Notes From Bethabara Park: Cheri Paris Edwards & The Other Sister

 

Personal reflections while writing a book review.

by Jeremy Williams, Nonfiction and Scriptwriting Reader

Country Way East, Okemos MI, Wednesday, March 16, 2017:

I believe that novels have the mystical ability to enter our lives at a moment in which we find ourselves standing at the crossroads in-search of something that changes our hearts and minds in an effort to teach us a deeper meaning of life and love and purpose. Perhaps this is the point of Cheri Paris Edwards’ novel: The Other Sister.

My love life stinks. For the millionth time, I’d reached the conclusion that my girlfriend and I had no future, besides the meaningless banality of frivolous momentary interludes of empty sex, drama, and random cafe-affairs of aimless chit-chat.

“… I keep replaying the discussion we’d had at Venice Cafe. It rang loudly in my head, trying to capture some profound meaning amidst it all. Anyways, perhaps I spoke too much and didn’t allow you to speak enough. Perhaps there were questions left without space and time to call them out and allow them to be answered. …”

Tom’s Oyster Bar, Detroit MI, Thursday, March 17, 2017:

I pulled into Downtown Detroit and headed straight to Tom’s Oyster Bar to think about Velma’s note. I ordered rum and reached into my jacket for Edwards’ book to read over notes, marginalia, and to think about the impact it had on my immediate circumstances. Edwards’ book is about safety, and the sacrifice of new beginnings, Sanita Jefferson returning to Illinois for an unrealized reunion with her ecstatic parents. Regardless of her sister, Carla’s cold receptions, Sanita plants her feet firmly on the yellow brick road and sets out for new horizons of promise and prosperity. Then she runs into Terrance Catching.

*phone vibrate*

“Confessional: I’m not sure you noticed but I placed my leg next to you on purpose. Today I wanted to touch you. I looked at you and thought of what it would be like to have you hold me, hug me, touch me. Then I thought to myself, no…he would hurt you – not on purpose, not intentionally – it’s just how he is made…how he has come to become in this world….”

St. Michael Hotel, “Whiskey Row” Prescott AZ, Saturday, March 19, 2017:

I arrived in Prescott just before the sun set low when the gentle breeze cooled native souls, where cowboys reminisced, and “Preskitian” residents told olden stories to thirsty tourists at Hooligans Pub. Rowdy, arrogant, raucous mid-westerners (the ones harboring feelings of entitlement and privileged belonging) drank Modelo beers and propped up their Walmart western boots on Hooligans ledge overlooking the nostalgic panorama that is Whiskey Row. Down below, restless vagrants meet at the intersection of South Montezuma and East Gurley Street to discuss the day’s strategy for panhandling enough change to get cigarettes and whiskey. Later that night they would meet up across the street in Courthouse Plaza to divvy up the ante before heading on over to Bird Cage Saloon for the two-dollar draft and cheap Tequila shots.

*phone vibrate*

“In my past relationships, I’m often quick to nurture, fast to heal, to capture and conceal secrets, hurts, pains. Your writing, like mine, is your place of healing…I get that…but where does Jeremy house his love…for himself? for the women both past and present in his life? I know I risk much sharing these thoughts with you. But, the older I get the more I appreciate risks and honestly… from others, from myself to myself…please come and see me when you return to Michigan. I will get you from the airport if you need.”

I would often follow them to BCS where I listen from a short distance to their sullen proclamations of love lost, sacred land long gone, and familial discount. They talk about the futility of life, where they have come from (mostly Chino Valley, Phoenix, and various Native American reservations), and where they are going (mostly nowhere and everywhere). Prescott treats its homeless community very well, offering food, clothes, money, and a warm cot if the weary destitute so desire. Every night around midnight the desperate winos and raggedy hobos congregate at the southern tip of Montezuma Street, just outside of the St. Michael hotel where they plan to head on up to BCS for a little revelry, reflection, and relief. I sat over in the far left corner and thought about the love of my life, Velma Duke, while reviewing collected thoughts and notes on The Other Sister:

  • The Other Sister is a good read…I really like the writing…Edwards is a good writer…
  • Edwards has a gift for story-telling and understands the art and craft of novel-writing. ..
  • Good characters, deftly constructed…
  • Good moral messages…spiritual meanings and good commentary on that which afflicts society today
  • Common current event themes of disease, death, destruction, HIV
  • Good use of biblical themes…thou shalt not judge.
  • Good array of family matters and complex relationships…

Bethabara Park, Winston-Salem NC, Saturday, April 2, 2017:

“Love’s in need of love today… Don’t delay, send yours in right away. Hate’s goin’ round, breaking many hearts. Stop it please… Before it’s gone too far.” –Stevie Wonder

I finished my review of The Other Sister while sitting in the back-booth of a quiet, rural suburban breakfast retreat over near Wake Forest University by historic village of Bethabara Park. I drained my orange juice, left a small tip, grabbed my Chrome Book, got in my car and headed towards University Avenue – toward High Point to visit an old friend. I Jeremyed in Damian Marley’s Road to Zion and thought about Edwards’ overall message, an essential lesson on hope, love, community, and sacrifice – all the things the African-American are in desperate need of. Sanita’s (Jazz) double-life antics catch up with her, sending her back home to face her dubious reality. Carla leads a respectable life of promise and prosperity, committed to excellence, having played by the rules, working hard to achieve and triumph. This is the complex dice both play out in this Christian amalgam of faith, love, and hard-lessons learned. Demonstrably, Edwards is from the old-school, and TOS is saturated with biblical themes, religious characters (conflicted in secular contexts, of course), and goody-two-shoe morality, which at times seemed boring at worst, contrived at best, but typical and unoriginal to say the least. Yet, the point is clear with TOS, and we get it. Love your family, forgive people, and allow for redemption in the face of repressive odds. Love is key….and we need it. All of us.


Jeremy Williams is pursuing an MFA at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author of Detroit: The Black Bottom Community. In his spare time he records music and watches reruns of Sanford & Son. He was once a member of the Detroit Writer’s Guild.
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Directed by Alan Smithee #6: The Line of Action

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Movies manipulate time. Real time seems to freeze and hang suspended until the final credits, when you stumble out of the darkness and wander around the parking lot trying to find your car, the world suddenly hard and huge and real again—too silent and serious compared to the world of light and shadow that you just left. Even the onscreen dramatic time jumps and flashes back and flashes forward, carried along by music, dialogue, and sound effects. Movies let you feel like you cheated time—you stole some back. For an hour and a half or two hours, you experienced a story that would have taken you days, weeks, months, or even years to experience in real life.

Most narratives do this. Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

One of my favorite movies is Once Upon a Time in the West. As a very quiet and slightly musically-inclined person, my favorite character in that movie is Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica,” so named because he never gives his real name—he is known mainly by the harmonica he carries on a string around his neck and the mournful musical motif that he often plays. The movie is an epic—set in the magnificent mythological American West, where conflicts of good versus evil, tradition versus progress, and man versus man are played out in operatic proportions. I literally have goose bumps by the end of the movie every time I watch it.

Harmonica is on a quest for revenge—he wants to kill Frank, the cruel antagonist played to perfection by somebody who I had always thought exuded kindness and principle, Henry Fonda. Harmonica goes doggedly after Frank with single-minded focus and unrelenting purpose. The wheezing harmonica motif underscores this determination, this desire for revenge burning inside of a man who seems so cool and collected on the outside.

That sense of grit is romanticized. It reminds me of my dad as a high school freshman going out for football and breaking both wrists on the first day of practice, then going out again as a sophomore and breaking both wrists on the first day AGAIN.

It reminds me of me as a girl going to the week-long softball camp hosted by the Waxahachie High School softball program every summer, and every summer getting sick, turning ghost-white and getting lightheaded and dizzy, the coach always hosing me off, giving me a popsicle, and calling my parents. Every. Single. Summer.

Grit? Maybe. Also, more likely, just being a stubborn idiot.

Stories can get you out of the rut your life is in. Stories can allow you to let go of the stubborn memories of the past and move on. Stories can change your heart, your mind, and your very soul.

Storytelling isn’t self-help therapy any more than listening to stories is. Whether you’re writing, reading, watching a movie, or making a movie, even though you’re probing the mess you are—displaying your dysfunction—you’re also crafting a narrative, manipulating time and facts, and putting on a new identity. You’re rediscovering the world and inviting others to join you in your rediscovery. It’s a craft, it’s a calling, and it’s hard work.

Which brings me to the title of this post: The Line of Action. The almighty “line of action” in movie-making is an imaginary line drawn in front of the camera—you put the camera on one side of the line and don’t cross it, thereby avoiding continuity problems editing. Of course, like most rules, this one gets broken every now and then, but generally it keeps the action or dialogue from being confusing, with random reversals of left and right screen space, when it’s edited together.

Just like with the name “Alan Smithee,” I tie a bunch of meaning to the phrase “the line of action” that isn’t really there and doesn’t have much of anything to do with the concept.

The phrase reminds me of the line in the sand drawn by William Travis at the Alamo. The line of ACTION. The phrase gives me the feeling that you’re about to make a choice that you will act on, a choice like the ones often at the climax of a short story, a book chapter, or a movie scene. You will make this choice and you will change because of it. You will cross the line of action, even if it might be confusing. Your life will take on a new trajectory.

Take a look at Arkana. The small literary journal that’s really a tiny bleep on the radar of hundreds of literary journals popping up online. Yes, there’s stubborn grit and passion that keep us going and will keep us going in the future. Yes, there’s the belief that writing and storytelling is more than just therapy—that it’s not for the individual but for the community.

But more than all that, what will keep Arkana, and all literature, alive is a belief in the power of change.

We are small but mighty. Literature here and everywhere is the line of action. Time builds forward like a stone wall separating what was and what could be, but we cross that wall and carve stories out of the stone, beauty out of the boundaries.

Voices out of the silence.

That’s why I love movies, stories, and being part of a literary journal. The world gives you a million examples of dysfunction and hate to turn you bitter, but as long as there are people promoting, creating, and experiencing art then empathy is being shared and there is hope for the future. There is an audience held together by light they can see through the darkness. There is the hush of emotion, the quiet of reflection, and the smell of popcorn.

And the bitterness fades out.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.

Directed by Alan Smithee #5: When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

My mom will probably read this series of “Directed by Alan Smithee” posts and call me a liar.

It’ll probably be like watching the movie adaptation of the book you really love—gasping and head shaking and accusations of “That’s not how it happened!”

I exaggerate—I lie. Which parts, I don’t even know. Whenever my mom tells stories about me as a kid I don’t remember the instances the same way as she does at all. She mentions things that I didn’t even care about and don’t even think of anymore. She never mentions things that I still have dreams, even nightmares about.

In my favorite John Wayne/John Ford movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a reporter near the end says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” When I re-watched this movie recently, as someone who just spent two semesters working as an intern at the Oxford American, where the bulk of my work was fact-checking articles before they were published, I gasped at that line. Facts corrupted? The Truth turned into a farce, a myth, a legend? Over my dead body and the dead bodies of noble fact-checkers everywhere!

Oh, please. Here’s another thing besides being a liar that my mom knows about me that you should probably know too: I’m a bit melodramatic. I used to tell my mom sunlight was searing my retinas. I once thought I was going to die from eating an overcooked hot dog.

But ah, who cares? Where would the world be without a little lying and melodrama? The single tear, the mentor’s satisfied smile and nod, the lush orchestration as the hero rides off into the sunset with his arm around his girl. That stuff doesn’t exist in real life.

However, the feelings generated from those instances do exist.

Or so I like to think.

Stories and art bottle up those feelings in convenient little containers so that people can carry them around. It’s the old “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story” idea. Except really I think that truth doesn’t exist AT ALL without a good story. I hear somebody talking about Christianity, preaching at people, I think the whole religion is a load of crap. I read the bible or hear a believer tell a personal story, I think I need to jump into the next body of water and be re-baptized. Maybe being a storyteller I’m a little biased. I bet physicists think physics is the absolute, where-it’s-at, capital-T Truth. But I can’t shake the feeling that the world, at least as we humans know it, needs art, needs stories, whether they be fiction or fact.

I, of course, am a bit heavy-handed with the fiction. My name should be a disclaimer for “take what follows with a grain of salt” just as Alan Smithee’s name is a disclaimer for “some stuff went down” and “some stuff hit the fan.” I always feel so insecure writing nonfiction. In an earlier post I wrote about bawling when watching Bambi. How can I be sure that I cried because Bambi’s mom bit the dust or if I really just found “Little April Showers” insufferable?

Dispute not with her: she is a lunatic. This random Shakespeare quote sums it up—I’m crazy, I’m a bit delusional, I don’t fit in with the rest of the world a lot of the time—so take whatever I say but take it with a touch of skepticism.

My stories are like magic tricks—meant to make you believe in them even when you know they can’t be true.

I’d be an awful magician. After each trick I’d want to explain excitedly how it was done. I might even assign some larger meaning to it—relating it to my life and storytelling and art until all the magic has been displaced into words. I’d probably write some rambling blog post about it.

How much can anybody really remember about anything? And who has ownership of a childhood story—the child who felt the moment or the adult who could interpret the moment?

The answer is neither of the above. Sorry, Mom, but the ownership of any story rests with the storyteller and the listener. The storyteller calls the legend fact. The listener “prints” the legend, buying into the charade instead of disputing it.

Basically, when the fiction becomes truth, print the fiction.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the rough-and-ready John Wayne character calls the tenderfoot Jimmy Stewart character “Pilgrim.” What a lovely nickname, really, even though the Wayne character means it to be kinda demeaning. Really the movie is about the legendary Wild West and the dying of that legend as the frontier closes and the land becomes “civilized” with lawyers and schools and fair democracy. A lot of the movie is about questioning the legend—Jimmy Stewart doesn’t buy into Wayne’s macho tactics of tough talk with a hand on a pistol and gritted teeth, the traditional Wild West way of dealing with things. Meanwhile, though, Stewart becomes his own legend—the Pilgrim who came and tamed the West.

The movie is a classic for a reason—it’s as relevant today as it was in 1962, when it was released. It makes you think about storytelling, legends versus facts, how legends play into politics and influence government, how in turn those legends have real-life effects.

It makes you realize that every story, no matter how honorably told, is shaped in a way by the storyteller’s sensibilities and perceptions. But it also makes you realize that you as a listener also have a bit of ownership over the story—you get to decide what you’re going to swallow, what you’re going to find meaningful and carry around with you.

In other words, you believe what you choose to believe, Pilgrim.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.

Directed by Alan Smithee #4: The Look

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Once upon a time, I lived on my family’s land in a house my grandfather designed on FM 1387 in between Midlothian and Waxahachie, Texas, near a tiny little town called Ovilla. This land, although we moved into Waxahachie when I was ten, is often the image I think of when I come across the word “home.” The scratchy knee-high grass. The goats and cows. The black fence and mimosa blossoms. The smell of honeysuckle. The blackberry bush and the peach trees.

I spent the first ten years of my life standing on hard, quartz-ridden black dirt underneath an unrelenting sun, surrounded by whispering wind and miles and miles of cedar-tree-spotted plains. I was, I liked to think, the next link in the chain of Wild West warriors that made up the Hayes clan.

I liked to think I was Texas tough.

Of course in reality I was a scrawny underweight girl, all knees and elbows, prone to ear infections, afraid of the dark, who got stage fright ordering at restaurants.

I’m more of a romantic dreamer than Texas tough. There’s a Kodak photograph buried somewhere in my parent’s attic of me as a six- or seven-year-old at the state fair, standing next to my father and grandfather. I’m wearing a black cowboy hat and black cowboy boots—(they HAD to be black because I wanted to be an outlaw, not a lawman)—that my grandfather had bought me. I’ve got a stern look on my face, like one wrong move and I’d shoot you dead. I adored those boots and that hat because they were sort of like a costume you could wear out and about without Mom telling you to put on something more presentable. No, they weren’t my beloved Batman, Tigger, or Scooby Doo costumes that I wore at home—but at least they were something.

At least they were an outward representation of the character I felt I was building myself to be.

Now, let’s not start philosophizing about how “everyone wears masks” and have some sort of existential identity crisis in the middle of a lousy blog post. I’m just saying people like building and rebuilding their character—the person they present themselves to be—and that who they end up being is one part who they are, one part who they were brought up to be, and one part who they want to be.

And when I first saw The Big Sleep, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be Lauren Bacall.

Although she was a New York girl, she should have gotten an honorary Texas tough badge. Brash, but cool and collected. Never screechy or hysterical like a lot of the other girls in the black and white movies I watched. Even when she played a minor role, she seemed to be in control of the whole film somehow, all the character development, action, and scenes playing out according to a master plan of her making.

She had “the Look.” Sexy. Sassy. Dangerous. A strong woman who could be the femme fatale, the young debutante, or the doting lover but in any case wasn’t naïve, wasn’t lost, wasn’t unfocused, knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. She was the forerunner of the strong women portrayed in this year’s Wonder Woman box office success.

I do not possess anywhere close the level of cool conveyed by Lauren Bacall. But recently I read her memoir, By Myself and Then Some, and was amazed to read that her famous “Look” came about when she had to lean against the wall with her face pointed down so she could raise her cigarette to her lips without her hand shaking from nervousness.

Toughness is in the way you carry yourself, not in what you feel. It’s a piece of your character that you choose to put into place—not something God-given, not something granted to only Texans or brassy New York actresses with smoldering good looks.

Which is good news for us who don’t feel so tough sometimes.

And good news for us writers, who need a bit of toughness, perseverance and resilience, just to keep putting our pen to paper or our fingers to the keyboard. Writing is tough. It’s about as relentless as the sun over my Texas homestead, about as hard as that quartz-ridden black dirt. And it means putting on masks, wearing costumes out and about, pretending life on your family’s rural land was idyllic and meaningful—assigning meaning to yourself and your experiences and sharing them, declaring them important for others to understand and recognize too. Pretending the quartz is diamonds. That takes guts, grit, toughness, and that’s writing.

Of course maybe I’m overthinking it. At the end of the day, maybe being a writer has nothing to do with toughness or the reshaping of your identity—maybe a writer is just plain and simple one who writes and can’t NOT write.

Maybe you just are what you are—your look is just your look—and it’s as simple whistling according to Bacall’s famous double entendre line from To Have and Have Not:

“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.

Directed by Alan Smithee #1: The Ugly

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Fade in. World of darkness turned to light, blackness to color, silence to sound. Quiet rustle of feet on a sticky floor, people adjusting in their seats, and fingers tickling through popcorn dissolved into a completely new reality.

I love the movies. I love them once they’re finished, displayed as a spectacular fog of light in a theater or a pixelated glow from my TV screen. I love them when they’re mangled, cut-up pieces that have yet to be assembled. I love them when they’re nothing more than a stripped bare screenplay, ink scratched or stamped onto coffee-stained pages. The movies to me represent a collective consciousness.

I’m not a psychologist or philosopher, but I am a storyteller—I think human beings are connected by the stories they tell. And the great thing about movies is that they present the story on a massive and celebratory pedestal for anyone and everyone, from any walk of life or background, to see and understand—my conservative parents, my semi-liberal sister, my street-smart coworkers, and my book-smart classmates can all see a film like The Life of Pi and be awed.

Movies are the imagination seen, the imagination realized—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

And, yeah, there can be a whole lot of ugly.

Here’s a tip: if some movie nerd tells you his or her favorite director is Alan Smithee—laugh because it’s supposed to be a joke.

Alan Smithee is the pseudonym used when a director for one reason or another (probably “artist differences”) either does not want to be credited in a film or has had his or her credit removed. For instance, in some cuts of the 1984 movie Dune, the directing credit reads “Alan Smithee” instead of the real director David Lynch.

Perhaps it’s my sneaky nature, or the fact that as a fiction writer I love a good lie made into truth, but pseudonyms have always interested me, so when I recently heard about Mr. Smithee I was instantly hooked.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Indeed, Billy-Boy, but would a rose by any other name still be a rose? There is something about “Smithee” that makes me think pirate—I admire him a little—a fictional character who has managed to force his way into reality with nothing except for a name and a willingness to claim the sloppy jobs no one else wants to take credit for. Who is this Alan Smithee? What does he look like? What does he feel?

All we know about him (or her?) is his name and where he lives—in the cobwebbed credits of the tarnished and abandoned.

He sounds like one cool dude.

I wonder how it feels to be the marker for when something has gone terribly wrong, the label that symbolizes dysfunction. I see a bit of myself in Alan Smithee, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Would we need storytellers if the world was full of harmony and everything worked out in the end? My favorite book and one of my favorite movies is The Grapes of Wrath. I doubt that amazing artwork would have been made or appreciated if something and a lot of somethings had not gone terribly wrong.

It’s the duty of the artist to expose the beauty in the ugliness, the light in the darkness, the color in the blackness, and the sound in the silence. Every single artist is an Alan Smithee—we see the value in claiming the mangled messes of the world. We see that somebody has to see the world for what it is and still take ownership of it.

And still, I like to think, love it.

The movies have shaped the way I see my world. I didn’t realize until recently how much a person’s favorite movie says about that person. During summers I’ve been working at a fast food place in my hometown. Last summer, when one of my coworkers heard I wrote screenplays she gasped and asked me if I had seen The Life of Pi. I answered yes, that the visuals in that movie are amazing, and—being maybe a bit pretentious—I added that the book is amazing too. She told me that The Life of Pi is her all-time favorite movie.

This woman’s life was so dysfunctional it sounded like a blues song. Barely any money, just diagnosed with COPD, living with what seemed like a no-good man. At first, although I loved her company and talking to her, I grew very tired of her same old stories, frustrated that she didn’t make better decisions in her life. But when I heard her favorite movie was The Life of Pi, a light bulb went off. This woman is a beautiful person, I realized. She must ponder spiritual questions, feel at times shipwrecked and unmoored, and without a doubt relish the beauty surrounding her. A whole new dimension of her character was opened up to me through simply learning her favorite movie.

American Beauty. The Apartment. Touch of Evil. Sunset Boulevard. The Maltese Falcon. The Usual Suspects. Once Upon a Time in the West. At different times I say different titles for which movie is my all-time favorite—depending on what I feel in the moment. I’m too careful and self-conscious now about giving a single one.

It’s always hard—linking a name to your character, revealing yourself to the world, taking credit for the mess you are.

Perhaps I’d have more luck asking Alan Smithee for his favorite movie.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.