Among the biggest surprises to come my way in 2019 was an invitation to give a talk and sign copies of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. Health issues prevented me from accepting the initial invitation but I am now slated to give a presentation in May 2020. The plan is to also have available for signing a forthcoming book in which I recount adventures and misadventures involving three iconic writers: O'Connor, James Alan McPherson, and John Berendt.
Any literary biographer will tell you writing a book of meaningful depth on an influential author requires a ton of research involving what other writers have already said about the subject. The following are reflections on another scribe's brilliantly-informed perspective, first published by AXS Entertainment as: "Events, Books, Highlight Flannery O’Connor’s Legacy."
Regarding a Gifted Child
One of the words most frequently used to describe Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery of O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in the twenty-first century is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially-charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment which would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she was visited by a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor, it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility which in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Her tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Loss and Suffering
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial up and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but two years later learned her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, told her she was suffering from the same disease which had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, she had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the renowned Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel, Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out:
“She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug received such an endorsement.)
NEXT: The N-Word Factor: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (part 2)
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savanna and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also an accomplished artist & photographer.
Anyone on June 27, 2019, attending the opening of the Suzanne Jackson Five Decades retrospective at the Telfair Museums' Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia (USA), or involved in its production prior to that historic evening, could tell something exceptional was happening. In addition to the mesmerizing kind of vibrant textiles and stunning canvases one might expect to discover at such an opening for a contemporary artist, there were seven vitrines (display cases) filled with family photographs, vintage 1960s flyers advertising a "Revolutionary Art Exhibit," sketchbooks, program notes, letters, photographs, and other revealing archival materials from different chapters of Jackson's, and America's, life stories.
The items made available went beyond career highlights to illuminating an artist's considerable immersion in a significant historical moment: the 1960s-1970s Black Arts Movement as it rooted and flowered in Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. For those observers of African-American history who contend America's West Coast contributed much less to the Harlem Renaissance than other regions because it lacked, during the 1920s-1940s, a heavy representation of the traditions and institutions then associated with Black culture in the South, the 1960s may be considered the bridge which connected history and geography.
Ideas of how and why that might be the case, within the context of Five Decades, first struck me as apparent while listening to the on-stage conversation between Jackson, fellow artist Alonzo Davis, and Telfair Museums curator Rachel Reese. Jackson's and Davis's stories of establishing art galleries in downtown Los Angeles, building a sustainable cultural arts community, and balancing commitments to careers and political struggle with commitments to family life were not completely unlike what we find in the life stories of East Coast predecessors like Lois Mailou Jones and Augusta Fells Savage.
This observation does not contradict the contexts of ecowomanism and black feminist ethics contexts in which the brilliant essays by Reese, julia elizabeth neal, Melanee C. Harvey, and Tiffany E. Barber place Jackson's work in the forthcoming Five Decades catalog. It simply acknowledges one more powerful aspect of the place she now occupies as an influential contemporary artist of historical importance. In her foreword to the catalog, artist Betye Saar alludes to the significance of Jackson's role as someone whose art and advocacy have bridged gaps:
"In the 1960s, black artists in Los Angeles were struggling to be recognized. Some public venues had integrated exhibitions, but generally speaking black artists were ignored... Suzanne made a concrete imprint when she opened Gallery 32 on Lafayette Park Place..." (Appropriately enough, work by the 93-year-old Saar herself is currently undergoing a kind of revival with forthcoming solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
After Jackson's, Davis's, and Reese's dynamic conversation, the feeling when walking among the dozens of artworks hung with dazzling appeal in the Steward North and Kane Galleries, absorbing the full impact of the actual exhibit, was like glimpsing a long-hidden priceless American treasure. Those who have yet to treat themselves to the experience still have until October 13, 2019, to do so at the Jepson. Just as importantly, the exhibition catalog is due out September 25 and orders for it are being accepted now.
Continental Crossings & Fortuitous Connections
My journey toward the almost magical evening of June 27 actually began on August 28, 2004, when Ms. Jackson attended my "Harlem Renaissance in Savannah" lecture and book signing at the Carnegie Branch Library in Savannah. Since relocating to the city eight years earlier, she had been surprised to discover the African-American cultural arts scene was as vibrant as it was and included someone who had co-authored (with the late Sandra L. West) the groundbreaking Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.
I was surprised and impressed to learn she had lived on the West Coast--just as I had in San Francisco--and now taught at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). If I'd had the slightest prophetic clue of the visual marvels that would be revealed 15 years later, I would have been flat-out amazed.
Mounted wall screen showing video images from life and career of artist and educator Suzanne Jackson. The video was part of the opening for Jackson's Five Decades Retrospective at the Telfair Museums Jepson Center for the Art in Savannah, Georgia, on June 27, 2019. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions photograph by Aberjhani ©2019)
That early meeting was genuinely fortuitous because in those days my responsibilities as a caregiver had already started to limit participation in public events. I nevertheless did make it out occasionally and during the years which followed the lecture our paths crossed enough for an acquaintance to become a friendship. As it turned out, we had more than the cultural arts and California in common. We had both also spent time in Fairbanks, Alaska--she as a child growing up there and me some years later as a U.S. military journalist.
We came to know many of the same creatives and shared enthusiasm over their triumphs. Grief, too, demanded acknowledgement when experiencing the loss of such individuals as painter Allen M. Fireall (1954-2014), his fellow artist and friend Luther E. Vann (1937-2016), and author-educator Ja A. Jahannes (1942-2015). More personal, more blood-connected losses inserted themselves into the stories of our individual lives as well, both stalling and fueling painted poems and poemized visions that would manifest in coming years.
NEXT: A Hidden American Treasure Comes to Revelatory Light (part 2): Jazz, Art, & Partying
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player
I'm a big fan of those moments when a proven best practice confirms its value by yielding the kind of positive results I like to refer to as: sweet serendipity.
The best practices in this instance are revisiting, revising, and relaunching a promising book project which stalled for one reason or another. The concluding sweet synchronicity is that instead of engaging readers this summer with just the single newly-released nonfiction title, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, I am now able to broaden the spectrum of interaction with the first trade paperback release of my high-fantasy novel, Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player.
The Practice of Persistence
This is how it all happened: about three years ago I announced on LinkedIn that Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player had become part of a then innovative book streaming service. Many readers were therefore able to enjoy the adventures and misadventures of its young offbeat characters online. But those who prefer the experience of holding a physical book while reading were unable to do that with the digital innovation.
Overwhelming competition caused the streaming service to shut down. Should that have meant the end of the book's accessibility as well? Not hardly.
I communicated with members of Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing team about releasing a trade paperback edition of the novel. At the time, the work I'd already started on the Postered Chromatic art galleries combined with deadlines to complete chapters for Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (ISBN 9789388125956) made it impossible to spend the time needed to make changes requested for Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player (ISBN 9781977037473).
However, once the number of prints in the art gallery reached an acceptable level and DREAMS made its initial debut with a respectable sales ranking and promising focus group feedback, after some three years I was able to turn my attention back to SONGS. Last week, the folks at Kindle informed me the title had gone live and was now available.
Even readers who are not lit nerds like me and certain friends can appreciate the virtually simultaneous release of a memoir like DREAMS and a novel like SONGS. Such synchronicity is not completely unheard of in publishing but unusual without the influence of a major traditional organization.
Adapting to Multiple Format
Although the novel's paperback release was delayed, the issues with which it deals makes it exceptionally timely. The impact of celebrities on everyday culture, effects of war on individual lives, the pull of suicide on fragile psyches, and the persistence of love in the face of relentless horror are realities to which many can relate. Even when they unfold on more than one plane of existence.
Imagine combining the new reality TV show Songland with the paranormal series The InBetween with some metaphysical rock and roll and evolving superheroes thrown into the mix. That will give you some idea of what makes the book unique and why different readers have been drawn to it in different formats.
The 514-page trade paperback represents more than just a single win for a single individual. With today's numerous media producers (Hollywood, Netflix, etc.) in constant search of stories adaptable to films, podcasts, and audio-books, the musical component of the title makes for some exciting possibilities.
Hashtags like #StoriesOutOfGeorgia (despite threats of decreased production due to Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s controversial “Heartbeat” abortion law) and #ItHappenedInTheSouth have become useful for introducing production reps to the novel as well as to Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. We can call that kind of exceptional combined potential one more example of sweet serendipity deriving from a steady application of best practices.
NOTE: This article was first published here on LinkedIn.
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2019
"Simply by allowing its darker-hued brothers and sisters to openly discuss ideas without having to constantly justify, defend, or survive the color of their skin, whether in classrooms of the great Sorbonne or while walking un-hunted down a boulevard, Paris [France] made a crucial contribution to what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance and to the legacy of African-American intellectual traditions in general." from Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah quote, art graphic, & new 2019 book by Aberjhani. Click image to pre-order.
The basic image in this quotation art graphic was derived from visual studies prepared for the works of art which have become known as Harlem Renaissance Deja Vu Numbers 1 and 2 canvases. The work seen above was modeled after a famous photo (photographer unknown at this point) of a young James Baldwin holding a copy of his essay collection, No Name in the Street. In the poster graphic viewed here, this author is seen holding a copy of the forthcoming title, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (ISBN 978-9388125956) currently slated for release May 1, 2019. It is also now the focus of a new blog-site you can check out by clicking either the art graphic or this link: Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
With actress Regina King having won Golden Globe and Academy Awards for her portrayal of Sharon Rivers in the film adaptation of Baldwin's classic novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, plus the critical acclaim garnered by the 2016 biopic, I Am Not Your Negro, the iconic Baldwin is possibly more famous now than ever before. And No Name In Street, of course, has gone on to become an American literary classic.
The personal essay style utilized in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah may or may not reflect some of Baldwin's influence. He is referenced in the stories "Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams," and "Trees Down Everywhere" but any stylistic similarity is not intentional. Contemporary authors who grew up reading Baldwin, as I did, are more likely than not to have been influenced by him to one degree or another on one level or another.
Connecting and Disconnecting
The observation noted in the above quote about the city of Paris's connection to the cultural arts revolution known as the Harlem Renaissance might seem out of place in a book titled Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. In fact it is not. One reason is because the book is being published during the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance.
Another is because Savannah, like Paris, also has strong ties to the event which is generally recognized as having lasted throughout the 1920s going into the 1930s, but which endured to a lesser degree well into the 1940s. That such an unlikely connection can be identified between the Harlem Renaissance, Paris (France), and Savannah (Georgia, USA) is one more example of how the phenomenal movement transcended geographical boundaries and strengthened the case for harmonious interactions between multicultural communities.
I first explored that three-way connection in an essay titled The Harlem Renaissance Way Down South, and now revisit it in the aforementioned story, "Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams." The narrative stands as a good metaphor for one of the primary concerns highlighted in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah: how we connect and why we sometimes disconnect during disruptive, or stagnant, moments in our personal lives and shared public histories. Measuring, determining, and applying the value of such awareness holds possible advantages for many more than the denizens of just one city or region.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.