Glory Edim has always sought refuge in the pages of books, but for years she struggled to find a platform that showcased the work of the black women authors she loved and grew up reading. So in 2015 she launched Well-Read Black Girl, a Brooklyn-based book club and Instagram page that highlights books written by black women authors, ranging from literary masters like Zora Neale Hurston to promising debut authors like Naima Coster. The @WellReadBlackGirl online community has since amassed a loyal following, leading Edim to launch the Well-Read Black Girl literary festival in 2017. The second annual festival takes place November 10th and will feature authors such as Jacqueline Woodson and Blair Imani.
Edim shows no sign of slowing down. Today, October 30th, she debuts her first book, Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves. The anthology features a collection of essays by black women authors describing the first time they encountered a character who looked like them in literature. Some recount how the words of black authors provided clarity and a path to self-discovery, while others examine the legacy of creating work that elevates black voices. The responses are poignant, especially because black characters are still wildly underrepresented in fiction, with only 1 percent of children’s books showcasing a black main character.
We spoke by phone with Edim, who is currently in New Orleans working on her upcoming memoir, about the importance of spaces that celebrate black women’s work and give voice to their experiences, as well as her plans to grow the Well-Read Black Girl community.
HelloGiggles: The Well-Read Black Girl anthology highlights the stories of black women authors finding characters that speak to their experiences as black women. What were some of the books you first saw yourself in?
Glory Edim: There’s such a long list. I would say the first story that stands out in my mind is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It wasn’t necessarily that I saw myself reflected in the character of Pecola, but I saw the level of experience and vastness of black identity within the character. I love how there are so many layers to what blackness can feel like, and Toni Morrison has such a mastery of language where she describes things with such intimate detail.
There are so many children’s books I encountered growing up that I don’t think I fully appreciated until I was older. Virginia Hamilton and Mildred Taylor are legendary. Those stories I read for school or I read them in passing. I read so much. They were part of my library right next to Little Women and Judy Blume. All of these characters lived on my shelf. To me, Toni Morrison is the queen of everything, and even in adulthood she’s someone I look up to.
HG: Did you have a strong community of black women readers and writers before starting Well-Read Black Girl, and how has that community evolved over the past few years?
GE: Yes, I’ve always been in book clubs. I’ve always been an avid reader, and had a community that I connected with. I attended Howard University, a historically black college, and that really prepared me to usher Well-Read Black Girl into the world. While I was there, I studied Zora Neale Hurston, who was an alumni. I studied Toni Morrison. I spent so much time going through the archives at our library. The connections that I made there were very much literary. We were in school, and studying literature in a deep and meaningful way. It felt sacred because we were attending this historical campus, and we were very aware of the history and the lineage of writers that had come from this school.
HG: What specific strategies do you use when it comes to social media and creating an online space that makes black women feel safe?
GE: The one thing I strive to do is to make sure that everyone feels heard, and to also provide resources. Often I am asking questions. I’m sharing authors who may not be as popular or who have undiscovered narratives. I’m always seeking out things that will be new to the reader. When I originally started creating the Well-Read Black Girl Instagram, I had a faded photo aesthetic, and in my mind I was emulating how an old library catalogue looks.
When you open up an old book, it’s kind of yellow and faded. That’s the aesthetic I was going for. I wanted it to feel nostalgic and like you were in a library discovering a new book that you had never heard of before, or you’re in a used bookstore and you find something that excites you and makes you curious. I’m always sharing new books, and I’m actively seeking out authors who are new and emerging. That’s a huge goal of mine to amplify the work of new debut writers so that they can have a second book and readers can watch their careers grow and support them through that.
HG: Many of the books you recommend in the Well-Read Black Girl anthology focus on the dynamics among black women, with their female friends and their families, and how their stories are informed by a specific city or place that carries meaning to those relationships. Why do you think those themes are such a crucial part of black women’s writing?
GE: I think a sense of place is so crucial because it’s rooted in your personal journey into womanhood. There’s so much meaning that can be pulled from where you grew up and where you found your roots and your footing. It becomes a foundational text for you. For myself I’m first generation American. I’m Nigerian American. I have a large sense of duality in my life and my personality. Both my parents are African, but I grew up in the United States. I identify with both cultures very deeply. They inform my creative practice in the way that I look at the world. There’s a curiosity I have for culture and a longing I have for oral history. So I like to hear stories and to hear people tell their stories authentically.
HG: In the anthology, some authors discuss the lack of black characters in children’s literature, while others focus on how books allow them to analyze and understand their unique experience as black women. When you were selecting pieces for this book, was it important to you to have this diversity regarding the different ways black women encounter literature?
GE: Completely. As I was building the anthology and when I’m curating the events I have for Well-Read Black Girl, I’m constantly thinking about having an intergenerational conversation and reaching people at different points in their life. The stories that were shared show the diversity of the black female experience. Some people were looking for reflection while other contributors were longing for deeper analysis.
HG: In a recent L.A. Times interview, you pointed out that, according to data from Pew Research Center, black college-educated women are more likely to read books than any other group. Why do you think black women are often overlooked as being avid readers?
GE: There are so many negative stereotypes placed on black women. I’m thankful that my community is able to push against that and dispel those myths, and none of the work I’m doing is geared towards a white gaze. I’m doing it because I want to, and I’m very aware of the needs of my community. Those stereotypes are not true, but I don’t let those views drive my personal mission. As my profile grows, I do think I need to find a way to address those stereotypes forcefully.
HG: You’ve previously mentioned that you’re interested in archiving black female authors who aren’t as well-known. Have you started that project, and if so, what is the process like?
GE: It’s still an ongoing process. I’m in this space where there’s wonderful visibility and I’m growing tremendously, but I’m lacking a full team. That’s one thing that I’m longing for and hope to have by 2020. Right now it’s a matter of time and resources. I had never edited an anthology before, and it was very difficult. I’m a person who can only do one thing at a time. So the anthology was the only thing I focused on for six months. I feel the same way about the archives project, which I have a lot of ideas for. I’m a person who incubates, so I’m gathering ideas, trying to figure out the next step. I visit a lot of used bookstores and archives and the library. There’s a lot to be done, but I’m just trying to figure out how to do it. I’m looking to build a literary institution. I’d love to see a library one day dedicated to the work of African American women.
HG: You’re currently working on a memoir. Have you encountered any specific challenges when it comes to writing about yourself?
GE: Writing about myself is very difficult because I’m not only writing about myself, I’m writing about my family. I’m very close with my mom and brothers. They’re so much a part of my story. It’s been nerve-wracking deciding how to talk about that, or deciding if I had to ask their permission. How do I go about telling the story and being as honest and clear as possible, but also being aware that there’s some sensitive things that affect my parents and siblings? So there’s a level of sensitivity I’ve drawn from it. It’s also very emotional to remember things that were difficult or think back on things that I thought I wouldn’t be able to overcome. So writing a memoir is challenging, but it’s a good type of challenging.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves is available now. Glory Edim’s memoir is scheduled for release by Penguin Random House in 2020. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.