Thursday, November 19, 2015

For The Love of the Book

The National Book Awards are a yearly bibliophile's Oscar's, Emmy's, Tony's, all rolled into one.  It gives recognition and validation to those writers, authors, poets, essayists, dreamers who do the lonely job of sitting down before a blank screen, blank page, or blank notebook to extrapolitate some thought, some feeling, some moment and bring it to live on the page.

The awards include fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

It was a delight to know that political commentator and blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates's book w,as one of those awarded. He wrote a concise emotive about the 2000 murder of his Howard University classmate. He was in a black father's body writing to his black son. His touching, sometimes painful, very revealing memory was a bit of a pinch in that there is nothing new under the sun, black male bodies have been suspect, even clean cut, nerdy college students going home. In a time before social media, smart phones, cameras to record the events and a hashtag to immortalize his name, Coates gives a tender elegy of his friend and a reminder of what is yet to be accomplished.

I was listening, and reading the list to see the place of the black woman.  She was finally present. One finalist I can't wait to read and review, Angela Flournoy's debut novel, The Turner House, one poetry winner, Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis, one prose memoir by Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light, about the loss of her mother and her life as a poet. There was a delight to see an African-American male poetry finalist, How To Be Drawn. The youth have an entry by Ilyasaah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon about Malcom X as a child X:A Novel.

While driving down the windy country roads of a back part of St. Louis County, letting the crisp sun warm my morning, dreaming of the coffee I hadn't consumed yet, the morning was a perfect time to think about that thing I love so much.

The book.

The thing that I held in  my hand last night, one published in 1930, a Modern American Short Story collection, of course filled with dead white men and a few white women, it was holding someone's thoughts from so many years ago that the power of the actual book almost sent electric waves through my hands.

We have Google Books and the love/hate relationship with Amazon, we still have the big box stores and the fledgling independent stores trying to carve out space in more than 140-characters. There are deep-discount stores like Half-Price Books now invading parts of St. Louis County that were once reserved for the independent store owners.  Barnes and Noble is the only big box left in most of the parts of the area with Books-A-Million relegated to the hinterlands of a pretty-deserted and newly auctioned off mall. The fight for the actual book continues.

I wrote yesterday about being preturbed about the offering of black books.

Today, I was somewhat validated by a white female cashier at a newly discovered local bookstore who shared my sentiment. These bookstore employees who actually read books and said, "yes, and the covers have absolutely nothing to do with the books." We chatted more and observed that the over sexualized covers were not even on the white female chick-lit books. The brief encounter left us both wanting more diversity in reading material, her with my card and links to some of my reviews, and me even more determined to keep reviewing female literature by women of color.

The brief time in comfortable little Manchester/Ellisville store, The Book Rack, did not disappoint. I walked out with a story about Louisiana, me, ever the Creole girl pining for stories about that beloved state. This one is by a Cajun author that is intriguing to me. It was an unexpected treasure. That is what one can find in a carefully apportioned bookstore with booksellers that actually read books and know about authors, not a mall employee happy to have a job with a coffee bar tucked by the magazine racks.

The day's musings and feeling of books in my hand also reminded me that to love it is to also protect it and be purposeful about it.

My books are everwhere, on tables, on shelves, on "waiting to be read piles" and in my car.  In every place, every time I walk past them, I look at them longingly, knowing I may never read everthing I ever want to read, but having them is a testimony of these aspects of my life that are important.

The National Book Award has an amazing website. It has a listing of all the finalists in each of the four categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and youth literature. The list of books is a great place to consider what to read next year. Each of the books has that little gray sticker, further letting us know that it is quality literature to consider. Delightfully, there are offerings by people of color and stories that, as James Patterson said in his acceptance speech, will get a child asking for another book.

When I listened to the award show, the NPR conversation, and read the summaries, I was warmed that the place of the actual book is still relevant. Again, quoting James Patterson when he talked about his partnership with Scholastic in providing books to school libraries, we want to have "another generation of readers, bookstores, libraries, and good healthy publishers." It is my hope that the wonderful diversity of experiences, stories, and lives will reach the written page with such vibrance and creativity that not another girl will have to wonder if there is a story for her. I hope to never see another urban genre or stereotyped cover on another 2x4 little section labeled "African American Fiction" and I hope to see more women of color to be able to expand my literary reviews.

A delightful morning spent on a long drive in an unfamiliar part of St. Louis County rewarded me with time to think, time to sit and read writers' vignettes about their favorite independent bookstores, and time in a local store that solidified my love of the book.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Power and Place of Literature in Shaping Perceptions

I'm writing this sitting in my local county library.  It is a magical place with chairs for working, wifi for surfing, newspapers for reading, magazines for thumbing, and of course, lots of books for reading.

This free open and accessible place is a mecca of all humanity. There are college students, retired, tutors waiting for the descending of the high school students that will fill the main area in an hour. There are writers and consutants, and yes, the homeless, all in community in this one place.

When I stopped in today, respite from the contractors doing work in my townhouse, I made my usual look through the fiction section to see what was new or what I have missed.  I remain a literary critic, primarily in the African and African American fiction genres. I also remain critical of the lack of quality offerings from mainstream sources.

One of the things I always note are the tags that indicate it is an "African American Fiction Selection." It is helpful in the thousands of volumes to be able to find it. There are also sections for mysteries, westerns, teens, and I think even tags identifying Histpanic/Latino and women offereings.

Why would I be upset, then, to be able to quickly find a book?

My ire is in that for years, it seems as if they are trying to manipulate the minds of not only the black people who would read but also the white people who may casually pick up such a book and think, see, told you so.

The covers remain hyper sexualized. There is always money, jewelry, cars, and if a man, he is stereotypically thugged out.

That does not represent my life or the lives of the many African Diasporians I know. It is also something I wrote about back in 2013. 

It begs the question then, is it a lack of quality writing? Or access? Or messaging? Or manipulation?

It is perhaps all of it.

Most of the agents, editors, and publishers are white. 

Like Hollywood has a minuscule sprinkling of strong black actors in strong lead roles, so do the books that make the shelves. 

It is enough to make me run to Amazon because they do have the self-publishing platform of Create Space and offers independent writers a way to bypass the choke hold of traditional publishing. The love I have for local libraries and independent bookstores is offset by my disappointment at what is facing my daughters in the teen section or me in the adult section.  Some of the hyper stereotyped books are actually written by white men or older white women (check out the Buford High Series, google the authors).

When I stopped to look around, I thought about fifteen years ago when I was buying books left and right. There were large sections with thoughtful books, some black book stores, and just a time when I felt promise as both a reader and as a parent providing books to my children.

There are many thoughts I have about the change and demise of books for black readers.

Urban fiction genre is one of the biggest strikes against black books, in my opinion. The erotica, the stereotypes, and the lower-quality writing all made this unappealing. The sexualized covers used by some of the big houses for even black books that were not titillating, also added to the perception of blacks as wanton.

It is not unlike what has happened on television.

I was in college when Different Strokes reminded us that we could do whatever we wanted. We would race from class to watch the fictionalized tales of Hillman College students and know that the possible was achievable for us, that first generation post Civil Rights Movement.

The same was with 90s era shows like the Fresh Prince, with its professional, albeit wacky wealthy, black California family. It showed blacks in a ways that was uplifting.

Something happened after 9/11.  

I noticed that shift. I'm not a music person, but some of the hip hop friends I have also talk about the infusion of gangsta rap genre infiltrating culture in a way that was detrimental. It was coming from majority owned companies that were skewing perceptions for the dollar.

Today, in the middle of my lament, I'm also watching independent publishing increase for Caucasian and writers of color. There are smaller houses like Akashic Books that have some great authors like one of my favorite reviewed writers, Bernice McFadden. There are also independent published authors like Keturah Israel that have made a name for themselves in quality writing. These and may others have been reviewed on Tayé Foster Bradshaw's Bookshelf.

The perception persists about black writers perhaps not having space or not being good enough or simply only a trickle getting through the now big five publishers that have a black books imprint.

This problem is not something new. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about it as did Toni Morrison.

It bring me to the power and place of literature in shaping perceptions and what the power of the black reader can do to shift the focus.

One thing I did was tell the librarian that I did not appreciate all the new buys of black books being these urban genre ones versus all the wonderful literary choices for mainstream readers. It was a challenge I also took to my daughters' school librarian to push the envelope and get more youth books for students of color.

There are some that are bringing out more. Scholastic does a pretty good job. There are also more conversations centered on diversity in children's literature that I hope will trickle up to adult literature.

Libraries are magical places with people from all walks of life who can pull a volume off the shelf and be transported, elevated, or rejuvenated. The need for more offerings is there as our country becomes increasingly diverse. There is power in literature to shape minds and opinions, I hope there is also courage in moving beyond stereotype and into substance.

I will keep reading and reviewing to find out.

Tayé Foster Bradshaw is a proud Black woman of Creole and AfroLatin heritage. This writer, poet, essayist, and amateur literary critic primarily reads African and African-American female literary works. She dreams of  dipping her toe in the Caribbean and standing on her ancestral island of Hispaniola to gaze upon the waters and wonder about her foremother who once stood on that shore.

She and her husband reside in the St. Louis suburbs with the last of six children and are newly minted grandparents. She enjoys a fantastic latte and is always with a handmade pen. She can be reached at readwritethinkconnect ATgmailDOTcom or tayefosterbradshawAToutlookDOTcom.

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