Wednesday’s meeting about Thi Bui's The Best We Could Do was as brilliant as this picture. In addition to this being the first graphic memoir the club has ever picked, this was also the first time many of the members had ever read a graphic memoir. This was also the first time my mother—sitting front and center—attended a meeting. For two hours, we talked about the importance of telling our own stories, and what happens when our stories are in the hands of others. Growing up, many of the images and stories Bui had seen and heard of her homeland, Vietnam, had been filtered through an American lens. Movies like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, had not only romanticized the war but had presented Vietnam and the people who lived there, without depth. And while it’s easy to dismiss the way people are presented in the media as “it’s just entertainment,” Bui’s graphic memoir challenged us to think about how the repetitive images of stock characters can render real lives into myth. This book was written and drawn in resistance to many of the half-told stories told about Vietnam; but the book was also written and drawn to honor her parents who, being human, did what they could with what they had. When telling a story, The Best We Could Do is a reminder that how we see ourselves, in a story, matters as much as what we hear. We were grateful for the lesson.
In March’s book club discussion about Victor LaValle’s Changeling, we talked about the fantastical power that’s often ascribed to parents. Though parents have the power to bring us into the world, they are, in many ways, powerless in how we navigate through it. The Changeling’s plot about a father who doesn’t realize that his baby is switched out with a troll is a symbol of this. Victor never discloses in the book when the baby is switched out, which is intentional. If we, as readers, are aware of the moment when the baby switched, it would be easy to say what we would’ve done differently. The stories we tell ourselves in order to live. The ones that don’t sound fantastical until we repeat them to someone else. It’s then when we see the power of fiction at play. March’s meeting was both an interrogation and celebration of this power—and it was lit, like always
For the month of February, aka Black History Month we read Morgan Jerkins' collection of essays, This Will Be My Undoing. For those unfamiliar with Jerkins she describes herself as a NYC based, ivy-league educated writer, living at the intersection of Blackness and Feminism in White America. We wrestled with the ideas of perception and reality, individual lived experience and shared identity, and how much space non-white people are allowed to occupy in the literary world. That Morgan appears on the cover of her first book, almost looking as though she is waiting to exhale, is a declarative feat in and of itself. In her ten essays Morgan moves from childhood to her present life as a published writer, attempting to privately reconcile her ideas with a public persona she wishes to be. How profound her efforts are depends on where the reader is in their journey. Collectively we settled on the idea that this book has to exist in a chorus of other books and that sometimes what you leave out of your story is as important as what you choose to include. “The Black female imaginary is what happens when you look at yourself, when your body is what you hold on to and your mind focuses inward to inquire about who you are, not outward to actively combat what is out there…We need to collect our many imaginations together in order to build a body of knowledge. We are fighting just by living.”
In the last scene of Julie Lythcott-Haims' memoir, Real American, Julie describes being a young girl, out with her mother, when she sees another young girl her age. Without even thinking Julie run towards the girl, yelling “Friend!” Now the young girl she’s running toward is white, which shouldn’t mean anything. But in the context of her book and this country, where what we are often matters more than who we are, this particular moment means something it shouldn’t. It means that there’s a good chance Julie’s instinctual response to see a girl her age and think “friend” can be rebuffed for no other reason besides the fact that Julie is black. Fortunately for Julie, and the girl she run towards, this is not the case. The white girl’s mother allows the moment to happen—and while it could all be that simple, what can sometimes make life unbearable is it rarely ever is. Many times it’s because of things outside of our control. But what about those moments when the decision we can make for ourselves are within the bounds of our control and we still choose to fuck up? The dopest thing about this meeting, and Julie in particular, is her ability to speak to those moments unapologetically. Speaking for myself, it’s hard to face those moments because I learn things about myself I thought I already knew, or wish I didn’t. Those are humbling moments for me, and it lets me know, like Julie’s book, that you really won’t find beauty in your life until you can face the ugliest parts without flinching.
Photography by LaQuann Dawson
December 7th's book club meeting stands out in my mind as the best one to date. It was the day Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess pulled up with his wife, Kelly Marie Jess, and read from his poetry collection, Olio. I’ve always made it a point, when someone performs, to watch the audience react. The reaction, for me, is where the genius of a performance really lies. So when Tyehimba would do shit like point out that poem could be read from the top down, then the bottom up, I immediately scanned the faces of book club members because I knew the expression on their face would only say one thing: WHAT. THE. FUCK. On a deeper level, Tyehimba wrote those poems in three dimensionally because the black minstrel performers, he honored with these poems, were flattened in a such a way that their humanity was non-existent. In the minds of people who watched these minstrel performances, and believed what they saw, there wasn’t any difference between a black person’s being and performing. Olio shows how blurring that line is a subversive act. As anyone with real power knows, the best way to keep power is to never let it be known that you have it in the first place. This meeting was definitely the catalyst for my understanding that lesson. In short: it was lit!
Three weeks before Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award, the conversation was about how Jesmyn wrote Leonie’s character with so much compassion that, whether you loved or particularly didn’t care for her, you felt for her. When reading novels, it’s very easy to draw lines around characters we find difficult and read around them. Beyond her ability to tell stories, Jesmyn’s gift as a writer is that she writes her most difficult characters in a way that can only be reckoned with head on. From this reckoning, you get that life is less about the things we’d just like to do, but about the things we have to do—and what our lives can become if we neglect to do them.
Photography by LaQuann Dawson
The Literaryswag Book Club celebrated its two year anniversary with a conversation about Phil Klay's National Book Award winning short story collection, Redeployment. We talked about toxic masculinity and its pernicious effects on men, especially those who are sent off to war in foreign lands. The irony, we all agreed, was that these men didn't have to go very far to find a fight because the biggest battle was the one within.
If there's any word that best sums up last month's book club, it's "intimacy." Not just in the sense that this had been the first meeting in several months where we had less than 20 people. Intimacy in the sense that we were able to really grapple with the heavier topics of Jade Chang's novel, and take our time. As the plot of The Wangs vs. The World follows Charles Wang, a cosmetic company mogul, whose company collapses during the recession of 2008, we talked about one of the many foundations (no pun intended) of the industry which brought Charles his fortune. "Makeup," Chang writes in novel's opening, "was American, and Charles understood makeup. It was artifice, and it was honesty. It was science and it was psychology and it was fashion; but more than that, it was about feeling wealthy. Not money--wealth." The distinction between wealth and money wasn't by mistake, and we treated it as such over the course of the evening. W.E.B. called this the "psychological wage." The price we pay to "feel" like we belong even when the reality shows us something entirely different. The fact that, as a culture and society, many of us would rather "feel" or appear powerful, or beautiful, or important, or rich, than actually BE those things. The dangers of subscribing to that "American Dream," which, in its very definition is at odds with reality. But how to confront reality in a culture that values dreaming? How do you tell yourself the truth in a society whose foundation is built on lies? No one had the answer, but we had answers. Meaning plural. Meaning many miles were walked because with every anecdote told about how life is navigated, we saw in real time that one size doesn't fit all. That the shoes we wear and walk in don't always belong to us. Like the novel suggests, you can only lose that which never belonged to you. This meeting was about finding the things that did.
Photography by Zach Gross
This month's Literaryswag Book Club pick is Scaachi Koul's One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of this Will Matter. That's one title. The other title, if you decide to omit what's been crossed out, is: One Day This Will Matter. I remember reading something about Basquiat's art where it was said that crossing words out was Basquiat's way to render those words more visible. If he hadn't wanted the words to be seen, he'd painted over them like he was also known for doing. It struck me when I read it, because it led me to think if Basquiat did that because he felt like the words he crossed out. If he felt that his presence, as a black man in a racist white art world, gave him a visibility he would've preferred not to have. Basquiat was obsessed with fame, and I believe it's because he thought, or hoped at least, there were lights bright enough that would show people who he was, not who they wanted him to be for their convenience. And they would have to deal. What does all this have to do with Scaachi's essay collection? More than you think. Scaachi's essays operate like the cover of her book. In every one there is an attempt, by either herself or forces larger than her--parents, culture, race, religion, gender, a seemingly form-fitting skirt--where she's being crossed out. But like Thom Yorke says on "The Eraser": "The more you try to erase me/The more that I appear." With every page, Scaachi appears more and more.
Because language is loaded, words trigger. So Thursday's meeting was all about taking words apart. Unloading the weapon that we are told hurts less than stick and stones. Yahdon kicked off the conversation with Maggie's understanding that "words change depending on who speaks them," and that they have a multitude of possible uses, and contexts. We, as a book club, started with the idea of pronouns. The fact that pronouns, by definition, are used as substitutes for the thing as opposed to the thing itself. The fact that context is needed whenever a pronoun is spoken. This started with the pronoun "we." A word that always creates more questions than answers, beginning with: What is meant when that word, "we," is used? Is it meant as a nosism, like when a personal opinion is propagated as public sentiment? i.e. The bossy friend who tells everyone that "We should get ice cream" when they're the only person who wants it. The freeloading friend that asks, "what we eating?" with no intention to chip in. Or is that word used in a communal sense? Like the way black people, or any people, regard one another? Like there is no "I" in "team?" (although there is an "m-e" but whatever). Do we (anyone who uses the word) use that word with an intended target in mind, or are we just shooting our shot to see what hits? This all may sound like a monologue from The Matrix, but that's what life is. Something that gives way to the development of other forms and functions. To live a real life, then, is to change given to context or circumstance. To parse through what we, as human beings, are given by life in order to see what we really have. When that work is done, what's left is us--not in the plural sense but as a collective singular moving as one, like salmon swimming upstream. To be clear: moving as one, doesn't make us one. Even in the singular sense, we are many; like when Whitman writes in "Song of Myself": "I am Large, I contain multitudes." Every single body in this photo contains a multitude of possibilities, and we talked to and through those possibilities together, with love.
This is what misery looks like when it gets the company it deserves. The burden of grief, of life, of loss, is heavy so it helps to have a community who's willing to assist in lightening the load. Our conversation last Thursday was one that reminded us it's ok to not be ok, that admitting weakness is a strength, and that there is strength in numbers. An equal amount of strength also exists in knowing when to lean on your community and stand on your own two. It's all process. It's all learning, and listening and growing. We're doing it together.
What always sticks out in my mind is the way James Baldwin described his time in Paris. "I didn't go to Paris," he said, "I left New York." Meaning: Baldwin's flight had nothing to do with where he was trying to go; but everything to do with what he was trying to get away from. All those things he thought he left in New York--his blackness, his gayness, his Americanness, his anger, fears and ambitions--when he arrived in Paris, came with him, leading him to the sobering understanding that "perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition." Meaning: we're turtles, and carry home with us wherever we go. The pick for this month's book club is Jess Row's novel, Your Face in Mine. On the surface, it's about a white Jewish man who undergoes racial reassignment surgery to become a black man. That's just the surface, and because books are always more than their plots, allow me to take you deeper. The writer of this book, Jess Row, is white. And when I first began reading the book, I rolled my eyes because I thought this was going to be another book where a white man tells me what it's like to be black. But when my eyes fell still I saw that this book--much like Baldwin's flight from Harlem--isn't about why Martin (the white character who gets the surgery) is running towards blackness; this book is about why Martin is running away FROM whiteness. Think about it. In all the interviews you've seen of Rachel Dolezal, no one ever asks her why she doesn't want to be white; they just ask her why she think she's black. To ask a white person why they don't want to be white is to interrogate a system of power that thrives on never being questioned. "White flight" has always suggested it was the other that white people feared. This novel shows something different.
This is what a room looks like when everyone's light can shine and we can candidly chop it up with a writer as brilliant as Wendy S. Walters (seated center). A woman whose unrelenting honesty made it ok for us to be honest as well. To tell her what we thought, what our favorite essays were, what we understood, what eluded us. When asked if she had a favorite essay in the book, Wendy's answer was this: "It's usually the pieces I'm working on now that I'm most excited about." Said another way, it's those things which elude us that make life worth living. Our last meeting was a good reminder that the best has yet to come. We'd like to thank The Brooklyn Circus for hosting yet another brilliant book club meeting; Sarabande Books for being last month's Literaryswag Book Club sponsors; Ariel Lewiton for doing the work of shedding light on Wendy's brillIance; Wendy herself for coming out to Brooklyn to be lit with, and to all the members who made it out. Till next time!
A close friend of mine said they read books because books "made him feel less lonely in the world." The sentiment resonated. Books also make me feel less lonely in the world--and it's because they give me the language that brings me closer to people. With this book club, I try to pick books that not only gives people the language they didn't know they were looking for to help them understand themselves and others. I try to pick books that give people a sense that the time taken to read them is worth it. The conversation that took place last month about Olivia Laing's The Lonely City (Picador) was one that showed me how communal it is to talk about loneliness. If "speaking," as Laing wrote, "is almost as terrifying as being ignored;" being in a room where you're listened to allays the terror of being ignored. The world opens up when we allow ourselves to listen. When we make ourselves vulnerable to what it has to say. That work is never easy, but it's necessary. The path towards freedom is not one of least resistance, but it's the most vindicating. And every month is a step in the right direction. We lit!
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but allow me to add a few more. Earlier this month I received an email from NBC, notifying me that, for everything I'd been doing to help make reading lit (pun partially intended), I was to be featured as part of NBCBLK28, their annual list of "young, gifted and Black futurists redefining what it means to be Black in America today through their work and accomplishments." They came to the crib, chopped it up, shot the #literaryswaglibrary, but they also wanted to get footage of the Book Club. While I was down with the idea, I was also a bit nervous about the presence of the camera making people feel like they couldn't be themselves. Something that would undermine the very reason for why the club exists. So when I sent out the newsletter, letting people know that NBC was pulling up, I was low key worried people weren't going to. We speak of faith as the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things unseen. Seldom do we speak of faith as a muscle that, like all muscles, only gets stronger with exercise. And what is exercise besides a commitment to the practice of work? This is why it'll forever be hard to practice faith. Part of any job is believing the work can be done. But you still have to do it. May not always be your best, or even good, but it's the belief that the work is worth it what makes you commit. Not the result. The work itself. It's a mistake to believe I'm the only one who's working though. Without knowing what's going to happen, who's going to be there, or what someone's going to say, people still come through, often by themselves, every month. So while we can say faith is the evidence of things unseen, faith is also its own proof that the belief in a vision is worth it, if you're willing to do the work. We were deep on Thursday. Not only in number but in thought. We lit!!!
2016's last meeting of The Literaryswag Book Club was everything, more than that, and then some. A smaller group meant a deeper dive into Clint Smith's Counting Descent. We each read our favorite poems from the collection. Talked about the nuances of excellence. That as long as excellence is defined by anyone else besides the person aspiring for it, it's not excellence. Least not yours. One of the newest members, Lonnie (back right), found out about the book club after reading the 30 Under 30 article in Brooklyn Magazine, came through and even participated in our White Elephant gift exchange. One of the best publicists in the literary game, Dawn Michelle-Hardy, came through and blessed the whole club with a bunch of books for the team. And I will never be able to thank The Brooklyn Circus enough for providing a reliable space to be lit. This has been an excellent year. For us. See you next year!!!
The more book club meetings there are, the more I'm learning to divorce myself from the concept of "tough love." Using tough as a modifier for the word love insinuates that love, itself, is easy. That anyone can do it. And anyone can. But there's a reason why many of us aren't about that life. Most of us knew James Baldwin was the best to ever do it, one of the nicest with the typewriter. But spending two hours only discussing the ways in which water is wet wouldn't have been wavy. To read Baldwin in this way also would've been irresponsible to his legacy. Not just as a writer; a human being. He spent so much of his time and energy and ink trying to convince white people of his humanity, so much energy and ink and anger defending his manhood, there were times when you weren't sure if the things he was saying were for others, or reminders for himself. Though it may not feel like it in the moment, sincere critique is an act of love. An act that removes the masks we fear cannot live without but also know we cannot live within. Last Thursday was spent removing Baldwin's mask, while also interrogating why he felt it necessary to don in the first place. To do this, we had to remove our own masks; explain why we felt it necessary to wear them and for who. Were we being our full selves, or were we each our own divided houses, barely standing? It was one of those conversations you don't expect to have with people you hardly know, because you barely have them with the people you do --and yet, you're appreciative for the opportunity. It's never easy; but always necessary. For that reason I am forever and always removing the term "tough love" from my vocabulary. Love is tough by design--and for good reason: by virtue of its difficulty, it lets you know when it's real. Also, that it's worth it. This book club is both and I couldn't be more appreciative for the opportunity. Thank y'all!
We were definitely smart as baby dolphins at Thursday night's book club. Nuratu came through with the Martinelli's, Nutella and breadsticks, Little Bites, Cheez-Its, the whole 9. We definitely had crystal in our diets. Something you need when you're seriously talking about the ways race, class, gender, and sexuality politics all seem to conspire in a way to make you feel like the person you are, when no one's looking, is incapable of being seen. Negroland gave us a lot to consider and that much more to talk about. There wasn't a better of group of people to chop it up with than the people in this photo. So from now till forever, I have to thank The Brooklyn Circus for providing us with the space to reflect on ourselves as human beings cause sometimes we forget that we are human. Also, I'm gonna need Brandon (far right) to show another emotion besides Kareem "Biggs" Burke. Even Biggs's laughing and smiling in interviews now. This ain't the 90s. Show them teeth, god
One of the first questions I remember being asked about this book club when it was still an idea was, "Who are you gonna get to come?" The more it was asked the more I realized what the real question was: "Why should I come?" On more than enough occasions it had been suggested that I get a high profile writer to attend. "A lot more people would come if they knew someone else they cared about was coming," I was told. Keeping it 100, those are the people I could care less about. Someone who was only gonna come because they heard someone else was gonna be there wasn't gonna be there for the right reasons—and I much rather have 5 people who were there because THEY wanted to be there than 500 people being there taking up space because they heard so-and-so might show. A lot's been done to get us into a mindset where we feel we're not enough. That we need a reason outside of ourselves to do the things we want to do. So we namedrop celebrities and big name brands not necessarily because we care about them. We just want people to care about us. Care is an inside job—and it's the reason why I worked overtime making sure there was always a space every month for people to take time and realize that something is dope because they're there. No one else. In the last twelve months we've had meetings in everywhere from the Trap (Strand Book Store) to Eva's Supplements on 11th Ave but I knew as long as I kept the club alive, it would eventually find a place to live. That's what happened Thursday when the big homie Ouigi announced at the 1 Year Anniversary that The Brooklyn Circus could be the home for The Literaryswag Book Club!!! Of course I accepted. You no longer have to worry about where the next book club will be, because we have a home. So this toast is not only an acknowledgement of everything it took to get here; it's a celebration, recognizing that it was all worth it. Every movement needs a home. We found ours—and it's lit!!!
Around this time last year I chopped it with NY Times photojournalist Michelle Agins who won a Pultizer in 2001 for a series called "How Race is Lived in America." The first thing I asked--cause I'm a clown—was what she did with the money. Her being from the Southside of the Chi, she kept it 100 with me: "I had a fish fry." It is still, to this day, the most gangsta shit I've ever heard someone do with prize money. And she didn't go to a fish market. She sent for the whole aquarium. When one of her friends asked her who was gonna eat all this food, Michelle told me she said one thing: "If I fry it, they will come." Sure enough, they did. I tell this story because it's how I've learned to run these #literaryswagbookclub meetings. Every month some curveball is being thrown—inclement weather, last minute venue changes, not having enough Martinelli's (last night)—but I'm seeing that as long as there's a book club to come to, people will come. Won't always be the same people (there's more people one month; less the next) but the importance is to just keep doing it. So thank you to the people who came through to chop it up last night, and were willing to relocate when it rained. Thank you to Nuratu for sponsoring the Martinelli's. Thank you to Dulce who came through with the snacks. And I gotta thank Eve's for not kicking us out even tho we took up a whole section and only bought $9 worth of stuff. This is the 8th meeting of the Book Club and next month marks a year since the first one so you know we gonna have to do it Christopher Wallace. Faith and commitment got us this far. I'm sure it will only take us further!