Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Black Pot Mojo by Sheree Renée Thomas

Sheree Renée Thomas, author of Shotgun Lullabies: Stories and Poems, returned last year to her native Memphis after years of living in New York. Not surprisingly, she has been reflecting on that return, and on her life as a writer. She's generously agreed to let me post her essay on the subject here.

Back Pot Mojo
by Sheree Renée Thomas

Of Goals & Dreams

As a Memphian who lived in New York for fifteen years, I now find myself going full circle. This perhaps is as it should be. Over the years I had grown to think of myself as a writer born with twin tongues, a journeyman code switcher, navigating the boundaries of language and lore. Part elderstory and praisesong, black pot mojo and tall tales, my stories and poetry reflect my family's roots and history in the Mississippi Delta, the experiences that shaped our traditions and speech, as well as my love of science fiction—what others call speculative fiction, magical realism, or as Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier wrote of Haiti, “the marvelous real.” As a multigenre artist who writes fiction as well as poetry, I have many interests, with the common thread of narrative. I try to write stories about ordinary people facing the extraordinary.

As I continue to develop and strengthen my own craft, I hope to conjure art that lives beyond the page, casting a positive spell on readers as they journey through life. I've noticed that the characters and voices in my work tend to be intergenerational, which I believe is due in part to my upbringing in the South among the shotgun houses and porch step storytelling I heard from my grandparents and other elders in North Memphis. As I've watched my two daughters, Jacqueline and Jada, grow over the years, I've come to appreciate the folk wisdom in some of our world's oldest tales and the need for all of us to continue sharing them across the generations, even if that means carrying some of these tales straight to the stars. Mythology, music, families, geography, the trickster nature of history, and the wondrous potential we all have to change and challenge ourselves are some of my major personal influences.

Of Roots & Wings

Where I am from, a river city perched on the bluff of the Mississippi, the language you are born with, the one which you are comforted in, reprimanded, raised, praised, and chastised in, is called your navel tongue. And as a daughter of the South, I was born with twin tongues. One held the language I spoke in public, the other the language elders taught me from the porch in our home in North Memphis, a crowded, tumble down area in the backbone of the city known as much for its blackfolk and black music, its barbecue and blues, as it is for its distinctive black speech.

Around me, the elders leaned across porches, poked their heads outside frail screen doors with wire mesh tiny enough to withstand the onslaught of Memphis mosquitoes. Between the neighborhood gossip and chit-chat, church news and political banter, jokes and liberal ‘lessons’ about the how and why of blackfolk’s history in our hometown, I learned that to be understood clearly, and most importantly—trusted-- one spoke in one tongue among neighbors, family, and friends, and another among everyone else.

From grandmother to grandfather, aunt and uncle, I learned very quickly which tongue was valued in the world outside our front door, and yet over the years I could not reject the voice that had instructed and nurtured me from birth. Today when I think about how deeply I was touched by the twin tongues of blackfolk who remembered a time when even our city’s libraries were off-limits to them, I realize that storytelling, the oral tradition that instructed and engaged me was such a rich and complex part of my childhood that it is little question how or why I began my journey toward writing.

Growing up, I read Black Arts Movement texts, from Baraka, Giovanni, Madhubuti, and Sanchez to the Gothic literature, science fiction and fantasy we loved best, Poe, Bester, and Ray Bradbury, Asimov and Tolkien. Frustrated with the fleeting “magical negroes” that appeared in some of science fiction and fantasy works, black characters with little community or purpose of their own, I stopped reading the genre for a while and began looking at Black literature.As I struggled to understand what it might mean to be a black woman in our world today, I needed to read works by writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, J. California Cooper, and Gayle Jones. Their brave words helped me write myself, articulating perspectives and histories that would inform me as a young person and as an emerging writer. And as I started writing more of my own stories, some of them were speculative in form, but I didn't think of them in this way. Writing was a personal ritual, an act of self-defense in some ways. But smart as everyone thought I was, I became a statistic, the infamous teenage mother, my senior year in high school. My newborn daughter was in the audience when I made my valedictory speech. Writing saved me. I wrote through my early thrilling and frightening experiences of motherhood, and I wrote through my anxieties at an affluent, respected small liberal arts college where I was one of literally a handful of African-American and the only First Year student who had a stroller and a carrier. Between the “baby daddy” drama, culture shock, and the multiple part-time jobs I held to pay for my off-campus housing since my academic scholarship did not cover room and board for an infant, I struggled in silence, too proud to seek advice. In many ways, still a child myself, I didn’t want anyone’s pity, so I struggled in silence and floundered my senior year. I left without completing my history degree. During this time, I did not speak but I journaled, and writing gave me the courage to plan a path that would lead me closer to my most secret dream. I wanted to write, really write, and work with those who loved reading and writing, too. So I took a train to New York City and an unpaid internship at Ballantine Books, working at the popular science fiction bookstore, Forbidden Planet, when I was not writing jacket copy, taking copyediting classes, and learning all that I could about the publishing industry.Slowly I began tentatively circling the genre that had seemed so disappointing and closed to me as a teen reader, but I soon joined Random House’s wonderful editorial program and saw the legacy of some of the field’s most beloved pioneers. As I began this new journey, I remembered those early college experiences that had shaped me. For it was whenI was an undergraduate when I rediscovered that “sense of wonder” inherent in speculative fiction that had once lifted me as a child.

I first discovered Octavia E. Butler's work in college, when a Victorian scholar assigned her novel, Kindred, in a course exploring representations of slavery in literature. As you can imagine, the legacy of slavery looms large in the Delta, particularly in my hometown of Memphis and the Mid-South, where re-examining this era in American history is practically a local pastime. But in our first class discussions we chose our words carefully and treated history as a flat, abstract voiceless thing, tiptoeing around verbal minefields in a place where everyone claimed they’d marched with King, and the ghosts of the Civil Rights era still hovered in the air around us.

Octavia's novel about Dana's journey through time and history exposed our façade of indifference and electrified our class. A dear friend then gave me one of my favorite works by Octavia, Wild Seed, making me a Butler fan for life. I never imagined then that I would later have an opportunity to review her work, Parable of the Talents for The Washington Post Book World, or that I would be blessed to meet her and experience her wisdom and humor as a studentin 1999 at Clarion West, a six-week Seattle writers’ workshop. Butler’s novels and stories are visionary and startling, and at times, horrific, but always skillfully written, and full of surprising insights—the mark of a gifted storyteller.

Butler’s body of work inspires me, but there are many others within and beyond the field who challenge me as well. The sheer range of Neil Gaiman, Howard Waldrop, Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, and Angela Carter, perhaps my favorite short story writer of all, makes me marvel and re-read their work for instruction and for pleasure.I admire the fascinating psychology of Toni Morrison’s, Nalo Hopkinson’s, and Stephen King’s characters, and recognize that like comedy, the best horror is about timing, pacing, and understanding a people’s psychology. Often what makes us laugh is as revealing is as what fuels our fears. I also admire Catherine Asaro, Greg Bear, Gwyneth Jones, and Nancy Kress for caring enough about characterization in their early “hard science fiction” works, showing me that one doesn’t have to sacrifice people for plot. The elegant storytelling of A. S. Byatt and the revisionist mythology and edginess of Jeannette Winter and Luke Sutherland make me want to reach and reach again. The faith in humanity’s ability to face the impossible within themselves, fostering communal change, as dramatized in the various works of Ursula Le Guin, Arthur Flowers,Charles de Lint, and Andrea Hairston, give me hope. Cormac McCarthy’s sometimes harrowing, often mesmerizing, spare visions of everyday moments also inspire me, and his writing is right up there in my heart with that of Alice Walker, Chris Abani, Gayle Jones, Gloria Naylor, and Ben Okri. The epic,historical shifts in the works of Maryse Condé and Patrick Chamoiseau are also literary influences, and I love the quiet humor and richness of detail in some of Charles Johnson’s and Richard Bausch’s works.

All of these writers have touched me, and each time I read them they remind me that my journey continues. I have more work to do to grow and tell the stories I most want to tell in this world, in ways that engage and inspire readers. If language is the measure of our lives, as Toni Morrison has suggested, then I want to do all that I can as a writer and a thinker to get the language of my storytelling just right.

1 comment:

Andrea Hairston said...

I just love how you always have your black pot mojo working! I've been thinking a lot about ancestor wisdom taking us to the future we want to imagine and I've been watching Pan read Shotgun Lullabies like a performance is happening, like all the voices you have in you and magically write down burst to life. You hear the songs of our elders, the songs of right now, the songs we're trying to sing and you got the craft, the patience, the passion to share those songs with us--who didn't get to sit on your porch and hear that wisdom!
You write a mean essay, girl!