Arts & Culture

Prof’s debut novel tells of music and memory

By
Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2012

On the eve of World War I, tap dancer Lizzie Winrow and her accompanying jazz musician Osceola Turner live in Charleston, S.C., with dreams of making it big. Their journey to success proves difficult when they lose the money they have been saving and Ossie enlists to fight in Europe, where he thinks jazz musicians have more opportunity to be heard.

The stories of these two friends are part of “Some Sing, Some Cry,” a novel written by Ifa Bayeza, visiting artist in residence of the department of Africana Studies. Bayeza discussed this story and more in the Brown Bookstore Tuesday for an audience of about 20 people. Some audience members are enrolled in Bayeza’s class AFRI 1050Q: “New Narratives in African American History: The Art and Craft of Poetic and Creative Non-Fiction.”   

Bayeza co-wrote the novel with her sister, the noted poet, novelist and playwright Ntozake Shange

The stories of these two friends make up only 60 pages of “Some Sing, Some Cry.” The novel, which focuses on one family over the span of many generations, runs over 500 pages, contains eight parts and documents nearly 200 years of African-American history.

Bayeza wrote a large swath of the novel about events that take place between the 1890s — after the family’s matriarch Bette leaves her island plantation — and World War II. Shange wrote much of the book’s beginning and end. But some sections overlap and include Shange’s writing to make the work more fluid, Bayeza said. 

“Some Sing, Some Cry” marks Bayeza’s debut as a novelist. She has been writing plays since sixth grade and has written works such as “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” which premiered in 2008 and won an Edgar Award for best play. 

Bayeza chose to read from a section focused on young Lizzie, whose firecracker personality was in part inspired by Bayeza’s great-aunt, Bayeza told the audience.

The selection — much like the rest of the book — is focused on the role music has played in African-American history. The book begins in the 1800s and ends with a quick snapshot in the present day, Bayeza told The Herald. She and Shange might write a sequel in the future that focuses on the 21st century, she said. 

Bayeza, who also writes musical theater, wrote her own lyrics for some of the songs that appear in her novel. When the audio book came out, she also composed the “scratch track,” a rough soundtrack, as a guideline for the songs’ melodies, she said. 

A question-and-answer session followed the reading. Referencing the link between music and memory in the story, Bayeza said music represents the “brilliance the people of the African diaspora brought to the modern world.” 

Vincent Tomasino ’14, an audience member enrolled in Bayeza’s class, said he enjoyed how animated Bayeza was while she read. The bookstore space, tucked away in a corner by the windows facing Thayer Street, made the event seem “much more like a story circle than a reading,” he said.

Tomasino also said he found the story funny and quick-paced, but was shocked by the last lines of the reading — where Ossie is nearly blown up by an attack on the WWI front.

Bayeza turned a part of the novel into a concert reading piece called “Charleston Olio,” she said. 

Her other project at Brown is “Kid Zero,” a musical comedy geared for teaching math to schoolchildren. The piece has already been produced, but she said she is currently working to upgrade some of its music and will show the piece to Providence public schools when it is completed. She is also writing a “semi-nonfictional” memoir, she said.

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