Wednesday, December 24, 2008


(words and music by jill Jackson and Sy miller, 1955)
Merry Chirstmas Everyone!!!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Case for More African American Books

I Heart Black Authors

I've been away awhile, revising, yet again, my first novel so that my agent can send it back out into the world. Now, I have been around on other blogs commenting about life and writing, but I really need to work on my own stuff. So let’s talk about the bane of every writer’s life – REJECTION.

Rejection hurts, but sometimes rejection letters are important because they reveal important truths you have to learn to deal with as a writer, be it the quality of your work or the nature of the publishing industry. Rejection letters make you face truths you knew were out there but preferred to ignore because they were well…depressing.

Last year ,in my quest for representation for my first novel, I received the following rejection letter from a well-known African American agent:

Dear Karen

Thank you for your query and I apologize for the delay in my response. This is an indication as to how overwhelmed I am by the numerous submissions that we receive on a daily basis. It would not be as bad if publishers were a bit more receptive to diverse works by African American writers.

In most instances the editorial direction at many publishing houses is based on whatever is trendy or the pre-selected categories that represent only a narrow segment of African American reader’s interests.

I am certain that if you survey any bookstore you will quickly determine that there is little diversity among the overall titles representing African American writer of fiction and nonfiction… much of it poorly written.

It is truly an unlevel playing field and one that necessitates my having to decline representation of many worthy projects such as yours, simply because each submission requires an enormous amount of time and effort to garner the interest and support necessary to achieve the objectives of acquisition, publication, marketing and promotion.


Now, I consider this letter a gem of knowledge, even though, at first, it stung my soul. I consider it important because I needed to know the truth about what I and other writers of color of are up against. This letter also now serves to remind me to appreciate my agent’s hard work and her own frustration about not being able to place my novel.

As with any business, publishing is about the numbers and cash.” You have to be able to make them(publishers) money.” My agent once explained. All publishers can see, especially in these hard economic times, are the dollars they can get from selling only certain kinds of book written by and for black people. Art and the beauty of the written word about African American life and culture be damned since they believe people will only purchase certain kinds of more titillating fiction .

The lack of diversity in African American fiction and non fiction is a problem, but problems can’t be solved unless some of us are willing to step up and take action. Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey has started a movement to level the playing field on her blog White Readers Meet Black Authors .The goal of the blog is to introduce people of all colors and cultures to books by African American authors. Because the truth is, change can only come for black writers and authors if people spend more money on a variety of African American books. So take a look at Carleen's new blog, veiw the video and buy a few copies of her wonderful novel to give as gifts.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lift Every Voice

This is one of my favorite songs about uplift. I've been singing it all day in honor of President Obama

Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)

Lift every voice and sing,
'Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
'Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Vote like the future depends on you

Vote in memory of all those who waited for this day and didn't make it.

Vote in memory of all those who couldn't get to the mountaintop with us.

Vote because we are the dreams of our ancestors.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fig Fool

I am a fool for figs. I wait all summer until the stores have them and then I gorge. This year I just couldn’t bring myself to stretch my budget to pay for a pound of the luscious fruit. I was going to do without. But yesterday my best writing buddy bought me a quart. I was so happy I almost cried. In my novel Act of Grace, figs, with little nuggets of goat cheese perched in their moist beaks, appears in one of the pivotal scenes. It is one of my favorite parts of the book:

Dinner arrived at the table like floats in a culinary Mardi Gras parade. First to arrive was a salad of field greens whose creased and feathery leaves had been laid out as a nest for slivers of sugar encrusted almonds and small green figs whose soft beaky mouths had been propped open to hold smooth pebbles of a soft cheese. The salad was a bright introduction to a steaming mound of Jambalaya that was a treasure trove of pearly rice strewn with gems of moist chicken, thick smoky lips of ham and shrimp the size of a big baby’s fists.
From Act of Grace~

In honor of my friend I give you a recipe for Fresh Figs With Goat Cheese and Peppered Honey from Bon Appetit Magazine

1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
12 fresh figs
1/4 cup soft fresh goat cheese

Combine honey and pepper in small pitcher; stir to blend. Starting at stem end, cut each fig into quarters, stopping 1/2 inch from bottom to leave base intact. Gently press figs open. Spoon 1 teaspoon cheese into center of each. Arrange figs on platter; drizzle with peppered honey.
Of course this is just as good with out the honey, but the honey accents the flavors of the figs and the cheese. I also have served this with a really nice wine.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Soul Work

I’m getting restless waiting for more responses from editors. I use to think I was a patient woman but now I’m being tested. So, to easy my anxiety I thought I would explore some quotes about writing.

My favorite quote is from the poet Sharon Doubiago who taught me how to correctly use poetic language in a novel. She was a wonderful mentor and is a wonderful poet.I love how she describes writing as “soul work". To read more about her click here. I definitely tend toward the hurdle of glibness she speaks about in the quote below.

A successful work of literature is one that fuses spirit and craft equally, has linguistic, emotional, psychological, intellectual, philosophical, aesthetic integrity, involves the full self of the writer, is more honest than clever, is not primarily an artifice, is not primarily from a program or formula, is not primarily for selfish gain in the world, brings pleasure which usually has to do with recognition, is more from generosity than hate (the exploration and highlighting of hate being part of the task, but as Wallace Stevens says “Love tips the scales”), is somehow a contribution to human survival (the writer’s as well as for all); is the best that it can be. Is soul work.

Some writers are born gifted in language. Their hurdle is glibness. Some writers stutter and stammer to the end; their hurdle is in saying it. A successful work of literature fuses the poles of muteness and the gods speaking.


Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Hidden Guidelines for Literary Fiction Written By African Americans

The site All About Romance had an interesting blog dealing with guide lines for literary fiction. Robin Uncapher suggested in her article that while everyone likes to pretend there is no formula for writing literary fiction, everyone who publishes literary fiction knows exactly what the rules are. Read the full article here

Black people and women of all colors please take note of Ms. Upcapher’s first rule of the literary fiction formula.

“If possible the book should be written by a man and have a male voice, a white male voice. Women and minorities will be published but with the exception of a few designated hitters, they will not be eligible for the big prizes and kudos. If the narrator is African American she should sound like one and, if possible, write something historical. Writing about slavery is good but anything set prior to 1950 is okay. For example, an AA female writer who wishes to write a book about a female black lawyer in Boston involved in a major civil suit, should make sure the suit has something to do with being African American. Otherwise, she should forget about literary fiction and write romance or Chick Lit. If a female author is white she should write the way John Updike would write if he were a woman.”

The truth is funny but it hurts. If you are black and writing literary fiction you have to be aware of what is driving agents and editors choices of your work. Think about this folks. Go to books stores and check what’s on the shelves in the African American section especially in the category of debut fiction. See for yourselves what narrow portions of the black experience is allowed to be published. What new literary fiction there is by African Americans, and there is not a whole lot of it, fits this hidden formula and it’s a darn shame. What to do about it? I really don’t know. The novelist Bernice McFadden put on her blog a fictitious letter from publishers. Read it here unfortunately it is the absolute truth.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

True Patriotism

On July 5, 1852, Douglass gave a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Rochester's Corinthian Hall. It was biting oratory, in which the speaker told his audience, "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." And he asked them, "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?"

Within the now-famous address is what historian Philip S. Foner has called "probably the most moving passage in all of Douglass' speeches."

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

In his time Fredrick Douglas was often called unpatriotic. This man who worked hard to convince President Lincoln of the necessity of the Emancipation Proclamation. This parent who sent his own son off to a Civil War that gave no guarantee there would be freedom for African American slaves. This man who gave so much for so litttle respect in return during his life time was often considered unpatriotic.

So, This is what I will rembert this July 4th: Sometimes patriotism is being able to love your country so much that you know it is your sacred duty to point out it greatness flaws and faults so that things will be better in the future for everyone .

Happy Independence Day everyone.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


My agent Anita Diggs has posted on her blog the steps on the road to publication

Here is her description of the first step.

After the agent sends a contract for representation, it will take anywhere from one week to a full year to get a firm offer from a publishing house. It is a tension filled period for both agent and writer.

I’m on the first step, which may explain why I’m in the kitchen cooking for my writers groups. When I’m nervous I cook or I quilt. I should be working on the next novel but that’s another story.

One of my favorite things to bake is cheese cake. There is nothing more soothing than watching a pound or so of cream cheese smack and swirl around a mixing bowl. A favorite of my writing groups is my Cheesecake with Chocolate Glaze.

Next week we’ll talk about how to make my mother’s Peach Cobbler and the strangest and sweetest conversation I ever had with a man about how to cook something his deceased mother use to make for him.

Cheesecake with Chocolate Glaze

Makes 1 nine-inch cake

(Make sure all ingredients are at room temp)

7 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 -1/2cups graham-cracker crumbs

1-1/4 cups sugar

2 pounds cream cheese, room temperature

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup sour cream

Pinch of salt

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

4 tablespoons heavy cream

1. Heat oven to 350°. In a small saucepan, melt 5 tablespoons butter. In a medium bowl, combine graham-cracker crumbs and 1/4 cup sugar. Stir in melted butter until crumbs are moist. Pour mixture into a 9-inch springform pan; press firmly, forming a 1/2-inch crust up sides of pan. Bake until set, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack.

2. Reduce temperature to 275°. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat cream cheese until smooth. Slowly add remaining cup sugar. Beat until well combined, about 3 minutes.

3. Drizzle in eggs, one at a time, stopping occasionally to scrape down bowl. Beat in sour cream and salt. Pour batter into crust.

4. Bake cheesecake until sides have set but center appears soft, about 1 hour 45 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool. Run a paring knife around the outside of crust, loosening it from pan. When cool, cover tightly with plastic; let set at least 4 hours or overnight.

5. To serve, place chocolate, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and cream in the top of a double boiler or a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted. Remove from heat; let cool slightly. Pour chocolate glaze over cheesecake; spread into a circle, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Chill just until chocolate has set, about 10 minutes.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Stuff My Agent Made Me Take Out For Very Good Reasons #1

I love this prayer I wrote for my novel Act of Grace, but my agent said it was to much, and she's right, but I still love it. My Buddhist friend, who I thought would be really offended, loved it so much she asked for a copy.

My sister says this is how we pray when we know we have to forgive but we are still too angry to do it the right way. She says God understands but the expectation is that we have to do better in the future. That was my thought about the charater Grace when I wrote the prayer. At this point in the novel she knows she's suppose to forgive, but she's still too angry to do it right.

A Prayer for Our Enemy

Forgive all our enemies, those who can still be helped as well as all the abominable and evil ones who still be hating on us and wishing evil on us and just being dumb and ignorant by lying and deceiving and judging and damnming us. Holy One be as honey to my enemies. Holy One be as the moon and the sun and the stars to them that hate us. Holy One please take from me my desire to beat my enemies’ lying, deceitful and judgmental asses.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

To My Mother Dorothy Jean Vancatledge Simpson

My mother is a poem I'll never be able to write, though everything I write is a poem to my mother.
~Sharon Doubiago

Thanks mom for everything. You died too young but all your little birds are doing well.

Love Karen

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Memories of Race Horses Past

Paparouna also known as Poppy

I love horses and horse racing. When I was young I read nothing but horse novels and dreamed of learning to ride. Horse love got me into quilting but that's a story for another time. I use to be more addicted to the sport of racing than I am now. Once upon another lifetime I could spout off racing stats and quote pedigrees like scripture. I was the only African American teenager I knew who could read and use the Daily Racing Form.

About eleven years ago I was involved in a group called Virtual Owner Partnership where for 500.00 ( yes 500.00 ) a person could participate in the ownership of a racehorse. We were a group of folks who came from all walks of life to indulge in our obsession via the Internet. It was one of the most interesting thing I've ever done.

The first horse I was a part of was a wonderful filly named Papaprouna. Paparouna was a beautiful flaming red daughter of the great Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, a grand daughter of the immortal Secretariat. The only reason our cash poor group got her was because during the auction a bird pooped on the head of the other high bidder and by the time he came back from washing the poop out his hair our group had her. There was almost a fist fight in the parking lot about that.

Paparouna was big ( 17 hands), strong and freakishly fast. Fillies and colts from the Unbridled bloodlines tend to come that way, they also tend to be rather unsound. During her racing career Paparouna was constantly sore or coming up lame. As a three year old she was on track to be nominated for the Kentucky Oaks (the filly's version of the Kentucky Derby) . Unfortunately she came up sore before the big race. As bad as we wanted to go to Kentucky- I mean it is the dream of a lifetime for any owner- our group had enough sense and horsemanship to send our baby back to the farm to rest and recover. Other horses in racing aren't so lucky. Horse racing in America tends to be about money and speed even it hurts the horse.

We raced Poppy for a while and then sold her to become a broodmare. While we received a lot of money for Poppy, several of the small time partners, including me, couldn't help but think that we were helping to past those unsound genes to the next generation.

Perhaps you have heard by now of the filly Eight Belles who shattered both front legs after finishing second in this years Kentucky Derby. It was a blessing that the camera was on the winner Big Brown when it happened. Eight Belles was huge, strong and freakishly fast and it didn't surprise me when I checked her pedigree that she was out of those fragil Unbridled's Although the winner of the Kentucky Derby is a great story, I'm still heartsick over Eight Belles. May she rest in peace in the great lush pastures of the sky.
Horse racing needs to do some deep soul searching. Information about this year's Kentucky Derby and the Eight Belles tragedy is available on NPR.

Friday, May 2, 2008

My First Meme - How Quirky Am I ?

Carleen over at the Pajama Gardener tagged me for my first meme.

Here are the rules:

Link the person who tagged you.

Mention the rules in your blog.

Tell about 6 unspectacular quirks of yours.

Tag 6 following bloggers by linking them.

Leave a comment on each of the tagged blogger's blogs
letting them know they've been tagged

My problem is that most of my friends don’t blog so I’m just going to link to the one that does. So, Stehanie Feldstein you and your lovely pitbulls come on down.

My quirks :

have a terrible sense of direction meaning I couldn’t find my way around a small paper bag. I am the last person in the world you would want to ask for directions to anywhere. I navigate around my home town almost solely by landmarks. Don’t ever ask me what street something is on because I probably couldn't tell you. Thank God for Map Quest and cars with GPS units .

I’ve been to Ghana, Nova Scotia and Ireland but I have never traveled to the Upper Peninsula of my home state of Michigan, which is pretty strange

I’m very picky about the kind of yellow pads and mechanical pencils I use to write my first drafts of fiction on. I didn’t use to be like this. The first draft chapter of Act of Grace was written on small post it notes because the story just felt too big and scary to write on larger sheets of paper. ( My sister says that writers are just so damn weird)

Nobody and I do mean nobody uses my large quilting scissors,especially the ones I use to cut fabric with. I have found that a lot of quilters are like this about their personal sewing equipment.

Like Carleen I too have to keep everything I use within eyesight, especially for the book I’m writing ,or any quilt I’m working on. It leads to piles of stuff on all my tables and my desk.

One of my favorite foods in the world is chocolate covered matzo. I don’t like to use salad size forks to eat with. I truly believe that okra is a disgusting, useless vegetable. An added extra bonus quirk - I leave the Television on to keep my dog Nyla company while I'm at work.( Yes I know it's wasteful but I worry that she gets lonely.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

What It Looks Like When A Dream Comes True

Wow, I have an agent. After seven years of hard work on my novel I finally got the call or rather a four o’clock in the morning email from Anita Diggs that said “ I just finished your novel and I would like to offer you a contract.” I almost fell out my chair and had to read it again to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I danced around the living room with my little dog Nyla who, like all little dogs, thought the celebration was all about her. I waited until a decent hour to call my sister and we sat on the phone all breathless and squealing like kids. I still went to work, but later during lunch, I cried because I wanted my parents to be here . This is the hard part of celebrating this milestone in my life, the people who made it possible aren't alive to see it.

Here’s a little bit about my agent ( My agent- I still can’t believe it.)

Anita Diggs has worked as a Senior Editor at Random House, Editor at Time Warner Trade Publishing and Senior Editor at Thunder's Mouth Press. She has lectured across the country on the topics of developmental editing, fiction writing and how to get a literary agent. The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, C-Span and The New York Daily News have all interviewed her over the past eight years. Columbia Journalism Review placed Ms. Diggs on their “The Shapers” list for the year 2000. The Shapers is a list of prominent New Yorkers who shape the national media.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bottle Tree Love

Bottle Trees are prominently featured in my novel. I love them. I am fascinated by their beauty and their deep connection to Africa. I have one bottle tree-small and pretty. Now I want others- taller and bigger. I want Bottle Trees that people can see as they drive by my house. I have been sketching plans to build them. You can buy them at places like but the quilter in me is demanding that I try to build my own. So, sometime this spring I’ll be at Home Depot buying wood and calling on my wine drinking friends.

For those who don’t know what bottle trees are here is the basic description:

The West African tradition of placing bottles and other luminous objects on trees as adornment, a practice that has thrived through the African Diaspora and is now predominately found in the southern region of the United States. The bottle tree tradition holds that spirits are attracted to the bottle and are trapped inside. When the winds blow, the low howl emitted from the bottles is said to be the sound of those spirits inside.

A deeper description is located at the website below:

An absolutely beautiful article by Susan Lee Travis called Roots, Reflections and the Blue Bottle Trees is on the Travis House Graphic website. Take a look it will probably make you want to build your own Bottle Tree.

A blog called Deep Fried Kudzu also has direction on making a bottle tree from an old christmas tree.