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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Because structure and a throughline is my big problem, I thought this was an important step forward.

You can't have a throughline without a character. So I saved two characters

from a neglected short story and used them to animate the story.



 Novel Writing

the kislist volume 46

By Kiini Ibura Salaam


As unbelievable as it may seem, I am STILL in the race with this novel. It has been quite a long time. I have written three full drafts while in five different countries. I've been angry, optimistic, threatened, confronted, and exhausted by the process. I've had three agents and two editors read it and give me feedback. And I am still in the race!


Thank you. I feel proud from that simple achievement alone.

My mentor for this upcoming semester--or project period, as Antioch calls it--is Frank Gaspar. Frank is a novelist and poet. He is a warm individual who has a laid back demeanor and a deep knowledge of and love for literature. He said in his many decades of teaching creative writing there are three things that he's seen create failure for writers. Unfortunately, I only remember two of them.

1. Writers don't finish their novels. They quit after the first draft. They quit after the third draft. They don't commit themselves to staying until it's complete.

2. Writers don't use critique to improve their writing. They emerge from a workshop or from an MFA program writing in exactly the same way they did when they went in.

Last semester the critique from my writing group ("huh?" "we don't get it" "does speculative fiction mean we have to speculate as to what's happening in the story?") and the feedback from my mentor, helped me realize I did not have a character narrating my novel, I had a voice. 

The voice of the narrator spoke, but she was never embodied as a person. Not even in my head did she have a complete identity. Aha! I thought. Because structure and a throughline is my big problem, I thought this was an important step forward. You can't have a throughline without a character. So I saved two characters from a neglected short story and used them to animate the story. So far it has been working pretty well.

During this residency period--two weeks in December--I worked with Nancy Zafris as my workshop leader. Nancy looks at a story like a fish. 

The top arc of the fish's body is the plot, the bottom arc of the fish's body is the theme. Ideally, the plot drives the story, but recedes at the end when the theme (and the resonance of the story) rises up to meet the plot. 

Looking at the story like a fish helps to pinpoint where a story might be weak or lacking. 

Commercial fiction--Nancy says--tends to be all plot. Imaginative stories which move characters from plot point to plot point without much resonance or reflection. 

Literary fiction tends to be all theme and little or no plot. Nancy's goal as a workshop leader is to have our stories have both, and use each to maximum effect.

It was a great exercise to take everyone's story apart and try to figure out the working parts. In my case, I was intentionally trying to get from my characters to a certain place so after the first half of my chapter all the resonance/theme dropped out and I had only plot. 

Nancy went on to draw the characters in relationship to each other. Nancy likes to identify character triangles. Triads hold a special tension that two characters or one character alone doesn't. So Nancy identified the triangle in my story and then demonstrated how the fourth character created a second triangle and intensified the theme. Then she demonstrated how a fifth character totally took the story and ran off the edge of the page with it--with no resonance and no relationship to the theme.

Literary writers like passive characters, Nancy asserts. She believes literary writers are mostly observers, so we write observers. We like to have our characters reflecting and thinking and dwelling in deep thoughts, but nothing happens. 

She classified all the characters in the workshop. Out of 8 stories, 6 featured passive main characters, 1 featured a partially passive main character and the last featured an active main character. My main character goes into a coma . . . how passive can you get? I don't think there's inherently anything wrong with passive characters, but if all you write is passive characters, then you don't have much choice in your expressions or much control over your craft.

Frank furthered this conversation by talking about throughline as the engine that drives the character forward. Throughlines, he says, need to be simple. A man wants to catch a whale. 

In Moby Dick, this simple throughline is the engine for pages and pages of ruminations on whales and the meaning of the universe, and more. The engine is what pulls the reader through the story and anchors the writer. He gave an example, a family searching for redemption is not a throughline . . .  it's a theme. But a family fighting to regain their farm, is a throughline. It is still redemption they want, but it's in the form of something tangible.

I can hear a million dissenting writers saying, no you don't have to write a novel like that. There's lot of great literature that doesn't fit into that category. And I am certain that is true. But it just so happens that I've been writing in circles, slowly and slowly coming to some form of forward motion and I'm seeking structure for this novel. It just so happens that these ideas and suggestions address the aspect of my novel that isn't working and gives me tools for fiddling around and finding my way. Later having found my way, I'll be able to do what I want, but I would be ecstatic to simply create a novel that works. A book-length piece that zings and sings.

So I'm in L.A., meditating on throughlines and preparing to return to NYC. I've decided to take the upcoming semester off from my 9-5 so that I can focus on my novel. While it is humanly possible for me to do this degree while working, it is not possible for me to apply myself to my work while doing the 9-5. My writing has suffered, and I'm taking a break to invest in my novel. Best wishes for the new year to all of you.

Be well. Be love(d).

posted kwanzaa 2004

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher

By Leonard Harris  and Charles Molesworth

Alain L. Locke (1886-1954), in his famous 1925 anthology The New Negro, declared that “the pulse of the Negro world has begun to beat in Harlem.” Often called the father of the Harlem Renaissance, Locke had his finger directly on that pulse, promoting, influencing, and sparring with such figures as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jacob Lawrence, Richmond Barthé, William Grant Still, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, and John Dewey. The long-awaited first biography of this extraordinarily gifted philosopher and writer, Alain L. Locke narrates the untold story of his profound impact on twentieth-century America’s cultural and intellectual life. 

Leonard Harris and Charles Molesworth trace this story through Locke’s Philadelphia upbringing, his undergraduate years at Harvard—where William James helped spark his influential engagement with pragmatism—and his tenure as the first African American Rhodes Scholar. The heart of their narrative illuminates Locke’s heady years in 1920s New York City and his forty-year career at Howard University, where he helped spearhead the adult education movement of the 1930s and wrote on topics ranging from the philosophy of value to the theory of democracy.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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update 7 April 2012




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Related files: There's No Racism Here? Reflections on Fiji    The Dance of Love  Novel Writing