Monday, July 24, 2017

Publishers invest in African women writers

Over the last few years in particular, publishers have signaled their willingness to make large investments in the future of novels by African women. They've offered tremendous support to Chimamanda Adichie, Tomi Adeyemi, Yaa Gyasi, Imbolo Mbue, Helen Oyeyemi, and Ayobami Adebayo. None of those writers, by the way, are over the age of 40.

Do the investments by publishers point to where the market is headed in terms of black women's writing? Or, is the investment only temporary? What difference does it make that the publishers (and the contemporary literature market?) seem to prefer African woman writers over U.S. black women writers?

First, Chimamanda Adichie really established herself as a prominent novelist over the last several years. Her novels Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013) .Her TED-talk, "We Should all be feminists," gained widespread popularity after Beyonce sampled it on "Flawless," and Beyonce's apparent promotion contributed to strengthening Adichie's reputation, and book sales. Perhaps Adichie's success in the contemporary era paved the way for others?

The early coverage on Mbue pointed out that Random House paid a seven-figure advance for the rights to publish Mbue's debut novel, Behold the Dreamer (2016). The novel was selected for Oprah Winfrey's Book Club in 2017. Gyasi was on a similar path. As noted in Mother Jones, Gyasi's work, "sparked a bidding war and landed her a seven-figure contract just one year after her she graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with a draft of the manuscript in hand." That is, Gyasi received over $1 million prior to publishing her first book. Publishers were betting on her promise.

Knopf published Gyasi's Homegoing in June 2016, and the company will publish Ayobami Adebayo's Stay with Me this fall. At the age of 23, Tomi Adeyemi, or more accurately her agent, secured a book for her young adult African, fantasy trilogy. The film rights to the trilogy's first book, which hasn't been published yet, has been purchased by Fox 2000.

For decades, African American literary scholars concentrated on the tensions and competition between U.S. black women vs. U.S. black men. Quiet as it's kept though, it's possible that these days many publishers are making choices between African women and African American women. And maybe, publishers have moved even further, deciding between African women writers. and African women writers.

Back in 2014, Felicia R. Lee touched on some of these topics -- African vs. African American -- in her article "New Wave of African Writers with an internationalist bent." One reason the subject hasn't gained much discussion yet in the realms of African American literary studies is because the field primarily concentrates on historical popular works and canonical authors, not contemporary authors.

So, in American and African American classrooms, students will continue to encounter U.S. black authors, none more than Toni Morrison. But, what I predict moving forward, is that readers who keep up with contemporary literature, will notice more titles by African-born writers, including Adichie, Adeyemi, Gyasi, Mbue, Oyeyemi, and Adebayo.

The Oprah, Beyoncé and Adichie Effects on Black books

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What if contemporary African American poetry had Black Arts-like scholarly support?

I sometimes wonder: what if contemporary African American poetry had a Tony Bolden or James Smethurst? That is, what if contemporary African American poetry had established scholars producing extensive work in the area? I sometimes refer to Bolden and Smethurst in shorthand like that because they were on the front end of an important surge in the scholarly discourse on Black Arts poetry, and cultural production of the 1960s and 1970s in general. (Not necessarily the first, as black arts critical discourse has been constant in some form or another since the 1960s).

Along with Bolden and Smethurst, you had Aldon Nielsen, Melba Joyce Boyd, Joanne Gabbin, Cheryl Clarke, Margo Crawford, Evie Shockley, Meta DuEwa Jones, Jean-Philipe Marcoux, Kathy Lou Schultz, Virginia C. Fowler, Carter Mathes, and so forth. My own book, The Black Arts Enterprise, is situated within works by those scholars.

Although Kalamu ya Salaam's The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement (2016) was published last year, his completed manuscript had been circulating underground as early as the late 1990s. Back in 1991, David Lionel Smith wrote an article noting that "the silence regarding the Black Arts Movement is deafening." The far-reaching body of work produced by Black Arts writers, scholars, and organizers has combated that silence.

I'm not sure what it will take for something similar to take place with contemporary African American poetry -- not to say that anyone is interested. As a group, contemporary black poets have attained remarkable recognition in terms of awards and prizes, support from the National Endowment for the Arts, and academic appointments. There has not, however, been comparable scholarly interest.

Scholars tend to concentrate on historically significant or canonical authors, so it might be too early to expect extended studies on contemporary African American poetry. Then too, in realms of contemporary poetry, I sense greater distance between "poets" and "scholars" than in black arts discourse. Even during the 1960s and 1970s, poets, scholars, and poet-essayists, like Eugene B. Redmond, Amiri Baraka, Sarah Webster Fabio, Larry Neal, and Carolyn Rodgers, were actively involved in producing critical interpretations.

I predict that select groups of contemporary African American poets will continue to do really well in terms of awards and support. But what about the scholarly discourse?  What will it take to make contemporary poetry mean something to folks who aren't contemporary poets?

The good news and the trouble with black poetry
A Notebook on the Black Arts Era

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Scholar Sheena C. Howard makes her comic book debut with Superb

Superb issue #1 and scholar Sheena C. Howard

It's not every day that an African American scholar shifts from writing books and articles to writing comic books. So of course, I took notice when it was announced that scholar Sheena C. Howard would be co-writing the comic book Superb. The first issue was released July 19.

I was first introduced to Howard's work through Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (2013), which she co-edited with Ronald Jackson. She and I have both studied and written about Aaron McGruder's comic strip, The Boondocks. Howard is the editor of the forthcoming, Encyclopedia of Black Comics.

For Superb, Howard teams up with veteran writer David F. Walker, who has written various other comic books, including Shaft, Power Man and Iron Fist, Nighthawk, and Luke Cage. Superb is penciled by Ray-Anthony Height, inked by Le Beau L. Underwood, lettered by Tom Napolitano, and colored by Veronica Gandini. The comic book is part of a larger series known as the Catalyst Prime Universe, edited by Joseph Illidge and published by Lion Forge Comics. In addition to Superb, the Catalyst Prime Universe consists of Noble and Accell, as well as the forthcoming IncidentalsAstonisher, K.I.N.O., and Summit.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

When an East St. Louis performer walked on stage wearing stilts

[All photographs by Howard Ash--SIUE]
Give artists a venue, and they can showcase their talents. Give them a larger venue, and they can showcase their talents even more. That idea -- that artists can do more with more -- was exemplified during the East St. Louis Performing Arts Program annual summer performance on July 14, when a performer walked onto the stage wearing stilts.

It was during the segment of African-inspired performances. There was a short play of dance and dramatic action. At one point, the narrator for the play announced the approach of a giant bird, and this performer came on the stage wearing stilts. Their was an audible, collective gasp from members of the audience. When's the last time you've seen something like that during a performance in East St. Louis?

The performance was directed by Gerald Babatunde' Sylla. I thought that the performance he choreographed back in May was impressive, but still, he went even further with this one. The first one included drumming and dancing. This one had more drumming and more dancing and also those dramatic performances.

This event was held at the Miles Davis Theater at East St. Louis Senior High School. That performance venue provided a larger space. That size venue is unavailable to the students when performing at the East St. Louis Center--the usual meeting place. The stage at Dunham Hall on SIUE's campus is a large venue, but there are transportation limitations in terms of getting the performers to the main campus for rehearsal.

With this solid venue in the city, Sylla's drummers, dancers, and dramatists were in a position to really stretch out and showcase their talents for the large audience of East St. Louis citizens.  

A Notebook on East St. Louis

East St. Louis Performing Arts--Summer Performance

 [All photographs by Howard Ash--SIUE]

There was singing. There was dancing. There was piano playing, bell playing, and guitar playing. There was African drumming. There was rapping and dramatic performance. There was even a performer on stilts. The Annual Summer Performance of the East St. Louis Performing Arts program, which took place on Friday, July 14, at East St. Louis Senior High School, had it all.

The East St. Louis Performing Arts Program has quickly established itself as one of the more important arts and cultural programs in the city. Where else, beyond a school function, do you see  this many people gathering together to participate in and witness performances by young, East St. Louis artists?

The Performing Arts program began many years ago, but then went on hiatus for several years before returning with a summer program in 2015. This past May, the program coordinated a recital on SIUE's campus. The performance on Friday, was even larger with more than 300 East St. Louis citizens in attendance. They were primarily the friends and families of the young performers.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why collegiate black men value Adrian Matejka's Jack Johnson poems

Like all kinds of students, many first-year collegiate black men actively seek advice and guidance about navigating the world. They place high value on words of wisdom passed along from black men who have confronted and overcome challenges. Perhaps they're looking for a map of sorts.

Not surprisingly, the guys who've enrolled in my literature courses for first-year black men students over the last few years have expressed strong, positive responses to Adrian Matejka's Jack Johnson poems in The Big Smoke. The poems in the volume are primarily presented from the first-person perspective of  the heavyweight boxing champion, as he's regularly dropping knowledge about what he's seen and done.

In "Battle Royale," Matejka's Johnson references the long history of troubling forms of entertainment by citing Shakespeare's discussion of brutal treatment of animals. When bear-baiting became illegal, then "some smart somebody," says Johnson, "figured coloreds would fight just as hard if hungry enough." In "Sporting Life," Johnson favors the pursuit of a carefree, adventurous life -- what contemporary folks refer to as YOLO -- over worrying and "talking about if & suppose."

Even when Johnson is expressing arrogance, his "Shadow" critiques and humbles the boxer by reminding him of his many shortcomings and his inevitable losses against the powerful foe, racism. Johnson's early recklessness gives rise, we conclude, to some of his later wisdom.

The guys respect the writings of men like Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, but those and other figures do not offer us the kind of conversational tone that Johnson does. So it's about the words and also the presentation. Further, Matejka ensures that we witness Johnson's shortcomings as well as his strengths -- a cultural figure all the more fascinating because of his imperfections.

Finally, there's the important matter that when we read those poems privately and out loud together in class, we get the sense that Matejka and Johnson are talking directly to us, a group of black men.

A Notebook on Collegiate students
A Notebook on readers
Adrian Matejka

Friday, July 14, 2017

The creative, collaborative work of action scenes in Noble

In an interview, Brandon Thomas, the writer for the comic book Noble, said, "My biggest challenge every month is coming up with a better, more exciting action scene than the one we delivered in the previous issue." So far, so good. He hasn't disappointed.

An early image from Noble #1 shows David Powell, the protagonist, in handcuffs as a military-like force of men try to "lock him the hell down!" But he refuses to be chained, and we're treated to this radiant, two-page spread of David breaking the chains, demanding that the soldiers get "OFF ME!" and those would-be captors falling backward.

I've read Noble issues #1 - #3. Thomas, illustrator Roger Robinson, colorist Juan Fernandez, and letterer Saida Temofonte have done really powerful work. For my day job, I teach African American literature, and in that world, the mention of "a story" usually refers to a narrative comprised exclusively of words. Noble is different, as we're regularly reading colorful scenes with dramatically lettered words like "KRAK," "BAM," and "VOOOOOOooom" to signal loud, vivid sounds that correspond to the action.

Sure comic books are supposed to be like that, but you'd be surprised how often words and conventional, prose narratives take over. Thomas is clearly writing, but much of what he's doing concerns orchestration and collaboration work with Robinson, Fernandez, and Temofonte.

David Powell has lost his memory, and he going through the process of understanding his super-powers. He's on the run and moving around different places, including Argentina and Bolivia, trying to keep a low profile as this mysterious group pursues him. David's wife Astrid is trying to locate and assist her husband as well. Thomas uses minimal words to communicate those plot details. Instead, he draws on the support of his team of artists to materialize the story.

In Noble #2, we see Astrid soaring through the air, as she jumps and parachutes from a plane. Words don't tell us that we're dealing with a special black woman character. We see it. In this issue, David is confronted by a street gang in Bolivia, and his dramatic confrontation with them is situated between panels showing Astrid interviewing people about her husband in Argentina. That kind of varied yet fluid juxtaposition represents a group of artists showcasing the unique characteristics of the comic book medium.   

"KAWHOOMP." "SWAKK." ""KRAKK." "WHAMM." "KISSH." Those are the vividly lettered sound effects that Temofonte attaches to a battle scene in the opening pages of Noble #3, where David is fighting off doctors and security personnel who try to subdue him. Fernandez colors these red and orange-ish backgrounds to highlight the intensity of these dramatic moments drawn by Robinson.

Can Noble really keep this up? Can the book meet Thomas's self-imposed challenge of coming up with such intricate, exciting action scenes each month? I'm interested to see.

Noble's cultural and geographic diversity

Why some collegiate black women might find contemporary black poetry boring

Students listen to audio recordings of poems

Often, when I mention that several of my students, the majority of whom are black women, find African American poetry covered in school boring, people tend to focus on the students. "Maybe, they need to read more." "They need to work harder to understand subjects that are unfamiliar." "They are probably waste too much time on social media." And so forth. Some of the points might be legitimate. But I wonder: does poetry as a field deserve more blame?

I obviously enjoy reading, listening to, and of course blogging about poetry and poets. Still, or, rather, because of my experiences, I've come to consider some of the things that we don't talk about when we talk about poetry. We're regularly silent about the increasing class divides and barriers concerning black poetry--the way gaining sustained professional success in the field depends on considerable middle and upper middle class backing, and how the price of earning an MFA means substantial debt for large numbers of poets.

Perhaps those issues are extra-literary though, and don't explain the distance between working-class black students and (middle-class?) contemporary African American poetry.What if the dynamic black women orators, skilled performers, everyday speakers, and spoken word artists that the students encounter outside of and prior to formal classrooms shape and elevate their expectations of what extraordinary uses of language look and sound like? What if the language and concerns of formal poetry, even when presented by award-winning African American poets, are too sanitized and polite for some?

So much of contemporary American poetry, it's worth keeping in mind, has moved through and ultimately been shaped by "mainly white reading rooms," to invoke phrasing by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young. That is to say, the MFA programs, magazines, publishers, award and fellowship granting agencies, and reading series that sustain poetry production are primarily led by and comprised of white people. Thankfully, several of those institutions "support diversity" and have made substantial progress over the last 15 years in particular with respect to expanding inclusiveness.

Support for African American poetry and poets in mainly white, middle-class reading rooms, however, at times looks different than support in mainly black, working-class spaces. I'm not naive about the many reasons why the young sisters in my course must acquaint themselves with the values and interests of mainly white rooms. Despite their self-professed boredom at times, black students here have learned and displayed knowledge about a diverse range of poets.

I can't, with as much confidence, say the exchange is reciprocal. I simply don't encounter enough people and writings that display considerable curiosity and knowledge about the complexity of, say, these working-class black women students. I suppose many of the people who have regular access to publishing institutions have relatively little contact with large numbers of black men and women college students, and those who have regular contact with the students have limited access to publishing institutions.  

Related entries on poetry readers:
A Notebook on Readers