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Pearl Cleage talks about writing and social change at MOJA

MOJA | Sharing the Stories



An Evening with Pearl Cleage
Sept. 30, 7 p.m.
Avery Research Center
125 Bull St.

Playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet Pearl Cleage has lived through, and written about, the social unrest and political changes that have shaped America over the past several decades.

As a writer, her works often focus on the challenges that African Americans and women have faced in the past, and continue to face as we move further into the 21st century.

She is the author of six bestselling novels, including the Oprah's Book Club pick, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, in addition to numerous plays, essays, and poems.

In anticipation of her appearance at this year's MOJA Festival, she took a moment to discuss her life as a writer and as an activist for social change.

CP: Both of your parents were very active in the Civil Rights movement. How did those early experiences inform your later literary work?

PC: They were crucial to my development as an artist. My household was always so politically charged and politically active that the idea of doing work that wasn't connected to wider movements never really occurred to me. It was kind of all the same piece — the artistic work I was doing and the activist work I was doing — which was really wonderful because the energy continued to feed back and forth. And my life is still like that. I don't really know any other way to write.

CP: And there's a great deal of political upheaval and unrest going on even to this day.

PC: Right, exactly. And I think that's a good thing. This is such a young country. It has to be in flux, it has to be in transition, because we're just figuring out what to do as a country. We can see it in our elections. We can see it in the relationships that the country has internationally. But I think the upheaval is good. Sometimes we wish that things would get straight and stay there, but it never happens. The real trick is in being a part of making it move the way you want it to move. That's what makes it fun — when you can claim it later and say, "We did that. We made this good thing happen."

CP: Between your early experiences with the civil rights movement and today, what have you seen that's gotten better, what's stayed the same, what's gotten worse?

PC: Clearly, in terms of racial politics in this country, it's much better. People don't have to risk their lives to vote. We take it for granted now, but in my time, people were being murdered or intimidated and terrorized, having their lives ruined, because of wanting to vote. That's a big thing.

And I think the adjustments that we, as African-American people, have to make on the other side of that right to vote are part of what we're in now. What does it mean to be a full citizen? What does it mean to have an African American as a major nominee? What does it mean for us to be a majority in many American cities? How do you become the insider and the citizen rather than the outside protester? Because it's disconcerting to all of a sudden look around and realize you're on the inside.

That's a different point of view about the world. I think that many times today, young people find those [civil rights era] experiences to be far removed from what they know their lives to be. It's like when I would listen to my parents talk about the Great Depression or World War II.

Being able to connect events somehow to our lives is important to how people understand history. Part of my work, especially at this time, is to look at some of those periods of time — the '60s and the '70s — and really try to make people remember emotionally what it was like to be part of such tremendous upheaval.

CP: You've expressed an interest in the past in communicating with as many women as possible. When you do a reading at an event like the MOJA Festival, what do you hope people will take away from the experience?

PC: I hope that they'll take away a better understanding of what it is that I'm trying to do, of the work that I do. I'm always very curious about what it is that they take away from the work that they've read. And it lets people have the experience of hearing an author read a work out loud, which is very different than reading it on the page. I'm a '60s child, so I grew up with the experience of people reading their poetry to you, and I'm so happy to see people doing a lot more of that now.

CP: And how about yourself, as the person doing the reading? What do you take away from the audience?

PC: Writing is such a solitary activity. The real pleasure for me of coming out to talk or do a reading is that it's not solitary. It's a community of people. And it's a great exchange of energy you can take back with you.

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