Category Archives: June 2018

Book Review: Hairway to Heaven: Tales of a Neighborhood’s Truths

Hairway to Heaven: Tales of a Neighborhood’s Truths
Review by George Clack

Derek Alderman, a geographer at the University of Tennessee, has been keeping track of streets in the United States renamed after Martin Luther King Jr. He’s now counted more than 900. In her new short story collection from Cherry Castle Publishing, Hairway to Heaven, Patty Somlo has chosen to focus on the residents of one Martin Luther King Boulevard, an actual street in Portland, Oregon.

In Somlo’s telling, Portland’s MLK feels reminiscent of MLK Boulevard in Baltimore, a hard-scrabble, low-income neighborhood in the process of change. Somlo’s MLK was once a street of jazz clubs, now long gone, and the neighborhood is just beginning to gentrify a bit. There are panhandlers and hustlers, rehabbed alcoholics, churchgoers, men who hang out in the barber shop, hardworking Mexican-immigrant families, the remnants of an African-American middle class, and a few white folks moving in.

Hairway’s 15 short stories take a classic form, what is usually called a story cycle – that is, stories set in one place in which characters appear and reappear, sometimes as the protagonist and in other stories as a secondary character. In a good story cycle, each story should be able to stand alone, but added together, the stories will have a cumulative power that offers a vibrant portrait of a particular community at a particular time. Story cycles have been around a long time. In American literature courses, you’ll run across Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942). More recent examples that have won critical acclaim and popularity include Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

A few of Somlo’s stories are brief character sketches, but most work through a repeated motif – people are more than they seem to be at first glance. Or put a different way – everybody deserves to be listened to. Horn Man, the panhandler on the corner, was once a great jazz musician. The hardworking Mexican paterfamilias Elidio is susceptible to obsessive lust for his sexy cousin. Ali, the convenience store owner, is perhaps not the bad son his mother back in Egypt thinks he is. Through her use of the close third person point of view and the occasional firstperson narrator, Somlo manages to get inside the heads of a vast variety of characters.

Among the more ambitious stories is “Angelina, the name of the baby left in a bus shelter on MLK early one morning. Somlo shifts the point of view throughout the story, relating the action from the perspectives of a young white women walking her dog and a 63-year-old nurse on her way to work who together discover the baby. Somlo also flips sympathetically to the mind of the harried mother who couldn’t get the baby to stop wailing and then to the father who left the apartment because he couldn’t stand the crying and finally to a gay man living in artists’ housing in a neighborhood in which he’s fearful of going outside.

“Missing” is perhaps the most complexly layered story in the collection. It’s the tale of faithful Mavis Trent, a woman in her 80s still waiting for the return of her beloved husband from the Korean War. Howard Trent, that dashing husband, turns out not be quite the person she has held in memory all those years. What gives this story its oomph is the firstperson narrator, a white woman journalist, new to the neighborhood, who becomes friends with Mavis and then fascinated with tracking down the truths behind her story.

As its protagonist, the title story features Leticia Williams, an ex-alcoholic. Leticia is one of the neighborhood rehab center’s success stories; she finds Jesus and the entrepreneur within herself in the course of the story, creating a combination hair salon and storefront church that she cleverly names Hairway to Heaven.

Somlo writes the straightforward prose that one might expect from an ex-journalist. Here’s a sample from “Hairway to Heaven,” Somlo describing the moment when Leticia begins to take control of her life.

Now Leticia Williams would be the first to agree with Willie Washington that the devil had tempted her, even after she’d shaken hands with Jesus. But as time went on, the memory of that handshake kept assuring Leticia there might be another way to soothe the raw ache in her belly crying out for a drink and then another and another one after that, when some little thing didn’t go right and a world of sorrow threatened to come crashing down. After a couple of relapses and with that memory’s help, Leticia started to take charge.

Instead of running to the corner store and buying a bottle of booze the minute some man broke her heart, as nearly every man managed to do, Leticia sat herself down in the little apartment she’d gotten, thanks to the government, and lit some candles. Leticia had candles of all sizes and colors. mostly in glass, some that were scented. By the time she was done lighting candles and blowing out matches, the apartment smelled like carnations and long-stemmed roses.

That’s when Leticia sat down and quieted her mind. She started breathing in and out, as she’d been taught to do in some anger management class a long time ago. The breath coming in through her nose smelled so sweet and flowery, Leticia couldn’t help but imagine herself in a beautiful garden. With her mind’s eye, she watched the breath travel down into her lungs and enter her belly, where it swirled around, easing the old raw hurts before dropping to her legs. The breath eventually made its way down to her bare feet and toes, at which point she brought it up through her legs again.

Somlo is a former journalist who lives in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. This is her second published story collection, after The First to Disappear in 2016. She also has a memoir, When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace, in print.

Hairway to Heaven
By Patty Somlo
114 pp. Cherry Castle Publishing. $14.99.
Click Here to Order.

Photo by Richard L. Fung (c) 2018

Patty Somlo is the granddaughter of immigrants, She grew up in a military family that moved constantly. Her nomadic childhood has fueled her passion for writing about immigrants, refugees, the homeless and the dispossessed. Somlo spent ten years as a reporter, including at Pacific News Service, where her articles were picked up by major newspapers throughout the country, before concentrating on short fiction and creative nonfiction. Her journalistic focus on social issues reporting continues to inform her fiction.

George Clack is a writer, ex-magazine editor, and reviewer who lives in Columbia, MD. He teaches literature courses at Howard Community College and for the Johns Hopkins/Osher Program. Clack is also a member of IndivisibleHoCoMD’s Immigration Action Team; the editor of a weekly email newsletter, “Immigration News”; a board member of a Columbia-based literary magazine, the “Little Patuxent Review“; and blogs on creative writing under the name RasoirJ at Previously, he had a long career with the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Information Agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts as an editor of magazines, books, and Internet content.


Book Review: Freedom Ground of the Cosmic Underground

Freedom Ground of the Cosmic Underground
Review by Truth Thomas

The Cosmic Underground: A Grimoire of Black Speculative Discontent is an Afrofuturist manifesto, and a Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM) guidebook. In it, ideas and images are artfully arranged to inform and, hopefully, neutralize the arsenic-like effects of racism on the brutalized body of all black humanity. Featured in the invocation-like pages of this ambitious anthology, readers will find a stellar array of graphic art, essays, poetry, interviews, micro-fiction, and comics. The artwork consistently dazzles. Indeed, this collection aspires to be many things—and it largely succeeds. Arguably, the most intriguing theme that permeates the book is the suggestion that there is no segregation in the space/time continuum as it pertains to the vibrant black past, present, and freedom bound future.

If I were to attempt to describe this anthology in musical terms, I would say it is a kind of afro/techno/hip-hop/jazz—but not exactly. Art can never be pinned down like a butterfly on a page. Although the collection clearly has improvisational qualities in its expression of thoughts and illustrations, it cannot be so easily categorized. Cosmic Underground, edited by Dr. Reynaldo Anderson and John Jennings, with an introduction by Greg Tate, is its own new music—its own new thing. And that “thing” is a movement that embodies concepts that are entirely fresh and gaining strength in the black artistic and intellectual community. It is palpable and energizing evidence of Afrofuturist art as the art of activism in the early twenty-first century.

As I have previously publicly noted, when I was growing up in the 1970s, there was only one black person in space: Star Trek’s Nyota Uhura. She was fine, and I loved her. Still, that was it. No other black people existed in the stars, either on television or in the movies as permanent fixtures. It was widely understood that in Hollywood, and in life, space travel imaginings were exclusively the purview of white people. This was the zeitgeist of times. Indeed, within the context of school-based American history lessons, people of color were relatively nonexistent. Black folks only came into view within the framework of slavery. So, before we were enslaved, just as was the case on Gene Roddenberry’s Starship Enterprise, we had tokenism as our future and redaction as our much-instructed past. Any textbooks that taught otherwise were (by and large) not a part of mainstream curricula in school systems in the United States.

Back then to be a black American meant that you were the outhouse of America. Much as is the case in 2018, black Americans in the 1970s were systematically disenfranchised, oppressed, and repressed. Then as now, people of color were routinely murdered by the police (as well as by many other white people who were not badged as civil authorities). Few, if any of those folks doing the killing ever faced any punishment for their crimes.  In fact, long before Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland were essentially lynched by “law enforcement” in America, names like Bernard Whitehurst, Jr., Arthur McDuffie, and José Campos Torres also made that tragic list (Osborne: Dugger: Rincon). I mention all of this because “the problem of the [twenty-first] century” to borrow from W.E.B. Du Bois remains “the problem of the color-line” (Du Bois 19). Undoubtedly, the editors of the Cosmic Underground are keenly aware of this reality. It shows in the work. Black freedom thought, in response to racism worldwide, is presented as what it has been for centuries: ongoing.

It bears mentioning that even after America has seen the election of its first Black President in Barack Obama, few textbooks are written today (especially in the context of Humanities studies) that address the reality of contemporary racism in the context of that continuance. Certainly, fewer books still document black speculative thoughts about countering racism as a global phenomenon—particularly those written by African American scholars and published by black-owned presses. In that light, the significance of Cosmic Underground to the global community of color cannot be overstated.

Notwithstanding my excitement over this work, it strikes me that many young people (younger African Americans and those in the African Diaspora) will probably not find the academic language and intellectual excursions in the anthology accessible. As I know the editors of this collection aspire to arm current and future generations of black people with hope for an emancipated future, I find this realization regrettable. Not far from where I am writing this review (North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore), many young black boys are working the squeegee hustle at traffic lights just off of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Long and differing definitions of Afrofuturism would likely not be a subject that they would give an ear to for very long. Those kids, stranded in a digital desert are trying to eat, much like many poor black folks in D.C. and many other parts of the country. In that light, Cosmic Underground would not likely be the book that they would easily embrace (although the comics that the collection references would no doubt be of great interest).

However, to be fair, I can think of few books that address serious space/time reflections that are meant to be as easily consumed as popcorn. Perhaps that is as it should be. Great art, great science, great music, all have depth. What Anderson, Jennings and Tate have created in this anthology also has a similar aesthetic and intellectual depth. References to: Sun Ra, Bree Newsome, John Coltrane, Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, Michelle Alexander, MF Doom, George Clinton and many other scholars, artists and activists, frame the pages of their book like paintings in an art gallery unveiling. In that context, I think it is right to say that Cosmic Underground is, undoubtedly, very filling food for thought. It is something to be celebrated—and repeatedly taught—and boldly acknowledged for what it is: documentation of black visibility, moving in the past, stirring in the present, and actively creating a timely freedom future.


Cosmic Underground
Edited by Reynaldo Anderson and John Jennings.
Introduction by Greg Tate.
240 pp. Cedar Grove Books. $26.71.
Click Here to Order.

Dr. Reynaldo Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Chair of the Humanities department at Harris-Stowe State University in Saint Louis Missouri and serves as an executive board member of the Missouri Arts Council. He is the Past Chair of the Black Caucus of the National Communication Association (NCA). He has previously worked for international prison reform with C.U.R.E. International in Douala, Cameroon, and as a development ambassador in Ghana.  Anderson publishes extensively in the area of Afrofuturism, communication studies, and the African diaspora. He is the executive director and co-founder of the Black Speculative Arts Movement (BSAM), a network of artists, curators, intellectuals, and activists.

John Jennings is Professor of Media and Cultural Studies and a Cooperating Faculty Member in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. His work centers around intersectional narratives regarding identity politics and popular media. Jennings is co-editor of the Eisner Award-winning essay collection “The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art” and co-founder/organizer of The Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem.

Greg Tate is a writer, musician and producer, who lives in Harlem. From 1987-2005 he was a Staff Writer at The Village Voice. Tate’s  writings on culture and politics have also been published in The New York TimesThe Washington PostArtforum and  Rolling Stone. He has been recognized as one of the “Godfathers of Hiphop Journalism.” His books include Flyboy In The ButtermilkBrooklyn Kings-New York’s Black Bikers(with Martin Dixon), Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and The Black Experience, and Everything But The Burden–What White People Are Taking From Black Culture  His most recent book was published by  Duke University Press:  Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate ReaderHis forthcoming book, Beast Mode: 20 Iconic Gods and Monsters of the Late Twentieth Century Black Atlantic is contracted to FS&G.

Truth Thomas is a singer-songwriter and poet born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised in Washington, DC. His collections include: Party of Black, A Day of Presence, Bottle of Life, Speak Water, winner of the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry, and the critically acclaimed children’s book, My TV is Not the Boss of Me, with illustrations by Cory Thomas. His poems have appeared in over 150 publications, including: Poetry MagazineThe Journal of Hip Hop Studies, and The 100 Best African American Poems (edited by Nikki Giovanni) Thomas has been writing reviews since 2008. He is the founding editor of Cherry Castle Publishing.