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Library Matters

Library Matters is a podcast by Montgomery County Public Libraries exploring the world of books, libraries, technology, and learning.
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Library Matters is a podcast of Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL) in Montgomery County, MD. Each episode we explore the world of books, libraries, technology, and learning. Library Matters is hosted by Julie Dina, Outreach Associate, Lauren Martino, Children's Librarian at our Silver Spring branch, and David Payne, Branch Manager of our Davis branch and Acting Branch Manager of our Potomac branch.  

Jan 31, 2019

Listen to the audio

Lauren Martino:  Welcome to Library Matters.  My name is Lauren Martino; I'm your host today.  Black history month is right around the corner and with us today are two MCPL staff members ready to give you some background on African American fiction as well as some titles to read for black history month and all year round.  With us today is Christian Wilson who is a librarian at the Silver Spring library, hi Christian?

Christian Wilson:  Hello, how are you doing today Lauren?

Lauren Martino:  I'm good.  How are you?

Christian Wilson:  I’m doing well, I’m doing well.

Lauren Martino:  And with us as well as Diane Betsy who is a library associate with Collection Management and has run the African American book club in Rockville for the past 15 years, is that it?

Diane Betsy:  Yes, 15 years, we had our 15th anniversary.

Lauren Martino:  Oh, that's exciting, welcome Diane.

Diane Betsy:  Thank you, I'm so glad to be here.

Lauren Martino:  Let's start with, how do you define African American fiction?  What makes something African American fiction?

Christian Wilson:  I would say African American fiction is fiction written by African descendants of slaves that were brought here from the beginning of colonial times, so 1619 until slavery was abolished in 1865 in the United States of America and its territories.  I would say fiction by any other authors who are African or Afro descended, but are from say the Caribbean or from Africa themselves would not count as African American fiction, because they just don't have the shared experiences that we do as descendants of slaves in the United States.

Lauren Martino:  So something like swing time that takes place in Great Britain primarily is -- would be something that wouldn’t quite qualify?

Christian Wilson:  Unless it’s written by an African American author who was a descendant of slaves in the United States, it probably would not qualify like Adichie’s books; they would not qualify, even though she was reared here, she doesn't have the African American experience of being descended from slaves that were brought here.  She was -- she's from Nigeria, so that's completely different worldview.

Diane Betsy:  Okay, we see things a little different...

Lauren Martino:  Okay, let's discuss this.

Diane Betsy:  In the African American Book Discussion Group of Rockville Memorial Library, that's our official name.  Forgive me.  We started out thinking African American book discussion was basically African American authors; that is people, black people born in the United States who wrote books about black people born in the United States.  Over the years though, we've expanded our definition so that we include -- actually we tell people we read books by and about people of African descent.

Lauren Martino:  Okay.

Diane Betsy:  And therefore we read Zadie Smith, who's an English author, Chimamanda Adichie, we read a lot of Edwidge Danticat from Haiti, we read a lot of authors from the -- what they call the black Diaspora, Diaspora.  So when in our book group and we say African American authors, we really mean people born or people who are descendant from Africans not specifically just the United States of America.

Lauren Martino:  Okay, I guess you can define America pretty broadly too depending, it’s like…?

Diane Betsy:  Yeah, because America as well…

Lauren Martino:  Is Haiti part of the Americans?

Diane Betsy:  The American, yeah the American content, so to say the Americas you would be including the America, so you’d be including Canada, the United States, South America.  In our book group, we just say African American authors and -- but we mean, black people who were – people who were descendants from Africans from all over, we read from all over the world.

Lauren Martino:  So there's a couple of different definitions and I imagine there are books that you just don't want to pass up on, because they are just that good.

Diane Betsy:  Exactly, yeah.

Lauren Martino:  So can anybody comment on like the history of African American fiction, kind of where does it have its roots, where did it begin?

Diane Betsy:  I have a little problem with that question, because if you're saying African American fiction, if you do research on that question, do you know what you get?  Slave narratives; which is not fiction.

Christian Wilson:  It’s not fiction at all.

Lauren Martino:  No.

Diane Betsy:  So, but everything that you read if you go to Google, if you go to Wikipedia, they all say slave narratives, I'm going, “Wait a minute, that's not fiction.” But I guess some people consider that fiction, but to me fiction would be Uncle Tom's cabin, which was 1852 that would be African American fiction, I would think.

Christian Wilson:  Yeah, I would also go back to like even Phillis Wheatley, her poems, she was writing in the 1700s.  She was kidnapped from what is now modern day Senegal, you know she was writing very well back in those times and so I was -- considered her to be one of the progenitors of African American fiction definitely.

Diane Betsy:  Fiction, exactly.

Christian Wilson:  I would say that there are so many writers and if you just have to take the time and look that wrote other things besides slave narratives during the time of colonialization and slavery and then reconstruction 17/1800s passing to that time even – as you said before Uncle Tom's cabin, that's really the start.  It didn't just start in the 1960s where everyone was writing for The Civil Rights Movement, it's been here since…

Diane Betsy:  It started with Harriet Beecher Stowe, who by the way was not an African American.

Christian Wilson:  yeah, decided to write African American fiction, so it's been here for a while, it's been here for -- since the first slaves were brought here, African American fiction has been here, I will say that.

Diane Betsy:  Well yeah, if you want to count the narratives, oh well there's been fiction that we didn't know about is what you're saying.

Christian Wilson:  Right.

Diane Betsy:  They weren’t published, we didn't know about them, but maybe there were some fiction.  But in terms of fiction we know about, I'm thinking Harriet Beecher Stowe, because her book was published in 1852, I can't think of anything that was published before that about African Americans or slaves.  That was fiction.

Christian Wilson:  Yeah.

Diane Betsy:  So then we get to fiction when we hit the Harlem Renaissance.

Christian Wilson:  Absolutely.

Diane Betsy:  That started from the 20s and it went all the way to the 40s.  Now you have actual fiction, you've got -- the first one I could find was a Nella Larsen.

Christian Wilson:  ‘Passing.’

Diane Betsy:  She wrote ‘Passing’ in 1929 and she got it published in 1928, she wrote Quicksand and then you had, of course Zora Neale Hurston, she's still being taught in universities in the United States.  Her very first novel was that ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ that was published in 1937.  And then I think I had Richard Wright in 1944 ‘Native Son.’ Those were works of fiction and they became very popular in the Harlem Renaissance 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, to me that's where African American fiction began.

Christian Wilson:  And it took off at that point and just went like a rocket ship from the Harlem Renaissance and other cities where there were renaissances as well.  It just really just start -- it was always there, but it just really just defined itself as the sort of like the gatekeeper, the fictional gatekeeper to the entity which is African Americans at that point.

Diane Betsy:  Yeah.  And I think what made that happen, that explosion in a sense if you will, is the fact that white Americans knew about it.  These works of fiction that was being written about in newspapers and magazines that white Americans read.  So for example, you had in the 50s, you know we had ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ this huge play by Lorraine Hansberry that was on Broadway, there's no way that got to Broadway just because of black people, I mean white people had to back that show, they had to agree to a put that show on.  It was a tremendous hit and you had Ralph Ellison doing the ‘Invisible Man’ in 1952 that is still a classic.  I think you were asking us about classics at some point.  ‘Go Tell It on The Mountain’ by James Baldwin, 1953.  Those were crossover books, those were books that the white publishers and booksellers were aware of and they were moving them and because of that, more African Americans learned about them.  See, there were books possibly before, but the average African American working every day never heard of them.

Christian Wilson:  I’m kind of curious as to the role of librarians and all of this.  But I don’t suppose – I didn’t ask you that ahead of time, so I won't.

Diane Betsy:  Well no we need to talk about a little bit, but it’s a little bit touchy, it's a little bit touchy.

Lauren Martino:  Do you know?  Oh really, why?

Christian Wilson:  Well they weren't really allowed to promote African American books, because the libraries themselves were segregated.  So African Americans could not go into the library and borrow books, even though they were paying for the library services with our tax dollars.

Diane Betsy:  Exactly.

Christian Wilson:  If they wanted to borrow books, they would have to do it through their churches or backdoor…

Diane Betsy:  Or through a backdoor somehow, they were not allowed to go into the library building.  So I think I could have this date wrong, but I think as recently as 1960…

Christian Wilson:  It sounds about right.

Lauren Martino:  There were two or three black men who were actually arrested for walking into a library in Virginia.

Lauren Martino:  Wow!

Diane Betsy:  And taken out, because up to that point, it was still against the law for black people to enter a library.  So black people weren't learning very much in libraries, because they weren't allowed in.  Remember originally during slavery, it was against the law to teach a black slave to read.  So that grew into black people were not allowed into the library.  And that was true up until, I would say the 60s probably; it was a cut off.

Christian Wilson: Mid 60s, yeah.

Diane Betsy:  And we're talking now across the country that may not have been true in New York City, let's say or Washington DC possibly, but across the country it was…

Christian Wilson:  Especially in the Deep South.

Diane Betsy:  Deep South for real.

Lauren Martino:  Wow! Now that I'm thinking about it, there's this picture book about this African American astronaut as a boy, like walking into a library and like I think maybe he got like special permission, like maybe the librarian like passed him a book.  I have to look that up and maybe put it in the show notes, yeah.

Diane Betsy:  I remember that story, there were many -- actually there was a children's book, wasn't it?

Lauren Martino:  Yeah, it was like a picture book.

Diane Betsy:  Yeah, a children's picture book right.  There are a couple of books that document the difficulty that black children had getting into a library that went away eventually, but black people would not have been learning about black writers in a library.  It would have been a newspaper or a neighbor, somebody they worked for said, “Oh, have you heard about this book?” Church perhaps. Not the library.

Christian Wilson:  Yeah, church definitely is one of the big focal points of the African American community.  So they definitely would have been learning about it through church.  But the caveat, anything that would have been suggestive would not have been in the church's library, my parents’ old church in Philadelphia where I'm from, they have their own church library, but not every church could afford to have a personal library full of the box and what's going to go in there was only things that they're going to say that are appropriate for the church parishioners.  So you may not get blues for Mister Charlie, which is one of my favorite James Baldwin books in the church.  You may not get ‘Their Eyes Are Watching God’ you may not get A Native Son, because they made -- have determined that those books are not appropriate for the church parishioners.

Diane Betsy:  Yeah and depending on year you're talking about they may not have heard of their eyes were watching God.  Remember Alice Walker gave the world Zora Neale Hurston.  She was doing research and she discovered this black writer named Zora Neale Hurston and she gave the world ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ prior to Alice Walker no one I knew, no school teachers, no publishers had ever heard of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’ When did Alice Walker come along?  In the 60s, so we didn't even know about Zora Neale Hurston in the 50s and the 40s, the average black person I'm saying.

Lauren Martino:  So she had been -- she had published her work by then, but just nobody – it wasn’t on anybody’s radar?

Diane Betsy:  She had fallen into obscurity; she did not get along with the powers that be in the Harlem Renaissance.  I'm going to just slide right over all that.  And she sort of left the north in disgrace, a lawsuit and all that was really ugly.  And so she died virtually in poverty.  She was on the welfare when she died cleaning people's homes.  And Alice Walker was going to -- I think it was either Brown or -- the name, the expensive big colleges for women in the north?

Lauren Martino:  Radcliffe?

Christian Wilson:  Smith’s or–?

Diane Betsy:  She was born in Smith -- Smith or Vassar one of those two colleges she was going to.  And she was doing research…

Christian Wilson:  I think it was Vassar.

Diane Betsy:  And needed information on Voodoo.  And as she was searching the library, she found a couple of books written by this woman named Zora Neale Hurston and turned out to be a black woman she's never heard of her.  And she did a lot more research, a lot more research and discovered this writer and did her doctoral thesis on Zora Neale Hurston.  And that's how the world learned about Zora Neale Hurston all over again.

Lauren Martino:  So she’s kind of this literary tradition like with slave narratives and poetry that I guess you didn't really -- I'm sure people, black people weren't encouraged to write fiction, do something as frivolous as that back then way, way back in the beginning, but…

Christian Wilson:  Yeah.

Diane Betsy:  Well you talk about a time in American history; I think when the average person wasn't necessarily graduating from high school.  So white people clearly -- black people clearly were not graduating from high school and they were lucky if they were getting out of the third grade before they had to go to work.  So I'm talking about the average person now, I'm not talking – there was a black middle class across the country, very small but yeah, they had their advantages, they were going to college.

Lauren Martino:  So talk a little bit about the origins of African American fiction, can you tell us a little about why African American fiction is important Christian?

Christian Wilson:  It gives -- African American fiction gives African Americans a voice and literary and Cultural Community of the United States.  That's why it's important.  It's important for people who are represented here in the United States via population, via entertainment to be able to tell their own stories.  I find as a children's librarian, it's very frustrating sometimes because we do have African American fiction in the children's department, but they're not written -- the books are not written by African American authors, they're written by white authors.

Lauren Martino:  Not all the time?

Christian Wilson:  Not all the time, but it's important for African Americans to be able to tell our own stories within the literary scheme, because a lot of the stereotypes are that black people don't read or black children don't read.  It's important to say, “Okay, look yes they do read, not only are they reading Harry Potter, but they're reading P.S.  Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia.  You know it's important to have our own voices out there to show that yes, we do contribute to the cultural life and of the United States beyond rap music or R&B music or you know entertainment comedy, but we do like there are -- we are multifaceted.  That's why I believe African American literature fiction urban fiction is so important.

Diane Betsy:  Yeah, I agree with you.  I think that African American fiction is important.  First of all for the same reason that fiction is important period, all fiction makes it clear to us the reader that we are not alone.  I learned that from Diane Rehm.

Christian Wilson:  It’s true.

Diane Betsy:  That so close to my heart when she said that, because that's really true.  She had another famous one, why do we have book clubs?  Because it's the only place where we can discuss life.  I think that's true for my book club.  We get together, read the books and we discuss life.  I think that some of the other points though that Christian was making is important, the members of my book club really read the black fiction for the history.  We learned so much of our own history by reading fiction, not just historical fiction, but regular fiction informs us about the black experience in different parts of the country and tells us a lot about our history.  Now, my book group tends to be 45 and up in terms of age.  So when we were in school, in public school, I was in public school in New York City.  There weren't a lot of books for us to read that were written by African Americans.  So we tended to read Dickens and -- you know the story said everybody else in class read.  The children who are going through school today, the black children have a wealth of black authors that they can read.  They get more of the black experience at a younger age, but the people in my book group are hungry for stories about themselves, their mothers, their grandmothers, what things were like, where do we get that?  We're getting that from the fiction, because it wasn't taught to us in school or the movies didn't give us that.  Historical fiction is very, very popular in my book group.  So for example, we loved and adored ‘The Good Lord Bird’ that was about John Brown's hanging at Harpers Ferry as…

Lauren Martino:  Harpers Ferry, yeah.

Diane Betsy:  Harpers Ferry.  Okay, there's another book out on that same subject that talks about the five black people who were hung with John Brown.

Lauren Martino:  You know by name?

Diane Betsy:  Right, there's a book about it, right?

Lauren Martino:  Yeah.

Diane Betsy:  Well there's history that we're getting, this is a work of fiction.  The Good Lord Bird was a work of fiction.  ‘Darktown’ by Thomas Mullen, we read a couple of years back that was about the first eight black police officers hired in Atlanta and the fact that they were not allowed to carry guns, they would not allow to ride the car.  And if they arrested someone, they had to call the white police officers to come and the rest them, this is a work of fiction, but it was heard so much about what it was like for the first black police officers.  ‘Douglass' women’, has anybody read that one?

Lauren Martino:  No.

Christian Wilson:  That’s why it’s on my to-read-list.

Diane Betsy:  Jewell Parker Rhodes, fascinating book…

Lauren Martino:  She wrote adult book?

Diane Betsy:  Pardon?

Lauren Martino:  She wrote adult too?

Diane Betsy:  You didn't know?

 

Diane Betsy:  She started out writing adult book, her first book I think was called Voodoo about a madam Marie…

Lauren Martino:  Yeah, Madam Marie Laveau.

 Diane Betsy:  Marie Laveau, I mean you should read that one, but she wrote a book called Douglass' women, it was about Frederick Douglass and the fact that he was married to a black woman named Anna, who he referred to as a black log.

Lauren Martino:  A black, what?

Diane Betsy:  Log.

Christian Wilson:  Like Log.

Diane Betsy:  Like a tree.

Lauren Martino:  Tree stump.

Diane Betsy:  Right.  His daughter wanted to marry someone and he said, “No, you can't marry that person and he's not educated.” And she said, “But dad, we're in love.” And he said, “Do you want to spend your life tied to a black log like me?”

Lauren Martino:  Oh Gosh.

Diane Betsy:  That was a work of fiction, but the information for the book came from the diary of his daughter which is in archives.  He had an ongoing affair with his assistant who was a German woman named Ottilie.  And in the summer time when he wasn't traveling and she wasn't handling his speeches, Ottilie would go home with him and Ottilie stayed in the room at the top of the house and the wife and the children were downstairs and the daughter's diary talks about trips that dad made upstairs in the middle of the night.

Lauren Martino:  Oh gosh.

Diane Betsy:  How would we ever have known that, all right?  Somewhere in history someone asked Anna Douglas why?  Oh, she refused to read.  That was why Frederick Douglass was angry with her.  Why did she refuse to read?  And her answer was, when I look at the things that people who know how to read have done, I don't ever want to learn how to read.

Lauren Martino:  It's a little heartbreaking.

Diane Betsy:  Anyway, I learned that through historical fiction, it's called Douglass women, Jewell Parker Rhodes that's one of the things that people in my book group get out of these books, we are learning our history.

Lauren Martino:  Yeah.  So these are books that are -- they're fiction, but they are well researched…?

Diane Betsy:  Historical fiction very well researched.

Lauren Martino:  Based on…

Christian Wilson:  Colson Whitehead's, ‘The Underground Railroad’ that's another good one.

Diane Betsy:  That’s another good one, right?  That was just recently, did he get the National Book Award?

Christian Wilson:  I think he got like…

Diane Betsy:  Pulitzer, no he got the Pulitzer for ‘The Underground Railroad’

Lauren Martino:  About two years ago, I think.

Diane Betsy:  Yeah.

Lauren Martino:  Now that's the magical realism and that is such that I just love to have someone sit down with me and say, okay, this happened, this happened, this happened and this happened.

Christian Wilson:  Did you get a chance to read it?

Lauren Martino:  I did read that one.

Diane Betsy:  Was that fun?

Lauren Martino:  It was a little bit -- I kind of felt, what's the right word?  A little dizzy.

Christian Wilson:  There was a long…

Lauren Martino:  It was a long crazy trip.

Christian Wilson:  There was a lot going on. 

Lauren Martino:  There was a lot going on, yeah.

Christian Wilson:  But there was a lot of history in that book.  So that's a good one Underground Railroad is another good historical fiction.  Now you know there really wasn't an Underground Railroad, I mean there wasn’t…

Lauren Martino:  I know I got that much.

Christian Wilson:  He created the train.

Lauren Martino:  It's really fun to imagine, like that imaging like…

 

Lauren Martino:  It's like first of all you know there's no conductor and then there's like no track, it just kind of gets like harder and harder.

Christian Wilson:  But I keep saying to myself, but it could have been true when you think of all the underground tracks that were made for coal mines.  People could have connected car, I mean I kept saying, but it could have been true, because in my end its fiction, okay it's fiction, but it's historical fiction.

Lauren Martino:  Yes.

Diane Betsy:  Yeah and it's bringing to light things that you'd never would you know pick up the journal to read.

Christian Wilson:  Exactly.

Lauren Martino:  So we talked a little bit about Harriet Beecher Stowe.  I'm kind of curious whether you all will agree on this or whether there's going to be some controversy.  Do you have to be African American to write African American fiction?

Christian Wilson:  Okay, so I'll answer this one.  I think that if you have an affinity to African American descendants of slaves in the United States, as I said before, I think I opened it by saying, you know this is what I believe African American fiction is.  It's the stories of African American descendants of slaves.  I don't think that you have to be African American, but I think you need to understand and know our shared experience.  I think if you're coming in from say Japan and you just want to write a story about the black struggle, like you need to really like live it and be in it, in order to write it.  I think just writing like superficially is not going to really do anything about the black experience.  Like bring it to life or you know give it a voice, because it's not authentic.  It just feels like you know the soul singers of the 80s like you know Teena Marie and George Michael, like they sung soul music, but they intergraded themselves into the black music scene.  So like their sound songs were authentic, I mean I still know people who didn't believe that Teena Marie was Caucasian.  I mean to this day people…

Diane Betsy:  A lot of people still think that Teena Marie is black, she's just a light skinned black person.

Christian Wilson:  Like Ezra Jack Keats?

Diane Betsy:  Yeah.

Christian Wilson:  Yeah.

Lauren Martino:  Like I’m looking for an African American author, can I get a book by Ezra Jack Keats…

Christian Wilson:  And you are like sorry, he is Caucasian.  So yes, it's possible and it has happened in the past and when we get to urban fiction, I'll discuss more about how people who are not African American are writing urban fiction.

Diane Betsy:  I think that as Ezra Keats is an example of what you're saying, he could write a story about a little black toddler in the snow, because there isn't -- I mean a little black toddler in the snow is like a little white toddler in the snow or a little Asian toppling the snow.  There really isn't any difference there, but when you get into adulthood now you've got serious differences.  So, but I think that you're right, if you are serious about your subject and you know your subject, you can be Caucasian and you can write good books about African Americans or people of African descent.  I have examples here, ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, Sue Monk Kid was not an African American; did you know that?  A lot of people -- then movie came out with Queen Latifah; a lot of people were shocked to find out that Sue Monk Kid was not a black woman.  Another one would be, Henrietta Lacks, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, remember that?  The author…

Lauren Martino:  It was nonfiction, but yeah…

Diane Betsy:  That was nonfiction, but the author was Rebecca Skloot who was not an African American, but she lived with that family like it was her own.  And she could write that story.  How about this one was in the movies, the book was great though.  The Help by Kathryn Stockett…

Christian Wilson:  I was just about to say that.

Diane Betsy:  Okay, ‘The Help’ was not written by an African American woman.  And that was one – that the first five minutes of that movie had everybody -- we went as a book club to see and we sat there passing tissues, I mean we were crying the first five minutes.  Do you know -- I forgot the actress that played that part.  But in the first five minutes, someone off camera says, “Tell me about your life as a housekeeper.” And before she can speak, she gets emotional and everybody in the theater was crying, it's just incredible.  But anyway, the author of The Help was a white woman named Kathryn Stockett.  And then we have Uncle Tom's Cabin, we talked about that.  And my favorite, this is going to surprise you, Mark Twain.

Christian Wilson:  You know I have mixed feelings about him, because he used the N-word so much in his literature, but he was writing about African American character.

Diane Betsy:  Have you read Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson?

Christian Wilson:  I've read parts of it.

Diane Betsy:  You should read the whole thing.

Christian Wilson:  I need to read the whole thing.

Diane Betsy:  It is his first and only book actually about an African American family, a slave woman who was pregnant and her mistress was pregnant and her master had gone off to war.  They had babies on the same day, but the mistress died and the slave woman switched the children and made a scar on the white babies hip and a scar on her own hip so she could prove he was hers, but he wasn't.  So it's a detective story in the sense that eventually, Pudd'nhead Wilson who's an attorney who can't get a job, who has this little game he plays with a new scientific concept called Fingerprinting, eventually it goes to court and they figure out who belongs to who?  And so people have said that this book was a very good research and is it your life experiences that determines who you are or your genetics?  Because we see what happens to this white child who was raised as a slave son.  So, I think that is a fascinating book.  My Book Club read and they adored -- they hated it, I mean they were like, I'm not reading Mark Twain, but I got them to read that book and they were like, “Oh my God, they just…” we were overwhelmed.  So yes, yes to your question, you do not have to be African American to write a good book about African Americans.

Lauren Martino:  I guess it really takes all of it.  You need the people that have lived these experiences, whose parents have lived these experiences and also the people that are maybe the very interested outsider.  There's got to be a tall order to immerse yourself into it in order to do a really job.

Diane Betsy:  Well Mark Twain spent a lot of time on Mississippi river boats.

Lauren Martino:  He did?

Diane Betsy:  It would have been really, really hard for him to miss African American's on those river boats.  They played the music and they were the –

Christian Wilson:  Yeah, cooked the food.

Diane Betsy:  They cooked food…

Lauren Martino:  And watch the children, yeah.

Christian Wilson:  But you have to look at it from a certain perspective, you can't look at it like you know your typical person availing themselves of these services, you've got to…

Diane Betsy:  You have to be sensitive to what you're seeing happening around you, yes you do.  Yes, but you can, you can get away with that very easily.

Lauren Martino:  So we've talked about a lot of good books so far.  If you could take any one book that's part of African American fiction and make everyone in the United States read it, what would it be?

Christian Wilson:  I will start with ‘Waiting to Exhale’ by Terry McMillan.  This is why I want to say it, because it doesn't deal with what people stereotypically think African American women should be.  It's not about welfare queens, it’s not about drama -- I mean it does have drama, I will say that.

Lauren Martino:  It's a book?

Christian Wilson:  It’s a book it always has drama, but it's depicts for -- middle to upper middle class African American women living in a different part of this country than you would expect.  They're living in Phoenix, Arizona in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.  And how they navigate their lives as middle aged women just to show that you know we're more alike than we are different as Americans, you know?  We’re more alike than we are different as women; we're more alike than different as we are people, we go through the same exact things, you know?  Heartache, divorce, adultery, drug use, you know, all these things happen and it's not class based, it's not race based, it's just this is just human things that happen.  Now, I will say this, if you haven't read the book, there is something in there that does happen that's like you know whoa, I didn't expect that to happen.  But you know, the way that Terry McMillan writes books -- she has a nice way of closing things up and in a very satisfactory ending, she doesn't leave cliffhangers.  So if you're looking for a book that leaves a lot of cliffhangers or you know a lot of disappointment, that's not what you're going to find.  But if you're looking for a good story told by a great storyteller, I would suggest ‘Waiting To Exhale’ and also the sequel ‘Getting to Happy’ because there are things that happen in ‘Waiting To Exhale’ that do get resolved in ‘Getting To Happy’, but both of those together, you know those are great books and they are great options for anyone.

Lauren Martino:  I’m a sucker for a good ending.

Christian Wilson:  Yeah.

Lauren Martino: ...to make this one up, Diane what do you have?

Diane Betsy:  Well, my choice would be ‘Cane River’ by Lolita Tademy, because ‘Cane River’, is another – my favorite historical fiction novel.  This is the story, the real story of an American black family that begins with this slave woman who was sold into Louisiana on the 19th century and we follow her daughter and what happens to her and her daughter and what happens to her all the way up to the present generation.  And the family members that get sold away from each other, the slave girl that a white master fell in love with and killed her husband to make sure that he could have possession of her.  The black family who in the 20s inherited all this wealth of acres of land left to them by a French grandfather and all of that land was taken legally in court by the white people in that town.  She actually has pictures of the court papers in the book, but because the book is fiction, because she can't -- in the fiction you don't mention certain names and stuff, you find out what happened, but nobody gets sued.  And that's why I've always said if you want to read the truth, read fiction.  If you want to lie, read nonfiction, because they're so busy protecting people in nonfiction.

But in this story ‘Cane River’ you get the history of black slavery in America, what happened to those children?  The children that were able to slip into white America and crossover and no one knew they were black.  The children who stayed behind who eventually were disinherited from thousand -- and the papers are still in that courthouse in that town, but the book ‘Cane River’ gives you the entire story of what happened to that family over six, seven, eight generations.  And it is a fabulous read, she was one of the authors at the book festival on the mall about four or five years back.  It is a fabulous book.  It is one of the best books you'll ever read and it's called ‘Chain River.’

Lauren Martino:  So now we're talking about fiction as kind of a mask that allows you to talk about the history, not just something that brings it to light, but it kind of gives you the safe space in which you can tell what happened?

Diane Betsy:  Exactly.

Christian Wilson:  Absolutely.

Diane Betsy:  Exactly the safe space that you can tell what happened.

Lauren Martino:  That's amazing.  Like my notion of fiction has been exploded.  We've talked about a lot of different kinds of African American fiction; can we talk a little bit about some of the sub genres.  I know some like urban fiction have gotten some mixed kinds of attention.  Can you tell us a little bit about that Christian?

Christian Wilson:  Well, you know there's different sub genres, Christian fiction, urban fiction, well you know the Christian fiction actually has nothing to do with me, it has just been more about the living Christianity…

Lauren Martino:  Not your fiction…

Christian Wilson:  It’s not my fiction, right.  But urban fiction is a special stand out, because it really started out of the genesis of the civil rights movement.  You had a guy named Iceberg Slim and I don't believe that, many of his books are still in print any more that you could probably find them on Amazon and eBay.  He started writing about; you know the tribulations of living in a poor African American neighborhoods that were urban in the 1960s and 1970s.  And so many authors caught onto what he was doing, but it kind of went dormant until the 1990s when it really started picking up again.  You had authors like Omar Tyree, sister Souljah and Nina Foxx and Sapphire starting to write books.  Of course Sapphire is probably the most famous urban fiction writer next to sister Souljah, because she wrote ‘Push’, which is the novel that ultimately became precious…

Diane Betsy:  Precious in the movies, right.

Christian Wilson:  Which was the movie that was inspired by the novel ‘Push’ that had all the big time stars, it had Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, in that movie with -- what's her name?  Mo'Nique, the comedian.

Diane Betsy:  Right Mo'Nique, right.

Christian Wilson:  So it was a way for people who really did not have their voice heard and they were not suspected of being readers or being consumers of literature to be heard.  And it really did document what was going on in these neighborhoods at that point of time in their lives.  And it does – I mean it's very hard to read if you're not used to it, it's very hard to read, because you're just sitting here and you're reading it and you're like, “I can't believe these experiences are happening to people, I can't live.  This is really reality for many people.” And I will say that, you know, 80% of the African American community does not live in poverty, does not experience what's going on, but 20% does.  And so this is a voice for the 20% and this is a voice for the marginalized and this is a voice for the oppressed.

Diane Betsy:  And I think another sub genre would have been the crime novel.

Christian Wilson:  Like the Walter Mosley‘s?

Diane Betsy:  Walter Mosley's the ‘Devil with the Red Dress’ started a series – sorry…

Christian Wilson:  Devil in a Blue Dress.

Diane Betsy:  Devil in a Blue Dress started a series; the reason why I love that book so much though, is that it gives a tremendous history, African American history.  Because if you ever wanted to know how did all those black people get to Compton, how did all those black people windup in California?  Read the ‘Devil in a Blue Dress ‘ and you’ll find out that all those black people moved up from Texas to California during the war to go to work in the plants to make parachutes, etcetera.  That is how all those black people got -- how did I find that out?  I read the ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ by Walter Mosley.  And so there's a lot of history in this particular series on Easy Rawlins as a detective, a lot of African American history.

Christian Wilson:  And then also very briefly, I would also say that it's not only African Americans writing urban fiction, you have a whole now even sub-sub genre of Latino urban fiction, that's out there.  And you know one of the reasons I found this out was because when I was coming out of my undergraduate university, there were people who would just set up book stands.  And these books were not in any library yet and it would just sell urban fiction on the street corner for $5 a book.  They'd self publish, self edit and it would just sell these books.

Diane Betsy:  And that's the way a lot of black poetry got started when Nikki Giovanni in the 60s standing on street corners selling her poems and eventually a publisher approach her.

Christian Wilson:  Exactly.

Diane Betsy:  Alright and now we have this whole field of black poets, but she started it by standing on a street corner in the 60s.

Christian Wilson:  And now you have this whole field of black urban fiction being sold -- not sold, but borrowed in libraries and being circulated in libraries.

Diane Betsy:  Well, Montgomery County Library -- while we're on the subject back in 2010, we would get urban fiction, maybe seven copies, maybe eight.  We move up to 2017/18.  We've got 23 copies of each one every…

Diane Betsy:  Yeah, for every library.

Diane Betsy:  Things have changed in Montgomery County Libraries when it comes to urban fiction.

Lauren Martino:  I'd like to think we've made a little progress in libraries since the 60s and even as far back as 2010.

Diane Betsy:  That's a lot of copies though.

Christian Wilson:  It’s a lot of copies, it’s a lot of copies and I mean it's less than I would like to see, but we're doing better.

Diane Betsy:  For a sub.

Christian Wilson:  For a sub genre.

Diane Betsy:  Sub genre of African American, it's a lot of copies, because we don't get that many copies initially of something done by Coates t or Ta-Nehisi Coates and people like that.

Lauren Martino:  So we've got one more question we like to ask all of our guests on a library matters and that is, what are you reading right now?

Diane Betsy:  Right at the moment, I am reading Washington Black, it is one of the best stories I have ever read.  It’s written by Canadian -- a black woman named Esi Edugyan and its winning all the awards in Canada and in Britain, now I imagine in time it'll win awards in the United States.  But it's about a black slave named George Washington Black, he's a little boy and he gets given to a scientist and the scientist is building contraption no one has ever heard of before, today we call them air balloons.  And so he has a million adventures, sort of like the Secret Life of Pi, but it's that exciting, the things that happen to him, there’s an explosion, his face was scarred, he gets older, he winds up in Alaska.  This is one incredible story; I have not read anything this good in a long time.  She is married; she lives in British Columbia which is…

Lauren Martino:  Who is she, the author?

Diane Betsy:  The author Esi Edugyan.  They live in British Columbia which is right across the Washington state line in Canada.  She is married to a white man who's Canadian, who is on the best seller list.  His name is Steven Price and his bestseller is called By Gaslight, came out in I think 2015; he's also an award winner for poetry.  They take turns taking care of their kids and writing.

 

Diane Betsy:  I think she's the descendant from -- parents from Ghana, but she was born and raised in Canada, fascinating book, ‘Washington Black.’

Lauren Martino:  All right, Christian, what's yours?

Christian Wilson:  Animal Farm by George Orwell.  Oh you know it’s so funny that I picked it up because I was like you know what?  This is one of the only books by him that I have not read.  And so I'm reading it and you know it's very -- not interesting, but it showcases human nature and in through the animals on the farm and you're just learn the pig is superior, because he's telling everyone what to do and no one is questioning him.  And it's just like, you know everyone is equal, but some people are more equal than the others.

Diane Betsy:  So it's the nature of politics in the United States.

Christian Wilson:  Not to get political.

Diane Betsy:   I’m shocked you didn’t have to read that in schools, so I was in school…

Christian Wilson:  Not political, we had a choice between Animal Farm and 1984 and I chose 1984.

Diane Betsy:  See, they give the kids choices these days, when I was in school you didn't have a choice, you were told read this; this and this and one of them was animal farm.

Christian Wilson:  And then also we had to read all the King's Men and so that one you know, but I was like, I need to come back and read this one these days, I do.  And you know, this month was like the month I'm like, okay, this is the book I'm going to read this month.

Diane Betsy:  I am so glad you read that book, I really am.

Lauren Martino:  Well, I'd like to thank you so much, Christian and Diane.  This has been a fascinating discussion.

Diane Betsy:  Thank you.

Lauren Martino:  And I'm really glad you could be guests today.

Christian Wilson:  Thank you so much.

Lauren Martino:  Keep the conversation going by following us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.  Don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on the apple podcast App Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.  Also, please review and rate us on Apple Podcasts.  We'd love to know what you think.  Thank you very much and we will see you next time.

 

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