How are you all holding up? What’s been happening for centuries in the United States, blatant exclusionary and violent racist practices, has finally, finally hit critical mass. And we aren’t turning away. A student of mine, an older white man, wept in zoom room the other day, he told us about being in Selma and protesting with Dr. King, and how now, all these many years later, the face of the protests has finally changed. All I know is that I am pressing on, doing all the things I can as an ally–protesting, petitioning, donating, learning. I get how exhausting it must be to have to watch white people perform their anti-racism. I will misstep. And when I do, I’m eager to hear about it. I have a lot to learn. Meanwhile, we’re listening to Mr. Gil Scot Heron around here.
I am revisiting The Women of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor, which was a favorite of mine in college. We bring to any book the current most compelling questions in our lives. As a young woman reading Naylor, I wanted to know about womanhood. I wanted to learn about power, sexual politics, femininity, about ambition, building a home and family, while hopefully retaining a self. Now, at this stage in my life, at this moment in our country, I want to look at the confines and struggles, the baked-in limitations, prejudice, and racism that black woman in America faced, and still face. I want to read Naylor with less self-absorption, to learn something different this time through. I wish, when I was younger, I had widened my lens.
After I reread Naylor, I’ll move on to Brit Bennet’s newest, The Vanishing Half. A novel about twin black sisters who choose to live in very different worlds, one white and one black. Vox says the novel “offers a critique of whiteness from the perspective of someone who passes for white by choice — a choice motivated by an understandable desire for privilege, financial stability, and most of all, safety.”
I’m also rereading The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, in tandem with her craft book, The Art of Memoir. I’m working on a memoir, and reading these two together is inspiring and daunting. Damn, there is much to be said for being raised in a colorful crapshoot of a family, and for soaking in such gorgeous language as Karr did all through her childhood. The Liar’s Club is a master class in verbs! Seriously, buck, hack, hork, twig (as in understand), rathole (yes, that’s a verb!), jack, scudge, and dicker.
I want to suggest one more time, looking for a summation of the day’s events, all things covid-19, politics, and protests though a lens of history and law, then consider Heather Cox Richardson’s insightful, brilliant, and incredibly useful newsletter, Letters from an American.
In Mary Karr’s, Art of Memoir, she talks about the quality that makes a book rereadable, “interiority—the kingdom the camera never captures.” What does she mean by this? That a great memoir is a story organized around the inner enemy—the psychic struggle against the self. That struggle is some hard truth the writer faces on the page every damn time she sits down. If the writer has no emotional stakes in the project, why should the reader?
My students exhibit this truth seeking all the time, and I am so grateful for their willingness. In the same way I try to put myself in the path of beauty by going for a walk at sunset, or grabbing a little sit down in the trees in a park near my home, I put myself in the path of smart and funny and striving creatives (my students! my friends!) as often as possible. And, I’ve been surprised by the community we all build with mere postage stamp windows on a zoom call.
In case you’re interested in taking a virtual class with me, I’ve got three starting up.
Finding Flow – July 10 -12.
Together we will visit some questions about our work. Why we write? Why we read? What’s at the root of our frozen moments?
Feeling stuck is an opportunity to look at the way we work, the way we talk to ourselves, examine our expectations, and be honest about what we can handle at this time. Join me and your fellow students to write together, to read, to talk and laugh about our human experience and how we can get out of our way and get words on the page.
Beginning Fiction – July 22 – August 26.
Ready to get the stories in your head onto paper? If there’s a story you want to tell, but you have no idea where to begin (or you need a refresher), this course is for you. Over six weeks, you will learn the essentials of fiction and put them into practice by starting to write your own short stories. Each week, we will focus on a different aspect of fiction––like character, dialogue, setting, and more––and explore it through published short stories by authors like Stephanie Vaughn, Jim Shepard, Edward P. Jones, Zadie Smith, Lucia Berlin, Tessa Hadley, Jhumpa Lahiri to illuminate that topic and inspire our own writing. We’ll put what we learn into practice through weekly exercises and writing prompts, and in the second half of class, you will have the opportunity to submit a full short story to receive feedback from me and your fellow writers, to help you get a sense of what your strengths are, and how to build on them.
Turning Life into Fiction – August 6 – September 3
Often, when we set out to write a story we don’t know where to begin. In this class we will look at the wealth of possibility in our lives, in our family life, our work life, or something a friend has told us that seems perfect fodder for fiction. What is a story that’s often retold to the point of folklore in your family? What is the anecdote that you trot out over a beverage with friends? In this class we will use life as the starter for stories to which we apply our imagination, the skills in our writers’ toolbox, and the joy that comes from being in charge of how the story ends!
The charming and delightful Samin Nosrat recently introduced us to many black chefs, cookbook authors, and bakers on her Instagram feed, then she took it the next step, giving us a Now What google doc so we can support these folks. Give it a look as there are lots of fantastic opportunities for good food and getting to know some alternate voices in food.
I’m interested in taking a cooking class from Chef Eric Adjepong, who was a finalist on Top Chef (which I’ve never watched… tell me your favorite episodes and I’ll take a peek). Chef Adjepong’s online classes are limited to 30 people, you get the recipes a few days in advance, and then it is almost like having a private lesson in your own kitchen. I can’t wait. We hope to snag a spot in July.
While perusing his menu and this deliciousness–Roasted Banana Grits with Cajun Shrimp, I got to thinking about my own version.
Cheddar Polenta with Grilled Confetti Shrimp
- 1 lb shrimp, medium size, shell on
- 1 red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, diced fine
- 1 lg jalapeño, seeds and ribs removed, diced fine
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 3 T olive oil
- Zest of one lemon
- Mix everything in a bowl and let sit at room temp for 30 minutes before you heat the grill.
- Meanwhile, make the polenta.
- 2 cups milk
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup polenta
- ¾ cups of grated strong cheddar cheese, I like Oscar Wilde
- Scant salt
- Bring liquid to a slow simmer, pour in the polenta, stirring constantly in one direction to avoid lumps.
- Once the polenta is incorporated return the pot to a simmer. Let cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is the consistency you like best, and when you taste it, the granules are soft to the teeth.
- Stir in the cheddar cheese, until melted, taste for salt and pepper.
- Off heat. Put the lid on the pan and set aside.
To cook the shrimp, I use a wok shaped basket made to go directly on the grill. You can also skewer the shrimp if you like. Cook for about 7 or so minutes on a medium hot grill until the shrimp is pink and firm. Alternately, you could cook the shrimp on the stove top in a cast iron skillet over a hot flame. Once done, give a generous squeeze of lemon.
Dish polenta into bowls, arrange shrimp on top.
Peel and eat! I promise it is delicious.