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.
This year’s Human Rights Day marks the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the perfect day to reflect on the US’s treatment of the immigrant community. And let me tell you: It’s going to be a stark reckoning. Just look at some of this year’s headlines. Many migrant families are still separated. Border patrol agents fired tear gas at migrant families at the US-Mexico border to disperse them. This is inhumane treatment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the “inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being—regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” That’s not what we’re seeing. Where are the inalienable rights for this community?
By Linda Schlossberg | Like many white Americans, I read To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high and loved it. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is told from the point of view of young Scout, whose father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, defends a black man falsely accused of rape. Scout’s innocent and appealing voice is an accessible vehicle for discussing race relations, and the novel has become a staple of school curricula. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus in the 1962 film. The novel’s previously unpublished and controversial sequel, Go Set A Watchman, hit bestseller lists a few years ago. And Aaron Sorkin’s highly-anticipated Broadway adaptation, produced by Scott Rudin and starring Jeff Daniels, is certain to sell out. It’s no wonder that Mockingbird, published almost sixty years ago, emerged the winner of PBS’s The Great American Read television series, where viewers could vote, American Idol style, for their favorite novel.
As so many cultural leaders note in the tribute obituaries we’ve linked to below, Ntozake Shange was a completely original, breathtaking artist. From the time she embraced the name gifted to her by Ndikko and Nomusa Zaba, a name which meant “she who comes with her own things/who walks like a lion,” Ntozake Shange launched headlong into her program to electrify dance, poetry, and theatre. Even when her own movement became limited, she kept her focus and worked whenever she could. We were working with her on a book to be called Dance We Do: A Poet Looks at African American Dance.
A Q&A with Dominique Christina | I started writing when I was a senior in undergrad. I whimsically elected to take a creative writing course solely because the man who taught the course was a professor I would see on campus walking around in tye-dyed shirts and Birkenstock sandals with uncommercial hair. He was profane and funny, and I thought I would enjoy being in a classroom with him. What I did not know was that his course would change the trajectory of my life. He refused to let me hide in the writing which I fully intended to do. He insisted on authenticity and transparency and confession, and I found myself, for the first time really, having permission to say things I thought I would die with.
By Daisy Hernández | My mother carried me in her arms on my first trip to Colombia. I was eight months old. She stuffed me in a fluffy pink snowsuit, and we took a picture with the pilot. On my second trip, I was a toddler. Mami couldn’t carry me because I wouldn’t let her. Already hell bent on freedom, I scampered up and down the plane’s carpeted aisle as it made its way from New York City to Colombia. On my third trip, I ran away from my mother at the airport in Bogotá, leaving her with the baby sister in the stroller, careening past adults with worried foreheads, and not even stopping when I spotted the men in uniforms, the rifles in their hands. I didn’t know about the civil war or the drug war, and the Avianca flight getting blown up in the air and killing all 107 people onboard was a few years into the future. It was 1982. I barreled toward the line of familiar voices past the doors: my primas and tías and tíos. An uncle who drove a school bus had brought it to the airport filled with everyone to pick us up.
By Emily Powers and Bella Sanchez | Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry is a watershed biography of the award-winning playwright, activist, and artist Lorraine Hansberry. If people know anything about Lorraine (Perry refers to her as Lorraine throughout the book, explaining why she does so), they’ll recall she was the author of A Raisin in the Sun, an award-winning play about a family dealing with issues of race, class, education, and identity in Chicago. Lorraine’s extraordinary life has often been reduced to this one fact in classrooms—if she is taught at all.