A Black History Month reading list

Black history Month book image

Reading African American literature is a great way to celebrate Black History Month. In recognition of this observance, I offer my list of top 10 books (in no particular order) by authors of the African diaspora (people of African origin living outside of the continent).

  • Gloria Naylor–The Women of Brewster Place
  • Naylor won critical and popular acclaim for her first published novel. In later years it became a television miniseries. In The Women of Brewster Place and subsequent novels, Naylor gave intense and vivid depiction of many social issues, including poverty, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and social stratification of African Americans.

 

  • Zora Neale Hurston–Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Hurston was an anthropologist and influential author of African American literature. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most popular work.

 

  • Angie Thomas–The Hate U Give
  • This young adult novel–which is now a major motion picture– felt so real to me that at times I had to put it down and let the book cool off for a day or two before continuing. The Hate U Give debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for 50 weeks. Thomas’ goal through her fiction, is to shed light on issues that many African Americans face.

 

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates–Between the World and Me
  • This emotionally searing work is written as a letter to Coates’ teenage son about the feeling, symbolism, and realities associated with being African American in the United States. Coates is an author, journalist, and comic book writer who gained broad attention during his time as a national correspondent at The Atlantic.

 

  • Langston Hughes–The Short Stories of Langston Hughes
  • My favorite writer, Hughes was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist and was best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. This collection of his short stories showcases Hughes’ literary skill and artistic ability.

 

  • James Baldwin–Another Country
  • The works of novelist, playwright, and social critic James Baldwin explored the intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions. The novel, Another Country, published in 1962, portrays themes taboo in their day, including bisexuality, interracial couples, and extramarital affairs.

 

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–Americanah
  • Nigerian author Adichie won the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award for this novel taught in many university classrooms, that traces the life of a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the U.S. to attend university.

 

  • Edwidge Dandicat–Claire of the Sea Light
  • This Haitian-American novelist and short story writer has won numerous awards and is gifted at using many different forms of storytelling. Claire of the Sea Light shows a town scarred by violence and corruption and social disparities but also filled with hopes and dreams.

 

 

  • August Wilson–Fences
  • The works of playwright August Wilson included a series of plays, known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. Each work is set in a different decade and depicts comic and tragic aspects of the African American experiences. Fences, which became a major motion picture starring Denzel Washington, is but one of August’s exceptional works.

 

French Riviera and City of Light venues are reminders of the novelist’s impact on culture

 

LISA AND HARBOR

As I strolled through the streets of Monaco, on a recent working vacation to Europe, I was impressed with the number of tourists that crowded the tiny city-state-country-microstate along the Mediterranean coastline. Tour BusSome rode by on packed double-decker tour buses. Others flipped through racks of scenic postcards and sized up Grand Prix T-shirts at the ubiquitous souvenir shops. I joined the crowd at noon on the grounds of the royal palace for the changing of the guard and shared sidewalkCASTLE space with others to ogle the display windows of the luxurious boutiques. When I got to the square at Monte-Carlo, I was annoyed with myself that my camera was in my pocket as a Maserati rode past. As I peeked into the Monte-Carlo Casino from the grand stairs (you have to pay to get in, be a high roller, and properly attired) I began to ask myself: “What has given Monte-Carlo such an important position in popular culture. Of course, memories of the glamorous Prince Rainier III and his wife, Princess Grace are part of it, but a larger influence, in my opinion, has been that of Ian Fleming. The spy novelist described the casino extensively in his first James Bond book, Casino Royale, published in 1953. The Casino Royalecasino also appeared in Never Say Never Again and GoldenEye. Add to that the movie adaptations and a marketing bonanza was born. As I watched well-coiffed, wealthy patrons glide up to the entrance, a framed publicity poster of actor Daniel Craig in the role of Bond came into view near the casino entrance.

During the Paris portion of my adventure and tour, novelist Victor Hugo’s name was highlighted as we approached the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral. Known for its NOTRE DAME AND LISA.2jpgflying buttresses, gargoyles, and colorful rose windows, it suffered desecration in the 1790s during the French Revolution. Soon after publication of Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831, popular interest in the building revived. The cathedral continues to play a large role in the landscape of The City of Light and in people’s imaginations.

The popularity of both Monte-Carlo and Notre-Dame illustrate the ability of novelists to play a role in keeping venues in the international spotlight decades and sometimes more than a century after their work has been published.

Six benefits for writers who appear on community access television

Group Photo Cropped

Several other writers and I, who contributed essays to the anthology, Black Lives Have Always Mattered, published by 2Leaf Press, were recently invited to appear on the Boston Neighborhood Network, a public access television station. The mission of BNN is to inform and empower those who live, work and study in Boston through distinct and diverse community media programming, education and services.

We writers were part of a panel discussion for the program, “Willie’s Web,” hosted by Willie Pleasant. Normally, before making a television appearance, I am nervous. In fact, there have been instances when I couldn’t sleep the night before. But before the BNN appearance, I was relaxed. Maybe it was because I met Willie a few weeks earlier at a book party and she put me at ease. Or it could have been because I convinced myself of the misconception that community access was nothing to feel anxious about because very few people watch.

Here are six things I learned from appearing on public access television:

  1. There was no pressure to be perfect. BNN is a learning tool for the community. Residents who volunteer are instructed on how to produce and direct television programming. They are provided with workshops and multimedia training. The production team is not scolded for small mistakes, which helps engender a relaxing atmosphere on the set.
  2. Effective training ground. If you’re unsure if you’d feel comfortable appearing on television, you can find out through appearing on public access television without concern that a massive audience is watching.
  3. Plenty of leveraging opportunities. Making an appearance on public access TV can bring a writer to the attention of commercial stations. Writers wanting to pitch themselves to other outlets will have a copy of the show they can share with news directors and assignment editors at other stations. Appearing on public access can also bring a writer to the attention of people in the local community who might like to invite the writer for a public talk or community event.
  4. Generous amount of time for the interview. Willie’s Web was an hour-long program, which allowed plenty of time for all of us to talk about our writing. Most commercial stations wouldn’t be able to program that amount of time for a panel of authors.
  5. Station is small but mighty. Once the show aired live, it was scheduled to re-air the following week. Then it would be designated a video on demand, which the public would have access to indefinitely.
  6. Hyper local. Public access stations have a very loyal fan base who love grassroots, unvarnished programming. You may not have a lot of people watching your appearance, but the ones who watch will really care.

The literary community needs more professional football players like Devon Kennard

fOOTBALL 3I know nothing about professional football. I don’t understand how the game is played, never watch it on TV, except by default if I happen to attend a Super Bowl Game, and can count on one hand the current players whose names I recognize–this includes Tom Brady, quarterback for my hometown team. But I can now add Devon Kennard to the list. Kennard is a linebacker for the New York Giants. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. (Don’t ask me what that means.) He is also an avid reader. He conducted a book reading contest this summer that, according to the New York Times, has morphed into a dynamic book club. Kennard assigned the books The Alchemist and To Kill a Mockingbird. He re-read the books along with his online followers and came up with a list of questions that he thought would generate discussion. He was on target. He got a lot of response to his online book club FOOTBALLand robust conversation ensued. “I didn’t want to be supergeneric,” The Times quotes him as saying. “I didn’t want people to just look up SparkNotes for answers. I wanted to actually have them be able to relate it to their own lives and what it means to them.” Kennard responds to the fans of his book club. He sends autographed memorabilia to those who give deep, insightful responses to questions. What one fan said he appreciated even more than the signed t-shirt and photo was that Kennard prompted him to re-read the Harper Lee classic.

 

I’ll have an omelet with that bestseller

The bookstore as we know it is on its deathbed. That’s what I’ve been hearing for the past decade or so. Financial pressure and competition from online retailers, including Amazon (which has made a surprising pivot with plans for a growing constellation of bookstores) have led to the shutdown of Waldenbooks, Borders, some Barnes and Noble bookstores as well as many independent shops.

Bins of Music and CustomersBut the bookstore itself isn’t dying, just the business model. Proprietors who are trying creative approaches are finding that the bookstore is not only alive and well but thriving. I visited one example with my friend, Lisa Allen, on a recent Saturday—Tres Gatos, Boston’s first, full-service combo restaurant/ bookstore/music store. It’s in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, a hip, artsy, intellectually vibrant neighborhood. Tres Gatos uses a hybrid business model, a full-service restaurant in the front, music store—featuring classic vinyl—and bookstore in the back. Lisa and I feasted on tapas, gambas all I prebre, freshwater farmed shrimp sautéed in a rich and complex sauce, and sweet potato pancakes topped with whipped fennel chili butter. Then we headed to the music and bookstore. Store manager Phil Wilcox told us that he orders book, including bestsellers, from the second biggest book distributor in the country and gets inventory every three or four days. He receives vinyl inventory every four orShelves of Books and CDs five days and says turnover is good for both books and music. The businesses help each other. Customers who come in looking for classic albums will peruse the shelves of books. When the restaurant business gets light during the cold weather months, the book business picks up. Before I left Tres Gatos, Wilcox had sold me a CD, “Senegal 70,” West African Latin jazz urban orchestra music that I can’t imagine I could have found elsewhere.

If Tres Gatos offers any indication, the future of books in a retail environment looks good if niche marketing is put to use effectively.

Five things I learned at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Washington, D.C.

walter-mosley-and-lisa

With bestselling author Walter Mosley

Last week I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, better known as AWP. It is the largest literary conference in North America. This year it was held at the convention center in Washington, D.C., and hosted 550 events, 2,000 presenters and more than 800 presses, literary journals, and literary organizations from around the world at the book fair.

This was my third time attending the conference. I learn new things each time. Here are 5 things I learned this year.

  1. It’s a good idea to put your photo on your business card.

During a panel discussion titled, “Agents and Editors and Publishers, Oh My! Demistifying the Business Side of Writing and Publishing,” an agent pointed out that she meets hundreds of eager writers at conferences who hand her business cards, but when she gets back home, she may not be able to match the business card with the person she met. A photo business card will likely jog her memory.

  1. It makes sense to smuggle your own food into the conference.

At a food stand set up in the center of the book expo in the convention center, I paid $10.00 for a medium-sized bowl of pineapple chicken and another $5.00 for a large bottle of diet coke. Talk about sticker shock! I got smart quickly. Since I was staying with my sister, who lives in the D.C. area, I was able to raid her refrigerator and pack a ham and cheese sandwich, some fruit, snacks and my own beverage. This cost me nothing and sis was happy that I helped to empty out her fridge.

  1. If you didn’t win the writing contest you entered, you can always apply again.

I’ve applied for several first-time author contests. None have named me the winner so far. Several of those independent presses and associations that sponsor the contests were represented by the publishers and editors at the AWP Book Fair. They told me to feel free to apply again because they use different judges every contest cycle. One press also told me that sometimes people apply the following year and win.

  1. If you’re not paying attention, you could miss a hidden treasure.

I was walking through the book fair near the back of the room where a small African American publisher I had talked to earlier in the day was located. The publisher remembered me and beckoned me over. He pointed to a man dressed in black, seated at the exhibit table, hunched over, checking his smart phone. It was the bestselling novelist and crime fiction writer, Walter Mosley. I’ve seen the movie starring Denzel Washington, based on his novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, and read one of his novels with members of my book club. It was thrilling to meet him. I asked him if he would take a picture with me and he said in his charming way, “Only if you’ll put your arm around me. Of course, I obliged.

  1. If you’re looking for an independent press to publish your manuscript, the book fair is the place to be.

I was eager to see the books of an independent press I was considering sending my manuscript to. I was horrified when I saw that the books are designed in square dimensions, not rectangular dimensions like most books. Stopping by the table of another press, I was able to quiz the representative about their efforts to market their books. I was able to hold the books and see the quality of the paper, design, and binding. Coincidentally, one of the authors was at the table, autographing copies of his novel, when I walked up. He told me all about his publishing experience with that press. I was impressed with their operation and walked away pleased.

Next year’s conference will be in Tampa, Florida. I’m not sure yet if I’ll attend, but if I do, I’m sure there’ll be lots of tips to pick up there too!

Panelists at mystery novel conference explain why a Smart phone can put them in a panic

I find it ironic that writers whose job it is to frighten their readers or at least make their pulses quicken with their plot twists and suspenseful moments sometimes find themselves facing the same emotional and physiological moments when dealing with crafting their mysteries and crime fiction.

dead-crow-logoWhile attending panel discussions at Mysterium: The Mystery Novel Conference, held recently on the campus of Wesleyan University, I was surprised to discover that some writers experience anxiety over technology. They are so afraid to deal with technology that they either avoid it by setting their novels in the pre-1985 era or they have whatever gadget the main character is using sabotaged by the end of the first page.

One crime novelist said that’s why it’s not unheard of for a main character who’s standing in an alley, looking down at a lifeless body to drop his or her cell phone in a puddle and then have the cell phone end up in a dumpster. “Because if you can Google everything,” she said, “the investigation can easily be solved.”

chris-with-the-dogThis got me wondering how mystery and thriller author Chris Knopf felt. He’s best known for his Sam Acquillo series. At the conference I attended his talk, titled “Writing Mysteries in the Age of Google.” He suggested that authors use technology in their stories as they would in real life. “If you’re going to be realistic, it has to be a seamless and a natural part of your story,” he said. “Don’t use a particular brand. Otherwise your books will only last a couple of years.” He said that Google is not something to be avoided, but embraced in degrees. “You have to deal with Google when the character is chris-knopf-book-coverresearching. I use Google for the basics and then I go talk to people. The same goes for my characters.” Knopf said that voicemail can be used as a device central to your plot. “I integrate voicemail into the story,” he said. “The dead man’s last words in a voicemail trigger the story.”

And I’m sure I’m not the only writer who thinks she can pick up hints on writing crime and law enforcement scenes from watching television. However, Knopf said, “Don’t rely on it. It doesn’t translate. I have a forensic analyst I consult. Everybody has to have a geek these days.”

And, of course, social media is too big to ignore, as are drones. “You don’t have to have a drone creep up to a house in a rural area,” he said. “New York can send a drone. They can be as tiny as a bug. They can fire weapons, shoot you with poison. There’s a lot of drama possible with drones.”

Top 7 Holiday Gift Ideas for Writers

Planning to shop for the writers on your holiday list? Are you a writer putting together your wish list? Here is my list of the top 7 gifts for writers:

Literary Action Figures–Writers can sit at their desk under the watchful Jane Austeneye of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde, or any of the other literary action figures on the market. My favorite is Jane Austen, one of the greatest English novelists. Despite living a largely sheltered life, she skillfully captured the subtleties of human interaction and her works are more popular than ever.

Noise-canceling Headphones–They can block up to 90 percent of outside Noise canceling headphonesnoise. They have a comfortable over-ear design and sliding headband to fit any head size. They can block out barking dogs, howling cats, annoying spouses, and anyone and anything else that can break a writer’s concentration.

Weekend Hotel Stay–Okay. The Bellagio may be out of reach or the Bellagioubiquitous slot machines too distracting, but a weekend stay at a hotel can give a writer the space and tranquility needed to increase that daily word count. And when the writer needs a breather, there’s always the hotel pool or gym.

Electric Pencil Sharpener–For old school writers like me, who rely on the Ticonderoga No. 2 and a legal pad to work on that first draft, an electric pencil sharpener is an ideal gift. These days, they can be operated by battery and/or electricity. Either way, they sharpen pencils to a fine point.

Booklight–There’s nothing worse than when I’m visiting family or friendsBooklight for an extended stay and their lighting is not set up with the writer in mind. When I get the urge to write on these occasions, the dim lighting in the guest bedroom leads to frustration. I sometimes end up writing in the guest bathroom, which, for some reason, people tend to light more brightly. The rechargeable booklight takes care of this issue. It attaches to almost anything, and provides bright, white light.

Massage therapy–Hunkered over a laptop, notebook, or desk for hours on Massageend can leave a writer’s back muscles tired. What better way to relieve the tension than with the gift of a massage. Day spas provide gift cards for a menu of massages, including deep tissue and heated stone.

Coffee House Gift Cards–A Coffee house is a favorite hangout for a writer.Coffeehouse The writer gets out of the house to craft that story, all the while tapping into the energy of the coffee house patrons and inhaling the full-bodied aroma of a cup of java.

How about you? What gifts for the writer would you add to this list?