Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Wordslingers

About a week ago, I had the great pleasure to be a guest on a Chicago radio program called Wordslingers. Kurt Heintz, a Chicago poet and proprietor of the e-poets network, was the guest host that night, and so he invited me to join him, to read from my work and talk with him, for an hour on a Sunday night of live radio. Of course, I would not be the only guest. He told me that he would invite at least one other person, and that was that. A few days before the program, he emailed to say that a hip-hop poet named Precise would also be there. "Arrive about a half hour early," he wrote, so we would have time to settle in before air time. And so I did.
     When I walked into the studio--a really wonderful room on the downtown campus of Loyola University--Kurt was there with a man who looked like this (the one on the right). Except he had a knit hat on, pulled down on his forehead. That is Precise, but at that moment when I walked in, I didn't know who he was.


"Susan," Kurt said, "this is Precise." And vice versa. I looked at him, and he looked at me. And if his mind works anything like mine, he might have been wondering how the two of us had happened to come together in this room. This is me.
To cut to the chase, we had a wonderful time that night. Shelley Nation, the show's producer came in, and she and Kurt knew how to make us both feel comfortable and honored, and how to keep things moving in an interesting way. I admired Precise's work and especially his cool style of delivery, the fact that he came on live radio to preform and didn't even bring a piece of paper (whereas I was laden with my novel and notebook and a folder full of possibilities for my reading). We talked about this difference in performance style and many other things. Precise is from the south side of Chicago, and his family is from Haiti, and he is working toward hope in the midst of multiple losses. Kurt did not know ahead of time that one of my novel's central concerns is race and intersections between races, generations, religions, neighborhoods, and so on, so this was a surprising and highly compatible intersection between Precise and me.
     My hope is that Precise and I can together host a literary event. I don't know where or when or what it would be, but wouldn't it potentially be a great coming-together of diverse audiences? It's so unusual (at least in my life) to have opportunities to reach across the gulfs of race, age, style--to sit in the same room, just people. Reading, talking, laughing.
     Hmmm. We both look pretty serious in those photos--like we're waiting for something to happen? Maybe we're not so different after all. Thanks, Kurt, and thanks Shelley, for this great program and for bringing us together.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jellyfish


If jellyfish sounds like it might be some kind of an ethnic or racial slur, it's not one. Or not one I've ever heard of. But it is about a kind of discomfort--the discomfort of litter (and the diversity). 
     What some of you might not know is that I have a tradition of picking up litter while I walk around the town where I live. I've been doing this for years, and in many ways, it's endlessly fascinating. The detritus varies by season (candy wrappers around Halloween; firecrackers around July 4th; and so on). The experiences are always new (an encounter with a squirrel recently, as we both went for a plastic bottle; finding a large ring of keys in the snow and figuring out what to do with them; finding a full, frozen can of beer and trying to decide how to dispose of that). Other dilemmas surround whether I pick things up when other people are around (that is, whether I want to be caught in the act), how far out of my way I'll go to pick something up and where I'll discard it if I'm not carrying a trash bag that day. 
     A couple new observations have come to me lately. First, that probably 98% of the litter relates to things humans put in their mouths--cigarettes, drinks of all kinds, snacks of all kinds, fast food of all kinds, gum--or to be more precise, the packaging related to these mouth-filling things. A huge category of items I find are made of plastic or cellophane, and lying there on the ground, they remind me of jellyfish, or what I remember of jellyfish from the days when my family used to go to Miami Beach and walk along the shore. The discarded items I find have that same collapsed, discarded, transparent, and slightly shiny look that jellyfish do.
So, lately I've engaged in the fantasy that I live on some kind of inland sea bed. Yes, true. I have been thinking about that. Notice the oceanic life as you go on your way.
 

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How a racial attitude can develop


This is a hard post to write, but it's a good one to write because it's about actually learning something, even if the thing I learned is kind of embarrassing in the sense of revealing what I would call a racialist flaw in my thinking. Here's the deal. I live on a block with (I think) 17 houses, arrayed across the street from each other in parallel lines. They're not all the same style, which I like. Some are bigger than others, some are stucco, some brick; one is frame, one has vinyl siding. My block doesn't look anything like the one in the photo, but I like the atmosphere and the era of the photo, so that's why I put it there.
     I have lived on this block for over twenty years; a few have lived here longer than I have. It's a moderately friendly block. People live on my block who I consider to be good friends and excellent neighbors. We have a block party once a year in the summer, and most (but not all) people attend. Years ago, someone started the tradition of having a block map--that is, a list of names and phone numbers arrayed in a schematic way to represent the configuration of our block. My husband and I keep our block map on the refrigerator, and we consult it often. 
     Most of the people on my block are white; two families are African American. Neither of the African-American families comes to block parties. For one of these families, we don't even have a phone number on the block map, as the last time the map was updated (I updated it about a month ago), I tried the phone number on the outgoing map, found it disconnected, and slipped a note (actually my husband slipped the note) through the mail slot letting them know we were updating the map and would like to add their phone number if they'd like to share it. Apparently, they didn't want to. 
    Here's where my racialist thinking came in. I started to feel that the non-participation of these two families had something to do with their being black. I acknowledged that it could have something to do with discomfort about being in a minority; I was willing to be understanding in my racialist thinking. Still, I was linking what I determined to be a pattern with race. 
     I am glad that I shared this thought with others, even though I ended up feeling a little foolish in retrospect. I was at my book group meeting, where we were discussing, of all things, my novel. Which is how the subject of race came up. In response to my comment about the African-American neighbors and their non-participation, my husband pointed out that there was another house on the block that had always been occupied by white people, and still, in 20+ years, we hadn't known who owned the house or lived in it (well, there was a short time when a renter lived there with her son, and she came to the block parties, and we knew her name and phone number). And then, two book group members (a couple; white) from another blocks said, "We never go to block parties." And another said, "We don't either." 
     So I could see how an attitude might develop, how possibly unrelated facts (they're both black; neither comes to the block party) could come to feel linked, and from there . . . who knows?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

And now a word from our sponsor

Just a short break from the Discomforts of Diversity to show you some of my recent book events and experiences.

First, my book in the window of my wonderful local independent book store, called The Book Table. Rachel and Jason, who own this store, have been so kind to me and my book. When I walked in one day to see the display of my books in the window, I was overcome. 
     "Thank you, thank you," I said. "That's so kind."
     "I'm not doing it to be kind," Jason said. "I plan to sell them."











Okay, next are a few photos from my reading at Marygrove College in Detroit. The theme of the event was Defining Detroit, and there I had the pleasure of sharing the podium with Peter Markus (the one with the long hair), who writes short stories and novels in a style one can refer to as experimental, perhaps a mix of Faulkner and Twain and something else distinctively Peter and distinctively "down river" as they say in Detroit. Peter read from a couple of his books. The one we bought that night, though, is called The Singing Fish. As Peter says, he likes fish and he likes the word fish. The person with no hair is Michael Zadoorian, who has published novels as well as short stories. He read from his latest book The Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit. The person in the middle is me. The person at the podium in the suit who is introducing us is Frank Rashid, professor of English lit at Margrove. Frank gave each of us the most gracious, respectful, insightful, and literary intro imaginable.
By the way, thanks to friend, supporter, and Detroiter extraordinaire Kathleen Marcaccio for taking these photos.

 Last, a photo from my reading at the Frederick Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library.
The woman introducing me is Carolyn McCormick, the head of the branch library. She was very cool. I wish I had more photos from that day.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Passover



Passover is a spring festival of liberation. It involves retelling, and in small ways re-enacting and re-experiencing the bitterness of slavery and the joys of liberation. Jews do this retelling and so forth during a ritual meal called a Seder. My novel contains multiple Passover images because the images of the festival are so fertile, so rich with metaphorical potential. Also because my novel has to do with an exodus of sorts--the departure of the Jews from Detroit, Le Detroit (its French name), meaning the Strait, a narrow place. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt (the land where the Jews were enslaved) also means "a narrow place." Discovering this overlap as I researched my novel is what I call a metaphorical gift.
     Passover has just ended for this year, and every year, I gain new insights from the Seder and the Haggadah, the book from which we read during the Seder. One new insight this year was that in addition to slavery and liberation, the Passover story brings up issues of reconciliation and forgiveness. Why? Because once we become liberated, how are we to view our former-enslaver? With hate? With a desire for revenge? If we cannot find a way to forgive the enslaver, don't we continue to be enslaved to him? But how do we find a way to forgive such dehumanizing and brutality? Can anyone be expected to do so?
     At one of my readings (at the Detroit Public Library), an African-American woman in the audience explained something that happened to many black people who came up north to Detroit to work in the factories. In the south, she explained, many had been taught that they were never to look into the face of a white person. When they got to the north, where things were looser, many of these new northerners felt an enormous rage. Rather than feeling that life had improved for them, they felt overwhelmed by all the oppression and humiliation they'd experienced. I cannot blame them for these feelings even if I fear that rage, and even if they have transferred the rage to all white people, even though not every white person was their literal enslaver. I myself many times have made similar errors of overgeneralization.
     Which leads to the second new insight or thought-experiment I encountered this year during Passover: A family who attended the Seder told of an unusual dilemma. The next morning, they were picking up an exchange student at the airport who was going to stay with them for a short time and who would thus attend the second Seder with them the following night. The dilemma-ish aspect was that the exchange student--16 years old--was Egyptian. What did he know about Passover? What, if anything, would he feel at the Seder as the story unfolded of the Egyptian enslavers and their brutality? What, if anything, would he think when he heard about the revenge visited on the Egyptians via the plagues and the drowning in the Red Sea. True, the Haggadah notes that the joy of liberation is diminished by the suffering of the Egyptians. True, the whole thing happened circa 3,000 years ago. I was quite certain that no one at the table would look at him in rage as their former enslaver. But how would he feel? How would you feel in a similar situation? Seated at a table hearing a story about "your people" and their evil ways, when you were the sole representative of "those people" at the table?