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 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 →
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 →
Boko Haram’s Greatest Hits – a short story inspired by a conversation between two strangers that I overheard while having lunch and a drink at McMenemin’s Tavern on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia while being “trapped” at the nearby apartment of my then girlfriend (now wife) during an over-hyped snowstorm – was published this month by the new digital arts magazine, A Million and One Magazine.
Suffice it say, I’m kinda stoked.
Here’s an excerpt:
Jasmin entered the pub where only a few other weary souls were gathered. It was dark, sepia-lit, and humming with TV’s and congenial human murmuring. It smelled like a pub should: meat and potatoes, spilt beer, table top cleaner, and moldy wood. Snow tracked in on the floor quickly turned to water. She sat down at the corner stool where she leaned her violin case against the bar.
“Some storm,” she heard patrons at a table remark as they watched the updated weather forecast on the TV.
There was a picturesque dusting of frozen precipitation outside, but nothing more. It was certainly not the snowpocalypse they had predicted last night. It was enough of a panic, though, for many flights to have been delayed. So here she was, at mid-week, mid-afternoon, in some townie bar, just looking to kill time.
“What can I get you?” a bartender asked.
“A chardonnay,” she replied in a pleasant sigh.
Wes came out of the men’s room and stumbled back to his stool, one over from hers and against the wall. He conspicuously looked her up and down and noticed the violin case against the bar, travel-worn and adorned with stickers from all over the world. San Francisco. London. Paris. Cairo. Lagos. He was instantly drawn to her well-dressed African-ness. The academic braids. The glasses. The smart sweater. Her stylish boots and well-fitting dark jeans.
Jasmin was slightly put off by his hipster scruffiness. The shaggy hair. The beard. The flannel shirt. Had she realized someone was sitting so close she might have opted for another stool or even a table. She sensed him checking her out and it made her uncomfortable as she took a sip of wine.
How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?
How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?
“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.
If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.
Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Continue reading →