Ken Liu is a prolific and award-winning author of stories that span the galaxies of futurism and fantasy. He also happens to interpret one cultural constellation for another: Liu is the leading translator of Chinese science fiction into English. “Science fiction can’t tell us a lot about the future,” he insists. “It’s more interesting for what… [Read more…]
She’s an editor-in-residence for Elle.com, which is backing Marley Mag, a zine of her very own.
When Marley Dias started her #1000BlackGirlBooks social media campaign to collect books featuring black girls as main characters, she didn’t expect to exceed her goal of a thousand books. Dias, an Essex County middle-schooler, came up with the campaign after becoming frustrated with the lack of black, female main characters in books she had to read… [Read more…]
Devil in a Blue Dress starring Don Cheadle and Denzel Washington was a hit among critics and African American audiences. But the film, based on the Easy Rawlins mystery series penned by writer Walter Mosley, grossed just a little over $16 million at the box office. But it also spurred an HBO sequel, Little Scarlet.
The success of the book series has led many devoted fans (including this one) to beg for more movies based on the popular book series. Mosley explains in this July 29th episode of PBS’ Tavis Smily why this hasn’t happened.
Number one, it costs a lot of money to make a movie. Number two, when you talk about unconscious (bias), the unconscious center in America about racism is that racism is the same everywhere, and really, it’s different everywhere. So when people in Europe and Asia and India say they’re not interested in a movie about the ‘hood, distributors in America say ‘oh, people in the rest of the world don’t want to see movies about Black people.’ Well, no, they don’t want to see movies about the ‘hood. But there’s all kinds of other movies that could be made. And so whenever I say I want to do this movie, somebody comes up to me and says ‘well, you know, we can’t sell it in England.’ I say, well, the English came up to me last month and asked ‘can we make an Easy Rawlins movie?’ So how can that be true. They just don’t want to talk about it.
Mosley, who appeared on the show to discuss his newest and 14th Easy Rawlins installment, Charcoal Joe, said the flawed notion that global audiences aren’t receptive to movies about Black people has become less troublesome for him over the years as he is now more interested in a television deal.
The prolific writer of crime fiction novels and several science fiction books wants to team-up with Josh Boone, who most recently directed The Vampire Chronicles, X-Men: The New Mutants and The Fault in Our Stars, to produce a TV series. “Maybe that’ll happen,” Mosley said.
Here’s a segment of tonight’s Tavis Smiley Show:
Books usually spur popular TV shows. It’s the opposite for this popular children’s series
There are a lot of reasons to love animated television series, Steven Universe. Along with being a colorful and zany kids cartoon along the lines of Spongebob Squarepants or Adventure Time, it’s the first Cartoon Network show to be created by a woman; three of the four lead characters are female and are all voiced by women of color; and its characters feature a diverse range of body types, races and gender representation. One of the main elements audiences love it for is the visibility of characters who are identifiably queer.
The series, which debuted its third season last month, is so popular that Cartoon Network will release a children’s book this fall about the romantic relationship between two of the show’s characters, Ruby and Sapphire.
Stonewall Book Award winning author of Sex Is a Funny Word and sex educator Cory Silverberg says representation like this in television and books is particularly important for children because it gives them options when figuring out who they are.
“How do we make ourselves? We make ourselves through interactions with the people around us and we start trying stuff on to become who we are,” Silverberg says. “If we don’t see people like us around us, the message is that we don’t exist.”
Created by Rebecca Sugar, the series follows a boy named Steven Universe who is part human, part Crystal Gem, and the three Gems who are taking a motherly role in Steven’s life since his mother (a Gem named Rose Quartz) had to give up her physical form to give birth to him. The Gems — Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl — are incredibly strong women who fight weird creatures and solve problems to protect the planet, and they are teaching Steven to do the same.
Other Cartoon Network shows feature queer relationships including Clarence, which features a character with two mothers, and Adventure Time, which alludes to a past relationship between two of its female characters. But none are as well integrated and refreshing as Steven Universe.
Perhaps what’s most refreshing about the series is that it features two lesbian characters, the muscular and athletic Ruby and the elegant and feminine Sapphire. Gems on Steven Universe usually fuse together for battle to create stronger Gems and then un-fuse after combat is over. But the love Ruby shares with Sapphire is so strong that they decided to fuse together for life to become Garnet.
Silverberg says he believes it’s crucial that children see characters like Ruby and Sapphire not just in certain episodes about equality, but integrated into the continuing story, just like all the other characters.
“What’s important is that kids get to see themselves as a group of superheroes or kids solving mysteries, rather than as a targeted, marginalized group,” Silverberg adds. “We’re opening up possibilities for all kids and their families.”
The book, due for release in September, will expand on the Ruby/Sapphire relationship. The book, titled after the episode that first introduced viewers to the relationship between the two female Gems, The Answer, will be aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds. It will be a compassionate tale of Ruby and Sapphire’s love as well as reveal how Garnet came to Earth.
Lindsay Gibb is a Toronto-based journalist and librarian. She is the author of National Treasure: Nicolas Cage (ECW Press), an award-winning celebration of Nicolas Cage’s unique acting style. Her writing appears in Bitch magazine, Broken Pencil and The Establishment, and she is a co-founder of Spacing magazine.
‘The Greatest’ was also a champion of diversity
Muhammad Ali, a warrior in the boxing ring and a champion for diversity and civil rights outside of it, also knew how to exploit modern media hype.
The 74-year-old, who died Friday after being hospitalized for what was called a respiratory ailment, baffled and offended some journalists, according to Newsday’s Neil Best.
Ali used his media appearances to try to morally uplift a country. Best called Ali the “media gift that kept on giving.”
“Muhammad Ali was not the first athlete to understand and exploit modern media hype, but no one came close to mastering the art in its early form quite like the famed boxer,” Best adds.
Lawyer-turned-sports broadcaster Howard Cossell tops the list of journalists dazzled by Ali. Cossell — who once described himself as arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, and a showoff — defended Ali’s right to object to the Vietnam War and supported the boxer when he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay. The two men, “formed a symbiotic relationship that lifted both their profiles and fostered a public face that mixed (mostly) good-natured joshing with important topics of their era,” according to the Newsday report.
Just as he refused to serve in the Vietnam War, Ali also didn’t shy away from difficult topics involving race, religion and diversity. The conscious objector embraced tough questions from journalists.
In 1968 Ali debated conservative commentator William F. Buckley on public affairs show “Firing Line.”
“The exchanges were extraordinarily blunt and frank as it touched on sensitive racial issues, yet the tone remained calm and reasoned throughout, which can be jarring to a 21st-century viewer accustomed to yelling on 24/7 TV news channels,” Best writes. And he also appeared in countless books, television shows and movies. Ali starred in the 1977 film, The Greatest, as himself as well as a television series the same year.
In December, Ali released a statement criticizing GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Ali wrote: “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
For more than three decades Ali had suffered from Parkinson’s, a debilitating neurological condition that made it difficult for him to communicate and move around. Interviews with the legendary boxer and advocate diminished as the disease effected his ability to talk.
A funeral service is planned in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Reaction to Ali’s death was quick.
— Mike Tyson (@MikeTyson) June 4, 2016
Muhammad Ali kept coming back, in and out of the ring t.co/HB1ikZYB9j
Today my heart goes out to a pioneer, a true legend, and a hero by all means! Not a day went by entering the gym that I didn't think of you. Your charisma, your charm and above all, your class are all of the elements that will be greatly missed by myself and the world. You are someone that inspired me greatly throughout my boxing journey and words cannot express how great you were as a person! Thank you for everything you've done for Black America, in the the world of sports & entertainment and for the legacy you leave behind! My sincerest condolences to the Ali family!
Until Ali no one said "I'm beautiful" he was royalty, yet common man was his pal. That is beauty. Greatest kind pic.twitter.com/uX7htKHrGc
— George Foreman (@GeorgeForeman) June 4, 2016
The Pulitzer Prizes are a hundred years old. This year, like last, one of the winners has a topic that focuses on Native people. This year it’s the book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Or, as was written in the citation, Pulitzer jurors described Custer’s Trials as “a rich and surprising new telling of the journey of the iconic American soldier whose death turns out not to have been the main point of his life.” Last year was the remarkable history of the Mandan people, Encounters at the Heart of the World.)
To be clear, Native Americans have won Pulitzers for works in fiction; but the prizes are rare for Native Americans, especially Native American journalists, who produce nonfiction works about America’s tribal communities.
Custer’s Trials tells the story, in part, of a man who helped free slaves but opposed civil rights laws. A man who fascinated Native Americans, a group of people he did not see as “fully human.” To be sure, the book tells a highly nuanced story of a complex, complicated figure in American history. But it also raises many issues, especially the framing of Custer’s death (rather than the way wars are usually chronicled, by the victors). And what about prizes that are given for authors who write “about” Native people rather then celebrating stories that come from Native people themselves?
After a hundred years the question of “when?” ought to be front and center for Pulitzer jurors. When will there be a winner who tells the story from a different point of view, both for historical works and journalism?
When? How long will it take? Two hundred years? Three?
A hundred years is long enough.
I see so many talented people from Indian Country doing really great work, telling stories that are worthy of celebration and honor. I’d start my own list, but I’m sure to leave someone out.
Mark Neil Trahant is the Charles R Johnson Chair in Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, and a former president of the Native American Journalists Association. Trahant is the former editor of the editorial page for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he chaired the daily editorial board as well as directed a staff of writers, editors and a cartoonist.
April Ryan has done a little bit of everything.
Before becoming the White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, Ryan started her journalism career at her alma mater, Morgan State University, where she worked for the school’s radio station. Ryan hosts The White House Report, the first and only daily national radio show to broadcast directly from the White House and runs a blog, Fabric of America, which intersects race and politics
In Ryan’s 27-year career, she’s served as president of the White House Correspondents Association – only the third African-American to serve on the board – and has guested on This Week with George Stephanopoulus discussing President Barack Obama’s policies.
Now she’s compiled her experiences into a book, The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America, chronicling her time covering the White House and the way race intersects politics in Capitol Hill’s history. Ryan spoke with All Digitiocracy about her book and experiences in Washington, D.C.
All Digitocracy: How did you get started in journalism?
April Ryan: I am so hyper (laughs)! I knew that in high school I was not going to be able to sit for eight hours at a desk all day. There’s nothing wrong with those who do it. I really wish that I could do it, but I am just not willing to sit at a desk all day. When I knew that, I said I am in trouble. I like to run my mouth and I like to move around and be in the middle of stuff. I got the bug when I was in high school and a friend of mine was a gospel DJ at my college radio station. I realized what he was doing and thought I was going to be a DJ. I moved away from being a DJ into being a producer for a morning talk show. I liked that but I wanted more. Then I went into news, anchoring and researching and writing. And I loved it. I was talking to everyone on all sides of the story. So, that’s how I got into news. Just knowing who I was as a person. I needed to be involved in something.
AD: How did you start covering the White House?
AR: As I was doing news locally in Baltimore and then Frederick, MD and then Chattanooga, TN and then back in Baltimore, and then in DC, I would always string or freelance for some networks. American Urban Radio Networks liked what they saw in me and they offered me a position in Washington, D.C. — little did I know — covering the White House. But to tell you what, if they had told me it was covering the White House, because I never really thought about it until this book came out and people kept asking me about it, I don’t think I would have taken the position because I was like wait minute, I don’t think I’m ready for that. It’s a very intimidating position, especially when you’re not a part of that Washington politics, you’re not part of Washington press corps and you have to cover the White House and Capitol Hill. I really was an outsider coming in on the inside and it was crazy. The network really liked the stories I did on Ben Chavis [former president of the NACCP]; that really made them look at me.
AD: When did you begin working on this book and what made you want to tell about your experiences in the White House?
AR: I have a friend named Roman Hall, who works at the Associated Press in Washington. I actually met him while we were working at the NAACP on that Ben Chavis story. And one day he brought his kids to the White House and then he said to me: “You can’t be here and report on what you’re reporting on and not write a book about it.” He said you need to journal and from there I really got serious on journaling and writing down dates and events and times. It worked. Over 17 years I was pulling together all my old journals and writing and re-writing [the book]. The book has gone through three versions. It all stems from my compiling of notes and my journals.
AD: What was one of the biggest hardships or difficulties you faced covering the White House?
AR: That’s a tough one. Washington is tough. You have to go in there and know what’s going on. There are so many different things I had to be grandfathered into. I didn’t know a lot of things; I missed the morning press gaggles early on. I just didn’t know all of the dynamics of the minutia. I was beating my head up against the wall; I remember everyday, the first two weeks, I told my mother I am leaving. She said, “No you will not.” She said “you have got to stay there at least two years because people will think you got fired if you don’t.” It is tough; I didn’t know a lot of the basics of how the White House works. There are a lot of little pieces where, if you don’t know [them], you could be lost. I also replaced [the late Bob Ellison, former president of the White House Correspondents Association], who they loved dearly and they weren’t ready to have me that fast. It was pretty rough for the first couple of weeks, but I got to some people.
AD: How did this change your reporting style?
AR: I just brought my set of sources; it’s always about the who, what, when, where and whys and the totality of the story — not just two sides, every side of the story. So, I never changed anything.
AD: In your book, you stated that you were the only black reporter with a permanent press pass whose audience was urban American. How do you make your White House coverage relevant to them?
AR: I focus in on minorities. When other people are looking at the whole pie, I’m looking at that sliver that just focuses right on African-Americans, or urban America or on Hispanics. That’s where I’m different; that’s where we’re different and American Urban Radio Network is different.
AD: Being one of the few black reporters that chronicled race in the White House, how did you navigate working in a white, male-dominated industry?
AR: I had no choice but to navigate. It’s a job and of course you have people rolling their eyes going “here she goes again,” but so what? People will try to intimidate you, there are intimidation factors, but guess what? Number one, it’s my job and number two, what makes them think that they’re right and I’m wrong? So, my issue is the fact that the [press] room is a room with a lot of people in it, and many of those people don’t get a chance to ask a question. If they did it wouldn’t necessarily be the same question from the front two rows. I think there’s room in there for all of us; race isn’t always on the radar for major mainstream media, but at the White House – and in [my] book Bill Clinton told me – it is on the radar and it is considered with policy and initiatives, always. We never hear about that, so, President Clinton just reinforced what I already knew and why I would ask my questions.
AD: You’ve covered Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. What stood out to you about them?
AR: When you ask that question, the first thing that comes to my mind is George W. Bush and the fact that he was this Republican president who, if he would have put more effort in the black community in the very beginning, I don’t think he would’ve been viewed so harshly [when it comes to] race. That White House looked at the black community and the black vote as a loss because the black people really didn’t vote for him. So, that’s why [some] don’t count that he was the president who did the most on Africa than any other president. But when Katrina hit, it hit and it hit hard. It was devastating for that administration; it’s a legacy piece that they can never shake.
President Clinton had a heart for African Americans. Yes, he was called the first black president, but I think his heart is really what led him in the second term with the race initiative because he understood that this was a nation that was browning. It was time for the American people to come together on an issue that has been one of the most divisive issues over time.
What stands out the most for [President Obama] to me is the fact that this first black president talked about hope and change, hope and change and African Americans were so happy. The nation was on a high. The vast majority of people felt like we changed the dynamics of this terrible history. But when he became president, that first time, was a lot of title and soft bones. And he had to keep going along those lines so he could navigate the waters strategically and successfully so he could get to that second term. Now this Barack Obama, second term, fourth quarter, is totally different than that first term Barack Obama on race. He is now able to speak his mind.
AD: You mentioned in the book that you were surprised by politicians’ outlook on diversity and racial equality. What specifically shocked you the most and how does it shape your coverage of the White House?
AR: Going to Washington, you know that everyone has a different stance, but generally speaking, you think that (politicians) are understanding and that they understand the plight of people. But it is just different dynamics as to reasons why things couldn’t get done. The partisanship, the politics, the game of politics — everyone has their own agenda here. And it’s not saying it’s a bad agenda, but everybody has different things that they want to promote. If it’s not apart of their agenda, people are not going to push your agenda forward. I’ve found Washington to be an animal; it’s a tough place to really survive. In order for your agenda items to go through, you have to find the right balance of having support and give-and-take to be able to make it work. When it comes to African American issues, that right balance and that give-and-take hasn’t come into play yet because there are still so many disparities out there when it comes to African-Americans.
AD: Every journalist has a dream interview. What was your ‘big get’ and how did you get it?
AR: You always fight for presidential interviews. Those are the big gets. If you’ve interviewed President Clinton, you have to interview President Obama and you have to interview President Bush, too. So with each administration, that’s a big get. I wanted Bill Clinton and that was my first [presidential] interview. I ran into him in the hallway of the West Wing and introduced myself and told him to call on me; he didn’t the first time, but he did the second. That was big for me because I was a newbie then and I learned how to work it so I could get it. You have to keep forging and trying to get your questions answered. You’re known for your last story. So, everyday I look at it as a big get. I don’t rest on my lulls, on the last interview, on my last story. I’m always trying to get an interview, trying to get face time with the president. So, each day is the big get.
AD: You’re covering the White House and for some journalists that’s the career pinnacle. You also have your book out. What’s next for you?
AR: Honest to goodness, I don’t know. I’m still working at AURN, I just don’t know. It’s been 18 years and at some point the company may be tired, I may get tired. I don’t know. They haven’t let me know that they’re tired. I think that they’re in it to win it, just like I am. But you never know what’s going to be on the horizon. I never knew that this book was going to be on the horizon and be as well received as it has been. I used to say I wanted to be the first black Helen Thomas, but you never know. Who knows what life has in store. But the completion of this book is one of my bucket list items that’s now checked off.
AD: In reading your book, what do you want readers to gain from it?
AR: I want people to take away that the issues of race are very important, that race is talked about at that White House on a continuous basis, and it’s not just because we have the first black president. My book details that race has played a part in almost every presidency at that White House. Everything comes through the White House from war to peace and everything in between, race is that in between. The Presidency in Black and White definitely brings you into those conversations on race and how it has factored in on the policy table. That’s what I want people to take away and understand; race is not just about Barack Obama. It’s more than that, much more than that.
AD: What advice do you have for upcoming journalists of color looking to cover politics?
AR: Honestly, I’d tell’em, don’t do it. This business has changed so much. It’s a tough business. What I learned and the way I learned is totally different now. When I was attending Morgan State University, we would concentrate on either radio or TV or a different discipline, now you have to know a little bit about everything in every medium. You have to do a little bit of blogging, you have to do a little bit of video, you have to do a little bit of photography, you have to do a little bit of radio, you have to do some anchoring. I mean you’re just doing everything. It’s different; social media has really put its footprint on broadcast in a lot of ways. I would advise a young person, if they really want to get into this, do not major in it like I did. Major in something else, but work at journalism, and to really use what’s accessible. That’s really what got me to where I am, using what’s accessible.
The role fiction plays in travel writing and how the “American Voice” is being challenged by writers of color
By AMY GIGI ALEXANDER
Travel writer Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, about two families living through the 26 year long Sri Lankan civil war was originally published in South Asia and was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It was released in America by St Martin’s Press on Sept 2nd 2014 to critical acclaim, including coverage on NPR and a New York Times Book review which called the book, “luminous.” Nayomi lives in Oakland, California and is currently at work on her second novel. She recently sat down for a one-on-one interview with me, transcribed below.
Amy Gigi Alexander: I would like to start with talking about your own travels in your childhood. You’re from Sri Lanka, and you traveled with your family to Nigeria in 1976. Then in 1984, your family left Nigeria and came to the United States. Can you speak to the reasons why your family undertook such journeys: Why leave Sri Lanka? Why leave Nigeria?
Nayomi Munaweera: I was born in Sri Lanka in 1973. When I was three years old my family immigrated to Nigeria, Africa. My parents left Sri Lanka because the island was going through some dark economic times and my father, who was an engineer, could not find a good job. There were huge South Asian communities all over Africa and we were part of that diaspora. Nigeria had just discovered oil and the country was hiring engineers to create a greater infrastructure. My father was one of those engineers. We lived in various parts of Nigeria, some of them quite rural, from 1976 until 1984.
While we were in Nigeria, in 1982, civil war broke out in Sri Lanka. This war between the Tamil Tigers (a terrorist group) and the Sri Lankan military went on for 26 years and only ended in 2009. My parents had only planned to be out of Sri Lanka for a few years, but the fact that there was a war back home meant that we couldn’t return. We planned to stay in Africa until the war was over.
In 1984 in Nigeria there were rumors of an impending military coup. The entire expatriate community that we were part of disbanded quickly and people left for all corners of the world. The fear was that we would be attacked as had happened to Asians in Uganda a few years prior under the dictatorship of Idi Amin.
We were really at a crossroads. We couldn’t go back to Sri Lanka as the war there was now raging. My parents worked tirelessly to try and get our family, now including my three year old sister, to safety. Very luckily, an uncle who had lived in Los Angeles since the 1970’s agreed to sponsor us. We landed in Los Angeles in 1984.
AGA: Let’s talk to about that move to the United States. You arrived as an outsider, an experience you’d already been through once in Nigeria, and had learned to adapt. Now you had a yet another place to adapt to. What was this like?
NM: When we immigrated to Nigeria, I was only three. At that age, nothing is strange so I think that going from Sri Lanka to Nigeria was relatively painless for me. I’m sure my parents had a hard time adapting to all kinds of things, but I don’t have early memories of that move. I do remember being sad that we were leaving my grandparents and my cousins. But we went back to Sri Lanka for a month every year so I was also very connected to my family there.
Arriving in America at the age of 12 was a much harder and stranger experience. In Nigeria we lived in small remote villages, but I had always gone to school with both Nigerian and other expatriate kids. I was used to a lot of diversity. Now, in America, almost all of the kids in my school were white. I was one of the very few Asians. I remember that they had the only Indian girl in the school show me around. I remember thinking, “I’m not Indian. Why did they choose this girl?” and then realizing she was the only one in the school who looked like me. She and I very quickly separated. Both of us were trying to fit in and neither wanted to be lumped in with the only other South Asian person at the school. There was this intense pressure to fit in. There were decisions to be made about what to wear, what music to listen to, how to do one’s hair. In Nigeria, I had always worn a uniform and regulation shoes. There was no freedom or choice, the idea of teenage expression did not exist. But in America being a teenager was very much about expressing individuality in a way I had never experienced before. It took years before I felt somewhat American.
AGA: That is interesting, the mention of individuality as part of the American experience. I often get confronted with this as a traveler—an American traveler—when I go to other countries that don’t have the same emphasis. But returning to those two journeys—Sri Lanka to Nigeria, and Nigeria to the United States—how have they defined you as a traveler and writer today?
NM: I grew up with the idea that travelling extensively and belonging to different places and cultures was very normal. I took my first flight at the age of 3. My parents had never met a black person before they went to Africa. My father had only been to India before this. My mother had never left the island. I say this to show you what a huge step immigrating was for them at that time. The decision to leave Sri Lanka was economic but it was also a very bold and brave thing. They left everything and everyone they knew and made a new life far away. However, in the pursuit of a better life for their young family, they were prepared to move continents.
When you grow up like this, between various cultures, there is a sense of displacement. But at the very same time, one also feels like a global citizen. I do have a sense–possibly a misguided sense–that I could land in many different places on the globe and make a life there if I needed to.
AGA: You say that your parents’ “sense of boldness” has informed you. Obviously that changed the way you saw the world at large and your role inside of it. Yet you also talk about displacement and an almost intimate transitory quality about what you see as “home.”
This leads me to want to dig deeper and ask you about the themes of belonging and exile. These are two strong currents in your life, in your writing, and in the travel genre itself. How do these two themes color your life and your work?
NM: As an immigrant, issues of exile and belonging inform my life. This is also true as a writer.
For example, in Sri Lanka I am seen as an American and my book is taught in classes like “Diaspora Writing.” Meanwhile in America, although I have lived here since 1984 and been a citizen since 1986, I’m not really regarded as an American, since American for the most part is still defined as white. My book is considered Asian Fiction. So there is always the sense of having my feet in two different and disparate cultures. There is always an attempt to try and stitch together the different parts of my existence. There is a Sri Lankan self and an American self and they are somewhat different. I do have to change and shape-shift depending on where I am. These changes have to do with things like language, dress, and gesture, but also occur on a deeper, quieter level. You simply are a different person in different settings.
I think grappling with these issues of non-belonging are very good for a writer. They force you to always be on the outside looking in, observing, and I think this is a very useful trait for a writer.
AGA: Watching for signs and signals is key to writing well, and keen observation means attention to detail, which is something you master in your writing. I am interested in how your book and voice are heard: I read your book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and to me, it was a travelogue. Fiction, yes. But a travelogue, a series of journeys…
Circling back to exile and belonging, has the way you have experienced these two things changed over time, or has your definition of what they are changed? Has writing been a catalyst for these changes?
NM: Over time I have become more comfortable with my in-between state. This has a lot to do with writing about it. In working out these conflicts in my journals and in my novels, I do think I have a better, more integrated sense of self around these issues.
Before my first novel was published, I had a great deal of doubt about whether I had the authority to write about the Sri Lankan civil war because I did not grow up in Sri Lanka during the war years. I had been far away and in safety in Nigeria and America while this war was being fought. My family always spent a month of every year in Sri Lanka, no matter where in the world we were living, and this is where a lot of the catalyst for writing about the conflict came from. But I wondered whether I had the right to tell this story, being as I am privileged by the fact that I am Sinhala –the majority ethnicity in Sri Lanka–and an American citizen.
I started writing the novel in 2001. I finished in 2009 and tried to find an American publisher. Every publishing house said no so I put the book away and started writing another. In 2011 I was introduced to a Sri Lankan publisher who wanted the book. It was hugely validating to me that people in Sri Lanka, most of whom had experienced the war I had written about were willing to publish it. Even more significant was the fact that when the book was out in Sri Lanka, I started to hear from people there who said, ‘yes this is how it was.’ ‘Yes you got it right.’ This was despite the fact that the government at that time which controlled all media was publishing reviews extolling people not to read it.
In the same way, I’ve often felt strange about being some sort of cultural ambassador of Sri Lanka in the U.S. I’ll never consider myself an expert on Sri Lanka but I am accepting that my relationship with it is deep and intimate, and from this place I can talk about it.
AGA: You’ve talked about how others see your work. How do you see it? How do you categorize it?
NM: I don’t really categorize it. This is the book that came to me. The characters in it are mostly Sri Lankans. Some of them are dealing with migration to the United States. Others are in the midst of the war in Northern Sri Lanka. Beyond this specificity, their feelings and emotional states, the joys and sorrows they have to confront are universal. Their experiences they could easily apply to people of any ethnicity and in any place.
AGA: You decided to write a book, a fictional book, based on that early experience you had, the conflict itself, and how it affected people in Sri Lanka. Let’s talk about the book title first: Island of a Thousand Mirrors. What’s the meaning behind the title?
NM: Since the book is about a civil war I’m playing with the idea of mirrors, as in the enemy one is fighting is, the self. The Tamils and Sinhalese–the two warring ethnicities in Sri Lanka have a long and intimate history, sometimes fighting, sometimes marrying. So I wanted to invoke the sense that we are fighting intimate enemies, ourselves. There are also other explanations of the title tucked into the book. I like titles that have multiple meanings, so that as you read the book, you also discover these.
AGA: The book must have been controversial for you to write, and yet you felt called to do so. What was the calling, and why did you follow it?
NM: In my experience writers don’t choose books, books choose writers.
AGA: I think you are righ. Yet, some writers resist the call for a long time. You didn’t.
NM: I knew that this was touchy material, but when I was first writing, in 2001, it didn’t matter. This was the story that was inside me and the story that wanted to be told. I had a compulsion to write and a compulsion to write about these particular characters.
At that stage I wasn’t thinking about publication. That wasn’t the motivation. And since it wasn’t my motivation I could write about whatever I felt like. I didn’t think about it as particularly controversial, although it turned out to be, I was just writing to try and work out my own ideas of belonging and exile, my own relationship to the war happening in the country of my birth.
I realize this makes it sound like the writing was easy. It wasn’t. But it was also deeply joyous. Some part of me really loved doing that work. It still does.
AGA: So you never thought about publishing it? It just was the process of writing the story that drew you in? That is, to me, the very best kind of writing.
You are a self-taught writer. And that is very exciting to me because I’m self-taught as well. Can you talk about the process of deciding to be a writer, and writing your book?
NM: In 2001 I was finishing a Ph.D in English Literature and had to write a dissertation. However, all that was coming to me was bits of this book. I tried to submit fiction but they wouldn’t accept it. So I left the program, dropped out, moved to Berkeley, got a job at a community college and started writing my novel.
I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t think it would ever be published. It’s not that I didn’t want it published. I just never imagined that publication, which is so insanely hard to achieve, would happen to my book. I didn’t think anyone in America would care about this war happening to people far away.
AGA: So you did go to a few writing workshops, but only after it had been accepted, but you didn’t show the book to anyone while you were in the process of crafting it?
NM: I have a horror of showing my work too early as I think it can easily be shifted away from the author’s own vision.
AGA: I agree. I think you can lose your voice. It happened to me a few times and it was leveling. Better to work out the details on your own, I think—or just with a few very trusted mentors.
NM: The idea of work-shopping anything–and getting various views on what’s wrong with it– scares the heck out of me. I think it’s healthy for young writers to struggle in solitude for many years and try to figure it out what they are saying for themselves. I don’t show work to my editor unless it’s as close to perfection as I can get it. As you said, I have a few trusted readers but they only see it very late in the game when I’m quite sure of my own voice. But these folks are precious and invaluable. Every writer needs them. They can be hugely influential.
AGA: Can you talk about the act of writing a book without formal training? What did you have to teach yourself, and where did that teaching of yourself begin?
NM: I think my true education came from reading voraciously since childhood. I continued this all the way through my Ph.D.
AGA: What were some of these early books that were major influences for you in your childhood?
I don’t think any of these titles are familiar in America but anyone who grew up in the ex-colonies will recognize them. For American readers I’ll add, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and the Flowers in the Attic series. I was obsessed with these as a teenager.
AGA: And in adulthood?
NM: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Anita Desai’s Feasting, Fasting, Lional Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Yann Martel, Life of Pi.
AGA: There is the process of reading and absorption, and then there is organic talent that writers naturally have. Your foundation came from your reading, but what did the process of creating actually look like?
NM: I’ve journaled avidly since I was 13. Now looking back I can see that crafting my experience in this way keeps the writing muscle supple.
The idea that you can work through emotion, hardship or trauma by writing about it is very important to me. I keep seeing studies that point to the therapeutic effects of writing about one’s life. I was always doing this but didn’t realize it was an exercise that would serve me well until much later.
The everyday act of creating looks messy and chaotic. Some days it all flows beautifully and I think I’m a genius. The next day I’ll delete every word because I now am convinced it is all crap and that I’m an idiot. On the third day I’ll rewrite everything erased the previous day. My creative process consists of ping-ponging between grandiosity and self loathing on a daily basis. Now I realize this is just a normal part of being an artist. I call it an occupational hazard and I’m much better at letting the highs and lows just flow.
I see writing novels as marathons. There’s nothing fast or easy about it. It’s a long labor of love, patience and discipline.
AGA: That is a fascinating way to describe it. There is always the next section, endlessly. In your case, the marathon of the writing alone took eight years. That’s very long time.
One thing about your book is that it is fiction, and the development of the characters and story took time to happen. Talking about fiction, there are people who don’t think that fiction fits into the travel genre; yet, obviously one quick look at your book belies that assumption. How do you think fiction fits into the travel genre?
NM: I think when a book transcends one setting and talks about what it means for a character to move between places — physically and psychologically — you can see it as a travel book.
AGA: Can you give a few examples of fictional books which you think cross with ease into the travel genre?
NM: I’m thinking of: The Life of Pi, The Poisonwood Bible, The Satanic Verses, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
AGA: You are a person of color. How does this affect how you see the publishing industry and opportunities for yourself and other people of color? Your book was published first in Sri Lanka. Did this make the publishing experience easier here?
NM: I tried to publish in America for three to four years and was completely unsuccessful. My agent at the time tried to sell the book and then eventually stopped taking my phone calls probably because he got sick of giving me bad news.
I then found a publisher in Sri Lanka through a mutual friend. This first publisher printed 1,000 books out of their tiny office. There was no advance. Then the book was picked up in India and nominated for some of the region’s biggest prizes. It ended up winning the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. This is when America called me. There was a mini bidding war and then the book came out in Sept 2014 in America.
I think it’s very difficult for writers of color. There are a few folks who are hugely and rightly successful like Jumpha and Junot but if you are an unknown person of color writer in America, it’s tremendously difficult to get published. But the stories these writers are telling are really interesting and fresh and they need to be told.
I was at the Japiur Literary Festival in India in 2013 and they were talking about the new American voice and everyone they talked about was a person of color writer. So the very definition of American writer as male and white is being rightly challenged. These are the most interesting voices to me: Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Celeste Ng, No Violet Bulawayo, Sugi Ganeshanathan, Chris Abani, Sandip Roy, to name a few.
AGA: Favorite travel book?
NM: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondatjee
AGA: Despite the fictional narrative of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, it feels very real. What is the basic story of the book?
NM: The novel is about two young women, one from either side of the Sri Lankan civil war, telling their account of this 26 year long conflict. It’s about love, war, belonging and exile. At its heart, it’s the story of a nation struggling to find itself.
AGA: What has been your experience writing and publishing a story about something some people would like to not even havediscussed?
NM: When my book first came out in Sri Lanka in 2012, the pro-government media–all media was controlled by the state–attacked it saying that the subject of the war was an obsolete one and that no one should be writing about it. That was a scary time because as I said, that government was imprisoning and disappearing journalists and activists. I was in Sri Lanka for the book launch and when the articles came out attacking the book, I was really afraid that there would be a banging on my door at night. I have known other people who have been taken away to be questioned and escaped through luck so it was a very scary time and there was a very real push towards silence.
This government was overthrown in a democratic election in January 2015. It remains to be seen how the new government will deal with the memory of that war, minority rights, and press freedoms.
AGA: Travel writing is often seen as pleasure writing. But your book describes war and conflict interlaced with lucid and beautiful details. Is writing about what is real and not what we wish to find. Is that how you see it?
NM: Some of the characters in the novel I wrote were going through a war. So there was no way I couldn’t try to represent that. I think writing about what we see, writing about the truth, as experienced by characters is essential in any kind of writing.
AGA: Do you feel you have written about a place that no longer exists?
NM: The early part of my book is set in the pre-war Sri Lanka of my dad’s youth and that place, with its very pristine nature and innocence, doesn’t exist anymore. I was also writing about a war that ended in 2009 so the more horrific and active warfare is over. Sri Lanka is changing rapidly. I was there in 2012 and then in 2014 and the changes are astounding. But other things, like the food, the ocean, these never change.
AGA: How do the senses evoke a place to you?
NM: If you talk authentically about the smells, tastes, sights, feeling of a place, the reader should be able to connect. It’s always good to notice the details that no one else is paying attention to. As a visitor, you’re granted a fresh view of this place that the people living there probably no longer see. They might have a much better idea of how it all works, but you have the un-spoilt eyes of new experience. Capturing this can be really powerful.
AGA: That’s true. I think often writers are forgetful of this fresh view.
NM: I’ve had readers in Sri Lanka say, ‘You know I’ve seen that a million times, but I never noticed it until I read it in your book.’ They say this about various things. One example, the way the sea salt scent and the fragrance of jasmine combine in parts of Colombo. If you’ve lived there all your life you might not notice anymore. But as an outsider I will notice, revel in it and write about it.
AGA: Give me an example from your writing that demonstrates this.
NM: “On the new nation’s flag is poised a stylized lion, all curving flank and ornate muscle, a long, cruel sword gripped in its front paw. It is the ancient symbol of the Sinhala who believe that they are descended from the lovemaking between an exiled Indian princess and a large jungle cat. A green stripe represents that small and much-tossed Muslim population. An orange stripe represents the larger Tamil minority.
But in the decades that are coming, race riots and discrimination will render the orange stripe inadequate. It will be replaced by a new flag. On its face, a snarling tiger, all bared fang and bristling whisker. If the idea of militancy is not conveyed strongly enough, dagger clawed paws burst forth while crossed rifles rear over the cat’s head.
A rifle toting tiger. A sword gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between related beasts.”
This early passage in the book describes the flags of the two enemies who fought in the Sri Lankan war. I’ve had Sri Lankan readers tell me they never thought of their flags as militant until they read this passage.
My point is that when you live with something on a daily basis, you cease to really see it. This is just a condition of being human. The writer’s job is partly to point out the unseen in the everyday.
AGA: How does a writer show and not tell? This is so important in the travel genre, and yet many writers miss this fundamental rule. How do you show and not tell?
NM: I try to tell the story by capturing vignettes from a character’s life. If the character is real enough, authentic enough, and if as the writer, you have really done your work to tap into them, then you can show the reader that scenes from their lives, their thoughts and it will ring true. But the writer has to do the hard work first. Otherwise readers will sense that it is inauthentic.
AGA: How do you tap into someone? Give me an example of a character you’ve written about and how you got close enough to let them show you their story.
NM: The character whose life is furthest from mine is Saraswathie from my debut novel. She lives in a village in northern Sri Lanka. That part of the country was closed off from the rest of the country for most of the war so I had never seen it until long after the book was published and the war was over.
When I was writing that book, I was reading everything I could find about life in the war zones and thinking about what it might be for a young Tamil girl in the midst of the war. I had written a great deal from the perspective of the other main character when Sarawathie’s voice started popping up in my head. I really didn’t want to write her story as it’s quite emotionally difficult. But at some point I realized her point of view was extremely important. So I started reading everything I could find about people in her situation. At some point her voice got clearer to me. I felt like I could picture her and how she would respond to certain scenarios, to trauma and othering. Her experience was the furthest from my own but she is also my very favorite character so far. Writing her took me to some real depths since, in order to render her emotionally real, I had to imagine being in the terrible situations she finds herself in.
AGA: One reason I chose this book for the series, and also you, is that it is the story of someone leaving where they belong, and going somewhere else, perhaps against their will. Is that a travel story? I think it is.
It’s different than the travel stories we hear, which are usually about leaving a place by choice and going somewhere one chooses. What are the differences and similarities between these narratives in your personal experience?
NM: Migration is, of course, different from travel for pleasure. But I wouldn’t say that my family was made to go anywhere against our wills. We found ourselves in various moments of history that necessitated movement but we were never forced to flee for our lives as so many refugees are around the world. In this we were quite privileged. My experience seems to fall somewhere between the trauma suffered by someone who is forced to flee and the ease of someone choosing to travel.
What we did find was that both of these migrations necessitated a remaking of the self.
We are not the same people we would have been if my parents never left Sri Lanka. We don’t know what our lives would have been if we stayed. There would have been different sadnesses and different joys in our lives.
AGA: What are you working on now?
“In the months before the thunderous monsoon, the ocean tugs at his toes, wraps sinuous limbs about his own and pulls him into its embrace, out until it is deep enough to dive, head first, feet overhead, inverted and submerged. Eyes open against stinging salt, he sees coral like a crowded, crumbling city, busy with variously marked, spotted, dotted, striped, lit, pompous and playful sea creatures. Now and then, he encounters the curious, swiveling eye of a small red octopus emerging from secret passageways. Approached recklessly, the octopus blanches a pure white and with an inky ejaculation, torpedoes away. So he learns to approach slowly, in rhythm with the gently rolling water, until the creature coming to know this stick-limbed biped, is lulled enough to allow his quiet presence.
Further out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a hundred mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.
When he emerges dripping from the sea, it is to find this father, the village ayurvedic doctor, perched on an upturned catamaran, deep in conversation with the fisher-folk who squat on their heels before him.
The fishermen wear sarongs splotched with octopus ink. Their hands are leathered by handling rope, mending nets, wrestling sharks by their tails onto the beach. They are ruthless with the flesh of the creatures they catch, upturning gentle sea turtles in the sand to carve off chunks of the living flesh. The turtles bleed slowly, drip salt tears from the corners of their ancient eyes. In this way the meat stays fresh for days, the fishermen explain. For similar reasons the fishermen grasp just caught octopuses and turn them inside out, exposing delicate internals that flash through cycles of color. Decades later, in America, when my father sees Christmas lights for the first time, he will astound us with the observation that they look just like dying octopuses.”</span>
A rainbow must have exploded on television and in films, books and music. According to media watchdog group GLAAD.org, a number of projects featuring queer people, in front of and behind the camera, will be released in 2015.
Here’ss a list of what to look out for this year:
- 52 Tuesdays is a story of parenting and gender transition. The Australian film will be released in the U.S. in January. Last year it won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award.
- Another independent film, Appropriate Behavior, tackles bisexuality and a woman who struggles with her identity. The film will be released in theaters and digitally in January.
- The film, Carol, a story about a lesbian salesclerk who falls for an older, married woman will debut in the fall. The story is an adaption of a novel written in 1952 by Patricia Highsmith entitled, The Price of Salt.
- Twitter is afire about the new music drama Empire that stars an amazing cast, including a talented gay musician. The series is executive produced by out writer/director, Lee Daniels. Empire premiers Jan. 7 at 9/8c on Fox.
- Be on the look-out for Ellen DeGeneres all over the networks in 2015. First she’s co-executive producing a new sitcom, One Big Happy, a show about a gay woman and a straight man who decide to have a baby together. Her daytime television variety-talk show, the Ellen DeGeneres Show was renewed in 2013 through 2017, and she will launch Ellen’s Design Challenge, a furniture creation and design competition show.
- Netflix has its share of inclusive series with Grace and Frankie starring Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and Sense8 from trans creator Lana Wachowski.
- ABC got bold in 2015 with steamy sex-scenes on How to Get Away with Murder. This year, the network is moving full speed ahead with new reality series, My Transparent Life from Ryan Seacrest. ABC Family will air this series that follows the life of a teenage boy whose parents are divorcing because his dad is transitioning from male to female.
- The Discovery Life Channel, a new channel on Discovery Communications, will launch Those Girls in January. The show is about trans friends and couples who live in Kansas City.
With a list too long to name every title, be the first to visit Amazon’s website where more than 2,000 new books will be released for sale this year with LGBT themes, including a memoir by “Orange Is The New Black” co-star and transgender actress Laverne Cox who will write about being raised as a boy with her twin brother by a single mother in Alabama.
It’s a scavenger hunt uncovering all the trends in media that affect LGBTQ people. What’s on your list?
Tibby Jones writes about news and issues impacting LGBTQ communities. She lives in Dallas, Texas.
In Conversation With Raquel Cepeda: The journalist, filmmaker and author talks about Latina identity, her writing style, her new documentary, SOME GIRLS, and more
By AMY GIGI ALEXANDER
I discovered Raquel Cepeda‘s work in August in a travel story she wrote for the New York Times. I immediately read her book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, and fell in love with her prose style and voice. Her accomplishments include everything under the sun: award-winning journalist, cultural activist, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, memoirist, among other talents. Last month she was awarded for her commitment to denouncing violence against women, and her work in helping young women’s empowerment by the United Nations. But besides all of this, she writes a wonderful travel story.
Cepeda is a New York City born and bred journalist, documentary filmmaker and author born of Dominican parentage. She lives in her beloved city with her husband and their two children despite Taylor Swift’s appointment as New York City’s Global Welcome Ambassador.
Amy Gigi Alexander: Hearing about your early life and love for travel, I’m wondering about the books you read when you were a girl. Did you read books that inspired you to find, seek, and travel?
Raquel Cepeda: I didn’t, no. I was a mostly disengaged, bored student. In fact, I resented all the bullshit I learned in parochial grammar and high school about how God loving missionaries came to the New World in order to spread the gospel of brotherly love, freedom and a really freaking cool and blissful afterlife. I didn’t buy how civilized the so-called Indigenous savages were that they encountered. And the West Africans who miraculously appeared on the shores of the Caribbean. I didn’t appreciate that so many of the kids of color in my school began to resent the characteristics in their faces that looked Indigenous and/or African, and began doing all they could to erase those markings. Something about the whole thing, before I could even articulate it, just turned me off. It makes me sick that this propaganda continues to be perpetrated today, but that’s another story.
AGA: You decided to make your own stories.
RC: My desire to discover the world around me was really organic. I think it’s part of my DNA, my ancestral memory, to want to journey, to become a #wanderwoman.
AGA: I’m always a little voyeuristic in these interviews, and I’m wondering where this #wanderwoman writes.
RC: Remember when Virginia Wolf wrote about having “A Room of One’s Own?” I don’t know what that’s like. I have a 17-year-old daughter, a two-year-old son and a crazy-busy husband who’s also a writer, graffiti historian, and partner at a creative agency. I have a membership to a writer’s room close to our apartment I try to sneak off to as much as I can. I also try to write very early before everyone wakes up, sometimes at night when everyone is asleep. And when I’m on deadline, I just disappear into the bathroom. I write in longhand on the train, anywhere and everywhere. Whatever it takes.
AGA: I’ve come to discover that you are many women in one woman. You are a journalist, a filmmaker, an author, an amateur boxer, and so much more. An example of a person doing many things well. But all of these are tied together by some silken thread. What is that thread, to you?
RC: I am still discovering what the thread is but someone once told me that he saw an expression, or rather, a venting of rage in my work. Maybe he’s right. I’m not sure but I’m open to it. More than anything I recognize an intense desire to connect to the world at large. To my, our, global community.
AGA: Can you give a few examples of how this desire to connect with the world translates into reality and what you create?
RC: For example, my documentary, Bling: A Planet Rock, is about how American hip-hop’s obsession with the hyper-materialistic social trappings of hip-hop intersected itself into the decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
AGA: That is fascinating.
RC: When magazines were a thing, I used to be the editor in chief of an urban bi-monthly glossy called Russell Simmons’ Oneworld. When I re-launched it, my vision to make it more transcultural and global in scope was realized in most of its pages.
There are also global/travel threads in my book, Bird of Paradise. While the first part of my book is a coming-of-age story set in the Dominican Republic, New York City and a jaunt in San Francisco, the second part of the book focuses on ancestral DNA testing as a tool for self-discovery. By using science, I travel back in recent history to reveal where my ancestors came from before they came to be known as Latino/a. I also physically travel as part of my journey.
And finally, I’m in production on my current documentary, SOME GIRLS, which is an extension of the book in some ways. In the film, we use mitochondrial DNA testing for the same reasons I did in my book, and there’s an international component to it.
AGA: I love the way you take what moves you and turn it into real, tangible things: It is very creative and original, and it’s one thing that pulls me into every piece I read that you have written. I think of you as almost an inventor. A person who, when something cannot be found, makes it herself. There is a constant moving in your life, in your writing, and in your work. Can you talk about how this formed your writing style (or) what you think your writing style is?
RC: [Laughing] Yeah, that’s why it’s so hard for me to find patrons to support my inventions! Sometimes I think I should just give up and produce shows pitting women against each other, or shows counting down who had the best ass-shots in 2014 and get paid! People would pay for that! But then something happens—a conversation with my daughter, meeting someone who left an abusive relationship or found something in my work that empowered them, or a sign from the universe that only makes sense to me—that reminds me that swimming against the current is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. By the way, did I mention that I can’t swim!?! It’s fucking hard out here.
AGA: Signs. Powerful signs. I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in the room, and then someone tells me that something I wrote moved or changed them, and that infusion is enough to keep me going. I think many writers face this, especially those who are going against the current, as you say.
Your writing style goes against the current in certain ways, too. How would you describe your writing style?
RC: My writing style is a direct reflection of the way I speak, and my dry, often dark sense of humor. A female writer once told me she felt my writing was sort of masculine, aggressive. My husband Sacha, also a writer, among other things, and I often joke that had I used a male pseudonym or had been an actual man, I’d be seen as being all those things associated with male writers: Searingly honest, vulnerable, reinventing the English language, free-wheeling, blah, blah, blah….But alas, nope, I’m “preachy” and “prickly.” Thank the gods that I don’t really, at the bottom of my heart, care what reviewers, who incidentally super-rarely review books by Latina-American authors, as much as I do the men and women who’ve actually read more than a section. *Sheds a single tear.
AGA: But this is where your inventiveness comes crashing in. You combine everything and write about the places in-between, yet your writing is accessible and daring.
RC: My writing style exists in a liminal space, that gray area between the streets and the ivory-tower. It’s a total contradiction, I know. I said before that I’ve always been a disengaged student. I feel like many academics, with exceptions of course, recycle the same old tired theories their predecessors have preached not to ruffle any feathers and, sometimes—fuck it, too many times—don’t even bother to venture out and get to know the communities they are writing about. The only folks who would find that statement offensive are the ones who are guilty of committing this pseudo-intellectual crime. But what’s worse is when the brilliant thinkers in academia, and there are a handful out there, are not accessible to the people that would benefit most from the jewels they have to offer due to a number of things, ranging from a lack of resources to a lack of access too many Americans have to higher education-especially in communities of color-and also the dry and insular manner in which the information is presented.
AGA: Personally, I’m turned off by writing that makes the story inaccessible to all but a golden few. I like the way you write, because it resonates immediately and viscerally. One feels that you’re actually speaking when reading your work.
RC: In my own life—in and out of academia and mostly as a student of the world and researcher of counterculture, race, and true American history, and as a product of 1980s hip-hop—I’ve felt compelled to translate what I’ve learned and/or discovered in a manner that’s palatable to folks, whether they’re sitting in an Ivy league classroom or idling away in front of a corner store or working behind the counter in that same corner store.
AGA: How I came to read your writing, and discover your work in a larger way, was through a piece you wrote for The New York Times about your journey to Aruba, by way of the Dominican Republic to rediscover your roots. Did you set out to write a travel memoir, or did that happen after the journey ended?
RC: Oh, yes, that New York Times travel story was a postscript, if you will, to Bird of Paradise. I was curious to find out more about my father’s side of the family now that he and I were working on maintaining a peace accord of sorts. I didn’t set out to write a travel memoir in the literal sense but in a more Vonnegut-esque kind of way; that is, being unstuck in time but in a braided nonfiction narrative.
AGA: Did you go on that journey as a storyteller, as a listener, a collector, a detective?
RC: I wore many hats during the writing of my memoir, the first by a Dominican-American author to be released in the popular market. I was, above all else, a collector of saliva (DNA), a researcher/detective trying to unearth my history, a listener, and a storyteller. I think most nonfiction writers are all the aforementioned. Maybe that’s why so many of us spend lots of time in our heads. While I literally travelled to a couple of destinations for research purposes and to try and retrace the footsteps, to imagine what it was like for a known ancestor of mine to survive, albeit in fragments, for me to exist today, I didn’t set out to do that in the very beginning. The results of my ancestral DNA tests dictated where I would go, if anywhere.
AGA: Is the journey now complete? Is it over?
RC: Today I think that the journey that began before I seeded the idea for Bird of Paradise has no end, it’s continuous. It’s like identity; it’s never settled. The idea of settling bores the shit out of me.
AGA: I see another book on that theme…
RC: I would love to write a straight-up travel memoir in the future, from my perspective as a woman of color who blends in almost everywhere she’s traveled, to experience the world in a way many Americans cannot. Most Americans in general don’t travel and of those who do, a small fraction are people of color. I’d like to make the world an inviting place for more people of color to travel, to find themselves in the selves of others, as a tool of empowerment. But that’s an uphill battle because the publishing industry, like academia, places our experiences into more confining boxes than the census does! With that said, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised that the industry is imploding on itself, committing literary suicide by sticking to one-note narratives by writers of color, with one or two exceptions per year, rather than cultivating New American classics. So it goes.
AGA: I think, personally, that writers need to help one another. It’s not just editors, perhaps, but the insular quality of people; they stay within certain constraints. I like to think that I am mixing it up a little, and I think that writers have that responsibility to the craft itself; to include more voices and encourage people to read them.
I’m fond of mixing it up in travel writing too as far as style and story and content. I do not like travel writing that is just about a place. I want it to have some soul, preferably of the narrator. Your book goes beyond soulfulness, it is, in some ways a manifesto, a guide, a set of links. It’s raw and real and running deep. Authentic. Does that authentic voice come easily for you, or is it something you have to draw out of yourself?
RC: My book is certainly a reflection, a direct reflection, of myself for better and worse. It’s my voice. However, I was able to preserve my voice mainly because of two people: My literary agent and my editor. They were both fiercely protective of keeping it intact. I wish my editor was still in the publishing industry. She got it, overstood, in fact, the world outside her office.
AGA: That is wonderful to hear. I often hear the opposite! Let’s talk about the way your book is set up. I’m spending a lot of time talking about your book rather than craft, because I think your book sets a new standard and pulls off something that is quite difficult, a multiplicity of stories, that are linked.
The book is set up in a very interesting way. It is linked by two journeys. Let’s talk about the first half. You decide to return to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with family and history. In the book, there is this duality of you: The you who is belonging to the place you are returning to, and the you that is seeking belonging in your own life story. That’s a very interesting theme for a travel memoir, because so many are written from the point of view of an outsider going inside of a new place and writing about it. You, on the other hand, are inside two places at once: The United States and the Dominican Republic. Can you talk a bit about the difference of belonging to the place you write about, and visiting it as an outsider?
RC: Your question of belonging is directly linked to the formation of my identity as a hyphenated-American, at once Latina and American, or rather a dominiyorkian: A New York City born woman of Dominican parentage. I’m comfortable in both places because, over time, I’ve come to understand that I’m not hard-wired to sit quietly in anyone’s box. I have chosen to, as a sociologist might say, selectively acculturate. I’ve taken what I love about my Dominican heritage and what I like about being American and making it work for me. To me, the hyphen in between my selves serves as a bridge I can walk across or stand in the center of whenever I choose. I would say that Bird of Paradise is more a memoir about identity than it is about travel in a traditional sense although traveling in the ways I’ve already mentioned have been the very thing, aside from hip-hop culture, that have informed who I am today.
AGA: How do you think you have captured the voice of place, and what makes that voice different?
RC: There are certainly more pros than cons to belonging to the place you write about. When you write from an insider’s perspective you can avoid all those clichés fetishizing what many “outsiders” find exotic in a land and its people. Sometimes when I read articles, particularly set in the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and the Boogie Down Bronx, I’m reminded of those romance novels featuring Fabio on their covers because the writing is so saccharine and nondescript. There are layers of subtext I can read through when I’m, say, in the Dominican Republic. However, because of my ties and ambicultural footing, I find that I can read a lot of that subtext in many different countries. Plus, when I travel I’m usually mistaken for belonging to the majority or minority of that country—for example: A local in Bahia, Brazil; Turkish in Austria; mixed-race in West Africa; a local in Morocco—and in a way, if you read my book, you may find that they are all right! So, for better and for worse, I often get to experience a place because I fit in. [Readers: to read a collection of essays and stories by travel writers who write from the point of view of belonging to where they write about, read this New York Times series, which also includes Raquel Cepeda, My Caribbean, Five Vignettes.]
AGA: The second half of the book is a different kind of journey, but still a travel journey. You decide to trace your ancestral DNA, and you take the reader alongside you on a scientific route of discovering who you are. Why did you decide to include this in your book, and how do you think including it deepens the experience for the reader?
RC: At the time I was writing the proposal there was a spike in hate crimes against Latinos across America. Our immigration policies were, and continue to, paint Latinos/Hispanics as public enemies, criminals, and terrorists although dozens of North American territories belonged to Mexico before the first wave of illegal English, Dutch, and other European immigrants bumrushed the U.S. It was clear that people didn’t know what Latinos were/are. I had been writing about the topic and had seen others use ancestral DNA to reveal their own roots. So I decided that I would use myself as ONE example of what, or who, we are. Ancestral DNA testing, embarking on this journey, was the skeleton of the book, its foundation. It definitely deepened the experience, not only for me, but for other Latinos, adoptees, and Americans of all races who I’ve met at book events and have written me online.
AGA: How did the science of who you are fit with your sense of knowing where you belong?
RC: For me, the results were affirming, both literally and spiritually. While mainstream America paints Latino/Hispanic-Americans as being “illegal,” I found that we are the physical embodiment, the genetic circumstance of the events that begat what we refer to as the Americas, the New World. The Dominican Republic, the eastern side of the island we share with our Haitian brothers and sisters, is home to the first established European city in the Americas. It was where the Indigenous slave trade began, where the Transatlantic slave trade began. It was an international port where the world converged to trade goods, people, disease, and try out this ism we’re obsessed with—capitalism.
So, with that stated, I went into it with an open mind and the results not only confirmed my suspicions but illuminated a path back to my recent ancestors, making my world smaller by revealing where my people came from before they were shoved into the big brown Latino box. I’m still on that journey today!
AGA: A big theme for you seems to be mystical, the mythos of self.
RC: Honestly, the mythos, a relationship with that aspect of our world, has been something that’s been a part of my life since I could remember. I don’t necessarily go out on a mission to find something; it finds me. It’s hard to articulate because I’m the most non-new-agey person you will meet. I don’t think it’s particularly special to connect to something spiritual or preternatural. You don’t have to speak in a soothing public radio voice, wear Indian tunics, ethnic bangles, or buy stock in sage to connect to something divine. You just have to be open and listen to your intuition, to those messages the universe sends us periodically that we miss because we’re too busy posting anonymous hate-mail online or trying to convince our Facebook and Instagram “friends” that we’re happy-go-lucky spiritual gurus. Seriously. We are way too distracted.
AGA: There are a few of us who love social media and don’t get distracted by it [laughing]. But yes, I agree, the authenticity is missing for many, as are the opportunities to listen to one’s intuition.
Let’s go back to your book for a moment. There is a dichotomy of science, logos, and mysticism, mythos, running through the book. How do you weave these two together to tell the story?
RC: By utilizing the science of ancestral DNA testing in Bird of Paradise, I used rationality or logos, as a portal to the past. By employing mythos, or what some people call magic realism—to me it’s tangible, a part of my life, how I express myself spiritually—I traveled back and forth through time and space. On a personal level and in my work, there has to be a balance of both mythos and logos because it’s part of my identity.
AGA: One can’t help but think about Paradise and Redemption as themes in your overall work.
RC: I’m not sure that redemption is an overall theme in my work but maybe that’s something I should give more thought to.
AGA: But obviously, Paradise….
RC: Yes, I like exploring the ideal of paradise and what that means. Someone once told me that no matter how far you run, you will always meet yourself in the mirror. I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t do the work to fix all the faulty wiring inside of you, you will never find peace or be in a state where you can be open to actually experience your surroundings which, naturally, results in the same ole’ nondescript travel stories. Paradise for me, as it relates to writing about travel, is when someone can tell I wrote the piece without even having to read my byline. It’s being able to experience a new environment with an open mind, leaving my western gaze at JFK International, and with as little judgment as possible. I think my Latina-American background, my hyphenated identity, has served me well in that way. *Pours a swig of Presidente beer on the ground for the ancestors.
AGA: Tell me a few more examples of Paradise found.
RC: In the flavor of chicken tagine atop the Atlas mountains; in a Saharan sunrise *pours another swig; in a helicopter flying upcountry from Freetown, Sierra Leone; peering out the narrow door of no return at Elmina slave castle in Ghana *and yet another swig; in serendipitously meeting a relative I never knew existed, by chance, in a Botanica during a blackout in Santo Domingo…*and there goes that 40 ounce, on libations. I could go on and on.
AGA: The theme of being on a quest is huge in your writing and in your life. If you were asked to define that quest and what moves it forward, what would you say?
RC: I would say it’s ego driven. A homie in Morocco once told me that when God created the world, he made 40 versions of the same person and scattered them around the world. That notion drives me. I can’t get enough of myself, really. Seriously, I’ll always be on a quest to get to know the members of my global community because I can learn from them. I hope I never lose sight of that. Learning, from the saints and the sinners about humanity and our world.
I hope I can instill that desire in my kids. When you expose children to travel you’re giving them the best education in the world. Often, they will become more empathetic, curious, worldly, empowered, open-minded, vested in not blowing shit up in the name of the one percent, but preserving the beauty around them. Maybe I’m being idealistic but I’m happy to report that it seems to be working so far.
AGA: Do you think when one is on a quest that it is a failure if the quest is not met?
RC: By definition, at least according my the dictionary that came with my Mac, a quest means “a long or arduous search for something.” I think that there’s nothing that’s easily attained or given to us is worth having except a trust fund or white privilege; I’d welcome either of those. It would make selling a book so much easier. But seriously, it depends on how you define quest. I am not on a quest for any one particular thing. Sometimes it will present itself organically when you’re writing or researching or in the act of traveling. If I set out on a quest, I would hope I’d fail at least several times so that the flame I have lit inside me to find whatever it is doesn’t go out. I’d like to have a reason to continue on my path. Failure, obstacles, setbacks, are all good reasons to push forward.
AGA: How have you adjusted your quest in your stories when circumstances prevented you from finishing it?
RC: As it relates to a travel story, I can think of two recent setbacks: I had been developing pieces set in the Caribbean and West Africa. I had to put the Caribbean piece on hold indefinitely because of the Chikungunya virus and because I was committed to bring my two-year-old son along. I couldn’t risk him getting sick. I had been close to officially starting the piece about West Africa; the subject matter has been on my bucket list to write about for years. But weeks before I could officially start, that is, I couldn’t get an assignment number from my editor. The Ebola virus broke out something awful, and so that piece is on hold. I don’t see either as failures though. They will happen in divine time. I just hope the people, friends and strangers alike, are okay in both regions.
AGA: I’d like to turn the subject back to identity, particularly after some of the things you’ve said. One thing travel can do is construct–or deconstruct—one’s identity. As a Latina writer and traveler, how does this translate into the wider, broader experience of how you identify as a Latina?
RC: I’m American, first and foremost. Let me correct that: I’m a native of the greatest republic on earth, New York City. My city isn’t perfect, and to my lament, it’s looking and sounding more and more like the Midwest. But it’s the city that reared and nurtured me. It’s everything. I’m also Dominican/Latina, and that informs me. When I travel it’s less about how I see myself and more about how the world receives me. I just roll with it.
AGA: How does the world receive you?
RC: For example, I once spent hours arguing with airport authorities in a Brazilian airport about the validity of my and my daughter’s passports. They suspected we were locals trying to sneak out of the country. I’ve realized early on that race is in the eye of the beholder and once you travel out of the country, even out of New York City, the lens shifts. The challenge is to go with the flow and see where it takes you. I’m still holding out for it to take me to a place where Pinky and I can comfortably plan world domination and achieve the perfect suntan.
AGA: How was your book received by those who control the market? There were issues, right?
RC: The reason why you didn’t find the book in the only major chain, Barnes & Noble, is because they cancelled every order nationwide weeks before my book was released because of their then-beef with Simon & Schuster. They wouldn’t carry the paperback, released earlier this year, because they didn’t carry the hardcover. And regardless of how independent bookstores like to claim, well, independence, they mostly but not always, follow the big boys. My book never had a chance. What a crime against lovers of books! [Readers: Cepeda’s book is available on Amazon.com.]
AGA: That must have really hurt, since they are one of the biggest booksellers in America. How do you see the future of travel writing for people of color and their narratives? How does the world of travel writing, and those who influence it, receive travel writers of color?
RC: I would like to think there will be more of us out there writing about our experiences traveling but the jury is still out on that front. But if we’re to judge how juries treat people of color in our society, or by how most acquiring editors at publishing companies and magazines/papers treat us, the future isn’t looking so bright.
AGA: I would like to think that you are one of the people changing that, and that conversations like these are affecting change as well. That is my hope. One last question: What are you working on now? Give us some inspiration, Raquel Cepeda style.
RC: I’m writing about travel for The New York Times. I’ve been working on a proposal for my next book, which has to be perfect since I’m not a white dude. If I were, I likely would have been in contract for at least two books as of this writing. I’m in the latter stages of production on my documentary Some Girls, and I’m super excited about a podcast project I can’t talk about this second, but will shout from atop Mount Rushmore once the deal is done.
Amy Gigi Alexander is a world traveler and explorer who writes tales of place interwoven with memoir and social commentary. Her works have been published in numerous literary magazines, international newspapers, as well as BBC Travel, World Hum, National Geographic and Lonely Planet. A different version of this Q&A appears on her blog, amygigialexander.com.