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3 extraordinary storytellers on bravery, belonging and making their debut

To mark Black History Month in the midst of a year of global challenge and profound awakening, three writers – who are behind some of the most exhilarating debuts of 2021 – reflect on the themes that will resonate all the more this year, as well as their guiding influences and the limitless power of storytelling. As told to KATIE BERRINGTON

Lifestyle

Zakiya Dalila Harris, author of The Other Black Girl

My hope is that more non-Black people will better understand the emotional baggage we carry around with us every single day

I quit my publishing job in 2019 so I could finish writing my novel. When I ended up signing with my publisher a year later, I was ecstatic. Then, a few weeks after that, the pandemic hit, and my city shut down. It felt a little bit like the universe was messing with me at the time. But thinking back on last year, and the year to come, I just feel so fortunate – to be a Black female author, because there aren’t enough of us. But also, just to be alive, period. This pandemic has really humbled me and made me re-evaluate what’s most important.

I had to somehow find the strength to edit my novel after watching a man get choked to death by a police officer. How do you come back from seeing something like that? The thing is, Black people always have to come back. We have to exist in numerous headspaces at the same time – out of survival, but out of pride, too. And that’s a lot of what The Other Black Girl is about: what it’s like to be a Black person who must continue to function, be professional, be compassionate – all when there’s clear evidence that a lot of people in this country still don’t think your life matters.

My hope is that more non-Black people will better understand the emotional baggage we carry around with us every single day. I hope people can empathize even more with the Black female protagonists in my novel, who are struggling to succeed in an industry that often doesn’t see them.

I look to other Black creatives, past and present. Get Out [Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror movie] showed me what was possible when it came to storytelling and racial commentary. But Octavia Butler influenced me, too, as did Nella Larsen’s book, Passing, which I happened to be reading when I first started writing my novel (and is where I got my protagonist’s name from). There’s something disheartening about knowing that the things I’m experiencing now are things people who lived 100 years ago experienced – but there’s also something comforting in that, too. That connectedness really keeps me going.

My father has been a particular influence. He’s a writer and a journalism professor who really enjoys what he does – and he’s always told me how important it is for me to enjoy what I do, too, because life is too short. He also encouraged me to write about Black characters in my stories – because if I didn’t write them, who would?

The most powerful advice I’ve ever received is, “Enjoy this.” I know it’s simple, but I’m the kind of person who gets easily caught up in worrying about the future. So, whenever I get a little overwhelmed about life stuff or book stuff or the state of the world, I try to think back to how good I feel whenever I’m writing – when it’s just me and my words and the zone. That promise I feel in those moments, that possibility, is everything.

The Other Black Girl will be published in June 2021

Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity

Love is an active thing that can persist even across oceans and continents and estrangements

There have been so many reasons to worry and rage and grieve this year. Releasing my book in the midst of it all has, at times, felt like a very strange thing to be doing. At other times, I’ve thought, thank goodness that I have this to focus on. It has given me a vehicle through which to connect to the world outside of my apartment in Brooklyn – and that has felt like a gift.

In some ways, the concerns of the book very much speak to the challenges and change brought on by this year. I began writing Aftershocks as a way to process trauma and to overcome the ache of isolation I felt from being distant from loved ones for much of my life – geographically and otherwise: my mother leaving when I was very young; my father dying when I was a teenager. So many people are struggling with separation and isolation this year. I started writing from a place of grief and sadness, but I ended up writing toward love and connection.

Love is an active thing that can persist even across oceans and continents and estrangements. That is one of the biggest messages I took away from the process of writing the book. Through the lens of my life, Aftershocks also explores themes like the complexities of family, the meaning of home, the multiplicity of identity, and the ripple effects (both personal and generational) of trauma – all very relevant issues at the moment. So the conversations I’ve been having about the book have, in some ways, felt even more meaningful and urgent.

I have a background in urban planning and policy, focused largely on issues of racial justice. I often find inspiration for my writing on that front. When I think about cities, I am asking what makes a place a home, how people are in community with each other, what causes conflict in and among communities. I’m asking what allows people to feel a sense of security and of belonging.

I often talk about having a council of mothers. It is mostly made up of Black women writers whose work gave me permission to dream I could be a writer: Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Tsitsi Dangarembga – and many others. My father also had a huge influence on my becoming a writer. He was my first editor. As a young child, I’d write little ‘novels’, staple them together and hand them to him for feedback. He was always really supportive, but he did point out ways I could improve. I’m so grateful that he took my ambitions seriously.

Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity is out now

Buki Papillon, author of An Ordinary Wonder

This is a universal story that anyone in the world who has ever had to fight to defend their identity or way of being can relate to

There’s an urgent need for our stories to reflect every facet of our joint humanity. I’d say more than at any other time in history, we’ve come to understand that there will always be more than one story – and that there are no iron-clad rules about how they should be told. We can only be enriched as a species by delving into lives that are not exactly like ours. I think the events of the past year have brought people to realize that they don’t have to limit themselves to stories on the same familiar tropes and narratives.

An Ordinary Wonder is written from the perspective of a Nigerian person being raised as a boy who knows in their heart that they are a girl. It is happening at a time period when any sort of movement away from the historically established binary gender norms and assumptions are neither welcomed nor understood. It is also a window into Nigerian Yoruba ways of being – the folklores, the spirituality, the culture. And, at the same time, this is a universal story that anyone in the world who has ever had to fight to defend their identity or way of being can relate to.

I’ve read far less adult fiction in this time. I think my mind has had to process so much – the final edits of my own book, personal things that have happened, the pandemic, eruptions of institutional racism – that there hasn’t been much space to absorb other things. What I’ve found is that middle-grade books have been my happy place. My absolute favorite is The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

This year has been a surreal mix of amazing and terrifying. I’m grateful to my agent, Juliet Mushens, who is like a one-woman stadium telling me, “Keep going, no matter what – you’ve got this.” She and my editor, Sharmaine Lovegrove, have both really held steady in the face of all the storms – which in turn helps me to be more optimistic.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is like a guiding light in my life. He said: “Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right to freedom of the human spirit – in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.” I try to be brave with my storytelling – in ways I’m not always able to be brave in my everyday life.

An Ordinary Wonder will be published in March 2021

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