Friday, July 01, 2011

Being a novice

In June the Asia Yoga Conference was held in Hong Kong. I saw an ad about it and immediately thought I should go. (At the time I was in Hong Kong - so it was close and easy).

Many of the yoga sessions were free and there would be vendors to check out as well.

But there was a problem in my mind. I have taken yoga classes and sometimes practice at home. My practice is irregular and I am not in anyway advanced. The conference, I thought, would be filled with yoga teachers and people with far more time on a mat than me.

I began to think that I wouldn't belong there and that maybe I shouldn't go. I mean, really, I've never even been to a yoga conference or retreat.

I decided to go to one session, which is what I could make time for over the weekend. I went Saturday night and as I got closer to the conference hall I could see all the yoga people with their mats, lithe bodies and yoga clothing. I felt so clunky in my sneakers and regular workout pants and, frankly, my out-of-shape body.

After walking around the vendor area I saw lots of cute and cool gear. A little high-priced for me, considering I'd also have to fit it in luggage. And most of the yoga clothes were too small.

Then, as I stood outside the room where the yoga and dance session was scheduled, one of the conference volunteers asked if I was coming in. I said I didn't have a mat, so I wasn't sure. He said that was fine and I did see folks with no mat.

A few minutes later I found some sort of clearance vendor booth with yoga pants for a mere HK$100 and in a size I could wear. Pants purchased, I changed and went to the session.

It was set up as a yoga session with a DJ, which was why I wanted to do it. As we went through poses I reminded myself to just do what I could and not worry about being out of place. And to have fun.

After a series of poses the instructor had us begin dancing and that's when I really let go of my worry of being a novice among experts. It was so much fun to free dance around the room, even as I was careful about the ankle I sprained late in 2010. There are really so few opportunities for grown ups (okay maybe I should say middle aged folks) to dance and play anyway.

As I left I was tired and figured I'd be sore the next day. And I was so happy I'd gone to the session.

It reminds me that even though it feels like, at 40+, I shouldn't be a beginner, in many areas I am. Instead of avoiding new things because I am a novice, I really need to seek out the beginner experience.

Doing that means I need to become more comfortable with failing, being the old kid in the class and even ready to counter if people think I'm too far along in my career or life to try something new.

It's tempting to decide that at this point in my life, my career, to only do the things that I have done before and do well. And there is such value in using your strengths. I have been limiting myself, though by leaning too much on the sure things and not being willing to fail.

I will probably look foolish sometimes when I dance or try yoga or anything else. But failure and foibles happen anyway, even when I'm avoiding them - I may as well enjoy the experience.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cover turn offs (a.k.a. Read Platinum)

One of my least favorite things is seeing a display in bookstore that prominently displays “urban” fiction, when the kinds of stories by and about people I want to read are harder to find.

What I like to read are usually literary novels, mysteries and pop fiction. Unfortunately urban fiction has the reputation of being poorly written and edited. I can be a book snob and I am learning to tame that way of thinking a bit.

Really if someone wants to read something labeled “urban” that also may not be up to my standards, it’s none of my business. (Yes, I need to continue to repeat this).

What does bother me are the following:
Seeing books that don’t belong carelessly placed under an “urban” fiction display (ZNH’s novels do not belong there)
Covers art that trends toward “urban”

Covers on books make a difference. I have walked away from books based on the cover. This is not just about urban fiction. If I see a cover that indicates the book is just about finding a boyfriend or shopping, I often won’t even read the description. Often those covers are just too pink for me. A cover that evokes historic wars will usually be passed over as well – I don’t usually read military stories.

So when I saw Aliya S. King posting on Twitter about her disappointment in the cover for her next novel, I was intrigued. I haven’t been following her on Twitter very long, so I’m really just learning that she has a novel. (And if you write, go follow her - @aliyasking-, she gives great tips on writing via Twitter). Her first novel is titled “Platinum” and here’s the cover.

The cover for the sequel, Diamond Life, is here. The sequel focuses on four men. And there are no men on the cover. Kind of odd and misleading I think.

But based on these two covers, I probably wouldn’t have picked up her books in a bookstore. I am a big library user, so maybe I would pick it up at the library. If it was on display in the front where I couldn’t miss it.

However, King is very engaging on Twitter. She writes a lot of helpful and encouraging content for writers and artists. And after the cover discussion, I read about Platinum and it sounded interesting.

By the miracle that is the Kindle sample, I downloaded it to my iPhone and read it one night before bed. My phone is in airplane mode while I’m in Hong Kong, so I only download when I have access to WiFi. I was reading and really getting into the story and thinking, OMG why is Beth Saddlebrook living this way and wait, what? Is this other character, Kipenzi dead? What is going on?

That’s where the sample ended. And I was just through – stuck not able to download the novel. I knew I had to read it. Even though I had to wait until the next day to download it.

Platinum is a good read – it’s fun, based on characters in hip hop and the music industry. So much drama. But well written drama, not something that hasn’t been crafted or edited. It is what I would think of as an airplane or beach book – and I don’t mean that as a slight at all. It’s the fun book you read when you want to escape and tell your friend, “Girl! You have to read this book. You will not even believe this … “

And yeah, if that book had been on the “urban” fiction table, I never would have read it.

So I have some work to do to change my bias. But maybe the publisher could give us some covers that are a better match for the work.

When has a cover turned you away from a book that you later read and loved?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Love, Land, Legacy - If Sons, Then Heirs

Have you read any of Lorene Cary’s books? She’s the author of Black Ice, an important memoir about a Black woman coming of age and making it through prep school. She also wrote the wonderful The Price of a Child, a novel set during the American slavery era that is a powerful evocation of a mother’s love.

She has a new book, released in April, If Sons, Then Heirs. Before I read even a synopsis of the book I was hearing that it was amazing. We were so happy to be able to schedule her for #blacklitchat on Twitter.

The novel is about the Needham family and opens with Jewell Thompson, an estranged daughter, in Philadelphia. She is out of sorts after hearing from her son, Alonzo Rayne (known as Rayne to everyone, but Lonnie to her).

Rayne wrote to Jewell, hoping that he’d found the right woman – that is, the mother who abandoned him.

When you begin reading If Sons, Then Heirs (and you really should), you’ll notice right away that Cary’s writing is beautiful and her descriptions of even simple details elevate the story. For example, describing a building as “this shiny black cookie jar of a building.”

Without giving away too much detail, I will say that of all the very complicated and strained relationships in the story, Cary renders them beautifully. The love and respect between Lillie and Rayne; the memories Selma has of King; and the painful, but short history between Rayne and his mother, Jewell.

And the growing bond between Rayne and Khalil, his girlfriend’s son, is inspiring. You can feel how much their family of three wants the man and the boy to be father and son and how tricky and terrifying it is to state and live the connection. The possibility of heartbreak is so strong in the story – with Rayne and Khalil, and it echoes Rayne’s seven-year-old abandonment.

What’s also wonderful in this book is the use of history, land ownership and the impact of family separation and northern migration to drive the story. It’s a great story that relies on research but doesn’t get bogged down in it.

During our chat, Lorene Cary mentioned that someone had said that the American story (or American novel?) has driving as a theme. And that is certainly a theme in If Sons, Then Heirs. Rayne and Khalil go on a road trip and the trip, the time they spend down South changes their lives and the entire family.

There is so much more I could say about this rich story. Well worth reading and sharing.

(By the way, I purchased my copy of this book. I did not receive a review copy. I need to start making that clear in my posts).

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pausing - side effect of artful storytelling

I’m reading If Sons, Then Heirs by Lorene Cary. It’s our May #blacklitchat book and you can join us for a discussion with Lorene Cary on May 22 at 7 p.m.

Reading it earlier today I had to stop during a scene and take a moment. It wasn’t a scene close to my own life, but the emotion of the scene and the skillful way that Cary showed what the characters were feeling made me pause. I had to turn away because I could empathize with the characters (Jewell and Rayne) and couldn’t help but think of how difficult that scene would be in real life.

I’ve had to pause or turn away from all of our #blacklitchat books in one or more scenes. There were multiple times with Davie Jones in 32 Candles, by Ernessa T. Carter (don’t even get me started!). And Zora in Substitute Me, by Lori Tharps – well, I might have talked back to the book at one point, but you can’t prove that.

Certainly, there were many difficult scenes in Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love. The novel is set in post-war Sierra Leone and characters are haunted by personal and national tragedies.

Victor LaValle made me laugh with Big Machine, for sure. But I was a little bit scared to keep reading after the sewer scene. That might have been because I was reading it at bedtime.

Thinking about this today (during my pause from If Sons, Then Heirs) I decided that this is one of the elements of the best fiction. The writer has done the hard work and in many ways a skillful writer makes a story easy to read. The reader is drawn in, fully engaged and can see the story. And when you are there as a reader and struck by the emotional weight of a scene so much that you have to turn away, that’s artful storytelling.

I love these stories. Even when I have to pause, I know I’ll go right back in to the story. And hold on until the end.

Do good stories make you pause? Which ones? Post your favorite pause inducing stories/novels in the comments.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Savoring Silver Sparrow

I am not a person who savors things. If you hand me something lovely and wonderful (or tell me you have a surprise for me) I want it right now with the jumping up and down excitement of a six year old.

So when I received a review copy of SILVER SPARROW, Tayari Jones’ new novel, at home in Florida a few days before leaving for Hong Kong, it was so hard not to open it immediately. I wanted to stop packing, curl up on the couch and start reading. Both of Tayari Jones’ previous novels (Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling) were so good. Her storytelling is rich and she gives us characters that we don’t find anywhere else. Like children growing up amidst the Atlanta child murders in Leaving Atlanta.

I was very excited about Silver Sparrow and, having read Tayari Jones’ blog posts about the long road to completing the novel, I have been waiting for it. What would she give us in this story of families and daughters, two marriage certificates and one husband?

After I read the dedication (to her parents – and funny) and the poem by Natasha Tretheway (Pulitzer prize winner and a professor at my alma mater – Emory University), A Daughter is a Colony, I put the book in my carryon bag. I would save it for the very long plane ride.

On the plane I changed my mind. I was a little uncomfortable and tired and I wanted to be more focused when I read SILVER SPARROW. I wanted to sip a mocha in a café and really enjoy it. Not crunched up on a plane counting the hours to a shower and a real bed.

A couple of weeks after arriving in Hong Kong, I planned a day just for this. I went to a café and was very lucky; it was nearly empty and a plush red chair had my name on it. I started SILVER SPARROW. I can’t believe I was able to save it for so many weeks. It was absolutely worth it.


I find it challenging to write about SILVER SPARROW because I know my own writing is not up to the task. I’d much rather press Tayari Jones’ new novel into your hands and implore you to read it – it’s amazing.

From the first line of Dana Lynn Yarboro’s story, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”, you know you are in for some serious drama.

And for some writers (and readers) that would be enough. A novel of he said-she said, terrible, done-me-wrongedness, and dramatic scenes and plot twists.

Tayari Jones is not that writer. As she tells us the story in Dana’s voice we also are firmly placed in the time and setting - Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s. The grownups still remember Dr. Martin Luther King as a living presence. And good hair means many things even as augmented hair (what we call weaves), becomes an option for the women without “good hair.”

We learn her parents’ romantic history and see how complicated their emotional and real world is. Dana’s mother keeps her not-legal husband’s secret in exchange for having a once-a-week family life and care for her daughter. Dana keeps the secret, too, once she is taught to understand that she can’t draw pictures of her daddy and his two families at school. But a teenager holding such a secret in a community where her friends cross over into her daddy’s other life presents a dangerous situation.

Dana goes beyond “surveilling” her sister’s life in clandestine operations with her mother, to making contact with her sister, without revealing who she is.

Dana and her mother are sympathetic characters. As a reader I loved them and wanted them to win, be rescued and be taken care of. I did wonder about her mother though – how much did she give up for not quite an even split on James. Then Jones gives us part two – Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon’s story. She is James’ other daughter. She is the second and legitimate one who has him in her house, with her mother, seven nights a week.

They do not have the knowledge that Dana and her mother have and as the girls become closer, I was anxious reading about their lives. What would happen to those teenage girls if everyone knew the secret? And does Dana really know what she’s doing?

At a key point in the novel there was so much tension that I had to put it down, get up and walk around. I really wanted to keep reading, but I was so worried about the girls and their mothers. There was no easy winner or loser, just three households of broken hearts.

As this drama plays out, Jones gives us dialogue and descriptions that are beautiful. Dana and her mother are take care to think about and talk about who they are and how they are labeled (or would be if the secret was revealed). And there is an entire discussion in this novel about beauty, girlhood/womanhood and power. Only some of it takes place in Laverne’s (Chaurisse’s mother) beauty salon.

SILVER SPARROW is a wonderfully written book about a terrible web of family secrets and pain. And the emotional power of knowing.

As Dana tells us early in the novel, “Life, you see, is all about knowing things.”

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Something to celebrate with #blacklitchat

When I hear that a favorite author of mine has a new book coming out, I get excited. No surprise, right? However, even as much as I read about books, browse for books, talk about books, etc., I sometimes miss new titles or the latest from an author.

There’s so much “noise” in our lives now that while we have more sources for information, we have so much information that we can’t keep up. Well, I can’t keep up – can’t speak for everybody else.

So I want to begin celebrating the publication dates of books that I’m excited about on social media. I think that publishers and bookstores probably look for books to do well very quickly and if they don’t then it’s probably a little bit over for them.

Beyond my own need to keep up with what’s new on the shelves or on our e-readers, I want to drum up a little excitement (oh, a lot actually) for Black books.

You are, of course, invited to join in. And this is really simple. Just post, tweet (or RT) a congratulatory note for a new book on the day it’s published. That’s it. It of course would be great if you would also pre-order or buy the book.

I know that publication dates shift and books ship early sometimes (I LOVE that), but I’ll use the date on the publisher’s web site or on

Here’s my list of select* upcoming publication dates:

You Are Free, by Danzy Senna – May 3 (I missed this one actually – but so happy to see it.)

Just Wanna Testify, by Pearl Cleage – May 10

Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones – May 24 (but this one is shipping early!!!)

No One in the World, by E. Lynn Harris and RM Johnson – June 7 (Still sad ELH is gone).

Money Can’t Buy Love, by Connie Briscoe – June 27

32 Candles, by Ernessa T. Carter (paperback) – June 28 (one of my favorites from 2010)

Children of the Street, by Kwei Quartey – July 12

*Please do post upcoming titles that you hear about (or have coming out) in the comments section. Please do not be offended if I don’t add your suggested title to this list. I will add some, but I won’t promise to add every title that is sent my way. Thank you.

Re-thinking my investments

In the past month I’ve had more time to myself than I’ve had for more than 10 years. I’ve been in Hong Kong without my family for nearly 5 weeks now.

During that time I’ve been thinking about my writing and all the things I already know about why I’m not writing more, completing work and submitting work. The two biggest hurdles are fear and time. (And the time is very much connected with the fear. It is so much easier to focus on other things than the big bad monster of rejection).

I also don’t make the necessary investment in my writing. I don’t put my whole self into it; I am still holding back (fear!) and I don’t act as though I own it.

My commitment is lacking and I can see that in how I decide to spend my time. I’m a working mother and wife and I have a long commute and blah blah blah with my excuses. Everyday I’m choosing the time drains that take energy and time away from writing. Or choosing fear – this idea’s not good enough, you’ll never finish, so-and-so can do it better, blah blah blah.

Then there’s where I put my money. Writing can be done without a big financial investment, but it is important to get help/coaching/editing when you need it and resources, too.

One of the things I’ve wanted for a long time is to settle on one of my many ideas and complete a book proposal for it. I start and stop and switch ideas and am spinning around producing no finished proposal.

I know myself. I love research and sharing information and writing. I also know that I need someone to nudge me (push me). There’s a reason I do well in classroom settings, but struggle with open ended, non-dated, big goals.

So, I am going to start working with a coach on getting a project finished. That’s another thing – I don’t like to ask for help or admit I need help. I have to claim that little step, too.

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time – years. And I’ve been a fan of Deesha Philyaw’s magazine writing and platform-building for more than a minute - starting back when I read her work in Wondertime and Bitch magazine years ago.

She consults with writers to help them write, finish and polish book proposals. I’m going to start working with her soon.

This is what I need to keep moving forward. And I decided to switch my investment strategy to put my money where my dreams are.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Seeing the Tian Tan Buddha

On Saturday I went to see the Tian Tan (or Big) Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

I’m so glad I went. To get to the Big Buddha you can take a bus or a cable car. I took a bus roundtrip – not sure yet about getting in a cable car.

About midway through the bus ride I turned to my right and saw the Big Buddha. We were still a ways away, but the statue (not sure if I should call it a statue or structure – it is so big) was easy to see.

I won’t pretend to do a travelogue about it. You can read more about the site here and here.

Actually, I wish I had read more before I went to visit. For instance, I didn’t know about the Heart Sutra on the Wisdom Path – so I stopped before I got there. I want to go back to see that. I’m thankful that I’ll probably have another chance to visit before I leave Hong Kong.

This is the largest Buddha statue in the world. I walked up the more than 200 steps to see it and also go inside the structure beneath the statue. Inside there is a relic from Gautama Buddha’s remains and historic artwork and inscriptions as well as information and history about Buddha and the statue.

I took many photos outside. Photos are prohibited inside the structure beneath the Buddha. It is very interested to be there and see the mix of tourists and Buddhists. Especially seeing people stop in front of various statues, kneeling, and lighting incense. I was continually reminded that this is a religious site and experience for many people and more than another tourist site.

Throughout the area there are signs reminding people that no alcoholic beverages or meat are allowed. So if you go and take a picnic, remember that.

There are two vegetarian restaurants there and a vegetarian snack bar. I really enjoyed the vegetarian lunch I had. The stir fry of vegetables and cashews was so brightly colored – the way fresh vegetables that haven’t been cooked to death are supposed to look. Asparagus, celery, red and yellow bell peppers, mushrooms made for a wonderful lunch. There were also spring rolls, soup, more mushrooms, a green that I don’t know the name of, but was thankful for. I didn’t take pictures of the food because of the no pictures signs in so many places. I wasn’t sure if pictures were allowed there or not.

I almost didn’t go to the Big Buddha on Saturday. It was a little rainy and overcast and I thought it wouldn’t be a good viewing day. Then I decided that if I put off the trip until a good weather day, I might miss it altogether. When I got there it was fine – not rainy and only a little overcast. It would have been fine if it was raining also. I can’t control everything and I don’t want to miss life waiting on the perfect conditions.

The day didn’t go just as planned. And it was wonderful.