Joan Steinau Lester’s second novel, Mama’s Child released yesterday. Alice Walker calls it “an astonishing accomplishment … riveting art,” and it’s an Ebony Magazine Editor’s Pick. Joan is also the author of four other books, including the novel Black, White, Other and Fire in My Soul, a biography of Eleanor Holmes Norton. And Joan’s wonderful post includes some facts I didn’t know about Mother’s Day. Enjoy the post, and perhaps join me on June 20 to hear Joan read from Mama’s Child at one of my favorite bay area bookstore’s, Kepler’s. – Meg
At twenty I married a writer, though I had no idea how to become one myself. The year before I’d stood on a street corner at a New York City pay phone and called Random House, telling the woman I reached that I wanted to be “an editor or a writer.” Unimpressed, she advised me to keep reading, and hung up. Though I felt at least superficially sophisticated–as a jeans-wearing Beatnik with a pungent Galoises cigarette always dangling–cracking the world of writers was incomprehensible to this working-class girl from the sticks. Anyway, what would I write about?
Thus, when I met a brilliant young African American man who vowed he’d soon be published, I was awed. So of course, dear reader, as the old playground rhyme foretold: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage. While I raised babies, I worked at numerous low-paying, community-oriented, left-leaning jobs.
And in the evenings, I lovingly edited my husband’s books–for yes, he did fulfill his vow–and encouraged his dazzling output. When I attended the First National Women’s Liberation Conference in Chicago, 1968, as a delegate from my consciousness-raising group, feminists were incensed. “You should be listed as co-author,” they fumed. Yet as I critiqued I learned, and, like so many women before me, found my own creative outlet in a journal where I poured poetry and frustration in equal measure.
Finally, one decade and one divorce later, I began to publish. My articles were small pieces, book reviews and feminist commentaries in underground or local papers. A Unitarian newsletter took one essay, widely reprinted. And then I met the partner of my dreams: the most wonderful woman in the world, convinced that I was a brilliant writer.
With her encouragement my articles grew into a furious series of Op-Eds in major media like USA Today, the LA Times, and Chicago Tribune. Hundreds of bite-sized stories erupted out of me, nearly print-ready, illuminating nuances of race and gender equity. I found I had a personal style and a light touch with “heavy” topics; many pieces were syndicated.
I wrote, for instance, on the herstory of Mother’s Day, with its 1870 origins as a day when Julia Ward Howe called women to “leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel,” a day when women would meet “for a general congress of women without limit of nationality…to promote the alliance of nationalities, the amiable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” Not, you notice, a day where women were honored with flowers and brunch for their domestic role. But rather, their sphere was properly considered the world.
One op-ed, “Affirmative Action, Family Style,” recalled the small loan my grandpa gave my parents as deposit for their first home, which my parents later passed on to my partner and me. Both white families used savings that, meager as they were, most families of color, with lower-paying jobs and higher unemployment, couldn’t accumulate. Thus the significantly lower rate of home-ownership–many people’s largest asset.
I happily wrote and wrote, with the universe evidently saying “Yes!” since my articles all saw print. Until then one morning, I got a call from a publisher. “Would you consider collecting your essays into a book?”
Would I? On one of the happiest days of my life, I signed a contract for my first book. The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas was born, with an amazing edition in hardcover, then a year later one in paper, followed by a still later Back-in-Print soft cover edition. The publisher sent me on a ten-state book tour (yes, that still happened in ’92), national TV and radio shows, while I kept pinching myself. Reviews poured in; they were good. At last I was a published author.
I discovered the ecstasy of crafting fine sentences, and delighted in learning new genres: personal essay, women’s self-help, biography, young adult fiction, adult fiction. It turns out all those years of multicultural living provided enough juicy material for several life-times of books; I’ve published in all of those genres.
Now that my fifth book, Mama’s Child, has released–a novel, for I’ve turned fully to fiction–and my sixth is under contract, I look back at that first book and understand that, like the birth of a first child, the moment of its publication fundamentally changed me. It marked my evolution from a woman who’d always “wanted to be a writer” to one who, finally, was one.
I’m living the life I could only dream of when I stood on that New York City street corner so long ago, a young woman desperately dialing a pay phone. Now I labor toward deadlines, lunch with writer friends on sunny patios, and cherish a solid 32-year marriage to the wonderful woman.
But best of all: I’m a full-time professional writer. – Joan