“Music brings a warm glow to my vision, thawing mind and muscle from their endless wintering.”
― Haruki Murakami

 

Picking up the theme of a recent blog post, Concentric circles within the Baltimore writing community, my starting point for this seasonal newsletter is the wonderfully supportive writing community in Baltimore. Of course, I realize that there must be myriad others, but this is one I share.

On a blustery (notice the hair and scarf!) October afternoon, alumni of the University of Baltimore Creative Writing & Publishing Arts MFA program gathered in the back yard of a restaurant in northeast Baltimore for a Sweet Sixteen birthday party for the program. We read from our published books, there was an open mic, the Ivy Bookshop sold books, and most of all we just mingled and caught up—this one’s broken ankle, that one’s new baby girl, another one’s burgeoning indie press. You can see the YouTube here. From this community, which remains remarkably close-knit, the concentric circles flow outwards.

And the supportive writing community isn’t only centered around the UB MFA program although, even then, it sometimes is tangentially. Another fellow alumna, poet Tracy Dimond, who used to be at the Enoch Pratt Free Library before moving on to other ventures, put my name forward for some of the library’s Writers LIVE! virtual book events. Most recently, it was a collaboration with Greedy Reads for the launch of I’m Possible: A Story of Survival, a Tuba, and the Small Miracle of a Big Dream by Dr. Richard Antoine White. Richard grew up on the streets of Baltimore and went on to become principal tubist of the Santa Fe Symphony and the New Mexico Philharmonic. It was inspiring to talk to him.

It was also a huge honor and privilege to be in socially distanced conversation with conductor James Conlon, who has been named Artistic Advisor for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra while they search for a new Music Director. Following his debut with the orchestra at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on October 1st, we talked about his lifelong project and passion, Recovered Voices, which gives voice to composers who have been silenced throughout history. Conlon’s debut program included African American composer William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, which received its premiere in 1934 with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and then fell from the repertoire; and the Hans Christian Anderson inspired symphonic poem, Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), by Alexander von Zemlinsky, who was a prominent composer in the 1920s, but whose music was suppressed by the Nazi regime. Conlon is pushing back against the neglect in an inspiring way.

Omicron [OMM-uh-cron], the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, is the “little O” (o mikron, micron meaning “little”) as opposed to Omega (ō mega, mega meaning “great.”) But never mind the semantics, it has the potential to be a horrid setback to our being able to move on from the pandemic. I truly commend my scientific compatriots for identifying the new variant and sending out the global warning. As The New York Times reports: European nations did not find the variant until after South Africa alerted them to it, demonstrating the gaps in their own surveillance efforts. But what will this mean for the benighted African countries and, ultimately, the world? Our inconvenience is nothing compared to the global ramifications, but that hardly lessens our fretful disappointment about the likelihood that we will have to cancel our mid-January BA flights to and from Cape Town and Johannesburg, with visits to Mpumalanga and Victoria Falls along the way.

This is particularly vexing since I have been going through the unbelievably onerous process of renewing my South African passport in order to keep dual citizenship. You can’t simply pop into your local post office to renew your passport, the way you can in the U.S. Oh no, you have to start from scratch Every Single Time. You need a DHA-73 Passport Application form with left thumbprint; a DHA-529 Determination of citizenship form; a DHA-9 form with a full set of fingerprints (this form is not downloadable so you have to send a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive it); a written Request to Change “Surname” to be submitted by married female applicants who would like (1) to retain their maiden surnames, or (2) wish to use double-barrel surnames; [are you keeping up so far?!] a Notarized Marriage Certificate; a Notarized Copy of South African Passport; a Notarized Copy of South African Identity Book or Birth certificate; a Notarized Copy of Retention/Exemption Letter, for those who have dual citizenship; Four (4) passport size photos (2″ x 2″) with the injunction to ensure your mouth is closed and that your teeth are not showing on the photo … well, you get the picture. But wait! There’s more. Everything has to be sent in duplicate. Every time I have to do it, I swear it will be the last.

Meanwhile, on a far happier front, South Africa has another Booker Prize winner in the person of thrice nominated Damon Galgut. And what an extraordinary book The Promise is! I believe Damon has described the way he writes with a camera in mind, able to go anywhere depending on where the camera is pointed. Even knowing this, I am in awe of the way he can shift point of view so seamlessly and climb inside the thoughts and persona of each character, while at the same time passing ironic and sardonic judgment on them. Damon is the third writer from South Africa to win the Booker, following Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, who has won twice. André Brink was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and his last novel, Philida, was longlisted in 2012. And, this gives me the cue to segue into some (circumspect) good news about my screenplay for Philida. We are 90% cast, with our Philida “attached,” and can begin to hope and dream of starting to film in about a year or so. I don’t want to jinx anything by saying more, but please keep fingers crossed and thumbs held!

And, on the subject of wishing luck, as I embark on the first, tentative steps of a new novel, I’m also embroiled in the long drawn out and sometimes disheartening process of trying to find an agent for The Deceived Ones, Or, The Food of Love, my contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It’s a love-quadrangle in which a set of twins, separated during immigration, learn that gender can play out in unexpected ways, and a composer with writer’s block improvises on how to engage the soprano of his dreams. Recently, I came across a lovely quote by Meg Donohue, writing for The Literary Hub, who says, Retellings breathe exciting, new life into classic tales, letting us rediscover stories that we read long ago, and allowing readers to interact with classics in a way that feels playful, provocative, and illuminating, and I so completely agree with her. As much as I dislike The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, I loved Anne Tyler’s retelling in the form of Vinegar Girl. I keep hoping that there’s an agent out there who shares my enthusiasm.

I also hope that you will have a truly wonderful holiday season, whether Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or even nothing in particular, and I send you my very warmest wishes.

Judith

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