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MAKING BOOKS; Black Writers Get New Help

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): June 21, 2001, Thursday    
MAKING BOOKS; Black Writers Get New Help     By Martin Arnold    .

June 21, 2001, Thursday

MAKING BOOKS; Black Writers Get New Help

By Martin Arnold

Until recently the vigor to publish writing by black authors has come mostly from the top, from traditional book publishers. This has been a fascinating and somewhat surprising development, driven by starvation in the industry for new sources of book consumers and the sudden realization that black people are hungry for reading relevant to them. But equally intriguing are the growing number of elaborate workshop programs to encourage blacks to write professionally. Which could be described as action from the bottom.

There are, of course, the famous writing programs, like the Iowa Writers' Workshop, attended by such luminaries as John Irving, Jane Smiley and Raymond Carver; the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vt.; and many others, and these do have minority students. But Toi Derricotte, the black poet (''Natural Birth: Poems,'' Firebrand, rereleased in 2000), said, ''Usually black students at many of these writers' workshops conferences are uncomfortable, just by the fact they may be the only black or one of few.''

Moreover, since every culture has its own complex language, blacks attending them often feel that the stories they write are of a language not entirely understood by fellow workshop members; hence by establishing black writers' workshops, the goal is to protect the young author from the feeling of intellectual and cultural isolation.

So all over the place black writers' programs are popping up. One is operated by the Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation, which was founded in 1990 by Marita Golden, a black novelist (''Long Distance Life,'' Doubleday, 1989), to encourage young writers. The foundation started its workshop in 1996. Ms. Golden said: ''We felt we needed to train writers in a way that none of the famous writers' programs did for blacks. We felt there was a void and created our program to bring together African-American and Caribbean and English black writers.''

Among the writers who have attended the workshop is David Anthony Durham, whose novel ''Gabriel's Story'' was published by Doubleday in February, to good reviews. This year its workshop, encompassing all the writing disciplines, will be held July 15 to 21 at Howard University in Washington.

''Unfortunately, at many of the programs, students and leaders of the workshops had little knowledge of black culture,'' Ms. Golden said. ''Many black writers have never been in a setting where there are lots of black writers.''

The foundation has had donations from such diverse writers as Terry McMillan and John Grisham and support from Howard University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Ballantine Books, among other institutions. Janet Hill, senior editor for black issues at Doubleday and head of its new Harlem Moon imprint, said that all the income from one of the imprint's first books, ''Gumbo,'' a collection of African-American fiction, would be donated to the foundation.

And coming in the fall of 2002 are the foundation's Legacy Awards, with a first prize in each writing category of $10,000 and two runner-up prizes of $5,000. They will be the first literary awards for published black writers. Borders Books, the bookstore chain, agreed to underwrite them by donating $60,000 annually.

Generally writers' workshops focus on fiction, where the glamour is, but Ms. Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, a black poet (''Brutal Imagination,'' Putnam), have created the Cave Canem Foundation, which conducts a workshop for black poets, held now at the Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Cave Canem is Latin for Beware of the Dog, and Mr. Eady came upon this saying in a mosaic in the front entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the few houses in Pompeii to survive the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, and thought it a perfect symbol for a program that would be a safe place for black poets.

It's the feeling of isolation among young black writers that motivates these programs. ''We are trying to create a serene atmosphere, a sense of community,'' Mr. Eady said.

''I was in a university writers' program where I was the only African-American student, talking about the idea of being in Jamaica,'' he recalled, ''and clearly the phrases I was using were clearly the language of Jamaica, and students were asking 'Why is that a poem?' ''

The program lasts one week a summer for three summers within a five-year period. The cost is $800 a summer, and among those who have attended is Major Jackson, whose poetry has appeared in The New Yorker.

On the Upper West Side, Budd Schulberg, the novelist and screenwriter, and Fred Hudson founded the writers' workshop about 30 years ago at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center. Mr. Hudson, the center's president and artistic director, said, ''We started the writing program because there were no black writers on the team that wrote the 'Roots' television series, and they said that was because there were no black writers.''

''We said we would develop some black talent so that nobody would ever be able to tell that lie again,'' Mr. Hudson said. Four years ago it awarded $15,000 fellowships to three writers and provided each with a writing mentor ''so that they could take time off from all the temp work they were doing to really do some writing.'' On Tuesday they are to give $20,000 fellowships to two black writers. Tuition at the writers' workshop is a very low $200 for an eight-week cycle, with classes once a week. ''It's hard to understand what the struggle is like to keep a place like this going,'' Mr. Hudson said.

One would suppose that sooner or later the book publishing companies in New York would contribute to these programs for aspiring black authors, if for no other reason than that the black imprints in publishing will need a constant supply of good writing. There may be a Langston Hughes or a Toni Morrison out there.

Organizations mentioned in this article:

Related Terms:
Books and Literature; Blacks

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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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