The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘African American women

It’s been a weird few days for all of us, huh? About two weeks ago, I left for Copenhagen and by the time I got back (with some difficulty), COVID-19 was in full swing. Later this week, I’ll share some reflections about that trip and how we can keep writing some during this difficult moment.

In the meantime, I’m sharing something that I’d love your help supporting and/or signal boosting. This is my second invitation to a crowdfunded anthology and I’m super excited about it! [BTW, I am working on the edits to my story that I wrote for the successfully funded Witches, Warriors and Wise Women, due out in June]

LET’S SLAY!

Do you like vampires? Vampire slayers? A fresh take on vampires and vampire slayers? Mocha Memories Press is crowdfunding Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire, an anthology which will be groundbreaking as it explores vampires of the African Diaspora. I’m one of the invited authors that will be submitting a story along with Sheree Renee Thomas, Steven Van Patten, and Teri Clarke! Mocha Memoirs Press is run by the incredible Nicole Smith and has been a force in amplifying the work of diverse voices in speculative fiction.


We’re almost halfway funded! Please consider supporting this anthology, there are lots of great perks available (with great names like hunters, slayers, stakes and blood drinkers). $1 perks available! Feel free to share with others! TY!

 

Stay safe and healthy!

I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore my feelings and relationship to the term ‘Afrofuturism’ in this recent essay for the online quarterly magazine South Write Large: Stories, Arts and Ideas for the Global South. Is this a term that you have heard a lot about? How do you engage with Afrofuturism?

My Unlikely Path to Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism is everywhere these days. From the staggering success of Black Panther to the revival of Octavia Butler’s works, especially the prescient Parable of the Sower written in 1993, to the award-winning novels by N. K. Jemisin, these books have ushered in a new moment. We’re not just talking about literature or film, but music, fashion design, visual arts, and social activism as well. What often gets lost or flattened, however, when a phenomenon enters the mainstream, is the nuance, history, and multiple viewpoints on said phenomenon. Read the rest of the essay here.

February has been a rich and wonderful month. It felt as if I was in deep communion with the writer, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). For many years, I’ve been fascinated by her life. ZNH was ahead of her time as a writer and scholar (she was the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in anthropology). She was also a cultural icon and transgressive artist.

Zora Neale Hurston

In 2016, I started a story, “Etta, Zora and the First Serpent” that takes place in the 1930s. Etta, a dancer at the Cotton Club, meets the charismatic ZNH and gets entangled in one of Zora’s schemes to conjure secrets from an old spirit. As you might imagine, trouble ensues.

I am generally fascinated by the time period of the 1920s-1940s and have always been interested in the Cotton Club as my maternal grandmother danced there for a brief period. In the story, I get to explore the race, class and gender dynamics of the day as the Cotton Club practiced segregation (only white patrons were seated) and colorism (i.e. African American female dancers that were hired were typically “light-skinned” or with a “cafe au lait” complexion).

Several Cotton Club dancers

The Apollo Dancers at the Cotton Club Revue in 1938. still from BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE, a film by Heather MacDonald

I was inspired to finish this historically themed horror story (with a twinge of fantasy), and then submit it in 2018 for a specific anthology. It got rejected from that anthology and I went to work on it some more. Last year I submitted it to AfroMyth: Volume 2-A Fantasy Collection and it was accepted!

I went through intensive edits on the story. What was refreshing, however, was that I didn’t have to work much on the structure of the story (I often struggle with plotting), but instead needed to beef up description in the last quarter of the story. It was one of the shorter stories I have written, submitted at 5,000 words (which was the maximum word length). In the revisions, however, I wound up adding another 500 words.

AfroMyth: Volume 2 was released today! It features fourteen fantasy stories featuring characters of the African Diaspora.

I love the cover of this collection!

Zora had her spirit fingerprints all over my life this month. I was invited to attend the 31st annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. It took place in early February in Eatonville, FL.  Eatonville, a historically all Black town is where Zora grew up. The Festival spans multiple days. This year the theme was the multiverse and Afrofuturism! There was an academic conference, an outdoor festival and tons of activities and festivities.  I was with an amazing group of speculative friction writers, all paying tribute to ZNH, her genius and legacy.

Standing, left to right P. Djeli Clark, Nwatchukwu Iheoma, Bill Campbell, Tenea Johnson. Seated: Maurice Broaddus and Chesya Burke. We are all looking very writerly!

It’s rare that I have the opportunity to read with and connect to other Black writers, especially in the field of speculative fiction, so my time at the ZNH Festival felt pretty magical.

If you are a speculative fiction reader, I hope you check out the collection. You can find it at all online sellers. Amazon link is here. Here’s the book trailer to check out, too.

Reenu-You is about to have its second life. It has been published by Falstaff Books. I love the cover design by Natania Barron, Falstaff author and artist. In our back and forth conversations, we decided on a theme that implies a cityscape and a viral threat (in the book my virus has a spiral pattern) and that is more in line with covers of sci-fi books that are about epidemics. This cover has a grittier and darker feel than the original.

I love how Natania gets at the hair/beauty product idea with the scissors and styling tools in the main box.

I have been thinking a lot about cover designs. I’ve been very lucky that both Book Smugglers (the original publisher) and Falstaff have included their authors in cover design conversations. That is not always the case in publishing.

Whether you are traditionally or indie published, understanding the importance of the role of book covers in selling one’s book is essential. I found a recent episode from the Write-Minded podcast with an industry professional extremely valuable. Check out Brooke Warner and Grant Faulkner’s interview with Julie Metz (‘What Every Author Needs to Know about Cover Design’). Metz is an industry veteran and discusses everything authors need to know about covers from multiple perspectives (i.e. readers, publishers, designers). I found it highly informative and loved knowing the history of book cover design from the 20th century until now. Another takeaway is that authors aren’t always very good collaborators. They can sometimes be rigidly attached to a concept that falls way outside the norms for reader expectations for a particular type of book. Online, readers spend seconds skimming book covers, so there isn’t a lot of time to grab them visually. The professionals know what they are doing when they make suggestions to authors!

A request for reviews: Reviews of any length help authors. I have 18 reviews thus far on Amazon and 25 on Goodreads and I’d love more. Interested in reading Reenu-You and doing a short review for Amazon, Goodreads, etc.? And, short can mean one sentence. I would be happy to send you a digital copy for an honest review. It’s a novella, so it’s short and intense. It’s sci-fi with a twinge of psychological horror. If you are a very new reader of the blog and don’t know what Reenu-You is about, see below. If you’re still interested, email me at mtb@creativetickle.com

You can purchase the book on Amazon here. Also available at all online retailers.

Back Cover blurb:

What if a visit to the salon could kill you?

What if a hair product harbored a deadly virus?

Kat is an out of work ski instructor who just wants to pack up her deceased mother’s things, leave New York, and return to Aspen. Constancia is a talented but troubled young woman who just wants to start her first semester of college.

In different shops across New York City, they and hundreds of other women of color try a new hair relaxer called “Reenu-You.” Then things start to go horribly awry.

Within days, they find themselves covered in purple scab-like lesions—a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. They are at the epicenter of a mysterious virus spreading throughout the city. As the outbreak spreads and new cases pop up in Black and Latino communities throughout New York, panic, anger, and questions fill the streets.

What is this virus and where did it come from?

Is it corporate malfeasance?

Or is this an orchestrated plot to kill minority women?

In the face of a terrifying and uncertain future, Kat, Constancia, and a small band of other affected women are forced to confront their deepest fears to save themselves and others. As the world crumbles around them, they will discover more about each other, learn about themselves, and draw strength to face the future together. Reenu-You looks at the social and political meanings of hair, female friendships, and viruses.

January has started off well for my writing.

File this under the category: Believe in your work. As creators, I believe we have to pursue a variety of storytelling modes that are available to us. I’ve started to enter my published work into contests that help pitch the work and get it adapted for film and TV. Nussia, my novelette published in 2017 by Book Smugglers just made it to the quarter finals in the ScreenCraft Contest (Cinematic Short Story Competition)!

I love the cover that Book Smugglers had commissioned for Nussia.

They chose about 200 people from over 1,200 submissions. Here’s my logline: “In this sci-fi psychological dark/horror story, Lindsay, an African American girl “wins” an extraterrestrial in a national contest only to find her family’s life upended. It’s E.T. meets Fatal Attraction.” It’s set in NYC in the 1970s. Wouldn’t you want to see that story told? Please send me good vibes so that I advance to the next round. And, bookmark this contest for your future entries (they have contests for published and unpublished work, plays, etc.).

Screencraft Contests.

If interested, you can read Nussia for free here

October has been designated Black Speculative Fiction month when we especially pay attention to Black creators of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi! Luckily, there is still time to share some of my favorite writers with you and provide links to some great lists being circulated. If you don’t get to check out these writers now, the holiday season will be upon us shortly, so consider putting them on your list for yourself or as a gifts for others.

 

 Nisi Shawl

When I was in graduate school and thought that I was the only Black person that loved and wanted to write science fiction, I luckily met Nisi Shawl who worked in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. She was the first person of color that I had serious conversations with about Black speculative fiction and ideas that would eventually would become known as ‘Afrofuturism’ many years later. This was probably more than 25 years ago. She was a mentor and friend and I have followed her career with great joy. If you don’t know her, you should. Her recent steampunk book Everfair received critical reviews. It re-imagines the Belgium Congo and asks what would have happened if African peoples had developed steam technology first. She is active in sci-fi circles and is a cultural critic. She also co-facilitates a workshop for writers called ‘Writing the Other’ which has become a standard for writers both in sci-fi and out for helping writers develop deeply diverse, human and grounded characters. Even though she moved away before I had come into my own as a writer, I owe Nisi Shawl a great debt for her vision and encouragement. Check her work out!

http://www.nisishawl.com/Everfair%20reviews.html

Nicole Givens Kurtz

Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wonderful collection of stories of the ‘weird west’ by Nicole Givens Kurtz. As I said in my review: “…it is dazzling, groundbreaking and compelling. We are privy to complex and memorable characters, mostly Black women and women of color and viscerally experience how they have to make a way out of no way and keep their dignity whole doing so. In several stories, Kurtz explores the challenges these women faced in a post-Reconstruction world that was sometimes indifferent, often hostile, and sometimes brimming with new possibilities. You’ll cheer and cry for them at every turn.”

Kurtz has turned me on to a whole new subgenre of speculative fiction! You can see the Author  Q&A I did with her in the summer here.

https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Wild-Sage-Weste…/…/0999852248

Tananarive Due

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Tananarive Due (tah-nah-nah-REEVE-doo). She’s an author who has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image award and a British Fantasy Award. She primarily writes horror and you can see her in a new fantastic documentary that she produced: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (available on Shudder and it is excellent). One of her most popular series is the African Immortals which begins with My Soul to Keep.

https://www.tananarivedue.com

Here’s a fantastic list put together by the Oakland Public Library! Enjoy!

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.

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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