A Chance Meeting: MK Asante on public radio

I rarely drive, so I rarely listen to the radio. That might not make sense for many, but I know that some will understand. The radio is simply not part of my home life.

But anyway,there were reasons for my being behind the wheel this past Thursday and I was listening to RadioTimes on Public Radio (Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY in Philadelphia.) The guest was MK Asante, a hip-hop singer, filmmaker,  writer and creative-writing/film teacher at Morgan State University.

I was blown away.buckautographed

Asante was plugging his new book, Buck: A Memoir about his life in “Killadelphia” during the 1990s.  At the same time it is the story of his family’s breaking apart and then coming back together.

Asante was born in Zimbabwe and raised in Philadelphia.  His parents’ marriage disintegrated, his idolized brother had a series of run-ins with the law and was imprisoned, his mother suffered from clinical depression, and he grew up in the “hood” full of anger, confusion, and energy.

This coming-of-age story is probably more familiar than it ever should be, but, oh, the language itself is extraordinary. Like nothing you ever heard.

Here is the first paragraph of the book: (Asante reads it in the interview attached below):

The Fall

      The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood. Change hangs in air like sneaks on the live wires behind my crib. Me and my big brother, Uzi, in the kitchen. He’s rolling a blunt on top of the Source, the one with Tyson on the cover rocking a kufi, ice-grilling through the gloss. Uzi can roll a blunt with his eyes closed.

     Cracks, splits, bits.

     The rawest crews in Philly are all three letters,“  he tells me. I read the cover through the tobacco guts and weed flakes:  “The Rebirth of Mike Tyson: ‘I’m Not Good.  I’m Not Bad. I’m Just Trying to Survive in this World.’”

Awakening crews in a rude fashion
On they ass like Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant•

      I do this–spit lyrics to songs under my breath–all day, every day. The bars just jump out of me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It’s like hip-hop Tourette’s.

     Dumps, spreads, evens.

    “JBM–Junior Black Mafia. Of course us,  UPK–Uptown Killaz.  PHD–Play Hero and Die.”

     Tears, licks, wraps.

    “HRM–Hit Run Mob. EAM–Erie Ave. Mobsters.  ABC–Another Bad Creation.”

    Folds, rolls, tucks. Another perfect blunt, jawn looks like a paintbrush.

    Jawn  can mean anything–person, place, or thing. Sometimes if we’re telling a story and don’t want people to know what we’re talking about, we’ll plug in jawn in for everything. The other day I was at the jawn around the corner with the young jawn from down the street. We get to the jawn, right, and the ngh at the door is all on his jawn, not nowing I had that jawn on me. Man, it was about to be on in that jawn.

“ Wreck Your Ears (Can Do),” The B.U.M.S. (Brothers Under Madness), 1965

This is language at its most alive, its most energetic. (To hear him read it is even more electrifying.)

Asante mentions in the interview that the first book that turned him on was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Besides the plot of the novel–drugs, sex, wildness–which he was surprised to learn could be the focus of serious literature, it was the style of the writing that attracted him, the energy, the speed, the exuberance.  As he said, from it he learned he didn’t have to worry about commas.

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

photo of MK Asante from the L.A. Times

MK Asante’s journey from the hood to plugging his books on national radio is one story. But it is a minor story.  The true story is the language of this memoir. It is hypnotizing, energetic, alive and present.  It puts me to shame.

In two more weeks I begin teaching a class in creative writing. My students are quite a distance from the world that MK Asante grew up in.  Nevertheless, I am opening class with readings from the book.  It is a lesson in being true to oneself, in being true to one’s voice, in being able to plumb one’s life for the story we all need to tell.

Here is the interview in its entirety: (this is Radio Times web site and will feature the day’s current show. Scroll down to the middle of the page to hear MK Asante on yesterday’s show. As time passes, the 8/22/2013 show will be placed in the easily accessed archives. And check out MK Asante’s web page, above, to see trailers, past works, etc.)


Central Station…more about a boy

MV5BMTc1MzU5MDgzMF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDQ4ODY2OA@@._V1_SX214_In the late November, I made a deal with my students. If they read Kerouac’s On the Road by Christmas, we could go see the film together as a class trip. (It was opening December 21.) However, for whatever reason, the film came, left, and went straight to video, before the first weekend was through. Needless to say, we did not go on our trip, (although one student claimed he could pirate it the day it came out and offered to show it in class.)

Later I told my boss this story. He hadn’t been aware of the On the Road film, but said that the director Walter Sayles was one of his favorites and that Sayles’ film Central Station was extraordinary and something I should see. And as he does often, he presented me with the DVD of it a week later.

Well, I finally got to watch last week. (I need to announce a spoiler here, but the ending is not the point. We all know how Romeo and Juliet ends but we watch it for what it gives us and makes us feel!)

Central Station (original title Central do Brasil) begins in Rio de Janiero’s enormous and busy train station, where Isadora (Fernanda Montenegra) makes her living writing letters for the illiterate. She scams most of them, never posting the letters she writes. One day a boy, Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira) and his mother arrive at her table. The mother wants to contact the boy’s father; she says that the boy has been asking about his father whom he has never seen. She dictates a letter that is both angry and accusatory.

The two appear again to Isadora’s table the next day to revise the letter, the mother wanting to erase much of the bile that was in the first. Astutely, the young boy is suspicious that Isadora still has the first letter right there and is able to retrieve it so quickly.

Central Station

Central Station illustration by jpbohannon © 2013

Afterwards, as the mother and the young boy leave the station, the mother is run over by a bus and killed, and by the end of the day Josué falls into the care of Isadora.

Central Station could have easily followed the film cliché where the rigid adult is paired with a rambunctious child and all sorts of mahem ensues–but it does not. It is not that kind of movie. Isadora does not want the boy; she has long been dealing with her own issues of parental abandonment. In fact, her first action is to sell him to an adoption agency. But that wracks her with guilt and she goes and retrieves him–keeping the money for herself which places her in some danger. Despite her bitter disposition, her jaded cynicism, and her own personal issues, she is responsible enough to want to get the child to his father. (And after all, she still has the address from the letter she never sent.) And so the two start the long trek by bus, kitted out with the money that she had originally sold Josué for.

Of course, the journey is difficult and there are a number of setbacks. Several times Isadora attempts to abandon Josué, but she fails–not because of pangs of conscience, but because of circumstances beyond her control. She dreams of running away with the kind truck driver who helped them out, but even Jopsué knew that that wasn’t going to work. She attempts to leave him while he is sleeping (his backpack secretly supplied with the money), but that doesn’t work and, in fact, goes horribly wrong.

And then finally they arrive, but the father is not where he last address indicated. Finding him is more difficult than they originally thought. In fact, they never do find the father–but they do find that Josué has two older brothers, who take him in.

In the history of film, there are certain moments that break your heart in both their beauty and their poignancy. The final scene where Isadora rides in a bus back home to Rio is one such scene. She has snuck away once again, in the middle of the night and leaving Josué with his brothers. As she attempts to write him a note, her anguish is palpable.

[caption id="attachment_2082" align="alignright" width="364"]fernanda_1 Brazilian actress, Fernanda Montenegra

The film is really a showcase for Fernanda Montenegra, one of Brazil’s greatest actresses. To be honest, her character Isadora is very unlikable –someone who cheats the poor and illiterate and sees a suddenly orphaned child as a get rich quick opportunity. Yet it is Montenegra’s talent that draws us into her, that makes us want her to do the right thing, and that breaks our hearts in the closing scenes. And the young Oliveira, who plays Josué, plays against her as if her were a veteran actor. Indeed, Josué’s uncanny and mature sense of what Isadora is up to is one of the delights of the film.

What Central Station is not is a showcase for Rio de Janeiro Except for Rio’s bustling train station and a street fair in a small outpost beyond the city, the film doesn’t dwell on location or even local color. Sayles, a Rio de Janiero native, sees nothing exotic about his home city…but perhaps that is to deliberately underscore the universality of this lovely and moving film.