Well-Read Black Girl: A Review
WELL-READ BLACK GIRL: FINDING OUR STORIES, DISCOVERING OURSELVES
Glory Edim (Editor)
I recently met someone who claimed they have never read a book of fiction. They have zero positive associations with books whatsoever and called reading "pointless," equating it with video games.
Their point-of-view, so different from my own, made me want to further investigate this pivotal part of my life. Reading has always been so fundamental to me that I can’t remember a time when I didn't squeeze a book into every spare moment of my life. I learned to read later than other children, but even when I was illiterate I carried books everywhere with me, eager to unlock their code. Books give me joy. In a more practical sense, they’re what got me into university and my current job. I literally couldn’t be me without being a reader and writer of fiction.
But still. This person has introduced questions to me that I've never asked before.
Why do I feel that reading is so valuable? Is it just another hobby, and if so, why are so many great thinkers deeply attached to it? Is it really the equivalence of a video game? When Alexander the Great kept The Iliad under his pillow during his campaigns (alongside a dagger), might he as well have been carrying around Mario Kart? When Murasaki Shikibu penned The Tale of Genji while living in the Heian court, did she really accomplish no more than knitting a neat hat or playing with a yo-yo?
Well-Read Black Girl came to me at the perfect time. I imagine many readers will feel similarly. I was excited to pick it up because 1) I've talked about not liking social media, but Well-Read Black Girl was the highlight of my Twitter feed. As Internet communities turn vicious and disintegrate, Glory Edim has founded an invaluable literary community both on- and offline. 2) This anthology is filled with so many big names. I've never encountered an anthology that contains so many writers I know and love in one place. It spans forms and genres, featuring amazing literary fiction novelists like Tayari Jones and Jesmyn Ward to YA author Dhonielle Clayton to fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin.
It did not disappoint. I don't know how the essay topics were chosen, but some women wrote about how they became readers, how they became authors or playwrights, or what specific books have meant to them over the years. The essays interact with each other, and what emerges is an incredibly compelling celebration of and explanation of the joys and importance of reading. All of it is through a Black, female lens, and the writers have roots from all over the world, from Eritrea to Jamaica to the United States. A notable number of the writers are queer.
In Well-Read Black Girl, reading is considered proactive. Tayari Jones writes, "[T]he glory in literature is that it asks you to do more than just see." She writes poignantly about how Toni Morrison's Tar Baby made her examine her own life, priorities, and romantic partner. Tar Baby wasn’t “just” a story. It was a literal, practical tool. She "felt exposed, judged, but also set back on track."
Repeatedly I was amazed by how these incredible women bridged the gap between life and books. Books are not a game or a hobby. They are how we live. Marita Golden says that Zora Neale Hurston's "canon is a master class in the art of living." Similarly, Barbara Smith writes about the importance of one of my favorite books, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain: "His work does not merely describe and analyze oppression, but relentlessly asks the reader to examine their individual relationship to evil, to cruelty, bigotry, and white supremacy, and whether they are ready to change.”
Whoa. Mario Kart never asked me to do that.
Through the eyes of Well-Read Black Girl's contributors, it becomes obvious that the best readers are active, thoughtful, and engaged. Reading is most meaningful when it is used to shape better lives and better societies.
Reading is a way of looking at the past. Many of the women were heavily affected by growing up during what Lynn Nottage calls "a Renaissance of black women writing," when writers like "Toni Morrison, Rosa Guy, Louise Meriwether, Octavia Butler, and Alice Childress" were being published. This anthology’s writers are well-aware of their foremothers. Reading those books meant different things to each of them, but helped shape who they are and the work they produce.
Within this cycle of engagement, responsibility, and living life deeply, writing becomes pivotal. As Jacqueline Woodson states, "It's difficult to be a reader, and not be a writer." Stephanie Powell Watts says, "My writing is an attempt to join an ongoing human conversation that starts with the questions: Why are we here? What do we want? And what can we contribute?" Throughout the book is a remarkable consensus on how to craft fiction: Remember, remember, remember your past. Woodson also writes, "My biggest responsibility is to recognize I am part of a continuum, that I didn't just appear and start writing stuff down." Reading is a way of resisting an erasure of the past; it is a tool to deal with the complexity of the past, as well as to conquer the trauma of inheriting a painful legacy. Writing is a tool to work through the present and help shape the future.
Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, wrote an essay called "Legacy," in which she says of writing: "Our work is making sure that our stories are told and told true. Our work is making sure our artistry is cultivated and expressed, shared and appreciated. Our work is honoring our genius when no one else does. Our work is refusing to surrender, refusing to be silenced, refusing to be rendered simplistically." She later writes, "I honor this mission and try my best to live up to the standard set by my foremothers. I hope my readers see themselves in my writing and feel less alone. I hope each of my books creates a point of connection for people who may not have found one another otherwise. I hope my work is catalytic and inspires readers to reflect deeply on their experiences, and in turn, live with greater self-awareness and courage."
She spells it out for us: “[T]he job of a Black woman writer is the same as the work of a well-read Black girl. ... We are to live and tell the story.”
N.K. Jemisin is one of my favorite fantasy writers of all time, and I was a little warmed to see that she struggled with some parallel things that I am struggling with. She wrote about feeling ashamed of writing fantasy and science fiction, and wondering what J.R.R. Tolkien and his British mythos had to do with her. She asked herself, “Is writing epic fantasy not somehow a betrayal?” But she says: “Epic fantasy is not merely what Tolkien made it. The genre is rooted in the Epic," and there are plenty of epics with people who look like her. She concludes, “[H]ow dare I disrespect that history, profane all my ancestors' suffering and struggles, by giving up the freedom to imagine that they've won for me.” Oh, yes.
In short, this anthology was amazing. It was incredible to be in the company of so many great thinkers who take reading and writing seriously. It is also, of course, loaded with book recommendations. Obviously there is the work of the contributors’, but they all mention plenty of titles as well. Kaitlyn Greenidge makes a literal rec list for different moods, including, “A Book to Read When You Wish You Could Pack It All In and Just Be Missy Elliott.” That book is Bling by Erika Kennedy, and it's at the top of my to-read list.