PROVENANCE is a 2016 Wheatley Book Award Finalist

Phillis Wheatley (Library of Congress)
Phillis Wheatley (Library of Congress)

I’m so excited that The Harlem Book Fair chose my novel, Provenance, as a First Fiction Finalist for the 2016 Wheatley Book Awards. The Harlem Book Fair is the largest African American book fair in the United States and the Wheatley Awards are named in honor of American Poet Phillis Wheatley (1752 – 1784), the first published African-American female writer. The mission of the annual competition is to recognize literary work and advocacy that transcends culture, country and perception.

While Provenance did not win, I was in great company and I am very honored to have my work recognized by this renowned national competition. Thank you, Harlem Book Fair!

For more information on the winners and other finalists see the Phillis Wheatley Book Award Winning Books feature on the aalbc.com website. More information about Phillis Wheatley is available here.

Great Experience at the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival

First, I must thank my wonderful family and great friends, as well as the book-lovers and dedicated volunteers who, despite the relentless rain, were there to support the 2016 Gaithersburg Book Festival. A very special thanks to my friend, Maryetta, who braved I-95 and drove down from New Jersey for the event. Thank you, thank you, thank you one and all!

This was my first time as a featured author at the Festival and I had a great time connecting with readers and other authors. As a fiction writer I spend a lot of time alone making up people and their stories so, it’s exceptional when you have the opportunity to get out and experience how your writing resonates with real people. I met a woman whose daughter sent her a copy of Provenance. This woman flew in from the Midwest to meet me at the Festival so that I could sign her copy of my book. She told me that she thought the book was important, that she had learned about passing, a part of the African American experience that she knew nothing about. She thanked me for writing such a beautiful book; that was pretty special, so I thanked her too.

I think writers, by nature, are not all that comfortable talking about themselves or their books, I know that’s true for me. I also know that meeting and interacting with readers is a vital part of being of being published and I’m working on getting more comfortable with that aspect of being an author. I’m hard at work on the next book in the Provenance series so the interest and enthusiasm I experienced that day will help me stay the course with Promise. If my experience at Gaithersburg Book Festival is an example what’s to come, I think I’m going to like this author thing!

If you weren’t able to make it to this year’s Festival, I’ve posted a brief video from my presentation (if you listen closely you can hear the raindrops cascading on the tent). The rain didn’t stop us for a second! Check out the moisture defying smiles and styles in photos on the Gaithersburg Book Festival Facebook page.

 

Why Do You Write?

cropped-cropped-iStock_000009439591Large.jpgI asked a wonderfully cerebral friend of my daughter’s if he was planning to attend my reading at the Gaithersburg Book Festival on the 21st of May. Afraid of facing empty chairs at my event, I am unapologetically asking EVERYONE that question in these days leading up to the Festival. My young friend told me that he’d be there and that he was ready with questions that he planned to ask me.

“Like what? Give me an example,” I asked, confident that I was prepared to field any question about my book.

“I’d like to know why you write.”  His question stopped me cold.

No one had ever asked me that before. I’ve been asked what I write about, how I write, when, where and how long but never, why?

Words on paper have always been my preferred method of communication. I was the shy child in an outgoing family and found refuge in reading and eventually courage and encouragement when I expressed myself in writing. When I write I have every sentiment and delivery skill at my disposal—tools I find harder to access in verbal communication. There are rarely, “Wish I’d said that, or hadn’t said that,” moments in a manuscript. Omniscience can be obtained through research and experience. Thoughtful beginnings, middles and ends can be crafted in stories carefully plotted and executed. I can make story arcs and characters curve in the direction I choose. Loose ends are tied, what’s lost can be found and, love and happiness can blossom with a few keystrokes. And, there is always the opportunity for revision. This is what I like about writing—it is not why I write.

I’m not sure I have a profound answer to my young friend’s insightful question. The closest I can come is to say that like the color of my eyes, the sound of my voice, being part of my family—it is something I was born with. Ideas and images compel their way through me to become what I write. Why I write is the same reason I breathe—because I have to.

What compels you to do the creative thing you do? Leave me a note in the comments section, I’d love to hear why you do what you do.

Revered Places That Matter

Slave_graveIn my novel Provenance I call attention to people and places that have been excised and excluded from American history. A place that plays a pivotal role in Provenance is Evergreen Cemetery in  Richmond, Virginia. Throughout its 59 acres, renowned as well as unknown African-Americans were finally laid to rest. These are the graves we know about – there are many more that have been lost to time and indifference.

In the Sunday, April 3, 2016 issue of the New York Times, Sandra A. Arnold, founder of the Periwinkle Initiative and the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americas wrote an opinion piece, Why Slaves’ Graves Matter. She talks about the effort to preserve the public memory of enslave Americans.

“Their overlooked lives are an inextricable part of the historical narrative of our country—and not simply because they were the ‘beneficiaries of the 13th Amendment.’ We should remember enslaved Americans for the same reasons we remember anyone; because they were fathers, mothers, siblings and grandparents who made a great contribution to our nation.”

Arnold’s article mentions the recent discovery of a burial ground founded by enslaved Americans in Queens, New York where I grew up. In school we were taught the history and taken to historical sites that celebrated the Quaker and Anglo-Dutch history of our community but no mention was ever made of the contribution of or even the existence of African-Americans in Queens. Organizations like the Corona-East Elmhurst Historical Preservation Society (www.ceehps.org) are now working to educate the public by sharing the inclusive history that previous generations were robbed of.

Arnold’s piece is well worth your time to read. It reminds us that before and throughout their lives, slaves were first people with hearts and souls. Their graves, even lost in history, deserve the respect that they may not have had in life. Here’s a link.

An Anarchist, A Junkie and A Habitual Liar—Similarities and Differences at the Virginia Festival of the Book

Le Fiction en France panel: Michael Keenan Gutierrez, Bonnie MacBird and Donna Drew Sawyer
Le Fiction en France panel: Michael Keenan Gutierrez, Bonnie MacBird and Donna Drew Sawyer (Photo by Pat Cuadros)

Despite this post’s headline, I recently spent a few days at the Virginia Festival of the Book in great company. I was honored to be a presenting author on a panel, Le Fiction en France: France in Fiction, sponsored by Alliance Française Charlottesville (AfC). Also on the panel was Michael Keenan Gutierrez (The Trench Angel), who teaches writing at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and Bonnie MacBird (Art in the Blood), an EMMY award-winning screenwriter/actor/author from LA. The panel was expertly orchestrated and moderated by AfC director, Emily Martin.

Emily Martin, director, Alliance Française Charlottesville
Emily Martin, director, Alliance Française Charlottesville

This was my first author’s appearance at the Festival so we met briefly the day prior to our panel. Emily suggested Marie-Bette, the best little French bakery-cafe in Charlottesville and over coffee and pastry we found that even though we’ve moved in different spheres professionally, shared experiences made it easy to establish rapport. I know a little about Michael’s world because my daughter earned her Masters’ from UNC and Chapel Hill was on our regular itinerary. In addition to Bonnie’s impressive literary accomplishments, she wrote the story for the classic sci-fi movie, TRON. For my husband, Granville, that fact made Bonnie beyond cool. Emily’s broad knowledge of France touched on the experiences each of us had with the country and the language. We were comfortable with each other as people and authors however, would our characters and our books be as compatible?

The characters and stories in our books are unique—as authors we shared the common thread of Paris as the creative backdrop during distinctive periods in the city’s history. Bonnie set Art in the Blood in the year 1888 and writes in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about famous fictional private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Critical scenes in Michael’s, The Trench Angel, unfold in Paris during the 1920s after the Great War and, the characters in my novel, Provenance, are part of the frenzied art scene in Paris between 1931 and 1938 as the prospect of World War II looms large in the City of Light.

All of our protagonists are male, all are broken men in some manner, fighting inner demons that threaten to destroy them. Holmes is hopelessly addicted to cocaine, mystery and mayhem; Neal Stephens’ secret marriage and anarchist father connect him to murder; and in my novel, a father’s secret reveals a devastating legacy of lies that threatens to destroy his family. The differences in our three books were obvious but the similarities, like gems, were harder to find but delightful to discover. Our protagonists—a junkie, an anarchist and a liar— facilitated an organic, interesting and successful panel during the Festival.

For more than 22,000 book lovers, across 250 programs featuring more than 400 authors, there was discovery and exploration of surprisingly common elements in literature and people who seem to share no DNA. However, like our panel, if done right—as the Virginia Festival of the Book was— authors and readers have the opportunity to get to the heart of what makes books and book festivals so wonderful—they celebrate the diversity as well as the shared experiences of us all.

Join me at the Virginia Festival of the Book – Sunday, March 20, 2016

VaBookFestival2016-Orig

 

 

 

The Virginia Festival of the Book brings readers and writers together for a five-day celebration of books, reading, literacy, and literary culture. The 22nd Annual Festival will be held March 16-20, 2016 and I’ll be presenting at two events on Sunday, March 20:

Celebration Brunch: A Tribute to the African-American Literary Tradition

I’ll be one of the featured authors at the during the 2016 event presented by The Charlottesville Chapter of The Links Incorporated. The event includes brunch, musical and spoken word performances by community youth, a tribute to book festival authors, book sales and signing. Tickets are $60 and available in advance only.

Sunday, March 20
11:30 – 2:30
Charlottesville Omni Hotel
212 Ridge McIntire Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
Click here for more information and to purchase tickets

 

Fiction in France: La Fiction en France

Authors Michael Keenan Gutierrez (The Trench Angel), Bonnie MacBird (Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure) and Donna Drew Sawyer (Provenance: A Novel) discuss the role France plays in their books. Emily Martin, the director of Alliance Française of Charlottesville, the largest cultural network in the world promoting French language and culture, will moderate the panel.

Sun. March 20, 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
Central Branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library
201 E Market Street,  Charlottesville, VA

About the Virginia Festival of the Book

Produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), the largest of the fifty-six state (and territory) humanities councils, the Festival is a program of the Virginia Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book.

The Festival is the largest community-based book event in the Mid-Atlantic region and has attracted audiences of more than 20,000 for each of the past twelve years. The Festival has presented a captivating list of authors, ranging from international bestsellers to topical specialists to debut authors. An abbreviated list of past participants includes Edward Ayers, David Baldacci, Maureen Corrigan, Edwidge Danticat, Kate DiCamillo, Rita Dove, Jan Karon, John Grisham, Jim Lehrer, Frances Mayes, Colum McCann, David McCullough, Alice McDermott, Katherine Paterson, Lisa Scottoline, Pete Seeger, Karin Slaughter, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, Elizabeth Strout, Judith Viorst, and Charles Wright.

Programs range from traditional author readings and book signings to a StoryFest day of children’s authors and storybook characters; from a panel on how to publish a novel to a discussion on running a book club to a workshop on bookbinding. All programs are open to the public; with the exception of a few ticketed events, programs are free of charge.

The Festival is presented through a unique partnership of contributors that includes VFH, foundations, corporations, bookstores, schools, libraries, area businesses and organizations, and committed individuals. This partnership results in programs on a wide range of topics set among a variety of venues throughout the City of Charlottesville, County of Albemarle, and the University of Virginia.

Visit the Festival site for more information on authors and programs.

Great Visit with “Readings of the Diaspora” Book Club

Reading of the Diaspora Book ClubThere is nothing better than spending a rainy Sunday basking in the warmth and company of book lovers. Yesterday I had just that kind of perfect afternoon with the Readings of Diaspora Book Club.  The visit was hosted by Tina Boyd whom I met at the 2015 National Book Festival last Fall. She contacted me after the Festival and invited me to join her book club when they discussed my novel, Provenance. There was plenty of spirited talk, laughter, insightful questions and delicious food to fuel the discussion in the comfort of Tina’s beautiful home.

It was truly a wonderful experience for this author to meet such passionate readers; to hear their opinions and impressions and know that they connected with my characters and the story I tried to tell. Thank you Tina and all of the members of Readings of the Diaspora Book Club. It was an honor and a pleasure to be in your company yesterday.


Is your book club planning to read Provenance? I’d be glad to visit or Skype in for your discussion.

Here’s how to contact me.

 

Evergreen Cemetery – The Significance of a Final Resting Place

markerevergreen

During slavery there was little if any dignity for African-Americans – even in death. It was against the law for African-Americans to assemble or meet as a group, so slaves were often buried without ceremony, on non-crop producing land, in graves that were often unmarked. With the end of slavery, African-Americans in the South were free to assemble, live as families, celebrate life and mourn death though segregation now stretched from birth past death; from the place you were born to where you could live, to your final resting place. For approximately 5,000 African-Americans, that final resting place was Evergreen Cemetery.

As early as 1891, just a 26 years after the end of the Civil War, when African Africans in Richmond, the former seat of the Confederacy, buried their loved ones and commemorated their lives with headstones, they did so in Evergreen Cemetery. Really four cemeteries on 59 acres— Evergreen, East End Cemetery, Oakwood Colored Section and the Colored Pauper’s cemetery— were private cemeteries maintained by the Evergreen Cemetery Association. These burial places served as the final resting place for many of Richmond’s prominent African American citizens. It is in Evergreen, designed to be the African American’s community’s equivalent of Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery which was only for whites, that Maggie L. Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., who I mentioned in last week’s post about Jackson Ward, are buried.

Evergreen Cemetery in Provenance

I learned about Evergreen Cemetery in my research for my novel, Provenance, when a prominent character’s death became a pivotal scene in the book. On his deathbed, my character, Hank Whitaker, reveals to his unsuspecting family that he is really a black man who has been passing for white. His mother in-law, Charlotte, tries to quickly mitigate the effect that Hank’s news will have on her daughter and grandson. The following excerpts from Provenance is an example of one of the ways used Evergreen to convey how society used race and class to determine the worth of a human being.

If they were going to salvage anything, she would have to move fast. By tomorrow, Hank’s deathbed confession would be rumor. Within three days, the efficiency of gossip in Richmond society would ensure that Hank Whitaker’s passing was all people talked about. Charlotte was not about to wait for talk to turn to action – there were severe consequences for colored folks who tried to pass for white. She’d seen trees bearing the bodies of black men for doing a lot less than Hank had. “They will not take their vengeance out on Maggie and Lance, no matter what Hank did,” Charlotte vowed.

       §›

She looked at the piece of paper crumpled in her hand. She’d gotten the number of an undertaker from a colored nurse in the hospital’s segregated ward.

“Go to the hospital and get him tonight,” she instructed the undertaker after giving him the pertinent details.

“Bury him in Evergreen,” she said referring to the Negro cemetery in Richmond’s East End. She didn’t tell him Hank Whitaker was her daughter’s husband, she told them she was paying for the burial because his family couldn’t afford it. “We’re not having a service. I’ll come around tomorrow to pay whatever it costs.” With that, she had taken care of the inconvenient remains of Hank Whitaker.

§›

She alone had presided over Hank’s burial. With the scent of freshly dug earth in the air, the two gravediggers lowered the plain pine coffin into the new grave.

“Are you sure you won’t be wantin’ a marker for the grave?” the undertaker asked her a second time. “Evergreen’s sixty acres, Mrs. Bennett. If you ever want to find this grave again—” Charlotte shook her head, no, before the man could finish.

“Then will you be sayin’ a few words before they close the grave?” he asked, hoping this woman was not as cold and heartless as she appeared. Again, Charlotte declined.

“Just cover him up,” she said. “Cover him up good.”

Evergreen Cemetery Today

800px-Evergreen_cemetery_rvaEvergreen was founded and maintained by the families of the people who were buried there. Unlike the white cemeteries in Richmond, Evergreen received no public funds or support. As African-American families left the South and integration diminished the need for segregated facilities and services, sacred places like Evergreen soon fell into disrepair. Today Evergreen Cemetery is abandoned, overgrown and vandalized. Abandoned Virginia #22 – Evergreen Cemetery Richmond by Brian Sterowski, filmed in July of 2015, shows Evergreen as it is today.

A recent photo essay in The Nation, Reclaiming Black History, One Grave at a Time by Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer, is a powerful statement on the years of official neglect that, along with the English ivy and other invasive plants, have swallowed the East End Cemetery of Evergreen Cemeteries. The history of prominent early 20th century African-Americans and World War II veterans buried there is now further obscured by the indignity of also having their graves buried. A BBC film by Colm O’ Molloy is about photographer, Brian Palmer, who  is working to document the graves in East End Cemetery as a way to raise the awareness of this loss of history and heritage.

However bleak the current state of Evergreen Cemetery, there may still be a future to the past this historic site represents. Several historic and civic associations, as well as local college students and community volunteers, are working to save the history that Evergreen represents for all Americans. A video of Evergreen Cemetery Historic Marker Dedication by the National Park Service features magnificent images of Evergreen’s history and a glimpse of what its future could hold.

Here I Lay My Burdens Down: A History of the Black Cemeteries of Richmond, Virginia by Veronica Davis is resource for more information about Evergreen Cemetery.