Friday, July 24, 2009

Beyond FRUSTRATION: Post-Racial Society? Not Exactly.

The arrest of renowned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. last week in his Cambridge MA home has infuriated a lot of Americans. Though unfortunate, a U.S. case involving a black man accused of breaking into his own home and then arrested on a trumped-up charge is really not all that surprising, even in 2009. Tell me I’m playing the race card by instantly siding with a person of color and I’ll say you’re right. From what I’ve learned over the past few years of researching tolerance issues, every person who is not a tall, thin, white, perfectly proportioned, attractive, wealthy, heterosexual male (yes, this cuts a wide swath) deserves a card they can flash at any time to remind others their kind is traditionally mistreated and deserves special consideration.

I’ll not rehash the specifics of this case, though I’ve read with interest details regarding the actions of both main characters, Gates and the Cambridge Police sergeant who arrested him. A brief overview is presented in one of the latest articles on the topic, AP’s “Obama rushes to quell racial uproar he helped fire,” a glimpse at the media storm the president’s original reference to the case indeed fueled.

What concerns me most is the animosity voiced by so many participants of this debate in on-line chats and forums. How will we ever get to a place of real discussions about race in this country if the conversation is fueled by hate? Certainly people of all backgrounds have the right to voice their anger at unfair treatment, whether those being mistreated are private citizens in their own homes or police officers on duty. But the hatred that fuels so many pseudo-arguments on both sides and serves only to broaden the divide…how can we ever hope to overcome that?

Maybe each of us, including every perfect white male, needs a card to hold up when tensions run high for whatever reason, a card that requests special consideration simply because each of us is human, a card that reminds everyone in a tense situation that it makes more sense to stand down and think and breathe for a minute than it does to pursue an angry reaction until things get out of hand.

If you’re about to suggest we should all hold hands and sing “Kumbaya”…I’d agree that’s not such a bad idea, either.

Photo © Justin Ide, Harvard University Gazette

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Book reviews on BEYOND Understanding are usually limited to titles that explore issues of prejudice or celebrate diversity in some way. Carleen Brice’s Children of the Waters does both. Carleen, a friend and fellow Denver author, debuted as a novelist last year with Orange Mint and Honey, a book that not only won awards but became a fast favorite among book clubs (including mine). Her newest, Children of the Waters deserves just as much attention, if not more.
I have to admit I was prepared to compare Children of the Waters to Orange Mint and Honey and find it lacking. Written under contract in much less time than OMH, Children of the Waters seems to reflect the sense of urgency Carleen must have felt while writing it. At times disjointed and abrupt, this story is strengthened by the often strained back and forth between its two main characters, Trish and Billie, long-lost sisters reunited as each reaches critical junctures in her life. Issues such as mixed-race heritage, identity crises, a widely unrecognized but potentially devastating chronic disease (lupus), high-risk pregnancy, adoption, single parenting, and duty and loyalty are woven throughout the novel in ways that threaten to drive Trish and Billie—and the people they love—apart. Carleen proved herself as focused and determined as her strongest character as she somehow plowed through such heady material in a novel that’s accessible and enjoyable while also layered with meaning.
Humor’s never far from the surface, especially with a character like Trish around. But neither are heartfelt and often painful elements inherent in so many lives exposed to regular doses of blunt as well as subtle forms of prejudice. The struggle to know yourself when you’re forced to see or experience injustices others pretend don’t exist impacts everything from mental health to the health of your personal relationships. Ready to dismiss this as baseless sensationalism? Then take the time to read this book, to consider for more than a dismissive moment the potential truths of Billie’s statements such as this one, made as she battled with her sister over one thing, only to realize her anger was fueled by another…the fact her white grandparents refused to raise her because she was biracial: “Their betrayal roared back from the place she had tried to hide it from herself, and with it came hurt from bone memory. She wondered how many millions of black folks had felt the same way she did every single day and tried to pretend like they didn’t.”
Billie, brought up in a black family, depends on her ancestors and listens for their guidance. While at times this urgent story includes the author’s voice, Carleen’s intercessions ring just as true as Billie’s ancestors’. There is so much Carleen has to offer all her readers, from notes about black historical figures and the long traditions of healing arts, to the complexities of mixed-race families from varied points of view. Still skeptical that prejudice persists in our world despite the fact we have a black president in the White House? Read just some of the racist comments that follow this Washington Post article by Carleen from earlier this year. Post-racist society? We’re not even close. Which is why the fact Carleen gives her characters free reign to discuss a wide range of painful issues—including but certainly not limited to contemporary forms of racism—makes Children of the Waters an important work for people of all races to read and contemplate.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Beyond FEEBLE: Book Publishing’s Pigeon-Hole Mentality

Writing about an event I attended weeks ago makes me realize how much of an impression this particular event made on me. Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s annual LitFest was a mid-June whirlwind of classes, salons, readings, and panels (and oh yes, a coupla nifty parties). One of those salons, In and Out of the Niche (or is it “neesh?”), featured Denver authors Carleen Brice, Mario Acevedo, and William Haywood (aka Bill) Henderson. Each of these authors has been categorized by the book publishing industry in ways that not only hurt sales of their books, but personally befuddled (and probably irritated the hell out of) her/him. While these three were too polite to truly rail against those who dictate where books are placed in bookstores, I left the event wishing more than a few publishing reps and booksellers had been in attendance.

As a debut novelist in 2008, Carleen heard from many readers who enjoyed the fact that while she and her characters were black, her story Orange Mint and Honey transcended race. The relationships, the impact of alcohol abuse, the personal histories and their interweavings as well as the struggles to put the past to rest and achieve new levels of mutual and self-understanding and forgiveness…all this occurred outside racial constraints and resonated with a wide variety of readers. Despite such feedback—and the selection of Orange Mint and Honey as a Target Breakout Book—in bookstores Carleen and her novel were relegated to the black books section. Terrific for readers who seek out writers of color, not so terrific for those seeking new books by a variety of writers. And definitely not so great for an author trying to make an industry-wide name for herself.

In response, Carleen produced a terrific tongue-in-cheek video welcoming white readers to the black books section; established National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month; and launched her second blog, White Readers Meet Black Authors. Still, her newest novel, Children of the Waters (which features characters of white and mixed-race backgrounds) has been relegated to the black books section. That’s just not right.

A writer of vampire fiction, Mario Acevedo also happens to be a Latino writer. Despite his books’ determinedly un-Hispanic titles (including The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, a local favorite), some were originally published by a Latino publisher and—you guessed it—filed in the Latino section. Due to his determination to write accessible, fun, and now widely popular works of vampire fiction, his books were ultimately reclassified as urban fantasy and are now enjoyed by a much wider audience. (Check out his great “lego” trailer for just a glimpse of Mario’s unique creative vision!)

Not that there’s anything wrong with attracting Latino or black readers, of course. Bill Henderson noted he had no qualms about attracting gay readers when his first novel was published by a publisher of gay books because it featured a character who happened to be homosexual. Unfortunately, though, that meant Bill’s subsequent works would be considered potential material for the gay books section despite the fact he did not continue to write gay fiction. His next two books (read Augusta Locke and be amazed) instead established him as a writer of stunning character studies and landscapes that happened to be set in the West. How to categorize him now? Who knows. The point is, should that matter?

When I attended this salon I was in the middle of researching e-books for this piece on The Know Something Project site. And I couldn’t help but hope (and mention to Carleen at the end of the evening) that e-publishing will ultimately result in the demise of limited categorizations of published works. Search on-line for books by author and you’ll find all his or her titles; search by subject matter and you’ll find a slew of selections; search by a general keyword and you’ll find even more. Who cares at that point in what section of a bricks-and-mortar bookstore a particular work is filed—or if that book is even carried by a certain store? If you want to buy a print copy, you’ve already done your research and know what to ask for (or order for later pickup or delivery) when you walk in a store or go on a store’s site. If you prefer the immediacy of ordering an electronic copy, click away. Either way, you’re no longer relegated to an inefficient organizational system determined by the publishing industry’s antiquated marketing strategies—and neither are your favorite authors.