VONA Workshop

This is my third day in San Francisco and I’m still happy to be here. I haven’t seen any attractions yet, but we’ve critiqued four novel excerpts from other up and coming writers so far. The community of writers here at VONA are wonderful and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be here. I’ve learned a great deal from these discussions and even from my own comments on the works of others. I also received word that I’ve been accepted into the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s writing workshop so I’ll be headed off to D.C. for that experience next. I would also like to note how appreciative I am of my wonderful, supportive, encouraging boyfriend who keeps my head up. Not to mention he reads all this stuff that I write and even listens when I get into my rants (well, he pretends to listen if nothing else).

One great thing about being here is that I’ve been having conversations with others who love reading and African-American fiction just as much as I do. Just wanted to showcase a few of the recommendations that I’ve received in the past couple of days. I actually just purchased a couple on Half.com for the low-low price of $1! You can’t beat that, huh? And you know I surely don’t mind reading used books. As always, ENJOY!

You know I just about had it out with another writer here when he said that The Known World was one of his favorite books. For my loyal readers, you know how I felt about that one. I was definitely not feeling this individual when he said that, but he mentioned that he likes reads that he has to fight to get through (or something like that). I just wasn’t there. Anyway, although I didn’t like The Known World, Edward P. Jones’ other books Lost in the City and All Aunt Haggard’s Children both came highly recommended. Click the links and read the summaries for yourself and I’ll be sure to add these two to my future reading list (which means they’ll be waiting their turn on the bookshelf once they arrive in the mail). I’m hoping Jones’ is a better short story writer than he is novelist. But then again, what do I know? He does have a Pulitzer after all. I guess…

In the few days that I’ve been here, the novel Drown by Junot Diaz has been recommended twice. I hadn’t heard of it before now, but here’s the Kirkus Review:

drowndiazD¡az’s first collection of ten stories, some having appeared in the New Yorker and Story, is certain to draw attention for its gritty view of life in the barrios of the Dominican Republic and rough neighborhoods of urban New Jersey. Most of the stories are linked by their narrator, who spent his first nine years in the D.R., until his father in the States brought the entire family to South Jersey, where he continued to display the survivalist machismo he developed during years of poverty, scamming, and struggle. In the Caribbean pieces, D¡az offers a boy’s-eye view of a hardscrabble life. In “Ysrael,” the narrator and his brother, sent to the countryside during the summer, plot to unmask a local oddity, a boy whose face was eaten off by a pig in his youth. Much later in the volume, “No Face” reappears, surviving the taunts of the locals as he waits for his trip to America, where surgeons will work on his face. “Arguantando” documents life in the barrio, where the narrator, his brother, and his mother eke out an existence while hearing nothing from the father. “Negocios” explains why: Robbed of his savings in the US, the father schemes to marry a citizen in order to become one himself, all the time thinking of his family back home. He is hardly a saint, and, reunited in New Jersey, the family is dominated by his violent temper. “Fiesta, 1980” recalls the narrator’s bouts of car sickness, for which his father shows no sympathy. In the remaining tales, a teenaged Dominican drug dealer in New Jersey dreams of a normal life with his crackhead girlfriend (“Aurora”); a high-school dealer is disturbed by his best friend’s homosexuality (“Drown”); and “How to Date . . .” is a fractured handbook on the subtleties of interracial dating. D¡az’s spare style and narrative poise make for some disturbing fiction, full of casual violence and indifferent morality. A debut calculated to raise some eyebrows.

Z.Z. Packer is the author of the short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (she’s also the facilitator of our novel workshop), which I loved and highly recommend. Most of the other authors who I’ve chatted with here have also read it and recommend it as well. We sat here chatting for some time about our favorite stories and what made the characters so interesting. Here’s a summary:

Packer’s debut collection of short stories is full of challenges to its youthful, predominantly African American cast of characters. Often they have everything all figured out when a “Challenging Person” comes barging in, such as in the book’s title story, in which Dina and her ramen noodles are walled up in self-imposed dorm room exile until moon-faced Heidi from Vancouver demands her company and, perhaps, her heart. In another, God himself–speaking through an amputee blues musician once known as Delta Sweetmeat–infiltrates the already supposedly holier-than-thou life of Sister Clareese. Sometimes, the challenge is from a hopeful situation turned frustrating and desperate: a group of once-idealistic expatriates starving in a one-room apartment in Japan, for example, or a young city schoolteacher snapping on her drive home. These challenges don’t tend to have happy endings, but they are learning experiences for the characters and moving reading for us.

I’ve already read one short story out of this borrowed book, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. I was quite impressed and look forward to reading the entire collection. Here’s the summary:


The unnamed narrator in Jesus’ Son lives through a car wreck and a heroin overdose. Is he blessed? He cheats, lies, steals–but possesses a child’s (or a mystic’s) uncanny way of expressing the bare essence of things around him. In its own strange and luminous way, this linked collection of short fiction does the same. The stories follow characters who are seemingly marginalized beyond hope, drifting through a narcotic haze of ennui, failed relationships, and petty crime. In “Dundun” the narrator decides to take a shooting victim to the hospital, though not for the usual reasons: “I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked.” Later he takes his own pathetic stab at violence in “The Other Man,” attempting to avenge a drug rip-off but succeeding only at terrorizing an innocent family. Each meandering story–some utterly lacking in the usual elements of plot, including a beginning and an end–nonetheless demands compulsive reading, with Denis Johnson’s first calling as a poet apparent in the off-kilter beauty of his prose. Open to any page and gems spill forth: “I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside that we’d have an accident in the storm.” The most successful stories in the collection offer moments of startling clarity. In “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” for instance, the narrator feels most alive while in the presence of another’s loss: “Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead…. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.” In “Work,” while “salvaging” copper wire from a flooded house to fund their habits, the narrator and an acquaintance stop to watch the nearly unfathomable sight of a beautiful, naked woman paragliding up the river. Later the narrator learns that the house once belonged to his down-and-out accomplice and that the woman is his estranged wife. “As nearly as I could tell, I’d wandered into some sort of dream that Wayne was having about his wife, and his house,” he reasons. Such is the experience for the reader. More Genet than Bukowski, Denis Johnson lures us into a misfit soul’s dream from which he can’t awake.

When I make my Half-Priced bookstore rounds, I always think about/look for this one book in the anthology section. You know I already have my Breaking Ice and Gumbo anthologies for my modern short fiction collection. But when I do my store search, I never see Dark Dreams: A Collection of Horror and Suspense, edited by Brandon Massey. Well, I went on Half.com while I was sitting here thinking about it and found a copy for just $0.75! Here’s a review from Publisher’s Weekly:

darkdreamsThriller writer Massey’s strong anthology showcases 20 new horror and suspense stories by African-American writers, both established and upcoming. Massey evokes America’s enduring black cultural heritage in his understated “Granddad’s Garage,” about a humble, peculiarly long-lived pack rat who collects such rarities as a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 book of poems. Lawana Holland-Moore’s “Empty Vessel” poignantly touches on the cruelty and tragedy of slavery. Hair is the focus of D.S. Foxx’s brief “Dreads,” the sensitive narrator’s account of growing up in “a vanilla town, the darkest child in my school.” In Patricia E. Canterbury’s unsettling “Wild Chocolate,” a married couple’s visit to a remote Brazilian village leads to supernatural mischief back home in Oakland. Linda Addison plays fresh variations on the voodoo theme in “The Power.” Colorful and highly idiosyncratic islanders’ language enriches Francine Lewis’s lyrical “Siren Song.” “Danger Word,” an apocalyptic SF tale by husband-and-wife Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due, doesn’t deal with race per se, but forms a lively end to a volume whose universal human themes will resonate with many readers.

Before this list gets too long, I’ve decided to list out a few of the other recommendations. They include:

Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Political Talk and Black Political Thought

Black Power, Inc: The New Voice of Success

Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White

Short Story:

“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara (read it online)

I let someone read the revised story of the one that I will workshop on Thursday and they said that they were reminded of this story. I guess this link will give you a feel/idea of the piece that I want to develop into a novel.


White Priviledge: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh(read it online – PDF file)

As you can tell, we’ve been having some really great discussions! Now, since everybody’s been asking me in person and on the phone if I’m okay, I figure that must mean that I need to take a nap. And yes, I am reading Obama’s book, but I only read about 40 pages on the plane. It’s interesting…but again…still reading (no rush either). Can’t wait to get my short story read on though!

Happy reading, ya’ll!


6 thoughts on “VONA Workshop

  1. Wow! The story you’re working on reminded someone of Bambara’s “The Lesson?” Get out! (smile). Toni Cade Bambara is one of my all-time favs. If you haven’t read the collection “The Lesson” is from, you might want to add it to your list. The full collection is entitled GORILLA, MY LOVE. Great stuff. I’m making note of some the titles you recommended as well. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Lori, I hope I have a little time to read it while I’m here. Unfortunately, I can’t decide on whether I should do some writing, see the sights, take a nap, eat, or read a little more fiction. I noticed that the short story was from the Gorilla, My Love collection. I may have to pick that up. I believe that I’ve read “Raymond’s Run” previously.

    As always, thanks for your comments!


  3. Gorilla My Love is one of my all-time favorite short story collections. Toni Cade Bambara is a magician with words and a master storyteller. Don’t think I got a chance to meet you at VONA this past week but if you’re here again next week hopefully our paths will cross.


  4. Black Girl Lost,

    You are so fortunate to go to writing workshops. There are so many people out there who wish they could be in your shoes. Keep up the good work. We’re pulling for you.

    Langston & Jenae


  5. Langston & Jenae, it’s serious when your future children come on your blog and leave comments. Thanks. (inside joke)


  6. Pingback: VONA & Cuernavaca, Mexico « black girl lost…in a book

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