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Many of the writers included in Marita Golden’s revealing collection of interviews are old enough to remember a time when books were a scarcity in their lives and access to libraries was often forbidden. In that sense, progress has been made with the education of Afro-Americans in our country, but parity is still some time in the future. I don’t need to repeat the depressing statistics about the number of young black males in our prisons or the unemployment for black Americans. Nor, in fact, do the writers interviewed in this volume dwell on those issues; their own lives have transcended official documentation. But the existence of these interviews is, itself, reason for celebration, with the real kudos going to Golden, who has been the mid-wife for the careers of so many young black writers. A gifted writer herself, Golden started the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Literary Awards many years ago; her simple dictate has always been, “Share the successes, celebrate them, help others.”
The thirteen interviews in Golden’s collection spark with the vibrancy of her familiarity with each writer’s work and, thus, her ability to ask the right questions. Thirteen writers—including six women, one writer in her twenties, another in his nineties–the range of the subjects is impressive in and of itself: Chimamanda N. Adichie, Faith Adiele, Pearl Cleage, J. California Cooper, Ellis Cose, Edwidge Danticat, John Hope Franklin, Nikki Giovanni, Wil Haygood, Mat Johnson, Edward P. Jones, David Levering Lewis, and Nathan McCall. Poets, novelists, but also journalists and historians—plus several memoirists.
Their reasons for writing are as varied as the lives of the thirteen writers themselves. J. California Cooper reveals that she played with paper dolls until she was eighteen years old, so late in her life that her mother “got scared that I was retarded or something,” but it was simply her unawareness that black people wrote books. Edwidge Danticat mentions the importance of oral storytellers in her life, when she was still a child, mentioning Granmè Melina, whose stories she could hardly wait to hear after rushing through her homework. Granmè Melina was nearly a hundred years old and clear inspiration for her own “story-telling” years later. “So for me, like many writers, the seeds for my becoming a writer were planted in my listening to stories.”
Some of the reasons for beginning to write are less fortunate. Prison made Nathan McCall a reader and a writer. As he states of his own novel, Makes Me Wanna Holler, “I realized in writing the book that I was deeply depressed. And there’s nothing more dangerous than a depressed Black man because we don’t express our depression the same way that a lot of people do because of a lot of the macho values that we internalize. I would be less than a man to kill myself. But I can kill someone else or get someone to kill me.” Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Edward P. Jones, also speaks of his own depression, specifically when he was writing his masterpiece, The Known World. But when responding to Golden’s question about what he tells African-American high school and college students whom he speaks to frequently, he is quite upbeat: “I tell them that reading and writing are the foundation for becoming a better person and having a better life. What I couldn’t get from my mother I got from books and writing. Reading lets you know you are not alone in the world.”
Not unsurprisingly, the classics are mentioned frequently at the end of each interview, when Golden asks her interviewees to recommend their favorite books. War and Peace and Crime and Punishment appear twice each; and the Black classics are on almost all the recommended lists, especially works by Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. But Toni Morrison has the most recommendations of all, with four of her novels cited by these writers.
The final words belong to Marita Golden:
“The crisis of confidence that plagues the Black community around the varying issues associated with educational achievement and literacy exists in the shadow of contemporary Black literary giants like playwright August Wilson, who has been for many years the most produced American playwright, a status unchanged by his death; Toni Morrison, who is arguably the most popular high-profile, and read Nobel Prize winner of recent times; and Maya Angelou, who is considered a kind of national treasure. Despite the success of these writers, the complicated and enduring legacy of slavery and legal segregation, poverty, and racism has made attaining and holding on to the gains in education a persistent challenge in the Black community. The current national discourse about literacy and literature is especially relevant to Black Americans. Our future as a people, our ability to sit at the table where the blueprints for tomorrow are drawn up means that this conversation is not just necessary; it is urgent.”
A fourteenth writer, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, had just begun publishing when Marita Golden was editing the interviews for her book. Thus, she was not included, though I suspect that she will be soon be probed about her writing the way these other writers have been. Perkins-Valdez’s first novel, Wench, published a year ago and now available in paperback, fits nicely with the moral and humanistic questions a number of black writers have made central to their work. In Beloved, Toni Morrison centered her masterpiece on a slave mother’s murder of her child in order to make certain that that child would never become a slave. In The Known World, Edward P. Jones asked how it was possible that freed African-Americans could become slave-owners. Perkins-Valdez asks a similarly complicated question: will slave women who are mistresses of their white owners abandon the children of those liaisons and escape into freedom, given the opportunity?
Wench is based on historical fact—as are the novels by Morrison and Jones. There was a resort near Xenia, Ohio, which between 1852 and 1855, catered to slave-owners, who often brought their favorite concubine along with them for a brief vacation in the summer. Ohio was not a slave state. The women of these liaisons were, thus, in free territory and certainly must have been tempted to escape. Some did, which is no surprise. But others did not. Wench centers on the tensions of four women, depicting the emotional and moral issues that these women clearly faced as they decided whether to make that leap to freedom. It’s not simply could they abandon their children—intentionally left behind in the slave states during those summer “vacations,” and, thus making the hold on the women assured, at least from the slave-owner’s perspective. But, even more complicated, Wench asks how a slave woman can profess to be in love with her white master.
Wench is a haunting novel and Dolen Perkins-Valdez is not afraid to ask troubling questions, to rock the boat. She’s a writer we will want to follow. In her Author’s Note, at the end of Wench, Perkins-Valdez states that after the resort closed down—presumably because of the concern of citizens in the area about the propriety of catering to such “relationships”—the property was sold to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in order to convert the facilities into a school for free blacks. That school later became Wilberforce University, “the nation’s oldest, private, predominately African American university.” Perkins-Valdez adds a final irony, “It is believed that the children of the unions between the slave women and the slaveholders [who frequented the resort] were among the early students at the university.”
Cheers for Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Marita Golden.
The Word: Black Writers Talk about the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing
By Marita Golden, Ed.
Broadway Books, 209 pp., $14.99
By Dolen Perkins-Valdez.
Amistad, 320 pp., $14.99
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.