Last month's truly lived up to the meeting's name. Scaachi Koul, pulled up and fearlessly chopped it up with a room full of strangers about the Literaryswag Book Club pick, her essay collection, One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. Over the course of the evening, Scaachi, as well the members, familiarized themselves with each other; leading me to realize what often makes us strangers to one another is what we decide not to share when we feel someone can't be trusted. But the vulnerability in the room, set by the tone of Scaachi's confessional essays, made sharing possible. We felt less like the strangers, and more like kin, by the end of the night!
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. We meet up Thursday, July 20th, at 7pm The Brooklyn Circus to chop it up about what we see.
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. I 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.
Big bless up to Caroline Nitz and the Graywolf family for sponsoring this month's book club meeting with Maggie Nelson's genre-bending, critically fearless, memoir The Argonauts. No matter who you are, circumstances are limiting. What's expansive is the way we learn to finesse them. A sleight of hand, making the person performing the feat appear as though they have more than two hands. Maggie Nelson's brilliance on the page can have the same effect. How she can write one paragraph that can shoot off into eight different directions and manage, by virtue of the ability to look at herself in the mirror and recognize who's there, to not get lost. The ability to find locate herself on the page means having to recognize that she always has to find herself constantly: "Whatever I am, or have since become, I know now that slipperiness isn't all of it. I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one's work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again--not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life." Navigating the everyday is a discipline. So this month's meeting and conversation will be about the everyday. How we navigate the quotidian in our hearts, minds and bodies, and how there's always something new to learn about the things we think we already know. The meeting goes down Thursday, June 29th at 7pm The Brooklyn Circus.
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.
"Grief," Jess Row writes, "makes you temporarily invisible." This is what happens to Matt Miller when his mother dies of cancer and he returns to school. Everyone treats him like how we treat those who have just lost someone. In not knowing what to say, for fear of offending, we say very little. And often, it's this silence that works as a cruel reminder that when loved ones die, a part of the beloved dies with them. The need to recover that which was lost--and to make some money to help his father out with bills--leads Matt to work for Mr. Ray, the neighborhood mortician. At first the idea of attending funerals seems too close for comfort. But in the attendance of these funerals, Matt learns to find comfort in them: "I wasn't being a creep. Well, I sorta was, but it wasn't for no reason. I liked watching other people deal with the loss of someone, not because I enjoyed seeing them in pain, but because, somehow, it made me feel better knowing that my pain isn't only mine. That my life isn't the only one that's missing something it will never have back." In this revelation, Matt's grief--which once was his barrier--becomes his bridge. It becomes his way to connect to those other people at funerals. His way of seeing the people who have been made temporarily invisible by grief. And what Matt begins to see, in addition to the fact that there are many ways to grieve, is that grieving is a luxury of the living. The constant confrontation of death work to remind Matt of his own life, and slowly he works himself back into living life rife with possibility--with joy, pain, beauty, sorrow, love and of course Cluck Bucket chicken 🍗🍗🍗. We meet to talk about Jason Reynolds' Boy In The Black Suit and the ways grief renders us invisible, and how, in recognizing this grief in others, we find community. We meet Thursday, May 25th, 7pm The Brooklyn Circus.
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 New York--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. The term "white flight" has always suggested it was the other that white people feared. This novel suggests something different. We meet Thursday, April 27th, 7pm at The Brooklyn Circus to discuss.
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!
This month's Literaryswag Book Club's pick is Wendy S. Walters' incomparable essay collection Multiply/Divide. Too many people use the adjective "incomparable" lazily; often applying it to things that can indeed be compared to everything. But when I tell you that this book is sui generis, which is Latin (read: bougie) for "in a class by itself," understand that this book is the class itself—the dry erase board, the weak ass marker that never seems to work, the desks, the projector, the projector screen that doesn't come down, the professor, the student, the kid who comes late and leaves early, the kid who waits until the end of the semester to ask for extra credit. This book is everything! The byline of the book is On the American Real and Surreal and it's not for show. In book's opening Walters tells us that some of the essays are based entirely on fact; others are works of fiction. Some are both. And she is so ill that she lets us know which is which. I've always been bad at math but the one thing I do know is that you're always supposed to double check your answers. By naming the collection Multiply/Divide, by telling us in the beginning of the book that everything is not what it seems, with an answer key, Walters' creates the most immersive and interactive reading experiences I've ever had. There are so many times in this book where you're going to have to flip back to the first page because the things that really happened is going to sound made up, the made up is going to feel real, and most of the time you're not going to know what the hell is going on but it won't matter. You would've effectively done the math. This book (and the 10 pictured here) came to me by way of the brilliant Ariel Lewiton of Sarabande Books and I want to thank her for shinning light on writers who often get shaded.
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!!!
As I'm always trying to pick books that will be of value to the people who read them, I chose Olivia Laing's The Lonely City because Laing writes and thinks about loneliness in a very empathetic and sincere way. "You can be lonely anywhere," Laing writes in the book's opening pages, "but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city surrounded by millions of people. . . and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation." This political climate—with its rhetorical violence and vitriol—has done a lot to exacerbate those feelings of loneliness. While it's relatively easy to allow ourselves to fold in on ourselves when we're enveloped by intense fear, it's important to understand that a life lived in fear is its own suicide note. "Your suffering does not isolate you," James Baldwin said to Nikki Giovanni in a conversation once, "your suffering is your bridge." Our suffering, like our fears, must be used as bridges if we're to ever see that we're never as alone in this world as we think. For those newly coming into the fold of what I do regarding Literaryswag Book Club Picks: every month I buy ten (10) copies of the title we'll be reading for the month and including them (FOR FREE) with the first ten (10) orders of Literaryswag Enamel Pins. It's my way of helping people say money while also adding some swaggy titles to their libraries. This month, the dope people over at Picador helped the young god out and sent over 10 copies of Olivia Laing's The Lonely City, for the culture. So if you want to save some funds and come up on some swag at the same damn time, hit the link in the bio and do the damn thing!
There's no better book I can think of starting 2017, and continuing the revolution, with than the best book of 2016. Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is a novel that elucidates what's so unnerving about time. Time is not just something we move through; it moves through us. More than the measure of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years, time is a matter of what's done with it. Gyasi's way of depicting this is by following the lineages of two half sisters, Effia and Esi, born into different villages in Ghana. While Effia is married to an Englishman, her lineage remaining in Ghana; Esi is sold into slavery, where her descendants grow up in America. Each chapter alternates between the descendants of the sisters, taking us deeper into parallel circumstances unbeknwonst to the characters who are grappling with what it means to be a consequence of a history they are trying to make sense of. Gyasi bestows each character with their own inscrutable dignity by writing into each of them the conundrum of the human condition. Whatever the circumstances, none of us have asked to be here. Fewer of us decide how we go. Yet here we are, living life the best way we know how. The tragedy of this book is seeing how "better" and "best" is contingent upon one's time, one's family, and one's own history. Understanding what life has given us requires us to live. Gyasi's gift to her characters and to this book is remaining true to the private lives of people who were believed to not be in possession of them. What else makes us family with one another besides knowing that which few other people do? If life is a bitch, and time a motherfucker, Homegoing is the family heirloom that lets us know we're all related. We'll be meeting to discuss Gyasi's Homegoing at The Brooklyn Circus, Thursday, January 26th, 7pm at 150 Nevins St. The Book Club is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC! Come Through!!!
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!!!
A year in review: Here are the picks of this year's 2016 Literaryswag Book Club Meetings. There's only 11 books because we started in February. If books are their own worlds, the book club was the sun for which these books revolved around. Ideas, insights and revelations were in constant orbit. Thank you to the writers who penned these books. The editors, publishers, publicists, agents, and whoever else produced these books. The critics who galvanized these books. The cultural institutions who championed these books. The booksellers who sold them. And the biggest thank you to us: the readers. We are the home books live in; and the vehicle books move through. Let us continue the revolution!!!
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!!!
Considering that this is last book of the year, that we'll be meeting next week Thursday, and that we've yet to read a poetry collection, I figured we kill three birds with one book: Clint Smith's Counting Descent. It's 70 pages of the fiercest language afforded to what it means inherit a history, identity and body you're expected to be responsible for even when you don't fully know what that responsibiity means: "I still have a habit of trying to make up/for things I can't understand/by removing all of the evidence." My difficulty with a lot poetry had always been informed by this nagging suspicion that what I was reading wasn't rooted in anything real. I'm talking less rooted than a vase covered bamboo plant. You see the words, but they don't mean anything. Or they mean "whatever you want them to," which is I've always taken to mean that even the poet don't fucking know. Counting Descent is a book whose words run deep with meaning. And I have no one to thank but @dream_girl_14who gave me this book, a shovel, and told me to start digging. So make sure you're at The Brooklyn Circus, next Thursday, December 22nd, at 7pm, 150 Nevins St., for the last lituation of the year! Also, all those who plan to come to next week's book club meeting: please bring a book that you'd want someone to read. It can be old. It can be new. Just so long as it came from the heart, and it's wrapped (very important!) it's all good.At the end of the book club meeting, we're going to play a game called "White Elephant." Because I was only recently introduced to the concept and barely understand it myself, I'm not gonna make myself look stupid trying to explain here. Just come through to the club with a gift-wrapped book and we'll take it from there. See you next Thursday!
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!
There are many of you, in the book club and beyond, who probably want my head for taking so long with this month's pick. I understand. Besides the fact that my job as a Content and Social Media Director at MakersFinders demands a great deal of time, picking a book that compliments the many subtleties and nuances of our conversations aren't getting easier. Every month the bar is being raised, which is why I felt it's time for the literary god, James Baldwin.
Instead of reaching for a book that captures Baldwin when the world was beginning to love him (or at least his writing—Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time), I wanted to pick a book of essays that documents what happens when the love faltered: "The general reaction to famous people who hold difficult opinions," Baldwin writes in the opening pages, "is that they can't really mean it." It's a sentiment echoed throughout the book. You either die a hero or live long enough to watch yourself become the villain, and since Baldwin was surviving that which many of his contemporaries weren't—Malcolm, JFK, RFK, Edgars, King, The Panthers—he was now being examined, and had to examine himself in ways he hadn't accounted for. This is a book you'll want to read and a conversation you won't want to miss.
Usually we do the last Thursday of every month, but because of the holiday, we will meet the first Thursday of December, 12/1, 7pm at The Brooklyn Circus. As always, it's opened to the public. As always, Martinelli's will be served. And if you buy a pin now, you'll get a free copy of this month's book club pick! Two birds one stone.
I've also added a link to those who may just want the book, for the low.
In last month's discussion on Random Family we discussed how poverty wasn't a circumstance but a condition. More than the physical representation of where you lived, went to school, how much money was in your bank account and who you knew. Poverty is about the way you understand and internalize your own self worth. Many of the characters in the book were trapped in many ways by poverty. They tried to escape in the ways they could but no one knew the way out. This doesn't mean poverty can't be escaped, it just means there needs to be a deeper interrogation of what it means to be poor in the wealthiest nation in the world. There are many valuable lessons poverty teaches you—humility, the importance of family, sticking by your word (cause that's all any of us had). All these lessons came with a price—so the question for many of us, who grew up poor, became which of those experiences are valuable enough to keep, and which ones do you leave behind? It's the conundrum of moving on, which is why I felt that Margo Jefferson's NBCC award-winning memoir Negroland would be a great pick for this month's Literaryswag Book Club.
Even though Jefferson is a product of the black middle class, you get to see how the fear of failure creates for her and her family the unfair pressure to succeed and be a "credit to the race" at all costs. This pressure ironically also locks them in an impoverished condition akin to the characters in Random Family. In what ways? You'll have to attend the next book club to find out. Our next meeting takes place Thursday, October 27th at 7pm at The Brooklyn Circus (150 Nevins St., Brooklyn, NY). Be there!
Also, the first 10 people to buy a Literaryswag Enamel Pin get a free copy of this book along with their purchase!!!
And if you just want to buy the book, and not spend a lot of money, I got you. Below are two links. One for affordable paperbacks. Another for affordable hardcovers. See you on the 27th!
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 Bookstore) 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!