Here, where I live and work, in the Washington DC area, pundits and politicos and some regular people have the idea–and somewhat hilariously accept the notion–that Here is the center of the world. The discussion of what happens Here seems to go on non-stop. On these wide capital city streets, in wide Capitol building hallways, on the airwaves, as people walk along. You can overhear a conversation about Here, almost anywhere, and you can turn on the radio, and hear analysis of Here go on at great length. Here is not just a political environment. Here is not just defined by ties and flag pins. There are artists and writers and arts communities Here. There are national endowments Here. Awards are greatly touted Here. Prize winners are feted Here and heretofore, accorded great respect.
Not too long ago, a male radio personality saw me out, here, in the sunshine, and dubbed our meeting a “sighting.” He says, You’re so rarely seen. A day after the “sighting” said radio man sent me an email, asking me to comment on the state of the novel today.
My process for deciding whether I can respond to what people ask is straightforward: if I can answer in three minutes or less, I reply. If I can answer, but it will take me longer, I work toward a reply if I have some obligation or some burning passion about what they’ve asked. If I cannot answer, or have no passion, I do not reply. Can you predict, based on his question, whether he heard from me?
But here is different: here is where Women in Letters & Literary Arts considers its focus and its future and its femmes-de-lettres. I have reason to take the time, to articulate and to air my views. The state of the novel does matter to me greatly, although, can the state of the novel be summarized, or even surmised? Perhaps, perhaps not. The state of the novel depends in part on requirements, and the requirements of novels, of poems and of art are quite clear. The novel—and other forms of art—must be, first and foremost, novel. This freshness requirement is explicitly true of all art, literature not excepted. In order to be admired, or respected, or celebrated, new literature has to give the illusion or the impression of covering something new, or treating something that isn’t new in a new or new-ish way. This artistic requirement of freshness or innovation applies across genres—and is, itself, not new. New takes on old subjects must qualify as fresh, because, as my mother has always said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” So, in order to be able to stand up and be artistic, you have to be able to be fresh, even if only by finesse. To seek the grace note, or the tryst and turn, is, in our time, an admirable way to go fresh. As my mother has always said to me, “There is nothing new under sun.” With this philosophical truth unarguable, freshness and finesse become worth reaching for.
You can be new because you are new, and you can be new because you are unknown. If I raise the name of one of my current favorite women writers, I wonder whether I’ll be calling out a name new to you? Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Are you familiar with her growing body of work? Are you aware that this celebrated African woman writer is producing great books, winning big prizes—the Orange, the Booker Mann, the Macarthur? Adichie has published two novels, a short story collection, an early play.
I have been reading her latest book, Half of a Yellow Sun. And her stories: “That Thing Around Your Neck.” I have heard her talk about the perils of marriage for women, and the tyranny of the Euro-American storyline. Ballsy. I have found her language, and her inventiveness and her treatment of men particularly stunning, and delicious. I started to read Adichie’s current novel because another woman, a physician, a through and through American, insisted that I get and read Half of a Yellow Sun—an emotional, if figurative, press of the novel into my open hand.
The friends of mine who recommend novels to me are women of great courage. My friends and compatriots generally want me to tell them what to read. A book I haven’t heard of is often quieted around me—surely, my pals presume, the writer knows what and who to read.
Adichie herself writes about Africa, or, about Africa in America. A conflagration of geographies that she subtly and heroically describes. New subjects in the here and now. Neither Africa as a subject, nor Africa in America as a subject, has much, if anything to do with the American cultural preoccupation with African Americans. We African Americans are so very hybrid: we are GMOs of culture—distinct from Africa, and from America. But isn’t that another story? And for another time.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does not represent Africa, but her work never moves its gaze from the ancient Continent in the modern world, presenting the Continent as old country, in new and evocative ways. We can read Adichie and experience how parts of Africa are managing in this millennial age, where the rest of the world has gone digital, and has moved on to new preoccupations, tiny-screen, hyper-linked obsessions. Scarcity and rubber and palm-greasing and petrol are still vibrant controlling issues There, where her characters live and beg and breathe. There is much we don’t realize about hard goods and soft relations that Adichie raises up to us in her subversively innovative stories, That Thing Around Your Neck, and in her novel novels—Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun. Adichie is funny and eloquent and in some ways furious. If you read her, and read her closely, you begin to understand: her worldview takes the broad view: there’s blue-soaped Brillo between there and here. Her observations of who we all are come from far, and therefore read as new. To hear Adichie discuss the dangers of a single story, or how short stories come and linger before they come alive, or how her opinions of marriage and gay people emerge in her fiction, or what it means to watch—follow the links below.
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Adichie’s work reminds us that lots of us write to break out of the province of the parochial—to step outside the old walled city, no matter that old city’s name. We writers and artists and we VIDA-types are always battling to be met where we live, outside the proverbial Gate. Where we start from determines how far out we can get. What we know is that there’s nothing new or refreshing or awakening on the inside: there is what we all are always seeking—les nouvelles.
A decade and a half ago, I published a debut novel. Just the other day, I was sitting in my new editor’s office, discussing the book before us presently, my “long-awaited” second novel. My agent was telling the story of our deciding on the title of my first book. She said, “I turned my back just for one minute, and the book was called The Good Negress. One minute!” she said, reminding all of us of her very real alarm. The title, The Good Negress, was/is a new take on an old word. A new tryst, a new twist, nouvelle.
If we ask ourselves the question–Who has literary and artistic power? – even if we name others, we cannot leave out our own names. If we ask the old guard, they might repeat an old saw, and say they: They have the power. But, anything inactive, inert or unchanged cannot have power, and that’s the only way the power goes to they. When we consider who we turn to, commingle with, rely on, who we look to to make what we need to happen happen, we have to define power as an expansion of we. My first editor, Shannon Ravenel, my first publisher, Elisabeth Scharlatt, my agent, Wendy Weil, my very perceptive purchasing editor, Julie Grau, my current editor, Rebecca Saletan, my former editor-compatriot, Tracy Sherrod, my curator-critic-compatriot, Kinshasha Holman-Conwill, my writer countrywomen: Crystal Wilkinson, Janet Sylvester, Chimamanda Adichie, Adichie’s editor, Robin Desser, my poet-partner, Nikky Finney, my writer-hero: Toni Morrison. We all, double x’s, seek & write new about this old world we live in, see new about these old paradigms we reject; we write female about our brothers, about the men; we write crystalline about our sisters, daughters, sons. We nod to each other, we teach. We wield pens, pound keyboards, make new. This is not for naught. This is not for the timid. This is not a limited or limiting activity. Our words do not stay corralled. Our futures are not bound and gagged. We · have · power.
Now, using power takes gumption and vigilance and courage: drape & display. We populate literature, and literary pursuits; in the country of writing/reading, we have to claim our geography just like ants occupy anthills, like worker bees inhabit hives. We · are · not · strangers · to · each · other. We are not unable to identify each other, to literally or figuratively press our works into each other’s hands.
There is nothing novel about us women writing novels. See Jane, see Willa, see Anais, see Zora. If we didn’t write, I daresay, we’d have a whole lot less to read. If we didn’t labor over the lovely word, we’d have a sight fewer well-spoken children, the market for keyboards and for pens would be decimated, the history of ink would be interrupted, the education of children and women would be lopsided, or lost. Just like we are teachers, and mothers, and compassionate folks, who nurse and nurture and who also choose not to—so too, we are authors, a powerful corps of creators. We can take the helm and recognize each other, and each other’s work. We can.
Every woman who reads supports the work of other women. Women in Letters & Literary Arts necessarily refers, as a moniker, to a broad band of working women, united in the endeavor of shaping ideas into notable expression, and keeping good words aloft. We can acknowledge the women who make books and make publishing; we can call their names. We can grace their prodigious output with our activism and our regard.