tv Author Discussion on Race and Identity CSPAN November 30, 2019 3:15am-4:16am EST
some of these authors have appeared on book tv and you can watch them online at booktv.org. >> are we ready? okay. hello everyone. and welcome today, to the annual southern festival of books, a celebration of the written word. my name is gloria ballard and myit's my pleasure to be here to host this session my country 'tis of the, to essay collections and to introduce the authors, kendra allen and jennine cap crucet who is right here next to me before i get to that introduction there are housekeeping things i need to take care of. this is the 31st annual
uasouthern festival of books and it's an amazing event that brings authors from all over the country to nashville each fall to be with the thousands of readers and writers from around the region. for those of us would enjoy being here, f we're lucky that it's a free event so thanks to a lot of the community support remember that the festival does depend on individual donations among other sources to remain free so please take the time to donate and what you can to help keepit free and any amount helps . whatever amount you can spare. you can donate via the website, behalf or in person at the headquarters tends throughout the weekend and any amount is appreciated. now let me introduce the authors, kendra allen who is the author of when you learn u that alphabet and jennine cap crucet who is the author of my time among the whites. so kendra, i think you said
you want to go first. what we're going to do is each of the authors is going to read from their book and we will have discussion back and forth and talk about the books and about their writing and their lives if they want to and we will have an informal discussion so kendra, let me give you an introduction. kendra is the author of when you learn the alphabet, raised in dallas texas and is currently an mfa candidate at the university of alabama. her work which has been described as raw and witty has been published in december magazine and in brevity magazine where i read
trash just to bring it back intomorrow . thank you. >> thank you, i'm looking forward to hearing a little bit more about your work in a few minutes . next we will talk with jennine cap crucet, her book of essays is my time among the whites: notes from an unfinished education. janine is the author of two previous books and an opinion editor for the new york times and her novel was a new york
times review editor's choice and the winner of the 2016 international latino book awards and was cited as the best book of the year by nbc latino, the guardian and the miami herald. it's been adopted as an on-campus read at 25 american universities. her short stories has been honored with the iowa short fiction award and other awards and she was raised in miami florida, an associate un professor at the department of english and institute for ethnic studies at the university of nebraska . sowelcome and you talk a little bit about your book for you read . >> i feel maybe we should have a discussion about this. i'm from miami, that's important to me. specifically i'm fromhialeah . so thank you for coming and bringing a little piece of home here today but that is very important and i've been
on this list, 305 is the area code. i feel i've got to have it with me all the time. that sounds like somethingwe will wind up talking about today . so this is my essay collection, my time among the whites, notes from an unfinished education and this came from a deep desire to have difficult conversations about race or concepts of race and concepts of citizenship, particularly since the 2016 election and i elhad a lot of friends, a lot of white friends were shocked by the election results weor the purported electionresults . and i think i went on record inthe new york times in may that year being like a ,trump is going to win this . you need to talk to your people. talk to your family, that ework has to happen . i know part of where this book came from was that i wanted to have these conversations with friends
and longer ways and some of these are based on pieces i published in the new york times and i would write these 6000 word pieces and then they would say all right, send us 1000 words or 800 words. i'd send like 1500 and do this and my editor would be that's not what i asked for. so we worked together to get that one or two ideas and i would hear from readers and i was happy to hear from readers because it meant the conversation was happening but they would ask questions that those other 5000 words didn't make it addressed so i started to see that it's hard , especially now that we traffic and soundbites and things can't be communicated that way when there vitally important as they are now and when actual people's lives are at stake and they have been for a long time so i'm going to read a little bit from an essay in yourcold nothing is impossible in america , the second essay in the book and i'm going to
read from the beginning for just a bit and talk with you today. so this is from nothing is impossible inamerica . when non-latino americans meet me and learn my family is from cuba they often ask me one of two bizarre questions. the first is if i've ever been to cuba, a question so layered and brought for me that i learned to respond by asking why would i have ever been to cuba? then just seeing what they say. i almost relish their awkward answers and the assumptions they revealt . i got this question a lot when i lived in minnesota, a place where many students brag about their scandinavian heritage and it never once occurred to me to ask within seconds of meeting them if they'd ever been to sweden . the second question less common though still fairly fraught isn't even a question. that's weird, interesting or funny they say. janine isn't a very cuban name.
you are correct i say, itis not . i also want to y,feel that uncomfortable pause that follows with a story about the american dream that goes like this. two kids from cuba meet teenager in florida. i have names given to them by cuban parents who mistakenly assume they live in cuba cipretty much forever. they mark them as ethnic minorities in the united states. these names in their new home country impacts everything about their lives.their educations and the premature end of those educations and what areas of the city they can look for ahome . they married young, start a family young and because they are light-skinned una reason there's a chance their american-born offspring could avoid at least some of the elements of the systemic prejudice they encounter despite having worked hard to learn english as almost eradicating the accents, this is after all a story haabout the american dream which means that many thingswill need to be unjustly
eradicated . in this version of the american dream they think that takes to change their destiny in this country is picking the right name for your child . they are not totally wrong. as john oliver on his show last week tonight pointed out when in his pre-election efforts to make donald drumpf again he told an apocryphal story about the candidates grandfathers amy change the last name from drumpf to trump when heimmigrated from germany . he asked those voting for the man to take a moment to imagine how you would feel if you just met a guy named donald drumpf. the joke plays on scene ofthe and oliver is only pointing out a reality for many americans , the reality the couple had lived through and saw as an opportunity to alter what they hoped was better.
because of the experience of living with their own names, my parents thought giving their american child a distinctly ethnic name came with unfair quantifiable consequences . they sensed this long before research studies would show which names on similar remnant resumes to count as qualified for a job and how they weathered those consequences themselves, they felt an understandable reluctance to have me inherit them. this is how i came to benamed after the 1980 usa runner-up . it's not fiction. my parents had a loose plan to name me after the winter and they had settled in on a may evening to watch the pageant with that intention even though i wouldn't be borne up until july 1981. they've always been the type to plan ahead . i was not just their first kid but also the firstborn in america american in our family. perhaps they saw a suitable
american name was needed to complete the immigration from cuba to american. what better placeto find a name and an american beauty pageant ? bob barker was close back then, they must have liked the way the name sounded in his price is right draw. the man who made his living encouraging people to spend a wheel and asked them how much they got random crap was worth withoutoverestimating would determine the name that would identify me for the rest of my life . imagine talking with that provoked black ball, janine. his pointy white teeth seething that last syllable like a cartoon cat. inalthough my parents, my names are maria and evaristo were rooting for her janine scored , a.k.a. miss arizona didn't win. the winner of the pageant, the person after whom i was supposed to be named was sean
weatherly. that years miss south carolina. i can almost hear my parents deciding to that naming after the winner began that sean was a boy's name is like evidence to the contrary ending right in front of them wearing a crown. so close enough. there was my name, janine. spelling they thought, they spelled it jennine but they agreed the spelling was all swrong. the vowels in her name making little sense, that early i right after the j. let's change that to anactual e . d in english area and while we're at it let's change the original e2 and i, throw in next and for balance. lose a, and what is that sound doing in there anyway but let's keep that last eat because in english to always
put a silent e on the end . daughter named area they had no idea that in altering the spelling that they were undoing thework of making the name something that would help me pass . although i'm sure the soundof it has opened doors that might have otherwise been unfairly closed, people looking for it as a marker of my parents immigrant status . when seen in writing the spelling always flagged for certain people, people looking for it as a marker of my parents immigrant status, and alterations betraying the reason they went with that name in the first place. the first real short story i ever wrote was a college short fiction workshop tried to explore this moment cobetween them and negotiation of it.
in a 19-year-old woman and her husband of two years are discussing what to to name their baby if it's a girl.l. the husband is confident it will be a boy. the womanf f decides to state t name on a televised beauty pageant which she's never seen and they proceed to watch it together, the woman feeling huge at the sight of so many skinny white women . at some point the husband brings hera sandwich . he is used to having her bring himsandwiches that he can't get out of the couch . they very subtly bring up the racism they encountered because of their own markedly spanish names . one workshop repeat from my nvall college classmate was that they didn't think this scene was loud enough and wanted the conversation to be more explicit . their assumption being that people of color rarely sit around discussing their oppression outright as they watch tv at home. they decided they should give her a name encourages her to do so and the winner's name in the story is gauge which neither parent can pronounce correctly and doesn't work in spanish at all so they go with sandra, the name of the contestant who finishes in the top 10 but scored highest in the interview portion .
historians with both characters burning, thus completing my obsession with bodily functions. it wasn't a great story. but it showed promise and at least enough to garner my professors and attention and encouragement which is sometimes all budding writer needs . i told no one in class the bstory was based on how i got my name even when they discuss improbable the scenario seemed to them, how pointedly symbolic it was, how totally unlikely it would be these white classmates told me for a cuban couple not want to honor their own heritage in the naming of their first child . okay. truth be told apart of me agreed with my classmates and i never fully believed esthis was how my parents chose my name until college. when i looked at the pageant results prompted by the workshop assignments and learn horrified that my name's origin storywas a real back of my life . what were my parents inning for in naming me after a beauty queen?
what were they trying to say about the kind ofdaughter they wanted? what were they hoping for , willing me to be with this name ? or was it more about what they were trying to prove for the country that had taken them in as children? perhaps there line was more into with names like the first words they saw upon arrival or rescue by the u.s. navy, us marines.our names, a form of gratitude and in my case, a kind of skin deep hope. so i'll stop there spoiler alert, i never won miss usa . that goes into different themes from their. [applause] >> if we can just have some time to talk back and forth
about the various themes in your book and how you came to talk about that . one of the things i did notice in both of the books is you both write a lot about family connections so can you both that a littlebit ? kendra, do you want to go first ? >> i feel like the things in my book are definitely family connected. that's the way it always starts and when i think of family i think of my moms side of the family most times, even though i have relationships with my dad's side and i think of family, and thinking about all the women on my moms side so whenever i'm writing anything , i'm thinking of my mama, my grandmother, my cousin, the things like that ikand the struggles that they probably never got to express in a way that i get the chance to, the privilege due in a book or just even people reading my work that they would never probably get the opportunity
to do so i feel like i'm speaking through them or for them in a sense. nbut even when i go into race and gender i'm stillthinking of them to . like the turmoil that they never, black women in general are looked at last for everything. our pain is looked at last. we are assumed to be stronger than everybody else. what's the one word that people say? exactly. they said they're not in our class hitoday or things like that but when i'm writing about race and gender, that's the pride that i wish we could all release in real life. >> family for you? >> i was speaking about that too, thinking about family inadvertently from my end and
thinking about my moms side only and what does that mean about family dynamics and how that plays out against the broader sense of history but i kept trying not to write about family and i don't know coming back to that and i realized i sort of embraced it at some point in the process understanding that for such a big part of your life, whatever you come to see as your family is your universe and that is how your learning culture and your learning what are the norms around you and then some of us get the opportunity to leave home and test those things in other environments and our definitions of family and more and change and you also acquire children and family that you bring into your life and think of his family so i ended up writing so much about family as entry points because of something that allows a point of connection and i'm just saying i'm going to tell you this one little story about how my parents came up with
my name and then by the end i'm talking about systems of oppression but you kind of came into it looking at these two people making one choice and by the end of the essay you understand how that choice is an endpoint t to all these different accidents of history that go back hundreds of years that end with this family being an american family for the first time ever in its history and i found that happening over and over again and i think because i'm mostly a fiction writer, my first two books are fiction, my first essay collection i'm always like i'm just going to tell a story, not try to sayanything . and in the form of an essay dit's like you need to say something. you know what you're doing here, it's okay to build to that and come back to that story as a way to make your sceneresonate a little more clearly . >> i don't write fiction becauseit would be really
trash . >> just write poems, we have another genre that we're playing off in our drama. >> with essays i'm thinking of the bigger picture and then i go into those small incidences of actual family life, but then it's also , i used family as a way to break generational trauma and pain and cycles and that's like, i have a hard time expressing myself in speech or orally so i have to write it down and through those essay stories i'm able to figure out what is the actual trauma that's been tying all the women in my family together. what amis the exact moment that this relationship broke?i can figure that out in an essay form where i can't
figure it out when i'm sitting in my family for 24 years. i couldn't figure it out and then i'm writing it down and okay, i get it. >> it sounds like we both used family as a question. at the question a essay can address and we can address what it means. >> can you talk about when you knew that this was the book you needed to write right now? >> i think for me it's the beginning of i waswriting it without even wanting to . i had asked for comments on something and i couldn't stay in the limit because it wasn't something that could be handled in that short of a conversation, even though that was what the form was demanding at the time so once i started to have several of these things and i thought that a kind of all fell under this umbrella of thinking about race and moments where
i get to count or pass as white and the moments where i don't and how much of that was outside of my own control and i histarted seeing that in things that range from growing up in miami erwhen if you're a light-skinned cuban you look kind of white and by that your part of the dominant culture and you get to possess cultural norms for your community. that's how i come to define the elements of whiteness but part of my time among the whites was when i got to be white and elevating in places like nebraska now where it was this idea of no, you're definitely not a white woman, you're not a white haperson and you know that but the context is what changed, i didn't change. my actual skin color did not change all of a sudden who i was was being told to me rather than me getting to express it.
so you could hear in this answer that these were big things and i started thinking about this is connected to my family at disney world and we went to disney world all the time . is that a particular south florida thing? other questions would spell out from that and other times when i went to the dude ranch and nebraska and i moved there because i found out so many of my students were registered as college students, i may first jen college student but these students were from rural backgrounds and i am from miami and ckhialeah and we had the beach but that was my nature in the beach and a lot of it would be paved so that it's real close to the water so it was sort of different. all my nature was disney world, i got to go to disney world and say i'm in nature. a lot of nature was this performative experience for me as a miami kid. they sort of alternative connect in ways and i realized there was a book and not just, i'm staring at my computergoing what is 70 ?
>> i didn't know this was a book until it was a book. i was kind of pushing back against it a lot. first of all, your title is one of the best titles of a book i've ever read, my time among the whites. that's how i got this book. >> i've had a lot of folks tell me e especially folks of coverlet color living in nebraska that you stole my memoir title. >> i was an undergrad and i was changing my whipmajor three or four times . and eventually i landed on creative writing . and i just found myself among the whites for the first time. like, i'm from dallas. and all my life i only went to mexican or black people,
my whole school life so when i went to college i was immersed into this, even though i went to art school and it was liberal which means it was even more racist than the south. even though it was a liberal arts school i was immersed into each class so i was the only black person. i found myself knowing what colors switching was and knowing llike that i am the representative of my black people for you people . so i just found myself, everything i write was from anger and everything would be very angry things to white people and it started because when i went to college it was the year after trayvon and mike brown happened so i would go to protest with my three white roommates and not really get me like that and i would get mad and even though
they're there walking with me i'm like you're just here. owyou don't understand the gravity of the situation so i would writethese essays for class and i would see how they would be received . when you're a person of color and it's a big white classroom, especially workshops, the only feedback you get is this is so brave, this is so good. you're not really helping me but okay . >> i would say there's this reluctance to get feedback in part because people are afraid they might offend you. i'm a student, i had administrative workshops where there like how about more ethnic or i think what i heard a lot was there's so much ergoodness in here, more dancing. and for folks they be you know what, it sounds like and this is where white folks were like either way we're
doing it wrong. if i give you feedback i might offend you. if i don't, then i'm keeping something. and my sense is sort of, one of those allows for conversation to happen and one of those is a kind of patronizing reaction that it doesn't help things work better at all. so i think it's better to think what might feel like a risk and then see what the pushback is against that and then listen to it, not to feel like i wasn't trying to do that. it's sort of like we're going to know that. we understand it might be coming from a place of a genuineeffort , but the best of your intentions isn't snecessarily enough. we can work through it as long as the listening is receptive to what you tell them about what you really need because i'm thinking eabout how you talked to your roommate at the protest, i
can hear again because it's this weird my time among the whites and everyone says they're kind of white but they were there and that's important too. >> at thebare minimum . >> i shouldn't have to say thank you for caring about somebody getting gunned down. so even though i wasn't getting like that, i was writing about the same things and i would be like i'm only writing about two things and i'm trying to write about these things but it's not working and at the end it was just like 13 essays. and i said oh, this could be a thing. and maybe i just kept writing about these things for this moment. >> let's go and talk aboutthe title of your book . when you learn the alphabet, because i acknowledged to you right before we were ertalking that the essays of that name, of that title is each part of
that essay starts with a letter of the alphabet and it didn't occur to me that's what you were doing until the end but talk about that process, talkabout how you started doing that ? >> i wanted it to be subtle like that where people didn't get it . i wanted to be subtle like that but that came about, that was the most intentional thingi've ever written . my whole entire writing life, that was the most intentional thing , i've been reading out of the poetry workshop and i'd sitdown on the ground and wait until my next class . >> ..
we only needed 25 of those pages, but yeah, i wanted something very straightd to the point, unlike the alphabet portion of it, it was like i really deep down, like a game. >> i don't think that's fake. but what you are of like showing how it evolved and now the severe way it has evolved. >> i did want to ask you the subtitle is notes from an unfinished education. what do you mean by unfinished education? >> i mean, at the moment, i think as long as i live in
america and am an american, that, it will not be finished until that condition is no longer true for whatever reason. i guess the more snarky, not snarky but i live in nebraska now. i don't know. we just have this big wonderful event about the book and it was standing room only at all these white folks, we're so glad. i do find it like in cities like lincoln there's conversations with people who are trying to do that was work? the way we are. you weree saying the 50000 pages of manifestoes, i wasan noticing we both, the books are both relatively, they are not 500 pages. part of it is there is a real intensity to these conversations and real difficulty that we sort of intuitive on a form level
it's like you need to read many, many books of this size and from all sorts of different voices and we sort of like note that, here's this. >> because all the writers are going around the issue also sounds like that's a problem with america, like we go around issues and talk around them when we can just go right to it and get past it. we spend 400 years talking about the same thing, like it blows my mind when like it so simple, like it's not hard. >> both of your books do go right to the issue in their different ways. about. i'm going to throw something at you that i haven't talked about which is do you have someone that you have read before that
has had some influence on any of that? >> oh. well, i mean -- sorry. i just have to answer immediately for that question because with this book i was reading very quickly alexander chi's essay collection how to write an autobiographical novel which is a fantastic essay collection. of he's also a fiction writer who now is writing his first book of essays. and i even -- i totally nerded out and made a chart about his book and like how, like, his first and last sentences if the choices he makes structurally. but going back even further, the work of james baldwin in trying to tell the truth. and also how does one sort of, how do you put yourself -- how do you sort of like turn the mirror not just outward, but on yourself and say these are the places where i have had these moments of perpetrated a kind of bigotry and let it out.
like to not let yourself off the hook in these ways. if i think when readers can see you do that, they're more likely to listen because they understand that you're willing to go there with them and admit that we all, at the very least up unintentional acts of bigotry all the time and there's a big distinction between a purposeful act and an unintentional. and actually it's in my syllabus for every class i teach no matter what, literature course, creative writing course, i welcome unintentional acts of bigotry in my classroom. and i say that because in the classroom, that's when i get to teach. when someone makes an assumption about a character, i can sort of stop the class and say remember on the first day we talked about intentional and unintentional acts, and this was a moment of -- like, you didn't know you were doing this. so then we can show you how it happened, we can talk about how it made you feel and what the implications of it are, and then you wet to choose.
you continue -- you get to choose. do you listen and say how do i make myself not do that again. and then i give you a very long reading list because i'm your professor -- [laughter] go read all this stuff, and then we come back and you write a great paper and you graduate with honors, and then you write a book and you sit, like, on a panel with a writer. see how useful it can the all be. [laughter] >> you can all be successful. [laughter] >> straight line, right? on some days i can let myself go that way. >> for me one of the first collection of essays that i ever read was entitled how to kill yourself and others in america. >> me too. >> that was the first thing that i ever read that i was, like, so i can be my cup self -- country is self, i can talk in my slang, i don't have to great grammar, e
myself on the page. that was one of my first books. i read it, like, twice a year, it's an easy read. that book is my favorite book. and also belle hook's born black. it's a memoir, but the way it was written is very, like, every chapter is no more than two pages, and the way that she talks about black girlhood but also, like, feminism and womanism and all these isms, sexism, all those isms, that was one of the first things i read where i was like i want to write something like this, i can do something like this. i can see myself in this. even growing up i always say i was in grown folks business all my life. [laughter] so even growing up i would be, like, reading these urban fiction novels that people don't take seriously but they should
because they're fire. [laughter] i would be reading, like, twisted soldier at like 8 years old. it's like little pockets of, like, pressure in little pockets of racism. and i was subtly learning those things very young, and i would read fly girl by omar tyree all the time. and it just seemed like i love coming of age stories. like, that's my thing because i can't write one. [laughter] but i like reading them. and, like, i would just find those bigger themes within that family narrative which is back to, like, what we do, like, literally that. but, yeah. really the biggest influence for me is music. i read music lyrics more than anything. rap lyrics all the time. i just find myself, what are you
talking about? and, like, when i read it, i can see pain or, like, i can see intention in those words, and i want to, like, mimic that in my own work where it'll have, like, a sunny feeling but also, like, that literary element as well. yeah. >> there's an essay in the book that you mentioned called you are the second person which i think was -- i can't remember what magazine it was, i believe it's an online magazine, and you can google you are the second person, and i just remember being -- like, i went out and bought the book immediately. i was completely floored by the power and compassion in that piece. and that also a made me think -- the other book i was reading in the final edits of this book, i got an advanced copy, but it's out now, the jesse mcmillan book -- >> yeah. >> moderator: and that and thats
up for the national book award for essays. that's another -- please, go read that book. we're all writers that are writing for these themes and collectively you can start to, like, have some thoughts, right? none of us is the one story, right? there's that danger of, like, oh, i read this, and now i understand what all americans might think about something. the book is actually being like please don't do that, right? the idea -- and i think we're conditioned for that. you go to college, and because we are predominantly white spaces and we're invited to represent a whole group. that's a danger that can happen. i think both of us are working to dismantle that. the minute we got any sort of privilege to do so, we were like let's try to break that down and, like, put -- take the power of it and do something else with it. >> yeah. and you do both write very effectively about that in each of your memoirs, each of your essays collections about the
problem, the issue of being the person within a white environment expected to represent your race. and, you know, i know that it's -- i know that a lot of people have issues with those kinds of things. so, you know, i did when i got to that part in each one of these novels, i i thought, yes, i know. >> you know what we're talking about. >> in each of the memoirs,ing you know, i knew what you were talking about. so, yeah, good. >> my first expose your to that, it's sort of a form of microaggression, it's called spotlighting. it was actually in my capacity as a counselor working in los angeles and working with first generation college studentses from different races and classes and sort of hearing these experiences. they would talk about these things happening in class, and i would realize it happened to me as well, and it's a form of microaggression, and i didn't know it had a name until years after. >> yeah. i'm trying to think of -- i didn't know what microaggression
was when i went to school. [laughter] i'm like i didn't know when i went to college. i just remember, like, the first time -- my freshman year, and i had, like, a roommate. i was putting on lotion, it's in the book. i was putting on lotion, and it's cocoa butter lotion because i got that be right. [laughter] but i was putting on lotion, and my roommate asked me, she was, like, -- [inaudible] you know when somebody just disrespects you, it don't click in the moment, like, it click later on? so i was just, like, i had another roommate who, like, corrected her. what? why would that do that? but then i was sitting in the watching catfish, i remember this plain as day, and i was just sitting there, and i just
kept putting my lotion on, and i was like, no. and it took me weeks for me to really realize what happened. and i was, like, i'm going to have to hit this girl. [laughter] see, that's like a whole other thing. the only space, i already know how it's going to be received if i just say anything, then you like shut down on that. and i think that's, like, the power of microaggression. like having to break through that fear of how you'll be perceived and just, like, like i said, they'll go around it. like going through it. and that takes, like, a lot of, like, time and, like, amping yourself up to do. it sounds like so easy to be like, girl, i'll slap you if you say that again. [laughter] it's not that easy when you're, like, in the moment. >> right. >> yeah. >> great. we are running out of time, but i did have, i wanted to give you a chance to if you have anything to add about your books or about
anything else? >> i had a question for you because you were saying like, oh, new york, chicago, why did you come here when you could have also -- >> i'm from miami. i live in nebraska now, i lived there, like, i bought a house in that state. like, i'm a resident, i had to change my license. >> you're like, no. >> it was a a painful moment. very painful. so i don't know, even people are like, oh, what are your talking about? i live in nebraska, but i'm from miami. have you not encountered that? >> i've just never been to maim. i believe you, i'm just never been. >> we have a field trip coming up. >> cool! [laughter] .