Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tennessee Williams Festival 2012: Panels & Special Event

I attended three panel discussions and a special event at the 2012 Tennessee Williams Festival. Below are some notes on these.


This panel was composed of four memoirists.

  • Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts: HARLEM IS NOWHERE
  • Jesmyn Ward: SALVAGE THE BONES
The moderator was Ted O'Brien.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of HARLEM IS NOWHERE, spoke of her book as one person's consciousness colliding with history, using the first person as a tool to encounter the place. She does not separate Harlem's history from her own life; rather, Harlem very much affects her life and the lives of African-Americans; Harlem and its history are very much alive today. Harlem was once seen as the place from which African- Americans would enter our democracy, but in the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem became the symbol of all that was wrong with our democracy.

Sharifa says that writers can sometimes experience an emotional reaction to their material that causes them to shut down, and that they must develop the ability to push through this, to write through this, to persevere.

Zachary Lazar, author of EVENING'S EMPIRE: THE STORY OF MY FATHER'S MURDER, says that the best part of writing his memoir was interviewing his father's friends and having the father whom he had never known come alive.

Claudia Sternbach, author of READING LIPS: A MEMOIR OF KISSES, focuses her memoir on the observation that the most important moments of life are often marked by a kiss.

Jesmyn Ward, author of SALVAGE THE BONES, wrote her memoir from a burning question: When five young black men died within a short period of time in her hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi, WHY was there such an epidemic of death among young black men? One of these young men was her brother.


The panelists were four women writers.

  • Lucy Ferris: THE LOST DAUGHTER
  • Ellen Baker: KEEPING THE HOUSE
  • Laura Ellen Scot: DEATH WISHING
  • Jessica Maria Tuccelli: GLOW
The moderator was Bev Marshall.

Lucy Ferris, author of THE LOST DAUGHTER, says that her novel sprung from a news headline about the abandonment of a baby by teenage parents. These were actually middle-class teens. In the novel, the abandonment occurs in 1993, and in 2008, we go back to see the aftermath of what happened, especially as the baby did survive. For her book, Lucy learned about the effects of hypoxia at birth. A baby with hypoxia can appear dead to two confused teenagers. Lucy also remarked that people often know us only as adults but do not know the past lives that have created the people we are today.

Ellen Baker, author of KEEPING THE HOUSE, began her work with three images: (1) a photo of women in work garb from World War II, (2) an abandoned farm house that Ellen would drive by and that looked as though life had been hard there, (3) a visit to Calumet, Michigan, which was once home to 700,000 but which had decreased to 7,000 because the mining work had disappeared, leaving empty streets and rows of empty company houses. In KEEPING THE HOUSE, a grand-daughter in the year 2000 goes to northern Wisconsin to try to piece together why there is such separation among the women in her family. She discovers a tragedy that occurred in 1913.

Laura Ellen Scot, author of DEATH WISHING, wrote a book set in the Marigny, where people are dying, and some of them have the ability to make wishes that will come true after their death. No one knows who has this ability and who doesn't. Laura began her work with a "what if" question. This book seems a bit silly to me.

Jessica Maria Tuccelli, author of GLOW, wrote about lives of hardship spanning generations in northern Georgia. Her setting is Rabun County, and she did research at the county house in Clayton (which, to her surprise, turned out to be a shack). When I lived in western North Carolina after Hurricane Katrina, I sometimes went to Clayton and to the Osage Farmer's Market in Rabun County, which also has a wonderful barbecue stand next to it.

Jessica chose north Georgia because she wanted to write about a place that was completely unfamiliar to her. She is from New York City. On a trip with her husband, she went through an ancient forest in northeast Georgia and knew that this was the place she would write about, as it has a magical quality.

Jessica had to find a way in to talk with the people about their lives, and after persistent efforts and softening her approach, people began to talk generously with her about their stories. The people of Rabun County all have Cherokee ancestors, as well as African-American and Scotts-Irish. These people all have ghost stories.

Jessica has given the people of Rabun County copies of her novel, and they have expressed appreciation for the way she has portrayed them. Jessica used the Beck family as a basis for her novel.


The panelists were four people who have written about free people of color.

  • John Guare, author of a play titled "A Free Man of Color"
  • Barbara Hambly, author of the Benjamin January series of mysteries featuring a free man of color
  • Gregory Osborn, archivist at the New Orleans Public Library
The moderator was Pat Brady.

John Guare play, "A Free Man of Color," is about race in Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase by the United States. The play will be performed at the Swine Palace Theater at LSU in September. I will consider going to Baton Rouge to see it. John Guare says he just loves the idea of his play being performed at a place called the Swine Palace - but I didn't really have a reaction to this as I'm used to the name of that theater in Baton Rouge.

John made the important point that today we have no vocabulary to talk about the nuances of race that existed in 1802 and earlier. Prior to 1802 (and the Louisiana Purchase), race existed on a continuum with many different shades and social standings. Once Louisiana came under the United States, all of this changed and any nuance of race disappeared. You were either black or white. If you were 1/32 black, you were black. If you were less than 1/32 black, you were white. Lots of either/or thinking here.

Barbara Hambly, author of the Benjamin January mystery series, had wanted since college to write a murder mystery series about a free man of color. Barbara knew (as many people don't) that free people of color owned slaves. Her main character, Benjamin January, is always walking a fine line between white and black. He is 3/4 black, with a fully black father and a mulatto mother. His mother is the child of a white master who raped one of his black slaves.

Barbara explained that free people of color did not identify themselves as black. To be black meant to be a slave. U.S. Americans, however, made no distinction between free people of color and black slaves. The way they saw it, if you weren't white, you were black.

Gregory Osborn's African-American parents were in the diaspora to California just after World War II.

Daniel Sharfstein, author of THE INVISIBLE LINE: A SECRET HISTORY OF RACE IN AMERICA, says that his book comes from an experience at age 20 in South Africa, where he spent a summer doing photo education. The black people he worked with were all classified as African by the government except for one woman who was classified as colored. This woman was actually fully African, but a census taker, wanting to do her father a favor, listed her classification as colored. This gave her a very different and much better educational and social experience as she was growing up, all due to her racial classification, which was not something visible and obvious but simply due to one census taker's whim.

This flexibility of race is what Daniel explores in THE INVISIBLE LINE. He returned to the United States wondering about race here. He came across one man in the United States who was suing for divorce on the grounds that he had unknowingly married a woman of a different race than he had thought. (Clearly, the race of this man's wife had not been obvious to him.)

Daniel tells the history of race through three families - just before the American Revolution, just before the Civil War, and at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Someone remarked that stereotypes about black people today stem from the terror inspired by the Haitian Revolution, which was indeed very bloody and terrifying for white people in Haiti. It was also remarked, though, that fear of a slave uprising had always existed. Indeed, oppressors always fear the oppressed - they fear their vengeance, which they know they deserve. In the United States, the Reconstruction after the Civil War hardened attitudes toward black people in the South.


The best thing about this event was the wonderful hors-d'oeuvre served along with it. John Mariani says that there is no better barometer of economic health than how many people are going to restaurants. This is true of our receding recession, and it was true of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I also noticed that John Mariani says he likes to eat at the very fattening Cochon in New Orleans, as well as at John Besh's L√ľke, with its French bistro cooking.

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