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Mosaic

ISSUE TWENTY THREE


FALL 2008

RELEVANT LITERATURE

SIX DOLLARS

THE NEW NEW LIT


KALISHA BUCKHANON OPAL PALMER ADISA
SOMEBODY SCREAM
1
New fiction that’s
naughty� ���� nice�

In the steamy sequel to the Essence bestseller From the author of the #1Essence bestsellers
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what she wants: the married Pastor Richard hilarious and affecting novel about a God-
Allamay. She won’t stop until she’s “first lady” loving, 40-something woman battling to
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in a shocker of a conclusion. Eric Jerome praising all at the same time….This is a
Dickey, watch out.” —Publishers Weekly must-read for some good, clean, Christian
humor.” —Birmingham Times

2 mosaicmagazine.org
Available in trade paperback and as eBooks

www.hachettebookgroup.com Hachette Book Group


no.
Content
23

The Holistic Writer


An Interview with Kalisha Buckhanon ................................ 10
by Tara Betts

The Darker Mask


Allegory for a New Literature ............................................. 26
by Christopher Chambers

Healing Words
an Interview with Opal Palmer Adisa ................................. 32
by D. Scot Miller

Excerpt
Conception by Kalisha Buckhanon................................... 16

Poems by Opal Palmer Adisa


Breaking Point I ............................................................... 35
Breaking Point IV ............................................................. 37

Cover photo: Isadore Howard


3
Reviews ................................................................................................ 18

Conduit: Poems
by Khadijah Queen
Akashic Books

Gomer’s Song
By Kwame Dawes
Akashic Books

Kinky Gazpacho
By Lori L. Tharps
Atria

Gentleman Jigger, A Novel of the Harlem Renaissance


By Richard Bruce Nugent
Da Capo

Say You’re One Of Them


By Uwem Akpan
Little, Brown and Company

Slumberland
By Paul Beatty
Bloomsbury

Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power
By Marcus Reeves
Faber and Faber

When the Black Girl Sings


By Bil Wright
Simon & Schuster

4 mosaicmagazine.org
HOLDING
PATTERN
STORIES BY
JEFFERY
RENARD
ALLEN
THE STREETS OF CHICAGO:
“Subtly otherworldly, each
tale is electric with the rising
tension that proceeds stormy
weather; each tale is a veritable
boxing match, as characters
REAL AND LUMINOUSLY IMAGINED trapped in impossible situations
feint, jab, and retreat.”
“Jeffery Renard Allen’s poetic vision is stunning, tragic,
wildly funny and most of all alive. He is the rare writer —BOOKLIST
who, by creating a wholly unique and surreal dream- (STARRED REVIEW)
scape, illuminates human reality on the deepest level.
He is also the rare writer who borrows from no one “The prodigiously talented
and doesn’t pander to anyone.” Jeffrey Renard Allen is without
question one of our most
—MARY GAITSKILL
important writers. His novel,
Rails Under My Back, kicked ass,
JEFFERY RENARD ALLEN is the author of the and these tough beautiful
novel Rails Under My Back and two collections stories are a gift. You cannot
finish this collection without
of poetry. Allen was born and raised in Chicago.
being dazzled by Allen’s
He teaches in the Writing Program at the New manifold talents.”
School. 5
—JUNOT DÍAZ

Available at bookstores and online www.graywolfpress.org


Managing Editor Felicia Pride
Short Story/Poetry Editor Sheree Renee Thomas renne Thomas
Copy Editor Tawny Pruitt

Publisher Ron Kavanaugh


Communications Coordinator Precenda Griffin

Mosaic Literary Magazine (ISSN 1531-0388) is published four times


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8 mosaicmagazine.org
Contributors

J. A. Barnes is a novelist, playwright, blogger, and C. Chekejai Coley is a freelance writer and the
freelance writer living in Central Ohio. She has director of 2nd Rising Publications. She has writ-
published several novels for young readers and won ten poems, plays, reviews, short shories and artist
first place in the Atlanta Film Festival screenwriting bios. She assisted in the editing of a newly released
award. Her most recent work is a novel about the African American history textbook and is currently
Civil War published as a blog. working on the publication of her first children’s
book.
Adisa Vera Beatty* is a writer and educator living
in Brooklyn, New York. Her poetry has appeared in Athena Dixon is currently an adjunct professor at
Callaloo, The Painted Bride Quarterly and L-I-N-K- several schools in southern New Jersey. Her poetry
E-D, the online literary journal of Spelman College. has appeared in Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian
Culture, blossombones, The Amistad and The Pen-
Tara Betts teaches creative writing at Rutgers Uni- guin Review.
versity. A longtime contributor to Mosaic, Tara’s
poetry has appeared in Essence, Callaloo, Drum Sidik Fofana has written several publication includ-
Voices Revue and several anthologies. ing the Source, Vibe, and allhiphop.com. His work
appears in the recently released The Black Male
Jada Bradley (jadabradley.com) is a Washington Handbook: Blueprint for Life edited by Kevin Pow-
DC-based writer who enjoys telling stories in formal ell (Simon & Schuster
and informal ways. Her work has appeared in The
Washington Post and online. Rachel Finn is a Chicago-based food writer. She is
currently working on a project about identity and
Georgetown University professor Christopher Cham- the Food of the African Diaspora and writing a book
bers is the author of the Angela Bivens crime novels about dates (phoenix dactylifera).
as well as short stories published in magazines like
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Francis D. Scot Miller is Bay Area writer, teacher, and visual
Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope All-Story. His upcoming artist. On the board of directors to noctunes review.
work includes the historical novel Yella Patsy’s Boys, Writes for many publications. The afro-surreal Knot
the novella Amos n Andy and the graphic novel Frum Hear, first novel. Just completed a book of
Gangsterland. poems: TBD.

9
the Holistic Writer\\
an Interview with
Kalisha Buckhanon
by Tara Betts

When I was growing up in Kankakee, Illinois, Ka-


lisha Buckhanon and I crossed paths in so many
ways. We were both looking for ways to accomplish
something. When I was on the way out as a high
school senior, I remember seeing her onstage at our
high school’s auditorium and saying that girl is go-
ing places. I remember chatting with her outside
the Kankakee Public Library where I had my first
job, and communicating over the years while she
attended University of Chicago and I was on the
north side attending Loyola University.

We managed to stay in touch. She curated readings


with the likes of Sonia Sanchez, attended school,
worked, and wrote at night. I curated readings and
taught while performing and studying at night. She
came to New York City to work on her MFA in cre-
ative writing. We talked about our love for James
Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, shared meals
and couches on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
After releasing her two novels Upstate and Concep-
tion (both on St. Martin’s Press) and in the middle
Cover photo: Isadore Howard

10 mosaicmagazine.org
11
of pursuing her PhD, Kalisha Buckhanon took a mo- and it changed my life forever. I was a voracious
ment to talk with me about her work, young peo- reader, but my options were almost always books
ple, our hometown, black drama, and approaching about white people, characters, their culture, lan-
the page. guage and speech. The little girl on the cover looked
like me. The people inside talked like me and my
Tara Betts: I remember you saying that you kept people. That was when I realized that I, too, had
notebooks as a kid. What was writing like for you stories to tell.
when you were a little girl?
TB: How has working with young people in-
Kalisha Buckhanon: It was more random and intui- formed your writing?
tive. Like now, I wrote based upon my emotions, but
my imagination had not yet allowed reality into it. I KB: I love our black children, but because of my life
didn’t realize that an imagined world could involve trajectories I don’t have the occasion to be around
me and the world I experienced or that I could just large groups of them that much. During the rare oc-
write one to involve myself. Consequently, those casions when the atmosphere is just right in a class-
early stories are really playful and convoluted, often room, teaching imagination is the way I like to play.
with characters who weren’t black, simply because It’s nice to get back to the basics of storytelling the
I rarely encountered books with black people in way children make you do. “The dog is...the man
them when I was little. looks...” I can’t walk into a room full of kids and not
be reminded of the elegant simplicity of poetics. Un-
TB: What were your first encounters with black fortunately, it’s hard to teach writing and language
people in books? I know I always think of dis- arts in schools because both activities involve the
covering Raymond Andrews, Paul Laurence Dun- intellect and fairly invisible mental processes. Not
bar’s Sport of the Gods and for colored girls who’ve only do kids not read nearly as much as they used
considered suicide at the Kankakee Public Library, to, adults don’t either. What was once one of the
and Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks most pleasurable and one of the simplest leisure ac-
being the two black poets in our high school’s tivities one could undertake is now met with a lot of
textbooks. disdain in the classroom. As a civilization we don’t
even have to read real letters and cards anymore—
KB: I must shout from the rooftops that I discov- we have IM chat and quick texts instead of words
ered The Bluest Eye in the Kankakee Public Library on a page. It’s sad that so much of what makes us

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human—that ability to communicate and transmit something they really want to read. They can and
to one another using language—has been eroded. will get into a story that is not on the big screen, TV,
or the internet. It is still possible.
One of the reasons that spiritual motivation, per-
sonal accountability, and drive are always character TB: In Upstate and Conception, you make an ef-
builders for me in my work is that I see so much of fort to share the voices of both the male and
that lacking these days in not just children but adults female character as the main focus of the book.
as well. I’m not always perfect myself in those areas, What was it like to write in the voice of a male
but I do wish as a whole we were more conscience character versus a female character?
of these traits. The gift of being able to teach writing
is that if you’re good enough to pull it out, most chil- KB: I don’t really think that there was a huge dis-
dren are good enough to express themselves and crepancy between them in the way that their voices
those drives to you. came to my head. Of course, I was pulling from dif-
ferent experiences in order to capture those voices.
TB: Since your book has had positive reception Many of my own young crushes and boyfriends
from young readers, what responses have you certainly came into play, because I do love the lan-
heard from them? guage of black men. They can talk that talk like no
others can! It was a real challenge to keep the story
KB: They love the books! Usually, when I speak to going by playing off two characters, often making
kids, they are very specific about details and scenes quick switches in my head. I think it worked in the
when they ask questions. While I hate being caught final product.
off guard with something I can’t remember, I am
always impressed! As a doctoral student, one of the TB: I enjoyed that both novels featured Natasha
requirements of my oral examination is close read- and Shivana speaking and acting like girls that
ing of a number of books. These children exhibit we’ve known. What are some challenges that you
skills that make me proud when I am able to talk experienced in doing justice to their voices?
to them, in detail, about my books because they
prove they can retain information and be provoked KB: They speak like little girls we’ve known because
by a text. I’m not just proud because they are my I was once one of those little girls. I did not expe-
books, obviously. I’m also proud that these kids will rience many challenges writing them. They were
actually think hard about literature when they have both joys to write, straight from the heart. Very close

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to me and my heart. In my head both of them al- miracles, partially because adults don’t understand
ways look like those girls people never bother to it. It is time for us as adults to step up and get more
look at. It was nice for me as an older, more mature involved in the lives of these children. It’s time to
writer to recapture the emotional and psychologi- mentor a child, spend more time with your own,
cal fragility of that age, and bring an understand- send a nice card to a kid who has accomplished
ing to these girls’ lives that is not necessarily there something, or even just set a positive example for
for them. Ironically, Natasha’s name in Upstate was the young brothers and sisters on the block by
Shivana, and my mentor Sapphire was heartbroken watching language on the street or modeling cour-
when I changed it to Natasha because she felt is teous behavior. We have lost our sense of royalty as
was too Russian and not African American. She was a people, and the unborn child is holding on to that
right, but it sounded great with Antonio. I am so secret for those who don’t know it yet.
happy that I was able to bring that name back in
Conception. TB: As a result of your first novel and volun-
teering as a mentor for the PEN Prison Writing
TB: I remember seeing early beginnings of Con- Program, you have often been asked about the
ception, but I’m sure people would like to know prison industrial complex. What observations
where you got the idea to explore the different became clearer or paralleled the situations you
voices of unborn children. wrote about after Upstate was released?

KB: Yes, I remember you were the first person that KB: After the book was released, it pretty much has
I ever gave pages of Conception, back in 2005, be- been the same old observations for me. Nothing
fore you moved to NYC. And I appreciate that early changed except at least I had a platform in which
encouragement on the story because it helped. But to talk about something that had been on my mind
I am privy to the situations facing many of our chil- for a while. And to think that given our upcoming
dren. I know what they are going through. A lot of presidential election, the powers that be have a
it I have been through myself. “What happens to a large constituency of potential Obama voters right
dream deferred?” It’s such a cliché, but Langston where they want them. This is an ongoing problem
asked a question for the ages. From the opening of and situation. What I, and everyone else, can im-
the book, I hope that it is clear that I am explor- mediately do is get involved in the life of someone
ing the miracle of life and how too many children you see heading in that direction so that the horren-
I have observed do not understand that they are Continued on page 44

14 mosaicmagazine.org
The

Literary
Freedom
Project e
is a not-for-profit arts
organization that supports
the literary arts through
education, creative thinking,
and new media. Towards this
goal, we publish Mosaic;
develop literature-based
lesson plans; and host the
Mosaic Literary Conference, an
annual literature-education
conference. li
te
ra
ry
fr
ee
do
m.
or
g

15
MA AND I fought before I got pregnant; I left be- borhood regulars that he “got a shorty coming.” He
cause I knew it would get much worse once she buys her ice cream, comfortable walking shoes, and
found out. I never planned on getting pregnant when a thick pink robe to sit on soft skin he rubs down
I was fifteen; it just happened. But isn’t that just how with the real baby lotion, after she takes the Calgon
it always is? At least if you’re young and Black, or old bubble bath he ran. When he makes love to her, he’s
and Black for that matter. Planning pregnancy was soft and careful. They lay tight like two spoons in a
for White women; every woman I had ever known squeaky bed, listening to Luther or the Isley Brothers
just got caught—caught up in some man to the point or Chaka Khan when she was still with Rufus, and
where she was foolish enough to drop a load for him, when she starts crying because she’s turned away
believe all that “carry my seed I’m gonna love you from him and she thinks he won’t know, he can tell
and my child” sweet talk. You can keep foolishness she’s scared he’ll leave her just from the tension stiff
and stupidity a secret, but a belly swelled will always in her back. So he massages her spine and her doubt,
tell the truth even if it isn’t a whole one. The whole wipes away her tears, and whispers, “Baby, I promise,
truth is that the child was an even bigger accident I ain’t going nowhere.”
than the relationship. And a pregnant woman or
one who already has kids by a man who’s no longer He might mean it... until she swells so much from
thinking about her never, ever tells that truth—not both water and baby that she couldn’t pull her
even to herself. grouchy lips in if she tried. Or until she has it and her
wrinkled, dark, sagging stomach won’t snap back to
I knew the story well. I had seen it, heard about it, that smoothness he used to love to bump up against.
been warned about it; my own father left so I was I’ve seen them stay until the baby’s first blown-outof-
a victim of it. Any gathering of two or more women proportion birthday party or maybe even later, but
made me a silent witness to the deep wounds men something about being called “Daddy”—never mind
left behind. Later I was guaranteed to be kept up husband—seems to choke men these days. They
well into a night listening to my hardened mother, shove off their women and kids like suffocating pil-
still young, who vowed a crowbar couldn’t get her lows smashed against their faces, cutting off not only
stiff legs open again—let alone a man. their air and vision but the rest of their lives.

The story was always the same. At first he cooks her At least when somebody’s suffocating, you can tell:
breakfast in the mornings, rubs her feet at night, you see their faces turn blue, their lips quiver, their
pinches her cheeks like she’s his child herself, and eyes buck, and their throats jerk. But when a man is
rubs her belly every time she walks by. He stands out- mentally packing his bags, the suitcase is never out
side with his chest stuck out and brags to the neigh- until he’s already standing on the other side of the

16 mosaicmagazine.org
door. He suddenly gets shy whenever they have a The whole sixth-floor apartment still held on to the
little time alone, silently fusses with the food on his burnt stink from Renelle’s earlier attempt at “home-
plate much more, if he’s even still eating her cooking made” cooking.
at all. Then his nights at the corner bar start drag-
ging on longer than they used to, well into the hours Three months into another birth, she had tortured a
they used to be shattering headboards and calling Duncan Hines chocolate box mix into volcanic rock
each other’s names. Suddenly the mama he com- that morning; its nasty failure predicted the baby’s
plained about when they first got together becomes fate.
strangely needy, and she starts hearing the excuse a
man gives a woman he wants to have sex with with- Leroy and I whispered about the cake while he
out having to spend the night: “I gotta do something lay on top of me on their black leather living-room
for my mama.” Exactly what is never explained, but couch, finding his way, unprotected, into my silky
she looks at him with puppy-dog eyes anyway and young softness for the second time that night. We
says, “Okay, baby, take your time.” It’s all over by had been doing this behind his wife’s back for
the time she starts first dropping hints, then actu- months. He made my heart beat fast and my blood
ally saying, “You need to start bringing some more race through my body so strong and hard my baby’s
money into this house.” If the kids are lucky (and I heart started beating too. My baby screamed and
wasn’t), they’ll be too young to remember the argu- glowed red when it roared to life inside me, but
ments filled in by the swish sound of flying objects, Leroy and I didn’t see or hear or know.
the lightning-bolt crack of slammed doors, and of
course the face slaps. Finally the story ends when a “Forget that burnt cake... this all the chocolate
Greyhound bus or loaded-down car hits the high- I need right here,” Leroy whispered to me, and I
way, and the woman is left staring into a window didn’t know how to respond. I was just fifteen then,
rather than out of it. still spoke only when spoken to, tried not to curse in
front of grown folks or wear clothes that hugged my
I know the exact moment my baby came inside me: shape too tight. I still wanted to be a child, but my
it was on October 11, 1992. body just wasn’t having it. So I said nothing at all. I
just lay there in a slick mist of our sweat
That was the night I met Rasul, and the night Renelle
Washington came home early from work with a new Copyright © 2008 by Kalisha Buckhanon.
surprise birthday cake for her husband Leroy. An All rights reserved. 
Entenmann’s German chocolate cake, thirty-six can-
dles standing up sharp and wicked like pitchforks.

17
18 mosaicmagazine.org
Reviews

Slumberland and black expats shortly before the fall of the Wall.
By Paul Beatty He comes seeking his hero and potential co-signer
Bloomsbury to his perfect beat; an avant-garde jazz musician
Review by D. Scot Miller known as “The Schwa.”

Though he was one of the first stand-out stars of the Within the first twenty pages, through Darky, Be-
Nuyorican scene before the term “poetry slam” was atty calls almost all black male actors over the last
a part of the zeitgeist; and his work has been pub- two decades Uncle Toms, proclaims the death of
lished consistently, though discretely, for the past hip-hop, and declares black people passé and obso-
twenty-plus years; and his first book of poems, Big lete. Somehow, these polemics do not come across
Bank Take Little Bank, simultaneously grabbed the as a pop culture hodge-podge, but the backstory
attentions of Allen Ginsberg and Ice Cube, is there a about one man’s search for perfection, love, and
black male American writer more slept on than Paul acceptance. And this is where we get our first clue
Beatty? The author of three books of fiction, two of towards Beatty’s warm receptions as a writer and
poetry, and one anthology gets so little mention in scholar. For over twenty years, many black Ameri-
the annals of contemporary literature. can writers have been feeding sacred cows and
bringing long-festering wounds to light. What has
His latest novel, Slumberland, which has gained lit- been woefully missing in the dialogue of black let-
tle notice as it has oozed its way into the collective ters is the power of satire. Beatty’s 2005 anthology,
unconsciousness, may give some clues to how the Hokum, shows him to be a studied master of black
author has managed to walk the tightrope between humor and radical imagination and Slumberland is
blowing up and going pop, and have fun doing it. laugh-out-loud funny. There are passages here that
make me blurt out, like some people laugh at jazz
DJ Darky is a sub-genius sommelier for a jukebox concerts when an impresario pulls out an amazing
in a West Berlin Bar, Slumberland, a hot spot for aural stunt. I’m constantly impressed with this writer
miscegenation between buxom German frauliens who’s not afraid to say NIGGER in all caps.

19
As the Berlin Wall falls, and secret agents and rag- There is a confirmation in not only Slumberland, but
men emerge, Beatty remains pitch perfect in his Beatty’s entire body of work that, no, you’re not
critique of black/white America, Germany, and crazy. There are folks out here who see the same
western civilization to date. So much so, that acer- absurd shit you do.
bic insight becomes commonplace and the “been
there, done that” uber-hip-ness exuded by Darky
and his growing cadre never comes off as smarmy Gomer’s Song
or condescending. It’s this lack of self-seriousness By Kwame Dawes
that causes many readers to miss the serious intent Akashic Books
of Beatty’s work. Since his first novel, White Boy Review by Adisa Vera Beatty
Shuffle, there has been an apocalyptic foreboding,
a sinister grin, a lonely ache for connection and vali- In his fifteenth poetry collection, Gomer’s Song,
dation that has permeated his work. There is a ten- Kwame Dawes comes up on the reader like an insis-
sion in Slumberland that recalls the monologues of tent scent, haint, or force of nature. Giving voice to
Richard Pryor in his heyday; where folly and despair Gomer, the saved harlot wife God told the prophet
collide with race consciousness and self-destructive Hosea to marry, we are taken on a sojourn of desire,
impulse, causing us to relate to frailties so deeply forgiveness, and freedom with a woman unlikely to
that only laughter makes sense. be forgotten. In the span of forty-four poems Dawes
simultaneously resurrects and creates a mythic
This is a fun book with more truth than most Ameri- woman with such poignancy that you never doubt
cans can bear, though, like his previous novel, her existence. And so with lines like, “I was born for
Tuff, Beatty can get lost in atmospheric description this story” Dawes anoints the reader a believer.
that distracts rather than emphasizes his scenes. In
Slumberland, the description of the bar itself and Told in three sections, Gomer’s Song begins with the
the various characters who frequent it can serve as widely accepted and comfortable knowledge about
foils and the urge to skim becomes greatest during Gomer; she was a loose and unrepentant woman.
these passages. But it’s a small price to pay for the What we are not comfortable with is all that Dawes
overall impact of Beatty’s wit, emotion, and keen brings us with Gomer’s Song; the difficulty of need,
observation of human behavior in all of its fragility the price of freedom. In the poem Repentance
and pathos. Gomer contemplates the well-traveled path she’s
allowed her desire to blaze:

20 mosaicmagazine.org
band,” “Times Seven” and “The Wounds I Have
Then the blood begins to return Made” Gomer not only confesses to seeking some-
to stiffened limbs, and the room grows, thing outside herself, but also has difficulty accept-
curry yellow before the brown ing that she is worthy of forgiveness in spite of her
of regret. In this hiatus, I am clean failings. “Times Seven” alludes to the Bible and
as a confessor, able again to rebuild God’s command that you should forgive times sev-
that new fiction of redemption. en. And it is forgiveness that this Gomer rails against
and leans into.
And sated like this, it is easy
o say this will be the last TIMES SEVEN
faceless man’s basic desire,
the last pathetic stranger The woman coming through the trees,
to seep into me; that tomorrow the speckled light of dusk
a new woman will begin
to rebuild the wreckage of her life. on her skin, is your love
returning again to be forgiven
But helpless and victim are two things this Gomer is
not. Dawes plots out the complex geography of his with tears in her face;
Gomer who is at times an audacious and haughty embrace the broken woman.
conjurer who uses her sexuality like she’s working
a root. Then at other times she reveals what is be-
neath her surface; that no one knows her or her true When we leave Gomer she continues to lin-
story. Gomer was given the title of wife and mother, ger with us like the memory of her past deeds
was shown mercy, but only she can give herself sal- remains with her. In the poem “Punishment”
vation. We stumble with Gomer like all sinners do we see that Gomer cares deeply for what she
as she shrugs the place she has been assigned from once devalued; her husband, children, herself.
her body like an unwanted garment.
“Still I battle my appetite with fasts and carry the
By section two there is the acknowledgement of weight of guilt on me. But this is not freedom, not
damage, shame, and the relief that comes with the birthright of bloodshed and broken flesh. I re-
receiving mercy. In poems like “Certified,” “Hus- ceive the bargain of ages and turn to face my fragile

21
collateral: the husband, the children, these words, The strength of Conduit is its use of language and
still intact, still within my reach--against this debt I form. When Khadijah Queen writes in “Return via
cannot repay.” Two Renaissances to a Distinct Unmasking,” “You
love the idea of voice as an instrument, that two/Is
Gomer’s Song is a lyric of love, self-love, and the not two, but dissonance” you have been invited into
give and take of forgiveness and liberation. the heart of the collection. The voice of these po-
ems is certainly an instrument, but the melody isn’t
always sweet. She creates pitches that keep readers
Conduit: Poems off kilter, harmonies from themes that readers may
By Khadijah Queen not have considered alongside tones that are freshly
Akashic Books new. This is a skittish new jazz full of possibilities.
Review by Athena Dixon With ample white space and succinct word choice,
there is more than enough room for each poem
Claudia Rankine writes in her introduction to Khad- to flower to its full potential. There is no crowding
ijah Queen’s debut collection, “Hers is a poetic sen- on the page to distract from the craftsmanship of
sibility that denies the poems transcendence and the collection. It is quite clear the poet knows that
conclusion.” Throughout Conduit, Queen weaves space is at a premium and she uses it wisely.
between the concrete and the air. Readers know
there is solid ground beneath their feet, but also In its weaker moments Conduit relies too heavily
know there is something to reach for above their on the aforementioned shadows. Yes, the poems’
heads. It is through her poetry that she guides the turns remain sharp and interesting, but there is a
audience between what they’ve known and what softness missing in the collection as a whole. This is
they’ll learn. When readers come across an image not to say the poems should be diluted, but at times
to grasp onto, the poems ballast them below the the reader yearns for the melodies to mesh, for the
surface and beyond. However, those handles are dissonance to be quieted for a moment. Lush lines
not to be relied upon. Instead, readers are pulled to such as “I have counted the thousand thirsty buds/
focus on the shadowy, the less than clear aspects of burrowed in the black/bulk of your loosened/hair”
the collection and expand rather than remain stag- from “Four Suggestions” or, “Poised for the stir-
nant. These poems are both opaque and sparse in ring of small miracles” in “Suspension Tactics” are
their construction, and it serves the collection well. the rounded corners the collection needs more of.
This addition would highlight the crispness that is

22 mosaicmagazine.org
the hallmark of Conduit while allowing additional Kinky Gazpacho
entries into the poems. Without them, some read- By Lori L. Tharps
ers may feel like they are on the outside looking Atria
in, knowing there is something wonderful to be had Review by Jada Bradley
but unable to wrap their minds around it.
Many people ignore or forget childhood longings
This is a weakness in the collection, but again the that call them to do or be something other than
possibilities of these hard-edged poems lie within what they are. Lori L. Tharps is not one of those
the same breath. “The Ofrendas Rojas” section of people. She followed through on her childhood
the collection is the softness sought. Here the care- attraction to the country of Spain and takes read-
ful construction is layered with quietness. Balanced ers through her inner and outer journeys to make
between the starker sections “Distance as the Root peace with her place in the world. Tharps, a writer
of Olive Trees” and “Suspension Tactics,” “Ofren- and editor whose work has appeared in publica-
das Rojas” is more accessible, more concrete. The tions like Essence and Glamour, goes from someone
opening poem “La Katrina” is what the book’s best who tries in vain to keep her color “under wraps”
is comprised of. It is appropriately complex while to a woman on a mission to get to the root of the
remaining open enough for a cross section of read- African presence in Spain.
ers to enjoy. This is where readers are firmly planted
on the ground while still searching what resides Although the book has been placed in the travel
above. category, it is not strictly a travel diary. Tharps does
not begin with her first journey to Spain. Instead,
Queen writes, “Art is a leap through time.” At the she sets the stage with her childhood interest in for-
end the questions form. Where will these poems eign cultures. In high school she visits Morocco and
leave us? Will we be moved forward? Most certain- has a brief romance with a Spanish exchange stu-
ly. By the conclusion of Conduit, readers are now dent—events that will foreshadow her experiences
with the poet between the concrete and the air. As in Spain.
Khadijah Queen pens, these pages are truly “wide
and vibrating.” Growing up in Wisconsin, Tharps alternately strug-
gles with and is at peace with what it is to be one
of the few black children in a mostly white environ-
ment. Readers with similar backgrounds will relate

23
to her dismay at feeling she has no culture to display Marrying into a Spanish family means Tharps will
at her school’s cultural day, or her mortification at continue to visit Spain and grapple with the ways in
classmates’ brushing aside of a game called “nigger which Spain’s overt and subtle racism pours salt on
pile-on.” These themes continue during Tharps’s the unhealed wounds she bears as an African Amer-
time in Spain where her attempts to dress like a ican. Though Manuel is open-minded and willing
Spaniard don’t allow her to blend in and she must to enter into discussions about race and prejudice,
endure racially charged taunts from children in her his family is not always so interested. Nevertheless,
host family’s neighborhood. with a few exceptions, the family accepts Tharps
into the fold.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is Tharps’s en-
gaging voice. It is hard not to root for her as she Attitudes about people of African descent are con-
struggles to make sense of what it means to be black tradictory all over the world, and the mix of fasci-
in and out of America. In our rather confessional nation and prejudice combined with the denial of
age, her candor is authentic and not vain. She does racism in Spanish-speaking countries can be mysti-
a good job of inviting readers in, although occasion- fying. Starting in Cádiz, Tharps decides to take on
ally she does forget to clarify things when a reader the challenge of clearing up some of Spain’s ambi-
would need to know. There is an entire chapter guity about its slaveholding past. She doesn’t do this
called “Sally,” and Tharps waits until the following to prove anyone right or wrong, but for her own
chapter to explain that Sally is her nickname for personal edification. The book, which up until this
Salamanca. point has been a delightful memoir, takes a turn into
more journalistic territory. This is still Tharps’s jour-
While at the University of Salamanca, Tharps devel- ney, but the storytelling changes, and the book loses
ops a crush on a student in her German class. With some of its entertaining qualities.
the help of friends, she is able to meet Manuel,
a Spanish classmate, who is an NBA fanatic. This Even in unearthing some historical truths, Tharps
Spaniard who will eventually become her husband finds mixed messages. She hears that slavery in
had childhood dreams of America and of marrying Spain was not all that bad, that it was just domes-
a black woman. Their union inspired the book’s tic servitude and that blacks in Spain were not uni-
title—the author represented by “kinky” and her versally despised. At the same time she learns that
husband by “gazpacho.” when they arrived in Cádiz, slaves received a brand
on their cheeks with a symbol that represented the

24 mosaicmagazine.org
Spanish word for slave. especially, sexuality among the various constituents
of Jazz Age New York.
Despite the unpleasantness of slavery, Tharps finds
that her investigation into Spain’s past helps her be- Nugent does little to disguise his alter ego in the
cause it points to an overlooked African presence novel, Jerome Stuartt Brennan, a “vagabond poet”
in the culture she was drawn to and joined by mar- who comes to New York from Washington and
riage. In the end, Tharps finds that although Spain lands within the inner circle of the young lights like
doesn’t always embrace her, it is up to her to em- Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee
brace Spain. Cullen, and Wallace Thurman. As an inhabitant of
“Niggeratti Manor,” who reportedly had an excel-
lent recall of people and events, Nugent recants the
Gentleman Jigger, A Novel of the Harlem Renaissance daily doings of the talented and well-connected, the
By Richard Bruce Nugent inhabitants of Harlem and the downtown whites
Da Capo who found Negroes so fascinating. In a sometimes
Review by J. A. Barnes disjointed narrative and wordy passages of exposi-
tion, the novel follows the young, light-complex-
Richard Bruce Nugent, one of the young artists of the ioned homosexual Stuartt from Harlem to Green-
Harlem Renaissance, never completed the roman à wich Village to Chicago and back to New York as
clef he began in 1928. When he died in 1987, he he challenges the conventions of race and sexuality
left several drafts, and from these, editor Thomas at a time when revelations of homosexual relation-
Wirth constructed Gentleman Jigger, A Novel of the ships would have been groundbreaking and shock-
Harlem Renaissance. It is risky business to cobble ing. Nugent was the first African-American man to
together a writer’s unfinished manuscript to create write openly about being gay, in his prose poem
the novel the author intended. In the effort to “re- for the magazine Fire!!, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade.”
main faithful to Nugent’s intent and…style,” Wirth Gentleman Jigger, says Arnold Rampersad, “radi-
admits, “[c]opyediting was kept to a minimum.” The cally alter[s] the landscape of Harlem Renaissance
result is less than satisfactory as literary art. Loosely literature…mak[ing] it impossible to evade or sup-
structured, disjointed, verbose, and ultimately un- press the central role of gay writers in this cultural
satisfying, Gentleman Jigger is still a valuable con- period.”
tribution to the literature of the Renaissance for its
insider’s look into issues of race, color, class, and, Continued on page 39

25
26 mosaicmagazine.org
the
Darker
Mask
Allegory for a
New Literature
by Christopher Chambers
Our hero saga begins in a comic book shop, in a south-
ern metropolis which, yes, we’ll call “Metropolis” in the
state of “Y’all.” And the shop’s not some innocuous strip
mall storefront manned by aging hippies or meth-addled
teenagers. It’s gleaming, glitzy, glorious. Stocked with all
of the titles and toys and Xbox/PlayStation/Wii games
which Hollywood has now kidnapped and blasted into
the American consumer’s psyche. Indeed, many of its
patrons are grown children who captain some the big-
gest companies in Metropolis. They, in turn, bring their
small children, on whom they lavish expensive action
figures and the newest, bloodiest or most life-like com-
puter games…

In walks Cristobal, Stevie, and Sujata. Cristobal is 28,


Stevie and Sujata are eight and fraternal twins. They’re
the kids of Cristobal’s girlfriend. None are imbued with
obvious superhero powers other than curiosity and
imagination. Their usual bonding exercise is to browse

27
the latest comics, graphic novels, adventure books, Butler, Steve Barnes, and a host of other writers of
sci-fi collections…and of course the toy collectibles adventure, suspense, sci-fi, even history, mythol-
to fire the blood of all true fanboys and girls. Cris- ogy: black, Hispanic, Asian—female. Kyle Baker’s
tobal is Latino, the twins are African American. graphic novel Nat Turner? Nope. Phillipe Smith, the
young brother who writes and illustrates Japanese
Cristobal asks the shop clerk—a freckle-faced dude manga? Sure, there’re goo-gobs of manga titles—G
wearing a tall-tee “wifebeater” and baggie denims rated and adult—splashed all over the aisles. Unh-
pretty much matching Cristobal’s own—which unh, never heard of him. Dwayne McDuffie…sure-
books and comic books feature Hispanic heroes, ly you know him? Even Stevie chirps that McDuffie
black heroes. And not necessarily costumed crusad- works on his favorite TV cartoon, Ben 10.
ers who shoot Lord-knows from their fingertips, or
can fly or breathe underwater or summon the pow- “Huh? Who’s Dwayne McDuffie?”
er of heaven (or hell). Regular folk. Folk the captains
of Metropolis, Y’all, regularly ignore… Stevie squints at the clerk, puffs out a lip. Sujata tugs
on the hem of Cristobal’s tall-tee. But rather than
The shop clerk eyes the pair. He’s seen them before sigh in dejection, she muses, “Okay, then we’ll have
and they drop a lot of coin in the shop, yet each

...
to tell our own stories.” And her brother chimes in,
time he thinks they’re only indoors to escape the “Good ones that everyone will like.”
sun and muggy air, or use the restroom. He shrugs
his shoulders at Cristobal’s query. He’s not racist.
The black guys he hangs with at school love him
for he “talk like them;” he skateboards with two In 2006, I passed this anecdote (the names and
Mexican dudes in the convenience store parking location are above changed to protect the not-so-
lot every Sunday afternoon when it’s warm out. Of innocent) onto crime author and L.A. legend Gary
course he dryly recites the usual fare: old “Blade” Phillips. He was visiting the East Coast for a con-
stories, Marvel’s new “Black Panther-Storm” wed- ference and I drove up to Baltimore from D.C. for
ding arc—but he asserts a couple of white custom- several beers. Two writers talking shop. We’d al-
ers consider it too “soap opera” or even reverse-rac- ready bandied about ideas for something like The
ist! The Green Lantern is black in some issues…oh, Darker Mask over email. Less comic book or graphic
and there’s a “Spawn” collectible…and as for prose novel, more a homage to the pulp fiction and ad-
books, well, he’s never heard of the late Octavia venture stories which birthed the characters, plots,

28 mosaicmagazine.org
and themes in modern four-color comics. But we do of the game HALO’s Master Chief. Master Chief
needed a tipping point. is a brother, if you didn’t already know. Concurrent-
ly, a few traditional authors were beginning a foray
For me it was the exchange at the glittering comic into the comics medium, as with Hurston-Wright
shop. Like the saloon in the 19th century and Star- Award winner Mat Johnson’s scripting of Papa Mid-
bucks in the late 20th, comic shops are now the cool nite: Djimon Honsou’s character in the film Con-
place to hang. And if they sell/rent computer games, stantine, from the Hellblazer comics series. Mat was
they’re even more plugged into a multi-billion dol- also noodling over what would become the criti-
lar multi-media entertainment enterprise. One in
which people of color are increasingly making their
presence known. Unfortunately, whether readers or
creators, we fight the same superhero battles against
the evil forces of commercialism that we do in films,
music, TV, and in the traditional publishing realm:
too few of us as gatekeepers and editors, too many
others pushing stereotypes and fluff. Or there’s the
old bromide—too often passed by publishers and L.A. Banks, Mat Johnson, and Gary Phillips

authors of more conventional African-American fic-


tion—that people of color won’t accept adventure
stories, or “literary” graphic novels. cally acclaimed 2007 graphic novel about lynching
in the 1930s American south, Incognegro. I was ru-
I knew Gary was already ensconced in the graphic minating over how to serialize the stories of unsung
novel version of Angeltown, featuring his hard- heroes and real people into sequential art (the tech-
boiled black detective Ivan Monk. Like him, I grew nical term for comics and graphic novels; “prose”
up on pulp fiction, on old tales of adventure like is the catch-all for just book print), a la the 9-11
James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, to Commission and Malcolm X, in which Coretta Scott
the contemporary collections like New York Times King Award-winning artist Randy DeBurke breathed
bestselling author Michael Chabon’s McSweeney’s vivid life. Of course there was Kyle’s seminal Nat
Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, featuring Ai- Turner, as a model, and groundbreaking horror col-
mee Bender, Neil Gaiman, and of course Stephen lections like Brandon Massey’s Dark Dreams series
King. In them I even see the digital/virtual derring- with stories by such diverse authors as Zane or Eric

29
Jerome Dickey. who hasn’t seen the movie version with Pitt, De-
Niro, and Hoffman?). Bestselling and Edgar Award-
Gary and I decided to marry sequential art with winning author Naomi Hirahara. Peter Spiegelman.
printed fiction the way it was done old school: prose, Private eye master Reed Farrel Coleman. Suspense
with illustrations. Yet we still lacked a spiritual cen- bestseller Alexandra Sokoloff. Women-in-comics
ter. That element came in the voice of Walter Mos- pioneer Annie Nocenti (creator of Dare-Devil). Ta-
ley. It was he who said we needed this Darker Mask. nanarive Due and Steven Barnes, fresh with their
We, as in all readers, particularly folks of color. Not collaboration with Blair Underwood. Vibe, The
writers. Readers. Stories for regular people, about Source and XXL journalist Mike Gonzales. Gary’s
regular people. Ignored, abused, reviled, forgotten L.A. partner in crime Gar Anthony Haywood. Ad-
people. Not even the cheerleaders or comfortable venture-fable writer Wayne Wilson. Comic book
suburban housewives you see on ABC’s Heroes. author Doselle Young. Literary award winners Mat
Johnson and Victor LaValle. Bestseller and book
In Walter’s universe, these “new” superheroes club favorite Leslie “LA” Banks. Walter Mosley, the
where not copies of white, male counterparts fea- mentor. And the late Jerry Rodriguez—playwright,
turing some contrived character flaw. The women filmmaker, scion of all things Nuyorican, Bronx, and
were not to be clones of large-breasted white Brooklyn and cool, already famed from a three-
glama-zon zombie killers: the rubric of adolescent book deal with Kensington before his death from
male imaginations. We wanted nuance, edge. And cancer. The artists are not to be messed with either:
reality. From that creed—an ingredient spicing the Shawn Martinbrough of Marvel, DC/Vertigo, and
work of most writers and artists of color—we crafted the author of How to Draw Noir Comics. Stars like
our thesis for The Darker Mask. As Gary expounds, Brian Hurtt and Sean Wang. Legendary magazine
“My job is to try to bring some verisimilitude to the illustrator and painter Jeff Fisher.
page and present a story that the reader will take
away something of value; that they didn’t blow their Nevertheless, the advice from marketing mavens was
[money] on ya-ya.” and is to invite rappers or perhaps even video vix-
ens to pen these prose stories or comics. Politely, we
Mindful not to offer ya-ya, we went about recruiting demurred. True, many rappers, including Method
our own legion of super heroines and heroes: Sleep- Man, are contemplating their own comics lines and
ers author Lorenzo Carcaterra, who’s also scribed they look damn good; hip-hop is a perfect compli-
gritty dialogue for bestselling computer games (and ment to the sequential art form. Yet recently at the

30 mosaicmagazine.org
phenomenon known as Comic Con in San Diego, Which bodes well for the world, I guess.” And for
even Method Man decried the silly, watered-down young potential heroes and heroines like our Stevie
commercialization of his art. So while we didn’t and Sujata…
approach rappers for The Darker Mask (maybe we
will—stay tuned), we do have a story by hip-hop LA Banks is already a veteran of the phantasmagori-
journalist Mike Gonzales, “The Whores of Onyx cal with her wildly successful Vampire Huntress nov-
City,” illustrated by Sean Wang. And in this and oth- els from St. Martin’s Press. African-American females
er contributions you see our themes in action. “I’ve supposedly are cold to horror/fantasy, to sci-fi, and
been drawn (pun intended) to comic books since I adventure. Strange monsters and myths. Though
was a kid growing up in Harlem,” Gonzales relates. Banks also counts herself as a romance writer, she’s
“I can remember going to a newsstand around the gleefully smashed that particular myth about black
way every week and falling in love with the four- women’s reading habits to atoms. Indeed Profes-
color fantasies that depicted my favorite heroes Bat- sor Jennifer Ryan asserts that adventure prose and
man, Daredevil, and the Hulk.” Some of Gonzales’ graphic novels present an “important literary forum
first fiction purchases weren’t just Chester Himes, for black women’s voices.” Thus for Banks, it’s al-
or even Donald Goines or Langston Hughes’ po- ways a pleasure for her to attend the Hollywood-
etry, but horror books like House of Mystery, House driven and supposedly white male geek-dominated
of Secrets and Creepy. Indeed, Gonzales credits Comic Con. “It was a total sensory overload of all
influences such as “blaxploitation actresses, new things sci-fi, paranormal, and fun!” she gushes.
wave flicks, Wu-Tang albums, the fiction of Ches- “It’s like one of those things you can’t believe or
ter Himes, David Goodis, and Paul Auster, as well fathom until you see it—sort of a human version of
as the crazy crack heads that populated my hood the running of the bulls.” Banks opines, “People like
for over a decade” as inspirations for his story, and to read about others that have overcome vast chal-
Wang faithfully interprets the flow in his artwork. lenges and dramas because that’s what they identify
with. What about tension and struggle... what is he-
Speaking of urban artistry and flow, there’s PEN/ roic about being completely invincible? You might
Faulkner finalist Victor LaValle’s character Tony as well be God and then there’s no issue, right? Not
Flow, who, as a young black man in Brooklyn, has interesting at all.” That’s why she works so hard to
got no memories of his childhood, “but [has] some create a body of work for the grown-up versions of
spectacular powers and in this story he finally learns little Sujata.
to embrace the more heroic aspects of himself. Continued on page 38

31
Healing Words\\
an Interview with
Opal Palmer Adisa
by D. Scot Miller

Dr. Opal Palmer Adisa is a literary critic,


renowned storyteller, author of thirteen
books, and tenured professor at the Cal-
ifornia College of the Arts. She also does
workshops on writing, using literature to
examine sexism, racism, and homopho-
bia.

Born in Jamaica, Professor Adisa con-


nects with the griot tradition to involve
audiences, and her book of poetry,
Tamarind and Mango Women, won the

32 mosaicmagazine.org
33
1992 American Book Award. Her novel, It Begins my maternal great aunt, who died four years ago
with Tears, was recommended in Great Books for at 102, was a consummate story teller. Jamaica
High School Kids: A Teacher’s Guide to Books that gained its independence in 1962. We didn’t get
Can Change Teens Lives. As a mother of three and TV until 1962. And it would come on in the eve-
former artistic director of Watoto Wa Kuumba, an ning and go off at midnight. What Jamaicans did
Oakland children’s theater group, she has spoken at that time, what most people in the world did
and taught on issues of parenting, going as far as to before TV, they would tell stories. Even after TV
host a regular show on the topic at Pacifica Radio came out, we would sit down and tell stories. At
station KPFA. that time, the most popular kind of stories were
duppy or ghost stories. She would tell us stories
With a first-hand understanding of the Caribbean and I was so afraid I wouldn’t want to sleep by my-
storytelling tradition, Dr. Opal Palmer Adisa has self. I didn’t want to go to the bathroom by myself!
brought tales, songs, and musings from Africa and
the African-American experience to Oakland and I came to the states a little before I was sixteen.
the world for over thirty years. We were fortunate My brother had graduated from high school and
to catch the busy and influential writer/mystic for moved to New York to be a journalist. I left Kings-
a phone interview. Even over the phone, Dr. Adisa ton and did my last year-and-a-half in New York
weaves personal narratives that traverse time, space, and attended Hunter College. When I was there,
and experience with a rare candor. I had a wonderful teacher who had storytelling
classes on Saturday where we would work with
D. Scot Miller: When did you come into the griot children telling familiar stories and changing the
tradition? ending. It occurred to me that I had duppy sto-
ries and Anansi stories that were not being told.
Opal Palmer Adisa: My tradition developed from
my grandfather, my grand aunt, and growing up I went back to Jamaica in 1975 and worked there as
around people who told stories. an education officer and TV producer for children’s
shows until August ’79. I wanted a masters in cre-
My maternal grandfather was a storyteller, not ative writing because I was writing and being pub-
an official storyteller, but he would tell us stories. lished regularly between ’76 and ’79. I was looking
My mother used to send our sister and me out for the poets and there was Kammau Brathwaite
to the country for about two or three weeks and and Mervyn Morris. I contacted them, showed

34 mosaicmagazine.org
BREAKING POINT I

the knife slips


severing the finger
which hangs
attached by a willowy muscle

the day’s stress


snaps the mind
which clings
to any thread of meaning

the wound
with its vulgar blood
draws loud sympathy

the mind struggling


for meaning
is greeted with indignation

35
them my work, and established a relationship. Kam- City College with Lesley Simon who taught a poetry
mau Brathwaite was my mentor. He published me class. She asked me, “What are you doing here?
in his magazine, Clavicle, and got me published in You’re not at the level of these students.”
the states in Nimrod when they had a special Carib-
bean issue. She told me about Poetry for the People and asked
me to become a member and teach the class. She
DSM: Is this where you first got involved with recommended me. I was the only black in the pro-
radio? gram at that time, there were a lot of North Beach
poets. This is where I met Jack Hirschmen. Each of
OPA: I had one of the first poetry radio shows in us produced chapbooks of our work at the end of
Jamaica in the ’70s, and when I went back, I had a the semester. John Kerr asked me to get my best po-
call-in show for teachers. ems together and he showed me how to do it. They
published my first chapbook, “Market Woman.” It
Though my degree in education media focused on gave me my entrée in to the poetry scene in Cali-
television, radio is still exciting in the Caribbean. In fornia.
rural areas, a radio show is the best way to com-
municate. There are so many talk shows that people I took a short story class at State and realized there
listen to and call. were these stories from Jamaica I wanted to tell.
Stories I had from Jamaica that were not being re-
DSM: How do you feel about Oakland right flected, and it was from that class that my first book
now? of short stories went on to get published. All of the
stories I started in that class got published in that
OPM: The Bay Area has been wonderful to me. I first collection, Big Face and Other Guava Stories. It
lived in San Francisco for a year and through a guy I was the first Chelsea Street book to be reviewed in
was seeing, I came to Oakland. I could not imagine the New York Times and ended up being taught in
living anywhere else.It’s nurtured my creativity. The schools in South Africa, England, and Italy. And that
temperament of Oakland just felt right for me. really surprised me. I’m always surprised because
I look at the stories and am surprised that I wrote
I entered my masters as a poet. I started out as a them. I’m amazed how long the stories have lived.
storyteller in the griot tradition. While I was wait- It’s four stories about four rural Jamaican women.
ing to get in at San Francisco State I took a class at Continued on page 47

36 mosaicmagazine.org
BREAKING POINT VI

the slightest comment


causes my eyes
to smart
i pretend the wind
has blown something
my way

i fix on an idea
search through my jig-saw mind

if i can find words


with which to test the idea
if words don’t abandon me
as many have
i know i will be fine

it will be rough going


but i’ll make it through

as long as i have words


words which repel
those waiting to pounce on me
i can find my way
back to the beginning
where this unraveling began

words
my true only friends

37
Author Mat Johnson, who burst upon the tradi- At the very least we can expect this new universe,
tional prose universe with the acclaimed novels these better stories, to be in full bloom by the
Drop and Hunting in Harlem, expands this notion of time Cristobal’s charges, Stevie and Sujata, are old
hero as ordinary brotherman with Henchman, also enough to buy and read many titles on their own.
illustrated by Sean Wang. Ain’t it Cool News fetes And Cristobal will see and read about people who
Henchman as one of the more creative works in look like him, struggle as he does, and not through
The Darker Mask, yet for Johnson, the story’s gen- the eyes of someone who can only guess how Cris-
esis is fairly simple. “In a lot of stories of this genre, tobal feels. So here’s a hint of what’s to come in
you always see these endless hordes of henchman heroic literature by people of color.
and they’re anonymous, their lives are expendable
and they have no stories, so I also wondered what While I lay up in my sickbed this past July, Gary
they were about. I figured, in today’s economy, they Phillips and Doselle Young sat on a panel at Com-
would have to be temps, no more loyal to the com- ic Con echoing these very themes of gritty reality,
pany than your local Wal-Mart clerk. Also, my story of ageless stories. To everyone’s surprise but not
is a riff on Batman, and what I find interesting about shock, the crowd was huge and diverse and wanted
that character is the class dynamic he brings: here more. Our panel in turn complemented another
is this billionaire who wants for nothing beating the panel, this one perhaps more hyped and glamor-
hell out of guys whose lives have been distorted by ous, moderated by Michael Davis. This dais’s guests
poverty, who are just trying to get by and have a bet- included Method Man himself, Dwayne McDuffie,
ter life. Morally, it’s actually really troubling. In that actor-filmmaker Rusty Cundieff (Sprung, Tales from
sense, the Joker is actually the hero: the performance the Hood, Fear of a Black Planet), John Dokes from
artist who sees through the rich guy’s self righteous Marvel. BET’s Denys Cowan and entertainment chief
big-game-hunting bullshit and exposes his absurdity Reginald Hudlin. Poet Faith Cheltenham gave The
to the world.” Darker Mask a shout-out, true, but the focus quickly
shifted to future, not a grim past or uneasy present.
We couldn’t agree more. There were comments like “leave hopeful,” and that
these stories—whether literature, sequential art, film,
Do you have to be black or Latina or Latino or from and TV are meaningful for everyone—and not mere-
India or a woman to offer such tales to fans and new- ly for a “niche market” of black folks.
comers? Not necessarily. James Patterson and Jeffrey
Deaver invented Alex Cross and Lincoln Rhyme; We all need them, such stories. Probably more than
Frank Miller of 300, Sin City, and Batman: The Dark ever. Almost every book or graphic novel or comic
Knight Returns gives us the justice-doing young sis- or clip reviewed in Rich Watson’s blog Glyphs on
ter Martha Washington. The creator of cult-favorite Popcultureshock.com, or studied by academics such
manga hero Afro Samurai (now a cartoon voiced by as Jennifer Ryan and Professor William Fuller, II are
Samuel L. Jackson) is Japanese. Yet we can’t entirely about struggle and aspiration. These are the elements
rely on others to tell and produce or publish our sto- that make even superbeings human, as LA Banks
ries. says. Moreover, independent publishers are pump-
ing out titles like Stagger Lee, or Southside Nefertiti,

38 mosaicmagazine.org
or Harlem Spider. We can expect more literary titles Stuartt shares an apartment and a bed with Rusty,
like Mat Johnson’s Incognegro. but it’s not at all clear that the relationship is physi-
cal. The novel is more frank when recounting Stu-
Gary will offer the street parable High Rollers artt’s sexual involvements with Italian gangsters in
through Boom!Studios. Artist Shawn Martinbrough, New York and Chicago. The intelligent, lively poet
former DC editor Joe Illidge, and I already have joint and artist charms his way into bed with dangerous
sequential art projects ready to launch through both men who outwardly profess scorn toward “queers.”
traditional prose and comics publishers, including Stuartt manages to stay alive and unhurt even when
the 1930s true-life Harlem crime story, Gangster- he upsets his lover Orini, said by Nugent to be
land. Like our heroes little Stevie and Sujata said: based on Lucky Luciano.
our own tales. Better ones. Not just for fantasy junk-
ies or comic/gamer fanboys and girls. For us all. Stuartt provides Orini his first experience of gay
sex. Afterwards, Stuartt tells him, “You’re one of the
That’s why we donned The Darker Mask.  handsomest people I’ve ever seen, and your hair is
lovely. But you’re still Orini to me,” and the Chicago
gangster in anger says, “You lousy little punk.” Stu-
artt’s intelligence, quick wit, and moxy soothe Ori-
ni’s temper and later allow even Stuartt’s discarded
gangster lovers to remain friendly. These qualities
in Stuartt provide the most engaging aspects of the
novel. Through little effort of his own, Stuartt be-
Reviews comes a successful artist and wins his place in the
The novel reveals little more about the Renaissance pantheon of Renaissance artists. Equally as effort-
that readers of Hughes, Hurston, and Thurman don’t lessly, he emerges as an intriguing character, espe-
know already. Considered a satire in the same vein cially as he provides a look into the life of Nugent
as Thurman’s Infants of the Spring, it is not as biting himself, one of the lesser-known Negro artists from
as that work. Readers get little of the sense of the the period.
jazz in this Jazz Age novel. While the characters fre-
quent the uptown nightspots, we learn more about Although it is a novel in need of editing, Gentle-
their drink orders than we do about the entertain- man Jigger provides readers with a new experience
ment. Neither are the characters well formed. Rusty of and a new voice from the Harlem Renaissance,
(Thurman) lives with Stuartt and appears frequent- and is therefore a valuable resource and an interest-
ly in the first part of the book, but Tony (Hughes) ing read. >>>
and Nona (Hurston) drift in and out of the story,
their characters remaining flat and static. Nor does
Gentleman Jigger clear up any questions about the
sexuality of these fellow writers, particularly about
Hughes. The focus is on Stuartt, the Gentleman Jig-
ger (a very light Negro who could pass for white).

39
Say You’re One Of Them stifling heat of the shack they call home. Slowly, both
By Uwem Akpan the reader and the oldest child Kotchikpa begin to
Little, Brown and Company understand the horrifying truth: Fofo Kepe, their
Review by Rachel Finn uncle, plans to sell them into slavery in Gabon.

“When they ask you,” she says sternly, without look- Three of the other stories are set against the back-
ing at me, “say you’re one of them, OK?” drop of violent religious and ethnic conflict. “Luxu-
“Who?” rious Hearses” follows sixteen-year-old Jubril as he
“Anybody. You have to learn to take care of Jean, comes to terms with his faith, Islam, and learns the
Monique. You just have to, huh?” (p. 327) value and meaning of tolerance during the course of
a fateful bus ride across Nigeria. “My Parents’ Bed-
These are the haunting words uttered by the Tutsi room” set in Rwanda offers a heartbreaking glimpse
mother to her ten-year-old, multiethnic daughter of a family shattered by the violent ethnic strife and
(Hutu-Tutsi) living in the time of the Rwandan geno- genocide of the 1994 war, giving a human face to
cide of 1994 from which Nigerian author Uwem the incomprehensible crime of genocide. In “What
Akpan’s collection of five short stories draws its title. Language Is That?”, perhaps the most touching sto-
Set in Kenya, Benin, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, ry, is also the shortest in the book. Set in Ethiopia,
the various stories depict the tenderness and cruelty it is the tale of two young girls, one Christian and
that seem to exist in tandem in the lives of the char- one Muslim who have become best friends. It is told
acters, giving the reader a child’s eye view of the from the point of view of an outsider recounting the
chaos that greed, mismanagement, and indifference girls’ close friendship. The story poignantly shows
have wreaked on lives throughout the continent. the absurd nature of conflict based on religious dif-
ferences—from the opening scene where the girls
In the story, “Fattening for Gabon,” a brother and are having lunch in a local café, to its sad yet hope-
sister in Benin cope with the consequences of their ful ending. Finally there is the bleak “An Ex-Mas
uncle’s indecision about selling them into slavery. Feast,” the tale of an abjectly poor family living in
The story starts with the startling opening lines: the slums of Nairobi. The parents of twelve-year-old
“Selling your child or nephew could be more dif- Maisha rely on her earnings as a prostitute to keep
ficult than selling other kids. You had to keep a calm the family afloat while forcing their other children
head or be as ruthless as the Badagry-Seme immi- out into the streets as beggars. In one scene, while
gration people. If not, it could bring trouble to the waiting for Maisha to return with Christmas dinner,
family. What kept our family-secret from the world the mother offers her son Jigana, a bottle filled with
in the three months Fofo Kpee planned to sell us glue to sniff in order to kill his hunger pangs after
were his sense of humor and the smuggler’s instinct breathing in the fumes herself and passing it to oth-
he had developed as an abero, a tout, at the bor- er family members.
der. My sister Yewa was five and I was ten.” (p. 39)
Akpan’s exquisitely written stories enkindle the
Akpan’s storytelling leaves the reader breathless as reader’s emotions and allow space for us to reflect
he moves slowly through the days and nights in the upon the whys and wherefores of his characters’

40 mosaicmagazine.org
lives. The legacy of colonialism haunts these stories most written accounts paint Public Enemy’s music
and as moving as it is to view these worlds through as a perfect amalgam of angst and intellect, Reeves
the eyes of children, it is even more fascinating to shows instances where the group’s political fervor
consider what drives the adults whose careless ac- was misguided. In the chapter entitled, “Stumbling
tions set the tragic events of the five tales in motion through Black Power Revisited,” he writes about
and put these children at risk. The book also begs an anti-Semitic comment that band member Griff
the questions: who bears responsibility and who made during an interview for The Washington Times,
must be held accountable for the turmoil, self-hate, “The explosive fallout began a month later following
and vicious inhumanity that plague Africa today? a reprint of Griff’s comments in The Village Voice.
And while one would be remiss in giving an overly Jewish groups like the militant Jewish Defense Or-
simplistic answer to that question, Say You’re One ganization began protesting against P.E. The main-
Of Them helps make it clear that there is no one stream media began shining an anti-Semitic light on
who can change Africa but Africans themselves. the group, helping to strain black-Jewish relations as
folks began to take sides in the debacle.”

More importantly, Somebody Scream shows that


Somebody Scream Public Enemy and other hip-hop artists were not in
By Marcus Reeves an ageless vacuum when they conceived their mas-
Faber and Faber terpieces. On several occasions, the book makes the
Review by Sidik Fofana distinction that these groups were not making pro-
test music just because it was cool, but in response
In Somebody Scream, hip-hop adopts a broader role to the tense social climate of the day. Reeve writes
in the context of African-American history. Accord- about Reaganomics, Yusef Hawkins’s murder, and
ing to Marcus Reeves’s book on the storied genre’s Jesse Jackson’s 1988 stint for presidency under the
major movements, hip-hop seceded the Black guise that these events motivated hip-hop’s lyrical
Power Movement of the 1960s as a cultural force content. To him, this on-record activism is akin to
for minorities in the United States to latch on. Of the militant efforts of the Black Panthers and other
course, Reeves discusses the rise of acts like Public Civil Rights organizations.
Enemy and Run DMC, but his analysis takes into ac-
count COINTELPRO, Assata Shakur’s murder trial, Just as early hip-hop transitions from the Black
and other key political events that have fueled their Power Movement of the 60s and 70s, Somebody
post Civil Rights aesthetic. He depicts rap music as a Scream notes the point when the conscious music
natural evolution from these watershed moments. of Public Enemy shifts to the gangsta rap of Death
Row Records. Reeves dedicates two chapters to Dr.
No book about hip-hop history is complete without Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur, documenting
a thorough study of Public Enemy and the haloed the rise of hardcore west coast hip-hop. Yet, Reeves
ensemble’s contributions to rap music. Although does not spare the aggressive music from having its
Reeves starts his analysis fairly early in the book, he own share of political undertones. This connection
is careful to avoid sanctifying the group. Whereas is not all too far-fetched given that California rap’s

41
prominence coincided with the Rodney King beat- book is now required reading for a class at Brooklyn
ings and the L.A. Race Riots. In “Gangsta Chic,” College and is being compared to Jeff Chang’s Can’t
Reeves points out that, “As the L.A. riots placed the Stop, Won’t Stop in terms of its thoroughness and
city at the epicenter of American political discourse wide-ranging subject matter. With this book, rap’s
by turning black Los Angeles into a worldwide sym- archives have grown that much more stronger as
bol of oppression, black rage, and victimization, Reeves, with his culturally astute eye, records the
they also turned the gangsta and the gangbanger timeless hands of hip-hop history.
into emblems of strength, fearlessness, and street-
level empowerment.” Whereas gangster rappers
were once vilified by the media, these social cir-
cumstances turned them into urban soothsayers, When the Black Girl Sings
reporting on the uproar of their own communities. By Bil Wright
Simon & Schuster
Somebody Scream’s final movement documents Review by C. Chekejai Coley
hip-hop’s marriage to capitalism and extreme com-
moditization. These chapters perhaps represent Bil Wright takes on the complex issue of transracial
Reeves at his strongest as he wields through an adoption in When the Black Girl Sings (WBGS).
era that he does not necessarily hold in the high- WBGS is about an eighth-grade African-American
est regard. Sean “Puffy” Combs headlines Reeve’s girl named Lahni who was adopted by white parents
discussion of the genre’s developed obsession with who are, incidentally, in the midst of a separation.
diamonds and shiny suits. Although the multimedia Throughout the book Lahni is witnessing the downfall
mogul is often blamed for adulterating rap’s politi- of her parent’s relationship and is struggling to deal
cal message with meretricious showcases of wealth, with their inevitable divorce. This is compounded
Reeves reminds readers that Combs is foundation- by the anger that she feels for her adoptive father,
ally as hardworking and relentless as anyone in the Tim, while trying to be a support for her mother
music business. The chapter, “Ghetto Fab Rising” Ursula. In this time she is also confronted with a
refers to a celebrity/benefit basketball game Puffy white boy’s taunting and his perverse attempts to
threw at City College in New York in 1991 during get her attention. To add to the challenges Lahni is
which nine people were killed in a stampede. In- also working on a singing competition in school.
stead of letting the public relations nightmare deter
him, Reeves writes, “…Puffy resurfaced the next Overall, Wright’s work gives some credence to
year as a musical dynamo.” He grants each period the idea that despite racial differences there can
in hip-hop its share of recognition and acknowledg- be some level of success in transracial adoptions.
es its contributions to the history in whole. There are some things, like a mother’s desire to
protect her young, to be affirmative of them, and
Somebody Scream is not a nostalgic glimpse back in to encourage them that are just human expressions
the golden age, but rather an objective document of of love. All of these things come into play in the
hip-hop defining epochs and the social milestones relationship between Lahni and Ursula. Even during
that influenced them. The painstakingly researched the turmoil of the separation from her husband,

42 mosaicmagazine.org
Ursula assures Lahni of her love and commitment Another limitation in the book is the introduction of
to her. Alternately, Wright also highlights the the idea of homosexuality where the choir director,
social and personal challenges of children in Marcus, is concerned. When Lahni first meets him
these arrangements and the inability of parents of she surmises from his attire that he may be gay. There
one race to truly nurture a child of another race is never a real examination of his sexual preference
through a “color-blind versus color-conscious.” and the relationship that develops between Lahni and
In the color-blind approach to raising Lahni she Marcus is purely musical. The mention of his sexual
often recognizes her displacement because she orientation is almost pointless.
is often misunderstood by those closest to her.
Ultimately, although there are constant reminders of
Lahni lacks exposure to African-American culture race throughout the book, there is no real resolve
in virtually every area. She does have an expressed for Lahni in this area. In the end she has no positive
desire and need to connect with others more like her exposure to black culture—not even through the
and is unable to come to terms with who she is as an church experience. She does expand a little socially
African American in her predominantly white settings. through her relationship with the church choir, but
there is no real development in terms of gaining racial
Ursula decides that she and Lahni should attend or cultural understanding. What tends to be sad to the
church—in part because she thinks that Lahni may point of tragic in the book is that she doesn’t develop
be able to meet some other African-American youth. any real relationships outside of the realm of music.
The church they attend is nondenominational and
although the congregation is racially mixed, the choir As expected, Lahni does win the competition—a
is predominantly black. There are no other African- “happily ever after,” anti-climatic and predictable
American youth for Lahni to meet but miraculously, finish. While singing the song “His Eye Is on the
she experiences a turning point during the service Sparrow” during the competition, she has an
when she is moved by the choir’s rendition of epiphany of sorts. She comes to the conclusion that
“Amazing Grace.” She finds some inspiration and is she has been “divinely” protected and gathers a
prompted to then join the church choir. cerebral understanding of protection by a higher
force. It is as if the musical experience coupled by
The book falls short in some areas. In many ways the cerebral understanding of protection by a higher
it’s predictable, non-progressive, and it reinforces power supersedes the prevalent issue: Race. But even
stereotypes about blacks. For example, although her musical odyssey does not bring her much closer
Lahni wears Afro puffs as an assertion of herself, to a real understanding of herself. Though the songs
she refers to her hair as “woolly.” Woolly is a term have been sung, and quite well, by blacks in black
that is often used by those who have accepted the churches, the songs “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and
negative reference to the hair of blacks (it falls along “Amazing Grace” are not actually African-American
the lines of “peasy.” “nappy,” “bad” and other like spirituals. One of the songs was written by an
terms). It was also used quite a bit in Uncle Tom’s enslaver—the other, also written by whites, is often
Cabin. played at funerals. Did someone die? 

43
dous numbers of black people locked up steadily work?
declines in the same way it steadily rose.
KB: I wanted to write rather than work 80 hours
TB: Since we both grew up in Kankakee, Illinois, a week consulting after I graduated U of C. I was
do you ever see our hometown popping up in a medical secretary by day for almost a year and
your writing? I felt this sense of place and speech, writing my little heart out at night. The book took
even though neither of your novels features the a while to finish because it was my first, but I was
town. blessed to have had agents fighting over me when I
sent it out. I won a 2001 Illinois Arts Council Artist
KB: Well, I am who I am. I was shaped and molded Fellowship in Prose for my first stab at a novel. It was
there. It pops up in every word I write. Most of my entitled The Junction, and that was the nickname
observations about love, death, sickness, hardship, of the tiny circular neighborhood where I grew up
and love again were shaped there at a very young in Kankakee. It was at a railroad junction, with a
age because I grew up with a very large family on graveyard right in back. I liked the name because it
both parents’ sides. I was used to being around a connoted distance, journey, travel, a change, which
lot of adults even though I was young. And they could be applied in so many ways metaphorically
loved to talk and tell stories, which I still remember. and character wise. So, I wanted to write a histori-
Of course, there are certainly environmental factors cal novel about three generations of a family who
which contribute to the ultimate psychological tem- had migrated south to a northern place called The
plate one develops, but for the most part human Junction. And even better, our annual Summerfest
nature is fairly, predictably consistent—regardless picnic in Kankakee is where a crime is committed in
of place. Certainly, the impact of jail and prison on the early 1920s that informed the rest of the cen-
people’s lives was a subject I was passionate about tury for the family. The novel was actually shopped
because people will pay attention to an injustice on the market in 2001, well before my first book,
or disproportionate number of convicts in Harlem, but it was passed on for reasons that are now much
but little pockets of our country such as Kankakee, clearer to me since I am more experienced as a
simply go uncharted and unnoticed in these dis- writer and a published author. I made the mistake
cussions. One of the strongest memories inform- so many novelists make with that first work—they
ing Conception for me was the way in which preg- think it will be their only work. It was a massive
nancy, abortion, and contraception were handled book, with more tangents than I could reasonably
on a government level in a poor community with a engage and fulfill. I have actually borrowed some
consistently high teen pregnancy rate. There will al- writing from it because since it was my first time,
ways be a little girl from Kankakee, Illinois, inside of I can really see some passion in a lot of it. It was a
me throwing in her two cents. I can’t really separate joy to write because more than anything I’ve ever
myself from it at this point. written, my hometown was hands down the model
for setting. It will always be my baby, even if it never
TB: Speaking of place, you won an award for sees the light of day.
an excerpt of a novel that you wrote before Up-
state. Would you please talk a little bit about that TB: With all the talk of MFAs and PhDs and

44 mosaicmagazine.org
how difficult it is for writers to find work in MFA. My vision for myself is to contribute to the
this economy, do you think it has impacted establishment and visibility of black women’s stud-
your time at the University of Chicago? Do you ies for young minds that are interested, but have not
think it’s a valuable experience for writers? been exposed. A PhD makes sense for me because
I am earning my entrance and respect in that envi-
KB: Writers should not approach the academy or ronment to make the impact I want to make. If it
a degree program thinking that they don’t have to were not for my desire to change institutions and
work and will be flouncing around writing. A de- the visibility of black women’s studies, then I would
gree program should be a well-thought out strategic probably be wasting my time because this is not a
move, which will allow your knowledge and hope- trust-funded pursuit! As long as the objectives are
fully bank account to increase. But getting back clear, and people are not going into it thinking that
into the mentality of being a student is not easy they are fancy free to write and waste time, the uni-
and there is a lot of work, all of which will harm versities are provocative, inspiring, and resourceful
most creative writers’ productivity. If you are a real environments for writers.
writer you will always write no matter what, but
your mind does slow down after having to write so TB: I know you’re balancing critical and creative
much for school. I wanted my MFA in creative writ- writing now, so could you talk a little more about
ing because after The Junction, despite the rejection those projects and how you create the time and
of it for publication, I was not going to give up on space for writing?
my dream of writing. I had always wanted to live in
New York City; I felt that is where the heart of pub- KB: I’m taking it easy with creative writing right now.
lishing was. I wanted to be there so I matriculated to I think I have proven myself for now. I have a lot on
the New School. I first began to think of a PhD with my plate with trying to work towards a PhD in lit-
a concentration on black female culture when I was erature and promote the two works that I have out
an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. I there. I also moved back to Chicago to work on the
was recruited to a program funded by the Mellon degree, and I have family and friends in Illinois who
Foundation to work towards a career in academic love me. Those relationships are important to me
research, and mentored by black studies professors so I don’t have the same level of reclusiveness that I
who are still mentoring me to this day. achieved in New York. I’m also devoting more time
to cooking whole foods, exercising, and dating, so
I learned a lot of what other people wanted me to it’s hard to get insanely deep into a creative writing
learn at U of C, but I was able to develop the tools project right now. I am always writing a little some-
to go out and learn what I wanted to learn through thing something. The caveat for me, at this time, is
academic research. That appealed to me, but I was holding back from obsessing over a work or idea be-
not ready to commit because I knew that the dream cause I just don’t have the time and space to obsess
of writing would nag me until I felt I had proven about what’s in my head right now. Reality is a bit
to myself that I could do it. I got two novels out more immediate at this time. That is what is hard to
of the way before I went back for a PhD, and the communicate at this level. Unfortunately, the public
first draft of Upstate was actually my thesis for the has been conditioned to associate writers and writ-

45
ing with product; the question more often than not Many of those theaters are still running. As writers
is “Are you working on a new book?” rather than and theater developers, black women have certain-
“Have you been practicing your writing?” The latter ly impacted the American theater scene in a way
is a more considerate question because down peri- that is not talked about, so why not be the one to
ods can be frustrating. The way I and most writers I talk about it? It is an exciting time for black theater
know cope with that is by making sure that we do a right now, it is really growing and major stars are
little something when we can, even if it is a couple developing. It’s a great time to resurrect a lot of that
of paragraphs or lines. This is a lifelong practice for information and see how far we’ve come.
me. My goal as a writer is to stay healthy and whole,
not to push myself to the point that what I produce TB: Since you’ve been working on critical writing
is not even worth reading. I can’t tell that popular lie and dramatic work, what are some of the differ-
and say I write every day because I don’t, and I re- ences in the genres? How does it feel when you
ally don’t want to despite innumerable writers tell- are writing in each one?
ing me that’s the way. I view the best characters and
stories as gifts or guests who take a long time to get KB: You know, I just love to write. Even my emails
here and finally wear out their welcomes once they and text messages are long! I truly love the written
do. Given that, I’m more than content to relax and word. I would like to master all its forms. It’s easier
just wait for them to show up when they want to. for me to talk about what these forms share over
how they’re different, because that’s a whole other
TB: I noticed that you’re focused on black female story. They all share the challenge of facing a blank
dramatists. I’m wondering who intrigues you and page, harnessing your mind and translating your si-
why? lent, ever-changing ideas into a format that others
can understand. That’s a tall order no matter what
KB: I want to do some fun research in the long run, genre you are working in. The actual labor of the
and theater is usually fun. I don’t know where my process is the same for me no matter what it is. It’s
interests will ultimately land or what the subject frightening and daunting, but alive and hopeful at
of a dissertation will be at this point, but I know the same time. I love writing dialogue, so I’ve found
that I am committed to illuminating the brilliance it a little easier to tangle through dramatic writing.
of as many black female artists as I can. Classes or Sometimes it’s tiring, especially when it’s late and
conferences are never built around black women you can’t remember what page had that very im-
who write plays. Although I love them, there has portant fact or detail that you need to remember for
been more than Suzan-Lori Parks, Lorraine Hans- another page!
berry, Pearl Cleage, Anna Deveare-Smith, and Nto-
zake Shange. There has been Alice Childress, Beah Critical writing can be more frustrating for me, a
Richards, most people don’t even know that Denise lot more scientific in the sense of making sure all
Nicholas (author of Freshwater Road) was an actress your t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted. It involves
and noted playwright of the 1970s. After the De- organizing a massive amount of information, con-
pression, the number of community theaters spear- necting and contrasting that information, while also
headed by black women increased phenomenally. including others’ information in your conclusions,

46 mosaicmagazine.org
not to mention the stylistic and technical tenets of When I came to the US it was the height of the
the discipline. The standard language in academic Black Power Movement. My brother and his friends
disciplines, and learning that language has been a were students of Black Power. I grew up with Afros
huge challenge for me because it gets just about as and big earrings, and as a result of the Black Power
erudite as it can at this level. Movement there was a deep appreciation for things
Caribbean because it’s about reflecting on your
I hope that my experience as a creative writer will al- own life.
low me to ultimately translate my discoveries about
our culture to mass audiences who don’t normally DSM: How did you become an authority on par-
pick up scholarly work. Angela Davis, bell hooks, enting?
Dorothy Roberts, Harryette Mullen, and Farah Jas-
mine Griffin are guiding examples of that important OPA: When I came out to California in 1979, I
work.  didn’t have any money. I had to work. I could teach
part time but I didn’t have a teaching credential.
So before I went for the masters I decided I would
get a teaching credential in early childhood. I was a
head teacher for a while, which is where a part of
my sensibilities around parenting developed. When
I was working with black parents in and around
the Presidio, I noticed that many did not have the
skills to be a parent. I partnered with a sister named
Marsha King, who used to be the head of childcare
in Oakland and Fruitvale who had asked me to do
storytelling. I did a series of storytelling for her and
we ended up forming a very successful children’s
theater company for about four years with seven-
teen kids. I did all the writing and the drama about
Caribbean and African history. In 1980, we were
the first to do a Kwanzaa piece in the Bay Area.

I started to look at what it meant to be a parent.


When I had my own kids people would ask me for
advice. A social worker asked me to a workshop
and I never say no to anything. It was very success-
ful, so I did another. That’s how I ended up doing
the parenting show for NPR for four years.

DSM: You never say no to anything?

47
OPA: I don’t. When an opportunity comes to me, if here as an artist, married the grandson of a founder
it’s not utterly offensive, but something that’s going of the New York Times and has the luxury and time
to give me an opportunity to grow and exercise in to write full time. I look at Diaz’s book The Brief and
a way that I haven’t, I’m going to say yes. I’m going Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, and I love the humor.
to learn what I need to know to master that and be I love the voice. He has had the time to be a full-
successful at it. I tell my kids that. I know that Ca- time writer and it shows. Alice Walker had the time
ribbean people are known to be resourceful—my to write full time. I think it makes a big difference
mother was a very resourceful woman. She raised in what you write, how you write, and how much
us by herself, and back then, people didn’t just you produce. It took me four years to finish my first
throw away things; if something was wrong, you novel because I was raising kids, teaching, work-
learned how to fix it. My mother would tinker with ing in the community. My sister took my kids for
things that other women would not because they two weeks for the three summers I finished my first
had husbands. So she learned how to fix things and novel. One week, I wrote twelve hours a day. I got
she never said no. She played the organ at church, a residency in North Carolina and wrote for twelve
started a drama group for the cane workers, and she hours a day. That made a big difference in the flow.
started a credit union. If someone was in need, she I wasn’t trying to catch up or remember. No kids
never said no. She went ahead and did it. I get that banging on the door. I’m proud of my first novel,
trait from her and I’ve passed it on to my kids. but it took four years. When I have the summer or
three months, I think it affects the quality and flow
DSM: Have you been involved with the arts com- of what I write. It affects the craft.
munity a lot the last few years?
DSM: What do you think is the power of the
OPM: I used to be very involved in community word?
projects, but lately I’ve wanted to get more writing
done. I didn’t feel like I was being as productive as OPA: For me it’s healing every time I write, regard-
I wanted to be. A lot of my friends who were much less of what I write about. Every time us, as black
older have died without finishing projects. Writing people, write about us and our stories it’s part of a
is the most important thing me now, and I wanted quilt that is making us whole. Our entrance into the
to get some stuff out, which is why I’m going to Ja- new world was fragmented, the middle passage did
maica. I want to leave work behind. Right now I just that, and writing is about healing that rupture, that
want to do the work. kidnap, that breakage from history, that one-third
human we’re still trying to throw off. The word is
DSM: How would you define craft? balm. The word is healing. The word is the thing
that is making us whole. 
OPM: Craft is having the time to make your sen-
tences shimmer. I look at Jamaica Kincaid. I may
not always agree with her point of view, but her
sentences are incredible. She’s a wicked sentence
constructor! She has been fortunate that she came

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