Wednesday, February 21, 2007

In Praise of Nina Simone

The professor taught us to worship the great men of jazz, but it was the women who drew me in: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey. They were queens, priestesses, goddesses — encouraging me, pointing me away from danger, schooling me in the ways of life. Especially Nina Simone.
From Orange Mint and Honey (Ballantine 2008)

That’s my character Shay Dixon speaking about the late Nina Simone, who would have turned 74 today.

Known as the High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone was fierce, brave and maybe a touch crazy (actually, she might have been clinically depressed or might have suffered from borderline personality disorder).

She was a black woman who wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in 1963 after four little girls were bombed in a church in Birmingham. She was a dark-skinned woman who put the words “Young, Gifted and Black” together at a time when many black folks couldn’t imagine gifted and black being used in the same sentence. Raised in a tiny town in the Jim Crow South, she grew up to stand on stages around the world in front of wealthy white folks and command their attention (and sometimes berated them if they didn’t give it to her).

In other words, she did things you’d have to be brave and maybe a touch crazy to do. May we all be so brave and crazy.

At the beginning of my novel Shay listens to Nina Simone’s version of "House of the Rising Sun" and it sets her on an unexpected path back to her mother. (You can watch Nina Simone performing the song here.)

Interesting coincidence: Nina Simone is a mother-figure for Shay, and my mother died on Nina Simone’s birthday (which I didn’t know when Nina Simone first appeared to me as a character). So yes, today is also the anniversary of when my mother passed, six days after she turned 45.

Happy Birthday Dr. Nina Simone. And here’s to all our queens, priestesses, goddesses, mothers of the spirit, play-mamas and real mamas!


Leslie said...

Just the other night I enjoyed a hot bath while listening to the "great ladies sing the blues." I love how you've brought Nina Simone into your story - I can't wait to read more. Must I wait a year for the book to be published??

Heather said...

A YEAR? I don't want to wait that long either. As one who strives to be brave and a little crazy, you've peeked my curiosity. Guess I'll also have to be patient to read this upcoming treasure.

Marianne said...

As a two-time breast cancer survivor (with my first diagnosis when I was 45), my thoughts are with you on this painful anniversay commemorating the loss of your mother. On a happier note, your book sounds extremely interesting with a premise I can relate to. I've had my share of conflict with my mother (and I'm sure I'm not alone). I look forward to reading your book when it comes out. When in 2008 should I keep an eye out for it?

Mic Light said...

Your novel sounds intriguing! I can't wait to find out why Shay's mother disappeared from her life, and how Nina Simone redirected her path. When can I find the novel in the bookstores? So sad to hear about your mother; I'm sure she was a wonderful person. If possible, continue to update us on your novel. Peace out!

DAH said...

Looking forward to more. Stop teasing and let us know when/where we can find the book. Who better than Nina Simone to shed some midnight light on a woman's life.

Carleen Brice said...

"Who better than Nina Simone to shed some midnight light on a woman's life." I like that!

ciaobella said...

I heard you read an excerpt from your novel along with my sister Mary Ann and long time friend, Charlotte. You read the part about Nina Simone. Recently I talked with Mary Ann and based on what you read --she went out and bought a Nina Simone CD! And she loves it. And of course, we will ALL buy your book! When will it be out?

lafreya said...

Can't wait to read the novel.