A Loss to the Literary World

It’s natural to be touched by death in life. I myself have lost my father, two brothers, and a sister-in-law, all of them except my father to early deaths. It’s also natural to feel touched by the deaths of prominent people whom we’ve never met.

I’m not talking about President John F. Kennedy – I’m probably one of the few first-graders of the time who have absolutely no memory of that day in Dallas (and as an adult, I personally believe he has been overrated, practically canonized, not because he was so wonderful [whatever did he do for black folks during the turbulent civil rights period of the early 1960s?], but because of what happened to him.) But that’s a column for another day. Actually, I’m not talking about any politicians or activists, but rather people in the arts, people like the immensely talented musicians Curtis Mayfield and Barry White, both of whom left this earth too soon. This morning I heard about another.

Bebe Moore Campbell was one of the first names in the New Renaissance of African-American fiction that began during the 1990s. A journalist who was at one time on the staff of Essence magazine, Ms. Campbell broke into the world of literature with her novel Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, a fictionalized account of the lynching of Emmitt Till in Mississippi over fifty years ago.

Although at the time I write this I have had eleven novels published, with numbers twelve and thirteen completed; when I read Ms. Campbell’s first novel I was still an aspiring author. It remains one of the best books I’ve ever read. I had heard of the Emmitt Till murder, of course. It happened before my birth, but I’d seen the articles in Ebony and Jet and seen it featured on the excellent PBS documentary, Eyes on the Prize. But Ms. Campbell’s book actually brought me to that dusty town in the Mississippi Delta in the mid 1950s, the shotgun shacks with their outhouses in the back and the tin washtubs lying near laundry lines, with beds made of straw and perhaps, if the owners could afford it, a faucet with running water in the kitchen sink only. I actually saw the people huddling around the TVs in the windows of the hardware store downtown, the old-fashioned, curvy Coca-Cola bottles. I saw the black people make the best of what little they had. I’d seen the white people, just as hopelessly poor as the blacks after generations, but smug in their imagined superiority, heard them speaking in hushed tones of the black women with their private parts that were “different” from those of proper white women like themselves. I saw the irony in the declaration of the matriarch of the white family speaking out against integration, “They’re trying to make them [blacks] as good as us.” I pictured her face, so aptly described by Ms. Campbell as “expressionless as a piece of biscuit dough.”

That book, with its beautifully phrased metaphors and gorgeous visual characterizations, blew me away. This, I told myself, was real writing, literary, yet not requiring me to have a dictionary to decipher. Every word seemed carefully chosen. I vowed on the spot not to take the easy way out, not to pepper my writing with tired clich├ęs because they were there.

I’ve always wanted to attempt a historical novel. Not set in the Dark Ages, or even in the years following the Civil War. I want to do a novel spanning the World War II years through the present day. I have a story (or at least part of it.) I have my mother, uncle, and aunt, ranging in age from 85 to 90, to share their memories with me. And I have Bebe Moore Campbell’s masterpiece to show me how it should be done.

I think I’ll read it again.

May she rest in peace.
"I am not a Racist"

The latest to utter this defensive statement that brings pictures of Richard Nixon to my mind (anybody out there remember his declaring, "I am not a crook!"?) is comedian Michael Richards. I never watched Seinfeld, but I do recognize the tall man with the angular features.

I was immediately reminded of a passage in my upcoming novel, If These Walls Could Talk (June 2007, Dafina Books, paper, $14.) Here it is:

"Camille had no fantasies about how her neighbors perceived black people. Sure, they were friendly, and careful to never consider using any racial slurs in front of her and Reuben, to whom they’d only shown cordiality. But let a person of color cut them off on the highway and see how fast that word came out of their mouths. Camille believed that everybody had a touch of Archie Bunker in them; that no one, no matter what ethnic group they belonged to, was immune to using a racial slur when they felt wronged by a person of identifiable ethnicity. The standoffishness Tanisha and Douglas demonstrated had done little to endear them to any of the other families on the street, and she suspected that many of them privately celebrated their downfall. She wondered if anyone had made the connection between their behavior and the fear they must have felt."

The world's population, and that of the U.S., consists of many different cultures. I believe that at one time or another we have all been guilty of, if not using a racial slur, ridiculing people of different cultures, whether it be mimicking a distinct speech pattern, making disparaging remarks about their diets, their economics, etc. This can all be considered racist behavior, even if done in jest. But I firmly believe that what comes out when one is angry represents the revealing of one's unadulterated psyche, unmasked by polite behavior.

What do you think?
The Plug is Pulled

Rupert Murdoch officially put the kabosh on O.J. Simpson's book deal, but once again Simpson laughs all the way to the bank. Not only was the story the lead on the evening news, but it was reported that a) he gets to keep the advance, and b) he had it paid to his children, which protects it from the judgment.

To be continued . . . .
He’s baaaaaaaack

Just when O.J. Simpson seemed to have faded into obscurity, here he comes again with more bizarre behavior.

Let me begin by saying that I don’t feel the righteous indignation most of America seems to have regarding the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. It's a sad fact of life that many people are murdered. The great majority of murders have lasting effects on those close to the victims only.

I regard the tragic murders of Ms. Simpson and Mr. Goldman the same way most people would had the victims’ pigmentation been twenty shades darker. Does anyone out there honestly believe that this case would have received all the attention it did if Simpson had been accused of killing two black people? The victim’s names, still prominent and instantly recognizable after a dozen years, would have been relegated to a faded memory had they been black, like the names of previous winners of reality competitions. As for the families, there are families of murder victims all across America who don’t get to call press conferences, give interviews ("I just want people to understand how we feel," says Denise Brown, sister of Ms. Simpson,) or have their spokesperson release statements to the press, because nobody really gives a shit about what they have to say. They have no public platforms and have to bear their grief in private.

As far as I can tell, O.J. Simpson enjoys being in the limelight too much to ever go gently into that good night. I predict that he will continue making periodic, taseteless attempts at getting America’s attention, all of which will be successful. If the Amazon rankings are indicative, this time he’s hit pay dirt. America, no doubt looking for a new interest now that Dancing With The Stars is over, will flock to bookstores to buy If I Did It . . . .

It'll be rather creepy to see a book by O.J. Simpson on the New York Times bestseller list. Simpson has hit upon a way to really thumb his nose at the families of the victims, who have through their spokespersons expressed outrage at the inappropriateness of this book, while reportedly requesting that any money it earns go to them as part of that $33 million judgment they were awarded.

It’s got to burn more than a little to ask for proceeds of a book that exploits the murder of your loved one.
Turkey time is upon us again

But not for everybody.

No, I’m not talking about people too poor to afford a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. This isn’t a blog about helping out those less fortunate; that’s between people and their own consciences. I’m talking about the folks who don’t particularly care for turkey.

My husband is one of them. It was always our job to host Thanksgiving dinner, and we dutifully served turkey year in and year out, with a ham on the side. My father, aghast at the "hack job" we did slicing the thing (something I never understood; it was dead already, right?), started bringing his electric carving knife, and it became his job to carve the bird.

Two years after my father passed, the family was sitting around talking about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. My brother-in-law, who hails from Nassau, Bahamas, commented that he would be just as happy eating a dinner of, say, shrimp, admitting that he wasn’t too crazy about turkey. My husband said the same thing, but that instead of shrimp his first choice would be catfish.

That year we served our first Thanksgiving dinner consisting of fried whole catfish and boiled shrimp with different sauces. We had the cornbread dressing and the gravy, the green bean casserole, the greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce, and rolls, just no turkey or ham.

For most of the years since that was our annual banquet, with an occasional turkey fried out on the patio, a nice change from roasted that my husband, as well as my brother-in-law, approved of.

This year, my husband and I are living in a small apartment eleven hundred miles away from our home in Florida, which is now inhabited by rental tenants while my husband works here in the Midwest. Fortunately, we have family an hour-and-a-half away and more family four hours away. But we’ve opted to stay home for a quiet Thanksgiving, because my husband has to work the day after, and because the period between mid-December and the rest of the year will be hectic, with lots of travel. The menu? Stuffed Cornish hens, macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and biscuits. One meat, two starches (three if you count the biscuits,) one vegetable, and one fruit. That’s plenty of food for two people. We’ll have a nice meal, chill out, and maybe I’ll drag him with me to the early opening of the stores on Friday morning.

Four glorious days off from my present temp assignment. I can’t wait.

What about you? Is your holiday traditional, or non-traditional, whether related to menu or other aspects?
You’ve got a lotta nerve . . . ?!!

I’m all for helping people. I’ve always appreciated it when someone comes up to me and offers assistance, and I try to do the same whenever I see someone who looks lost or confused.

In the eight years since my first novel was published, I regularly receive requests from people asking me to "read my work and tell me what you think of it," or even ask, "How do I get published?"

These requests never fail to amaze me. In this information age, where tons of data is available at our fingertips or even at the local bookstore, why are people asking such basic questions, like how they go about getting published? My own opinion? Laziness combined with a touch of greed. In these times, just about everybody and their mother has a book out, including many celebrities. I truly believe that people see writing as a way to make a quick buck. I love writing, but it’s hard work. Writers who turn out quality work at a fairly quick pace will always have my admiration.

Now, I’m not one of those to take the attitude that it’s every man for him/herself when it comes to giving aspiring writers pointers. I have on several occasions offered to read the work of some people active in the on-line writing community who expressed frustration at the reaction to their writing efforts. Offhand, I can think of two that showed real promise. The others were plagued with the type of writing mistakes many people - published authors as well as novices - make, like telling rather than showing, overuse of characters’ names, repetitiveness, passivity, creative dialogue tags, etc.

Some months back I received a letter from a young woman in prison who raved about one of my books, only to ask that I send her some more books to read. She actually included a wish list of titles she was dying to read for what I presume was my purchasing convenience (how thoughtful.) And I thought I’d seen the height of gall when I received an invitation to a bridal shower that included the statement, "Checks and gift cards appreciated." But that’s a gripe for another day. In case you’re wondering, that letter went right in the trash.

Then, last week, I received a large envelope with a cover letter telling me how much the reader enjoyed my book when they checked it out at the library (which took up two lines.) The reader spent the remainder of the full-page letter telling me about a project they are currently working on, which they’d just sent to a publisher I immediately recognized as a vanity press, and asked me to "please take a look at it and give me your honest opinion, and if you can help me please do so." At the end of the letter the reader inserted a note, "Please return copy." Naturally, she didn’t include an SASE (that's self-addressed, stamped envelope for all you non-writers out there.)

Whichever way I interpreted this request, which I narrowed down to either A) This person is either totally clueless, or B) This person is just trying to get editing services for free, it annoyed me. I gave this reader the benefit of the doubt and presumed she simply didn't know, so I invested 39 cents in a stamp to respond. I gave this reader my honest opinion (about her request, not about her writing, which I did not read,) concluding by telling her that I will return her pages provided she sends me a self-addressed, stamped envelope with sufficient postage for its return within two weeks, or else it gets recycled. Hopefully, she's learned a few things and will do her homework. If not, she will probably move on to another writer.

Who knows, maybe the best way to handle people with that much nerve is to be just as nervy in return.
Every Kind of People

I ran into someone last week that I used to work with on a temporary assignment (hey, my royalties don't exactly rival those of Stephen King, so I do some temp work now and again) some months ago, and seeing her again made me remember an incident that took place between us. She chided me for taking the next step, telling me that our job was to proceed with the task at hand and not check the work of the people giving it to us. I thought this was silly, because if the process didn’t complete the first time, it only kicked back to us for further attention. When I pointed this out, she told me that she merely gives it back to the originator and asks them to sort it out.

Just like flowery romance writing gives it a bad name among many readers (but that’s another column for another day,) to me this kind of It’s-not-my-job attitude gives administrative assistants a bad rep as well. But what really ticked me off was watching this same person, who was so quick to throw something back to certain people, go out of her way to be helpful toward other people. Then I realized the distinction: The people she was so dismissive of worked from cubicles. The ones she tried so hard to be of assistance to had offices, with four walls and a door. And that’s what bothered me. In the old days it used to be called "brown-nosing" in polite company, and I would guess that it's still called "ass kissing" in more liberal circles.

I never said anything to that person about how I felt (a nice part of temp work means you can toss most things over your shoulder,) and that week-long assignment has long since ended. But I wonder if she truly believes that it’s okay to treat people differently because of their position.

What about you? Do you always treat all people with the same basic courtesy and respect, whether they’re a bum on the street or an elegantly dressed person, someone who holds a low-ranking position versus a divisional head or a vice president?

Think about it.
On the Kerry flap

I understand how servicemen and women and their loved ones can be insulted by John Kerry’s recent remarks, and I’m glad he apologized to them, an action I felt to be appropriate. I do feel that the Senator's bumbling of the matter has destroyed any hopes of him being President. But I’m amazed that in all the flack that followed, no one, not even the Senator, has pointed out what seems obvious to me:

It has always been a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. We’ve all seen those ads on TV showing young people of modest or less than modest means telling their parents (if the parties involved are African-American, there's only a mother, but that’s another issue) of their wishes to join the service to earn money for college. We’ve also all seen the biographies of soldiers killed in the line of duty on the evening news, no doubt feeling sad to learn that the deceased’s plans to study engineering or law after their discharge, presumably with the funds they’ve earned during their service, will never come to pass.

Going back to the Civil War, and perhaps even prior to that, the wealthy frequently paid the poor to serve in their sons’ stead, in essence buying their children’s safety.

During World War II patriotism - and enlistments - ran high, but sons of the wealthy usually opted for the Navy, certainly still in peril from being shot down, but well away from ground combat. In Vietnam many of the privileged arranged for their sons to perform alternate roles, National Guard duty, desk jobs, training, etc., again, far removed from the Viet Cong. The actual fighting – and the dying – is generally done by ordinary soldiers. Not generals or other high-ranking officers who command them, just plain soldiers. I’m sure that some of them are true patriots who dropped out of college to enlist, but I suspect most are less privileged Americans fighting to earn better lives for themselves and their children . . . because that's the only way they could afford it.

And speaking of this topic, how many members of Congress and other top politicians, regardless of their party affiliations, have offspring serving in Iraq?

What I garnered from Senator Kerry’s remarks was that young people whose parents cannot afford college tuition should study hard to make good grades, so they will qualify for scholarships and won’t have to put their lives at risk to get a college education. Perhaps it is such a delicate topic that there’s just no way to raise it without sounding condescending or insulting.

And maybe that’s why we should discuss it.