Short story collections are hard to assemble. You have to think about how the stories work as stand-alones and collectively. Right now, I’m assembling a short story collection for my thesis at the University of Baltimore, and it is harder than I imagine, because when I wrote the stories I didn’t write them with the idea of putting together a collection. I have decided that I want my short story collection to feature stories that are mythical, mystical, and fantastical. Think magical realism meets Southern storytelling–that is how I would describe “Elvis” my first published story. I noticed that most of my stories are voice-driven and utilize unreliable narrators. When you read one of my stories, I want the narration to POP, EXCITE, and BE UNPREDICTABLE. To get a taste of the craziness, click here to read “Elvis,” which was originally published as web supplement for The Baltimore Urbanite, Emerging Writers, August 2009 issue.
I have been reading the works of Ms. Dael Orlandersmith, an award-winning playwright who grew up in Harlem. As mentioned in a previous post from Dreamer’s Paradise, I have read Orlandersmith’s Yellowman (2002), which was nominated for a 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Orlandersmith was nominated the same year that Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog (2001) and became the first African-American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Maybe I’m not in the know when it comes to theater productions, but I don’t recall there being a lot of buzz for Yellowman, which goes to show you that just because you never heard of someone or something doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Yellowman takes place in South Carolina and follows the budding romance between dark-skinned, big-boned, and ambitious Alma and fair-skinned, sensitive, and somewhat of a slacker Eugene. In this play, Orlandersmith reveals the ugliness of colorism and classism within the African-American community. Eugene has a contentious relationship with his dark-skinned father, Robert Gaines, who despises and envies his light-hued son: You wanna fight me high yella, huh? You wanna fight? I think your best bet high yella is to get outta my face before I hurt you/ cause I will knock your high yella/ red ass down! (Orlandersmith 10). There are other parts in the play where the language is poetic and sensual. I could feel the sun beating on my skin and the speckles of red dust falling on my bare feet. I could feel the heat of Alma’s and Euguene’s first sexual encounter. When Alma attends college, I could hear the music blaring from the windows and smell the exotic foods of New York City. Although the ending is tragic and haunting, Yellowman is a must-read. I would have loved to see the original production of Orlandersmith’s play, which starred Dael Orlandersmith and Howard W. Overshown, but I will settle with any production that is well-directed. It’s funny that I had never heard of Orlandersmith before reading Yellowman—I think she is one of those talented artists that few people know, which is crazy considering that she is a Pulitzer Prize nominee who received an Obie Award in 1996 for Beauty’s Daughter. I often wonder why some artists are talented and gifted; yet, no one has heard of them. As far as Black female playwrights go, the ones I know are Lorraine Hansberry, who penned Raisin in the Sun (1959), and Suzan-Lori Parks, and that is simply sad because I know there are plenty of Black female playwrights that are doing their thing. For example, there is Latonia Valincia, a playwright who lives in Baltimore, who writes about the experiences of Black women. Last year, she debuted her play, Bootprints, at the University of Baltimore’s Emerging Voices showcase (click here to view UB’s lineup for 2010). Then, there is Sherna Ann Johnson, another playwright from Baltimore, who premiered her first play, “The XX Chromosome Genome Project” at The Strand Theater (click here, to read my play review). I love to read Black female playwrights because they tell stories that include me and my heritage. They are our griots. Listen. Absorb. Reflect. Cherish. Share.
Wow! Last week, I attended a powerful, new play entitled The XX Chromosome Genome Project (2010), which made its debut at The Strand Theater located in Baltimore City’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Out of 45 submissions, The XX Chromosome Genome Project along with three others plays were selected for The Strand’s Friends and Neighbors Festival: Works by Women. The play reminded me of Ntzoke Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1975), and I’m not just saying that because the playwright Sherna Johnson is a good friend. Instead of the women being identified by the color of their clothing, the actresses were identified by their “flavor”: Donisha Adams (Chocolate), Jessica Ruth Baker (Vanilla), Chrisovalandou Diakokomninos (Cinnamon), Naelis Ervin (Caramel), Nina Marti (Lemon), and Lauren Wardell (White Chocolate). Each flavor represents the woman’s ethnicity: African American (Chocolate), Latina (Caramel), Caucasian (Vanilla), Native American (Cinnamon), Asian American (Lemon), and biracial (White Chocolate). Sherna’s purpose for penning The XX Chromosome Genome Project is to show the commonality of women’s experiences. One of my favorite monologues is “B-more Girl Living in a Be-less World,” which was performed by Naelis Ervin. Although Ms. Ervin’s ethnicity is African American, I was convinced that she was Dominican. She had the accent down! Overall, I was pleased with the production, and I recommend that you see this play (unfortunately, the play’s last showing was held the previous week, but hopefully Sherna will do another production). Luckily, you can purchase Sherna’s chapbook at the website 2 Pens & Lint, an indie chapbook company located in Philadelphia, PA. To read the interview that was conducted by Henry Duncan, click here. If you know of any emerging playwrights that are on the rise, leave a post, so we can be in the know!
Last week, I felt like I was having a panic attack. I could feel the perspiration gather on my face. I could feel my chest becoming warm. A million thoughts were rushing in my mind. What caused this, you ask. I thought I had lost my journal. Seriously. I know for someone who doesn’t journal, I probably sound melodramatic and a drama queen, but for those of you who do journal, I know you understand my anxiety. Let me explain. A journal is a prized, cherished possession because it allows you to be yourself in a safe, nurturing environment. In a journal, at least in a successful one, you strip yourself naked. You are unmasked, vulnerable, and painfully honest with yourself. In a journal, you write down your most personal thoughts and feelings. For me, journal writing is necessary. It is a way for me to vent. It is a way for me to grow. It is a way for me to evolve spiritually, and when I use the would spiritually, I’m not necessarily speaking about religion. I’m referring to the energy that lives within in me and elevating it to a higher level (I’m a Pisces, so I liked to go underneath the surface). Although journal writing is therapeutic, who wants the world to see who you really are? Not I. So, the thought of someone discovering the real me had me shaking in my boots. I’ve always wondered would I want my journals to be published. And now I know my answer. Heck naw! So, the moral of this story is to keep up with your journal when you are traveling because you don’t want to feel like you have lost a piece of yourself. As for me, luckily my journal was at my grandmother’s house and I had forgotten to put it in my bag. My aunt mailed my beloved journal via postal mail without reading it, thank God. If you have had a similar experience—having lost a journal or thinking you have lost it—please share and post your comment. I’d love to hear from you. Really, folks.
Inspiration. Where does it come from? If you know where to buy it, let me know, ’cause ever since school has ended, I don’t feel motivated to blog or to write. When I was completing my graduate coursework at the University of Baltimore, I loved to blog! I loved viewing my blog statistics countless times throughout the day. It made me feel good to see that a particular post had received numerous page views. In my downtime, I would think about potential topics I wanted to explore on my blog. During the school year, I didn’t put much pressure on myself regarding my blog. Now, I want my blog posts to be life-altering, profound, and deep. I want my posts to sound like poetry. I want them to sound like words that are running, humming, skipping, singing, and rejoicing. During the school semester, blogging was a way for me to think about something other than school work. Now that the semester has ended, the perfectionist in me wants my blog to be in the words of JJ from Good Times, “Dynamite!” But honestly, there is no such thing as perfect writing. All writing has its imperfections…so, it’s okay if my writing doesn’t sound like poetry. It’s okay if it sounds conversational. It’s okay if my writing sounds like me. Of course, I want my blog to be well-read, but what can I say that hasn’t been said before? Although I am glad the summer is here, I do miss being in a creative environment where I am challenging myself. At the University of Baltimore, I was reading other students’ work, reading experimental writing, keeping a visual journal, and attending readings. Now, what am I doing? None of the above. But, I’m starting to slowly find a routine for myself where I can truly be an artist. I have to realize that my blog posts are like myself—imperfect.
I just finished watching a powerful play entitled Blackbird at the Everyman Theatre located in Baltimore City. The show runs from May 12 to June 13th. Blackbird was first commissioned and presented by the Edinburgh International Festival at the King’s Theatre in August 2005. In 2006, it was presented at the Albery Theatre in the West End. The play made its American debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007. At first, the play is kind of slow, you are wondering, “What is going on?” But when the character, Una, asks the question, “Well, how many other 12-year-olds have you slept with?” the play has officially started. The playwright, David Harrower, tackles the taboo subject of child molestation, and what makes the matter even more complicated is Una’s inability to escape her fixation, obsession, and yearning for Ray, the man who had sex with her at age 12. There were many parts of the play that disturbed me. I found myself mad at Ray for portraying himself as the victim, and I was equally disgusted that Una still craved affection and approval from Ray. It actually made me sad. Una was still holding on to her childhood fantasies…she wanted the man who molested her to love her. After bearing witness to the play, Blackbird, I told myself I can never allow myself to be Una. The play made me evaluate myself: What toxicity am I holding on to? Are there things or people in my life that I’m enslaved to and in bondage to? The fact that this play raised so many questions is a marker of superb writing that goes underneath the surface. A great playwright is unafraid to look at darkness and stare it right in the face. I’ll admit, I was disappointed that Una did not break free of her shackles, and part of me wanted to say that it was because the play was written from a male perspective. However, there are many people who are holding on to painful events in their past, holding on to toxic relationships, holding on to people who have damaged them, and they are dying inside because of their inability to let go, so I’m begging you, if you are holding on to hurt, please release it. Please do not be an Una.
Last Saturday, I saw August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) at Center Stage Theater located in Baltimore City. After viewing the play, I became interested in reading August Wilson’s ten plays, which chronicles the African-American experience for each decade of the 20th century. It is amazing that Wilson, a high school drop-out, became one of America’s best playwrights. I love how Wilson dedicated his craft to depict the history, struggle, and joy of African-Americans. He was not afraid to address controversial topics such as structural racism, exploitation, and self-hatred. In college, I took a course where we read and discussed various plays. For my presentation, I discussed August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks. I learned a lot. Before Wilson wrote a single play, he was a poet. As mentioned previously, he dropped out of school as a teenager. To occupy his free time, Wilson would spend hours at the local library reading books. Also, he studied the unemployed Black men he saw congregating on the street corners. He paid attention to the men’s speech patterns, cadence, and gestures. Combining both his observation and word craftsmanship, Wilson has written literary gems. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Drama for Fences (1986) and The Piano Lesson (1990). Sadly, in 2005, Wilson died at the age of 60 due to liver cancer; however, his legacy and work are here for eternity. I write all of this to say: Art should educate the masses. It should awaken people’s sensibilities. The best art makes the viewer question the perceived truths of the world. Being an artist involves making sacrifices. It means that you will ruffle feathers, but who cares? Artists are supposed to respond to the world. We are observers and commentators. We must take our craft seriously. We have the chance to impact lives. We have a gift. And a glorious burden.
Next year, I’ll be graduating from the University of Baltimore with a MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts. I’m excited about the prospects of starting a new chapter in my life, but at the same time, I’ve been asking myself the hard question, “What next?” And honestly, I don’t have an answer. Of course, I would love to become a published author, but that sounds lofty–even published authors need a day job. I’ve been thinking about teaching at the university level, but I’m not sure. If I were to teach, I would love to teach a fiction course with an emphasis on Black female writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ann Petry, and Toni Cade Bambara. But if I could have any wish, it would be to have my own publishing house. I would focus on publishing experimental and literary fiction. I want to publish fiction that touches people to the core. If you tell the universe what you want, things eventually happen. For those of you who have obtained your MFA, what are you doing with your degree? For those of you who are still in school, what are your future plans? We got to keep believing, dreaming, and writing. This is what we are born to do. It is our calling.
It is every writer’s dream to one day make The New York Times bestseller list and have your book selected for Oprah’s Book Club. With that said, what happens when there is such a demand for your work that people become interested in your diary entries? There are a lot of writers that have maintained personal journals: Alice Walker, John Cheever, and Virginia Woolf (just to name a few). To read another person’s diary is a chance to really see that person. You are viewing the self that isn’t shared with the public. I have kept a journal since I was fourteen years old (if you want to learn how I began to journal, click here). Sometimes, I ask myself the following question: Would I want the world to see my private thoughts? I don’t think so. However, what I do like about journaling is that you are writing down the history of your life. You are charting your evolution. Hindsight is 20/20. And maybe someone can learn from your mistakes. Maybe someone can become inspired.
Writers can be influenced and inspired by various modes of art. For me, I have an affinity for visual art whether it is photography, painting, or sculpturing. Yesterday, I visited New York’s National Museum of the American Indian. The museum is located inside the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. The outside statues were monumental and gorgeous. Anyway, there was a cool exhibition entitled, “Hide: Skin as Material and Metaphor.” In the exhibition, there were two artists presented: Sonya Kelliher-Combs and Nadia Myre. Both artists’ works were amazing and thought-provoking. I especially thought that Myre’s “The Scar Project” was honest and life-affirming. I liked how she extended the concept of scars and visually represented them on canvases. In the book, The Scar Project (2010), she places the images with written text and entries (you can purchase the book at blurb.com for $189.95). For me, art is about self-expression and communication. Art has served its purpose when it makes the audience feel and question. Here’s the lesson that I learned from Myre: If there is a theme or concept you are interested in, explore it. Think of creative ways you can expand and push the boundaries. Do not limit yourself.