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Life stories - Tennessee Reed, Memoir of a 'difficult' student
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Posted on October 04 2009 06:43 PM
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Q & A: Tennessee Reed
Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar
Last Updated on September, 23 2009 at 01:24 PM;CatId=8

Sometimes, a diagnosis can mean the end of the road. In the case of Tennessee Reed, the daughter of choreographer Carla Blank and writer Ishmael Reed, it was a new beginning. By the time she was two, she had been diagnosed with a speech and language-based learning disorder. Over time, names like Aphasia, Dyscalculia, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder entered her vocabulary and her life. But she learned to deal with all the labels and disorders she had been overwhelmed with. Even though experts had predicted she would never be able to read or write, she was authoring poetry books by the time she was in her teens. She went on to get a graduate degree from Mills College, write five books of poetry, and most recently, a memoir, Spell Albuquerque. Reed spoke to us earlier this week -- about her latest book and about the people who should be reading it.

OB: When did you start writing Spell Albuquerque -- and why?

Reed: I wrote this starting in February 1997. I was 20 years old. My third book of poetry had just been published a couple of months ago. I felt it was time to write a book about what it's like to be educated with a learning disability.

OB: How long did the process take? Was it difficult?
Reed: It took 12 years. It got published in March, right after I turned 32. It was very difficult. Non-fiction was a new genre for me. I had to learn how to write non-fiction. It was very emotional. Some of that stuff stirs up a lot of emotions - all that anger and adrenalin rush. It was very difficult.

OB: What did you enjoy writing about the most? And what did you find the most painful?
Reed: The most fun part of the book was writing about graduate school -- that was a good time in my life, when I was focusing on doing something I liked.

In undergrad, I had to deal with requirements that you have to take before you get to focus on any one thing. And being in my mid-twenties (in grad school) - I began to be a happier person when I turned 25. That was a good time in my life, health wise and school wise. The most painful was writing about pre-school to second grade. I had a chronic ear infection and was struggling in school with my disabilities.

OB: What did you learn from your father, Ishmael Reed? Was it hard to have celebrity parents?
Reed: No - I had no problem with that. My father taught me to write 10 minutes a day. I still do it.

OB: Why should people read this book, Tennessee?

Reed: I'd like my family and friends to read my book. Then they will understand why I'm the way I am. Then they won't be so hard on me.

OB: Is it easier for you now than when you were growing up? Are there more tools for people with disabilities now?
Reed: I think there are more tools -- but there are more that need to be developed. Things are better for me now in my thirties than when I was a child or teenager.

OB: What would you like to see?
Reed: People need to be more educated about disabilities. A lot of people make assumptions because they don't know anything about disabilities. They don't admit it when they don't know something. Sometimes, they’ll think I'm stupid or lazy. They’ll think I'm doing things on purpose.

OB: What are you working on now?

Reed: I'm working on another poetry collection.

OB: Is there a theme?

Reed: No, none of my books have an underlying theme.

For more on Reed, visit
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Edited by Admin on October 04 2009 06:48 PM
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