A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
As we wrap up Women’s History Month, I reflect on the difference the heroines in my novels have made in the world they lived in and today, including in my own life.
From A’isha bint Abi Bakr, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad and protagonist of my novels The Jewel of Medina and The Sword of Medina, to the four amazing sisters from Provence who all became European queens, to the 12th-century scholar Heloise d’Argenteuil, who became lovers with her teacher in a scandal that rocked Paris, all my heroines have given me strength and inspiration when I’ve needed it most.
A’isha was a strong and shrewd woman who refused to give in when men, jealous of her power, tried to shut her down. After Muhammad died, she went on to become a great warrior and statesman, and the most highly esteemed religious authority in the Muslim world.
Marguerite, Eleonore, Sanchia, and Beatrice, the sisters in Four Sisters, All Queens, used their status as queens–in spite of being married at frightfully young ages, barely pubescent–to fight for peace and to unite fragmented nations as well as to strengthen their own family’s stature.
Heloise, the heroine of The Sharp Hook of Love, gave all she had to the love of her life, the great philosopher Peter Abelard. She embraced a kinky sex life with him, refused to marry him saying she preferred “freedom to chains,” and gave up their child to protect his position in the Church. When, disgraced, he insisted she become a nun, she went on to found her own convent, where she instituted many reforms that benefited women, and grew it to become one of the largest convents in France.
And then there’s Josephine Baker, protagonist of Josephine Baker’s Last Dance, my most recent book. A famous comic, dancer, object of desire and singer, she used her fame as a platform from which to fight Nazi Germany as well as racism in the United States. For me today, as for so many women as well as people of color, Josephine Baker inspires, stimulates, and challenges me to live the best possible life–one that makes a difference in the world.
My love letter to you, my readers, appears today on the “Dear Reader, Love, Author” blog. It ends, “The message of all my books is: This, as far as we know, is the only life we will ever get. Let’s make it count.”
Please come over and read my guest post, and ask yourself: How will you make a difference today?
My novels tell the lives of extraordinary women in history who overcame formidable obstacles to achieve their highest potential—which, for me, always involves making a positive difference in the world. I delve into these women’s lives in hopes of inspiring others and myself.
And yet when I first considered writing about Josephine Baker, the African-American performer who hit it big in Paris in the 1920s, I expected a romp. I wanted it, in fact. Having wept as I wrote The Sharp Hook of Love, my tragic novel about the 12-century French lovers Abelard and Heloise, I was ready for some light-hearted fun. A pretty woman who danced and made funny faces wearing nothing more than a skirt of bananas seemed just the ticket.
But Ms. Baker, as it turned out, was a lot more than a nude, comic Parisian dancer.
Josephine Baker was a woman who lived life on her own terms, fearlessly and with heart. Raised in poverty by abusive parents, she dreamed big, pursued her goals with passion, and succeeded beyond even her wildest imaginings—and then risked all, even her very life, to make the world a better place.
First as a World War II spy for the French Resistance and then as a trailblazing U.S. civil rights activist, Josephine Baker used her power and her platform to fight for justice and equality against the forces of tyranny and hatred, prefiguring the anti-colorist activism by current celebrities including Colin Kaeparnick, Oprah, and Rihanna.
From the 1917 East St. Louis race riots to the 1963 March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the adoption of a “Rainbow Tribe” of 12 children of various races and cultures, Josephine Baker dedicated most of her life to eradicating racism.
Although she felt encouraged by the changes that occurred during her lifetime, she knew the struggle for “her people” was only beginning. She was a fighter to the end, and also a lover—not just of individual men and women, but of all humanity.
When I feel overwhelmed by the vitriol and violence rearing its ugly head in America today, I draw on Josephine Baker’s courage, strength, and determination for the power to persevere. I wrote JOSEPHINE BAKER’S LAST DANCE with the hope that it will inspire others to keep fighting the good fight—to, as she said in her 1963 speech, “light that fire in you, so that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done.” Given her many remarkable accomplishments, it’s a tall order, indeed.
Listen to your intuition! You know, that inner voice telling you when something isn’t right–and when it is? It’s not easy to do, especially at first. Like a muscle– and like the doll in the girl’s pocket in the “Women Who Run With the Wolves” story–intuition gets stronger the more we use it. I learned the hard way how to listen to mine.
Nearly six years ago, I met a man and Pow! Instant attraction. He was into me, too, which made the experience oh, so exciting. We fell in love. But something wasn’t right. Sometimes when we got together, he was fully engaged and “into” me. But many other times–at least half the time–he was detached, emotionally and physically (but not intellectually). This confused me, and was hard on my self-esteem. At last, I broke up with him. And cried every day for two months, until I met someone new. When that happened, he wanted me back. And so the ping-ponging began, with me breaking up (because my intuition told me–WARNED me–that he was all wrong for me) and us getting back together (because I didn’t like what my intuition was saying, and preferred to believe the man, who insisted that he loved me “unconditionally.”)
Now, I’m free at last–but it took a traumatic turn of events for me to finally wake up. At first, I hated him, then myself–how could I have been so blind? Survivor that I am, I soon began to search for the meaning behind the madness. And I understood, and still understand, that my contribution to my misery was failing to honor my inner Wise Woman–my intuition.
It still isn’t easy. She is an exacting master. As my heart heals (slowly) and I dip my toe in the dating pool again, I’m calling ’em as She sees ’em, and the result is a lot of “opportunities” tossed aside. The ones who want to get “serious” right away. On the other end, the commitment-phones, and those who talk “relationship” but really just want to get laid. The ones looking for a golfing buddy (but who don’t come right out and say so) or a mother for their children. The narcissists who seem charming at first but, in the end, it’s all about them. The list goes on.
All these men seem so fantastic, and are good-looking, too. Some are highly educated and successful. All have hearts. In the past, I might have ended up with any of them, seeing only their positive qualities while ignoring the doll bouncing around in my pocket saying “no, no, no.”
The same is true of friends. I’ve let a few go this year, as my intuition says, “She (or he) isn’t good for you.” The reasons are varied and specific: not trustworthy, takes but never gives, not a true friend but wants only to bask in my (perceived) ‘fame,’ and, in at least one case, only hopes to have sex with me. I’ve let these people go, and even though it’s hard to lose a friend, I feel anything but alone.
Several years ago I had a dream in which, everywhere I went, people lay dead on the sidewalks, in the parking lots, in the shopping malls. I realized that my fears around autonomy had to do with being alone–I was literally the only one standing. Today, I realize that will never happen. Fewer friends means I can go deeper with the ones I keep. And if by chance I should lose them all, I have my Wise Woman to keep me company. She is the best friend of all.
Are there people or situations in your life that trigger your inner alarms? Listen, and take heed. Don’t be afraid of your own wisdom, acquired through all your years, experiences, and lessons learned. This is my advice today. Live fearlessly, honestly, authentically.
One friend whom I shared these lessons with said, “Sometimes I don’t know whether it’s my intuition I’m hearing or my Id.” That can be tricky, I agree. The best I can do is trust myself, my intelligence, and my wisdom. Living authentically, which means being true to myself and listening to my intuition–even if I end up standing alone–beats the hell out of living a lie (that I told myself) for six wasted years.
It’s National Love Your Body Day, the day on which girls and women are invited to reject the media hype about how we are supposed to look — and embrace ourselves with all our lumps, bumps, scars, and flaws.
I love my body, and its every aspect, from head to callused toes.
My feet are gnarly and misshapen, with bunions so pronounced they push my big toes inward and my middle toes toward my big toes. My feet are my legacy from my father, who died at age 50. In spite of their deformity, they take me everywhere, on long walks nearly every day that clear my mind of confusion, bring me inspiration for my work, and keep my body healthy. My feet took me 961 miles, along Montana’s Continental Divide Trail in 1989, a painful hike that taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to. Thank you for empowering me, feet!
I love my legs with their knobbly knees; their veins spidering purple beneath pale skin; their birthmark splashed like a pale blot of ink across the back of one thigh; the scar on my shin marking my weird and wonderful week at Burning Man 2010. My legs have danced me around the world, including at a floating disco on the beautiful Danube River in Belgrade, Serbia. When I am old I intend to be one of those eccentrics shaking her tail feather to the music, alone if need be, on my long, strong, scarred and veiny legs.
I love my hips, so wide that my father used to call me “Butt” (his term of endearment, said with a grin, making me blush) and the perfect shape for an easy home-birth of my amazing daughter, Mariah, whose bold voice, courage, compassion, and strength give me admiration and hope for the next generation of women.
I love my breasts, once small and perky but, after giving birth, a bit larger now – and, after years of refusing to wear a bra, much less perky. Exposed to pornography early in life and fed meat from animals injected with hormones, I developed early. I donned my first harness – oops! bra – at age nine, causing the kids in my class to tease me. I envisioned large breasts like those of the women I saw on the screen and on the pages of my father’s magazine pages. A religious child, also, I set my sights on one of two careers: Playboy bunny, or nun, “depending on how I turn out.”
Despite my self-objectification, my breasts turned out to have an important role in my life and in that of my infant daughter. They nurtured Mariah for years until she weaned herself, endowing us with a bond that we will always cherish. The milk they produced may have contributed to her gourmet tastes, as well – have you ever tried breast milk? It’s sweet, like coconut milk. Thank you, breasts, for all the joy and pleasure you have given to me and to others.
I love my hands, which write the words that flow from my imagination into my fingers, producing thousands of newspaper, magazine, and online articles over the years as well as six novels – one of which, the obligatory autobiographical tome, will never see the light of day (thank goodness!). My words have affected lives – most recently, giving women strong, powerful characters from history to love, root for, and emulate. These hands have made delicious meals to bring others together in love and friendship, have served others less fortunate than I, have played beautiful music on my piano (OK, sometimes it’s not so beautiful) and have caressed the skin of the men I have loved. I don’t paint my fingernails or manicure them because I am too busy using my hands.
I love my face, for, although it falls far short of the media “ideal,” its wrinkles are smile lines, its cheeks have rosacea from years in the warm sun, its eyes are my mother’s – a compelling gray-blue, a reminder of her whenever I look into the mirror. My teeth, soft and small, have a chip in front, caused when I drank selfishly from a water jug on a hot day, depriving my 7-year-old sister, who angrily hit the jug and broke my tooth. I deserved it. When I smile, and notice that chip, I’m reminded of my selfish impulses and I’m inspired to be more generous with others.
I even love my nose. When I was young, kids teased me about its prominence. I was called “Withchipoo,” after the hag in the children’s show H. R. Pufnstuf. Because of my nose, I felt ugly for most of my early life. Then, in my 20s, I interviewed a man for the local newspaper. He was, he told me, a connoisseur of noses. “Yours is the most beauitful nose I have ever seen,” he said. Years later, someone gave me a copy of Time magazine with a beautiful model on the front whose nose was identical to mine. Because of my nose, I learned that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and that whom, and how, we are is more important by far than how we appear to others.
I have never conformed to the media’s beauty ideal. And yet my body has enabled me to live a full, vibrant, love-filled life. One day I was telling a lover that both my legs and my breasts had been praised as my best feature.
“They’re not your best feature,” he said. “Your brain is your best feature.”
Today, I think others would say my heart is the best. These are the parts the media forget to honor – but I honor them today, on National Love Your Body Day, both in myself and in you, perfect as you are and getting better every day.
Eleanor Catton’s historical fiction book THE LUMINARIES is a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek parody of the overblown, overwritten, melodramatic 19th-century novel and a page-turning murder mystery, to boot. Like the gold it’s written about, the book dazzles the reader with a head-spinning array of characters and a running commentary on the darker aspects of humanity—as you’d expect. It is, after all, set during a gold rush.
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize, THE LUMINARIES employs the quainter, more theatrical conventions of the era it portrays. This makes it at once a fascinating read and a difficult one. At the worst, we realize how grateful we ought to be to Hemingway and his ilk for giving us the unembellished sentence. The best contemporary writing focuses our attention on characters and plot rather than on the writing itself; our eye can fly across the page. This book’s deliberately ponderous style slows us down, bogging us down in detail, much of it extraneous. At best, however, we can delight in Catton’s lush descriptions and exquisite turns of phrase, knowing that her ornamentation is conscious, and sly.
Taking place during 1865-66, THE LUMINARIES begins with a tableau: twelve men meet in the smoking lounge of the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, NZ, to try to unravel the mystery surrounding a digger’s death, a prostitute’s apparent attempted suicide, a wealthy prospector’s disappearance, and the sudden appearance of a large amount of gold that everyone, it seems, lays claim to. The arrival of the thireenth man, attorney Walter Moody, is an accident—a fortuitous one, it turns out—but his objective point of view inspires the men to confide in him, each telling him the story of his own involvement in the narrative, and, in the end, inviting him to judge.
It’s not an easy book to get into. I first began reading it a year ago, but abandoned it 100 pages in, lost in the crowd of characters, none of whom I’d come to care about or could even keep track of. When I realized that THE LUMINARIES was intended as a parody, however, I began again eagerly, taking pleasure in the feeling of being “in” on a clever literary joke.
Not everyone feels this way.
“A ship made of matchsticks in a bottle is a feat of construction but not necessarily a great work of art,” critic David Sexton writes of the book in the London Evening Standard.
Kristy Gunn, in The Guardian, complains that THE LUMINARIES, for all its 834-page heft, weighs nothing in the end. None of it, she writes—not the characters, not the story, not the astrological charts Catton uses throughout—means anything.
To some extent, I agree. When we’ve turned the final page, we are left with no bigger questions to ponder and no deep observations to make. That may be the point of the book, if there is one. Near the book’s end, when we’re enmeshed in certain crises, we suddenly find them resolved summarily and our attention turned to new dramas. None of it, for all our interest, ever mattered much at all. Then again, what does, in this life? The question
seems as provocative a takeaway as any book might offer.
Here lies the secret to enjoying this great, sprawling tome of a book. Like the participants in the séance given by the canny widow Lydia Wells, readers can best approach THE LUMINARIES with a twinkle in the eye and a willingness to sit back and enjoy the show. The book is entertaining, clever, and gorgeously written. It reminds us how far we in the West have come, ethically, and how far we have to go. It offers a thrillingly complex plot, a riveting courtroom drama, and a moving, ultimately satisfying love story.
“The pages fly, the great weight of the book shifting quickly from right hand to left, a world opening and closing in front of us, the human soul revealed in all its conflicted desperation. I mean glory,” writes Bill Roorbach in the New York Times. THE LUMINATIES is an exhilarating ride of a tale best enjoyed and savored—but, like life itself, not taken too seriously. We are, in the end, all fools—and you know what that makes our gold.
For posts on historical fiction–both writing it and reading it–subscribe to Author Sherry Jones’s blog. And for a chance to win my copy of THE LUMINARIES, comment on this blog! I’ll choose a winner on Monday, Oct. 27.
Two questions on my mind about abortion and Planned Parenthood:
1. Some of the most outspoken opponents of abortion rights today are acting out of guilt and shame. They’ve impregnated women in the past who have then had an abortion. I know several of these men, all with multiple abortions in their histories. When they needed abortions, these guys were so glad that they were legal and available!
Now, these same men think women should be forced to bear children they don’t want. But have they changed their ways? Do they now wear a condom when having sex? Absolutely not. Do they speak out for condom use? No. According to the Guttmacher Institute, half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unwanted. Condoms are 85 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. The math does itself.
Instead of trying to tell women what to do, these anti-choice hypocrites should work to stop unwanted pregnancies by using condoms, and telling other guys to do the same. If every man did so, abortion would cease to be an issue.
2. What in the world is wrong with using tissue from aborted fetuses for medical research? Isn’t it better to use these fetuses to save lives than to discard or burn them? We know now that the videos made to entrap Planned Parenthood were bogus, and that the outrage is manufactured — most Americans support Planned Parenthood AND abortion rights — but what’s the big deal?
Very few Planned Parenthood clinics have fetal-tissue programs, and the price they get doesn’t even begin to recoup the costs of providing abortion services, but so what? I’d be thrilled if EVERY aborted fetus were re-purposed in this way — with the woman’s consent of course — and I’d hope the clinics would get good money from the sales. That way, maybe Planned Parenthood wouldn’t have to rely on politicians for funding their health-care services (federal funding for abortion services is against the law).
Then again, maybe the specter of a self-reliant Planned Parenthood is the real reason for the videos, and the hoopla. Judging from the Tea Party’s continual assault on the Affordable Care Act, affordable health care for the 99 percent is the last thing the Koch-funded right-wing wants.
Attacks on Planned Parenthood and on reproductive rights don’t just hurt women. They hurt all of us. If you’re male and against abortion, use a condom. Tell other guys to do so, too. Focus on something you can control, and leave us women alone.
One thing about the French: they know how to eat. Not only do they take their time at meals, lingering over each course, drinking water, sipping wine, and finishing with espresso, but the ingredients are fresh and local and the preparation superb. Even the most mundane dish–French fries, or “frites,” as they’re called in France–taste better. I don’t know if France has the equivalent of Sysco or Food Services of America providing processed foods to restaurants, but I’d be willing to bet against it. French food is fresh food!
In my first week in Paris and my first days in Creuse, a region in the countryside, I’ve had some fabulous meals. Actually, everything I’ve eaten has been fantastic. Here’s a sampler:
For an American writer, it’s a dream come true: being invited to speak and read in Paris.
On Friday, July 10, 2015, I was honored to join the very talentedauthors Reine Arcache Melvin and Heather Stimmler-Hall in a lively Q&A discussion with 40 Parisians about the writer’s life, followed by readings from our works, in the light-filled Montmartre gallery-apartment of my Airbnb hostess, Grace Teshima.
As moderator as well as hostess of the event, Grace asked the three of us about our writing process: Do we write every day? Do we listen to music while we write? Do we need silence? Do we use anything — such a alcohol — to help stimulate our creativity? When did we first know we wanted to be writers?
These questions provoked insightful responses, and a surprise, as well: all three of us decided at age 7 that we would someday write for a living!
The audience, seated on Grace’s three sofas, windowsills, and floors, and many also standing, asked intelligent, provocative questions, as well. But for me, my fellow authors’ readings were the highlight of the long, rich evening.
Fiction author Reine Arcache Melvin, or “Bonnie,” as she’s known to her friends, read an excerpt from her novel-in-progress in which a Philipino man responds to a former lover’s asking what he would do if she became pregnant with his child, while refusing to say whether she really is pregnant. The lyrical, provocative writing, haunting symbolism, and spot-on dialogue–words contrasting so perfectly and realistically with the character Arturo’s thoughts–made me squirm in my seat, so great was my discomfort at the glimpses the tale offered into the mind of a man on the hot seat: alternately impatient, self-centered, compassionate, fearful, confident, detached, and protective. I cannot wait to read Reine’s novel and also her book of short stories, A Normal Life and Other Stories, which won the Philippines National Book Award for fiction. All her writing, she says, is about desire.
Travel journalist Heather Stimmer-Hall read a lively passage from her book, Naughty Paris, which she calls a “lady’s guide” to the sexiest places in the city. Her passage offers insights on French men: great lovers, very romantic, and also often impatient with women once they bring up the topics of love and relationship. They’re sexually free, as well, but don’t mind if you are, too. Her book also assures us that when a Frenchman makes meaningful eye contact, smiles, compliments us, and flirts in other ways, it’s OK to respond in like–flirting is the French way of life, and isn’t expected to lead to more. She also offers advice on where American women can meet French men. Of course I immediately asked to buy a copy–mais oui!
Much thanks to David Goldfarb of San Francisco for the excellent photos. 🙂
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Josephine Baker adored Paris. “J’ai Deux Amours,” her signature song, said it all: “Two loves have I: My country and Paris.” Unlike with her many other loves, however, her feelings for the City of Lights were requited in full measure. The people of Paris loved Josephine Baker, too, passionately, exuberantly, and faithfully, even after her death.
Arguably the most famous woman in the world and certainly the highest-paid performer, Josephine debuted in Paris at age 19 in “Le Revue Negre” in the Theatre Champs-Elysees. From then until she died, in 1975, La Josephine lived throughout the city in luxury and splendor: in an apartment of marble and gold on the Champs-Elysees, in fancy hotels, in a mansion in the wealthy suburb of Le Vesinet, and more. Closest to her heart, perhaps, was in the eclectic artists’ and musicians’ enclave of Montmartre, home to Pablo Picasso, Pierre-August Renoir, La Folies Bergere, Bricktop’s jazz club, and — yes — Josephine Baker.
My trip to France in search of Josephine begins in Montmartre, where tourists and locals rub elbows at the boulangerie, musicians play accordions and guitars on the streets, accompanied by the clink of espresso cups on saucers and forks and knives on plats de jour, and revelry continues even on the hottest nights until the wee, witching hours; where the city’s highest hill poses a challenge that even, thanks to the Funiculaire, the faintest of heart can meet, and where the cathedrals have bouncers, asking, “Can you read?” of the tourists discussing their day’s itinerary before turning around the sign admonishing SILENCE.
I fell in love almost at first sight with Montmartre. I imagine that Josephine did, as well. See these sights, the first of many I’ll show you from the magical 18th arrondissement, and you’re bound to understand the infatuation:
Dear Author Sherry Jones subscribers,
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