A Q&A with Howard Axelrod | “The Stars in Our Pockets” considers the questions I’ve wrestled with since returning from the Vermont woods: How do environments, both natural and digital, change our orientation in the world? And if adapting to the digital environment means losing traits that you value, how do you determine which trades are worth making?
A Q&A with Patricia Powell | I was initially an economics major but when I took my first creative writing class, everything changed. All my bottled-up feelings of loss came undone. I was twenty at the time and had only been in the States for four years. Writing had already stirred up so many feelings about home and the people I had left behind, those I had loved with all my heart and would never see again—my great aunt who raised me, for example, and who died shortly after I left.
By Leah Vernon | The identity battle with my hijab continued well into adulthood. As I started to come to terms with it, that it was in fact my choice to wear it or not, others’ disdain for it mounted. I was hyperaware of my surroundings when I wore it, especially around white folks—they were the ones doing the most when it came to assaults and verbal attacks.
By Maya Fernandez | To know Ntozake Shange was a privilege. Like many Black women, I was first introduced to her brilliance in college when I read her choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and found myself in her words. As I immersed myself in her other written work, I learned that she wrote boldly with a heartbreaking and beautiful honesty that centers the stories and lives of Black people across the diaspora, and particularly, Black women and girls. She never dulled her experience or language for the sake of making a mainstream white audience feel comfortable, and instead, wrote plays, poetry, novels, and essays that affirmed Black lives, culture, and being.
By Ruth Behar | If I had to choose one aspect of my life that had the greatest impact on me as a thinker and a writer, it would be that I was born a Jew in Cuba. And after that, it would be that I came to the United States as an immigrant child, carrying this doubled sense of identity which would eventually be articulated in an American context in the English language, but always with a longing for the native Spanish that was spoken in my family. As a girl and a young woman growing up in New York, I struggled to find a way to give voice to the experience of being a Cuban immigrant, while always yearning to know the island that my family remembered nostalgically, but to which I was told we would never again return to live.
It’s a clear-cut case of PTSD: Post-Traumatic Societal Disorder. The centuries-long trauma wrought by our nation’s history of slavery requires intensive therapy, because everybody is affected. Even our author, Daina Berry, said, “We are still living in the aftermath of slavery. It’s the stain on our flag and the sin of our country. Once we recognize this, face it, study it, and acknowledge the impact it has on all Americans, then we will be in a position to determine how we can move forward.” One of the ways to come to terms with it and move forward is to take in the full history, unabridged—free of sugar-coating, mythmaking, and claims of “American exceptionalism.”
By Helene Atwan | Like so many thousands, hundreds of thousands of others, I was deeply saddened by the news of Toni Morrison’s death. Like others, I had been moved and changed by reading her work over many years. And like hundreds of others, I was fortunate to have worked with her oh so briefly over the years, once as a publicist at Knopf, when Song of Solomon was coming out. She still worked at Random House as an editor in those days and would take the elevator up to visit us at Knopf.
By Helene Atwan | Like most of us living in the US, I was sickened by this weekend’s news of shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Coming into work, feeling so stricken by these events, I was heartened by the fact that I could turn to a group of colleagues and immediately begin talking about what kind of resources we could offer in the wake of these senseless tragedies. I feel, as I often do, heartened to be working in an environment where it is our job to try to create these resources.
Another legend gone. And more than a legend, she was a force! Novelist, editor, professor, and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died on August 5 at age eighty-eight. Pick any book from her bibliography, and you will be mesmerized by her command of prose, her power to conjure up the ambience and lived-in feeling of Black communities and their heroines and heroes to the finest, vibrant detail. She was Black love, Black resilience, and Black brilliance personified. There won’t be another writer like her.
The summer solstice has graced us with its yearly cameo. Time to bask in the warmth and light (and that charming humidity when it gets here) of longer nights! Which means more time to enjoy reading outside! Our staff has some recommendations for the season. Now, we know what you’re thinking: You already have a to-be-read pile that’s about ready to topple over and bury you up to your ears. But another recommendation won’t hurt. Trust us. After you’ve dug yourself out of your book avalanche, you’ll thank us later.
A Q&A with Jimmy Santiago Baca | The boundaries of a poem can be as close as your nose or distant as the farthest star. If you preempt the poem, you impose limits, and hence your subject. Approach the matter with an open heart and allow it to designate the environment in which you’ll be traveling. Flow with the sounds, flow with the images, flow with being boundless, flow with loving what you encounter no matter how foreign it may seem at first, teach yourself to know nothing until you learn what it is you’ve encountered.
A Q&A with Sasha Pimentel | I learned early on that a poet doesn’t start a poem, nor a book, with an idea. Following ideas stunts a poet from following associations in repeating sounds (rhyme, anaphora, assonance, etc.), or repeating imagery, which is how language startles us into the territory of the unexpected. Which is often where a poem will most dare, or risk.
A Q&A with Dominique Christina | When I got into poetry, I was just trying to expel my own ghosts. No lofty notions about saving the world or addressing the ills therein. I just didn’t want to get off the planet with all of those skeletons hanging on my neck. I realized pretty quickly, though, that my personal traumas reflected my/our historical traumas, and in that regard, whatever medicine I am offering to myself, I am also hoping to speak into the dis-ease in such a way that there is balm enough for all of us.
By Michael Klein | Some lunatic with a gun killed some people at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York. Liz Rosenberg and her family live up there and David, her husband, teaches in the middle school which is close to all the action (the way, in any smallish town, everything is close to all the action).
Imani Perry is having a moment in the limelight, and we hope she’s relishing every minute of it. When she first came to our offices to talk about her biography on Lorraine Hansberry, Looking for Lorraine, we knew it was going to be special. Fast forward to this year’s PEN/America Awards, and we delighted in seeing just how special her book is. She won the PEN America/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography!
By Imani Perry | Lorraine was frustrated by some critical evaluations of the play, even as she understood them. She was particularly frustrated that Walter Lee’s “ends” were read without complication. They were deliberate and clearly shaped by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, the WPA Negro in Illinois project’s publication Black Metropolis, and Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which she considered an essential companion to the writings of Karl Marx. Walter Lee’s yearnings were a manifestation of Veblen’s theory of desire in a capitalist society, one that cut across class and caste. Her mastery of full characters, her sensitivity to speech and personality so that the characters never read as types, made the politics invisible to so many. But Lorraine intended to correct that.
There’s nothing like cooking a good meal to bring people together. What better way than with the recipes in the late Ntozake Shange’s If I Can Cook/You Know God Can? Shange’s eclectic tribute to Black cuisine and culture is one of the first two books in our new Celebrating Black Women Writers series. This season, we launched this series to reissue and repackage timeless titles “to share essential voices with a new generation of readers in a celebration of Blackness, Black womanhood, Black women, and all the contributions they bring to the page,” as our editorial assistant Maya Fernandez said. Several of us got together to prepare some of the meals for a potluck lunch at the office. And reader, let me tell you: It was delicious! Here are comments from some of our staff about their experiences with Shange’s recipes.
By Richard Blanco | Seventeen suns rising in seventeen bedroom windows. Thirty-four eyes blooming open with the light of one more morning. Seventeen reflections in the bathroom mirror. Seventeen backpacks or briefcases stuffed with textbooks or lesson plans. Seventeen good mornings at kitchen breakfasts and seventeen goodbyes at front doors. Seventeen drives through palm-lined streets and miles of crammed highways to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at 5901 Pine Island Road.
By Helene Atwan. In 2003, having miraculously convinced Mary Oliver and her tough-minded agent and partner, Molly Malone Cook, to return to Beacon as a publishing home, Mary, Molly and I hit something of a brick wall. Our shared vision was to publish a second volume of New and Selected Poems (Beacon had published the first volume in 1997, and it had won the National Book Award).
With an introduction by Bettye Collier-Thomas | “One Christmas Eve” was published in Opportunity in December 1933. The editor noted, “Langston Hughes, just returned from a lengthy stay in Russia, turns his hand to the short story and shows a growing mastery of that medium.” Prior to going to the Soviet Union in 1932, Hughes, at the insistence of the noted educator Mary McLeod Bethune, travelled throughout the South reading to mainly black audiences. Listening to the stories of black Southerners, and personally experiencing segregation and discrimination at every turn, Hughes became inspired to write this story.