Rita Williams-Garcia’s sequel to the award-winning One Crazy Summer takes place in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the early 1970s. So I absolutely had to have this event at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza, one block from where Delphine, the 12 year-old main character, lives with her grandmother, father, and two sisters. 

The event will feature a double-dutch contest, a reading and signing by Ms. Williams-Garcia, a 1970s fashion showcase by vintage boutique owner and friend Helen Williams Nurse, and girlie goodies by Soultanicals founder Ayo Ogun-McCants and her KiddieTanicals line. AND Greenlight Bookstore will be in there selling books that I personally hand selected!

This was a bit of a dream come true. I don’t know why I love to do this, but it was absolutely fun planning and organizing this. I even took my daughters with me along Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy handing out flyers to any little girl we came across. 
Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club, events, literacy
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Author Sarah McCarry of the wonderful blog The Rejectionist interviewed me about my new literacy initiative, the Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club. August 31st will be the inaugural event with guest author Rita Williams-Garcia and her new middle grade novel, P.S. Be Eleven.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
Tell me about Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club! What’s your ultimate plan for the book club? Who will be a part of it?
Well, the cutesy little name was my daughters’ idea. They’re ten and eight and they read lots, of course. I’m in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at VCFA so my bookshelf is full of picture books, middle grade, and YA titles. My daughters are lucky to own nearly every single book featuring a black girl as its main character. I’m in a position to know what those titles are. Most folks are not. My daughters’ friends’ parents are not aware of what’s out there for their daughters. When I read a good book that I know will empower a girl in some way, I want to hand out free copies at a schoolyard or something. That’s how I felt about Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer and P.S. Be Eleven. I just happen to have daughters who fit the age range for those books, and they have friends. So the Brooklyn Blossoms Book Club was inevitable.
But it’s more than just a book club, of course. It’s more of literacy initiative aimed at underserved girls in Brooklyn. By underserved, I mean the girls from neighborhoods with poorly funded libraries and no independent bookstore in sight. I want to hold book events in community centers or playgrounds and make certain books accessible to those who need them the most. I want our local libraries to be safe spaces for girls. Some libraries in Brooklyn are so underutilized. There are more young people waiting in line to use computers than there are sitting at tables reading books. It’s not uncommon to see a girl making out in the corner of the library. I once a stopped a fight that was about to happen right on the steps of my local branch. I think the library staff spends more time babysitting than actually being librarians.
I want these girls to develop critical thinking and writing skills from book discussions. I want them to create skits from these books, make themed art projects, write book reviews, and interview authors on camera. I want literacy to be a multidisciplinary, engaging, and fun experience. I need these girls to begin to examine how they are portrayed and perceived in stories, and in the media in general, through the lens of picture books, middle grade, and YA titles. Ultimately, I want these girls to let the world know that they’re brilliant, they have their own opinions, and they have the final say on what images and ideas they want to claim for themselves.
Read the rest of the interview here.
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Our family is featured in EBONY.com’s COOLEST BLACK FAMILY IN AMERICA series. It’s the story of how we became a family.

Check out some family photos and the story here.

Family, interview, Joseph Zoboi
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My mother has a big birthday today–ends in a 0 or a 5. I hesitate to say her age. She’s a classy lady.

A lot of what a write has to do with mother daughter relationships. My young characters usually have to search for the source of their power within the folds of their mothers’ memory. There’s also the theme of immigration and tradition, what a mother chooses to pass on to her daughter in order to either assimilate into a new culture or retain certain cultural traditons from the old home.

In a country like Haiti, where my mother grew up during the Duvalier dictatorship, immigrant parents hold on to so many secrets. I’ve spent all of my adult life so far digging for those memories. My mother was a radio journalist. My father owned a radio station. But Haiti was no place for a young woman reporter. And America was no place for a young woman reporter who only spoke French. This makes me think of Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred.”

I couldn’t bring myself to write anything other than a poem. Poems are fragmented and layered. This is how I know my mother and of her time in Haiti and why she chose to leave (if she had a choice). One day, I will have my children record her story. Memory is stories. Stories are culture. “Culture is a people’s immune system.” -Marimba Ani 

MEMORY IS A MOTHER

for you, mother, while you’re still here

while your sing-song voice still

lingers like delicate fingers
stroking piano keys

unlock cobwebbed memories
in dark corners
where two walls meet
like two open palms
catching falling water

holy Mary mother of me

pray sinner
catch stones, Magdelene
in the folds of your uniform
nurse the wounds with salty tears
bitter words have twisted your tongue
into the shape of this new home

nest the fruits of your labor pains

in the small of your back
where you rest your weary hands
head held high
up toward gray unforgiving skies
no mountains here
valleys are exalted

where opportunities bend to the will of dreams

and the past is rolled up into neat cylinders
and carefully placed into suitcases
labeled Haiti

no country for young truth tellers

wielding sharp words like machetes
cut Cain, sugar
wind the deceptive sweetness of suitors
around your clenched fists
and fight the cold winter winds
that threaten your very breath

sing French songs

as if roses sprout from your core
Comme d’habitude
as if you’ve reigned from your throne
atop La Tour Eiffel

because Pic la Selle was marked by rocky footpaths

your heels will stab the earth too deep
your jewels will blind the sun
your sea-blue dress will drink your sweat
and become the ocean
swallowing your body whole

and there the Lasirens will cradle you

within their wading arms
passing you from one mother to the next
until the first one greets you at the shores
of Ginen where you will remember yourself
gather the pieces
like broken ceramic cherubs
winged angels will fall to your feet
and the loas will rise and bow at your presence

but memory is an overflowing aluminum pot of diri kole

scoop by hot steaming scoop
of plump grains of rice
your children’s children will beg for more
during the great famine, mother

while you’re still here

May 25, 2013

Radio Difussion Haitienne.  Les Cayes, Haiti
Haiti, memory is a muscle, Mothering, poetry
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I’ve been going to Kreyolicious.com for all things Haitian for quite some time now. I love their Haiti 101 series. It’s a site that caters to young Haitians in the diaspora who want to connect to their culture, history, and the fabulous Who’s Who in Haitian art and culture. So I am very honored to be featured in their latest interview. This was the most candid since the interviewer knew exactly what to ask. So I’d consider this a mini bio of sorts.

 

Ibi Zoboi: Interview with a Writer

To call writer Ibi Zoboi ‘versatile’ is an understatement. Her pen will write a compelling essay one minute, a short story the next, and a children’s book the next. A recurring theme in her works is identity and culture, mostly as seen through black and Haitian-American identity. What distinguishes her from other contemporary writers and authors with a Haitian background is the science fiction and fantasy factor. Zoboi founded Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, an initiative for women of Haitian descent. “The Harem”, a short story she wrote was among the short story collection in the anthology Haiti Noir. Her latest work Bandit, a young adult fantasy novel, has garnered lots of acclaim, as well as the honor of being one of five works nominated for the prestigious Lee and Low New Visions Award. Zoboi’s A is for Ayiti is part of a series of children’s titles published by One More Book publishing.

Q & A

You are currently working on an MFA in Writing for children and teens.
Yes, I’m in my second semester. Best decision, ever! I’ve been calling myself a writer for fifteen years. I think in my last semester, in a matter of six months, I learned how to write a book. And I’m very much committed to writing for children and teens. This is the age where magic happens. Magic can be real in the mind and imagination of a child–magic for black children especially. I teach creative writing and essay writing in New York City public schools, so I call myself an “Imagination Teacher”. You wouldn’t believe how many of our children can’t fathom a magical world outside of their own realities. They’ve inherited such rich cultural traditions from the American South, the Caribbean, West Africa, and all they can come up with is Harry Potter, sparkly vampires, fairies, and unicorns. This is especially true for Haitian children. Why can’t we have tales of the lougarou and even the Vodou pantheon to instill cultural values? Ti Bouki and Ti Malice are fine, but we need some new narratives, silvouplé!

How was it growing up Haitian in Brooklyn?That’s like an oxymoron. A Haitian in Brooklyn is basically…Haitian. There are enough Haitians around to make you feel right at home. The adjustments and the assimilation happened on the outside—–at work and at school. There’s a huge difference between growing up in Flatbush—Little Haiti & Little Caribbean—and growing up in Bushwick where I lived from age five to ten—Little Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic. If I’d spent my early years in Flatbush, I think I’d be a different person. But Bushwick was rough for a little Haitian girl. My mother had held on to her childhood memories of Haiti so she sent me to school wearing the very finest in French colonial schoolgirl attire—stiff, lacy, bright party dresses with matching ribbons. We’re talking 1980s crack era Bushwick here. Despite my name and clothes screaming Haitian against the graffiti and crack vile-strewn schoolyard, I denied it every single time. Someone would accuse me of being Haitian and I’d vehemently protest saying that I was full-blooded Dominicana. This was survival! Admitting to being Haitian was permission for a beat down. There were other Haitians around, but most times, we denied it so we never really found each other unless if our parents knew each other. You remember AIDS the 4 Hs back in the 80s? The saying was that you got AIDS from being a Homosexual, Heroine [addicts], Hemophiliacs, and—drumroll please—Haitian!

Please read the rest of the interview here.

Haiti, interview, Writing
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Excerpt from interview:

You’re currently studying as an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. How important is pre–qualification in our field?

I don’t think there is such a thing as pre-qualification in writing. An MFA does not a guarantee a salaried job once you graduate, of course. And choosing to get one is a very personal decision. The only thing a writer must do is to write very well. And I’m certainly getting those skills at VCFA. I’m not there to write one good book. I’m there to learn the craft of storytelling.

There are certain skills a writer needs to make a career out of telling a good story. The Writing for Children program is very specific and it was the first to offer such a program. I’m surrounded by award-winning faculty and students (Trinidadian writer Lynn Joseph is my classmate). I’m in my second semester and I’ve read nearly a hundred children’s and teens’ books so far. I’ve examined different craft concepts and themes in children’s literature and worked closely on my last manuscript. Rita Williams-Garcia was my last advisor and I’m now working with Susan Fletcher.

I’m a mom of three and I’m forced to carve out a block of time to focus on reading and writing. This has been worth every (loaned) penny! And I’m committed to a life-long career of writing for children so this was a necessary investment.

Last year you won the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation. How have you used the grant to further your writing career?

The grant did not necessarily further my writing career. It’s a nice addition to a bio or query letter, of course. But it did help the novel that I was writing. I’m writing about Haiti and I needed to be there on the ground to get some of the details correct. I’d been relying on blurry memory and Youtube videos before then. I visited Haiti during Fete Gede, or Day of the Dead, and Gede figures prominently in my novel. The Speculative Literature Foundation does an excellent job of highlighting and supporting genre writers (fantasy and science fiction), and I was truly honored to be their 2011 winner.

You’ve written a fantasy YA novel, Bandit, that’s yet to be published. I love the title of the novel. Can you give us a sneak preview of what it’s about?

Sixteen year-old, Brooklyn-born Anacaona Makandal has the magical gift of being able to teleport things with her mind (stealing) and make things come to life with clay (pottery). Ana comes from a long line of Clay Women and she has also inherited her magical stealing powers from her father, the last Great Bandit of Haiti—a Robin Hood of sorts, who can travel between the world of the living, the world of the spirits (the Vodou loas/deities) and the ancestors—Ginen. She is the only girl in Haitian history to inherit such a gift. A girl isn’t supposed to be a Great Bandit. She’s supposed to fine tune her prodigious sculpting skills to become a Clay Woman like her mother and foremothers.

Do you think there is a gap in the market for genre MG and YA books featuring so-called characters ‘of color’ and is that something you hope to address as a speculative fiction writer?

Yes, there is a serious dearth of multicultural books featuring characters of color, and more specifically, black characters. I can count on one hand how many sci-fi/fantasy books for young readers from diverse backgrounds have been published within the last couple of years. Zetta Elliott does an excellent job at articulating the lack of diversity in the industry.

I was writing speculative short stories for adults first, before this YA boom. I also worked with children and teens as a creative writing teacher. When I realized that some kids had a hard time placing themselves in the future or pulling from their own cultural mythologies to write sci-fi or fantasy, I became more determined to tell these stories where inner-city black and latino kids were the heroes and heroines of their own stories.

You submitted Bandit to the Lee and Low New Visions Award contest which recognizes a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Now you’re one of three finalists for the award; congratulations! What did you do to prepare your manuscript for submission?

I’ve been writing and calling myself a writer for the last thirteen years (Though things slowed down a bit after the birth of each of my three children). I think the time I’ve put into writing was the best preparation. I also got a chance to work on the first few chapters with my advisor at VCFA. What Lee and Low and Tu Books are doing is tremendous. There had been all these online discussions (and they’re still happening) about diversity in children’s books, and their New Voices and New Visions Awards addressed a serious need. I’m honored to be among the finalists.

The award winner will be announced on March 31. What will you do if you don’t win? What will you do if you do?

I’m still working on my manuscript with my new advisor at VCFA. A book is not done until it’s on a shelf. So I’m learning the very necessary art of re-writing. If I don’t win, I get to work on it some more and make it even better. If I do win, I get to work on it some more and make it even better, but under a contract and a publication date. It’s a win/win situation for me. I’m excited and sincere about the story that I’m telling, so I know it will get into the hands of readers with the help of some amazing folks. I’ve had some great ones who’ve helped me get this far.

Your first picturebook, A is for Ayiti, was recently published by One Moore Book. What have you learned about the art of writing picturebooks that you didn’t know before?

Writing for children is very hard. A is for Ayiti is an ABC book based on Haitian culture using an English alphabet! Edwidge Danticat served as guest editor for the series and I had to go through several edits with her and the amazing publisher, Wayetu Moore. I also learned that there is a great need for more books like these. OMB’s Haiti Series garnered so much support and attention. I’m so glad Wayetu Moore took on this huge task. A is for Ayiti was translated into Kreyol and copies are being sent to Haiti. I was so proud to be a part of this series.

Read the rest of the interview here.  
http://www.summeredward.com/2013/03/publishing-perspectives-ibi-zoboi.html

Anansesem, interview, Writing
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Beasts of the Southern Wild has been the only movie to make me wail like a newborn.  This was not a sad, defeated wail.  It was a cry of pure joy.  I loved this movie and I care deeply about whether or not it wins an Academy Award tonight, how far its young actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, will go in her career, and how it’s perceived by those from NOLA who experienced Hurricane Katrina firsthand.  Conversely, I don’t like that I loved it within the context of all things heirarchical, and all the other isms that exist in the world. 

Here’s why:  New Orleans and Haiti are two extremely spiritually charged Vodou centers.  The winds in these two places are Vodou’s breath.  Two disasters have claimed bodies here; one with raging wind and water (Hurricane Katrina), the other with a parting earth (1.12.10 earthquake). 

Beasts creator Benh Zeitlin has “assembled a new myth out of Hurricane Katrina.”  And I suppose a new myth out of Haiti’s earthquake is not too far behind. Oh, wait.  A YA novel about Haitian boy during the earthquake and the spirit of Toussaint L’ouverture, In Darkness by Nick Lake, is the recent winner of the Printz Award. 

Some folks were very critical of Beasts, with good reason.  And sharp reasoning and critical thinking skills were required to peel away at Beasts of the Southern Wild to get to the meat and bones of what this movie was really conveying.

Taking from what others have written:
1.       Poverty porn. 
2.       Pickaninny stereotype. 
3.       White male gaze. 
All wrapped within a thin layer of tragic cinematographic beauty.  And I still loved it!  This dichotomy or hypocrisy is problematic.  But it’s okay.  I’m not in a mental space right now (grad school overload) to adequately give a sharp-witted and concise review of exactly what was so intriguing about this film or a response to each of the criticisms above.  What I offer instead is a series of questions and musings on the larger metaphors the film has presented.  It resonated with me on so many levels.  And yet, I find each of the scathing reviews criticizing the story and its creators to be somewhat true and accurate.  I’ve seen Beasts three times—each with a different eye (yes, including the third one).  One for the artistry and beauty; another with a critical gaze of who was telling the story, for what purpose, and to what end; and the third for a purely intuitive response. 
 On Beasts

Who were the beasts?  The residents of Bathtub?  Hushpuppy and little wild-haired, underfed, and abandoned children like her?  The pre-historical aurochs breaking past the icy barriers of time to take revenge on the lowest rung on the human hierarchy? 

Initially, for me, the beasts were every dark, evil thing that has ever walked the earth—in animal form, human form, spirit form, in the form of ideas—this monstrous thing that has preyed on the least amongst us since the dawn of time.  I’m a poet.  I live for metaphors and symbolic truth.  I bend reason, twist and turn it sometimes, to fit it into a deeper meaning.

Hushpuppy was able to face this evil that threatened her life and the life of those she loved.  She literally looked it in the eye and it bowed to her. This was when I bawled.  Here was this character—a little girl, black, poor, the ultimate underdog—and here was this primordial creature come back to life to wreak havoc on the planet (metaphor for climate change, I guess), and it bowed to her.  She looked it in the eye and was like get-out-my-way-cause-I’ve-got-to-take-care-of-mine.  Climate change and racism and oppression and poverty and corporate greed be damned.  She still had to LIVE.  There was no room for fear.  There was no room for tears.  (“The hyper-masculinity of the black girl-child,” someone wrote.)

Well, okay. This message could’ve been conveyed without the poor child walking around in her underwear, sharing food with pigs, and her daddy slapping her around.  But…
 Wilderness

I’ve never been to Cite Soleil or La Saline, Haiti.  There are others all over the world.  What the media calls squalors, dumps, slums. 

I’ve been to Port-au-Prince where I had to use a plastic bucket of water to flush a toilet.  Try doing that in the dark where much needed electricity is constantly stolen from you without warning.  This is nothing compared to…anything.  This wasn’t dire poverty, or course.  This was the reality of history, access to technology, corrupt governments, etc.  You live.  You make do.  You still have to eat.

Hunger.  To not see the possibility of a meal around the bend of tomorrow is maddening.  There’s no room for reasoning here.  The daily labor of literally providing a home, gathering scraps of discarded things, finding and making food, a living, is taxing on the body.  Tender moments of affection seep through the cracks like dripping rain.  Abandonment is “gone to look for work, to find food”. 

This is the wilderness of poverty where nothing is tamed and placid and cultivated. 

On Wild Things

 UNICEF Photo of the Year 2008 by Alice Smeets.
Beasts of a Haitian Wild

 

Me.  Les Cayes, Haiti.  Wild, yes.  But home within my village, loved and cared for.  I remember wilderness.  Beasts reminded me of that place, buried in my memory, and my mother’s perhaps, of hurricane winds and nothing but mangos for weeks in rural Haiti.  And a village. 

 What do you offer as empowerment to a black girl-child who sees nothing but scarcity around her?

Ultimately, who controls these stories?  Who wields these mythologies out into our collective dream psyches?  How are other narratives being exalted so that there is a balance of art and truth?  We are so starved for images that (initially) seem to present us in a powerful and magical light, that we will swallow whole whatever is fed to us. 

What this presents is the idea of poverty as normative for a certain demographic.  This is what Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi describes as the “single story;” the single story that places the black girl heroine in the most inhumane and dire circumstances.  The question that all stories must answer to break out of the confines of this monolithic narrative is how does our heroine ultimately reign supreme over everything that’s been handed to her?  This has to be done delicately, with unwavering empathy, and with a critical eye towards social hierarchy in all forms. 
Do we tame the wild things, or allow them to embrace their idea of freedom?  And this is also a question for all artists in general.  What stories do we tell?  And who, ultimately, has the means and resources to tell them?
Haiti, Mythology
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I am a finalist for the New Visions Award presented by Tu Books and Lee & Low Books.
The NEW VISIONS AWARD will be given for a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel by a writer of color.”

Myself and the other four finalists are blogging for the next few weeks until the award-winner is announced.  Here’s the first posting:

Ibi Zoboi, Brooklyn, NY
I’ve known about Tu Books since its Kickstarter campaign. I did get a little teary-eyed watching that video because a whole world had opened up for me. Not just for me as a writer, but for me as a reader, educator, and parent. I was probably one of Tu Books’ first contributors, having prematurely sent an unpolished manuscript. I’ve been at this writing thing for quite some time—submitting, revising, re-submitting—all while reading the online conversations around diversity in children’s books. There were some good discussions but they were just that—discussions. I was doing my part as a writer by working on my craft and submitting work. What were agents and editors on the other side of the gate doing to actually shift the dynamics and raise the number of books published for children of color?

You can read the rest of my interview here and learn more about the other finalists!

Awards, New Visions Award, Tu Books, Writing
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One Moore Book, a new publishing company launched by Watetu Moore, just released the Haiti Series.  Six Haitian authors were enlisted to write original picture book stories.  Among the authors are myself, Katia D. Ulysse, Cybille St. Aude, M.J. Fievre, Maureen Boyer, and Edwidge Danticat. Illustrators include renown Haitian artists, Edouard Duval Carrie, and my husband, Joseph Zoboi. 

The Haiti Series Launch Exhibit took place on January 26th at Space on White in Soho, NYC, and featured artwork from the illustrators including, Edouard Duval Carrie.

ONE MOORE BOOK
The HAITI Series
  • A is for Ayiti (Also in Kreyol): Written by Ibi Zoboi / Illustrated by Joseph Zoboi
  • Elsie: Written by Cybille St. Aude / Illustrated by Marie Cecile Charlier
  • Fabiola Konn Konte {Fabiola Can Count}: Written by Katia D. Ulysse / Illustrated by Kula Moore
  • I am Riding! (Tri-lingual): Written by M J Fievre / Illustrated by Jean-Patrick Icart
  • The Last Mapou: Written by Edwidge Danticat / Illustrated by Eduoard Duval-Carrié
  • Where is Lola?: Written by Maureen Boyer / Illustrated by Kula Moore
With my mom and Joseph Zoboi
with publisher Wayetu Moore and fellow authors Edwidge Danticat and Cybille St. Aude
You can purchase Haiti Series books here.
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Research trip to Haiti came and went, and what a journey it was!

 I write about it on Voices from Haiti.  A site started by fellow Haitian writer and friend, Katia Ulysses. 

There is a saying in Kreyòl: Sa w ap chache an, w ap jwen ni. “This thing you are searching for, you will find.” These are not words of encouragement. This is a warning. As in, if you go meddling in things you don’t understand, you will regret it. The wise comedian Kevin Hart put it best: “You gonna learn today!” And if you try to refuse whatever it is you had looked for and found, you will be even more disappointed. Your find now belongs to you—good or evil. And you belong to it. Forever.I use “uninitiated” here in every sense of the word. Call me a naïve dyaspora, going to Haiti for the second time of my adult life. I was blind to the spiritual ways of the world; I was a neophyte. What follows is the real-life tale of how I, this initiated, (an untrained vodouizan, so to speak), found just “what I was looking for.”

You can read the rest here

Enjoy!

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Humor me, please.  Here I will list my fears of the “Dark Island” (a play on the infamous “Dark Continent” references that were so prevalent in American literature & film).  And humor is the best way to deal with what I consider warranted concerns about returning to Haiti for the second time (as an adult), other than writing about it as fiction, YA fantasy/supernatural horror to be exact.  After all, as Wrinkle In Time author, Madeleline L’Engle stated, “If it’s too complicated for adults, write it for children.”

(And Griot as in the keeper of culture and teller of history, not the fried bits of pork that’s so popular in Haitian cuisine, but pun is intended). 
At long last, after several attempts, I leave for Haiti on a research trip as part of the grant I won from the Speculative LiteratureFoundation.  Yes, right after Hurricane Sandy ravaged through the little island, and ironically New York City as well.  There’s no denying that hurricanes are forces.   And I’ll be retracing Sandy’s path.  There’s so much more I can say about this because I’m extremely critical about these things.  But given my environment where ideas and events are not supported by any sort of spiritual cosmology (a hurricane, the force of Oya, guardian of cemeteries, joins forces with Gede, also the guardian of cemeteries, change and transition—what does that mean?), my fears are simply just that, fears. 
I’m going to Haiti to research my novel in (perpetual) progress.  Initially, I wanted to travel between Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo, DR and visit the bateyes, Massacre River, Sonia Pierre’s organization, etc.  Yes, a hefty journey (and Sonia Pierre unfortunately passed away last December).  But ultimately, the DR/Haiti relationship is not the story I’m telling.  My story is of Haiti’s magical world, this island of Kiskeya and the unseen spirits that aided its people through a successful revolution, self-governance, preserving culture and tradition, and in spite of all this, according to the media, continued political corruption, violence, and “suffering”.  The worst photos being circulated of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath are of Haiti.  So it makes absolute sense to investigate how Haitians view death.  So Gédé it is.  Or Féte de Morts.  Day of the Dead.  All Souls Day.  The ancestors. 
     1. Yes, Gédé looks…scary.  Skeletons and coffins and lewd dancing and alcohol (spirits).  The epitome of all the negative representations of Vodou.  Yes, I fear it a bit.  Not for any of the obvious reasons, but because I have an intellectual understanding of what death means in a place like Haiti.  By celebrating Gédé, we honor those who passed.  But in my little pre-occupied mind, I can’t help but to think of those who lost their lives violently, without cause, and whose death could’ve been prevented by simple things like adequate nutrition, clean water, and decent shelter.  When those spirits are called forth from their underworld homes, are they bitter? Angry?  Do they want vengeance on the living?  And I’m not talking just a few here, but the hundreds and thousands who have perished in one single moment—a deadly hurricane, a capsized boat, the recent earthquake.  Even those who lost their lives in the Haitian Revolution and wander through Haiti over time as ghosts to witness what has become of the nation they fought for—they must be pissed.  But part of me also understands that these preconceived notions of what Gédé actually represents have been instilled in me since childhood, the media, and other Haitians.  There’s science in Vodou and every other indigenous cosmology and mythology.  And if I’m to represent it in my writing, I’m careful not to do what so many other non-Haitians have done with Vodou in fiction.  Hence, a research trip right into the heart of Gédé.  His day is celebrated from November 1st and the following days.  His colors are purple and black.  Gédé in Brooklyn is one thing, but Gédé in Port-au-Prince is a whole other mambo-jambo.  Yeesh.
2.        Yes, I have a wee bit of a fear of being kidnapped.  I’m a writer so I can envision just about every worst case scenario within a fleeting moment.  This is why I write speculative fiction.  I ask, what if… and then I’m the hero of my own adventure.  But the biggest news coming out of Haiti is the arrest of one of themost notorious kidnappers (well, an orchestrator of kidnappings) in thecountry.  My sister was insistent on letting me know that he was a mulatto and those who were kidnapped were of the same elite class.  Meaning, kidnappers will want nothing to do with me.  Good.  But, still.  I don’t want to be completely naïve.  I’ve witnessed desperation in Haiti.  To walk out of the airport and be greeted by the opened extended hands of children is mind-boggling. 
3.       My mother was supposed to come with me.  But she’s one of the many, many Haitian immigrants who fear returning home—or they only go back for funerals.  Not even weddings (My cousin is getting married, so I’ll be seeing some of my extended family for the first time since I was 4 years old.  They will have lots of stories for me.)  Her fears are different from mine, of course.  My mother was devastated after the earthquake, but yet, she refuses to go home.  Haiti is no longer home.  The landscape has changed, there are memories she buried there.  And here I am trying to excavate them all—asking all the wrong questions, digging and prying.  I’m completely blown away by what I’m finding in my research of the Duvalier years—the Tonton Macoute, the overwhelming fear, the unwarranted assassinations, the opulence of the Haitian ruling class, the economic divide.  I totally get my mother.  And this adds to my fear.  I know that I lose a little bit of freedom whenever I step outside of the U.S.  I don’t have the freedom to go to Haiti and ask just about anyone about Vodou.  If I do, it’s under the guise of being a journalist.  And I fear not having enough money to hand out to everyone who offers any bit of information.  There’s an expectation that if you’re coming from the U.S., you’re in Haiti to offer help.  But I’ll be taking for now.  I would’ve taken all these stories from so many voices, and not have anything to offer in return. 
4.       I fear not having my story heard.  And this wouldn’t be my story alone.  I’d be pulling from memories and fears that are not necessarily my own.  The memories of my family when they passionately talk about Haiti and Haitian politics.  The fears of those in Haiti who truly believe that there’s no hope for their nation.  The images of Haiti are true and false, warped and precise.  There are contradictions, dichotomies, dualities that coexist like Marassa.  See, there’s a loa for just about every concept.  That’s what I have to offer, I guess.  Another perspective on the spiritual science all Haitians have inherited.  My own writing.
5.       I hope that new stories are enough.  I fear that few will recognize it as such.  New stories.  A new script. 
And here’s a bit of news that I think acts as a catalyst for this new narrative:
     “PSD was petitioned by a group of scholars and practitioners of vodou to change the spelling of the heading Voodooism. They successfully argued that vodou is the more accurate spelling, and that the spelling “voodoo” has become pejorative. The base heading was revised to Vodou on this list, and all other uses of the word “voodoo” in references and scope notes have also been revised.”
Spearheaded by Vodou scholar Dr. Kate Ramsey.

Awards, Gede, Haiti, memory is a muscle, Mythology, Research, Vodou, Writing
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I’ve spent long stretches of time over the summer writing & reading & thinking & studying–seated in front of my computer, sometimes moving from the couch, dining room, office, and back for a change of scenery.  I may have a vitamin D deficiency.  I’m more impatient with my children.  I must exercise everyday or else my body will forever be in a seated position even when upright.  I said I must, I don’t actually. Every little chore is a diversion from precious time needed to write, read, and think.  I don’t know how to hold regular conversations anymore–the weather, the children & their shenanigans, complaints about the hubs.  They bore me.  My mind wanders.  I want to be polite, but I’m plotting story, and moving around chapters, and creating dialogue in my head.  I’ve become (even more) cerebral.  This is what they call living the life of the mind. 

We have no regular TV, just a smart one (to mimic our own intelligence, I guess) that’s connected to WiFi so we’re not at the mercy of primetime programming.  Nevertheless, I must say I’m surprised to hear that about 52 percent of people don’t feel like they are missing anything after removing cable or satellite TV from their lives (source here). I crave mindless crap, myself.  In my fantasy world, a neighbor would stop by and we’d talk politics and I’d share the latest progress on my work.  But, alas, Facebook and Twitter will do.  But I just want the sound of a real intelligent human voice.  Not all the time.  Just sprinkled throughout the work day. 

But there must be cafes?  Yes, there are.  This is Brooklyn, after all.  But it’s not that, it’s just that this all makes absolutely no sense.  This work is still isolating, no matter how many people are around, it’s the individual scholar/writer/artist and the mind. I highly respect anyone who does this kind of work and doesn’t become narcissistic and self-absorbed.  That’s where the fine line is drawn.  The individual artist verses the collective vehicle.

Writing
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Or 9 reasons.  If you know anything about low-residency MFAs, or grad school in general for that matter, than you know what that 40 thousand number means.  But 9 is a nice round number (think pregnancy).  It’s brimming with potential as are my reasons, dreams, goals, aspirations, or anything that we think we’re supposed to be doing to make our stay in this dimension more meaningful.  A ‘life’, I guess.  And in this crazy world, that comes with a price tag.

1.       I was bored out of my precious, God-given mind.  So bored that I counted the days until I’d go to a feminist sci-fi convention in Wisconsin. I just needed something to intellectually cling to, feel challenged, have my mind stretch beyond its urban, mothering, Oprah & The View, little island girl limits.  Reading is isolating and so is writing.  I have very smart people around me, of course.  But they have lives and active Twitter accounts.  Literary salons, book clubs, and potlucks are far and few in between.  Us thirty-somethings tire easily these days and intellectual babble does not pay the bills.  (Nor does an MFA, but that’s beside the point).  Intellectual stimulation revolved around my craft—just the thought alone… braingasm! 
2.      I’m an immigrant.  My mother’s an immigrant.  My family is immigrant.  We have a different perspective when it comes to education.  Folks leave whole lives behind in pursuit of education.  My mother will have something to talk about with her friends.  As long as she knows that Master of FINE Arts (Grey Poupon voice) sounds way more prestigious then a simple Master of Arts in whatever.  Like pure silk and well-rehearsed fancy French words, yes?  Master’s in Business Administration sounds too stiff and confining like a necktie in July or stilettos at a dance party.  Master of FINE Arts is, well, refined.  (This reminds me of that movie where Jamie Foxx plays a tattered homeless man who is a classical violinist from Juilliard. But that’s besides the point.)  Needless to say, English is not my first language. Nor my second. I still say “close the lights”.  I need to work on that. 

3.      I’m a mother.  I’m Black.  I’m Haitian.  I’m a woman.  These all count for reasons 3, 4, 5, and 6.  It all boils down to time, resources, socio-economic status, etc.  (I outline these in detail during this interview with author friend Neesha Meminger onTiger Beatdown.)  These labels are not limitations.  And it’s a choice not to make them limitations.  I’ve got stories to tell.  Though I’m not voiceless, nor are the others like me.  I realized that I need to speak up more, louder and clearer for the hearing impaired.  That requires lots of practice.  Choosing words wisely, learning how to weave tales in such precise and definitive ways so that my stories resonate with just the right frequency.  Time and space are my enemy.  I will pay good money for time to study, hone my craft, read good and bad books to know the tradition.  Immerse myself in the world of English words and its heavy, complex history.  Then, know myself and my own cultural history well enough to pull from both—the written mode and the oral tradition.  This requires time.  I absolutely cannot be constantly interrupted by my children because of endless requests for snacks. And I need precious, precious space for my thoughts and ideas to wander.  Tons of lectures and workshops for 10-days (residency) in the rolling green hills of Vermont are like a deep long sigh for my brain.
7.       I applied to one program only—Writing forChildren & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Ten years ago before I even knew about MFAs, it would’ve been the MA/Ph.D program in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute.  They house Joseph Campbell’s papers and books—an intellectual playground for me.  And there’s a course on ritual drama.  Who studies ritual drama and symbolism?  I would.  But dagnabbit, one semester of African Mythology.  One?  Or it would’ve been a Master’s in Folklore, Storytelling, Oral Traditions.  But I’d have to move to god-knows-where and be the only chocolate chip in the batch.  There’s a pattern here.  Mythology, Folklore, Writing for Children & Young Adults.  I strongly believe in deep, intense study of esoteric concepts.  It grounds me and gives me a sense a purpose in this twisted universe. 
8.      The folks who love me are rooting for me.  I get to leave for 10 days twice out of the year and come back with new and exciting stuff to tell my husband.  My children think I’m so cool.  My “textbooks” (picture books, middle grade and YA novels) are stuff they can read and I can read to them, save for the writer’s bible—The Art of Fiction and all the other craft books.  I get to have precious writing time because, I tell them, I have “homework”.  Family is more willing to help out when they know that you’re in grad school and not just working on that “novel” that’ll probably never see the light of day.
9.      I am completely blown away by what I’ve learned so far–the world of children’s literature from picture books to novels for teens.  There are so many serendipitous moments that let me know I’m supposed to be doing this.  It’s been my experience to not do things because of money and then something would happen where I lose that same amount of money it would’ve cost.  It’s as if the universe begs for that exchange.  It’s a sacrifice.  And since we don’t live in a world where chicken or goat’s blood is ritualized, money and debt will do (in this case, maybe a whole farm).  I’m studying the art of telling stories to young people.  This would’ve been the storyteller of the village—the keeper of culture and tradition.  The mythmaker.  I’d have to study with the elders, commit stories to memory, learn the meanings and symbols, and have a deep reservoir of tales to pull from my pocket and sprinkle out onto the young impressionable minds.  But, alas, this is the new way.  I get to have an advisor who is the “elder” that guides, shapes my work and ideas, and imparts wisdom. 
And besides, I’m sharing this experience with some of the most playful, brilliant, imaginative, did I say playful?, and creative people on the planet.  Folks whose job it is to tell stories to children. 
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I’ve come to value the new friendships I’ve made in the past few years.  These folks are meeting me at a stage in my life when I fully know myself (sort of).  I’m settled in my skin, have unwavering values, and can share a wealth of accumulated knowledge. So when I meet highly intelligent, engaging, thoughtful, spiritually and socially aware women, I know I’ve come to a place where I can attract the kind of people I really want to be around.  If I can talk for hours over lunch or on the phone and be challenged to answer those really deep and tough questions about the world, I realize that someone thinks that I’m intelligent, engaging, thoughtful, spiritually and socially aware as well.  And one of those folks is Neesha Meminger. When we speak, a lot of what I say sounds like, “Wow! I never thought of it that way!” I learn things from her.  This is what meaningful relationships are all about.  And this is what “small talk” sounds like between us two:

Q. when did you first learn about feminism? did you ever embrace the term, or did you struggle with it?

Ibi Zoboi: I embraced “women’s studies” in college before I fully understood the idea of feminism. And women’s studies was within the context of literature—19th century women’s literature. The Bronte sisters, Kate Chopin, Dickinson, a wee bit of Phyllis Wheatley, and the one speech by Sojourner Truth sprinkled in there. This is where those conversations began for me. The idea of women’s rights was easy to extract and identify within the visibly patriarchical and colonial framework of the 19th century. And race was relative to slavery and white women. It was all a long time ago. And we all agreed that the 19th century was a terrible time to be a woman, much less a published woman. First-wave feminism was easy to dissect and understand.

Second-wave feminism was introduced to me right along with the Civil Rights & Black Arts Movements. That was easy as well. Black folks’ struggle took precedence in my mind. Though, I could now contextualize my understanding of first-wave feminism in relation to the African-American experience. Whatever issues Edna Pontellier, Kate Chopin’s character in The Awakening, was having around marriage, mothering, and freedom were a “white” problem. Within this context, I do not wholeheartedly claim feminism. Womanism, yes. Because womanism encompasses all the experiences of women of color, black women in particular. Any ideology that does not compartmentalize oppression is beneficial in understanding the plight of black women in this society.

If feminism brings into question the right for women to breastfeed or stay home with their children, or have children out of wedlock, black women in general have to negotiate a whole set of circumstances in order to even begin thinking about these choices. If we want to discuss equal pay for women in the workplace, why not bring up basic living wages for women of color in service sector jobs? And this small battle affects our families—our children, communities, and men.

Neesha Meminger: For most of my life I hadn’t heard of a feminist movement, to be honest. I still, to this day, don’t know some of the “big names” in the earlier waves of the western feminist movement and I haven’t read many of the well-known texts. When I came into a sense of political awareness, it was among active, political, creative women of color fighting for change—both in their own communities, as well as within the larger world of racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, etc.

I embraced the term “feminist” whole-heartedly and enthusiastically because to me, feminists looked like me – they were June Jordan, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Jean Shinoda-Bolen, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Maxine Hong Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Pratibha Parmar and many, many others. One of the first books I remember being handed was All The Women Are White, All The Men Are Black, But Some Of Us Are Brave, by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith. So it was really a no-brainer for me to slip seamlessly (and blissfully) among these active, vocal, smart-smart women. I only realized much later (in my thirties) that this wasn’t how all women are introduced to feminism.

The rest of the conversation is here on Tiger Beatdown, a radical feminist blog.

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It’s my birthday today!  It’s also the late, great Octavia Butler’s birthday.  And the late, great Katherine Dunham’s birthday, too, who had a deep love of Haiti.   I really do believe in the secret language of birthdays and astrology.  How the planets and stars are aligned on the day and time that we are born is part of our wiring.  Most know you don’t need a telescope to get a look at your sign, right?

I’m under the astrological sign of Cancer and most June Cancers I know are either writers (YA writers, at that), poets, or storytellers and comedians.  There’s something about being on the cusp of Gemini (Mercury, the planet of communication) and Cancer (the moon, mothering, and emotions) that gives us a love for words and deep longing to convey our feelings.  Meryl Streep was born today, too. 

We are not distinct and separate entities from the surrounding universe.  We all know this.  So, to celebrate the alignment of planets, the sparkling of stars, the circling of the universe, I put out a story on Kindle.  This was the third story I wrote in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti (“Goudougoudou”, we call it–the sound the earth made that day).  It’s science fiction. I worked on it for a long time.  It won me the Gulliver’s Travel Grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation.  Sure, I’ve sent it out to publications.  I’ve been asked to revise, then, something didn’t click with the editor.  I worked on it some more, doubted it, put it away, re-read it, fell in love with it again, doubted it, put it away… and then it haunted me.  It had to be born and decided that today was a good day to be born. 

It’s out there. It’s accessible…for 99 cents.  If anyone is ever looking for Haitian sci-fi, Haiti in the future, dystopian Haiti, a hopeful Haiti, may the stars and planets align so they could be led to “The Farming of Gods”. 

Here’s the blurb: 

Decades after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, the precious land and its vital resources, the people and their ability to bear children, and their religion are all held within the hands of foreign scientists and doctors. A master Vodou drummer named Innocent and his wife struggle to find their place amongst the pantheon of cultivated Vodou loas to envision a mended future Haiti.

Innocent must navigate this new crossroad where science and technology and the power of ritual drumming and dancing converge, but an unrecognizable Papa Legba guards the gates.

 Here is the cover by Joseph Zoboi:

e-pub, Haiti, Joseph Zoboi, published, publishing, sci-fi/fantasy, short story
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My short story, “The Fire In Your Sky”, was listed as a notable story of 2011 by the storySouth Million Writers Award.  That’s nice.  Thank you for the nomination and all the decision-making folks.  I’m sharing this long list (well, there are a lot of online stories) with some other great writers.  

Every bit of recognition helps. It means that my words have traveled beyond the sound of my own voice; that somewhere on the interweb, there is a resounding “Krak!” to my initial storyteller’s calling, “Krik?” This is a good thing.

Awards, short story, storySouth
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On Friday, May 25th, I’ll be at WisCon Feminist Science Fiction Convention once again. Here’s what I’ll be doing:

Memories, Bones, & Forbidden Lands reading with Neesha Meminger, NK Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed, & Daniel Jose Older.

Here’s the flyer my hubs, Joseph, made:

And the Riots of Bloom Party celebrating authors of color hosted by Neesha Meminger, myself, K. Tempest Bradform (DJ in a T Cup), N.K. Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Daniel Jose Older, Malinda Lo, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Mary Anne Mohanraj!

The title for the party was thought of by Neesha Meminger and comes from James Tiptree’s quote, “Certainly my inner world will never be a peaceful place of bloom; it will have some peace, and occasional riots of bloom, but always a little fight going on too.”  So appropriate for spec-fic writers of color.

Joseph duplicated the famous rioter throwing a bouquet by British artist Bansky into a flower.

Joseph Zoboi, Neesha Meminger, readings, WisCon
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Eleven years ago, I attended the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in Seattle.  Six weeks, seventeen writers, six instructors.  It’s been said we’re the only Clarion West class who have had the most profressional publications.  Needless to say, it was a certainly a journey.  This is where I celebrated my birthday alongside the late, great Octavia Butler.  I was the youngest in the class–naive, emotional, and always coming from “a different perspective” with years of growing as a writer ahead of me.

Eleven years later, we still keep in touch through our very active yahoogroup listserve.  Several new babies and publications later, we put out an anthology– Under the Needle’s Eye.  Seattle’s famous space needle, that is.  Thank the goodness of all that is fair and just in the world for e-books.  This was done in a matter of months thanks to Emily Mah, Raymund Eich, and the self-pub wisdom (and stardom) of Susan Ee.  A great cover, some reformatting, some techy know-how, and voila!  It was up for all the world to see…and purchase–eleven stories by eleven spec-fic writers.  This, of course, was not possible a mere five years ago. 

And, look! There’s also a promo video!


Clarion West 2001: The Sarong Class
Clarion West, e-pub, Octavia Butler, published, publishing, short story, workshops, Writing
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I was awarded another grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council for the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project!  I’ll be conducting another series of creative writing workshops for middle and high school Haitian girls.  This is all part of my teaching artist work.  There aren’t enough free activities and programs for all the young people in this city and the local libraries are severly underutilized.  What this means?  WORK for the ARTISTS! Yay!!! Thank the goodness of rich folks for grants and foundations and sponsorships and scholarships and their love of arts and CULTURE (Grey Poupon voice).   

And my dear husband also received his first grant to launch the Rising Son Project–his idea plus my stupendous grant writing skills.  Our little hummingbird way of making small changes…

Awards Ceremony
With Haiti Cultural Exchange Executive Director, Regine Roumain
Awards, Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, Haiti Cultural Exchange, Joseph Zoboi
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My short story, “The Muralist”, is up on Expanded Horizons.  I wanted to practice “voice” when I first started writing this story–the word choice, the pacing, the tone, rhythm of the story.  It’s a ghost story told in the point of view of a homeless man and it’s set in Bed-Stuy Do or Die (literally).  There are plenty murals on the side of corner bodegas all over Brooklyn.  I pass one every day in Fort Greene.  It has the person’s sunrising and sunsettting, name, followed by R.I.P., of course.  And I’m always fascinated by the eyes.  That person’s likeness was once a real face on a live body.  And those eyes are there watching–day and night, rain or shine. 

And another major question that came up for me while writing this was what happens to all those shooting victims?  Not the bodies, but their souls.  What happenes when Death snatches us from reality and pulls us down into that underworld in-between place?  I tried to answer this with “The Muralist”.

A few days ago, a 17-year-old boy named Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a neighborhood watchman. 

Here is an excerpt of “The Muralist”:

The Muralist

by Ibi Zoboi

Man, let me tell you about the nighttime. A blank canvas. A lame brick wall. Except for the walking dead who traveled with their own colors. It was work to be able to see them. A stroke of my paintbrush fingers in midair would reveal the aura of the closest one. A few more strokes, and the fully formed spook would appear. Crazy-ass nighttime. Like Whodini said. Except it ain’t the freaks. It’s the spooks. Soon as dusk settled like dirt over the city resting its filthy head for some Zs, the spooks came out against the city’s perpetual bright lights. Flashing all that color like strobe lights at the club. Like that stupid spinning disco ball that’ll make you throw all your shit up if you stared at it too long after you’ve had too much to drink.

“That’s my spot! Get out my spot!” I yelled as I limped my way over to a bed for the night.

Just when it was still light enough outside, I roamed the streets of Brooklyn looking for a makeshift shrine of seven day candles, flowers, and crying folk. That’s where it was quiet. The spooks didn’t come close to where a Newdead was about to make its way into the Cracks. Too much confusion. So these were the only corners in the city I could lay my head right at night.

But the crying folk wouldn’t leave. Some fool gunned down somebody’s son right next to a corner bodega. Always something about the crossroads. You make a deal with the devil, do your dirt, and there was always four directions you could choose to run towards.

published, short story, Writing
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I’m a writer. So every little adventure, conversation with a stranger, excursion into the unknown is part of research for some project. Bertha Rogers–one of the spunkiest, most energetic people I’ve ever met–invited me up to Treadwell, NY to read at her literary center–Bright Hill Center.

I’ve always dreamed of doing something like what Bertha does with Bright Hill Center–a community arts center of sorts–workshops & exhibits for local children (and the word ‘local’ is relative here–folks spoke of distances in terms of miles, and not blocks, of course), readings, a grant-funded humanities library, an all-around safe space for the community. Treadwell is a few miles from Dehli, and Oneonta is the closest “big” city. I’m only vaguely familiar with these names because of friends who’ve gone to the SUNY schools.

So, needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to leave the hubs and darlings for a reading and writing retreat–a four hour bus ride to take in the Appalachian landscape, contemplate the world, plot my novel, think of the afterlife, imagine our dystopian future, be a witness to rural poverty, deforestation, a whole town destroyed by a recent flood…

Storyteller Claire Beettlestone was my co-presenter. She was the charismatic, funny, engaging storyteller I always I wanted to be. (I was headed down that path, you know. But after children and endless picture books and bedtime stories, I stuck with peace and quiet of novel writing). Claire told the fascinating story of Marie Laveau of NOLA and recanted the chain gang folksong, “Another man done gone…” It went something like this:

“Another man done gone (another man done gone) He had a long chain on (he had a long chain on) They hung him from a tree (they hung him from a tree) And let his children see (and let his children see) They set the dogs on him (they set the dogs on him) They teared him limb to limb (they teared him limb to limb)…”

I know. *Chills* It was made famous by Johnny Cash, and there are versions by Odetta and Vera Hall. Claire precluded with the dire statistics of the prison industrial complex. See, research. I read my story, “The Fire In Your In Your Sky”. Spooky! Here’s a lovely photo of Bright Hill Press.

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1.12.10

They said we opened the gates of hell
But it was only to let ourselves out.

We clawed at its doors
Heads bowed to the floor
If only our collective tears could form an ocean
And we would join the ones who jumped ship
The truly brave ones
Who knew that Lasiren would embrace us
Cradle us
Gather all her children beneath the sea
And tell us to wait
With bated
Breath
Hold still

Then, up for air
Reach the sky
Chest high, shoulders back
Pose
Steady balance
Don’t fall

As the earth parts
Shake loose the muddied soil
Blood and toil
Back broken
Mountains
Stare down

Mocking
Indignant
Mountains

Lend a hand
Help us up
Heaven
Awaits us, we tell them

But the brave ones pull at our feet
Force our eyes to turn towards hell
If only we could leave our bodies
And fly
But here, there is no sky
Only more mountains
No tomorrow
Only today and yesterdays
Pass like slow moving boats
Wading
With bated breath
Hold still
Don’t move

No brave ones here who will know Lasiren
Only cold waters crashing against
Coasts
Guard borders
Gates to hell

Where we will once again
Claw at its doors
Heads bowed to the floor
If only our collective hands could form new land
And we would join the ones
Who with calloused feet and aching knees
With the loas balanced perfectly atop their heads
Side by side with their ancestors
Who with their weary, ailing history held within their arms
And their future strapped firmly to their backs
Climbed and climbed and climbed the mountains

Reached the sky
With chests high, shoulders back
Mountain poised
And never, ever, ever fall.

Ayibobo.

January 15, 2010

Haiti
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We celebrate Kwanzaa. For the 9th year in a row, we set up a table with the kente fabric, mat, unity cup, 3 ears of corn (for our 3 children. It used to be 1, then 2), basket of fruits and vegetables, and kinara with the three red candles, 3 green candles, and 1 black candle in the center. We have a karamu with friends and their children and we have a good ‘ole time!

This, of course, is not a tradition that was passed down from our Haitian/Trinidadian/Liberian families. We got all the how-to’s from several books over the years, from some of my former professors in college, and from the many Kwanzaa events all over Brooklyn. Oh, and we also learned the rituals from some of our friends whose parents celebrated Kwanzaa way before Party City started carrying Kwanzaa decorations.

So, it’s a tradition that was literally made up 45 years ago. As far as my children are concerned, 1966 was a very long time ago. And its founder, Maulana Karenga, was involved in some shenanigans. It was the sixties. Shenanigans and revolution went hand in hand. Kwanzaa is still relevant today. It’s thriving. Therefore, the spirit of the idea is far greater than its messenger.

Kwanzaa is a story. Stories are what ground a people to their collective memory. If we place it within the context of history, the struggles of a people, and the need to create rituals and traditions that are affirming and pay homage to that history and struggle, than it makes absolute sense. Rituals are a way to tell a story over and over again so that a certain memory is never lost. This is what we want to pass on to our children.

But…

Kwanzaa needs some magic! Yes, like Santa Claus and elves and reindeer. This is what gives our children a sense of wonder. It instills a sense of spirituality—that there is an unseen world ruled only by our collective imagination. Any given traditions celebrated around this time–the music, the songs, the decorations, and the rituals are all part of what we created around a simple act of nature—the solstice. The cosmos simply do what they do. And we are affected by it—as above so below. So it was the stories that made sense of this shift both up in the heavens and down within our very cells. It is our very own stories that give us a sense of place and value in this universe.

We tell the stories. We write them down. We believe in them. We pass them on. And they live. We need the children to carry them on. We need them to buy into the stories from a very young age. The logic and science of it all will not make sense to them. So we sing it to them and tell it to them in poetry complete with personifications and metaphors.

Kwanzaa is still in its infancy. It wasn’t allowed to fully blossom before it got plastic-wrapped and commercialized. (I still can’t easily find outdoor decorations, though). It’s up to us to constantly be in the spirit of Kuumba to create new rituals around Kwanzaa. If it is weak, then it will fall on itself. But it’s still going. And it’s us who hold it up.

I’ve created a Mama Kwanzaa for my children—a primordial African matriarch who bestows a bountiful basket of fruits and veggies to families. The Nguzu Saba are her seven children.
Here’s an excerpt of a short story published in African Voices Magazine a few years ago:

Time was, somewhere far beyond the light of the moon, someplace far beyond the warmth of the sun, sat an old woman, older than time itself, surrounded by the fruits and vegetables that ever were. She sat high above the dark expanse of space with the stars at her fingertips, rubbing elbows with galaxies, and playing marbles with planets. At her feet were all the food that her favorite planet had ever bore. It was a harvest of sweet things and sour things, juicy things and dry things, bright things and ugly things.

The old woman was Mama Kwanzaa, mother of the first harvest—the universal mother of fruits from the trees and vegetables from the soil of the Earth.

***

The old woman clasped both her hands and inside, a sparkling mass of stardust, stars, and firelight spun around and around. She opened her hands and the circling fireball rose into the vast expanse of space and broke into seven smaller fireballs. Each of the seven fireballs spun faster until one by one, the spinning slowed and like a blossoming Earth flower, each transformed into a beautiful human being! Seven spinning fireballs made of stardust, stars, and firelight become the seven children of the old woman Mama Kwanzaa. They children floated into the vast expanse of space before their star-speckled mother with the bounty of fruits and vegetables around her dress.

One by one, with the ancient Eastern African Swahili tongue, Mama Kwanzaa named her children.

“You, my first son, Mama Kwanzaa pointed to the first boy. “You, I am naming Umoja. Umoja, you are responsible for your six brothers and sisters. You are to keep them unified. You are to keep all things unified. Just as the planets rotate around the sun at the same time, you are responsible for all things moving as one. You are unity.”

Another energetic boy whirled around his six brothers and sisters before stopping in front of Mama Kwanzaa with a smile just as big and bright as hers. They boy stuck out his chest and proclaimed with pride, “Mama, I can name myself!”

“Why, aren’t you a bold little one!” Mama Kwanzaa said. “Very well, then. What is your name?”

“I am Kujichagulia!”

That was my bit of a contribution. There needs to be more. And each year, we weave in something new to make Kwanzaa become the magical cultural tapestry that it needs to be. Why not? The stories are all that we have.

Here are some photos of this year’s Kwanzaa. And some of the children’s gifts given to them by us and aunties and grandparents. Some were made, some were bought. All were in line (somewhat) with our values. Yes, even the Samurai Power Ranger. That Barbie with the too short dress & too straight hair? The girls have already decided on giving her an afro and wrapping scraps of fabric around her exposed legs. I had nothing to do with that decision. (Not directly, anyway.)

*As a side note, the candles don’t all burn out evenly by the time we get to Imani. They Umoja candle ends up being the shortest of them all.











Culture, Kwanzaa
2 Comments

So I’ve been married for 11 years. We are happy. We are safe. Our children laugh often. We laugh sometimes, when we get a moment to ourselves. Yes, we’re what’s considered heteronormal, at least from the outside looking in. But we are far from normal. Hetero, yes. But normality as defined by our society’s standards does not define our relationship. And I don’t speak for myself.

“Are we normal?” I ask Joseph.

“What is normal?” he asks. (He’s such a philosopher, that one. Our arguments are usually intellectual debates that involve some sort of anthropological psychotherapeutic excursion into why we “feel” a certain way. It keeps us sane.)

“According to what this culture says is normal,” I say.

“No,” he says. “How many people you know who are married?”

I count. It’s not a large number.

“So marriage is not normal?”

He quotes the stats. The divorce rate.

Wait. This isn’t meant to be a Michele Bachmann rant on the sanctity of marriage–by far. Women are “vulnerable, while men have “rights”. Really?

Anyway, our marriage is political (No, not arranged. Okay, sort of. By some higher power). Our love, as long as we don’t resort to R&B lyrics (reminiscent of the troubadours & the myths—as in sacred story—of courtly & unrequited love), is effortless—there’s mutual respect, there is an appreciation for the good-hearted, ever changing, and growing human being we’ve chosen to share our life with. Like Agape.

We are the first examples of the balance that exists in the world—the yin & yang, mawu & lisa, Nut & Geb. And I am not always the vehicle for feminine energy, nor is Joseph always the vehicle for masculine energy. Our roles shift and ebb and flow according to what’s needed. I married a feminist man.

And it all boils down to the stories—our own stories we tell ourselves. Love stories.

“You think we were married in a past life?” I ask Joseph.

“That’s for you to decide.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“No.”

“This is the first time you’ve been married in all your lives?”

“Yep.”

“’Cause it’s so difficult?”

“It’s easy to go live by yourself in the woods. It’s easy to go be a warrior and hunt and go kill things.”

Apparently, this is Joseph’s memory of complete autonomy. And I imagine singing, dancing, pounding seed grains in mortars, gossiping, and nursing endless babies surrounded by loud, talkative, laughing women. Then the men would come home and we’d stop everything to celebrate their return. They’d be carrying a carcass and we’d have to gather the herbs for the communal meal. And sometime around dusk, we’d settle down to mate, and months later, the babies would come. More hands to tend the land. Bliss.

Imagine role-playing this whole scene out. Some sort of healing ritual drama.
Maybe not. This downplays any advancement made on culturally imposed gender roles and gender identity.

Point is, we try to envision a time before we were broken. Before racial hegemony, colonialism, slavery, the Middle Passage, “tribal” warfare. We romanticize, you know, like they did in Rome. We’re of African descent. Both our fathers were powerful, wealthy, philandering men. And we were the result of broken families and cultural annihilation—a plague in our community. And we try to hold on to some memory of health and wholeness.

What we do agree on is that we’ve been together in other lives. At some point in time, we weren’t allowed to be together. To love freely. At some point in time, we did not have ownership of our bodies and the children that came from us. And when we were together, our relationship was never defined by marriage. It did not have to.

This is not our personal history, of course, but we have a deep connection and understanding to our collective history. And we have socially-imposed norms as a common enemy. We understand marriage in context, in terms of its history in the European feudal system, patriarchy, and capitalism. And we also understand the need for commitment, loyalty, and creating a healthy home environment for both ourselves and our children.

Ultimately, at times, it makes no sense this idea of an insulated nuclear family. No one really benefits from this, except maybe the housing market. (2 adults, 2 kids, a dog in this big ‘ole house and relatives live in other states). This culture supports it–individual freedom vs. communal standards.

But we find logic in insanity. The books help us. In fact, they ground us. When Joseph and I first met, we exchanged books. There was no real courting, no real questions asked. Just the books. And here they are.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

*The year was 2000 and we used the word ‘universe’ in just about every sentence. Joseph read it first, and then passed it on to me. We’d go through highlighted passages and relate it to our lives and the details surrounding our meeting each other. We learned to find the magic in every serendipitous moment.

Spirit of Intimacy by Sobonfu Some

*I read this first for a college course on the African World View taught by Professor Marimba Ani. I understood attraction as a spiritually divined process. Some describes something called an ‘Ash Circle’ in the book. I gave it to Joseph. He read it in a couple of hours. The next day, he created an Ash Circle and asked me to join him inside of it where he proposed. (I know right!) The Ash Circle is meant to protect a couple or family from “evil forces”. We believe in evil forces (negative stereotypical images in the media).

African Spirituality: On Becoming Ancestors by Anthony Ephirim-Donkor
*Our first daughter’s name comes from this book. It reminds us of who we *really* are and how our values are connected to a larger world-view far greater and older than our short lives.

Indaba, My Children by Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa
*We love this book. We read it in the midst of it all–a few years into our marriage, with children, bills, and dreams of a middle class life. 700 pages of pure fantasy and science fiction. It informed our work as artists. It focused us back towards are individual passions and dreams. Joseph has done paintings & illustrations based on this book, and I’ve written stories inspired by this book. Two of our children’s names even came from this book. It’s something we share in common.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

*This is my personal favorite love story. Not the baby ghost, but Sixo and the Thirty-mile woman. A slave who knew love so deeply that he would only escape to travel thirty miles just to get a glimpse of this woman.

These words and thoughts are from me, but they’re not one-sided. Joseph has co-signed on all this. I don’t carry our mythology (as in sacred story) alone. Like any collective myth, each individual contributes to its longevity.

Culture, love, Mythology
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Laylah Amatullah Barrayn curated this exhibit at the Restoration Plaza’s Skylight Gallery– “Her Word As Witness: Women Writers of the African Diaspora.” Yep. Amazing.

So Laylah asked me to be a part of the show. After hearing who else she had lined up to photograph, I spent the better part of my photo shoot trying to show her my publications. I call myself a writer and all, but really, I know some women who’ve put in a quarter of a century doing this work. I tried to name some others who should be a part of this show, but Laylah was good. She had her women folk lined up and she knew exactly what she wanted to convey.

And it was a fine mix of both emerging and established writers, newbies and elders. Fiction writers, poets, journalists, magazine editors, bloggers. Laylah made us look spectacular. I mean, we’re already fabulous, but each woman was portrayed with a certain je ne sai quois. Whatever ancestor/spirit guided our thoughts and words shone through in each of our images. And Laylah was able to capture that.

Certainly, there needs to be a part 2, 3, and 4. So many of us. And black women writers hardly get this sort of attention. Singers, actresses, models, socialites, yes. But writers, no so much. This showed that we can be sensual and gorgeous while being super duper smart. And I’d like to see an exhibition like this for black women dancers/choreographers. How about corporate execs, teachers, hairdressers, hotel workers, nannies, black women cops? Now that would be tremendous.

The exhibition will be on view until March 31st at the Skylight Gallery in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

Here are some photos I took from the lovely opening on December 1st:


Photographer & curator, the beautiful Laylah Amatullah Barrayn




Edwidge Danticat (literary mommy #1)


Tananarive Due (literary mommy #2)


Nana Camille Yarbrough (Elder Extraordinaire)


Joseph Zoboi


Good friend, photographer Delphine Fawundu


My bodyguards, friends Denala & Oshadi.

Here’s a great slide show put together by the folks over at Bed-Stuy Patch.o

art, Edwidge Danticat, exhibition, Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, photography, Tananarive Due, women writers, Writing
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Yes, I write speculative fiction. Some of it is feminist and some of it is not. I explain why (among other things) in my guest blog post on The Rejectionist. Needless to say, I was beside myself when The Rejectionist asked me to do a guest blog post. I first heard about The Rejectionist from writer friend Neesha Meminger when she quoted me for this post. And I’ve bookmarked this Rejectionist post that had me laughing and falling out of my writing seat. The Rejectionist is witty, hilarious, insightful, and all kinds of wonderul. And we don’t know who she is!

For Feminist Speculative Fiction week, I was joined by three other fantabulous women writers. I already have the pleasure of knowing both Andrea Hairston (WisCon’s next guest of honor) and Hiromi Goto. And Kat Howard and I met in Twitterworld.

Here’s an excerpt of my post:

For as long as I could remember I would imagine the very beginning of humanity. I’d be eight or nine years old giving myself a headache wondering what human beings were really made of. It was a conundrum–I’m human, in this body, thinking these thoughts. Wait. Then, I’m human, in this body, thinking these thoughts. A cat chasing its tail. Who does that at such a young age? An immigrant.

Two things I know for sure as an immigrant: my body and the space that it occupies. My earliest memories of Haiti were of thick warm air, pastel colors, laughing out loud, old men playing dominoes, sweet wet fruit–what any self-respecting Caribbean island ought to be. I remember the excitement of having to get on a plane and then space and time bending itself to transport me to what seemed to be a whole other planet: 1980s crack-era Brooklyn, New York. I was four. I was mortified.

There was that strange puppet on Solid Gold and too-long nights and too many clothes to put on at one time and these things called jobs that kept my mother away for long hours at a time. My little body had experienced two polar opposite realities mere hours apart. I must’ve napped on the plane so the transition felt instantaneous–teleportation, of course.

The immigrant experience has got to be the most otherworldly, mind-bending phenomena that can happen to a human. Enter the immigrant woman’s experience and what we have is a space opera super heroine. If I could actually name some of them, I’d say they’ve got nothing on my mama.

You can read the rest here. And please check out the other wonderful posts.

sci-fi/fantasy, Writing
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I am the winner of the Gulliver Travel & Research Grant awarded annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation!

What does this mean? (My favorite question in the whole wide world.)

I created something and it was good enough. That’s all an artist wants. And this is just what I needed to affirm that I can get better. I set out to write a hard-core sci-fi story, and I did it. I revised & edited till my eyes crossed. I decided that this is the kind of story I want to keep telling–place Haiti with all its magic and science into the future. But I needed to go to Haiti. And the Dominican Republic. If my story and novel idea were indeed good enough, then someone will award it something, anything.

Alas, I’ll be able to travel to the Haitian-Dominican border to conduct some research for all my writing. More on what I plan to do there later.

Here is the official press release.

SPECULATIVE LITERATURE FOUNDATION ANNOUNCES GULLIVER TRAVEL GRANT WINNER

SPECULATIVE LITERATURE FOUNDATION
PO Box 1693
Dubuque, IA 52004-1693

info@speculativeliterature.org – http://www.speculativeliterature.org/

For Immediate Release: Nov 1, 2011

The Speculative Literature Foundation is delighted to announce that
Ibi Zoboi is the winner of the 2011 Gulliver Travel Grant.

Zoboi will use the $800 grant to travel to Haiti and the Dominican
Republic to research her YA dystopian novel set in both countries. She
was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and had always loved the magical
aspects of the Haitian literary tradition. She has been published in
Crossed Genres, Haiti Noir, and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, among
others.

The Travel Grant judges said of Zoboi’s entry, “The sample story was
provocative and haunting, and stayed with us for weeks after reading
it. This, combined with the knowledgeable treatment of the subject and
the compelling project idea, made it a clear winner.”

Also shortlisted were: Tiffani Angus, Lillian Cohen-Moore, Hunter
Liguore, Kirsty Logan, Valya Dudycz Lupescu, Sandra McDonald, Kate
Milford, Trina Phillips, and Hilary Smith, for their unique and
thought-provoking submissions, which made the selection of the
eventual winner a difficult but enjoyable process.

—————-

PR Contact: Corie Ralston press@speculativeliterature.org

The Speculative Literature Foundation is a volunteer-run, non-profit
organization dedicated to promoting the interests of readers, writers,
editors and publishers in the speculative literature community.

“Speculative literature” is a catch-all term meant to inclusively span
the breadth of fantastic literature, encompassing literature ranging
from hard and soft science fiction to epic fantasy to ghost stories to
folk and fairy tales to slipstream to magical realism to modern
mythmaking — any literature containing a fabulist or speculative
element.

Dominican Republic, Haiti, sci-fi/fantasy, Writing
4 Comments

I adore this publication! Yep, the Caribbean has a whole different aesthetic when it comes to literature. Our history, folklore & mythology, landscape, and overall culture determines how our stories are told. Summer Edwards is the magazine’s creator and she’s been doing an excellent job in highlighting and showcasing Caribbean children’s writers and illustrators from around the world. Summer once created a list of nearly 100 hundred titles of books in English aimed at Haitian children!

So, *ahem*, it is an honor that both my daughter, 8 year-old Abadai Zoboi, are published side-by-side in this issue of Anansesem. Abadai wrote “The Magic Rock”, and I wrote “The Little Golden Stone Man.”

Neither of us knew that we’d each be writing about magical stones in Haiti. A child after my own heart!

Here are some excerpts:

The Magic Rock by Abadai Zoboi (age 8)

Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in Mon Petit Village, a village in Haiti. Her name was Belle. Her name means “lovely” in Creole. Belle was just quiet and loved beautiful things in nature. Belle would always lie down in the water and just relax since she lived in a condo on Mon Petit Beach. She was 8 years old.

One day, Belle was watching TV in her room when a news report interrupted her show. The weatherman said, “We have some breaking news folks, an earthquake will hit the town! Get as much protection as possible!”

You can read the rest here.

Here’s an excerpt of my story:

Krik?

“Krak!”

It was on the sixth day of each week that Manoucheka was to place a small bundle of cloth atop her head beneath which she would gently balance a plastic bucket for her hour long journey to the river. Her little brother, Gogo, would walk by her side only pushing a bicycle wheel with a long wooden stick down the rocky roads.

Manoucheka would kiss her teeth each time she’d watch her little brother play while the day’s chores washing clothes by the river, fetching water, pounding maize, and feeding the chickens forced her to wake at dawn and only rest her aching feet when the sun slid down beneath the earth.

You can read the rest here.

Anansesem, Haiti, published
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I attended an exhibition of Tequila Minsky’s photography at the SoHo Photo Gallery on Friday evening. The event was hosted by Haiti Cultural Exchange and was very well-attended. Tequila showed some photos of rural Haiti and a newly built school. I presented some writing from the 2010 Daughters of Anacaona Anthology. And Haitian saxophonist Buyu Ambroise played with his band for the rest of the evening.

Oh, and I met Jany Tomba, one of America’s first black supermodels and who is also Haitian. Katia Ulysse interviewed her for Voices from Haiti.

I absolutely love being around fellow Haitian artists, and non-Haitian artists who are committed to Haitian people and culture.

Tequila Minsky was in Port-au-Prince during the January 12th earthquake and she was able to capture both the haunting and heart-warming scenes from that day. I overheard Tequila saying she doesn’t like framing her photos. So the images were printed on off-white, raw-edged pieces of cloth and hung with clothespins on rope. Breathtaking! Needless to say, there are layers of meaning that affirm the Haitian aesthetic in the way Tequila chose to display these photos. It was all truly inspiring.

Here are some photos courtesy of poet Michele Voltaire Marcelin.

Photographer Tequila Minsky

Maxine Montilus (dancer, choreographer), moi, Jessica St. Vil-Ulysse (dancer, choreographer), Michele Voltaire Marcelin (poet), Jany Tomba (supermodel)

Regine Roumain, Haiti Cultural Exchange Executive Director

Haiti, Haiti Cultural Exchange, Haitian Artists
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I am a teaching artist. This is how I make some money. This would imply that I already make money as an artist, and I teach in my spare time as a way of giving back to the community. This is only half true.

I am a teaching artist mainly because I am a mom of three. It’s solid part-time work (because we all know that mothering is full-time work, right? Right.) I get to call myself a professional writer. You have to show that you’re a true artist in order to be a teaching artist in the first place. And of course, you have to have some teaching skills. Therefore, I am an artist who teaches. As opposed to a teacher who is an artist, I guess.

Rather than rambling on about the joys of being a TA, I’ve included an FAOQ (Frequently Asked Obvious Questions).

1. Can you become rich by being a teaching artist?

Hell no.

2. Is there a teaching artist union?

Are you kidding me!?

3. Do you get health insurance & a retirement plan as a teaching artist?

Okay. Let’s break it down. We have TEACHER and ARTIST combined to create one profession. Two of the most undervalued, overworked, underpaid careers in modern day culture. We’re not talking teachers with Ph.D’s and tenure at some highfalutin university, TED talks and expert analyses on PBS documentaries. Or artists turned popstar entertainers who’ve sold their souls to the highest bidding corporate machine.

4. Well, exactly how DO teaching artists make their money?

Most of us work for ourselves. We’re called independent contractors. Or we’re part-time employees of non-profit arts organizations (or for profit orgs as well—this puzzles me). TAs work in public, private, and charter schools, community organizations, senior citizen homes, halfway houses, prisons, hospitals, and libraries—just about anywhere there are people who are willing to learn an art form. Organizations will receive grants, public, or private funding to carry out their mission. They then hire visual artists, actors, puppeteers, writers, circus clowns, ballroom dancers, spoken word artists, etc. to go bring the arts to wherever. Sometimes there’s a fee an organization or school must pay, sometimes not—and these visits are usually called residencies. TAs will get paid on a per hour, per session, or per diem basis. Basically, TAs are freelancers. The pay depends on the craft, the organization, and the length of the residency. Average pay ranges from $50 to $85 per hour. This is meant to supplement any other income you may be getting as an artist.

A TA can also apply for public arts grants for their own programming. That’s what I did with DAWP. The key to being a successful teaching artist is passion. You have to really care about your craft and have this narcissistic idea of it being the only way to change the world. This will give you the courage to find the most destitute corner of the city where there is an “underserved” or “at risk” (non-profit orgs love these terms) population whose lives will be completely turned around with just a few short weeks of exposure to your art form. And you must convey this in 500 words or less in your grant application. And the wee bit of funding you do get is hardly ever enough, of course. So there’s Kickstarter! Thank the goodness of humanity for Kickstarter. And then voila! There is enough for you to eat and pay your cell phone bill and order pizza to bribe the little darlings into coming to your FREE program at the local library, and chips and juice boxes to keep them coming because at the end of it all, there must be a PROJECT. The community must be involved, the participants must be transformed in some way, and you, dear teaching artist, will have been given enough wherewithal to trudge forward with your own projects. You would’ve gone through all the funding, but the true compensation is in the… I dunno. Sometimes I forget.

Oh yes. When a darling sees you in Target or at the post office with their mom and asks, “Miss, you gonna do that program again next year?” And the mom tells you how her daughter talked about you all the time. And the librarian pulls you aside and lets you know, “They’re always gonna remember this. They’ll never forget what you did for them.” *Tear.*

4. Well, why not just be a teacher? Why do you have to be an artist, too?

The rewards of teaching filters right into the rewards of being an artist. One organization I work for mandates that TAs share their own work with their students. It validates us as artists, and it affirms what we’re asking them to try to do. It’s no question that more and more schools are removing the arts from their curriculum. There just isn’t enough money to pay full-time art and music teachers. So, these “enrichment” programs, as they’re called, are pushed back into the after school hours. And let me tell you, there is money to be made between the hours of 3 to 6pm. Gone are the days “latchkey kids”. Parents who work long hours are willing to pay for tutoring, homework help, and quality enrichment programs during after-school hours. And parents who can’t afford this? Well, here comes your local arts or social service organization to save the day! (Sometimes, not so local. The Bronx seems to be the go-to borough for this kind of stuff, regardless of the org’s location.)

I recently attended a workshop on the new Common Core Standards implemented by the Obama Administration. It’s a nationwide mandate to place every student in the same grade in any given part of the country at the same level. Good idea, right? Well… A fellow teaching artist told this joke that I’m paraphrasing here: An English teacher was waiting for a box of brand new books about teaching writing. The box arrives, she opens it, and there are no books! Fiction books, that is. Literature. Stories written by actual writers. Basically, the new standards for writing are based on college and career readiness for kindergarteners and up, with very little room for imaginative writing, creativity, innovation… ART.

I know somewhere in the universe is a quote/proverb about the decline of creativity coinciding with the fall of civilization and certain self-proclaimed empires.

So, yes. Teaching artist work is very important work. So, dear unemployed/underemployed person with a vision to save the world, if you can string some beads together and call it jewelry-making, you don’t mind little darlings flinging your precious gemstones at eachother, and you’re not afraid of [insert yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhood here], then you too can be a teaching artist! And your students make the best (and brutally honest) audience for your work.

schools, teaching, Writing
4 Comments