Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: His Essay is a Slam Dunk

July 29, 2015 § 5 Comments

Keysha Whitaker

Keysha Whitaker

By Keysha Whitaker, guest blogger:

Can a professional basketball player write anything except a check?

I didn’t think this exactly, but shamefully that was the spirit of my side-eye when I heard Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on CNN discussing a recent column he wrote for Time Magazine. But as he talked to anchor Poppy Harlow about how some female athletes, in particular those of color, are often body-shamed because they don’t conform to Western ideals of beauty, I knew that any American man who is self- and culturally-aware enough to identify and analyze the errors in our socialization, deserves some of my attention.

The essay “Body Shaming Black Female Athletes Is Not Just About Race” uses a hybrid introduction technique. He opens with a story that reveals a surprising fact. Abdul-Jabbar explains that though Serena Williams just won her 21st Grand Slam title in Wimbledon and holds the record for most prize money earned by a female in the history of tennis, she’s still second place when it comes to money earned from endorsements. He notes that in 2013 Maria Sharapova (whom Williams has beaten 17 times in a row) earned $23 million in sponsor revenue while Williams only earned $12 million.

I didn’t know that, wouldn’t have ever suspected it, and surely wanted to read more to see what other injustices he might uncover. But at the end of the first paragraph we learn the article isn’t about financial wrongs. He explains the women’s sponsorship earnings gap is because endorsements “. . . often reward the most presentable according to the Western cultural idea of beauty.”

A declarative statement like this might put off readers whose ears and eyes have crusted and glazed over from “the national conversation on race” and Abdul-Jabbar knows. In the next two sentence graph he writes, “I know, you think this article is about racism. It’s not.”

That graph also functions as another hook, a sort of tease to keep the reader going because if the article is not about racism, then what is it about?

He follows with Misty Copeland, a second example of a female athlete who was shunned from the ballet world at 13 for her supposedly incongruous body type. Copeland and Williams, he poses, “seem to endure more body shaming than their white, less successful counterparts.”

And now Abdul-Jabbar is running on a freshly waxed court. He’s compared two brown women to the great white ideal and race-weary readers surely might click away. But using a bit of humor and a four-word paragraph, he won’t let them. Abdul-Jabbar writes:

“(Still not about racism.)”

The parentheses feel like a elbow-nudge, the informal tone of the phrase is like an under-the-breath right-in-your-ear mutter that is not meant to distract but to focus. This article is on a mission. We’ll get there.

And we do, but not before Abdul-Jabbar uses literature to wax on the concept of physical beauty. After quoting Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye, he writes, “Morrison’s assessment of social ideals for physical beauty as destructive is harshly accurate. We have established a definition of beauty so narrow that almost no one can live up to it.” The next sentence tickled me in a way that maybe it shouldn’t have: “Women struggle to fit within the constrictions of social expectations of thin, youthful, sexuality as constricting as a Victorian corset.”

In a recent conversation with a friend, we lamented the 20 magic pounds that appeared in the last year and contemplated purchasing the newly popular waist-trainers — essentially modern-day corsets under the guise of fitness gear. We too were “in a futile effort to fit this mythical ideal of beauty . . . an imaginary ideal they didn’t even create.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s “they” means women, and as I inferred, in particular brown women. This time, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t shy away.

“OK, I lied:” he writes, “Some of the body shaming of athletic black women is definitely a racist rejection of black women’s bodies that don’t conform to the traditional body shapes of white athletes and dancers” but he goes on to the “bigger issue” which is “public pressure regarding femininity . . . a misogynist idea that is detrimental to professional women athletes and to all the young girls who look up to these women as role models because it can stifle their drive to excellence, not only on the playing field, but in other aspects of life.”

If I were editing this piece, I would have asked him to cut and rearrange some of the points he makes over the next six graphs and quickly bring the reader back to the great sports examples he then gives of a female tennis player whose coach wants to “ ‘keep her the smallest player in the top 10’” and Sharapova’s own admission that she wishes she were skinnier.

But once we get here, Abdul-Jabbar hits his stride again and ends that Sharapova paragraph with this succinct and snarky observation: “Does she want to be the highest-paid female athlete or the best one?”

After a quote from Walt Whitman — which I think could have been great to play on as a title for Abdul-Jabbar’s piece — he ends the essay with a definitive call-to-action. He writes, “By broadening our ideals of beauty, we can encourage females of all ages to confidently strive to reach their full potential. We can, and shall, overcome.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s column broadened my own ideals of the athlete as writer and left me wishing more men and women athletes would write themselves onto my writer’s radar too.


Keysha Whitaker is a lecturer of English at Penn State Berks and produces Behind the Prose, a podcast for writers. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.

SolLit: A Magazine of Diverse Voices — Call for Bloggers

July 28, 2015 § 1 Comment

From our friends at SolLit:
In the wake of the tragic church shooting in Charleston, SolLit: A Magazine of Diverse Voices has launched a new blog series — Dialogue on RACE, CULTURE & CLASS. As a literary magazine promoting diversity of all types, we must have a voice in times of crisis.

We have recently posted our third guest blog submission and  are looking for more writers to add to the conversation. You can read the blogs as well as our full blog submission guidelines here (all submissions go through Submittable).

In addition to these blog entries, we publish nonfiction and welcome flash nonfiction submissions as well. (The submission period for the magazine itself will begin again on September 1.)  Please share this call with anyone who you think might be interested. Thank you.

Review of Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall

July 27, 2015 § 3 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

fall“The assignment is to write what we’d like to be someday. One of the most regular questions of childhood, yet it seems I’ve never been asked it. Maybe because I’m one of seven children in a family headed by a woman without a husband or a career and we live in a neighborhood brimming with similar women, people who did not plan as children to wait tables or clean hotel rooms or stand on porches and corners, watching as the world passes.”

Reading Sonja Livingston deliberating the perennial childhood question—What do you want to be when you grow up?— in her new collection, Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses, I’m taken back to Mrs. Dowdy’s class. I’m ten years old, chewing my pencil, trying hard to picture myself setting out at sunrise, swinging a metal lunch pail, going I don’t know where. All the adults in my life labor with their hands, trudge home at night tired, sweaty, and miserable.

“You can do anything,” Livingston’s teacher urges her. “Don’t limit yourself.”

Mrs. Dowdy says more or less the same thing. I think of my father imploring me, “Go to school. Be something.” If I’m not to be a mother, farmer, seamstress, mechanic or upholsterer, then what will I be? My classmates write, but my hand remains rigid.

Livingston also stares at a blank page. Mr. Coyle coaxes, “Think of what you most enjoy.” She likes checking out books from the library and reading mysteries, travel stories, and myths. “And just like that,” she reflects, “I make up my mind about my career: mythologist.”

She’s proud and expects praise from her teacher. However, “Mr. Coyle does not touch my paper, does not lift it to the class, saying ‘Listen to this, boys and girls.’ He only returns his glasses to his face and says, Well, now, that’s a new one. He smiles, but the way he says it, his surprise—Well, now—tells me that mythologist is no kind of career.” Embarrassed, Livingston places her hand over her dream career and listens while classmates boast of becoming fashion models, astronauts, or the next Michael Jackson. “Their goals sound impossible, but must be correct because they include no job anyone I know has ever done.”

Maybe Mr. Coyle can’t imagine a career in writing myths, yet Livingston grows up to be a fine storyteller (and isn’t that what a mythologist is?).  She possesses keen ability to magnify small moments and shape their telling, weaving in unlikely images that connect cleverly and underscore the quirkiness of real life. For instance, she contrasts Mr. Coyle’s formal classroom with the fun class next door taught by a Hawaiian-obsessed teacher who grows a flowering hibiscus in the classroom and teaches girls to hulu dance.

Livingston’s essay collection revolves around the lives of women, be they French nuns whose chants of the rosary hum across the radio or the buckskin and beaded belt maiden who graces the Land of Lakes butter box or Livingston herself, a woman so desperate to conceive a child, she undergoes painful fertility treatments that lead to further disappointment.

Her lyrical writing offers a fresh look at women growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, struggling to pull themselves above the poverty line. She collages period snippets and braids narratives that form rich layers with yet enough room for readers to wriggle in.

In Mrs. Dowdy’s classroom, she sees that I’m struggling and prompts, “Think of what you’re good at.” I love to read, and I’d just won an award for a citizenship speech I’d written. My hand scrawls: writer.

I can’t remember Mrs. Dowdy’s reaction, though I distinctly recall my grandmother’s. She remained quiet for a moment, her tired eyes looking me over, then solemnly said, “Well, I didn’t know you had to go to college to learn to write.”

Her words stung, but in time I’d realize that a woman who’d spent her whole life struggling on farm, raising nine children, surely regarded my dream as frivolous, if not impossible.


Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and writing instructor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. She is the author of Against the Tide, and her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Art New England, and the anthology Dime Story.



Southside Sukrungruang Selebration

July 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

iraCongratulations to Ira Sukrungruang whose memoir in essays, Southside Buddhist, has been named a winner of the 36th Annual Before Columbus Foundation American Book Awards.

Two essays previously published in Brevity appear in the book: “Chop Suey” and “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology.” We would have been happy for Ira in any case, but the appearance of these two excellent Brevity essays in the book make us both happy and proud.

The American Book Awards were created to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community, which is a darned good thing.

Review of Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude

July 22, 2015 § 8 Comments

41R6oNp7tdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A review of a nonfiction classic, by Sejal H. Patel

Guilty. This is a difficult word for a criminal defense attorney to hear. It hurts when a clerk stares into the pit of the courtroom and makes guilt true by its very declaration. Not long ago, I represented a man accused of seven terrorism crimes. My trial team and I felt that our client was innocent, so the clerk’s booming, stoic repetition of the word “guilty” crushed me. I suspended my law practice and hid myself away in graduate school.

Beautiful baby. Good luck with it. Paul Auster’s father said this when he met Auster’s son for the first time. “For the rest of the visit that day he did not look at Daniel, and not once, ever, did he ask to hold him,” Auster wrote. Those words pained Auster, especially because of their flat delivery, their colorlessness. Auster knew better than to expect warmth from his father. His father had always been a “block of impenetrable space in the form of a man.”

Why would Auster expect that meeting his grandson would change his father? Why would I expect a Muslim man who hurt no one to receive a fair trial? Was the fault not ours – for expecting? Auster and I could have just tossed our stories into a well of disappointment, but we didn’t. We couldn’t.

I read Auster’s book The Invention of Solitude with bated breath when my advisor, Harvard Divinity School professor Michael D. Jackson, recommended it to me. It turns out that my connection to the book was deep. Like Auster, I also wrote a book about trying to know my father. I realized in graduate school that my feelings over losing that terrorism trial had to do with my father’s life story, a story he had never before shared about how he left the farmlands of rural India and became a physician in America. Though my relationship with my father was one of presence and warmth, I was confounded by how my father could parent that way given how he grew up. Auster’s book helped me connect that past to my life.

The Invention of Solitude consists of two essays. Auster’s father was an invisible presence in his life, a paradox evident in the title of the first essay: “Portrait of an Invisible Man.” The essay begins when Auster’s father has just died. Auster travels to his father’s house to sort through his belongings. He retrieves an empty photo album entitled “This is Our Life – The Austers,” he gives away his father’s neckties, he examines old photographs, searching in vain for a clues of who this man was. Auster calls his father a “tourist in his own life.”

Auster ends the essay with a revelation. He discovers as an adult that his paternal grandmother had killed his grandfather. A jury ultimately adjudged her not guilty of murder, and upon her release, she and her four sons moved from place to place, barely scraping by financially. “He never learned to trust anyone, not even himself,” Auster writes of his father. “He never learned to want anything too much.” Auster’s father worked as a landlord, vowing never to be destitute again, but he paid little attention to his wife and children. Auster and his father seem fixed “in an unmoveable relationship, cut off from each other on opposite sides of a wall.” Yet, his father leaves him an inheritance that allows Auster to become a writer. Auster brings his father back to life by writing about him and agonizes over ending the essay. “When I step into this silence, it will mean that my father has vanished forever.”

The second essay in the book, entitled “The Book of Memory,” explores a third person narrator’s relationship with his son, the loss of his grandfather, and how he negotiates the solitary writing life. The narrator is ostensibly Auster himself. He begins the essay with these two sentences: “It was. It will never be again.” Auster explores memory in this essay – what its retrieval and the making of it means. He notes, as do essayists like Hannah Arendt, Michael D. Jackson, and Leslie Jamison, that life is solitary, yes, but interconnected in its solitary nature: “Memory, therefore, not simply as the resurrection of one’s private past, but an immersion in the past of others, which is to say: history – which one both participates in and is a witness to, is a part of and apart from.” Invoking the examples of Michelangelo and Collodi’s Pinocchio, Auster tells us that the acts of retrieving memories and writing about them helps us to hew away at the excess matter of life, to reveal the true form of who we are. “It was. It will never be again. Remember,” the essay ends.

If life is a cascading reel of images, scene by scene, we can narrate our stories with greater context and compassion when we have more images to work with. Those memories can be happy and painful. But Auster writes that when we wander through our memories, we have walked in the world. In the quiet, solitary occupation of writing, we have elevated the seemingly final into something we are brave enough to question and ultimately live with.


Sejal H. Patel is a San Francisco based criminal defense attorney and writer.  A graduate of Northwestern Law School and Harvard Divinity School, her essays are forthcoming or have appeared in The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, and her blog.  She is at work on a memoir entitled Seven Almonds about how researching her father’s history as a poor farmer in rural India as a graduate student renewed her faith in the criminal justice system.



New View from the Memory Motel: 3D Memoir/Vessels

July 21, 2015 § 8 Comments

A guest post from Nina Gaby:

nina gaby art IMG_6459Cavalier, I toss around the word “hoarder,” like it’s a good thing, because it makes me do art.

“If there’s not a flattened dead rodent under that pile then it isn’t really hoarding, not like TV show hoarding” I say. “And besides, it’s all good stuff.” And then. Of course. I found the dessicated mouse under a three foot stack of old photographs, notes scribbled on envelopes, articles, letters tied with ribbon, and a yellowed folder of psychiatric evaluations from 1989, realizing I needed to either get a dumpster or get creative. And it’s not just the ‘stuff’ for us writers and artists, it’s the ideas we save, the memories we hang on to. The photos and Post-It notes and pretty rocks and pieces of costume jewelry. Broken plates and swatches of fabric, the bits of pencil and string, the colors, the smells, the scraps and the thoughts. (My old clay tools. Tiny bottles of ink. My father’s old Underwood from the 30’s. His unfinished novels. Grandma’s old sewing tins. It’s not for nothing that my therapist husband calls me the “bearer of family sorrow.”)

“But I could really do something  with all this stuff someday.” What I’m getting at is this, hands on hips approaching sixty-five years of age (with a book coming out, a new and complicated psychiatric nurse practitioner job starting up, a dying dog, like I need a new project) I decide to pull it all together and make some artist’s books. Three dimensional memoir vessels. Bring it all back home. The clay, the writing, the day job. The stuff I don’t want to waste. And be in time for submissions to some regional book-arts shows, a process only somewhat better than submitting to literary journals.

nina gaby art IMG_1288

“Mottaini,” “Imperfection,” “Guilt vs Shame,” and “500 Bowls”

For the vessels themselves, I create slab-built containers and scrolls from a translucent porcelain body called “Frost.” The slabs are paper thin and allow shadow and light to pass through. Using a variety of handmade papers, fabric, threads, amulets, charms, milagros, encaustic, ephemera, Grandma’s old buttons and garter clips, original artwork and text, I incorporate micro-essays, quotes and pieces of memoir via vintage Letra-Set, stamps, and inkjet printing. The vessel becomes the container for the visual cues, holding documents with image and dimension. To read the text one must have access from all sides. So I allow myself to become cerebral: addressing whether it is ever possible to be truly transparent–as a memoirist or within the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship–or are we sadly and protectively opaque, and how do we as artists (or anything else) negotiate this?

transparent translucent opaque transparent translucent opaque transparent is printed on vellum rolled around a page of quotes. “There are shards stuck in our unconscious we don’t even know about until they surface.” Shards of porcelain surround the grouping of scrolls and containers that make up the series New View from the Memory Motel. There really is a Memory Motel, I just found it while visiting a friend in Montauk and took some photos, and voila, a new series is born. Much of what we hold on to is bittersweet so I quote Abigail Thomas: The word memory comes from the same root as the word mourn, and that should tell you something.”

The series of four vessels, When I was Japanese includes the titles:

“500 Bowls,” “Guilt vs Shame,” “Imperfection” and “Mottaini”:


and from “500 Bowls:”

When I was Japanese I was much too young. When I returned to normal I made 500 bowls on the potters wheel with one hand, an apprentice, like a penance, and threw every one of them away.



Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist, and psychiatric nurse practitioner living in central Vermont. She has contributed to numerous anthologies and periodicals, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as prose poetry and articles. Her first book, “Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women,” has just been published by She Writes Press. Most recently her creative nonfiction is appearing in Intima: a Journal of Narrative Medicine, and The Best of the Burlington Writer’s Workshop, upcoming in “Mothering Through Darkness” and the tentatively titled collection “Shrink/Shrunk.”She has guest blogged on a number of sites including Brevity.com, and infrequently on her own website at www.ninagaby.com. Her sculptural porcelain is in the National Collection of the Renwick at the Smithsonian, as well as other collections. Gaby’s three dimensional memoir vessels explore transparency/translucency/opacity in mixed media including the written word and have been exhibited this year in several regional gallery shows, includeing the upcoming juried show “Unbound V” which is part of the Woodstock, Vermont literary festival this July.

Last Call for Nonfiction at Profane

July 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

TestCover3Profane is accepting creative nonfiction submissions through the end of July.

We’re a print and audio journal featuring the best and bravest writing we can find. We record every poem and piece of prose we publish in the author’s own voice, along with a short interview.

Only in our second year, our contributors already include Maggie Nelson, Alex Lemon, David Clewell, Devin Murphy, and Deborah Thompson, among many other incredibly talented writers.

We tend to like nonfiction that mixes research and narrative, that teaches us about the world we live in while telling an essential story.

For a sample of what we like, Read and Listen to Elizabeth Horneber’s personal essay, “Contagion,” at http://www.profanejournal.com/elizabeth-horneber-lissa-mae.html. All the work from our inaugural issue is currently being archived on our website.

We look forward to reading your work!

For more info, you can check us out at


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