By Cate Czarnecki
Like most things in New Orleans, the men and women of the MelaNated Writers collective aren’t simply just writers—among them you will find musicians, students, journalists, lawyers, professors, activists, and citizens who live and work in a city where some were born but ultimately all have chosen to call home. As one of the group’s original members, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, puts it, “We thrive on the edge of destruction. It forces us to live in the moment. New Orleans is not for everyone, but if you’ve got that twinkle in your eye, New Orleans is home. That twinkle is hope and joie de vivre.”
The MelaNated Writers are celebrating their two-year anniversary, this July, with A MelaNated Summer in New Orleans, a reading series that kicks off at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 1 at the New Orleans Museum of Art in partnership with the museum’s Where Y’Art? event programming. Ruffin, along with fellow MelaNated writers jewel bush, Gian Smith, and J.R. Ramakrishnan will read from their work, and the venerable Kalamu ya Salaam will preside over the event.
As one of the city’s only collectives of writers of color, MelaNated’s members are diverse, and so is their work. It spans genres including fiction, screenwriting, memoir, and poetry. “Any way you think to bring a story to an audience, the group has embraced those artists.” Ruffin says. “Writers of color have a unique perspective. It’s almost a musical thing. There’s the wide world of popular music, but we’re playing variations of jazz, swing, ragtime, and fusion. We’re writing words like other writers, but with syncopation and blue notes.”
The collective was founded in 2010 by jewel bush, a communications specialist and former full-time reporter who eventually decided to dedicate herself to prose. “I grew really tired of being assigned stories and not truly writing about the things I necessarily wanted to,” she said. “So having all these ideas and accessing what I saw as a deficit in stories about New Orleans and the South, I decided to pursue fiction writing seriously. That was nearly four years ago.”
She was compelled to assemble MelaNated after attending a literary conference in San Francisco founded by Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz. She noticed a similar need for a network of writers of color in New Orleans. Over the past two years, the collective has grown to include 19 writers, among them Louisiana Weekly journalist David T. Baker, former newspaper reporter Mary Webb, and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Jarvis DeBerry. “I was friends with a few writers and they knew other writers,” bush said, “and before you knew it, in July 2010 I had more than 15 people in my living room discussing literature, sharing resources, and wanting to know when we were going to meet again.”
While not all of the members are originally from New Orleans, they each have a vested interest in the local literary community as well as continuing the city’s long tradition of black artists’ collectives. Their inspirations include the Negro Writers Project, a Depression-era unit formed by New Orleans poet Marcus Christian, and BLKARTSOUTH, the Southern extension of the Black Arts Movement. As one of the co-founders of BLKARTSOUTH and NOMMO Literary Society, author Kalamu ya Salam has led the current vanguard of local writers of color and will preside over the collective’s first public reading.
The MelaNated Summer reading series will feature three events taking place at different locations throughout the city. “We wanted to have the events at venues across the city to spread the love and at the same time draw attention to MelaNated-owned businesses like Cafe Treme and JuJu Bag,” bush said. The remaining two installments of the MelaNated Summer reading series will take place at Café Treme on July 14 and Juju Bag on August 2.
For Ruffin, the readings have been a long time coming. “There’s so much creative energy in this city. This is just way to focus it. I hope our attendees will come away with a sense that New Orleans really is a special place for the arts, and that we, the Melanated Writers, are ready to surprise, shock, and delight.”
bush hopes that the events will both inspire and excite local readers by showcasing the burgeoning talent of the collective’s writers. “I believe this sect of the arts is overlooked here. What about the great writers who are here? Who honed their literary chops right here in the city, and are in league with Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, Tom Dent and Kalamu ya Salaam? What about them? What about us? We exist and are telling true stories and are speaking our truths. You will not hear these stories anywhere else.”
At the heart of the collective is a unifying love for New Orleans and the people who make it such a unique place to live and write. For bush, “New Orleans is a character, not just a destination or scenery. Living in New Orleans is like being in a dysfunctional relationship. You don’t like the crime and brutality of New Orleans but then spring time comes and you’re at the French Quarter Festival looking at the splendor of the Mississippi River and you forget that your house was broken into in the fall and that your laptop with 80 percent of your writings was stolen. And then you feel really good and at peace being in New Orleans.”