It all started as I was putting together titles for the book club brochure. I looked at the list of authors and noted that there was nobody African American among our selections. I had kept the wonderful novel, Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones, on the list for the last year, and it's still one of my go-to titles. But I needed something new. (Editor's note: Someone rightfully asked why Salvage the Bones wasn't on our list. I did read it and featured it for two seasons.)
I'd also been thinking about contemporary African American novels because of the Milwaukee Art Museum's summer exhibit, "30 Americans," their exhibit on African American art of the last forty years, which is going on from now through September 8. There's art of all kinds--paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, video--but all the work touches on race and identity in some way.
My quest to find a suitable replacement for Silver Sparrow began. Chimananda Ngozie Adichie's Americanah was a great choice, with a rec from Jason too, but I really try to stick to trade paperbacks. So that also ruled out The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis and Attica Locke's The Cutting Season.I'm still of a mind that when a book club starts picking hardcovers, the e-readers and library borrowers have trumped the physical book purchasers, and we're using the brochure as a tool to sell printed books.
Stacie recommended Three Strong Women, by Marie NDiaye, the first book by a woman of color to win the Prix Goncourt. While it didn't fit my criteria for the brochure (see below), I did make it our October selection for the in-store lit group. I realized that I had more than one hoop that I was trying to jump through in finding this title. I'll lay it out for you.
a. It seems like publishers are more drawn to African voices, as opposed to African American ones. I’m not just talking about Adichie, but Teju Cole's Open City, or more recently, Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go and Noviolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names. Not that all these books aren't great (I only read Cole, but I saw the reviews for the other two) but not quite what I wanted. And though one of my favorite books of hers was set in the United States, that also ruled out Zadie Smith.
b. I'm not looking for romances or urban fiction. The equivalent books from from white, Latino, or Asian authors would also not work on this list. Book club fiction is as much a genre as anything, and often falls on the literary/commercial divide. The selection can be entertaining, but you do want to still want it to have enough meat to talk it out in discussion. Edward Kelsey Moore's The Supremes at Earl's All You Can Eat is a book with commercial elements, and would have fit perfectly. Alas, it's still only in hardcover.
c. I’m looking for African American authors, not issues. I looked at African American fiction on our wholesaler database, sorted by demand, and was suprised to find so many fiction titles that were book club friendly were written by white people, like The Help, Kitchen House, and The Secret Lives of Bees. All these are fine book club selections, as is the more recent novel that I did read, Jon Odell's The Healing, but they don't fit the slot I'm looking to fill.
d. I don't need you to tell you to read Toni Morrison. And I could be wrong, but I think at this point, even Toni Morrison wants you to read something in addition to Toni Morrison. So even though Home is recently in paperback, it just doesn't work for me—there’s no sense in me finding something for you that you wouldn’t find on your own.
In the past, I've found it helpful to look at other writers’ recommendations. Tayari Jones and Lori Tharps have been helpful. I'm currently fond of Carleen Brice's White Readers Meet Black Authors blog. The blog itself seems to be in hibernation, but the Facebook page is probably the best way to go anyway. I've found all sorts of interesting articles there. I’ve shared this site with my fellow bookseller Mel, who has been reading a number of young adult novels by people of color.
Perhaps all of you can recommend to me many wonderful African American novels that came out in the last year in paperback, but there still appears to be a problem. I came across Martha Southgate's essay "Writers Like Me" in The New York Times and I still think it rings true. And while we're on the subject, where is Z.Z. Packer's novel or second collection of stories or something?
It's not that there aren't talented African American editors out there. Dawn Davis, who recently moved to Atria from Harper's Amistad imprint, joins Malaika Adero, already there. And there is Chris Jackson at Random House. And then there is Agate Publishing, a general interest press that nonetheless has a strong interest in African American fiction. They've got a new book out called Long Division, by Kiese Laymon, that sounds very interesting. Here's an interview with the author.
Needless to say, at this point I realized I was going to break with reading for our upcoming event schedule and find a book that fit my qualifications. I wound up finding it on my own bookself at home. After reading Southgate's column, I recalled that I bought her last novel, The Taste of Salt, when it came out. There it was on my shelf, a beautiful cover, with the sticker still on the back from Elliot Bay. Yes, a busman's holiday purchase, to support one of my fellow booksellers. I don't know if she's still doing this, but I seem to remember Southgate was working at a bookstore in Brooklyn for a few years.
Yes, it's from 2011, but it's in paperback, it's good (I sat down and read it for the last few days), and I do love that cover. But I'm not going to talk about it right now. This blog entry has gone on long enough. I will say, however, that based on the great things out in harcover right now, we'll have several great books from African Americans on our 2014 book club brochure when they are released in paperback.