WBAI Radio Station
Wall Street, Manhattan
Before I went to Clarion (a six-week speculative fiction writing workshop), the New York Review of Science Fiction had a small crisis. Scott Westerfield had guest-edited a sci fi issue of Nerve magazine (a magazine about sex) and the NY Review of Science Fiction was hosting a reading from that issue. Problem was, no one who had contributed to the issue was available to read. So the director of the series Carol Cooper sent out an e-mail to a gaggle of people hoping someone would be able to come and read. Both Sheree Thomas (editor of Dark Matter) and I responded. We both remembered Carol’s kindness in hosting the Dark Matter reading in February and were eager to assist. We ended up doing something of a radio drama in front of a crowd of folks. The first thing we read was an interview Scott had done with Samuel Delaney. Scott read his questions, Sheree read Samuel Delaney’s responses, and I read excerpts of historical science fiction erotica chosen by Scott to illuminate his discussion with Delaney. It turned out to be a lot of fun. We also read some of the stories from the special issue of Nerve and I read an essay by Cecelia Tan.
Anyway, all of that to say, I ran into Jim Freund at the reading, he was taping the event for his weekly WBAI radio show Hour of the Wolf, a radio program he’s been doing for yyyyyyeeeeeeeaaaaarrrrrrrrsssss about speculative fiction. Someone told him I was heading to Clarion, he invited me to come on his radio show to talk about the Clarion experience when I returned. We picked a day, he warned me about the early-ness of the hour: hour of the wolf!, and I said I’d see him upon my return.
The night before the radio show, Jim asked if I had any Clarion stories to read. I had 6 Clarion stories to choose from, but all of them were first drafts. During the two short weeks I had been home from Clarion, I hadn’t even thought about working on them. Post-Clarion I wandered around New York like a zombie, driven only by dates with friends, the weekend of When Butterflies Kiss promotional activities, and the building of a web presence for myself.
“Well, what else do you have to read?,” Jim asked. I walked around my house, looking at print outs, looking for books, and I couldn’t find anything. “Well, Jim, I think I’m going to have to read from Dark Matter,” I told him. “Well, worse things have happened,” he said. And he started to explain to me why he was pushing me to read something new. He wants to give his listeners the opportunity to hear something they hadn’t read before. Dark Matter has been out for at least a year now. Additionally, he’s aware that a number of his listeners are blind, so he’s adamant about presenting a full story or a stand-alone chapter, he’s not fond of presenting excerpts.
As he was explaining all this to me, my gaze fell onto the cover of When Butterflies Kiss (a collaborative novel written by 10 different authors). “How speculative does the story need to be?” I ask Jim. “That’s up to the author,” he said. So I explained the When Butterflies Kiss project to him and told him how I originally wrote my chapter to be completely speculative, but how the writer who followed me turned it into a dream, so I had altered my chapter to keep the integrity of the novel. [I remember attending a Nalo Hopkinson reading for her anthology of fabulist fiction from the Caribbean entitled Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root. And she recalled how she asked for a speculative piece from a nonspeculative writer and he sent her a dream. And it was so well written, that she published it, but in the realm of science fiction and speculative fiction a dream is a big no-no. It’s considered a cop-out.] Jim said no problem.
So I hung up with Jim and called to order a cab pick-up for 4:15 A.M. Yes, that’s right, A.M. The Hour of the Wolf runs from 5:00 A.M. to 7:00 A.M. Jim and I pulled up at the station at the same time. There were three people out front of WBAI, they had a candle, a radio tuned to WBAI and a big sign demanding that the station manager/director be relieved from her job. We’ve been out here for 24 hours, one of them proudly proclaimed. One of the protestors handed me a newspaper article about the protest. I’m not really into radio, so I can’t really give any details of the problem. All I know is that the Pacifica Network, which is the most left (and perhaps only leftist) radio network, has been becoming more and more conservative. And the listeners, who are very involved, are protesting to make sure the radio station remains a voice of the people. Jim got involved in an intense discussion with them about the history of the station and some WBAI coup that Jim was involved in during the 70s.
At quarter to five, we went up to the radio station. After a brief tour of the premises, we went on the air. The radio host before us called himself the “resident redneck,” his show centers around wrestling and hillbilly music. Jim began the show with some music, then I talked about Clarion, what the instructors were like, how the student body worked together. I followed that by reading Treasure the Savior, my chapter from When Butterflies Kiss.
While I was reading, Jim got up and left the broadcasting studio to check on some things. After he left, it was a little difficult for me to keep focused on my reading. It was my first time reading to no one and someone at the same time. If I’m reading out loud at home to no one, I can stop when I want, I can make little notes of things I want to change, and it doesn’t really matter how many times my tongue gets tied. When I’m reading in front of an audience, I use them as a gauge for what’s being communicated. I can tell by their body language, their faces, the energy, whether or not they understand what I’m saying. If I stumble and go back to repeat the words, I can tell immediately if I lost the audience or not. Well, when I stumbled on air, there were no faces to tell me, go ahead, we’re still listening. It rapidly became a stream of words that I was reading aloud, but I couldn’t really tell if those words made sense. My mind was wandering, and I became paranoid that the listeners couldn’t follow the story.
We took a brief break during which Jim assured me the story made sense and he was able to follow along very well. (Jim had been listening from another room, whatever is on air is piped through the speakers at WBAI.) When we returned on air, Jim asked me about the development of the chapter. Not to spoil it for anyone, but there are two vicious dogs in my chapter. I explained to Jim how the first drafts of this chapter had more than thirty violent dogs and the editor and publisher were concerned that it would be too intense and too dark for the mainstream reader. They convinced me to pull it back and just use two dogs. Jim said, well the chapter is intense anyway. I agreed, and referred back to a conversation we were having at Clarion. Well, two conversations, one is sometimes writers go further than necessary to make a point or illustrate an emotion. I wanted thirty dogs, yet with two, the emotion and tenseness of the situation came through just as well.
The other conversation was about feasibility. Basically, everything in your story has to fit within the realm of reality you have set up. You don’t ever want your reader to stop and think, “Can that really happen?” Once the reader is thinking about the mechanics of the story, they are no longer engaged in your world. You’ve lost them.
Even things that have happened in real life may seem implausible once you put them in fiction. The attacking dogs came from a real moment when I was sitting in a park in Cuba. A stray female dog was in heat and out of nowhere this pack of at least 14 dogs came and started attacking her. One by one the dogs would jump on her and start humping. It was horrible to see, they were basically gang raping her and there was nothing she could do. She fought and struggled but there were too many of them. Finally some people from the neighborhood came with sticks and ran the male dogs off. That scene impressed me and I promised myself I’d do something with it one day.
One listener called in questioning my decision to simplify and lighten the darkness of the chapter. He cited Stephen King, saying King is a mainstream writer and a bestseller, people aren’t scared away by his books. I responded by talking about context. People expect to pick up Stephen King and be scared shitless. When Butterflies Kiss is a book about male/female relationships, the reader may or may not be prepared to face a pack of attack dogs in that kind of package.
Some of the callers were really funny. One of the callers called to complain about writers writing in the present tense. “Yeah, I read your story in Dark Matter and I noticed that you wrote it in the present tense. I really don’t like the present tense, and I’m noticing more and more writers are doing it. Why did you use the present tense?” I explained that I thought present tense gave a sense of urgency and immediacy. As “At Life’s Limits” is about this being spiraling out of control, at the mercy of her environment, I thought present tense would give the reader the best sense of what her experience was like. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s what a lot of writers say, but I just don’t like it.” “Well that’s the beautiful thing about writing,” I told him, “there’s something for every taste.”
The next caller asked for my phone number to arrange readings. I gave him my e-mail address. He told me he doesn’t have e-mail. I referred him to the public library. He went on to ask me why I write. I said, “most writers write because they have to…” He cut me off to say he didn’t ask about most writers, he asked about me. “Hold on,” I told him, “I’m getting to that.” One caller called to discuss Clarion. And another called to ask me if I’m from a city because he recognized the issues I talked about in my chapter from When Butterflies Kiss as a particular issue women have to deal with in cities.
The chapter opens with a woman being harassed by a man on the street. She gets out of the sticky situation by pretending to know the main character Dante and latching on to him to get away from her harasser. The woman and Dante have a whole conversation about sexual harassment on the street. I really appreciated that call because the sexual harassment issue is a big one in my life and the lives of many women I know. It’s an international problem for women, and for years it was a big mind trip for me to just walk down the street. I don’t think men understand the amount of mental pressure many women experience just trying to get from point a to point b. For some women, the streets are like the minefield of a war zone, men are mines to be avoided and negotiated. I was thrilled to hear that the issue caught someone’s attention and got his wheels turning about the issue.
Participating in Hour of the Wolf was a lot of fun. This month, I’m working on an essay about the sexual harassment on the street issue, but that’s another story.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam