Book Review: The Taste of Salt

Book Review: The Taste of Salt

When doing book reviews I try to feature new, upcoming talent. I love the freshness and enthusiasm of new authors. But when I recently read, The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate I knew I had to do a review. The Taste of Salt is the story of Josie Henderson an African-American marine biologist who happens to come from a family where substance addiction has been prevalent for the past two generations.taste of salt

Josie moved away from Cleveland, Ohio years ago leaving behind the pain and ill memories of growing up with her alcoholic father, Ray. Later her brother Tick would struggle with that same addiction and then some. Although her father has since recovered and is now living soberly while trying to make amends with his damaged family, her brother Tick is right in the midst of his battle.

The story begins with her coming back to her hometown to release her brother from his latest stint in rehab. According to Josie, it’s the least she could do considering she has kept her distance from Cleveland and her family for many years. The city has deteriorated, and like her family it brings her shame and disappointment. She lives with her husband in the comfortable, quaint town of Woods Hole. We don’t know the exact location of the city except that it is near the ocean. She loves her job, loves the ocean as it is the place where she feels the most at home. It is the thing she has become the most connected to.

Upon releasing Tick from rehab everything changes. It is now that she begins to face the family demons from which she has run from for so many years. Her relationship with her father is strained at best. She has trouble accepting the fact that he is clean. There is so much pain and so much left unsaid. And although she was extremely close to her brother growing up, his addictions have damaged ties and neither of them seem to be able to fix them.

Her brother Tick struggles soon after his release from the facility, loses his job and stops attending AA meetings. Off the wagon again, his mother puts him out and he finds himself at Josie’s doorstop; no one else will deal with him. She hasn’t talked about her family much to her husband. How could he possibly understand? He has a white middle-class upbringing and no kind of experience with this kind of dysfunction. She has been able to avoid exposing this part of her life until now.  Here in Woods Hole Josie must face this generational demon if she is to save her brother–and herself. It is here where she must come to herself and face her own demons.

The Taste of Salt seamlessly alternates points of view from Josie’s, to Ray’s, and to Tick’s and back again. It is written mostly in first person and is told in manner in which a story is told to a dear friend. This narrator hides nothing. She glosses over nothing. She never pretends to find all of the answers.

But with poignancy she chronicles how it all begins with the slow death of unrealized dreams, life’s let-downs and, for reasons inexplicable, the urge to continue bad behavior at the risk of losing it all.

Southgate writes boldly, sometimes simplistically, but always engaging. The Taste of Salt is filled with heartbreak and hope. It is about family and the power that binds it. It’s one of those novels that settles itself deep into your soul and rests there until you are thinking of those characters long after the last page has been read.

Write what you know: writing outside of your cultural experience

SnoopDogg1andMarthaMost of us have limited cultural experiences. If you’re white, you hang out with mostly white friends; your church and various groups are filled with people who look like you. If you’re Black you look around the congregation on Sunday morning into a sea of colored faces; the radio jock you listen to on the ride into work tells jokes that affirm your cultural experience. Asians and Latin Americans have the same story. I’m not judging. I’m just stating facts.

We stay within a level of comfort so it is not surprising that when we write it is geared toward the audience with which we most identify. Notice I say most of us, because there are some of us, who have had enough variation to write outside of the scope of a single audience. And this all works well except when it doesn’t. When you decide you want to add a little color to your work and the Blacks are all saying things like “yo man” or “what’s happening” or they’re all snarky or angry, or the whites use the word “like” more times than humanly possible or the Asians all speak with broken English; it is then we have a problem. It is a tricky thing to take on a character or a setting of a different ethnicity without trudging in the dirty waters of stereotype and hence peeving off dual audiences.

Earlier this month I talked about writing what you know or knowing what you write, both phrases are basically equal except, writing what you know is drawing on experiences you already own and knowing what you write is reaching and learning so that your knowledge and experience increase and now you can write with a new level of understanding.

We tread lightly when it comes to bringing other ethnic groups into our writing and if you don’t know what you’re doing you very well should.  Sapphire the author of Push, the basis of the movie Precious does it, with the broken dialect and dark life of this teenager girl. Although the author is Black, it is still a culture unfamiliar to the author. James Patterson brought it with his character Detective Alex Cross; the complexity of the character is what is evident. Author Kathryn Stockett did it well with The Help. And she admitted she was a little concerned about using dialect associated with many Southern Blacks of the time in fear of insulting, stereotyping or appearing to mock. And still she was criticized. I personally loved the book and thought it was an honest portrayal. I’m reading and seeing my grandmother and great-grandmother throughout the pages and marveling at how she was able to capture not just the dialogue or the text, but the subtext; movements and things not said but implied. I read the book because I was attracted to the cover. I hadn’t read her bio yet. I didn’t know her history. But when I did I thought “ahh”. You see she had a close relationship her family’s help growing up. It was a risky thing to assume to know what was in the mind of this group.

It is important, I believe to step into that divide to try our hand at something different and daring, but only after we can paint a complete picture. To pretend to know the life of a gang banger and only see his violence or anger is doing it void of experience. Assuming to know the life of a middle class white woman living in Westchester County would be disingenuous for a Black woman raised in the Bronx, unless she knew her story. Simply watching does not an experience make. It’s empathizing and finding that humanity which connects you with the subject. And even with the most deprave people or situations there is that humanity which connects us. To tap into the part, to connect to the human spirit is when we start to know, when we can create and then make the story our own.

As writers we have the privilege to share what we know, by creating new stories. In doing so you may evoke more questions than you answer. And that is where the real story begins.

And They Lived Happily Ever After: Tips for Writing your Story’s Conclusion

And they lived happily ever after.  Wouldn’t writing your story’s ending be so much simpler if all good fiction had to end this way? Predictable, but easy. Boring, but easy. But the truth is there are no hard and fast ways to bring it to an end, only that you give the reader what they came for: a sound, well-written story. There are some general rules to follow. I’m sure I have not addressed them all but indulge me as I point out a few.

Wrap up all loose ends. This is probably the most obvious, but necessary to mention.  Remember to resolve all of the plots you’ve put out there. It’s Anton Chekhov’s familiar “gun in the room” metaphor. The Russian playwright suggested if you show a loaded gun in the first act, you’d certainly better use it in a later act.  If your characters’ issues aren’t important enough to resolve maybe they shouldn’t be in the story at all. This is not to say that every issue should have a tidy, neat, everything-worked-out-great type resolution, but least tell us what the character did about it, even if it is nothing at all.

Don’t rush the ending. In the beginning we are excited about this shiny new story. The middle is the meat, the stuff that we love to write. It’s where most of the drama, emotional scenes and action take place. Sometimes after trudging through the middle section of our novel; working through character development, subplots, parallel plots and the like, we approach the end of the story and we are emotionally and physically spent. Now we may just want the story to end. But look at it from your readers’ point of view; they have vested time and emotional energy in these “people” you call characters. Don’t get to the end of the cliff and dive off. Pace your ending, allow your reader to be fully engaged and emerged until the last page is read.

Allow the story to end naturally. Now maybe you want to shock your audience, give them an unexpected thrill. For instance, the question has been: Will she marry this tall, dark and handsome stranger? Suddenly you reveal at the end of your story that the tall, dark, handsome stranger that your protagonist has been in love with is really a woman. Shocker? Yep. Contrived? Absolutely. Now, if at certain points in the story your handsome dude kept alluding to the fact that he had some surgeries he couldn’t talk about or the protagonist notices that people are always commenting that he looks like someone they know, well, that would be different.  In other words, endings should follow the natural progression of a story. Plots thicken; they build, towards an expected or an unexpected end.

Once you’ve told the story stop writing.  This is the other end of the spectrum. You’ve resolved the story’s problems. There it is. But you keep writing and writing, rehashing the issues. Or you explain to the reader what they should have learned. Unless your novel is going to be used as an enhancement for Sunday school lessons, avoid the blatant moral teachings. Trust that your reader will be able to decide good or bad or right or wrong on their own. If your story is well-written, messages will speak for themselves.

Black Women Writers to Celebrate

Black Women Writers to Celebrate

zora-neale-hurstonAs I reflect this month in which we celebrate women’s history I feel compelled to share with you a couple of women writers that rank high upon my shelves.

When I first attempted to read, Zora Neale Hurston’s, There Eyes Were Watching God, many years ago, I have to admit I just couldn’t get through it. The dialect of broken English was just a little too much. Some years passed and I don’t remember why, but I picked it up again. I’m glad I did.

For those of you not familiar with it, this is the story of Janie Crawford, the grToni-Morrisonanddaughter of a former slave who rejects the notion of marrying simply to establish a solid home and financial stability. During a time when this was much more than someone of her stature could hope for this was no light matter.

Her grandmother, who she calls Nanny, became pregnant by her slave owner and fears that her granddaughter will become “a mule” by some man if she doesn’t quickly get her married.  She arranges for her to marry Logan Killicks because he will provide the status and financial security she feels her granddaugghter needs; love is neither necessary nor relevant. Nanny’s destiny was chosen for her, she wants better for her granddaughter. Janie has higher hopes. She longs for true love and can’t imagine settling for anything less.

She eventually finds it in Vergible Woods, better known as Teacake.  He is a good looking stranger who enraptures her with his guitar playing and free spirit. He seems to be from nowhere and everywhere.

She is in her forties when her second husband a prominent man in an all-black town in Southern Florida, dies. Despite their age difference and his lack of any type of status, she runs off with Teacake and marries him despite the whispers and gasps of the town folk. Janie narrates the story, which is a reflective one.

Their Eyes Were watching God, taps into the human spirit and the quest in all of us to find that one that makes us have to remind ourselves to breath.

Hurston dared to write such a novel during a time when women and especially Black women wouldn’t think to flaunt their dissatisfaction with traditional roles so publically and unabashedly. She does it uniquely, tastefully and in a way that transcends time, race or culture.

My other look-back is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Morrison is a master storyteller and possesses this ability to tap into the most intimate parts of the human spirit,bluest eye awakening her reader.

This is the story of Pecola Breedlove; the girl is as black as night and equally as ugly– at least in the eyes of others and thereafter, in her own eyes. Taking on the role she believes society has given her, a role subservient to her white counterparts, she desires to be a white girl with blue eyes. For her this seems to be the sought-after standard of beauty.

The story is told mainly from the point of view of Claudia, whose family has taken in TheirEyesWereWatchingGodPecola because of issues she’s having with her family, namely her incestuous relationship with her father. Claudia is proud of her blackness and indignant at Pecola’s desire to be something other than Black.

Although issues of racism and sexuality and self-worth are thematic throughout, Morrison has a way of weaving them into a well-told story.

Take some time to check out both books. And if you have already, they are certainly worth a second look.

Dream Killers: Confessions of a Writer II

Dream Killers: Confessions of a Writer II

the_hyenas_by_mareishon-d1vv3y7_zps85fb92d3I try to remember that dreams are not concoctions of our own volition. Dreams are God-given, which explains why as children we often had these wonderfully wild hopes and ideas that seemed to come from some obscure place. It is actually the simplest and purest part of us, which holds all that matters in life. It is that God place.

As we grow older, the dream killers grow too, noxious weeds, chocking the life out of these pure aspirations. Yet they only work when we allow them room. Remember your dream is in you.

Just like we protect our bodies from the elements we must also protect our dreams from these sneaky killers. I’ve had so many. Yet, I will categorize the few that seem to be the most aggressive:

Jealousy:  This is a painful one. This killer moves on you slowly like the first pangs of child birth (sorry guys) and escalates with such fierceness we become blinded by its intensity. We stop making sound decisions…

Wait a minute.

I’m not talking about those who are jealous of us. I’m speaking of our own longing for the stuff of others. Jealous is based on our insecurities and rooted in fear. Fear that we will never get what is due to us. For years I watched as others around me seemed to soar and embrace their passions and live their dreams. Some were much younger, some, I thought, didn’t even deserve it. Yep, as if this was my call.

What I failed to see was that through the years, I’d made some bad choices, used poor judgment, but not only that, it just wasn’t my time. I wasn’t ready. It is only as I look back on it now that I realize these truths. But jealous will try to drown out truth and kill off your dreams like a heart attack; that’s what happens to your heart when you’re running trying to keep up with someone else.  Not to sound cliché (which is also a cliché) you can only be your best, not someone else’s.

Keeping friends we’ve outgrown:  Often we have a hard time letting go of those that begin to poison or clutter our path. And sometimes it’s not that they say negative things outright, but they are unenthusiastic at best, and apathetic, at worst. Yep, I’ve had them–friends, boyfriends, coworkers. They just don’t get it. They nod, become bored or even humored by this kind of talk that doesn’t line up with their life’s mantra. They have not changed their way of thinking very much, in all the years you’ve known them.

People who believe that all they see is all there is:  These are the faithless folks. They tell you that writing fiction, or what ever it is you dream is way too much work. Not even worth it because it may not even work out.  Or, People would kill to have a good job like you have!  What is really the problem? They only believe what they can see.

The bible says the enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy. I believe it.I know it.

Well, I’m off…Dream killers have been spotted.