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Day 15: Friends, Enemies, and a Yellow Dress

This Day 15 of my 1000-Day MFA, a DIY education project I’ve undertaken that I learned about from writer Shaunta Grimes. You can read more about how I’m engaging with it here. By the way, there often is no rhyme or reason to how I choose the poems, essays, and short stories. I just through my net out, and gather what comes.

by Angel Nafis

by James Baldwin

from The New Yorker, Nov 17, 1962

by Jamaica Kincaid

Woo Woo Roll Deep

Some writing makes you homesick for a home you'll never have. I remember feeling that when I read a book by Martin Prechtel called Secrets of the Talking Jaguar. The poem Woo Woo Roll Deep is a romp through the idiosyncrasies of a tightknit group of friends. I am brought in, plopped into the middle, shown the detailed close-ups. And at the same time, I feel something similar to the 'homesickness' I felt reading the Prechtel book.

In both cases, I can almost see my breath fogging up the glass between us, as I look in from the outside--both culturally and conceptually. It's not my culture, and it's not my experience. But I love hearing about it, feeling those new textures, seeing those different colors. I guess the closest I come to having a group of connections like this is my neighborhood, which I wrote about here.

Letter from a Region in My Mind

My very first direct experience of James Baldwin was this essay. Eye opening, thought-provoking and exhaustive. I had to read and reread many of the passages to fully understand it. Some I had to read aloud. I learned several new words. Felt like a teenager again, waiting for it to be over. (How long is this thing?) And then my grown up would be present again, curious, digging into the soil of this new-to-me piece of writing. Taking nourishment from it.

James Baldwin. He was wooed by Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, but immediately saw the flaws in the mirrored separatism inherent in NOI's philosophy. He knew (and fleshed out for readers like me) the overwhelming complexities faced by his people's quest for equality and freedom at that time in our country. Those complexities remain, and are compounded by time and progress and unconsciousness.

He speaks of the white man as "the devil," but also speaks of the place love holds in all of this. Love which, in his words, "...takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. [emphasis mine]

The racism he writes about in this sweeping, courageous examination of America in 1962 still haunts our country. Correction. You have to be dead to haunt someone. That racism is still alive. Swastikas and Confederate flags are showing up now all over the place, like the relatives you didn't invite to the party.

We still have such a long way to go.

Biography of a Dress

This whole project (the 1000-Day MFA) is fascinating, especially since I haven't had much formal education. I made it half way through my high school sophomore year. I quit so I could devote myself full time to practicing the piano--so I could be accepted to CalArts, where I studied music composition (I turned 16 there). Dropped out and then spent a year at BYU studying music (where I turned 17). But beyond that, nothing. Having hated reading my whole childhood, I grew to love it once I had my babies. It kept my mind occupied while I nursed them. I started with Leon Uris novels and branched out from there.

This project introduces me to new styles of writing every day. In this piece, Jamaica Kincaid oscillates (in almost every sentence) between what she knew then and what she knows now. The constant back and forth between those two knowings weave the fabric of the story of this dress, and tell the story of her hard, confusing relationship with her mother.


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