The Practice of Creativity

Archive for the ‘women's studies’ Category

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Randi Davenport while she was a colleague at UNC-Chapel Hill. She served as the Executive Director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and taught Honors students for Carolina’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. After a couple of meetings, we soon recognized each other as kindred spirits with similar backgrounds in the liberal arts, a deep passion for teaching, and an interest in women’s studies. It was also thrilling to find another academic who was pursuing a creative writing life. Randi has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature, both from Syracuse University. Over the years, I have been inspired by Randi’s dedication to writing.

Randi’s first book, a memoir The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes: A Mother’s Story is about her developmentally disabled son Chase’s psychotic breakdown at age 15. She chronicled being a single parent and the challenges of dealing with the medical industry. This blurb by Alice Hoffman is indicative of the high praise the book received: “A heartbreaking, disturbing, and truly courageous story of one mother’s fight to save her son.”

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Randi Davenport is the author of the novel The End of Always (Hachette/Twelve, 2014) and of The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010). In 2011, she received the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer’s Award for Creative Non-fiction, and was a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award and nominated for a Ragan Old North State Cup Award for Non-fiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Ontario Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Women’s History Review, Literature/Film Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, among others.

I have been looking forward to speaking with Randi about her new novel The End of Always that is partly based on her family’s history. And, I am thrilled to announce that the novel has just been nominated for a National Book Award! I am delighted to welcome Randi Davenport to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

 

The desire for love is a nearly universal human experience, and Marie seeks love throughout the book. But in The End of Always, power and violence seem to thwart her every step of the way. How you do balance these big ideas while telling a tale like this?

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I didn’t start by thinking that I was going to write a novel about power and violence, that’s for sure. I started with Marie. Marie Reehs was my mother’s grandmother, which makes her my great-grandmother. She was born in America but her father, mother, and several older siblings were born in Germany, on the island of Rugen. This is where the family came from when they immigrated to Waukesha, Wisconsin. The only thing I knew about Marie when I started was that her name was connected to a deep family mystery. I set out to solve this. When I did, I discovered the events that inspired The End of Always. And those events eventually led me to the issues of power and violence you mention. But I couldn’t start with those, just as I couldn’t write a novel that was just a literal transcription of my great-grandmother’s life. Either choice would have taken me on a fool’s errand.

It’s important to remember that the novel is a story, first and foremost. It’s about one young woman whose life, I suspect, will feel achingly familiar to many readers. If I’ve done my job, Marie’s experiences cannot help but tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that’s where the things you call “big ideas” come into play. But I didn’t write the novel trying to nail those concepts. I wanted to get at the heart of Marie’s life. The “big ideas” about power and violence are inescapably central to her world. As they are to women everywhere.

Talk a little about the title The End of Always. What does this phrase mean to you?

In the most obvious sense, the title refers to Marie’s fight to escape the brutality that the women in her family have always endured. For her, at least as far as the world of the novel is concerned, always comes to an end. But the end is hard won. It may not last. We don’t know.

More broadly, the title refers to the always that women in America experience. Even women who insist that they have never experienced violence and perhaps believe that it’s not all that pervasive know what a risk they take when they walk in a parking garage alone at night or on an empty street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. They know what it might mean if they run out of gas on a country road or fail to check the back seat in their car when they get into it at the mall. They have seen the things that men they know do. Deep down inside, we all know where we live, even if we say otherwise.

The title is less hopeful on this score. Could there be an end to that always? I’m forever optimistic, but I’m a realist, too.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

Writing this book was the most difficult part of writing this book! I made a number of false starts. I kept re-writing. My agent was endlessly patient with me. I was still revising right up to the day the page proofs were due. I had a hard time letting the book go. I think everyone at Hachette/Twelve could still see my fingernail marks on the pages when they arrived at their office.

Socialist ideas pervade the Wisconsin community of immigrants that populate The End of Always, but the novel makes clear that true equality does not extend to women. Do you consider this a political novel?

The End of Always is a novel. It’s not a polemic. It is, above all else, a story about a girl and the choices she makes or the choices that are thrust upon her, and her discovery of her place in the world. When I started writing, I actually was thinking of Hardy’s  Tess of the D’Urbevilles, which is a story of a girl’s journey in an inhospitable land.

But to the extent that The End of Always shines a light on the hard and absolute fact that some Americans are beaten or killed or abused or otherwise damaged when they try to walk this land free and equal—well. I can understand why readers might find the political in that. And of course, the novel focuses on a girl’s story as a way to talk about America, to give us insight into ourselves. That literary terrain is nearly invariably reserved for male characters so I suppose this book is disruptive in that way as well.

What does your writing practice look like?

I’m a writer so I write. If you come across me during work hours, it might not look like I’m writing. It might look like I’m staring into space. Or like I’m pulling my hair out. When I was more able, I’d go for long walks. I do lots of thinking before I begin but I don’t do outlines of any sort. I often talk to myself. Depending where I am in the process, I might be sobbing. No. Just kidding. It rarely comes to that. I also write every day. In the morning, before I do anything else. I’ve always done it this way. When my kids were little I’d get up two hours before they did to write. Now that they’re grown, the habit of writing first thing in the day stays with me.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Let’s see. There are lots of people out there giving advice to writers. Very little of that advice is any good. The best of it is mostly just okay. A good deal of it is truly terrible. Potentially damaging, even. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. However, I’ve been writing my whole life and by this point I do know something about the process. So here’s my advice: If you want to write, write. Forget prompts and tricks and gimmicks. Roll your sleeves up, plant your butt in your chair, and tell your story. Write. And if this isn’t something you can bring yourself to do or if you can imagine any other way to spend your time (Face Book? Twitter? Vacuuming?), it could be that writing is not the thing for you. That’s a hard fact but it’s true. Writers write. And my advice is to get to it.

 

To find out more about Randi Davenport, visit her website.

 

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Dear Alice,

Happy Birthday!alice_walker2002-headshot-bw-med

I like many other writers, readers, scholars and folk are sending you the biggest of birthday wishes and affection. Here are ten things that I want to thank you for:

  1. For your beautiful smile. By the time I was a sophomore in college I had discovered your body of  work and read everything I could find. In my desire to develop as a writer and having so few models that looked like me, I nurtured secret fantasies of being your daughter–because I thought we had similar smiles. I know that sounds strange. Don’t misunderstand–I loved my mother and her face. But, she possessed high cheekbones, ones that I would never have. Seeing your smile with full cheeks made me appreciate my own wide smile and made it easier to imagine myself as a writer. Also, an essence of kindness radiates from your smile that draws people in that I admire. Now, more than twenty years later, I am a writer and have nurtured my creative self, so had shed that fantasy of being your daughter. But, I still love your smile!
  2. For writing The Temple of My Familiar. Epic, metaphysical, culturally rooted and romantic! I still remember a snippet of a line that Fanny says to her husband as she is trying to encourage both of them to spiritually evolve-“I love your breath most because it is the least colonized part of you” (paraphrase)
  3. For writing about African American women’s creativity and exploding conventional notions about what creativity is ‘good for’ in the landmark essay ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’. I have written elsewhere about the power of that essay in my life. I am still amazed that in many popular creativity books, authors still fail to acknowledge the genius of African American women (and other women of color) and reduce creativity solely to production.
  4. For naming womanism.
  5. For your novel Meridian. I just finished teaching this amazing novel to students in my ‘Women of Color in Contemporary U.S. Social Movements’ class. It provides a powerful connection to the struggles of black and white women during the Civil Rights movement. It also beautifully explores the psychological and health challenges of being an activist.
  6. For writing about role of meditation and Buddhism in your life and the value of contemplative practices for the future of humanity.
  7. For resurrecting the work of Zora Neale Hurston.
  8. For The Color Purple. Singular and visionary.
  9. For Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems.
  10. For your short story collections: In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women and You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down. These collections tackled topics that ranged from abortion, pornography, black love, internalized hatred, love, lust, fame, and valuing one’s roots.

I’ve stopped myself at 10, but I could easily keep going. Thank you for all that you have written and shared.

I know many smart and even brilliant people, but few that I would bet on winning a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ award one day. I believe that Dr. Alexis Gumbs could have that in her future. A true renaissance person and visionary, she is almost single-handedly exposing the general public to black feminist concepts in multiple media and innovative ways. She is the creator of the ‘Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind’, a multi-media all ages community school based in the wisdom of black feminist literary practice. Alexis is a literary scholar with a PhD in English, Africana Studies and Women’s Studies from Duke University and a widely published poet and essayist. She is also a community activist and co-founder of the Mobile Homecoming Project, an experiential archive project documenting generations of “black LGBTQ brilliance”. Alexis was named one of UTNE Reader’s 50 Visionaries Transforming the World in 2009, was awarded a ‘Too Sexy for 501-C3’ trophy in 2011 and is one of the Advocate’s Top 40 under 40 features in 2012.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Alexis on my community based participatory research project with African American mothers and their adolescent daughters regarding their communication about health and sexuality. On this project I got to experience her creativity, knowledge of arts based approaches to community engagement and interdisciplinary training and learn from her. Those lessons have stayed with me.

I recently caught up with Alexis to talk about her new poetry book and current projects. I’m so happy to welcome her to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

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Tell us about your new poetry collection, 101 Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive. What inspired it? Are there recurring themes that you explore?

101 Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive came out of an exercise that I designed for myself after listening to Diane Di Prima reading her poem “10 Things That Are Not True About the She Wolf.”  I thought to myself…what an interesting exercise.  What would it mean to write 10 things that are not true about Oprah, or Condoleeza Rice?   Those were the first two poems that I wrote for the collection and I found that there was something liberating about writing out things that were not true about women who are so famous that they seem to be universally known.

Usually I spend my time writing things that I believe to be true about women who are not famous by any stretch of the imagination, so this exercise flipped my practice inside out, but ultimately I found it to be a way to offer some love, breathing room and space in my relationship to women who I often critique (especially Rice).  At first I found myself wanting to push back against the media’s pretense of explaining and knowing these women through surveillance and stereotypes, but ultimately I had to admit that I was pushing back even more on some of my prejudgements of these highly visible black women.

As a black feminist I do feel that it is my responsibility to find a way to love and respect all black women, even those who make decisions that to do not align with my politics and those who I feel are different from me in very significant ways.  I found the exercise of writing 10 things that were not true about each of these women to be a way to access love for these women based on the very fact that I do not know them, and I do not know what might be behind some of their decisions and self-presentations.  That piece of every person that cannot be known is the possibility in them and is the reason they must be honored and cherished for what they might do, who they might become, who they might already be that no one could have ever predicted.

Much of your work stems from the legacy of African American feminists who were writing during the 1970s and 1980s. Why are their words important to your creative life?

I was born in 1982 and I feel everyday the consequences and liberations of what it means to have been born into a world which black feminists were transforming and rearticulating in urgent ways. When I first started reading their words as a teenager they gave me so much permission to believe in a world that could change in significant ways and to believe in the people around me as the energy of those changes.  I have been using Audre Lorde’s words as epigraphs to my own writing since high school and I continue to find a starting place, a jumping off point and a challenge in her words and the words of other black feminist writers that helps me to clarify and awaken myself as an artist.

-You are a scholar, essayist, teacher, blogger and activist. You manage to pack a lot into 24 hours! How do these different activities feed into each other and you?

I wake up really early, but I take a lot of naps. 🙂   For me research, writing for long-term and immediate audiences, designing educational rituals, and building community are all components of an ongoing act of love.   I see my whole life as an opportunity to honor my ancestors and love my communities in the best ways I can.   And my challenge to myself is to find deeper and clearer ways to do that daily.

You advocate a DIY approach to publishing and encourage other writers to explore self-publishing. What have been some of the benefits and challenges of this approach?

I strongly believe that multiple layers of publishing are important for creating the world of words that we deserve.  Self-publishing is a lot of work and it has the intimacy of hand to hand exchange. A self-published work can stay very close to the author and bring the author very close to audience. Sometimes we literally touch hands.  Sometimes I write your name on an envelope and lick a stamp. Sometimes I do layout myself and have to look at my own words sideways and upside down. I think self-publishing and book-making are forms of intimacy that I will never give up.  In addition sometimes the urgency of particular words towards a particular audience in a particular moment requires skipping over the long process of traditional publishing.  At the same time, I am reaching a point in my work where I need to enable my words to travel much further than my long arms can stretch.  For that purpose other publishing methods that require more time and more people become helpful too.

What’s the next project that you’re working on?

Oh there are so many projects.  One project that I am very excited about is a retreat in an eco-village in Jamaica called “Soon Come” for writers like me who are of Caribbean ancestry in diaspora and who find it a creative challenge and imperative to connect back “home” to the Caribbean. I am also in the process of getting feedback on a book of essays, a book of Toni Morrison inspired poems, a workbook inspired by the Combahee River Collective Statement and more!

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Write first.  Wake up and write first.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer black troublemaker, a black feminist love evangelist, a prayer poet priestess and has a PhD in English, African and African-American Studies and Women and Gender Studies from Duke University.  Alexis was the first scholar to research in the Audre Lorde Papers at Spelman College, the June Jordan Papers at Harvard University and the Lucille Clifton Papers at Emory University and is currently on tour with her interactive oracle project “The Lorde Concordance,” a series of ritual mobilizing the life and work of Audre Lorde as a dynamic sacred text.

Alexis has also published widely on Caribbean Women’s Literature with a special interest in Dionne Brand. Her scholarly work is published in Obsidian, Symbiosis, Macomere, The Routledge Companion to Anglophone Literature, SIGNS, Feminist Collections, The Black Imagination, Mothering and Hip Hop Culture, The Business of Black Power and more. Alexis is the author of an acclaimed collection of poems 101 Things That Are Not True About the Most Famous Black Women Alive and poetic work published in Kweli, Vinyl, Backbone, Everyday Genius, Turning Wheel, UNFold, Makeshift and more. She has several books in progress including a book of poems Good Hair Gone Forever, a scholarly monograph on diaspora and the maternal and an educational resource called the School of Our Lorde. She is also the co-editor of a forthcoming edited collection on legacies of radical mothering called This Bridge Called My Baby.

Alexis has been living in Durham, NC for almost a decade and has been transformed and enriched by holistic organizing to end gendered violence and to replace it with sustaining transformative love. Locally she is a founding member of UBUNTU a women of color and survivor-led coalition to end sexual violence, of the Earthseed Collective a black and brown land and spirit reclamation project and the Warrior Healers Organizing Trust, a community accountable foundation practicing organic reparations and transforming blood money into blood relations.

Find out more about Alexis through her multiple blogs and online communities:

http://blackfeminismlives.tumblr.com/
http://www.alexispauline.com/brillianceremastered/

http://www.mobilehomecoming.org/
http://brokenbeautiful.wordpress.com/lexicon
http://www.thatlittleblackbook.blogspot.com
http://www.blackfeministmind.wordpress.com

Purchase her poetry book: http://www.scribd.com/doc/114139208/One-Hundred-and-One-Things-That-Are-Not-True-About-the-Most-Famous-Black-Women-Alive

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Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934- November 17,1992)

Today is Audre Lorde’s birthday! Audre Lorde was an essayist, poet and activist who referred to herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,”.  Audre Lorde’s work has shaped and inspired two generations of writers, scholars, and activists. Lorde produced several volumes of poetry and created new directions in nonfiction with her untraditional memoir (Zami, A New Spelling of My Name), but she was not only a famous poet, she was also one of the most compelling black feminists of the past century. The topics she chose to write about broke open taboos on race, class, the role of ‘difference’ in the second wave women’s movement, breast cancer, sexuality, eroticism, marginality, and the necessity of theorizing about the interlocking nature of oppression. The body of her work has left a legacy for all those concerned with social justice.

I discovered her in college as a budding feminist thinker. I was deeply influenced by feminist literary theory and contemporary women authors. I found her work useful as she helped to redirect second wave feminist organizing to focus on the strength that is found in differences among women as opposed to believing in a mythical norm of the ‘universal woman’. At that time, I was finding my own voice at Bard College and involved in activism on campus (e.g. reproductive rights and fighting for ‘multicultural education’) and interested in feminist theorizing.

At the beginning of my senior year, I organized a group of friends to attend one of Audre Lorde’s final public appearances. Audre Lorde helped to a create conference called ‘Yo Soy Hermana/I Am Your Sister’. It was held in Boston. It called upon second wave (and budding third wave) feminists to come together to strategize, celebrate and develop new skills in feminist coalition building and action given the challenges young women and men faced globally (i.e. poverty, HIV/AIDS, repression of LGBT communities, sexual violence, etc.). My young female friends, all of us of diverse and multiracial backgrounds, found ourselves in a larger feminist and womanist community than we hadn’t dared imagine (or could imagine at Bard–a predominately white, private, liberal arts college). There were over 1000 activists in attendance from over 20 countries. The two days were packed with workshops, keynotes, plenaries, readings, and impromptu gatherings. During the conference, I felt that symbolically a baton was being passed from Lorde and other feminist elders to us in the audience. We were inheritors of the many benefits that Lorde and others had struggled for, yet, we still faced a world that was still fraught with inequality. What would we do with our knowledge and burgeoning power?

Her work inspired me to go on to graduate school. I felt a deep urgency to bring new voices and new ways of knowing into the academy, especially those from historically marginalized communities. I was eager to continue studying how feminist theory challenged typical assumptions about everyday social patterns that seemed ‘natural’. Everyone at Bard did the equivalent of an honors thesis, called the ‘Senior Project’. The tools and theory-building skills I acquired in my classes prepared me to write a senior project on the evolution of rape law reform of the 1970s and 1980s.  In my graduate school applications, I quoted Lorde, “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”

Those words resonated deeply with me because I felt that coalition building and self-definition were the building blocks of feminist theory and could be applied to both research and activism. It’s a quote that still remains a guiding star in my life.

It’s only been in the last few years that I have come to appreciate the other gift that Lorde offered which is that she claimed everything about her—emotions, intellect, all forms of creative writing, activism and theory. She fought to live her life holistically and self-defined. As I have, over the past several years, been intentional about making more space for a scholarly *and* creative life, I find her example life affirming.

I hope you put Audre Lorde on your reading list this year either as a new reader or as someone rediscovering her work.

Recommended Reading:

Poetry: The Black Unicorn (1978)

Memoir: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982)

Essays: Sister Outsider  (1984)

Scholarship: I am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2009)

Photo Credit:http://www.nedrajohnson.com/audre.htm

This post originally appeared on She Writes


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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