Monday, December 19, 2005

'BURN" is (Almost) Done, and the Contest is Definitely Won!

If all Monday's could be this good. Not only have I just submitted the mansucript for my third novel BURN to my editor at New American Library/Penguin, I drew the winner of the my first contest.
First the correct answers to the five questions:
1. The name of Cassandra and Leila's principal in EXPLICIT CONTENT is MS. OLIVERA.
2. In EXPLICIT CONTENT, the hip hop artist that Cassandra and Leila have a debate about on the way to the concert is LI'L KIM.
3. In PICTURE ME ROLLIN', Priscilla had her ears pierced THREE TIMES.
4. Esperanza rubs COCOA BUTTER into the scar on her chest in PICTURE ME ROLLIN'.
5. The title of the next Black Artemis novel is, of course, BURN!
Although several people had all the correct answers, I could choose only one winner. So as per the contest's rules, I took all the qualifying entries and randomly selected one. The winner is:
Congratulations, Jasmina, and use your $50.00 American Express gift card in good health! Thanks to all of you who enter, and please continue to try and win future contest. Now there may not always be such an elaborate prize, but I'll try to keep it interesting. :)

Randal Was Right

Maybe we should not be surprised, but now that a person of color -- a Black man to be exact -- has won "The Apprentice," some Americans have forgotten how capitalism functions, and the racist backlash has begun. I won't bother to engage the nonsense being spewed on boards at AOL and Yahoo! Read any of those boards after ANY article that mentions a person of color has been published, and you'd think that you'd have stumbled into a cyber-meeting of the Klan. I'm more outraged at the supposedly liberal news media criticism of Randal Pinkett for not choosing to share his deserved spoils with the second place Rebecca Jarvis.
First, let me say that I happen to know Randal Pinkett. We were both in the final cohort of the Next General Leadership Program sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. I can tell you that not only is he a great mind, but he's a class act and a good soul (not to mention a snazzy dresser. We used to tease him about his GQ outfits all the time!) Having been in NGL with Randal for almost two years, when he announced that he had been selected to join the cast of this season's "The Apprentice," I knew that he would win by (1) the strength of his own ability and character, and (2) the fact that the impetus to create entertainment (i.e. put people on the show more for their personality than their skills) would ensure that some of his competitors would be weak.
One thing that set Randal apart from most contestants on any season of "The Apprentice" is that he's just a genuinely and consistently likable guy. Lots of folks in the corporate world rightfully pride themselves on being real movers and shakers. Very few, however, can boast that they are NICE people. If anything, too many busines folks perceive being nice as weakness as if you can't be shrewd without being nasty! The most underappreciated aspect of Randal's win, I think, is that we witnessed a rare instance when integrity prevailed.
So it really shocks me that after weeks of earning not only the respect but also the unabated fondness of his colleagues, folks now criticize Randal for not agreeing to Trump's suggestion that he hire Rebecca, too. This is not a cutthroat guy, nor was it a cutthroat decision that he made. The truth is, it was the shrewd business decision. No matter how much you may like and respect the person, you do NOT share your power with the also-ran. It may not be the sweetest thing in the world to do, but it's not in and of itself a terrible thing either, and in the world of business, it's the right thing. Even Trump knew it (more on that in a minute.) Yet by doing what any smart business person of any race or sex might have, Randal has gone from being painted as the overwhelmingly deserving favorite to reality TV show villain. See, an educated Black man who knows his worth is most dangerous Black man there can be.
Even more ridiculous than attacking Randal for not sharing his new position is the notion floating around that he had the job on lock weeks before the finale in Trump's effort to make a token hire. Let us not forget that that this is the same Donald Trump who bought a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penatlty for the men accused in the Central Park Jogger rape case (of course, there was no full-page ad pleading mea culpa when DNA evidence led to the overturning of those convictions.) While I don't doubt that Trump's producers look for people of color (and women for that matter) for the sake of diversity and entertainment (don't you dare tell me Omarosa was on that show because she's some great business mind!), my response to those who speculate that Randal was given his win weeks before the live finale is this: bullshit. If you followed the show, episode by episode, it's undeniable that Randal earned his victory every step of the way. So even if you want to believe that Randal was put on the show out of white liberal guilt, you cannot deny that he won that job fair and square (surprising the hell outta all of 'em in casting.)
It was ludicrous for Trump to suggest that Randal share the job. Oh, now that the brother won he can't be the only one calling the shots? My guess is that Trump did it for several reasons. First, Randal was such a more superior candidate than Rebecca, his win bordered on predictable so Trump wanted to throw a curve into the process for the sake of entertainment. Furthermore, Trump has also been accused of being sexist -- even more so than being racist -- and here he saw a chance to "prove" he wasn't. Had Randal accepted the ridiculous proposition, Trump would've killed two birds with one stone. But Randal didn't let him get political points at his expense, and while I'd love to see a woman win "The Apprentice," neither was Rebecca the right woman nor was this the right way for a woman to win. If she herself believes that she is as outstanding as Trump praised her to be, she should be at least puzzled if not offended by and suspicious of Trump's pandering. (And I wonder if, had she the opportunity to gain the job that way, if she would have been tough enough -- apparently Trump's favorite trait of Rebecca's -- to turn it down because of the way it was offered to her. )
Some have argued that Randal could have been more "gracious," but I actually think the way he refused to share the apprenticeship with Rebecca was quite gracious. If he wants to hire Rebecca to work FOR him in a position that fits her experience and skill levels, that would be ideal. But Trump's proposition was to share his position, and this is a business venture where the buck has to stop and start with one. Trump himself has admitted to the media that while he was suprised that Randal shot down the proposition, Randal's independent thinking affirmed that he made the right choice in choosing him over Rebecca. (And unlike some suddenly touchy folks who bizarrely are expecting to witness unprecedent levels of compassion from the competitors of a reality TV game show, I think Randal nixed the proposition gracefully. He did not trash Rebecca, and he used humor to argue compellingly that he was the best, single person for the job.) Now since he has never done this to the White male winners of past seasons, I can only wonder if Trump was testing Randal or not. But he has gone on record saying that he RESPECTS Randal for his unwilligness to share the position. Had Randal given into the emotion of the moment of winning and said, yes, Trump would doubt him now.
To me there is one unsung heroine in the finale of "The Apprentice," and her name is Marshawn Evans. I want to give a loving shout out to that sister for being the first to stand up loud and clear for Randal in the last episode. After watching Omarosa go out of her way to sabotage Kwame who could've won "The Apprentice" the first season (don't remember Trump asking winner Bill to share his job with him), it was heartening to see a woman of color stand by her brother when it mattered most. Reality TV is notorious for casting people of color who won't mesh. I've seen so many shows where the solitary Black man and Black woman loathe each other, it can't be a coincidence. And it's usually because one of them assumes that they'll have some kind of affinity toward each other because of race, but the other is bending over backward to ingratiate her/himself with the white cast members (not trying to be "too Black, too strong. Daps to you, Marshawn.
And congratulations, Randal. Revel in your win, 'mano, and keep your head up. Sometimes you have to look at the hate as a blessing in disguise -- it's often a sign that you're doing everything right.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Miami Book Fair International

Several weekends ago, I participated in the Miami Book Fair International. In its 22nd year, this prestigious literary event happened despite expected cancellation in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma. I flew into the Miami International and stayed at the Biscayne Bay Marriot.
My friend Gepsie Metellus, executive director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center picked me up from the airport and took me to a restaurant called Tap Tap. I treated Gepsie to a mojito, and she brought me up to date on Haitian politics. It seems like folks are disheartened by the devolution of Aristide after investing so much hope that his election would signal the beginning of the end of the corruption and violence. I always learns so much from Gepsie, and her passionate dedication to the advancement of her community never cease to impress and inspire me. Because of leaders like her, I keep the faith that the Haitian people will one day see considerable, positive change in their beloved homeland.
The following day -- a Sunday -- I do an afternoon reading and signing at the fair which took place on the campus of Miami-Dade Community College. A kind engineering student named Mario drives me to the campus, and we talk about our latest discovery of audiobooks. For many reasons, I will never give up books in print, but gadget queen and tech diva that I am, I am now a member of
At the fair's location, the organizers set up a wonderful hospitality suite for the authors in the library. There I was thrilled to reconnect with mystery author extraordinaire Carolina Aguilera-Garcia of the Lupe Solano detective series. Carolina and I met last spring during La Voz Latina, an event showcasing Latino authors in Arkansas (yes, Latinos in Arkansas.) She's as warm and funny one-on-one as she is before I crowd.
Remembering what a joy it was to hear her speak in Arkansas, I made a point to see Carolina in action after my own panel. She was scheduled to appear with Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, best-selling author of Dirty Girls Social Club and Playing with Boys. Unfortunately, Alisa did not make the fair, and so I missed my chance to thank her in person for the amazing endorsement she gave in support of my debut chica lit novel Divas Don't Yield. It's all I can do to not jumpt the gun and post the quote in its entirety here. That's how amazing it is, and even though it's been a few weeks since I received the fantastic news from my editor at Random House, I'm stil shocked and humbled.
Still Carolina wowed the crowd with her funny anecdotes and affable personality. Her trio of lovely and accomplished daughters Sara, Antonia and Gabriella were in the crowd, and one fair attendee asked, "What was it like to have a private eye for a mom?" Yes, Carolina was a licensed P.I. for over ten years -- talk about writing what you know!
Her daughter's reply: "We didn't get away with anything!"
As for my own panel, I finally had the opportunity to meet Angie Cruz, trailblazing author of Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee. We have some friends in common, and it was wonderful to learn that Angie's without a doubt the sweetheart everyone says she is.
Having been born and raised in the United States when I did, I grew up being more aware of my Puerto Rican culture than my Dominican heritage within an American context. Still I am my mother's daughter, and her influences did not elude me. I only needed someone or some thing to mirror them to me. But the work of older, celebrated Dominican novelists did not resonate with me until Angie Cruz and Angie Cruz and Nelly Rosario pen to paper. I suspect it's a combination of generation, class and geography (with a dash of gender although I ain't mad at Junot Diaz), but until I read Soledad and Song of the Water Saints, I didn't relate to the Dominican heroines of other novels. I did not see myself in them. I was a different kind of Dominicana.
But reading Angie and Nelly's novels were more than just enjoyable way to past the time or learn from the example of other autora's good writing. They were an integral part of my ongoing discovery of what facets of my upbringing and identity -- from the foods I love to the dichos I often repeated -- that were gifted to me from the island of Quisqueya with my mother as the bearer. By writing these stories, these hermanas revealed to me pieces of myself and even my mother, nuggets of gold just waiting to be sifted from the sands of my Americaness. It's blessing that I wish all lovers of the written word could experience. Everyone regardless of race, ethnicity or culture should have at least one author or book that introduces them to an aspect of their heritage that had always been there but suppressed for whatever reasons.
I also discovered a new author named Jill Ciment. She was on the panel with Angie me, and she
read from her latest novel The Tattoo Artist. I'm not easily intrigued (hell, I don't know if I would picked up my own novels if someone else had written them), but The Tattoo Artist has shot up on my to-read list. It's the story of young Jewish from the Lower East Side who falls for a revolutionary during the late 20s. The concept captured my attention as well as Jill's beautiful writing so into the Amazon cart it went.
Carolina adopted me for several hours, taking time after the fair to bring me to her cozy home and giving me a tour of South Beach. I could not have asked for a more interesting guide as we dipped from popular strips to interesting side streets. And Carolina gave me some great advice about the publishing industry, too.
So in just two days I made new friends, received mentoring and went on a private tour of one this country's most interesting cities. That and more in just two days. Thank you, Miami Book Fair International!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

As I stated in the previous posting, I've uploaded audio reading the excerpt of PICTURE ME ROLLIN' in which Esperanza reads an essay by poet Audre Lorde in her book SISTER OUTSIDER. In this essay, Lorde writes, "Your silence will not protect you." This scene in the novel appears on pages 272-273.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Your Silence Will Not Protect You

Before leaving to catch my plane to Miami this afternoon, I did an interview on a Magic City-based radio show. The show is called And the Women Gather and is hosted by Lorna Owens. We were discussing Picture Me Rollin', misogyny in hip hop and other things. Then she opened the phone lines so listeners could call in with their questions and comments.

The one caller who made it through was an angry man. He yelled, "YOUR SHOW SUCKS, BITCH!" And it wasn't censored.

Lorna and I were silent for a few seconds. Not that I didn't have a response, but I wanted to respect that I was a guest on her show. And since she was in the studio in Miami, and I was at home in New York City, I could see her and use her body language or facial expressions to guide me.

We eventually recovered, turning back to the subject at hand, but I first had to acknowledge the verbal attack. I didn't want to make things worse or give it more energy than it deserved, but I still felt it had to be addressed. So I said something to the effect: "Well, Lorna, there's an example of the misogyny we were just discussing. When women speak their truth, some men feel threatened." While I kept my language diplomatic, my tone had an undeniable edge to it.

Lorna was a bigger woman than I was. She wished for the brother to find the healing that he needed. And she meant it.

The interview went back on track and ended on a good note, but that ugly moment stayed with me long after I hung up. I mean, some dude actually got up that early on a Saturday morning to listen to a show he didn't like, waiting for his chance to call in and spew hate. At my worst moment this morning, I was wondering if this was the kind of cat who would go so far as to, say, roll up on me at my reading at the book fair and, like, set off some shit.

I saged. I asked my ancestors -- some whose names I only learned a month ago -- to protect me. And I preoccupied myself with last minute errands before heading out to the airport to keep my mind from replaying the nasty episode in my head.

On the bus to LaGuardia, I started reading a new book I had bought on writing called Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan. At one point, McClanahan quotes a passage from poet Audre Lorde to demonstrate the vividness with which she describes an ordinary household item. The name Audre Lorde immediately evokes Picture Me Rollin' for me be cause my protagnist Esperanza discovers Lorde's work during the course of the novel. In particular, I quote a particular passage from Sister Outsider that resonates with Esperanza at a critical point in the story, and reading Audre's name in Word Painting echoes the lines in my head:

"I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not have spoken myself. My silences have not protected me. Your silence will not protect you."

And as I repeated these words to myself like a mantra, all my anxiety and paranoia about how far a hateful brother might go started to melt. I had said what I had to say as did Lorna. And if this dude wanted to wild out because of it, well, my staying quiet would not have prevented him. My silence would not protect me. And if in the most likely scenario, he had other things to do on a Sunday afternoon than track me down to do God knows what because I suggested he was threatened by women critiquing the misogyny in hip hop, where would that leave me if I had not said my piece? Kicking myself on Sunday night for (1) wasting time and energy worrying about something that never transpired, (2) holding myself in such high regard that someone would go to such extremes to silence me, and (3) taking that misogyny -- even internalizing it by blaming myself for what happened -- by not standing up for myself.

Whatever's going to happen is going to happen. I can't control anyone else, least of all those who feast on hate and derive a false sense of power from violating others. I only can control myself, and I do myself a tremendous disservice by when -- as Audre Lorde wrote and Esperanza discovers in Picture Me Rollin' -- I betray myself into small silences because my silence will not protect me. By being silent, I do the work of the hateful for them.

I closed the book and sat there in amazement. In Picture Me Rollin', Audre's words come to Esperanza at a certain time and change the course of her life. Now I believe in synchronicity so I have no doubt that these same words came to soothe me in my own moment of distress. Still I was bowled over about the power that particular sentence -- and even just Audre's name as the woman who authored them into existence -- wielded over me personally. I had forgottent that even as I incorporated them in a novel hoping to touch young women just like Esperanza in the same way they had touched me when I first read them.

Despite being a woman of words, I myself had underestimated just how powerful words can be both in their presence and absence. These words returned to me at time when I needed them, dissipating anxiety, paranoia, and fear. Imagine if they had never been written or if I had never read them.

I'm still amazed. When I return home, I'll post another audio entry reading that passage of Sister Outsider that I quote in Picture Me Rollin'. I hope that you will listen to them, and that they will do a similar magic in your life according to your needs. And I pray that the lessons that I relearned today stay with me for a very long time, especially as I continue to promote this novel and finish Burn.

Synchronicity is real.

Words are magic that can be used to heal or harm.

My silence will not protect me.

Friday, November 18, 2005

In this audio, I'm reading an excerpt from the twelfth chapter of my debut novel "Explicit Content." In this scene, Cassandra is negotiating her recording contract with G Double D, the CEO of Explicit Content. In the novel, this scene appears on pages 133-135.

This is an excerpt from the fifteenth chapter of my second novel "Picture Me Rollin'." In this scene, Esperanza visits Maite Rodriguez, her GED English teacher and new mentor. Maite tells Esperanza how she met Isoke Oshodi, a former Black Panther and Esperanza's former cell mate at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Aqui to Be Called Negrito Means to Be Called Love

This title of this post is the last line of one of the most famous poems of Pedro Pietri, one of "Nuyorico's" most celebrated artist called Puerto Rican Obituary.
The poem came to mind because a good friend -- an African American woman who is improving her ability to speak Spanish (hell, I already think she speaks it great. Way much better than I do) -- sent me an email today about Shakira's song and video La Tortura. If you've seen the video, you know that Shakira gyrates her oil-slicked body while featured artist Alejandro Sanz coos, "Oye, negrita, mira, no te rajes. . . Oye, mi negra, no me castigues más." So my friend wanted to know what was up with this cat calling her negrita while she slithers around in black oil.
Fair question. It just goes to show how careful we must be with our language and images, especially when we combine them and present them to an audience that may not be familiar with our cultural nuances. Regardless of race, ethnicity or culture, we often do or say things with little knowledge or understanding of the historical context that gave rise to them, taking for granted that our true meaning and intentions will be understood. Then when it isn't. . .
So it took both honesty and courage for my friend to voice her suspicions. I also appreciate that she was not invested in being offended Had she been right, I would have had no problem admitting, "Yeah, girl, that was some racist shit." (Just like I had no problem saying that I could've done without seeing Shakira dancing in petrol.)
But it actually wasn't some racist shit. As I responded to my friend, I thought I should also explain this to people who read my books, especially African American readers who may not have much interactions with Latinos. Having read Explicit Content and Picture Me Rollin', you might have gathered that Latinos often use the negro or negra as a term of endearment. Often times the person being called this may actually be a Black person. . . but not necessarily so.
See, what you may not realize unless you grew up with Latinos (especially those of Caribbean descent) is that the term has little to do with color. Regardless of your skin color, when we're feelin' you, you may be lovingly called negro, negra, negrito or negrita. You may have skin the color of the midnight sky, have a heavy dose of leche in your cafe, or even sport the bluest eyes. Chances are that if we've determined that we want to be your friend, relative or lover, you will hear, "Call me soon, negrita, so we can hang out."
And this is NOT in the same vein that some African Americans say, "What's up, n*****?" You have to keep in mind that the way race is conceptualized in Latin America is quite different than in the United States. That's another post for another time, but in the mean time you can learn more by reading an article I wrote for called Black Como Yo: Latinos Embrace Their African Roots and Fight for Racial Equality. For now I will say that the use of negro or negra as terms of endearment in the Latino community does not have a parallel to the use of the word n***a and its variations becuase they do not carry the same historical (namely racist) legacy.
Am I saying that there's no racism within the Latino community? I wouldn't dare! I know better than that. Unfortunately, despite our own history of enslavement, colonization and genocide (and maybe actually because of it), Latinos are not immune to that ugly disease, and the Spanish language does contain specific racial slurs for those of us ignorant enough to want to use them.
But the word negro is not one of them. Sure, some idiot might say, "Esa negra. . ." in a tone of voice that is offensive and worthy of rebuke, but that can be said of any race in any language. The overwhelming majority of the time, when Latinos uses the Spanish word for black, it means one of two things. We may be referring literally to something that is black in color.
Or in the words of poet Pedro Pietri, here to be called black is to be called love.

The Obvious Truth about Snitchin'

Once again, the mainstream media got it twisted.
Today, an article appeared on Yahoo! News (supplied by Reuters) entitled Hip-hop's Code of Silence Hurts Police Work. The title says it all and irked me to no end. I didn't have to read it to know that (1) it was about the underworld code against "snitching" and (2) it would attribute this code to hip hop.
This code is not new. In fact, it is so old, it predates hip hop. Do we really believe that before the 1970s, gangstas and wannabes ratted each other out to the police until rap music came along and proposed this code of omerta? Are we supposed to buy into the implication that only those engaged in illegal activity who are of a certain hue or geography maintain this code while their counterparts of other races or locations snitch to their hearts' content?
Get real. Once again, hip hop subculture is being equated with thug life as if they are one and the same. And for what really? If you snitch, someone's going to die. If you don't snitch, someone else is still going to die. So to snitch or not to snitch is a ridiculous question. What we need to discuss is how we got into this dangerous corner and what does it take to get us out of it? All I know is that hip hop did not put us there so don't expect it to get us out. But hip hop can make a contribution and we can start by challenging the media's penchant for using hip hop and thug life synonymously regardless of which forum the byline appears.
I'll give the journalist who wrote this particular article credit for soliciting an opinion from Chuck D who proved that not everyone in the hip hop community, industry, or generation ascribes to this code of self-destruction. But Chuck's voice was alone amidst a litany of "evidence" that "the rise of hip-hop culture has heightened the phenomenon by transforming street thugs into role models." Meanwhile, glorifying criminals has always been and continues to be as American as football, apple pie and low voter turnout.
When is someone going to ask that with mainstream radio stations, film studios, publishing companies, news outlets, and cable networks playing major roles in relentlessly promoting only a certain kind of hip hop, who truly benefits from it?
Here's a hint. Since people of color do not own or control these entities, it ain't us. And debating the phenomenon of snitchin' isn't going to change that.

Monday, November 07, 2005

On "The Boondocks" Controversy

I've been working so hard on Burn, that I missed the premiere of The Boondocks last night. I wish I hadn't so I could have a better handle on today's controversy. Apparently, activist Najee Ali is organizing protests against the show because of its use of the n-word.
I lurked on the message board of the Electronic Urban Report on this controversy. Some folks who ordinarily are not offended by the use of the word stated that they felt that the show's creator Aaron McGruder actually overused it. Others questioned why Mr. Ali does not focus on more significant issues. Reading the ranges of opinion -- especially as a writer who occassionally used the word in my novels - I felt compelled to take a break from Burn and weigh in on it.
First, I am a huge fan of the comic strip The Boondocks as well as that of its creator Aaron McGruder. Whether he considers himself this or not, in my eyes, A-Mac is a socially conscious artist, and to me, he's indeed a hip hop activist. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, often Aaron's comic strip was the only thing in the morning paper that raised the hard questions. While FOX and CNN backpedaled from the things on most of our minds, A-Mac used his comic to put the critical issues front and center. Frequently, he was censored for it, but he never retreated. I have read and heard Aaron speak on issues, and this is an informed brother who is not afraid to speak truth to power and cares about his people.
Yet still I find his defense of the use of the n-word problematic. Well, maybe not the defense itself as much as his adamancy. As a writer who aims to create realistic characters with dialogue that rings true, I completely empathize with A-Mac when he says, "I just think that at a certain point, we all have to realize that sometimes we use bad language. And the ‘N word’ is used so commonly, by not only myself, but by a lot of people I know, that it feels fake to write around it and to avoid using it.” This is precisely why I have used it in my novels.
But what I would say to Aaron in a sisterly fashion is this: not all people use the word and not all people who do use the word do so profusely. Yes, I have taken the subway and heard some young folks -- not all African American -- who can't utter a sentence without dropping the n-bomb. And truth be told, it irks the hell out of me. I'm an Afro-Latina, and it makes me cringe when I hear Latino kids using it. Although I'm a grown woman, sometimes I download radio edits of certain rap songs because I just not trying to hear that shit let alone have it resounding in my head long after I shut off my MP3 player.
However, there are many folks who don't use the word at all, and some who do keep it to a minimum. Although some of the characters in my novels say the n-word, I personally do not. Not that I'm perfect. In the occassional moment of passion, it flies out of my mouth. When that happens I never feel good let alone justified about it. And unlike a few other four-letter words I'm reluctant to forgo because they have their uses, I've never regretted NOT using the n-word because no other word would do the trick.
You'll notice in my novels that very few characters use the word. The ones that do -- with the exception of someone like Xavier "X" Bennett in Picture Me Rollin' -- do so sparingly. It's not the every third word past their lips. You may not have noticed the characters who "fit the profile" but never say it all like Esperanza's friend Tenille. But you should take note of the characters who actually protest the use of the word or make a conscientious effort to not use it anymore. So, no, I don't always write around the word either. But I sure as hell don't need to use excessivley to feel that I'm keepin' it real even if a few real people do use it excessively.
So I agree with Aaron only to a certain extent. Yes, it is false to write around the word as if no one says it because plenty --make that too many -- people do. But it's also false to front like every person says it. If you gotta represent the people who for whatever reasons use the n-word with aplomb because that's real, well, represent those who don't because that's real, too.
As for whether Najee Ali would do better to focus his organizing efforts on other issues, well, that's a tough one for me, too. As an activist who feels that my peoples have become complacent at the worst time, I'm heartened to see people organize and protest about anything meaningful. And don't sleep; language is meaningful. The persistance of the n-word IS an issue. You can believe it' s a major one, or you can believe it's a small one. But you can never dismiss it as NOT one.
By the same token, we're at war. Not only are our loved ones dying across the globe for a questionable cause, we are dying within our own borders because of structural neglect fueled by immoral indifference. My 24-year old nephew is a Marine on his second tour in Iraq. In my personal agenda for frying fish, protesting the n-word ranks at throwing a guppy in the microwave. And yet I can envision a time in the near future when -- keepin' it real be damned -- I ban the word from my art.
I think Sam Anderson said it best. Among many other things, Brother Sam sits on the board of the Brecht Forum with me and is actively involved in the NYC chapter of the Black Radical Congress. He inspired the words Isoke says when she reprimands Esperanza for using the n-word at the beginnning of Picture Me Rollin'. In 2001, Brother Sam sent me an email when I asked for feedback about a piece I wrote when Jennifer Lopez was attacked for using the word in her song I'm Real (I'm shaking my head at the irony.) In that email, he wrote me the words Ioske paraphrases in that prison library scene: "Nigger, Nigga, Nigrah,...Negro are words that carry power baggage. They're laden with white supremacist dehumanizing history."
Sam then revealed that he believed that Black youth use the n-word as a term of endearment because veteran activists like himself failed to pass on the complexities of white supremacy and its language of control. How often do you hear an elder take responsiblity for the next generation's behavior? Because I am so so used to hearing our elders criticizes us for not doing exactly what they did in the 60s and 70s, to read that touched, humble and inspired me.
Then Brother Sam wrote me this: "I think the best solution around the "Nigger" word (and its variations) is to let it go. Let youngfolk continue to use it and get all mixed up in it. Our task, at this stage, is to build a movement so fierce and irresistible that it positively influences the language of the next generation."
This is something that Sam does every day. I make a sincere effort to do this, too. And despite their contrasting views on the n-word, I genuinely believe that each Aaron McGruder and Najee Ali is attempting to do this in his own way.
Despite how you may feel about the continued use of the n-word, how are you contributing to a movement so fierce and irresistable that it positively influences the language of the next generation?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cruisin' By Sea & Land

I just stepped off the Carnival Pride after cruisin' around the Yucatan Peninsula. I have never gone a cruise before, and the African American Book Club Summit by Sea proved to be a wonderful choice for my first trip. My cabin mate Nilka and her friends took this amateur cruiser under their wings and showed me the ropes. I enjoyed hanging out with other book lovers from around the country, and it's always a treat to meet fellow authors, especially when they reveal themselves to be warm people.
Eric Jerome Dickey is so accessible and humble. You would’ve never have known that word spread quickly that he was on the ship because he never failed to appear to other author’s workshops and readings. I have to try to get to the theater rendition of his bestseller Cheaters at the Beacon Theatre later this month.
Would you have guessed that Nina Foxx was a karoake diva? Thanks to her disc collection, we had some “culturally relevant” tunes from which to choose. She brought songs by Blu Cantrell, Missy Elliot and, of course, Whitney Houston. But I kept my implied promise in the reader’s guide to Explicit Content and left the singing and rapping to everyone else. Nina's lovely sister Linda is in the above photo with me along with Christian author Kendra Norman-Bellamy.
Reshonda Tate Billingsley tickled us with her anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of book marketing. Let me take this opportunity to correct the misperception: Reshonda is a not a Christian author. Her novels are inspirational with edge!

I think it’s unanimous. . . Travis Hunter is a riot! If the man ever tires of writing novels, he should give standup comedy a shot. We had a great conversation about the current state of commercial hip hop. His Hearts of Men Foundation has a similar mission to my organization Chica Luna Productions.
Mary Monroe was so sweet. And disciplined I should as she was attempting to put time in on her latest project as we cruised. I tried to follow her example, but it was easier said than done.

I mean, how could I pass up an opportunity to become a road warrior? When our ship docked into Puerto Vallarta, I headed on an ATV adventure. For several hours we drove through the dusty Sierra Madre mountains and then ended our journey with a couple of shots of Mexico's best tequila. As you can see by the photo below, I did not drink and drive.

There's so many other wonderful people I met that I wish I could name, but now that I've extended the life of my tan and finished the copyedits of my debut "chica lit" novel Divas Don't Yield (to be published under my real name by One World/Random House), I have to cruise on back to my third Black Artemis joint Burn. In fact, I'm almost done, and NAL/Penguin should have its cover so that I can post it soon.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Roxanne Still Rockin'

Just when I thought I’d never make it to Texas, my publicist Angie gives me a call. “Are you free on October 7th?” she asks. “Because Texas Women’s University wants you to speak at their Latina Student Leadership conference.”

I arrive at my gate at LaGuardia Airport and take a seat next to a woman immersed in Confessions of a Video Vixen. I pull out the manuscript of my debut "chica lit" novel Divas Don’t Yield, and continue editing it. (While I wait for the publishing house to send me the professionally copyedits for my manuscript, I always review it myself for any final touches I may want to make. To all aspiring writers, you may have heard this before, and it’s true: all writing is rewriting.)

The woman next to me asks me if I’m headed to LasVegas. She’s going there for a speaking engagement and was told that she would be appearing with an author and wondered if I might be that person. I tell her that yes, I’m an author going to a speaking engagement, but that I’m headed to Texas. So we talk about our engagements, and it becomes evident that we have quite a bit in common. At one point, she offers me her hand and says, “Allow me to introduce myself properly. I’m Dr. Roxanne Shante.”

Yes, y’all. THE Roxanne Shante. The pioneering "femme cee" who at the age of 14 checked U.T.F.O. and is regarded as one of the best freestylers to ever take the mic.

Although Roxanne left the hip hop industry long ago, she’s still fierce. I asked her why doesn’t she write her own story á là the Video Vixen – her triumph over domestic violence, her road to a doctorate degree in psychology and Manhattan practice, her foray into business with her Queens-based ice cream shop where she teaches the students she employs all facets of entrepeneurship. Dr. Roxanne's response: "I'm only in the third chapter of my life." Down to earth and on a mission, she does share her story -- not on talk shows and to shock jocks -- but directly with the young women she's trying to reach.

That was only the start of a wonderful trip. For the first time, I fly into Dallas-Fort Worth and stayed! TWU is actually in a small town called Denton about ahalf-hour from Dallas. I was picked up by Ke’Ana and Maria, two members on conference organizing committee, and then we went to another terminal to pick up the effervescent Yasmín Davidds (with whom I share a literary agent and a mission to empower women and girls.) The four of us have a great conversation on the ride to Denton about women of color in media. The university puts me up at a lovely bread and breakfast called the Heritage Inns, and we have an awesome Italian dinner next door at Giuseppe's.

The next day I do a reading/talk for approximately 75 women -- from high school juniors to graduate students -- that goes very well. After that Ke'Ana, Maria and I head to Chili's for a celebratory virgin margarita and a bloomin' onion. Then it's back to Nueva York.

While it's always good to be home, taking a break from the usual routine to travel to other places and meet some amazing women never ceases to boost the creative flow. I've been working diligently on Burn since September, but ever since my trip to Denton, I've been in a ZONE! Hope I can keep this up on my next trip -- the African American Book Club Summit by Sea.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Great Time at the Great Read

I have to dig up my Joy Journal. That's a hardcover journal that I bought several years ago to capture those little but meaningful events or memories that bring me a great deal of joy. Not the obvious things like family holidays and special occassions -- those are for my latest hobby -- scrapbooking -- thanks to my dear friend and Only in New York" panel at the New York Times Great Read in the Park. Moderated by New York Times Metro columnist and fellow Bronxite Clyde Haberman (who did a great job), I joined authors Pete Hamill, Frank McCourt, Byron Harmon, Edward Conlon, and New York Times editor Connie Rosenblum. The crowd lined up for this panel an hour before it started, and event staff had to raise the flaps of the Great Discussion tents so that folks who didn't make inside could still watch and hear the discussion.

I felt the stakes were high for this event. For my publishing house Penguin to nominate me to particpate in this event was already a major vote of confidence. For the NY Times to extend the invitation -- to sit on a panel with literary heavyweights no less -- was no small thing. I didn't get it twisted -- the majority of audience members lined outside that tent were there to hear Pete Hamill and Frank McCourt (who were very gracious and quite funny.) I took that as an acknowledgement that hip hop is much more than the narrow and often problematic rap music played on commercial radio, and I knew I had to take that opportunity given to reinforce that. If I had to go by the response of the crowd after the panel, I'd like to think I rose to the occasion, but y'all can check out the program on C-Span, and judge for yourselves. :)

After the panel, an older man approached me and asked me if I had read Pete Hamill's novel Forever, the story of a man who can live forever so long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. According the gentlemen, the man falls in love with a Dominican girl he spots on 14th Street. He says to me, "And she's you!" So, of course, I'm dying to read this book, LOL! I mean, it certainly sounded like a compliment to me.

The best part of any event like this, as always, is the opportunity to speak to readers. Some of the people who came to my signing were existing fans and even a friend publicist extradordinaire Charles Rice-Gonzalez of the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (bka BAAD!) And some were some were new readers who became interested in my work either through attending the panel and maybe even overhearing my conversation with a reader. I met a wonderful sister named Jean, and we had a great conversation about Tupac's iconic status. I also had the pleasure to make the acquaintance of two righetous brothers named Arnold and Hannibal who are behind the Black Sit-Com Institute which is trying to reach youth and keep them on a positive path through the creation of comedic art. During the panel, Connie Rosenblum said that one of the things she loved most about New York was the constant serendipity, and I wish she could've witnessed this. Arnold said that they were walking west on 42nd Street when Hannibal said,"Let's go through the park." I definitely feel what these brothers are trying to accomplish -- it's a parallel mission with my organization Chica Luna -- and hope we stay in touch and build together.

You heard it here first. A movie's in the works about hip hop pioneer T La Rock written by Antwone Fisher, who chronicled his triumph over childhood abuse in his memoir Finding Fish which later become a film (and Denzel Washington directorial debut.) This was told to me by Bonnie Timmerman, the casting director of such favorites as "The Insider," "Carlito's Way," "Midnight Run," "Heat," and one of my top movies of all-time "Bull Durham" (that's right, I'm a sucker for a good baseball flick. Every once in a while I've been known to steal a quote from Tim Robbin's pitching phenom Crash Davis: "I gotta throw the heat, establish my authority."

Hopefully, I did that on the "Only in New York" panel. Not to establish my own authority, but to get hip hop some respect. A French philospher once said that if you want to understand the U.S., you have to know baseball. Well, I believe that to truly understand New York City, you gotta know hip hop.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Philly Rican for A Day

Yesterday I hopped the bus and headed to the City of Brotherly Love to participate in Taller Puertorriqueno's 19th Annual Book and Craft Fair. Many thanks to the wonderful staff at Taller, especially Carmen, Celia and Francisco for making me feel at home. If you are in or near the Philly area, you must stop by Taller on 2721 N. 5th Street to check out the multimedia exhibit called "Not Enough Space." The exhibits features the paintings and words (both written and spoken) of Puerto Rican political prisoners Oscar Lopez Rivera and Carlos Alberto Torres. Can you imagine living -- let alone creating art -- in a 6 x 9 cell that you must share with a stranger? Oscar and Carlos have for more than 25 years, bringing new meaning to the term resistance.

And Taller's Julia de Burgos Book and Crafts is no joke either. I may have to make a day trip back to Philly just to a hundred bucks there. We used to have a Puerto Rican bookstore in New York City on the Lower East Side called Agueybana. We lost it to gentrification and the proliferation of superstores like Barnes & Nobles and Borders. Don't get me wrong -- I can spend hours at B&N. But if there's a book I can find at an indepedent bookstore -- especially if it is owned by people of color, women or its employees in a workers co-op -- I buy it there to support, and I encourage all of you to do the same.

Shout outs to filmmaker and scholar Frances Negron-Muntaner for recommending me to the great folks at Taller and my homeboy Rafael "Papo" Zapata, Assistant Dean and Director of the Intercultural Center at Swarthmore College. After my reading and signing at Taller's impressive bookstore, he and musician Lucas Rivera (y'all have to peep his website) took me to a great Thai restaurant. Then I missed my 8:30 bus back to Nueva York because I just assumed that there was a bus every hour.
I had to wait for the 11:30 PM bus so it was back to Papo's crib on the SEPTA train. Once there we took in the end of "Sugar Hill." I love a damned good B-movie. You know a flick that doesn't try to be more than what it is and does it well. Seems like Wesley has made quite a few of 'em. "Undisputed," anyone? And Michael Wright is such an undderated actor. After "Sugar Hill" we switched to the end of "It Could Happen to You" which is based on a true New York story of a cop who, in lieu of a tip, promises a waitress he will split his winnings with her if his lottery ticket hits. When it does, he honors his word giving her half of his four million dollar jackpot. Of course, the film took some poetic license by having the married cop and separated waitress fall in love, but this story actually took place.

Anyway, Papo and I get a big kick out of watching Rosie Perez do her thing even if she's playing the stank wife of the cop who cares more about spending the money than fixing her failing marriage. All of sudden, we spot beloved Puerto Rican poet Pedro Pietri, playing a customer in the diner. Papo said, "You know Rosie got him in that movie!" I'm inclined to agree because Rosie's conscious like that which is why I'm a fan.

In a few hours, I'm off to Bryant Park to participate in the New York Times's 1st Annual "Great Read in Bryant Park." I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I'm sharing the "Only in New York Panel" with some heavy hitters including Pete Hamill and Frank McCourt. I mos def gotta give a shout out to the Times for recognizing that if you're going to have a panel about authors who write about or are inspired by New York City, someone has to represent hip hop. I'm blessed that it's me.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Strong Sistas at B-More Book Festival

Kudos to the Robin Green and the Ripe Harvest Foundation for organizing a great program at the Baltimore Book Festival.
While it's rare that I've been on a bad panel, it's also rare to be on an exceptional panel. I had that experience at the BFF when I was blessed to share the stage with such amazing sisters as:
Yasmin Shiraz, another soldier for the cause of empowering Black women and girls and the author of Exclusive, another work of bona fide hip hop fiction;
Tajuana "TJ" Butler ,who self-published her way to a book deal with a major publisher for her lastest novel Just My Luck);
and the gracious Philana Marie Boles, author of In the Paint who will now bless middle-grade readers with her forthcoming YA novel Little Divas.
In addition to being wonderful writers and beautiful spirits, Yasmin, TJ and Philana are on a mission to write stories about the struggles, complexities and victories of women of color. Please support them and their work by reading their work, inviting them to appear in your community and spreading the word about them to others.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Coming Soon: Reflections on "Confessions"

Being an unapologetic hip hop feminist activist, many folks have asked me my opinion of Karrine Steffan’s Confessions of a Video Vixen.

So with mixed feelings, I purchased the audio book. Then I decided to re-team with A.I.R.E. – the amazing young poetess featured in my novel Picture Me Rollin’ – for a “Reflections on 'Confessions'” project. We’re going to listen to the audio book together – disc by disc – and record reactions, questions and debates about it.

While we haven’t decided yet how best to distribute the final product when we're done, A.I.R.E. and I immediately promise you one thing. It’ll be a lot more complex than the simplistic Superhead-ain’t-nothing-but-a-ho/Karrine’s-just-a-liberated-victim dichotomy that to date has dominated most discussions about Confessions. Since we're only human, we're liable to lapse occassionally into trivia -- questioning the veracity of this tale, exchanging gossip sparked by the juicy details of another and otherwise getting caught up in quagmire of he-said-she-said that emerged from the book and its publicity. But our ultimate quest is to make a critical but compassionate assessment of three essential issues:

Is this the cautionary tale that Karrine bills it to be? Why or why not? How should conscientious women in the hip hop community respond when a sister among us writes something like this?

A.I.R.E. and I care because, hey, the book is here. Its existence and popularity presents both opportunities and challenges to our efforts to reclaim hip hop and use it as a tool in our movement to liberate ourselves from misogyny. We'll be guided by the words of hip hop intellectual and feminist scholar Tricia Rose. Now I personally agreed with Sister Rose when she told the Washington Post, "We need this story less than we need rich, complicated, reflective stories." But I also heard her when she said, "The question is, will the book be a catalyst for serious conversations, as opposed to allowing easy answers to prevail, like video-hoing is bad, or video-hoing is a great vehicle as long as you avoid the pitfalls. Those are the simple-minded positions that I think we need to worry about."

So that's what A.I.R.E. and I are gonna do. At least, we will try really damn hard. Wish us luck.