Late Bloomer

You might be tempted, but don't tell Cherry Muhanji she's a strong woman. "That doesn't give me time to be vulnerable. It's a real insult when someone tells me I'm strong," says Muhanji, a Detroit native who has landed in the Gopher state (after a lengthy schooling stopover at the University of Iowa) courtesy of the University of Minnesota's women's studies department. Muhanji will read in the Twin Cities for the first time during the fifth anniversary celebration of Vulva Riot, slated for Saturday, Oct. 3, at Intermedia Arts. (See Q calendar, p. 24, for details.)

Muhanji, 58, is a relative latecomer to writing in an era when every twentysomething hipster seems to be securing multimillion-dollar contracts for books about their uneventful yet somehow angst-ridden lives (Jewel, anyone?). But don't doubt Muhanji's writing chops. Her first book, Tight Spaces, won an American Book Award in 1987. (It's been out of print for a while, but the writer's alma mater will be releasing a reprint of the book later this year.) "That book is the family laundry," Muhanji says wryly. It was also the catalyst to begin writing after 18 years spent at the Detroit telephone company. Muhanji's niece (one of the co-authors of Tight Spaces) threw down the writing gauntlet by penning an autobiographical piece that Muhanji read. Muhanji followed up with a counter piece, and the writing piled up, traded across familial estrangement. "We, my niece and I, came together on that book," she says.

A follow-up solo work, Her, published in 1990 by Aunt Lute Press, traced the 1950s and 1960s Detroit of Muhanji's youth, a youth where she married at 17 and was bearing children a year later. There was never any question, however, about her sexual orientation. "I have a hard time with that phrase 'coming out,'" Muhanji says. "At that time, we needed everyone to deal with racism. Who you slept with was immaterial. In the street, I knew everybody's everything. When I found out people hid it, I thought that was unnatural."

Since falling into academia, Muhanji's writing less, teaching more. "My creative writing is just now surfacing again," she says. "The five pages I worked on [for the new edition of Tight Spaces] have taken me well over eight months." There's been a year-long gap in her performing since arriving here, but she's eager to have the chance to read a piece from her doctoral thesis, a novel entitled Mama Played First Chair. The novel reflects Muhanji's attempts to rediscover women instrumentalists in jazz. She says that during previous readings of the controversial piece, people have walked out, but she'll do the reading regardless. "I need to do it. That's where I get my jive."

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