Monday, November 17, 2008
Very soon, my newest book, The Ancestors, will finally be available: Amazon.com says it's available Nov. 25, although the official pub date isn't until December. This book is a first for me: I wrote a novella entitled "Ghost Summer," and authors L.A. Banks and Brandon Massey wrote novellas, too. (Yes, they're all about ghosts!) This is my first ghost story since Joplin's Ghost.
The Ancestors, as I've announced earlier, is also the Essence Book Club pick for January '09, which came as a great thrill and surprise to us. This is another lesson on strength in numbers: We all write about the supernatural and/or suspense novels, we all have individual readerships, and we wanted to publish a joint project.
Here's what Publishers Weekly says about The Ancestors:
Talented African-American authors Banks (The Shadows), Massey (Don't Ever Tell) and Due (Blood Colony) explore ancestral roots in intriguing horror novellas. Banks puts a time-travel twist into "Ev'ry Shut Eye Ain't Sleep," in which antique dealer Abe Morgan helps a friend, Rashid Jackson, protect Aziza, Rashid's granddaughter, from "the shades" after Aziza inherits her grandmother's house. In Massey's "The Patriarch," a crime novelist brings his fiancée to Coldwater, Miss., to introduce her to his mom's kinfolk, but runs afoul of a powerful family secret. Due's "Ghost Summer," the best of the trio, also works as a YA novel. Davie Stephens, who's determined to become a 12-year-old ghost buster, and various family members find themselves haunted by a 1909 cold case in Graceville, Fla. All three contributors successfully combine scary themes with rich historical detail. (Dec.)
But there's no reason to wait!
Here's an excerpt from my novella "Ghost Summer" in The Ancestors:
The dirt in the area where his grandparents lived was called “red,” but to Davie it looked more like a deep shade of orange. It was still called “Georgia clay,” even though the Georgia border was a half hour’s drive. The dirt didn’t care which side of the border it was on, Georgia or Florida. The orange dirt was everywhere, right beneath the grass.
The orange dirt and gravel path ran through the center of the yard, presenting Davie with a clear choice-—the gate and the road were on one side of the path, and the fence and the woods were on the other.
Davie noticed that Grandpa still hadn’t repaired the broken logs in one section of the ranch-style fence that separated his property from the woods. The same fence had been broken six months before. Tell-tale hoof-prints gathered around Grandma’s fake deer near the driveway were evidence that woodland creatures were trespassing at night.
Dumb-butts can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not, Davie thought.
Decision time: Hunting for snakes in the woods, or Rock Band?
Davie was about to take the path down to the road and head for the Reed house when he saw something move in the woods, beyond the broken fence. He heard dead leaves marking footsteps as it ran away, fast. Whatever it was, it was big.
A deer? Another kid playing?
Davie’s decision was made. He searched the castoffs from his grandparents’ own personal forest of pine and oak trees until he found a sturdy dead branch as his walking stick. The stick was almost as tall as he was, and Davie liked the way it fit in his hand. He stripped away the smaller branches until it looked more like Mad-Eye Moody’s staff from Harry Potter. He tapped the thick stick on the ground to make sure it would hold instead of rotting at the center. Satisfied, he headed into the woods.
Davie leaned on his stick for support when he climbed over the broken fence.
The woods behind his grandparents’ house wasn’t shady like the woods in movies. Most of the trees had thin trunks and not much shade to spare, but they were growing as far as he could see. While it might not be much to look at, Davie knew there were snakes, because Grandpa had told him he killed a rattler in the driveway only two weeks before. At the very least, he would probably go home with a story to tell.
Davie liked running in the underbrush, with obstacles every which way and snap decisions to be made. There—jump on the stone! There—watch out for the hole! There were stumbles now and then, mostly just harmless scrapes. Acts of coordination and fearlessness were necessary for any ghost-hunter. Most ghosts were friendly, but how lame would it be to leave himself helpless if he met a hostile? Plan B was filed under R for Run.
Davie didn’t have to run far. He’d gone only about thirty yards when he saw three boys huddled in a circle in a clearing. None of them were wearing shirts, only ragged-looking shorts of varying lengths. The three of them looked like brothers, each one younger than the next. The eldest could be Davie’s age.
Davie’s feet made a racket crackling in the dead leaves, but none of the boys turned around to look at him. When the boys held hands, Davie understood why: They were praying over a huge hole someone had dug in the ground. As he got closer, Davie saw a large German shepherd sleeping beside the hole.
Not SLEEPING, crap-for-brains, Davie told himself. The big dog was dead. Its face and muzzle were matted with orange-brown mud.
He’d interrupted a funeral! Davie backed up a step and halfway hid himself behind a rare wide-trunked tree of pale, peeling bark, thin as paper. Davie had never had a dog—Mom thought keeping a dog inside the house was a disgrace, as did her whole family in Ghana, where dogs apparently were not considered man’s best friend by a long shot—but he understood how sad it was when a pet died. He’d hat a rat once, Roddy, like in the movie Flushed Away.
Roddy was an awesome rat. Lay across Davie’s shoulder while he walked around, no problem. Rats were as smart as dogs, people said, but rats definitely got screwed in the life-span department. His rat had lived only two years. When Roddy died, Davie had cried himself to sleep for two nights, and hadn’t wanted a pet of any kind ever since. He, Dad, Mom and Neema had buried Roddy in the back yard, just like these boys.
But Roddy’s hole in the ground hadn’t been nearly so big, like a tunnel. The mountain of Georgia clay dirt beside the hole was as tall as the oldest boy. Someone had done some serious digging, Davie realized. Maybe their Dad helped, or someone with a jack. It would have taken him all day to dig a hole like that. Or longer.
Davie noticed that all of the boys were caked in red clay dust just as the setting sun intensified in a bright red-orange burst the color of a mango, turning the boys into shadowed silhouettes.
Watching their vigil, Davie made up an epitaph: Here lies Smoky, a Hell of a Dog / Crossed McCormack Road in the Midnight Fog--
Suddenly, the youngest boy turned and stared him in the eye, whipping his head around so fast that Davie’s rhyme left his mind. The boy was standing only ten yards from him, but his eyes were his most visible feature. The whites were, anyway. That was all Davie could see, a white-eyed stare vivid against dark skin.
“Sorry about your dog,” Davie said. No need to be rude. The oldest boy looked about twelve, too. Maybe he knew somewhere to play basketball. This clan could be a valuable find.
None of the others looked at Davie. The youngest, who looked six, turned away again.
It seemed best to leave them alone. Davie had never been to a funeral, thank goodness—-Mom couldn’t afford to bring him and Neema when her father in Ghana died, so she and Imani went alone—-but he figured funerals weren’t a good place to make friends.
If the boys lived nearby, he’d find them later. If not, whatever. Kids in Graceville weren’t always nice to him, as if he didn’t meet their standards. He talked funny and liked weird things, from a Graceville point of view, so he never knew what kind of reception to expect.
Davie left and turned for home, digging his stick into pockets of soft soil as he walked. He didn’t run, this time. It was getting dark, harder to see, and there was no reason to take a chance on breaking his leg. It would be ghost time soon.
Davie didn’t realize how relieved he was to leave the woods until he saw the welcoming broken fence in the shadow of his grandparents’ huge oak tree, which was covered in moss like Silly String. Home! The underbrush had seemed unruly, and he was glad to find his shoes back on neatly-cropped grass. He felt a strange wriggling sensation in his stomach. Until he climbed back over the fence, he hadn’t let himself notice he was a little scared. Just a little.
But the real scare didn’t come until he got to the house.
Davie decided to go to the back door instead of the front because his shoes might be muddy, and Grandma would have a fit if he tracked dirt on her hardwood floors. As he was climbing the concrete steps to the back door, he glimpsed the kitchen window.
What he saw there made his stomach drop out of him.
Grandpa Walter stood by the fridge, arms crossed and head hanging; he might have been studying his shoes, except that his eyes were closed. Grandma was clearing away dishes from the table, where Dad was sitting alone.
Muted through the window, Davie heard Grandma saying, “…It’s all right, baby. It’s all gonna’ work out. No court in the country will let her take them all the way over there, I don’t care if she’s the mother or not. What’s she gonna’ do, steal them? If she wants a fight, well, she’s got one. We have money put away. You’ll get a good lawyer, and that’s that. Don’t you worry.”
His father sat at the table, forehead resting against the tabletop, his arms wrapped around his ears. His father was crying.
All night, Davie lay in bed trying to unhear and unsee it. Every time he saw the snapshot of that kitchen window, remembering Grandma’s words and Dad’s grieving pose, his stomach ate him. Now he knew what people meant when they said Too Much Information: It wasn’t about stuff being too gross, or none of your business. Some information was too big for a single brain. Each time Davie remembered what he’d seen and heard, the enormity grew exponentially, with new and more terrible realizations.
His parents were definitely getting a divorce. Check. Hadn’t seen that coming, since they never argued or raised their voices in front of him. They snapped at each other sometimes, but who didn’t?
Okay, so Mom thought Dad worked too much. She’d never made that a secret. And Dad definitely liked spending time alone. There was no denying it. And Mom’s bad moods probably got on his nerves. So now, after twenty years, they were getting a divorce?
That nuclear bomb should have been enough for one night—-hell, one lifetime—-but there was layer after layer, and it unspooled slowly as Davie stared at his grandparents’ popcorn ceiling, seeing only visions of the kitchen window.
As if the D-word wasn’t enough, Mom wanted to take them to Ghana. Dad didn’t want them to go. Grandma and Grandpa were Dad’s war-chiefs, and they were about to go to war.
Against Mommy. And Mommy against Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa. And no matter what happened, he and Neema and Imani were FUBAR. Effed Up Beyond All Recogition.
The only tiny morsel of comfort Davie could take from The Worst Moment of His Entire Life was the knowledge that Grandpa Walter, Grandma and—-Thank you, God—-Dad himself had not seen him at the window. He’d had the good sense to duck away before a wandering pair of eyes found him and waved him inside to take his seat at the Oh-Crap table.
“Davie, we’re glad you finally know the truth… You’ll need you to be a man now…”
The very thought of that conversation with Dad made Davie want to vomit. He kept his palm clamped across his mouth, just in case of a surprise puke attack. He felt it in his throat.
As long as he ignored their sad eyes, went on with his life and pretended he hadn’t heard, they would have to keep pretending, too. All of them would be putting on a show for each other, like a reality TV show called “FUBAR,” but at least then Neema wouldn’t find out. Or Imani, who couldn’t possibly know, because she’d been in way too good a mood when she left for Evanston, Illinois, to meet her future as an incoming freshman in a minority summer program.
Let them have their lives a while longer, anyway. For the summer, anyway.
Ignorance was the only mercy he could still do for them. He only wished his father had his S-H-I-T together and could have kept him out of the loop a little longer, too. How the hell would he get through the next month?
Davie was on the verge of crying himself to sleep the way he had after Roddy the Rat died, but his unborn sob caught in his throat when he heard the footsteps padding against the hallway floorboards.
He thought he’d imagined it, so he sat up and didn’t move, not even to get his flashlight. His ears were his most important tool: He listened.
Click-click-click. This time, he heard not only the footsteps, but clicking nails. Like a dog’s paws. A heavy dog—about the size of the big German shepherd.
Davie had accidentally been holding his breath, and he needed to breathe. He took a long gasp of air, louder than he’d meant to, and stopped breathing again.
The dog’s feet padded closer to his closed bedroom door. Davie stared toward the crack between the door and the frame in the moonlight, and he saw a shadow cross from one side to the other. About the size of a dog’s nose.
Sffffff sfff ffffff. Sniffing at the door.
“Holy effing S-H-I-T,” Davie said, but only after the sniffing noise stopped and the sound of footsteps had padded away to silence.
Davie’s plan was to lie absolutely still and do everything in his power to convince the dog that there was no reason to try to get into his room. Good dog, bad dog, whatever, Davie didn’t want a ghost encounter with a dog. His central plan in case of a hostile entity-—Communication and Negotiation-—wasn’t worth crapola with a dog.
The first ghost he met up close should definitely be human.
But the ghosts were tracking him already.
© Copyright 2008 by Tananarive Due
Sunday, November 9, 2008
It is a joy so deep and quenching that, at times, it reminds me of grief.
Just when I think I’ve come to terms with the whole thing, there are tears at unexpected times. The night after the election, I turned on CNN in our hotel room after a long day, and I heard Wolf Blitzer say “President-elect Obama.” And then another newscaster after that. And then President Bush himself.
President-elect Obama. (The word “elect” is silent to my starved ear.)
The world feels turned on its head.
And I cry in front of strangers.
And I am full to the brim with it.
And my life has been changed: I can never go back to the time Before.
But these tears ride a river of joy unlike any I have ever known. Or thought I could know. Not just a massage-—a bath.
This joy, as sweet as it is, cannot replace my life’s triumphs. But it is a far deeper well. Like Jesse said, my tears are not just for me.
I feel joy for my grandmothers.
I feel joy for my grandfathers.
I feel joy for my parents—who watched the results at my side.
I feel joy for my son—who shrieked louder than anyone in the room.
I feel joy for my stepdaughter—who inherited a new world in time for college graduation.
I feel joy for my nieces, nephews and cousins.
I feel joy for my aunts and uncles.
I feel joy for strangers.
I feel joy for children everywhere.
I feel joy and grief for those who helped light the way, but who did not make it to this day. The fount of feelings seems endless.
But unlike with grief, I want to hold the feeling with all my might.
And never let it go.
Steve and I are in Antigua for the Antigua & Barbuda Literary Festival, a precious event we have attended before. We're having a wonderful time with fellow writers like Eric Jerome Dickey, Lorna Goodison , Tina McElroy Ansa and Elizabeth Nunez. We began our trip the day after the election, so we are watching events in the States from afar.
Business-wise, this is a hard time for many people in the publishing industry. Most of the gossip I’ve heard during this meeting of writers, editors, agents and publishers is grim.
But Barack Obama is everywhere, changing the mood.
The streets bear signs: “Antigua for Obama.”
The Prime Minister, Winston Baldwin Spencer—-who addressed our group on opening night—-announced that he has declared a new name for the island’s tallest peak: Mt. Obama.
When Obama’s name comes up with local residents, faces break into grins.
Obama is the toast of our tables at every meal.
We tell each other stories of reformed slackers and friends who posed for pictures with Obama, or received personal phone messages from him. (Or who, like my husband and sister, shook his hand.) We recite our favorite passages from his speeches, and how amazed we were by the operation he commanded.
We marvel at the healing image of Barack and Michelle as the strong and steady couple we all aspire to be—and Malia and Sasha melt our hearts.
We trade stories about the ways we are looking forward to visiting the Washington monuments or make it to the Inauguration, contemplating our citizenship in a fascinating new way.
We laugh. We cry. The world is laughing and crying with us, a party like none I’ve ever seen. We are dizzy from giddiness.
But we are also realists. We do not underestimate the task.
The iceberg is upon us, and President-elect Obama must race to turn the ship around.
We have readied our oars.
With our new captain, we will bear down and row.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Last night, during nightly bedtime snuggle time with my 4-1/2-year-old son, Jason asked me, “Why does Grandma wear dark glasses?”
Grandma and Grandpa are much on Jason’s mind. He’s looking forward to flying on an airplane this weekend to see them in Quincy, Florida, twenty-one miles west of Tallahassee---along with my sisters and Jason’s uncles and cousins. We are traveling from Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta to gather to watch the election returns as a family. That’s how important Barack Obama’s candidacy is to us.
And the story of Grandma’s dark glasses is one of the reasons why.
My mother, Patricia Stephens Due, spent 49 days in jail in 1960 for ordering food at a Woolworth in Tallahassee, becoming part of the nation’s first Jail-in. Soon afterward, she and other Florida A&M University students took part in a peaceful march to protest the jailing of their classmates, and a police officer lobbed a canister of tear-gas into my mother’s face and eyes. She was 20 years old. It was 1960.
Both of my parents wear the scars of the civil rights movement. But my mother’s are so easy to see that even my preschooler noticed.
“Well…” I said, “when grandma was very young—younger than your sister, Nicki---she and other students were marching together. Hundreds of them…” I told him what I could. Some of it will have to wait. But I did tell him that Grandma had something called “tear-gas” thrown in her face.
“It makes your eyes hurt. And her eyes have been hurting a little bit ever since, so she wears dark glasses even inside the house, when there’s no sun. Even when there isn’t much light.”
I don’t know how old I was when I first heard the story behind my mother’s dark glasses, but I was about Jason’s age when I covered myself with baby powder after I was refused admission to several segregated Montessori schools in Miami. I tried to make myself white. “Will they let me go to school now?” I said.
I can only imagine how my parents felt trying to explain skin color and how it might dictate my place in the world—especially after all they had been through! Countless protests, arrests, court dates, sit-ins, a Jail-in and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had not been enough. Their black child was not welcome at those schools.
I wrote about growing up in a civil rights household in the book I co-authored with my mother, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. My father, John Due, is a civil rights attorney who defended Dr. King in St. Augustine in 1964 and dedicated much of his life to community organizing in Miami.
I have observed little changes—all those “firsts”—my whole life. And I had no illusions about how those changes came about. It wasn’t by magic or coincidence. In the words of Frederick Douglass, whom I quoted in oratorical contests as a child, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress... Power concedes nothing without a demand: It never did, and it never will.”
There is something unmistakably clear about the election of a black man to the highest office in the nation, ringing all the way back to the founders who argued over the abolition of slavery. And for activists like my parents who have felt sorrowed by lingering poverty, educational gaps and the incarceration rate in the black community, President Barack Obama is a strong counter-point.
He also happens to be an extraordinary candidate. Period.
When he is elected Tuesday---sorry, I can’t bring myself to say IF---Barack Obama will breathe life and hope into Americans of all ages who wonder if the American Dream is real or just spin. And to Jason, who woke up one morning this week chanting, “Obama! Obama! Obama!” and who once insisted on going to bed in a tie and dress shirt so he would look like Obama…
Let’s just say it’s a far cry from what happened to me when I was 4.
My talk with Jason about my mother’s dark glasses didn’t carry nearly the sting it would have if a different world was waiting for Jason outside of the safety of his bedroom.
Still, I’m not naïve: I know that many American families still don’t have reason to believe that their children’s futures are safe. I know that teachers and police officers might still make assumptions about Jason because of his race. But it will be different than what has been.
Different how? I can’t say. I don’t even know how it will feel to stand on the other side of Inauguration Day in January. Or to see a family take residence in the White House that will remind me so much of my own.
But I’m eager to find out.
Jason will be too young on Tuesday to understand exactly what he is experiencing. No matter how many stories I tell him about our family history, he will never understand what it was like to walk in his grandparents’ shoes. Or his father’s. Or in mine.
But he will KNOW from the dawn of his waking awareness that he is a full citizen of the nation of his birth, and that no goal should lie beyond his precious imagination. And I will not flinch from telling him the unhappy stories, because I want him to understand how we arrived here. That he and Barack Obama are standing on his grandparents’ shoulders.
“I’m going to tell Grandma to make her glasses LIGHT,” Jason said after my bedtime story, as if the answer was that simple.
Tuesday, I can’t wait for my son and his grandparents to see the light come in.
All parties at my parents’ house have music—and some, like the ones on Dr. King’s birthday, have speeches too. Here’s a partial playlist I suggest if you’re having an Election Watching party.
These suggestions are in no particular order.
**We Are Family (Sister Sledge)
**For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield)
**Balm in Gilead (Sweet Honey in the Rock)
**Celebration (Kool & the Gang)
**Let’s Stay Together (Al Green)
**Walk With Him (The Highway Q’s)
**Seteng Sediba (Soweto Gospel Choir)
**This Little Light (The Montgomery Improvement Association: Sing for Freedom: Civil Rights Movement Songs)
**Respect (Aretha Franklin)
**I Got the Feelin’ (James Brown)
**Love Train (The O’Jays)
**You Gotta Be (Des’ree)
**This is How We Do It (Montell Jordan)
I also suggest the following inspirational speeches, which have particular power at this point in history. (They’re sprinkled within my own playlist! The excerpts below are VERY short and edited, with the exception of Obama’s 2004 address.)
** I Have a Dream (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: I Can Hear it Now: The Sixties, narrated by Walter Cronkite.)
*Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You: Ask What You Can Do for Your Country (John F. Kennedy: I Can Hear it Now: The Sixties.)
**Decides to Run for President (Robert Kennedy: I Can Hear it Now: The Sixties)
**Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention Address