I’m sharing a blog post that I wrote for Whidbey Life Magazine here.
But I’d like to say a bit more on a personal level about what they are doing and how important what they are doing is.
Both these authors taught craft classes to a primarily white audience of graduate students at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA residency last week, and I’ve been thinking about how much guts that takes. I’m figuring you have to possess an awful lot of patience, personal inner strength, and insight, not to mention good will, to be able to talk about slavery and civil rights in ways that a bunch of white people — who know about these issues primarily from history books and films — can understand.
Both these authors are amazing educators in this sense; they can make people like me think differently, step out of the box, and perhaps begin to critique my/our own very privileged way of thinking about American history.
Nancy taught several classes at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. She is remarkably laid back and welcoming as a teacher. Interestingly, she is not a big fan of the mania for authors as a brand name, and of thinking of yourself as a commodity.
I remember her saying something like the following.
“You know the most important experience you can have as an author is if someone comes up to you and says ‘I got your book out of the library and I loved it, and I told someone else about it, and now they are reading it too.'”
Nancy smiled out at us. “What could be better than that?”
That same day, Nancy came down to Whidbey Air, a tiny radio station in downtown Coupeville, Washington and talked about how she got interested in the material that became her historical novel My Jim. My Jim imagines the lives of the wife and family of Jim, Huckleberry Finn’s companion in the famous Twain novel.
You can hear that broadcast soon, but I’ll just give you a couple of points that I remember from that amazing conversation.
Nancy reminded us that the slave narratives that most of us have read — by famous authors like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs — are by “incredible people, but those people were the exception. Most African American slaves did not escape captivity.”
I realized that I’d never thought of that.
She then went on to talk about the ways in which slaves were valued, and it was here that I remember her saying something truly brilliant.
“There’s no such thing as unskilled labor. Think about it. Think about sweeping the floor, and how there’s an art to it. Think about ironing a shirt. How there’s an art to that as well.”
Gwen Samelson, the engineer at Whidbey Air, and I, just looked at her. We beamed. And we also cried.
Nancy nodded at us calmly. There she was patiently educating two middle-aged white ladies about American History and American Politics, and how Labor really works. AGAIN. Because I imagine she’s had to do it many times. And will have to do it many more times.
Tananarive Due is a different but equally amazing force of nature. A screenwriter, memoirist, historical novelist, and writer of horror, sf, and suspense, Due is also a college professor and a powerful, effective instructor. Organized, incisive, and brilliant.
I am currently reading her horror novel My Soul to Keep, and it is scary, sexy, thoughtful, great. All the main characters are African American. I discovered that I have no problem whatsover in identifying with a protagonist of color (I also identify a bit with the villain, who is also a p.o.c.).
Guess what? You can imagine yourself into any kind of person if the writing is good enough. And if you yourself are willing to take the leap.
In one class Tananarive took us through the steps necessary to make a suspenseful story.
“First of all, ” she said “and I’m not even going to write this down — something bad needs to happen.”
I and the other mostly white students in the room wrote down “something bad needs to happen.”
Sometimes it’s important to state the obvious.
In her class on characterization Tananarive made another seemingly simple, but crucial observation:
“If you want to write diversity, you need to live diversity.”
A ripple went through the classroom. How diversely were we all living, exactly?
I sat in my seat while Tananarive continued talking, and I quietly counted to myself the people of color that I consider actual friends.
Not bad. But I need to do better.
So — I take my hat off to Nancy and Tananarive.
And I’m thinking hard about how to bring more diversity to the NILA MFA program.
And to my life, as well.