Major, Devorah 1952-
major, devorah 1952-
PERSONAL: Born 1952, in Berkeley, CA; daughter of Reginald Allman and Helen Gabriel Major; children: Yroko and Iwa. Ethnicity: African American. Education: San Francisco State University, degrees in health education and African-American studies.
CAREER: Poet, novelist, performer, editor. Former librarian, African-American Historical Society. Koncepts Cultural Gallery, Oakland, CA, editor of community arts magazine and Web site; leader of writing workshops as an artist-in-residence.
MEMBER: Daughters of Yam.
AWARDS, HONORS: First Novelist Award, Black Caucus American Library Association, 1996, for An Open Weave; Josephine Mills Award for Literary Excellence, PEN Oakland, 1997, for Street Smarts; named poet laureate of San Francisco, CA, 2002.
(Editor) Ascension II, San Francisco African-American Historical & Cultural Society (San Francisco, CA), 1983.
(With Opal Palmer Adisa) Traveling Women, Jukebox Press (Oakland, CA), 1989.
An Open Weave (novel), Seal Press (Seattle, WA), 1995.
Street Smarts (poetry), Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1996.
Brown Glass Windows (novel), Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 2002.
With More Than Tongue (poetry), Creative Arts (Berkeley, CA), 2002.
Where River Meets Ocean (poetry), City Lights Books (Monroe, OR), 2003.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including Pushcart XII, 1987; I Hear a Symphony, Penguin, 1995; and Streetlights: Urban Stories of the Black Experience, Doubleday, 1996. Contributor of essays to anthologies, including California Childhoods, Creative Arts Books, 1988; A Single Mother's Companion, Seal Press, 1995; Something to Savor, Womens Press, 1996; and Father Songs, Beacon Press, 1997. Contributor of poetry to anthologies, including Practicing Angels; Other Side of That Window, 1992; Adam of Ife, 1993; and Poetry Like Bread, 1995. Poetry featured in recordings, including Fierce/Love; America Fears the Drum; and Who Sane/Who Sane. Contributor to periodicals, including Zyzzyva, Onthebus, Black Scholar, Shooting Star, Caprice, and Callaloo. Producer, with Opal Palmer Adisa, of The Tongue Is a Drum, a poetry-and-music sound recording.
SIDELIGHTS: devorah major (whose name is often cited in lower-case) is a poet, essayist, performer, and poetry teacher, whose first novel, An Open Weave, has a lyrical style. The story revolves around the female members of an extended African-American family. While waiting to celebrate a birthday party for teenager Imani, the family and their friends reminisce about their pasts. Grandmother Ernestine, though blind, seems to see deep within the family members and is the one who keeps the family from splintering. Her adopted daughter, Iree, sees into the future during epileptic seizures. The story also relates Imani's determination not to desert a pregnant friend, Amanda, who has been abandoned by her family. "If the title [An Open Weave] doesn't suggest a symbolic underpinning," commented Melus reviewer John Meagher, "then the names and mysterious events lead the reader to believe there is more than meets the eye."
Lisa Nussbaum, in Library Journal, observed, "Down-to-earth, gritty, and honest, the story shows how these women weather difficult situations" through love and friendship. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews concluded, "Amanda finds at Imani's home a family she has been looking for in all the wrong places—and Imani understands with newfound appreciation the ultimate power of community."
Dulcy Brainard, in Publishers Weekly, had this assessment of major's collection of poetry, Street Smarts: "Musical and energetic, major's work calls for a live voice to release its emotional power." Brainard wished that the author had delved more deeply into difficult issues, yet called the work "compelling."
Major's second novel is "set in the shadows of redevelopment—really in the '80s before developers finished putting up all the buildings" in the Western Addition area of San Francisco, the author told Wanda Sabir in a San Francisco Bay View interview. Brown Glass Windows takes place among the "walking wounded," in the words of Booklist's Kier Graff. Like An Open Weave, the story centers on a large African-American family in San Francisco. The Everman family has faced its share of demons, from prejudice to postwar trauma to drug addiction; the narration is split between an unnamed third person and the ghost of an African slave of America's past. The presence of otherworldly characters imbues Brown Glass Windows with "a heavy dose of magical realism," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor. The same reviewer speculated that such a literary tactic might turn away some readers, while "others will be intrigued by the depth and history it lends to . . . the realities of racial prejudice and, above all, the many-layered truths of families."
In spring 2002 Major came home one night to find a message in her fax machine. She had been named San Francisco's poet laureate, chosen over fellow finalists Diane De Prima and Jack Hirschman. Major succeeded Janice Mirikitani, "and I thought that in terms of the politics of the situation it was unlikely that they would give it to me," Major told Sabir. However, she felt it "was, 'like wow'" to realize that two women of color had been chosen sequentially, Sabir's article added. As Sabir related, Major's term as poet laureate was to focus on "living memorials," places where people could gather, reflect on life and death, "and perhaps emerge with a poem."
The poet is particularly interested in showing young people the consequences of violence. "We . . . see the memorials, the balloons, bottles and flowers when the kid is shot on the corner. There are so many, and some people just drive by them." Desensitizing people to killing leads to more killing: "I think there's a big sense of people aren't seeing it—especially people who live in other neighborhoods [who] consistently and conservatively ignore the humanity of the victims with words similar to those used to dehumanize the Palestinians, like 'Palestinian mothers celebrate the deaths of their children, while Jewish women mourn their young,'" Major remarked in Sabir's interview. "That's why people can look at all the youth being killed in the Middle East and not do anything because the people are not people. They are being objectified."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Scholar, winter, 1996, review of An Open Weave, p. 66; winter, 1996, review of Street Smarts, p. 66.
Bloomsbury Review, July, 1996, review of An Open Weave, p. 21.
Booklist, May 1, 2002, Keir Graff, review of Brown Glass Windows, p. 1508.
Bookwatch, May, 1996, review of Street Smarts, p. 7.
Choice, April 1996, review of An Open Weave, p. 1310.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1995, review of An Open Weave, pp. 1050-1051; April 15, 2002, review of Brown Glass Windows, p. 526.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, May, 1997, review of An Open Weave, p. 8.
Library Journal, September 1, 1995, review of An Open Weave, pp. 208-209; November 1, 1995, review of An Open Weave, p. 80; March 15, 1996, review of An Open Weave, p. 43; May 1, 1996, review of Street Smarts, pp. 97-98.
Melus, summer, 1998, John Meagher, review of An Open Weave, p. 210.
Publishers Weekly, July 31, 1995, review of An Open Weave, p. 71; March 18, 1996, review of Street Smarts, p. 67; May 6, 2002, review of Brown Glass Windows, p. 38.
San Francisco Bay View,http://www.sfbayview.com/ (July 16, 2002), Wanda Sabir, interview with Devorah Major.*