Sunday, February 27, 2011

I read a lovely book: Wading Home

While some white men make offensive art and win fame, acclaim and riches (see previous post), many women and people of color keep making beautiful, original, meaningful art that the marketplace never rewards, or even notices.

I had had the novel Wading Home by Rosalyn Story on my to-read list for a little while when, earlier this month, I heard that the novel's publisher, Agate, had announced it was making the e-book version available for free for the last two weeks of February, Black History Month. Why would a publisher take such a drastic step, a step that denies it any income? Agate's Doug Seibold has a lot to say about the injustice of the treatment of books by and about African Americans in general, and of this novel in particular.
In fact, to its publisher’s embarrassment, Wading Home has gotten hardly any attention at all--despite the hundreds of advance reader’s copies we distributed months before it was published, despite the efforts of PGW’s excellent sales force, despite the author’s appearance at BEA, despite how the book’s publication coincided with the fifth anniversary of Katrina. And despite the fact that I’ve had a hard time finding any other such novels from trade presses--novels by black writers addressing this event, which had such a huge impact on how both black people and others think about the lives of black people in this country today. Next to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Katrina and its aftermath may have been the most consequential event of the last decade. You wouldn’t know it by the response of the book publishing industry.
Please go read the full statement on the Agate website, because this is an impassioned, thoughtful, cogent, angry piece that deserves to be read. It contains much truth about the racism of the publishing industry.

 As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I don't own an e-reader and, for now, at least, have no interest in getting one. So I couldn't take advantage of Agate's offer, but it did spur me to move Wading Home to the top of my to-read list. It wasn't easy to find a copy, but I finally did, at the Strand, and I read it last week.

This is a lovely, moving, accomplished piece of fiction about one of the most important events in U.S. history, the greatest single catastrophe in U.S. history--Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, a catastrophe suffered mostly by  African Americans and yet one whose stories so far have mostly been told by white writers. The stories that find their way to publication, that is, or to be more precise as Mr. Seibold points out, that are published and reviewed and spotlighted. A couple of years ago I read the novel City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. I liked it very much, in fact I listed it as one of my best reads that year, and I wasn't the only one. It got a lot of play, a lot of attention. Unlike Wading Home.

Was City of Refuge, by a white author, a better book than Wading Home? Now that I've read  Story's book, I can answer: absolutely not! Of course not! It is an absolute injustice that it's the Black writer's book that remains relatively obscure.

And what an excellent, deeply felt and beautifully written book this is. I was swept into it from the opening pages. I cared about the characters. I wept in several places. There is a humanity here, a compassion, a sweep in its view of family and community and history, that resonated for me. And there is political consciousness, truth telling, honesty. All the qualities I value in fiction.

Wading Home also contains some of the finest writing about the natural world that I've read in a long time. Much of the plot has to do with a Black family's land in rural Louisiana, its history down the generations back to slavery times, the risk of losing it, and what this land means for those alive after Katrina. Usually, as a reader, I'm not big on nature descriptions. For some reason they tend to bore me, I tend to gloss over them. That wasn't the case with this novel. Somehow, Ms. Story's depiction of Silver Creek, the vegetation and wildlife, the smells, the sounds, the feel, gripped me in a way such passages rarely do. I really felt transported to that precious place. Which in turn drew me even deeper into the story, the stories of Julian and Simon finding their way home after Katrina.

This book deserves a large audience. It is an indictment of capitalism, of all the ways this racist system distorts and damages everything in this society including the arts, that it remains largely unread.