Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tales of the City, Atlanta Division

I raced through Pearl Cleage's latest novel, Till You Hear From Me (One World, 2010) yesterday, without being fully conscious that I was doing so until I realized I had only about a dozen pages to go. That's normal for me with Cleage ever since I read her first novel. What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day was about a woman who returns to her Michigan hometown when, after living a fast-lane life in Atlanta for several years, she discovers she's HIV-positive. In Michigan she recovers a sense of purpose and even finds love. One of the things that stuck with me after my first reading was this list on page 158:
1. How to grow food and flowers
2. How to prepare food nutritiously
3. Self-defense
4. Basic first aid / sex education and midwifery
5. Child care (prenatal / early childhood development)
6. Basic literacy / basic math / basic computer skills
7. Defensive driving / map reading / basic auto and home repairs
8. Household budget / money management
9. Spiritual practice
10. Physical fitness / health / hygiene
Every man, free or not, should know these things too. (I don't pretend that I do.) But I liked Cleage's attitude, so I looked for her other work. She's written and produced plays, which I haven't seen, and a powerful book of essays, Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (Ballantine, 1994).

After Crazy and her second novel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress, Cleage set her novels in Atlanta, where she lives. In particular, she invented a neighborhood called West End, which was reclaimed from drugs, crime, and squalor under the leadership of Blue Hamilton, a man with a somewhat shady past who decided that if he couldn't fix the world he could at least fix the nearest part of it. Though West End isn't totally free of problems or conflict, it's a lovely place to visit, and Cleage's characters are a pleasure to know: intelligent, passionate, interested and involved in the arts, and politically aware and active. They are "spiritual", but it's not too intrusive. Several characters recur throughout her Atlanta novels, which is why she reminds me of Armistead Maupin's San Francisco serial. (So does her taste for melodramatic plots.)

Cleage is pretty close to an African-American Jennifer Crusie, though not a gay one; that ideal has yet to be achieved. Like Crusie's, in fact, her world is too lacking in queerfolk for me to feel entirely comfortable there. Crusie, if I recall correctly, had a gay male sidekick for one of her heroines; Cleage has had a few down-low villains, without any balancing gay men or lesbians that I can remember. This bothers me; she could, and should, do better.

Till You Hear From Me is Cleage's Obama novel. The protagonist, Ida B. Wells Durham, the daughter of an Atlanta minister who was a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement, worked in Obama's 2008 campaign. As the novel begins, soon after the election, Ida has not yet found a job in the administration because her father had denounced the new order in a widely circulated video interview.

Cleage had the Jeremiah Wright hullaballoo in mind, of course, though her own father, Albert Cleage, was an important figure of the same generation. She told an interviewer in May 2010,
I really wanted to look at the Jeremiah Wright question. I was saddened by what happened between Wright and Obama, the positions that the old-line civil rights guys had -- I call them warriors -- with Obama. Obama happened a little too fast for them. They were used to fighting. And the idea of stepping aside was inconceivable to them.
This, I think, isn't really fair to Wright. The flap over his pulpit pronouncements, if anything, showed that white America still isn't ready for the Civil Rights Movement of forty-odd years ago. But Till You Hear From Me has more going on than that, though readers of this blog won't be surprised to hear that I consider it too soft on Obama. As Cleage told the same interviewer,
It's such a dangerous, crazy job. I'm not a conventional Christian, but I'm praying for him.
 I think it's a time of big upheaval. The Bush years were so terrible, and people are nervous and scared, and it brings up all that insecurity. But I think that will fade. Health care, trying to end the wars, getting people back to work, are good things.
"Trying to end the wars" ... sigh. I hope she's learned better since then. But Till You Hear From Me has some surprises, and I'm looking forward to Pearl Cleage's next novel whenever it comes.