The Fight in the Heart

August 20th, 2014

ferguson

In trying to make sense of the injustice and the violence that has been unfolding in Ferguson for the last couple of weeks, I returned to James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” and recommended it for NPR’s All Things Considered.

It is early August. A black man is shot by a white policeman. And the effect on the community is of “a lit match in a tin of gasoline.” No, this is not Ferguson, Mo. This was Harlem in August 1943, a period that James Baldwin writes about in the essay that gives its title to his seminal collection, Notes of a Native Son.

You can listen to the piece on NPR’s website.

Photo: Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP. A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road and West Florissant, Aug. 13, 2014, in St. Louis.

The Moor’s Account Book Tour

August 16th, 2014

seattlereading09

Book tours sound very glamorous, but they usually go like this: you wake up at an ungodly hour, you hope that your cab is on time, you hope that your flight is on time, you hope that your seat mate isn’t a sociopath, you hope that your hotel room is ready when you get there, you hope not to get lost on your way to the bookstore. All that hoping can be stressful. So why go on tour? Because after a few years of writing a novel, it’s very enjoyable to talk to readers about it. I have the most amazing readers. Once, at a reading in Los Angeles, a woman told me she had driven three hours so her daughter could come see me. Another time, my friend A. from grad school surprised me by showing up at my Elliott Bay reading in Seattle. He lives in Arizona, but was in town on business, so we ended up having dinner together and catching up. And I love doing events in independent bookstores because, unfailingly, the staff are knowledgeable, friendly, and always have a good book to recommend. Yes, book tours are stressful, but they’re also lots of fun. Right now, I’m getting ready to tour for my new novel, The Moor’s Account. I’ll be visiting Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, New York, Washington DC, and Boston this fall. I’m also doing the Chicago Humanities Festival, the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, and the Miami Book Fair. And I’m speaking at several colleges, including Williams in Massachusetts, Yavapai College in Arizona, and the University of Texas at Austin. Do come by and say hello! I’d love to talk to you about my new book.

Estebanico in Visual Art

August 5th, 2014

While writing The Moor’s Account, I became curious about visual representations of Estebanico (a.k.a. Mustafa al-Zamori). As it turned out, the incredible story of the Narváez expedition inspired quite a few painters. Below, for instance, is the depiction of the Narváez castaways that Penguin Classics used for its cover of Cabeza de Vaca’s Chronicle. You will notice that Estebanico appears nowhere in it.

But as time passed and scholarship evolved, interest in Estebanico also grew. Here is a painting by José Cisneros, where Estebanico appears alongside the other three survivors, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and Cabeza de Vaca. (Estebanico is second from right.)

estebanico2

It’s interesting to note the differences between artist depictions when it comes to style and dress. In the one below, for example, Estebanico appears shirtless and carrying a halberd, leading the way for the Coronado expedition, which took place many years after the Narváez expedition.

estebanico3

In his hometown of Azemmur, there are a few murals dedicated to the explorer. Here is one where Estebanico is portrayed in the dress and style of a pirate. (Of course, he was no pirate; he was a slave turned scout turned faith healer.)

estebanico4

Adjacent to that mural in Azemmur is another one, also depicting Estebanico. Here, the explorer is shown wearing a turban and a loincloth, and carrying a wooden lance.

estebanico5

What I find fascinating about all these images is what they tell us not about Estebanico, but about the artists themselves. Each one had a different view of the explorer, shaped by his or her culture and experience of history.

Image credits:
1. Alfred Russell, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions Lost on the Shore of the Gulf of Mexico, 1528. The Granger Collection. New York.
2. José Cisneros, Cabeza de Vaca and His Three companions on the Texas Coast. Museum of South Texas History.
3. Artist unknown, Estevanico. The Granger Collection. New York.
4. Artist name illegible, Estevanico/Estebanico El Azemmouri. MonMaroc Guide.
5. Koukou. Estebanico. Azemmur.

In Azemmur

August 2nd, 2014

azemmur

My new novel, The Moor’s Account, comes out in five weeks. It tells the story of America’s first African explorer, a Moroccan slave known as Estebanico. He was part of the Narváez expedition of 1528, which landed in Florida with the goal of claiming it for the Spanish Crown. From the start, however, the expedition faced disaster. The rations were small, the men came down with typhoid, and the indigenous tribes resisted the soldiers’ advance. Within a year, there were only four survivors: the expedition’s treasurer, Cabeza de Vaca; a captain by the name of Alonso del Castillo; a nobleman named Andrés Dorantes, and his Moroccan slave, Estebanico. Together, the survivors journeyed across America, living with native tribes and reinventing themselves as faith healers. Years later, when they were found, the Spaniards were asked to provide their testimony about this epic journey. But because he was a slave, Estebanico’s experience was considered irrelevant or unreliable or unworthy.

And yet his experience was unique. Although he took part in a conquering expedition, he was not a conqueror. He witnessed the Spaniards’ subjugation of indigenous tribes, while his own status was somewhere in between. The complexity of Estebanico’s position drew me in, as did the fact that his testimony was not part of the historical record. The silencing of his perspective felt modern to me. (Open up the newspaper and look at the bylines. Whose views do you read? Whose voices do you never hear?) I was so immediately and so powerfully drawn to Estebanico’s story that I decided to write a novel about him. I gave myself the freedom to speak in his voice, to describe his birth in Azemmur, his family life, his relationships with others, his many failings, and ultimately his redemption.

Last month, I had the chance to return to Azemmur. In the picture above, I’m standing where, I imagine, he once stood. To my right are the Portuguese ramparts, which date back to 1513; the Oum er-Rbi’ river is to my left.

How Not To Write A Novel

June 3rd, 2014

Wait for the right time. Wait for the right place.

Be in awe of your novel’s premise. The best premises in the world still don’t add up to a completed book.

Get up from the chair. Tell yourself you’re just taking a five-minute break. Make coffee. Look for your special mug. You were drinking from it when you sold your first story, so now you must have it in order to write anything. Get back in the chair.

Stare at the screen. Wonder what your agent will think about your new novel, which, by the way, you’re not writing because you’re reading this instead. Wonder what readers will think. Wonder what critics will think, especially the asshole who did a hatchet job on your last book. Worry about your career, such as it is.

Think about your premise again. All it needs is careful execution. But when that’s done, oh, it will be amazing. This book is finally going to make you happy. And popular! All those people who made fun of you in high school are going to feel mighty sorry about the way they treated you. Dream about publication. Wait a minute. Will there be any bookstores left by the time you finish this book? Will there be any publishers left, even?

Google yourself.

Login to Twitter. Argue with an anonymous stranger about political issues neither of you will ever resolve. Login to Facebook. Argue with your crazy uncle about political issues neither of you will ever resolve. Scroll through your newsfeed, look at pictures of your friends at cocktail parties. They all look so happy. Why? Because they’re not trying to write, that’s why. Dwell on your loneliness.

Read your Amazon reviews. Who the hell is ‘kafkaisoverrated75′ and why did he give you a one-star review?

Get up from the chair. Alphabetize your bookshelf. Straighten your picture frames. Rearrange everything on your desk. Get back in the chair. Start reading blogs. Someone posted a tirade about MFA programs. Feel compelled to write a response, which turns into another long tirade about MFA programs.

Oh God, how did it get to be 11 am already? You have to start grading papers soon. Wish you had more time.

Notice the pages you wrote last week. Read them, decide they’re useless, toss them in the trash. Wish you had more talent.

Make a necklace out of paperclips. Check your email. Ignore your credit card bill. Unsubscribe from newsletters. Decline invitations to connect on LinkedIn.

Stare at the screen. Doubt the work. Fear the world. Ask yourself how you ever wrote anything at all before. Read an interview with Toni Morrison in the Paris Review. She wrote The Bluest Eye while holding down a full-time job at Random House and taking care of two children. She got up at 5 am every day. What’s your excuse?

Rummage through the trash, pull out the pages you tossed. Reread them. Maybe there’s a sentence here that can be salvaged.

Tell yourself you’re just taking a five-minute break.

Posted to Twitter on June 2.

Quotable: Margaret Atwood

June 2nd, 2014

>Margaret Atwood

Last week, as the conversation on social media focused on misogyny and sexism, I kept thinking about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and about this passage specifically:

Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual. Even this is as usual, now.
      We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.
      Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and them who did such things were other men. None of them were men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives.
      We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
      We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Those who think that misogyny is what happens to others are living in the gaps between the stories.

Photo: theironwriter.com

A Grand Unified Theory of Writers’ Desires

May 20th, 2014

mcescherhands

Writers write.
Those who write finish a manuscript.
Those who finish a manuscript want an agent.
Those who have an agent want a book deal.
Those who have a book deal want an even bigger book deal.
Those who have a big book deal want great reviews.
Those who have great reviews want huge sales.
Those who have huge sales want literary prizes.
Those who have literary prizes want movie adaptations.
Those who have book deals, reviews, sales, prizes, and movie adaptations want time to write.
Writers want time to write
Writers want time to write.

MFA & POC

May 7th, 2014

VONA-2004

Last week, The New Yorker published an essay by Junot Díaz about his experience as a person of color in the Master of Fine Arts program at Cornell University. Of his time in the program, he wrote:

I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.

So what was the problem?

Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.

That shit was too white.

Díaz goes on to describe the problems he faced: the faculty was not diverse, the curriculum skewed toward white male authors, there was a pervasive silence about issues of race, etc. These are experiences that feel familiar to me. When I took writing classes in the U.S., I discovered very quickly that my literary references were different from those of my classmates. I had read Abouzeid, Mahfouz, Saramago, Choukri, Marquez, but they were writers whose work was never included in reading lists on the craft of writing. If, in the course of a discussion on plot or character or point of view, I brought up an African or South American writer, my example would usually fall flat and immediately be superseded by a more familiar (white) writer. Once, I remember, I was told that I had to completely rewrite one of my stories: instead of it being about Moroccan immigrants to Spain, it should be about Cuban immigrants to Florida because “this will be more familiar to your readers.” I think this was why Díaz’s piece was so popular: it spoke about marginalizing experiences that many young writers of color have.

Díaz’s essay was a condensed form of his introduction for the anthology Dismantle, edited by Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela, Andrea Walls, Adriana Ramirez, Camille Acker, and Marco Fernando Navarro. Dismantle collects the work of alumni from the Voices of Our Nation Workshop, which was founded by Elmaz Abinader, Victor Díaz, Diem Jones, and Junot Díaz in 1999. I attended the workshop in 2004 and found it to be different from others I had taken. No one tried to make my work fit into a mold of what an ‘immigrant story’ should be like, or shied away from difficult themes, or suggested I give my characters ‘easier’ names. Bonus: I made friends with whom I remain close and I learned a few things that I bring into my own pedagogy.

The photo above was taken at the conclusion of the workshop in 2004. (From left to right: Patty Tumang, me, Beverly Mendoza, Estella Gonzalez, Junot Díaz, Maaza Mengiste, Leticia del Toro, Leticia’s husband Michel.) If I look a little dazed in the photo, it’s probably because I had recently had a baby and was completely exhausted from lack of sleep. Every day, I had to get up early to pump, then I’d go to class, come back to my dorm room, and pump some more. I was tired and I missed my baby. Which brings me to another aspect of the writer’s life: we all need supportive partners. One of the pieces of advice that I always give to my students is to build a network of support, whether it’s a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend. Writing may be a solitary effort, but it cannot be done without a community.

L. A. Times Festival of Books

April 10th, 2014

The L.A. Times Festival of Books takes place this weekend, on the USC campus. It’s one of my favorite events of the year because I get to spend time with fellow writers, meet readers old and new, and eat churros. My panel is on Sunday:

Sunday, April 13, 1:30 PM
Fiction: Writing Character & Culture
Laila Lalami, Eduardo Santiago, Margaret Wrinkle, Rebecca Walker. Moderated by Sacha Howells
SAL 101
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California

Do come and say hi. The full festival schedule is posted on the festival website.

In Conversation with Dinaw Mengestu

March 23rd, 2014

L.A. readers: I will be in conversation with Dinaw Mengestu at the Los Angeles Public Library this week. The occasion is the publication of his new novel, All Our Names, about a young student from Ethiopia and a social worker from the Midwest, who take turns narrating their lives and the start of their affair. The book received a rave review in this weekend’s New York Times, and I’m really looking forward to discussing it with Dinaw. Here are the details:

Thursday, March 27
7pm
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Los Angeles Public Library
630 W. 5th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 228-7000

I hope to see you there.

New Anthologies, Spring 2014

March 9th, 2014

My work appears in two wonderful anthologies that are being published this month. Dismantle collects stories and essays by alumni and teachers from the Voices of Our Nation Workshop. (VONA is a great organization that nurtures and supports writers of color.) Contributors include Chris Abani, Nikky Finney, Maaza Mengiste, Minal Hajratwala, Justin Torres, Cristina Garcia, Mat Johnson, Mitchell Jackson, and me. The book also has an introduction by Junot Díaz.

Immigrant Voices, which is edited by Achy Obejas and Megan Bayles, features the work of Aleksandar Hemon, Edwidge Danticat, Lara Vapnyar, Yiyun Li, Sefi Atta, Daniel Alarcón, Porochista Khakpour, and Junot Díaz. The anthology is released by the Great Books Foundation in Chicago. A launch party is scheduled for March 19, and you can find out more about it here.

The Chronicles of the Veil

February 25th, 2014

I have a new piece in The Los Angeles Review of Books about the ways in which Muslim women’s rights are discussed in different parts of the world. Here’s a snippet:

I was struck then, and I suppose I still am now, by how different the Chronicles of the Veil™ were from the books I had read when I was growing up. Those books were written by Moroccan women and for Moroccan women; the authors explicitly critiqued the laws, cultural customs, and religious beliefs that hampered Moroccan women and prevented them from achieving full equality. But the books I encountered in America, particularly in commercial bookstores, were general, even generic, in their approach. They were often set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. They spoke breathlessly about “Muslim women,” a population so large and so diverse that hardly any statements made about them bear scrutiny. What could possibly be said to be true of 800 million women, spread out over 56 countries, dozens of ethnic groups, and a multitude of legal and cultural practices?

There came a moment when I realized that there are two distinct kinds of conversations taking place around Muslim women — one in Muslim countries and one in Western countries. The first conversation is highly specific, and focuses on local problems. In Morocco, for example, feminist activists pushed for a reform of family law for more than a decade; it was finally passed by parliament in 2004, and it granted women greater rights in marriage, divorce, and custody. These activists also successfully lobbied parliament for another reform, this time of the penal code, because it contained a loophole that allowed a man to escape statutory rape charges in case of marriage. Now feminists are focusing on access to education in rural areas, the practice of hiring underage girls as domestic workers, sexual harassment on the street — these are issues that Moroccan women and girls face every day, but they might not be exactly the same issues faced by women in Somalia or Comoros, where the legal apparatus and cultural practices are quite different.

The second kind of conversation takes place in Western countries, primarily via the Chronicles of the Veil™ and other sensationalistic materials. Here, the terms of the debate are global.

You can read the rest of the essay here.

(Photo credit: ArabGlot)


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