Harlem Reading Series Brings Literary Scene Uptown

By Jeff Mays on February 23, 2012 1:40pm 

Three friends who are all published authors (from left to right)—Stacy Parker Le Melle, Wendy S. Walters and Amy Benson— decided  to launch First Person Plural, a new reading series that will kick off at Shrine World Music Venue on Monday, March 5.
Three friends who are all published authors (from left to right)—Stacy Parker Le Melle, Wendy S. Walters and Amy Benson— decided to launch First Person Plural, a new reading series that will kick off at Shrine World Music Venue on Monday, March 5.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Finding live music or art galleries isn't much of a problem in Harlem these days — but if you're looking for literary events, it's a different matter.

Three Harlem residents who are all published authors — Stacy Parker Le Melle, Wendy S. Walters and Amy Benson — decided to do something about the lack of reading series by launching First Person Plural, a new reading series that will kick off at Shrine World Music Venue on March 5.

The friends originally came up with the idea for The FPP Harlem Collective while spending a ladies' night out at the opening of the Harlem Aloft hotel.

"We live in Harlem, we've written in Harlem, but when we get ready to go to readings we have to leave Harlem," said Le Melle, author of the memoir "Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House," about time she spent working in the Clinton Administration.

"There are book events, but not a lot of readings," added Walters, author of "Longer I Wait, More You Love Me" and a book of poetry, "Birds of Los Angeles."

"That's a problem because there are so many writers in Harlem."

The March 5 event will be based on the theme of the collective "we." Authors will be asked to read one of their works that is written in first person plural, or a collective voice.

"There's so much work in first person. We thought it would be interesting to see what happens when writers speak in this voice," Benson said. "Who gets to say 'we?' When does the 'we' turn into an 'I?'"

The concept of "we" is especially interesting in a neighborhood like Harlem, which has undergone rapid gentrification over the last several years, they said.

"There's so many ways to define we," Le Melle said.

Citing a recent row between black patrons and the white owner of a new French Bistro, the women said there are still lingering questions about who the "we" is in Harlem.

"This isn't always going to be seamless or easy," said Walters. "The tensions are unavoidable."

Kicking off the event will be cultural critic Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former staff writer for The New York Times and author of "On Michael Jackson."

"We have a lot of assumptions and presumptions that have to do with culture, status, class, race, gender and taste," said Jefferson.

"The idea of questioning that and taking it apart and creating a new 'we' is what this is about."

Jefferson said her readings will be focused around the writings of Harlem-born author James Baldwin, who negotiated sometimes clashing ideals of what "we" means in his work.

She said she liked the idea that the series was both a "work of art and a piece of cultural questioning."

Also reading will be novelist Sam Lipsyte, author of "The Ask" and "Venus Drive," and cross-genre artists Mendi+Keith Obadike who have released two albums and a book of poetry.

News of the series, which will be quarterly at first, was welcome.

"I'm so excited that there is a compelling reading series that's for me — not my kid — and practically in my backyard," wrote a parent on the Harlem4Kids listserve.

"My brain has been suffering from overexposure to Nickelodeon and I want so badly to feel like a smart grown-up again."

Walters, Le Melle and Benson — all mothers of toddlers — understand the sentiment. They say they want the event to be thought-provoking, but also fun.

"It's an experiment to see what happens," said Walters.

"It's about taking a risk," added Benson. "It's asking what would my risk be? It's an idea to play around with, an invitation."

The First Person Plural Reading Series will launch at 7 p.m. on March 5 at Shrine World Music Venue, 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. between 133rd & 134th streets.

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