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Celebrating the Contributions of African-American Authors February 13, 2012

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature, bestsellers, multi-cultural fiction, weekly topics, women's fiction.
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Truth in Memoir is today’s Media Monday discussion from this Associated Press piece on NPR’s site. Greg Mortenson is asking judge to overturn the civil lawsuit claiming he fabricated events in his bestselling memoir, Three Cups of Tea, saying other authors could be subjected to similar claims and the result would be a stifling of the free exchange of ideas.

Jacqueline E. Luckett, photo by Ashley SummerFebruary is Black History Month in America. Those who don’t study American literature rarely discover the poetry of the slave Phyllis Wheatley that predates the American Revolution. While they may have heard of Frederick Douglas, the average reader is unaware of the thousands of written slave narratives that give voices to the individuals trapped in that era. Booker T. Washington and  W. E. B. Du Bois wrote widely of the post-Civil-war black experience, influencing many of those who would later contribute to the brilliant arts, music and literature movement of the 1920s-40s that became the Harlem Renaissance. One can’t speak about African-American literature without recognizing Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, some of which have passed and others are still contributing. This week in #litchat we’re celebrating the many contributions of Aftrican-American authors, both past and present, to the literary canon.

We are delighted to have author Jacqueline E. Luckett join us as guest host on Friday, February 17. Luckett’s new novel, Passing Love, features the best of this week’s celebration of African-American literature. In Passing Love, two heroines pass through two timelines and two continents to come together for a bittersweet finish. The novel opens in contemporary California, with Nicole-Marie as primary caretaker to her embittered mother and Alzheimer’s stricken father. Still numb from her divorce several years ago, yet wrapped in guilt as the other woman to a married lover, Nicole-Marie is galvanized to take back her life after her best friend dies from cancer. Drop back sixty years to World War II-era Mississippi, when 16-year-old RubyMae, the wild and beautiful daughter of straight-laced parents, meets devilishly handsome sax player Arnett Dupree. Take both heroines across the Atlantic to Paris, where each of these determined women forge new lives that hardens one and softens the other, then combines them both through a shared history.

In between the lines of Passing Love, Luckett examines the treatment of blacks in Jim Crow America, with sensitive illumination of how black soldiers were segregated and undervalued by the American military during World War II and scoffed at by white America when they returned home, yet hailed as heroes—and rightly so—in post-war Europe. She deftly portrays the complexities of the African-American individual, in this case RubyMae, whose complexion, features and hair provide opportunity to “pass” as white. Within this miasma, Luckett recreates post-war Paris, with its jazz-age nightclubs, cafes, intrigues and challenges, contrasting the ordinary freedom available to blacks in Europe, against the racial prejudice and suffocating restrictions of America. The title, Passing Love, is drawn from a poem by Langston Hughes, to whom Nicole-Marie refers often, poetry being a link between her and her aging father. While RubyMae is seen from her teenage years, the bulk of her story occurs in her twenties, yet Nicole-Marie’s maturity as a woman of a certain age—she’s 57—is ballast to maintain the balance of this elegant novel.

Jacqueline E. Luckett’s first novel, Searching for Tina Turner, put her on the list of writers to watch. A lifelong storyteller, Luckett spent most of her professional life in corporate America. In 1999, she took a creative writing class on a dare, from herself, and happily found her love of writing reignited. By a lucky coincidence, that same year she discovered the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) writing workshops and participated over the next four years in workshops with Christina Garcia, Danzy Senna, Junot Diaz, Ruth Forman and Terry McMillan. VONA provided a safe haven for a new writer still unsure of abilities, yet eager to learn. Luckett attributes much of her growth as a writer to the VONA workshops. In 2004, Luckett formed the Finish Party (featured in O Magazine, October 2007) along with seven other women writers–of–color. An avid reader and lover of books, Luckett is an excellent cook, aspiring photographer, and world traveler. She lives in Northern California and, though she loves all of the friends there, she takes frequent breaks to fly off to foreign destinations.

Follow Jacqueline E. Luckett on Twitter: @JackieLuckett.

Photo of Jacqueline E. Luckett (above): Ashley Summer.

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Addiction in Fiction October 3, 2011

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature, bestsellers, literary fiction.
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Addition is enslavement to something that exerts such power over a person, he/she loses the ability to resist. Alcohol and narcotics—whether legal or not—ensnare a person physiologically, yet addiction to habits, practices or even people can also smite a person to the point of despair, depression, death. This week in #litchat we’re discussing novels featuring the diverse forms of addition.

Joining us on Friday, October 7, is novelist Martha Southgate, whose fourth novel, The Taste of Salt, was released by Algonquin on September 13. Josie Henderson is an anomaly to everyone around her, even to herself.
From her earliest memories, Josie is drawn to the ocean and marine life. When she becomes a marine biologist, she’s among a small number of females in the profession. Add that she’s black, and the numbers descend to one. Through Josie’s eyes we meet her parents, her mother from the educated middle class, and her father, an autoworker who reads widely and tinkers at novel-writing. Alcohol rears its scaly head in the life of the father, whose novel-writing aspirations turn to vapor in the grip of the beast. A younger brother, Tick, endears and then tears the hearts out of each character as the novel progresses through the cycles of addiction. With visits back and forth in Josie’s past, we see her as the strong one determined to make her own way in a white, male-dominated profession, while addiction of another kind ripples the placid surface of the life she’s worked so hard to maintain.

Martha Southgate is the author of four novels. Her previous novel, Third Girl from the Left, won the Best Novel of the Year award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was shortlisted for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy award. Her novel The Fall of Rome received the 2003 Alex Award from the American Library Association and was named one of the best novels of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. She is also the author of Another Way to Dance, which won the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award for Best First Novel. She received a 2002 New York Foundation for the Arts grant and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her July 2007 essay from the New York Times Book Review, “Writers Like Me” received considerable notice and appears in the anthology Best African-American Essays 2009. Previous non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine,OPremiere, and Essence.

Follow Martha Southgate on Twitter: @mesouthgate.

Ugly Ducklings August 8, 2011

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature, coming-of-age, fiction, multi-cultural fiction.
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Ernessa T. Carter (photo: Christian Hibbard)

Fiction is rife with ugly ducklings who mature into beautiful swans. Some of them leave behind the tatty feathers of the past for the sequins of success, never to look back. Others are driven to soar higher, farther, faster in a “living well is the best revenge” on those who poked fun at their facades in the dark days of their uglihood. Then there are those who harry their harassers, plotting ingenious revenge on the beautiful people who shamed, bullied, and scorned them. This week in #litchat we’re discussing ugly ducklings in literature.

Guest host on Friday, August 12, is Ernessa T. Carter, whose debut novel, 32 Candles features an ugly duckling heroine who belts out velvet soul on stage while plotting silken revenge on her high school persecutors. Abuse isn’t new to Davidia Jones, though. Her mother, an alcoholic small-time prostitute beat the voice right out of Davidia when she was a child. Davidia finds refuge in the happy ending romances of Molly Ringwald movies until a particularly cruel prank by the richest and most beautiful girl in town sends Davidia fleeing for her sanity. On the road to sanity, she finds her voice on a nightclub stage in L.A. and grows into the skin she was born to flaunt as sultry chanteuse Davie Jones. Having eschewed the Molly Ringwald endings, the transformed Davie is stunned for the second time in her life when high school crush, James, brother to the cruel tormentor of her Molly Ringwald years, reenters her life. Davidia/Davie is one of those characters we root and rage with, whose struggle reminds us that to some extent we are all  products of personal reinvention.

Ernessa T. Carter, 32, has worked as an English as a Second Language teacher in Japan, a music journalist in Pittsburgh, a payroll administrator in Burbank, and a radio writer for “American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest” in Hollywood. She’s also a retired L.A. Derby Doll (roller-derby), and now lives, blogs, and writes in Los Angeles. A graduate of Smith College and Carnegie Mellon University’s MFA program, 32 Candles is her first novel. She blogs at www.fierceandnerdy.com.

Follow Ernessa T. Carter on Twitter: @ErnessaTCarter.

White Readers Meet Black Literature January 31, 2011

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature.
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Carleen Brice

Throughout the month of February, the United States honors the history and contributions of African-Americans. LitChat is pleased to open this month with a week devoted to African-American literature. Joining us as moderator throughout the week is Carleen Brice, author of the critically acclaimed novels Orange Mint and Honey and Children of the Waters. Orange Mint and Honey was adapted into a Lifetime Original Movie and titled Sins of the Mothers and aired in 2010.

A strong advocate of reading and literature, Brice reaches out further with White Readers Meet Black Authors, “Your official invitation into the African American section of the bookstore! Carleen Brice’s sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted plea for EVERYBODY to give a black writer a try, blog.”

In addition to fiction, Brice also wrote Lead Me Home: An African American’s Guide Through the Grief Journey (HarperCollins), and edited the anthology Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife (Beacon Press, Souvenir Press). Her book Walk Tall: Affirmations for People of Color sold over 100,000 copies and was in print with traditional publishers for 10 years. It is now available from iUniverse.

In 2008, Brice won the Breakout Author of the Year Award from the African American Literary Awards Show and in 2009 she received the First Novel Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She was a finalist for the 2009 Colorado Book Award in literary fiction, and is a two-time finalist for the Colorado Book Award in nonfiction (for Lead Me Home and Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number).

She lives in Colorado with her husband where she gardens and works on her third novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home.

Follow Carleen Brice on Twitter at: @CarleenBrice.

Belonging May 31, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature, fiction, literary fiction, multi-cultural fiction, weekly topics.
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Topic of the Week: May 31 – June 4, 2010

Heidi W. Durrow

Heidi W. Durrow

A sense of belonging is vital to an individual’s personal and social development. Some of the most enduring and endearing characters in literature are misfits, people who don’t have a strong sense of belonging. Think Hamlet, Ivanhoe, Heathcliff, Stephen Douglas, Pip, Huck Finn, Ignatius Reilly, Margaret Simon. What is it about these characters, their misadventures, ponderings, avarice and eccentricities that have captured readers through the centuries? This week in #litchat we’ll discuss books with characters who don’t quite fit in.

Completing the topic this week is guest host Heidi W. Durrow, whose debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, features a character caught in between cultures. Not only is Rachel bi-racial, the child of an African-American GI father and a Danish mother, but she’s uprooted from racially tolerant Europe to neo-tolerant white America and onward to the black community of her father’s mother. Compounding her confused sense of belonging is the powerful effect of being the sole survivor of a mysterious family tragedy that killed her mother, brother and baby sister. Primarily told through Rachel’s POV, the novel’s alternating POVs—-such as a boy who witnessed a flash of the tragedy, her mother’s former employer, her father, even her mother’s ex-boyfriend—-provide a journalistic, rather than sensational account of Rachel’s story.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was awarded Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change. A graduate of Stanford, Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Law School, Heidi W. Durrow is the recipient of a Fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Writers, a Jentel Foundation Residency, and won top honors in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition and the Chapter One Fiction Contest. She has received grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the American Scandinavian Foundation, the Roth Endowment and the American Antiquarian Society.

Originally from Portland, Oregon, Heidi has worked as a corporate litigator at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and as a consultant to the National Football League and National Basketball Association. She is the co-host of the award-winning weekly podcast Mixed Chicks Chat; and the co-founder and co-producer of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an annual free public event, that celebrates stories of the Mixed experience.

Durrow’s writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Callaloo, Poem/Memoir/Story, the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Essence magazine, and Newsday.

Follow Heidi W. Durrow on Twitter at @heididurrow.

Mixed Relationships March 28, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, multi-cultural fiction, religion and mysticism, weekly topics.
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Topic of the Week: March 29-April 2, 2010

Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Joining us on Friday, April 2, is Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench.

The deepest pock on the face of the United States is undoubtedly the era of slavery. One of the most important books of the year, Wench is a historically accurate look at the complex relationships born of slavery. Four slave women from plantations scattered around the South are taken by their masters to a hunting/fishing resort in the free North, given latitude to explore, to think and to scheme. Freedoms unimaginable back on the plantation.

You could call them mistresses, but that’s only a euphemism. The women featured in Wench, Lizzy, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu, are sex slaves to the southern masters they serve. Complicating the relationships are the feelings of love, hate and indifference these women have for their masters. The choices that seem so tempting—escape into the free north—become another form of bondage when they consider the children they’ve born of these sires. Relationships between the slave women one to another form a circle of understanding that leads to a bittersweet ending readers won’t easily forget.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction and essays have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories 2009, The Kenyon Review, PMS: PoemMemoirStory, North Carolina Literary Review, and Richard Wright Newsletter. Born and raised in Memphis, a graduate of Harvard, and a former University of California postdoctoral fellow, Perkins-Valdez teaches creative writing at the University of Puget Sound. She splits her time between Washington, DC and Seattle, Washington.  Wench is her first novel.

Follow Dolen Perkins-Valdez on Twitter at @Dolen.

Read chatscript from Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s visit in #litchat here.

The Legacy of African-American Writers February 15, 2010

Posted by Carolyn Burns Bass in African-American literature, bestsellers, fiction, multi-cultural fiction, weekly topics, women's fiction.
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February 15-19, 2010

Guest post written by Virginia DeBerry, moderator of LitChat’s African-American Writers week.

Virginia DeBerry

What is African American Literature? Books written by blacks? Books written about blacks? Both? Several years ago publishers concluded that “African American Lit” was a genre, one encompassing all books written by black authors.

The first novel Donna Grant and I wrote two decades ago, Exposures, was published under the pseudonym Marie Joyce, and it had no black characters—zip, zero. The book was about a young Swedish-American heiress pursuing a career as a fashion photographer; our photo was on the back so it was no secret we were black—but what category should the novel go in?

Novels like The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, written by white authors, are largely about black characters and these books are marketed to and read by both blacks and whites, while most of us African American writers struggle to get our work to “crossover” and reach a wider audience. Other than works considered literary fiction, our novels are marketed to and read by people who look like our characters, like us. We know we have white readers because many identify themselves that way in their letters and email. But for the most part, our work rarely crosses the invisible, artificial barrier that keeps our stories separate. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie spoke eloquently about this kind of literary divide in The Danger of a Single Story at a recent TED.com conference.

Connie Briscoe joins the conversation on Friday as guest host with Virginia DeBerry as moderator. Briscoe is a NY Times bestselling author of eight novels, including SISTERS & HUSBANDS, the recently released follow-up to her 1996 debut novel, SISTERS AND LOVERS. Read more about Briscoe at http://aalbc.com/authors/connie.htm.

Most of the African American writers I know personally are women—and we write contemporary women’s fiction with characters who happen to be black. Ours are stories of struggle and triumph, loss, coping, love, life, lessons learned and not learned—subjects that affect all women. But we are labeled, marginalized by the market, before our books even make it to the shelf of your local bookstore or library. Together we have sold millions of books, but most white readers of women’s fiction have never heard of Connie Briscoe, Donna Hill, Bernice McFadden, Carleen Brice or DeBerry & Grant even though we read Jodi Piccoult, Anne Tyler, Amy Tan, Elizabeth Berg, Adrianna Trigiani and Jennifer Weiner—you get the picture.

Though I must admit to being thrilled in discovering a recent article on Savannahnow.com comparing our last novel, What Doesn’t Kill You (along with half dozen or so other women’s fiction authors) to the work of Anita Shreve. On the flip side, a few weeks ago Chicklit Club listed their Ultimate 100 reads. One novel out of one hundred was by a black writer—Terry McMillan‘s Waiting to Exhale—which was published back in 1992.

What actually comprises diversity in publishing and marketing is a conversation African American authors have been having quietly, among ourselves, for many years. This fall, Bernice McFadden’s piece on Galley Cat Seg-Book-Gation, my written in frustration Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey about the plight of mid-list black authors, the one year anniversary of Carleen Brice‘s blog Welcome White Folks, Rebecca TheBookLadysBlog on An Invitation to Dialogue on Diversity in Media after the Salon.com article about the “whitewashing” of yet another book cover, and young book bloggers like Reading in Color have shed more light on this issue—but not nearly enough. A look at the Publishers’ Weekly cover for their New Books and Trends in African American Publishing issue and the furor it sparked, speaks to the power and influence of perception.

When I first hosted LitChat in March of last year, the topic we selected was Beyond Black and White–Writing in Color. Because I had become somewhat of a LitChat regular at that point and had been a vocal part of many discussions, I was surprised to discover that during that week, attendance dropped significantly and the make up of the chatters changed dramatically—by race. Who knows who’s “lurking” in the chatroom, but usually there are only a handful of black participants who make themselves known. I never mind my minority status, never think it matters, there are very few men in attendance as well. Besides—we who are LitChat regulars are present because we share an interest in books, writing and writers. Right?

That week, however, chats were largely populated by black chatters (many not seen since); there were only a handful of non-African Americans present and accounted for. While our discussions were lively and evocative, we were once again having a conversation among ourselves, about a topic we know all too well—we were preaching to the choir. The following week LitChat returned to its regular demographics—without fanfare or comment. Did the regular LitChat folks think the subject didn’t apply them and their reading habits? Did the blacks who did drop in feel welcome because of the topic but unwelcome/uncomfortable at other times? Is race and racism still on the taboo topic list? Was everybody just busy?

Next week on LitChat let’s discuss possible reasons for this puzzling literary dichotomy, explore African American writers (note I didn’t say “literature”) more fully and see where the conversation takes us.

Virginia DeBerry is the online persona and tweeting half of the writing team of DeBerry & Grant, author of seven novels. Their latest novel, Uptown, will be published by Touchstone/Simon&Schuster in March.