Our most revered writers' favorite works validate for us the authors' voices and judgments--and their treasures. We ransack their reading lists, confident that we will find some favorites-to-be of our own. We enter new terrain the more confidently for their guidance. This summer, three of our leading African-American writers guide us to a new search. They open the door--but we have to step through on our own.
TINA MCELROY ANSA
Most of last year, I traveled around the country promoting my novel Ugly Ways
(Harcourt Brace, 1993). But as I went from Chicago to Atlanta to Los Angeles and back to Washington, D.C., and Montgomery, Ala,, through the fall and into the winter, I traveled with a warm summer vision that had nothing to do with my words.
I prepared for my summer idyll on my Sea Island home of St. Simons Island by filling a new bookcase with works I had missed while I was writing and did not want to hear any other voices. Now, even in summer, I am once again too deep into the lives of the folks in mythical Mulberry, Ga., and into my third novel to read. So I can only continue to fantasize of where I would have read these special books, if I could.
I wanted to explore David Levering Lewis' Pulitzer Prize-winning biography W.E.B. Du Bois, Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (Henry Holt, 1993). I planned to read it while seated under a 200-year-old live oak tree in Neptune Smalls Park, named for the former landowner, a black man who lived and worked as a slave on this very island.
Life Notes. Personal Writings by Contemporary Women (W.W.
Norton, 1994) and Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers and Daughters (HarperCollins, 1993), both edited by Patricia Bell-Scott, I planned to read while sitting on the swing in my garden in front of my house. Surrounded by rose bushes and tomato plants and marigolds and black-eyed Susans seems the perfect setting for an intimate sharing of women's private thoughts and words from journals and for a collection of women's writing on mothers and daughters.
I was going to sit in that same swing and read These Same Long Bones (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), by Gwendolyn M. Parker, again, with the attention that I didn't have time to give to the novel's beautiful language the first time around. The same for first novel Coffee Will Make You Black (Hyperion, 1994), by April Sinclair. Tell me black folks can't come up with some titles! And speaking of titles, Just As I Am (Doubleday, 1994), E. Lynn Harris' moving and funny sequel to his first novel, Invisible Life (Consortium Press, 1991), also deserves a second read to appreciate the subtleties and nuances the author brings to this contemporary story of an African-American gay man coming to grips with just who he is.
Looking for a cool ocean breeze, I would have taken Xam Cartier's two novels, Be-Bop Re-Bop (Ballantine, 1990) and Muse-Echo Blues (Ballantine, 1992)--both in paperback, just in case an ocean spray dampened the pages--and sat on the pier down in the village. My father swears it's the coolest spot on a very hot island, and an appropriate place for Cartier's cool/hot language. I might even have heard a few riffs from a jukebox floating out of a nearby bar.
If the huge, stinging deerflies in the woods on the north end of the island let me, I would have sat among the ruins of slave cabins near the Hampton River and read (I believe the spirits of our ancestors smile when they see us reading) from my growing collection from the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers: Sylvia Dubois: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1988) and Four Girls at Cottage City (Oxford University Press, 1988), by Emma D. Kelley-Hawkins, and The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins: (Including Hagar's Daughter, Winona, and Of One Blood) (Oxford University Press, 1990), by Pauline E. Hopkins. These women's voices from another century always speak to me of creativity, courage and steadfastness in one's craft. …