by Andrea Hairston
“You’re a writer?” strangers would say with delight. “Science fiction and fantasy? Wow! How do you do that?”
I sold books at many a bed and breakfast during the morning spread or afternoon tea. I always got into great discussions. The passion, intelligence, and creativity of the people I met inspired and energized me.
“Have you read—” or “What do you think of—” was the beginning of many new friendships.
I lost count of how many people said, “I’ve got an idea for a book. More than an idea, I’ve written four hundred pages.”
There are books about to be born everywhere; stories aching for an audience; narratives offering transport; readers who found themselves in places they couldn’t imagine; reality recognized and revised with the turn of a page.
One of the great pleasures of 2011 was the direct experience of the marvelous international community of readers and writers that I live in.
The poor and very poor are sleeping with self-destruction. The working and middle classes are struggling against paralyzing pessimism and the privileged are swinging between cynicism and hedonism.West points the reader from this to the subversive joy of ongoing activism and hope grounded in a messy, tragic-comic struggle. He makes us ask:
How did I become so well-adjusted to injustice?
I wrote earlier about The Help juggernaut before seeing the film. I have now seen it. The Help is about a white woman writer who encourages (enables) black women maids to speak out about their (horrific) experiences in Jim Crow servitude for a book she writes. The acting in The Help is stellar. Viola Davis tears apart the script to give a brilliant performance, creating a depth of character that is absent from the writing. I enjoyed seeing her and all those brilliant actresses up on the screen working: Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Cicely Tyson, Mary Steenburger, and Aunjanue Ellis. But I must confess that the simplistic melodrama of the story was infuriating and BORING. The white character is the engine for the Civil Rights movement that happens in town. The black women are all long suffering saints. Even the one who ends up in jail is just trying to find money to send her child off to a better life! Evil is individual, not systemic. The bad white girl is not complex. In fact, as is often the case with rich white women characters, the evil bitch is trivial and petty, and we enjoy making her eat shit. Literally. Oh yeah, the fat black lady is the funny one. Smug, superior, and safe, the audience can wallow in this heartwarming rift on our national shame.
Beaucoup tickets sales, rave reviews, and breath-taking performance might mean a trip to the Oscars for Viola Davis. I will cheer her acting magic, but I am still waiting for those films that will take women’s lives seriously, that will entertain me with our follies and possibilities, with our adventures and our visions. Viola Davis could star in that. An antidote to The Help is Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the documentary on the women from Liberia who join together across a religious divide to bring peace to their country. Just after I wrote this I learned that the Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, the subject of the film, has won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman.
I had the privilege and pleasure to read new work as writers shaped and polished it. Be on the lookout for: Eileen Gunn’s new collection of short stories that will include a wonderful Golem story. Pan Morigan is writing two urban fantasy novels about wolves, Viet Nam vets, expressways devastating neighborhoods, community gardens, and secret libraries of the spirit. Playwright Liz Roberts sends her audience down a vent with corporate execs and homeless folks. Sally Bellerose had me laughing and weeping in the junkyard with two 80-something life partners, as these women faced life and death on thin ice with heavy equipment!
Back to Cornel West. Living through the State of Emergency with these imaginative folks, I feel we can make the future different and possibly better.