Friday, February 16, 2018

Rebecca Skloot and Writers Weekend

This past week and weekend was a busy one for book lovers in Augusta. Last Thursday night kicked off the 6th Annual Writers Weekend, which is sponsored by the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Augusta University, and “features award-winning authors and teachers who will lead workshops and share their original creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. This unique opportunity enables readers and writers from a variety of backgrounds to connect, collaborate, and create.” (Source: Not only was Thursday night the kickoff event for Writers Weekend but it was also the culmination of various events held throughout Augusta to build excitement for the keynote speaker Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A movie screening of the HBO movie based on the book was shown at Augusta University and the Columbia County Library back in January and Rebecca Skloot and two members of the Lacks family came to town this past week to participate in panels, meet-and-greets, and Q & A sessions at the Columbia County Library, Paine College, and the Imperial Theater.

 Rebecca Skloot is the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which was published in 2010 and it took her 10 years to write this book- mostly because she took the time to respect and get to know the various members of the Lacks family. The book is about an African American woman who died in the 1950s from cervical cancer, but her cancer cells (called HeLa cells) lived on and multiplied which had never happened in a lab before. Researchers around the world soon used her cells to study and cure various diseases (polio, for example) and create vaccines. Her cells journeyed to outer space where astronauts could study the effect of space travel on human cells.
 I remember the buzz when the book was released and put it on my To-Be-Read list but for some reason I never got around to reading the book. Well now that Rebecca Skloot was coming to town it was the perfect opportunity. I attended one of the movie screenings and “A Conversation with Rebecca Skloot and Henrietta Lacks’s Family” at the Imperial Theater. Victoria Baptiste (Henrietta’s great-granddaughter) and Shirley Lacks (Henrietta’s daughter-in-law) participated in a panel with Rebecca Skloot that was moderated by local attorney Laverne Lewis Gaskins.

One of the first questions that Ms. Gaskins asked of Victoria Baptiste and Shirley Lacks was to describe Henrietta to the audience. They described Henrietta as a wonderful, giving person who loved people and loved to feed them too! Henrietta also loved to dance, to look good all the time, and she loved to wear red toenail polish. Despite the poverty of the Lacks family she made do with what little she had. Then Ms. Gaskins asked the ladies about Deborah Lacks. Deborah was Henrietta’s daughter and the essential link that Rebecca Skloot needed to find out more about Henrietta and the HeLa cells. Ms. Baptiste and Ms. Lacks described Deborah as witty, loving, a jokester, and spiritual, yet, always yearning to know more about her mom.

Rebecca Skloot first heard about HeLa cells in her school biology class in 1988. The teacher told the class that the HeLa cells were named for Henrietta Lacks and that these cells had never stopped growing and were responsible for much of the medical breakthroughs in the twentieth century. This intrigued Ms. Skloot and after class she asked the biology teacher for more information, but the teacher said there was no more information known about the woman. When she was in college, Ms. Skloot took a General Ed class and one of her assignments was to write about something the world forgot, so she wrote about HeLa cells. While conducting research for this writing assignment Ms. Skloot found out that the HeLa cells were originally attributed to a fake name to give the Lacks family privacy. While Ms. Skloot was in grad school she continued her research on the HeLa cells which led her to make her first phone call to Deborah Lacks in 1999. Deborah was excited yet distrustful of this white lady that wanted to write about her mother, so she kept Ms. Skloot at arm’s length (Deborah and her family had been burned before by other people claiming to write about Henrietta and the HeLa cells). Ms. Skloot originally thought her research and book would just be about Henrietta but the more she found out about how the family was treated (or not treated) by the medical community, the more she realized that her book would be about the whole Lacks family. To gain Deborah’s trust, Ms. Skloot interviewed extended members of the Lacks clan and would tell the stories and tidbits of information about Henrietta through messages left on Deborah’s answering machine. Ms. Skloot told the audience that she had no journalism background when conducting this research, so she had no preconceived ideas or training about conducting interviews or journalistic research methods. Ms. Skloot said that journalists usually only ask questions and don’t allow their sources to ask questions of them; Ms. Skloot did the opposite and the Lacks family slowly learned to trust her.

So right now you’re probably wondering what the big deal is about these HeLa cells and why was the Lacks family so distrustful of journalists? Henrietta’s biopsy was conducted before informed consent was standard in medical procedures. The doctors at John Hopkins used Henrietta’s cells in research without her knowledge or permission and the surviving family members were never notified or asked for consent either. The Lacks family also was never financially compensated even though their matriarch’s cells saved and improved millions of lives around the globe. John Hopkins researchers contacted the Lacks family in the 1970s and conducted more tests and took more tissue samples without being fully honest about what they were researching and how the test and tissues samples and results were going to be used. (At the panel Ms. Skloot told the audience that informed consent laws were established by the 1970s but not codified at the time that John Hopkins researchers were collecting samples from the Lacks family).

During the panel Ms. Baptiste and Ms. Lacks stressed the importance and ethics of informed consent about cell and tissue research in the medical community: “If you have to ask me permission to use, then you know it belongs to me” (Ms. Baptiste) and “If I’m alive, then you need permission because it’s part of me and belongs to me” (Ms. Lacks).

Racial disparities and attitudes in healthcare were also discussed at the panel. In the 1950s racial segregation in Baltimore determined where Henrietta could seek out and receive medical care. John Hopkins was the only hospital in the area that accepted poor, African American patients. Ms. Baptiste and Ms. Lacks also suspect that race played a part in Henrietta’s pain management while she in John Hopkins recovering from surgery and radiation treatments. Ms. Baptiste currently works in the medical field and sees discrimination against patients of color almost daily. She told the audience, “You can’t change the mentality of people despite protocols and regulations.” (When I was in the book signing line, a lady in front of me told Ms. Baptiste that her Haitian husband is treated differently than she is whenever he goes to a medical appointment and this woman suspects this differential treatment is because of the color of his skin and his accent).Ms. Skloot admitted to the audience that she grew up in the racially-sheltered Pacific Northwest; she thought racism was gone in this country and she didn’t experience the realities of race until working with the Lacks family. She was told, “You’re going to get access to things a black writer wouldn’t.” She still didn’t believe this until she questioned an older white doctor who had conducted testing on the Lacks family and referred to them as “those people.”

John Hopkins has not formally apologized to the Lacks family- according to the hospital lawyers it would be an admission of guilt. John Hopkins does honor Henrietta Lacks every year and Shirley Lacks’ husband told her that it “warms my heart to see these people learn about and acknowledge my mom.” In 2013, there was more controversy when German scientists sequenced the genome of HeLa cells and released the genetic information online. Some of the Lacks family was concerned that their genetic information would be viewable by the public while other family members were curious and hopeful that sequencing the HeLa genome could benefit the world.
Ms. Skloot told me she loved my tabs; I then told her, "Well, you're going to love where my cat chewed the corner of your book because he was mad that I wasn't feeding him."

On a semi-lighter note…
Actress Karyn Parsons headlined the opening session of the Writers Weekend event on Saturday. (Karyn Parsons played Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air TV show). Ms. Parsons was invited to Writers Weekend to promote her non-profit company Sweet Blackberry. The idea for Sweet Blackberry began when Ms. Parsons was pregnant with her first child and realized that she would need to supplement her daughter’s education regarding African American contributions to the world. The same stories are taught over and over, and schools don’t have the resources to update or supplement their materials. Ms. Parsons admitted to the audience that she hated history as a kid; it was presented as a series of dates in a very abstract way and not as a series of stories that were relatable to her. Sweet Blackberry aims to change that by presenting children with stories of historical figures on their level. Right now, these stories are presented as short films that can be purchased through the Sweet Blackberry website or viewed on Netflix. Film narrations have been provided by Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah, and Chris Rock (with Laurence Fishburne narrating on an upcoming film on Bessie Coleman!). Future goals for the organization include book publishing, TV series, apps, an interactive kids’ section on the website, and the website itself as a resource for African American historical figures.

The second session I attended at Writers Weekend was “A Reading with Tony Grooms” who read “Uncle Beasley’s Courtship” from his short story collection Trouble No More (also available through the Kennesaw Digital Commons) and three passages from his new novel The Vain Conversation. Mr. Grooms’ novel was in the works for 25 years (!!) and was inspired by a 1991 AJC article about the 1946 Moore’s Ford, double lynching in Walton County (you can read a recent update here: Mr. Grooms told the audience that his novel is a story that asks questions about redemption and is an analogy about race relations in the US (“there has been no closure”).

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Title: Afro-Vegan
Author: Bryant Terry
Genres: non-fiction, cookbooks

I read an article online recently that mentioned this book. First, I was intrigued by the title: a mashup of African cooking and veganism. Second, when I read multiple reader reviews on Goodreads, my mouth kept watering from all the delicious-sounding recipe titles that the reviewers were referencing. So with a growling belly I requested this book through my library. The cookbook is full of beautiful, closeup, full-color photos of these beautiful and intriguing recipes. Not only does Bryant Terry want to encourage healthy eating through the vegan lifestyle, he also wants African Americans to embrace the culinary legacies and traditions of their ancestors. He believes that eating a plant-based diet of African heritage food will not only restore the physical health of many African Americans but their emotional and spiritual health as well. A unique aspect of this cookbook is that each recipe has a recommended song (and sometimes a recommended book!) to build the mood and atmosphere as the dish is created. So you can fill your belly, add to your musical playlist, and expand your literary horizons, all at the same time!

Sunday, January 21, 2018


Title: Persepolis
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Genres: non-fiction, graphic novel, memoir, autobiography, Iranian history, Iranian author

Chronicles the life of Marjane Satrapi as she grew up during the political unrest in Iran from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. It's her autobiography in graphic novel form and it gives Westerners a rare glimpse into a mysterious country and region. I watched the movie last semester for my history class and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I checked out the graphic novel because there are always more details in a book compared to its move counterpart.

As a little girl, Marji parrots the political slogans and ideologies she hears from the grownups around her. As a preteen her eyes slowly open to injustice in the world as she and the other females in Iran are subject to harsher and harsher rules regarding dress, opposite-sex relationships, and public etiquette. Marji's parents send her to Europe for her safety and to continue her education; although Europe is not dangerous, Marji's ethnicity keeps her from truly fitting in. She returns to Iran but finds that her home country has changed dramatically under the leadership of religious fundamentalists.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A long time ago, on a blog far away...

Title: Phasma
Author: Delilah Dawson
Genres: books to movies, Star Wars, scifi

I recently saw The Last Jedi in theaters and while I liked the movie overall, I was disappointed with the lack of Phasma’s screen time- she only had about 5 lines in the film. We’ve been told that Phasma is a badass but there has been no background story or character development in the last two movies that live up to the hype. So imagine my delight when I saw Phasma by Delilah Dawson available for checkout at my local library- finally, I can get some background info on Star Wars’ latest mysterious character!

Vi Moradi is a Resistance spy captured by the First Order; she is secretly interrogated by a mysterious red-clad Stormtrooper known as The Cardinal. The Cardinal is obsessed with Phasma- he was the cream of the crop under General Brendol Hux, and Hux’s personal bodyguard, until General Hux brought Phasma into the First Order. Now The Cardinal is intent on ruining Phasma and he needs information extracted from Vi Moradi to do it. While under duress, Vi Moradi tells The Cardinal about Phasma’s tough upbringing on Parnassos (this part reminded me of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights- she draws out the story as long as she can to save her own neck).

Phasma was the tallest and strongest warrior and a respected co-leader in a small, hardscrabble band of people on Parnassos, the Scyre. The Scyre lived on an inhospitable part of Parnassos and constantly fought for survival against geography, the elements, and other small groups of people desperate for what little resources were left. The Scyre were an egalitarian group with an uncertain future since miscarriages and childhood mortality were common misfortunes. One day, a starship crashes on Parnassos and Phasma and her warriors rescue Brendol Hux and his Stormtroopers. Phasma uses this opportunity to learn more about the First Order and to strike a deal with Hux to get her people off of Parnassos to ensure their survival. Unfortunately, the longer Phasma is around Brendol Hux, the more she starts to think only for herself and less about the Scyre’s survival.  Phasma uses this opportunity to shed herself of the Scyre with tragic results (for the Scyre). The Cardinal (and the reader) learns that Phasma’s heart is as cold as the chrome armor she wears.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Historical Fiction Triple Play

I was blessed and privileged to be a part of the Berry Fleming Book Festival this past September. Not only was I on the planning committee, but I also served as the moderator for the Historical Fiction panel featuring Jim Minick, Julia Franks, and Daren Wang. All three of their books were excellent and gave me a “reading hangover!” (A reading hangover is when a book is sooo good that the reader must stay up past his or her normal bedtime to find out what happens next, get some answers, etc. The next day this poor reader fails at all adulting responsibilities due to sluggishness and lack of sleep).

The Hidden Light of Northern Fires
Mary Willis returns home with a brand-new college degree and a spirit of abolitionism. Her brother, Leander, is the 1860s version of a slacker and their veteran father, Nathan, is one of the pioneers of Town Line, New York. Although the Willis family lives in the North, escaped slaves are not welcome in the communities of Town Line and Alden due to fears of job and property loss (sound familiar?). Some Northerners (called copperheads) earn money returning escaped slaves to their owners across the Mason-Dixon line. When Mary stumbles across a family of escaped slaves, abolitionism changes from an abstract ideology to real-world activism when she hides a slave in her family’s root cellar.
At first, the citizens of Town Line are overcome with war fever and cheer as the young men of the community sign up to fight for the Union. Their passion and fervor is quickly deflated and reality sets in when most of the young men are killed in battle; the town’s grief turns to rage against President Lincoln and the citizens secede from the Union. Mary’s family soon comes under suspicion for hiding a fugitive slave and tragedy results when the Willis’ are caught attempting to transport Joe (the escaped slave) to a safe house.
(Yes, Town Line, New York did indeed secede from the Union and Daren Wang also manages to sneak in a little-known bit of history into his novel: the missions of the Confederate Secret Service.)

Fire is Your Water
Fire is Your Water takes place in the Pennsylvania mountains and along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1953. Ada Franklin is known throughout the mountains for her powwow skills (healing abilities). After a fire in the family barn and experiencing an eerie vision, Ada unexpectedly loses her healing skills and is unable to heal her mother’s burns: “She had entered the fire, and now she didn’t know who had come back out” (22). Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain Will Burke rescues and adopts Cicero, an injured raven who lost his family in a thunderstorm. The book is told from the alternating viewpoints of Ada, Will, and Cicero. Ada and Will start a quiet, budding romance but their relationship and Ada’s faith is tested when tragedy strikes the gas station where Will works.

Over the Plain Houses
Irenie Lambey is stuck in a loveless marriage. She and Brodis used to love each other but the dynamics of their relationship changed after the death of their infant daughter. Brodis gave up his dangerous logging job to preach; his brand of Christianity is rigid and stifling. The power and social status Brodis receives as a preacher turns him into a strict, unbending father and a controlling, abusive husband. Irenie starts taking midnight walks to combat her feelings of loneliness and stores the various mountain treasures she finds in a secret cave. Brodis is alarmed by his wife’s nightly absences and he assumes that Irenie is engaging in some form of witchcraft. Brodis is also disturbed at the growing friendship between Irenie and Virginia Furman, the new USDA agent sent by the government to assist mountain families with modernizing their farms and kitchens. Brodis is distrustful of outsiders in general (they always want to make someone change), but the nighttime walks and new friendship fuels a paranoia inside Brodis, a paranoia that soon manifests itself in a disastrous way.

Photos courtesy of Rhian Swain

Questions for the authors:

Jim Minick
·       How did writing historical fiction differ from writing a memoir?
Daren Wang
·       In your novel the hamlet of Town Line, in upstate New York, secedes from the Union. Can you tell us about any real-life Northern towns that seceded from the United States?
Julia Franks
·       How did your Appalachian roots and the love of the outdoors assist you in your writing process and research?
Questions for all
·       What was the inspiration for your story?
·       How long did it take to write your books and were you prepared for how long it took?
·       Julia and Daren, you are debut authors- what surprised you the most about the publishing process?
·       What aspects of your story did you have to research for your books for historical accuracy? Where did you do this research?
·       What projects are you working on now?

      This was my first time as a panel moderator at a book festival. Although I was nervous at first, my butterflies soon dissipated after Jim, Julia, and Daren enthralled the audience regarding their writing and research processes and experiences within the publishing industry. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Title: Digging for Hitler: The Nazi Archaeologists Search for an Aryan Past
Author: David Barrowclough
Genre: non-fiction, archaeology, World War II, European history, archaeological ethics

I had to read this book for my Anthropology and Pop Culture class this semester during our unit on Nazi archaeology. Yes, the Nazi search for supernatural artifacts as portrayed in the Indiana Jones series of movies was inspired by real life. In this book, Barrowclough explains how the Nazi regime hired archaeologists and anthropologists to look for historical proof of a superior Germanic "race" as part of the Nazi propaganda machine. Nazi archaeologists were also hired by Himmler to "look for evidence of an alternative pagan religion to replace Christianity" (96). Cave paintings, geological formations, Scandinavian folk tales, Atlantis, and runes are some of the things that Nazis used to link early 20th century Germany to a mythological past.

This book had a lot of potential but, unfortunately, Barrowclough didn't flesh out certain chapters enough and others were a confusing mess, which was a shame since Barrowclough had plenty of time to research and flesh out this book while he was in jail for fraud. What really bothered me about the book was the multiple spelling errors I found throughout the book (and these weren't differences in British and American spelling of common words). Where was the editor?

Monday, January 1, 2018

New year, new reading challenge

Happy new year, dear readers! I don't make resolutions in real life, but every January 1st I sign into my Goodreads account and enter the annual Reading Challenge. For 2017 I challenged myself to read 50 books and I ended up reading...45! (sooo close!!). For the 2018 Reading Challenge I have once again challenged myself to reading 50 books. While my reading challenge is pretty basic and limited to number of books read, there are other annual reading challenges that are more creative. For example, I stumbled across this master list of reading challenges today.

What are your reading goals for 2018?