Tuesday, August 31, 2010

And the winner of Substitute Me is...

Sissy, you won the copy of Substitute Me by Lori Tharps! Congratulations! Send me your snail mail addy and I will ship it off to you.

Monday, August 30, 2010

ringShout kicks off new reading series (wish I was in Brooklyn)

RingShout: a Place for Black Literature kicks off its new reading series and celebrates the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival Join us for an evening of readings by four acclaimed African-American writers. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tayari Jones, Jeffrey Renard Allen and *Danielle Evans  DJ Sounds by Rob Fields   Littlefield 622 Degraw Street (3rd and 4th Avenue) Friday, September 10th   7:00 pm – 9:00 pm Suggested donation: $5

The collection of stories is mentioned here in a list I can get with: 3, count 'em 3, black women writers recommended by indie book stores!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I forgot! I have a copy of Substitute Me to give away

The mind is a terrible thing to...something.

Anyway, leave a comment and I'll enter you to win a copy of Lori Tharps' Substitute Me. Read her Q&A in the post below.

Meet: Lori Tharps, author of SUBSTITUTE ME

This is what I had to say about Substitute Me, Lori Tharps' great new novel out now:

"Book clubs: Substitute Me one will give you so much to talk, laugh and argue about, you might want to schedule two meetings to discuss it. Days after finishing it, I'm still debating who the villain is. Lori Tharps has written a timely, engaging page-turner that every working mom in America should read!"
Carleen Brice, author of Children of the Waters

Below is my Q&A with Lori, which hopefully gives you more of a taste about what her book is like. If you'd like more of an idea listen to blogger Evelyn N. Alfred read a snippet (and then follow her advice and go to your local bookstore and buy it).

White Readers Meet Black Authors: What's Substitute Me about?

Lori Tharps: This is a story about a young, career-driven woman who is about to go back to work so she hires a full-time nanny for her infant son. The woman happens to be white and the nanny happens to be black. The story takes place in modern-day brooklyn and simply documents the lives of both women and the people in their lives. In essence, the story tries to show what can happen when one woman hires another woman to perform her most intimate tasks -- caring for her child, home and ultimately her husband. Throw in some issues of race and class and you've got a really packed domestic drama.

WRMBA: There was an article in the NY Times recently about nanny fiction (a new genre?). How would you compare your book to The Help or The Nanny Diaries (which I know are two completely different types of books)?

LT: I actually have been using both of those titles to contextualize my book. Like The Nanny Diaries, Substitute Me takes place in modern day New York where nanny culture is quite common and it is just expected that most working women -- and many women of leisure-- will employ a nanny. On the other hand, the issue of black women working as domestics for white women also plays a role in my book, as it does in The Help. Just because the year is 1999 and not 1959 doesn't mean that the tinderbox of racial tensions doesn't exist between employer and employee, and I try to show that in my story.

WRMBA: Like me, you started with nonfiction. What do you think is different about writing fiction? does one form come easier to you?

LT: The thing I love about writing fiction is that if a quote doesn't sound right, I can just change it to make it sound better without having to go back out and doing more reporting. But I still think that old cliche, 'truth is stranger than fiction' is true in that I can't make up a better story than what's happening in the world right in front of me. I feel blessed that I can do both.

WRMBA: On your website you talk about changing minds. What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? Entertain? Illuminate?

LT: Can I say all three? Really. I don't think I'm talented enough yet to write the book that will change the world...and damn it The Secret has already been written...but I hope that with the stories I share, be they true or invented, they will be entertaining enough that people will want to read them, and by the time they finish they'll have changed their thinking in some way or learned something about the human condition. And it doesn't have to be a big change, just one little a-ha moment would be good enough.

WRMBA: Who's the audience for your novel?

LT: Women. All women, regardless of ethnic background. If I had to pick the category for Substitute Me, I'd say women's fiction. I honestly don't think many men would pick this book for themselves, although my husband did enjoy it very much. But then again, he kind of had to.

WRMBA: What's next for you? More fiction or back to nonfiction?

LT: I am actually working on a YA novel right now about a biracial girl whose mother forces her to give up her dream of being a ballerina. And then because I make my living as a journalism professor, my next book will definitely be non-fiction.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?

LT: This is going to sound a little strange because I think anybody with a Twitter account and/or a television knows the writer Toure. He's known as a cultural critic/journalist, but I swear one of the best books I've ever read was his novel, Soul City. It's like totally Gabriel Garcia Marquez magical realism but replace magical black people for the magical Hispanic people and set the action in Soul City instead of an anonymous Latin American city. That book is so fresh and so unique and so freaking funny and insightful I can't believe Toure hasn't written more fiction. I met him recently and told him to get on it! I hope he takes my advice.

Thanks for having me.

WRMBA: Happy Pub Day, Lori! Here's a link to Lori's tour schedule (so far), if you want to see if she'll be in your area.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A black author reviews The Help

I haven't read The Help, Kathryn Stockett's book about maids in the south. But I'm definitely aware of it as a phenomenon and as a lightning rod for debate. It raises a lot of questions. Would a similar book by a black author have done as well? Should a white writer write about black characters, and how can you write about other ethnicities well? Is it a good portrayal of black people or are the maids stereotypes? Etc.

So I was curious when author Trisha R. Thomas said on her Facebook page that at first she put the book down, but picked it back up and was glad she did. I asked her to blog a review. I confess I put the book down very early on because I couldn't get past a black maid carrying on about how much she loved the white children she was raising. (And, yes, novelist jealousy might have had a little something to do with it too.)

For the record, I believe all writers have the right to tell stories about people different from them.  But I believe part of the reason this book did so well was because the author was white. I have a hard time imagining the word of mouth would have been as great if the author were black. If only because if the author were black, most of y'all wouldn't have even been told about the book.

I'd be curious to hear your take. Have you read it? What did you think of it?

The following review is from Trisha R. Thomas, the author of the Nappily Series. Her sixth novel Un-Nappily In Love continues with the spirited character, Venus Johnston who bucks the status quo and starts living for the beauty within, instead of what’s on the outside.

Below her review are some books by black authors that get mentioned in the same breath as The Help and The Secret Life of Bees (a book I liked), but so far haven't taken off the same way those books have. I'd also like those of you who read The Help to tell me what other books would you suggest?

The Help, review by Trisha R. Thomas

I was one of the many who judged a book by it’s color. What would a white woman know about the black experience, and why did she feel the need to write on the subject. The choice most likely wasn’t a choice at all. We are who we are. The old adage of write what you know feels powerfully at work here. The author, Kathryn Stockett spent the first sixteen years of her life, nearly everyday with a black woman who took care of her. That woman was her maid, Demitrie. Initially, she sought to write through Demitrie’s voice. Instead the result became “The Help”, a fictional account of Jackson, Mississippi in the 60’s. Pre-civil rights, during the unfolding of a tumultuous time for the south.

"Caring whether or not the author is black or white seems of no substance now." 

Kathryn Stockett’s first novel opens with the voice of Abilene in a Southern accent so strong and improper that I know before the first sentence is complete she has something important to say. She is the lead storyteller of this taboo tale of sisterhood between the help and the white women employers in a time when the color lines were clearly marked too dangerous to cross. Soon I will hear another maid, Minny, her voice strong and spirited, raising her children with a husband who is drunk by sundown. Abilene and Minny captured my heart and ear. These were the voices that brought me back to the novel countless times when I’d given up lost in the swirl of names and activities of the Junior League of white women. Who stole who’s boyfriend? Who married who? Sharp tongued characters that blurred into one, two, three, or four at voices at time. After all, once the League ladies got together to play bridge, or plan their next big party, their topic discussion always landed on the “uncleanliness of the nigras” who by the way cooked their food, took care of their children, and waited on them hand and foot. Enough reason at any given time to throw in the towel. 

And then there was Skeeter, also in the League of gentle-women. The trouble begins with Skeeter, bored and suffocating under the rigid expectations of her southern upbringing. She returns home from college without a husband and no prospects. Hair too frizzy, reed tall, and short on patience with the town’s pent up old ways, she turns her attention to having a career, unlike the other society climbing women. Luckily the local paper will give her a shot. She’ll become the new Miss Myrna, answering mail in the weekly column giving tips on housecleaning and tackling tricky issues like water stains, and silver polishing techniques. Of course she doesn’t know a thing about house cleaning. Skeeter approaches her best friend’s maid, Abilene, to give her cleaning tips. The beginning of a new relationship. Cleaning tips turn into stories. Nights are spent taking notes of Abilene’s experiences.

Everything that lies in the middle seems to disappear waiting for Abilene to speak again. To hear Abilene mourn the loss of her only son. Filling in the void with each white child she nursed and mothered. Watching the children grow into young adults with the morals she’s instilled in them more so than their own parents. 

There were moments gripped with fear and anger. The truth of the times can’t be avoided. One point of the finger and a maid could go to jail, accused of stealing a piece of silver. Their lives were not their own. Held hostage at the whim of their employers.

It’s true that readers are a narcissistic bunch. We find the characters who most resemble us and our thoughts to agree with, cheer for, and feel for in their deepest pain. We celebrate their victories as our own. The Help tells an honest story of women taking a chance and stepping out of old beliefs. You can’t help but love a story when the ones you care about win in the end. Caring whether or not the author is black or white seems of no substance now. Would a black author have experienced living with a maid all her life and know the life of Skeeter, Abilene, or Minny? I don’t know about you, but my only care giver was my mother and the public school system. I’m black, an author, and could not have written The Help. We are who we are. This novel struck the nerves of both black and white readers. It especially hit mine remembering my first novel and being judged as not “black enough” What did I know about nappy? How dare I write on the subject at all? I soldiered on, ignoring the critics. I wrote what I knew to be true from my experiences. We write what we know. If we’re lucky, we do it well. Judging a book by it’s color has to end somewhere. We have to be the change we want to see in others. Open minds mean open pages. The door needs to stay unlocked for all of us. Freedom to write whatever we want. Freedom to read whatever, whomever we want.

Liked The Help? Try these

O Magazine recently called Glorious by Bernice McFadden's this season's breakout like The Help. (The O review is here.)

I still wish more people would read the heartwarming The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson (reviewed here). I just recently reread it and it was even better the second time around.

While Lori Tharps' Substitute Me is about a black nanny working for a white family, it takes place in modern day New York and the black nanny in the story is middle-class and educated. (Watch for a Q&A with Lori here next week when Substitute Me pubs.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Books about Hurricane Katrina

August 29 marks the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the U.S. This year, there are a few books being released to coincide with the anniversary.

Jewell Parker Rhodes has a new children's book out this month called Ninth Ward that's getting rave reviews. (And isn't that a lovely cover?) Booklist's review: "New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina is the setting for this tense novel that blends the drama of the catastrophic storm with magic realism. Twelve-year-old Lanesha’s teenage mother died while giving birth to her, and, because her mother’s wealthy uptown family won’t have anything to do with her, she is raised in the Ninth Ward by loving Mama Ya-Ya, 82, who feels like her 'mother and grandmother both.' Born with a caul over her eyes, Lanesha is teased at school, but she is strengthened by her fierce caretaker’s devotion and by a teacher who inspires Lanesha to become an engineer and build bridges. Lanesha also has 'second sight,' which includes an ability to see her mother’s ghost. As the storm nears and the call comes for mandatory evacuation, Mama Ya-Ya envisions that she will not survive, but Lanesha escapes the rising water in a small rowboat and even rescues others along the way. The dynamics of the diverse community enrich the survival story, and the contemporary struggle of one brave child humanizes the historic tragedy."

I just finished reading Wading Home by Rosalyn Story. It's a novel about a young jazz musician who has left New Orleans seeking fame and fortune and goes back in search of his father after the hurricane. An accessible, uplifting story about family set against the backdrop of New Orleans immediately after the storm. It comes out September 1st. It's published by Agate Bolden and reminds me a bit of their novel Before I Forget.

The end of August brings LaTonya Jones' debut novel Southern Discomfort.  Click the title to read the first chapter and to enter the contest Plenary Publishing is holding. You could win a trip for 2 to New Orleans to celebrate its release!

Plenary says of this novel: "Set against the backdrop of a post-Katrina New Orleans that includes a colorful cast of residents, LaTonya Jones paints a raw and vivid picture of the rebuilding efforts, and what it means to be resilient, to breathe again despite the pain, and to move forward no matter what. SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT will make you laugh and cry over the daily challenges affecting Janae and Neo, and it will stir your soul as you cheer for the city of New Orleans and the people fighting for it to rise again."

Tayari Jones told me of Natasha Trethewey's upcoming Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which reminds us that the devastation stretched beyond NOLA. From Octavia Books website: "Weaving her own memories with the experiences of family, friends, and neighbors, Trethewey traces the erosion of local culture and the rising economic dependence on tourism and casinos. She chronicles decades of wetland development that exacerbated the destruction and portrays a Gulf Coast whose citizens—particularly African Americans—were on the margins of American life well before the storm hit. Most poignantly, Trethewey illustrates the destruction of the hurricane through the story of her brother’s efforts to recover what he lost and his subsequent incarceration."

Hat tip to Tayari for the news about Patricia Smith's poetry collection about Katrina, Blood Dazzler, becoming a play that premiers in Harlem in September. If you're in NYC, check it out. If you can't make the play (and even if you can), read the book (it was a finalist for the National Book Award).

In non-Katrina news:

Denver peeps, on August 10th at 7 p.m. Colorado author Traci Jones will read from and sign her new novel for young readers Finding My Place ($16.99 FS&G) at the Tattered Cover Colfax store. Here's a synopsis: "It is October 1975, and while most teens are worried about their Happy Days Halloween costumes, Tiphanie Jayne Baker has bigger problems. Her parents have just decided to uproot the family to the ritzy suburb of Brent Hills, Colorado, and now she’s the only Black girl at a high school full of Barbies. But the longer Tiphanie stays in her new neighborhood, the more her ties to her old community start to fray. Now that nowhere feels like home, exactly where does she belong?" Jones was awarded the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award for her first novel, Standing Against the Wind.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

African American Literary Awards

Voting is open for the African American Literary Award Show. Please go and vote for your favorite authors! (As the Breakout Author winner in 2008, I can attest that it's really cool to be nominated and to win at this event.)