Fiction with a Different Face

By Norris, K. Anthony | American Visions, August-September 1993 | Go to article overview

Fiction with a Different Face


Norris, K. Anthony, American Visions


One of the best-kept secrets in Washington, D.C., has nothing to do with national security; it has to do with the African Heritage Literature Society. In this club, the literature of choice is fiction. "Very often the messages [from] plays and literature are more powerful, more capable of striking the emotions and making an impact than information contained in nonfiction," says AHLS co-founder Terence Cooper. "There is power in imagery."

The fictional format of Roots (Doubleday, 1974), by Alex Haley, who was a lifetime member of AHLS, illustrates Cooper's point. Haley's use of dramatic storytelling techniques to convey the saga of his family through slavery made the past a present-day reality and inspired thousands of African Americans to trace their genealogies. Indeed, all cultures have used fiction in one form or another--be it a parable, an epic poem, or a tall tale--to educate or to perpetuate an idea.

Members of AHLS and nonmembers alike are impressed by Cooper's encyclopedic knowledge of a variety of subjects and by the tall tales he frequently relates to reinforce a point. Right about now, he'd probably tell the one about his uncle, who stood up to leave church in the middle of the preacher's sermon:

When the preacher asked, "Where are you going?" Cooper's uncle replied, "To get a haircut." The preacher admonished him: "The next time you need a haircut, you get it before you come to church."

"Well, I didn't need one when I came in here this morning," was his uncle's retort.

Cooper, a native of Baltimore, created AHLS with Stafford Battle, whose family moved to Washington, D.C., from North Carolina "as soon as they could afford the gas money." Cooper graduated from the University of Maryland; Battle, from Brandeis University. The two met while working for a Washington, D.C.-based trade association. Cooper is director of communications and publications and editor of the association's journal. Battle, who joined the association after working for several publications and Time-Life Books, is the assistant editor.

The two lunched regularly and discovered mutual interests. Cooper had seen two of his plays produced, and Battle had written poetry and short stories. They also discovered a common goal: to make works by and about people of African descent available to as many people as possible, to focus on fiction, and to invest their own funds to make it all happen. In December 1990 AHLS began operations.

While its distinctive logo and catchy motto, "Fiction with a different face," are familiar to its 600 members in Africa, Canada and England and throughout the United States, the organization wants to reach a larger audience locally and to continue to expand its membership.

Unlike other book clubs, AHLS does not require members to buy a certain number of books. A $20, one-year membership includes a subscription to AHLS' newsletter, Legend: The African Heritage Literature Review, and one free book; a $50 lifetime membership offers Legend and three free books. Classic and hard-to-find books of all genres, in addition to popular titles, are available at discounts of up to 50 percent. "We want to guarantee up front that you're going to get a good deal," says Cooper. He and Battle are betting on their ability to offer a greater variety of black-oriented books than that found in bookstores.

But the business of AHLS is not all about selling books. The society also offers a writing class to cultivate new voices and holds seminars on writing and publishing, and monthly meetings are held on Saturdays. …

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