Join me in welcoming Diane Lefer to Highlighted
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist, a native New Yorker transplanted to LA. In addition to Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, her recent books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize.
Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago, Houston, and other US cities and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the world including for human rights organizations in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts-and-games-based writing workshops to boost literacy skills and promote social justice in the US and, in Spanish, in South America. Many years ago, she wrote for Violent World, a short-lived magazine edited by a former CIA agent. She is now a peaceful person and contributing writer to LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, and Numéro Cinq.
Welcome, Diane. Please tell us about yourself.
In the aftermath of the devastation caused by Sandy, so many New Yorkers found their homes and neighborhoods devastated, changed most likely forever. My own experience of losing my NYC community seems so small, worth only a whimper. But the reality is, I’m a native New Yorker and though I loved to travel, I never really expected to leave home.
The neighborhood where I lived for many years was my model of what a community can be. We were people of every race and ethnicity and socioeconomic status. In the same apartment building, you’d find a famous actor and a garment factory worker, a high school teacher, a prostitute, a social worker, a jazz musician, and—not to make it sound too much like Utopia, yes, I also crossed paths more often than would be considered healthy with figures from the world of organized crime. But we all knew each other and got along. The languages you heard most often on the street? English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Ukrainian, and Serbo-Croatian. The kids would be throwing Frisbees and footballs and the grownups would sit on the stoops with cans of soda and beer, talking and keeping an eye on the kids. I remember how we all chipped in to plant trees, and also to charter a fishing boat off Sheepshead Bay. Anyone who could afford to chipped in a little extra so that the kids on welfare could come along. We caught enough bluefish to feed the entire block and when we returned, the neighbors who’d stayed behind had made salads and baked cakes. We threw a big fish fry behind the one of the buildings and everyone was invited.
Then, as the neighborhood gentrified, longtime tenants were forced out. Everything changed. Suddenly, the black teenagers who’d lived on the block all their lives were being stopped and questioned by the new residents who either challenged them—”What are you doing here?” or startled them by asking for cocaine.
I ended up in Los Angeles—where crime tends to be disorganized. And I guess my nostalgia for the community we once had and my hurt at its loss helped fuel the writing of Nobody Wakes Up Pretty. The mystery genre gave me a form that allowed me to incorporate some of my feelings into a story that would entertain rather than preach or complain.
Los Angeles has been home now for 16 years. When I left NYC, I realized I was an urban girl at heart. I needed a big city and LA seemed like the one place in the US where coming from New York didn’t carry a stigma. I arrived here feeling like an exile and soon grew to love it. I didn’t come out here to pursue a career in film or TV or music. I just wanted to be able to afford rent while continuing to write which is exactly what I did. My short story collection, California Transit, received the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande Books. I have two novels in the publishing pipeline—and please take heart, writers out there: one of these manuscripts found a home after making the rounds of publishers since 1978.
No fame and fortune but here in California I’ve found many opportunities closer to my heart, serving as a Spanish-English interpreter for immigrants held in detention centers; collaborating with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal. Besides the play we created, Nightwind, which has toured the US and the world including performances for human rights organization in Afghanistan, and our nonfiction book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, I’ve learned so much from Hector. Inspired by him, I developed arts-based writing workshops for kids in the LA County foster-care system who’d been diagnosed with severe psychological problems, and then was able to take the program to young people in Colombia and Bolivia.
Los Angeles also gave me the chance to live out my Jane Goodall fantasies by working with the research department of the LA Zoo. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the very existence of zoos, but I do have to tell you that by “research,” we don’t mean anything invasive or hurtful to the animals. It’s all behavioral observation aimed at seeing that the animals live the best lives possible. My first big project was the breeding program for the endangered drill baboon. Unfortunately, the young male was more, uh, interested in me than in the female baboons we hoped he’d mate with. Which may explain how an X-rated scene with a monkey found its way into my novel.
Whatever else I do, I am always always always writing.
Nobody Wakes Up Pretty
New York City, 1992. There goes the neighborhood
For Holly, it’s the summer when the city she’s lived in all her life changes past recognition. And the funerals are about to begin.
“Let’s get this out of the way,” she says. “I’m a white woman who likes black men.” That includes her lover Samps. Once a young artist of promise, he’s now homeless, living in a Harlem squat, and maybe, Holly fears, clinically insane. But that doesn’t explain why she’s caught up in a web that connects Jewish, Italian, and black organized crime. Or what any of this has to do with the midtown law firm where she temps, a missing Haitian girl, and a world-famous Japanese monkey. Her friends are getting shot. She and Samps can try to save themselves—or do what they can to stop the killing.
If for some reason the video doesn’t play, you can find it here:
What they’re saying:
“A sexy, funny, tender-hearted puzzler about a young woman sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.”—Domenic Stansberry, Edgar Award Winner and author of Naked Moon
Nobody Wakes Up Pretty
“I don’t do funerals,” said Samps.
We were in Ti-Jean’s for dinner. Whenever Samps was flush, he stocked up on herb and took me out to eat. I thought the money would be better spent on a pager, or a phone service, anything so that I could reach him when I needed him.
“You didn’t need me,” he said. “Wanted me, maybe.”
“Samps.” My voice sounded whiny. I hated the way being with Samps often brought out the worst in me. “No funerals? What kinda African American are you?”
He said, “If you called me, I still wouldn’t have gone.”
“But at least—”
“Black man carrying a pager. You want me to be arrested, huh?” he asked. “You want me to be police-brutalized?”
No doubt Samps was paranoid, but no doubt that for a black male to be paranoid in these United States was the best way to ensure survival, so though I thought he was nuts, I still let him call the shots. Where to eat, for example. We couldn’t go to white-owned places ‘cause of how they’d react to him being with me. We couldn’t patronize black-owned establishments for the same reason. We always went to Chinese restaurants ‘cause he figured the Chinese, being superior to both black and white, wouldn’t give a shit. The only reason we’d started hanging out at Ti-Jean’s was that my neighbor Claude had recommended this great little ‘Aitian place, and due to his Creole accent, Samps had thought the place was Asian.
The first time we walked in, Samps wanted to turn and walk right out, but we stayed, and of course he and Ti-Jean became fast friends, though Samps still always took a seat with his back to the wall.
“I live mysteriously,” Samps said. “The less you know, the better. If you’re questioned, you won’t be able to give anything away.”
“And I don’t think there is anything to give away,” I said. “You talk like you’re in the Mafia. Junie was connected, and he wasn’t as secretive as you are.”
“And Junie’s dead,” Samps said.
You could never argue with his logic.
So. Ti-Jean was waiting for our order. Samps took out his slide rule. No one in the world still used a slide rule but Samps had a way of coming up with things, like my blue dress, or the pornographic Polaroids he’d found in someone’s abandoned squat along with a dog collar and some empty crack vials. The pictures sold so briskly, he was already out of stock, and that’s how come he was moving slow—a sufficiency of herb, and how come he was treating.
Samps abided by a spiritual practice of his own devising, part of which required that he follow a complex set of dietary rules. He consulted the slide rule to determine which days were meatless, or fleshless, as he preferred to say.
“Why couldn’t you figure this out before we came in?” I asked. “You’re keeping Ti-Jean waiting.”
Ti-Jean didn’t mind. In his country, intellectuals were taken so seriously they were killed, and so in his view, Samps merited respect. He also respected Samps’s age, the silver showing in his hair. In America, Ti-Jean understood, artists and intellectuals are despised. Samps was both—and black—a triple whammy. While Americans couldn’t understand how someone of Samps’s abilities could end up living in the street, Ti-Jean didn’t find this at all surprising.
Samps concluded his calculations. “Fish,” he said.
“Make that two fish,” I said.
Samps handed over two fives, Ti-Jean whistled, and his son came running out of the kitchen. He handed the boy one of the bills and spoke in Creole. We watched out the window as the kid ran across the street. I could actually see through the storefront window to where Wally at the fish store was wrapping the fillets in white paper. He waved at me.
Still Ti-Jean waited. “Will you drink with me?” he said at last.
“Avec plaisir.” Samps took his survival kit, an old green book bag containing soap, toothbrush, razor, everything, he said, you’d need to have with you if you landed unexpectedly in jail, off the extra chair and motioned Ti-Jean to sit.
Ti-Jean’s wife must have been watching from the kitchen because she immediately appeared with a tray holding three glasses and a bottle of rum. Then her son ran in and they disappeared back into the kitchen with the fish. Soon we smelled onions frying.
“I have many questions,” said Ti-Jean. He didn’t ask any.
Now I have a history of finishing people’s sentences and jumping in with unsolicited advice, but since I’d been with Samps, I’d learned to hold my tongue or, as he put it, “sit under the table.” Just listen, be there. Don’t call attention to yourself. Make yourself a quiet part of the environment until specifically invited to join in. Fighting my own nature, I waited for Ti-Jean to make up his mind to continue.
“My daughter,” he said at last, “is not my daughter.”
“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” I said, forgetting to keep my mouth shut.
“I don’t,” he said. “She is the daughter of my good good friend. My good good friend he has died, and so she is my daughter now, you see?”
Made sense so far.
“But look? Where is she? You do not see her here, huh? This is a girl, she has fifteen years. And where is she? So what I want to know, does the government send a lawyer?”
“You mean like to investigate a missing person?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “To the juvenile hall.”
Samps and I waited again, this time because we really didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Yes, yes,” Ti-Jean said. “Yesterday the INScome. They say, Where is Marie-Ange? Well, I would like to know that, too, no? They say they arrest her and they going to deport her back to Haiti. Back to Haiti? I think that’s where she is. When I try to bring her here last year, they say no, because she is not my daughter. Now they say she is in this hall with very bad children, and a white lawyer come and pay money to get her out so she can sleep with her family till she see the judge. So they come looking for her here because I am the family. This I do not understand. They say I cannot give her papers because I am not the family but now they say I am. Does the government send the lawyer?” he continued. “He say her family sends him. But I don’t. I have not the money to pay this white lawyer. I never hear of this white lawyer. So who sends him? And where is Marie-Ange?”
Ti-Jean’s wife brought out the fish, but we didn’t feel like eating.
Samps said the story was very sad but all too common, lawyers being liars and crooks, and the system created to hold black folks down and he could attest to it from the brief time he spent in law school. I knew a little bit about INS. The firm I worked for handled some immigration cases—certainly not for poor Haitians, basically for international corporate types and the occasional royal, but even I realized I’d need to know a lot more before I offered an opinion.
I couldn’t help thinking that what Ti-Jean had told us sounded very bad. I felt sick to my stomach for even looking at those Polaroids. Someone like Marie-Ange, she could end up like that. There was no telling whose hands she’d fallen into. But I didn’t want to say that to Ti-Jean. So I stayed under the table and said nothing.
Get your copy of Nobody Wakes Up Pretty here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias=stripbooks&field-keywords=Diane+Lefer
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