Lorene Cary Pic

Lorene Cary is an acclaimed writer with works ranging from articles in O Magazine to her critically-acclaimed memoir, Black Ice. In addition, she is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of Art Sanctuary, an organization that aims to provide a sanctuary for Black art.

Women of Excellence Series: How have you gone from being an aspiring writer to a professional writer who also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania?

Lorene Cary:  Short answer: I wrote.  I needed writing to live a full intellectual, emotional, psychic, social, and spiritual life. I needed writing to express and challenge myself and as a way to talk to the world. I wrote in different genres and to try to breach the limits of my ability–by writing, rewriting, throwing away. Writing.

Women of Excellence Series: As a follow up to my previous question, was there an author or a work that made you desire to write for a living?

Lorene Cary: No. I loved reading itself, and that offered possibilities for expression–from poetry to stories to scripts to journalism–but I never said, for instance, that I so enjoy reading Dickens or Baldwin or Tolstoy or Langston Hughes that I want to write for a living. When I took a Creative Writing course here at UPenn with my mentor Kristin Hunter, however, it occurred to me that writing for a living might be possible.

Women of Excellence Series: You are an accomplished writer with publications ranging from articles in O Magazine to your critically-acclaimed memoir, Black Ice. Can you take me through your writing process? That is, what inspires you to write? How do you go about taking an idea and turning it into a published work?

Lorene Cary: Inspire is a word that is hard to speak about. Having committed to writing, I find that epiphany, which often feels like inspiration, shoots through the work like sunshine.  Sometimes lots. Sometimes not so much. But I know that if I keep writing, it comes.

I finished the draft of a play about Harriet Tubman on Monday, for example.  Eight generous people had come to do a read-through the weekend before. I learned so much: what touched people, what didn’t, how the language worked or didn’t, pacing, etc. I revised according to their comments and my observation. Two days later, I realized that the play was pointing to a conclusion to which I had refused to yield. That’s something that has happened to me before: a failure of nerve, a caution, a refusal to have, as my husband says “the courage of my obsessions.”  So I rewrote again, and I think it’s back on the rails.

Now where’s the inspiration: Tubman’s life?  The conversations I had last autumn while documenting the biographies with a brilliant student-intern Roshumba Llewellyn? Talking about my fears with composer-friend Hannibal Lokumbe? Talking with my comics-expert daughter about superheroes in literature or my other daughter, an Africana Studies major about how the 19th century reads to young adults now? Singing a favorite Tubman spiritual with my one-year-old granddaughter? Telling my mom where I had a snag? Listening to my husband’s sermon and realizing where Harriet’s portal into her faith overlaps with mine? And where it doesn’t? If your writing process is robust, it will lead to the next insight, which inspires fresh work.

WS: Speaking of your writing, you are in the process of writing a play about Harriet Tubman in which you delve deeper into her personal life. What led you to write a play? And why are you writing it from such a “different” angle?

LC: Harriet Tubman begins the play with a holy song and dance saying that with God anything is possible–and telling the audience about the head injury she sustained at twelve when an overseer threw a two-pound weight that bashed a dent in her skull and gave her headaches and fainting spells. But it also gave her visions.

Those visions gave me a way into the animating power of Tubman’s life that we, in a secular age, overlook: her experience of divine presence and the urgency of divine calling. I needed to find a way to dramatize my understanding of that urgency, which I feel we can bury under our celebrity-driven icon-building. It makes her both more than and less than human. I wanted to give her back her humanity. And her sense of being attached to a power that could vault over human limits.

WS: You are also the founder of Art Sanctuary, an organization that aims to provide a sanctuary for Black art and believes that Black art has the power to transform lives, foster cultural understanding, and build community. It has been nineteen years since you founded it, and Art Sanctuary has achieved many milestones. In the years to come, where do you hope Art Sanctuary goes regarding carrying out its mission especially in America’s present racial climate?

LC: I stepped down from directing Art Sanctuary in 2012. My hope is to have created a body of excellence in community work for others to build on. My hope is that they can make a go of it and grow it into new works that moves forward black art and its creators and consumers.  My hope is that I can be a founder who can stay out of the way: without setting goals or visions or making critiques from the side. Like, who needs that?

WS: What advice would you give to young women of color who aspire to become writers?

Write. Find a way to write every day. You are a creative athlete. Practice. Find a way. If you can’t, if there’s not enough joy and obsession there, then let it go and find what it is you really want to be the discipline that is your own personal rocket fuel. Sometimes young people discover other passions that have to do with thinking, feeling, and action in the world through writing; they enjoy the reading experience or their own writing about the subject so much that they confuse the writing with the learning or discovery or connecting with people or attention, with the laughter or catharsis. Often we do not give young women of color much room to try something and then to walk away and try something else. I started out in college as a pre-med.

WS: Finally, since you are a writer, I have to ask you about books. Can you please name a few of your favorite books that you would recommend for readers interested in learning more about women of color in America?

LC: I hate making lists. I keep thinking of other wonderful works; Here are some:

  1. Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
  2. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
  3. Jubilee, by Margaret Walker
  4. Homegirls and Hand Grenades, by Sonia Sanchez
  5. Bloodchild and other Stories, by Octavia Butler
  6. The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998
  7. Dust Tracks on a Road, by Zora Neal Hurston
  8. My Soul to Take, by Tananarive Due
  9. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
  10. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs
  11. Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry
  12. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, by Dorothy Roberts
  13. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
  14. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntozake Shange
  15. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  16. The Street, by Ann Petry
  17. Zami, by Audre Lord
  18. Women, Race & Class, by Angela Davis
  19. Create Dangerously, by Edwidge Danticat
  20. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
  21. Smart on Crime, by Kamala Harris
  22. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  23. Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, by Heather A. Williams
  1. I’d hope they’d read my own Black Ice or The Price of a Child or If Sons, Then Heirs; all deal with black girlhood and womanhood from 1855 to the present.
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