I started writing this post sometime after Maya Angelou passed. It took putting my thoughts down to realize just how important she was to me. I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as an early teen. My memories are unreliable and I cannot remember why I read it, but I know I wasn't supposed to, but I did anyway. It would be an understatement to say it changed me. There were parts of that book that affected me on a personal level -- aspects of a young Maya I recognized in myself, and not only with some of the subject matter, but in the fact that Maya was a young black woman just trying to make a way out of no way. I have to say, in some ways, her memoirs were what inspired me to write...as cliché as that may sound.
Actually, when I was a child, I read a lot of books I wasn't supposed to read. My mother was, and still is, an avid reader. She often had popular paperbacks lying around the house. I did not get I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from my mother, but I am certain I read of it in one of the novels she had. I do know I read every Terry McMillian novel published through the mid-1990s -- books I had no business reading because of their "adult themes." My mother's favorite genre is "African American Urban Fiction"... or what you would find in the bookstore under the category "African American Fiction," regardless of content. In fact, as a young person, I could probably list off every famous and popular black writer there was at the time, but if you ask me about Walt Whitman or Margaret Atwood, I would have no clue. What I read exclusively until I was a freshman in college were books written by, for, and about Black women.
Recently, I've been inspired by the work of many other Black female writers (BFWs for short). Even now that I do know who Walt Whitman and Margaret Atwood are, and have done much to study literature that goes beyond the inadequately termed label of "African American Fiction," I am still finding that I am most inspired by those in whose faces I see traces of myself.
Below are four BFWs giving me chills of inspiration (and envy) right now...or rather, "women I want to be when I am no longer a baby writer and I finally grow up."
1. ZZ Packer
I was introduced to ZZ Packer and her writing with the short story Brownies. In fact, after I read Brownies, I immediately ordered "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere." Brownies took me back to my childhood, to growing up in the south, to feeling swept up in something bigger than myself and realizing there is evil in everyone, even if its just a little. As Julie Meyerson of The Guardian writes, "Something about Packer - her lack of pretension, her shy wit and spark - is infectious. You finish the book with a mad sense that, in writing, anything is possible. Dangerous, of course, because, like all great writers, Packer makes it look easy."
2. Danielle Evans
I randomly came across Danielle Evans while internet stalking Junot Diaz. I wasn't really internet stalking him so much as I was researching ways of connecting with writers like him and came across links to a workshop he is associated with for writers of color. Danielle Evans was listed as one of the authors who was participating in that workshop at the time, so I decided to start internet stalking her. I am glad I did. My favorite short story from her collection, "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self" is Virgins. I cannot express how much I love and, again, found myself in her characters. As The New York Times says, “The most vivid characters in Danielle Evans’s story collection are in-betweeners: between girlhood and womanhood; between the black middle class and Ivy League privilege; between iffy boyfriends and those even less reliable; between an extended family and living on your own. To say they’re caught between worlds isn’t quite accurate, though; they tend to be hard-headed, sadder but wiser and, most of all, funny.”
3. Roxane Gay
To say this woman isn't a superstar is to deny that the sky is blue. If you have not heard her name in the past year than you have been living on another planet, and even then I am sure inter-galactic communication has found traces of her name via some form of space Morse Code. I literally read An Untamed State in twenty-four hours. I came across this book while internet stalking John Green (I do a lot of internet stalking, don't judge) and met her via her Tumblr feed before ever reading any of her fiction or non-fiction. I was so impressed by her as a human-being, I knew I would enjoy her writing. I am part way through Bad Feminist and Ayiti, a collection of short stories. I recommend all of it!
4. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My short story instructor paired Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie's short story Jumping Monkey Hill with Donald Barthelme's Glass Mountain as examples of post-modern metafiction. Since then, I have been slowly reading through other examples of her work, but as you can see from the link to her website, she is a busy woman and it is taking me some time. I recently ordered Americanah and am looking forward to reading what the New York Times says is "witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic, both worldly and geographically precise, a novel that holds the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us. It never feels false."
I hope this post inspires you to pick up a story written by one of these talented women or any woman of color. Diversity in literature matters.