booknotes: Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People

Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

This book, longlisted for the National Book Award, is smart, biting-funny, and at times really powerful. The first story, “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” is a tour-de-force, at once hard-hitting and self-aware – I can’t wait to teach it. Each story, set in California, has a Black, usually middle-class protagonist, drawn complexly, understanding to various degrees of their positionality. One thing I love about this book is the way it acknowledges the racial positioning of different reading audiences. If anything, I wish the book used more of the metafictional techniques used in the first story and alluded to in a later story, “A Conversation About Bread,” which centers on two graduate students debating auto-ethnography.

2/6/20: Two Californias Release Party, Part Two

Super pleased to be teaming up with Rochester’s great Writers & Books for a second release party for Two Californias. The reading (snacks, pineapple erasers, etc.) will be in conjunction with a workshop that Saturday on exploring the flat spots in story. Let’s hope for good weather!

Event details:

Workshop details:

9/10/19: Saltwater

It is with deep sadness and ambivalence that I finally watched Saltwater, the final film by teacher, friend, and mentor Lise Swenson, who passed away in 2016. It’s an amazing achievement, a full-length, independently produced and funded film. But it’s hard not to watch what is clearly a labor of love and community-building through the lens of its content – difficult inter-generational relations, mental illness, the potential for creation (of art) as a way to transform after trauma. Lise, to all who knew her, was a force, a passion, a compassion. I miss her.

9/2/19: Saltonstall Residency Week!

Saltonstall is beautiful. I’m here for a two-week residency. What to say? It is gorgeous here, in late summer, with all kinds of wildflowers, out in the countryside, 8 miles from the utterly charming Ithaca. Deer, chipmunks, mostly deer. I learned that wasps can have underground nests. I love my studio, which looks out onto a meadow, south-facing, the clouds rolling languorously by. It’s an intimate residency, with 3 artists and 2 writers. Each morning, I walk, check out the abandoned barns and fenced-in gardens, make coffee.

As for writing: I’m finishing off the longest chapter in the book, Countermapping, and cross-referencing that to another chapter, while trying to create various maps and research Missouri gun laws and Voltron. A typically eclectic me writing week!

I have four amazing talented companion residents: here are their names and web sites:

7/12/19: Chautauqua Institution

Fortuitous last-minute opportunities: I’m excited to be reading/teaching/crafting next week at the Chautauqua Institution‘s Literary Arts Program. I’ve always loved their programming, their commitment to writing and justice. Looking forward to spending some time with Atom Atkinson and chatting about the tyranny of linear time! It’s also curious to be self-reflective about my own processes, how to think, in particular, about revision in creative ways. I wish the binary opposition between creation and revision didn’t exist!

6/16/19: Digital Storytelling in Portugal

When I was younger, I dreamed of going to Portugal. I had no idea why; perhaps it was my friend Tristen, who had Portuguese roots. 25 years passed. And now I’ve been lucky enough to come here three times in the last two years. What to say about Portugal, or at least about the bits I know? Quiet, stylish, fun, where there’s a poetry and theater book store down the street (A Lovers’ Discourse in Portuguese, Glass and God in English), and brunch all the time, and a Californianish ecosystem full of brightness and honeysuckle. Tomorrow, here in Porto, I start teaching Digital Creative Writing to RIT students, where, under the auspices of Professor Rui Torres and the Universidade Fernando Pessoa, I’ll grill the students on the short story form, and they’ll be learning StoryMapJS, a digital storytelling format. In part, this means that I get to give the students a location, and they show up, and I introduce some kind of challenge, much like America’s Next Top Model. Follow that litter of feral cats. What’s different in the supermarket? Go steal sugar packets for me, because I don’t want to buy a whole thing of sugar.

Life is rough (and Anne Royston, meanwhile, gets to do whatever she wants).

5/24/19: notes towards (Tom Cruise)

an essay that revisits Top Gun as an exemplar of toxic masculinity hugely influential on men of my age; that evaluates how the mystique and popularity of Tom Cruise is built on that toxic masculinity; that establishes that the interlinking of us militarism and this toxic masculinity inoculates Tom Cruise against certain forms of critique.

“All these people are just happy and smiling and they are completely oblivious to the fact that they were almost vaporized,” says Simon Pegg to Tom Cruise and the team at the end of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, at once stating a fact and authorizing any covert activities – which used to be, I suppose, acceptable, for black ops. In 2019, however, this statement could sound like justification for presidential malfeasance. I can do something, by this logic, because of all the stuff that you don’t know and I don’t have to tell you.

things that sprout

I’m continually shocked at/by myself, having grown up in big cities. My mother, somewhat phobic of big, “natural” spaces. Each morning I go into the backyard, to see what has come up or scampered by. A family of yellow finches in a tree (I can’t yet identify). The limping teenage deer leaping gingerly over the neighbor’s fence. The way the birdhouse tilts against the oak, its angle dependent on yesterday’s wind. The red fox slyly diagonal between houses. I rake last fall’s moldy, clumped leaves to let what’s underneath breathe.