After a move to New York City, Glory Edim decided to start a book club for black women like herself who lived by and for the words of black female writers. In a recent interview, Edim explained that she hadn’t intended for the reading group of seven or eight friends to expand into the digital platform Well-Read Black Girl. But Edim’s effort and intention transformed her search for a social circle in a new city into a beautifully curated online presence, which launched a festival that will take place for the second time this fall.
Edim’s curatorial work now extends even further, to an anthology of personal essays titled “Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves,” inspired by Toni Cade Bambara’s 1970 collection “The Black Woman.” The essays, which avoid oversimplifying the experiences of black girls and women, aim to answer the question: “When did you first see yourself in literature?” Edim’s clear love and respect for black women and their stories make it possible for this book to sidestep the danger of convening based on blackness and woman-ness alone, as she appears to have thought carefully about what the 21 contributors, including authors N.K. Jemisin, Jacqueline Woodson and Renée Watson, bring to a textual conversation with each other.
Each essay can be read as a dispatch from the vast and wonderfully complex location that is black girlhood and womanhood, an exercise in the writers “showing their work.” These women provide detailed and fascinating insights into their early lives as readers and go beyond the typical list of inspiring figures and “a-ha” moments that post-panel Q&As demand. They present literary encounters that may at times seem private and ordinary — hours spent in the children’s section of a public library or in a college classroom — but are no less monumental in their impact than the incredible privilege of growing up in the presence of influential black female writers and artists. In “Putting Women Center Stage,” playwright Lynn Nottage writes about what it meant to have Paule Marshall, author of “Brown Girl, Brownstones,” among several other works, as her godmother. Nottage recalls her awareness of Marshall’s career as a writer, admiring this “beautiful, eloquent woman,” and resolved to be just like her one day.
Beyond these earnest encounters that led the writers to their respective journeys, another prominent thread in the book is the intense dissonance of black girls growing into an understanding of racism, misogyny, heterosexism and classism, in addition to other forms of structural violence. The essayists reckon with their younger selves’ pain and confusion while consuming media that actively erased or misrepresented them. Feminist activist and scholar Barbara Smith opens “Go Tell It” by writing, “The first thing to understand is the fifties. What it was like to be a Black girl (in truth a ‘Negro’ girl) in the 1950s. A Black girl who loved to read.” Smith’s literary and lived worlds were characterized by the consistent onslaught of a “blizzard of white,” until her aunt lent her a copy of James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” In Baldwin’s words, Smith found characters who were fortifying rather than antagonistic to her sense of self. Her own writing was buoyed by Baldwin’s unrelenting and rigorous interrogation of power and humanity, and allowed her to see what was possible as a queer black woman who also wanted to write.
Author Nicole Dennis-Benn’s upbringing in Jamaica paralleled Smith’s in the sense that Dennis-Benn had to refuse the narrow imagination her Eurocentric education attempted to impose on her. Between her grandmother’s encouragement and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Dennis-Benn learned that blackness was expansive, and that she could chart this expansiveness in her own writing. For two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, no book was able to comfort her completely until she could write her own.
“Well-Read Black Girl” demystifies the reading and writing practices of the various authors through the clarity and candor of their prose. Most important, many of the essayists demonstrate the significance of approaching the works of other black female writers with care, doing what Pulitzer Prize winner Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah described in a 2018 interview as creating “altars in society for black female genius,” while acknowledging that this process is rarely seamless. Tayari Jones describes how the novel “Tar Baby” challenged her perception of what it meant to be a grown black woman in love, while Dhonielle Clayton found through reading a need to see queer black girls experiencing healthy love and desire.
This anthology does more than “bring Black women writers – and readers – to the forefront,” or write black women into “spaces that neglect or ignore us,” as Edim writes in her introduction. Rather, these essays build the altars for black women to recognize and support each other’s work, not as collectibles rendered visible or easily consumed by non-black audiences, but as an acknowledgment of black women as architects of their own futures and universes.
Zoë Gadegbeku is a Ghanaian writer living in Boston.
Edited by Glory Edim
Ballantine. 272 pp. $20.