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A Problem That is not Just One Candidate

March 17, 2016


Is there a crisis in the Republican Party? They are a little late, maybe a few decades late, but many leaders of the GOP seem upset enough about the political rise of Donald Trump to say something. What is most surprising is not the rise of Donald Trump. What is profoundly baffling is the religious and political right’s Meanwhile, I am at a loss to find what they are upset about. Their protests are not genuine.

Some mark the change that created today’s current environment by Nixon’s Southern Strategy, that took advantage of southerners who left the Democratic Party over their Democrat representatives voting for Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation. Others point to the cultural shift that exited on the cresting wave of the Reagan devolution, the Reagan Democrats who showed their segregationist stripes in the backdrop of school buses, college admission and the breakdown of redlining practices.

I do not understand why so much ire, coming from both the right and the left is focused on Donald Trump. Pundits, party people, media, candidates and the public are focused on his rhetoric. Still, I have not heard him say anything original, especially in terms of how his views relate to our political landscape. He has not stated any policy that is different than what has come out of the Republican party in the past few decades. The attitudes he carries are not different than the predominant attitudes of the party. The people and institutions he targets are the same as those that have buoyed the party to success in the past three decades. The tone is the same as the the Dixiecrat movement, George Wallace’s rise, Nixon’s southern strategy, Reagan’s “American morning,” or the Tea Party revolution. It is only with honesty that we acknowledge that Trump’s current success has come by appealing to the same constituencies that have brought Republicans the margin of success over the past century. It is with sadness that the same can be said for the most prominent brands of Christianity in the United States.

I can name two major party Presidential candidates who, in high profile, in recent history, comfortably accepted the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan. The two who come to mind first are Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan.

There are few differences between Trump and the establishment. One, most of the establishment has been running themselves or someone else for President for most of their career. Becoming President has, traditionally, required a different path and a different monologue. Two, his has bad manners and the bad manners might be, to the establishment, nothing more than breaching the code and taking a shortcut to a host of prizes the elite thought that they could keep for themselves and served by radical Tea Party and Duck Dynasty rubes who do the deeds for them. The rubes are not a new phenomenon. But there was a brief period when they were not so well loved.

That brief period of time, the civil rights era, was one where this conservative right supremacist movement did not look as pretty as what Americans wanted to portray. In the midst of this concern for a cosmetology of ideal, it did not lose in the eye of America on the issues. It took its downward ebb in America’s reaction to the graceless behavior and lack of sophistication that was portrayed when the newsreels showed the ugly counter-protest to the brave civil rights activists. It was not a breach of American ideals; it was a breach of decorum.

What rose is that kinder, gentler brand of bigotry, not always exclusive to the right. It is one that hides behind moments of political correctness when in mixed company and is as much a part of a broad social political (and religious) agenda as it is a part of every candidate and party who is chasing after the voter and consumer demographic that is working its way into the GOP endorsement process.

As Nasreen Mohamed put it in a recently published piece, “Donald Trump’s position is not isolated from contemporary U.S. policies, but rather is part of a larger political landscape.” It is a landscape that has been cultivated for decades, both the policies and in tone with an increasing shedding of the dog whistle–say it straight out, like Ronald Reagan did sometimes, after lulling us into that fake grandfather coddle, and as Trump does all the time, lulling us into the media-sanctioned legitimacy. Lulling us into the illusion that these other more polite Republican candidates are offering something different. They are not.

Donald Trump  has shed not only the dog whistle but also that face political correctness that the rest of his party has hid behind every time it gets called out for its bigotry, because, after all, political correctness is that thing behind which bigots hide.

He is not hiding, as as sure as he owes his success on the discovery of the Tea Party that you can spout the foul language at any turn like it is an entitlement–and that is the hallmark of supremacist society–the Republican party owes its rise to that very thing.

I do not lament the difficulties of intraparty workings. It is politics and deserves the bed it has made for itself. But just as the rhetoric of supremacy has escalated the GOP to electoral success, has for just as long been the dominant voice in emerging evangelical Christianity.

These words, attitudes and positions–it is hard to tell whether it is a parallel rise or the residue of centuries of colonization that assumes a disposable status of brown peoples on the land of their homes or extracted like ore from a landscape.

But it is nothing new. Trump isn’t anything other than the logical culmination of what has been cultivated in the religious, Republican and Confederate rebel consciousness. After a generation of right wing politicians who pander to a right wing constituency fueled by right wing talk radio and and infusions of parallel rhetoric from pulpits that once inhabited a theological fundamentalism that has morphed into a political fundamentalism–no one has a credible right to surprise.

What kind of privilege allows someone to not have been bothered by the 30 years of supremacist speech but is suddenly appalled by Trump? Think again about this illusion that it is Trump’s bad manners that are the problem, that if he spouted his dreck with politeness, what he stood for would be okay. He is not different on the issues; he is no more a bully; he is no further from the substance of the brand of conservative Christianity that has been championed over that period.

Watching this election cycle is like watching a family whose secret of deep-seeded alcoholism is being made public by the conspicuous behavior or whomever they have decided to call the black sheep. And like that family, they are criticizing the most afflicted and expressive exhibitor of the affliction rather than the source of that affliction, which is, of course them.

And, of course, they will continue to say that it is not them, that it is not the story of generations and iterations of crops of what is blooming out of the mouth of Donald Trump. But biggest danger might not be that he might get enough support to secure the nomination, gain support for his rhetoric or even get elected. The biggest danger may be that even if we solve the problem of him, there is an entire extended family whose illness they will not acknowledge exists within them and that, after focusing so much attention on one person, the general public will not see among the wolves in respectable suits.

That unwillingness to call out these other suits is the real crisis of today.


“You Can Close Your Eyes,” to the Music

January 26, 2016


Ginger Grapevine Boise 2011

A week and a half ago, I sat next to my friend Ginger on her bed. I had my guitar. I played a few songs that came to mind, and played some noises that were not songs at all, or at least were not songs moments before I plucked them out on the strings. I sang, or at least tried to. I had to let the lyrics lapse for spans of some of the songs. My voice was cracking, faltering under the weight of sorrow and crying. Music does that.

I had not cried as much as I might have in the days after learning–coming to the understanding that Ginger was facing the last illness from which she would not get better. There have been a few moments when I cried. In private. In those moments when I could not hide in the luxury of not being on death’s doorstep myself, nor peering into a cavern of the demise of my child, mom or sister. I never cried in front of her. But in this moment, amid the music, I was losing that protective barrier.

Ginger sat with her eyes closed most of the time, smiling sometimes. She was tired. Tired not just from the breast cancer and the harsh treatments for which she had become too weak, but from a very hard life–a life that was as hard and profound as the beauty into which she had grown some years after I met her.

Tired, she asked me to lay down next to her, with the big window above her bed letting in a sunlight that washed over us–her mom in the next room, trying to stay busy in the midst of the sparse contents of Ginger’s tiny apartment before their trip. (We will have more work, I suspect, another day.) A few days earlier, Ginger told me, “I’m going to Boise to die.” She was leaving.

She had left–done some sort of leaving–so many times before, in so many ways including ones that made me think I would never see her again. This was part of her personality and a (sometimes) necessary pattern for many of her friendships. She needed to leave people and to be honest, there were a couple of times when I needed her to leave. But this was different.

She seems not afraid of leaving–to die. I am not afraid. I don’t know what I am but full of sorrow and grief. Full of regret for fate’s sake and what fate has missed. The sadness seems to be a pretty constant companion these days, for this impending loss and a couple of other sorrows. But there are a few songs that have passed through my ears and from my mouth that seem to forcefully impose a vulnerability that both the situation and my subconscious demand.

She is leaving again. Going home, as they say., to some “far-off, and half-forgotten country,” a “shy yet solemn glory, my smallness could not hold.”



There is so much more to this story, her story. So much more than even the path of 25 years on which this friendship walked. There is so much more that is so much about how we live on this planet, how we treat people on this planet, especially our girl children. So much about gender politics, families (the great and the hard parts), society, addiction, love, hate masquerading as love, mental illness, extreme beauty, superhuman strength, maybe some angry treatise on the fake rescue of well-meaning men from the soul-crushing, violent patriarchy which has risen out of the feelings of threat from powerful female bodies, minds and souls that loom over our simple male selves. Who has time for all of that? We are tired.

Ginger will be gone in a few days. I asked her to leave me her superpowers. I ask myself if I am brave enough for them. I have to be.


“Music” by Anne Porter


When I was a child

I once sat sobbing on the floor

Beside my mother’s piano

As she played and sang

For there was in her singing

A shy yet solemn glory

My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked

Why I was crying

I had no words for it

I only shook my head

And went on crying

Why is it that music

At its most beautiful

Opens a wound in us

An ache a desolation

Deep as a homesickness

For some far-off

And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood

Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend

From the other side of the world

That gives away the secret

Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries

We have been wandering

But we were made for Paradise

As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us

With its heavenly beauty

It brings us desolation

For when we hear it

We half remember

That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields

Their fragrant windswept clover

The birdsongs in the orchards

The wild white violets in the moss

By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it

Is the longed-for beauty

Of the One who waits for us

Who will always wait for us

In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us

And wanders where we wander.



Fruitcake Holidays

December 24, 2015


I recall a photograph taken on Easter morning when I was about three years old. I stood with my sister who would have been about two and held the hand of one parent while the other snapped the photograph on an old Kodak Reflex Camera, the kind where you looked down into the top into mirrors that framed your upside-down image. I wore an immaculate suit with short pants and white shoes. In the picture, my sister is similarly well dressed in the pastels that would remind any viewer of the photo of the occasion.

We stood next to a huge easter basket draped in colored cellophane that, in addition to candy and eggs, had fruit. Today, with a bag of clementines sitting a few steps away from me, that basket seems less than remarkable, until I remember that getting any fruit in the Minnesota climate that time of year required a feat beyond the reaches of the every-day grocery logistics. It was a time when “not in season” meant it was scarce.

If I jump a generation back, there are no pictures of my father with fruit on Easter. It was not just that fruit was hard to get that time of year. It was harder to get, period.

During the holidays of my childhood, my uncle would often send us a fruitcake. For us kids, the candied fruit was not quite sweet enough, a far-too-complicated taste on the unsophisticated tongues of children whose taste buds were cultivated on fresh fruit and refined sugar candy. Dad’s taste buds, on the other hand, were cultivated during the depression, where much of the food came from what was raised in the yard, what could be bought in bulk at the dry goods store or the cheaper cuts of protein that were often cast-offs of animal carcuses remaining ofter the white and wealthy citizens took their cut.

Fruitcake was a remarkable delicacy. To have fruit, to preserve it for what seems like forever, candy it, put it through a process that could deliver it to some lucky mouth–this is a treat. At least it is to dad. Even though it has been a long time since I have seen a fruitcake in my parents’ house, I know it is a precious delight that comes in the brick of a package and is the butt of so many jokes.

My siblings and I make eyes at each other at the sight of the fruitcake, knowing that dad will offer with the expectation and delight that the he will get to eat most of it himself. I don’t know that he really wants a whole fruitcake in the house. Healthy eating is not always consistent with the consumption of a whole fruitcake.

A healthy sense of humor might lead one to comparisons to a door stop or Jonathan Winters. A healthy sense of perspective could hint to the delight experienced by a little boy in 1939 as this amazing assortment of fruit, nuts, maybe brandy and a few other things that glisten to the eyes and tease the stomach.

Dad also likes licorice and each Easter when we were kids, we would fish the black jelly beans out of our baskets and make a pile of them for dad to eat. Dad ate a lot of stuff when we were kids that we didn’t like. Grits. Sardines. All the broken cookies and scarred fruit that wrinkled our noses. And the fruitcake.

I still am not a fan of fruitcake, but but maybe my grown-up taste buds need to revisit the flavor. I had to take my hat off when I saw that a friend of my generation concocting the melange in her kitchen. It is a worthy pursuit. I hope there is someone who will enjoy the loaf with as much savor as my admiration.

The weather might not seem right this holiday, but at least one tration lives on. Have a great holiday season!

What Time Is It?

September 22, 2015

A boy named Ahmed made a clock. Sometimes I have trouble even setting mine. As for making one, well, I think there are wires that connect somewhere and don’t you have to put that tic-toc sound in it? Last week, Ahmed made one–you know, one of those devices that tells us what time it is. When he brought his prized accomplishment to school, it did just that.

What time is it? It is said that even a broken clock is right twice a day. In the United States, it seems that this broken clock is right all the time and is reading the same thing it has read for centuries. Sometimes the (clock) face changes, but the hands are always pointing at the same numbers.

What happened to Ahmed Mohamed reminded me of what happened to my sister, I think it was her sophomore year in high school. She had this pen. It was bulbous with a string to carry it around her neck. She wore it to school daily with pride. She loved it so much because it was one like our mom wore to work every day. She was proud of her mom and the work she did, as all of us in the family were. We were proud at how, when people met her on the street showed their appreciation for her kindness and character and how she tried to treat people as much like Jesus would. (Interestingly enough, both of our parents had jobs that allowed them this kind of ministry.)

Mom retired from that job working in the hospital admitting department a decade and a half ago. She used to remind us that through the front doors of the hospital, people were facing some of the biggest and most vulnerable, and maybe the most frightening episodes of their lives. The person at the admitting desk was the first experience and impression of this life episode. How patients and family were treated at this point in their journey was crucial.

My sister had learned this lesson as did all of her siblings, but that lesson was completely lost one morning when she was called out of class into the principal’s office.

“Let’s have it,” he said. My sister was puzzled. “Let’s have the pen.” Why did they want her pen? It was even more puzzling than the irony that she was being questioned for having that one thing, a writing utensil, that teachers harped the most about being absent from the tools they brought to class. (If we left our intellect in our locker, often, that would go unnoticed and unsanctioned.)

As she handed it to the principal, he instructed her to take it apart and lay all the pieces on his desk.

The air of accusation unpacked itself like the pen, which she gradually figured out, was supposed to contain drugs.

For Ahmed, it did not matter that his prized project reflected a quite different stereotype than the one his accusers prefered. Brown people’s talents are often seen as threats rather than assets unless they can be obtained through exploitation. Such a threat, the one that puts him in place to take advantage of opportunities for which we have chosen not to educate non-immigrant, resident populations–even more increasingly so as that home population itself has become more brown.

For my sister, it did not matter that anyone who knew her knew her as the person whose way of moving through the world was modeled after the woman who carried the pen around her neck at work.

To be able to walk through the world without expending so much energy outrunning the stereotypes, navigating around the prosecutorial spears, avoiding what some might want to call “potholes” but are actually large chasms in which actual and figurative lives are lost–to not just be rid of the extra weight, someone else’s weight that makes each step traveled, this race we all run but some with no cheering from the sidelines and the heft of the baggage digs deeper and deeper creases into our skin, joints and into the paths beneath where we trod.

Luckily, someone was watching when Ahmed reached that point, that familiar one that sees us expelled, arrested or just pummelled into a painful silence. One voice from yesterday made it out alive amid the millions of others smothered or hoarse from pleading for sanity.

We continue to make the jokes out of the persistent irony surrounding these potentially lethal brushes with America’s uncomfortable caste. We laugh because we won’t be caught crying in public, though our mothers weep with sadness and anger in a musical language usually reserved for high gospel music. So, we joke about what looks like simpleton culture–even though it is quite contrived and systemic. We joke about these people, but still the joke, and the destruction, are on us.

My sister was not arrested. Reagan-era school administrators still saw themselves as constable and the first line of justice even if they were just a couple of years beyond the justice-by-paddle era. And she was not paraded in the sight of the “good” children whose spilled weekend beers my siblings and I only heard of through overheard conversations about the parties and death-defying, semi-sober drives home that were a race against parental scorn or worry. It did not take handcuffs to create the aura of scorn, nor did it take harrowing, drunken dashes down the Stearns County backroads to move my mom to worry, not for what her kids might do but for what was being done to them.

I would like to think that these episodes are all cases of mistaken identity. Sadly, they are not. We are identified regularly and predictably. We can set our clocks by it.

Getting Ready for Northern Spark #nspk71

June 8, 2013

I was asked by the folks at Norther Spark to say a few things about my project, Love Letters in Lowertown. Below are some of the unedited responses to the questions asked. I hope that they get you to think about your own connections and how to personalize how you interact with those people and things you love. There are ways to touch people with your words that don’t compute in this increasingly digital world. Maybe you will be inspired to take to your pen and paper, the postal service or a typewriter, if you can find one and send a little love. And maybe you have some time to join us at Northern Spark. I will be at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar (308 Prince Street) all night, June 8, until dawn. All along 4th Street in the Lowertown section of downtown St. Paul will be alive! Follow the Twitter hashtag #nspk71 and post a thought or two. Join the festivities and learn more HERE.

A special thanks to Anna Ruhland at Northern Spark for getting me to think about this. Hope to see you all or hear from you.

What was the inspiration behind this project?

Many years ago, I used to write a lot of letters, did it more than anything, even any other kind of writing. I thought it would be nice if there were some productive use for this pastime. It seemed to be my best form. (I had not thought of myself as a poet; I had written a total of two poems at that time.) The idea came to me, maybe because so many of the letters I was writing were, even though I would not admit it at the time, love letters—and I am still toying with the philosophy that all letters are love (or hate) letters, that maybe I could hire myself out to write letters for people who are not letter writers or who don’t have the time or who wanted to impress their girlfriend or maybe boyfriend or whomever, but I thought it would be easier to transfer the requisite emotion if I myself had at least a hint of the affection.

I decided it would not be a good idea, for two reasons. The one that came to mind first was that I did not want to be responsible for writing a wonderful, loving letter for someone who really does not deserve to be thought of so well by the person to whom the letter was addressed.

The other is that being a Cyrano to so many Roxannes would create the most excruciating, unrequitable yearnings and a boat-load of jealousy as I peered into the beauty that was either real or created in my lonely mind. Yes, not such a good idea.

I don’t know how much my mind has changed on this idea, but maybe I am more resilient. Also, there is a lot to write, a lot of ideas about love, instances of love, kinds of love that don’t get the chance to really get out. Most love stories that we see on television and in the movies or in 50 Shades of Gray are kind of lame. My own stories and those of people I know are more compelling and exciting and realistic and powerful—and hotter. They are really more important, deserving and lend themselves better to the beauty of art and the letter.

I mentioned this idea while at the Air Sweet Air Gallery in Lowertown one night. Several of the people there thought it was a great idea. I am still not so sure it is, but it would be great to prove them at least half right. I was thinking that I might try to set up shop for this during the St. Paul Art Crawl, but the Northern Spark venue showed itself, and that’s where I am for now. (I think Cheryl Wilgren Clyne, Alyssa Baguss and Jenny Jenkins are the trouble-makers who egged me on. Blame them if things go awry.)

What can project goers expect from Love Letters in Lowertown?

Come be surprised. Or come surprise me. This is interactive performance art, and what gets produced is a function of my preparation, mental sweat and everyone else’s willingness to share. And my ability to listen, write and set my ego aside. (Ha. Good luck on that last piece.)

What will happen? It DOES really depend on who shows up, but I will ask questions. Hopefully, people will tell me about the person, thing, event or place about which they want a letter written on my Smith-Corona Classic 12 typewriter, with an odd mistake or two or not. I will write it and scan it and share it as widely as someone will allow. What do I expect? I guess I am not the customer, but I am hoping that people will tell me something they want to share that they might have a hard time saying with their spoken voice, either because of logistics, Minnesota shy-boy/girl bashfulness, or just because they don’t have a cool Smith-Corona Classic 12 typewriter.

As a writer/artist, why is the idea behind creating a project centered around love letters important to you versus another form of text?

As a younger writer, I remember being told that writing letters was a good way to practice craft. That was good news to me, since I spent so much time writing letters to friends. One year, I wrote about 380 personal letters. That says a lot, not just a demonstration of the prolific. It says a lot about where I was in my life at that time, emotionally, socially and what my days were filled with—or, rather, what I was trying to avoid.

I noticed in writing those letters—or admitted many years later, that most of those letters were written to women, friends on whom I might have had (might, because maybe I am still not ready to admit this) a small or big crush. In a sense, they were love letters. In fact, most of the letters we write are love letters, love in some form. Even job application letters. In those, we are often directed to hide bits of our love, to not show too much of our funkiness, but that’s no different than the love letters we write. We might gush, but we also want to look good.

The other part of letter writing that is fundamental to sustaining the craft is that with a letter, you know you have a reader. All writers need readers, not just as the reason to write and share, but to know that there is someone who has the emotional proximity to care enough to read it and respond or react—or not react, in a way that gives some kind of light, holds some kind of mirror—even a fun-house reflection and it forces the writer, post-scribe, to be honest about what they’ve written and the real place those words occupy in the universe of letters, ideas, emotions and spirit.

What is the beauty behind transforming something personal into something that is public?

Is there beauty in transforming something personal into something public? I am not sure if I am asking too much of people or if I am exposing too much of myself. Is this merely a voyeuristic exercise or the the concoction made by those out of a desire to be seen naked in public?

I remember hearing a guy who had been dragged after several beers to Art-A-Whirl. In a studio, he sort of invited himself to be a figure drawing model. “You don’t even have to pay me,” he blurted out. I’m not so sure if his drunkenness was the bravery that thrust the words out of him or if it was something that made the prospect of his nakedness tolerable, but regardless, his state contradicted the reality that posing is a lot of work for artists who are often ungrateful as well as contradicting the profundity of taking the most personal into spaces for many eyes.

I’m not so sure that is beautiful. I am not sure that any of this will be beautiful—more or less beautiful than the souls that are borne in this exercise, if real souls actually get borne and if I, myself, am willing to do that myself and let others do it.

But the fact that it seems so compelling to so many people makes me think that there is more beauty here than I am willing to admit. I once had a girlfriend who kept suggesting that continually suggested that I be a figure model. Why she wanted other people to see me naked is something for which I will decline to find answer: I don’t want to know. This does require us to grapple with the boundaries between expressions of beauty and exploitation. Modeling for figure drawing crosses that boundary so many times with a single utterance. It is too complicated to think about for my emotional makeup and I hope it would be for everyone else. What I want to make sure of, in this is that I will be incredibly grateful to anyone who is willing to live a little bit of nakedness for this project. I have listened to some visual artists who have the gall to complain about models. Really, they have no right.

That woman or man is giving them their body to use and express as they, the artist, like. Is it sex? Is it just human beauty? Is the money a model gets worthy of any of it? Regardless, the artist is the artist, the one who is supposed to create. If someone gives us that much, nothing we make can be as great and if we are not humbled by it, we shouldn’t be looking at naked people.

This is not quite public sex, which is a practiced more prone to viewer consumption than the appreciation of beauty. I am waiting to see if it is even public love. Hopefully, it will be a place for folks to deposit their joy and find it’s higher order over banal pleasure.

As much as we are predisposed to think of love or Valentine’s Day or relationships as a corollary for sex or sexual relationships, I hope that what we get at Northern Spark is something more than that. There are lots of people, events, places and realities to love. Sex can as easily and maybe as frequently be used as an expression of hate as it is of love. Love, on the other hand, is love. I hope that the night will be used at times to prove that.

Ramla Bile’s Next Big Thing Project Contribution

April 7, 2013

Ramla Bile just posted on her blog her Next Big Thing contribution about the project she is working on, a book of fiction that is in part a response to talking with a woman who was at a loss to find images of Muslim women that were true, honest and positive. As Ramla reminds us, “that list isn’t as long as it should be.” But she seems to be writing more because she has good stories to relate and a good craft with which to tell it. It is a true American Story.

Ramla is smart and funny and her eyes are wide open. She has something to say and great characters through which she says it. We should listen.

Ramla says,”Oftentimes, people perceive Muslims as a monolith who are in a constant state of prayer (when they aren’t bombing things, of course).” Please read her contribution to The Next Big Thing project HERE:
The Next Big Thing Project

Also, a special thanks again to Julia Klatt Singer for tagging me for this project and to Julia
Julia Nekessa Opoti who will follow Ramla.

The Next Big Thing Project: Clarence White

March 22, 2013

Not long ago, I was asked by poet Julia Klatt Singer to join this project. I think it is an attempt to let people know what’s up in our local literary scene. It is, as much and exercise for writers, helping us clarify in our own mind and work what we are doing, what it means and what vision of toil we will follow. I’m glad that Julia “tagged me for this project. You can see her blog post on the blog page of our friend Carla Hagen, where Julia talks about her upcoming book of poetry from North Star Press. (You can see Carla’s contribution to this project just below Julia’s.) Next week, a great young talent Ramla Bile will share her work. (Be sure to click on both Julia and Ramla’s names here to see more of their work!) I am still recruiting others for this project, so keep looking. I hope you enjoy this. I HAVE!

What is your working title of your project?

I’m not sure about a title. That seems a ways off, but I was hoping to figure out some clever play on the concepts of the Great Migration and going against the current, up the Mississippi.

Where did the idea come from for the project?

I don’t know if I ever had an idea of the project as much as it just started happening. I was fortunate to be one of the 2011-2012 Givens Foundation Retreat Fellows for emerging African American writers. Phil Bryant, who is a great poet and a great guy, was our in-state mentor and during the months of our interaction, gave us a series of assignments. Somehow, as I walked through those assignments what I produced seem to have a continuity and identified a story that I was telling. It was about my family’s migration from New Orleans to Minnesota.

What genre does your book/project fall under?

Well, I think it is memoir. I think it is a lot of other things as well, but I can’t really say what. There is a definite social commentary. There is a little bit of history, a little bit of music, especially blues and jazz, and maybe a little bit of theology. I don’t consider myself an expert on any of these things, but I don’t think I can tell the story without that backdrop and context.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s a funny question to answer. I find it hard to even think of who I would want to play me. We all look at movie stars and would like to have their good looks stand in for us and the seemingly antiseptic unreality they get to sport on the silver or small screen and on the red carpet, but those images don’t embody the shortcomings and insecurities that movie star images seem to miss. At any rate, there are not many movie stars that look like me or could even fool viewers into thinking I was as perfect-looking as they. I am also at a loss to think of people who are beautiful enough to convey the beauty that I have found in remembering my family.

It’s tough. I remember Jon Hassler talking about the time Robert Redford bought the rights to his novel Love Hunter. It’s a big thrill, but Redford wanted to play the leading roll. The problem is that the lead character dies slowly and unflatteringly from multiple sclerosis. It would have meant Redford would have had to appear in that glory of decline. Maybe I have a hard time picturing anyone playing these rolls because movie making is so much about the person making it, their ego. Will my characters get lost?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

New Orleans family takes their African American Creole from that dominantly Catholic society up the Mississippi in one of the last waves of the Great Migration, to another Catholic, largely German-American, all-white community at the northern end of the Great Muddy.

Will your project be self-published or represented by an agency?

That’s for all of you to tell me. A lot of it depends on the shape it takes, but I do not anticipate self-publishing my major work. A poetry chapbook might be a better suit for self-publishing. We will see.

I also want to put together a chapbook collection of my poetry some time soon. I think that will be self-published, but I have to ask Julia and a few other poets about this.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

First draft? I’m still creating. I don’t know when I will be done, but maybe when I have enough, however much that is.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t know that I could compare this work to any others. One thing is that about a decade and a half ago, there was a spate of books about black people who had flirted with or crossed the color line for at least portions of their life. I think Gregory Howard Williams’ memoir Life on the Color Line, or Danzy Senna’s Caucasia make us look at a part of the American story and the American psyche is that we are all mixed race. If any of us have family that has been on this continent for more than a few generations, we can be pretty sure that we have Aboriginal blood in us. What few people realize is that we almost all have African blood in us. Americans look different. Blacks look different than their African, Caribbean or Latino counterparts. Whites look different than their European counterparts. We don’t really talk about it, though.

I recently sat on a panel for a book discussion of Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams with a truly great writer and Minneapolis Community and Technical College English instructor Shannon Gibney. It is a story set in 19th century New Orleans. What Shannon points out is that the story reveals the truth about diversity and mixed “races”: that it is not something recent in the Americas but not many of us like to talk about it. Not long ago, a mixed marriage was between a Lutheran and a Catholic, but at some point, we stopped talking about the very dark or very light relative–or how that skin tone or hair came to be. We are too ashamed. We live in an adolescent society, still with senses of identity that are easily threatened and still uncertain.

But it is the reality of our culture, our true human race. While most white people, especially males, in our culture don’t have to live on both sides of the color line, most people of color do, even when we don’t want to admit it. We are living in two or more cultures; living many languages.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

What inspired me to write? The short answer is “my parents.” The more complicated answer is “a desire to be liked,” and an even more complicated answer is “the slow letting go of a fear of not being liked.” This is a story about my family, our values and where love comes from, but it is also one for all our families.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Sex, sex and more sex. Well, not really. But then again, this is an American book so to say it is not about race would be a lie–about just about any book we write in this country and in any of the places with strong remnants of the colonial. And the sex? I don’t know. I have friends who like love stories, movies, and books. I’m not a big fan. Not because those stories are too mushy or that I am not interested in the idea of love, romance or sex. It is just that most of those stories are not really that interesting. I think of the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” I guess it is billed as this great love story between two beautiful people caught in a foreign land. I thought the love dynamic was lame. It’s not because I don’t like Mel Gibson; the movie was made before we new of the personal, social and religious discomfort he has provided all of us. Billy, the character played by Linda Hunt, was far more interesting.

Maybe it is my aversion to seeing Ken and Barbie dodge bullets or upset diplomats in a place where just about every person in that country is living a more dangerous live without the benefits of colonial privilege, wealth and attention and can leave when they are done with their little adventure while the rest of the people they are “saving” had to live out their love with a greater sense of responsibility and courage and no one seemed interested in portraying that. It might be one of the perks of whiteness.

The other reason I don’t go for love stories is that my own love life, even the part that came before I ever was someone’s lover, was always more interesting. The loves of people for whom I care are more interesting. The ones with drama. The ones without. These are greater loves than the ones that are either dreamed up/imagined or given permission by the dominant white patriarchy that likely could not handle what would be published and screened if the feminine or the brown had to be considered first. It is as if the problem with most love stories that see the light of day suffer from the same thing that the sexual revolution suffered from: unwillingness to let go of the patriarchy. I’m not interested in stories that are about the permission men give for female sexual pleasure; I don’t want Bridges of Madison County or 50 Shades of Gray to be our best tepid masquerade of sexual liberation. (If we want to be honest and have more than an adolescent sophistication about sex or sexuality, there are lots of other places to look. Our own historical legacy of the very good and the very bad shows up strongly in Voodoo Dreams.)

Frankly, Willa Cather’s Antonia is much more sexy. Maybe it is because Cather did what writers can do for human life, sexuality and showing what happens when we put the woman first. It is likely that the sensual was as hidden to the publishers of My Antonia as was the possibility that Cather was lesbian, but it comes through. It is a sexual experience.

I write about my grandfather, a man who was a very staid baptist preacher. When I read a section of the piece I am working on in which he is at the center, people commented on how appealing he was, and that one did not have to depict him having or even contemplating sex in order for the strong sexuality to be apparent. Even apart from having sex, we are all sexual beings. I see “Bridges” and “50 Shades” not as an attempt at getting out of sexual oppression but part and parcel of that oppression.

I guess I have set myself up for a big challenge, creating characters who are sexual beings like Cather did. I am not sure I will be able to reach that height, and I might have to write some sex in, but I hope that folks will fall in love with my imperfect, real-life characters. If I pepper the scenes with a little sultry jazz and shake it up with some blues and rock and roll, maybe I can make it work.

That’s a long answer, but if I do this right, the characters will be more appealing. I know a lot of women who are more beautiful and sexy than most, if not all I see on television and movies. I hope we’ve all had better romances, better sex and deeper love and known the difference between all those things. I hope I can write that. I hope that we can find space where we can admit to being those people and find the place where the sacred belongs–and not tell ourselves lies to force impostors of the sacred into those spaces.