Monday, May 29, 2006

If Freedom Isn't Free: Reflections on Memorial Day 2006

It's a gorgeous Memorial Day in the Bronx. As I take my exercise stroll throughout my neighborhood, I walk past flag after flag either propped on porches or dangling out windows. It's been decades since this area was inhabited by working-class Italians and Jews who waved their flags on days like today. Now the patriots are Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Blacks of all nationalities and a smattering of Guyanese and Mexican immigrants. But not only do these residents brandish their flags, the cars in their driveways also boast stickers of yellow ribbons and the Twin Towers with slogans such as Never Forget, United We Stand, and Freedom Isn't Free.

Freedom isn't free. I admit to myself that I never understood that slogan. Every time I read or hear it, something inside me immediately resists. Try as I may to put myself in the shoes of the zealot patriots (some who I call family) and wrap my brain around that slogan, I just don't get it. If freedom isn't free, then is it truly freedom?

As I turn the corner, I find my mind drifting to my pricey college education at Columbia University. Columbia is reputed to be the most liberal of the Ivy League universities. It's the least WASPY of the seven colleges by far, located smack in the middle of multicultural metropolis where over two hundred languages are spoken. It's the Ivy League college known for its radical tradition as students protested the Vietnam war in the 60s and forced the administration to divest from the apartheid government of South Africa in the 80s among other acts of dissent.

At Columbia, I still had to immerse myself in the thinking of European men considered to be the fathers of Western civilization and all that is wonderful about it most notably democracy. Why does my mind float to my first year as a student at Columbia University on Memorial Day? Perhaps it is there, that I first grappled with the notion that freedom isn't free.

I eventually remember having to read and compare the theories of political philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. John Locke believed that man was not only by nature a social animal but an honorable one as well. Human beings naturally know the difference between right and wrong and, for the most part, behave according to that knowledge. We create governments out of an innate desire to maintain a natural state of peace because we recognize that occasionally we will disagree as to what is right and what is wrong. So we concede our right to exact retribution for perceived injustices against us as individuals to maintain peace. Despite my Catholic upbringing with its insistence on the sinful nature of man (or maybe because of it) and the Eurocentricism of Columbia's core curriculum, I kind of dug Locke.

Thomas Hobbes, I wasn't feelin' at all. Unlike most social contract theorists, Hobbes held an ugly view of human nature. Man was not a social animal by nature, according to Hobbes, nor did he have an innate sense of good or evil. He was a slave to his most basic needs. Hobbes believed that human beings have to be subjugated by an absolute power to keep them from being in a perpetual state of warfare against one another. We agree to be governed -- conceding most of our rights to the state -- in exchange for our very lives. Therefore, whatever the government does for the sake of keeping peace including wielding absolute force is inherently just.

In other words, freedom isn't free.

At least, now I understand why the slogan unsettles me. Reflecting on conversations I have had with my relatives who ascribe to this credo, I recognize that, yes, they indeed hold a Hobbesian view of human nature. And yet I also have no doubts that these people I love abhor fascism. Although they fail to recognize how such a pessimistic view of human beings can easily flow into a case for dictatorship, I know on this day they, too, are flying their flags commemorating those who gave their lives to fight that very kind of authoritarianism.

I pick up the pace, probably in a futile effort to make my feet keep up with my brain. I tell myself that my relatives and neighbors only want to remember those who died to preserve the specific liberties that we enjoy. What's wrong with that really? This is our conditioning as Americans.

But our conditioning is flawed. It is superficial and incomplete. We are conditioned on this day to memorialize men with pale faces in camouflage gear dying on foreign soil. But I cannot think only of them. I also think of dark men in street gear dying on this soil. I see the Chicago Police Department rain steel on Fred Hampton as he lay asleep in his bed. I imagine El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz assassinated as he stands at the podium at the Audubon Ballroom. I visualize Martin Luther King, Jr. executed on the balcony of a Mephis motel. I hear Filiberto Ojeda Rios say as he bleeds to death from an FBI sniper bullet in the doorway of his home, "P'alante siempre." Were not these, too, American men who gave their lives to secure and preserve the rights that all of us despite color or creed are supposed to enjoy? And what of the women like Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa andJune Jordan who die just as young and much more slowly in this ongoing civil war to make the American way of life a reality for all on the homefront?

I find myself making a right on Wheeler Avenue and immediately see the mural painted in memory of Amadou Diallo (note: you can see the mural, too, if you play the video on my profile at MySpace.) Like millions before him, the twenty-three year old had left his native Guinea to pursue the proverbial American dream. The dream ended in a barrage of forty-one bullets because the four police officers who shot Amadou did not see an industrious man on the path to citizenship. They saw a serial rapist.

Sensing that I have in some odd way come full circle, I turn back towards home, and I slow my pace. True to my conditioning as an American, I walk past the American flags and patriotic stickers, and I remember. I remember not only those who have died so that I may enjoy the liberties that I have, I also remember those who died trying to enjoy the same. I resist my conditioning by memoralizing those I have been taught were enemies of a state. And then I realize that despite my reflections this morning, I still do not buy that freedom isn't free.

It's repression that's so damned costly.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Dirty Girls' Weekend

Novelist Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez made history again this past weekend. The best-selling author of novels such as Dirty Girls Social Club and la madrina de chica lit (the godmother of chica lit) organized and hosted the 1st annual Chica Lit Club Fiesta in Miami Beach. About seventy chica lit aficionados from all over the country gathered at the Miami Beach Resort and Spa for a weekend of books, fun and sisterhood.

In addition to fun activities such as a BBQ buffet across the beach to a fabulous dinner at Bongo’s Cuban Café, the fiesta also boasted a variety of panels that informed and inspired the creative spirits in attendance. I’ve learned that even booklovers who don’t aspire to write and are content to find great reads and support their favorite authors love to learn how publishing works. Well, they learned a great deal this weekend with over ten panels and workshops from “How to Become a Chica Lit Writer” to “Blogging for Modern Day Chicas.”

Alisa set and kept the sisterly tone by being such a warm and gracious hostess, and her indomitable volunteers kept things moving smoothly. In her welcoming remarks at our first breakfast, Alisa proved to be just as intelligent, spirited and funny in person as she is in writing. She also spoke a great deal of truth but always imbued her message with hope (which I sometimes forget to do!) I am truly heartened and inspired by how Alisa continues to blaze trails, whether proving to the publishing industry that mainstream fiction by and about Latinas can resonate with diverse audiences, using her visibility to speak truth to power or organizing an event like this to bring Latinas together to celebrate our accomplishments and learn how to build on them. The gal ain’t no Jill Sanchez (and if you’ve read her latest novel Make Him Look Good, you already know what I’m driving at!

I also finally had the joy of meeting many fellow authors including Mary Castillo and Berta Platas. These gals – along with Lynda Sandoval who sadly could not make the fiesta – keep me going with their emails. Not too long ago, I had to confess to them that I had yet to submit the novella for the anthology the four of us are co-authoring for Avon/Harper Collins. They gave me a much needed jumpstart with their understanding and hilarious words so it felt great to thank Mary and Berta in person with a hug.

Shame on me for not knowing about them before I landed in Miami, but I also discovered some wonderful Latina writers who have shot up to the top of my to-read list. One such writer was Reyna Grande whose debut novel Across A Hundred Mountains hits bookstores next month. Before reading from her second novel, Reyna told us that, yes, she made three attempts to cross the border illegally into the United States, and she took great issue with the notion that immigrants come here to take and not give. I agree wholeheartedly with her, and I can tell you that after her short reading of her work-in-progress, had Reyna not come to the United States, the loss would have been ours.

The fiesta also gave me an opportunity to reconnect with some other folks that I hardly get to see like Caridad Pineiro and Marcela Landres. For those of you who do not know, Marcela is an editrix extraordinaire who is on mission to help writers – especially Latinas – get published. As usual, she pulled no punches, telling us what we need to know and do if we are to succeed in this industry. Even though I am already published, I found her 10 Tips for Latina Writers to be insightful and will share it with every hermana I know who aspires to write. When I listen to Marcela speak I never doubt that her truthtelling comes from a place of passion for the written word as well as a desire to see su gente represented in that medium.

Sometimes the best moments are the small ones with those who know you best and love you anyway. J Because I had bought a new digital camera sans memory card – at tiny gadget I bought on the spur of the moment at Brookstone – I was only able to take a few pictures. Of course, my favorite is the one of my homegirl Elisha and me barefoot on the beach behind the resort. She and I – both as individuals and as a team – have been working relentlessly so to be able to get away from all the responsibilities and sit in the sand – even if only for a half-hour – was a blessing.

The downside of my weekend was I had to leave the fiesta a day early! Because of a speaking engagement at Foothill College on Tuesday morning, I had to return to New York City on Sunday morning, handle some errands and then head back to the airport on Monday evening to board a plane to San Jose. Still my whirlwind trip to Miami allowed me to have some much deserved and overdue fun and to remind me that there is a place for me – the authentic me – no matter where I go.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

No More Cos for Alarm

Today I just made a decision that I will no longer debate with anyone about whether Bill Cosby is right.
Causing controversy seems to have become Mr. Cosby's raison d'etre. Most recently he gave a commencement speech at Spelman College, the historically Black women's university in Atlanta, GA. Among other things, he said to the five hundred graduates. "You have to know that is time for you to take charge. You have to seriously see yourselves not as the old women where the men stood in front and you all stood behind, because the men, most of them are in prison."
I know as I type, keyboards across Black America are on fire as people debate the veracity of his statements. Just as I was about to jump into the fray with a group of online friends, I had a revelation.
This is an utter waste of time.
I understand why Bill Cosby's words always strike a chord. He describes the painfully obvious, and nothing resonates like pain. Who can deny that too many Black men are incarcerated? Who can deny that too many Black women have to carry the weight? The problem is that all Mr. Cosby does is tell us something we already know, and the way he does -- or more like the way he does not -- uplifts no one.
Being a moral leader, public intellectual or what have you means having a sophisticated analysis --not just a mere description -- of the issues at hand. We need such people not to tell us what we observe or experience everyday, but to explain why things are as they are and to offer ideas how we can address them. The reasons, for example, why so many brothers are on lockdown, and so many sisters have to become superwomen, are complex. A true leader understands these complex forces, has both the capacity and desire to break them down for the masses in a way they can understand, and attempts to give them direction and, most importantly, HOPE.
I find that Bill Cosby does nothing but raise alarm, and that does nothing for our communities but create more problems, especially as we argue amongst ourselves about whether he is right or not. Why should we waste time arguing about his overly simplistic remarks of the month? Whether Bill Cosby is right or not, he's going to be fine. What about the rest of us?
Now that I've written this, I will no longer get into debates over whether what Bill Cosby says may or may not be true. Although I don't question that he only means to help by speaking what he deems to be true, I find his rantings about the obvious to be quite unhelpful. On the contrary, they're distractions. Unnecessary and sometimes even dangerous distractions.
There are many Black intellectuals who can give us the answers we seek about the issues that concern us. Robin D.G. Kelly, Tricia Rose, Michael Eric Dyson, Gwendolyn Pough, Mark Anthony Neal, Cornel West, Yvonne Bynoe. . . I'm brimming with hope in the revelation that there are too many to list. And then we have people in our own backyards -- social workers, community organizers, policy advocates and grassroots activists -- who work with these issues every day. Thes are the folks who not only have a strong command of what the problem are, they have some damn good ideas of how we can solve them. These are the people to whom we should listen. These are the people whose ideas we should engage and debate.
So until Mr. Cosby can offer a similarly sophisticated analysis and viable solutions that are as complex as the problems he is merely describing, I will be ignoring his alarmist and unproductive commentaries on the state of Black America and get my socio-political enlightenment from those who can tell me something other than the obvious.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Picture Me Rollin': The Movie

No one in Hollywood has optioned the film rights, but I just finished an intensive screenwriters’ lab in an effort to adapt Picture Me Rollin’ into a screenplay. The 4-day lab was sponsored by the National Association for Latino Independent Producers. I have until Labor Day to complete a first draft of the screenplay and then I’m off to Santa Monica for the second part of the workshop.
As you may know, a good adaptation is not a literal translation. While a book tells a story using as many words as necessary, a film tells a story using preferably no more than one hundred twenty minutes. Each medium has its advantages and restrictions so when you take a story originally told in one and tell it another, changes are not only desirable but necessary.

But as I plan how to adapt Picture Me Rollin’ into a screenplay, I want to start with a simple step: deciding which scenes from the novel must absolutely be in the screenplay. Well, maybe that’s not as easy as it sounds, but like I said, it’s a start. So I ask those of you who have read Picture Me Rollin’ which scenes do you think must absolutely be in the movie?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How Kaavya Got Desperate, Got Busted and Got Scapegoated

When the news broke that Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19-year old Harvard sophomore who wrote the bestselling debut teen chick lit novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, had been accused of plagiarizing two novels by Megan McCafferty, I had no idea that two years earlier at the age of seventeen, her publisher Little, Brown and Company had paid her a half-million dollar advance for two novels of which How Opal Mehta was one.

So when I learned this bit of backstory, the last thing on my mind was whether Ms. Viswanathan was guilty or innocent of the allegations against her. Odd but true. The first thing I wondered was where the hell was I when news of this blockbuster deal broke? Then I realized that I was probably in the throes of writing one of my own novels. I know. . . that sounds pretty righteous even though I don't mean it to (still it probably sounds just like what it is.)

The more I read stories about the allegations, the more I learned about the book deal. You have to understand that these unusual figures are what makes this news story so big. This is not to say that if Ms. Viswanathan had been a few years older and offered a lot less dollars, the plagiarism accusation would not be an issue. But the only reason why the general public knows about these accusations now is because the book deal was such major news then.

So this past Wednesday I'm in my hotel room in Anaheim, California where I'm promoting my third novel (and the first to be published under my real name and in the chick lit genre... the same as How Opal Mehta), reading articles on the internet about the case as I wait for Katie Couric to interview Kaavya Viswanathan herself on that morning's show.

At one point in my research, I stop to check email, and there's one from a friend who asks, "Sofia, did she really get .5?" See, in the past I had told this friend that sometimes when it's reported that an author received a high-figure advance, it's not always true. Sometimes the figure includes other things as film options and foreign language rights although it reads like the amount is paid solely for the book. I told him that some of the spin doctors hired by new "authors" (because those who attempt to mislead booklovers this way are not often genuine writers as much as they are celebrities in another realm who landed book deals because of their celebrity) plant rumors of seven-figure deals that are just not true to generate publicity. Hell, some of these people don't even write "their" own book, at least not without the assistance of a ghost writer who may or may not be acknowledged (usually not.)
After first reading some of the passages under suspicion and Ms. Viswanathan's official response, I write back to my friend that while as much as I wanted to believe this young woman (yeah, I was thinking, "I don't want a sista to be guilty of this shit let alone one who's so young!"), I just couldn't buy that she unintentionally borrowed or "internalized" Ms. McCafferty's words. There were just too many passages, and they were just too similiar.

As I wait for the interview, I come across more articles about the matter -- new and old -- and my resentment starts to grow. There are times when I've bitched to my agent, "Give me a half-million dollar advance for haiku written on toilet paper and see if I don't end up on the bestseller list!" In more rational moments, I recognize that that's a gross exaggeration of the role advances play in ultimate sales. But there's more than a grain of truth to my contention.
Shit, there's a whole bowl of rice.

When a house gives an author -- especially a debut novelist who has not amassed any fame in another field -- such a large advance, it makes news. Big news. And that kind of publicity generates sales. The tome becomes top priority for reviewers who want to see if the hype is warranted (and, yes, some are foaming at the mouth in the hopes that it isn't.) That ensures more publicity when the book finally hits shelves. And no matter what these reviewers say, readers will plunk down their money to determine for themselves if the latest literary "it" guy or gal is the genuine article (can't say that's a bad thing, but obviously I'm biased.) It actually becomes irrelevant whether the writer in question actually has chops. Much more often than not, the hype generates sales regardless of whether it is warranted which is why in my cynical moments (and, OK, during those rare bouts of laziness), I'll whine that all I need to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of my book the in first weeks is for some publishing house to offer me five hundred Gs for my latest novel like they did So-and-So. Why not? I've proven that I can write (and in multiple genres), and check it, I'll even promise to spend a good chunk of my own advance on promoting the novel myself even though I know after such a hefty investment, the smart and lucky house will throw thousands more into the same to ensure they turn a profit. You know, you gotta spend money to make money and alla that. Well, spend it on me.

Seriously, I'm blessed to be make a living writing books and today to be in a position to say, dammit, there are some things about publishing that makes my blood boil. At the top of the list is the penchant for giving book deals (never mind six-figures) to nonwriters simply because they're famous and certainly not for any evident literary prowess. In the case of people like Karrine Steffans and Paris Hilton, they're infamous for scandalous behavior. Some are even famous -- as in the case of Paris's ugly chihuahua Tinkerbell -- just for being famous. In the halls of publishing, this is considered "having a platform." Even proven writers (e.g. journalists) who are attempting to sell their first book-length work or trying to move from one genre to another are pressed to not only quantify the existence of their audience but also to prove that said audience will consume their latest offering. In its worst application, the insistence on a platform in publishing is fueled by the same thinking behind casting singers and rappers in films whether or not they have proven they can act and giving record deals to actors and athlete who have not demonstrated the ability to sing or rhyme. This phenomenon at its worst exposes the publishing industry -- which by the cerebral nature of its product is supposed to be more intelligent -- as trying too hard to compete with its more flashier yet less substantive cousins in the field of entertainment.

So I start to wonder, "Well, what's Kaavya's platform?" Not because I buy into this thinking as much as I begrudgingly accept it (and my severely limited power to change it.) The question devolves into a rant when I read on the Internet that she landed the book deal without having completed the novel. See, it's virtually impossible for a debut novelist to land a book deal without having first completed the manuscript. Especially, as I argued above, if said novelist is not already famous in some other vain or at least published in another medium. If the rules of the game were being consistently applied, then Ms. Viswanathan would not have landed a book deal -- never mind a half-million dollar advance -- unless (1) she was already, like, a pop singer or something of that nature or (2) she first had completed a full novel that demonstrated amazing writing acumen.

Not only was there no evidence that either of these two factors existed prior to the deal, I come across another article that says that Miss Viswanathan collaborated with 17th Street Productions (now known as Alloy Entertainment.) According to the article, 17th Street, "a book packager that specializes in teen narratives," helped her develop the story. In other words, while writing How Opal Mehta Got Kissed. . ., Kaavya Viswanathan got help. Where do all the aspiring writers I meet sign up for that? Hell, I've written four books and a quarter, and I'd like a piece of that! Still Little, Brown and Company was quick to say that she wrote every word of the novel herself so that her collaboration with 17th Street Productions could not be blamed for the offending passages.

By the time Ms. Viswanathan appears live with Katie Couric, I'm furious. The kid's not a phenom nor was she famous before this, I'm thinking, so who the hell did she know? 'Cause that's the only way she could've gotten the deal at all never mind six-figures and all the publicity it brings. This is so fucked up, man!

And as I listen to Kaavya apologize profusely yet stop short of admitting to plagiarism, I discover just how fucked up it truly is. It hits me that the girl couldn't confess even if she wanted to. As she fidgets under Katie Couric's gentle yet insistent questioning as to how unbelievable her "explanation" is, I realize that the only way her publishing house will stand by her is if she does not admit that she plagiarized Megan McCafferty's novels. In the wake of the Jame's Frey scandal, to do that would mean that they dropped the ball and would have to take some responsibility for Kaavya's decision to commit literary theft. Yes, there's a possibility that Kaavya herself refuses to confess to her own house, but that's irrelevant. Surely, these folks know she commited plagiarism no matter what she says, yet they are eager to spin her denial to cover their own failure.

I watch Kaavya twist and, whether I want to believe her or not, I see a guilty young woman. But I also see an ambitious seventeen-year old girl who was given by even more ambitious adults a major opportunity she did not earn then to be saddled with a tremendous responsibility that she does not deserve now. Kaavya did not have the maturity to resist the money and fame dangled before her never mind the foresight to recognize that she was way in over her head (note: I'm not saying that said immaturity should absolve her.) That came later when despite the assistance from the book packager hired to help her, Kaavya realized that she could not deliver on the house's hype of her preternatural talent. So she became desperate and resorted to extreme actions. In a naivete -- and perhaps even a little bit of hubris not unusual for someone of any age who has been bestowed with more praise and rewards than she has earned -- she gambled and thought she would never be found out.

But then Kaavya was found out. And now the same people who set her up for their own ends won't make her or allow her to come clean. I don't believe that Little, Brown knew from the start that she had committed plagiarism, but I have no doubt that someone over there failed to do his or her job. In the most generous scenario, somebody at that house doesn't think it's important to stay on top of the genre in which they publish. If she or he had, they would've spotted the similarities between How Opal Mehta and Megan McCafferty's Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings from the first draft. But then again, should we expect differently from a house that doles out a half-million dollars to an unproven writer based on nothing more than a concept (a concept, I might add, that save for its ethnic spin, is itself too reminiscent of many existing coming-of-age novels and teen flicks.)

But the fact that Kaavya's publishers stand by her "unintentional borrowing" excuse and intend to put the book back on shelves after the offending passages have been removed doesn't strike me as loyalty. On the contrary, it seems to me that they just don't care. Certainly not about what's best for Kaavya. Rather they thrust her into the public eye to answer for what she has done while they continue to maneuver ways to capitalize upon her mistake. She takes the heat, and they make the money.

Whether out of hubris or desperation or both, Kaavya Viswanathan willfully committed an immoral act and for that she should be held accountable. But the mistake is not wholly hers alone so she should not be the only one made to pay. Her lapse in integrity for the sake of money and fame was modeled for her long before she began to type. For reasons we can only speculate, Little, Brown gave Kaavya a deal that she had not earned, and that should make us question their character as much as we do hers. Somehow they saw a great deal of money to be made from this young woman, and they weren't wrong . . . until she got caught. But while people understandably knock the discredited author for being greedy, arrogant and disingenuous, her house scrambles to get a revised edition of How Opal Mehta sans plagiarized passages back on the shelves. Too few are questioning this effort to turn controversy into profit at the expense of a 19-year old in desperate need of a moral lesson laced with a modicum of compassion for the factors and circumstances that contributed to her lapse in judgement.

Today, a second charge of plagiarism was made against Kaavya Viswanathan. Just like how Megan McCafferty's fans found the similarities and reported them to her, readers of Sophie Kinsella have come forward with several passages that Miss Viswanathan apparently lifted from the author of the popular Shopaholic chick lit series. Will these latest allegations finally compel Little, Brown and Company to take some responsibility, do the right thing and stop trying to make money off this fiasco at the cost of Kaavya Viswanathan's soul?

Come to think of it, perhaps the entire publishing industry, in its effort to emulate some of the questionable practices of the film and music industry, should take a little blame for this tragedy as well.