Uptown Messenger columnist jewel bush, founder of the MelaNated Writers Collective, will be speaking at 10 a.m. Saturday as part of a panel discussion on “Creating Community for Writers of Color” at the Rising Tide new media conference on the future of New Orleans at Xavier University. Below, find a short series of questions and answers with Bush:
How did the MelaNated Writers Collective get started?
I was in newspapers for 6 years, and when I left to begin doing communications and marketing for nonprofits and various organizations, I missed the camaraderie of the newsroom. I freelanced for awhile, but it’s not the same as being in a space with other writers. Around this time, I started to take my creative writing seriously and began attending literary workshops around the country like VONA (Voices of our Nation) the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color, co-founded by the Pultizer-prize winning author Junot Diaz and Callaloo when it was at Texas A&M. Spending time with other writers, talking shop with them was amazing. It was what I needed and as close as I could get to the newsroom energy without being in the newsroom. In fact, it was a little bit better, because this bunch of creatives weren’t as jaded or cynical as newsies can often be. They were motivated and psyched about writing.
After I did Callaloo and did VONA for the first time, I knew a week here or two weeks there of this was great, but it wasn’t enough. I knew I wanted and needed this year round at home. I knew I needed to recreate this here; and that’s what I did. I began talking to other writers, poets, bloggers, MFA students/graduates, journalists, teachers about this idea; and from there, the writers I knew introduced me to writers they knew and before you knew it there were nearly 20 people in my living room talking about their work and what it meant to be a writer of color living in New Orleans.
What does it mean to be a writer of color in New Orleans?
You’re already a part of a legacy, whether you know that legacy or not. Kalamu ya Salaam is here. Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy is here. There is a legacy that a lot of folks don’t know. Marcus Christian was a prolific poet and writer. He was the poetry editor and a writer for the Louisiana Weekly and he was an integral part of the The Negro Federal Writers project at Dillard University. He had a writers’ group. His poem, ‘I Am New Orleans,’ was published on the front page of the Times-Picayune in 1968. He was a mentor to Tom Dent. There’s also the Tom Dent festival.
Really, I look at it as just really being a part of that legacy. People think of New Orleans in terms of music and food, but they don’t know New Orleans has a rich literary history. People think of New Orleans and being black in New Orleans, and think, ‘Oh, you’re a musician.’ But there’s a lot of deep literary tradition here too.
Is that different from in other cities?
I can’t really speak for other cities because I’m a Louisiana girl. New Orleans is its own island. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel, but I haven’t done a lot of traveling in the South as an adult. I went to a conference in Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., and I remember going to a Waffle House. I mentioned the tip I was leaving was for the ‘white’ waitress, and the girl at the cash register was like, ‘Shh. You can’t say ‘white’ in here.” That was in 2010. It just reminded me how privileged and isolated and insulated I’ve been to live in New Orleans.
What has been the response to the MelaNated Writers Collective?
The response has been surprising. When I gathered people in my living room, it was word of mouth, sending out an email. I don’t know what I expected, I just expected people to get together and read each other’s work, and talk, and form a community. The response has been overwhelming. We met for two years before we even had a public anything. There was clearly a need to talk to people — what is it like to freelance in New Orleans? How is your writing? How are you working on your craft? What resources are out there? A lot of people in the group who had been living in the city for years didn’t know each other. I saw that there was definitely a need.
I became even more blown away when I saw externally how people responded to readings, three or four people who don’t have a major book out. I feel like we’ve sustained interest — people are like, what is this community? And I feel like we’re just walking in the steps of our ancestors. New Orleans is such a spiritually rich city, an old city, and there’s nothing new under the sun. That’s how I feel when I read about all these old writers’ groups that existed before.
The eighth annual Rising Tide conference begins at 9 a.m. and also includes panel discussions on charter-school accountability and the tourism economy, new-media workshops and a keynote speech by Lt. General Russel Honore. See the Rising Tide website for the complete schedule.