Three Incredible Performances on SAT., DEC 13, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Beloved Yogi Studio in Harlem
The last time I blogged, I promised I would post about nonfiction and all the wonderfully different nonfiction writers I’ve been reading (Marita Golden, Ted Conover, Emily Raboteau). In fact, I had a rather lengthy post planned, but I somehow lost it, and now I can’t find the draft. I think what I had wanted to say was that these writers all wrote about different subjects, but there was a single thread that linked them all: emotional truth…I wish I had the draft, but since I don’t, I’ll say what’s on my mind, right now: it’s taken me until my mid-thirties to finally understand the ideas of “emotional truth” and “knowledge of self.” For the last couple of years, I’ve been going through some adult bullying, (some of which I admittedly brought on myself), and the pain I’ve experienced has been so exquisite, sharp, and ongoing that it’s shocked me into numbness.
I think for those of us who’ve had relatively happy childhoods—parents who protected us, neighbors and friends who nurtured us—it’s easy to look at the world through a veil. It’s as though we always want to believe the best in people and when someone acts in a cruel or mean-spirited way and for no good reason, our minds just can’t process it. But we should. Most people are capable of doing incredible good, but also, in creating terrible pain (see Salem witch trials, slavery, the Holocaust). Now, when I look back at my old writing and my old self, I realize I was living in a dream because to ignore or dismiss the evil in the world is to not function in this world. It’s to be something less than alive…And I suppose all good writers know this. They aren’t afraid to explore the good and bad in everything, including the dark sides of themselves or the things they love most. In fact, if we go back to the aforementioned writers, one of my favorite passages of Raboteau’s Zion is when she explores the poet Thomas Glave‘s mixed feelings about Jamaica. Jamaica is, for Glave, “an ancestral and psychic home” but it’s also a place where “not all of my person is welcome.”
These kinds of mixed feelings—this recognition that the world is richer and stranger and far more complex than just good or bad—that’s what emotional truth is all about.
I’ve been having some problems with technology—my website went down; my email may have been hacked—and though my last post may lead you to think otherwise, I still think technology is important. As is writing. (Then again, writing is just one form of technology)…I was having dinner tonight with some other writers and I mentioned how much I enjoyed Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion . I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of individual sentences and how each element of a sentence can make or break a book of nonfiction. I’m still sorting out ideas, but I’ll post soon on Raboteau’s use of language, what we can learn from her carefully crafted sentences, and some of the other dazzling nonfiction I’ve read this year.
Years ago, I was trying to help a friend promote his book, and because he wasn’t touring in my city, he’d given me some stickers to put up around town to generate publicity. I put up some of the stickers, but I didn’t think this promotion was working, so I arranged to give the stickers (and a copy of the book) away to students as part of an end-of-the year writing contest. But when I went to look,
I could not find the stickers.
And I looked everywhere! I was too embarrassed to ask my friend for more stickers, since I was responsible for them, so I tried something else: in some of my writing classes, I read short passages from the book (and designed worksheets based on the book). In the end, I think this effectively generated attention about the book because people could hear and understand the author’s message.
Hearing the words of the author gets people excited more than anything else. And in today’s world of tweets and blog posts, maybe we should consider attaching audio files to our posts. Because, in the end, even with all this technology, getting people to hear your words may be one of the best ways of promoting a book.
A while ago, I was working on a story with a protagonist who was a little…off. The main character was a bully who had neither remorse nor empathy nor friends, and while such a character seems interesting (and terrifying!), the story didn’t work at all. The story was a failure because I didn’t realize then what I realize now: our society worships anti-heroes. When I watch an episode of The Sopranos now, I am astonished not only by James Gadolfini’s acting but also by how much the people around him feared and respected him… As someone who was bullied when I was younger (and is admittedly a people-pleaser even now), I didn’t realize how much my own narcissism came into play, that I was at least somewhat responsible for the teasing I experienced. I think socially awkward children are so desperate to be liked (a form of narcissism) that we massage our bullies’ egos and will do whatever is asked of us. We think that if we can just get the bullies to like us—if we can prove to them that we are likable individuals—then they will stop teasing us or spreading nasty rumors about us or invading our privacy or doing whatever it is they do to show that they have control over our lives. But capitulating only makes the bullying worse, as it adds to their control, and people like powerful people…
I think this is one of the most important lessons I’ve had to learn as a writer and as an individual: people seldom behave in the ways we expect them to. And, if I ever return to the story I was writing, I wouldn’t make my main character friendless; in fact, I’d work harder to show the mixture of fear and respect such a person engenders.
A.R. Bey has written a middle grade novel, Adventures in Boogieland, scheduled for publication this summer. It contains allusions to “James Brown, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Janelle Monae, Michael Jackson and Prince” and is described as “Willy Wonka, with a hint of Alice in Wonderland meets the Wiz.” When I was a child, there wasn’t a lot of speculative fiction/fantasy that featured children of color as protagonist, and so it’s especially cool that Bey’s written this book.
Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this one!
Please support the literary journal Kweli! On Wed., July 10th, they will have their annual fundraiser at 10 Jay Street, Brooklyn. Go & show your support for the good work Laura Pegram & Kweli are doing!