Tag Archive for 'Junot Diaz'

writing so hard

writing comes easily to me in that i write daily, and have since i learned the alphabet. i don’t really feel things fully, or understand things, until i have written them down.

writing is still the hardest work i do – physically, emotionally, spiritually, politically. figuring out what needs to be written, what needs to be uplifted, how to write it, who to write to, how much i am willing to share and to change…and, always, when to write – it’s hard work.

words are spells and invitations. they all exist, and we rearrange them over and over to say the truth.

the ancestors i love left me a river of words, and i am conscious of being a small stream flowing into it, sometimes guiding others, bringing myself to an ocean.

so. i just wrote for three weeks straight.

on the surface of it, i finished two books.

one nonfiction, on pleasure activism.

one visionary fiction, a novel on grief and transformation in detroit.

just under the surface, i edited an anthology that i’d been gathering for a year, with a lot of original writing on pleasure to weave it together. as i was completing it, i could see all these additional needs, and every day i was reaching out to people who would add the exact note to the chorus that would make it complete. it was exciting work. and i had to ask myself daily: am i being brave enough? am i telling the truth about my pleasures and vision and healing journey? do i need all these words? does it read like a conversation? am i enjoying this?

i turned it in to my publisher a day before it was due. it will come out this fall, it has a cover, it’s real!

and just like with emergent strategy, i wrote a book that i was longing for.

by the end my whole body hurt. there’s no way to write for 12-13 hours a day that doesn’t tax the body. i took baths and swam every day, celebrated each chapter upon completion, went for walks, sought pleasure.

still, it hurt my hands, my neck, my back, my ass.

my goal is to create a life in which i write 4-5 hours a day most days, an amount that doesn’t hurt. writing brings me unparalleled satisfaction. for now these marathons are what i have and i’m grateful.

so then it was time for the novel. the novel has been showing itself to me for five years in short stories, through a nanowrimo, and a month long writing residency january 2017.

it’s an emotional lift. it’s all about grief, so of course it’s full of ghosts, and i have to step into my own grief to write any of it.

for two days of the work i wrote for 17 hours, no breaks, no swim, nothing but the work. and my pulsing sense of scarcity, that i only had six days left. then five. i moved like a dying snail through three small chapters. my eyes were trembling when i laid down to sleep.

then, the third morning, i released my outcome orientation. i accepted that i most likely wouldn’t finish in the time i had. that i may never finish, that i can’t approach this book that way. i scolded myself for being out of alignment with everything i believe in about creating.

i course corrected.

i let myself deepen into the story, lose myself in the content, feel it and weep, take risks. i went swimming daily, took more epsom salt baths and let myself feel as excellent as possible. i connected with others, friends fighting cancer and heartache and nightmares. i watched planet earth ii.

and, to my surprise…i finished something i’m excited to read, to share. i feel satisfied.

and i remembered, then, how i wanted, needed, to finish the novel before i turn 40. i am aware of time passing. i love aging, and i live in a perilous world.

i noticed how people, people who love my writing, don’t quite understand that writing is hard.

i set relatively soft boundaries around the writing – i won’t answer emails, i won’t be on facebook as much, i won’t do other work. just for three weeks. people used the private space of every social media platform i’m on, my text messages, and friends in common, to still send me requests.

“i know you are writing but…”
“i hope your writing retreat is fun, can you just…”
“congratulations on writing, what about…”

i initially resented this. then i realized it’s the ongoing lesson of boundaries. i am responsible for my life. i can’t have slippery boundaries and expect others not to slide into my sacred writing space.

there are so many societal reasons why boundaries are hard for me. for all of us. and for me.

and, every day, i see how the work of creating and holding boundaries allows my life to be lived in a way that satisfies me. not in reaction or resentment, not protecting my projections of other people’s feelings, but in reveling, in the miracle of being a creative, curious person.

i keep telling the truth these days: no. no and here’s why. no, i’m writing a book. no. i’m writing two.

no makes way for yes. and i’m 39, i want all the yes i can get in this life.

time is both nonlinear and magical. AND finite in the sense of a life. actual years. death is always with me. the week i finished the novel was the 50th anniversary of martin luther king’s assassination.

when i turned 39 i felt very aware that it was my mlk year. 33 was when i compared my life to the brief miraculous life of jesus at the age of his assassination. it’s ridiculous to do this. so what.

39 is the year when i am noticing what i have (and mostly haven’t) done in relationship to mlk. (there are other such years, if you’re into such things.)

i have felt a lot of admiration for mlk as i have aged. he was a human, a direct action hero, and a writer. we remember him as an orator, but that’s because the words he wrote to speak were such radical love poetry.

now i am a 39 year old writer deeply disappointed by the nation of my birth, losing faith in the species at a large scale, but gaining faith in the planet, in the intimacy of communities, in what love can do, and…in what i can envision beyond the mountains of struggle and pain before us.

i see free people.

writing in the context of white supremacy and militarized capitalism and patriarchy ranges from annoying to devastating. writing about concepts that were articulated clearly 50 years ago, and thousands of years before that, is humbling.

will the conversation ever change? it’s changing all the time, of course, but will it ever really change?

i think about how hard it was to write the words “i may not get there with you.” to have a wife and children, a flock, a following, security and a god…and to still know no safety. they are true words that shouldn’t be true. this far into the human journey, speaking truth shouldn’t be fatal. but he didn’t stop writing, speaking. mlk was generous.

i get inspired by this when i dabble with hopelessness and rage. i don’t stop writing, even though i rarely claim originality. i am in the chorus i believe in: i sing of justice, i sing of liberation. i write what i need to read, to hear, to say. i feel when it’s true. i celebrate when i feel truth from others – it’s so easy to perform, to promote. but all i want is truth.

junot diaz just wrote something i needed to read, to hear. it’s in the new yorker, and it’s a #metoo story.

i am a survivor of many kinds of sexual harm. among these is harm that came at the hands of a male survivor of rape. i didn’t know that until later, it was all a mystery in the moment. i experienced harm inside of a sort-of-relationship where i believe we truly loved each other as much as we could at the time. we both carried so much unspeakable baggage in the door that we could not see or hear each other. and i experienced the physical harm of his trauma, coming through his body into how he interacted with my body. he didn’t mean to hurt me. he did hurt me. writing about it hurts me.

i could feel in junot’s words a pain that has always been under the surface of his books. the yawning chasm. the unspeakable baggage. the truth. i know it hurt to write this piece. everyone needs to read it.

writing shapes and reshapes the world, even if the words are simply rearranged dreams, visions, confessions, truths. matter doesn’t disappear, it transforms. we are of it, we shape it. writing so hard that the truth comes forth changes the world, and it changes the writer.

in all of this, in small and undeniable ways, i feel different than i did last month. this is internal. i told the truth. i am 39, and i am slowly seeing who i am.

22 books in 21 days: my reading/writing retreat reviews/thoughts/reflections

2015 reading/writing retreat book thoughts/responses/reviews for the 22 books i’ve read this year:

1. herland, charlotte perkins gilman
this book is a collection of fascinating concepts embedded in dated writing that was hard to read at moments, particularly around race. the central concepts around what a society of only women would be like, what a mothering-based society would look like, are really quite lovely. it’s a quick read, i would recommend to folks looking at feminism and parenting in sci fi, to mothers.

2, 3, 4. saga volumes 1-3, fiona staples and brian k vaughan
this graphic novel may actually be the best thing i have ever encountered. the writing is gorgeous and visceral and hilarious, the visuals are emotive and stunning. i was moved to laughter and tears multiple times. i couldn’t put it down and i wanted to know that all of these complex characters were going to be ok. magnificent way of casting the world in a war vs peace question without feeling boring or earnest. can’t wait for more.

5. the secret history of las vegas, chris abani
subtle, strange, poetic. a good mystery with skilled reveals. particularly of interest for those considered freaks and outcasts by mainstream society – how is that condition, that distance from the center, survived, navigated? abani is a masterful writer, he creates a situation where you wouldn’t want to be in this world, but you can’t not see it.

6. a book of common prayer, joan didion
this book makes me want to release a particular little keening moan. didion writes about grief and pain in the most exquisite precise way. this story is very small and personal and a little mysterious…i can’t exactly put my finger on what she was telling us about other than heartache. but it’s enough. apparently it’s about to be a movie with the redhead from mad men – i anticipate.

7. chronicle of a death foretold, gabriel garcia marquez
garcia marquez could write about sitting on a toilet for 100 pages and i would be stunned by the beauty of it. this is a story of a murder, where the murderers are known, and the motive, and everything. but the exploration is around how the whole town handles it both before and after. his writing is poetic and objective and casts judgment without any accusation, simply with the information he offers.

8, 9. fifty shades trilogy (darker, and freed), e.l. james
i just had to know: what was the big deal about these books? as someone who doesn’t really read romance novels, there was a certain thrusting loin quality, where every brush of the knuckle against sensitive skin blooms an orgasm that felt beyond ridiculous. but what i was left with was a lot of discomfort, not from the kind of sex, but from the abusive relationship between this virgin and a possessive, traumatized, controlling man. i was glad to see the presentation of bdsm agreements and communication around sex that gets explored here. but the way sex was used to connect with someone so emotionally volatile and manipulative made me want to sit down with this girl and do some life coaching and mediation. i’m sure someone good has already written about this somewhere, but i hadn’t seen it. i kept rooting for her to put her foot down and say no, you can’t treat me this way. alas, they would instead fall into romantic throes again because she bit her lip and his manhood was involved. yay for bondage and consensual play, but all thumbs down for the presentation of this as any model of a sexy relationship.

10. positron episodes 1-3, margaret atwood
this is a hilarious dystopian future series. i didn’t realize it was an unfinished series when i started or i probably would have waited til it was done. but it’s funny enough, though not her best, not on par with the maddaddam trilogy. she is skilled and cynical, she makes me actually laugh out loud, and the idea is a brilliant critique of the modern prison system.

11. the blind assassin, margaret atwood
a tragedy, written in slow full detail. very different, sadder and more earthbound than anything else i’ve read of atwood’s work. this is a great family drama, and it’s quite cinematic. there is sci-fi in here but its tucked inside a world war 2 era tragedy that builds up to be very specifically of it’s time, the kind of tragedy that can only emerge out of deep shame and politeness.

12. kafka on the shore, haruki murakami
ahhhh. this book had so much magic, so many of the right fundamental questions, so much good taboo and sensuality…it is a perfect book, each character unlikely and compelling, the mysteries pulling you forward. there is a section of this story that actually feels impossible – an act of sexual violence that is somehow made part of the journey through innocence, that i have to note as a survivor, and also say i never thought anyone could write such a scene in a way that still felt safe, tender, forgivable and humane. the whole thing is brilliance. the story is paced perfectly, and there are things like having half of a shadow, or talking with cats, that make total sense here. i want to read a lot more of his work.

13. at night we walk in circles, daniel alarcon
this story really echoed garcia marquez’s chronicle of a death foretold in it’s pace, in telling of how scandal and love and youth happen in a small place, or in this case a series of small places where people are trying to make meaning of their lives. i love how daniel writes, and i love what feels like looking behind a curtain at the friendships and society of men, the immense quiet suffering, confusion and pride.

14. killing moon (dreamblood), n.k. jemisin
n.k. writes fantasies where the darkest skinned people are the divine presence, where romance is queer and crosses gender, sexuality, ability and species. there is tension, longing, principle, power play. she easily evokes and drops us into worlds that are fully formed and believable, and then she focuses in on tender interpersonal dynamics. this book really examines death – seeing it as something not to be feared, as a possible transition into ecstasy that i found very compelling.

15. the salt eaters, toni cade bambara
this book is difficult! there isn’t something clear to grab onto and hold as you enter the heart of this healing, and i found myself having to approach it as a spiritual journey rather than a narrative as i was moved, confused, annoyed, touched, witnessed and worked. i am grateful toni opened herself up to this one, and i know this isn’t my last time reading it.

16. americanah, chimimanda ngozi adichie
ahhhhhh. ah ah ahhhh. i saved this book for near the end of my trip because i had great expectations and i wanted to savor the anticipation. adichie delivers. she writes this book about all of these normal things – love, family, friendship, growing up, figuring out who you are and want to be – and she makes it all feel honest and meaningful. what is it like to be aware of yourself being difficult, or being silent in the face of injustice, or walking away from love? how many of us are moved by forces we can’t quite put our finger on, between choices that don’t offer clear and easy next steps? when i finished this book i hugged it, literally, with gratitude.

16. this is how you lose her, junot diaz
yunior! this book felt like it flew past, the voice moving so quickly, so of the world junot is documenting, that i wanted to make myself read it slower, but i couldn’t. i appreciate what feels like a shamelessness in this, the exposure of how straight men learn to speak to each other and think to themselves about women. and how much these women with their fears and care and needs actually mean to the men, in spite of the training to disregard love, to be greedy. i wanted it to go on.

17. how to slowly kill yourself and others in america, kiese laymon
i wrote some about how this book effected me in my delirious travel posting. i think kiese is writing a very particular voice that feels like the open vein of this political moment, wonderful and accessible and also hard to read. i love his southern black boy stance, i love reading him be vulnerable about what he has lost in trying to be tough, i love his relationship with his mama and the women who love him, i love that this collection of essays is designed to be read in one sitting – even though i took a break in the middle to have a spiritual enlightenment moment – and i love that it feels like there is so much more to come from him.

18. y the last man volume 1, brian k vaughan
after falling hard for saga people kept mentioning this work to me and it’s fantastic – the premise is like herland, a world of women, and the experience of a man/men traversing that world. vaughn writes characters you want to kick it with, want to kick the asses of, and want to see win at life. can’t wait to read more.

19. motherless brooklyn, jonathan lethem
this book was a find on the shelf where i was staying once i ran out of books. i grabbed it because it had incredible reviews, and i found it an interesting book – the lead character is a detective who lives with tourette’s and the most fascinating part of the book by far is being inside his tourette’s ticking mind – the self awareness of control and lack of control. made me think how much i take for granted the relationship between my mind and my body. the detective story was fine, but the journey into the protagonist’s brain was the reason to read this book. i’m excited to see ed norton take this on for film.

20. lion’s blood, steven barnes
wow. i wanted to read this book because i had heard about how steven flipped white supremacy in his head to the degree that in the book hard times are called ‘pale times’…i wanted to see this flip. this book is well researched and deeply plausible, and it really pushes the mind to see how clearly white supremacy works, where it is embedded and assumed. there was a point where i was reading and wanting to close the book because the account was so traumatizing, and then had to release a good cry because…that’s my lineage. this is a powerful, innovative and thorough alternate history.

21. healing sex, staci k haines
this book is so necessary. staci is my teacher in my somatics and social justice path, and i have been needing and fearing this book for a few years. i worked through it one chapter at a time and there was so much smart, nonjudgmental, ambitious and practical wisdom in here…i feel like i grew up a few years in my journey of sexual health and power with this book. i recommend it to anyone and everyone who has sex.

22. soul talk: the new spirituality of african american women, akasha gloria hull
this book, prescribed to me by dr alexis pauline gumbs, also got touched on in my delirious post, but i want to add that i thought it was brave of akasha to name that the book was a spiritual journey in and of itself, in addition to being a whisper across spirit between these women of the 80s and those of us reading and learning from their words today. this book is full of vulnerability, and not trying to condense or synthesize black creative and spiritual brilliance, but letting it be ethereal and precise and emotional and mystical. she helped me read the salt eaters, and moving through it one chapter at a time, it put me in contact with my ancestors in a way that feels precious and right.

reflections on the octavia e. butler celebration at spelman

i am still glowing and full from last week’s octavia e. butler celebration at spelman. the event was the second one hosted by the humble and brilliant patternmaster tananarive due, the horror/sci-fi writer who held the cosby chair at the college these past two years (and who i am thrilled to call my writing coach this year).

last march, tananarive invited friends and colleagues of octavia’s together to reflect, share work, converse and celebrate octavia’s life and impact. writers and thinkers like samuel r. delany, nalo hopkinson, nisi shawl, steven barnes, lynnee denise, jewelle gomez and sheree thomas sat together and honored their friend and ancestor. i wasn’t able to make it, but watched hungrily from afar.

tananarive focused this year’s event on arts and activism, rooted in her own background as the daughter of civil rights activists. when she invited me i couldn’t fully believe it. i said yes much the way i once said yes to going on the space mountain ride at disney world – OF COURSE I WANT TO DO THAT!!, not thinking until later what that might actually be like as an experience.

over the months between the invitation and the event, tananarive told me she was also inviting nnedi okorafor. then dream hampton and bree newsome. then junot diaz. then john jennings. other than bree, i had buried myself in each person’s work. dream is a close detroit comrade. they are all masters in their respective crafts.

i got very very nervous.

knowing i would be near nnedi and junot particularly made me feel like i was about to be upside down in the dark of an unknown depth. i entered a comfortable denial mode wherein i just didn’t think about it.

then a little over a month ago i was at astroblackness in l.a. and nnedi was there, as well as nalo, john, tananarive and steven. they were all quite normal nerdy cool fresh people. i observed nnedi’s presence, knowing we’d share panel space soon, and with the luxury of being unknown to her. she is a striking and direct speaker – perhaps a little uncomfortable with the attention her brilliance brings, but also wanting to be as precise in her talks as she is on her pages. my nervousness around her became excitement. i wanted more time around her present-moment mind.

now i was only in denial about junot. and the live streaming – did i mention that? the whole thing was sent out to the world and the galaxy in real time. no wardrobe glitches or tripped over words allowed.

my honey lynnee denise was in town, in an alignment of magic she spoke at spelman a few days earlier at the toni cade bambara scholars/writers/activists program at the women’s research center. she kept me in my body and feeling cared for throughout the week, for which i am deeply grateful.

In terms of the event, everything was awesome.

it started off with a black sci fi film festival with piece after piece that inspired and moved me. dream’s video for theesatifaction’s ‘queen’ showed, a gorgeous expression of radical black queer beauty and fashion. there was a short film critiquing spelman’s founders’ day through a magical realism lens. there was a sci fi interactive movie/game about the work of depersonalizing and battling ‘dark forces’ that get inside us, which was funky and spoke to so much of what i have been working through in my own life. bree’s short film ‘wake’ showed, totally creepy and beautiful – it was exciting to experience her work before we met and shared the panel space. then tananarive and steven’s ‘danger word’, a short take on a zombie film, had me in tears – excellent efficient storytelling. the festival closed with pumzi, a short film out of kenya which i have seen a few times and find stunning and challenging. the way the lead character loves her planet always opens me up.

after a short break, tananarive and nnedi gave a reading in the museum, which was full of renee stout’s stunning ‘house of the conjure woman’ exhibit. it was the perfect backdrop for their words. tananarive read from the good house, which i just finished this morning. she read in the voice of the book’s magic ancestor, a part of the book i hadn’t gotten to yet. i am learning so much from her about research, place, description, story arc, and how important the characters are, outside of the horror, science and technology.

nnedi read from her new adult novel lagoon, and as she read she took us into this vibrant world she has created. i downloaded the book immediately and am excited to get into it.

at the end of the event, tananarive said that junot had slipped in the back. i didn’t turn around, but my denial ended abruptly. he was here! so was bree, and the gifted artist john jennings, who is doing the cover of octavia’s brood. so were dream, nnedi and her daughter, tananarive and her father, lynnee, soraya and sage from the NOLA wildseeds coven, a group connected to the octavia butler and emergent strategy work. so was my old friend samirah from college, who is now a textile/fabric artist living in atlanta, who reminded me i had basically been like this since school. and bill campbell, an internet friend for years who i had never met in person. and so was shamika, a new facebook friend who had flown down from NY to connect with all of us. people were texting and tweeting as they prepared to watch from afar.

the pattern was gathering.

shortly before we went up, as i finally frantically gathered my thoughts, tananarive reminded me that she wanted me to do one of the grounding exercises i’d told her about, instead of just a talking intro. all of the sudden emergent strategy flooded my system and i lost my nervousness. i only had to do what i loved and be myself.

junot diaz came over and became just junot, a human with a wicked smile, bad back, and brilliant mouth that talks in essays and curses. dream was there, covered in sparkles. we were all there because of our shared love of octavia.

exhale, be here. i landed in the moment of it, in my body.

a group of spelman and morehouse students opened us with a reading of earthseed verses. then the speakers took the stage. i went first, and had folks stand and do a meditation and sharing around the Octavia’s earthseed concept ‘all that you touch, you change.’ i asked them to share what they are in this world to change, and to manifest it with one other person in the room. i referenced octavia’s brood and emergent strategy to ground the work.

the other panelists introduced themselves with a variety of love stories about octavia and her impact on them. junot and dream both shared what it was like to read her work as it was coming out. john spoke about coming to her work as a visual artist, and how he is in the process of doing a comic book adaptation of kindred. nnedi spoke about her friendship with octavia, and how they corresponded about world events, including 9/11, and octavia’s disdain for bush. bree spoke about the impact of octavia on her creative and activist work.

the q&a that followed had us speaking on the new intelligence of social media and how to use it as a way to connect people for social justice, the blackness of outer space, sci-fi and theology, how to make sci-fi work and ideas more accessible – including changing who is seen as a creator, and using image and film to tell stories. we were asked whether we wanted to write about a world beyond race (most of us said a resounding no…for me identity is one of the most interesting ways we evolve and layer), what themes emerge in our work (i said pleasure!), and how to deal with the fear of changing the world with our writing. the audience was lovely, alert, leaning forward.

i notice that spaces created around octavia feel sacred to me, always.

the next day i got to hold a circle around octavia and emergent strategy. it was an intimate group of about twelve people – students, professors, cultural strategists, artists. tananarive’s father john stephens due was there, which was awesome. elders bring such value, and he has been doing social justice work for over fifty years. he jumped in and played with the ideas of emergence and sci fi.

i introduced emergent strategy and had people personalize it for their lives. it was beautiful to hear what came out as folks talked about being more intentional, interdependent, transformative, adaptive, decentralized, fractal and creating more possibilities in their lives and work.

i deeply believe in the work i am getting to do these days. i think it is a path that will liberate many paths, and i think i am merely a conduit, a gathering place for the ideas to marinate and continue.

i am being shaped, i am shaping.