My thanks go out to Sarah Blakeley-Cartwright, Publishing Director for Chicago Review of Books, for inviting me to be one of their Instagram resident authors, which means I’ll be sharing glimpses of In Our Midst on their Instagram each day, April 21-28. Watch for an introduction of me and In Our Midst on April 21, followed each day for the next week by photos related to places, people, and historical artifacts that inspired my story and its characters.
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No need to wait until In Our Midst is released on April 28, 2020. You can read the first chapter right now! Click here.
Of all the things I do to share my work and engage with readers–book festivals, readings, talks, interviews, guest-blogging–the one I most enjoy is visiting with reading groups. Since the release of The Sisters, I’ve met with close to a hundred reading groups across the country, both in person, via Skype, and even a few times by speaker phone.
You’d think that after engaging with so many groups, ranging in size from three or four to more than fifty, I would instantly be able to list the most-frequently asked questions, but the joyful wonder of this experience for me has been that questions are almost never duplicated from one group to another. Even similar questions are reshaped by the concerns of the individual reader, the values of the group, and the developing conversation. Your ever-fresh perspectives keep me on my toes!
If you are part of a reading group, small or large–whether you have come together as friends, neighbors, co-workers, or through the sponsorship of a library, a bookstore, a school or university–I’d love to find a way to join you in a Q&A.
If your reading group decides to adopt In Our Midst and you’d like for me to join you, please contact me, and, if you’re outside my local area, we’ll figure out which technology will best bring us together.
Actor Liam Neeson is in the news this week after having told an interviewer that he understood and could draw on the deep, primal urge for violent revenge because he had felt this nearly forty years earlier when a close friend revealed that she had been brutally raped. Neeson also immediately told the same interviewer that within a few days of seeking an opportunity to act on his race-focused rage, he “came back to Earth,” and was horrified and deeply ashamed of what he had felt and of what he had nearly done. For the last several days, he has dealt patiently and humbly with dozens more interviewers who want to focus on the rage, rather than on his shame–and on what that shame could teach any of us who, in dormant or wakeful rage, have trained our assault sights on a people, rather than on a particular guilty person.
Listening to Neeson, I keep hoping someone will invoke the great James Baldwin, whom I believe would, if he could, lay a hand on the actor’s shoulder and say, “I understand.” Many years ago, when I was writing an essay about a similar, shocking rage and the shame that followed, I remembered how Baldwin had whispered in my ear.
Here’s a passage from my essay, “Notes of an Expatriate Daughter,” which is in my first book, Window: Stories and Essays.
In “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin describes his own moment of breaking. Though he was plenty aware that racial hatred was thriving—on both sides—he believed he could prove to the world how anyone, if he so chose, could rise above it. He had discovered, he was sure, that if he behaved as though he was worthy of respect, he would get it, and he scorned as primitive and paranoid his father’s certainty that whites, no matter how outwardly decent they might appear, conspired to obliterate blacks. It wasn’t until his first year out of high school, when he went to work at a defense plant in New Jersey, that Baldwin realized there were people who didn’t care how he acted, since all that mattered was that his skin was the wrong color. Day after day, week after week, he was either openly rejected with “We don’t serve Negroes here” or patently ignored. He was twice fired without cause, but because of his intelligence and presence of mind, was able to force the plant to rehire him. By the third time, the plant management had figured out how to close all the loopholes, so he prepared to move back to his family’s apartment in Harlem.
On his last night in New Jersey, a white friend came in from New York to treat him to dinner and a movie. Baldwin writes how he could feel the tension of that year pulling tighter and tighter from the moment the ironic title of the film, This Land is Mine, flashed across the screen. Afterwards, he and his friend stopped into the American Diner where the counterman glared at Baldwin and hissed, “We don’t serve Negroes here.” In reply, Baldwin made a cutting remark about the diner’s name, but it wasn’t until he was on the street again that at last he snapped. It was as though, he says, a cord connecting his head to his body had been severed, and so he walked on, without any plan or destination, every step mastered by body rather than mind, his only conscious desire “to do something to crush the white faces, which were crushing” him.
Moments later, he pushes through the doors of a swank restaurant, sits down at the first vacant table he sees, and waits until a frightened waitress approaches and whispers, somewhat apologetically, “We don’t serve Negroes here.” Wanting to wrap his hands around her throat, he pretends not to have heard her, willing her to come closer to repeat the phrase. When she doesn’t, he grabs a water pitcher from the table and hurls it at her, but she manages to duck, sending the pitcher crashing into a mirror behind the bar.
Suddenly awake to what he has done, he runs for the door and with difficulty escapes the knot of men who have caught him and begun to beat him. Once outside, his white friend, who has been waiting in the shadows, tells him to run, then misdirects the police, allowing Baldwin to slip away and get back to his apartment.
Over the next several hours, he relives the incident dozens of times, realizing that he could easily have been killed. But he must also face, to his own horror, that he himself “had been ready to commit murder.” He continues: “I saw nothing clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”
The Gift of Black Beauty
I was seven, my hands and stomach trembling together as they always did on Christmas mornings—especially when the package laid in my lap was a crisply wrapped rectangle, heavy for its size and thickness, obviously a book. Other packages I tore into like a savage, but books I unwrapped slowly, sliding my fingers under the seam of the wrapping paper, caressing the surface of the still-hidden book as if I could read Braille.
At last I pulled away the paper and saw a magnificent black horse rearing up into the golden light that bathed his vast, unfenced pasture. His coat, so sleek it looked wet, the prominent white star at the center of his forehead, his mane and tail whipped by a wind that touched nothing else—all these details combined to express who this Black Beauty was: a proud, triumphant creature taking joy in his freedom.
It was the perfect gift for little me, for I loved books and I loved horses, but I didn’t have any way of knowing how my love for Black Beauty would shape my life. All books before this, I realize now, had been storybooks—simply plotted happenings, sometimes in clever rhymes, but nothing that made me feel anything stronger than amusement. Reading Black Beauty, I cried real tears, many times, and when I finished, I read it again and again, finding I craved the feeling of being pulled by words through delight, heartbreak, and all the emotions in between, ultimately to a deep contentment I could carry with me, reflecting on what Black Beauty had learned: that terrible things happen sometimes, beyond our control—like a stumble in a rut—and change the course of our lives; that no matter how hard we try to hold our heads up, to be good and noble and kind, we don’t always get the treatment we deserve or deserve the treatment we get; that genuine triumph comes only after trial, and that nothing matters so much as knowing and holding onto our true selves.
Though I’m sure at seven I had never heard the word literature, I know now that reading Black Beauty burst open the seed of who I am—the lover of literature and the writer—all of it the gift of a horse who never lived, but who lives always.