The readers – two poets, three prose writers, and one chef-cookbook author -- at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Saturday night had been asked to consider these questions:
What is memory? Is it more than just the residue of time passed? Can memory also nourish the mind, uplift the spirit?
Part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, the ninety-minute event was co-sponsored by the Office of Cultural Affairs of the Consulate General of Israel, the Poetry Society of America, A Public Space, and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Etgar Keret’s opening story, “Pipes,” set a tone of disarming clarity and directness while his introduction – recounting leaving his army barracks to deliver the story to his brother – was quintessential Keret: wry, compassionate, and -- always and never just -- joking. He reached back to the first story he ever wrote, one that ended with a poignant possible future for those who had never quite belonged.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts brought intense observation and detailed interpretation with a passage from Harlem is Nowhere in which she examines a photograph titled “Within 30 Seconds Walk of the 135th Street Branch”. Her words were telling about what the picture does not tell, while the Schomburg Center came alive as a character in her life in the neighborhood and in the broader, longer story of Harlem.
Adam Mansbach read from Rage is Back (forthcoming, Viking, January 2013) in pages that gave life to Dondi, living in Fort Greene in 2005 and yearning for the glory days of graffiti pre-1989. Dondi’s rhythmic cultural critique of a viewpoint is at once mesmerizing and disturbing, and in the section Mansbach read, the protagonist’s actions were both time-bound and time-defying.
When Sonia Sanchez stood to read, she paused and requested “as the senior one”, another round of applause for the younger generation, another gesture to past and future, heritage and legacy. Sanchez read to the memory of Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Catlett. From Does Your House Have Lions? she read in sister’s voice, brother’s voice, and father’s voice of alienation among kin, and then, movingly, of an imagined repentance and acceptance -- one loss conceivably redeemed, another not.
Marcus Samuelsson, chef and owner of the celebrated Red Rooster Harlem, stepped up and, foregoing the podium and microphone, paced back and forth across the stage, speaking extemporaneously, while slides of his homes in Sweden, Ethiopia, and New York cycled across the screen behind him. He embodied the energy that had been building in the room all evening, as palpable as the salted sweet nuts that he had distributed were tasty. He spoke of growing up in Sweden, searching for his birth mother in Ethiopia, and deciding to come to America because “it was the only place that had professionals who looked like me.”
The crowd lingered in the Langston Hughes auditorium and with the writers in the foyer just outside, reluctant to let go of the evening’s experience.
Literature -- vibrant with integrity, witness, ferocity, and connection -- had delivered the emotional meanings at every moment
Madge McKeithen has written about poems in several essays including those collected in her book, Blue Peninsula (FSG, 2006). She initiated the One Page Poetry Circle at the NYPL and at the Darien Library. Her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies and newspapers, The New York Times Book Review, and Best American Essays 2011. She teaches nonfiction in the Writing Program at the New School University and writes online at www.madgemckeithen.com.