Hundreds of years after Deborah Sampson, a gender-bending Revolutionary War soldier, trod the earth, Jessie Serfilippi traverses Sampson’s exact footsteps around present-day New York State. By cinematically documenting Sampson’s life, Serfilippi finds self-agency in her own deliverance by a historical investigation that does not always align with desired outcomes about modern representations of sexuality in “Under the Cover of Breeches and Bayonet.”
In “Audacious Warrior: Ernestine Rose” Edissa Nicolás-Huntsman creatively envisions an unexpected intersection and overlap between herself, a 21st-century Black, Third-World Feminist with Caribbean roots, and Ernestine Rose, an audacious 19th-century ex-Jewish, European, freethinking Abolitionist. Through her activism, Rose established the groundwork for better-known Feminists such as Susan B. Anthony.
For whatever reason, it started in high school. I knew the answers to the teachers’ questions, but didn’t raise my hand to share them. When I was called on, I blurted the quickest response possible so as to avoid being the center of attention. This is when my fear of public speaking took root, the kind that made me suffer through classes all the way through graduate school, avoid certain social events, and ultimately, feel as if I was living below my potential.
It’s not uncommon to feel your palms sweat before a presentation or the rapid beating in your chest before delivering a speech. But throughout my young adult life, I often skipped out on the presentation or speech altogether just to avoid that uncomfortable feeling.
The result was to feel bad anyway. Worse, even, because in addition to the anxiety, I now had a heaping dose of guilt and regret to pour on top—for missing out on knowledge and growth, overlooking opportunities to collaborate and share, and letting myself or others down. To this day, I often regret that I didn’t attend my MFA program graduation, denying my family—and myself—the chance to celebrate this milestone. (My parents still ask why they didn’t get to go to a ceremony.) And all because I couldn’t fathom reading from my thesis to an audience.
Years later, when it came time to go on tour for my first published novel, I had to remind myself of the way my particular anxiety feeds on itself, hurting me rather than protecting me. Because this time, I was determined to show up.
Those prone to listening more than speaking still have a lot to share. Writing has been my salvation, providing me with an outlet for that reflection. The Hour of Daydreamsrepresented seven years of writing and believing in my words, and I had to give it every chance to find success. This meant public speaking engagements, sometimes in front of more than 100 people. How did I tame my anxiety beast?
I didn’t. I had to accept that it was there and plow forward anyway. It’s all too easy to wait until you’re “ready” before taking a leap, large or small, but “ready” can be elusive, and one can wind up staying stationary for too long.
I don’t believe in changing for others’ sake. I believe in choosing the spaces where one is comfortable, where one thrives. Readings are not a requirement of being published. As much as my publisher encouraged my journey to becoming a public author, the desire to share the background, process, and inspiration behind my work ultimately came from me, not the press. That’s how I knew it to be genuine.
Before stepping to the podium, I knew there were things I could do to make the process easier. I opted to sign on for a small number of key appearances versus the quintessential 20-city tour. I came prepared for each of these events, practicing my excerpts aloud and reviewing the themes they cover. I cleared my schedule before a reading, making time to relax and breathe, to enter a space of mindfulness and quiet. I found little things to bring out the joy of the occasion, like wearing a new dress (always blue or purple to match the book cover), or planning a special dinner. Along with bookmarking the passages I’d read from, I tucked Kleenex into the pages of my novel, because nervousness makes my nose run. Through all of this, as many times as I felt nervous or afraid, I also felt excited and grateful, and came to realize how much these emotions are intertwined.
And even though my heart felt like it might explode before those readings, as the words came out, it calmed. I’ve found that like writing, sharing aloud brings out a whole new energy, opening up others to share of themselves in turn. Again and again, I’ve found renewed appreciation for friends, family, peers, and strangers with whom I share the love of literature and stories. One of my fears has been to make mistakes, and I’ve made many in this process. I try not to replay them too often afterward. I try to forgive and accept my limitations.
Speaking in front of a crowd is easier now, but still feels unnatural to me. Perhaps it always will. And that’s okay too.
Renee Macalino Rutledge’s debut novel, The Hour of Daydreams, has been dubbed “essential reading” by Literary Mama, “one of 24 books to get excited for in 2017” by The Oregonian, and a “captivating story of love and loss unlike any other” by Foreword Reviews. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as a nonfiction book editor, writes the “That’s So Alameda Column” for Alameda Magazine, and regularly explores the tidepools and redwoods with her family.
But what of imagination? When the completion of a thing, a work, a compulsion burned out in form from within into the world, made manifest for the world to see, a spell descends.
It is said that humans are the inventors of the animal world—the king of kings. Crows and ravens make objects of beauty, juxtaposing our discard with stolen and indigenous artifacts. It’s as if there is not enough art in nature for these black birds. We, no less than the crow, must also continue to integrate, overcome and pacify our environment. We do it with art. That is why we object to broken windows, discarded people—anything that reminds us that we are not in charge. Disorder corrupts the notion of control. We like our boxes neat. The first thing that is denied the poor is art, cut out like a vital organ, and grafted into the institutions of the affluent.
But give us a song, a poem, a wall or a canvas, and in that opening we will pour our souls, in blood or colors, out as if we could pay our fare in creation. The great artists of our time and before have known this. They have not kowtowed to the influence of means, driven by the force within, the powerful Beast that must be silenced if the earth will continue to spin on her great axis. This can be said of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Michael Jackson, Vincent van Gogh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sohei Nishino, Frida Kahlo, Marguerite Duras, Leo Tolstoy, Ai Weiwei, YSL, Nina Simone, Ingrid Bergman, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Misty Copeland, Alvin Ailey, …truly, there is no room in this essay to name them all. When we awaken to this reality, it is easy to see that art drives civilization forward. It is the fuel and the engine; the fire and the wood.
This painful truth has always been true and has also always been ignored. In History and fiction, the mythical truth/fabled realities of White people has been heavily documented in books like Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath and The Sound and Fury. When we examine these texts with our eyes toward the realities excluded and unnamed, the whites people who thrive and prosper are far removed from the poor whites whose only privilege was their status as free people, a situation that has not entirely changed in the century and a half since Emancipation.
I’m reminded of Karl Marx and The Communist Manifesto, which 150 years ago cut through the collective conscience of people in various states of revolution with an ideology that spoke of liberty, a human ‘worth’ beyond economic measure; our election is an apparent resurgence of a similar hopelessness and the need for change. It was a referendum on the standards of living, which if we look around leave too many of us destitute, homeless and disenfranchised. What I don’t understand is why the lines are drawn across color lines. These conditions have only ever improved with a unified front, as indicated in the numerous measures implemented during the 1970s.
I have spent years looking at color and studying history through the lens of art, attempting to make the world around myself beautiful. Certainly, what we create is deeply influenced by what we see: the fragmentation or wholeness of life begins within. My walls burst with a vibrancy I believe reflects my deepest nature. The collective images around me emerge into a singular experience of my own story, retold.
In times of despair, art is no luxury. Essential to the healing of the psyche, beauty in her many forms is a conduit for soothing inflamed pathways, a distraction from our own external or internal whirls, a meditation on purpose. Through our eyes, the story of the extraordinary other, the Beloved, is transmuted into wordlessness, a state of suspended ego. Go there.
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” ~ Toni Morrrison
Thank G-d for television, Netflix, cable, video games and movie theaters. Remember when lynching Black Americans was a form of entertainment? During the days of Jim Crow law, after Emancipation, our government allowed White Americans to kill black people with impunity. Some of them even mailed photographs with family members and friends gathered around the defiled bodies, subverting decency, undermining justice and using the federal mail system to send evidence of their crimes. To be fair, some White Americans were also lynched outside of the formal judicial process, but those murders seldom involved the nudity and corporal mutilation that were common singularities of their Black counterparts.
Don’t take my word for it. Learn American History. We have a complex story that needs to be examined, discussed and remembered. Otherwise, we may just repeat the same mistakes.
You get to live your dream. Stay on task with your passion, and do the work you are called to do. Here’s some inspiration from The Atlantic about the National Book Awards winners. The entire crew of fabulous writers, and now winners, were congratulated, but the moving words of John Lewis, winner of the Young People’s Literature award, are to be remembered. (I’ll let him tell it.)