wait to read. To the Bones is an Appalachian horror/mystery/eco-thriller mashup. Doesn’t that sound cool?

  • 12:30 pm Writing as Intersectional Feminism. Feminist Conversation with Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, Michele Tracy Berger, and Cassie Kircher. Moderated by Jennifer Feather.

Wow! I live and breathe intersectional feminism as a women’s and gender studies professor and as a creative writer. I am really looking forward to this conversation.

  • 3:15 pm Afrofuturism with Michele Tracy Berger, Sheree Renee Thomas. Moderated by Gale Greenlee.

Sheree Renee Thomas is a writer, editor, publisher and pioneer in documenting Afrofuturism. I’ve admired her work for a long time, so I will try not to fangirl the entire time. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Gale (now Dr. Greenlee), a few years ago when she took my graduate class ‘Exploring Intersectionality: Theories, Methods and Practices of Social Change’. What a gift that she is moderating this discussion.

 

The literary community has lost a brilliant playwright, poet and visionary–Ntozoke Shange has died. I am quite sad.

I discovered her work in college and was transfixed by it.

Two of my favorite novels of hers include Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo, a novel about three African American women who are sisters and their path of creative self-discovery and Betsey Brown, a historical novel that chronicles what desegregation was like for an African American girl in the 7th grade in St. Louis, Missouri.

Shange wrote poetry, plays, children’s books, and novels, leaving us a rich corpus of work.

I took a workshop with her in my early 20s that was truly transformative and gave me courage and inspiration that I drew on decades later. Her work influenced a whole generation of women of color creatives. She will be missed.

Read more about her here.

It was a busy weekend! My first stop was at High Point University. I was invited by the English Club to give a craft talk and also discuss the political and structural interests that led me to speculative fiction and Afrofuturism, in particular.

The thing is, I had never given a ‘craft talk’ before! I’ve given lots of academic talks, of course, and have also done several readings of Reenu-You, but never a craft talk. What goes into a craft talk? I found out that a craft talk is just what it sounds like—a writer talking about techniques and processes of writing.

I knew that the English Club would be marketing my visit for a broad audience, so I needed to keep in mind that not everyone would want to hear specific details about writing craft. I spent the last few weeks working on my craft talk.

In the end, I decided to focus the first half of the talk on the speculative media influences on my childhood and young adult years (e.g. the television show, Lost in Space, the Bionic Woman and the film Star Wars). I then talked about my desire to connect to characters in speculative fiction and media with backgrounds that were similar to mine or connected to African American history and for a LONG time how hard that was. By college I was trying to “write myself” into the text and I spent time talking about how during college I discovered both the African American literary canon and feminist speculative fiction! Toward the end of the talk, I then discussed more ‘crafty’ things like how much I love first person narration and why I chose to use two first person narrators in Reenu-You. The audience was composed of students, faculty and parents (it was family weekend!) and they were warm and asked great questions.

I’m so grateful to the students and faculty that brought me to campus.

Dr. Jenn Brandt and Dr. Jacob Paul, organizers of the events

students

Lauren (on the left) who introduced me at the reading and Molly who is the president of the English Club. They are amazing!

hpu2

On Saturday at Park Road Books, in Charlotte, I was on a fantastic panel put together by writer and publisher Nicole Kurtz. The panel featured Black women speculative fiction authors including Nicole, Alledria Hurt, Marcia Colette and myself.

On such a cold wintry day, we had a spectacular turnout. The audience was engaged and we talked about diversity in publishing, the possible impact of the films, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time for young people and pitched our books. We sold out of our books and several panelists and audience members made our way over to a local restaurant for talk and conversation. It was a truly wonderful and uplifting experience! We may try to replicate this panel at future sci-fi conventions.

 

I’m so excited to kick off Black History Month with these upcoming events:

Tomorrow, at Highpoint University, I’ll be giving a craft talk and then later will give a reading from Reenu-You and talk about Afrofuturism. The reading and signing is hosted through their Phoenix Reading Series and will be from 5-6:30.

And on Saturday, Park Road Books, in Charlotte, is hosting a panel of Black women speculative fiction authors. We’ll be talking about our experiences, our work, why representation in publishing matters and also the implications of the film Black Panther.

If you’re local, I’d love to see you there!

Hi creatives,

I just got back from teaching at the incredible North Carolina Writers’ Network fall conference. It was a blast. I also enjoyed supporting the conference’s first ever NaNoWriMo launch. I’ll have updates about all this and more very shortly. In the mean time, I wanted to share some upcoming local events that I’m proud to be a part of.

***

Are you a fan of the science fiction writer Octavia Butler? Want to talk about Octavia Butler’s acclaimed science fiction novel Parable of the Sower? Do you want to learn more about Afrofuturism?

Come join me on Wednesday (tonight!), Nov 8 @7pm at Flyleaf Books! I will have the distinct honor of hosting a conversation about Octavia Butler and Parable of the Sower with my special guest and colleague, Dr. Lilly Nguyen! We will explore the themes in Parable of the Sower and how they engage us on critical questions of humanity’s future, race, gender and transformation. We’ll discuss how Butler’s work has propelled our own, and how it can relate to, inform, and inspire other lives.

It’s OK if you are new to Octavia Butler, read Parable a long time ago, are reading it now, or just want to come and listen!
This is part of a free event series celebrating the US premiere of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower at Carolina Performing Arts, an opera created, written, and composed by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Check out more here!

****

I’m super excited to be reading from Reenu-You this Saturday at the wonderful Ngozi Design Collective at 11am at 321 West Main Street, Durham. I will be joined by speculative fiction author Nicole Kurtz. We will read from our recent publications and discuss how African American female creators are reshaping the landscape of all things sci-fi, fantasy and horror in books, TV and film. Door prizes and refreshments! I’d love to see you there!


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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