BACKSTORY: A New Series that features excerpts from drafts of my novel-in-progress *The Manhattan Escort & Larceny Service*Posted: October 19, 2014
Recently, I’ve been getting really excited about my novel. As I’ve been in writers’ spaces and talking about it, I realize I’m not just enjoying the book itself, but the world of characters I created. As I wait for the manuscript to work its way into the machinery of the publishing industry, I’ve decided to start posting excerpts from earlier drafts. These will be part of a series called BACKSTORY, scenes and flashbacks that got cut in service of keeping the forward motion of an action-packed plot and character development arc. I’ve written at least ten drafts of this book, and I mourned when certain scenes got cut from the final manuscript, but I’m delighted for them to live here instead.
Here’s the description of the novel, and next week I’ll be posting the first excerpt: “Marisol Lands Her First Legit Job.”
Working Title The Manhattan Escort & Larceny Service
What happens to a financial genius who’s born brown and female, who grows up poor but voluptuous. Who at seventeen has to put her brilliance to work saving her ass from homelessness and puts her ass to work because orphaned seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican girls with kid sisters to support gotta use what they got. But ten years and a few lucky breaks later, she might find herself with an online degree in bookkeeping and an entry level job at a women’s health clinic for sex workers. But what happens to a financial genius nearly a decade later when she’s running the health clinic and the economy tanks? She might start an escort service on the side to make ends meet. And what if one of the girls starts escorting a client to houses of rich corporate CEOs involved in a sex trafficking scandal? What if those CEOs have wall safes? A financial genius might use the escorts to case the apartments to do a little safecracking. Because sometimes the best donor to a nonprofit is the unintentional donor, and financial genius Marisol Rivera will do whatever it takes to keep the clinic doors open. Her team includes three fierce women: Tyesha, an African American public health graduate student by day; Kim, “the lock whisperer,” a petite Korean immigrant; and Kim’s girlfriend Jodie, a six-foot tall blonde dominatrix. But can they heist a security-obsessed, high profile billionaire? If they succeed, the team and the clinic could be set for life. But there are so many ways her plan could go wrong. Still, Marisol has gotta try it. Because the society keeps churning out brown girls with more curves than cash and more prospects for pimps and sugar daddies than college professors. Somebody’s gotta level the playing field a little. This novel takes the racist, sexist, cliché of the Puerto Rican hooker and turns it on it’s head. Then shakes all the money out of its pockets and gives it to la gente.
I have developed incredible respect for people who blog daily. I just finished 17 days of blogging in support of Shailja Patel. At first, my posts were multilayered essays that were meticulously written and edited. However, on heavy traffic days as a working artist/teacher/mom, they were short or rushed. Of course, one of those rushed posts from October 6th has been widely cross-posted, both in Africa and England. I’m honored for the amplification and humbled by the work’s imperfection.
In today’s fast-moving world, there’s always the balance between the desire to get work out there, and to make sure it’s as good as it can be. I’m pleased that I decided to go with the urgency of campaign to support Shailja over the pull to nitpick my own work. However, I can also see the room for improvement in the piece, and am glad to engage with it as an editor. This daily writing practice is always a good and humbling exercise. Every opportunity for me to put the perfectionism aside is a good one. Perhaps I will sign up for more humbling next month and do NaNoWriMo.
I’m editing the original post to read this weekend at the VONA/CultureStrike LitCrawl reading. However, I wanted to offer both versions here, as a testament to the editing process.
New & Revised
From Amilcar Cabral to Shailja Patel: Masking No Difficulties, Claiming No Easy Victories
Ever since I heard of the alleged sexual assault on Shailja Patel, I have wanted to get on a plane and fly to Kenya. But I can’t. So instead I offer the words of Amilcar Cabral, revolutionary from Guinea Bissau, “Mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories.” Today, we will not be masking the alleged sexual assault by Kenyan writer Tony Mochama. We will not be masking it behind anti-feminist epithet name-calling. We will not be masking it behind accusations of anti-black racism. Brutal forms of anti-black racism do exist, but any black man who sexually assaults a woman may not turn around and hide behind charges of anti-black racism. Mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories. I wish I could get on a plane today because we are tired of covering up the grime and bloodstains in our movements and relationships. I wish I could get on a plane because we have fastened our seatbelts, by inserting the metal flap into the buckle and are prepared for gender slur name-calling, attempts at slut-shaming, derisive comments about our appearance, our bodies, our faces, our hair, our sex appeal or lack thereof. Sexual violence is not about sex appeal, it’s about the appeal of using sex to assert domination by men in our movements, which we will not be masking today. Some people get anxious when they fly. We get anxious that white people or westerners, or patrons or NGOs or funders will target men in our communities or target our communities as a whole when we reveal the truths of this gender violence, this alleged sexual assault, this intimate abuse, but we will not be masking any of these difficulties. Will not be putting on a smile to mask the epidemic of abuse and disrespect of women in movements that are supposed to be for everybody but have turned out to prioritize boys and men. From My Brother’s Keeper in the US to the alleged assault on Shailja Patel. Let my Kenyan president and Shailja’s Kenyan colleague hear me now, we will not be putting you ahead of us anymore because in the event of an emergency, we have been advised to put on our own masks first, and whether or not the bag inflates, we will not be masking these gender difficulties anymore. Sometimes the nearest exit row is behind you, and you may think it’s a step backwards for women of color to unmask these inconvenient incidences of male domination, but any unity based on women’s silence, based on secret violence is a recipe for a failed revolution. And my revolutionary hero tells me to mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories. I read the safety card, I am willing to follow all written instructions which tell me that I may feel a sudden change in cabin pressure if I speak honestly about what’s been going on with the men in my community. But sexual assault of any kind is an actual emergency. Mr. Mochama, clearly, you are not prepared to be sitting in an exit row, clearly you are not ready to perform the functions of exiting from an oppressive society if you think that women’s bodies are here for your pleasure and amusement. We will need to reseat you, sir, because you will not be able to assist the crew if you are too busy objectifying the flight attendants when your country is in crisis. If the plane is going down, we need to know you’ll be opening the exit door, not searching for a woman you you might lure into the lavatory for that one last mile high tryst. Mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories. Please be aware that sexual assault is not permitted on board our movements or artist communities. Federal regulations prohibit tampering with, disabling, or destroying a sexual assault detector in a poets gathering. We will not be masking that difficulty today, so do not claim any woman’s body as your easy victory.
From Amilcar Cabral to Shailja Patel: Masking No Difficulties, Claiming No Easy Victories
I wish I could get on a plane today and fly to Kenya. Ever since I heard of the alleged sexual assault on Shailja Patel, I have wanted to get on a plane and fly to Kenya. But I can’t. So instead I will offer the words of Amilcar Cabral, revolutionary from Guinea Bissau, “Mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories.” Today, we will not be masking the alleged sexual assault of Kenyan writer Tony Mochama on Kenyan writer Shailja Patel. We will not be masking it behind anti-feminist epithet name-calling or sexist allegations. We will also not be masking it behind accusations of anti-black racism. Anti-black racism does exist, is brutal, and is deeply embedded and operative in today’s world. But any black man who sexually assaults a woman who is not black may not turn around and hide out in charges of anti-black racism to avoid consequences. Any black man who assaults a woman who is black may not turn around and hide out in charges of anti-black racism to avoid consequences. Mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories. We women are tired of being held responsible for impossible predicaments that men of color put us in vis-à-vis racism, sexism, and mistreatment. We are tired of cleaning up the grime and bloodstains in our movements and relationships. If you want a tough stain out, shout it out. We will not be masking, instead we will be shouting out that Tony Mochama allegedly sexually assaulted Shailja Patel, and that sexual assault, intimate violence, or gender-based abusive behavior will not be tolerated in our movements and artist circles. We have fastened our seatbelts, by inserting the metal flap into the buckle and are prepared for gender slur name-calling, attempts at slut-shaming, derisive comments about our appearance, our bodies, our faces, our hair, our sex appeal or lack thereof. Sexual violence is not about sex appeal, it’s about the appeal of using sex to assert domination by men in our movements, which we will not be masking, we will be shouting out today. Some people get anxious when they fly. We get anxious about very real fears and concerns about what white people or westerners, or patrons or NGOs or funders will target men in our communities or our communities as a whole when we reveal the truths of this gender violence, this alleged sexual assault, this intimate abuse, but we will not be masking any of these difficulties. Will not be putting on a smile of a mask to cover the epidemic of abuse and mistreatment of women in movements that are supposed to be for everybody but have turned out to prioritize men from My Brother’s Keeper in the US to the alleged assault on Shailja Patel by Tony Mochama, let my Kenyan president and Shailja’s Kenyan colleague hear me today, in the event of an emergency, we have been advised to put on our own masks first, and whether or not the bag inflates, we know that the oxygen is flowing, and we will be able to think clearly and we will not be masking the difficulty of alleged sexual assault between comrades in communities and movements of people of color. Sometimes the nearest exit row is behind you, and you may think it’s a step backwards for women of color to call out sexism and sexual violence among brown folks, but any unity based on women’s silence, based on secret violence isn’t unity but a recipe for a failed revolution. And my revolutionary hero tells me to Mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories, I read the safety card, I am willing to follow all written instructions which tell me to put on my mask first before assisting others. If I can’t breathe safely around you, I can’t assist you. If you think you can’t help yourself from assaulting women, then I can’t help you. Clearly, you are not prepared to be sitting in an exit row, clearly you are not ready to perform the functions of exiting from an oppressive society if you think that women’s bodies are here for your pleasure and amusement. We will need to reseat you, sir, because in the event of an actual emergency, you will not be able to assist the crew if you are too busy objectifying the flight attendants when your country is in crisis; if the plane is going down, we need to know you’ll be opening the exit door, not searching for the woman you you might lure into the lavatory for that one last mile high tryst. Mask no difficulties….Claim no easy victories. Our revolution doesn’t just needs men who are interested in saving women’s lives, but men who are simply interested in women’s lives—our minds, our writing, our leadership. When you assault a woman’s body, you disrespect her mind; we will not be masking that today. Please be aware that sexual assault is not permitted on board our movements or artist communities. Federal regulations prohibit tampering with, disabling, or destroying a sexual assault detector in a poets gathering. We will not be masking that difficulty today, so do not claim any woman’s body as your easy victory.
You can find all my posts and all the other writings in support of Shailja at www.mybodymyhome.wordpress.com
This is the final day of my 17 days of blogging in support of Shailja Patel, the Kenyan writer who was allegedly sexually assaulted at an international gathering of poets only 17 days after returning home to her native Kenya.
As I’ve said before, there’s no bright side, no silver lining to sexual assault. And yet it has been powerful to stand in support of my sister, to use my words to bring attention to her experience. It has also been a profound daily meditation on grief, outrage, upset, and commitment to change.
It’s also been a wake up call. As I’ve said in recent posts, I have expected that, as I got older and my resume got longer, I would be liberated from certain forms of sexism, or at least become a less likely target–particularly sexual assault. This has reminded me that I can’t age or accomplish my way out of sexism.
As one of my mentors and leaders, Dr. Diane Balser of Boston University Women’s Studies explained at a recent conference, there’s a temptation for feminists to accept individual achievement and accolades instead of fighting for liberation for all. This can be particularly confusing if the individual victory does represent shattering a glass ceiling or breaking into a male-dominated institution or bringing feminism to a new outlet. These things are worthy of celebration, but cannot be mistaken for sweeping victories for all women.
In my own life, as I have gotten a literary agent and hope to soon be navigating the publishing industry, it’s easy to settle into the fantasy that the fulfillment of this long held dream of being a novelist is the end game. But no one gets liberated from certain forms of sexism. Liberation is the wrong verb. We have narrow escapes and close calls. We try to accumulate a few privileges that will spare us from the most brutal parts of the oppression. But if all women aren’t spared, then it’s not liberation. My learning is to not settle, never settle for personal exemption from oppression.
My sister Shailja is halfway around the world. She is a renowned poet, acclaimed writer, longtime activist for progressive change in her native Kenya. If she cannot decide whose hands will land upon her body–in the very country whose liberation she fights for–then the epicenter of the fight for liberation must change to focus on the sovereignty of her body. The fight against colonization must come all the way home. For all women. #MyBodyMyHome
You can find all my posts and all the other writings in support of Shailja at www.mybodymyhome.wordpress.com
This is day 16 of my 17 days of blogging in support of Shailja Patel, the Kenyan writer who was allegedly sexually assaulted at an international gathering of poets only 17 days after returning home to her native Kenya.
Last week, I wrote about how I expected that as I reached middle age, I wouldn’t have to worry about men trying to grab my body and assault me in the same way I did as a young woman. Part of my outrage is the breaking of my denial here. While sexual violence is more frequently targeted at younger women, sexual violence is ultimately about male domination, and all women are at risk.
Recently, an African media outlet ran what was basically a gossip column piece that criticized Patel. Along with the article, they ran several photos of Patel. The story the photos tell is as suspect as the copy.
The headline was pasted over this very blurry photo of Patel.
The first clear photo of Patel is this one, where she has long dark hair and makeup. She is younger and more conventionally attractive. She’s also looking very culturally Indian.
Why not choose this picture, where her short, gray hair is clearly visible, where she’s engaged in her work and not even bothered with the camera.
Or better yet, this photo where Patel is representing as a native Kenyan, born in Africa, reflecting her commitment to the continent and in solidarity with indigenous African people?
Many of the mainstream African media spins on this story disappoint me, right down to the photos they choose.
Feminists are often characterized as angry, but underneath it all, we’re heartbroken. Our hearts break every day for the brutal mistreatment of women and girls. We weep for the lives lost, bones shattered, spirits crushed. Those of us who are black women mourn often. We wail for the unsolved murder of two sex workers in Florida, hog tied and dumped by the side of the road like trash. We sob for the black woman who bested not one but three young male rappers at a new years eve party, and what should have been her victory became her lynching. We grieve for women’s losses and for the indifference the world shows to our losses, and the policies and institutions that pay lip service to concern about us, but consistently allow, reinforce, support, or exploit the brutality against us.
Recently, in this blog series, I have been grieving the loss of safety. Really the loss of the illusion of safety. I thought that as a middle-aged, accomplished woman writer, I would no longer be subject to certain outrages as a woman. But the alleged sexual assault on internationally renowned Kenyan writer Shailja Patel has challenged my fantasy that age and achievement would keep me safe. And so I grieve for that lost illusion.
Grief is a powerful tool. Grief allows us to mend the places where we are heartbroken over our loss. “Strong at the broken places,” as the saying goes. Without grief, we harden into rigid shapes that protect our injuries. We viciously defend our wounds’ right to stay unhealed. We rage or chase away anyone who challenges our right to stay broken.
In Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, Stage One is DENIAL. Recently, a Kenyan radio personality, Caroline Mutoko spoke her own invitation to grief. She grew up with Shailja Patel’s alleged assailant, Tony Mochama. She said: “He has a committed partnership. I think he’s married, and he has a child. I’m finding it very hard to believe that what is being said about Tony is true…I’m hoping it isn’t….It would be painful if it was true.”
This past weekend, Shailja Patel allegedly spoke to Caroline Mutoko and challenged her to consider that Patel was telling the truth. Reportedly, Caroline Mutoko rejected this idea: “It’s as if she wants me to play judge, jury, and executioner,” Mutoko said.
Caroline Mutoko, has being a woman taught you nothing over all these years? Have you never trusted a man, an institution, a situation, only to find that you were not safe in your own body? Your own home? Why are you offering the cliché, irrational, and statistically-disproven excuse that the alleged perpetrator having a wife and child as evidence of his innocence? No one is asking you to convict him, we are asking you to open your heart to the painful possibility that this allegation might be true. What would you have to feel? Grief for an innocent boy or young man who wouldn’t have been capable of sexual assault whose innocence got lost on the way to becoming the man who was capable? THIS IS OUR GRIEF. As daughters and sisters and mothers and friends, this is our grief. To sob for the women who are brutalized by male domination and to grieve for the boys who are brutalized into male domination. Feminism isn’t about hating men, it’s about hating the system that socializes men to act out hatefulness toward women. Feminism is about our rage and grief at being hated.
Denial is a powerful force. Many of us don’t want to believe that misogynist violence exists, or if it does, the woman brought it on herself, or if she didn’t then the agents are some other group of bad, faraway men. Not our husbands, lovers, fathers, brothers, friends. Nobody we know.
Caroline Mutoko, stop making excuses for perpetrators. Stop waiting for a court to tell you how to feel about the man you grew up with. Here’s what you didn’t say. You didn’t say you were waiting for the trial so you could examine the evidence for yourself and decide for yourself. Here’s what you did say. You said you were waiting for the outcome of the trial. For a male dominated authority to decide and dictate to you what is true about what happened.
As feminists, our hearts also break for the women who serve as character witnesses for the perpetrators and put their faith in male institutions. You say it would be “painful” if it were true. Consider the possibility that the truth doesn’t live in a man’s court, but a woman’s body. Stop running from the painful truths of women’s lives. Trust the truth from the source: a woman’s own body, her own home.
Part of being female in most societies today is to be seen as an object, interchangeable, individually unimportant. In our society, we are labeled fuckable (a compliment?) or not fuckable (an insult?). Part of what has driven me as an artist is a desire to escape that sorting pile of women to be used and thrown away and women to be sent to the trash without a second look. I have a longing to be important, memorable, significant. Of course, I also have goals and dreams and activist visions for my work. These are deeply held truths about what I want in the world, as well. But this desire for recognition is an underlying personal agenda in my creative aspirations that has its roots in trying to escape oppression.
Last week, I talked about how I had expected to age out of sexual objectification and harassment. The alleged sexual assault on Shailja Patel has shattered my sense of safety from attack as I age. And I know that women of all ages are assaulted, although younger women and girls are much more frequent targets. But age isn’t really the only factor. This notion of age is also about power and experience. Part of me has been hoping that over time, as I get older, I can accomplish my way out of being targeted by male domination. If I can only get enough money or enough clout or enough recognition or enough prestige or enough accolades, I will be safe and free from the limits that sexism places on our lives and the vulnerability to all aspects of male domination.
Shailja is an internationally recognized writer for God’s sake! But if she could be a target than any of us could. And isn’t that the point? Male domination teaches us that whatever else we may achieve, women will always be second class citizens; we will have to work twice as hard for half as much and do it all backwards an in high heels. My misguided fantasy was that I could achieve my way out of subjugation as a woman. Wrong again. But the gift is that I have a clearer perspective now. There can be no compromise. No kinder, gentler response. Sexism and male domination need to end. For everyone. Period.