Many top literary prizes nominate black women, but few of those women have actually won awards. It’s been 25 years since literary titan Toni Morrison became the first and only black woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature, and 35 years since Alice Walker became the first black woman to receive the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple. Five years later, Morrison became the second and, to date, only other black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved in 1988.
Glory Edim wants to change that. With her new book, Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, she’s looking to celebrate the voices of black women in literature, from recognized novelists to lesser known voices. The anthology shares personal essays from black women writers about the literary experiences that gave them the confidence to tell their own stories.
While crafting her debut book, Edim looked to the work of Toni Cade Bambara. She studied Bambara’s anthology curation style, which included essays from notable black women writers like Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison. Edim said with her own book, she wanted to “capture the energy and vibrancy of what it means to be a black women in the literary space, and how we can reflect on these literary reflections and memories in a powerful way.”
Getting to the point where she could publish this anthology wasn’t easy. But with Edim’s innovative spirit, she eventually built a black girl’s literary sanctuary. The idea started out as a T-shirt printed with the phrase, “Well-Read Black Girl.” From there, it evolved into a Brooklyn-based book club, a newsletter and a popular social media book-sharing space. Now, it’s a full-on book festival, where both established and new authors highlight what literature means to them.
Along with the festival, Edim embarked on a book tour, accompanied by writers from the anthology. The goal was to build a community around fresh black women authors as well as already-revered ones.
“I feel really proud that I can tell others to tell their story, speak it aloud, hold it with them and don’t be ashamed of where they are from,” Edim said. “The voices in the anthology are really thought-provoking and unique. We need to have a ray of different stories and voices, especially as black women, because there’s so much we have to offer to the world.”
I spoke to Edim about the books that taught her about identity, home and love; where black women writers fit in the literary world; and how literature can be used as activism.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In your book, you wrote about your earliest memory of reading Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems. Do you believe her words taught you how to love as a child?
I think it’s a mix of the experience with my mother reading the book to me, which is was what solidified the connection of love and literature. I saw the simpleness of the book. Just like love, it could be something simple like holding hands, saying, “thank you,” or it could be a trip to the grocery store together.
It’s simple — love is time. My mother was spending time with me to hold me at night, and hug me, and read the story to me. Out of her very busy day, she made time for us to feel loved and have her full attention, which was usually when she was reading a story to us.
What author helps you think about your identity and your place in the world?
I would say Jacqueline Woodson and her Brown Girl Dreaming book. It was such a poetic, moving book for me that made me think about who I am and how I want to show up in the world.
Another book by her that really stands out in my mind is Another Brooklyn. Her work has this level of, “I am growing, I am thriving,” and it shows what it means to be uncertain when you are a young person, and how uncertainty builds up, and you can overcome it, and become a stronger and more confident woman in the world. Her books are more than self-definition, [they’re] resilience and perseverance and a level of endurance.
Besides the theme of identity in your book, I also sense themes of survival and a connection to home. As a Nigerian-American woman, what book helps you recall home?
My dad lived in Nigeria since the early nineties and we would travel back and forth to visit him, but the United States is very much my home, too. I have this very complicated sense of duality, where I grew up in Washington D.C. but traveling to Nigeria is home for me as well.
The book that I’ve read that takes me back and forth between both places would be the memoir by Marita Golden, Migrations of the Heart. It resonated with me because she grew up in D.C. and married a Nigerian man, and traveled to Nigeria pretty frequently before they separated. That was the first time I read a book from a woman that had this experience of going back and forth.
Yes, Marita Golden is Nigerian, but she understood this idea of living in these two incredibly rich black spaces. D.C. is “Chocolate City” and Nigeria is Nigeria, full of beautiful African people. But she was writing about streets and places I was familiar with, and she was talking about going on a plane and traveling 12 hours to visit her new home, Lagos. I loved the story, and her experience of finding herself as a young black [American] woman, but also one that had a rich appreciation for the Continent.
Many black women authors are left out of spaces that include literary giants. What can black women writers do to break those barriers?
The industry is changing in a way that I think it is becoming more innovative, and it’s going to take more risk especially on women of color and black women, and all of the women in this anthology really have set the precedent.
I think if we continue to make communities that are supportive, and are nurturing, and allow us to create these open spaces where we can center ourselves, the talent will emerge. It will be discovered. It’s not that there is a lack of talent, it’s more a lack of opportunity.
I strongly believe in creating our own opportunities in our own spaces so that we can cherish and uplift black work and artistry across all genres in the literary space. Also, we should be using social media and all its glory to uplift the new work that is being created. Use Twitter, use Instagram and use the tools that are at your disposal to build a community.
Not only do black women authors have to find other routes to market their books to mainstream audiences, often times they are even left out of conversations of classic novels within genres like fantasy, horror, science fiction, romance and even cooking. Why do you think black women authors are not recognized in all literary genres?
I think it’s just we get overlooked at times, and it becomes this thing. Like science fiction — apparently black women do not like comics or sci-fi. We know that is not true. But it’s another stereotype that is placed on black women, and we can tell because we have been ignored from these spaces. It’s as if there can’t be any black elves in a story or something that is reflective of our existence.
I’m really proud that we have authors that push against these stereotypes, and can really show what it means to be a black woman in these spaces. I read an incredible science fiction book by Rivers Solomon called An Unkindness of Ghosts. Now, you would think by looking on television or reading books that black women don’t belong in [outer] space, and that’s not true. It’s just a reflection of the limited imaginations people can have, and what we see as futuristic.
All of these genres, like mystery and romance, have incredible writers like Beverly Jenkins. There are so many writers that we just don’t acknowledge in these spaces. But they exist.
Recently, we lost the great poet and playwright Ntozake Shange. What did she mean to you, and how did her writing transform your life?
I will never forget the first time I encountered For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf in college. It had such a beauty and reverence, and it felt like sacred text. I think Ntozake Shange really created what it means to say the words “Black Girl Magic.” She embodied that and was the essence of it.
We would not have this free and completely liberated sense of being without her plays, her poems and her stories, which were all about black imagination and liberation. She wrote into the spaces that often ignored black women, and I think she has a legacy that will be on the hearts and minds of so many black women. She extended herself and wanted to make a space for writers to see themselves. We have lost someone so important to what it means to be a black woman.
During the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, black women writers were freely speaking on topics like racism, classism and sexism. Do you see any parallels with the Black Arts Movement to black women writers now?
I think what is really important for the movements that we are building is to focus on the things that don’t separate us, but bring us together. And that is our love for blackness, books and authentic storytelling.
There is so much in the stories that is rooted in activism and solidarity. Books are the foundation of the community we’ve built, and activism is a part of that. I believe that reading is activism. I do see parallels, because it’s about creating your own space and being self-determined and not having to rely on the status quo of industries to define your personal success or ideology. It’s really about speaking out and resisting bigotry in a lot of spaces.