spec fiction
the KIS.list: December 2011


The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011

My publisher, Aqueduct Press, does an annual end-of-year roundup of various writers' pleasures in reading, viewing, and listening. This is my post.

I must confess, the dizzying logistics of everyday life claim dominion over so many of my overused brain cells that sometimes the pleasure zones of my brain lie fallow for far to long. And when they light up, the pleasures that triggered the brain activity are quickly forgotten, swallowed by the next days responsibilities—the household duties, the transportation necessities, the meal preparations, the workday intrigues and deadlines, the surviving.

I cannot pride myself on living well if I am only surviving—and finding pleasures is a central aspect of thriving. Even in a year that included no international travel—gasp!—I am happy to say that I did experience some pleasures that tickled my imagination, satiated my need to revel in beauty, allowed me to marvel in the endlessly inventive ways that we humans are creative, or gifted me with the opportunity to wet my face with tears sparked by witnessing resilience and resistance.

So I will take you through a year of pleasures—not necessarily the year’s best, but those that I remember fondly as I lay down another brick in this road I’m paving through life.

January: The Love Art Lab

I was first introduced to Annie Sprinkle over a decade ago when I picked up one of her books at a friend’s house. For all of Annie’s adult life, sex has been her milieu—it has served as her career, her muse, her source of healing, and her field of study. I remember being struck by her sex-positive history of being a prostitute, saying she was working in a massage parlor and having sex with clients, thinking that she was the luckiest massage therapist in town. It took her some time to realize that she was a prostitute, and her clients weren’t paying her for her massage.

In the coming years, I came across bizarre and intriguing performance art pieces:
• Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Peña presenting themselves as newly-discovered Amerindians and travelling the world to display themselves in a cage.

• The destructive and demanding works of Tehching Hsieh which included punching in on a time-clock every hour for an entire year and spending a year tethered to a woman (performance artist Linda Montano) by a rope.

I am intrigued when people are pulled to do something out of the ordinary—bizarre by normal standards, but somehow just right to fulfill whatever internal conversations they are engaged in.

So I was tickled pink when I discovered the Love Art Lab, www.loveartlab.com. Annie Sprinkle, now a mature woman and partnered with Dr. Elizabeth Stephens, created a seven-year project exploring love with her partner. Unable to be legally married at the beginning of the project, Sprinkle and Stephens decided to have a marriage every year for seven years, and in so doing explore the nature of love. Each year was guided by one of the seven chakras. The weddings were large public affairs, celebrations of love, sexuality, and life. It reminded me a bit of parties I fantasized about throwing in my childhood: everyone will dress up and wear the same color and eat oranges! Each wedding seemed like a sublime celebration of life. Would you ever dare to raise such a ruckus in celebration of anything?

February: RETNA Art Exhibition

In February, I accepted a friend’s invitation to head out on a weeknight. We were going to an exposition by the artist RETNA. She was intrigued by his large-scale murals, most of which included beautifully rendered portraits of women. http://english.mashkulture.net/tag/retna/ When we got there, the art was completely different from what she expected. The exposition was held in a massive warehouse, so far away from the normal flow of things we had to assure our cab driver repeatedly that we had the right address. The walls were covered with humongous canvases, most of them black, covered with curling, complex lines. http://www.digitalretna.com/. Were they images? Were they letters of an unknown language? It almost seemed as if I should read the canvases, that perhaps they contained some ancient message that could help me in the future.

It reminded me immediately of something called asemic writing. A term that means writing that has no message content, but retains the emotional messaging that only writing made with a human hand can muster. http://www.asemic.net/ What was clear was that the artist had committed so much time to quieting his brain so that his hand may speak, that he could now enter into a space of deep communing with his work at will—to the point where he could cover in infinite number of canvases (and airplanes and buildings, I later discovered), with the same nuanced, graphic, graceful script. Surrounded by the fruits of his flow, I was intrigued, enthralled, and ultimately inspired to go home and let my hand dance across a canvas too.

March: Meklit Hadero, Leaving Soon

My father has a wonderful music site called Breath of Life that has taught me so much about music. Through his site, I’ve learned more about established musicians and been introduced to new artists. Listening the jukebox on his website, I was introduced to this enchanting song by Meklit Hadero that I listened to repeatedly after my first listen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfB3rnaa5hE

I love creativity and hearing someone’s authentic voice come through whatever art form they engage in. I find this song to be both beautiful, in the flow of established music forms, and also completely original and unique to Meklit. Here is my father’s write up on Meklit: http://www.kalamu.com/bol/?http://www.kalamu.com/bol/2011/03/16/meklit-hadero-“meklit-hadero-mixtape”/

April: Revisiting Jennifer Holiday, “And I Am Telling You”

We live in a world of remakes and do-overs, when classics are done over again, and then again. I—being a person of great calm and subdued emotional expression—am always fascinated when someone has access to emotions in performance, then top it off with a god-given talent, well it gives one pause. At about 3:30 minutes into this scene from the original Dreamgirls stage play, Jennifer Holiday rolls into “And I Am Telling You.” The power of her voice alone can shake you to your soul, but the all-out gusto she puts into her performance is so intense it’s almost shocking. Is it over the top? Certainly, but it’s also spellbinding. Her own personal emotional marathon of pleading and pain, raw emotion vocalized with gut-bucket desperation. Just when you think she’s already left it all on the floor, she puts more hunger and terror into the performance. It is confounding, exciting, and astounding to witness. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtnKI3ztz9w

May: JR, a bridge for change TED Prize Speech

In this TED Prize speech, JR—a former graffiti artist who is now a photographer—walks viewers through his development as an artist. He talks about how art carried him into a new area of artmaking and into new worlds. He travels the globe making larger-than-life size portraits and plasters them to walls all over the world. He photographs people who live in the shadow of poverty, neglect, or conflict to trigger communication and connection. He’s photographed the children of immigrants (his peers) after major class-based riots in France, residents of a favela in Brazil and a slum in Kenya, and people on both sides of the Isreal-Palestine conflict. In Brazil, the media was forced to seek out a people they traditional ignored to interview them about his project. In Isreal and Palestine conversations across the political border were sparked. His project in Nairobi caused one onlooker to explain to another: "You have been here for a few hours, you've been trying to understand the art, discussing with your fellows. In that time, you haven't thought about what you are going to eat tomorrow. That's art."

June: Jose James @ Weeksville Heritage Center

For me, one of the most pleasurable parts of living in New York is the summertime, especially the outdoor music festivals happening all over the city. There are always great concerts in Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect. But there are also smaller scale venues like the Weeksville Heritage Center. http://www.weeksvillesociety.org/

Weeksville is the site of a free black community where three of the community’s original homes have been preserved and the organization is building a multimedia arts center on the site. Each summer they have an intimate concert on their grounds. This summer I was treated to Jose James, a young jazz singer who has received nods and accolades from established jazz musicians for working in the old tradition. I appreciated his recorded music, but seeing him live took my appreciation into another stratosphere. His love for the music was clear, the ease with which his gorgeous voice slipped out was enchanting. He took us on a melodic journey through jazz both traditional and modern. It was a highlight of my summer.

July: Amy Winehouse, “Valerie”

When Amy Winehouse died last summer, I spent a few hours listening to her music online. I found this live session of her singing “Valerie” infinitely more moving than her stage performances. Her hair’s a mess, and she looks like she rolled out of bed and just showed up. Yet she sits in that chair, without an audience, and tells a story through song. With the music and the lights and the fashion stripped away, her power as a vocalist takes center stage. The textures in her voice and the vocalizations she chooses throughout the song make this a moving piece of artmaking for me. It was on constant repeat during the month after her death. I can still listen to it over and over.

August: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the MET http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/about/

One of the highest attended shows in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Savage Beauty exhibition was one of the “must-see” museum shows of the year. When I finally dragged myself there, the line was incredible, snaking through two hallways and two other exhibitions. There were regularly two to five hour waits to get into the show, and once in, you were surrounded by a mass of bodies all trying to see what the fuss was about.

The McQueen show demonstrated that an artist is an artist, no matter the medium. From the fashions themselves, to the collaborations with jewelry, shoe, and hat makers, to the spectacles he mounted as fashion shows, Alexander McQueen was truly a visionary who put all of his creative fiber into his work. The show itself was mounted in such a way to demonstrate the whole environment of McQueen’s creative output and intentions. It was satisfying from the level of spectacle, artistry, and creativity.

September: Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

Actor Michael Rappaport decided to go on tour with A Tribe Called Quest when they reunited for a 2008 tour. He planned to document the innerworkings of one of the most popular and commercially successful hip-hop groups, but he ended up capturing the interpersonal struggles that prevent them from continuing to work together. The documentary reflected the group’s beginnings and the raw creativity that fueled the group’s successes. It also highlighted the different approaches of the members in the group, from anal perfectionism to the trickster jokesterism to freeflowing kindheartedness and peacemaking. Artists are a complex bundle of talent, artistic impulse, issues, and personality. What we dare to do or dare not do defines us. Watching how the group successfully invested in their creativity made me want to free up my own creative impulses and make good on my potential as an artist.

October: Teaching Good Sex http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/magazine/teaching-good-sex.html?_r=1&pagewanted=1&ref=general&src=me

An essential aspect of being an artist is freedom—freedom of thought, freedom of expression, the freedom to create. As passionately as I believe in artistic freedom, I also believe in personal freedom. I am equally moved by displays of artistic expression as I am by people working to help others reach a higher level of personal freedom.

There’s an artistry to truth-telling and nudging people toward new understandings. I recently came across an article in the New York Times called “Teaching Good Sex” about a unique sex education class that delves into the depth and breadth of the sexual experience—from the physical to the biological to the emotional. The high school students in this class have a unique experience in a world/country where honest, authentic conversation about sex is unsupported and difficult. There are far too many of us who have been abused or have become abusers for lack of sexual clarity and awareness. This class is a chink in the wall of silence and we are better for it.

November: September 11 Memorial/Occupy Wall Street’s Liberty Plaza

On a beautiful mild Novemeber night, I took my daughter to the 9/11 Memorial site. http://www.911memorial.org/photo-albums/911-memorial-renderings There are so many things can go wrong with monuments. This monument was so emotionally-charged and there was so much public wrangling, political intrigue and conflict about the memorial, that it was anybody’s guess what the final outcome would be. I am grateful that it wasn’t some soaring mass of metal; it isn’t even a statue—it’s a hole. Two holes to be exact, molded to mark the sites of the oft-mentioned footprints of the two towers that fell. The memorial is sweeping in scale, yet it seems to humble itself to honor the losses, rather than push a nationalistic perspective or a political agenda. Water falls along the sides of the footprints, cascading into a seemingly still pool of water. That night, moonlight gently illuminated the rows and rows of names of the dead etched around the memorial. The intelligently-designed monument elicits contemplation and reflection, and beautifully memorializes those who died.

As we left the monument and walked two blocks to Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park to visit the members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I thought about how close the two landmarks were to each other. We talked to anarchists, artists, and a transgender activist. As a bookend to our visit to the 9/11 memorial, Liberty Plaza left me feeling hopeful. On 9/11, we were violently connected to the world through a level of death and destruction we had previously not experienced. The Occupy Wall Street movement, drawing on the fierce commitment of Egypt’s protestors, connected us with a worldwide movement of the people using their voice. Sometimes it feels that the United States stands alone and it feeds the illusion of solitude. We are, like any people, bound by interdependence needed to be alive. We rode the waves of inspiration that the Arab spring spread throughout the world and became both a part of and a propellant of the communal unrest going on all over the world. I felt, standing there on a warm November night, that we Americans were connected to the world in the spirit of change and humanity, and it seemed that maybe, just maybe, we as humans had taken a step forward in a positive direction.

December: Neil deGrasse Tyson Interview

Stunning minds are always a pleasure to experience. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, is not only an intelligent scientific voice and passionate voice of astronomy, he is also a wordsmith who obviously takes pleasure in words, communication, and oration. This interview starts slow, but once they settle in, Tyson is an engaging and compelling communicator. His passion, zest, and commitment are invigorating as he shares with us the wisdom of the skies and the stars. He is rapturous and poetic about science. I will leave you with this gorgeous rant he has about “star stuff.” You can listen to it at about 24:08 on the video, or read it below. Wishing you a new year filled with varied, profound pleasures.

"We Are Star Stuff"

The atoms and molecules in your body are traceable to the crucibles in the centers of stars that manufactured these elements over its lifespan went unstable, on death, exploded its enriched guts across the galaxy scattering it into gas clouds that would ultimately collapse and make a star and have the right ingredients to make planets and people Which means we are part of this universe Not only are we in the universe but the universe is in us

We are star stuff

--Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist


Vol. 76, Everything Must Change

Everything must change
Nothing stays the same
Everyone must change
No one stays the same

The young become the old
And mysteries do unfold
’Cause that’s the way of time
Nothing and no one goes unchanged

This final post is a long time coming. I’ve tried to write it for the past two years and each time I sat down to end this column, I convinced myself that I needed to continue with the KIS.list. This time, however, there’s no changing the outcome. This is the last post of the KIS.list.

What’s different about this time is that I’m not stopping out of boredom, despair, or exhaustion. I believe I’ve actually completed an arc with the KIS.list. I started off in classic blog fashion reporting about my experiences as a writer—from a personal lens. Over the course of ten years I developed an approach to talk about the universal artist (and sometimes human) experience. My strokes became broader, my references became larger, and my intent became an attempt to encompass the broadness of this great big world.

This past decade has been a time of incredible turmoil in my relationship to myself as a writer. The KIS.list was a constant that allowed me to continue my apprenticeship in the craft of wordsmithing while weathering a drought of productivity, focus, and motivation. Despite the fact that I wrote very little new fiction, the discipline of writing the KIS.list allowed me to continue to develop my skills as a writer. It gave me a healthier distance from my work and made me willing to write and let go.

For the tenth year I wanted to do something big with the KIS.list, but no big idea has arrived. Rather than hold off this breakup waiting for some dramatic finish, I’m going to close the door now and be back in touch if I come up with a theatrical flourish to close out with.

I leave you as a stronger writer than I was when I started the KIS.list. I leave you as a writer with a healthier sense of self, process, and relevance. I leave you in action—I’m meeting personal goals, selling and showing my paintings, and working on a short story collection that is forthcoming from Aqueduct Press in spring 2012.

In classic human fashion—even as I’m filled with pride at all of these wonderful changes, it is a daily struggle to freely and easefully embrace change. I have not been a woman running into the arms of change, arms spread, full tilt. I’ve had hesitations, uncertainties, and halts. On more occasions than I care to count, I have had to wrestle myself into fully embracing change.

Life is, in many ways, difficult, but in other ways it is profoundly easy. Years of wanting and trying and attempting can lead you to a brick wall. Sometimes the obstacles we think we have aren’t the ones we are actually struggling with. The real struggle is the resistance, the refusal to accept things the way they are, the refusal to flow with that which IS in favor of stubbornly seeking out that which we WISH WAS.

We let our wants freeze us up. Blinded to the bounty that we do have, we focus on what we wish we had and let everything go sour over our perceived failure and lack. A few months back, I saw a film called “Certify Copy” in which an older woman says to a younger woman: “Don’t let your dreams ruin your life.”

That line stuck with me. It can be seen as settling for less than. But what I hear in it is that while you’re working toward your dreams, you have to live. And in living and thriving you can connect to the mojo, catch on to the tail of life and soar. I spent so many years fighting so hard for my dreams that my life was completely unacceptable as it was. A rejection of your life does not have to come with working toward your dreams. I didn’t gain any traction in my quest for forward motion until I accepted—really, totally, and fully accepted—reality. I looked at my reality, held out my hand, and said, ‘I get it, you are my reality.’ Then instead of asking ‘how can I change you?’ (which is what I spent most of the past decade trying to do), I asked: ‘how can I be/do what I want while dancing with you?’

Change is ever-present. Change is irony. Change is perfect and imperfect. Change is timely and (seemingly) ill-timed. Change is life. Fight it if you want to, but you’re just ruining your own ride, harshing your own mellow, downing your own high.

I thank you for journeying with me thus far. From this point on, I will use this email list to announce events and happenings in my career. Postings will be sporadic and on an as-needed basis. If you would like to keep in touch, stay on the list or “like” my fan page (Kiini Ibura Salaam on Facebook). If you would like to be removed from the list, email me at kiiniiburasalaam@hotmail.com.

It is a wonderful, creative, productive, transformative time for so many people. I am wishing creativity, productivity, and positive transformation for you. I know how easy it is to hide out from yourself, to dodge or delay your ideas and your wants. I have spent many years flying under the radar, out of sight. But if you are gentle with yourself, if you relax your demands, and meet your dreams halfway, you can move closer to the life you deserve.

One of the things I love about life is its echoes and reminders. Whatever you are dealing with in life, you may find insight in overheard conversations, television shows, street signs, and songs. Case in point: at a recent photo shoot for my new author photo, the photographer—my friend Regine Romain—handed me a stack of Black Angel Cards. “Shuffle them,” she told me, “then spread them out and choose one.” The one I chose was called “The Changer.” I had to laugh. The universe is not letting up on this one. It is time to change—and in changing become, even more deeply, myself. The KIS.list has taught me so many life lessons and I am so grateful to it, and to all of you. I am overjoyed to finally be at this phase of my life in which I am being pushed forward on the tides of change. Yes, it destabilizes me, but it also lifts me soaring higher and higher until even I can’t believe all the good I can achieve.

Be well. Be love[d].

Kiini Ibura Salaam

Life Lessons I Learned from the KIS.list

Listen and act; only by doing will you learn if you are moving in the right direction. Release your worries and fears; study your progress. Work it for a reasonable amount of time, then let go. You don’t have to understand, manage, or control. Just be in the moment. Follow the signs. Everything changes; your worries and stresses won’t help you predict, force, or restrain change. You must surrender. Listen—listen to the flow of change, allow yourself to swim with change, then let go and be the change. Tomorrow is already within you, let it burst forth and flower.