This month’s “Meet This Artist” is written by guest blogger Elisabeth Lewis Corley.
Michele Tracy Berger describes herself as a writer, professor, and pug-lover. Reenu-You, Michele’s sci-fi novella, was published in 2017 by Book Smugglers Publishing. In addition to science fiction, she writes poetry and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared in The Feminist Wire, Ms. Magazine, WNC Woman, as well as several published anthologies. Her other fiction works can be found in UnCommon Origins: A Collection of Gods, Monsters, Nature and Science by Fighting Monkey Press, You Don’t Say: Stories in the Second Person by Ink Monkey Press, Flying South: A Literary Journal, 100wordstory, Thing Magazine, and The Red Clay Review.
Michele lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina with her partner Tim.
Her Reenu-You speculative fiction/horror novella deals with a group of five highly-individual women, each distinctly different from the rest, who find themselves at the center of a gruesome epidemic.
The unflinching Amazon.com description reads:
New York City, August 1998. On a muggy summer day, five women wake up to discover purple scab-like lesions on their faces—a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. City clinic doctors dismiss the women’s fears as common dermatitis, a regular skin rash. But as more women show up with the symptoms, one clear correlation emerges: an all-natural, first-of-its-kind hair relaxer called Reenu-You. As the outbreak spreads, and cases of new rashes pop up in black and latino communities throughout New York, panic and anger also grows. When the malady begins to kill, medical providers and the corporation behind the so-called hair tonic face charges of conspiracy and coercion from outraged minority communities and leaders across the country. At the heart of the epidemic are these five original women; each from different walks of life. As the world crumbles around them, they will discover more about each other, about themselves, and draw strength to face the future together.
In her review of Reenu-You, Sessily Watt writes in a StrangeHorizons.com review August 14, 2017, “My favorite moments are those that take place within that community, as the women manage the joy they find in each other’s company and the havoc created by the virus that has brought them together.”
In an interview with Eden Royce on graveyardsisters.com, Berger was asked about the focus in the novella on the powerful bonds among the fascinating female characters she created. “Despite popular media that encourages us to think it is natural for women, especially black women, to undermine each other, be jealous, competitive and be overly male-identified, there is a long tradition of valuing sisterhood and female friendships. For many black women and women of color, it is often in these friendship communities that we see our worth and value mirrored back to us. I am very much interested in the idea of the female collective. In exploring friendship, I want to go beyond the best friend or side kick trope and the ensemble model (usually of a mixed gender group), that doesn’t explore intimacy. I think there is something very special, powerful and potentially untapped in the nature of collective female friendships. We are problem solvers, truth tellers, counselors, coaches, leaders, and advocates for each other. The characters in Reenu-You touch on all these roles.”
Berger also maintains a demanding double life as a scholar. Berger is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where her research, teaching, and practice all focus on intersectional approaches to studying areas of inequality, especially racial and gender health disparities. This work spans the fields of public health, sociology, and women’s and gender studies.
Her forthcoming scholarly book is Thriving vs. Surviving: African-American Mothers and Adolescent Daughters on Health, Sexuality, and HIV (New York University Press). Thriving vs. Surviving explores the real-life meanings and everyday practices of health (i.e., mental, physical, emotional, and sexual). The book’s focus is on southern African American mothers and their adolescent daughters and examines the themes that emerge about health, information, access to health care, and sexuality at a crucial period of girls’ lives—early adolescence. Her book will be the first monograph with a focus on African American mother and daughter relationships and their role in shaping health practices. Her public scholarship has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Ms. Magazine, The Feminist Wire, and other media outlets.
Berger is also Director of the Faculty Fellows Program at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. In this role, she engages and mentors a diverse array of faculty in an interdisciplinary environment. She served as Vice-President of the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) from 2010-2014. She currently serves on Ms. Magazine’s Scholars Board.
Of her first scholarly monograph, Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journey of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS, (Princeton University Press, 2004), Arthur W. Frank writes in Qualitative Sociology, “Berger’s Workable Sisterhood . . . demonstrates all the elements necessary to elevate an interview/ethnographic report beyond oral history.”
So perhaps there is a connection between her life in speculative fiction and her life in scholarship—a desire to get to the heart of the matter, whether it is in exploring her characters in fiction and enjoying their profound connections to one another, or bringing life to the accounts of women living with HIV/AIDS. Whatever it is that keeps this busy artist/scholar writing and thinking and celebrating the lives and communities of women of color, we’re glad she’s doing it here in Chatham County and we’re grateful for her stories.
FROM THE ARTIST
My full name is: Michele Tracy Berger
I live in: Pittsboro, in the Chatham Forest neighborhood off of Thompson Street.
I knew I was a writer: In high school. I had discovered by then the genre of epic fantasy—stories with dragons, quests, wizards. I decided to try my hand at writing an epic tale with a protagonist who was half nymph and half human. I believe that I wrote it all in verse. My copy of this story has long since disappeared, but I remember that I showed it to my English teacher and she told me that it moved her and that I should keep writing. That was the first time I felt like a writer.
My favorite writers are: Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayle Jones, and absolutely everything by Alice Walker. Their work is something I carry pretty deeply inside of me. In the last decade, I have been inspired by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Jonathan Lethem, Pearl Cleage, Walter Mosley, Sheri Tepper, Jeff VanderMeer, Charles de Lint, and Joy Castro.
A childhood memory I cherish is: At the age of six, my mother turned a walk-in closet into creative space just for me. That closet became a portal and gateway to self-expression. My love of science fiction and the fantastical began there. I pretended that Will Robinson, a character on the television show Lost in Space, was my brother and that I fought alongside Lindsay Wagner, who played The Bionic Woman. And I went on many other adventures. From that age on, I never doubted the power of the imagination. And I learned to tell my own stories.
Some jobs I’ve had are: When not working as a scholar or writer, I have been employed as a veterinary assistant, a cashier at Wendy’s, a cashier at Dunkin’ Donuts, and a retail clerk for the now defunct Lord and Taylor’s department store.
When I’m not working on my own writing, you might find me: planning my next trip. I love to travel. I also am obsessed with writing podcasts. Some of my favorites are: I Should Be Writing with Mur Lafferty, Writing Excuses (fifteen minutes long because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart), and How Do You Write.
Next on my bucket list is: Visiting every country that has a tradition of Carnival.
On my bedside table you’ll find: Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead by Cecile Richards; Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York by Marge Piercy; and Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland
Most people don’t know I: absolutely love dance and at one point in my life I seriously considered pursuing dance professionally. I periodically daydream about leaving my current life behind and finding a dance troupe that features older dancers.
My favorite spots in Chatham County are: The library, the Phoenix Bakery, the Joyful Jewel, and the White Pines Nature Preserve Trail.
Three Chatham County artists I admire are: Julia Kennedy, Marjorie Hudson, and Emma Skurnick
The Practice of Creativity Blog: https://micheleberger.wordpress.com/
Photos courtesy of Michele Tracy Berger.