Monday, February 10, 2020

Black Writers Who Inspired Me

Q in honor of Black History Month: Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours?

-from Susan

I’m going to mention two, in part because one is direct and obvious and I could not choose otherwise, and the other is like a wispy memory of something precious unless I dig it out especially and polish it. The writers, events, and experiences that affect my work tend to be like that – scattered, subconscious, called on at odd times, blessed.

The first is Barbara Neely, author of four delightful, delicious, unexpected, and truly wonderful mysteries about Blanche White (get it?) an unabashedly honest, self-respecting black domestic whose take on white people is breathtakingly, wincingly funny. What’s special about the series is the originality of the voice and the perspective – I still remember reading the first twenty pages of BLANCHE ON THE LAM and realizing I was not going to cook dinner for the family that night because I would be busy! The mysteries are good but it’s the characters Neely creates who are a gift to all of us. Read all four and be prepared to understand a bit about being white in America through Blanche’s eyes. Her mysteries convinced me of the importance of creating a distinctive voice and a character with consistent perspectives and a sense of humor. 

Neely is being honored by Mystery Writers of America in 2020. 

I am not up to speed about poets generally and it wasn’t until I was browsing through my copy of THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE (edited by Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay) before my first book was published that I came across Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rita Dove, specifically selections from poems about motherhood. I’m a mother too, and I stopped in my tracks to read lines like 

She dreams the baby’s so small she keeps 
misplacing it – it rolls from the hutch
 and the mouse carries it home…

The light, disturbed sleep of the mother of a newborn, that fragile, beloved thing we can’t leave alone for fear it will stop breathing, but we’re too tired and so we nap, and the fear slips right into our dreams. 

Rita Dove’s poetry is specific, the images exactly as they might be in life but with the heightened clarity of a first rate poet for whom every word has to matter. Finding her work in the pages of that thick anthology reminded me that specificity is important in telling stories well. For a year, I had a few lines of another of her poems, “Demeter Mourning” on my corkboard. I’m not sure copyright law lets me post it here, but do check out Dove's beautiful work.  

Rita Dove was the first African American poet to be Poet Laureate of the United States, in 1993.


Shaban said...

GF reads a lot of Dove's work, good stuff, she says.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks for the recommend, Susan. I'm going to check out some Barbara Neely.

Susan C Shea said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm down with a dreadful cold and a head full of cotton!