Dancer and choreographer Jasmine Hearn and the Cirque Du Vie youth performance troupe were featured in this year’s NEA Big Read, signalling a significant shift in youth and teen attendance for BCA events, which typically attract artists of all ages and adults borough wide. This intentional focus on youth engagement will continue through new programs being developed in collaboration with BCA’s Longwood Art Gallery. Public school students in the Bronx are some of the nation’s most under-served, in what is often considered the cultural capital of the United States. Below are some highlights from this year’s celebration in honor of Chilean author Alejandro Zambra and his novel “Ways of Going Home”, which examines inter-generational trauma and alienation, among other urgent social issues.
(Photo by Marisol Diaz, 2017)
The Blue Faerie
Appears between concrete trees
Tall on toe tips she streaks
Across glass glittered field to
Vanish in earthy ruins renewed
Emerges from a mural anew
To see if you’re still watching
The Blue Faerie thrives amidst
The smoking devastation, she
Takes to the air, covers her mouth
Giggles at your sigh of surprise
Lands far off in the distance
Spies you from behind concrete
Trees lingering on the horizon
Shouts in your ear when you
Forget to remember, she darts back
Into night on quicksilver tip toes
Never to be seen again…
(This poem was inspired by the dancer Jasmine Hearn. Don’t miss her performance at BAAD! for the upcoming Big Read… DETAILS HERE.)
I became Director of the Bronx Writers Center at Bronx Council on the Arts to make a difference in the neighborhoods I grew up in and beyond. The Bronx was a different place back in the 1970s and 1980s, yet continues to confront unique challenges.
Nearly 1.4 million people from around the world reside here, nearly a third of which live below the poverty line. We continue to struggle with health issues such as exorbitant asthma rates, among others. Yet there’s magic here like nowhere else.
It was here that I discovered the genius of one-time resident Edgar Allan Poe in grade school, where I began writing lyrics and poetry that would grow into a writing habit that would produce works of published fiction years later. Now I help others do the same.
You can help us tell our stories. Please make a donation today and help us reach more voices in 2017… I’m not asking for much.
$20 buys supplies for 2 writing workshops
$50 buys supplies for 5 writing workshops
$100 produces 1 writing workshop
$500 produces 5 writing workshops
Director, Bronx Writers Center
Bronx Council on the Arts
The legendary Rhina Valentín hosted me on BronxNet’s OPEN last Friday, where we discussed the history of the arts in the Bronx and what we should prepare for as the rest of the city eyes our borough, which has been designated as the location of the “next arts scene”. All of this will be discussed this Wednesday evening at the Bronx Library Center (6:00-8:00pm), where Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela (former Bronxite) will host myself, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, interim director of En Foco Bill Aguado, and actress Liza Colón-Zayas for Live From El Bronx: a discussion about the Puerto Rican community in the Bronx and in NYC. This conversation will explore our history, the context(s) of the newly-coined “piano district,” and other topics relating to gentrification and the arts.
San Juan Noir is an unprecedented volume of contemporary Puerto Rican fiction, edited by renowned author and creator of Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra, Mayra Santos-Febres. She’ll be attending this special New York City launch, alongside anthology contributors Charlie Vázquez, Wilfredo Burgos Matos and Manuel Meléndez—as part of Festival de la Palabra. This will take place at the Loisaida Center on Friday, October 28th at 7:00p.m. Publisher Akashic Books will be on-hand to sell both Spanish-language and English-language copies of this breakthrough volume of Puerto Rican crime fiction, which features writers from the island and the diaspora. Come celebrate history…
Loisaida Center is located at 710 E 9th Street, NY, NY, 10009. Info: http://loisaida.org/
“Puerto Rico is often portrayed as sandy beaches, casinos, luxury hotels, relaxation, and never-ending pleasure,” Santos-Febres says. “But the financial downturn of 2008 hit us hard and as in many crises, art, music, and literature have also flourished. We have responded to our crisis with many stories to tell. And, especially in these times, many of those stories are noir.”
The fifteen stories compiled in San Juan Noir have been published in both Spanish and English editions. Other contributing authors include: Ernesto Quiñonez, Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, José Rabelo, Luis Negrón, Ana María Fuster Lavín, Janette Becerra, Manolo Núñez Negrón, Tere Dávila, Edmaris Carazo and Alejandro Álvarez Nieves.
To order copies go to: http://www.akashicbooks.com/
Puerto Rican Author Eleanor Parker Sapia’s Feminist Historical Breakthrough, A Decent Woman, and the Future of #BoricuaLit
by Charlie Vázquez
As the New York City coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra, I have the unique fortune of working with authors and poets from both sides of the bilingual Puerto Rican diaspora. Someone once asked me why I expend so much energy in doing so and my answer was: If you’re experiencing Puerto Rican culture in only one language, you’re seeing it with only one eye (try it). No depth of perception.
Eleanor Parker Sapia’s A Decent Woman is an English-language historical novel set in Ponce in the early 1900s, which follows the friendship between Serafina Martínez (a pretty teenager of higher station in life who marries into an affluent family), and Ana Belén, a black Cuban midwife who begins delivering Serafina’s babies when Serafina is just sixteen.
These two central point-of-view characters contrast stunningly to bring the institutionalized oppression of women on all levels of Puerto Rican society to focus. Something we are still contending with today.
For Ana, it’s the relentless street survival skills she must hone as a confidant to prostitutes, in an era where male doctors are pushing to replace midwives with often horrific results, and for Serafina it’s the humiliation and public shaming by her powerful philandering husband, Antonio San Patricio, who threatens to take everything away from her for confronting his infidelities. The friends provide support for one another and come in and out of one another’s lives as they transform as individuals.
Serafina and Ana’s friendship takes some dangerous twists and turns and I was seduced by Parker Sapia’s dense historical drama and edge-of-your-seat suspense. This feminist hallmark in Puerto Rican letters brought to mind Esmeralda Santiago’s sprawling Conquistadora at first (not a bad thing), but A Decent Woman is a world all its own, one which will shock and dazzle readers with fictional elements interwoven with history.
The complex web of interconnecting characters is well executed and springs many surprises and cultivates much intrigue, and although women are oppressed and relegated to “baby machines” in this world, the secret spiritual underworld of espiritismo (spiritualism) is where they’re able to compensate for the thievery of their civil rights and humanity. It’s when they’re among themselves that they convene with the spirit world, to foretell the future and seek guidance from ancestors.
On an editorial note, there are glitches in Spanish grammar, but they don’t minimize the telling of this well-constructed tale, and function to illustrate characters who are illiterate or with minimal education. This threw me off at first as an editor, but the frequency of it soon made this apparent.
This book will be particularly valuable to readers of #BoricuaLit who do not read in Spanish, since it exposes stunning historical details we’re rarely taught in the diaspora: the devastation brought on by Hurricane San Ciriaco, the introduction of telephones to the industrializing island colony’s infrastructure and the colorful formation of the mosaic of belief systems that combined to create Puerto Rican espiritismo.
Like Conquistadora, this is well-crafted and well-researched literature, and there are an increasing number of authors in Parker Sapia’s company that are publishing richly-textured novels of historical importance to the Puerto Rican people. These include Jonathan Marcantoni, author and CEO of Aignos Publishing, Manuel Meléndez the horror and suspense writer based in Queens, New York, and Theresa Varela, a playwright and novelist based in Brooklyn, New York.
The president of the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter himself, author Richie Narváez, is a Brooklyn Boricua, and teaches crime and noir fiction writing (alternating with me) at the Poe Park Visitors Center through the Bronx Council on the Arts. Bronx-based author Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa published a tale about Afro-Puerto Rican women, which begins in 19th-century Puerto Rico, Daughters of the Stone, in 2009.
Charles Rice-González, Sofia Quintero, Torrey Maldonado…there are too many to list here…
This new crop of talented and diverse authors is enriching the canon of Puerto Rican fiction with books that need to be bought, read and taught. While the New York literary scene has orbited around the Nuyorican movement and the island around universities in the San Juan metropolitan area and elsewhere, Parker Sapia (West Virginia) and Marcantoni (Colorado) live nowhere near these population centers and are writing in places where we are fewer in number, as I did for years when I first started in Portland, Oregon in the mid-1990s.
Miguel Algarín, founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, and I discussing the future of #BoricuaLit
New York City is just one of many centers of the stateside Puerto Rican presence these days, the one that’s enjoyed the most notoriety and prestige for decades, but this is already changing. Eleanor Parker Sapia’s crucial debut is proof of this and I’m certain this isn’t the end of it. Others I know of are writing at this very moment, in and out of New York City, and their books will come.
So how would I classify A Decent Woman and the works of the other authors I’ve mentioned in regard to genre? Post-Nuyorican English-language Puerto Rican literature.
This is #BoricuaLit
Let the world know!
I’d just returned to New York from a trip to Puerto Rico in 2011, when my mother recounted a family tale to me that her paternal grandfather had told her many times when she was little, one that even I had heard throughout the years.
I’d invented characters and worlds over the years as a fiction writer, and never thought that the stories that had first captured my mother’s imagination–which she’d retained with precise clarity–would serve as the basis for a new body of writing based on my family folklore. Breathtaking stories and images that have survived in the oral tradition.
And how many such stories went to their graves with their last carriers? How many such stories deserved to be documented, studied, shared and read? I decided to document the few that were available to me, mostly tales from early 20th-century Puerto Rico and the difficult lives of my ancestors. The generation that moved from the countryside near Corozal, Puerto Rico to El Barrio in Manhattan in the massive migrations of the 1940s.
“Tiempo Muerto”, a short story just published by Drunken Boat, a literary arts journal, was first told to me when I was an adolescent, and the gruesome imagery stayed with me ever since. But it wasn’t until 2012-2013, when I began writing a new cycle of Puerto Rican-flavored terror tales as exercises for my third novel (which is almost finished), that I understood the inherent power and value of my family history–something that has always been with me.
Each of us has family folklore and this is what make us unique, what connects us to the past. English-language Latino literature is a young art form, and if we take the Nuyorican/stateside Puerto Rican genre as an example of this, and attribute the first English-language writings to figures such as Jesús Colón in the 1950s, we can establish that this particular branch of contemporary literature is only about 65 years old.
In other words, about my parents’ age. So now’s the time to start cataloging our lives and sharing our imaginations and histories. And this doesn’t just apply to stateside Puerto Ricans, but to all of us in the Latin American diasporas. We need to tell our stories, because if yours are anything like mine, they’re fascinating.
Our literature is in its infancy. And this gives those of us who are contributing to its formation the freedom to tell our tales as we wish to tell them–on our terms. Poetry, for all its dazzling virtues and social discourse, cannot carry this weight on its own. Our literary canon is in need of narrative: memoir, folk tales, fiction.
Do you have a story to tell, and how will you tell it? What do we hope for people to read about us in the future? Our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren deserve to read about their own people, in a way that we weren’t able to.
Click here to read TIEMPO MUERTO
@CharlieVazquez is an author, one of the original Latino Rebels, and the director of the Bronx Writers Center.
Hello friends and family…
It began with a surreal email message that arrived a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t know what to think. With so many people doing wonderful things out there, so many others more deserving than myself. But sometimes we need to kick our self doubt out of the way and accept what is offered to us. So it’s off to the former Five Points district next week to accept this recognition…
Someone out there decided I was deserving of such an honor. By the highest financial office in the City of New York. Very surreal, indeed. So I’m going next week, to accept it, and wanted to share this with all of you. The honor is all mine. Truly. Helping people shouldn’t always feel like work and I love what I do…I thank the universe every day for this.
Photo by Ricky Flores…at the Bronx Artist Documentary project opening recently with photographer David González…
My name is Shane Braddock, and I am the Director of Special Events for NYC Comptroller Stringer. Thank you for accepting his invitation to join us at his Hispanic Heritage Month celebration as an honoree. At the event you will be given the opportunity to give brief remarks (2-3 minutes). Any further questions please don’t hesitate to give me a call at my office.
Settings come to life through sensory description, strategies you use to engage and evoke a reader’s senses—all five senses and their relationship to emotions—to bring the surroundings that envelop your characters to life.
Think of settings as/or like characters: How is a messy mad scientist’s laboratory an extension of his personality? How is Poe’s abbey in “The Masque of the Red Death” a metaphor for a sealed-off nobility that has left the poor to perish? How is a singles nightclub somewhere in a desert city an expression of desire and loneliness? These are just a few examples…
So you’re writing about living in an old castle, but have never stepped foot in one…(to be general and universal).
What would it be like to be in an old castle? Close your eyes and imagine it first. Or go to the Internet and watch video tours, for example. There are many ways to investigate things and places we cannot easily access in real life—so get creative.
Old castles might have stony, mossy scents about them, embellished by the essence of burning candle wax—in days of lore perhaps accented by torches and their fuel or rotting food and dead, decaying rats deep in the architecture (SMELL). They’re forbiddingly dark where the torches’ light does not reach, one cannot depend on sunlight ever, and the obscure wall decorations have been blackened by torch and candle fire, the hidden throne room being the only location of well crafted and majestic, colorful regal luxury (SIGHT).
It’s easy to walk into the roughly hewn walls while making your way down the cold passageways (TOUCH/FEELING) and the uneven and dangerously cluttered stone floors and corridors have an echoing effect on your footfalls (HEARING). The food and drink—oh that gruesome and tasteless food and drink (TASTE), when even available, serve only to keep you alive for another day or two.
This simple example of a castle is a character/reflection, even a manifestation, of medieval times. By employing all of the senses, we have given the setting a three-dimensional “reality” and not just a storybook façade presence, flat backdrop.
You must seduce your reader into believing your world and settings, no matter how real or fantastic they may be. And you achieve this by employing sensory description throughout your narrative and even dialogue (characters commenting on their surroundings) to create a facsimile of reality your reader will find himself/herself within. Be figurative, literal and poetic as needed.
Using realistic and emotional/sensory detail will convince your readers to suspend their disbelief/accept the supernatural and/or impossible, which although they are already used to doing in our age, is not necessarily easy to do from the writer’s end—so study the techniques of your favorite craftsmen in your particular genre for specific strategies that may work for you.
How the senses bring settings and stories to life as employed through sensory description (some examples):
(1) – Vision: brightness/darkness of rooms in a house, movement of a dog with a foot injury, distance between an active volcano and a skyline, scale difference between an elephant and house cat, vibrant color of marine life and water on a coral reef, forms of orchestra instruments.
(2) – Hearing: faraway ambiance of an approaching helicopter, the up close sound of an out of tune guitar, mechanical/factory sounds, natural ambiance—waves crashing, birds singing in a forest, volume, crescendo, decrescendo of Manhattan daytime traffic.
(3) – Touch/feeling: tactile texture of rocks, temperature and physical characteristics of water or climates, feeling of moving through environments, navigating through snow versus hot sand, for example. Silk versus cement. A peach versus a coconut.
(4) – Taste: salty skin, sweet oranges, earthy beets, metallic coin flavor, fruity lip balm, bitter beer, spicy Jamaican curry or bland/no taste (bottled water).
(5) – Smell: (related to taste) briny seashores, rotting fruit in the garbage, Middle Eastern spice market, rose perfume, the bitter sting of fresh road surface, the vagabond stench of cheap beer, the foul odor of the New York City subway on a hot, humid August afternoon, a snowy pristine alpine forest, the smell of books in an old library…how does the smell of water in a swimming pool differ from that in a mossy pond?
Remember that smell is an extremely powerful sense that best evokes memories and emotions. How does a man feel, for example, when he meets a beautiful woman who is wearing the same perfume that his dear and deceased mother used to wear? (Instant emotion.)
These are just some things to consider when constructing environments for your stories and characters. Study the way your favorite writers do this in their work, as it’s a very powerful device that will bring your story fresh blood.
More to come soon…