I recently made one of my semi-sporadic trips to the library and got two books: 2011 Pushcart Prize XXXV and Published & Perished.

In the Pushcart Prize book, I read a short story, Mr. Tall by Tony Earley, that has me stumped. Now, I don’t easily get stumped by reading material but I finished the story with  an exclamation along the lines of “no, you didn’t end the story like that!” I mean, seriously! I was reading along, getting into the characters (which includes the natural environment) and boom! it takes such a sharp left turn, I feel like cold water was thrown on me. I want more! I want to know what happened with the characters, particularly the two involved in the ending of the story. (Even though it was published roughly three years ago, I still don’t want to spoil it for potential readers). Of course, being fond of good writing, I will be reading more of his work. I am officially a fan.

Mr. Tall is the first thing I read in Pushcart Prize XXXV but I will be reading more and reviewing what I find appealing.

Published & Perished contains a series of essay by writers on writers. There is, of course, canonical writers writing on other canonical writers; for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson on Henry David Thoreau. As if that wasn’t enough of an introduction to canon writers, it also includes Julian Hawthorne on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Before I have to return the book to the library, I will make my way through the entire lot. For now, though, I started with writers a little closer to my heart: Toni Morrison on James Baldwin and James Baldwin on Richard Wright. The memorial (that’s a more apt word choice than essay) Toni Morrison wrote for James Baldwin is one of the most moving things I have ever read. I was unaware that their connection was so deep. Here is an excerpt:

No one possessed or inhabited language for me the way you did. You made American English honest – genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern, dialogic, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft, plump lies was lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called “exasperating egocentricity,” you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance. You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, “robbed it on the jewel of its naiveté,” and un-gated it for black people so that in  your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion – not our vanities but our intricate, difficult, demanding beauty, our tragic, insistent knowledge, our lived reality, our sleek classical imagination – all the while refusing “to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize [us].”  In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.

I found the James Baldwin essay on Richard Wright problematic in that I don’t know enough of the dynamic between the two writers to put what Baldwin had to say in context. I shall have to research it more before I could legitimately comment on it. I found a link that gave me a little bit of the history. Here is an excerpt:

As is often the case, pioneers get displaced by their successors. This was certainly the case with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In 1949, before any of his novels had been published, Baldwin turned on Wright and other writers of naturalistic fiction in an essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” appearing first in a now defunct magazine, Zero, and later that year in Partisan Review. “Literature and sociology are not one and the same,” Baldwin argued. He said the problem with protest novels dealing with Negroes, beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is that they define the Negro by the conditions under which he lives, they fail to present him as a human being. And readers, said Baldwin, get “a definite thrill of virtue from the fact that they are reading a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation.” This was a frontal attack on Wright’s belief that literature should be an instrument for social progress, and it led to a rupture between the two. In his book, Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin recounted the difficult conversations they had had: “All literature is protest,” said Wright. “You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.” To which Baldwin replied that “all literature might be protest but all protest was not literature,” which prompted this rejoinder from Wright: “Oh, here you come again with all that art-for-art’s sake crap.”

However, after Wright’s death, Baldwin had this to say:

I had identified myself with him long before we met: in a sense by no means metaphysical, his example had helped me to survive. He was black, he was young, he had come out of Mississippi and the Chicago slums, and he was a writer. He proved it could be done — proved it to me, and gave me an arm against all the others who assured me it could not be done. And I think I had expected Richard, on the day we met, somehow, miraculously, to understand this, and to rejoice in it. Perhaps that sounds foolish, but I cannot honestly say, not even now, that I really think it is foolish. Richard Wright had a tremendous effect on countless number of people whom he never met, multitudes whom he will now never meet. This means that his responsibilities and hazards were great. I don’t think that Richard ever thought of me as one of his responsibilities — bien au contraire! — but he certainly seemed, often enough, to wonder just what he had done to deserve me.

Related Links:

New Yorker interview with Tony Earley

Tony Earley reading Love by William Maxwell

James Baldwin : His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language

The Toni Morrison Society

Reading is Evolutionary

March 18, 2010

Two years ago a blogger for Circle of Seven Productions posted a blog/rant on my space in favor of reading and literacy. As part of it, she issued a challenge: “I challenge anyone reading this blog to write one blog…just one…encouraging people to read. Encourage them to encourage others to read. READ ANYTHING!”

As I find myself getting almost orgasmically excited by my latest read (The Book of Night Women by Marlon James), my mind traveled to my response to the challenge.

 

Reading is Evolutionary

It was the diary of a young girl living in an era I could never go back because time moves forward.

Just like time, my eyes moved forward through each page growing more and more enamored of the first book that touched me in my black girlness. It was beyond affirming.

That book, The Color Purple by Alice Walker set me on the path to being a writer because it enabled me to see how our life stories can contribute to literature.

It also helped me to redefine the definition of fiction. I have heard a lot of people (black men in particular) say that they don’t read fiction because they’re tired of “lies” or some statement to that effect. I believe however that those statements miss the point of black “fiction”.

It is (or should be) indisputable that prior to the mid to late 20th century our voices were censored. What better way for a people to get in where they fit in that to position their works under the banner of fiction. Is Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man total fiction? Or does it resonate with the experience of black men, regardless of their generation? Toni Morrison’s Beloved was based on the life of Margaret Garner. Margaret Garner’s story isn’t fiction. Is Sethe’s? My favorite James Baldwin novel is If Beale Street Could Talk. I recognized the main character, Tish, in the faces, lives and pride of my sisters. Black fiction is not automatically fictional.

Read.

Even though I am an advocate and a believer in well-written, reality-based “fiction”, that is not the only thing I read. As someone who intimately understands the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, I also read history. In high school, a teacher slipped me the Autobiography of Malcolm X on the sly. It was a thick paperback that I had to rubber band together in order not to lose any of the pages. Reading that book led me on the path to researching the Black Revolution of the Sixties. My research deepened my awareness of black resistance. At no point were we passive.

Regardless of the danger, we struggled to learn to read when it was dangerous to the point of death. Frederick Douglass described in his autobiography of the poor white boy who showed him how to read. The Free African School movement is an indication of our desire to reclaim what was stolen from us and learn.

Read.

Reading is Evolutionary.