Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 17: Andrea Hairston

A Short List of Pleasures
by Andrea Hairston

This has been a hard year.

And what are writers, musicians, filmmakers doing about anything?

On the last day of the semester in response to a student’s suggestion that members of my class consider becoming artists, another student declared, “No offense, but…” She paused, looked at me nervously, and then continued, “But given the horrible state of things, it would probably be better for us to do something other than…well you know, we should…become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, a…you know, somebody who really does something about things, as opposed to…” as opposed to being a filmmaker, a writer of books, an artist of any sort.

Maybe I’m cobbling together a few students here. Maybe the incident is big in my head because I’ve heard a variation on this theme all my life: “What’s wrong with you, child! You’re good at math, yet here you are, dancing ‘round and making up crap. Get real. Take a look out the window. You need to do something worthwhile.” That voice comes from 1950 something, yet it’s loud and clear as ever.

These have been trying times for quite a while.

“People go to a play, read a book, give thirty cents to Darfur on Facebook, and get snarky about injustice in an internet battle of BS. That’s 21st century activism.” I heard those remarks this morning, right before I sat down to write this Blog. Coming up with my list of favorites has been an interesting challenge in this context. I’ve been procrastinating.

Maybe it’s also the “no whining,” directive offered to “the black panel,” at Comic Con. Who wants to hear, yet again, that these are trying times? An enduring demon shouts in my ear, “We been knowing all that, so if you ain’t got nothing else to say, shut up!” Joking on myself, I reply, “Andrea opens her mouth and out drops Fight the Power!

The student (who didn’t want to offend) asked, “What is there to do about anything?” and then answered the question herself. “Nothing really.” To her, and those nodding agreement, the future has already been colonized, and there is nothing for us to do but inhabit what the powerful elite have already determined for us.


So this list is about artists who are fighting the power. They/We are marvelous and resourceful. Agents of change, we are crafting the future. This list is a celebration of the artists who make me feel the possibilities of our world when so much in the culture is about numbing me (us?) out and abstracting away connections that I could feel to people, places, and the various marvelous beings that create this moment with me. This list is about writers, musicians, and filmmakers who have kept me (us?) going. Artists have saved my life! That is not hyperbole. Artists have offered me, a stranger more often than not, anonymous comfort, challenge, and wisdom. Artists have pulled me out of one funk after another, given me needed perspective, and moved me to action. Artists have made me check myself when I get too serious or too heavy to do any good. Artists have made me remember to laugh.

Once again in 2010, artists have sustained and inspired me.

This is therefore a short list of pleasures. There are a mob of artists who keep me going. It’s steady work, like the sun powering the life on the planet.

In the beautiful, breath-taking, delightful short form category:

A man and a woman sit at a table doing a hand dance like no other, posted by Игорь Прохоров on Facebook—simple and elegant.

OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass Rube Goldberg Version” is baroque and hilarious.

With a TV and film actor’s comic panache, George Takei chides anti-gay douche bags—assuring us it will get better. (

A Flash Mob sings the Hallelujah Chorus in a shopping mall with voices that sent chills up my spin and brought tears to my eyes. (

In Target Ain’t People, a Flash Mob does a song and dance about democracy and corporate person-hood in Target—agitprop theatre at the checkout counter. (

The music of my spirit:

Pan Morigan’s new CD, WILD BLUE is a surprise every time I listen to it. Pan’s word magic, devastating vocals, and delicious arrangements let you slow dance or shake your booty and go wild! Something for everybody.

Janelle Monáe’s ARCHANDROID is an “Emotion Picture” brought to you by the Mad Minds of the Wondaland Arts Society and also has something for everybody too.

Books that held on to me:

Pearl Cleage’s latest novel, TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME is a praise song to a community of folks dreaming and scheming their way out of predatory capitalism and coming to terms with what Eugene Robinson describes in DISINTEGRATION: THE SPLINTERING OF BLACK AMERICA. While Cleage’s political activists are busy changing the world, they take time to have fun! Freedom is an outrageous high!

N. K. Jemisin followed up her exciting debut novel, THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, with THE BROKEN KINGDOMS, another original, startling fantasy novel that refreshed the imagination and kept me turning pages long after I should have turned out the lights.

Nell Painter’s THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE wasn’t written as comedy but her brilliant insights and analysis made me laugh out loud at the fantastic stories we tell on ourselves! Race is a long running carnival of the absurd.

Reading the HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY by Suzanne Collins, I was so relieved that the girl heroine had friends, ambitions, and wasn’t just pining away for stalker male vampire who resists drinking her blood and bedding her before they are wed. The death-defying courage and marvelous spunk and imagination of the major characters in the HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY and Scott Westerfeld’s LEVIATHAN and BEHEMOTH are the perfect morning read—like a blast of endorphins. Unfortunately, I have to wait too long for Volume Three of the LEVIATHAN trilogy! Scott’s creatures and gadgets are a blast; the politics, romance, and world building is impeccable; the plot twists and turns a great ride. Most importantly, Westerfeld (and Collins) write to the young self that informs all of who I am. Young Andrea hasn't gone anywhere and she appreciates being taken seriously.

Another sequel that I want to get my hands on is a second volume from Eleanor Arnason’s Lydia Duluth collection. TOMB OF THE FATHERS is an interstellar comedy of errors. Eleanor is funny and wise, and her aliens are the most appealing Marxists in the galaxy. Another can’t-get-enough, read-‘til-you-drop book.

Films that offered me visions

I enjoyed the architecture of dreams in INCEPTION and the dreamers holding out for the rule of law in ROBIN HOOD. WINTER’S BONE, an independent gem directed by Debra Granik starred Jennifer Lawrence as Ree, a teenager taking care of her mother and brother in the Ozarks. Ree eventually goes on a quest to find her meth-cooking father or his body, so the family won’t lose their home. Talk about making a way out of no way!


I spent a week doing research at The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC mostly at the National Museum of the American Indian. (

The Indian food in the café was a glorious experience for my tongue and nose and eyes and stomach. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by the images and material culture of so many Indian nations, to read/ hear the stories and histories, to listen to the music, and to feel the architecture of my experience guided by them. They offered a beautiful way out of no way.

Andrea Hairston is a Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College, as well as the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. Aqueduct Press published her first novel, Mindscape, which was short-listed for the Philip K. Dick and James Tiptree Awards and was awarded the Carl Brandon Society’s Parallax Award. Her plays have been produced at Yale Rep, Rites and Reason, the Kennedy Center, Stage West, and on Public Radio and Television. She has received many awards for her writing and directing, including an NEA Grant to Playwrights, a Ford Foundation grant to collaborate with Senegalese Master Drummer Massamba Diop, and a Shubert Fellowship for Playwriting. Aqueduct will be publishing her tender and powerful new novel, Redwood and Wildfire, in February.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Somewhere in Chip Delany's Empire Star, one character tells another that the only way to make change in their society is to be an artist or a criminal. The other character isn't an artist, so he turns to crime.

This advice resonated with me. I'd be a lousy criminal, so I turned to art.

BTW, I loved The History of White People, too. Isn't that a delicious book? And, speaking of art, did you know that the author -- a professor emerita of history at Princeton -- is now working on an MFA in studio art? More overlaps. More art.

Andrea Hairston said...

Nancy--I loved THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE! I didn't know she was getting an MFA. I met her once at a conference in Germany while she was working on the book and have been waiting a few years for it to come out. It exceeded my high expectations!

Nephilista said...

An excellent list!

Nephilista said...

An excellent list!

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Andrea, some of Painter's art can be found on her website:

Ocala Wings said...

I have been wondering of late, how did we move from a country of people who believed anything was possible to a country of people who believe nothing is possible? It didn't happen overnight, or during a specific presidency, or because a lot of us are getting older. Over my lifetime so much HAS changed and yet, too many of my peers--and their children--say things will never change, never improve, and they have no power to do anything about it, all evidence to the contrary. I get frustrated, then angry, then sad.

It is so obvious to me that we change the world every day by our very existence, by our choices, by our work, our art, our relationships. I just don't understand why others don't understand this.

So I've decided to ignore their hopelessness and their whining and to behave as if they are reluctant allies who just need a good example to follow. I appreciated "A Short List of Pleasures," because it is such a good example of getting on with getting on.

Unfortunately, a great many of us were told from very early ages to give up and settle for something less than what we wanted or to settle for being less than we could be. Some of us accepted that and some of us didn't. I don't know why.

But I believe those of us who didn't are the keepers of the fire that moves us all. We are the dancers and musicians and writers and actors and painters and cooks and teachers and parents and sculptors. We are responsible for making sure the fire never goes out. By doing what we do, by delighting in our lives, by taking up space and using our voices, by nurturing that spark wherever we see it, we are leading by example. Art is not doing nothing. Art is doing everything to change the world. Maybe, even, art IS the world.

Andrea Hairston said...

@Ocala--I have seen great change in my life and when I look at the lives of the people who came before me, I feel the changes they wrought in all that I do. Today as I respond to the proposed abolition of the NEA, I am struck by the fear of change, the fear of art, the fear of the power we all have to conjure the world. Democracy is having the authority of your imagination, but still singing in the choir. I dance with the other therefore I am!

Ocala Wings said...

@Andrea--Absolutely. And I love that idea: "Democracy is having the authority of your imagination, but still singing in the choir. I dance with the other therefore I am!" I think that's what makes us human. Being individuals within community. Cool.