Book Review| Memorial Drive : A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Memorial Drive

I barreled unexpectedly through Natasha Trethewey’s beautiful and painful memoir, Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. I was compelled to finish it quickly the way we are taught to rip Band-Aids off our wounds to ensure that we won’t prolong a stinging sensation, so that we can get on with the healing part and rush through the grief. I explain a little more, too, in my video review on YouTube.

It is not so easy to recover from wounds that involve our mothers, particularly when they do not survive the failings of the world — the world that’s supposed to protect them.

Memorial Drive is the story of Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn, through the past and present lens of her daughter’s keen, writerly eye. No detail is spared, which includes transcripts of recorded phone conversations between Gwendolyn and Trethewey’s former stepfather Joel, a haggard, menacing Vietnam War veteran who continually threatens the uneasy peace that opens the book and remains a question mark throughout its pages.

Poets are gifts to us in times of happiness and relative ease but particularly in times of despair, I think, because they can distill what we would normally couch in euphemism down to its essence. In short, they remind us that events are not only what happened but our histories are our active destinies. We can shape them as we wish, but the facts — comforting or not — well, those remain. For women and Black women most of all, there is a way that this power of witness can override the willingness and tendency of others to forget us.

The ache in my heart spread and flourished every time I read a new detail of Joel’s torment of Trethewey, his disregard for her mother or her brother. His manipulation was a knife, twisting and turning with every page; at one point, he breaks the lock to Trethewey’s new gold-edged diary and the violation the poet felt then and perhaps every moment after she had “found her audience,” was so visceral I had to stop reading.

Part of my reaction to the book, of course, is remembering my own mother’s experiences with abuse; the cavalier way in which she would recount having her nose broken by an ex-husband, the way we fled similar boyfriends and sought shelter in homes for what were then called domestic violence shelters. When I posted a review on Instagram, someone mentioned, too, that one of the other aspects of the global pandemic in this moment has to do with a common feature of disasters, which is a rise in intimate partner violence.

The neglect to which my mother succumbed was very different and, besides, you can’t compare one mother’s death to another’s. But what feels the most true here is that I understood that no one was listening to my mother, even when she documented her experience, even when I was a witness. From this, I learned that women were not considered the authorities of their experiences; that even if they were hunted and pursued until they were broken, they would likely not be deemed worthy of protection under the law.

This is a belief I would rather be convinced is untrue. It’s not really in my nature to give into despair. And yet, here is what happens in Memorial Drive, here is what takes the poet three decades to begin to approach & even now, with great suffering and agony: After many attempts to document the abuse and violence and to escape it, Gwendolyn was murdered by her estranged husband in June 1985. Like so many people who have experienced intimate partner violence, she could have been saved — there were so many people warned, so many signs, documented evidence of his threats to her life — and yet, she wasn’t.

This is devastating on so many levels, but especially in Memorial Drive because Trethewey composes the poetry of her extraordinary experience with clarity, grace and generosity while also compiling detail by way of utilizing the economy of every word to perfect effect. As a result, Memorial Drive reads like a classic memoir of grief, like a tragedy in slow motion, the narrative arc, already known, lingers over the text like a set of strings.

Cut Me Loose | Oxford American Winter 2019

So on Mother’s Day, I wandered around Orangeburg to make peace with the parts of Marguerite I didn’t quite know but which still clung to me like smoke. Early in the morning, I parked my rental across the street from the Edisto Memorial Gardens, home to fifty-four varieties of roses. Babbling in the background was the longest blackwater river in North America, an oil-colored waterway connected to the Combahee River—the same water Harriet Tubman used to lead one hundred fifty Union soldiers to various rice plantations on June 2, 1863, to free seven hundred fifty slaves. One thing I knew for sure: my mother loved water and she loved roses.

Only two or three people were around, so I had the place to myself. Downhill, past incredible, tall trees, I went to the water, looking north and south. I walked west, toward the rows and rows of peach- and wine-colored roses, speckled, small, wide, glorious, with names like Glowing Peace and Coretta Scott King and Perfume Delight. Did you ever visit this place? Now, or then? 

Fondling the delicate velvet of a full-bodied rose, I thought of everything a rose would have meant to my mother. How I took for granted a ten-dollar bouquet of fresh flowers when I wanted to attend to my heart, but how such a simple gesture would have been too much for her to even dream about. Even though no one was around me, I didn’t want to disturb the silence, and also, the unchaining. Something rusty and dark in me moved aside, a stone rolling away from a tomb. This was not the raucous, grandstanding, trumpet-blaring Free At Last freedom I’d always said I wanted, but something more profound. A healing. What sounded like my mother’s voice in my ear. I can’t believe you made it. 

I looked up to stop the tears and spotted a Confederate flag flapping with nonchalance above the trees.

Only after my trip would I realize that, geographically, Orangeburg is a kind of nadir as defined by Imani Perry: “the lowest point in an orbit. It is the location directly below the gaze.” Look for it on a map: in comparison with its northern and eastern neighbors, Charleston and Columbia, Orangeburg is down and out of the way, overlooked. 

The rest of my essay in the Winter 2019 issue of Oxford American’s South Carolina issue is here.

Did someone say Book Lovers Day?

It makes total sense that Book Lovers Day would fall right in the middle of the hottest days of summer, when there really isn’t anything better than sitting in front of the air conditioning (or some other cooling device) and reading. As it happens, as I’ve been in the homestretch of finishing a work in progress for young adults, I’ve also been immersed in reading books for young readers of color by writers of color — like a message of love from the universe. Here are some of the books I’ve read & been reading lately that have won my heart:

  • Fresh Ink: An Anthology: I got a sneak peek at this one (Oh, the rewards of being a book nerd are few, but feel so enormous sometimes…) since the pub date is next week, on August 14th. I love the color, and adore the mission of We Need Diverse Books, cofounded by the anthology’s editor, novelist Lamar Giles. Here, he’s compiled fresh, and beautiful short stories by a constellation of YA’s strongest voices. I’m not all the way through, but stand-outs so far are “Why I Learned to Cook” by Sara Farizan, (whose third novel, Here to Stay, is incredibly timely and comes out this fall) Walter Dean Myers’ “Tags,” a one-act play that’s previously never been published and Melinda Lo’s (adorable) “Meet Cute.” I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the collection, especially stories from Daniel Jose Older & Melissa de la Cruz and Nicola Yoon.  This is a collection that isn’t to be missed — it fully represents the world in which our youth live, which is what makes it so fresh. There are parts of Eric Gansworth’s “Don’t Pass Me By,” that are laugh out loud funny, and other moments of regular ‘ol teen angst that show that stories in own voices are also universal stories of kids who are just kids. The book is a relief.

  • Courage: One of the things that’s inspiring about talking to writers who write for a young audience and particularly for children of color (who often don’t see themselves reflected in literature, so get turned away from books at a young age) is that they often have such an interesting path to get to the page. Barbara Binns is one such author — and I interviewed her for Kirkus about her first middle-grade novel to be published by a large press, Courage. After other careers, Binns took a brief foray into romance writing for adults before she learned that the Black boys, in particular, are often resistant or struggling readers because no one really writes for them. She’s written to try and fill the gap for years, and Courage is another, larger step in that effort. It’s the story of 12-year-old T’Shawn, who is navigating the loss of a parent, the homecoming of a formerly incarcerated older brother, a crush and being the newest addition to his swimming team.


  • Proud: Young Reader’s Edition: “People think that there are limitations to what women and people of color can achieve,” Muhammad said when I interviewed her for Kirkus Reviews. She made history in spite of a number of odds as the first woman to compete in hijab, and more adversities that she describes in both the adult and young adult versions of her memoir. “It’s part of my life’s work to break through that box people try to put you in.”

I’m reading some other books, of course, but I’ll save all that for another time. What are you reading this summer? How are you liking it? What’s your favorite?

Finding Sanctuary & Tribe at Sababa

Remember how I said I was having a busy summer, writing all the things? I *was* writing all the things. But I was also revisiting some of the really fun days of my youth by working as Camp Storyteller at Sababa Beachaway in its inaugural season at Old Dominion University. I wrote about it on Medium. I hope you enjoy it. It was a transformative experience to get to witness, and to get to heal a part of myself I didn’t realize was in need of such repair. Here’s a snippet:

Summer camp is, at its heart, an embrace of the best parts of childhood. Your needs are taken care of, even if what you want is another story. Hopefully you make more bonds than you do enemies. You learn things you didn’t know before you showed up, try on a different way of being to see if it matches who you are today, who you want to become tomorrow and maybe after that. You discover the things you never want to try again, usually by failing.

Most everyone around you fails at whatever it is you’re trying differently but in tandem — whether that’s an icebreaker or learning a new skill; You rise and fall and laugh and cry and sleep and lose sleep and get drenched by summer rain and crush hard on one of your camp counselors and write home and make bracelets out of multicolored strings and nothing matters as much as this moment except for the next moment which is so much more fun.

I envy the privilege of being a kid, though I don’t know I was ever afforded the innocence that comes with it, given the body I was born into. Once the innocence is gone, its absence feels permanent, like you can never get it back. Adulthood is the unrelenting weight of knowing, context, responsibility…

(As Camp Storyteller at Sababa) I tried to imagine being a pre-teen or a teenager in the world of today, trying to disconnect from the incessant chatter of the world for even 24 hours straight, then not only learning how to answer the call of the ocean by attempting to surf (I didn’t get a chance to try) but also learning more about how to become more of myself through seeing myself reflected in a community that both saw and affirmed me during this two-week journey.

One of the first items I received and cherished, aside from my trusty waterproof camera, was my Siddur Sababa, which on its cover outlines the Sababa values: To be stoked by fire, propelled by water, nourished by taking only the food that we need and to find balance in the shelter and sanctuary of one another.

Within days of being at Sababa, I felt like I had found some of my people, even as an adult orphan that still struggles sometimes with belonging especially to new groups of people. Before I knew it, the smallest campers — 10 years old and pretty talkative — were among the first to befriend me. (This is a good time to mention that I actually find kids to be the most intimidating, scariest humans of all — they are fragile, they see everything, they know stuff they maybe can’t articulate with big words like adults can, but they break so easily and also they don’t filter anything. They are the bravest, the most honest, the most in need of our protection. They make my nerves so bad because I worry about them more than anything else.)

Each of them offered me presents of found dimes, artful photographs of “big fat fluffy sea birds” (you likely refer to them by their technical names: Seagulls) and an education in competitive ballroom dancing.

I realized just sitting in conversation with them that they were free.

What would it mean, I wondered, to be free most of the time from the perceived, unrelenting social expectation to be perfect? I think for most adults we just assume that’s a wash and we have to be in the game, but for kids, there’s still some hope. Would they not find incredible benefits now, as their identities are still taking shape, and they are deciding who they most want to be in the world, in learning how to disconnect from the endless echo chamber of comparison and social media performance?

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Coping with Father’s Day as a Suicide Survivor in 2018

I self-published my memoir The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans in October 2016 after spending more than 20 years working on one version of the story or another. The book’s name comes from two sources.

The concept of being an orphan, particular in the Black community, may seem jarring. We are, after all, known for taking care of one another even when we’re messy.

But even before my parents died – my father by suicide in 2010, my mother from cervical cancer in 2012 – I had been orphaned by them in many ways, largely because of untreated mental illness.

In Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace, she wrote:

The Sami call the period from mid-November to mid-January the Dark Time, or Skabma Dalvi — the Beautiful Darkness. Most of the day, the sky is a deep indigo blue, even in the morning. It is so hard to know when to wake up, when to work, when to eat a meal.

The phrase the Beautiful Darkness stayed with me for a number of reasons: I’m a winter baby; I prefer cold weather to warm; I last saw my mother alive and forgave her for our hard times together during this time and it was the season in which she also made her transition.

The Beautiful Darkness, for me, is also a way of thinking about grief that has been helpful. It’s a time that can be disorienting in the way that Bartok describes, so that you feel lost. This can also be a gift, a way of learning new way.

These days, this season reminds me that we learn these things in order to share them.

Continue reading “Coping with Father’s Day as a Suicide Survivor in 2018”

Reflections on Austin for The New York Times

When the bombings started in Austin, I was distracted by other things like a lot of other folks. I saw 17-year-old Draylen Mason’s name and that he had been attacked, but I didn’t register a connection between him and the other people who were being harmed in Austin until too late, until Governor Abbott decided it was time to offer a reward for information for the bomber who was then later described as a nice young man with challenges.

Writing for the Times is something I’ve always wanted to do. I have dreamed of publishing on the Opinion pages there since I was a college student. On Thursday, that became a reality with this piece, What It’s Like to Be Black in Austin.

By now, because the bomber is dead, and there are other things to think about and be outraged about — Stephon Clark’s murder among them — these reflections might seem to be a forgone conclusion, but because we live in a time of increasing racial terror, perhaps they are not. We are just in a different moment than when I wrote at length about leaving Austin in 2013. So I worry that failing to look at some of these thoughts or ideas will mean that fewer things get resolved, fewer conversations are aired.

Whenever I write about race or have conversations about my experience, I inevitably get questions like, “What should we do?” I feel very strongly that my work in the world is to be a witness and to write. My work is not to solve refusal to see biases at play or anything else.

I’ve been amazed by reconnecting with my friends and colleagues across the country in the wake of the piece’s publication. Most of the responses have been positive. Because this is a piece that is about race and racial critiques of well-meaning people tend to bring out defensiveness (underscored in the piece), it won’t surprise you to hear there’s been some of that as well.

In any event, writing this piece made me appreciate even more the wonderful people we meet wherever life takes us who become our community. Our truths are not other people’s truths and they don’t have to be. I hope that folks will take what is useful here and leave the rest.

In Austin, I felt a loneliness that was hard to explain. I wasn’t just a New Yorker in Texas. I was a tall, dark-skinned black woman with natural hair. I was an outsider in a place that is supposed to value weirdness, but I never felt like the right kind of weird.

I did the things everyone does in Austin. I went for runs around Lady Bird Lake. I went to hear live music. But whenever I looked around, I would always notice that there was no one else who looked like me. I tried to talk to some of my well-meaning white friends about this. They would try to “Well, actually …” me. “Well, actually, Austin is better than the rest of Texas.” What else could they say?

So I moved back to the East Coast, but I kept my home in East Austin and still visit when I can. It’s my home away from home.

I learned about the bombings on Twitter, and it was surreal to read these familiar names in the middle of the horror. These were people I wrote about, people I knew, people I shared laughs with: Nelson Linder, the head of the Austin N.A.A.C.P., and Freddie Dixon, a pillar of the community, discussing the deaths of 17-year-old Draylen Mason and 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House.

I worried for the people I knew, and then I felt, again, that deep, lonely sadness. I wasn’t the only one made to feel that I didn’t belong. Someone was targeting black people, but once the bombs appeared in other neighborhoods, the authorities no longer seemed willing to consider the possibility that hate crimes had been committed.

I don’t know what else to call them. When the bombings started, I had been writing about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, so I knew the faces of martyrs of the civil rights movement. Whenever I hear about bombs and black people, I think of the four little girls murdered in Birmingham, Ala. I have family ties to Philadelphia, too, so I think of the Move bombings. Are there any black people who can separate news of bombs from notions of terror?

We are in an unusual cultural moment. There has been so much truth-telling over the past few months, so much affirmation about speaking truth to power. I hoped that this time, the authorities might acknowledge that, yes, black people were targeted. I thought someone might make the connection — East Austin is the only place in the city where black and brown people still live in large numbers, and they remain vocal. There are people who are afraid of that, and are threatened by that, and that makes East Austin a target. Instead, there was silence, as these concerns disappeared into the broader panic about where a bomb might strike next.

‘A life of spectacular promise undone by demons’

Trigger warning for the trauma of homelessness and mental illness 

This beautiful New York Times profile of Nakesha Williams, a Williams College graduate who died homeless on the street at the age of 46, was the first thing I read yesterday. My friend Amy sent it to me, saying it reminded her of the story I tell in my memoir, The Beautiful Darkness. Maybe I should have waited, knowing that, but I’m glad I didn’t.

I have written about the poverty and homelessness I experienced as a child — mostly as a result of my mother’s untreated bipolar and borderline personality disorders — mainly because for much of my life, and much of my mother’s, no one else wrote these stories. I imagined that I was alone in my experience. That made it all the more painful, lonely and difficult.

I had books, and writing, and education. I have been lucky, I have worked extremely hard, I have been writing my heart out for so many years. And yet, it feels like reading this story was reading my story, or the possibility of a future to my story yet to come. That is the legacy of experiencing the trauma of homelessness or being exposed to these adverse childhood experiences as a kid. They never leave you.

There are so many parallels between Nakesha and I, but more between her and my mother. We both love books and reading, we both sang in gospel choirs. I nearly went to Williams instead of Vassar.

I chose the latter because when my mother was still alive, I decided on college the way I decided on everything else: Based on its proximity to her. Attending Vassar meant I could get to Grand Central more quickly (and for less money) in case Marguerite had a manic episode. In case she ended up in a psych ward. In case she got evicted again, as she did my sophomore year, and I needed to drop everything and go to where she was and try to fix things that were beyond my years to fix.

Nakesha’s story is my worst fear for my life, though I am far from the little girl who had to watch my mother refuse medication, or fail to pay the water bill or negotiate not having enough money to buy food for days any more. Grace has kept me — along with writing — sane. But the kind of trauma that mental illness and then homelessness can inflict will never leave my body. It is a battle scar. A deep wound I am learning to befriend.

When I read Nakesha’s story, I was reading about my mother again. I kept, and still have, the lipstick imprinted letters of my mother, along with the emails that she sent me (like Nakesha) from libraries in New York and Philly. Because her life had so much potential, had so much life and joy and darkness that also taught me about beauty, I included some of these emails in my book.

At the core of this story about Nakesha, though, is the mystery of how the love, attention, resources poured out from others somehow failed to reach her. This is the part that resonated with me about the unknowables on the journey with someone who is mentally ill. This was my greatest heartbreak, the title of this blog, a line from the story about the realities of there not being a simple solution to the complex realities of homelessness and in particular, not a simple answer to the question of what happened to Nakesha.

There is no accounting for the demons, the silences, that can overtake us. All we can do is try to avoid them, try to keep going, try not to let them take us under. But maybe this story was so deeply moving for me and disturbing because this means there will continue to be many people like her and many women like my mother, and not as many people like me, who can profess, with not just a little bit of remaining survivor’s guilt, that we were spared somehow.

 

 

Live On Your Own Terms: A Memoir Excerpt

Winter is one of my favorite seasons, and I really want to like Christmas, but it’s complicated by the fact that my mother died during this season five years ago. Even before she fell ill with terminal cervical cancer, the holidays have always been challenging, and I’ve never been particularly good at knowing how to genuinely celebrate while also holding the sadness that is also present other than doing what I always do — which is writing through it. Below is an excerpt from my memoir, published in 2016, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. 

2011
Marguerite loved to celebrate. You didn’t have to take the party to her: she was the party. Lights flickered in her eyes, her mouth would curl up at the sides, and she’d nod her head and shake her shoulders to music, shuffling her wide feet with socks curled over her toes leaving her heels bare, side to side, off-beat.

In the house of her best friend in Philadelphia or in one of our many apartments, she liked the music turned all the way up, and she could easily get lost, her arms lifted up, fingers snapping. She loved Christmas the most. She would wash her favorite red blouse in the sink and hang it on the shower curtain to dry a day ahead of time.

She said an extra rosary for the season, dragging in real or fake trees some years just to have the lights around her. There were rarely gifts under the tree or even blankets to catch the shedding pine needles. She would say, “You’re my gift. I’m your gift. Merry Christmas!”

We usually scrambled for food and warmth during Christmastime in New York City. The scalding radiators in our apartment were loud, rusty pieces of shit that sent steam spraying toward the ceiling in loud squeals. The refrigerator was often empty, but my junior high school principal, Brother Brian, or church volunteers usually made sure we didn’t go hungry on Christmas.

We made turkey and stuffing and plopped in front of us on a couch or plastic chairs to set in front of a TV where we watched It’s a Wonderful Life or the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

“You kind of look like him, Shan,” Mom said.
“The reindeer?”
“Your nose gets red like that in the cold,” she said. She started to crack up, and the gap in her front teeth showed.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said, smiling shyly at her.
“It does, and you have a dimple on your forehead too.”
“You know a lot about my face!”
“When you frown I can see it. It’s cute, Shan,” she would say. “It’s where your brother kissed you before you were born and came to me from heaven.”

 

Most years, instead of decorating with lights at home, we went to see the city’s most famous tree at Rockefeller Center, a few blocks from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It towered over the ice skating rink below, and both Mom and I stared wide-eyed at it, year after year: the giant, multicolored bulbs, the dark space between the branches, the giant toys. It was the real-life version of what she imagined a good monument to Christmas to be, better than any replica she could try to make with her hands.

“All we’re going to do is look at it?”

She said breathlessly, nodding, “It’s beautiful.”

Our last Christmas together, I woke up in the house of a family friend in Philadelphia, getting ready for church after a house full of children had been up for hours ripping open presents and running around the house. I had been sleeping on a twin bed in Rita’s home for almost three weeks, missing my own bed back home in Austin but afraid to leave since we didn’t know how long Mom would be alive.

 

My phone broke around the same time, and my big sister Rita teased me about the way I wrestled with the broken buttons before giving up. I held onto it for a few days too long because everything in the world seemed broken. Mothers leave their children; they die before we do, yes, but Marguerite was not yet old enough to leave me. Our lives were still broken in a way I believed only she had the power to mend.

I sat next to Rita at Stronghold Baptist Church, and I wept. I could only really cry in two places by then, in the house of God and at my mother’s bedside. For all my traveling and adventures, for all my ambition and making my way in the world, I was still a frightened little kid. We were in a season of celebration, and it felt like a betrayal to smile or give gifts. It felt like a betrayal of my mother’s life to even breathe, to just keep living my life as if it had meaning without her in it.

I needed the word, the exaltation of something much bigger than me, than us. I needed the infusion of glory and spirit, some light in a season of darkness to baptize me in a hopeful future. The present was breaking my heart. Whatever was coming for Marguerite had to be better than what she was feeling now. I was sitting in the pew with my sister, but my heart and mind were with Mom in that nursing home, so I asked Rita to take me there.

I cried tears of anger, release, and surrender. What if Mom made it through, by some miracle that she had always talked about, and she took medication, and we could be, finally, like all mothers and daughters? She hadn’t guided me like mothers are supposed to, but dear God, I was here and breathing and by most accounts a good human: that was something.

Hours later, I sat at my mother’s bedside. She had shit on her wrist again, which Rita wiped off with hard tissue. Mom’s wig was in the corner of her cubby. Rita sat staring at the television while I held Mom’s hand. Her fingernails were yellow but soft now; her fingers as thin as mine.

“I’m so happy to see you,” she said. She talked again about com- ing into money, about wanting to move into her house. “Maybe not that house. Well. God will take care of us,” she said, finally. She was high on morphine, and her eyelids would drop mid-sentence, like she was about to go to sleep.

I moved my chair up, trying to get close to her face. She couldn’t understand what I was saying when I asked what happened to her scarf. She was wearing a towel over her cropped gray hair.

“So are you going back to work or what?”

“I’m going to write.” I didn’t want to waste anytime talking to her about my future, knowing that she wouldn’t be around to see it.

“That sounds nice,” she said. “When are you coming back?”

After you’re gone, I thought. The next time I’ll be here is during your funeral. My eyes welled up, and I remembered that she hated to see me cry.

“I don’t know,” I said. I realized then that I could tell her what I wanted to tell her without saying goodbye. “I’m going to miss you very much,” I said. I told her I was leaving Philadelphia in a few days. In my head and in my heart I added, Goodbye.

She touched my arm. I rubbed hers, which was too thin, and moved from the chair to sit on the side of the bed, while she mostly stared at the television. She was curious about the coffee cup I had brought in with me. She looked at it and then me, and then she smiled, and I felt like she really saw me and really understood where my heart was. I smiled back at her, the most light I could muster.

“I love you very much,” she said.

 

“I love you, too, Mom,” I answered. I closed my eyes. I thought, I forgive you. God, please don’t let her feel too much pain. I hope this is enough, this sitting with her and kissing her on the forehead and letting her kiss me on the cheek.

She started to nod off. We left the nursing home, and for the rest of the night, I was in a fog. I wanted Christmas to come and go because I knew Marguerite wouldn’t live to see another one.

Aster(ix) Journal: Forever Shifting

I recently moved back to New York after being away for a little while, and as I get reacquainted with home, I’ve also been looking through the archives to assess how much has changed and how much remains the same. 

When I search my memory for a time and space in which I felt completely at ease, utterly loved, comfortable and surrounded by serenity, I cannot conjure a single moment or geographical location. When people talk about home to me, a single woman, it is as if they are talking about marital love. They are talking about a space I have always yearned for but never found. They might as well be talking about their common experience in outer space.

But I think I know because of how I feel when I write, or when I run, or when I’m reading. These are things that keep my nervous heart from beating out of my chest when I’m afraid and anxious and I have insomnia. Or when I’m making myself dinner, and chopping garlic just so, and cutting up onions or slicing mushrooms. Or when I hear a song that reaffirms God’s love for me, or reminds me that my love really had chosen me just for me and we would be together forever until we weren’t. Home to me is something I still don’t quite understand except when I feel close to it. — From the Tierra/Home issue of Aster(ix Journal

The Story of Our Talent for Survival

I remember exactly when I learned that reading in the hood is a revolutionary act.

It was at the heavy hands of Michelle, the largest sixth grader I’d ever seen, who was one of the Bronx girls around the way who liked to chase me to deliver a beat down as punishment for not letting her cheat off of my spelling test.

Reading was dangerous because it sent a signal to hood residents that you did not intend to stay, even if they were not considering a way out. Books seemed to suggest that even if your body was stuck in tenements or housing projects or welfare hotels, your mind was on the path to freedom.

That’s why I became a professional reader long before I was a writer. Books gave me hope when I was living in homeless shelters, subsidized housing, and welfare hotels with my mother in New York City. They helped me shape a future for myself that was beyond the limits of poverty, neglect and my mother’s mental illness.

Most of the middle class and affluent black folks I would come to know in the future would wince and give me a look I couldn’t read when I would tell the story that I outline in my new memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. Even the presence of the elegant, poised, brilliant President and First Family does not negate the long shadow of prevalent biases about all black people as subject to abject poverty and dysfunction. But that was the real life that I led, even if it wasn’t particularly attractive.

I read to cope. I found solace at the library. Especially from Michelle, because you couldn’t get in the West Farms public library branch without a library card and she definitely didn’t have one.

I inhaled whatever was in the new book section. Self-help books, like How to Have Better Self-Esteem, because I hated myself. Because as a third or fourth grader in and out of public schools in each of the five boroughs because my bipolar mother was not medicated and couldn’t keep a job, I felt like a burden. In Search of Our Mothers Gardens and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf fed my spirit. Resting my mind in black girl poetry and prose gave me hope when my mother’s manic episodes or neglect threatened to erase the slight will to live that I hung on to.

I had not grown up in a big family, it was just me and mom. And my mom had been broken by life long before me. Her own mother had died when she was a teenager in a mental institution. She went on to have five children but I was born only came after Jose was killed by a city bus when he was 12 years old — a turning point in her life that I believe triggered the worst parts of her bipolar and borderline personality illnesses.

Reading was my main connection to the world, the only thing that I believed and felt connected me to an invisible community of other homeless children, other aspiring writers, dreamers, black girls, the poor who wanted to be anything but. So I got beat at home for no reason other than my mother’s mania, and I was bullied at school for trying to find safe haven in the pages of books. While I grew up with my mother and she did her best to care for me, I was an orphan in the sense that I mothered myself and sometimes tried as a kid to mother my mother. That is obviously not the work of a child, but I did try. The main plague of my childhood in all of its adversities was loneliness, isolation.

I wrote The Beautiful Darkness to save others from their loneliness. To offer empathy and community to those who know what it is like to live with anything like a broken black family and are resilient in the face of it regardless. We have often heard the stories of black women struggling with poverty and adversities with their children through journalists and sociologists who do outstanding work. Rarely do we hear directly from survivors.

Maybe like me, they feel the weight of stereotypes and stigma pressing them away from the page. Maybe they think no one will want to hear their story or will buy their book, or it will not resonate because they have already read something similar — all variations of what I have heard. But here is the dream I hope becomes real. Maybe, just maybe, a little black girl who is between homes with her mom who struggles with depression will be searching for a roadmap for herself way from despair on a library bookshelf somewhere.

This book is for her.