The Deep is a wildly imaginative bit of fiction anchored in universal truths and spun creatively from real trauma. It is simultaneously a collaborative work based on the mythology created in experimental rap songs, and a uniquely singular novella. Like its main character, the mysterious Yetu, it is both plural and one. It’s quite unlike anything I have ever read. If I tried to ensnare and then relay its essence, imagine if Toni Morrison wrote a piece of science-fiction. It’s that soulful, and that weird. But to reduce it to that type of blurb would do it a disservice.
A fantastic underwater utopia inhabited by strange sentient creatures (the Wajinru) who are descended from pregnant women tossed overboard during the transatlantic slave trade, communal memories, climate change, the end of the world…it’s all woven into the rich tapestry of Rivers Solomon’s tome which reads like an epic poem. Rich in metaphors and bold imagination, it channels both the grief and the triumph of the marginalized.
Love who you love. Own your past. Create your future.
For all the heartache, the novella builds to an amazing closing line that left this reader reeling.
The 2010s: the decade of Obama and Trump, hope and hate, dashed dreams and heightened anxiety, increasing interconnectedness that lead to both positive grassroots movements and sharper divisions, social media overload, hacks into our privacy and once sacred institutions, political chaos, and drones delivering both presents and bombs.
Personally, this was the decade I traveled abroad for the first time and ultimately visited six different countries. I advanced multiple rungs in my corporate career. I met an amazing woman – our first date was seeing the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself – who I married. We then bought a wonderful old house together in a charming neighborhood, and became parents to an awesome little boy. I also published a novel, Then Came Darkness, that will likely always be my own sentimental favorite piece of work.
Film was right there with me every step of the way, mirroring the light (La La Land) and increasing darkness (most of Villeneuve’s output) in the world at large, sometimes in the breadth of the same film (Arrival, Drive, The Tree of Life).
It’s terms of consistency of output, Denis Villenueve had a banner decade and directed more list entries than any other auteur: Arrival, Enemy, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049. It was also a great decade for Ryan Gosling, who is the performer who shows up on more list entries than any other: Drive, La La Land, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blade Runner 2049. The Gos also brought my wife and I together as our shared love for him was one of the first topics of discussion the night we met at a rooftop party, both of us reluctant guests of mutual acquaintances. Her favorite Gos performance was Half Nelson, mine was Drive. We abhorred The Notebook. Both of us passed each other’s first test.
But I digress. Back to the decade at hand where some films reflected the anxious yet still somehow hopeful mood of the moment through depictions of complex modern relationship (Moonlight, Waves), while others just flat out broadcast our deepest modern anxieties (Take Shelter, Enemy, Sicario, Us). Still others looked back and reminded us there were times before ours even more tumultuous (Phoenix). Still others bent time (Inception, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) while others stood austerely outside of any context and proved the timeless nature of art (Phantom Thread).
Some could’ve only been made with the boldness of young auteurs finding their voice (Moonlight, Us, Waves), while some could’ve only been made by a reflective master looking back on their career (The Irishman). Then there were others that could’ve only been made by auteurs in their prime (Arrival, Inception, Phoenix).
Yet some could’ve only been made by a depressed madman looking for the beauty in the end of the world (Melancholia). And still some blazed a trail so defiant in their logic and reason for being (a continuation of a series thought long dead directed by a senior citizen) that they perfectly reflected the madness of our times by showcasing an even madder future (Mad Max: Fury Road).
But the movie that I think about probably more than any other film of the decade; a film whose climax features a haunting, emotional, draining, and ultimately uplifting rendition of Sarah Vaughn’s “Speak Low” that was so memorable my wife and I later added it to our wedding song list; a film that I compared to such classics like The Third Man (routinely in my Top Five of All Time) and Hitchcock’s Notorious…is none other than Christian Petzold’s neo-noir psychological slow-burner about survivor’s guilt and hidden identities, Phoenix. Just as Nelly (played by Nina Hoss in a performance for the ages) survived her husband’s betrayal, WWII and the Holocaust, so did all of us looking back now survive the wild anxiety-riddled ebbs and flows of the 2010s. Phoenix is without a doubt, the greatest film of the decade.
There’s a great scene in Kasi Lemmon’s biopic of Harriet Tubman where our hero (Cynthia Erivo) decides to cross into freedom for the first time…alone…on foot…into a sun-drenched rolling field of wilderness. She pauses for a moment, and to the modern eye seems to be framing her hands to take a picture of the sunlight, but then you realize Harriet is reaching for it…to pull it in and wrap over her, like a shawl. Erivo’s eyes and facial expression, the simple framing of the scene, speak multitudes about what drove Tubman to do what she did against all odds, over and over again, leading slaves across the Underground Railroad into freedom. She wanted everyone to get a chance to touch that sunlight and wrap themselves in it…or die trying.
There are little specks of vibrant light like this poking through the otherwise straightforward film, giving us hints of the director who wowed us with her debut, Eve’s Bayou, all those years ago, and paint the lead character in heroic wonder. Harriet prays to God at a mythic-sized old tree, ponders a grasshopper on a blade of grass when awaking in a field, grabs at the sunlight. Her visions (historically accurate, as it is widely thought that a childhood head injury lead to recurring epileptic-like seizures which Tubman herself interpreted as visions from God) lay out her path and provide her with the fortitude to march on no matter what obstacles came her way. Many a fool was proven wrong after telling Harriet Tubman what she couldn’t…shouldn’t do.
The screenplay posits the film as a kind of historical superhero origin story while following the tropes of many slavery-era biopics. Some might wish for a little more visual bravura or deeper dives into complex internal character conflicts, but aren’t the facts of Harriet Tubman’s life amazing enough on their own? Sometimes the straight path is the right one to take, and Cynthia Erivo’s passionate performance is enough to carry the film even when the screenplay (which, of course, takes its own artistic license, especially with the fictional characters who were amalgamations of attitudes and people of the time) fails her.
Despite the trappings of sticking mostly to the classic mold, Harriet is a rousing but intimate epic, Lemmon’s best since Eve’s Bayou, and anchored by Cynthia Erivo’s bold portrayal of a real American hero. It’s an ever-timely reminder of the importance of taking action against evil rather than waiting idly by hoping for it to pass, and should sit comfortably as an enlightened piece of entertainment in high school history classes for years to come.
The best types of entertainment hold a mirror up to society. Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us and Susannah Grant’s Unbelievable, both on streaming at Neflix, are so good, so entertaining, so shocking and illuminating and sobering, as to move viewers to tears. Both limited series take the old idea of setting yourself an appointment to watch great TV and spin it on its head in this era of streaming everything. No, you don’t just binge watch these…you make the time to sit down (hopefully with a loved one you can then later discuss and unpack each episode with) and give these powerful true stories your undivided attention.
In When They See Us, the lives of the Central Park Five (innocent teenagers unjustly convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park) unfold before our eyes, and the tradgedy of a racist system that railroads innocent children is laid bare. In Unbelievable, we see firsthand the ripple effects of what happens (to both the victim and society at large) when young women who are raped are not believed. The fact that both series are also acting (holy hell those kids in When They See Us), writing (ohhhhh that character development in Unbelievable), and directing (damn, Ava DuVernay, my wife and I became full on fangirl and fanboy for that artistry you displayed!) tour-de-forces is just icing on the cake.
As tragic as both stories are, they give us glimmers of hope. In When They See Us, it’s the love of the boys’ family and community that help see them through…while in Unbelievable, it’s the dedicated work of passionate female detectives who eventually bring a serial rapist to justice. Yes, even in a criminal justice institution systematically rigged against the marginalized, justice can still eek its way through the unfathomably deep and dark muck…but only if good people take action…and in the case of When They See Us…bad people take responsibility for their actions.
If you have not watched these series yet, you need to make an appointment to do so. Make the popcorn, and bring a therapist. Watch. Discuss. Get Angry. Be Inspired. Take Action.
The weather couldn’t have been nicer, Melora thought, as she stood at Central Bank’s kiosk at the D. C. Cherry Blossom Festival parade. Central Bank was one of the co-sponsors of the event, and she, the branch manager of the location closest to the parade route, was there with a few young and eager interns from corporate marketing. They were handing out swag and signing up people for new accounts on a tablet device. Yes, the weather was beautiful, but in her mind chaotic thoughts still stormed…or was that just a hangover? Last night she had driven nearly an hour out into the suburbs to a place called the Bier Mrkt (What happened to the vowels in Mrkt? We might never know.) to watch Carrie’s boyfriend’s band play. The band called themselves Dirty Coconut Water…
…That headache from last night had stuck with Melora all morning. Though it was sunny with highs in the sixties, tall buildings created shade, and it was still brisk and cold when they started setting up. Melora’s face felt frozen in a permanent smile, and her hands were still chapped from running around in the cold just days earlier, frantically searching for her runaway dog. Last night when she got home from the Bier Mrkt, someone posted a photo on the neighborhood Facebook page in response to her lost dog notice. “Is this your dog?” Sure enough, it was Calliope Anastasia, her labradoodle, living it up with two kids in presumably their front yard. The dog looked like she lived there, and maybe had all along, living a double life away from Melora with a family of four. Calliope looked happier, Melora decided. The dog had gotten loose three times before and was always dragged back, but this time, maybe she was finally going to let that dog live her best life.
And I am all the things I have ever loved: scuppernong wine, cool baptisms in silent water, dream books and number playing. – Toni Morrison
I was the only (dumb) white guy in the class. Maye the only wannabe writer, too. 1999. African American Literature at Elon College. I thought I was cool being the minority. We had to read Jazz by Toni Morrison. From the very first line…Sth, I know that woman…I was transported, and changed. It was, and still is, to this day, unlike any other novel I have ever experienced. It was wholly unique, a novel written like music…a looping chorus of tortured souls, a deepdown, spooky jazz song about people and places I had never thought about before…voices I had never heard and feelings I would never forget.
It was also composed in a way that broke every rule of
writing. Jazz is the reason all of my novels have roving, shifting, intertwined
Morrison shunned the idea of writing something universal…but
in her specificity and focus on the African-American reality, she tapped into
the timelessness of the human experience. The human frailty and strength she evoked
Margalit Fox of The New York Time’s wrote: “Ms.
Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other
writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the
cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear,
spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire
weight of history to bear on their every act.”
I loved to hear her talk, her voice like a cool babbling
brook gossiping about the world it snaked through, and read her thoughts on the
craft. I basked in her wisdom.
If you don’t see the book you want to read out there, go
write it. Damn it.
I loved her thoughts on freedom.
Once you’re free, you gotta free somebody else…otherwise
what’s the point?
Her thoughts on leadership were no different…set the bar
high, and when you get some real power, use it to empower others.
I was lucky enough to see her speak and meet her in person
at the Free Library of Philadelphia with my wife in 2015. She was everything I
knew she always was.
Toni Morrison is, and always will be, all the things I have
She is the Greatest American Novelist, and she has left
behind a legacy of words and wisdom we are hardly worthy of. She is the best of
us. She is all of us.
I’d like to imagine that a thousand years from now when all musical
recordings are lost, the internet is unplugged, and the only clouds are those
in the sky…someone might wonder, what was jazz?
The only answer will be her book, whose opening paragraph
was sung like this…
Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, “I love you.”
“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost
In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.
While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading →
Don’t ever let them tell you life is short, Ty. Life is long and people do lots of things. Some of them good. Some of them bad. And sometimes these things catch up to people. And sometimes that takes a long time. – Evelyn Kydd, from Then Came Darkness
The arc of a writer’s life is long, too. You have to write a lot of bad stuff (and read a lot of good stuff) before you learn how to write well.
I’ve been writing since I was seven years-old (my first story was a melodrama about a jewel heist) and I’ve shoveled my fair share of crap, including countless twisted tales during middle and high school, and three highly questionable and amateur novels I rushed to market during the infancy of the self-publishing craze right after college before I finally wrote some good stuff, The Thief Maker. I’d like to think my latest, Then Came Darkness, is good stuff, too. It laid dormant for a number of years as my favorite unpublished work, and then on a delirious whim fueled by exhaustion and inspiration while on parental leave last year, I thought to myself, “What the heck, let’s dust this off and publish this thing!” It was equal parts a lark, and a test of the new waters.
A lot has changed in the twelve years since I self-published my first bit of good stuff, The Thief Maker. In the years between that and Then Came Darkness I’ve been busy with blogging and short stories (some which have been published), and big life stuff like advancing in my corporate career, multiple trips to Europe, getting married, buying a house, and having a baby. It’s easier now than ever before to self-publish thanks in large part to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program, but it’s probably ten times as hard to find an audience as it was twelve years ago (not that I was very successful then either, though the small audience I did find for The Thief Maker seemed to like it).
I was honestly lost this time around until I found the #WritingCommunity on Twitter and started making use of my neighborhood Little Free Libraries, which I have tirelessly stocked with autographed copies. The one at the end of my street has been restocked at least five times…so thanks, neighbors, or whoever you are out there reading Then Came Darkness!
All of this made me want to take a little trip up to my attic full of boxes which store much of my earlier writing, which as terrible as most of it is, was fun as hell as to write at the time. I fondly remember the days of middle school friends fighting over who got a character named after them, and furious scribblings in notebooks during torturously boring high school classes that got passed around like gossip. Many of the techniques used, character types birthed, and themes explored later were present there from the start: fractured non-linear timelines, unreliable narrators, feisty women, tortured men, and resourceful orphans all trying to survive personal tragedies amidst larger chaotic (often apocalyptic) events.
So here, for fun, are some delicious tidbits from all that crap I had to write then to get to where I am now. Continue reading →
When Night Falls on Niagara – a short story inspired by some fanciful conversations while on a family trip to Niagara Falls in 2017 – was published this month by the digital literary magazine, Eunoia Review.
Here’s an excerpt:
When night falls on Niagara I follow her. She stops for coffee every night before her shift starts. “Gloria” is the name scribbled in playful black marker on her coffee cup, but she doesn’t look like a Gloria to me. I don’t know what I would name her, but definitely not Gloria. It must be an alias…or perhaps a nostalgic reference to an old family joke from childhood. When I was a kid my father would make up names for us any time we went for ice cream or smoothies and the person behind the counter asked for our names to identify our soon to be prepared sweet treats. We would then make up the funniest stories about our new identities. Dad was a Spanish clown with robotic arms or an artisanal vegan baker who communicated only in mime. I would be an antique mailbox reclamation artist or a dog hypnotist who could identify your pooch’s past lives. I wondered…who was Gloria? A freelance myna bird trainer whose failed dreams of being a ballerina haunted her? A former music teacher who now taught cats sign language? Did Gloria dream of hitting the jackpot at the casino so she could fly off to Paris and buy that pied-à-terre in Montmartre? Haunted longing hung delicately on her face with her perpetually downturned eyes.
The constant roar of the falls outside drowned out my more fanciful thoughts as I followed her up the hill to that old skinny brick building with the iron fire escape cascading down its long side. Facing the water, it seemed to mirror the river tumbling down into the colorfully lit nighttime abyss. The seven-story building was all dark at 10pm until she entered. I imagined inside there was no working elevator, and I could hear her steps as she walked up to the top floor. Then, on my perfectly timed beat, that single yellow glow would appear in the window on the top left-hand side of the building’s long, sad face, as if it was an eternally tired person who could just barely keep one eye open…the falls before them forever churning like their ennui.
Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)
Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.
Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading →