Chelsey Shannon, editor
At the AWP23 conference earlier this month, I attended a panel called Building Literary Coalitions on the Margins, a conversation between Black and brown woman editors and authors that addressed the liberative work of writing and publishing without regard to either the white gaze or capitalist expectations of literary production. “We are the children of Toni Morrison’s editorial practice,” noted Angie Cruz, novelist and editor of Asteri(ix) Journal, in summation of her and her fellow panelists’ work.
Toni Morrison isn’t the most arcane woman author to highlight, but she is an incredibly deserving one. A literary genius who innovated in both her editorship and her own career as a novelist, Morrison’s work has enriched the archive of African American women’s history immeasurably. As the first Black woman to be appointed as a Random House senior fiction editor in 1967, Morrison was impeccably intentional about seeking out and amplifying a variety of Black literary talent, including Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She also compiled The Black Book (1974), a multimodal compendium of Black American history covering the pre-Civil War era into the 1920s.
In her talk “The Site of Memory,” published in the 2019 anthology The Source of Self-Regard (released months before her death), Morrison reveals the “symbiotic” interdependence between memoir—that is, personal history—and fiction, two genres usually considered opposites. As a fiction writer, she notes that it is her job to “rip that veil” that’s drawn over the deepest, most devastating elements of Black American collective experience, thereby reanimating the rich inner and interpersonal lives of her ancestors and their communities—especially since the details of those inner lives have been stricken from the official historical record (233, 237).
“Moving that veil aside requires, therefore, certain things. First of all, I must trust my own recollections. I must also depend on the recollections of others. Thus memory weighs heavily in what I write, in how I begin, and in what I find to be significant. […] But memories and recollections won’t give me total access to the unwritten interior life of these people. Only the act of the imagination can help me.” (238)
GK Darby, managing editor
Lisa Drew is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin (go Badgers). She helped acquire Alex Haley’s Roots in 1964 and ended up working on the book for ten years, shielding Haley from frustrated executives who wanted the book canceled and the advance repaid. While working for Doubleday, the first book Drew bought for the company was Constance A. Bean’s Methods of Childbirth (1971), one of the first books to cover the different options for childbirth for women. Drew finished her career at Scribner, running the A Lisa Drew Book imprint. I admire the wide range of work she published, and that she approached publishing always as an enthusiastic reader (not an executive), protecting authors from arbitrary deadlines and uncaring market forces.
Alex Dimeff, book designer
The work of oral historian Sveltana Alexievich exemplifies the power of producing literature in a communal mode—and the courage it takes to commit oneself to truth-telling in restrictive political climates. In collections like The Last Witnesses (2019), Enchanted by Death (1993), and Chernobyl Prayer (1997), she gathers eyewitness accounts, juxtaposing them to better reveal the full impact of war, political collapse, and nuclear disaster. Her relentless and unsentimental pursuit of truth has, at times, made her a political target. In the early 1990s, she was brought to trial for her depiction of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in her book Zinky Boys (1989), and she currently lives in de facto exile from her native Belarus, following her role in the 2020 opposition movement. Despite facing repression, Alexievich has always remained committed to her documentary mission. By honestly recording the testimonies of common people who survived some of the most traumatic events in 20th century Eastern European history, she has preserved many worlds of truth that otherwise would have been lost to time.
Laura Defazio, intern
I first knew Zora Neale Hurston as the celebrated Harlem Renaissance novelist who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, a lush, piercing, deeply human novel set in 1930s Florida between one of the earliest all-Black towns and the wild Everglades. I read the book as a teenager and—in addition to imbuing a white kid of the 1990s with just a tiny bit more understanding than I would have otherwise had of the historical experience of Black Americans—it helped me in a powerful way to frame some things I felt but couldn’t articulate about life and love and individual spirit. I mailed it to my little sister when I went away to college, hoping that she’d take similar heart in it, that it would teach her something valuable about being a woman in the world and, more importantly, being a person in the world.
I studied anthropology in college, and I was surprised to discover that Hurston had not only been a writer of fiction but also a respected anthropologist and ethnographer—she’d studied under Franz Boas, the bigwig name that was showing up in all my textbooks at the time. Her fieldwork took her to Jamaica and Haiti, researching voodoo and the African spiritual diaspora, and all over the American South, recording folktales and histories. It was particularly notable—and important—that she was doing this in an era when the field of anthropology was dominated by white men and publications about topics like voodoo were usually (and at best) one-sided, oversimplified, sensationalized, and cliché.
As our dominant narratives evolve and the way we talk to ourselves as a nation continuously changes—sometimes too quickly to keep up with–I admire Hurston for sticking to her stylistic guns. (Style isn’t just window-dressing; it’s meaning.) This can be seen most strikingly in the story of her nonfiction work Barracoon, which wasn’t published until 2018, eighty-seven years after it was written and fifty-eight years after Hurston´s death. It tells the story of Oluale Kossola (also known as Cudjo Lewis)—unwilling passenger on the last slave ship to reach America before Emancipation—and tells it in his own words, recorded by Hurston in extensive interviews and rendered in dialect attempting to faithfully convey Kossola’s real accent and speech patterns. Hurston refused to standardize his voice even though publishers at the time refused to accept the book in dialect; they thought it wouldn’t be palatable to the mainstream American ear.
They were probably right. But times and palates change, and in any case, whatever one’s personal, readerly preferences concerning style and dialect, a story told in one way undeniably contains information that the same story told in a different way wouldn’t. There’s no perfect method. A story has to be told in the way the author believes to be most faithful to the material; it has to come (as Hurston articulated, complimenting the work of a poet friend) “from within rather than to catch the eye of those who were making the loudest noise for the moment.” Neither Hurston nor Kossola got to see Barracoon in print, but because she refused—unsensibly, some might say—to water his words down, we-of-today are now privy to a uniquely valuable historical document. And the record of a voice we’re hopefully better equipped to hear.
Caroline Moore, graduate assistant
Right now, I’m reading Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House (2019), which is a queer memoir. Also Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias (2019). I went to her session at Tennessee Williams Fest last year where she talked about writing on personal trauma—her memoir is about her mental health journey after being consistently misdiagnosed.
Emily Dalrymple, graduate assistant
I discovered Nikki Giovanni in my last semester of my undergraduate degree. Her poems on militant activism changed the way that I look at reform and resistance movements. Her first two collections, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) (which she self-published) and Black Judgement (1969) (and the poems “A Litany for Peppe,” “Reflections on April 4, 1968,” and “For Saundra”), were especially influential.
I also admire her experimentation with music and spoken word. In 1971, she collaborated with the New York Community Choir to produce an album of her poetry titled Truth Is On Its Way. The album was judged Best Spoken Word Album by the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers and became a top 100 album. She says, “We had music growing up, 78RPM’s that evolved into 45RPM’s and, always, the radio. The radio in my day, Black and white, played everything. . . I feel so sorry for the kids who only hear one kind of music. Where do your dreams come from?” (Nikki Giovanni)
In 1973, a conversation recorded between Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin was published as A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni. In this dialogue, Giovanni and Baldwin discuss Black manhood and womanhood. In it, she says something that has stuck with me for several years:
I have seen how the community. . . And even today, in the seventies, even today there are divisions based on those same kinds of problems, so that black men say, In order for me to be a man, you walk ten paces behind me. Which means nothing. I can walk ten paces behind a dog. It means nothing to me, but if that’s what the black man needs, I’ll never get far enough behind him for him to be a man. I’ll never walk that slowly (emphasis added).
Giovanni’s commitment to never “walking that slowly” or tempering her womanhood in any way has been an enduring point of feminism in my life.
Abram Himelstein, editor-in-chief
Lynda Barry got me through a lot of my depressive times. While working as a copy jockey in college, I had the luxury of photocopying her work in The Village Voice, then sending huge stacks to friends through the mail. There’s a special thrill when someone whose work you’ve followed for twenty-five years comes through with a book that helps you unlock the next phase of your own life. Barry’s teaching at the University of Wisconsin resulted in Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor (2014), which has been inspirational in my leveling up (I hope) as a professor.
Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (1987) is one of the greatest stories ever told. Gave language to my intuition that gambling is a valid approach to living. Tore apart my (stupid) ideas about gender while I was young enough to learn.
I missed Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) in high school and college, but it’s probably just as well. I would not have understood any of the ways that this book marks time. Cather’s writing of Jim Burden and Ántonia Shimerda is one of the most beautiful point/counterpoints in non-romantic love that I’ve ever read: A shared childhood in the plains, where the class lines are close enough together that these two anchor each other through differently difficult childhoods. Then success in the city for Jim and a continuation of hardscrabble farm life for Ántonia. Jim’s return, and the accretion of time’s passage—you can almost see the gears of the earth’s clock in Jim’s consideration of their journeys.
The end (spoiler alert), where Jim is dumbstruck with the richness of Ántonia’s life on the farm, has stayed with me as I’ve looked at old friends through the lens of time: friends who have accomplished much and enjoyed the freedoms of money, and other friends who have chased and found eternal truths and ephemeral moments of beauty while living closer to the bone. To travel this axis feels like one of the blessings of time on earth. Jim/Ántonia forever.