Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Literary Day to Remember

We had nice turn-outs at both ZZ Packer events yesterday. ZZ was a joy to interview on stage. She's funny and smart; she makes complex ideas graspable. She has insightful things to say about writing, literature, politics, life.

During the Q&A, she was asked if writers of color have different expectations placed upon them than other writers. She said yes, definitely--that artists who come from marginalized communites have to battle the internal voice that tells them they must somehow be representative (an impossible task), that they must showcase only positive portrayals of their community, and that they must not air its "dirty laundry." They need to silence the voice that says "make us proud" and write whatever they want to write.

This really struck a chord with me because I've written stories about lesbian and gay people that are not particularly complimentary of the individual characters--but that's only because I want to show queer people in all of our human complexities. Ultimately, I believe, we're serving our "marginalized communities" and the broader society better when we do this because we're offering human portrayals. Only complex, human characters will evoke the universal human condition. So the paradox is that the more specific and flawed our characters, the more we are likely to strike a broader chord.

As far as writing advice, ZZ said that writers must write about whatever truly moves them, whatever is meaningful to them--like "the kinds of things you'd write about in your diary; write about that, but make it better!"

In the evening events, ZZ read from the terrific story "The Ant of the Self" (from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere). The story is from the point of view of a teenage boy named Spurgeon, a high school debate champion who bails his father out of jail. Their embattled relationship is played out with the Million Man March as the backdrop.

She also read a few pages from her historical novel-in-progress. She was self-conscious about this, she told us, because it's hard for her to read from work that is not yet finished. The passage was a mind-blower. It takes place during Jubilee, the post-Civil War time when slaves had just been freed. When a now-freed slave named Lazarus tells his former mistress that he and his sister will be leaving the plantation, the woman is upset at their "desertion." She says, "I have always clothed and fed you." Lazaurs replies, "I thought it was the other way around."

The next morning, the woman comes to their cabin and says, "I'm sicking the dogs on you. You have a half-hour head start." So Lazarus and his sister take off, walking all the way to New Orleans, where they have some family members who don't seem thrilled about taking them in.

All I can say is I can't wait to read the whole novel. It's stunning. We were fortunate to be able to hear it. Another (different) excerpt of the novel has been published here by Granta. The title is Buffalo Soldiers, but ZZ has since changed it to The Thousands.

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An aside: When you put "maligned synonym" into Google, look what pops up first by clicking HERE.
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