Category Archives: Literature

Who’s Allowed to Tell the Tale? (And Which Tales Should They Tell?)

There’s a game I like to play when I walk into a bookstore. Based on the the title, cover and store placement I can always interpret the marketing intention for a book meant for an black American audience. The best part of this game is that the books will, typically, fit into the following categories (they are, in no particular order):

1. Black Pathology or “What’s wrong with Black people?”
2. The literature of “sistah gurl”
3. Christian-oriented fiction/inspirational
4. Street-Lit or Hip-Hop fiction
5. The Slave Novel
6. The Civil Rights Book (This also includes Black Nationalism)
7. The extraordinary rise from street life/poverty/welfare into the middle class.
8. Poorly styled celebrity memoir, or well researched and documented hagiography
9. Black Queens and Kings
10. Hip-Hop analysis
11. AFRICA
12. The “Black” version of some mainstream topic (For example: “Black Girl’s Guide to Fashion; “Black Families’ Guide to Wealth;”) Guides will include slang, bright colors, and inevitably the phrase “the legacy of slavery.”
13. The Classics: Harlem Renaissance 101 and/or The Black Arts Movement. Toni Morrison.
14. Contemporary Classics or Literary Fiction (Mostly woman, mostly diaspora authors)
15. Non-black author writes really compelling story about black person(s); story gets awards accolades, lots of press and movie deal.

These topics produce wonderful books and poorly written books. They often represent a compendium of the black American experience, and just as often, they are simply a reflection of what publishing thinks black people read.

In a recent Washington Post op ed, author, Bernice L. McFadden wonders about the nature of books that would fit into number 15 on my list.

“Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, published by a Penguin Books imprint, sold 1 million books within a year of publication. Her novel has gained accolades and awards, including the prestigious South African Boeke Prize. The Help is being adapted for the screen; at the helm of production is the Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg. Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel The Secret Life of Bees, also published by Penguin Books, is another story set in the South with African American characters. Kidd’s novel garnered similar fame, fortune and recognition. Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd are living the dream of thousands of authors, myself included. But they are not the first white women to pen stories of the black American South and be lauded for their efforts.”

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Book of the Month Discussion: Quicksand by Nella Larsen.

from barnesandnoble.com

During dinner a friend of a friend foolishly told me he didn’t read. My confusion at the notion turned to heartbreak, then I tried to reserve my judgment. He couldn’t have possibly known he was having dinner with a girl who goes to bookstores for fun. Seeing the disappointment on my face, he quickly added that he has read one book he loved, Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley.

“That’s a real black man’s story,” he said.

“And a great read,” I replied.

I then inundated him with books and authors similar to Mosley and assured him that he didn’t have to relive his high school English syllabus to enjoy reading. My sister gently saved him from my soap box. “Don’t worry,” she said. “She’s a writer.”

In the essay “Dear Ms. Larsen, There’s a Mirror Looking Back,” Heidi W. Durrow writes that Nella Larsen’s writing gave her “the permission…to write the only stories [she] knew how to tell: of being black and Danish, and of being a white women’s child.” The need to establish your own personhood is imperative, but we all need permission to do so. If others are unwilling to grant it, I think literature can.

While rereading Quicksand, I was struck by the way space and experience change the perception of a book and why it’s so important to revisit the novels, poems, essays and articles which have, at one time, moved us.

Book of the month: Quicksand by Nella Larsen.

from barnesandnoble.com

Referred to as a “tragic mulatto tale,” an accurate description, yet one that has never interested me, Quicksand by Nella Larsen is about the most frustrating black female lead I’ve ever read–Helga Crane. She’s a woman whose eccentricities today, I imagine, would be imitated and fawned over. Her described beauty would be put on magazine covers and her style called things like “classic” and “funky,” “retro” and “vintage.”

But really Quicksand is about female sexuality and identity, and the desire to express those things without compunction. It’s also about passion and security, and pitting those two elements against each other, as literature often does, as if they can’t naturally exist together. Can they?

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Book of the Month Discussion: Things Fall Apart.

from random house

from random house

It has been speculated that Uncle Tom’s Cabin aggravated the cultural conversation about slavery and planted the seeds for the Civil War. Whatever analysis is taken from the novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s serialized stories became relevant during a very particular time and place.

So, what set the cultural tone for an unknown West African man to publish the novel that would come to be seen as the seminal work from the African continent? Why was it important that this story be written in English?

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Big Machine: A Q&A With Author Victor LaValle.

from random house

from random house

Ricky Rice is a former dope fiend and a surviving member of a suicide cult. And when he gets a mysterious letter to uphold a promise he made long ago, Ricky becomes a member of a secret society of paranormal investigators called the Unlikely Scholars. When the society is threatened, Ricky is teamed up with Adele, a Scholar with a past maybe even sketchier than as his own.

I sat with the author, Victor LaValle, who also wrote Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, to talk with him about his new novel Big Machine. It’s well-written, fiilled with mystery and adventure. Also, it’s just damn funny. I tried my best not to reveal too much about the plot. We talked about the story, the writing and the process. An excerpt:

BelleIsa: You also said that “I view writing fiction as a lifelong pursuit toward self-awareness.” What if anything were you attempting to work through?
Victor LaValle: In the novel, I was working through choice. The after effects of making choices. There was a woman I had been dating. I got her pregnant and she had an abortion. We went through it together in the sense that I was with her while she went through it. Then we broke up, really badly. And I thought the abortion was only supposed to matter to her. Like it’s something that only the woman continues to think about after the fact. It wasn’t supposed to leave a lasting feeling of responsibility, guilt, and questioning in me. That’s what I thought, but I was wrong. So I wanted to write about that. To understand it.

But I also wanted it to be a kick ass-story about a secret society with black people acting as crazy as people in a Bruce Willis movie.

More…

Book of the Month: Things Fall Apart.

from coverbrowser.com

from coverbrowser.com

It’s the story of pre-colonial Nigeria, groundbreaking because it was originally written in English by a black African writer. The title was taken from a William Butler Yeats poem. It features the story of Okonkwo, a young man struggling to maintain the old customs with the ones brought by white Christian missionaries.

Gods and Soldiers, briefly reviewed at BookForum.com, is a new collection of contemporary African writing that features established and up-in-coming writers presented by geographic location. In the introduction to the collection, editor Rob Spillman writes:

“It has been fifty years since Nigerian Chinua Achebe published his novel Things Fall Apart, a classic work of anti-colonialism that became a worldwide literary sensation, its commercial and critical success opening the door for many other black Africans.”

Achebe is considered a literary father to widely-read contemporary African writers like Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Things Fall Apart was first published in 1958. We will be discussing the novel on August 15th.

Happy Reading.

Your Monday Random-Ass Roundup: Acting Stupidly

Because of technical difficulties and an unusually busy work day, this almost became Your Tuesday Random-Ass Roundup. Sorry I’m late again.

DougJ at Balloon Juice: “We’re a country where a uniform and a badge entitles you to arrest people for speaking loudly on their porches.”

DougJ at Balloon Juice: “We’re a country where a uniform and a badge entitles you to arrest people for speaking loudly on their porches.”

Your PostBourgie-approved weekend reading material:

First things first, Stacia, one of our co-bloggers, is writing a novel and posting a chapter a day at her personal blog. What is this space for, if not for a show of pride in our blog fam?

Neither Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah, or Jeff Sessions of Alabama will join their Republican colleague Lindsey Graham in voting for Sonia Sotomayor’s SCOTUS confirmation. Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the other two Republicans on the judiciary committee, haven’t said what they plan to do yet. (GD)

Also, Sessions outlined his opposition to the Sotomayor nomination in a USA Today column. “I don’t believe that Judge Sotomayor has the deep-rooted convictions necessary to resist the siren call of judicial activism. She has evoked its mantra too often. As someone who cares deeply about our great heritage of law, I must withhold my consent.” Of course. It’s always about heritage with these guys. (Bi)

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates is also the man behind The Root, which saw an uptick in racist commenters in the aftermath of his run-in with Cambridge police two weeks ago. Also, some must-reads on the Gates mess: Rich Ford’s typically smart macro take, as well as TNR’s John McWhorter and the NYT’s Charles Blow wrestling with being black men on the receiving end of touchy encounters with the police. (GD)

Ezra Klein on why President Obama should review the playbook from Clinton’s health-care reform efforts in the early ’90s. “Clinton got the politics of reform wrong, but in important ways, he got the policy right. He just got it right too soon.” I also had no idea that before the ’90s, most people had something other than managed care. (Bi)

Nate Silver offers thoughtful analysis about the “healthcare timeout” to keep everyone from taking a dive off the cliff. In short, don’t read too much into breathless media reports about momentum or a lack thereof: “I don’t think the media has a liberal bias or a conservative bias so much as it has a bias toward overreacting to short-term trends and a tendency toward groupthink. The fact is that there have been some pretty decent signals on health care.” (Bi)

After writing a feature story about MTV’s “16 and Pregnant,” Amy Benfer pondered the difficulties involved in telling the stories of the many, many pregnant teenagers who choose to have abortions. (GD)

Jamison Foser at Media Matters raises an interesting question: why is it a given that abortions should not be covered under any health insurance reform? “The idea that taxpayers shouldn’t pay for insurance that covers medical services they don’t support is fundamentally incompatible with the very concept of insurance. If every interest group wields veto power over the medical care insurance can cover, insurance simply can’t work.” Yes. Though I might quibble a bit with Foser’s implication that Chris Matthews is a reporter of any sort. He’s not. He’s a commentator. (Bi)

Russ Feingold and John Conyers have introduced a bill that would, among other things, restore felons’ right to vote in federal elections. (GD)

On Friday, the federal minimum wage went up 70 cents to $7.25 an hour. It still isn’t nearly enough to climb over the poverty line. (Bi)

The White House and lawmakers on the Hill from both parties are moving toward ending the disparity in sentencing for crimes involving crack and powdered cocaine, which disproportionately punish black people. (Does anyone, anywhere, still support those guidelines?) (GD)

Poor people in the U.S. are living live in a virtual “law-free zone,” according to a new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy. The study finds that the legal needs of the U.S. poor are unmet more than 80 percent of the time. Ian Millhiser at The Wonk Room: “As the report explains, the United States invests far less in legal services for the poor than other Western industrialized nations. At the low end, Germany and Finland spent three times as much of their gross domestic product as we do on civil legal services for the poor. At the high end, England outspends the United States twelve times.” (Bi)

More mundane Republican racism. Stay classy, guys. (GD)

Few places in the world are as dangerous for women as South Africa, where 1 in 4 men say they have committed rape. (Bi)

Can the legalization and taxation of marijuana save California from its unparalleled budget woes? (Bi)

It’s easy to forget how far the Internet has come in a relatively short amount of time. A photo gallery from The Daily Beast takes us back through those dark, unappealing pioneer days on the Web. (Bi)

Before she was a famous chef, Julia Childs was a spy. (GD)

In case you missed it last month, Toure visited Martha’s Vineyard to learn about vacation, the Obamas and the peculiar racial dynamics of Oak Bluffs – “one of the most demographically unusual towns in America.” (Bi)

Angela at ProperTalks takes issue with that commercial for KGBKGB commercial with the black women in a hair salon discussing the origins of their hair weaves. “White people giving two black women who’ve presumably gotten weaves before information about the process is a bit condescending. What if the answer-givers had been black as well? I think that would have made the commercial easier to stomach. …Why’d homegirl have to do the neckroll and the finger wave at the end?? And all of a sudden her English is broken, with the “bet not be putting no yak up in my weave” retort. Her eyes bulged out a little too.” (GD)

For a YA novel called Liar about a short-haired black girl, Bloomsbury chose a cover with a white woman’s face because “black covers don’t sell.” (GD)

President Obama might not have been looking at any ass overseas. But that doesn’t mean Joe Biden wasn’t. (Bi)

More and more atheists are going through a sort of mock ceremony known as “de-baptism” in an effort to renounce their childhood faith. (Bi)

What if robots took over the world? (GD)

A cool – but sad – Google map showing the cluster of foreclosures around the country. (Bi)

The college freshman that lives inside of me just rolled off my futon in excitement: Method Man, Ghostface and Raekwon are planning a joint album. Now if only they invite along Inspectah Deck and the GZA. (Bi)

“…a casualty of abnormal normality.” Vernon Forrest, a former welterweight champion who did a lot of charity work around Atlanta, was gunned down during an attempted robbery. He was 38. His hometown newspaper also offers a fitting, final tribute. Also, SI has more about Forrest here and here.

In the future, we’ll all be using HGH and hitting 40 homers a season. Or maybe we should. Don’t worry about that bacne. (Bi)

Wilt Chamberlain, George Clooney and Frank Sinatra all wear Tim Tebow pajamas. (Bi)

Back when Mark Madsen was a benchwarming Laker, Shaq used his clout to get him a deal on a car and bought him a grip of clothes to welcome him to the team. “After that he drove us up to Beverly Hills and we went to a Big and Tall clothing store. I found a pair of jeans that fit and Shaq said to the store worker, ‘He’ll take eight of each color!’ I said, ‘All I need is one of each color.’ When Shaq kept piling on Italian sweaters, I told him I didn’t need all the stuff, but he told me it was a welcome gift and to relax while he paid the $2,500 bill.” (GD)

And finally, the Huffington Post asks: Is this the stupidest person in the world? Judge for yourself.

Also, I meant to ask this question a couple weeks ago: Did anyone here ever go see “Bruno”?

Deuces.