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.
Because of these voices, I had envisioned myself dressed in something long and old, white and cotton, sitting mornings on the rocks that dot the edge of the beach on the eastern shore of St. Simons, reading from the wisdom of the Delany sisters in Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (Kodansha, 1993), the best-selling memoir of the two extraordinary women in their second century of life.
The only part of my fantasy that I will insist on carrying out is my annual reading of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (University of Illinois Press, 1991). I don't have a pear tree, so I'll stretch out under my brother Walter's memorial plum tree, open to the first page, and feel the spirits smile on me.
Tina McElroy Ansa is the author of Ugly Ways (Harcourt Brace, 1993) and Baby of the Family (Harcourt Brace, 1991).
I find myself looking for the work of my sister writers to challenge and sustain me. I recently discovered three books that I continue to recommend and, when the person I am recommending to has a budget that can't absorb another hardback book right away, I present them as gifts.
The first of this trio is Octavia Butler's new novel, Parable of the Sower (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993). This amazing novel, set in Los Angeles in 2025, not only presents in its 18-year-old main character the most resourceful young African-American hero I have ever seen in print, but looks with an unblinking eye at a future that will demand her kind of resourcefulness from us all if we are to survive it. The book is terrifying, hopeful, spiritual and completely grounded all at the same time. Parable of the Sower is an exhilarating introduction to a magnificent body of work that re mains underappreciated largely because Butler's writing is usually classified as science fiction.
Bebe Moore Campbell's Your Blues Ain't Like Mine (Ballantine, 1993) is about as different from Butler's futuristic universe as it can get. The richly multilayered plot focuses on the connections that form between people across time and race and place as a result of the murder of a young black man accused of making obscene remarks in French to a young white Southern woman. The boy's anguished mother and broken father, the murderer's bewildered wife and evil family, all are drawn with equal care and intensity. It was, in fact, this evenhandedness that so amazed me about this novel and at first made me angry at the author for making me care about these evil white folks who had murdered a young brother so viciously. But by the time Campbell has skillfully woven their stories together and made their humanity undeniable, it is impossible not to understand even if you cannot possibly forgive.
Rounding out my trilogy is Tina McElroy Ansa's Ugly Ways (Harcourt Brace, 1993). The character of Mudear is the most unforgettably self-absorbed African-American mother since the evil matriarch in Chester Himes' The Third Generation (Thunders Mouth, 1989).
Mudear terrorizes her daughters in life and from beyond the grave. Their alternately desperate and desperately funny attempts to come to terms with her and with her continuing impact on their lives move Ansa's second novel swiftly toward a climax that is worthy of Mudear's madness and her daughters' determination survive her.
Pearl Cleage is the author of Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot (Ballantine, 1990), and Flyin' West, an award-winning play that explores the lives of four black woman pioneers in 1898 Nicodemus, Kan.
BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL
Built into the comer of my bedroom is a bookcase crammed full of all kinds of captivating titles. I am always reading something. Last week I finished Ellis Cose's The Rage of a Privileged Class (HarperCollins, 1993), a black journalist's examination of how racism continues to haunt even the most successful African Americans. I also completed Crossings: A White Man's Journey Into Black America (HarperCollins, 1993), by Walt Harrington, a white reporter married to a black woman. Harrington interviewed scores of African Americans of all ages and walks of life in order to discover what part race played in the shaping of their human experience.
I managed to reread some of my favorite short stories from two collections, one by O. Henry and the other by the humorist Ring Lardner. I reread the insightful essays of Pearl Cleage in Deals With the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot (Ballantine, 1993). And every morning I peruse a portion of Susan Taylor's In the Spirit (Amistad, 1993), Iyanla Vanzant's Acts of Faith (Simon and Schuster, 1993) and Black Pearls: Daily Meditations, Affirmations, and Inspirations for African-Americans (William Morrow, 1995), by Eric Copage. Food for the spirit, all.
Still, there remain so many books on my shelves that I've never touched. The problem isn't that I'm not reading, but that I'm always adding to my collection. Call them my "Nola Darling" books; I just gotta have, them.
But this summer I will finally tackle the thick paperback collection of the works of Nadine Gordimer, the liberal white South African novelist and African National Congress supporter and winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Ayi Kwei Armah is another genius from the motherland, and I will read his novel, Two Thousand Seasons (Nairobi East African Publishing House, 1973), about the struggles of people living in a postcolonial African nation; I'll read another selection from The Complete Stories (Schocken, 1988), by Franz Kafka, so that I can drop the word "Kafkaesque" with assurance.
Coming back home, Way Past Cool (HarperCollins, 1993), by Jess Mowry, a novel that explores black gangs in Oakland, Calif., is also on my list. And, finally, I will reread The Street (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), by that very grande dame of letters Ann Petry. Every time I immerse myself in that story, I'm caught up in this seamless tale of one sister's struggle to make it in an unfair world.
And, of course, I'll buy some more books. Essence editor Valerie Wilson Wesley's, When Death Comes Stealing (Putnam, July 1994), a mystery, is high on my fist. And Washington Post reporter Patrice Gaines' memoir of growing up in the fast lane, Laughing in the Dark (Crown, September 1994), is one I'll grab hot off the press.
Even though I have a lot to read, I'll take my time. I've learned that racing through a book is like rushing through a meal: I miss all the flavor and still consume the calories. This summer every book I read will be savored.
Bebe Moore Campbell won the NAACP's 1993 Image Award for Literature for her novel Your Blues Ain't Like Mine. Her new novel, Brothers and Sisters, will be published this September by Putnam.…