Lisa Braxton: Five Things I Learned Writing The Talking Drum

It is 1971. The fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts, is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon expected to transform this dying factory town into a thriving economic center. This planned transformation has a profound effect on the residents who live in Bellport as their own personal transformations take place.

Sydney Stallworth steps away from her fellowship and law studies at an elite university to support husband Malachi’s dream of opening a business in the heart of the black community of his hometown, Bellport.

For Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal, Bellport is where he will establish his drumming career and the launching pad from which he will spread African culture across the world, while trying to hold onto his marriage.

Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary in Bellport for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to nightmares and outbursts.

Tensions rise as the demolition date moves closer, plans for gentrification are laid out, and the pace of suspicious fires picks up. The residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives and question the future of their relationships.

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MARRIAGE THERAPY DOESN’T HAVE TO INVOLVE A THERAPIST, JUST THE RIGHT KIND OF DOCTOR

My husband and I were having a tough time. I had been working on my novel for years, grinding out one draft after another, sending out sample pages to literary agents, getting no response, or getting the canned response email rejection or a few nibbles in which an agent asked to see additional pages and then would later tell me that my work wasn’t “the right fit.” I’d burst into tears, punch the sofa cushions and cry on my husband’s shoulder. At the same time, my husband was having a similar response from potential employers. He’d been out of work for more than a year and either got no interviews, interviews that went nowhere, or interviews that seemed to go somewhere…and then silence. In desperation to get my novel to sell, I scanned a list of “book doctors” who charged upwards of $100 per hour. Unwilling to spend that kind of money, I brainstormed until it occurred to me that I could get hubby to be the doctor. After all, he was a newspaper reporter for more than 20 years and did consultation for a fellow journalist whose book ended up on the New York Times bestseller list. My husband took the job, didn’t charge me a dime, and as they say, the rest is history.

THE BEST RESEARCH CAN OCCUR WHILE HOLDING A FORK AND KNIFE

Who says that research can’t be fun? It doesn’t have to involve poring over dusty old back breaking tomes at the public library, spooling rolls of microfilm onto rickety old projectors, or watching documentaries until you’re bleary eyed. Once I decided that one of my main characters was going to be a Senegalese restaurant owner and his nephew was going to be a drummer who’s very good at making Senegalese dishes, I took a trip into town to try the cuisine at the local Senegalese restaurant. The chef prepared the most succulent pork chops I’ve ever had and I still think about the lamb stew. Several trips to the restaurant helped me to realistically portray the meals in the story. I even prepared the lamb stew at home and it was nearly as good as the restaurant version.

BANGING ON A DRUM IS HARDER THAN YOU THINK

In my continuing effort to accurately portray my drummer, I signed up for a drumming circle led by a master drummer from Guinea. Even though I’d already taken an adult education course, I soon realized what a leap it was to take a master class.

Seventy-five-plus students showed up, drums in tow, ready to learn new rhythms from a musician they revered. The student seated next to me kept grumbling, “People who aren’t serious about this should stay home!” I wondered if he’d figured me out, that I was an imposter, not a real drummer. I could feel my shoulders slumping in a ridiculous effort to make myself invisible.

The room went silent as the master drummer played a combination of rhythms. He beckoned us to repeat them. On the beat, he slowly strutted around the large circle, inspecting our hands closely, nodding and smiling slightly when he was pleased, narrowing his eyes when a tone or slap was made without confidence.

As I feared, as he was making his rounds, he paused in front of me, raised a hand to get everyone to stop playing and worked with me one-on-one. After he tried again and again to set me on the right path I finally confessed in a weak voice: “I’m not a real drummer. I’m a writer wanting to learn to play to create a drummer for my novel.” He gave me a smile and continued circling the room. When he came back around to me, he paused again. Was I hitting the drum wrong? Apparently not. He gave me a flirtatious wink and kept going.

TAXIS AND MANUSCRIPTS DON’T MIX

I was on a business trip to a convention in Chicago and brought my laptop with me that had a copy of my manuscript on it. I was feverishly working on the manuscript whenever I had a chance—at the airport gate, the hotel room, on the airport shuttle. One afternoon after leaving the convention center, my boss and I took a taxi back to our hotel. I was so exhausted that it wasn’t until we were out of the taxi and in the lobby of the hotel that I realized that I’d left my computer bag in the trunk of the taxi. I was practically hyperventilating. The only copy I had of the manuscript was on that laptop. I hadn’t backed up the file. Keep in mind I wasn’t concerned about the loss of my work files. Of course, I hadn’t bothered to take note of the driver’s name or the taxi number. I did remember the name of the taxi company, however, but calls there didn’t help. Eventually, it occurred to me that the driver was likely making a continuous loop from the convention center to the hotel. I stood out front and waited. Sure enough, he eventually returned and I got my laptop back. Whew!

I COULD HAVE BEEN A DANCE INSTRUCTOR

Maybe not the kind of instructor who opens up a school, teaches ballet, tap, and jazz, and conducts recitals, but a halfway decent choreographer of fight scenes. In The Talking Drum I have a scene in which my drummer gets into a wrestling match of sorts with his wife. There’s a bowl of lobster stew involved, an herbal aphrodisiac in a jar, a wall-dial-style mounted telephone with an extra lengthy cord, and a pepper grinder. The drummer’s wife discovers that he is trying to insert some of the herbs into her bowl of stew and assumes he’s up to something sinister. They get into a tussle that involves a bear hug, squeezing of wrists, squirming, her using all of her weight to knock him against the refrigerator door with the palms of her hands, the jar of herbs flying out of his hand. I actually spent a good hour in my kitchen choreographing the scene, acting it out to make sure the two characters could actually go through those motions. In another scene, my drummer gets into a bar fight, pounces on the guy seated next to him and is eventually kicked out of the bar by a bouncer in a bum’s rush. That required some choreography on my part as well. I didn’t spend time in a bar going through the paces, but I think it nonetheless came out pretty believable in the published work.

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Lisa Braxton is the author of The Talking Drum, published in June 2020 by Inanna Publications, and a recipient of a 2020 Outstanding Literary Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. She is a fellow of Kimbilio, a fellowship for fiction writers of the African diaspora, and an Emmy-nominated former television journalist, an essayist, and short story writer. She received Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest magazine’s 84th and 86th annual writing contests in the inspirational essay category.

Lisa Braxton: Website | Twitter | Instagram

The Talking Drum: Amazon | Inanna Publications