Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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Vol. 16, Kwanzaa in Art, Writing, and Life

Posted on 3 January 2002


During my childhood, Kwanzaa was the only holiday my family celebrated. No birthdays, no New Year’s hoopla, no Christmas. Kwanzaa was a time of morning candle lighting and discussion of the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles of Kwanzaa) and evening cultural celebrations. One of my most memorable Kwanzaa moments was in the early 90s. My brother and I were home from college. My mother was there; I’m not sure who else was present. We lit the candles and read the quotes for the principle of the day. Then came the moment when we were supposed to talk about how we could use the principle of the day in our lives. My brother volunteered to speak which was a big surprise because both my brothers resisted any participation in Kwanzaa (and in every other family centered event). He said he had decided to practice Kujichagulia (self determination) and quit school and move back home. I looked over at my mother; we were both shocked at the news. I thought it was a very smart move on my brother’s part. Besides my parents always encouraging us to think for ourselves, he was positioning his decision to come home as an act of Kujichagulia. What could my parents say?

As we are in the midst of Kwanzaa, I decided it’d be a great lens for looking at writing and creating art.

UMOJA (UNITY)
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

I think unity is the one thing that is an objective measure of mastery. Do all the parts work together for the good of the whole? A master artist knows how to pull the strings into a tight weave. Seemingly disparate elements and unconnected events, come together at the close, drawing you through well-crafted art.

Umoja is essential. A powerful character displays unity of thought, action, and deed with the intentions of the story. The character’s actions must be in unity with his/her motivations. [Similar to the key to living a powerful life. Your actions must be in unity with your goals, dreams, desires.] And the actions that make up the plot must be in unity with each other. How many times have you seen a movie where you were swept into the story, then something ridiculous happens, and you’re groaning at the implausibility of the act? In that moment of disjunction, the writer lost his or her grip on the viewer. Suddenly the reader/viewer becomes conscious of the story. When we are aware of the story, then something has failed. We are no longer IN the story. It’s like seeing the strings in a magic trick, the magic and art of the moment is ruined.

In my novel-writing group, a writer was working on her outline. She had characters flying from here to there, moving from this coast to that. It was entertaining, the locations were exciting, but the actions didn’t ring true. She was moving the characters around like chess pieces, at her whim. Their actions reflected HER desires, rather than the dictates of the tale. When she started to let the story tell itself, the actions became a tight ball. Each action sprang naturally from each character’s motivation. Simultaneously, the characters became more tightly connected. Unity makes a story have its own force of action. It creates a flow in life and art.

KUJICHAGULIA (SELF DETERMINATION)
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

After a few weeks in Clarion West, I kept getting the same comments: your characters don’t make any decisions. Things just happen to your characters, what choices do they make? Of course, it’s o.k. to write a story about someone whose life or environment overwhelms them, but it must be a conscious decision. To allow my characters to speak for themselves, to allow them to choose a course of action and let the consequences ripple from their decisions was a difficult shift for me to make. Similarly in life, it can be easier to float through and blame our discomforts on others. We like to blame our lack of achievement on past failures, rather than defining and creating a life worth living for ourselves. In fiction, Kujichagulia is having a plot happen THROUGH a character rather than TO a character. Let the terrors fall because of a choice made, let the success come through a path chosen. Happenstance can only be interesting for so long.

UJIMA (COLLECTIVE WORK AND RESPONSIBILITY)
To build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.

Let every character pull their own weight. Let every character contribute to the building and maintenance of the story. Does your main character really need three best friends, four grandparents, and 12 houses? Does the comic relief add to the story? Alternately, does the culmination of the story address all the plot lines. Are they all braided together in a tight weave? Does each problem inform the other, causing waves and ripples to each corner of the story? Does each problem bring a new level of resonance to the final outcome?

Now, I know this is outside of the realm of “make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems,” but I tend to think of everyone contributing when I think of Ujima. In his book Bullshit or Fertilizer, Pierre Bennu (www.exittheapple.com) takes a zero tolerance approach to people who aren’t helping to build or maintain you as an individual. I can’t help but include it here:

“Get your phone book right now.

Get a black sharpie marker.

With the exception of family, go over anyone’s name who is not helpful/supportive to your goals. All your friends should have something to do with “IT,” even if it’s just encouragement. If they don’t inspire you as much as you inspire them, they are vampires feeding off your spirit.

It sounds harsh, but just see how refreshed you feel when they’re not calling you anymore.

My suggestion: cut off anyone who tells you, “you can’t.”

(Yes, her, too)”

UJAMAA (COOPERATIVE ECONOMICS)
To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit together from them.

Hmmm, I don’t think I can make cooperative economics fit for fiction writing. As an artist, I deeply believe in supporting other artists financially, as well as, energetically (showing up at shows, offering praise and encouragement, checking in on their artistic progress). Within groups of artists, so much growth is possible when each person shares the wealth of their gifts with the others. In creating my novelists group, I am getting support from writers to keep moving forward with my novel, but simultaneously I am sharing what I learned by teaching them about outlines, encouraging them to take risks, and insisting that we all just keep moving. Now, four months after the inception of the group, two people are a few chapters away from the first draft of their novels, three people are one third towards the completion of their novel, and two others have completed outlines that map out their novels. We did this by coming together in a community and sharing resources and encouragement. Alone, none of us would have made it this far. (In fact, we’ve all tried to do it alone, and failed for various reasons. The biggest reason is that when we get stuck, we have nowhere to turn.)

Also, passing on contacts, can be another way of cooperative economics, passing on job opportunities, agents’ phone numbers, and calls for publications. In another scenario, I have met three groups of people working on three distinct projects on the same topic: catcalling. So I put them all in touch and they organized a forum to discuss the topic. At the forum, one moderated, another took notes, another arranged sound and filming. Each person’s ideas are benefiting, sharpening, and tightening the concepts of the others’ projects. Each individual project is spurring the other artists on to realize their projects. Together we can set up systems to help foster progress and growth in our artist communities.

And, while I have my Bullshit or Fertilizer out, Pierre has this to say about cooperative economics:

“Don’t think of your friends as customers.

They’re your friends… and they’re probably artists too. They might buy your CD but then you’re going to have to buy theirs when it comes out, so it’s really just a recycling system.

If you want to develop an audience/readership you’ve got to move outside of your circle of friends, no matter how supportive they are. Go to a new town; enter a new scene. Your friends will support you. That’s what friends are for.”

NIA (PURPOSE)
To make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Nia is self explanatory, and relevant on so many levels. It’s important to know your Nia as an individual. Who are you? Because you are, what is possible or present in the world? What is your energy? What do you offer to friends, family and acquaintances? Who are you as a writer/artist? What are you attempting to foster, create, support, advertise with your work? Who are you attempting to reach? What energies are you attempting to multiply? What is the purpose of the story you are writing? Does the tone support the purpose? If it’s a happy story with a morbid tone, does that defeat the purpose? Do your characters and plot points support your purpose? Are you achieving your purpose?

KUUMBA (CREATIVITY)
To do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

That is beautifully worded. It is so profound in its simplicity. As a writer, as a human being, all you have to do is as much as you can, in the way that you can. Write stories in your voice, using your ideas, to the best of your abilities. It reminds me of these guidelines I found on a poster, and then later in a book entitled “How to Find Your Mission in Life” by Richard N. Bolles. He says, among other things: “we need… to unlearn the idea that our unique Mission must consist of some achievements which all the world will see, and learn instead that as the stone does not always know what ripples it has caused in the pond… so neither we nor those who watch our life will always know what we have achieved by our life and by our Mission. It may be that by the grace of God we helped bring about a profound change for the better in the lives of other souls around us, but it also may be that this takes place beyond our sight, or after we have gone on. And we may never know what we have accomplished.”

I think it’s so amazing how one piece of art can mean absolutely nothing to one person, and that same piece of art can be the thing that stops someone else from committing suicide. And we, as the creators of that art, don’t know how the work is going to impact anyone. Even after 15 people say they don’t like it, it may still be a masterpiece, it may still be the key to someone’s salvation. Art is amazing that way.

The simple directive of “as much as we can, in the way that we can” can free so many people, to just do what it is in them to do. In Richard Bolles’s world, our missions on Earth are threefold, the first two elements are shared by everyone on earth [interestingly the second element is “to do what you can, moment by moment, day by day, step by step, to make this world a better place”], the third is yours and yours alone. It is:
a. to exercise that Talent which you particularly came to Earth to use your greatest gift, which you most delight to use,
b. in the place(s) or setting(s) which God has caused to appeal to you the most,
c. for those purposes which God most needs to have done in the world (these he defines as create more Truth in the world, more Beauty in the world, or more Perfection through Service to others in the world)

What a relief to view as our mission/responsibility to do what you most delight doing in the places you most delight doing it as a contribution to the world. Bolles says our missions are “written in our members.” I say, create on.

IMANI (FAITH)
To believe with all our hearts in our parents, our teachers, our leaders, our people and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Faith is the principle that allows artists to spend huge amounts of time with masses of raw material believing it will become art. Faith is the principle that inspires teachers to spend time with rowdy kids and therapists with “unreachable” mental patients. It’s the belief in the outcome, the belief in the “righteousness and victory of the struggle.” Without it, a book would not be written, a country would not be established, a marriage would not be consummated, and none of us would keep on living day after day after day.

As my aunt and cousin have reminded me throughout Kwanzaa: may you practice the Nguzo Saba on this day and every day of your life.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :

Acceptances:
Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Rejections:
Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==

No acceptances and no rejections this week.