At a reading at Birchbark Books a few years ago, Carolyn Holbrook was taken aback by the comment of a woman in the audience. The woman was white, and Holbrook and the other writers who were reading are black.
The white woman said, "Oh, my gosh, I'm just shocked that you're all so different," Holbrook recalled. "And that sort of stuck in my craw."
From that evening came the seed of an idea that has bloomed into "More Than a Single Story," a series of discussions with black women writers from all over — Kenya, Haiti, Somalia, Nigeria, the American South, and elsewhere — who have settled in Minnesota. The discussions, moderated by Holbrook, will be held at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
In July, Holbrook invited more than a dozen such writers to her St. Paul home for a potluck dinner. Over glasses of Soul Sister pinot noir, salmon salad and coconut cake, they discussed issues surrounding writing and identity. The conversation was enthusiastic and wide-ranging.
"What is the canon for black women? Do we have a canon? Who should we be reading, and why?" Holbrook recalled. "Identity — how do we each identify, and why? Does the woman from Nigeria who went to Carleton College identify as a Nigerian writer, or as an African-American writer?
"What was supposed to be like an hour and a half dinner turned into four and a half hours. None of us was looking at the clock."
Not everyone agreed on every point — not by a long shot. But they all concurred that they speak with different voices, and that those voices spring partly from their backgrounds.
Writing from exile
African writers, said Kari Mugo, who is from Kenya, often tend to be less direct and more mysterious in their prose. "We have a lot of hidden meanings. We're making analogies. We're big into painting something big and elaborate and then having you find the one thing we want you to look at."
Family history is crucial, too. "We're so attuned to identifying with our tribe," Mugo said. "I think in general a lot of the tribal societies tend to have some sort of oral histories. Within my tribe, it's something that's been there for hundreds of years — telling the past and imagining the future."
Valerie Déus was born in Brooklyn, but she considers herself primarily a Haitian writer. "There was a time in my life when I didn't realize there were other black people," she said. "My neighborhood was so completely Haitian."
The Haitian proverbs and fables that she grew up listening to have since become interlaced with her work. "If you grew up hearing tales from your grandmother, those stories become part of your stories," she said.
Déus' parents moved to the United States in the 1970s to escape the oppressive regime of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, "and in that time, people came here with the expectation of being able to go back," Déus said. "I was always raised with this idea that Haiti was this place where we were going to be."
But her family has returned only for visits, and perhaps because of that, much of Déus' writing deals with sadness and loss. "I think for my writing there's a feeling of being in exile," she said.
Mugo used the same word: Exile. At the July dinner, she said, "We talked a lot about [my] writing from the perspective of a queer African. About not being able to go back home because of that.
"There was a sort of general consensus that we were all writing from exile. We all felt detached from the larger society, felt detached from a home that was far away. Detached from a society that is predominantly white."
For her, though, race alone was less of an issue. "We don't become black until we move to this country," Mugo said.
Race, and language
But for African-American writers, there is no escaping race.
"I think the nature of the concept of race is the thing that is with African-American writers all the time," said Mary Moore Easter, a poet and memoirist who taught at Carleton College for more than 40 years. "It is part of the whole identity. It is all around you.
"In this country, no matter how much this society tries, blackness is a monolithic thing in the common mind.
"Anything that explodes that and gives evidence of the tremendous diversity of thought and feeling is significant."
Easter said she was less interested in establishing a canon than she was in urging writers to read widely and deeply, and to pay attention to their own traditions.
"It's hard to make a canon … of those things that should be in your ears — dialect, particular kinds of language usage," she said. "That ancestry that feeds the writing and in which a person needs to be immersed. It tells you how the English language works — and that includes paying attention to the way that dialects or patois work."
That said, all of the women mentioned writers they admired and had learned from: poet Phillis Wheatley, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, Edwidge Danticat, Roxane Gay.
And everyone mentioned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose TED talk, "The Danger of a Single Story" was one of Holbrook's inspirations for these panels. During that talk — one of the most popular TED talks ever — Adichie warned of the dangers of assuming that people of color all speak with one voice. "Show people as one thing over and over again, and that's what they become," she said.
Easter found the July dinner discussion fascinating because of the enthusiasm and the ideas — but also because of the disagreements.
"It's amazing when you find differing opinions within a group that you thought might approach things in the same way," she said. "That was one of the most exciting things about being with all of these women.
"I'm the one who said at the end of the evening, 'This was the panel!' The disagreement that is refining ideas and impressions, this is the kind of thing we want to do."
Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302