MCTC

The MCTC News Blog

More Than a Single Story: Black Women Writers, Including MCTC Instructors, Hold Panel Discussions

Posted on: September 25th, 2015 by insidemctc No Comments

MCTC English Instructors Carolyn Holbrook and Valerie Deus were featured in the Star Tribune this week for their work organizing and participating in More Than a Single Story, a series of collaborative discussions by and about black women writers.  Funded by a Minnesota State Arts Board arts initiative grant, a series of three panel discussions on black women writers will take place in the coming weeks. These sessions include:

  • African-American writers, 2:30 p.m. Sept. 27
  • Caribbean writers, 2:30 p.m. Oct. 4
  • African writers, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 15

These sessions will take place at The Loft at Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.

Read the full Star Tribune story here. Be sure to check out Valerie’s poetry featured in the right-hand sidebar as well!

The original story and photo are posted below.

Writers

Writers Mary Moore Easter, Kari Mugo and MCTC Instructor Valerie Deus. Photo by Brian Peterson, Star Tribune.

Loft to host panel discussions on black women writers

Black women writers talk about what infuses their writing – and what makes them distinctive.

By Laurie Hertzel Star Tribune

At a reading at Birchbark Books a few years ago, Carolyn Holbrook was taken aback by the comment of a woman in the audience. The woman was white, and Holbrook and the other writers who were reading are black.

The white woman said, “Oh, my gosh, I’m just shocked that you’re all so different,” Holbrook recalled. “And that sort of stuck in my craw.”

From that evening came the seed of an idea that has bloomed into “More Than a Single Story,” a series of discussions with black women writers from all over — Kenya, Haiti, Somalia, Nigeria, the American South, and elsewhere — who have settled in Minnesota. The discussions, moderated by Holbrook, will be held at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

In July, Holbrook invited more than a dozen such writers to her St. Paul home for a potluck dinner. Over glasses of Soul Sister pinot noir, salmon salad and coconut cake, they discussed issues surrounding writing and identity. The conversation was enthusiastic and wide-ranging.

“What is the canon for black women? Do we have a canon? Who should we be reading, and why?” Holbrook recalled. “Identity — how do we each identify, and why? Does the woman from Nigeria who went to Carleton College identify as a Nigerian writer, or as an African-American writer?

“What was supposed to be like an hour and a half dinner turned into four and a half hours. None of us was looking at the clock.”

Not everyone agreed on every point — not by a long shot. But they all concurred that they speak with different voices, and that those voices spring partly from their backgrounds.

Writing from exile

African writers, said Kari Mugo, who is from Kenya, often tend to be less direct and more mysterious in their prose. “We have a lot of hidden meanings. We’re making analogies. We’re big into painting something big and elaborate and then having you find the one thing we want you to look at.”

Family history is crucial, too. “We’re so attuned to identifying with our tribe,” Mugo said. “I think in general a lot of the tribal societies tend to have some sort of oral histories. Within my tribe, it’s something that’s been there for hundreds of years — telling the past and imagining the future.”

Valerie Déus was born in Brooklyn, but she considers herself primarily a Haitian writer. “There was a time in my life when I didn’t realize there were other black people,” she said. “My neighborhood was so completely Haitian.”

The Haitian proverbs and fables that she grew up listening to have since become interlaced with her work. “If you grew up hearing tales from your grandmother, those stories become part of your stories,” she said.

Déus’ parents moved to the United States in the 1970s to escape the oppressive regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, “and in that time, people came here with the expectation of being able to go back,” Déus said. “I was always raised with this idea that Haiti was this place where we were going to be.”

But her family has returned only for visits, and perhaps because of that, much of Déus’ writing deals with sadness and loss. “I think for my writing there’s a feeling of being in exile,” she said.

Mugo used the same word: Exile. At the July dinner, she said, “We talked a lot about [my] writing from the perspective of a queer African. About not being able to go back home because of that.

“There was a sort of general consensus that we were all writing from exile. We all felt detached from the larger society, felt detached from a home that was far away. Detached from a society that is predominantly white.”

For her, though, race alone was less of an issue. “We don’t become black until we move to this country,” Mugo said.

Race, and language

But for African-American writers, there is no escaping race.

“I think the nature of the concept of race is the thing that is with African-American writers all the time,” said Mary Moore Easter, a poet and memoirist who taught at Carleton College for more than 40 years. “It is part of the whole identity. It is all around you.

“In this country, no matter how much this society tries, blackness is a monolithic thing in the common mind.

“Anything that explodes that and gives evidence of the tremendous diversity of thought and feeling is significant.”

Easter said she was less interested in establishing a canon than she was in urging writers to read widely and deeply, and to pay attention to their own traditions.

“It’s hard to make a canon … of those things that should be in your ears — dialect, particular kinds of language usage,” she said. “That ancestry that feeds the writing and in which a person needs to be immersed. It tells you how the English language works — and that includes paying attention to the way that dialects or patois work.”

That said, all of the women mentioned writers they admired and had learned from: poet Phillis Wheatley, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, Edwidge Danticat, Roxane Gay.

And everyone mentioned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” was one of Holbrook’s inspirations for these panels. During that talk — one of the most popular TED talks ever — Adichie warned of the dangers of assuming that people of color all speak with one voice. “Show people as one thing over and over again, and that’s what they become,” she said.

Easter found the July dinner discussion fascinating because of the enthusiasm and the ideas — but also because of the disagreements.

“It’s amazing when you find differing opinions within a group that you thought might approach things in the same way,” she said. “That was one of the most exciting things about being with all of these women.

“I’m the one who said at the end of the evening, ‘This was the panel!’ The disagreement that is refining ideas and impressions, this is the kind of thing we want to do.”

MORE THAN A SINGLE STORY

What: A series of three panel discussions on black women writers, hosted by Carolyn Holbrook, funded by a Minnesota State Arts Board arts initiative grant.

When: African-American writers, 2:30 p.m. Sept. 27; Caribbean writers, 2:30 p.m. Oct. 4; African writers, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 15.

Where: The Loft at Open Book, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls.

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302

MCTC Instructors and Alum Included in Anthology on Black Minnesota Writers and Writing

Posted on: February 10th, 2015 by insidemctc No Comments

Tish Jones, MCTC alumAlexs Pate, author of “Amistad” and “Losing Absolom,” long ago noted the absence of any compendium of black Minnesota writers and writing. His anthology, “Blues Vision: African American Writing From Minnesota” features nearly a century of poetry, fiction, playwriting and memoirs by black Minnesota writers, including MCTC Instructors Taiyon Coleman, Carolyn Holbrook and Shannon Gibney, and MCTC alum Tish Jones.

This article was originally published by MinnPost. Click here to read the full article.

Alexs Pate’s ‘Blues Vision’ anthology fills a missing place

One book on his shelf, “The Butterfly Tree: An Anthology of Black Writing from the Upper Midwest,” came out in the 1980s and captured an earlier era. In 30 years, however, Minnesota has changed, as has the literary world, which has expanded through the rise of hip-hop and spoken word poetry. An updated book needed to reflect that, Pate thought, especially since black voices haven’t been afforded a greater place in other regional collections.

“I feel comfortable saying black writers are underrepresented in anthologies of Minnesota writers,” says Pate, who says his own writing has been profoundly influenced by his surroundings in the great white north.

With the assistance of the Minnesota Humanities Center, Pate’s idea now fills that gap. “Blues Vision: African American Writing From Minnesota” (Minnesota Historical Society Press) gathers nearly a century of poetry, fiction, playwriting and memoirs by black Minnesota writers. The collection includes quintessentially Minnesotan stories like Susan J. Smith-Grier’s tales about growing up on a lake in Northern Minnesota, and equally Minnesotan memoirs like Evelyn Fairbanks’ stories about St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, now lost to I-94.

There are poems and stories about iconic Minnesota businesses, classic downtown Minneapolis buildings and the way ice forms on the lakes in late October. The civil-rights movement, jazz and blues music, racism and inclusion, the rural Minnesota landscape, family life, loneliness, and beauty fill these pages, through the voices of some of Minnesota’s best writers, including Conrad Balfour, Philip Bryant, David Haynes, Kim Hines, Gordon Parks and many others who may have been left out of other anthologies but have been here and writing all along.

Click here to read the rest of this article from MinnPost.