Pulitzer-prize winning writer Katherine Boo chose these 7 words to describe herself when she was being introduced at the NY Public Library on Wednesday night.

Several writer friends on different occasions mentioned Boo’s book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, which prompted me to finally read it. Frankly it was tough going at the beginning. There were so many characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But knowing I had a chance to hear Boo talk about writing this book was incentive enough to keep me  at it. And by the end, it was a journey well worth traveled.

She has a brilliant mind. As does Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. LeBlanc, author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx interviewed Boo. (Random Family about survival in the South Bronx is a subject close to my heart having worked there for 9 years where I frequently encountered mothers and daughters that closely resemble Coco and other young women in LeBlanc’s book. ) The conversation between these two MacArthur “genius” Fellows was both rich and rambling. Though both women had been influenced by the other’s work, they’d never met in person before. So we as the audience got to eavesdrop on two new friends sharing stories and swapping trade secrets.

Several gems Boo gave us that night:

“What I do in the reporting comes out of my weaknesses. For example because I’m shy about talking to public figures, I’d spend my time filling out freedom of information requests. ” (In doing so, her data gathering and crossing checking of  facts and stories became a strength.) “And because I have a terrible visual memory, I used a camera and videos.”

” ‘Their griefs are transient’ which is something Jefferson said about the slaves. People feel this about the poor (as if their losses and pain are somehow different or less traumatic than they are for others who don’t also struggle with the complexties of poverty….)

“[In my work], I hope to leave the community better off.”

Several gems of LeBlanc’s:

“Dead ends have been my best friends.”

“In the future, I’ll always use real names. In my book, it was less of an issue for them than I expected. Some of them got attention in the press and have gone on to do great things.’

If you have any interest in fresh perspectives which seek to understand the lives and challenges of those who survive on the fringes, pick up either of these provocative and sobering books.

 

 

 

Monday April 7 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the genocide in Rwanda in which 800,000 were killed over a period of just 3 months. I was living in NYC then, and I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t recall the start of this terrible event. It was only in retrospect, when it was all over, and a nation’s psyche had been shattered that I began to take on board the size and scope and depth of this tragedy by watching films and reading books about what had taken place.

Recently I’ve been re-reading Emmanuel Katangole’s biting expose about that time, Mirror to the Church, with colleagues in a book club at the office.  In Mirror, Katangole reminds us that “the nightly news in every American homes displayed images of the bodies that were being destroyed in Rwanda. But most Americans were more interested in the O.J. Simpson trial in the spring of 1994″ (p. 38). Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered on June 12, so this statement isn’t 100% accurate. We weren’t watching the trial – that came the following year – but by the time the genocide was fully underway, we were easily distracted by the details of Brown Simpson’s death and the accusations swirling around her celebrity husband as her killer.

I had a deja vu moment of a similar scenario when on Monday I went online to try to find a story I’d heard several days before about a Senegalese peacekeeper who’d saved literally hundreds of lives during the genocide. On the BBC, when I clicked on news about Africa, I was immediately met with a large photo of Oscar Pistorius with his face buried in his hands:  another celebrity athlete on trial for murdering his blonde beautiful girlfriend. And we are mesmerized. This too is a tragic, terrible situation but why should it beg for more attention than recalling the deaths of hundreds of thousands ordinary Rwandans?

Fortunately, I was able to eventually find the story of the Mbaye Diagne and it was even more impressive, heart-rending, and redemptive than I’d recalled.

Read it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/2014/newsspec_6954/index.html  and be encouraged that in the midst of that terrible madness, courage and sacrifice reigned alongside the mayhem.

And yes, let’s remember differently this time. Let’s not be seduced by the razzle dazzle of celebrity.

This weekend, I had the wonderful pleasure of attending a launch of the latest issue of Black Renaissance Noire (www.nyubrn.org) an artsy literary journal, which the Institute of African-American Affairs @ NYU puts out three times a year. I’d never heard of Black Renaissance Noire, edited by the esteemed writer and poet Quincy Troupe, until my friend Linda was contacted by Quincy who wanted to include an excerpt from her forth-coming book about Toni Cade Bambara.

A Joyous Revolt, the first ever biography of Bambara is coming out later this spring. In 1970, Bambara published The Black Woman, a collection of essays and poetry that she’d edited, “igniting a new political movement within the Black community (p. xvii).” Having begun a new conversation about African-American women’s lives and stories, Bambara went on to publish novels (i.e.The Salt Eaters), short stories (i.e. Gorilla, My Love), and make documentaries (i.e. The Bombing of Osage Avenue). With each genre she tackled,  she pushed the boundaries of identity and dignity a little bit more. For this ground-breaking book on Bambara’s rich and varied life, Linda conducted 50+ interviews with those who knew and worked with her, including writers like Toni Morrison and Jan Carew and filmmaker Louis Messiah.

At NYU on Friday night, one of the others featured in the new spring issue of Black Renaissance Noire was Ghanian-born poet Kwame Dawes, a Jamaican who’s now a Professor @ the University of Nebraska. He told of meeting Bambara at a conference in Toronto when he was a fledgling, no-name writer, toiling away behind a closed door, wondering what he was doing there and whether he would ever really make it. Out of the crowd – Dawes led us to believe there weren’t too many others there that looked like them(!) – she picked him out, without knowing him beforehand, and invited him to spend the day with her. They hung out, talked, and she fed him. She was a well-known and established writer by this point. During the course of their time together, she encouraged him to keep writing, to keep plugging away at his craft. They kept up somewhat by email as she continued to encourage him, but that was it. Today Dawes is the author of 18 collections of poetry, as well as two novels and several anthologies. He’s currently working on a project that looks at the church’s response to HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.

As I reflected on Dawes’ story about Bambara, I realized that he had similarly encouraged me to write. I didn’t meet him at a conference and we didn’t spend the day together, but probably about 15 years ago, a friend of his and mine took me along to hear him recite poetry. I recall the force of his passion in a poem that was a tribute to Bob Marley, and I was intrigued that he was a Christian poet making art that the mainstream culture was embracing.  Afterwards, we all went out to a Jamaican restaurant (Rice and Peas?) in midtown. Over dinner, I tentatively confided a fledgling interest in writing – I was not even sure then what I thought I might write about – but without knowing much more about me, he enthusiastically encouraged me to do so. “Just write,” he urged several times, and then again when we were saying goodbye, and “try to do it every day,” he added. I nodded, thinking to myself how unlikely – unrealistic even – that would be.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me close to a decade to put his advice into practice.

When I heard Dawes pay tribute to Bambara for encouraging him in the generous way that she did, I realized I had benefited from him. The words he said to me – which he didn’t remember saying, he didn’t recall even meeting me – were an encouragement nonetheless, and I was grateful to be able to thank him for that.

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My favorite author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is in New York to promote her latest novel, Americanah, which just came out in paperback. Last night she spoke to a packed house at the Tenement Museum (www.tenement.org), today she’ll be a guest on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC and next week she’ll be at the Schomburg in Harlem. That conversation, which will be with Zadie Smith, is already “sold out” – the tickets were free – but you can live stream it here, http://www.nypl.org/locations/tid/64/node/235206?lref=64, as I plan to do.

I’ve been tempted to run around the city, following Adichie but have resisted doing so since I’ve had the privilege of hearing her read and speak a few times already, and frankly I can’t face the throngs of people who are turning up as her audience. She’s hugely popular and one of the very best things to come of out Nigeria in recent years.

Americanah, essentially a love story that follows two teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, from Nigeria to the east coast of the U.S. to London, with several other cycles in between, and eventually brings us back to Lagos. Through the complexities of their relationship, in her clean, easy prose, Adichie takes us on a journey that explores race, “blackness”, culture clashes between Nigerians and African-Americans, experiences of immigration (both legal and undocumented), and the politics of hair. This is a book I’ll recommend to friends who better want to understand the Nigeria I grew up in and the complexity of coming to America as a person of  African heritage only to find that the American blacks you encounter here are foreign to you (and you to them), and race is a polarizing construct that permeates the culture in insidious ways.

I read Americanah last year in hardback, finishing it in the dusk of Bryan Park, skimming the final few pages – to find out whether Ifemelu and Obinze get back together again – before rushing it over to the Mid-Manhattan library so I wouldn’t incur a library fine. (I’ve since purchased a copy.) Several months later, I saw a woman in my neighborhood carrying the book as we entered a subway elevator together and asked her how she was enjoying it. That led to a sidewalk conversation, where I disclosed that I was a Nigerian, at which point she asked if I was a writer. Dodging the question, I admitted that I was working on a “writing project.” Turned out she was the organizer of Bloom Readings ( http://www.bloomreadings.org/), a Sunday afternoon reading series that takes place once a month, from September to May in Hudson View Gardens. As we continued to chat over email, and she learned more about my memoir-in-progress, she invited to read at one of her gatherings.

So last month, on Feb 7, I had the very distinct privilege of reading my piece, “The Call,” about the harrowing experience of observing a C-section in Uganda, alongside poet and writer David Groff (www.davidgroff.com), Stacy Le Miel Parker (stacyparkeraa.com) who works with Afghan women writers and blogs for the Huffington Post, and Chris Hansen-Nelson, a blogger and producer, among other talents. Check out his Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/chris.hansennelson.  It was an exhilarating evening to be with these accomplished writers – and all because of Americanah.

Thank you Chimamanda.

church of irelandcemetry drivewayjames grave3james grave2

Several months ago, before I had any idea I’d have the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland, I went to see the film, Philomena. Though it is ultimately a tragic and sad story, I laughed a lot through it. There were many moments of humor, brought on usually by the culture and socioeconomic clashes between the British Oxbridge-educated journalist Martin Sixsmith in his travels with Irish working-class Philomena Lee as together they searched for her lost son.  Seeing the beautiful cinematography and lush Irish scenery, though the story takes place in the Republic of Ireland, did make me yearn for a visit to the North, where my mother grew up.

This past Friday when I was there in Newcastle, I decided to try to find my grandparents’ grave. I’d been there once before but probably at least 2 decades ago and wasn’t exactly sure if I’d remember where it was. I’d asked Mum before I left  to remind me of its location and thought I was clear on the directions. I walked around the corner from where Granny used to live and proceeded up a steep hill leading to the base of the Mourne Mountains. But as I got to the end of that road, which was populated by homes on either side, it turned into a dead-end and I knew I’d gone too far.

I was confident that I was looking for a church in the area but there was no one else walking on the quiet residential streets that I could ask.  I re-traced my steps and while I didn’t remember the street name where the church might be, I veered to the left and wandered in the direction I recall going all those years ago. Tucked away between the roofs of the modest 2 story homes, I glimpsed what looked like a steeple. I proceeded along and came upon a small Church of Ireland (what the Anglican church is known as in this country), which wasn’t open. Apparently Protestant churches in the North only open on Sundays for services and are closed during the week. But the gate leading into the compound was ajar and I saw an evergreen tree-lined road leading to a small cemetery which was familiar from my previous visit.

Though I had in my  mind’s eye what the headstone looked like, and I believed it was on the right, I couldn’t find it. I wandered through rows of  Magee’s, McNerney’s, Mc Graw’s and Kennedy’s, but there was none for the James’s. Not trusting my memory, I crossed over the left and continued walking, trying to scan each headstone systematically. When I got to the end of that section to no avail, I began again at the back, this time on the right. By this point, I was trying not to get discouraged. I was convinced my grandparents were buried here; I just couldn’t find the exact spot. Grandpa was laid to rest first in the sixties and then almost 20 years later, Granny’s coffin was added on top and the headstone carved up again to reflect their shared resting place.

Just when I was beginning to feel a bit queasy about all the graves I was trying not to trample on, and the wind was picking up so I began to imagine the movement of the dead around me, there it was – as I’d remembered it. My sleuthing and persistence had paid off.

I spent a few moments taking it all in – the double grave nestled in the shadow of the mountains, minutes from where Granny had lived for many, many years. Then I took photos and left – without running into even one other person – both grateful and amazed to have had my own ‘Philomena’ moment.

picture of Granny & Grandpa

I never had the chance of knowing my Northern Irish grandfather. He died suddenly from a heart attack at age 74 when I was just 2. At the time, my parents were considering a trip to visit he and Granny which never happened.

Granny once told me Grandpa had passed away 2 weeks after their 50th wedding anniversary – she went onto outlive him by 19 years. But I’d never heard about his last conversation, nor thought much about it.  That is, until this weekend, when Auntie P, who’d become good friends with Granny shared this story with me.

Grandpa, originally from  Scotland by way of the Republic of Ireland, was co-owner of a modest hardware store in Rathfriland. He’d been a hard worker and had done his best to build up the business, eventually buying out his partner. He was also a staunch Methodist and regular church goer. According to Auntie P, one evening in late 1966, he admitted to Granny that he was having difficulty breathing and asked her to open the window. He then said “I think we should pray together. It’s been a long time since we prayed together. We’ve grown cold.” So for the first time in a while, they prayed. During that session, he prayed for the whole family including for my mother and us in Nigeria.

A few hours later, Granny discovered that he’d passed away in his sleep.

Auntie P repeated this story to me several times and was eager to convey to me that one of Grandpa’s final acts was to pray for his family. She feels this is significant and that God has answered that prayer by drawing some of us to himself. I don’t believe this is the end of that story. My prayer is that he will call many more of us to love, live with, and enjoy him too.

george and dorothy's cakecuttingthecake4ian pbp & david 2

Mum had one brother, E, who was 13 years older than her. He married young and she married later in life and the result is that Uncle E’s 5 children, our cousins, (including a pair of identical twin boys, who’re now men), are practically a generation older than me and my siblings. Thus it is that G @ 71 – who also married young – has been with his wife for 50 years. I’d not seen G in over a decade (11 years to be exact) and since Uncle E died 10 years ago, and his house was sold, only one of us Brown-Petersides had been back since.

To make up for our lengthy absence and to re-connect with the Irish side of the family, I decided – somewhat last minute – to go to the anniversary event to represent Mum. My brother Ian, now living in London, joined me. So it was that we turned up at the Burrendale Hotel (www.burrendale.com) in Newcastle on Friday night to celebrate with G and his wife D. It was a huge family reunion! Their kids and 8 grandchildren were there; his 4 siblings were there; the 2 spouses came too; her sister and husband was there; at least 5 nieces/nephews were present; as well several very close friends. Though G had insisted it was only going to be a dinner, it turned into a party, as well it should have. There was a fabulous cake – a huge surprise which G and D ceremoniously cut together after giving us all a kiss, golden balloons decorating the tables, a printed menu offering a choice of 6 starters and main courses, a humorous speech by G – where he reminded us of the importance of saying “I’m sorry” in marriages that last, at least one video camera making the rounds, and countless photos taken in all sorts of family combinations.

I was acknowledged for coming to the party from the furthest distance away. My cousin V was the history maker. She produced photos of us when Ian was 4 months old and I was 7 1/2. She also had a photo of when Granny visited us – before Ian was even born. Amazing! Ian got the award for having stayed away the longest. As much traveling as he’s done especially across Asia and the Middle East, he was last in Newcastle – gulp – 30 years ago. All that to say, many of our cousins didn’t even remember him and none of their grandchildren (our 3rd cousins) had ever even met him. But that didn’t matter, by the end of the evening or should I say by the wee hours of the following morning, we’d both been enfolded back into the Irish side of the family once again.

A golden wedding anniversary party to savor and remember!

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