Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.27: Kiini Ibura Salaam

In the Thick of It: 2012, month by month
by Kiini Ibura Salaam

May people one day love your words so much that they want to eat them!
This year I came out of hiding as a writer. Before I had my daughter I was on a trajectory. I was writing and publishing in anthologies frequently, I was doing readings, and speaking to kids about being a writer. Out of necessity, I had to step back and commit to parenting. When I came up for air and tried to regroup as a writer, it did not come as easily as I expected it to. I went through some dark years, certain that I would never be able to continue my writing life.

So many years later—and with a much more self-sufficient little person in tow—I’m back in the thick of it. It’s still a monumental challenge and I am still not moving at the pace that I know I can maintain. Yet 2012 has been a triumphant year in which my collection of short stories came out and I participated in readings and conferences.

I did a group reading with Linda Addison that felt like coming full circle in a way. We met while doing promotional work for the Dark Matter anthology. Then here we were over ten years later—both promoting books, both working on novels that had begun back in 2000 when Dark Matter came out.

Me and Linda Addison

Continuing with the theme of coming full circle, back in 2001, Jennifer Brissett—a long-time lover and supporter of speculative fiction—held fundraiser for me and Ibi Zoboi to attend Clarion West at her bookstore Indigo Books. Now, she’s a speculative fiction writer in her own right and she has organized the Kindred Reading series for speculative fiction writers of color.

K. Tempest Bradford, Ibi Zoboi, Kiini Salaam, Daniel Older, Jennifer Brissett at a Kindred Reading Series book event.

Jennifer Brissett, N.K. Jemisin, Linda Addison, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Daniel Older at a Kindred Reading Series book event

Between the readings, the communing with writers, and the continued growth of my collection’s audience, I spent much of 2012 exulting—as Celie did in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple—“I’m here!” And my dream lives of writing words that are so beloved that someday, somewhere, someone will want to eat them:

So my pleasures of 2012 are all about rediscovering what had been buried or newly discovering what had been there all along. As well as the usual, finding inspiration in the world around me. Speaking of inspiration, my Clarion West class is very much on fire.

• Linda DeMeulemeester was the first out of the gate some years ago with her Grim Hill Series:
Benjamin Rosenbaum then published the Ant King and Other Stories
Stephanie Burgis then sold her middle grade fantasy series featuring Kat Stephenson, three of which have been published to date

Then this year all hell broke loose:
• My collection Ancient, Ancient was published
Susan Ee self published Angelfall in 2011, which has now been picked up by Amazon’s new publishing arm and has been optioned to be made into a movie.
Raymund Eich after self publishing his first two novels in 2011, published two more this year, plus a short story collection.
Emily Mah announced, just a few days ago, that her self published chick lit (under the pen name E.M. Tippets) broke into the top 100—officially bestseller status
Ari Goelman announced that his middle grade summer camp mystery The Path of Names will be coming out from Scholastic 2013
Patrick Samphire announced that his middle grade steampunk novel was purchased

My mind is blown. There is more in the works, both Ibi Zoboi and Sean Klein are chipping away at their novels. I am too… a-hem. It is amazing to feel this push from our class. They inspire me every day!

January: “I Can’t Believe This Has Been Here All Along and I Never Even Knew It.”
Wildwood by Colin Meloy
I am a voracious reader but I hate to start a book because I will read it to distraction, ignoring mealtime and parenting duties to finish the book. I am no savorer, I am a devourer—to my own peril. Ironically, I rarely buy books. I tend to read whatever is on hand, and feel that I have some kind of reprieve when I have nothing to read. As a birthday present, a friend gave my daughter “Wildwood” by Colin Meloy. She refused to read it, but a book about a baby “abducted by a murder of crows and taken to the Impassable Wilderness, a dense, tangled forest on the edge of Portland [that n]o one’s ever gone in—or at least returned to tell of it”—cannot go unread, right? Coyote Soldiers, the Owl King as a savior, a plot involving bloodthirsty ivy and desperate secret deals made by childless parents made for a fun, creative jaunt through an enchanted wilderness. After the main character, Prue, gets into the Impassable Wilderness, “Wildwood” is a tale that goes down smoothly as it taps into the idea that an enchanted world full of unimaginable danger and excitement is right around the corner.

February: “You Shouldn’t Have to Move to Live in a Better Neighborhood”—Majora Carter
The Vineyards of Chateau Hough
I find inspiration in many different realms. Specifically, I find acts of daring invigorating. People who dare to make original choices, take risks in their lives and work, and who make change in the world around them engage me. I’m fascinated and enriched by Mansfield Frazier’s Chateau Hough Vineyards. Besides his energy, intelligence, and wit, I just love that he’s doing his own thing, and in doing so he’s creating community, educating and enriching the lives of people who had been imprisoned, and creating a new world for himself and a new environment and wealth for Cleveland. If he can build a vineyard (and biocellar) in Cleveland, I can build something surprising in the worlds I’m writing.

March: What Does It Mean to Be a Man?
Questionbridge at Brooklyn Museum of Art
In March, I viewed the Question Bridge installation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In this video installation, black men ask and answer questions about themselves, their lives, and their perspectives on race. It is easy to make assumptions about the value of something before experiencing it (and sometimes even while experiencing it). I didn’t expect to get much from the installation, I assumed it would be a rehashing of ideas and conversations I had heard before. I was wrong. Listening to a prison philosopher talk about self esteem and self worth, a middle aged man tearfully admit to still having father issues, and a young baby-faced kid asking what it means to be a man was a genuinely moving experience. The installation is framed as an internal conversation, so there isn't the posturing or aggression that can emerge when confronted by the outside eye. The participants shared intimate thought with introspection and reflection. It was refreshing and intriguing. The museum closed before the film ended but not before I was reminded by one of the interviewees that we are always changing and always growing. Question Bridge puts some of those changes and expressions of growth front and center for all to take in and reflect upon.

April: “I’m On My Seventh Year Sustaining Against Multinational, Transnational Giants”
Arunachalam Muruganatham: How I started a sanitary napkin revolution
Arunachalam Muruganatham risked ridicule to invent a decentralized, inexpensive method for creating sanitary napkins. In India, only 2% of women use sanitary napkins because of cost. His goal is to create employment for rural communities and to make India a 100% sanitary-pad using country. In this video he explains his invention while dropping quite a bit of philosophy. His invention and his thoughts interrupt assumptions of worth tied to class. He is a high-school dropout who learned English to extend his research, truly a unique and multi-faceted character. He is both an example of what one person can do (his invention has been adopted by other countries and across the Indian nation), and an example of what a person can be: surprising, unconventional, intelligent, and wholly himself. His message: I’ve done this with a little education, what are you going to do for society with your education?

This Very Windy Desert Became Our Playground
Massoud Hassani: A prototype for a creative, cost effective landmine detector
This is art, inventiveness and social good all rolled up in one. Plus, the invention looks like a character in a science fiction novel! How could this not inspire?

May: “We Can’t Stay Long Out Our Own Time. Every Minute Is a Heartbeat Snatched From Somewhere Else.”—Andrea Hairston
WisCon 2012
Without experiencing it firsthand, it is almost impossible to understand what a feminist speculative fiction conference could be. Having attended Wiscon, I now understand that it's a place that works to hear all voices and make space for all listeners. It brought to mind my visits to the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park as they worked to create a new society, a new way of being. WisCon was its own bubble with its own norms and mores, a place where time was suspended so that everyone could talk, laugh, adorn themselves, and commune. Some highlights were: a panel on the silences around reproductive health, a panel on sex education for children, meeting other writers from New York and serenading Guest of Honor Andrea Hairston with a group reading of excerpts from Redwood and Wildfire.

After an absence from reading and appearing in public as a writer, it also felt wonderful to be embodying my writing self again. WisCon reminded me that silences in our lives do not mean that a particular part of our lives are dead; it may be burrowing deeper, it may be healing in slumber, it may be shoring itself up. I left WisCon enriched by the knowledge that I was in the company of so many people who are on their own creative paths, working to create the lives they want to live.

June: The Stone That the Builder Refuse Will Always Be the Headcorner Stone
MARLEY: A Documentary
A beautiful exploration of Bob Marley’s life, history, and music. There was so much richness in the interviews with family members, friends, and band members. I learned a lot about his family history, his lifestyle, and the politics (musical, governmental, and financial) that surrounded him. It was interesting to gain insight into the meaning and motivation behind some of the songs I know so well. I was deeply touched by the interviews with his siblings—his father’s children who he never had a relationship with but who shared something very special with him. The film reminded me that our power as artists doesn’t just come from our genius, it also comes from our pain. I can run away from the conditions that make it difficult for me to write/create, or I can embrace them and weave them into my work. It doesn’t matter, we all have a unique song to sing, it is my job to sing it.

July:  Find the Order in the Chaos
Miko Kuro’s Midnight Tea
Poet Khadijah Queen invited me to participate in a performance art event called Miko Kuro's Midnight Tea. Despite the fact that I am not a “performer,” I was excited to participate in a completely new experiences. Rather than being briefed on the event’s structure, we special guests were blindfolded and led into the performance area where we were guided to stand in a circle. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity as people took our shoes, fanned us, and adjusted our bodies.

When we were allowed to remove our blindfolds, I saw tents around me, an audience behind me, and a young man sitting in front of a traditional tea service. I could only see inside one tent in which a woman rocked a baby doll with soothing, semi-eerie audio playing in the tent. Someone entered the tent and she rocked them too. I was guided to enter another tent in which a woman was waiting with balled up pieces of paper scattered on the floor. The woman asked me about hiding, and when I told her I wasn't using my full voice, she asked me what my voice would say to me now and what my voice would say to me if it died. She made lyrics out of my answers and invited me to sing with her. As we were singing together, a masked woman kneeled in the entrance to the tent and handed me a sheet paper. The paper directed me to find the order in chaos: that was my role for the night. It was up to me to interpret what that meant.

Upon instruction, I left the tent and used my book to divine for the tea master. (Divining from Ancient, Ancient was the performance I had chosen to do in advance of the tea.) Emboldened by the activity in the tent about using my voice, I led the audience in a mediation, not that I meditate on a regular basis, mind you, but I surrendered to the moment and followed what my voice wanted to say rather than what my brain wanted to do.

After I divined for the tea master, he served me tea. As I was drinking a scream rang out. The night’s activities were set into motion: screaming, movement, poetry recitation, wailing, singing, and audience members entering and exiting the tents. With the layers of performance swirling around me, it was left to me to find my space of performance.  So I invited performers and audience members to sit before me for divinations. Due to the noise, I could not speak, everything was communicated through writing. Halfway through the experience, I realized I was drawing energy from all the activity around me and I had actually found order in the middle of chaos.

I think sometimes we resist madness and mad activity, but it was instructive to me that I could draw on it and--because I couldn't use my voice--I used another way to connect and communicate that was equally as effective as using my voice. As a parent driving by life’s logistics everyday life can feel like chaos, and this experience helped me see that I did not have to resist the chaos, I just need to find my little space of peace in it so that I can create and continue to fulfill myself as an artist. Full description of my experience at the tea here:

August: “When I Am Free, I Will Choose Who Shapes Me”
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
I met N.K. Jemisin at WisCon where she was generously gifting copies of her Inheritance Trilogy to conference attendees. Months after the conference I started the trilogy with Book One: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms immediately reveals a few things about the author: she's smart, she's a wordsmith, and she's got a raging, complex, fierce imagination. The novel is incredibly layered, revealing and reveling in a complex world with intense emotional, psychological, and physical relationships between characters. Jemisin keeps tight command of the world and uses the plot to explode the interpersonal crises and conflicts to make astute and moving commentary on the human condition.

In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Nahadoth the god of change, terrifyingly powerful, changeable, and dangerous, is shaped by other's perceptions of him. When Yeine, the main character expresses sorrow that he is bidden to change form by others, he says: "When I am free, I will choose who shapes me." The main character tells him this isn't freedom, but he responds that she must do the same when she is free. I think we have a romantic view of us being capable of absolute independence, but this is fallacy. We are all shaped both by our life experiences and by those who surround us. At the beginning of our lives, we have no choice over what is shaping us. Later, as adults, although our addictions and unresolved issues from childhood (a time when we had no choice about the influencers surrounding us) still shape us, we have the opportunity for true freedom. We don’t get to resist all influence and we cannot escape the impact of our environments, but we have the opportunity to choose our environment, and in so doing choose what shapes us. This distinction resonates deeply in the novel and also resonates deeply in everyday life.

September: “It’s Just a Matter of Staying on Top of It”—Oliver Jeffers
Brooklyn Go
The Internet is doing a lot to provide a voice for people that media channels have not provided with a stamp of approval. A recent article noted that the New York Times just reviewed its first self-published book. Music, visual art, film, and other art forms have received a much-needed direct connection with viewers and consumers. Back in September, the Brooklyn Museum of Art held an event called Brooklyn Go in which they encouraged artists to open their studios to the public. Thousands of artists registered and invited the public in. Viewers then had the opportunity to check in to the website and vote for the artists they liked best. The ten artists with the most votes then got a studio visit from the Brooklyn Museum and five of them were selected for a group show.

I loved going to the studios, not just because I am curious about art production and love the to see artists at work, but also because I am a visual artist who desperately wants to have the time, finances, and freedom to have a studio and let my creativity run wild. One of the reasons I love living in New York is the abundance of creative people. I echo the sentiment of Oliver Jeffers, one of the selected artists, that in living in New York, “I’m surrounded by other people who want to accomplish as much as I do.”

October: In 318, the Geeks, They Are the Athletes
Brooklyn Castle
A moving exploration of Public School 318’s chess team—what chess has done for the students and what the chess students have done for the profile of their school. Inspiring, spirited, eye-opening, and, yes, tear inducing. A beautiful profile of what schools can do to support the growth and development of children. The profile of each kid was heartwarming, I was especially touched by one kid who had ADD and constantly lost games. I loved his determination and the support his team members gave him. One of the biggest cliffhangers was a competition where they needed him to win so that the team could win. All of the kids had so much focus and commitment that it was instructive and compelling.

November: Outrageously Tactile, Rhinestone-studded Surfaces
Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe
The Brooklyn Museum has a large Mickalene Thomas in their private collection. I had seen it multiple times, but I didn’t have a strong response to it. When her solo show opened, I might not have gone, but both the media and friends who had attended raving about the work convinced me to give it a look. Walking through the Origin of the Universe exhibition, I “got” it. Thomas’s work is vibrant, sumptuous, detailed, and glimmering. The scale is absolutely stunning, and the content is clearly all Mickalene. She has not created an alternate self, she has instead magnified her self and the selves she adores to celebrate them on the altar of art.

December: Old dirty bags, grease, bones, hair . . . it's about us, it's about me.  
David Hammonds
Now Dig This!:Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 at P.S. 1
Just a few days ago, I headed up to P.S. 1 to check out the Now Dig This! exhibition of (mostly) black artist who were working in L.A. in the 70s. I was pulled in by the image of David Hammons’s Bag Lady in Flight, which photographs amazingly. The shopping bags are stained with grease from food and the piece incorporates human hair—a hallmark of Hammons’s work at that period. I wasn’t as interested in the unorthodox materials as I was in the grace and beauty of the folded paper.

As I walked through the show, I was invigorated by the creativity around me. There was a lot for the eye to take in. Assemblage was a major presence, both as metal sculptures and as 3D wall hangings made from found objects. There were prints and paintings as well. I liked Melvin Edward’s “Lynch Fragments” sculptures, Suzanne Jackson’s acrylic wash pieces, Dale Brokman Davis’s metal and ceramic bullets (titled “Viet Nam Game”), which stood arranged together like chess pieces, one of John Outterbridges more stark wall pieces featuring a buckle and some metal squares, among others. I was most intrigued by David Hammons’s work and the wit, intelligence and grace that it communicated. He was committed to unconventionality, but the product was not a gimmick or an affront. The pieces of his that I saw were simply beautiful, no matter what materials went into their making.

Specifically I loved Flight Fantasy, which is made of found objects such as feathers, bamboo, human hair, and shards of 45 rpm records.

Deeper into the show, I found Hammons’s body prints, in which he put oil on his skin to make prints from his body, which he then used to create a composition. These images are haunting and ghostly. Here is Hammons making a body print:

Here is a completed piece built around a body print:

In a New York Times review for the show, the reviewer states that the work in the Now Dig! This show has merit in its own right, but that the race of the artists and the titles suggest that the work was created out of some type of solidarity—and that this solidarity shuts some viewers out. He does not critique the pieces but critiques the meaning behind the pieces and the motivation for the pieces, suggesting that they have less value because the conditions of their creation.

This type of discrediting is an apt echo of the assumptions and inequalities that these artists navigated in their prime and are most likely still navigating today. The truth is every artist performs from a very personal place. If the person/group/establishment commenting on the work does not value the person creating the work, then it will most likely disparage the work—even in cases when the work has nothing, in terms of technique and execution, to disparage.

As a nation we are still very much fractured, awkward siblings of various parentage confused as to how to value the other and often unwilling to release the myths/reigns of subjugation. It is interesting to ponder these ideas after watching Radiant Sun, the documentary about Jean Michele Basquiat. He died contorting under these questions of his value, his worth, and his deep desire for acceptance into a world that celebrated him grotesquely on the downtown scene and ignored him completely on the established scene.

In a 1977 conversation David Hammons talked about his choice of materials: “Old dirty bags, grease, bones, hair . . . it's about us, it's about me. It isn't negative. We should look at these images and see how positive they are, how strong, how powerful. Our hair is positive, it's powerful, look what it can do. There's nothing negative about our images, it all depends on who is seeing it and we've been depending on someone else's sight. . . . We need to look again and decide.”

This level of pride in his black self is the dividing line, which makes it untenable for the white establishment to celebrate a black artist that celebrates blackness. Paradoxically, this level of self love is absolutely necessary due to the silencing and devaluing that the black artist navigates. So you have a vicious cycle, a hyper awareness on the side of both parties. But when we relax. When we take a deep breath, it is easy to see that while this statement is, on the surface, about race, it is more profoundly about the self. It is a statement fiercely in favor of defining yourself for yourself, of celebrating yourself for yourself and of determining your own worth. There is not an artist alive who does not need to be able to do that. There’s not a human being alive who doesn’t wrestle with shame of self and who can’t use those words as a guiding light to build a more resilient, balanced, and sane self. I, for one, will be taking that love of self into 2013 with me, and I hope you will too!

For humanity!

Be well. Be love[d].

Kiini Ibura Salaam

 Kiini Ibura Salaam is a writer and painter from New Orleans, LA. Her work is rooted in eroticism, speculative events and worlds, and women's perspectives. Her fiction has been published in a number of anthologies, including Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Dark Eros. Her essays have been published in Essence, Ms., and Colonize This. She is the author of the KIS.list, an e-column that explores the writing life. Her first collection of short stories, Ancient, Ancient, was published by Aqueduct Press in May 2012. She lives in Brooklyn.

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