See yourself, Be yourself.

 

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Shannon Gibney Speaking  about Her new Young Adult Novel  See No Color.

 

For the last week I have been doing everything I can to avoid writing answers to  what should be a couple of easy questions: Who am I? and  What is my book about?

Instead I wrote about Kmart, (!) washed five loads of laundry,  folded  AND put them away, graded all my papers, searched in vain for cheap last minute tickets to NYC to see my daughter perform, had tea with two students, made and ate two from-scratch soups, raked leaves, walked, checked Facebook and  turtleroad.org,  Facebook and turtleroad.org, Facebook and turtleroad.org.

I also attended two talks. Historian Peniel Joseph  addressed students at Macalester, putting Black Lives Matter in the context of civil rights and Black Liberation History. Shannon Gibney read from her new  YA  novel See No Color.

Joseph said we make a mistake when we put too much emphasis on legal changes, like the Voting Rights Act, or Brown V Board, or focus on the rise of an individuals like MLK andBarack Obama.  When we do that we see these events and people as some sort of resting spot, instead of staying in the struggle.

Black Lives Matter youth are the progenitors of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee)- young people aiming to transform the system, Joseph argued. “For Black people, History is sustenance.Without it we die. With knowledge of those who struggled before us we know who we are, and what we need to do. If we read and write our truths everyday we don’t need drugs and alcohol. The knowledge will keep us healthy.”

Shannon Gibney, whose book gives voice to young transracial adoptees — said essentially the same thing at the Loft Literary Center.  “Something happens when you don’t see yourself in literature.”

She was told by editors to focus her narrative – to which she replied “my life is multilayered.” It was exactly that complexity that she needed to write about.

One of Gibney’s strengths as a writer is that she is a truth teller – something she said does not always work for her in life, but is essential to writing.  Part of telling truth in See No Color was to create Alex, a 16 year old  biracial girl adopted by a white couple — who tells lies as she struggles to create a face for the world.

Her goal as the story progressed was for her character and her readers to learn to be comfortable with themselves and with the diversity they encounter as they proceed toward adulthood.

When I was 17 trying to maneuver my first semester at Oberlin College (a few weeks before dropping out) I came home from a world history class and wrote in my notebook:

“I am a product of history.”

Now, 40 years later, I wish that instead of paragraphing who am I and what is your book about — I could just repeat those six words … I am a product of history…  and the reader (and publisher) would say,

“Interesting. I’ll come along for the ride.”

More Than A Single Story

 

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More Than a Single Story: Women Writers of the African Diaspora,  was a three session series at the Loft Literary Center, curated by Carolyn Holbrook in the fall of 2015.  Holbrook took the title  from  the Ted Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Single stories are the stuff of stereotypes that dis-empower.

The first session featured Tish Jones, Shannon Gibney, Andrea Jenkins, Lori Young Williams, Pamela Fletcher, and Mary Moore Easter. The second The October 4 session featured three Caribbean writers :Valérie Déus, Beaudelaine Pierre, and Junauda Petrus.

Holbrook asked what they feared writing about. For Shannon Gibney it was the experiences of others. Andrea Jenkins felt comfortable in that space but feared writing about herself. All struggled with writing about those close to them.

“Should there be a cannon for Black women writers?  They disagreed, but all felt It’s important to know you are not the first, when you sit down to write.

Moore Easter and Gibney encouraged writers not to worry about what genre you are filling. Jenkins encouraged people to self-publish and not let the industry get between you and your audience.

 

Déus,  grew up  in a Haitian community in Brooklyn, New York. She fears writing about trauma. She has a ritual of retelling to mark anniversaries, but is waiting for the time when she ready to say something more about them.

She told of countless retellings of the Haitian revolution growing up — the island that overthrew slavery and colonialism all at once — a story that made her unafraid to imagine radical change.

Petrus, who grew up in South Minneapolis of Caribbean immigrant parents, compared inter-island migration that splits families and leaves children without their parents, to African-American great Migration North.

Petrus hears Black Cannon everywhere: in her mother’s voice, in Chicago’s south side, in hip hop. She told of a year her mom took them to live in Florida, of falling in love with the ocean.

Both she and Déus, talked of the difference between Minnesota lakes and rivers and the power and smell of the big salt sea.

Pierre came from Haiti to the Twin Cities in 2009. Her father told her to be a writer because she could speak French well. Now she writes in Creole, a language that most can’t read, but one that best describes her reality.  Coming from a place where everyone is Black and therefore no-one is black-identified she struggles with American racism, especially as a mother of Black children in Minnesota.

Not a single story, but many essential stories.

Photo by Brian Peterson, StarTribune.

Carolyn Holbrook, Limelight Sharer.

 

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I just came back from the second of the three readings  by women writers of the African diaspora, a series  conceived, curated and moderated by writer and educator Carolyn Holbrook.

The series is entitled “More Than a Single Story,”  to highlight the diversity of Black women’s stories. She was inspired by the Ted Talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who notes that single stories are the stuff of stereotypes that disempower.

The first session on September 27, featured Minnesota African American women across the age spectrum: Tish Jones, Shannon Gibney, Andrea Jenkins, Lori Young Williams, Pamela Fletcher, and Mary Moore Easter.

Today’s session featured three Caribbean/Minnesota  writers: Valerie Deus, Beaudelaine Pierre and Junauda Petrus.

Holbrook used her own 2015 Minnesota State Arts Board Artists initiative grant to bring together 14 other women writers and shine a light on them. At today’s session I bought her book, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Journeys  a beautiful collection of stories of individuals who used a neighborhood grant to  build the commons in St Paul.  Like her More Than a Single Story series, Holbrook uses the book to shine a light and build power in as many  grassroots places as possible.

Holbrook is  a gifted writer.  She read an exquisite essay about being visited by an ancestor at a time when she was 50 and broke and had moved in with her parents. She is also deeply committed to feeding the tide, sharing the stage, advancing the work and telling the stories that extend the grants. In the ego-centered world of academia, writing and nonprofits that is rare and precious.

Carolyn Holbrook, Ph.D is an adjunct faculty at Hamline University and Minneapolis Community and Technical College. At the first presentation she talked about how the State Arts Board Grant gave her the opportunity to write everyday this summer. All I could think was: the Universities she works for  should be providing enough for her to do that every summer.