Saturday, February 27, 2021

Books on books on books!

My talented niece Leisa and one of her best friends since childhood have written a delightful children's story about a little girl and her lost elephant. Called The Land of Look Behind, it's a Jamaican family fable. The illustrations above are samples for her book, which she will possibly publish with Havendale Press. This is the imprint under which my cousin Karen self-published her beautifully written book Bless, about the power of giving beyond the point of convenience, two years ago. The imprint name comes from the street she grew up on in Jamaica, just as the name I gave to this blog was my family's street address during my own coming of age in Jamaica. Karen and I joke about starting a hybrid publishing company, with me as the editor/ visual quality control person, and her as the author/ business manager/ legal counsel/ marketing director. She's a lawyer and a detail person and knows I want nothing to do with the business and marketing side of things. But I'll opine on the look and the rhythm of the thing all day long.

Karen, who lives in northern Virginia, wrote another book last year for a man who has a harrowing but deeply inspirational story. The book is a page-turner! It needs to be a movie. My cousin is a vivid storyteller, and you see every scene on the screen of your brain as you read the narrative. There is a chance that her subject may publish his story under the Havendale Press imprint, too, as he doesn't want to wait for a mainstream publisher. He has a rather large platform of people in both the U.S. and Africa who are eagerly awaiting his book. This means he'll pay the costs of publishing, but my cousin and I will interface with the publisher to make sure he ends up with the right services, competitive pricing, and an attractive, professionally designed book. 

Now my niece Leisa may put her book in our hands, too. That's the new children's book author above. If you regularly read here, you know she and her husband live in Dallas, where she is a dentist, but the photo here was taken when they visited my daughter and her partner in Boston last fall. I have already edited her story, but will still do my OCD thing to make sure the final book looks mainstream and beautiful. My cousin and I were on the phone yesterday laughing that pretty soon, we'll have a publishing catalog. "And we'll need a website," she said, hinting broadly, because she'd just perused my own recently updated website, which I made myself, and had pronounced herself impressed. "Well," I said, "I know someone who might be able to rustle that up for free." What if this is how publishing companies begin? 

I do know one thing, my children come from very literary families on both sides, because not only has my cousin Karen (mother's side) recently published a book and written another, and not only is my niece (my brother's firstborn) now in the process of publishing her own work, but two of my husband's cousins are also releasing books of their own: Gayle in Toronto has just published My Stories Have No Endings, a lyrical love story set in the islands; and Barbara in Antigua will debut Turtle Beach, her second children's story, due from Harper Collins on June 1. My husband's cousin in Antigua, by the way, also runs the island's most popular bookstore and literary cafe. 

Meanwhile I am blessed to have a daughter who is a truly a gifted editor, who "hears" the beat of language, and who will obsess with me over the nuance of one word choice versus another. And when occasionally I send her a paragraph asking for feedback (as I did this week), she might text back, "Sentences too long, I think. Let me play with it." My other child isn't remotely interested in excavating a writing gene, but he gives in his own ways, like making sure we're not paying for random charges on our phone bill and changing our car tires for us because he noticed it was time, and applying to be a vaccine giver on the basis of his paramedic license. One last thing (for my record more than anything else): The book I co-wrote last year got a kick ass review in Library Journal. Everyone who had anything to do with this project is over the moon.

Monday, February 22, 2021

A year in the time of covid

For the past year, this is where my husband has sat for church on Sunday mornings, except on those Sundays when he masks up and goes into the sanctuary to be that week's tech operator. The church is otherwise empty but for the minister, whom everyone calls Mother Mary, and the altar acolytes, and no more than five in-person congregants, all masked and socially distanced. I enjoy when my man attends services at the dining table though. I sit across from him, usually working (no such thing as weekends for a freelancer), or maybe doing a jigsaw puzzle as I listen to him say the prayers and homilies along with his Zoom congregation. It always feels peaceful, as if I'm attending services, too, albeit by proxy. 

He sits in that spot by the window on weekdays as well, as he updates and modernizes the database for his department's ichthyology collection, except on his one day each week in the office. Only one staff person goes in each day, so the department always has coverage, but no one is exposed to anyone else. When he's working from home the other days, I have an exceptionally pleasant view. Speaking of exceptional, his T-shirt says "FATHOR/ Noun/ Like a dad, just way mightier / See also: handsome, exceptional." Our kids gave him that shirt one Father's Day. Also, it's still winter in the city, y'all. Outside our big window, the snow is falling again, fine flakes this time, dancing and swirling, almost hypnotic.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Got the first shot

The man and I put on our coats and walked across the snowy courtyard to the retirement center in the building next door and got our first dose of the covid-19 vaccine. It was all very methodical and stress free, with various white coated young people stepping us through the different stations, filling out the forms, checking IDs, waiting for the next available medical person who would ask you a list of questions before swabbing the arm of your choice and inserting that long needle. We got the Moderna shot, and the whole thing couldn't have been easier. The injection didn't hurt more than a pinch, and then we were sitting in the next room, waiting the required 15 minutes to make sure we had no allergic reactions, and greeting various neighbors who were also getting their shots today. 

One man called out to me by name, from six feet away of course, and through I returned the greeting, he could see I wasn't quite sure who he was under his double face masks, especially since my glasses were fogging up thanks to my own double face masks. "Ayana's dad!" he added helpfully and then it was all salutations and laughs. My husband muttered under his breath, "Quickest way to identify yourself—as someone's mom or dad." While we sat there, the Manhattan Borough President walked in and greeted us and everyone else like we all were old friends, and my man, again under his breath, observed: "She wants us to be very sure who made this vaccination site happen." "Well, she has my vote when next I see her name on a ballot," I said cheerfully, because those in-person appearances do matter, something Rafael Cruz in Texas still needs to learn, though AOC has been giving him a powerful lesson in showing up. 

Soon enough, we were given a card with our second-dose appointment, a bar code to scan for CDC follow-up should we choose to participate, and papers to read on what to expect in the way of side effects. After that, the white coats sent us on our way. Outside the building we took a photo, his brow deceptively fierce, my glasses cockeyed and ears sticking out from the elastic of my two masks. Yet it seemed to be a moment worth marking, the beginning of the end of fear.

Thursday, February 18, 2021


I haven't been writing here because I'm trying to find the right words for the proposal I'm trying to complete. I have a 5K word sample chapter in the can, and have forced myself to stop fiddling with it and move on to the overview. I have begun it, but the way forward isn't yet clear. The lack of clarity is painful, a crushing anxiety, because what if I don't find the story this time, what if I fail to create a narrative arc that is coherent, emotionally resonant, and well paced. I have been fighting a panicked impulse to run away, wondering if in fact I am the right person for this book. In bed one night, I asked my husband, "The fact that I am assigned to this project means I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, right?" I know that's how our friend Scott, a Buddhist, would interpret things. I don't understand why my fear in this moment is so alive, even as the deadline looms. I think part of it has to do with having had success before with the agent representing this project, and wondering if I can deliver at the same level again. Maybe I also feel hamstrung by not being able to meet with my subject in person for the first few interviews, because covid. I don't think we've managed to go deep enough yet. It hard to achieve complete vulnerability and trust over a telephone line. Or maybe I just need a change of scenery, such as my usual bookstore cafe, to inspire and energize me, but that's not an option either, again because covid.

Speaking of covid, my husband and I managed to score appointments for the Moderna vaccine, first dose, this Saturday. Despite the fact that both the man and I became eligible for the shot as of this week, actually finding a slot to receive it was a feat of persistence that required every bit of my training as a journalist. 

It's been snowing all day today, with still more inches forecast for tomorrow, but our power lines are buried deep enough to withstand the freezing cold, unlike in Texas, which seceded from federal regulations and farmed out the state's power grid to private contractors, who cut corners unforgivably, and now the people of Texas are in crisis, completely unprepared for snow. Meanwhile their elected officials go on vacation to Cancun, or tell constituents that the government owes them nothing and they're on their own, or they facetiously accuse AOC and the Green New Deal, which hasn't yet been implemented, anything but placing blame where it truly belongs, with their own lack of conscience, capability, and foresight. I hope when it's time to vote again, the people of Texas will remember how they were abandoned when the winter snows came, and they lost power, and their water pipes froze, and they had to burn fence wood and trees in their yards to keep their families alive. 

Something just occurred to me. The habit of writing here, letting the words flow out of me almost like a stream of consciousness, not worrying too much about anyone's judgment, might in itself helps to unblock the right words in that other endeavor, where there will surely be judgment down the line. Thanks for letting me share.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Don't give up the fight

Are you watching the impeachment trial? My God, yesterday was powerful. The insurrection on January 6 was intended to be so much worse, as rioters targeted Pence and Pelosi for assassination, and looked to take hostages. At Trump's behest, they came armed with guns, zip ties, handcuffs, napalm, and pipe bombs, and with blood lust like a fever in them. The Captiol police saved so many lives that day, at great cost to themselves. 

I'm not naive enough to think that the Republicans will convict the former president, though he is guilty as sin. But as Hilary Clinton pointed out, "If Senate Republicans fail to convict Donald Trump, it won't be because the facts were with him or his lawyers mounted a competent defense. It will be because the jury includes his co-conspirators." And indeed, in Republican-led state legislatures across the country, laws are being passed to continue stealing people's votes. Arizona, for example, has proposed legislation that will allow state legislators to void the results of any presidential election and install whomever state electors choose instead. I really hope Congress is able to enact voting rights protections soon, because American democracy is on life support.

Listening to the impeachment managers meticulously present their case yesterday, two recent reflections from Congresspeople struck me anew: Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts saying she will never forget the sight of Black custodians the day after, bending to clean up glass and debris and excrement in a Capitol building ransacked and desecrated by white supremacists. And Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota recalled how, as the mob broke the glass of the House chamber, he yelled for his Democratic colleagues to follow him to the Republican side of the room, so that they might save themselves by blending in with their red-state colleagues. In that moment he realized, with the force of a gut punch, that this option wasn't available to his colleagues of color. "I've never understood, really understood, what white privilege really means," he told his fellow House members later. "It took a violent mob of insurrectionists and a lightning-bolt moment in this very room."

I don't really care that the Republicans won't convict. Or rather, I do care, but I'm resigned. The entire record of that day, January 6, 2021, and the weeks, months, and years of lies and incitement to violence that preceded it, will be set down in the historical record, with all the dots painstakingly connected, forever. I do hope our country wakes up enough over the next two years to vote each and every one of those Republican cowards out of office. We shall see. 

Here's a "fight for street art" mural Warhol and Basquiat by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra. It's on the same street in Brooklyn that my niece just moved to. I told her now she's a proper Gen Z Hipster, living down the street from true pop art icons, to which she replied, "Then I better wear my red Doc Martens more."

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Advance reviews

The book I wrote last year and was updating as recently as inauguration day got a decent critique from the famously hard-to-please Kirkus Reviews:

"The life story of the first Asian American woman and only immigrant in the Senate. Hirono was born in 1947 in a rural town in Japan. Following years of abuse, her mother escaped back to her native Hawaii with the author and her older brother in hopes of a better life. Being a single parent, she had to work multiple jobs to support the family. “She had a heart of fire and would always pick herself up and try something else, seek another way forward,” writes Hirono. “Mom didn’t believe in feeling sorry for herself or in bemoaning her circumstances. She intended to take care of us, and in that purpose she never wavered.” They initially lived in a “small, windowless room” in a boardinghouse and had no access to health care. These early experiences became pivotal in her decision to pursue public service in order “to help the most defenseless among us.” Given her cultural roots in Japan and Hawaii, as well as the often unfair expectations placed on women in politics, Hirono often exercised restraint in showing her emotions in order to get measures passed during much of her early political career. However, her demeanor changed markedly following the 2016 presidential election. No longer could she stay silent in the face of grave injustices. “My expectations of the most xenophobic, misogynistic, corrupt, and self-dealing president in history could not have been lower, yet he would sink beneath even that, plunging the nation into one crisis after another,” she writes. “There was no end to the cruelty, compulsive lies, and outright fraud perpetrated by Trump and his enablers.” With both ferocity and compassion, Hirono chronicles her experiences in Congress, exposing the rampant hypocrisy and illogical behavior she has witnessed. At the same time, warmth and love shine through, as she attributes her success and determination to the example set by her mother. A heartfelt and fiery political memoir and immigrant story."

And (be still my heart) this week, Booklist weighed in with another strong review:

"Hirono is fierce and forthright as she shares the life experiences that led to her becoming a U.S. senator from Hawaii. Born in Japan to an American-born Japanese mother, Hirono chronicles her early days in rural Japan, her family’s migration, and extreme poverty in Honolulu. Hirono’s deep reverence for her mother, who fled a bad marriage with her three children, comes through in her account of how she was motivated by her mother’s quiet persistence as a proofreader and inspired gardener. Hirono traces the psychological impact of her family's struggles on her choices as a public servant. Her unsentimental yet transparent sharing of her personal history makes this memoir a gripping read. While Hirono’s ideological evolution over the various stages of her political life is fascinating, her grit and determination make this a motivating story even for those who are not ordinarily interested in politics. Recent events in Washington, DC, and Hirono’s part in them make this a very timely reminder of the varied and significant backgrounds guiding our nation’s lawmakers."

 The book will be out on April 20, 2021 and is available for pre-order now.


Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Inside/ Outside


I think we're all hitting a wall with staying inside, but what choice do we have if we want to do our part to keep our neighbors safe? It's just the man and me in our little nest again, as our niece completed her move to Brooklyn last Friday. I'm happy for her, though she is encountering some of the stresses of living on her own for the first time, things like having to call plumbers and assemble furniture and hang privacy curtains over her lovely wall of windows. My husband surprised her with her own toolkit, one that holds every implement she might ever need. He did the same thing for our son and daughter when they first moved out on their own. He is of the opinion that every independent household needs its own tools. She's slowly acquiring new items for her space, so she'll need those tools again and again. Last Saturday, her boyfriend drove her to pick up a chest of drawers from Ikea, and she spent all the next day building the drawers and frame, an undertaking that left her exhausted but also with the feeling that she could now build anything, bring it on. Her mom is perplexed by the unfinished concrete ceilings, complete with random yellow paint lines, but her daughter assured her it's not an oversight, it's industrial chic. 

It's been a snowy winter in the city. The ground outside my windows has been covered for going on two weeks now, which hasn't happened in years. The second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump begins today. I doubt the Republicans will have the courage to convict the man for inciting the January 6 insurrection. It doesn't matter. For the sake of history, the very effort to hold the treasonous president accountable must be made. And so I'm sitting right there beside that window, between televised justice and the winter snow, working on my sample chapter for the book proposal. This project feels hard, but don't they all till they're done, and really, if I didn't have work to do, no matter how much it makes me churn, I'd be climbing the walls with boredom. Of course, having my love here with me in this extended lock down makes even the boredom congenial. It is good to be in the company of one who takes life as it comes, and doesn't rail much against the fates. A stalwart. A pragmatist who sees the need for toolkits, and who no matter what, simply carries on. 

One of my daughter's closest friends turns 28 today. Happy birthday, beloved girl! There they are, my girl and the kindhearted soul who was already part of her enduring friend group, twenty-three years ago, on their first visit to The Farm.  


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Weekend wanderer

I put up a post yesterday about a lovely 96-year-old man I interviewed last week in connection with a new book project. In the post, I recounted this man's brush with history on a tragic night in 1968, split by the firecracker sound of gunshots. The second bullet fired shattered his skull. I shared how he reinvented his life after he recovered, with high purpose that hasn't ebbed even now. But after I pressed publish, I got to thinking about the fact that my contact with this man came through my book subject, and was part of my research for our work together. Even though the facts I shared in the post are all in the public domain, still I wasn't sure if my writing about them here might infringe on our agreement. And so, erring on the side of caution, I took the post down. When eventually the book is published, perhaps I'll put back up some version of the yesterday's post, because it was a life encounter that moved me, and I'd like to record it somehow beyond the book, which isn't my story, but my subject's.

In the meantime, with the snow coming down outside on this quiet Superbowl Sunday—how different from this day one short year ago—here are some photographs taken in Jamaica by my niece Arrianne, aka @visionarri, our weekend wanderer, who travels around our little island documenting its beauty with a lover's eye. That's Arri above with her trusty camera, and drinking coconut water from a roadside vendor somewhere in the country. Her photographs of Jamaica nourish me, and make me grateful that no matter where I am planted, that spectacularly beautiful island with shores kissed by a turquoise sea will always be my heart's first true home. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Just as we are


On Tuesday last, this remarkable book by an extraordinary soul arrived in the mail. It was Cicely Tyson's pub day. Two nights later, my friend, who wrote the book with Ms. Tyson, called to say that this legend for the ages lay her head down in her home one last time and slipped away. She looked peaceful, I heard, like she was just taking a nap. I have no doubt the iconic Ms. Tyson was satisfied that her work on this earth was done. My friend spent two years collaborating with her to craft her definitive memoir, the only one she would ever write, and two days after it was out in the world, setting the record of her ninety-six years straight, she was gone. What a race she ran, and with such beauty, elegance, and noble grit. Now she earns her rest, perhaps reunited with the not-ever-easy love of her life, Miles Davis, whose last words before he died, many years ago now, were, "Please tell Cicely I'm so very sorry." Their relationship, their marriage, was a lot, but she forgave him, just as she forgave a world that didn't always see her light. In the end, what mattered most was that she knew she was worthy. And for almost a century, she gifted that worth to the world. What a grace it has been to live at the time she was here with us. Thank you for your life, Ms. Tyson. You made us better.


It snowed all day yesterday and into this morning, piling eighteen inches of snow on the ground. It looks beautiful, but it doesn't alter my mood, which is anxious, maybe depressed, certainly sad, for reasons I choose not to go into here, an estrangement in the family that will not be healed, I see that now, and I am wrestling with the truth that sometimes, you have to just let things be what there are, to release the need to feel heard, understood, to have your side of the story validated, to let what feels like unforgivable emotional gaslighting go unchallenged, because you know how it all went down, and that has to be enough. But while I usually have this decade old story tucked away in a box inside myself, a new communication this week blew that box to smithereens, and had my daughter sobbing, my son angry, my husband sad for them both, but resigned, and me, well, I'm over here picking up the pieces, rebuilding that box so I can tuck what could have been, but will never be, safely inside again, with renewed acceptance, and yes, also love. 


Our son just called. He knows the parking lot for our complex is being resurfaced, so for the past month we have been obliged to park our car on the street, wherever my husband can find a spot, hopefully on the right side for alternate side of the street cleaning days. It's a pain for anyone who's had the rare privilege in the city of a permanent parking spot, even if we do pay the equivalent of a small apartment rental to keep it. So this afternoon our son called because it occurred to him that with all the snow, our car was buried and also likely snowploughed in, and we don't own a shovel. "I have an ice spade," my husband said, to which our son replied, "I can tell you right now that's not going to work for digging out your car. You've always had the parking spot, so you don't have any experience with street parking. I'm just calling to let you know I'll be over tomorrow to dig the car out, because I do park on the street, and I do own a shovel." What a considerate, darling, if slightly bossy boy! "Well, son, it seems we did something right with you," I said in gratitude, and we all three burst out laughing. "I have to look out for you old folks," our boy parried, but I have to say, he made us feel so cared for. It hadn’t occurred to either of us to seek his help but there he was, anticipating our need, as usual.