Writers' Retreat: Despite the Proliferation of Black Authors and Titles in Today's Marketplace, Many Look to Literary Journals to Carry on the Torch for the Written Word

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Imagine the African American writer as an endangered species, Impossible, you might say--not with Oprah's smile selling magazines and books by the millions; not with bookstore shelves overflowing with African American titles, from racy "street life" shoot-'em-ups to "tough love" romance novels to "homegirl" empowerment romps and beyond.

But let's say you've done your African American spiritual affirmations for the day and you're bored, for the time being, with romance. You're looking for something different, deeper--maybe a travelogue by a young Black scholar on her first visit to Cuba or a photo essay about the craze for bellbottoms and James Brown in 1960s Bamako, Mali; perhaps a short story with writing that simply sings off the page or an experimental poem on the deeper cultural significance of the film "Carmen Jones."

You won't find that kind of writing in the latest issue of The Nation or The New Yorker. Mainstream magazines offer only a handful of African American subjects and voices, and even Black-interest publications like Ebony and Savoy have no discernible commitment to literature.

But these were precisely the topics on the bill of fare in recent issues of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts & Letters, the African American Review, Obsidian III and Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire. Indeed, in these Black literary journals, one can find an incredible range of Black voices from across the Diaspora--from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America and even Europe--exploring the lives, experiences, traditions and literatures of people of African descent.

The African American Reviews: for example, just devoted a double issue to Amiri Baraka, that firebrand of the Beat and Black arts movements who was named--then quickly removed--as poet laureate of New Jersey after writing a controversial poem on the events of Sept. 11. Callaloo, meanwhile, has been doing special issues--chock full of interviews, fiction, poetry and photographs--on "Black masculinities," the Black German experience, Cuba and the Afro-Mestizo communities of Mexico.

Obsidian III recently finished a special focus on children's literature, and the upcoming issue features award-winning poet and culture worker Nikky Finney, who is also an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky. Meanwhile, the most recent offering from Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire is a bilingual issue, with articles in French on Afrocentrism and the 19th-century Black nationalist Martin R. Delany, plus an interview with the famed poet Yusef Komunyakaa.

THE ENDANGERED BLACK WRITER

"I love literary journals, I always have," says Marie D. Brown, dubbed the "godmother" of Black books by critic and novelist Nelson George. "In fact, I'm on the board of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, have been for years. And one of the reasons I continue to participate is that I know how important these particular literary outlets are for writers--particularly at this time, because there are fewer and fewer outlets in mainstream publishing for literary writers."

Brown has seen many journals come and go, both in her years at Doubleday, where she started in 1967, and after she founded her successful literary agency, Marie Brown & Associates, in 1984. She says these are perilous times for quality African American writing. And many other observers agree.

For one, serious writing is getting harder to find in this country. While the U.K.-based literary magazine Granta racks up rave reviews and impressive circulation figures here and at home--70,000 this year, according to London's Daily Telegraph--its American counterparts are facing much bleaker times.

Poetry, the most successful of the American literary journals, has a fraction of Granta's circulation: 13,000, according to sources at the journal. But many American journals have circulations that are only a fraction of that figure: 200 to 500, notes Dr. …