- Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Gr
- Date: Nov 2005
From the book
The Harlem Writer's Guild was meeting at John's house, and my palms were sweating and my tongue was thick. The loosely formed organization, without dues or membership cards, had one strict rule: any invited guest could sit in for three meetings, but thereafter, the visitor had to read from his or her work in progress. My time had come.
Sara Wright and Sylvester Leeks stood in a corner talking softly. John Clarke was staring at titles in the bookcase. Mary Delaney and Millie Jordan were giving their coats to Grace and exchanging greetings. The other writers were already seated around the living room in a semicircle.
John Killens walked past me, touching my shoulder, took his seat and called the meeting to order.
"O.K., everybody. Let's start." Chairs scraped the floor and the sounds reverberated in my armpits. "As you know, our newest member, our California singer, is going to read from her new play. What's the title, Maya?"
"One Love, One Life." My usually deep voice leaked out high-pitched and weak.
A writer asked how many acts the play had. I answered again in the piping voice, "So far only one."
Everyone laughed; they thought I was making a joke.
"If everyone is ready, we can begin." John picked up his note pad. There was a loud rustling as the writers prepared to take notes.
I read the character and set description despite the sudden perversity of my body. The blood pounded in my ears but not enough to drown the skinny sound of my voice. My hands shook so that I had to lay the pages in my lap, but that was not a good solution due to the tricks my knees were playing. They lifted voluntarily, pulling my heels off the floor and then trembled like disturbed Jello. Before I launched into the play's action, I looked around at the writers expecting but hoping not to see their amusement at my predicament. Their faces were studiously blank. Within a year, I was to learn that each had a horror story about a first reading at the Harlem Writers Guild.
Time wrapped itself around every word, slowing me. I couldn't force myself to read faster. The pages seemed to be multiplying even as I was trying to reduce them. The play was dull, the characters, unreal, and the dialogue was taken entirely off the back of a Campbell's soup can. I knew this was my first and last time at the Guild. Even if I hadn't the grace to withdraw voluntarily, I was certain the members had a method of separating the wheat from the chaff.
"The End." At last.
The members laid their notes down beside their chairs and a few got up to use the toilets. No one spoke. Even as I read I knew the drama was bad, but maybe someone would have lied a little.
The room filled. Only the whispering of papers shifting told me that the jury was ready.
John Henrik Clarke, a taut little man from the South, cleared his throat. If he was to be the first critic, I knew I would receive the worst sentence. John Clarke was famous in the group for his keen intelligence and bitter wit. He had supposedly once told the FBI that they were wrong to think that he would sell out his home state of Georgia; he added that he would give it away, and if he found no takers he would even pay someone to take it.
"One Life. One Love?" His voice was a rasp of disbelief. "I found no life and very little love in the play from the opening of the act to its unfortunate end."
Using superhuman power, I kept my mouth closed and my eyes on my yellow pad.
He continued, his voice lifting. "In 1879, on a March evening, Alexander Graham Bell successfully...