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Two of the nation’s most distinguished black female authors read their work in front of a standing-room only audience at the Carpenter Center yesterday.
The event, part of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard’s “Black Writers Reading” series, featured poet and Yale associate professor Elizabeth Alexander and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks—a 2001 MacArthur Grant recipient who last year became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.
According to Department of Afro-American Studies Chair Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., who moderated the event, the two writers were brought together because of their work on Venus Hottentot, a South African woman who was brought to Europe in the 19th century after being told she would be a dancer, but was instead caged, exhibited and prodded by doctors.
“It took 150 years for two black artists to write about her,” Gates said. “This is about the suffering of blackness in a Western world.”
Alexander began the reading, reciting poetry representative of her entire oeuvre, including “The Venus Hottentot, 1825,” as well as poems based on dreams from her Antebellum Dream Book.
She also read from her current project, a soon-to-be-published series of ars poetica—a style which deals with the art of poetry itself.
But Alexander said her approach differed from the conventional style of ars poetica because her work concerned poetics, or “the way we go about things.”
Her humor and many of the poems kept the audience laughing despite the serious issues confronted in her work, including acceptance of one’s race and living in a patriarchal society.
Parks took on the personalities of characters in her works as she read, and discussed her creative process as well as finding inspiration.
“Someone will come and tug on your sleeve...and you need to write it down,” she said, describing how her characters develop and grow into plays.
She read a passage from Topdog/Underdog—which won her the Pulitzer—as well as its predecessor, The America Play, and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World.
Parks described The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World as “kind of a jazz musical where no one really sings.”
She also spoke about her approach to writing.
“You’re respecting the tradition and at the same time taking a buzzsaw to it.... There’s a rule book; just read it and burn it. Or burn it and then read it,” she said.
Both writers discussed the importance of addressing family history, which they said they feel is critical to writing about issues confronting blacks.
“You can accept the gaps; you can dive in and create,” Parks said.
Alexander described a similar approach in responding to a question from an audience member.
“What is that space between? Once you think about that family history, you can link it up and tell the larger story,” she said.
Both writers are anticipating the publication of new works this year, and Parks latest play, Fuckin’ A opened off-Broadway on Monday.
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