March 2014


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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 americanah_0

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.