I hardly ever take photos while traveling. When I do, they are often like these: captured on the way some place, capturing the moment when you don’t know what’s around the bend.
Life and writing are like that just now. The picture on the left is from the Cotton Famine Road, it crosses a moor outside the Manchester suburb of Oldham, England, leading nowhere in particular. The second picture is through a sugarcane field outside Leogane, Haiti, a small town at the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake, where I recently spent time learning Kreyol. These are some paths I’ve walked lately.
I adore the writer Hélène Cixous; she has this to say on the matter:
From path to path, I also want to work on journeys. Any journey is a metaphor of all journeys at all times. Our tourist era continuously sets out on journeys. Each time, if we worked on the journey we are undertaking, we would find in it thousands of different journeys. It is always a flight of some kind, a flight toward another life. It is another life, a death, an oblivion, a recalling, and a search. We know that when we change countries we also change hearts….A journey may be one of affinity. We go to the countries we carry deep down in our hearts. Often we arrive at ourselves far from ourselves. Inversely, we can travel away from ourselves….
And this, which held me up while writing Harlem Is Nowhere….
If you follow me perhaps you will lose yourself, but if you do, you are following me. To find one has to lose, one finds only by losing…To find is also to lose the self. While advancing, I am playing to find while losing. A thousand poets promise that if we lose ourselves — and we must — there always remains the path. That’s what Heidegger told us in his Holzwege, his paths that lead nowhere. We have to let the path work.
(both from “Poetry, Passion and History: Marina Tsvetayeva”)
It will be quiet around here while I let some paths work. No public events (until the HARLEM paperback launch, that is, in late January 2013); and no published writing about a place and a project I’m only beginning to know. In the meantime, many winding roads.
There’s a ten-foot video of me reimagined as Star Trek’s Uhura currently on show as part of visual artist Simone Leigh’s phenomenal solo show YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE HER MOUTH HAS BEEN, at The Kitchen in Chelsea. Simone’s otherworldly ceramic sculptures and videos will take your breath away. She got a great write-up in the New Yorker (and my previously unknown acting chops get a funny shout-out) it closes March 11.
March 6th you can find Simone and I in conversation as part of the series LIVE AT THE NYPL, curated by Paul Holdengraber. Get your tickets here.
HARLEM IS NOWHERE has been nominated for a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, which will be announced March 8th.
This winter I’ve been following the vagabond trail, from New Orleans to Houston to Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York to Berlin to Manchester to Baltimore to New York (again…eternally). I haven’t been updating this website. Spring appearances to come in Chicago (twice), New Orleans, and New York (yet again.)
A Star Trek-style transporter would be incredibly useful.
I know Jay-Z had some other awesome news lately, but I am overdue in sharing my delight at being interviewed for his fantastic website LifeandTimes.com, editorially directed by Hov himself. The writer / filmmaker dream hampton (who collaborated on Jay-Z’s Decoded) has an excellent series of Q&As with creative folks — I was honored when she asked for a chat, which you can read here. The accompanying portrait is from Laylah Amatullah Barrayn’s recently premiered exhibition “Her Word as Witness: Women Writers of the African Diaspora,” on show in Brooklyn now through March 31st. Thrilled to work with such talented women…
More of that to come. My magic word for 2012 (besides nomadic, since I’ll be leaving New Orleans soon) is collaboration…
In other news, February readings happening in College Station, TX; Los Angeles; San Francisco; New York City and Baltimore, perhaps with a few more to come; stay updated at the EVENTS page. And Chicago and New Orleans in the Spring!
Transition has an amazing history which begins in Uganda in 1961, a good summary from wikipedia is here
The title of this post is the opening sentence from my 2004 essay “Lenox Terminal.” It was born of a dare from Michael Vazquez, then executive editor of Transition. I’d been an intern at Transition as an undergraduate. After moving to Harlem, Mike invited me to make a piece out of the encounters and conversations I was puzzled and dazzled by in my new neighborhood.
The essay was the seed of HARLEM IS NOWHERE. You can download a PDF of “Lenox Terminal,” as it appeared in Transition. I am grateful to the magazine for helping me begin.
I’m happy to share that “Harlem Is Nowhere” has been named to The New York Times‘ 2011 list of 100 Notable Books!
To celebrate I’m posting this amazing performance by 1970s group The Voices of East Harlem, whose song “Right On, Be Free” has been my anthem all season. Here they are in concert at Sing Sing prison.
I’m glad to have work included in two endeavors re-imagining the printed word as a means of liberation.
THE READER is a publication accompanying ALPHA’S BET IS NOT OVER YET a project at the New Museum in New York by Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus. ALPHA’S BET is “an exhibition, a reading room, and discussion space inspired by the energy and politics of radical, independent Black periodicals published during the first half of the 20th century.” THE READER is an exhibition catalogue in the style of those radical magazines. My contribution, “From The Desk of The Freedwomen’s Bureau” is a semi-satirical dispatch from my inner throwback-futuristic race woman.
Recently launched in South Africa, THE CHIMURENGA CHRONIC is “a once-off, one-day-only edition of a fictional pan-African newspaper” backdated to May 2008 when “so-called xenophobic violence” erupted in South Africa. CHIMURENGA, the always-intriguing magazine founded by Ntone Edjabe, is using the newspaper as “a vehicle of knowledge production and dissemination. Our sense of history, our sense of what is important and our sense of record are all marked by the newspaper medium.” My essay, “Memento Mori,” deciphers emblems of death in youth street fashion.
Very happy and inspired to be collaborating with such fantastic artists who I am glad to call comrades and dear friends…
It’s not quite autumn, but I hope to be greeted by that familiar crisp, back-to-school, everything-under-the-sun-is-opening-premiering-launching feeling that I so cherished during seven years in New York City.
I’m pleased to be taking part in a Brooklyn Book Festival “Bookend” event this Friday, September 16th at 7pm, sponsored by ringShout: A Place for Black Literature at MoCADA in Fort Greene. It’s my first Brooklyn reading for HARLEM IS NOWHERE! Also notable because I’ll be joined by two writers who are also friends: my much-beloved Emily Raboteau, author of “The Professor’s Daughter” who will read from her work in progress “Searching for Zion”; and Catherine McKinley, author of the recently published INDIGO: IN SEARCH OF THE COLOR THAT SEDUCED THE WORLD.
I’ll be back in New York in October and November for more readings, see the EVENTS page above. This fall will also take me to Austin, Charleston, and Wellesley. A long overdue “hometown” reading in New Orleans is in the works, too…
I actually did cross the pond, in body and not just in book. There were riots, about which I’ve written an as-yet-unpublished essay. Took part in this event at the glorious Serpentine Gallery, along with a dear old friend, mentor, and champion. Met the delightful and dedicated people at Granta and saw my wonderful UK agent. Spent time with cherished friends old and new. Got to dip in for a few quiet moments at my favorite secret garden. This show at the Tate is awesome. Was surprised to see HARLEM front and center at one of the finest independent bookshops in London (you can also find it here, and here, and here, I’m told). Also, the British papers said some kind things about the book:
“As a great, sweeping history of Harlem, this book is valuable. As a piece of travel writing, which allows us glimpses into the precious mundane moments that in lesser hands might go unnoticed, it is engaging. But it truly comes alive on account of the personality of the writer herself, the “gazer” on the outside of society who is always happy to share a stoop with the disenfranchised and listen carefully and sensitively to their stories on our behalf.” — JAKE WALLIS SIMONS, The Independent on Sunday
“…readers and residents alike coming to this book will salute her achievement. Simultaneously celebratory and elegiac, acute and poetic, scholarly and rooted in the everyday, Harlem is Nowhere has earned its place in the canon of literature inspired by the endlessly fascinating city of New York.” — JAMES ATLEE, The Independent
“…this ethos of watching and recording – of being fully present…runs through Harlem is Nowhere, Rhodes-Pitts’s lyrical and subtle debut, an illuminating insight into her time as a resident and unofficial chronicler of contemporary Harlem. It is a place to which she gains access by learning to interpret subtle gestures, listening for unlikely messages, and claiming the mantle of witness, with all its inherent responsibilities and risks.” — TRACY K. SMITH, The Observer
“The book, like many of the figures who roam within it, is an allusive, elusive creature – not quite memoir, fragmented social history, partial documentary. Its commitment to the tentative, its scepticism towards totalising visions, is evident in every beautifully written page.” — SUKHDEV SANDHU, The Guardian
“In this, her first book, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts marks herself out as a first-rate noticer with the gift of being able to allow us to notice things exactly when she does. Her lyrical prose flows like the human gaze: a glimpse here, a longer look there, a quick turning away when something is too contradictory, or too difficult to sort through.” — BONNIE GREER, The Financial Times
“In an inspiring mix of historiography and psychogeography, just as gentrification begins to eat at the heart and soul of Harlem and erode (or, more likely, burnish to a high, self-reflecting sheen), the myths and meanings of Harlem, she discovers new ways of telling old things in a highly distinctive documentary style.” — THE TIMES (subscription only)
today HARLEM IS NOWHERE will be published in the United Kingdom. It’s special because England was the first place I ever traveled abroad as a teenager and I’ve been enchanted by it ever since. Some of the dearest people to me live there, some of the most profound experiences I’ve had in nature and art and love have happened there, and some of my favorite writers lived and worked there. It’s special because the heroic folk at Granta Books took a chance on this book after it was rejected by 13 British publishers, and I am grateful.
In New Orleans, where I live now, the heat at times is like that picture above, you can’t see your face. But then the rain comes (almost daily of late) and it’s lovely. I have a garden. I forgot how to answer my e-mail. And I’ve been reading, which I’d stopped doing for pleasure in the course of writing a book.
Since I last posted here, I went to Seattle and to the Bay Area. Helped to judge this prize, and stayed here, which could use your support. Heavy-duty decompression through late May and June culminated in a visit from my friend (who took that picture) and my family who came to celebrate the Essence Festival (I have a piece in the August issue), where I shared a stage with these ladies. A thoughtful review appeared in this magazine, which is awesome because that’s where it all began. Dancing, listening, eating, thinking, gardening. Pausing. And then to write again.