Online and in the Flesh,
Black Writers Commune With Kindred Spirits
Brandon Massey listens intently as Steven Barnes explains a martial arts maneuver. Both men are writers, and each is absorbed in the conversation: Mr. Barnes, explaining the technique, and Mr. Massey, concentrating on the nuance. Mr. Barnes, 49, has clearly assumed the role of mentor in this conversation. For the last two decades he has worked in film, television, theater, radio and print, and he won an Emmy for his script for an episode of "Outer Limits."
Mr. Massey, 28, has a full-time job as a systems analyst in Atlanta, but his writing career is well under way. In addition to assignments for print and online magazines, he published a novel, "Thunderland," privately in 1999. One of the characters of his next book, "Hide," is supposed to have had considerable martial arts training, and Mr. Massey is relying on Mr. Barnes's expertise to develop the character. Earlier this year, Kensington Books, a New York house, signed Mr. Massey to a two-book deal and will republish "Thunderland" in hardcover in 2002. He described the book as "a horror-suspense thriller in the Dean Koontz/ Stephen King vein," adding, "except the characters are African-American."
Mr. Barnes's next novel, "Lion's Blood" (Warner Books), also features African-Americans, of sorts. "It's about an alternate America, one that was colonized by Islamic Africans, not Christian Europeans," he said. Set in the South in 1864, "Lion's Blood" features Kai, a young African noble, in the role of master, lording it over white slaves.
Like the characters they created, Mr. Massey and Mr. Barnes are black. Each traveled here to attend the second Black Writers Reunion and Conference last weekend. Sponsored by the Black Writers Alliance, the three-day event is the organization's only annual gathering. The rest of the year the group's members contact each other directly or stay in touch via the Internet community established by the group's founder and executive director, Tia Shabazz.
Ms. Shabazz, who is 32, came up with the idea for the group while living in Houston. A technical writer by trade, she was developing a novel and had joined the Houston Writers League in the hope of bettering her work. "One of the biggest problems I encountered was that when I went to the critique group meetings, no one could relate to the issues I was writing about," she said. One of the characters in her manuscript was a young black woman whose family had roots in the Deep South and who used voodoo for revenge. "Everyone kept asking me to explain this and to explain that," Ms. Shabazz said. "Everybody is curious about others' cultures, but that's what the critique groups ended up being for me -- explaining, not critiquing."
Based on these experiences, Ms. Shabazz formed the Houston African-American Writers Society in 1996. Local writers learned about the society primarily through word of mouth. But soon after Ms. Shabazz developed the group's Web page, national and international interest soared and the number of online participants quickly eclipsed the Houston membership.
"We got responses from Africa and China and Germany from people wanting to be a part of a Houston group," Ms. Shabazz said, so she founded the more comprehensive Black Writers Alliance in 1998. The group held its first conference last year in Atlanta, and its ranks have since swollen to 700 members, who pay $25 annual dues. Several thousand more subscribe to the group's free bimonthly newsletter, Cultured Writer. Ms. Shabazz described the paid membership as about 60 percent women and 40 percent men. The organization's Web site, www.blackwriters.org, gets about 25,000 visits a month.
Ms. Shabazz said the main benefit to membership in the alliance is its Internet service. "People come to the Web site, click on 'community,' and all the different discussion groups come up," she said. "Then they click on the ones they are interested in -- fiction, poetry. There are more than 20 to choose from. We distribute information on submissions, fellowships, grants and scholarships. We also have a Q. and A. that is incredible. The combined knowledge that is available from that group is more than you can ever get out of a book."
Registration for the reunion and conference cost $195 and included authors' and poets' receptions, an awards dinner, a Sunday brunch and a choice of 30 workshops. "Getting Your Career Started" and "What's Wrong with My Manuscript?" were tailored to novice writers. Specialized seminars like "E-Book Publishing" and "Literary Legalities" attracted those with more specific interests.
The keynote address was by Robert Fleming, formerly a reporter for The Daily News in New York and a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Mr. Fleming now teaches writing at the New School in New York. In the introduction to his book "The African-American Writers Handbook" (Ballantine Books), he emphasizes the "sizable black readership hungry for words and images by and about themselves." Mr. Fleming quotes industry sources who state that the estimated 9.9 million African-American readers are one of the fastest-growing segments of the book-buying market. In remarks at the conference, he also singled out the opportunities for black writers.
"What is crucial is that African-American writing is at a turning point," he said. "What you are going to see is people who have mastered their craft now venturing into different genres. Right now you have other ethnic groups writing about African-Americans. Stewart O'Nan's book 'Everyday People' is a person who is Irish writing about African-Americans. Richard Price has written about African-Americans for years. What you'll see next is African-Americans writing about other ethnic groups."