Archival research and reading poetry seem like unlikely companions, yet for a nonfiction writer striving to tell a factual story these seemingly divergent activities fit together. Research helps me get the facts straight, and reading poetry often helps me find the language I need to weave those facts into a story.
I’m very good at giving writing advice. I know how to be practical and inspirational all at once; I know how to make it sound easy. I don’t have anything revolutionary to offer, just the basics: You have to write through the bad to get to the good. You don’t have to write every day, but the longer you go without working, the harder it is to get back in. All of it boils down to this: just write. Write anything; fill up the page. Don’t worry about whether it’s good, or even if it makes sense. Set a timer, or give yourself a goal: one page, 200 words, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Just get something down. One word after another: this is the way that books get written.
But here’s the thing: when it’s time for me to write, it’s as if I’ve never heard any of this...
When I write, and read, narrative POV is the first thing I consider and notice. I am not exaggerating when I say I think it is the most important decision a writer makes when writing fiction. (When teaching, it is always the first topic I introduce to students, via James Wood’s very insightful How Fiction Works.) There is not only the question of “which POV?”—first person (singular or plural), second person, third person (omniscient or limited)—but also narrative distance, reliability, consistency and/or shifts. When settling on a narrative POV(s), you are essentially determining the work’s “aboutness.” If you are writing from an unusual POV like first person plural (“we”) for instance, or, say, the second person (“you”), this is especially evident. Or if your narrator is unreliable, this is not simply a “formal” decision but rather a driving force of content/meaning as well. (Think of novels like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Remains of the Day, for instance.) Finding the right POV for your fiction is often, necessarily, a trial-and-error process (I read once that Ishiguro “auditions” various narrators throughout the entire first year of working on a novel); it happens simultaneously as your story and characters find their own aboutness. Form and content shape each other.
I was a child on the south side of Chicago during the late 60s/early 70s – a time much like this one – when politics and social change is in the air we breathe and the water we drink. My father was a civil rights activist and I marched with him against the Vietnam War when I was five. My sister and I sold bumper stickers for George McGovern’s presidential campaign when I was nine.
Critically, too, my neighborhood, my schools, my choir, my church were what we used to call “integrated”: I was a middle-class white girl who grew up surrounded by Black people, who had Black friends from nursery school on, who was frequently the only white person in the room, in the house, at the party, on the bus, who had no idea this was unusual for a white person in America.
I love the magical and fantastic element in writing. I get a thrill at the duality of the mundane next to wildness. I think the contrast heightens both aspects and leaves me an enormous landscape to create and illustrate how characters interact and respond to that landscape. I never tire of creating doors with fantastic elements and having the story go through that door to more discovery of something deeper or hidden.
There’s this sense that there’s abject poverty for Native people, that their lives are always a plight, tragic and dark. Then there’s the romanticizing of the environmental Indian, the wise, the “please teach us your ways,” the spiritual Indian. I’m interested in the continuum, all of the spaces in between those two false extremes.
We're excited to announce our first interview series devoted to the complications, wonders and triumphs of the Caribbean and Caribbean American experience. In this series, writers discuss the influence of their cultural heritage on their work, craft techniques, and the state of the Caribbean literature in America today, among other topics.
I have finally accepted that I am as American as I am Jamaican. I was born in Jamaica and partially raised there, but I have spent the better part of my life in this country, to which I owe so much of my personal and political development and achievements. To be more specific, I am as African-American as I am working-class Afro-Jamaican, meaning that my life experiences have been formed by that dual identity and all of the political, social and cultural nuances that are part and parcel of being part of two marginalized cultures and multiple marginalized identities. In many ways, I share more in common with working-class African-Americans than I do with middle-class Jamaicans. In other specific ways, I am so Jamaican, that I even surprise myself sometimes when I discover rigid cultural habits or waysof thinking/being in the world that I know I learned as a child. Home for me is a constant negotiation of identities, jumping emotional mine-shafts of childhood memories (nurturing as well as abusive), reaching across divides to create and sustain community for myself and my children, walking alongside kindred spirits I recognize as part of my tribe, as well as going only part of the way with others with whom I share a common humanity and culture, but no common values.
I think it would be crazy for me to think of my work as singly representational, like I represent all of Haiti or every Haitian, but I have always been proud to be connected to Haiti, to have Haiti in my blood and to rep Haiti, as the kids say, whether I was a chef, and taxi driver, like my dad, a seamstress like my mom or anything else. One person can’t speak for ten million people. I can only write from my perspective. And I hope it hits home for some people. And I know that perspective might be outright rejected by other people. So I’m not forcefully trying to be representational. I think it would be arrogant to say I’m representing anyone but myself. I think artists need that freedom to tell their stories. Or you’ll be shackled by everyone.
I am very proud of the work that is coming out of Haiti and the Caribbean right now, but that’s because I know of it and I wonder if the rest of the world is as aware. I love the representation we have now, but it is never enough. There are so many more emerging from the Caribbean, including those just now putting pen to paper, hoping to be published one day. What’s great, however, is that we all write literature in different styles. My hope for myself is to contribute something different to Haitian literature, the kind that mixes the political, the thrilling, the intrigue, the passion, the poetry, all of that together like a big pot of stew.
I believe my writing hails back to the tradition of immigrant narrative beginning with the English who arrived at Jamestown in the 1600s. Every immigrant group is different but very similar in the challenges it faces. Issues of identity and displacement are not only immigrant problems; these are shared by the population at large as well. There are really very few minority writers, Cuban or otherwise, in the American literary world.
What do we do about the lack of diversity in publishing? Or what can you do? There’s plenty you can do. If you’re a reader, you can start by reading widely and diversely, by looking for books written by writers of color, for example, by putting diverse books in the hands of young readers. If you’re a reviewer, you can read and review books by people of color. If you’re an editor, you can publish more people of color. And if you don’t have any/enough submissions from people of color, start soliciting! Reach out to writers of color and queer writers at conferences, at readings, at residencies. Put out a call on your website, on social media. But that’s not enough. Not even close.
At 16, when I began my writing career in Haiti and the other French Antilles, I embraced horror as my genre. I didn’t want to write about reality. Why would I? I was just a kid and, as I explain in A Sky the Color of Chaos, I barely understood people and politics. I also didn’t want to dwell on my fears and insecurities. In retrospect, however, I see that my fantastical tales foreshadowed my interest in nonfiction as I usually established a link between my stories and the political/social atmosphere in Haiti.
When people are constantly asked what they want to "be" and how they want to live and speak, and whether they "feel" more or less American, all for political gain, as if those things were up for discussion every day, you create a dearth of identity, a hunger for a sense of self. But being the resourceful people that we are, we've dealt with it by becoming creators of art, and through that art, I believe, succeeded in preserving our national soul, separate from whatever the politicians do.
A writer could spend a lifetime filling pages about the concept of home and its many definitions. Our mother is our first home, both physically and emotionally. Many of the complications of life spring directly from the memory of losing a primal home, whether that home was an actual place, or a parent, or both. Every break-up, estrangement, or emotional severance can contain a dim echo of its original impact.
I try my best to always write with intention, asking myself the questions: What am I writing? Why am I writing this? Who am I writing this for? Sometimes it can be writing just for me initially, but then the bigger picture always comes into focus. I’m writing for my ancestors who made it possible for me to get to where I am today. I’m writing for my family, friends, the Native youth I work with, my community, and all of those who could benefit from this gift I’ve been given, and I write for those who will follow. I hope they’ll be encouraged to use their gifts as well.
As a Latina poet from a small desert community on the California/Mexico border, I strive to speak for and with the women with whom I grew up: the mothers, daughters, childless women, tías, and nanas. My writing is concerned with the complex relationships many women of color have with family and tradition, which are so rife with ambiguities. They’re often liberating and subjugating forces, both strengthening and repressive, with mythical dimensions and at the same time utterly real.
Narrative 4 fosters radical empathy in individuals from myriad backgrounds and different walks of life to change the way they interact with their communities and the world. The story exchange is the core methodology of Narrative 4. In this process individuals trade and retell each other’s stories in the first person. This builds empathy by giving participants the singular experience of walking in another person’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. The story exchange can be put into action almost anywhere, from schools seeking to decrease bullying to groups of adults engaged around certain issues The story exchange creates safety, openness and a level playing field for all participants, giving them the opportunity to experience personal narratives with understanding, and without judgement.
At Origins, one of our goals is to publish the work of writers and artists who might not otherwise have access to publishing. This has given rise to Project Amplify, a new initiative and collaboration with nonprofit arts programs around the globe. Here's the inaugural Project Amplify issue featuring poetry and art from Xhosa students in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.