By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
“It’s just built into the fiber — that magic. This is a celebration of black women and it just manifests throughout the book. She does that with her art and her life and that was something that was really important to Vanessa, as a visual artist, for the book itself to be art,” Deesha Philyaw says of her coeditor, Vanessa German.
Three years in the making, the collection, ‘tender: a literary anthology and book of spells: evidence,’ is the brainchild of and love letter to black women in Pittsburgh. Artist Alisha B. Wormsley has contributed a video-trailer for the book, as well.
With essays and poetry, photography and art, contributed by black Pittsburgh women, the collection defies conventional dimensionality. It is extraordinary literary artistry, a feast for lovers of words and images which launches this week at City of Asylum.
Even the title is a unique call to the reader, according to German. “So it’s evidence. But it’s also a spell. A spell is magic, it is a giving,” she told the Current via telephone while traveling. “It is a combination of ingredients that work together for a magical but also tangible purpose. So it is inviting you to enter a generative dimensional practice.”
The book went to press just as the report highlighting the severe racial and gender inequities in the city by the Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission landed. Pittsburgh is a place that is not tender towards its black residents; it is a place that is downright detrimental to the health and well-being of black women in particular.
German, the founder of Love Front Porch and ArtHouse, is well-known for her work as a visual artist, performer and poet. Philyaw is the author of ‘Co-parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households after Divorce,’ and ‘The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,’ forthcoming from WVU Press in the fall of 2020. Along with book designer Martha Wasik, cover artist Mequitta Ahuja, and seventeen other contributors, they are here to offer a space of tenderness for black women.
The book is a balm in an inhospitable landscape.
“You can open it up and see images and see the faces of black women, who might look like you. Some women, you might not realize they’re black, but they are,” German says. “To see their faces and to see the everyday wonder of their lives and creativity. There is the poetry of the image also — every artist bio in there and image in there is part of the art. I wanted it to be as dimensional and substantial as possible while being a work of breadth and a work of life that could give you life, even if you’re waiting in line at Walmart.”
She is meditating on the territories where artists work, the spaces outside of ordinary reach. There are planes of being beyond prevailing quotidian concerns. Artists provide a connection, a mystical ethernet to plug the rest of into those other dimensions of being and soul tenderness.
“I would even carry Ntozake Shange‘s ‘spell #7’ around with me across the country. And if I ever felt ungrounded or disconnected from a crystalized clarity or a crystalized truth, I could read any line of that and it would tune me in to the focus of what was true, so much so that I would sleep with it under my pillow.” she explains.
The submissions German and Philyaw received created good problems and hard work for them as they set out to assemble ‘tender.’ As editors, they needed to work tenderly to not not obscure any of these distinct voices. There are screen poems and memory collages, flash prose, creative nonfiction, memoir, poetry pieces that blend all of those elements together. There is first-person reportage from Tereneh Idia and definition defying work from Almah LaVon Rice.
The contributors themselves are diverse, by age and experience and by exposure as writers. For some, this is their first publication. There are fresh entries by young writers, Shanikqua Peterson and Aaliyah Thomas, who both consider the complicated relationships between mother and daughter in distinct ways. TeOnna Ross takes the reader through an evocative scrapbook of memory and feeling, and Lisa Pickett exposes raw vulnerability and hard truths.
All of the contributions, irrespective of form or medium, help to heal, celebrate and value black women.