The Skeleton Code

The surgeon is to what as a satirist is to words? The answer is scalpel. The surgeon uses it to cut out disease and the satirist uses words to mock a social ill. Authors Alla Campanella and Ken Massey ridicule secrets and the extremes to which people hid them in their book, The Skeleton Code: A Satirical Guide to Secret Keeping (Morgan James Books, 2017, 205 pages).

41wwwgtkxdl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The subtitle gives the reader some expectations. Few contemporary writers work the genre of satire and when they do, they used parable or vivid imagery for the social issue they wish to address and correct. Think of Orwell and totalitarianism in Animal Farm or Cervantes and idealism in Don Quixote. The touchstone for most readers might be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. I have given these examples because satire has range, whether it is imaginative, as in Orwell and Cervantes, or abrasive wit, as in Swift. Wit is neither humor nor Snark; it is intellect and associated with a rapier.

The Skeleton Code is not as abrasive as Swift. I’m not sure who the intended audience is for this book. The concept is unique. The writing is intelligent, informed with literary and pop culture allusions. Most of the chapters offer summaries. Some of those secrets and behaviors are cringe- worthy, depressing, but unfortunately realistic. Use the scalpel to excess, the blade becomes dull, and the patient bleeds too much from trauma and has a harder time healing. The book spent a lot of time on the types of secrets and their costs. The best chapter was The Cure and I suspect that readers will find it the most rewarding. The Skeleton Code is best read either in small doses for the humor, or when you need moral cheerleader and a road map, which you get from The Cure chapter.

Purchase links: Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I received this book free from Pro Book Marketing. I was not required to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


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Excerpt from Man of Honor

There was another smile, the scrape of tines, and a pause.

“I also know that your father left you and your mother.”

Though he squirmed in his chair, Alessandro tried to not feel humiliated by that truth. He had learned from his father that men were either wolves or sheep, and this man was a predator sizing him up. Was he, Alessandro Monotti, a threat to this man? The man’s knife and fork remained intent on his meal. Alessandro shivered at an unexpected breeze. Wolves hunt in packs, but few know that wolves are cannibals, that they find other dogs delicious, and that they eat their prey alive. The alpha male always ate first.

“Relax, I know many things about you; it is my business to know things. I know, for example, that you like to test boundaries. I also know that you have a vicious temper.”

“Vicious?” The inflection in his voice betrayed him. How did he know?

“School records – I had a look at your file. You like getting into fights.” He wiped the edge of his knife against the tines. “I admire that.”

“You admire that I get into fights?”

“It shows that you have a mind of your own, though one should learn to balance thought and feeling. This moving around, the life of a military brat – how do you feel about that?”

The man was on the hunt. He had a scent in the air. Alessandro said nothing. He waited. The man cut and ate, cut and ate another piece of stuzzichini.

“What does she have to say about that, about her husband leaving her alone to support a son?”

“That’s between them, sir.”

“Is it? You don’t think that you deserve even a modicum of respect?”

The man’s eyes examined him the way a teacher did with a slow student. More than just the correct answer was in the balance.

“I’m just a kid, sir. I haven’t had a chance to earn respect.”

“Then decency then, and honor,” the man said. “Men are supposed to have honor. You’re a young man.” He paused to drink some wine. “Your father left you to take care of your mother. Where is the honor in that? Furthermore, he disrupts his son’s education and has him enroll in another school far away from his friends. That’s no life.”

Their eyes met. The man reached for his glass of white wine again. The glass sweated in his hand. Alessandro had intended a smart reply, but the words came out wrong.

“I’ll make friends.”

“Which is why I thought that we should get to know each other. You need at least one friend. I’d like to be that friend. You’re a long way from the Arno, Alessandro Monotti. In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t Florence, this isn’t your Santa Maria Novella.”

“I’m impressed that you knew my neighborhood. What is it that you want in your friendship with me?”

“You’re straight to the point – another trait I admire about you.” The fork and knife came to rest on the rim of the plate. “It’s not so much what I want, but what I can offer you. I’d like for you to know that you have a home here and that I’m your friend.”

“You’re recruiting me then?”

“And I thought I was being subtle,” the man said.

Excerpt with permission from Winter Goose Publishing, 2016.





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Excerpt from Corporate Citizen (Roma Series Book 5)

CC-front“Is this Mr. DiBello?” said a woman’s voice through the long-distance connection.

“This is he,” Gennaro answered.

Bianca raised her eyes at hearing him speaking in English. She had just come into the room with their afternoon drinks. She was even more concerned that the call had come to Gennaro’s cell phone and not the house phone. They were apartment sitting for their friend Claudio Ferrero, La Stampa’s top investigative journalist, who was on assignment. This call also threatened their afternoon ritual of talks out on the balcony where they enjoyed the sights below of San Salvario, the neighborhood near Turin’s city center. Gennaro was motioning for her to come over and eavesdrop.

“What can I do for you?” he asked the caller.

“Not for me, Mr. DiBello. I’m calling on behalf of your friend, Diego Clemente. He asked me to dial your number for him. It’s not easy dialing Italy from a hospital phone.”

“Hospital?” Gennaro said, alarmed. His eyes flashed his concern to Bianca.

“I’m a nurse at MGH and he’s my patient. MGH is Mass General–”

“Hospital in Boston,” Gennaro stammered. “I know that. Scusi – I mean I’m sorry for interrupting you, but is Diego alright?”

“He took a fall at home and broke his hip,” the woman seemed to sigh, “slip rugs are dangerous, you know. He can tell you the rest himself. There isn’t much time.”

“Wait, please. Much time?” Gennaro asked, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“He’s due for surgery and I’ve started his IV. I’d say that you have about ten minutes before happy hour.”

Gennaro said, not understanding to Bianca. “IV…and ‘happy hour.’”

Bianca bared her forearm and explained in Italian: “Medication; probably anesthesia.”

The voice on the phone said, “I’ll hand over the phone to him so you two can talk.”

“Thank you, Nurse.”

“You’re welcome.” Gennaro heard the phone shuffle and heavy breathing. The connection improved. Gennaro and Bianca heard the pull of the curtain. “Diego?”

Another moment passed, and more ruffling sounds. Gennaro and Bianca huddled closer around the phone as Clemente spoke, “Slip rug, col cazzo.” Clemente had learned some Italian, but only the choice words. “That’s some hell of a story, from Mason Street to MGH and now a hip-replacement. Jesus, I can feel the drug working its way up my arm already.”

“You’re making no sense, Diego.”

“Gennaro, please listen to me, since I don’t know how fast Nurse Ratched’s cocktail will work.”

“Less than ten minutes. I’m listening.”

“Thanks. My head feels light. Damn.”

“Wait — where’s your wife? You shouldn’t be alone in a hospital.”

“My wife passed away. Look, Virgil showed me the apartment, the dead girl, and it’s a real mess, a real setup, and my life is going to hell. To hell, you understand, Gennaro, in a boat, hole in the bottom, and toothpicks for oars.” The voice was Diego irritated, in hyper mode.

“Slow down, Diego. I’m sorry about your wife. Why didn’t you tell me?”

A deep, relaxed sigh. “I didn’t want to trouble you. What could you’ve done? Send me a Mass card? You’ve been through it yourself.”

Gennaro’e eyes turned downward. He remembered Lucia. “But still, Diego. I’m your friend. Friends do something, and I don’t mean send you the latest self-help manual on grief.”

Bianca swatted his arm, “No time for sarcasm,” she said.

“I couldn’t help myself, he told her in Italian.

“Hello? Help me then.” Diego

“First, I need to understand what you’re telling me,” Gennaro said. “Who is Virgil?”

“I wish I knew, Gennaro. I wish I knew. I think Virgil is one of Farese’s people.”

“Farese?” The name, as it came out of Gennaro’s mouth, made Bianca’s eyes widen.

U.S. Attorney Michael Farese was a chameleon of a character, changing colors when he worked for the Department of Justice, when he handled diplomatic requests for the State Department, and when he worked for the CIA, as they thought he might have been after their last run-in with him during their investigation of the Camorra in Naples.

“Diego? Concentrate. Why do you think Farese?”

“That doesn’t matter. She’s dead and he’s dead.”

“Who? Who is she? Who is he?” Gennaro asked. His voice almost cracked.

“Norma Jean. She had such nice lingerie, too, and that son of a bitch was in such a nice bed.” Clemente’s voice was almost singing as he was speaking. The wonders of pharmacology.

Gennaro rubbed his eyebrows. He was frustrated. “Diego, stay with me. Who is Norma Jean? Who was in the bed?”

“Marilyn Monroe was a sad girl.” Diego giggled.

“He’s giggling,” Gennaro said to Bianca.

“Oh, it’s a party line!” Diego almost shouted. “Who else is there?”

“Bianca,” Gennaro announced. “She is staying with me.”

“You naughty boy,” Diego said. “Put her on, please.”

“Here,” Gennaro handed his cell phone to Bianca. “Talk to him. I think the medication has gotten into his brain.”

Bianca seized the phone. “Clemente, this is Bianca,” she said, hoping that using the man’s last name would snap some momentary sense into the man’s head. “Forget about Marilyn Monroe. Who is dead?”“Marilyn, of course. Somebody murdered her,” Diego answered.

“Marilyn, of course. Somebody murdered her,” Diego answered.“That’s right, but who is in the bed?”

“That’s right, but who is in the bed?”

“James Guild, former special agent, FBI, scourge of my loins.”Bianca put her hand over the receiver and repeated, “Guild is dead.”

Bianca put her hand over the receiver and repeated, “Guild is dead.”

“Porca puttana.” Gennaro stepped in closer to the receiver. “What happened, Diego?”

“Hell if I know. Virgil gave me the tour of hell. I got nice slippers, though. He had a needle in his arm.”“Virgil had a needle in his arm?” Bianca asked.

“Virgil had a needle in his arm?” Bianca asked.Clemente became belligerent. “I just told you Guild had a needle in his arm. He was in that expensive bed. I saw it. No gun, too. Norma was out in the living room. He was in her bedroom. Nice bed, and what a nice view, and did I tell you what a beautiful kitchen she had?”

Clemente became belligerent. “I just told you Guild had a needle in his arm. He was in that expensive bed. I saw it. No gun, too. Norma was out in the living room. He was in her bedroom. Nice bed, and what a nice view, and did I tell you what a beautiful kitchen she had?”Gennaro asked, “I couldn’t hear that last part. What did he say?”

Gennaro asked, “I couldn’t hear that last part. What did he say?”“Nice kitchen,” she said in English “He’s getting delirious.”

“Nice kitchen,” she said in English “He’s getting delirious.”“I’m not delirious,” Clemente yelled. “I’m serious! Oh, that rhymes.”

“I’m not delirious,” Clemente yelled. “I’m serious! Oh, that rhymes.”

“Please focus, Clemente,” Bianca said.

“I saw it. I saw the computer. My life, your life…it all goes to shit.”Bianca, trying a soothing voice, said, “You saw a computer. What did you see, Clemente?”

Bianca, trying a soothing voice, said, “You saw a computer. What did you see, Clemente?”

“Black, black background,” Diego’s voice was now sputtering.

In a coaxing tone and hoping for more details, Bianca asked, “What else did you see?”

“Big, big.” More sputtering. Bianca closed her eyes.“Big red R!” Diego said triumphantly.

Bianca and Gennaro understood what they had heard: black background and red R.

She said softly, “Fuck me.”

“Lingerie?” Clemente asked. Bianca handed the phone back to Gennaro. She put her hands to her temples, rubbed them. She thought of Boston, the Sargent case, Nasonia Pharmaceutical, and the body count.

“Diego, this is Gennaro again. We’re coming to Boston.”

“That would be nice. Somebody should feed the floor people. I feel sleepy now,” Clemente said, mewing. Gennaro stared at his phone before he put it to his ear again.

“Get some sleep, Diego. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

Gennaro heard more purring and then the cacophonous drop of the receiver on the floor on the other end. He ended the call on his cell phone.

“Did he say anything else?” Bianca asked.

“He said someone should feed floor people. I think he has cats.”

“How do you know he has cats?” she asked.

Blame it on hanging around Silvio.” Bianca didn’t question the logic. Silvio was a translator, Farese’s interpreter, their friend, member of the team, and lately, animal whisperer.

“We should go to Boston,” Gennaro said.

“He saw the red R.”

“I know. You should call Dante.”

“Do I really have to?” she asked.

“Yes, and you have to tell him.”

“Which part? Clemente and Guild, or that Clemente saw the red R.”

“Doesn’t matter. Tell him everything,” Gennaro said. “It adds up to the same.”

Red R meant Rendition.

Excerpt published with permission from Winter Goose Publishing

Available 5 October 2016

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Excerpt from Two Warriors

He had the AC on. He waited for his chance to claim his spot on the highway. He had the radio on. Retro song. He heard the Spanish word colitas in the lyrics. He thought of the language he hadn’t spoken in years. The lilt of her Spanish lived inside his head. Music opened a door that he didn’t want to enter right now. Papà was gone. She was gone. His eyes burned. He had to change the station.

The drive, this embryonic sac of life inside a mechanical beast, would last only so long. He’d have to open the door and take on reality soon. For now, though, for now he’d enjoy the reverie, something on the radio.

The news reported an earthquake in México City. Thousands were missing, feared dead. He heard it in the reporter’s voice. Farrugia deplored this morbid fascination with natural disasters. He heard 8.1 on the Richter scale and the geologist’s analysis. He was thinking concrete and dust. He was thinking Guadalajara cartel, pesos and dollars, cocaine and guns. Those things never slept or died. He turned to another station.

A Ramazzotti tune hurled him back in time. The singer, popular with southern boys such as himself, came from a working-class neighborhood. Ramazzotti had Rome and he, Isidore Farrugia, had San Luca of the Sticks. Different places, but they both shared the same nihilism. He turned the dial again.

He settled into some American music. The synth sounds of Duran Duran recalled parties off the base. Girls with glossed lips and guys with outrageous hair. The synthesizer made its appearance again, rolling in this time with Sting’s breathy ditty about a possessive lover, or was it his homage to Orwell? Never mind. He listened to it anyway.

Madonna made him think of music videos. Video Music, the music channel, was the trend for kids now. He’d see them huddled around a television set, eating up Berlusconi’s programing. Dallas and Dynasty—shows RAI stopped televising after three episodes because of their alleged corruptive power. And he hadn’t forgotten how odd, how cool it was, to have commercials interrupt movies. So fashionable, so chic and cool, so very American. So not RAI.

The sea came into view on his right. Blue raced parallel to the car. The Strait of Messina threatened ahead. He thought of the earthquake he had heard about earlier on the radio. Messina was known for seismic activity. “It could have happened here,” he said to himself.

Soon, he’d see the two rock formations. Homer had sung of Scylla, who ate men and dolphins alike. Scylla had been born a nymph. Glaucus, a fisherman, had fallen in love with her, but had made a terrible mistake; he complained about his unrequited love to Circe. The witch’s brew transformed the attractive girl into a hideous monster with six heads. She raged against the sea from her home in the cliff.

Across from her, there was Charybdis. She was the dutiful and loving daughter of Poseidon. She rode the tides like a California surfer for her father in his war against Zeus. Women always paid the price for men. Zeus exiled her to a cave, to live under a fig tree. Three times a day she’d drink in the sea, ships and sailors with it. Farrugia could hear his old chum Corrado now.

There’s an abundant poetic metaphor for you, Isidò. The Strait of Messina is nothing more than a blue vein between Italy and Sicily. Things are not what they seem, though, because neither blood nor veins are blue. No, they are not. Any kid in elementary biology could tell you that, but we forget what we’ve learned in school. It’s all an illusion. Blood is blood and blood is always red, even when it is starving for breath. Farrugia admitted it; he preferred poetry to science.

Excerpt with permission from Winter Goose Publishing, 2016.


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Hammett on Hammett: The Case of the Mystery Editor

Maxwell Perkins coached and encouraged F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gordon Lish often slashed more than half of Raymond Carver’s stories. Thanks to letters, journals, and literary scholars, readers can see the trajectories of manuscripts from draft to printed page. Not just in prose, but also in poetry. What about the author who self-edits his or her own work?

Readers are not inclined to think of editing as a crime scene, but there are fingerprints everywhere, at least with current software technology. Track Changes, for instance, leaves a digital fingerprint for every keystroke. It’s all there: Who did What, When and Where, although the Whys are not readily apparent unless the editor uses Comments. But what kind of editing are we talking about – copy, proofing, continuity, or line editing?

dash apartmentLet’s look at The Maltese Falcon and do some sleuthing. Whether it was Sam Spade or the Continental Op, Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) changed crime fiction. He wrote a slew of short stories, five novels, and screenplays until he ran afoul of Senator Joe McCarthy and paid dearly for his idealism. He also edited his own work.

Image source

Richard Layman and Otto Penzler stated that there are over 2,000 variants between the Black Mask and LoA versions of The Maltese Falcon. Penzler reprinted the serialized novel, as it appeared in print in The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2012).

In Notes on the Text, the LoA editors claimed that Hammett kept most of his original language (not true, as we will soon see) and Knopf simply had corrected typographical errors. LoA lists those errors, but they fall significantly short of 2,000.

Let us examine the scene.

The Body: The Maltese Falcon.

Time frame: The Maltese Falcon appeared serialized in Black Mask, from September 1929 to January 1930. Knopf published an edition on Valentine’s Day, 1930. Hammett’s first volume from Library of America (LoA), using the Knopf edition, was published in 1934, securing his place in American letters.

Suspect 1: Joseph Shaw, the editor at Black Mask. He claims to have edited and entitled chapters for Maltese for serial publication.

Suspect 2: Harry Block, the editor at Knopf. He sent Hammett requests for changes, particularly to the novel’s sexual content.

Suspect 3: Dashiell Hammett. The author claims to have agreed to Shaw’s copy edits, to Knopf’s proofing for typographical errors and, despite Block’s request to excise scandalous content, kept most of the original language, knowing that he was testing morality.

Charge: Hammett had both copyedited and revised Falcon for Knopf.

Evidence: If you know either the novel or the film version with Humphrey Bogart, you’ll recognize that the passage below is the confrontation scene between Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaugnessey. What kind of edits do we see here?

Strikethroughs are deletions from original Black Mask for the LoA edition.

Bold text indicates additions found in the definitive Maltese Falcon.

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more, and then we’ll give it up. In my part of the world when your partner’s killed you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens that were in the detective business. Well, when one of your employees, or a partner, or anybody connected with your detective business is killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around, bad for that one agency, and bad for every detective – bad all around. Third, I’m a detective, and expecting me to run any criminal down and then let him go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and then let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing.”

“But –”

(Black Mask Maltese Falcon, Penzler page 215)

“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around bad for that one organization, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go, It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing. The only way I could have let it go was by letting Gutman and Cario and the kid go. That’s–

“You’re not serious,” she said. “You don’t expect me to think that these things you’re saying are sufficient reason for sending me to the–”

(Knopf 1930 edition and Library of America, pages 581-82)

Is deleting a comma, a conjunction, a dash, correcting spelling mistakes copyedits or proofreading marks from Block’s staff? If so, it stands to reason that Shaw’s editors may have rushed Falcon to print and didn’t catch all the typos.

As you can see phrases were rearranged for flow. Deleting “employees, or a partner, or anybody connected with your detective business” eliminates wordiness. The addition of “organization” not only flows better, but it bolsters Spade’s argument for ethical action. Again, inconclusive whether these edits are Block and his staff. I suspect that Hammett was proofreading Block’s galley when he decided to edit it. The result is a revision.

The additional lines in blue were not in Black Mask. The missing word is “gallows.” The revision packs a wallop. I’ll bet that this revision comes from Hammett himself.

This is not the only revision in Falcon. There are more. Hammett added profanity in describing his Miles Archer and he revised scenes with Joe Cairo and Gutman to create a leaner and spicier final version of The Maltese Falcon. Hammett edited Hammett.


Shaw copyedited Hammett, as they went to press.Block copyedited and proofed Shaw’s 5-part manuscript.

Block copyedited and proofed Shaw’s 5-part manuscript.

Hammett copyedited, proofread and revised Block and himself.


Does the evidence support the verdict?

I know that in editing my own work I can’t see missed words and punctuation. I’m too close to the text. I trust my editor to catch the and finesse the lumps out of the carpet. I have another person read for continuity. Did my protagonist enter and leave the room with the same color shoes? With proofreading, I rely on printed copy because it is either on the page or it isn’t. However, fixes from all of my editors will often give me copy in which I might see something new, and I’ll do small revisions to improve characterization and plotting.

What does this example teach you about editing your own work?

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Paladins: a charity anthology against Cancer

paladinMark Wilson’s cover art for Paladin, the charity anthology that editor Aidan Thorn put together to drum up financial support and recognition for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation in honor of ‘Henri’ Furchetnicht, wife of Brit Grit crime writer Craig Furchetnicht and inspiration to a cadre of writers and friends in the UK, is astonishing as it is poetic.

My story, ‘Back in the Day,’ appears in Paladins; its inclusion is of double significance for me. I wrote the story in 2010 using first person, a rarity for me. ‘Back in the Day’ was also my second publication, shortlisted for the Fish Prize that year, a story that Ronan Bennett would praise for its unique voice. I had to decline the invitation to participate in the author presentation in Ireland because I had a prior appointment with The Big C, cancer. The details of my treatment are too harrowing (and difficult for me) to recount here. Let’s just say that I still live with the consequences today, with the scars, the losses, and the medications that, ironically, compromise my health. The entire saga was a glimpse of hell from the other side of the divide. See, I’m an experienced nurse. I simply knew too fucking much. So, in a word, this anthology is personal to me.

A few years ago, I started becoming acquainted with the British Scene, with the edgy prose worlds of Paul D. Brazill, Ryan Bracha, Craig Furchtenicht, Cal Marcius, Gareth Spark, and Graham Wynd. These stories were noir, as in bad choice, questionable character, and a cascade of consequences. I glimpsed the feral worlds that faces (British slang for gangster) like Paul Ferris and The Kray Brothers would understand. It’s called Brit Grit. I’m an American, an outsider, so I took in the smoke that I imagined inside the pubs, along with the pulled pints, and I navigated the argot I read in these stories. I would hear and see the solidarity of working-class man and woman forced to eat the sandwich called Life. Grit, to me, is also that intrinsic quality, that speck of insanity to fight the fight when any normal person would quit.

Nobody should have to fight cancer alone. Right or wrong, rich or poor, nobody asks for cancer. The fight affects us all. Every one of us will experience cancer at some point in our lives.

16BackintheDayLet’s be honest and set aside the BS we see on television. Cancer is down-in-the-trenches ugly. Cancer is war, literally Self against Self. The clinician here will tell you one semantic Truth: there is no such thing as a ‘good cancer.’ Clinicians such as myself were trained to use the word ‘patient.’ Well-meaning people say ‘victim’, but who wants to be called a victim? We have forgotten that our diction distances common humanity. A person with cancer is a person, a human being: someone’s mother, daughter, brother, father, or lover. We are all connected. I can tell you as a ‘patient’ who has seen the best and absolute worst of life and death in hospitals in my practice, not much matters in the last few minutes of this short existence, other than having loved or been loved. Nothing.

There is Light and Shadow. There is Life and Death.


These are mirrored reflections, captured so well in the cover art, as I see it.

In his essay, Aidan had discussed the title, Paladins, and its meaning. The word is a corruption of the Latin palatinus, or knight of the palace. In modern Italian, it is a byword for ‘advocate’ or ‘supporter,’ as in a just case. I’m confident that any writer in this anthology wouldn’t dare say that he or she is a warrior, but we would agree that we support a good a cause. Warriors are forged in the crucible of adversity, both physical and mental. They fight and they help others. Writers use words as weapons against the shadows even when they choose to write about darkness. It’s an honor for me to join these writers to sharpen our words and point the spears at a formidable enemy. We sixteen writers assembled here on these pages, with support from the ranks on both sides of the ocean and around the world, muster morale and call for support for Henri and others like her who fights cancer.

They are the warriors.

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The Magical Negro

The title of this post comes from Matthew Hughey by way of Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist. She quotes the professor, a sociologist, in her essay-review of the film, The Help, adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel. In Bad Feminist she ‘survives’ Django Unchained IAJU_Bad_Feminist_Roxane_Gay– although I do think that she missed Tarantino’s excessive use of the N-word for what it was supposed to be: Satire. She offers praise to Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’s The Butler, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, although with reservations around the role of Patsey in that last film.

12 Years, based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, she saw as yet another “struggle narrative,” but it is the feral violence within John Singleton’s Rosewood, also based on an historical event, this time in 1923 Florida, where the White community, on what turned out to be a false allegation of sexual assault, visited horrific violence upon the Black community that warranted for Gay a “voluntary three-day segregation.” RosewoodSetting aside the observation that African-American directors directed all the films that she liked, I want to address a passing comment that she makes at the end of her critique of The Help.

Gay asks and answers a rhetorical question: Can a writer write outside of his or her racial experience, sexual orientation and, by extension, culture, class, and ‘privilege’? As a creative person, as an educated woman, she answers: “Yes” but, as a Haitian-American she is cynical and suspicious of white writers when it comes to race. White writers and Hollywood, in particular, can’t help but write in the Magical Negro, she tells readers.

Journalist John Howard Griffin whited himself out (literally) to a shade of brown in order to write his Black Like Me (1961), a chronicle of what it was to be a colored man in the American South of the Fifties. johnhowardgriffin2-largeThe publication of Black Like Me predated King’s arrest “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the numerous sit-ins that followed and the deputized white men in cars waving Confederate flags to terrorize peaceful protestors. Black Like Me still inspires mixed responses from readers. In 1967, Random House published William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin praised. A year later, with a nation reeling from the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and riots, Confessions had taken the Pulitzer Prize, but not without some backlash, which had come in the form of a critical beating in a publication entitled Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Gay’s questions had been posed back then already. Can a white writer write the African-American experience?

31MCM53B4QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Styron was vilified. The consensus opinion was that Styron had crafted an historical distortion of facts, perpetuated racial stereotypes, and substituted his own racism. That Styron was a southerner, a Virginian, amounted to self-incrimination. Detractors claimed that Styron posits Turner’s Rebellion with his character’s lust for a white woman – miscegenation was a crime until the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia – and not with a slave’s suppressed hatred for the society that equated his personhood with private property. The other charge leveled at Styron was plausibility, since Styron’s Turner is a man who uses educated speech and demonstrates obvious intelligence. Another criticism was that Styron had sanitized white slave owners as being kind and decent to their slaves. Readers had long forgotten Northrop and did not yet have Alex Haley’s Roots. To invert Gay and Hughey’s wording: Styron had written Magical Whites and Maniacal Negroes.

How could a white man write the slave experience? Styron responded in the first edition and again, in 1992, with a special Afterword for the Vintage reprint of Confessions. Styron had been candid; he had taken wide liberties with historical facts, using the lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray’s 1831 publication of Turner’s confessions, which served as actual court testimony. Styron had this one document and, no doubt, the biased oral tradition on both sides of the racial divide about the two-night killing spree in August of 1831. Styron was explicit that his work was Fiction.

The preface to Thomas Ruffin Gray’s 1831 publication is quoted in the first pages of Styron’s Confessions. smallTurner’s language is indeed that of an educated man. His master, Benjamin Turner, had had Turner learn how to read and write in order for him to entertain guests. After the insurrection, Virginia would pass prohibitive laws against educating slaves. Styron’s fictionalization fastened on two discordant historical facts: Turner had escaped the plantation but returned to it on his own. Throughout the original 1831 deposition, Turner exhibits fervent religiosity, claiming visions and an ordained purpose in life. In a word, critics claimed that Styron had besmirched an icon by suggesting that a charismatic, devout Nat Turner, who had hoped his violence would inspire waves of armed rebellion, was a psychopath, no different than Charles Manson, who believed a race war was imminent.

The violence in The Confessions of Nat Turner is graphic: axes and knives were used to murder men, women and children. Turner, however, spared poor white folks, seeing them as no better than slaves. This decision alone suggests a profound insight into race and wealth. Nat Turner was the last participant of the rebellion to be executed. His body was sold for dissection and desecrated. White reprisal after the insurrection was swift and violent throughout the South. A section of Virginia State Route 658 would become a veritable Appian Way, where the decapitated heads of suspected participants were staked and displayed as a warning to slaves. A generation later, John Brown would attempt his abortive raid on Harper’s Ferry.

William Styron would write Sophie’s Choice (1979). There was some criticism around his eroticizing Sophie, but none of the responses to that work ever approached the furor that Confessions had provoked. He was not accused of having dared to write a Holocaust story, or a woman’s story, but the tide of politically correct opinion would change that. In 2010, Yann Martel would court controversy with his Beatrice and Virgil because he was a Gentile writing about the Holocaust. It would seem that Gay is right: only the oppressed have the right to write their own fiction. Black is not only a matter of race, but it is a color that cannot be erased. Black is visible and undeniable. In 2009, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones sparked controversy because the author, a Jew, had written a novel from the point of view of a sadistic SS officer. His crime was not a matter of authenticity, the Holocaust, but one of demonstrating poor taste.

I’ll end here with an observation; this one is from Euripides’s Medea (photo is from a South African production, 1994-96, performed by the Jazzart Dance Theatre.) medeaMedea is the epitome of the woman scorned, but what makes her monstrous is not her gender, nor her lack of maternal instinct, but the simple fact that she is not Greek – she is a barbarian. She, too, is Maniacal. America has not accepted all of its citizens; it has mythologized some as Noble Savages, or as Magical. America sees and fears Black as Other, as Barbaric. The same logic, however, that justified slavery would rationalize Manifest Destiny. Put another way, in this social construct called America, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, society finds “an eye for an eye” a far easier modus operandi than “turn the other cheek.”

Perhaps then, I am naïve: Imagination should have no walls, no boundaries. No privilege. Judge a story by how it is told and how it speaks to this human estate of living, loving, and dying. Don’t judge it by who is telling the story, for nobody owns Humanity.

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