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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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Rhodes College writers-in-residence brought together by love and hip-hop, poetry and prose

When my friend Amy Benson, a professor at Rhodes College, told me that she wanted me to meet her friends Dan Charnas and Wendy Walters from New York, I said “Sure!” They were coming to Memphis as writers-in-residence at the institution. I always enjoy “northerly winds” blowing this way. Bonus: being around writerly-scholarly types and feeling inspired.

Then after reading about them, I said, “Hey why don’t I interview them?”

“(I enjoy Dan’s) take on things and his mind, his organization and the way he puts things together,” said Wendy Walters. “I’m always inspired by that. He also has this incredible discipline, which I can’t always match it but I admire it.” (Photo: Demarcus Bowser photography)

And here we are. I interviewed them on the idyllic campus of Rhodes at Hyde Hall and thoroughly enjoyed talking to them and sharing some of their energy. I so appreciate the company of people that are so secure in themselves and each other. They are one organism but in no way pod people (blech). I would best describe it as consciously coupled individuals that have an enviable organic rhythm. Felt it. Loved it. Want it. Also, Happy 10th anniversary guys!

I caught the tail end of Dan’s midday chat and chew as he talked about the changing dynamics and swerves happening within the music industry. He spoke about his work with Jeff Peretz on the J Dilla book project, which will cover both the history side and the music side of Dilla’s story.

If you know hip hop, you know that J Dilla’s impact on the genre ricocheted throughout the industry and that the legendary producer’s story has a universal appeal. In fact, Dan is teaching a class about him at NYU/Clive Davis Institute as he finishes writing the book.

“Every single word that I’ve ever produced professionally as an author goes through Wendy,” Dan Charnas said. “And thank God. She is my best editor, period.”

For context, Dan has a long history in the music industry as an A&R exec, hip-hop producer and as one among the first wave of writers down with The Source magazine. He is one of the producers behind the much-beloved VH1 series, “The Breaks,” which was based on his book “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop.” (Hey Netflix! What it do?! Viacom may be sleeping but we NEED a Season 2!)

“Dilla was always soundtrack to everything that I wrote (as a journalist),” Dan recalled. “So, I think it was almost inevitable that I would end up writing about him.”

So we wait with baited breath for the J Dilla book. Or, we crash Dan’s class at NYU!

Wendy Walters is the author of “Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal.” Named the best book of the year by several outlets, including The Root and Huffington Post, “Multiply/Divide” is a collection of essays and fiction that Wendy says “explores the complexities and contradictions that are part of the Black American experience and also a part of the Black woman’s experience.”

Most of Wendy’s work centers on urban centers and their historical context, which is intertwined with the personal context of the people within them. Born in Flint, Mich., she grew up in the Detroit suburbs and now lives in Harlem. Those are her focal points when writing.

The cities have a richness of history, much like Memphis, which is why she felt immediately drawn here. With so many different people in the cities, Wendy says there is “an impossible treasure trove of stories.”

Her previous book of poetry, “Troy, Michigan,” examines the anxiety around racial tension.  It looks at the ways people experience stress and how households can be shaped by their relationship to fear. She unpacks the ways in which people respond to external elements or stressors, especially in a volatile climate, pegged to the raising and protection of black children.

“Multiply/Divide” is a departure in style from her earlier books of poetry but not from tackling the subject matter that pulls the fraying threads of American culture and society as relates to the black folks and the way we exist and sometimes subsist, survive and sometimes thrive.

With their list of bona fides, I wondered this: “How do two super legit-in-their-own-right writers co-exist?” I sensed no ego trippin’, which sometimes happens amongst creatives.

They are each other’s biggest cheerleaders, learning from and balancing one another.  They share workspace, edit each other’s projects and pull no punches.

“Every single word that I’ve ever produced professionally as an author goes through Wendy,” Dan says. “And thank God. She is my best editor, period.”

Wendy chimed in: “Same.”

Dan continued, “I don’t think it’s possible to make her a better writer but she’s definitely made me a better writer.”

Wendy enjoys “his take on things and his mind, his organization and the way he puts things together; I’m always inspired by that. He also has this incredible discipline, which I can’t always match it but I admire it.”

My reading list just grew a bit and yours should too. I definitely recommend following these two on their journeys.

You can pick up the books at Amazon.com for sure but do check your local bookstore first, please!

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