A few months ago Tim Gaze, a zine editor interested in experimental fiction asked me to write a piece for his zine. He had read the first speculative short story I had ever written, "Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors," in the literary journal Anansi and wanted to read more similar work. In "Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors," I switched voices between standard English and an approximation of English spoken by someone who speaks another language. The play with language was inspired by my experience learning to speak Spanish. While studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, I had a really difficult time expressing myself. I had lots of wonderful and intelligent things to say, but my grasp of Spanish was slippery. I might want to talk about the sociopolitical influences of merengue and guava fruit, but all I could say was: "the dog is nice." I became fascinated by the idea of intelligent beings limited to juvenile levels of communication.
In "Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors," I created a character who was not only struggling with language, but also with the society itself. She was a recent arrival to Earth and saw everything through foreign eyes. When I was writing it, it was an honest attempt at fictionalizing my very real alien perspective on life in the Dominican Republic. I wasn't trying to create anything bizarre or experimental. I was just trying to entertain myself. Yet, when I read it today, I see how difficult it might be to read a piece that is half written in a fragmented language. Here is a section that WaLiLa, the otherworldy being, narrates.
"call malkai me fuse re-flames. me fire burn long way to club. we go in club. i excited. i holding on wrist malkai. i feel air white & thick on me skin. me eyes see sticks skinny people use to spread air thick. glow of light on end of stick make me think home. i feel burn in me nose. malkai tell me is scent: smell of rum. me heart pumps to music beat."
Some readers see it and love it. Some readers see it and try to struggle with it, but ultimately find it too challenging and give up. For them, the fragmented language is too much of a barrier. Still others struggle with it at the beginning, but then the story takes over and they are able to flow with this new way of speaking. I have since moved on to other themes and expressions, so I told Tim I had not written anything like that since, so I wouldn't be able to send him any experimental fiction. Undaunted, as a good editor should be, he sent me a few copies of his zine and said maybe I could write something experimental since I'd done it before.
Tim's zine was truly inspiring. He obviously has a love for the work he publishes and skimming the contributors list, I could see that he sought out writers from all over the world to include them in his vision. The energy on the page was palpable. It reminded me of Red Clay, the zine my friends and I put out during my senior year of college. Send me three words, I said, and I'll send you a piece.
He immediately sent me three words, and I wrote them down somewhere and went on with my life. Sure I intended to write something eventually, but in the meantime, I had other things to do. Last Thursday, weeks (months?) after he sent me three words, I received another package in the mail. This time it was a copy of Asemic 2, another zine he puts out featuring asemic writing. Tim describes asemic writing as "text with no semantic information, yet in some sense still a text." When you open the magazine, there are all these scribbles in it. It looks like handwriting, but it doesn't say anything, you can't read it! On first glance, I thought this is useless, what's the point of this? Then I read Tim's statement on asemic writing. I was specifically caught by the following section. Tim writes:
"[Hand]writing does not just contain semantic information. It also contains aesthetic information (when seen as a shape or image) and emotional information (such as a graphologist would analyze.) Because it eliminates the semantic information, asemic writing brings the emotional and aesthetic content to the foreground. By contrast, email is writing almost devoid of aesthetic and emotional content, apart from what the words contain. Asemic works play with our minds, enticing us to attempt to 'read' them. Some asemic works make the viewer hover between 'reading' (as a text) and 'looking' (as a picture)."
I must be an intellectual, because after reading Tim's thoughts on asemic writing, I decided to give the zine another try. I flipped through the entire book, taking time to look at every page. I can't say what I got out of the experience consciously, but when I closed the magazine, I was inspired. I believe I was inspired by the rawness of the expression, and the immediacy of it. It's simple little doodles all over the page that catch you however they catch you. So I decided to sit down and work on a piece for Tim immediately.
I suppose the technique I chose to use in writing the piece for Tim—"freewriting"—is somewhat related to asemic writing. Freewriting is the act of sitting down to write without a preconceived notion of what your content is going to be, drawing from outside sources of inspiration and writing whatever comes to your mind. The point is to turn off your editor, to not censor and not necessarily "make sense." The intention is to tap directly into your fountain of creativity. Your automatic writer that isn't concerned with the result, only the immediate process.
Freewriting is great for writer's block, for deepening or developing a character, imagining new directions for a story, hashing out the arguments in a nonfiction piece, or simply keeping your writing gears flowing. There's a couple of ways to set up free writes. You can ask people for words. You can open book and place your finger blindly on the page and pick up the word or fragment you're pointing to. You can do freewriting in a group and each person writes a description of a person (Bettina who sells bows on the corner), a place (in the fork between the giant's toes), or a situation (Superman decides to become a drag queen). Everyone switches descriptions and writes using a situation, place or person someone else has set up. The point is to use ideas that come from outside of yourself. Then you decide how long you're going to write (10 minutes, 15 minutes) and start writing. You don't stop writing until the time is up. If you can't think of anything, you write "I can't think of anything to write" over and over again until your brain hits upon something.
A successful freewriting session circumvents your conscious mind. Every writer has their own tropes and arguments that they repeat over and over again. Freewriting has the power to take you outside of where your conscious mind would take you into a fresh new realm.
If someone asked me to write a story right now, I probably couldn't write something that felt fresh and original to me. My conscious mind is an editorial force bogged down with the daily details of being an adult. Yet if you gave me some words to play with, watch out!
I have a notebook full of freewrites and I've been able to use them in a number of wonderful ways. When I wanted to write a new speculative fiction story, I was able to mix two freewrites and do minimal changes to make it a whole. I came up with a vampiric psychic who is pressed into service by her community. She has to choose between life and death when her mentor is killed in a flash flood. Bizarre right? Hey, it came from my subconscious. It's almost as if I didn't write it.
At a writing workshop, when one of our instructors challenged us to come up with second story lines (a story that is separate from the main story line to add depth and texture to a short story) for our stories, I flipped through my freewrites looking for a second story that would fit the main tale I was telling. I found a funny little freewrite about a woman who was the queen of comfort by day, feeding folks and providing softness to all around her, and a dominatrix by night. It explored the flip side of comfort and how she comforted those who were emotionally uncomfortable by bringing them physical pain. I flipped that into the second story line of a story I was working on called "Cut." It was about a mental health patient and his recovery, the second storyline I developed was of a nurse who provided comfort to the patient, yet in private he caused himself pain to deal with his mental demons.
I've used a character from an exercise in horror writing, to add a vital element to my novel-in-progress. I've also used snatches of inspired descriptions from freewrites ("I bathe myself in roach dung and wash my hair in rotten fruit. Perfume each armpit with tree sap and sprinkle my skin with gin") in new stories I'm building. Sometimes little excerpts fit in perfectly.
You get the idea, freewrites can spark a writer's creativity. It can add texture and variety and creativity to whatever you're working on. Also, because it comes from your subconscious rather than your conscious mind, it makes writing fun again. It is pure creativity. The self, creating.
I'm not going to tell you what I ended up writing for Tim because he reads the KIS.list and I want him to be surprised when he gets it. But I will tell you what my words were:
This week I received a short rejection letter. It said: "Thank you for sending us your proposal for Clarion West from the Inside. It was read carefully and given our full consideration. Unfortunately the piece doesn't sound quite right for us." The editor wished me luck and signed off.
What I proposed was an article on the Clarion West workshop experience. I could seek to publish such an article elsewhere, but I am busy preparing applications and editing more pressing work. So I add another rejection to the balance.
P.S. I put in an application to a grant today. I'll find out whether or not I get it in April.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 Destruction of the World Trade Center New York, NY
I have nothing to say. There are statements I could make, political accusations, speculations on cause and involvement, blame, but all of it has been said already—over and over again. I assume that each of you is receiving opinions and information through your own channels, channels that are probably aligned with your own perspectives. Anything I would say right now would add to the propaganda—it would either be too far left or too far right of what you think. Or maybe it would be exactly aligned with what you believe. Either way, at this point, you would read it with your judgement cap on. You would take the opportunity to assess and judge and decide whether or not you think I am right. And none of it would get to the heart of how I really feel, how I really felt.
I felt as if I was choking on life. I felt as if the world was gagging, gasping for breath. I felt suddenly linked, if only for a moment, to the terrors of those living in war-torn countries. And when I got home, left the war zone, trecked across the Brooklyn Bridge with the rest of the fearful ones, I felt fucked in the head.
If I am giving you too few details, it is intentional. My particular story doesn't matter. My presence in a subway tunnel when the first building collapsed is somewhat irrelevant. Irrelevant because my life is irrelevant on the scale of international terrorism and war. To world leaders, my life is collateral. Should I die in an air strike or a bombing or a terrorist attack, my life was only collateral damage. What is there to say? I lived. I was not down there that day. I was close enough to breathe in the fumes, to cough on the pulverized glass and asbestos and human remains and whatever else is flying in that thick cloud looming over and around the disaster area. Close enough to be coated in ash by the time I left downtown Manhattan, but not close enough to be hit by the wheel of a dismantled airplane or a body as it fell (or jumped) out of a 105th-floor window, not close enough to see scattered body parts such as the severed hand pictured amongst the rubble in the newspaper the day after. Yet it all left me speechless. Not angry, not fearful, not vindictive, just speechless.
I find myself unable to focus on the individual perpetrators. Maybe it's because of what I've been seeing recently: Life and Debt. Maybe it's because I've traveled to places and been shaken, inalterably, by the way much of the world is living. Maybe it's because I'd just read an interview of former U.S. attorney general Randall Clark who broke down international affairs in a shocking and terrifying way. But I felt the walls between us and the rest of the world breaking down. And what is out there, beyond our shores, is hardcore. It is as if the world's realities had come to smack us in the face.
I have compassion for those who are in a murderous rage. It is the rage of the hurt, it is the rage of the shaken, it is the rage of one whose world has been threatened. I felt that rage once. I was home alone in Fiji. Half awake because I was uncomfortable living in this house on a hill, surrounded by beautiful foliage, but ultimately open, vulnerable to anyone who wanted to climb up the hill. There was always rustling through that foliage, and with my bedroom light on I couldn't see who might be out there looking in at me. Around three in the morning, I heard a clicking at the gate. I got up sleepily to let my friend in, thinking she had finally made it home. And when I looked, I saw that it was not my friend. It was a young man, shirtless with cutoff shorts. His hand was in the gate and he was clicking the lock as if thinking, I've seen this work before, why isn't the gate opening? My heart went wild. I hid. Crouched by the couch, called every friend I could. Eventually he disappeared. Later that morning, when the police came with a young man with white cutoff shorts, I told them I didn't think that was him (his skin looked too dark, the perpetrator had lighter skin), but I couldn't be sure. And the thought rioted through my head, Why don't you just beat him up and find out if he's telling the truth? This young man hadn't run an airplane into a building, hadn't killed thousands of people. Even if he was the perpetrator, he hadn't succeeded at doing anything to me. He hadn't entered the house, he hadn't hurt me, he hadn't even touched me. But he was POSSIBLY the one who threatened my safety, obliterated my ability to sleep, made me need others around me to feel safe and I thought he should suffer for that. These are not rational thoughts, but victims are not rational beings. We are tender, destroyed things who often can think of no other thing, but retaliation to set our world straight again.
Of course retaliation won't set our world straight again. There are people who still don't know where their mothers are. Lower Manhattan is covered with flyers, flyers with photographs of the missing. "My sister hasn't been seen since Tuesday, she worked at Windows on the World. Please call me if you've seen her." "Our loving father is missing. He worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. He was last seen in building 1." There are children, too many children, who lost their parents. There are those in full possession of their lives who won't be able to erase that terror from their minds. There are those, I'm sure, who will go insane.
As I write this my girlfriend calls me shaky-voiced to say every time she closes her eyes to sleep, she's back at the World Trade Center, on the 105th floor, where she once worked, and the plane is coming right at her. And I am filled with morbid thoughts. A gym bag is no longer just a gym bag, it's a bomb carrier and I wonder what it's doing in my office building. Two people holding hands are no longer just a couple, they are lovers holding on to each other in the face of terror and destruction and pain. And those white men reading the paper across from me on the subway and that Chinese woman sitting next to me, they are no longer "others" whose lives I cannot image, they are human beings who may have lost someone in that attack. We are all suddenly so human again.
We are all so human. Human is the woman who writes from the Middle East of the heightened campaigns against her safety while the world is mourning for America. Human is the man who asks when you bomb Afghanistan, what are you going to bomb? It's been done already, we've already been destroyed. Ironically, those we suspect of committing this crime, those we believe harbored the criminals, the nations we are certain have created these terrorists are already paying. They are paying in a way we Americans can not relate to. They have been paying for years and I suspect that is why they paid us a visit. Murder, death and destruction in the war zones; murder, death and destruction in downtown Manhattan. This is our world. What are we going to do?
The silence is amazing. The quiet of people who have just had the wind blown out of them. Speechlessness. A silent New York. The patience is unprecedented. The lack of sucking teeth and loud complaining when the train isn't showing up on time. The unity of conversation, we are all talking about it. How could we not?
And I don't even know why I am writing this. I'm writing this because I've committed myself to communicating about this life, this writer's life. I'm writing this because it would feel false to move on to the next topic without some word, some nod, to the hole that has been ripped through so many lives. I'm writing this, I suppose, because I write.
Can you imagine what it would take to make a human being fly a commercial airplane into the top of a skyscraper? I'm sure you don't want to, but this is what addles me. What conditions of life could come together to make someone, anyone, choose that path of action? What depth of poverty? What poverty of opportunity? What closeness to death? What familiarity with war? What pain? What confusion? What terror? What desperation? What, as the media is naming it, hatred? And why do these conditions exist in our world?
In the tarot deck, there is a card called The Tower. The image is of a tower, a ray of lightning is striking it and it is in the process of crumbling. People are falling out of the tower and plunging to their deaths. It is a card of transformation. Literally it is the card of personal habits and beliefs being broken down by circumstances beyond the individual's control. The situation has reached boiling point and something has to give.
I spoke to more people the day of and the day after the disaster than I had spoken to in months. It seemed the only thing to do: be with people. I spent the entire day after on foot, pretending I lived in a village, visiting everyone I could reach. I brought nothing with me, I took nothing when I left. Nothing save the solace of being together. It seemed everything else was a waste of time.
I feel as if someone close to me has died. The questions I battle with everyday as I work a 9-5 totally obliterated my ability to function last week. Today I am better. And I had to wait to write this to not simply advertise hysteria. Last week I felt suddenly that my plans are stupid, silly, frivolous. I felt that the anal, mechanical division of art during my commute or for a stolen hour before work is insane. My life had become (and knowing myself as a human being will probably again become) a meaningless merry-go-round. I felt like a rabbit or mouse, stealing tiny packets of time to live in. And when I got those packets of time I stuck them in my cheeks, squirreling them away for winter. But I had/have become a slave to my own plans. NOW-ness was totally lost on me.
It was a blessing to not have a plan. After the attack, I did not know what I was going to do in the next minute, the next hour, the next day. Only in that emptiness, only in this state of shock could I recognize what was lacking in my life. Only by being shaken to my foundations, could I recognize I had sentenced myself to mental lockdown. I was doing every THING I needed to do to be fulfilled. I started my novel, worked a 9-5, edited my stories, wrote an essay, edited someone else's novel, and maintained three electronic groups. I socialized, having a grand time. But death stopped me. Death stopped me and said, if you die tomorrow, would you be happy with how you lived today? In the past, I answered that question with things: have I attended this event, have I published this many stories, have I traveled to this many countries? Today, this year, the answer is different. It is not just what I achieved, but how.
I have to look under those layers of achievement now, I have to go deeper. Not do more, but be more profoundly aware or interactive or present in all those things I do. I am attempting to dismantle my habit of planning my weekend before I get to it. I am trying not to be dominated by my date book. I have given myself permission to seek nothingness as often as possible. Before the planes hit the buildings, nothingness was wasted time. Nothingness was a lack, a lack of productivity, a lack of preparing for my future. But in the painful silence, nothingness is once again nourishing to me and I seek it with others.
Suzanne Falter-Barns, author of How Much Joy Can You Stand?, says "What I am left with in the aftermath of this tragedy is a deep, gnawing sense of need—to love harder, make more noise, take more chances, and really fulfill this life that God has kindly not yet taken from me."
I claim this attack as a call to love. It is a call for international love, national love, and personal love. Love and compassion for our fractured nation. Love and compassion for those with missing, dead, or wounded loved ones. Love and compassion for those who are themselves missing, dead, or wounded. Love and compassion for the witnesses. Love and compassion for the perpetrators. Love and compassion for the systems and acts and motivations and fears and hurts. And most importantly, more love and compassion in our immediate worlds. I trust that everyone will make the theoretical adjustments their world views demand, I know that we will all support whichever political measures we deem to be correct, and we will all judge the people and entities we have decided are guilty. But I challenge us all to heighten the love in our lives, right now. Be more expressive of it, revel in it, create more of it, act because of it, live in it. Because when the plane hits your building, what else is there?
My girlfriend Vanessa Richards and I have done Carnival together in three countries: Notting Hill Carnival in London, Brooklyn's Labor Day festivities and, of course, Trinidad's Carnival. What amazes me about Carnival, besides the freedom and lawlessness of it, is the Science of it. There's so many elements to the Caribbean Carnival: pan, costume, soca music, fetes, J'ouvert, and in Trinidad, there are also the Calypso tents. This weekend in particular, I spent a lot of time musing about the specific elements needed for the ultimate Carnival experience.
FAMILIARITY Every season, the calypsonians and soca singers make up new songs and those songs last for the whole year. The first key to being able to attack a carnival experience with total involvement and abandon is knowledge of the songs. During the years I've been in Trinidad for Carnival [1996, 1997, 2000 (and soon to be 2002)], I learned the songs inside and out. This knowledge impacts the rest of my entire year. When I go to a soca club or party in any other part of the world, they play the soca hits of the year. When those familiar notes and rhythms bounce off my ear drums, I'm immediately infused with energy and remembered joy. With that familiar pleasure thrumming through me, I dance hard, harder than I would have had I no knowledge of the songs whatsoever. A family friend calls soca music trance music. For me, it's all about muscle memory. Once you've cemented some sweet times around a few songs, every time you hear those songs, the fun you had flashes through your memory and your body reacts. Soca music hits you on another level: the lyrics aren't challenging, the beats aren't varied, it isn't meant to be an intellectual experience. It's meant to be interactive, experiential, physiological. The music itself reaches a whole new level of completion and fulfillment when a crowd of ecstatic dancers are riding the rhythms with aggressive abandon. [Another type of knowledge necessary is the knowledge to wine (gyrate, specifically gyrate against someone else), but we will leave that for your own investigations.]
So Friday night Vanessa and I headed to the big fete behind the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Four big bands: David Rudder & Charlie's Roots, Blue Ventures, Square One, and Ecstatic. When we got there Charlie's Roots were on stage. The crowd was large, but it didn't feel like a mass of people because half the crowd was politely sitting in folding chairs and the other half of the crowd was swallowed by the huge space. We enjoyed David Rudder's two songs, but while they were changing the stage for Blue Ventures, we talked about the lack of fete energy in the air. That's when I began my musings on the Science of Carnival. Rather than feel tricked or cheated because I wasn't having a rollicking good time, I was patient. I told Vanessa I was taking the opportunity to study the music. As neither she nor I had gone to Carnival in 2001, we were behind in our capacity to enjoy the evening. Our lack of familiarity with the songs and the dances limited our excitement level.
Halfway through the Blue Ventures set, the singers seemed a little uninspired by the energy level of the crowd. The singers and band members had been jumping around, singing their hearts out, but they didn't feel much energy from the crowd. The concert organizers had cleared out a space between the crowd and the stage and blocked it off with barricades. Frustrated, the singers on stage screamed, "If you paid your money to get in here, come front, come front." That was all the young folks in the crowd needed to hear. They pushed the barricades aside and surged up to the foot of the stage. Once the desired connection/energy level was established, Blue Ventures ripped through the rest of their set. The third band Square One came on and sang some really nice songs and even did a reggae set (it's always nice to give your muscles another rhythm to dance to when you've been squatting and gyrating for hours), but they weren't at the top of their game. I was ready to chalk the evening up to homework for the later days of carnival, when we bumped into the next important element of enjoying carnival.
CREW You know, it's fun to enjoy carnival alone or with one other person, but the fun goes up a couple of notches when you have crew. Vanessa and I were standing by the corn soup vendor and I saw a familiar face. "Were you at Carnival 2000 at the InsomniaBreakfast Fete?" I asked this guy who looked familiar. He looked at me like, ummmm. "I was there," he said, but I could tell he wasn't convinced he knew me. I told him what crew we were with, and he was like "yeah, yeah, I know them, but I was really drunk that night. So I don't really remember you." We laughed and said our good-byes and he wandered off. Vanessa and I moved closer to the stage and this time, someone tapped Vanessa on the shoulder. "Didn't I meet you in Trinidad four years ago?" he asked her. And they got into a conversation. And who walks up while they're talking? The guy I remembered from Trinidad. "You know this guy?" he asked me. "No, he knows my friend Vanessa..." "And you know me," he finished for me. "Well, that's my partner, this is who I'm here with tonight. And next thing we know, we're surrounded by a group of about ten men and women, and they're passing the rum and inviting us to play J'ouvert with them.
So by the time the last band, Ecstatic reached the stage, we had crew. Crew is like a microcosm of the entire fete. The fete is this huge group of wild folks, laughing, dancing, and drinking and having fun. When it's just you and your girlfriend, you can roam through the fete, but there's no space you can dominate, because you just don't have the numbers. But when you join a crew, you have space. All the bodies in that crew are markers for the parameters of your free space. You can run around and jump and be free without worrying about who you're running into. You have more people to dance with and laugh with and laugh at. The entertainment goes up a few levels. Also, Ecstatic played so many songs from last year (when I was actually at Carnival), that in addition to having crew, my familiarity with the music multiplied by the end of the evening. By the time Ecstatic broke into their rendition of "Get Your Freak On," Vanessa and I were pretty much out of control.
STAMINA Carnival is a lot of fun, but it's also a serious pursuit. If you're not fit or you're unprepared to push yourself physically, you'll spend a lot of time on the sidelines. The fete we went to on Friday night went from 9:00 till about 3:00 a.m. The next night we went dancing till about 5:00 a.m. and then it was time for J'ouvert. Sunday night, we went to a low-key Carnival party. Danced, talked, fraternized. My friends drank and as the hour neared 2:00 a.m., I started to get sleepy. Why? I hadn't spent the day relaxing, I pride myself this year on attending all the parties I wanted to attend AND getting my work done. I spent the entire day writing and editing. So I found a corner, laid on some pillows, and took a nap. They woke me up around 3:00, we traveled back to my house and changed into J'ouvert clothes.
Vanessa can give a more historical view on what J'ouvert is. I heard her this weekend explaining something about cane cutters and field workers. Looking at the style of J'ouvert, I can see what the connection would be, but I don't have any facts regarding J'ouvert's history. What I do know is that J'ouvert means "the opening". It is officially the opening of Carnival, J'ouvert leads to Carnival day. J'ouvert takes place in the wee hours of the morning. It's considered "dirty mas" because people traditionally coat their bodies in "mud" (an earth-colored body paint) and take to the streets in ratty clothing. Today, there's yellow body paint, black oil, mud, blue paint, whatever color takes your fancy. On top of the mud, people in the band throw flour and baby powder. Spectators for J'ouvert know they may get splattered if they stand too close. And don't let a mud man catch one of his friends standing on the sidelines. No matter what they're wearing, they're getting painted.
Our J'ouvert clothes were clothes we didn't mind getting destroyed, clothes we expected would be destroyed. We got to the house where the J'ouvert band was leaving from at 4:00 a.m. We knew it was the right house because we saw people covered in red paint hanging out in front of the house. We went to the back where about 25 or 30 people were dancing, all covered in red "mud". The guys hugged us and sent us over to pay our $5 and get mud. This group is an informal group, there are no costumes, just alcohol, friends, and percussive instruments. The $5 is just to keep them from going into the hole. With costumes and an actual steel pan band, inclusion in a J'ouvert band can run up to about $30.
Because it's on the street and (traditionally) unregulated [Friends tell me the police presence at J'ouvert this year was too confining. They felt controlled and J'ouvert is all about freedom. I didn't experience the police control b/c I was in a band], J'ouvert is everybody's time. The haves and the have-nots. It's also a time for creative costuming: lots of men dress like women, people make political or social commentary with signs and costumes. It's also a time of bizarreness and nudity. We saw a man laying in a coffin with a large snake. He was sticking out his tongue and getting freaky with the poor reptile. At one point he even bit the snakes skin as it slithered over his face. A few men walked around bare-legged and bare chested sporting only a pair of briefs. We were surprised to see three young round-the-way guys playing with gender in a surprising way: they wore thongs under their low-slung jeans, turning expectations over for one crazy morning. And of course the women have cut off shorts, shirt with holes cut out of them, ripped jeans displaying thighs and buttocks. Sometime toward dawn, we saw a woman dressed only in a wide-netted, silver mesh top saunter by. Her skin was covered in black body oil, she had on a V-stringed something that could not count as clothing as EVERYTHING was exposed. There was a thick silver-chain wrapped around her torso and she was being walked by a huge-stomached big man who was also covered in black oil. "Maybe she's making a statement about the subjugation and commodification of women," Vanessa joked. Ummm, yeah.
J'ouvert is traditionally a time of percussive instruments, no electronic music. So pan rules the road: groups of steel pan drummers or percussive groups with drums and the metal center of wheels to beat out rhythms. We left the house around 4:45 and joined the parade. We had a steel band in front of us and a huge black-paint Guyanese group behind us. So we drifted between our group, the steel pan, and the fast drumming of the Guyanese group.
PATIENCE Patience is a virtue, but it's also a necessity when seeking Carnival fun. There's always those moments between when you arrive and when the activity gels into whatever kind of lawlessness it's going to be. For me, I didn't really start to have fun, until the sun rose. At that point, my favorite dancer finally put down his drum and we danced together. My crew inside the crew had relaxed into the rhythms and no one was worried that someone wasn't having a good time. The street crowds seemed to finally have been freed to mix in with the band. I got to dance with a few strangers, run back to other bands and generally feel free.
We got back to the house around 8:30 a.m. The d.j. cranked the music back up and we danced hard, danced like we didn't just come off of the road. Later, we drove to Manhattan Beach in Sheepshead Bay. Four black men and two black women covered in red paint entered the realm of quiet white families enjoying their Labor Day the best they knew how. It was a funny intersection. In Flatbush, it seems like Carnival is the only thing happening, but outside the Carnival zone, people are living their regular lives. We washed off the paint, took in a little sun, and headed back home. We got in at noon, showered, ate, napped, then dressed. We were on Eastern Parkway for the parade by 3:00 p.m. By then, though, our bodies were pretty much satiated. We watched the trucks come by and danced on my friend's porch till the trucks stopped flowing. I went to bed around 8:00 p.m. Vanessa went out to meet some friends, she didn't want Carnival to end.
Which brings me to the final element of having a great Carnival: Beyond having posse, it's essential to have the right running buddy. Vanessa and I have done so many Carnivals together because we're a good match. If there's a good time to be found, Vanessa is going to find it; and if there's a good time to be had, Kiini's going to have it. Together we've got the stamina, the energy, the freedom, and the love of dancing. The only difference between us is she wants to go till she drops, I want to go till I'm about to drop, then I want to go home. I'm about to buy my ticket for Trinidad Carnival 2002 and I'm trying to convince her that she needs to be there too. We have so many more memories to create.
Ms. Salaam: We've been given permission by ________ at _____ magazine to reprint your essay, "No," in our Nov./Dec. issue. I'm attaching the essay for your perusal, though it is the same version as that which appeared in _____ magazine. (Your editor requested I send this to you.)
I am of course thrilled to add an acceptance to balance out my rejection from a couple of weeks ago, but it was also a bizarre feeling... like, the deed is done, we just wanted to let you know where your words will appear next. So I looked at my contract and the magazine that originally published the article does indeed have syndication rights. In return for the right to syndicate, they'll pay me 50% of whatever they sold it for. Funny to have something you created making moves beyond your control.
The Living Room of a Writer's Apartment Brooklyn, NY
I've been writing and publishing stories and essays since 1990. In the beginning I never read my work at all. When people were looking for writers to read at events, I'd refuse; when pushed, I'd be noncommital. When I did promise to read, I would leave my work at home. I'd shrug my shoulders and say, I can't recite a whole story from heart. Besides, reading a short story isn't like reading a poem. Who wants to sit down and listen for that long? I'm not a performer anyway, I'd say. You know them, the performers. There are more of them in poetry than in fiction, yet often I was asked to read in poetry environments and I felt, I just can't compete.
I had good reason to avoid the stage, too. My presentation of my work was less than accessible. My head stayed down and I just tried to get through it. Sped over the words at a mind-numbing speed, so that the applause at the end of my readings was simply a congratulatory clap for me getting through the reading, not necessarily appreciation for the writing. In 1997, I participated in my first round of book promotions, Men We Cherish: African-American Women Offer Praise and Appreciation for African-American Men. We had a book party and a book signing, we did bookstore appearances and finally we ended up on the radio, WBAI.
At this point, I had had a few succesful readings. Before every reading I had to psyche myself up: read slow, read slow, read slow, I'd tell myself. By the time we got to WBAI, I thought I had it under control. Three other contributors were on the radio with me. We talked about writing and our particular essays (mine is about learning to love and appreciate my brothers). Then it was time to read. I don't remember the actual experience of reading, I just remember getting a tape from the show. When I listened to it, I was shocked to hear myself. I skimmed over my words with a mumbling quickness. I thought I had that problem licked. Then I got angry, it was a recording after all, not a live radio show, why didn't somebody tell me? Why didn't they stop me and tell me to start over again?
Obviously these types of embarrassing experiences didn't feed my eagerness to read my work in public. I kept doing it though, if someone DIRECTLY asked ME. If abstract invitations were hanging in the air, I ignored them. But if a friend asked ME, I'd do it and suffer through. I began to discover, however, that every time I did a reading, it would be surrounded by a flurry of writing. Either before the reading or after the reading I'd revisit some story or start a new one. Participating in readings made me feel like a writer during a time when my participation in the writing life was sporadic. Even with all my reluctance to reading, I got immense value from the acknowledgement (somebody has to think you're a writer to ask you to read) and the participation (no matter how much or little you write, if you're on stage reading your work to an audience, the audience thinks you're a full-on writer).
Eventually, I found my reading rhythm and reading comfort within a circle of writers. Writing is a very solitary event, but there is so much development and inspiration to be gained from interacting with a community of writers. Near the time of the radio fiasco, I started a writing group with a friend of mine. One of the requirements was whenever we presented our work to the workshop we had to read it aloud. Even amongst a small circle of friends, I would be nervoushands shaking, quaky-voiced, speeding over my words, barely pausing to let the events sink into the listener's ear. But, by the time that reading group dissolved, I was able to read slowly and clearly and be understood. [I still failed, like the time I was asked to read at a restaurant in Harlem, but the restaurant had double booked. We went to a house to hold the reading and suddenly a public event was a small intimate event. The audience was gathered around closely and I was shaken. My head never came up for eye-contact with the listeners and I didn't set up the excerpt, so no one really understood the bizarre world I was reading about.]
From that point, I promised myself that EVERY time someone asked me to read, I would. I would do it to force myself to interact with my work and the public on a whole new level. I found that reading my work out loud forces me to pay attention to what I was doing with the words. You hear the play of the word-rhythm in a way you don't hear when you're reading it silently. If I really immerse myself into the world I've created, I find myself emotionally influenced by my own work. Isn't that a trip? I get emotionally involved because—in order to really communicate the words, the story, the world I created—I have to release my criticisms of my craft. My mind can't wander off to other events and moments, I have to be fully present and fully focused on each word at the time it's coming out of my mouth. It's like getting to know my work from the inside out.
Another element of resisting representing my writing was the thought: this is my work, I don't want to force anyone to partake in it. Of course, I like it, but well, does anybody care? A large turning point for me in that regard was being invited to read at an erotic event last Valentine's Day. I said yes before investigating the event because the organizer was a friend of my sister's. She insisted that I make something to sell because she wanted everyone there to be able to gain something from the event. I made little pillowbooks of an erotic short story, something I never would have done without the event organizer's prodding. I sold a few books that evening, but it was wonderful to have those books on me at other readings and to watch them wander off in the hands of an appreciative listener. They had a life of their own!
Anyway, I get to this event and find out in addition to me there is a dominatrix, a masseuse and two strippers! I almost freaked out. I made the event organizer agree to let me go first. No one is going to want to hear a story after we see naked people. She agreed, but then at the last minute she decided to go with the masseuse. O.K., O.K., I said, but you must let me go next. She promised she would, and at the last minute she decided the energy was right for the strippers. The male stripper is popping his butt and picking women up in their chairs and pushing his face into their breasts. Then the female stripper comes out in red patent leather and proceeds to take it all off. The men have pulled out dollar bills and the dynamic has gone from playful to strip-club-live. For her grand finale, this naked woman laid down on the floor, opened her legs, displaying her stuff, picked up a candle and poured hot wax from her throat to (and into) her vulva. I said, that's it, I'm going home. I can't follow that up. No, you've got to stay, the event planner says, I invited you because I wanted to show a range of erotic experiences. You're next!
I have a thing about taking my medicine. Which means when somebody says: do this. And I don't want to simply because I'm afraid or unsure or don't think people are going to like me, I do it anyway, because it's my medicine. So I stood up, nervous to be representing in the same space as this sex madness, and I read my story (a little too fast) and halfway through you could have heard a pin drop in the place. It was completely silent, they were with me for every word, happily listening until the end. It was such a relief and such an instruction in what I can offer people. I'd spent so many years thinking about what my writing is to me, never considering what my writing is to others. I never thought, by me being here, I'm giving people pleasure, I'm feeding imaginations, and sharing beauty. Clearly, those people didn't have to listen to me. They had just seen a stripper, they could have turned away. Hovered by the food table and started a side conversation. It isn't like a crowd who comes to a reading prepared to listen to words, these people had come to get aroused and tantalized, not to listen. But they were into my words anyway.
I've known I wanted to be a professional writer for a long time. Never for a moment have I doubted that I would be successful as a writer, but I was a very work-centered writer. "The work will speak for itself" was my perspective. I will become a star because I write amazing things, bottom line. I don't need to seek and pursue opportunities to read my work, I don't have to tell people when I'm doing a reading, I don't have to hustle to get an appearance, all I have to do is write and get my work published.
This summer at Clarion, I began shifting my beliefs regarding promotions. (I went to Clarion expecting to improve my writing, but I ended up returning with a fire in my belly. I believe workshops and other writing-intensive experiences have the power to transform your relationship to your craft in unexpected ways.) There wasn't anything in particular at Clarion that shifted me in that direction. The folks at Clarion made a particular effort to give us information regarding writing CAREERS as well as info about the craft of writing. So I guess it was the thrust of the workshop (and my readiness) that propelled me to this point. Interaction with writers who are at different levels of their careers, some who were aggressively pursuing success; straight talk from a publicist who told us clearly that a publisher will only do so much to promote our work; and positive feedback from my Clarion reports all swirled together to make me understand that I am responsible for creating a presence for myself. The publicist gave us a myriad of examples where wonderful writers are just lost in the shuffle because there are so many books being published and pushed at the same time. If you don't have big buck possibilities, the publisher won't push your novel. Who is going to fill in the blanks? If I know going in that the publisher's commitment may very well be minimal, what am I going to do to make my chances more powerful? Why am I afraid to build a presence for myself?
Perhaps it was the intense daily-ness of being at a six-week writing workshop that fed my urgency. Suddenly it is not enough for me to improve my craft, suddenly I realize, that I am responsible for letting the world know about my work. They can choose whether or not to interact with it, but if I don't announce it, if I don't share it, if I don't put it out there, then no one even has a the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to read it.
I've been writing for 10 years, When Butterflies Kiss is the first project I participated in where I did a mass mailing advertising the events. I have realized that when I hold back and don't tell people when I'm reading, and don't share my insights as a writer, I am blocking my own expression and progress. People may want to support me, people may be fans and just want to share my work, and if I say nothing, I rob them of that opportunity.
When I started the KIS.list, I wasn't quite sure of how it would develop. All I knew was that it was time for me to interact with the public. For years, I have been saying: I want a column, someone should give me a column. I've got great and interesting things to say. Only now, as I start the KIS.list and receive the ENORMOUS validation of people wanting to receive my words, do I realize that this is it. This is my column, and I've done it by myself for myself.
Writing is a call and response. What happens when a writer only calls, then runs away before she can get a response? Yes, writing is a solitary act, but it is fully realized when others read it and respond to it. Otherwise, the circle is incomplete.
KIINI IBURA SALAAM is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her book--"Ancient, Ancient," a collection of speculative tales that revolve around the dark, the sensual, and the magical--was named one of the Best Fantasy and Science Fiction Collections of 2012 by editor Jeff VanderMeer. http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Fiction-Kiini-Ibura-Salaam/dp/1933500964
Kiini's work is rooted in in eroticism, speculative events, and women's perspectives. Her fiction has been anthologized in such collections as Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Dark Eros. Her nonfiction has been published in Ms. magazine, Essence magazine, and Utne Reader. Her KIS.list e-report chronicles the ups and downs of the writing life and is currently being serialized in the e-book format. The first volume is titled On the Psychology of Writing: Notes from the Trenches. http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Writing-Notes-Trenches-ebook/dp/B009NNHTOU/ref=la_B007YU4GWC_1_16?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355940255&sr=1-16
Stay in touch with her activities by clicking "Like" on her Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/kiiniibura