Arkansas woes, post-Goldfinch spiral, and Henry Dumas is my savior

Henry Dumas: Arkansas-born poet and short story author on
Henry Dumas: Arkansas-born poet and short story author

Arkansas was kicking my butt, y’all. It began well, with me devouring Charles Portis’s True Grit* in two days, but when I finished the book, I realized a good half of it took place in the Oklahoma territory. Should I count it for Arkansas on my Andrea Reads America tour? (Andrea Reads America = three books set in each state, with works by men, women, and authors of color)

On top of the True Grit dilemma, Arkansas was the state that spawned my Where are the ethnic authors? post. After reaching out to faculty in the University of Arkansas English department, I still didn’t have any works of fiction set in the state of Arkansas and written by Arkansas authors of color. I considered relaxing my fiction rule to read the professor-recommended nonfiction titles; I considered reading an Arkansas-set novel written by a novelist who has lived her whole life in New York. I took a break from Andrea Reads America to read The Goldfinch while I ruminated on what to do about the Arkansas dilemma(s).

When I finished The Goldfinch, I was doped on excellence. I drifted through life in that post-amazing-novel daze where you haven’t yet blinked back into reality; I knew whatever book followed was going to suffer, like those poor ice skaters who crash when they follow a gold-medal performance.

And what followed was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’ve read the book before, and I know it is good, but it did not satisfy me this time. I wanted fiction. I wanted landscape. Caged Bird is nonfiction; it is soulscape. I thought, well, maybe I need something funny, something totally different from the literariness of The Goldfinch; maybe I need something light, something totally different from the seriousness of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I found a murder mystery series set in Arkansas and written by Arkansas author Joan Hess (she satisfies my woman author criterion!), and I drove to our library to pick up one of the titles in the series, Misery Loves Maggody. I tried to like it, I really did. But the characters were caricatures – exaggerated and expected – and the settings, dialogue, and scenes were cliché after cliché after cliché. The murder didn’t even happen until more than 100 pages in. But more disappointing than any of that was that since I did not detect authenticity in the characters, I did not trust the setting either; the setting could have been a silly spoof of any Southern town – I didn’t get a feel for Arkansas from it.

In other words, Misery Loves Maggody didn’t work for me either.

I was a teensy bit frustrated at this point. Just a tinch. I still needed a non-Caucasian author, and I still needed a woman. One of the Arkansas professors suggested Janis Kearney, the Presidential Diarist for Bill Clinton. She is an African-American writer from Arkansas who wrote a biography of Daisy Bates, an Arkansas civil rights activist. She also wrote a memoir, Cotton Field of Dreams. Awesome, right? Woman and not white. Works set in Arkansas. Problems solved, right?

Neither were available at our county or University libraries. And as I’ve mentioned before, despite being an avid reader, I rarely buy books.

On the drive home after yet another trip to our county library, where I discussed the option of an interlibrary loan of Cotton Field of Dreams with the librarian ($3 fee, could be a few weeks before it shows up, maybe I should just order it), it occurred to me: why don’t I run a search for short stories? Surely there’s at least ONE short story out there by an ethnic author. That’s all I need. Just one.

So I searched.

I searched, and I found.

Henry Dumas. Born 1934 in Sweet Home, Arkansas. Called “an absolute genius” by Toni Morrison. Wrote poetry and – get this – short stories. Fiction! And? And! When I searched the University catalogue, his short story collection, Ark of Bones, with – praise the Lord – stories set in Arkansas, pinged “Available, 3rd Floor, Newman Library.”

The next day, after a trip to the 3rd Floor, Newman Library, I plopped down on our couch with Ark of Bones, and I nearly cried for joy. The stories are alive, and they are different from anything I’ve read in a very, very long time. If ever. They are dark and smoky, masculine and earthy, filled with mojo and magic; they read as if they come from a long line of souls buried deep in the earth. I imagine Henry Dumas was an intense man; he certainly had reverence for the dignity of his race.

Most importantly, in what is surely the crowning accomplishment in his writing career, he rescued me from a post-Goldfinch spiral and an anti-Arkansas frustration. I am grateful to him for that. And I am grateful to the works that didn’t work: I would not have found Henry Dumas without them.

*I decided to keep True Grit for Arkansas. It’s too great a book to leave out.

This was originally published February 17, 2014 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

Where are the ethnic authors?

I am reading America: 3 books set in each state and written by men, women, and authors of color.

My reading project is turning out to be more complex than I thought. I am reading my way around the US in three books per state, and my original hope was to read works of fiction written by men, women, and non-Caucasian authors who are natives of the state, or at least lived there a while:

  • Three works set in each US state
  • Male, female, and writers of color
  • Fiction
  • Authors native to or residents of the state

I gave myself these parameters for a number of reasons: setting plays a huge role in my love for literature, and I want to get to know my country better through language and story; I want to read a variety of voices; I love fiction – it’s my favorite; and I want to read each state from the perspective of its own people, from writers whose minds have been shaped by the state’s landscape and culture.

Mainly, though, I set these criteria to give shape to what might otherwise be an unwieldy enterprise. I thought I was going to need limitations to help me narrow down the choices; in Georgia, my childhood state, I can think of ten books that represent the landscape and culture, and I have no idea how I’m going to pare the list down to three.

As far as male and female authors go, or I should say as far as male and female white authors go, my parameters are doing exactly what I intended them to do: they are helping me eliminate titles so that I am not overwhelmed by all of the possibilities. It is the non-Caucasian component of the project that is introducing complexity.

I knew when I got up into Maine, the whitest state in the United States (95%) I might have trouble finding a non-Caucasian fiction author. But I didn’t start with Maine. I started at the beginning of the alphabet, in Alabama, and finding an Alabamian author of color wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be.

According to the 2000 census, Alabama ranked 7th in America in its percentage of African Americans: a full 26% of the Alabama population in 2000 was African American. On top of that, Alabama has a rich racial history, was pivotal in the civil rights movement, is the birthplace of Rosa Parks, and was home to Martin Luther King, Jr. There are lots of stories there. Yet, after I easily found novels by an Alabama man and an Alabama woman, and had several more piled up I could read, all of the authors I found were white. I racked my brain trying to think of a novel set in Alabama written by an African American author, and I couldn’t. I did some digging, was not satisfied, and ultimately, I got a recommendation from an editor at Book Riot. Unlike with white authors, I did not have a large pool to select from. I had one title.

Alaska and Arizona were not as problematic. Though there still weren’t a lot of authors to choose from, I was able to find titles written by Native American and Latino authors who are also natives of their states. But as I move through Arizona and prepare myself for Arkansas, I am stuck. Once again, I’ve got plenty of selections by white men and women, but not a single title by an author of color. Or at least not one that fits my parameters.

There was an interesting discussion going on over at Book Riot, where they recently ran a Who Are Your Favorite Writers of Color? poll. One reader commented, “Why do we have to call them writers of color? Why can’t they just be writers?” My mom asked a similar question over Christmas – why do we keep talking about race? Aren’t we all Americans? And ultimately, yes, it would be great to get to that point, where we don’t constantly distinguish between our own people – white, black, Asian American, Latino. But the fact is, when I’m trying to find authors of color to read their perspectives, to hear their voices, and it takes days to find just one author, that concerns me.

I am not sure what the reason is for finding so few titles by non-Caucasian authors. Are ethnic fiction writers that rare? Is the publishing industry not picking up their manuscripts? Are they publishing them but not promoting them? Or is it a failure of research on my part? Perhaps I am not looking in the right places to find more titles. I have contacted several faculty in the English department at the University of Arkansas with the hope that they might have some suggestions.

Meanwhile, I am working out my options for relaxing the restrictions of my project. My first priorities are setting – the narratives must be set in the state of interest – and that I read a diversity of authors, which still includes men, women, and non-Caucasian writers. The commenter on the Book Riot poll is right that they are all writers – white, black, man, woman – and my mom is right that we are all Americans. And my purpose with this project is to listen to them all: to hear many voices, to read an America that is not my story. So these parameters must stay:

  • Three works set in each US state
  • Male, female, and writers of color

As for fiction and the residency of the authors, it looks as if I must choose between them. In Arkansas, I could read nonfiction: Maya Angelou’s autobiography from her Arkansas years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Janet Kearney’s memoir Cotton Field of Dreams. Or I could stick with fiction and read a novel whose blurb excites me, whose blurb makes me want to skip out of the Arizona desert right now and luxuriate in the languid South, except that the novel’s author was born and raised in New York, not Arkansas. If I read a non-native, non-resident depiction of a place, am I going to get a Hollywood version or the real deal? As W. Somerset Maugham articulates in The Razor’s Edge,

Men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learned to walk, the games they played as children… And because you cannot know persons of a nation foreign to you except from observation, it is difficult to give them credibility in the pages of a book.

I would argue that the same holds true for setting: it is difficult to know a landscape, the weight of the air, the subtle shift in mood that a shift in atmosphere precipitates, through research and observation. You have to have lived them.

I want to know the truth of a place. And while I want to read that Arkansas-set novel by a New York author, I think that for the purposes of Andrea Reads America, because my intention is authenticity of setting, residency will have to trump fiction. I may read that novel, but not for this project.

I wish I didn’t have to choose between fiction and residency to read a good book by an author of color. I wish we had more options. I look forward to the day when we are able to overcome whatever obstacles are in place – biases in education, or publishing, or marketing – that limit our authors of color. I look forward to the day when we have so many works to choose from, so many stories from so many points of view, that we are overwhelmed by the possibilities, that we must set parameters and restrictions and rules to help us thin the thicket, and that when we do narrow it down, when we prune titles to get to what we want, we are left with a shapely shrub instead of a spindly twig.

As a follow-up to this piece, I assembled a list of authors of color from each state. If you are interested in diversifying your reading, you will find more than 60 titles on Authors of Color From Each US State: A Photo Gallery. Enjoy!

“Where are the ethnic authors?” is a revision of a piece originally published January 10, 2014 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

White Girl Dancing

“At first (when she was not yet Miss Tee but Auntee) she was mostly the one who always came to cuddle, kiss, and oopdedoopdedoodle you saying some brown sugarboy lips and some sugarboy brownskin cheekbones and some brown sugarboy foreheadbone and some sugarboy brown righthand knockout knucklebone…” – Albert Murray

Until I really got into the cadence of Train Whistle Guitar, I felt like whitey out on the dance floor, unable to keep time, incapable of following Albert Murray’s rhythm. Like his characters, guitar player Luzana Cholly and pianist Stagolee Dupas, Murray beats and bobs with his prose, tapping out struts and riffs and tempos and rhythms that left me flailing, out of sync and out of time.

As I struggled through those first fifty pages or so, I pictured a brown-skinned, white-whiskered man, eyes closed, shaking his head to an internal beat that I could not hear. He extemporized, improvised, riffed rhymes and repetitions to a foot tapping, knee-slapping beat, and while I could feel a pulse there, I got lost in phrases I could not decipher:

“Me my name is Jack the Rabbit also because my home is also in the also and also of the briarpatch.”

What does that mean?! I puzzled over that sentence. I came back to it again and again. I worked at dissecting the “also in the also and also of” until my brain hurt. Finally I gave up on it, quit trying to figure its meaning, and surrendered to the rhythm of Murray’s phrasing. Once I did that, once I stopped trying so hard, once I stopped trying to be so cerebral, the tempo took me and I enjoyed the book for its purcussive pacing and delicious depictions. I savored his sentences, his descriptions of making love to a girl in the woods,

“What she mostly smelled like was green moss. But that first time it was willow branches then fig branches, then plum leaves. Sometimes it was sweetgum leaves plus sweetgum sap. And sometimes it was green pine needles plus pine trunk bark plus terpentine-box resin. But mainly it was live oak twigs which she chewed plus Spanish moss which she used to make a ground pallet.”

of parts of speech,

“A preposition is a relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy.” (!!)

of the coastal forest,

“You could smell the mid-May woods up the slope behind us then, the late late dogwoods, the early honey-suckles, and the warm earth-plus-green smell of the pre-summer undergrowth.”

and the bayou,

“We were still in the bayou country, and beyond the train-smell there was the sour-sweet snakey smell of the swamp-land.”

of woodpeckers,

“Woodpeckers always sounded as if they were out in the open in the very brightest of the sunshine.”

and of course, the jook joint as young Scooter saw it from his hidden perch in a tree:

“The light near the piano was bright enough for you to see them dancing and see Claiborne Williams at the keyboard with his hat cocked to the left and his wide silk four-in-hand tie flipped back over his right shoulder, spanking and tickling his kind of blues.”

When I finished reading Train Whistle Guitar, I felt flustered by my initial inability to jibe with Murray’s swing, and I didn’t think I liked the book all that well. Despite two index card bookmarks I filled with quotes, I only gave it three stars on Goodreads, writing in my review that I couldn’t get over our rhythmic differences. Train Whistle Guitar is one of those books – you know the kind – that when I first finished it, I only thought it was okay. But it has caught me, like a complex tune that you’re not sure you like the first time you hear it, and my mind keeps coming back to it.

And the more my mind comes back to it, the more I remember his beautiful descriptions of brown skin –

honey brown finelegged frizzly headed woman

sugarboy brownskin

chocolate brown dimples

as cinnamon-bark brown as was the cinnamon-brown bark she was forever chewing and smelling like

May your Anne Tee have some pretty please help herself to some of all this yum yum sugar and all this yum yum honey plus all this buster brownskin pudding and pie.

  • and my toe taps, til I feel like I could close my eyes, and shake my head, and groove in a smoky jook joint, “doing the shimmieshewobble and the messaround.”  The more I hear Murray’s phrases, the more I relish them, just like those complex tunes that grow on you even if you’re not sure you liked them the first time, and I’ll turn him up and sing even if I don’t know all the words, and dance even if I look like whitey out on the dance floor.

I have since upgraded my Goodreads review to 4 stars. I keep thinking of things I loved about this book. Another favorite aspect was Murray’s deep respect for his characters, revealed through his tender descriptions of brown skin. 

This was originally published December 11, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.