Kamby Bolongo Mean River named one of 25 Important Books of the 2000s by HTML Giant

KBMR was named one of 25 Important Books of the decade by HTML Giant. And was a Page One selection of New & Noteworthy Books by Poets & Writers Magazine.

Monday, February 20, 2012

No news today - Guest Post - Alethea Black

For most of my life, I would never ask a writer for an autograph. It was partly shyness, and partly that I felt a little like a spy. I was a novice, clandestinely attending book readings to study the art of writing from the back row; why on earth would I go up afterward and reveal myself?

Now the shoe’s on the other foot, and perhaps because I never really stuck it on the first foot, I have very little understanding of the rules for inscribing books. I still know how to sign my own name, but beyond that, it’s a game of poker where every card’s wild. Did we just meet a minute ago? I might still sign your book “with love.” I might sign it “xx.” I might say things I’ll have no memory of in the morning.

What to say to someone I’ve just met, but to whom I feel deeply indebted? It’s readers who enable me to be who I am. A friend told me always to include the date and the place. “Everyone likes it, and it takes up space.” But I sign a lot of books while I’m alone in my house, then send them out to publishing acquaintances or to people who’ve helped me in some way. I’m not sure “11/2/11, my bedroom” sounds the right note. But simply writing whatever comes to mind in the moment may not be the wisest choice, either. Dear Sandy McClatchy, You don’t know me, but you sent me a really nice email once, and I’ve never forgotten it. PS Here’s my book! PPS Is it okay to call you Sandy?

When you’ve labored over every word of a manuscript for years, it’s unsettling to discover you’re a loose cannon with the signing pen. I’d written a book of literary fiction. Why was I signing it as if I were a high school senior clutching a yearbook and a Sharpie at a keg party?
I think part of the problem is the practice of striking through your name on the book’s title page. Right away, that makes me feel giddy. And French. It’s as if I’m saying: “We don’t need zis fake girl anymore. Look, I am here! And I am wearing pants!” Why my book-signing avatar has a French accent is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the sense of liberté. It was a lifelong dream to have my name on a book’s title page, and now that the dream is realized, I get to cross it out—brilliant.

Another factor is that at live readings, I’m nervous. I don’t know what to say. Yes, words are supposedly my stock in trade. Yes, this wonderful, generous person is about to fork over hard-earned money for those words. Yes, there are lots of people waiting in line behind him. But it’s difficult to be insightful and amusing under these conditions. I choke. I’m tempted to fall back on the Total Honesty approach. I can’t even think of something original for an inscription, which probably means I’m a wanker, and a bad writer to boot. Is it too late to return this book, now that I’ve written in it?

And if the body of the inscription’s a killer, the sign-off is even worse. You might think “Best” would be a safe way to go. But I don’t even sign emails to my accountant “Best.” “Best” fails to express what I feel for the people who read my book, or for the better-known writers who’ve been kind to me. If someone whose work I’ve admired for twenty years says something beautiful about my collection of stories, can’t I thank her with an x and an o? Lately I’ve been going with “My best wishes” followed by a sneaky little x before my name. But I worry that makes it look as if I need to mark the spot where my signature goes, the way they do on my tax returns.

However I sign your book, it’ll be a surprise to us both. But I’m not ashamed of the word love. The bond between writer and reader can be defiantly unnameable—it’s a long-distance intimacy, an anonymous trust, an incorporeal coupling. I wake up in the morning wanting to give readers the best of myself. What is that, if not love?

Alethea Black's story collection, I KNEW YOU'D BE LOVELY (Broadway Books/July 2011), was a Barnes & Noble 'Discover' pick and an Oprah.com book-of-the-week.

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