The Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing, Edited by Marita Golden. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011.
Summary: Interviews with notable Black writers about formative influences on their reading and writing, significant books and their particular writing callings.
This is a wonderful gateway book into the world of Black authors. Marita Golden engages in interviews with some of the foremost black authors filled with discussion of books that influenced their lives and of the books they have written. Each interview concludes with the interviewed author’s recommended books.
As if this were not enough, this is a work on reading and writing and the integral relation between the two. In many cases, parents were a significant influence in fostering a love of reading through reading aloud, through having books in the home and encouraging regular trips to the library. Columbus native Wil Haygood said, “I read my way into opportunity. The more I read, the more I realized the world was big and I could find a place in it.”
That was not always the case. Nathan McCall did not read until he went to prison and discovered Richard Wright on the prison book cart. He said:
“I had never been pulled into a book like that before. It just made me cry. I remember I finished it at about three o’clock in the morning and I was just weeping. After I read [Native Son] it was like, damn, I didn’t know somebody had written something like this” (p. 114).
He went on to read Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and George Jackson among others and started thinking about his own life and began writing down his thoughts in a notebook, the beginning of his life as a writer.
In the case of Edwidge Danticat, it was reading Ludwig Bemelmans Madeline that opened her eyes to the possibility of telling stories by writing them down. For Chimamanda N. Adichie, it was the experience of reading Chinua Achebe that opened her mind to the possibility of being a Nigerian writer. In fact, for so many, it was the model of another Black writer, of many Black writers that gave them the courage to write as well as expanding their cultural literacy and vision of the world.
For some, a book set them directly on their own writing career as was the case with David Levering Lewis, who has written Pulitzer Prize winning works on W. E. B. DuBois. Reading The Souls of Black Folk was transformative for him. J. California Cooper, the playwright, spoke of how Isaac Bashevis Singer taught him how to “take life and make it a great story.” We also learn about the journeys of these writers in becoming writers and some of their process, such as young Wil Haygood working for a pittance at the Columbus Call and Post and discovering how much he loved journalistic writing.
What all seem to agree upon is the importance of reading and books to enriching one’s writing life and that the two are inextricably bound together. This leads to a discussion in the book about the purported decline in reading, which Golden asks about in her interviews. While some decry this, some question whether younger readers are reading in different ways or simply have yet to find the books that answer to them. Nikki Giovanni presents the counterfactual that kids wanted to read the Harry Potter books (and at one point her own) so badly that they stole them if they couldn’t afford to buy them.
Book lovers love talking about or even overhearing conversations about books and how writers come to write the books we love. Reading this book is to overhear thirteen rich conversations that speak of the transformative power of both reading and writing. I will conclude by leaving you with this gem from Edwidge Danticat:
“Reading is important–although we can so easily go into platitudes here–because it expands your mind, your life. It extends your world. It’s traveling without a passport. I feel like there are people in my life I will never know as well as the people in the books that I’ve read. I believe that it’s the duty of every truly free citizen to read, especially to read beyond your borders, to read and read extensively. Writing is our footmark in the world. We’re still looking at cave writings of centuries ago and are asking, what are they saying? It’s one of the most important gifts we leave the world” (p. 72)