Friday, October 16, 2015

Fire & Ink IV: Witness

Over the span of four days a week ago Detroit hosted Fire & Ink IV: Witness, the fourth national gathering of black GLBT (LGBTIQA+) writers and activists. The inaugural Fire & Ink took place in 2002, and this year's conference, which focused on the theme of "witnessing," embodied Fire & Ink's vision of serving as an "influential supporter and advocate for GLBT writers of African descent," and its mission of sponsoring regular forums focused on black GLBT writing; advocating for black GLBT works to be included in libraries, academic curricula and bookstores; and organizing workshops that nurture GLBT writers of African descent and foster our writing. I have not verified the attendance figures with the conference's organizers, Lisa C. Moore (President); Steven G. Fullwood (Vice President); Reggie Harris; Anthony R. G. Hardaway; Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz; and Steven J. "Lula-Bell" Fields, about many people attended, but many of the workshops, performances and screenings were packed, and I know that writers came to the Motor City from all corners of the US as well as from across the globe.
The view from my hotel window
This was my second time participating in Fire & Ink. The first one occurred in Chicago just before I arrived to teach at Northwestern, and I did not know about the second one, so it was not until the 2009 event in Austin, Texas that I had an opportunity to attend. That gathering, like this one, left me feeling incredibly invigorated about the future of black LGBTIQA writing, while also providing an opportunity to catch up with writers and artists I had not seen in a long time, and to meet and experience the work of new ones. As with the Detroit gathering, I wished after Austin that it were possible to have Fire & Ink occur annually or biennially, as the mission statement posits as a goal, but the realities of organizing and fundraising, particularly for an organization without limitless resources, and that strives to provide scholarships and support for its attendees, mean that the conferences occur when they can. I am grateful that I have been able to attend at least two of them.
Jack Waters, Skyping in for the Q&A
after the Jason and Shirley screening
The conference's lineup of workshops and panels began Thursday evening and concluded on Sunday. I unfortunately had to miss the final day because of Monday teaching responsibilities, but to the extent that I could, I tried to sample a little of everything. Among the highlights for me were Reggie Harris's Thursday afternoon workshop on "The Black Body," which included an array of useful exercises that not only disarmed and united everyone in the room, but also sparked candid conversations. Reggie interspersed his thoughts and questions with readings of poetry and prose that felt perfectly appropriate for the topic. Another highlight were the screenings that Ernest Hardy and Tisa Bryant hosted.
An edible handout from Samiya
Bashir's M A P S performance
I caught several screenings, including Stephen Winter's new film, Jason and Shirley (2015), starring Jack Waters and Sarah Schulman, and playing until October 27 at MoMA. I originally thought Winter had remade in fictional form Shirley Clarke's disturbing original 1967 documentary, Portrait of Jason, starring the eponymous Jason Holliday, but Winter instead tried to imagine what Clarke had not depicted, including her own selfish manipulation of her star, as well as Jason's torment and wily resistance, and Clarke's lover Carl Lee's emotionally brutal intervention. The film, despite its brevity, was wrenching, with a strong performance by Schulman and an unforgettable one by Jack Waters, who spoke briefly about the film and took questions via Skype after the screening. (I will try to post a fuller review if I can find a free moment.) Robert Phillipson's short documentary Tain't Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s, narrated by Jewelle Gomez, was also a gem I am glad I did not miss. Despite my belief that I had a fairly extensive knowledge of the subject, I learned quite a bit from Phillipson's documentary, as my in-the-dark note-taking will attest. I left wanting to know more particularly about Gladys Bentley, a heroine (as were the film's other figures) if there ever were one.
Samiya in peformance, stage right
Another film that Ernest and Tisa screened, Arthur Jafa's Dreams Are Colder than Death (2014), was a particular treat since it was not clear whether Jafa would agree to release the film, as earlier versions had been leaked and were circulating. Ernest and Tisa made sure that this color-corrected version was secure, and it was a visual and sonic feast. Jafa's aim, as I understand it, was to explore the current post-utopian moment created by the fading ideals of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous March on Washington "I Have a Dream" speech through arresting imagery, a futuristic soundtrack, and the voices of leading scholars and artists, and veteran black activists, including Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, Kathleen Cleaver, Arthur Fielder, Charles Burnett, Wangechi Mutu, and others. Jafa's, Hans Charles and Malik Hassan Sayeed's cinematography and Melvin Gibbs' score were enthralling, but I did not find the collage of voices, brilliant as they were, especially illuminating or fresh, and the near absence of prominent out LGBTIQA heads was glaring, as was the heteronormative presentation of sex work as a proxy for black sexual liberation. Perhaps I misread or misunderstood the role of the nude female strippers in the film, but this felt a bit retrograde especially in light of the complexities of black sexualities going back several hundreds years, let alone today. I was glad to have had the opportunity to see Jafa's film, and I hope someone takes up the thread but flips the script a bit more.
Jewelle Gomez, talking about
the documentary Tain't Nobody's
Topping off Friday's events, I went to see Samiya Bashir perform M A P S: a cartography in progress, a section of a larger piece based on the great Somali writer Nuruddin Farah's highly regarded novel Maps, but refracted through Samiya's imaginative lens to become, as she describes it, "a poetry of emergence" that "resists a resolution" of the novel's child protagonist's key question about desire, in the process charting a trajectory that crisscrossed themes of family, sexuality and diaspora. On Saturday afternoon I split my time between two different panels, one of which was titled "Multiplying Personalities: The Writer Witnessing Self and the Many Characters We Create," comprising G. Winston James, Ana-Maurine Lara, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, and Marvin K. White, which was also a very diasporic panel. All four speakers, with Glen moderating, offered compelling commentary about their own work and processes, and satisfactory replies to the audience's queries. The second panel I popped into was "Dig: Queer Archaeologies," at which Jonathan Bailey, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Lisa C. Moore, Zaneli Muholi, and Julia Roxanne Wallace each spoke persuasively about the richness of the black queer archive(s).

Reggie Harris, leading his workshop
on "The Black Body"
My notebook nearly bursting with jottings, I head to main event, which was the keynote lecture by acclaimed writer Randall Kenan. The recipient of numerous awards; a professor of English at the University of North Carolina; and author of the novel A Visitation of Spirits; the story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead; and two works of nonfiction, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century and The Fire This Time, Randall delivered a powerful, sometimes circuitous and in the end quite effective speech on the theme of witnessing, beginning by recourse to a critique of Roland Emmerich's financial and aesthetic debacle of a film about the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. What he stressed was something that was threaded throughout the conference's very reason for existence, which is to say, the importance of the work that everyone in the audience was undertaking in terms of bearing witness to our present and past, as well as imagining a viable future for black LGBTIQA people to come. An apt counterpoint came later that evening when Jewelle Gomez's Waiting for Giovanni, a two-act dream play that imagined a split second--yes!--in the mind of the great James Baldwin as he contemplated the publication of his landmark second novel amid the socially and politically fraught landscape, particularly after the murder of Emmett Till and in the course of the surging US Civil Rights movement. It bore witness in some of the very ways that Randall spoke about.

Reggie introducing Randall Kenan
I was not just a spectator, however. At the Austin event I gave a presentation on translating black LGBTIQA authors, and I reprised that this year through a workshop under the new title "Translating Black LGBTQ Writing: Expanding the Global Conversation," since the need for learning about and connecting with black people across the globe has grown even more important in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and in the wake of the challenges we face all over the globe, particularly in the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. This time I had a few more facts about the paucity of translation in the US in general, and particularly of black and LGBTIQA authors of African descent to share. It also felt different to speak of translation as a practice having published a book in this area, and I hope by the next Fire & Ink, if I am around and able to attend it, to have more, including a book by a non-Anglophone LGBTIQA author to share with attendees. The conversation with the audience went very well, and I was able to meet a longtime hero as well as younger translators who were very interested in taking up this work.
Randall Kenan, delivering the keynote
A week or two before arriving in Detroit, several writers realized there would a critical mass of people working in innovative forms at the event, so Tisa and Samiya organized a panel for Saturday morning that also included Duriel Harris, Alexis DeVeaux, Rosamond S. King, and me. We each chose different ways to introduce ourselves (I perhaps ill advisedly read the very beginning of my short story "Blues," which only gives a glimpse of what is to come, rather than the ending, before speaking about how I viewed this and my other work, so I am not sure that I made the best case for what my work in Counternarratives or elsewhere sought to do), before a passionate and often illuminating series of presentations and discussions ensued. I believe the entire panel presentation was recorded and will become a podcast at the Los Angeles Review of Books' website, so that when that is available, I'll post a link on this blog if I can remember to do so.
Ernest Hardy, Duriel Harris,
and Tisa Bryant
Two final things were touches you probably would not find--or that I would not--at other conferences. These included an altar room the organizers established to honor both deceased predecessors as well as living figures who could not be present. Many were the faces and tongues that had blazed the path that made Fire & Ink possible, and which now filled that room. Another wonderful touch was the literary stretches, held from 7-8 am, that Rev. Marvin K. White led. I was never out of my room in time to bend myself into blissful pretzels that early, but I heard they were very enjoyable. As for the hotel, the Crowne Plaza Hotel Downtown, which sat right across the street from the Cobo Center, where the conference took place, I can't rave or rage about it. The view from my room was as picturesque as one could ever imagine in Detroit, but the room itself I found it passable. One day a too-early visit from the cleaning staff person, which I declined, led to my room being left untouched for a day. OK, I can deal with that. I extremely fortunate had no encounters with the bedbugs that at least two guests reported, or the roaches that others have cited online. Thank the gods and ancestors for small favors, and thank Fire & Ink's organizers and all its attendees for an amazing conference!

Fire & Ink President Lisa C. Moore
The group portrait
Rickey Laurentiis
The cast from the staged reading
of Gomez's staged reading

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