Cartiér, Xam Wilson 1949–
Xam Wilson Cartiér 1949–
Xam Wilson Cartiér is the author of two critically-acclaimed novels, Be-Bop, Re-Bop and Muse-Echo Blues. Her successful incorporation of the language and rhythm of jazz into her fictional narratives has been recognized as a major innovation and critics have praised her powerful use of language. Cartiér’s work promotes black speech, dialect, and music while attacking the racism of American culture. In addition to her writing, she is a pianist, artist, and dancer.
Born in 1949 and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Cartiér was the only child of a postal worker and a middle-school guidance counselor. She told the New York Times Book Review that her parents had given her a “fluffy name that didn’t define me in any way.” So she chose the name Xam. Roughly translated from the Senegalese dialect Wolof, it means “harmony” since, Cartiér said, “the key striving in my life is to achieve harmony and balance. In my writing too.” She told Essence magazine: “I had very articulate, high-achievement-oriented role models.” Her grandfather’s motto was “A quitter never wins and a winner never quits.” Like the narrator in her first novel, Cartiér’s father instilled her with a love and appreciation of jazz from an early age. Cartiér attended a Catholic high school and graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a B.A. in English.
In 1974 Cartiér moved to San Francisco. She worked for the local ABC radio affiliate, eventually becoming a producer for the local ABC television station. Frustrated with her lack of creative control over her work, Cartiér took a job as a legal secretary. As a single mother, she would rise at 4:00 A.M. to write for a few hours, before getting her daughter off to school and heading for work. During the early 1980s Cartiér gained recognition for her successful television scripts and stage dramas.
For the seven years that Cartiér worked on Be-Bop, Re-Bop, she gave up all other artistic endeavors, except dance. She told the New York Times Book Review: “Dancing balanced my writing. I wanted to stop up all the other outlets for my own personal music, to see if it would force the music to come through one channel, the writing.” Her complex first novel was published in 1987 and came out in a mass-market-paperback edition in 1990. Be-Bop, Re-Bop has been praised for its broad perspective on African-American experience—positive and negative, current and historic, rural and urban, and perhaps most importantly, male and female.
Be-Bop, Re-Bop is a first-person narrative of a black woman in search of her identity. Critic Valerie Smith, in the New York Times Book Review, called it a novel “about the power of jazz, both in narrative and in life.” The unnamed narrator examines her father’s experiences, first in St. Louis in the 1930s and then in the army in Europe during World War II. One chapter of Be-Bop, Re-Bop is devoted to the massive celebrations in the St. Louis black community after Joe Louis won the 1937 world-heavyweight championship and held on to his title in the 1938 championship fight. The narrator also examines her own experiences growing
At a Glance …
Born in 1949 in St. Louis, MO; daughter: Anais, Education: University of Missouri, Columbia, BA, English.
Career: Author, 1974–; pianist, artist dancer, 1974–; ABC radio affiliate, San Francisco, producer, 1974; ABC television affiliate, San Francisco producer, 1970s; legal secretary, 1970s; scriptwriter, 1980s; Wayne Slate University Detroit, Ml, writer-in-residence, 1989–90; Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, writer-in-residence, 1990s; Naropa Institute, Boulder, CO, visiting author, 1990s.
Awards: Creative writing fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts; individual artist grants, California Arts Council; residency, Wurlitzer Foundation.
Addresses: Home —San Francisco, CA.
up in the 1950s and her relationships with her ex-husband and with her mother, Vole, a down-to-earth social worker. Like Cartiér herself, the narrator has been very much influenced by her father, a frequently unemployed postal worker, and his love for jazz.
In Be-Bop, Re-Bop it is the narrator’s immersion in bebop jazz that shapes the way she copes with the difficulties of building a new life with her young daughter, amidst haunting memories, both personal and collective (quoted in Black American Literature Forum): “I zoom into mundane day-to-day me, on the way to the Illfare Department for my soon-to-be monthly AFDC. Through the window beside me I’m able to see isolated buildings pop into view all over the urbscape below me, most of them in the City Center with its upward lush life on one side, and downhill crush life on the other—a sidelit scene which shapes into sight as sleepy sunshine flickers on her spotlights one by careful one.”
Cartiér often uses italics, reflecting jazz improvisations, to indicate her characters’ fantasies. She told Rayfield Allen Waller in the Black American Literature Forum: “They are what I call ‘fants,’ and they were often pages ripped out of my journals, or dreams. I plugged them in as fantasies.”
Smith of the New York Time Book Review wrote: “Jazz informs the style as well as the subject of Ms. Cartiér’s novel. Metaphors and rhymes resonate off one another, off alliterative phrases with all the intensity of an inspired riff. With this marvelous first novel, Ms. Cartiér joins the ranks of Afro-American writers—among them Ralph Ellison and Ntozake Shange—whose works demonstrate the deep connections between music and narrative.” Cartiér told the New York Times Book Review: “I really wanted to consciously mirror the spontaneity of jazz, the improvisation from moment to moment. Jazz seems to mirror key elements in black culture: spontaneity, improvisation because your situation is always in flux.”
Following the publication of Be-Bop, Re-Bop, Cartiér was awarded a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. During the writing of her second novel, she received two individual artist grants from the California Arts Council, as well as a Wurlitzer Foundation residency. Cartiér was a writer-in-residence at Oberlin College and at several other universities, including Wayne State University in Detroit in 1989 and 1990. She also was a visiting author at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Like Be-Bop, Re-Bop Cartiér’s second novel, Muse-Echo Blues, published in 1991, focuses on the power and emotional impact of jazz and black jazz performers. The heroine, Kat, is a black jazz pianist and composer in 1990s San Francisco. She suffers from composer’s block and difficult men. Using “insistent vision” to enter the jazz world of the 1930s and 1940s, Kat fantasizes herself into the lives of two women from that period: Kitty, whose love saves a heroin-addicted saxophonist named Chicago, and Lena, a jazz singer turned prostitute and Chicago’s mother who had abandoned him as a child. With the help of these fantasized lives and the jazz that was so much a part of their world, Kat is able to return to her composing. Jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and singers Betty Carter and Billy Eckstine also appear in the book. Cartiér told Essence magazine: “I really like to show a dynamic of somebody in the present drawing strength from the past, from Black heritage, and especially from Black music.” As Patricia Smith wrote in a review that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “Imagine each note of Coltrane’s music as a written word fat with that rhythm, and you’ll begin to hear the beat of Xam Cartiér’s Muse-Echo Blues.”
After the publication of Muse-Echo Blues, in the fall of 1991, a U.S. government arts program called Arts America sent Cartiér on a ten-city tour of Germany to “further understanding of the United States.” However, as Cartiér wrote in a travel article for Essence, “I’d set my own goals for the tour. As I saw it, my job was to bring African-American culture to Germany in the form of today’s Black fiction, including my own written word and the native Black arts that inspire it. On my tour I would spotlight Black strength and ability—the cultural roots that have carried us through since our people arrived on American soil.” Cartiér read from her novels and carried on discussions with her audiences. She participated in Germany’s first conference on multiculturalism. In Berlin she lectured on Spike Lee, whose film on American race relations, “Do the Right Thing,” was being shown at Amerika Haus, the U.S. cultural center.
Cartiér is one of the very few writers who has managed to successfully replicate in verbal form the experience of playing, listening to, and composing music. Author Ishmael Reed wrote for the cover of the first edition of Be-Bop, Re-Bop: “For nearly half a century, critics have been waiting for the arrival of a writer who would do for fiction, what jazz poets Bob Kaufman, Ted Jones, John Gould Fletcher, and Langston Hughes have done for poetry. [Cartiér] is to writing what Betty Carter and Sara Vaughn are to music.”
Cartiér has said that her influences are black male novelists such as Richard Wright and Chester Himes and urban black literature. Author Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and musician Cecil Taylor also have been important to her and she has compared her writing style to John Coltrane’s saxophone. Cartiér lives in the San Francisco Bay area and has an adult daughter Anais.
Be-Bop, Re-Bop, Available Press/Ballantine, 1987.
“Be-Bop, Re-Bop & All Those Obligates,” New American Short Stories 2, anthology, New American Library, 1989.
Muse-Echo Blues, Harmony, 1991.
“Be-Bop, Re-Bop,” Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose, anthology, Coffee House Press, 1993.
“From Be-Bop, Re-Bop,” Ain’t But a Place: An Anthology of African American Writings About St. Louis, Missouri Historical Society Press, 1998.
“A Gypsy in Germany,” Essence, 1992.
Color: A Sampling of Contemporary African American Writers, VHS/DVD, Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives, San Francisco State University, 1994.
Andrews, William L., Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, eds., The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 120–121, 274.
Black American Literature Forum, Winter 1990, pp. 791–802.
Booklist, June 1, 2001, p. 1944.
Essence, June 1992, p. 54.
New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1987, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly, March 22, 1991, p. 72.
Seattle Post-Intelligerncer, August 12, 1991, p. C2.
“African American Literature in the Black,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/25thann/aism/htm (July 4, 2003).
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