Tag Archives: writers

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.

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.

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: Maxine Hong Kingston

5 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate a noted author who weaves together feminism, racial identity, and history, Maxine Hong Kingston. She was born in California in 1940 to Chinese immigrants. She was successful in school and attended UC Berkeley where she switched from an initial major in engineering to get a degree in English. After graduation, she taught high school, married, and began her family. She did some writing, which she began to pursue in earnest when the family moved to Hawaii in the late 60s.

Her works draw heavily on her Chinese heritage and feminist themes, liberally blending fiction and non-fiction. Her first major work was The Woman Warrior (1976)(a must read!), a perfect example of her literary strength which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. A companion book, China Men, was published in 1981 and won the National Book Award. Throughout her career she has won numerous other awards including an NEA Writers Award and the National Humanities Medal.

Kingston dedicates her life as well as her craft to social justice. She is a dedicated worker for peace and anti-war activist. She has participated in (and been arrested at) numerous anti-war demonstrations. She also understands the role of poverty in the intersections of oppression:

Hunger also changes the world—when eating can’t be a habit, than neither can seeing.

This amazing woman has dedicated her life to telling stories that merge the personal and the universal. Learn more about her life and work at the Voices From the Gaps project.

%d bloggers like this: