Tag Archives: authors

Black History Month 2014: Toni Morrison

7 Feb

Toni-MorrisonToday we honor and celebrate a decorated writer and outspoken advocate of the targeted and oppressed. Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers. Her passion and commitment to social justice shine through in every word she writes and speaks.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, OH in 1931, she developed an early love of stories. Her father told traditional African folk stories, a style she has adapted into her own work. She also fell in love with the writing of Jane Austen. (How could I NOT love her for that?) She took the name Toni from her baptismal name, Anthony, and Morrison from her (now ex-)husband.

Morrison got her BA from Howard and MA from Cornell, becoming and educator and editor. While working at Random House, she was instrumental in re-introducing black voices into the publisher’s catalog. She began writing fiction as part of an informal group of writers at Howard University. Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye (One of my all time favorite novels) in 1970, launching a new career just as she turned 40.

Her work documents the tapestry that informs the African-American experience and — on a very deep level — our shared humanity. She demands that we look at the systems of oppression that have shaped American history. When speaking at the ceremony that awarded her the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award for Beloved, (A MUST READ) she noted that “there is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby” honoring the memory of the human beings forced into slavery and brought to the United States.”

Beloved, her most celebrated work, was published in 1987. It won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award and remains a much-read and much-loved novel. Her list of honors includes the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contributions, the National Humanities Medal, the Pearl Buck Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and many more. Toni Morrison was the first black woman to win a Nobel prize when she was awarded the Literature medal in 1993.

A celebrated writer, a brave spirit, and a strong voice for social justice — what an amazing woman and career! The United States will remain in her debt.

Happy Birthday, Sigourney Weaver

8 Oct

Happy Birthday, to Sigourney Weaver.  She is not just a brilliant actor, but she is a wonderful social justice activist as well.  While I love most of her work, I have to confess that one of my favorite movies she starred in was A Map of the World, also one of my favorite books. She’s run the gamut, from tough-as-nails woman in space in the Alien franchise ot the delightfully unlikable boss in Working Girl, from the tragic housewife in The Ice Storm to the washed-up action heroine in Galaxy Quest. She made history for her acting in 1988: she was the first person to win two acting Golden Globes in one year (Working Girl and Gorillas In the Mist). She also became the first actor to be nominated for lead and supporiting Oscars in the same year to win neither.

Weaver has built on her work in fiction to improve reality. After her role as Dian Fossey in Gorillas In the Mist she became a champion of Fossey’s work and is the honorary chair of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. She has expanded her animal rights and environmental work, speaking before the United Nations on the threats to ocean habitats posed by aggressive fishing practices. She is also a sponsor of Trickle Up, a non-profit organization focusing on those in extreme poverty, mainly women and the disabled. It’s wonderful to see someone using their talent and fame to make the world a better place.

As an added bonus, Weaver is a woman of 63 who is proud to wear her years. She is famously opposed to plastic surgery and other cosmetic treatments, having observed:

Actors’ faces have to move. I do think life should put lines on your face, or you’re not getting out enough.

In an age of artificial beauty and youth-obsessed culture, that healthy attitude is very welcome indeed. I find her even more beautiful today than ever!

I also want to congratulate Sally Field for being honored by the Human Rights Campaign for being such a strong ally to the LGBTQ community and supporting her openly gay son.

I also want to acknowledge one of my favorite writers.  On October 8, 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Beloved is one of the best books I have ever read.  Morrison is a National Treasure.

One of the Voices of Social Justice: Author Susan Carlton

8 Aug

Author Susan Carlton

Welcome to the next installment of SJFA’s Voices of Social Justice Series.  I first met my dear friend Susan nearly a decade ago.  I had the great honor of teaching her daughter Jane as a 6th grader.  Jane is all grown up now — amazing that we are now the same age. I was immediately drawn to Susan and her family because of the wonderful energy they all have.  Susan has such a sense of activism and social justice, fighting for equality for all.  We see this in her latest historical novel for young adults called Love and Haight, which has been nominated for both an Amelia Bloomer Award and a YALSA Award .  Susan was kind enough to visit with me about the book. What motivated you to write Love and Haight?

It started out—well I always wanted to be a hippie, but I was born a little too late.  I had a long time fascination about what it would be like to be a hippie.  It started as a valentine to that time and place. I grew up in San Francisco.  I thought about what it would be like to be  a 17-year-old girl who was pregnant but did not want to be pregnant and it takes place before Roe v. Wade. The novel is more about making adult choices than about abortion and deciding what choices are right for her.

I know you graduated from Lewis and Clark College, but went to Reed College as well.  Reed is known for being exceedingly progressive.  Is Dr. Reed in the novel named for Reed college because he is so progressive?

Reed is the school and the progressive doctor both, but I  totally created him from my mind.  I graduated from Lewis and Clark in communications and political science. I took dance classes at Reed.

Did you intentionally anthropomorphize the different medical facilities?

Yes, they do take on the feel of actual characters.  As a woman you enter a clinic and it does become a kind of home.  The way it looks, the way it feels, the way it smells make such a huge difference on how you feel about the place.  I spent a great deal of time in hospitals when my daughter was quite sick.  I had time to think and reflect about these places as more than just a cipher—these are very important places.

Was there a particular part of the book that was very difficult to write? (Spoiler Alert! You may want to skip the next paragraph if you have not read the book already.)

I found the idea of how women had to jump through so many hoops to get the permission from a committee — that this was going on in my lifetime.  The most difficult part to write about was the actual procedure itself.  There are very few books that actually talk about abortion.  I thought if I’m going to talk about her having an abortion it was important to make it real.

Had you contemplated an alternate ending?

Initially it was Chloe’s mother that was having the abortion and Chloe was looking at issues around her sexuality.  Eventually, I felt that since I’m throwing a hot potato into the mix, I should just address the 17-year-old having an abortion.  I wanted it to end with you are not judged by a single decision.  Even if it is difficult,  you can make a hard decision and still have a happy life [Susan says emphatically].

When asked about women like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin who are so anti-woman, Susan replied that: 

What is so interesting is that we are here 40 years later and things are so much the same. It is not just women like Bachmann and Palin — it is our culture.  There is a movie I saw about five years ago called Knocked Up and they don’t even use the word abortion.  The word abortion is so toxic in our culture. It is not just the extremists, it is also just mainstream.  For Chloe, she had people who supported her, even her mother was not judgmental.  What good can come of shame? It is so counterproductive.  It seems that what many people need is acceptance and celebration and not shaming.

I could not agree more.  Shaming does nothing helpful or productive.  Susan, thank you for your strong voice and for your literature and activism. I only hope that Love and Haight becomes mandatory reading in schools across the country.  I strongly encourage everyone to buy a copy of Love and Haight.  Click here to read a great book review from the Examiner.

A Tribute to Gore Vidal

1 Aug

Today we have lost a pioneer and legend in the LGBTQ community, the incomparable Gore Vidal. Eugene Louis Vidal was born in West Point, NY in 1925. At his christening at 13, the boy’s name was modified to Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, correcting one name to match his father’s and adding a family name from his mother’s side. He promptly dropped the first two names, wanting to go by something distinctive. As noted by biographer Fred Kaplan,

[He] wanted a sharp, distinctive name, appropriate for an aspiring author or national political leader. “I wasn’t going to write as Gene since there was already one. I didn’t want to use the Jr.”

That strong sense of self was a guiding principle throughout his life. A sharp wit and acerbic personality, Vidal looked at American history as a narrative of inevitable decline (you gotta love that). His first novel, Williwaw, was written in 1946 when he was only 19. One of the first novels published about World War II after the war, it received high praise. He followed it with the then infamous The City and the Pillar, noted for its frank presentation of homosexuality. This was maverick writing, especially in 1948. One of my favorites of Vidal’s was Live from Golgotha: the Gospel according to Gore Vidal, as Vidal takes his own look at the New Testament.

Over the course of his impressive career, Vidal wrote 25 novels and two memoirs. He was also a prolific essayist and occasional playwright; the latter talent earned him work as a screenwriter for television and movies. He famously adapted Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer for the screen, resulting in the astonishing film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Katharine Hepburn.  If you have not seen this move, you really MUST.  “We were procuring for him!”

Like few other authors of the 20th Century, Vidal relished a role as a public figure and managed a parallel career as a commentator and gadfly while still creating great literature. He was a frequent guest on television programs and his gifts of quick wit and cool detachment made him famous. Blending a populist spirit with an aristocratic air, he was a delightful conundrum with a singular consistency. He once said of himself,

I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.

Outspoken on politics, especially foreign policy, he ran for office twice (losing both times). He famously observed,

There is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.

A great fan of conspiracy theories, he firmly believed that those in power practiced deception to further their aims. Considering himself a “conspiracy analyst,” he was also outspoken when he felt a speculation was mere paranoia. Speaking about the George W. Bush administration, he noted,

Everything the Bushites touch is screwed up. They could never have pulled off 9/11, even if they wanted to. Even if they longed to. They could step aside, though, or just go out to lunch while these terrible things were happening to the nation. I believe that of them.

Famously bisexual, Vidal noted that he preferred same-sex sex but was not choosy. He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward before he met his long-term partner, Howard Austen. Vidal and Austen were together for 50 until Austen’s death in 2003.

One of a dying breed of the observational class, Vidal was a significant force in the culture of 20th Century America. His contributions to literature and letters cannot be underestimated, nor can his pioneering work as a frank reporter of gay life. He died yesterday of pneumonia at his home in Hollywood Hills, CA, leaving a space that can never be filled.

Remembering Maurice Sendak

10 May

The Original Wild Thing

This week the world lost a unique talent. Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator perhaps best know for his Caldecott winning Where the Wild Things Are, passed away at age 83. A pioneer in children’s literature, he influenced generations of readers and writers. The New York Times called him “the most important children’s book artist of the 20th Century.” He also authored one of the books most frequently challenged in libraries, 1970’s charming In the Night Kitchen.

Sendak was born in 1928 in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Poland. He describes his childhood as a “terrible situation” because of the steady news of family members dying in the Holocaust. He was a sickly child and fell in love with books during a period when he was confined to his bed. He decided to become an illustrator after seeing Disney’s Fantasia; his first major work was illustrating the Little Bear books written by Else Holmelund Minarik.

Sendak was also gay, a fact few knew until late in his life. He lived with his partner, Dr. Eugene Glynn, for 50 years before Glynn’s death in May 2007. In an interview with the New York Times in 2008, he was asked if there was any question he hadn’t been asked before.

‘Well, that I’m gay…I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business,’ Mr. Sendak stated. He never told his parents: ‘All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.’ A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s.

He was also a philanthropist, most famously giving $1 million in 2010 to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, a mental-health and social services agency that provides services to New York’s needy families. Sendak gave the gift in honor of his partner, who was a psychiatrist.

Leading a selfish life is unbearable…what Eugene did to save lives, I am trying to do artistically. You can’t memorialize someone like Eugene, there are few people like him in the world with his heart and social consciousness…all I’m doing is contributing to something he would have wanted to do.

I fell in love with Sendak’s work as a young child (like so many did). Although I was a precocious reader and quickly moved past most picture books, his quirky sense of story and astonishing attention to detail kept bringing me back. I particularly love Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More to Life which was published just after I was born. When I was visiting Philadelphia, I stumbled across the Rosenbach Museum, which features the Sendak collection, the official repository of his work. In includes his collection of nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books and ephemera. It was a wonderful experience and gave me a whole new appreciation for the man and the artist (including his deep fondness for the work of Herman Melville.) Known to the world at large as a grumpy curmudgeon, he was described by his friends as the kindest and most loyal man they knew. Farewell, Mr. Sendak. The world will miss you, and so will I.

Women’s History Month 2012: Elaine Showalter

29 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate a pioneering writer, literary critic, feminist, and observer of popular culture. Born in 1941 in Boston, Elaine Showalter received her BA from Bryn Mawr, her masters from Brandeis, and her PhD from UC Davis. She taught at Rutgers until accepting a faculty position at Princeton from which she retired in 2003.

Showalter is a specialist in Victorian literature and the Fin-de-Siecle. Her most innovative work in this field is in madness and hysteriain literature, specifically in women’s writing and in the portrayal of female characters. She is the Avalon Foundation Professor Emerita. Her academic honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1977–78) and a Rockefeller Humanities fellowship (1981–82). She is also the past-president of the Modern Language Association (MLA).

She is also a pioneer in the field of feminist literary criticism. Showalter coined the term ‘gynocritics’ to describe literary criticism based in a feminine perspective. Probably the best description Showalter gives of gynocritics is in Toward a Feminist Poetics:

In contrast to [an] angry or loving fixation on male literature, the program of gynocritics is to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on the study of female experience, rather than to adapt male models and theories. Gynocritics begins at the point when we free ourselves from the linear absolutes of male literary history, stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture.

She has constructed a frame of three phases of women’s literature and recommends criticism and reading of literature through the lens of the phase in which it was written.

Because she is also comfortable discussing popular culture (having written for People and Vogue among other), Showalter is frequently consulted as an expert who can boil complex theory in to approachable mainstream concepts. She is particularly adept at skewering the overly masculinized concept of the “Great American Novel” as she does in this article which traces the success of a number of powerful American women writers.

Outspoken and sometimes controversial, Elaine Showalter is a great example of the kind of intellectual leadership that pushes an egalitarian agenda that we need in America today.

Women’s History Month 2012: Rita Mae Brown

15 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate the author of a pioneering work of lesbian fiction: poet, writer, and activist Rita Mae Brown. Born in Pennsylvania in 1944, Brown grew up in Florida but moved to New York to finish her undergraduate work, receiving a BA in Classics and English from New York University. (She later received degrees in cinematography and a PhD in literature.) Her early work was poetry with a strong feminist bent.

In 1973, Brown published her first novel, the groundbreaking Rubyfruit Jungle. A strongly feminist novel, it also explores themes of lesbianism and bisexuality with an unusual frankness for its day. She has written a dozen other novels on a variety of themes, often harkening back to the ground she broke with her first book. She also writes a series of cozy mysteries (sharing credit with her cat) and has published 20 of these to great popularity.

As she completed her undergraduate work and began writing in the late 60s, Brown turned her attention to politics. She became active in the American Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the Gay Liberation movement and the feminist movement. She took an administrative position with the fledgling National Organization for Women, but angrily resigned over Betty Friedan’s anti-gay remarks and NOW’s attempts to distance itself from lesbian organizations. She played a leading role in the “Lavender Menace” zap of the Second Congress to Unite Women on May 1, 1970, which protested about Friedan’s remarks and the exclusion of lesbians from the women’s movement. In the early 1970s, she became a founding member of The Furies Collective, a lesbian feminist newspaper collective which held that heterosexuality was the root of all oppression. Brown is a firm believer in the broad spectrum of human sexuality, going so far as to say, “I don’t believe in straight or gay. I really don’t. I think we’re all degrees of bisexual.”

Black History Month 2012: Jacqueline Woodson

18 Feb

Today we honor and celebrate an award-winning author of books for children and young adults, Jacqueline Woodson. Born in Columbus, OH in 1963, she has won a Coretta Scott King Award (for 2001’s Miracle’s Boys) and has three Newberry Honor books. She is an out lesbian with a profound understanding of the intersections of oppression. The goal of her writing is to make these themes approachable to a young audience. Woodson lists some literary powerhouses as her influences, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Nikki Giovanni.

Throughout her work, she explores themes of gender, sexual identity, race, and class–I like to think of her Social Worker/Writer!

[I wanted] to write about communities that were familiar to me and people that were familiar to me. I wanted to write about communities of color. I wanted to write about girls. I wanted to write about friendship and all of these things that I felt like were missing in a lot of the books that I read as a child.

Although most of her books are narrated from a female cisgender perspective, she has written fiction with a transgender voice and three books told from a male perspective. Because she writes honest, sometimes painful narratives, her books are often challenged in schools  and libraries. Despite the heavy themes, Woodson believes that good fiction, especially for young adult readers, should have some element of hope.

If you love the people you create, you can see the hope there.

She feels this is especially true because effective young adult fiction is much less implicit and more immediate. For more information on this wonderful writer who helps young people see the world through their own lens, visit her website.

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