GRACE NOTES - FEBRUARY 2024

Percival Everett has made a name for himself as one of the most astute and inventive commentators on race in America. His novel Trees (see Grace Notes, February 2023) mashed up horror, buddy cop tropes, and social justice polemic. His 2022 novel Dr. No been called a “sharp-witted satire about racism, violence and academia.” (Michael Schaub, NPR)

In his 2001 novel, Erasure, he skewers the publishing industry and its tendency to ghettoize Black writers whether their work addresses racial issues or not. Though the book was published almost a quarter of a century ago, its message remains relevant enough to inspire a recent film, American Fiction, directed by Cord Jefferson. The film hews pretty closely to the novel, but the adaptation features a few narrative changes and a choose-your-own-adventure style ending. This article will focus on the book.

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is an intellectual writer whose erudite novels earn him modest acclaim and low sales. His family dynamic is fraught - his father, who made no secret that Monk was his favorite child, committed suicide; his mother is in the throes of dementia; his gay brother is going through a messy divorce from a woman; his sister is a doctor at an abortion clinic which is under daily attack from anti-choice protestors.

Monk finds escape in the calming pastimes of fishing and woodworking. Everett serves up paragraphs on these hobbies like little palate cleansers, allowing the reader to take a deep breath before launching into the next area of conflict. The focus required for these activities takes him away from the frustrations of finding his novels, re-workings of ancient Persian myths, in the “African American Studies” section of his local Borders. “…the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph,” he writes.

It is at one of these Borders visits that he runs across a promo for a book titled We’s Lives in da Ghetto, a runaway best-seller that is jam-packed with the broadest stereotypes of “the Black experience.” The language goes over the top and beyond in its pained efforts to capture the argot of Black urban speech. In Monk’s words, it was like finding “…a display of watermelon-eating, banjo-playing darkie carvings and a pyramid of Mammy cookie jars.” to add insult to injury, he learns that the author, Juanita Mae Jenkins, received a three million dollar advance for the dreck, along with a movie option.

Monk sets out to write a parody of Jenkins’ book, titled My Pafology, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh. He pours every stereotype of thug life onto the page. His agent reluctantly sends the book out, both men assuming that it will be soundly rejected. To their shock, it is picked up by a major publisher, accompanied by a generous advance. The fact that it was intended as a send-up is lost on the publisher. The book is lauded as a raw, honest portrayal of Black life in America.

While Monk is dismayed that the work struck the wrong chord with the reading public, the money is hard to refuse. His mother’s dementia worsens, becoming too much for her housekeeper, Lorraine, to deal with. It becomes apparent that she will have to be institutionalized. Monk will now be able to afford to give her the best care available.

The lifting of his financial burden cannot prevent his life from spinning out of control, however. He reveals that he has considered suicide throughout his life, and those intrusive thoughts return on the advent of what he sees as his sellout. The courageous, creative ways he chooses to deal with his despair are moving, inspiring, and darkly funny.

Erasure is not a perfect novel. Much of it feels rushed. The reader must suspend disbelief to swallow some of the broader plot points, such as how quickly the publishing industry actually moves. Monk’s family dynamics are a huge part of the story, yet his sister Lisa’s death is elided over as a minor blip. Relationships that both Monk and Lorraine develop at the family’s seaside getaway develop at a breakneck speed, as if Everett is racing to comply a with maximum page count. Still, Erasure is erudite, witty, wise, and relevant.

 

There have been many film and television adaptations of great books by Black authors over the years, some good, some that missed the mark. Here are a few that are worth checking out -

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin - Barry Jenkins gave Baldwin’s beautiful story of the redemptive power of love a dreamy, poetic treatment in 2018.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler - Butler’s classic time-travel story about a modern-day woman who is yanked by into the antebellum South was given an edge-of-your-seat adaptation on FX. The series was cancelled, ending on a cliffhanger, but word is that it may be picked up by another network.

Roots by Alex Hailey - The 1977 adaptation of Hailey’s epic work of autofiction defined the genre of the mini-series and introduced us to one of reading’s greatest champions, LeVar Burton.

Passing by Nella Larsen - Larsen’s 1929 novel about a young woman living a lie was adapted in 2021 by Rebecca Hall. The rich black-and-white film beautifully captures the aesthetic of the time.

Beloved by Toni Morrison - Though the 1998 Jonathan Demme film was widely and deservedly panned, I include this one as an argument for reading or re-reading Morrison’s brilliant Civil War ghost story.

Black Panther, based on a Marvel Comics character - Ryan Coogler’s 2018 imagining of this classic comics character reinvented the superhero movie. Rich in detail, Wakanda looks like no other corner of the Marvel Universe.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup - The nail-biting memoir of a free-born man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery was made into an Oscar-winning film in 2013, directed by Steve McQueen.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker - Walker’s novel of Black women coping with hardships in 1920’s Georgia has been made into a 1985 film and a 2023 musical.

 

Rejoice, readers! March is going to be a great month for new releases. Here are previews of a few -

The Palace of Forty Pillars by Armen Davoudian

Armenian poet Davoudian’s collection is an intimate self-portrait. Using traditional rhyme schemes and forms, he portrays the pain and joy of being a gay man, an immigrant, a son, and a citizen of the world, and does it all with a light, graceful touch. An elegant debut.

[...]: Poems by Fady Joudah

Raw as the open wound that is Palestine today, Joudah's collection challenges us to face the oppression and injustice that his people are living and dying through on a daily basis. His anger simmers just under the surface but his grief is tactile, as he delicately unwraps and reveals the human toll of intolerance. This devastating collection could not be more relevant or important.

The Tree Doctor by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

An unnamed literature teacher finds herself cut off from her family in Hong Kong when she comes to California to care for her ailing mother at the outset of the Covid epidemic. She struggles to remotely teach The Tale of Genji while juggling the guilt of not being with her family and not being able to visit her mother in her care facility. In her loneliness and isolation, she takes it on herself to revive her mother’s neglected garden. She calls in  an arborist to nurse a sickly cherry tree, and the two begin a torrid affair. The parallels between the revival of the garden and the protagonist’s own sexual reawakening are poetically portrayed in this sensuous novel. The Tree Doctor is The Secret Garden for grown-ups.

Wandering Stars by Tommy Orange

No sophomore slump for Tommy Orange! This devastating novel revisits the world he created in  2018’s There There. Using the same devices he employed in that masterpiece - multiple points of view, shifting timelines, and first-, second-, and third-person narrators - he focuses on the Red Feather brothers and their lives in the aftermath of the shooting that left Orvil wounded at the end of There There. He draws a through line from the 1864 Sand Creek massacre to residential schools in the 1920’s to the struggles of the Bear Shield/Red Feather family in the present day. Orvil battles with addiction, Lony seeks a spiritual release in self-harm, Loother seeks acceptance and belonging and finds love, and great aunt Opal’s herculean efforts to keep the family together are challenged by cancer. Angry, funny, and heartbreaking, Wandering Stars is a masterful continuation of an American epic.

No Judgment by Lauren Oyler

Essayist and culture critic Oyler gets meta in this collection of commentaries on criticism itself. Her writing is sharp and intelligent and her takes on cancel culture, the cult of vulnerability, and her adopted home city of Berlin are incisive and rife with unexpected twists. Surgically precise and teeming with wit, No Judgment is a thought-provoking collection.

Modern Poetry by Diane Seuss

Pulitzer Prize winner Seuss is back with a finely-honed new collection. Though she uses traditional forms, her observations are anything but the stuff of musty relics. Wry, wise, and rich with pathos and irony, these works cast a shrewd side-eye at the modern condition.

 

Author and poet N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn) passed away on January 24. He was the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize. His lyrical, often mystical writing was informed by his Kiowa heritage. Here is a sampling of poetry from his 2022 collection Dream Drawings: Configurations of a Timeless Kind -

The Original Storyteller

I could tell you a story.

I could tell you a story without words.

I could look you a story in the eyes.

You would understand the story.

Or you would feel more than understand the story.

It would be the story of my life.

It would be a story within a story.

The story would contain only interesting things,

It would not be less than a whole story.

You would hear the story in my silence.

The story would make you laugh and cry.

Well then, I would tell you a story.

 

The Dark Amusement of Bears

Bears are amused by the concept of reality. The sit around imagining they are real, and they laugh.

 

Passage

Then go

From these smoking hills

Through intervals of biding time,

and find solace in the going.

A stillness enfolds your moving shadow,

And your passage is made

Against a backdrop of ancient walls.

You are secure in the eagle’s sight.

 

For further reading - 

Click here to read about the revival of the work of enslaved abolitionist poet George Moses Horton.

Click here to read The New York Times' obituary of N. Scott Momaday.

Click here to read poet and culture critic Hanif Abdurraqib's thoughts on finding yourself through writing.

 

 

Books: 
Erasure: A Novel By Percival Everett Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781555975999
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Graywolf Press - October 25th, 2011

If Beale Street Could Talk (Vintage International) By James Baldwin Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780307275936
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - October 10th, 2006

Kindred By Octavia E. Butler Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780807083697
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Beacon Press - February 1st, 2004

Passing By Nella Larsen, Emily Bernard (Introduction by), Thadious M. Davis (Notes by) Cover Image
By Nella Larsen, Emily Bernard (Introduction by), Thadious M. Davis (Notes by)
$15.00
ISBN: 9780142437278
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - February 4th, 2003

Beloved: Pulitzer Prize Winner (Vintage International) By Toni Morrison Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781400033416
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Vintage - June 8th, 2004

Black Panther (Penguin Classics Marvel Collection #3) By Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Nnedi Okorafor (Foreword by), Qiana J. Whitted (Introduction by), Ben Saunders (Series edited by) Cover Image
By Don McGregor, Rich Buckler, Billy Graham, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Nnedi Okorafor (Foreword by), Qiana J. Whitted (Introduction by), Ben Saunders (Series edited by)
$28.00
ISBN: 9780143135814
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - June 14th, 2022

Twelve Years a Slave By Solomon Northup, Ira Berlin (Introduction by), Henry Louis Gates (Editor), Henry Louis Gates (Afterword by), Steve McQueen (Foreword by) Cover Image
By Solomon Northup, Ira Berlin (Introduction by), Henry Louis Gates (Editor), Henry Louis Gates (Afterword by), Steve McQueen (Foreword by)
$18.00
ISBN: 9780143106708
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - July 31st, 2012

The Color Purple: A Novel By Alice Walker Cover Image
$18.00
ISBN: 9780143135692
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Books - December 10th, 2019

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The Palace of Forty Pillars By Armen Davoudian Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781959030362
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Tin House Books - March 19th, 2024

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[...]: Poems By Fady Joudah Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781639551286
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Milkweed Editions - March 5th, 2024

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The Tree Doctor: A Novel By Marie Mutsuki Mockett Cover Image
$17.00
ISBN: 9781644452776
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Graywolf Press - March 19th, 2024

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Wandering Stars: A novel By Tommy Orange Cover Image
$29.00
ISBN: 9780593318256
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Published: Knopf - February 27th, 2024

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No Judgment: Essays By Lauren Oyler Cover Image
$28.99
ISBN: 9780063235359
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Published: HarperOne - March 19th, 2024

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Modern Poetry: Poems By Diane Seuss Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9781644452752
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Graywolf Press - March 5th, 2024

Dream Drawings: Configurations of a Timeless Kind By N. Scott Momaday Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780063218116
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper Perennial - May 3rd, 2022