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 Audible.com.
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 MiGente.com 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?