Yesterday I had the pleasure of lunch with Kalisha Buckhanon, a sparkling young woman whose first novel, Upstate (St. Martin's Press) appeared last year to strong reviews. Upstate, which I've only had an opportunity to browse, successfully portrays in epistolary form the developing relationship between a Black male and female in Harlem; when the novel begins, the young man is imprisoned in Upstate New York. Kalisha was on campus, as a guest of the Kaplan Center for the Humanities, to conduct a workshop and give a talk, which I had to miss because of my evening class, entitled "Loving Our 'Best Things'; Black Women (Re)Write Family and Reproductive Politics." As she recounted her interest on the topic, she'd originally begun to think about the ways in which Black women had tell the stories of their own and other Black women's lives and the legal and political, economic and social constraints placed upon them after thinking about the miniseries version and original novelistic versions of Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, as well as Sapphire's novel PUSH. I enjoyed our discussion quite a bit, and not only look forward to reading her novel, but also the paper she delivered. I hope this blossoms into a study, though I also gathered that in the best artistic fashion, many of her critical interventions will be woven into the text of her forthcoming novel, which I believe is titled Conception.
I've been wanting to jot a few lines about how exhilarating last weekend's Black Queer Studies conference was. Although I wasn't able to attend every panel because of previously scheduled duties, I did get to hear parts of superb papers by Kevin Mumford on Joseph Beam's activism, Devon Carbado on rethinking approaches to identitarian rights, biologistic versus performative constructions, and antidiscrimination law, and Natasha Tinsley on reframing and resituating Black queer studies within a diasporic framework. Their colleagues, graduate students and conference attendees offered challenging responses to their talks. Natasha's paper in particular really sparked a number of things for me, not least because she referenced the work of a writer I greatly admire, Dominican-American novelist and activist Ana Lara, and used Ana's forthcoming novel as a methodological tool to under diasporic pathways, notions of fluidity and circulation, and unexplored subjectivies and identity formations, in order to expand the analytical and theoretical possibilities of what is an exciting and developing field. My wonderful department-mate Jennifer Brody briefly and thoroughly wrapped up of the proceedings, and the marvelous and generous imprint of Dwight McBride, who heads the African American Studies program, was evident throughout. One of my favorite experiences at conferences like this is the informal conversations that occur over lunch, during breaks, and at dinner. There really are too many people to give shout outs to, especially since Chicago has become one of the key sites for Black LGBT/sgl/queer intellectual work and practice, but I did want to say that I especially enjoyed finally meeting Dr. Mae Henderson, whom I'd only interacted with phone many years ago. The volume she edited with another of my wonderful colleagues, E. Patrick Johnson, is sure to go down as a landmark contribution to this important field.
Stranger than fiction: if you thought the Frey affair, which continues to suffer aftershocks, were the final word on the serious problems with memoir as a genre, think again. The most recent case, it appears, involves Nasdijj, a self-styled half-Navajo, half-White abuse survivor, single parent and award-winning Native American author who, it turns out something else altogether. As reporter Matthew Fleischer details in his current LA Weekly article "Navahoax," Nasdijj is really a 56-year-old White Lansing, Michigan native, born Timothy Barrus, who played an important role in what Barrus named--and what is now known as--"leather lit." Fleischer gives all the details and really breaks down the un/truth(s) about Barrus, who also styled himself a Vietnam veteran, who recently offloaded his rant-laden blog (when you get into trouble, you can always go after Jews or Blacks or both), and whom renowned Native American author Sherman Alexie even accused of plagiarism. Fleischer also links Barrus's problematic identity performances, which the American publishing industry lapped up, to other figures such as Ward Churchill and, going further back, Ku Klux Klansman-turned Native Asa Earl Carter.
Indeed, in the long history of Indian appropriation by whites, the Navajo have become the primary target. Of particular ire to the Navajo is mystery writer Tony Hillerman. For the past several decades Hillerman has written detective stories from the perspective of his Navajo protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Though not actually claiming Navajo ancestry, Hillerman infuses healthy doses of Navajo spirituality into the story through his characters — sometimes accurately, sometimes not. Hillerman’s appropriation is well known and disliked across tribal lines and was the subject of parody in Sherman Alexie’s book Indian Killer. But despite the criticism from Alexie and other Native writers, Hillerman’s success has sparked imitators. So much so that Morris claims the existence of at least 14 white authors living in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, writing Navajo murder mysteries.
Having tracked down the elusive Nasdijj (sound familiar?), Fleischer closes the piece with down the author's strange and pathetic (non-)response.
Yet another book I plan to add to my booklist is poet Edward Field's The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Portraits of the Bohemian Era (Wisconsin, 2006). San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Joy Parks describes the book by noting that Field's "unflinching--and sometimes outright nasty--portraits of a generation of literary geniuses is [sic] wonderfully entertaining." In addition to Sontag and Alfred Chester, whose life and work Field is an authority on, the book also presents lively--and according to Parks, sometimes vicious--portraits of other figures of that era, including May Swenson, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Alma Routsong (Isabel Miller). Parks also suggests that one of the most interesting aspects of Field's book is one of his premises: that gay liberation may have destroyed the closed, bohemian space that had developed in post-World War II Greenwich Village. Now that's a supposition worthy of quite a few books. I also am curious to read Field's prose voice. I've always liked his singular, fresh poetry (Variety Photoplays, with its evocation of a late 1950s and early 1960s New York demimonde, is the first book that comes to mind), and I also recall writer Lisa Glatt telling me how delightful and open Field was when she got to know him.