Starting our conversation on prejudice and race with Staceyann Chin, we watched her performance of “All Oppression is Connected.” A lesbian of Jamaican–Chinese descent, Chin’s unapologetic poem screams back at the interconnections between homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and sexism that so many people around her fail to see.
Next our conversation turned to a bit of an odd piece: Michelle Cliff‘s short story, “A Hanged Man,” in her recent collection, Everything is Now. Age 69, Cliff just recently passed away in California on the same day as the Orlando shootings.
Although Cliff was also Jamaican and queer like Chin, her story takes an entirely different approach to representing racial oppression. The little “action” that takes place circles the eerie setting of a whipping house, an outpost common to plantations in the American South, where slaves would be sent for corporal punishment. A slave hangs himself, and readers are forced to meditate on the gruesome reality his corpse evokes. Meanwhile, well-meaning but ignorant abolitionists trudge through, and an enslaved woman decides to follow in the footsteps of Peg-Leg Joe, a mythic figure who led slaves to freedom.
Last, we turned to the only short story Toni Morrison, one of the most inimitable voices in contemporary American letters, has ever published: “Recitatif” (1983). The story follows a lifelong friendship and falling-out between two girls of opposite but not quite defined races; we can discern that one is black and the other is white, but their identity markers shift so often that it’s impossible to pin down exactly who’s who. In signs that align blackness and whiteness with poverty or wealth, religiousness or hedonism, il/literacy, and social im/mobility, Morrison challenges us to reconfigure our own assumptions in relation to race, gender, class, and religion.
If you missed class, here are the writing prompts we had, which you might want to pick up at home!
- What oppressions are connected in your life? Write a poem (it can be spoken word or another verse form) that expresses your frustration and/or fury with intersecting oppressions in your own experience. Use force; if you want, like Staceyann Chin, reclaim slurs and offensive conversations you’ve had with uneducated people on these crossovers.
- Write a short story about two characters of different races, and see if you can leave hints without giving away either character’s identity. Play on stereotypes with Toni Morrison’s savvy and style: why would we assume either of these characters is a particular race, based on the way they dress, talk, think, and interact with others?
- Write a flash fiction or short story inspired by race in relation to a place and/or historical event/persona. What residues does the place bear? What people walked through here? Like Michelle Cliff, don’t worry about plot; focus on impressions. Help us understand what this space or time means for us today.
Although the 1 train wasn’t being particularly kind this evening, almost everyone trickled into the classroom in time for a Q&A with our visitor, Kaitlyn Greenidge. Also a mentor at Girls Write Now, Kaitlyn published her astonishing debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman to much acclaim in 2016.
The novel (here’s an excerpt) follows the dissolution of an African American family displaced from Boston to the Berkshires to teach a chimpanzee sign language as part of a psychological experiment (it’s really possible– check it out!). To their chagrin, the Freemans learn what’s really at stake in the experiment; the turmoil they experience brings to life extant historical legacies of scientific racism and exploitation in the U.S.
Kaitlyn did a lot of historical research for her first novel, and she gave us a lot of invaluable advice about being a writer, publishing a novel, and sustaining a longterm project:
- “Keep your writing muscles flexed and ready to go” by giving yourself time to write every day. Constantly provide yourself with prompts, and reserve a set amount of time (whether it’s twenty minutes or two hours) for writing on a regular basis.
- If you’re struggling to continue a story, “write until you feel like you can’t push the thing anymore, and then let it just sit for a week or two.” If you’re really pleased with a story you’ve finished, come back to it a couple months later and look at it with a critical eye: what about this story made it succeed, and how can you repeat that effort in future work?
- When planning a project, start with the part that interests you the most!
- Outlines work for Kaitlyn, but they are not absolutely vital. Figure out what “little scenes” you’re going to need to lead you up to the big scenes that you really want your reader to believe are real.
- You should always be reading and rereading your work out loud to yourself to get a strong sense of your own voice.
- If you get bored with what you’re working on, it’s natural; don’t get frustrated!
- When you’re editing, consider printing out your story, so that you can re/view and evaluate it based on how it would read in a printed book.
- When you have writer’s block, figure out whether you’re scared to write about something. Often you may have an idea but haven’t figured out the right way into it. “Allow your mind to wander a little bit” even if that means googling related info without actually writing.
- Self publication is possible without a literary agent, but beware that self publishing means going rogue without the marketing universe in place at publishing houses– the blogs, reviews, and magazines that will make sure your book is read.
- Don’t rush yourself; find your the writing pace that suits you. There’s time! Kaitlyn reiterated a piece of advice she’d heard from the poet Robin Coste Lewis, who is also a translator of Sanskrit poetry and knows it can take 15 years to complete a translation. Said Kaitlyn: “She’s decided that’s how long it’s going to take, and she doesn’t really understand why anyone wants to rush that. Because when she’s done, she’s going to have a really great translation!”
- Read a lot! Reading is the best way to improve writing. Here are some of Kaitlyn’s recommendations:
- Toni Morrison‘s interviews on writing (here’s an example)
- Junot Díaz‘s interviews (one by Edwidge Danticat, whose memoir, “Westbury Court,” we read in our week on immigration!)
- Junot Díaz’s interview with Toni Morrison
- Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, a nonfiction writer and Columbia alum and professor with a Tumblr, this award-winning profile of comedian Dave Chappelle (who, as Kaitlyn informed us, Ghansah never actually met), and this excellent essay on her Beyoncé concert experience
- Kiese Laymon‘s novel, Long Division, and his book of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America
- Robin Coste Lewis‘s book of poetry, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Here are some photos from Kaitlyn’s visit:
And here are the steps Kaitlyn outlined on the path to publication!
- Send your work to literary journals and sites that you really like, not based on prestige.
- Think about the authors you like, then google who their literary agents are.
- Send a query letter to literary agents who sponsor writers whose work you like; convince that agent that your style and interests resonate with the writers who s/he already represents.
- Look for excitability in a literary agent; their tastes should match yours because they will insist that you make changes.
- Your literary agent will help you find an editor and broker a contract for your book that respects your rights as an author. Once you find an editor, expect to still be working on your novel for another year before publication actually happens.
Next week: Disability with Audre Lorde and Robert Hayden, plus our final guest speaker, the memoirist Rachel Adams. Don’t forget our ekphrastic poetry writing scavenger hunt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Sunday; hope to see you there!