Sandra Jackson-Opoku is an accomplished novelist, journalist, and academic. Her published novels include The River Where Blood is Born, winner of American Library Association Black Caucus Award for Best Fiction and Hot Johnny (and the Women Whom Loved Him), an Essence Magazine bestseller in hardcover fiction. Her stories, poetry, articles, essays, and scripts are widely published and produced, with work appearing in Islands Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine, The Literary Traveler, and elsewhere.
Messages from Here and Abroad by Sandra Jackson Opoku
Meditations on Language #2: From Arielli, Italy
For the writer, words are our palette and language is our medium. Nancy Johnson's post on “What White Writers should know about Telling Black Stories” reminds me of the late Ugandan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal essay, “How to Write About Africa.” Both of these are tutorials on how NOT resurrect the shopworn clichés, stereotypes, and misinterpretations that have been liberally applied to Black people and their lives. Writers of color are understandably pissed off when people outside the experience write about them and get it completely wrong. I’ve no doubt that THE HELP was meant as a tribute to the African American domestic workers who helped raise her, yet the author’s use of dialogue has become something of a joke. Perhaps Stockton remembers her Black housekeeper speaking that way, but in my experience, no one says “You is good, you is kind, you is important.” They might dispense with the verb altogether: “You good, you kind, you important.” Or, they may contract it into: “You’s good, you’s kind, you’s important.” Those who cannot abide writers messing up our language also need to be cognizant of messing up somebody else’s. I’ve just completed a commissioned work of fiction, which will be my first published work in the crime fiction genre. “She Loved Trouble” is narrated by Lalo Rodriguez, a Mexican American reformed thug who, along with his Afro-Latino cousins, stumbles into work as a private investigator. I believe that I understand his character. Lalo is not unlike his Black counterpart, the brother who, despite all options, drifts along in the current that inevitably leads to the streets. What concerns me is not so much his characterization, but his authentic voice. I’ve tried to master the linguistic code-switching from English to Spanish (Spanglish, if you will), the particular idiomatic expressions and cultural references of this experience. The editor of the anthology is also a Latino, but just in case I’m asking trusted Latino/LatinX readers to give me feedback. I definitely don’t want to be one of those writers that gets it wrong. (more meditations on language, to come)
Ms. Jackson-Opoku’s work has earned the SCBWI Kimberly Colen Award for New Children’s Writing, an American Antiquarian Society Fellowship for Creative Writers, a National Endowment for the Arts Fiction Fellowship, the CCLM/General Electric Fiction Award for Younger Writers, Illinois Arts Council Finalist Awards, and more.
Jackson-Opoku teaches literature and creative writing at schools, universities, workshops, and institutions around the world, including Columbia College Chicago, the University of Miami, Nova Southeastern University, the Writer’s Studio at the University of Chicago, the North Country Institute for Writers of Color, and the Hurston-Wright Writers Workshop. She is full time faculty at Chicago State University where she teaches literature and writing courses in the Department of English, Foreign Languages and Literature.