Excerpt from Talking in New Orleans (LitHub Essay)

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We missed conversation because conversation was love. We were told we didn’t love ourselves. In the inner city, we were killing ourselves, and we needed a savior, a white man from TV named Trump. Because when you’re the other, he said, your life is hell. When your life is hell, you have nothing to lose because you have nothing.

In New Orleans, where we came from, we had a saying: “we making.” This was a utility phrase, a conversational Swiss Army knife. Instead of saying we were at the supermarket purchasing food, we often said “we making groceries.” In other cities, if a person inquired about your family, you might respond, “fine,” a paradoxical reply because it contained no content. But in New Orleans we sometimes responded, “we making.” We making meant you were okay. Not perfect. But striving to perfect your life. This exchange was related to Louis Armstrong’s idea that friend’s shaking hands and saying “how do you do” was semaphore for “I love you.” Our inner city chit chat was small talk with large implications. It implied an innate humanity and the capacity for empathy.

But in Trump’s America we soon discovered we had lost our humanity…

(continue reading at LitHub)

Talking in New Orleans in the Age of Trump

Writing from Inside A Tornado

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tornado

I’m a child of the 80s, but I’m a suburban 90s teen. I saw Edward Scissorhands when it came out and immediately identified with Kim Boggs (Winona Ryder’s character). She felt isolated in those well-manicured ‘burbs, which was a metaphor for Reagan’s America. Then we got Clinton’s America where individual involvement in the stock market was a thing. Everyone owned tank-like SUVs. McMansions sprouted like mushrooms. The whole nation was in buy-mode, but it felt like something was missing. I mean there’s a reason I loved the music of the disaffected, rappers like Outkast, Ras Kas, and the Dead Presidents and rockers like the Pumpkins, Nirvana, and Marilyn Manson.

What was missing was the old push towards truth in our everyday American lives. The 60s had been a tumultuous time. Free love, protests, riots. That decade produced Hendrix, the Dead, Sidney Poitier, Dick Gregory, and the Bluest Eye (released in 1970). But it seemed like by the time my generation hit the scene, the previous generation of conservatives, liberals, and moderates had entered into a tight-lipped, latte-swilling truce.

Hadn’t women gotten their rights? Hadn’t blacks, immigrants, and gays gotten plenty? Weren’t we all rich? Why complain? There’s nothing to see here.

Prolly. But to me the 90s was a boring time for art. Having a Walkman, a shoulder-mounted camcorder, and sweet ride, it turned out weren’t that conducive to thinking and feeling out loud. This continued into the 2000s with the advent of iPods, smartphones, and Segways. But then something happened. The economy crashed in 2008 and it seemed like everyone who was previously fat and happy woke up and noticed there was still work to do. The decade-long push for marriage equality ended in victory. Healthcare for everyone. And this “national conversation” (a national shouting match or a national whisper? You tell me.) about race.

As an artist, all I have to do is listen like Woolf, Hemingway, Wright, and Morrison did before me. Because the world is like your cousin who drinks too much, talks too much, and can’t hold down a job: kind of a train wreck.

Sometimes I worry as that we’re living atop a volcano in the middle of a tornado (thanks, Eminem, for that image).

But I feel lucky to live in an extraordinarily messy time. There are innumerable hedges that need trimming, and my shears never dull.

Save Our Monuments, Save Our New Orleans

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Andrew Jackson monument, New Orleans, USA.jpg

Symbols that loom over public spaces, like the monument celebrating the life and legacy of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee, say much about a community’s collective identity and how it views itself. This is why people in Iraq pulled down the Saddam Hussein statue immediately after the U.S. military defeated him. This is why when the German swastika was blown up in 1945 and never replaced. This is why the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Eiffel Tower erected, and the Great Wall of China built. Today, German is a unified country with a higher standard of living than the US, France is a shining beacon that welcomes immigrants—even in the face of attacks by terrorists who seek to change them—while China is a totalitarian state that is suspicious of outsiders. The symbols that communities create tell us who they are.

When the Confederate flag debate started earlier this year, it surprised me that anyone would vigorously protect such an obvious symbol of white supremacy while denying history and arguing that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. But a few weeks ago a friend told me that he regretted going to South Carolina to protest. He realized that the Confederate flag proudly displayed on government buildings all over the “New South” were like warning signs on a minefield: Those signs warn people of the dangers they face when entering that community.

In New Orleans, our most iconic public square, Jackson Square (pictured above), is dedicated to a man who owned a thousand human beings and offered handsome rewards to anyone who captured a person unpatriotic enough to escape to freedom. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Generals Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard treasonously fought against the United States in defense of the enslavement of millions and the right of wealthy planters to use free labor. Each man has a statue.

New Orleans was arguably the most important hub in the slave trade, yet there are almost no monuments commemorating these acts or the lives of the enslaved. Likewise, we do not celebrate the lives of United States President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or Johns Hopkins with elegant public spaces and monuments.

You will know a people by the symbols they embrace. That New Orleans has embraced and protected such clear representations of racism and bigotry should come as no surprise. We know who we are.

The Writing Process Blog Tour

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One of my Peauxdunque Writers Alliance friends, Poet Cassie Pruyn, told me about this Writing Process Blog Tour that all the kids are doing these days. I like the questions we’re asked to answer, so here are my responses.

1) What are you working on?

Quite a few things. I think I get more done when I have too much on my plate, so I tend to take on as many writing assignments as possible. I just wrote two essays, by request, one for a lit mag and the other for an anthology a colleague is putting together. I always have a short story in the oven because I love the smell of it when I come home.

But the real thing is the novel. I started the book about a year ago. It’s a majestic and terrifying beast. It’ll be a blast to ride when I manage to bring it to heel.

Writing a novel is like being a safe cracker trying to escape an underground prison that’s quickly filling up with water. Every ten feet there’s a new foot-thick, iron door that you have to find a way through. But there’s no better feeling than hearing those tumblers fall into place and breaking into the next room. Every time I push into an untapped section of the novel, I fairly float around town for the next week or so.

What’s it about? The novel is what would happen if Ralph Ellison and Vladimir Nabokov got into a fist fight in heaven and then made up and had a lovechild. I hope.

MCR Bennett 2014

2) How does the work differ from others of its genre?

I guess we have to define the genre first, huh? I think of genre in terms of teams. There’s Team Thriller, Team Hogwarts, Team Quiet Family Novel. I like to think I’m on the same team as people like Mat Johnson, Victor Lavalle, Danielle Evans, Tayari Jones, Colson Whitehead, and T. Geronimo Johnson, although I’m probably the water boy, for now. Maybe Percival Everett is the coach. Who knows?

All of these contemporary writers make some seriously off-the-chain literature. It’s a golden age. The obvious similarity among us is that we’re all African-American, but everyone has a distinct style and world view. A Mat Johnson book and a Danielle Evans book have different key signatures, but they’re all great reads.

Of course, we’re all descendants of Charles Chesnutt, Richard Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison. I like to think that my work is different enough that if Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin were still alive they would come upon each other in an airport lounge and have this exchange:

Ellison claps Baldwin’s shoulder.

“I read the craziest book on the flight up, Jimmy.” Ellison searches for a vacant table. Not seeing one, he heads to the bar. Baldwin sits, too. The bartender wonders aloud if the men are semi-famous jazz musicians. They ignore him.

“Don’t tell me, brother,” Baldwin says. “The one by that Ruffin cat, am I right?” The men share a look of recognition. On the concourse, a golf cart full of elderly passengers rolls by, whirring, beeping. Ellison and Baldwin laugh and then laugh some more. Baldwin downs a shot of whiskey. Ellison glances at the overhead television and decides he doesn’t give a damn about the latest iWidget.

“But it was good, right?” Baldwin says. Ellison sighs.

“Hell, I wish I would have written it.”

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because it’s fun! Plus, I’m a writer who is lucky enough to live in one of the strangest cities ever. Today, I saw a man, his skin painted white, ride a tricycle past my office downtown. No one batted an eye. Last week, a guy took over a major intersection and played the bagpipes while wearing a kilt. People loved that guy.

I hope that long after I’m gone folks will read my work because they want to know what it felt like to live in a time and place where all of our national hangups were magnified by the third world, farcical, frontier quality of New Orleans. Most of America is troubled by racial tension, housing discrimination, economic inequality, vicious criminals, law breaking police, and governmental indifference. But down here we do it all backwards and in heels.

There’s simply no better place be a writer. If this city’s bizarre beauty doesn’t get your literary juices going, maybe take up gardening.

4) How does your writing process work?

I gorge on stories. I’m a story gourmand. I read a lot. I watch a lot of movies. I read fancy pants graphic novels and watch seventh-rate sci-fi shows. I talk to strangers in the line at the supermarket. I talk to strangers on airplanes. I talk to myself. I do all this to ensure that something is in there when I sit down to write. That something is voice. It’s kind of creepy actually. I write a few truly awful paragraphs and stop, sure that I’m a fraud. I come back the next day, erase most of it and then suddenly this other person is telling me what really happened. I become a glorified stenographer just trying to keep up. Later, I’ll go out for a jog and ask myself if I’m sure that I heard what I thought I heard. It’s during those jogs that the voice comes back and says, “listen up, bruh. You doing aight, but you jacked up the best part. This how it really went down.” That’s where the danger comes in.

I think a story is basically voice times danger squared. The voice must be so compelling that you would listen to it in a snow storm while wearing only underwear. And the danger must be so real that you get queasy and want to stop reading, but can’t.

Revision is what separates the girls from the women. Any writer can poop out better than average lines, but going back and thinking very particularly what you want the story to be—and then chiseling away until you have actually created what you envisioned: that’s dedication; that’s writing. Simply stated, writing is, like, 103% revision. Sorry, 107%. I forgot to adjust for inflation.

I wrap a story when I think I’ve nailed down a true voice telling a dangerous story. But really I have no idea whether what I wrote works until months or years later when some editor somewhere accepts it. Writing is a strange calling.

Iowa Review Fiction Award Win and So to Speak Journal Win

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May was a busy month.

Mid-month, my short story, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, was selected by acclaimed novelist Rachel Kushner winner of the 2014 Iowa Review Fiction Award.

Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner. Author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award.

But just before that another short story of mine, The Anchor Song, won the So to Speak Journal fiction award. The judge in that contest was Charles Blackstone.

Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction and managing editor of Bookslut.

Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction and managing editor of Bookslut.

Of course, I’m thrilled. I’ll celebrate by writing more stories.

Runaway

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In a sense, all stories are about escape. From time to time, we find ourselves in places we’d rather not be. We rage against the padlocked gates of our fantasies. Occasionally, to our surprise, those gates swing free. Still, freedom is no panacea and for each person in search of the new, the exotic, the unbelievable, another traveler is aching for return. Sometimes our vital connections–those ties that bind us to family, home, and identity–grace us with a second chance.

I wrote the following essay for the University of New Orleans’ amazing Storyville Project and performed it on WWNO. If you want to begin to understand life down here in the Big Weird, then you should listen to all the Storyville radio essays.

 

“Just get in your car and drive, George.”

That’s what I think whenever I watch It’s A Wonderful Life, my favorite film about a man who either is visited by an angel or has a psychotic break. I love quaint Bedford Falls, and the Bailey family is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Remember when his adorable daughter, Zuzu, gives him the flower petals? But what tugs at me hardest is George Bailey’s dream of escape. His brother leaves to become a war hero. A friend makes millions selling plastics in the biggest of big towns, New York City. But George stays in his drafty, old house with Zuzu’s petals, those symbols of what matters most to him.

George and I have a lot in common. In the 90s, I told my high school sweetheart and eventual wife that I wanted to leave New Orleans at the first chance. The city was shrinking, and I wanted to live somewhere — anywhere — lively, metropolitan, hopefully someplace where they knew how to make pizza. Then Katrina gave me my getaway car.

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