PR’s Afropalooza Novel Pick: DESSA ROSE by Sherley Anne Williams

Yesterday, I wrote that I was so excited about Black History Month that I’d decided to celebrate this year by nicknaming BHM “Afropalooza.”  (I’m still feeling pretty happy about the nickname, by the way.)

In addition, I thought it would be really great to read a novel in February. Now, I like brand new novels. Those of you who read the blog regularly or who follow me on Twitter or have “liked” my Facebook Fan Page know that I’m not only a writer, but also, a serious reader as well.

But during Black History Month, I like to return to some of the past books that really made an impression on me. That’s why I chose Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams as the official 2012 PhillisRemastered Afropalooza Novel Pick.

You can find this wonderful novel on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle versions. For those people who prefer another bookstore, you can order from Powells.com by clicking here. Or you can order from BarnesandNoble.com by clicking here, where the book is available in print  and Nook form.

Or, if you prefer to visit a fabulous independent bookstore like The Wild Fig  (in Lexington), co-owned by the fabulous, brilliant novelist (and my good friend) Crystal Wilkinson, and her equally fabulous partner, the arist and poet Ronald Davis, even better! You have nearly two weeks to get your independent bookseller to order Dessa Rose for you.

We will have THREE Twitter Chats on Dessa Rose during the month of February, all at 4:00pm EASTERN STANDARD TIME: February 12, 19, and 26.  We will be using the hashtag, “#Afropalooza.” 

On February 12, we will discuss the Prologue and the first section. February 19, we will discuss the second section, and finally, on February 26, we will discuss the third section and the Epilogue.

If you miss one of the Twitter Chats, don’t despair! Because you can always read the timeline later on and catch-up.

Poster of Dessa Rose, the musical

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So let me tell you about this beautiful book, Dessa Rose, by Sherley Anne Williams.

I first read the novel nearly twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. I picked it up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the Book Rack, a great used bookstore that was around the corner from my apartment. I only paid two dollars for it, and there was no picture on the cover. I know you’re wondering how I can recall all that. I can’t. I still have the book. (It’s sitting right by me as I type this blog post.)

Set in the 1800s before the Civil War, this novel is based on true stories, and it depicts the unfolding friendship between two women, one Black and unfree and one free and White. Ruth Elizabeth (Rufel) lives on farm and has been abandoned by her husband. Dessa Rose is a runaway slave.  Their friendship is the miracle that defies the racial and social constructs of their time. (Yes, those are my own words.)

As a young, aspiring writer enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, the novel really made an impression on me, because I’ve always been interested in realistically depicted friendships and/or love between Black and White people, and I’ve always admired writers who could successfully get in the heads of all of their characters with a light hand–and an authentic, non-stereotyped understanding.

In Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams depicts her characters with so much grace, and I’ve returned to this novel so many times since. I recommend it to everyone, because Sherley Anne Williams did not get the attention she deserved, though she was a well-known poet.   And she was a respected literary critic as well.

AND there was an Off-Broadway musical based on the novel! It was featured at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

I just love Williams’s work so much, and she modeled to me on the page that I could write whatever the Spirit moved me to write, instead of being pigeon-holed into one literary genre.

So, I hope you will return with me or read the novel for the very first time. Either way, please join me on Twitter on February 12, 19, and 26 at 4pm EST to discuss Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams. And remember to use the hashtag, “#Afropalooza”! It’s going to be completely sassy all month long.

Afropalooza, Baby!–I just had to say it one more ‘gain.

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My Journey With Albert

I’ve talked a lot about the fact that I have been a serious fiction writer for a long time, sixteen years to be exact.  My graduate creative program was structured so that you couldn’t concentrate in two genres, so I concentrated in poetry, but over the years after grad school, I collected fiction pubs here and there. I still didn’t have any confidence about my fiction, though, so I decided to take a workshop.

The fiction workshop was with an organization that I will not name. I won’t identify the year or the teacher, either; I only will say I admired the teacher so much because he was a well-known Black fiction writer, though I hadn’t yet read his work. However, when I entered the workshop, the teacher had a very gruff, nearly rude manner toward me, even though I was putting the full beam of my Southern Belle charm on him.

Y’all that charm is dangerous, especially when combined with my mother’s biscuits, but I didn’t make him the biscuits. Maybe that was my problem.

Strangely, though, the teacher was friendly to the other students, just not to me— it seemed that way. But sometimes, I’m very overly sensitive, so I thought it was just in my head. He and I were nearly of the same generation, while the other students were much younger than I was, and since I was an accomplished poet with two books, I wondered if I was giving off some “know-it-all” impression without wanting to. I knew my having poetry books meant nothing in the fiction world, so arrogance wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

Finally, it came time to workshop my story. Weeks before the workshop began, I had sent in a twenty-page story called “Fish Albert,” about an old man who wants to be independent and take care of himself, but whose daughter is starting to take his independence away from him, bit by bit.

Both Albert and his daughter are Black, and they live in the deep country, in a (fictitious) small town in Georgia called Chicasetta. The old man speaks in deep vernacular and is uneducated, while his daughter is a college graduate who speaks very correct English with a clipped accent. There were parts of this story that I knew had serious issues, but to me, those issues were plot-based. I had a habit of writing  long passages of beautiful language that didn’t go anywhere, and I knew I needed help with that. But I didn’t have any problem with the setting and the dialogue–I thought.

When it came time for workshop, though, the teacher didn’t talk about the plot at all; instead, he focused almost solely on the language the old man used, meaning the Black vernacular. My teacher told me the story was “riddled with racial cliché” and he went on to say how “offensive” the character of the old man was, how people like this “didn’t really exist.” (Clearly, my teacher had never met any of my great-uncles.)  When I asked him—in my humblest, most quiet, and frankly, my most unlike-Honorée manner—how to fix the story, he suggested cutting eighteen pages out of it. Which would have left, like, two pages. To me, it seemed–again seemed--like he was saying “throw this story in the trash can.”

As I sat there and my teacher talked about my writing in a strident tone and with his face screwed up like he was smelling a fresh outhouse, I started getting the impression that he was taking something about my story personally, but I didn’t know what. I immediately tried to dismiss that notion, because I’ve had my own students say, “she didn’t like me” on teaching evaluations.

I decided to set the story aside. Clearly it was bad and couldn’t be fixed.

Then, a while later, I decided to order a book by that teacher from Amazon. I couldn’t even make it through the book, I was so bored. So I started reading another book by him—same experience. The novels were very smart and funny and had extremely intellectual frameworks, but I felt no emotional connection to the stories or the characters. Admittedly, I’m prejudiced that way; I like a lot of feeling in my books, not just irony and humor.

I like a lot of feeling in my life, too, by the way.

Then, I got to thinking–or “cogitating,” as Albert might say. Maybe the problem between my teacher and me had been our own artistic prejudices. He liked smart stories and didn’t care whether anyone was feeling something inside when reading his work while I liked emotional stories and didn’t care about the intellectual impression I was leaving.

But just because I don’t have an intellectual concept when I sit down to write doesn’t mean I’m not smart. Like the main character in my story, I have a southern drawl and speak (sometimes) in the vernacular, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. And it also doesn’t mean I can’t write a smart story, either—smart doesn’t always have to look and act one way. We Black folks have to stop making that mistake about each other.

That’s when I went to my files and found the “Fish Albert” story. At that point, the story was five years old.

I changed the title of the story to “A Cheerful Tune” and submitted it to Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review. It was accepted and published. Now, in my teacher’s defense, I did revise that story, a lot. But I also kept the basic plot and the Black vernacular dialogue that he really, really despised.

A few days ago, I received a letter from the editor of Shenandoah informing me that I had won the Goodheart Award in Fiction, and the prize comes with money, too! And I really liked the name of that award. The name says something to me—and not just that 1) I’m about to get paid and 2) my former teacher can suck it–and he can suck my traditional southern African American folkways and vernacular.

No, “Goodheart” reminds me to look back and see how far I’ve come and not to get down on myself if I’m not moving as far ahead as I think I should. Surely, I want to make money on my creative writing, but I’ll never be super-rich, and probably not even moderately rich. The most I can hope for is to pay off my student loans. But I write because it gives me happiness inside and a purpose in life.

So let me say this.

I know a lot of y’all out there feel like me and I want to encourage y’all to stay the course on your good journey, whatever it be. Don’t you let nobody stop your flow. And don’t you let nobody turn you round or steal your joy. You got the victory inside you. Remember that.

And that’s me and my Black vernacular talking to you. Okay?