With bells, a blues harp, and limitless energy, Arthur Flowers kicked off the first Nonfiction Reading Series Event of 2012. A novelist, memoirist, and performance poet, Flowers is the author of the graphic nonfiction book I See the Promised Land, which traverses the milestones of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s short life, ministry, and journey. Opening his performance by playing a conch shell, which was used in the Caribbean to call slaves to work—and used by slaves to call each other to rebellion—Flowers urged the audience to check their troubles at the door as they entered what he sees as the sacred ground of the gathering space. During his performance, he touched on his goals as a writer and performer and talked about the process of collaborating on the nonfiction book with Manu Chitrakar, a scroll painter from the Bengal region of India.
Though Flowers primarily identifies as a novelist, he explains that he really enjoys working with nonfiction. I See the Promised Land centers on Martin Luther King Jr., but in it Flowers portrays King’s work as not just the story of one man, but as a larger tale about African American struggle. Flowers explained he is interested in King’s legacy more than the specific details of history; emphasizing the legacy allowed for more creativity in his writing: Flowers was able to “take liberties” with voice, and concepts like prophecy and destiny, that he couldn’t have taken in a text with a more historical focus.
During the performance—singing, dancing, playing his kalimba—Flowers described the challenges and benefits of collaborating with an Indian patua artist: Chitrakar had not heard of King, when the project began, and sometimes his depictions weren’t historically accurate. But Chitrakar is a storyteller; as a patua artist, he sings stories that are represented visually on a scroll. This unique background and fresh perspective allowed for interesting visual interpretations of the King narrative. As a result, Flowers says, he learned to better appreciate King as a global voice.
Flowers’ work has been well received around the world, in part because of the energy and spirit that he brings to his performances. Though Flowers considers literature to be a sacred calling—one of his goals is to create a holy book—he admits that it was surprising when he traveled to India and was “treated like some kind of literary guru.” But it many ways Flowers is just that. In her introduction to the event, Writing Program Chair and Director Eileen Schell described Flowers as a “long distance runner,” drawing on a term from Babajohn Killens, who trained Flowers. Schell characterized Flowers as “someone who writes for the generations to come, and for the long game.” Pointing out that one of the most interesting things about I See the Promised Land is its fusion of traditions, Schell said, “As Arthur demonstrates in this book, literature in the 21st century needs to fuse.”
The Nonfiction Reading Series, which began in 2008, features local, national, and international writers of all types of nonfiction: memoir and autobiography, the personal essay, political essays, and historical narrative, among others. Recent participants include Stephen Kuusisto, Harriet Brown, and Minnie Bruce Pratt.