Other Countries

darryl pinckney_BLACK DEUTSCHLAND

Sometimes I have to remind myself that the Black Writer In America is a cosmopolitan entity. The news can do that to you, even in February. Obviously there’s Harlem, and before that, there was the mass exodus from the South to the North, to experience life among people who wouldn’t hit you for wanting it. But what might be less obvious (or maybe it’s just me) was that there was a time when it wasn’t unheard of to abandon the U.S. altogether. You’d leave your respective pocket of Oklahoma, or Mississippi, or New York for a life in Europe—a decidedly less hostile locale. You’d do it with the hope of transcendence. In pursuit of the benefit of the doubt.

Writing about his experience abroad, Richard Wright called it “interesting”:

There was a liberty ship fill of G.I.’s pulling out for home, and they chanted and shouted to us incoming Americans: “you won’t be sorry”… I never felt a moment of sorrow for having lived in France. I find Paris a city whose sheer physical beauty feeds and nourishes the sensibilities of all those who live in it.

It’s worth noting that the “all” wasn’t a casual throwaway. Wright came up in Chicago, in 1927, after enduring adolescence in the Jim Crow South, and by the time he’d made it to Europe it was the late 1940’s. It’d be another 15 years before the Montgomery bus boycotts, and nearly 23 before MLK’s “Letter From an Alabama Jail.” “All” wasn’t the standard in his country.

But in Paris, Wright became familiar with Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus. He lived in the company of Chester Himes and Baldwin, in the vicinity of Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Sidney Bechet, and Kenny Clarke. All of them black artists, all of them trafficking culture, all of which would’ve been inconceivable had they stayed in the fifty states. Theirs were two parallel existences, with no conceivable precedent, and while it would’ve been nice for them to finally meet, none of them were banking on it at the time.Continue Reading

Grace Paley’s “Wants”: Activism and Civic Involvement for Writers


Photo by Erich Ferdinand

Photo by Erich Ferdinand

After years of dodging PTO meetings and volunteer opportunities, I became involved in a school overcrowding issue in my town because I didn’t want my children’s class sizes to become enormous. The problem seemed simple at first, but soon enough I was attending school committee meetings, spending hours writing emails, and holding forth at a four-year-old’s birthday party about educational inequity.

As I sank deeper into the quicksand of civic involvement, wondering if this were one of the times I’d said yes when I should have said no, I remembered a passage from my favorite short story. I pulled the book off the shelf, as I’ve done so many times before. “Wants,” the classic Grace Paley story, is three pages long, and it contains the entirety of the narrator’s life.

The narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library. She returns two books she’s had for eighteen years, pays the fine, and checks out the books again. Her ex-husband rehashes their marriage, brags about the sailboat he’s got money down on, and says, “But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.” Left to consider this “narrow remark,” the narrator sits on the library steps and lists the things she wants.

I want, for instance, to be a different person. I want to be the woman who brings these two books back in two weeks. I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Estimate on the troubles of this dear urban center.

I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.

I wanted to have been married forever to one person—my ex-husband or my present one.

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A Recommendation

bryan washington_RECOMMENDATION

Just west of Houston, before you reach Texas’ most remarkable stretch of nothing, there’s a crumbling Latin diner I take my kid brother on Fridays. It is refreshingly un-Yelpable. The family’s owned it forever. They’re almost native in their darkness, and when I order two beers, they’ve pitched us a third by the time we’re at the table.

Mostly we just sit and watch the road; sometimes, we riff on whatever rapper’s trending our membranes; but, inevitably, I use these lunches as an excuse to throw books at him.

I do this to everyone, but even more so with him. He’s gotten all of Gabo and Homer and Anzaldúa. The obligatory Baldwin. Some Manuel Puig. The Cisneros novel that everyone forgets about, that Lorrie Moore book everyone lost their minds over, and all of Borges, because I think it is good for young black boys to read and perhaps want to be him.

But a little while ago, maybe a month or two back, he asked if I had anything a little more relevant. Something he could use.

When I asked what that meant, when I said he could use damn-near all of it, he gave me side-eye.

Yeah, he said. But something he could use every day. Like, something with someone like him in it. Continue Reading

Letter to myself: On fatherhood and poems


A published letter is a strange act. It’s like a whisper made into a loudspeaker. It’s a secret note the town’s tacked onto the city hall bulletin board after the carrier pigeon nosedived into the public square. It’s intimacy externalized. Some letters seem to speak to no one at all, but the best letters, though they’re addressed to another, make us each feel touched: think of Baldwin’s letter to his nephew. Or Kazim Ali’s to Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Or, right here on the blog, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s lovely one to her daughters urging them not to “be good.” You overheard it. You’re pilfering the epistolary form now. A self-addressed published letter is strangest of all, but you and I could use a speaking-to.

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(Writing) Exercise: Self-compassion

Mask image

I’m talking here of memory’s difficulty. Difficult not in the way I have to wrack my weak brain to remember what happened, but in the way I’m forced to face that time I let my brother, bleeding from the mouth, run the mile home alone. Difficult in the way that looking back prompts me to see myself, as James Agee puts it, “disguised as a child.”

And what an ugly costume it could be. Holding my youth at arm’s length makes clear how royally fallible I really was. I see my foibles for the first time. My limitedness had hid them from me—a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect. And this is difficult.

As in looking back on the stack of birthday cards from my grandmother I tossed out, thinking my desk had no room. Into the wastebasket that lets every memory in and none out. I didn’t know what should be kept and what chucked. I didn’t know I was in the room with my grandmother herself, who had touched the card at its edges, wheezing over the short note with her reading glasses on. And I didn’t know that the thrown-away card would become sad and inimitable when she dies.

My grandmother tried to warn me. She dated the card at the top right corner so that I too would know posterity as always looming. Of course I see this looking back. She dated it to please the grandfather she knew I’d become, on whose lap she sat with a little girl’s wide eyes, nearing the end, nearing the beginning.Continue Reading

Back to School Special: Thoughtful Imitation

"Mimicry in South African Butterflies - chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890" by Edward Bagnall Poulton - own scan of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mimicry_in_South_African_Butterflies_-_chromolithographic_frontispiece_of_The_Colours_of_Animals_by_Edward_Bagnall_Poulton,_1890.jpg

Mimicry in South African Butterflies – chromolithographic frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, 1890. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t study creative writing as an undergraduate; it wasn’t an option. When I enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, what I craved more than workshop (which I’d experienced a few times in continuing education settings) was the elusive “craft” class: reading analytically not to make an argument about literature (which I also enjoy) but to learn how another writer achieved an artistic effect. One of the most enriching classes I took at UW was such a class, taught by David Bosworth.

We looked at everything from aphorisms and fables to stories by Joseph Conrad and James Baldwin and Mavis Gallant and Marguerite Duras, among others. Students chose additional stories they wanted to dissect for the class and brought in Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, and more. I felt little gaps in my novel-heavy education filling. We imitated, we analyzed, we explored choices the writers did and did not make. The one thing we were not allowed to do was write parody, a rule for which I was grateful. Allowing parody, I think, could have opened the door to being a little less thoughtful, a little less open to learning from what all of these writers offered.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Calvary Film and the Purpose of Art

uncomfortable CALVARY

“[T]he barrier between one’s self and one’s knowledge of oneself is high indeed. There are so many things we would rather not know!
— James Baldwin

John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary begins with priest Father James (played by Brendan Gleeson) preparing to hear an unseen confessor. The confessor reveals that as a child, he was repeatedly raped by a now-deceased priest– and his language for this revelation is violently forthright enough that I won’t include it here. McDonagh chose this “startling opening line” because, in his view, the euphemistic language of “child abuse”

has enabled us to detach ourselves . . . because we never actually think about what it means to be abused every day of your life. What that physically means.

The grim candor of his opening line is indicative of McDonagh’s approach to the rest of the film: an experiment in taking viewers where we don’t want to go, leaving us embarrassed and backed into our seats, waiting for relief or levity that doesn’t come.Continue Reading

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems

9780807084861Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems James Baldwin Beacon Press, April 2014 120 pages $16.00 Buy: book | ebook

The cover of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems features blurbs by none other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, telling the world to read this book. I’ll be honest; I feel like I can’t add much to that—just listen to Morrison and Angelou. But if you need a bit more convincing, here are some remarkable feats that Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems accomplishes.

Some of Baldwin’s poems are intensely political, and while much political poetry tends to read like an ideological statement veiled as poetry—which I admit I’m not a fan of—in Baldwin’s case he writes poetry first and foremost: lyrical, captivating, evocative, thought-provoking poems that also happen to be exploring the political climate of his time. In “Straggerlee wonders,” for example, the speaker claims that the U.S. government finds “a way around every treaty.”His tone is similarly critical when he writes that “[t]his flag has been planted on the moon:/ it will be interesting to see/ what steps the moon will take to be revenged.” What I found genuinely surprising and wonderful was his focus on creating narratives and characters against the background of political tensions, which make his poems relatable, accessible and not one bit outdated. Continue Reading

Dancing About Architecture

Semigarrapatea“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” said Elvis Costello once, probably quoting someone else. And yet, and yet… It is apparently a strong urge to write about (or somehow with) music. The list of creative writing that involves music in some way is long, and grows longer every day with the plethora of author playlists floating around the internet—such as those collected by the music and literature blog Largehearted Boy.

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester writes of a musical phrase in a violin sonata that adds coherence to In Search of Lost Time, reappearing across the book as it’s heard by various people, and almost developing a life of its own: “There are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time [….] but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.” Forester speculates that one can’t plan on rhythm so much as let it emerge. I would add that revision would be a great time to bring out those emerging rhythms.

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Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft Finals: The Holden Caulbabies vs What the Chuckin’ Buk?!

Draft bracket - Finals - resized

It’s been a long, tortuous path from the inception of the Fantasy Blog competition to the finals, full of upsets and surprises—but here we are, left with two teams standing after the semifinals three weeks ago which brought surprises of its own.

After a cross-country move, the commissioner was rendered connectionless in his new apartment in the Great American Midwest. As if to mock his Net-less existence, Facebook decided to cripple our voting system with no warning. Without even a hanging chad to count, we were forced to rely on an arcane calculation that involved mixing salt crystals taken from the white T-shirt Kerouac wore when writing The Scroll and mixing them with the dregs of a dusty bottle of ron añejo found in a closet at the Hemingway House, creating an obscene, literary Papa Doble daiquiri. The resulting concoction sent the commissioner into a disturbing sleep during which he learned, in a dream, that the winner was none other than What the Chuckin’ Buk?!Continue Reading