We’re just kidding. Everyone knows that’s Kadida Jones.

Posted by Lizzie on 10/05/05

Look: some jackass thought CREE SUMMER was Zadie Smith!

Filed under: Lit-ish |

Ghetto Lit

Posted by Lizzie on 09/29/05

For most African American writers, this section is the only way that they will connect with the browsers, the mostly African American readers who go out of their way to read books by black authors. I have read the arguments against these sections, usually by white readers who were looking for the work of some famous black author like Toni Morrison and were dismayed to be led to The Colored Section. Each time I read such an account, I am painfully aware that the reader has been browsing the bookstore for years before noticing that the “literature” section is all white.

Tayari Jones, author of The Untelling, is discussing The Colored Section of the bookstore over at Maud’s. This was a hot topic in our meta Af-Am lit class while we were in college — a discussion of how the shelf ghetto both serves and stigmatizes an author. (And one that led to many a parry beginning with, “Well, I know my maid Rita…”)

But we’re especially interested in the Shelf Question because it seems to point directly to the general separation of black from white literature, both physically and psychologically, and the questions it raises. For instance, every time we’ve reviewed a black author, we’ve gotten letters bitching us out. (Of course, every time we reviewed ANYONE negatively, we’ve gotten letters bitching us out.) But the “You don’t understand the black experience” is a peculiar nut to crack — not entirely dissimilar to the “You are an enemy of the Jewish faith!” treatment received by Philip Roth. Is it better to review authors as “black” authors? Is their any authentic “black” experience? (I’m stealing this from the guy with the maid named Rita.) And, most important, is it good for the Jews?

Through a funny coincidence, our early reviews were mostly of black authors, and we cannot say how many times someone asked us, “Do your editors know you’re black?” We were like, “I have no idea — not unless the email comes with a watermark.” After our third reviewing slam, our best friend joked, “Everyone will think you’re a Klansmen.” We would be lying if we didn’t say that we began wishing that someone would hit us with a white author, even an Asian, so that we could show that we were evil in general, not evil in particular.

The odd thing, though, is that the writers of the letters have a point — not about our case in particular (we are brilliant, unbiased, and faultless) but about the general critical reception to black literature. Our early days as a lit major with a concentration in Af-Am (we doubled with English, FYI) were filled with people smirking, then asking with the gentleness reserved for the slightly addled, “Is there…uh…African-American literature?” Our first boss in publishing took our list of black authors we could reissue, tossed it aside without looking, and said, “There’s just really a quality problem here.” This was circa 1995. Our last boss, circa last month, knew full well we were black, but told us three times — THREE FUCKING TIMES — “The problem is, there are just no good black writers in Baltimore,” then shook her head sadly. The first time, we could only come back with, “Um…where have you been looking?” (Freak.) The second time, we tried, “I think the problem is, all of our writers right now are kind of ass.” (True.) The third time, we simply engaged in a superhuman act of restraining ourselves from saying, “Well, there’s one black writer here, and she writes for the NYT — AND YOU MAKE THE ‘THAT’ OR ‘WHICH’ MISTAKE EVERY FUCKING TIME.”

The problem with the separation is that there’s an implied judgment. (This doesn’t mean the separation isn’t useful or fine — it’s just the problem with it.) It’s why no one objects to the “History” thing, but the “Gay” and “Sci-Fi” sections are dodgy. Gay writers were published because they were gay, sci-fi because readers like costumes. No gay writer like to think he or she’s been published just to appeal to a market, and no sci-fi writer likes to think his readers page through his works while wearing pointy rubber ears. The explosion of black chick lit has come hand-in-hand with massive reissues of black classics and imprints devoted to new black authors. People bitch about the quality of black chick lit and new literary authors as if general imprints did not publish a load of crap in both genres all the time. Here’s the thing: Black people have the right to crappy writers too.

But we have gone slightly off-topic. Which is to say, although we are a very, very old lady, and we are not shocked to get the “You don’t understand the black experience” letters, we are shocked that people are still literally writing letters to Tayari and others that begin, “I am white, but I wanted to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your book….” We would go so far as to say the former is a direct result of the latter. (We still can’t see anyone shooting off a note to William Langewische being like, “I am not a boat, but I did enjoy your recent…”)

Somewhat relatedly, over at Diane Rehm, Zadie Smith is discussing On Beauty, which effectively lays out the ways in which, when it comes to race, both black people and white people are irritating, but white people are more so. And back to Tayari. We do enjoy her “If it sells my book, it’s fine” philosphy. Shelf placement is fleeting, but earning out your advance is forever.

Filed under: Lit-ish |

Don’t get us started on the revival of the tragic mulatto

Posted by Lizzie on 05/12/05

We just plopped down after a long day of work, lamenting the brilliant blog post we’d lost somewhere around 8:30 this morning and would now NEVER REMEMBER, THANK YOU VERY MUCH NEW JOB, when damned if MAUD DIDN’T HAVE THE SAME THOUGHTS WE HAD complete with a Grace Paley mention and all. Which is to say, we can take Grace Paley or leave her, but the more Irish and soda bread-eating our friends, the more they like Grace Paley. Whereas mandelbrot-us is like Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, pass some Alice Munro so we can read about the great Canadian Wilderness, the one so not-very-important to any of our myriad people!

We don’t mind the previous generation doing whatever they needed to do, but when we see someone writing about their old Jewish grandparents we’re like GOD, CAN’T YOU LET YOUR FREAKING RELATIVES LIE IN THEIR GRAVES UNDISTURBED, and then we think about how if we wrote about our late Grandma Dora it would be an offense to her masterful chopped liver, which is better than anything we could say about it.

One summer at the Sewanee Writers Conference, our desperate choppedliveritude was smacked in our face when we sat enjoying a story about a certain Roy the Palm-Reading Chicken that pecked by the side of a very southern road. Around us, writers were fidgeting and coughing as we laughed, and, afterwards, when we told a deep-fried friend we’d thought it was funny, he sighed and said, “You wouldn’t, if you lived down here.”

Anyway, just go listen to Nicole Krauss read those poems. See if you can. Seriously.* **

* We know we’ll pay for this when our terrible book of poetry comes out, but we’re getting the jump on it and sending advance copies to certain Amazon reviewers.

** And, since we’re going Shiksa to Sabra with Maud today, we’ll take her “Bless your heart” and raise her one “He should live and be well.”

Filed under: Lit-ish |

Living Out of my Mind

Posted by Lizzie on 03/23/05

We haven’t weighed in — and, btw, fellow lit-bloggers, we would like to issue a moratorium on saying ‘weigh in’ or ‘weighed in’, as it makes us sound like a bunch of pudgy pedants around a fake-oak table on a 70’s political talk show — on the Ayelet Waldman brouhaha ( do you want us to STEAL ALL OF MAUD’S LINKS or just link to them, like an honest blogger?) yet, but, in true Ayelettian fashion, we feel like it and we’re going to, fuckers. We weren’t big fans of Ayelet’s blog, and we’re probably not going to be big readers of her Salon column. But we’re going to go ahead and take issue with — yes, co-litbloggers, we are nominating “take issue with” as the replacement for “weighed in on,” at least for the foreseeable future — her general vilification.

A) You can write whatever you want, as long as you get paid. Any writer who does not accept any opportunities for payment is going to be one skinny fool. B) What’s wrong with writing about your children? It’s a step up from beating them*; and C) We hate when people go on and on about how people should show “fortitude” in the face of their depression and whatnot, as if all anyone needed was a dose of courage or a firm slap in the face to get out of a particularly vicious bad mood. People have all of the wrong analogies for depression, we’ve decided. Think about showing really strong fortitude in the face of a bout of projectile vomiting. Think of showing fortitude in the face of a prolonged yeast infection. Think of showing fortitude in the face of a cockroach that’s crawled into your ear. YOU COULDN’T. YOU TOTALLY COULDN’T, WE DON’T CARE HOW MANY SUN SALUTATIONS YOU DO, YOU ZEN-SCENTED FREAK. If we could teach one person what depression is–not the moody rain at the windowpane, but the itchy yeast infection of the mind–we will have done our duty on this earth. So, if Ayelet sounds more Wurtzel than worse-for-the-wear, fault her writing skills (totally faultlable), not her handling of her illness, plueeeze.

* Naming your child “Zeke”, however, is unforgivable.

Filed under: Lit-ish |