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This Kansas City Writer Will Not Allow A Pandemic To Interfere With The Release Of Her Two New Books

Natasha Ria El-Scari
Writer and performer Natasha Ria El-Scari

For black girls, the importance of self-protection but also self-expression "is such a dance,” says Natasha Ria El-Scari.

Natasha Ria El-Scari has no patience for rejection.

"I was tired of this idea that seemed to be part of the writing world, of having to wait and have 8,000 rejections," says the Kansas City poet, performer and writer. "And I was like, 'I'm not doing that.'"

El-Scari knew she could self-publish, which allows her to release her books into the world "when I feel they're ready."

But she didn't plan for that to be during a pandemic.

April is National Poetry Month, for which she published a chapbook of poems called “I Say, T(he) Say. In mid-March, in Women's History Month, El-Scari self-published her first novel, “Growing Up Sina.”

“I decided to move forward with the launching of both books,” she says, “because that was a big goal of mine.”

But now, with so many people unemployed and others navigating a new way of working from home, El-Scari knows not everyone is diving into books.

“For some people, reading is a luxury. And for some people, reading is essential,” she says.

El-Scari grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, an avid reader inspired by writers such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.

During school breaks as an undergraduate at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, she traveled to Arkansas where she began recording her own family’s stories on visits with her maternal grandparents.

“I wanted to just have this one-on-one,” she says. “And I think it was the smartest move that I could have ever made because in the week that I would spend there, or the five to seven days, it took so much time to get my grandparents to personally open up.”

“I Say, T(he) Say” is loosely based on her grandmother’s experiences in the 1940s and '50s — some real, and some imagined — with themes of love, self-determination and hope.

In “Porch Swing,” the reader first encounters her grandmother’s dialect.

“You think you knows yo’self an’ den you meet love. Dat / love can be jus’ ‘bout e’erything or only one thing. I’s knows / when I love first an’ den you get a love dat make you feel ain’t / no mo’ love to be had. Felt dat wit da firs’ baby an’ da / fifth. Love so wide an’ easy like a field but den we start puttin’ / in rows an’ diggin’ up mess callin’ it profit, measurin’ what / already plenty ...”

"The porch serves as a confessional, in a rocking chair, or on a swing," she says. "All of those are sacred spaces.”

The novel "Growing up Sina" has been percolating for about a dozen years, she says. A coming-of-age story set in the 1990s, it's about a girl who lives in a Midwestern city with her single mom, Nel. Like El-Scari, she visits her grandparents in the South.

“I had a couple of characters that popped up in my head that didn't seem to fit in poetry,” El-Scari explains. “So I started writing these prose sections and I shared it with a couple of friends. They were like, ‘This sounds like the start of the novel.’”

The work follows Sina from preadolescence through college, as she deals with the intricacies of family relationships. Along the way, friendships sustain her.

“Girls learn early the power of three," El-Scari writes. "With three, everything is safe. They could ride further into the neighborhood and even go to other side blocks as long as they did not cross busy streets. There were so many hills, dips and turns to meet.”

El-Scari says she wanted to explore some of the challenges of black girlhood and leave readers with optimism for the future.

“That is this idea that you learn so very early,” she says. “The importance of self-protection, but also self-expression. And it is such a dance.”

For now, with stay-at-home orders in effect and social distancing encouraged, book signings and readings at bookstores such as Wise Blood Booksellers are on hold.

Instead, El-Scari's making plans for virtual book signings and readings. But, she says, the spoken word is intimate. And, reading in a room by yourself can feel like a rehearsal rather than a performance.

“I look forward to sharing with people face to face,” she says.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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