BIG MACHINE author, Victor LaValle, discusses black nationalism in the age of Obama.
July 16, 2009
Beyond the Skin Trade
How does black nationalism stay relevant in the age of Barack Obama?
(from Bookforum, April/May 2009)
When I was a boy, I prayed for straight hair. You have to understand, I grew up on heavy metal. Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to start. Then Anthrax and Exodus, Megadeth and Metallica. My friends and I gathered in living rooms and basements and empty lots and banged our heads to "Damage, Inc." and "I Am the Law." If you nearly snapped your neck, you were doing something right. We were a pretty wild mix: a Persian kid, a Korean, a couple of white guys, and me--the only one with a tight, curly Afro. The rest had straight hair, grown long, and when they thrashed to the music, their hair bounced and whipped like it was supposed to. I'd watch them pull off this casual magic and wish I'd been so blessed. But I was black, and there was no enchantment in that. It actually felt like a kind of curse. I'm so embarrassed to admit any of this.
Now, heavy metal may be to blame for any number of ills (my tinnitus, for instance), but I can't really say it spawned my self-loathing. Instead, let's head upstairs, to my family's apartment in Flushing, Queens. We won't meet the guilty party there, just another link in a long chain.
My mom grew up in East Africa. Uganda. A member of a tribe called the Baganda, the largest ethnic group in the country. Daughter of a proud and courageous mother and father. They worked to eject the British colonial powers; they were one small part of the Pan-African movement. My grandfather helped oust the British and set up schools in rural Uganda. He made sure his own kids were educated. For college, my mother packed off to Canada. In Kitchener-Waterloo, she was denied housing, mistreated and maligned in school and on the street. Finally, she moved to America to escape the racism. That poor woman--she didn't understand what was happening to her. What had already happened. Somewhere, flying over the Atlantic Ocean maybe, she'd stopped being a Muganda, a Ugandan, or even African. She had become black.
The original American slaves weren't black, either. They were Ashanti and Ewe and Fanti, among others. The slaves' path to Christianity has been told and retold as the great conversion story of Africans in the Americas. But that's not the only conversion story. There's the legal conversion: from humans being into chattel. And there's the cultural conversion: A wealth of ethnicities became one black race. This must have shocked those Africans as much as it did my mother. To continue, please visit: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/016_01/3516
While most people look forward to summer as a time for a little light reading, those of us in publishing often find ourselves lugging heavy manuscripts through the sand with our coolers and sun block. Here's what we would be reading this summer, if only we could find the time.
Julie Grau, Publisher: On deck for my vacation is THE GREAT MAN by Kate Christensen, which comes emphatically recommended by my big sister--a great reader who turned me on to Edna O'Brien when I was thirteen and has been making great recommendations ever since. She says it's one of the best novels she's read in recent years.
Mya Spalter, Editorial Assistant: My next door neighbor has it in for me. She must have known what would happen when she gestured to the pile of black, glossy paperbacks. The TWILIGHT series sat stacked on her hall table. "You can take those if you want," she said. Her nonchalance was staggering. Never have seven deadlier words been spoken. I read the first three books over the course of a single week. I was transformed. I no longer needed to sleep or eat. My eyes took on a reddish hue. I spent sunny afternoons indoors. But alas, that lifestyle proved unsustainable-- by the end of book three I knew I had to postpone my enjoyment of the fourth if I hoped to hang on to some shred of humanity. It waits on my bedside table, coiled as if to strike.
Chris Jackson, Executive Editor: I met Chimamanda Adichie at a star-studded literary conference in Aspen a couple years back (Ngugi Wa'Thionga and Wole Soyinka were among the other attendees) and was awed by her grace and intelligence and wit. I read HALF OF A YELLOW SUN when I got back to New York and loved it - it told the tragedy of the Biafran War in a way that owed something to the post-colonial African masters, but also felt totally fresh in its rhythm and tone and sense of freedom. It wasn't burdened by any agit-prop obligations; its power was in its portrayal of the full humanity of its rotating narrators: heroism and folly and passive suffering, yes, but also humor and vanity and cowardice and desire and moral compromise. I'd love to read her new collection of stories, THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK, even though the title feels like an old drive-through horror movie from the '50s.
THE BLUE NOTEBOOK author James Levine visits Mumbai's infamous Street of Cages
July 30, 2009
The Street of Cages In Mumbai the Sparrows -- children of prostitutes -- are being rescued and given an education, thanks to a remarkable project
While in India, investigating child labour, I walked down the famed Street of Cages in Mumbai. This is one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in the country, described by campaigners as "21st-century slaves". Before leaving the street I saw a 15-year-old girl leaning against a bright blue steel gate. She wore a pink sari with a rainbow trim; she was writing in a blue notebook. Having worked in numerous underserved areas, the mantra "education is the answer" is invariably touted as pivotal to any solutions. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.
The image of the girl in the pink sari haunted me so that I was compelled to write The Blue Notebook, a work of fiction based on fieldworkers' reports and observation of the conditions that such children survive. I named the girl Batuk. With The Blue Notebook published, I repeatedly returned to India to examine how positive action could be deployed in Batuk's name. It was not until a week ago that I discovered how.
A barrow, stacked with rolls of carpet, stops. The man pulling it, 5ft 10in and thin, rolls his shoulders and stretches his back. The bus behind him has now stopped, too. The driver honks and an argument follows -- the words can just be heard over the car horns, traffic and general throng of Mumbai. The carpet man and the bus eventually move. As the bus inches forward, I see the entrance to an alleyway.
Fifty yards down the alleyway I walk into an unnumbered building. I step over a sleeping dog, on to a floor carpeted with compacted moist rubbish. I duck under a wooden lintel. The stench stops me in my tracks. My feet are wet. I step forward, turn left and face a long corridor barely lit by a single bulb; there are two dead rats next to a small pile of rubbish. Equally spaced down the corridor are pale-blue steel doors with numbers -- they remind me of storage closets. The door to No 4c is open and I step inside the 10ft x 16ft cell.