The Creative Writing Program is at it again, having hosted yet another successful Readings by the Writers event last week. Sponsored by the Evelyn Danzig Haas ’39 Visiting Artists Program, the event held a focus on contemporary African American writing over a two-day symposium.
The initial readings by the writers on Tuesday evening yielded a sizeable turnout, with students and faculty alike filling the seats of the Holman Room in Mary Lyon Hall. Wheaton’s featured guests included playwright Kirsten Greenidge, novelist Mat Johnson and poet Marilyn Nelson.
Greenidge, recipient of a Village Voice Obie Award for her play “Milk Like Sugar,” was raised in Arlington, Massachusetts and attended Wesleyan University. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Theater at Boston University and a resident playwright of New Dramatists.
Greenidge began the evening with a lively reading from one of her most recent plays, Zenith, which brought much laughter from the audience in its depiction of a group of typical “soccer moms,” as Greenidge describes, packed into a minivan on their way to girls’ night out.
Next to step up to the podium was Mat Johnson, author of the novels “Pym, Drop,” and “Hunting in Harlem,” as well as the comic books “Incognegro” and “Dark Rain.” He is currently a faculty member of the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, and a recipient of numerous literary awards including the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship.
Johnson chose to read the opening passage to his newest novel, entitled “Loving Day,” which will be hitting bookstores next March. “In the ghetto, there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house,” Johnson began, setting the scene in his hometown of Germantown, Philadelphia, where his adult character in the book has arrived to settle the belongings of his late father.
Last to grace the stage was award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson, the author and translator of over 24 books including “The Fields of Praise,” “Faster Than Light,” and “The Freedom Business.” She began with several sample poems, followed by Fortune’s Bones, which she was asked to write by a museum director in Waterbury, CT based on a true story. The museum had owned an unidentified skeleton for 60 years and finally discovered its history in 1998. The skeleton belonged to a slave named Fortune, who had been owned by a doctor in Waterbury in the late 1700s.
On Wednesday evening at 5 PM, the group of students and professors, poets and playwrights gathered once again in the Holman Room, this time to be entertained by a conversation with the authors moderated by Valerie Linson, Executive Producer of WGBH.
Mat Johnson began with the often-typical American approach of there being a single “normal” identity. He discussed to what extent white Americans consider themselves the common identity, and therefore he believes there is a larger unavoidable identity associated with being black in America.
Kirsten Greenidge agreed, bringing up the struggle she faced as a young child of what it meant to step into writing as a black woman.
“It took a long time, and I’m still figuring it out,” she admitted. “Some people in the black community were very upset about the ‘secrets’ I was choosing to air in a white theater. Having black bodies on stage is often political even if you don’t want it to be.”
Marilyn Nelson added to the discussion, saying that she always felt a strong sense of self growing up, and felt more consciously free than most children her age. She touched on the importance of identity and the power it holds, saying,
“There’s always going to be conflict between your true identity and the identity people try to impose on you, and when you realize that conflict you begin to gain some control over it.”
Linson then directed the conversation towards the use of African American history in writing, and to what extent the authors felt such history both inspired and pushed their work forward. Johnson began by stating that history has always greatly affected his life, having grown up in Germantown, where the lifestyles it exemplifies are directly derived from historical culture.
“If you look around Philadelphia with an ahistorical view of reality, then you’ll come to the conclusion that these people over here are rich because they worked hard for it and these people are poor because they’re dysfunctional and drinking,” Johnson said. “But history shows us that there’s another side to why this world is the way it is. It impacts the way I have to think about walking down the street today because it’s something that is a part of our lives.”
Nelson expanded upon this, arguing that learning about our history is a responsibility we hold as citizens of the world. She explained its importance in that our present is something that has grown out of what began eight generations ago, and affects us to this day.
“I feel it my responsibility to point towards places where people can find these forgotten pieces of history because we tend to congratulate ourselves,” Nelson said. “Americans are full of self-congratulation, without recognizing what is standing just one step behind the face we present to the world. I think it’s important to point to the faces behind the face that America presents.”
Linson brought up the notion of place within America, as north and south hold very different realms of African American experience. She asked each of the writers how place can sometimes become a character in itself.
Greenidge recounted her first attempt at writing and directing a play set on her own turf, Boston. One of the main actors was struggling with portraying the character Greenidge had written.
“She kept reading in a Southern accent, and when we asked her why, she said, ‘I’ve never been asked to play an historical black character that wasn’t Southern.’” Greenidge said she was shocked. “She’s been [acting] for three decades and was never once asked to do this? To me, that is highly problematic,” she said. “As a writer, I was like, ‘Ah! There’s so much more we need to write!’”
The overarching theme to be taken away by the conversation with Kirsten Greenidge, Mat Johnson and Marilyn Nelson seemed to be just that: there is much more to be written, especially that addressing the sociocultural tension and conflicts we face as a society today. The future of such issues lies within the American youth.
Nelson said it best as she said, “It’s funny that, finally, what we would tell our younger selves is what we’ve known all along. But you just have to learn it from experience.”