Re: Our Town, January 14

At first, my revulsion at Fran Zell’s article concerning memories of her “friend” Amoke Omoleye was so acute that it obscured a larger, infinitely more depressing truth: however poorly written (almost incomprehensibly chatty), or perhaps just because of its naivety, it exposed some of the central issues bearing on artists and writers in this society; the depthless chasm separating one person from another, afloat in a “social” without a structure; the deep racism lying like scum on the surface of liberal discourse; and the pain caused by the hidden class differences in a heavily class-ridden country. No small feat, Fran.

In the first paragraph, we met Amoke (no last name until the fourth paragraph), who came to “our writer’s group . . . and we helped her with it [her book].” If this “writers’ group” is the Feminist Writers Guild, and I suspect it is, then I, who was only a name on a mailing list for the same time period Omoleye was an active and highly visible participant, seemed to have been considered a “member” while Omoleye remained an outsider, forever a visitor to “our” writers’ group. Zell goes on to detail the “feedback” Omoleye received from this welcoming body of fellow writers, a patronizing “encouragement” to continue: “Just keep writing, we’d tell her; we want to read more.” Any desire by this energetic and forthright young woman to be taken seriously was met with the casual dismissal a cynic might mistake for indifference.

As we read further, Zell tells us she knew of Omoleye before their meeting at the FWG gathering in 1989. Zell was impressed at that meeting by Omoleye’s “self-assurance, courage” when Zell herself found only “rejection slips and lack of confidence.” Happily, things appeared to right themselves on the CTA ride home together when Omoleye was lowered to Zell-like proportions: “with a bulging shopping bag of unsold [phew!] books, she was simply a friendly, hopeful woman. . . . ” No threat here. Slowly, because of readings and programs in which they were both involved, they began to “move beyond . . . to occasional dinners together and cozy conversations.” Presumably, it was during those cozy conversations that Zell learned of many of Omoleye’s problems: health, money, job, car. But within the context of talking about her problems, Zell lets us know how careful Omoleye was to avoid “manipulation”–a middle-class euphemism for letting someone know you would appreciate an offer of help, were it ever to come forward. The grateful sigh of relief Zell felt at Omoleye’s sensitivity in this regard, in some contrast to her own, reverberates beneath the text: Thank God She Didn’t Ask Me For Anything.

And the desk. What can we make of the embarrassing saga of Zell’s bargain with Omoleye to sell her a piece of old furniture Zell doesn’t want? Yes, Fran, selling things to friends does damage friendships. That’s probably why most people don’t do it unless it’s a very sensitive agreement carefully thought out and carried through, and is to the just advantage of both parties. Friends usually give things to one another, without money passing, without questions asked, without concern for value received. And if a bargain were struck that failed because of the pressures of life, one might hope a friend would understand. The fact that Zell tells the world of Omoleye’s default in the “sale” with the overwhelming assumption that the reader has the same bias as Zell toward debt and debtor, friend or foe, is an affront to those of us who cannot begin to understand a “sale” of that kind and who find Zell’s portrayal of Omoleye (in an obituary, no less) as a gal who tried to defraud her friends or renege on agreements, ungenerous, to say the least.

And finally, to say, as Zell does of Omoleye, that her “life was as unfinished as her novel” is the final insult in the most uncharitable article of its kind I have ever read. It is the sort of banal pronouncement that features an inapposite metaphor, meaningless if considered. When, we may inquire of Zell, outside of death, is a life “finished”? The reader is left bewildered that Zell couldn’t detect the smugness in that phrase, catch her own self-congratulations on living on–deskless, perhaps, but with a chance to “finish” her own work, lord help us.

That a young black woman of high energy and commitment, probably gifted and certainly serious and intelligent, has found in this city of Big Shoulders so little possibility of communication in the “literary” world dominated by white middle-class women should not have come as a surprise to Omoleye. I hope it did not feature in the despair that drove her to suicide. The charmlessness, the peevishness, the lack of talent coupled with a childish petulance in search of success, the weakness, competitiveness and bitterness of women who don’t realize they have nothing to “give,” or to “teach,” that, in fact, they are nothing but in the way, may have been clear to Omoleye; we’ll never know how far such understanding went. I can only say that because of this article Omoleye will forever remain in some hearts an example unparalleled in its ferocity of the depth of callousness that can pass for “friendship” in Our Town.

M.J. Marchnight


Fran Zell replies:

The writers’ group referred to in my article was a writers’ support group not connected to the Feminist Writers Guild. Amoke was very much a member, in fact instrumental in getting it started. It provided a chance for all four of us involved to share works in progress and receive feedback from women we trusted and whose opinion we valued.

As for the rest, I regret that M.J. Marchnight misinterpreted the intent and spirit of my article.