Struggle for civil rights, equality, education and your identity – these things are still relevant in a today’s world. Lennon Wall correspondent talked to a professor of Davidson College and a U.S. Cultural Ambassador Brenda Flanagan about how her destiny of an activist and a writer of African descent changed over time.
Brenda’s novels are full of hopes and dreams, the sense of community, the role of politics and religion in lives of the ordinary people in the Caribbean.
The writer had a tough childhood. Being one of the 14 children in Trinidad wasn’t easy: she had to drop out of school after her family wasn’t able to pay for it anymore and her job at a pea factory or as a limbo dancer and calypso singer wasn’t sufficient to go back. Brenda loved reading from an early age.
She wanted to see people like her in books, that is why she wanted to be a writer, however, was too afraid to tell anybody about it. A moment when a 10-year-old Brenda came across a verse written by an American poet Robert Frost changed her life forever. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” These words had such a strong connection with her that she decided to go to America.
Young Brenda knew that if she wanted to become a successful writer, she would have to go through many obstacles as a black woman. Thanks to her English teacher, Brenda got a job at a governmental newspaper. It allowed her to meet people like Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia, or Princess Margaret from England; and save enough money to leave for New York where she got a job with Nina Simone who vastly influenced her worldview, said Flanagan at the reading in the Anglo-American University’s library last year.
However, the difficulties haven’t stopped: Brenda fell in love and got trapped in an abusive marriage with two kids and constant moves from one city to another. “Nina warned me about my future husband, but when he told me he was inspired by a novel “Invisible Man” to come to New York, it took me! Literature made me fall stupidly in love!” says Flanagan.
When she was a girl, she knew nothing about African-American literature. Simone was the one to enlighten her about African identity.
“Nina Simone taught me what it means to be black in a world in a positive way, while racist people were teaching me what in their minds it means to be black in a negative way. Coming from Trinidad, never thinking of myself in a racial way, I had to do a lot of mental calisthenics. She also taught me that it will be very difficult to make your own way in the world and she did that by example. As well as my parents, she believed that one has to stand for something. If you see injustice, you have to do something about it. And that's the way I've been.”
Even though that singer had bipolar disorder and was a very difficult personality, she encouraged Brenda as a writer. “She fired me once and then she came looking all around Harlem to hire me back. It was bizarre in many ways,” Brenda remembered.
Nina Simone and her songs were very influential in the Civil Rights movement: she spoke out resoundingly against racism. “I know what it means to be caged,” Brenda says, “I know how so many women no matter what color they are all over the world live in circumscribed situations.”
Nevertheless, the Czech Republic has surprisingly become a place where she did not feel different. “I was one of the two persons with my skin color there [one of the open-air concerts in CR]. And I felt so comfortable. I didn’t feel intimidated, although I knew people were kind of glancing at me and maybe wondering. I felt more comfortable than I have felt in many places in the U.S.”
Today Brenda Flanagan is a writer, a teacher and a cultural ambassador of the United States. “For me it’s about reading from my novels or short stories, giving talks about what it means to be an American, culturally interacting with people. I learn things about them and simultaneously represent the United States. I’ve been very fortunate because this job made one of my dreams come true: I travelled around the world and saw places like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, India, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan…” says ambassador. Flanagan teaches her students in Creative Writing that literature opens up our minds to the greater worlds and makes us better.
By Anastasiya Shishkina
Photos by Anna Nemcova and Martin Rannigner