Toni Morrison was one of, if not the, first writers who’s art, personality and legacy loomed large in my life. She had a distinct writing voice and a unique style. Equally laudable was her bold stance on race and racism that she incorporated in her prose, and often discussed during lectures and when interviewed. Growing up, she, along with, Maya Angelou, were the most prominent black female writers of the time, with my mother referencing them and my teachers including their books in our curriculum. I don’t know that can be said of most schools of the time because Morrison was not included in the official cannon of English letters. One of the benefits of living in Detroit, a predominantly black city, and going to a predominantly black high school, was getting some (not much, but some) exposure to writers of color.
Fast forward to just shy of a new century, and I remember being one of the first of my family and friends to anxiously see the screen adaptation of her renowned book, “Beloved.” Although it was clearly a tough literary venture to navigate and translate, a caution she presented to Oprah Winfrey when signing over the rights, and the results were a bit wanting, I still appreciated the specialness of the endeavor. It was a strong, successful and lone black female producer putting the iconic work of a legendary black writer on the big screen. Whether or not it was a completely successful cinematic venture or not, was secondary to the effort and what it represented. Just a few years later while living in New York, I attended what I think may have been my first book event. It was at the 92nd Street Y and featured Toni Morrison discussing her career and latest book. I was thrilled to witness the interview, showcasing her brilliance and legacy, while her message inspired any and all to tap into their inner creative selves. That, coupled with her affable and endearing, yet formidable presence and the unexpected honor to meet her at the end of long signing line, made for a night to remember.
Now older and in a career in which I am gratefully surrounded by authors, publishers and readers, I am afforded the luxury and honor to promote diverse books from emerging and established voices. Although the landscape is still mostly white and often male, it is also wonderfully more inclusive than times past. As such, I continue to recognize the impact of Ms. Morrison. The depth of her literary prowess is immeasurable, and the need for her moral barometer is undeniable. It is because of her we now have access to writers such as Roxane Gay, Tayari Jones, Yaa Gyasi, Zenzi Clemmons, Jesmyn Ward, Ta Nehisi Coates, and Zadie Smith, just to name a few. In other words, the reader, if they choose to, can now inhabit a world that is richer, more layered and refreshingly diverse.
In 2015, Roxane Gay interviewed Ms. Morrison for an airline magazine. She ended the interview as she does all her interviews, asking, “What do you like best about your writing?” To which Ms. Morrison, without hesitation, answered that she appreciated being able to “say more and write less, and give the reader more space.”
Toni Morrison, REST IN PARADISE.
As I am in the throes of organizing an upcoming special panel event on IMMIGRATION IN AMERICA, I am reminded of and emboldened by the success of the last (and first ever) special panel event I did last winter called RACE IN AMERICA. Here's a recap ...
To my utter surprise and delight, close to 150 people packed into the event room of Book Passage in Corte Madera last February (2019) to participate in a timely and important panel discussion event. Unbeknownst to all present, just by being there, they were supporting me and a monumental time in my life, personally and professionally. It was a Sunday, and by a seeming miracle, a dry Sunday- all day no less. Normally, in California, that wouldn’t seem to be such a phenomenon, but in the Bay Area that winter, the season was overwhelmed with rain. We went from several years of a drought, to the winter of 2018-2019 of endless rains. As such, I had to resist thoughts of low audience turnout due to weather. On that one fateful Sunday, we got welcome relief as heavens opened up to blue skies and pleasant temps. Of course, I was well aware that the good weather could also work against me, in that everyone would be taking advantage of the rare break from the rains and stay out hiking, biking and just not being inside. As it turns out, there was something we were all starved for more than a clear, dry day- to talk about the hot button topic of Race in America, present and future.
Although I have hosted many book events, involving author introductions and moderating , this was my first time curating an event and moderating a panel discussion. When I presented the project several months earlier for a special panel event evolving around a social issue, I knew it would be no small undertaking and especially daunting given the predominantly white landscape that makes up Marin County, where the event was held. Despite that, I felt a sense of urgency and welcomed the challenged. After securing the date, feeling Black History Month an appropriate time to honor such a discussion, I embarked on selecting the panelists.
A stellar and diverse group of talented and wise authors/activists came onboard, thrilled to partake in lending their voices on such a matter at such a pivotal time in our country. I could not have asked for a better mix of people- they all brought real-life insights and experiences on the subject from different perspectives. Below are their brief bios. If you couldn’t attend, check out the video of the event in its entirety by accessing this link. Please like the video and let me know what you thought about the discussion by leaving a comment.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras - was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia. Her first novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Doubleday) is an Indie Next selection, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a New York Times editor's choice. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Buzzfeed, Nylon, and Guernica, among others. She teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, and works with immigrant high school students as part of a San Francisco Arts Commission initiative bringing writers into public schools.
Brian Copeland - is an award-winning actor, comedian, author, playwright, television and radio talk show host based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began his career in standup at the tender age of 18 performing in comedy venues in San Francisco. n 2004, Copeland debuted his first one-man play, Not a Genuine Black Man at the Marsh in San Francisco. The play explored his childhood experiences as a member of one of the only African American families living in the then 94% white suburb of San Leandro, California.
Julie Lythcott Haims - is the New York Times bestselling author of How to Raise an Adult, an anti-helicopter parenting manifesto which gave rise to one of the top TED Talks of 2016, and now has over 4 million views. Her second book is the critically-acclaimed and award-winning prose poetry memoir Real American, which illustrates her experience with racism and her journey toward self-acceptance. A third book on how to be an adult, for young adults, is forthcoming. She is a former corporate lawyer and Stanford dean, and she holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard, and an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner of over thirty years, their two teenagers, and her mother.
R.O. Kwon - writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review, Buzzfeed, NPR, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in Seoul, Kwon has lived most of her life in the United States. Kwon’s nationally bestselling first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead, and it is being translated into five languages. Named a best book of the year by over forty publications, The Incendiaries was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award for Best First Book, Los Angeles Times First Book Prize, and Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Prize.
Another special panel event coming soon to Book Passage and moderated by me - IMMIGRATION IN AMERICA: THE LAW, THE POLITICS, THE REALITY. SUNDAY, SEPT. 22ND at 4PM - Book Passage in Corte Madera