Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How Did Writers, Directors, and the Media Help Create the Charleston Massacre at Mother Emanuel?

I've been trying to move past anger, thinking and thinking and trying to come at this whole situation of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston from a place of love and understanding and a sense of optimism I've had to struggle mightily to maintain. This what I've come up with.

I’d like to focus on the nine people whose lives were cut short in Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17th. I’ve linked to an article about them here.

I didn’t know any of these people personally. I live half a continent away from them. But I feel as if I do know them when I read about them—their hard work, their devotion to family, their community leadership, and especially their devout Christianity—because they sound just like my neighbors and friends. I’ve owned a a home and lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood in one of America’s most racially segregated cities for over 40 years (and yes, it was already almost entirely black when I moved in). These are the African American people I know, the ones I never see in books or on television or in the movies, the ones who sometimes work several jobs so they can send their kids to a good private school since our urban public schools have become a disaster, the ones who are teachers and librarians and nurses and bankers and managers and supervisors, the ones who go to work during the week and to church on Sunday (and often Wednesday night prayer group or university night classes) without fail, day after day, week after week.

I have seen the long double rows of black men standing up before a packed congregation to pledge themselves to mentor and help all the young boys of the area, not just their own. These are the men who coached my kids’ Little League teams and helped dig out our car when it slid into a snow-filled ditch. These are the men I pass mowing their lawns and trimming their bushes and, sometimes, playing their musical instruments on their lawns, always giving me a polite, friendly greeting and wave. These are the men I never see on the media with its focus on the idea of the African American man as scary, violent criminal.

These are the women I’ve had coffee with and traded recipes with and joked with about our men and worried with about our kids. These are the women who bring casseroles and pies when someone’s sick or someone’s died. These are the women who work in the church food pantry, serving white and black families alike. These are the women who are professionals out in a world that constantly disrespects them as African Americans and disrespects them as women, and these women still carry themselves with dignity and pride through all of it.

I’ve been to AME churches and other black churches quite a bit in my life, and I’ve always been made welcome in the warmest, most loving, and truly Christian way. My heart breaks every time I read that the murderer said he almost couldn’t go through with it because the people he killed were so nice to him. I know those people. I’ve lived with those people for over 40 years.

And what I want to say is not to the white supremacists and vicious racists out there—because they’re mostly not going to change—but to the news media and the writers and filmmakers and television show producers and directors. Why aren’t you showing us these people? Why can’t I ever see wonderful people like these nine beautiful human beings and my neighbors in any of your productions?  Why do you persist in showing only a negative minority of the African American population over and over, so that all the white people who live in all-white suburbs and work in all-white workplaces think your stereotypes are what African American people are and all they are?

And to my white friends I say, don’t let them do this any longer. Demand to see the reality of African American life, which is full of humor and music and parties and laughter and love, as well as all the other stuff of all lives. They do this to Natives. They do this to Latinos. They do this to everyone “different.” So that those white people (an unfortunately ever-larger number) who live carefully segregated, all-white lives only know these negative stereotypes about people from other cultures than their own. Don’t let them do this any longer. More than anything else, more even than the disgusting hate speech, this eternal lopsided presentation is what feeds the ugly racism that underlies America. Demand that it stop.

REPLIES TO COMMENTS (because Blogger won't let me comment on my own blog):

Reine, I am not surprised--that a black church accepted you or that you did so well for them. I've complained for a long time to family and friends about the representation of African American people, Native people, Latino people, etc., in books and movies and on television. So many white people now live such racially isolated lives that all they ever know about any other culture is what they read or see in the media. And they are fed a non-stop stream of racist, threatening bugaboos. They never see real people like the ones in your church or my neighborhood.

Tom, you are absolutely right. Stories matter, and they may actually be the only thing that matters. I think one of the reasons that people refuse to believe statistics and facts about things is that they've been told powerful stories that are false or misleading, and they won't believe what contradicts that. We who write or create have a choice always whether we'll be lazy and fan the hate or go for a truer picture.

Thank you for reading, Jan.

Lil, I think it's very tough for people who grew up isolated in all-white areas and who are now faced with working with/for and living near people very different from themselves. For so long, the narrative in this country--in books, magazines, film, theater, television, and the news (paper and electronic)--has been white-centered with people of different ethnicities used only as "exotic color" in bit portrayals of criminals and always-sexually-available women. The news reporting in this country goes out of its way to underline and emphasize every criminal of color while ignoring most of the white ones. In real life, whites are still the largest number of convicted criminals, but one would never know that from the news coverage. It's no wonder these people are frightened--and fear so often turns to hate, especially with the powerful voices throwing gasoline on that fire (as Tom said above).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Marjorie Agosín—Books of Interest by Writers of Color

UPDATE: Marjorie Agosín receives Pura Belpré Award from the American Library Association for I Lived on Butterfly Hill.

This is part of a special #diverselit, #WeNeedDiverseBooks intensive for my regular series of posts, Books of Interest by Writers of Color.

I’ve written before about Marjorie Agosín, her brilliant books of poetry, memoir, essays, and scholarship and her amazing career as a human-rights activist. Her 2014 book, I Lived on Butterfly Hill (Simon & Schuster, 978-1416953449), is her first novel. Semi-autobiographical, it tells the story of a young girl in Chile with parents allied with the democratic government, who is forced into exile in the United States because of a dictator’s coup and its vicious aftermath. Agosín herself fled to the U.S. with her parents at the same age from Pinochet. Agosín has compressed the length of the dictatorship in her already expansive book, as well as other details—for story purposes and because, as she said in an interview, “I could not bear to make Celeste Marconi endure 17 years of a fierce dictatorship. Three was enough.”  

Probably because of the age of the protagonist, the novel is marketed as a book for older children/young adults, but this luminous, poignant novel actually makes compelling reading for anyone of any age. The charming illustrations by Lee White are paired perfectly with the lyrical prose of Agosín, an award-winning poet, the enchanted life the protagonist lives in Chile before the Pinochet-like dictator, and the mysterious and mystical events of her life on the coast of Maine and back in Valparaiso  after the dictator’s death.  I Lived on Butterfly Hill was published to universal praise, including a starred review from Booklist and a nomination for the Cybil Awards in children’s and young adult literature. It has recently gone into a second printing.

Grandchild of Holocaust refugees, Celeste Marconi is a happy dreamer, who loves her room at the top of her house high on a hill overlooking the harbor where she can make friends with pelicans while her grandmother and her Indigenous nanny take care of all the daily household work. She lives cocooned in the love and protection of friends, neighbors, and family in Valparaiso, Chile—until the time comes when even dreamy Celeste can’t deny the political unrest that is sweeping through the country. Warships fill the harbor. Classmates disappear from school. No one talks about any of the terrible things that are happening. There are just holes in the world as there always were when her grandmother talked about her life in Nazi Germany before she had to flee to Chile. Celeste doesn’t quite know what is happening, but one thing is clear: no one is safe, not anymore.

The country has been taken over by a government that declares artists, protestors, and anyone who helps the needy “subversive” and dangerous. So Celeste’s parents, doctors who help poor people, must go into hiding before they, too, “disappear.” To protect their daughter, they send her to her eccentric aunt on the coast of Maine in the United States. Plunged abruptly into the very different seaside world of Juliette Cove, Celeste has no knowledge of English, of American society and popular culture, of winter or snow, of housework, and has never been lonely in her life—before this. She goes to school, tries to help her aunt around the house, and learns to adjust to life in Maine, even as her heart stays wrapped up in Valparaiso and her family there. This section of the book is one of the most evocative and tender expressions of the experience of the immigrant, especially the child immigrant, who lives in and between two worlds each day and the emotional roller coaster that entails.

Eventually, just as Celeste begins to feel at home in Juliette Cove, the dictator dies of a nasty cold (Agosín’s little joke to get back at the long-lived Pinochet), and Celeste is called back home to a Valparaiso and Chile that she hardly recognizes. Her parents are still gone, perhaps dead, and she wonders if anything can ever be the way it used to be. The magic and mysticism that permeate all levels of Chilean society are important elements of the book, part of the powerful threads of imagery and metaphor that weave throughout, but here they play a major role in the denouement of the book’s bittersweet ending.

Beautiful language, captivating characters, and a gripping story make this rich, ambitious novel a winner for anyone who wants to know what it was like living through the horrors of the Pinochet regime or wants to understand the experience of the exile or immigrant or simply wants to fall into a lush world of fear, loss, hope, and courage and live in that fascinating environment for the duration of a book by a spellbinding storyteller.

To read more about this inspiring author, visit this past post:

And this one:

Usually, I send readers to the small or university presses who have published the writers I discuss in order to support those midwives to #diverselit, but this book of Agosín’s is published by one of the big titans in New York City, so I’ll just give the Amazon link. I’ve also given the ISBN number with the first mention of the title, so you can also order it from your local independent bookstore, which would be even greater. Any way you go about it, get this book. You will thank me after reading it.

Next time, I’ll look at Frances Washburn and her new novel, The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band. Until then, branch out in your reading. Step outside your comfort zone and broaden your capacity for empathy. Read #diverselit.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Erika Wurth—Books of Interest by Writers of Color

This is the first in my restarted blog series in honor of #diverselit and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. For a number of years, I did a regular series of post, Books of Interest by Writers of Color. Last year, just as I was about to do a month’s intensive of that series in honor of the then-new #diverselit movement online, I went into a series of medical emergencies. Now, I’m back with all the authors and books I’d wanted to feature.

I first encountered Erika Wurth’s work in her book of poetry, Indian Trains (West End Press, ISBN 978-0-9753486-7-3), which I found a remarkably moving first book. Poems like “Time to Dance,” “Genocide Fists,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Quarterbreeds Grow Up to be Cowboys,” “You Didn’t Want a Dollar, You Wanted Me,” “Grandma Was a Beat Poet,” “How to Finance an Illusion,” and “Colfax Reservation Television” offer the reader a glimpse into lives full of wreckage, ironic humor, harsh truths, but also holding tenderness and hope. Using sharp imagery, sometimes biting and sometimes lyrical language, and nuggets of story at the heart of her people and herself, she creates a brave, intimate book about the urban mixed-bloods who make up 70 percent of the Indian population.

In “Time to Dance,” she sums up her hopes for her people with “I want our lives to be a fancydance, for every Indian to run straight into the imagination without stopping for a drink first.” In “Mama Don’t Let Your Quarterbreeds Grow Up to be Cowboys,” her lines are like a prophecy for her next great book, her novel Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend:
“They move, their muscles pulling tight, their
arms wearing secrets
Crazyhorse tattoos under their shirts, filled with
spirit, filled
with the knowledge of death, running always
with the horses”

Wurth’s novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend (Curbside Splendor Publishing, 978-1940430430), came out in September 2014. It’s an intense, gritty story of a sixteen-year-old mixed-blood Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee/white girl living in poverty and hopelessness in a violent home on the outskirts of Denver who is determined to get out of that situation. Unfortunately, the ways she chooses—drug dealing and a sexual relationship with a “cool” loser—aren’t going to work to free her from her misery, especially after she becomes pregnant.

Wurth pulls the reader into Margaritte’s life and her surroundings with sharp, haunting images, tough, realistic dialogue, and emotionally troubling situations and conflicts. As Margritte struggles to survive and find a way to escape her fate and actually thrive, the reader despairs and hopes for her. This gripping narrative is raw and realistic, but Wurth always shows compassion for her underdog protagonist and the people surrounding her in the trap of poverty and dysfunction. Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend is serious medicine using visceral language, but for the strong of heart, it is an empathetic, passionate journey.

Wurth is one of the most promising among a bright crop of newer Native writers. Look for much more from her in both poetry and fiction.

Erika T. Wurth is Apache / Chickasaw / Cherokee and was raised on the outskirts of Denver. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and was a writer-in-residence at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, including Boulevard, Fiction, Pembroke, Florida Review, Stand, Cimarron Review, The Cape Rock, Southern California Review and Drunken Boat.

As usual, I recommend that you buy books from the small presses or university presses that produce them as a way of supporting those necessary midwives of literature. The majority of #diverselit is brought out by these presses, and without them, the only diversity we would have in our literature would be the occasional Sherman Alexie or Louise Erdrich. Much as I love both of those writers, I also know they would be the first to tell you there are many more fine Indigenous writers out there who are published by less well-known presses.

For Indian Trains, visit West End Press at:

For Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, visit Curbside Splendor Publications at:

The next installment in this series will be Marjorie Agosín’s marvelous new YA novel based on her own teen years having to flee the Pinochet regime in Chile.