Thank you Chantel Acevedo for inviting me to take up the Chocolate Challenge: three books, three reviews, three types of chocolate. And with my sweet tooth…chocolate is the best way to describe some of the delicious books listed below! You can read Chantel’s take on the challenge on her web page ihola and you can also follow her on Twitter @chantelacevedo. Check out her new novel, A Falling Star, published in August 2014 and her novel, Love and Ghost Letters.
Dark chocolate is often described as chocolate that has a somewhat bitter taste to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but it stays with you long after you consume it. That is why the first book I am going to mention is by the late, great Bebe Moore Campbell, 72 Hour Hold. This book has stayed with me since I first read it in 2005. At the time, I was struggling with debilitating depression, and I stumbled upon this book while trying to find something to distract me from my own struggles and maybe even inform me about some of the concerns I had about my own illness. This book accomplished both.
72 Hour Hold is the story of a mother, Keri, who is trying to come to terms with her daughter, Trina’s, struggles with bipolar disorder. Trina went from being a normal vivacious young person, to becoming a violent, disruptive shadow of her former self. This novel shows the true nature of this disease and how it not only affects the person suffering from it, but also the ones who love the sufferer. The reader gets to see Keri fighting her child, as she fights her ex-husband and a flawed system in order to insure Trina gets the help she needs. The reader witnesses Keri’s overwhelming love for her daughter and her willingness to do anything to get her daughter back.
This book is not for the faint of heart. Bebe Moore Campbell doesn’t sugarcoat bipolar disorder and she doesn’t offer any easy solutions, hence the bitter chocolate taste that is left in the reader’s mouth after completing this well-written piece of fiction. It is a tragedy that Ms. Bebe Moore Campbell is no longer with us. Her voice is greatly needed.
I read the article, "MFA or POC" in the New Yorker by Junot Díaz a few months ago when it was first printed, and I felt a genuine sadness for him that his MFA experience was so unfulfilling. I am a graduate of Spalding University's Low Residency MFA program. My experience there was one of support, empathy, respect and encouragement. Now, did I always feel like my work was 100% understood. Of course not. However, I never felt like any of my teacher/mentors or fellow classmates tried to marginalize or invalidate my work because maybe they were not writing about black folks from the rural south. Yes, there were times when I was the only black person in the room, but truly, I never felt like that fact inhibited the discussion.
Sometimes there were more questions in workshop than solutions. The workshop leaders/classmates really sank their teeth into the work being discussed. They challenged their own interpretations. Sometimes people relied on those in the room who are closest to the culture being written about. Often discussions turned to literature that was similar to the work being discussed, but never did I ever feel like my work was not being taken seriously.
A lot of my stories are slave narratives written in dialect. Again, no one ever said, "why are you writing in that difficult, hard to understand language?" And to be honest, much to my surprise, fellow classmates and mentor/teachers treated dialect like it was a language, something I never experienced in graduate school before. If anything, people encouraged me to continue to write in dialect, and as a result, I was able to develop my skills in writing this beautiful language in such a way that I can maintain the reverence I feel for it but it also present it in a readable and understandable fashion to my audience of readers.
I credit our leaders at Spalding, Sena Jeter Naslund, Kathleen Driskell, Karen Mann and Katy Yocom, for making it clear that the workshop is designed to encourage the writer whose work was being discussed and not tear down the writer or leave that person feeling abused and unvalidated. Now that does not mean we didn't have some intense discussions and disagreements at times, but at the end of the day, we realized our competition, as so eloquently stated by Sena, "was not in the room but in the library and bookstores." I never felt the uber competitiveness at Spalding that I've heard other MFA grads from other schools talk about. Even now, the vast majority of my community of supporters and friends are my Spalding classmates/mentors/teachers/leaders.
So, I said all of that to say, research closely the MFA programs that are out there. Don't just take for granted what their materials say. And don't pick a school just because your favorite writer teaches there. Go visit them. Ask if you can sit in on a workshop or lecture. Talk to graduates/current students/teachers. Most times, they will tell you the truth. And of course, I would love for you to check out Spalding. My life changed radically when I walked into the MFA office at Spalding, not really sure if being a writer was still a viable option for me. Karen Mann made me believe that day that not only was my dream possible, but she was going to do everything in her power to support it. And I found this to be true for everyone else I encountered at Spalding. If you would like to find out more about The Spalding low residency MFA in Writing Program, click here.
BIO: Angela Jackson-Brown is an award winning writer and poet who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. Her work has been widely published in journals like The Louisville review, New Southerner Literary Review and 94 Creations, to name a few. She is the author of, Drinking From A Bitter Cup, and is hard at work writing her second novel.
James (A poem about slavery)
as he ran, his swollen feet stumbled
but he didn’t stop
visions of snarling, angry beasts
forced his aching muscles
the cold wind gnawed hungrily at his flesh
and the tree branches
etched their marks of ownership
across his face
the night sounds surrounded him,
betraying him to the baying hounds
whose excessive barking grew louder
with each step James took
desperation threatened to overtake him
so he frantically searched –
his eyes flitted back and forth
searching for something,
festered sores cried out for his attention
but he only ran faster
tears mingled with the dread of capture
marring his once proud face
James now knows that there is no freedom
there is only this –
the constant, endless, angry barking
of the master’s hounds
coming to take his soul away.
© Angela Jackson-Brown
When you look at me, you see not just an
adopted baby of unknown pedigree
but a baby shuffled from one
Front Porch Monarch to the other,
each trying to mark me, massaging their
imprint into my skin with gnarled fingers
in an effort to make me their own.
a love child cradled by my daddy’s callused hands,
hands that were rubbed soft with Jergens Lotion and Vaseline
after long days of toiling for what seemed like at times
only a few dimes and nickels.
A country child begat by country folk who often got pecked
by the beak of Jim Crow but who occasionally
got the chance to peck him back.
A blues child who jooked just as hard as the grown folks when
J.W. Warren plucked blues harmonies
in the guise of gospel tunes in order to satisfy
both the tea drinkers and the shine sippers who
all congregated under the Saturday night altar
of stars and vast, Alabama skies.
A sometimes fearful child who was warned about
the Billy Bobs, Joe Nathans, and Cooter Lees
who whooped it up on back country roads and side streets--
screaming racial epitaphs that burned crosses into
the souls of the hearer, but in a pinch these men
would do you right – whether you were white or black.
But most of all
I am a storyteller who is tied to generations of
other proud storytellers whose
stories I carry in my belly like unborn babies, waiting
for the day when Emancipation comes, so I can
be one of the first to set our stories free.
© Angela Jackson-Brown, 2012