I like books maybe too much. Having a modest income all of my life has saved me from full fledged, books-stacked-on–the-floor bibliophilia, but if I had Usher’s money, you better believe I’d own 10,000 books. (I just read that Usher owns 10,000 pairs of shoes!)
I used to be embarrassed that I loved books this much. I remember an employer who joked that instead of dating on the weekends, I was curled up with two novels and a cup of hot chocolate. He made this remark in front of two male coworkers and it made me feel like I was unfeminine and, well, a nerd. Let’s be honest, no one aspires to be a nerd, you just are one. And if there are no bookish role models in your community you grow up feeling like you’ve sprouted a foot in the middle of your forehead. My family wasn’t deep into books. My parents read newspapers and business magazines, and we subscribed to entertainment rags like Ebony and Jet, but I never stumbled across a “classic” in my house. The books in my house were cookbooks, books on astrology, Seventies’ titles like “The Bermuda Triangle.” I’ve always admired people who can say, “I found James Baldwin in my father’s library at ten and it changed my life forever.” That was not my experience.
Even though the books in my house weren’t literary, I read them. I also sat in my school library and read Judy Blume, Nancy Drew, the Peanuts anthology, Archie comic books. As a teen I liked V.C. Andrews and Stephen King. I consumed a lot of popular fiction as a kid because that was what was readily accessible to me. Every now and then, something more serious that we read in school, like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Edgar Allen Poe, would resonate with me.
Since books were all I really liked, I became an English major in college. Soon though, I was frustrated that I was only reading work by white men. I’d been reading that all of my life. I wanted more world literature and literature by contemporary women. I wanted more than just early British fiction and poetry. Didn’t POC’s write books? Schools today provide courses that are multicultural and interdisciplinary, but back in the day, not so much. Determined to read more, I applied to my school’s independent concentration program and crafted a major that included classes in English literature but also in history, philosophy, political science, and “ethnic studies.” I got to read works that I would not have, works by Hegel, Karl Marx, Chinua Achebe, Ralph Ellison, Friedrich Nietzsche, Zora Neale Hurston, Hsun Tsu, Sigmund Freud, and Maxine Hong Kingston.
Despite my interest in literature, I never thought that I could write literature. I was never encouraged by a teacher to pursue writing. I was encouraged to teach. So what did I do? I went to law school, of course. I practiced for four years then quit to pursue a career in writing. People told me that I was crazy. I was 29 years old.
My story is not the narrative we often hear from writers; it’s not “I knew that I was a writer at six when I penned my first novel.” But I think that it’s a familiar story for women writers of color. Few of us find mentors early in our lives. Most of us fly under the radar and have to figure out that writing is what we do best. We have to believe in our talent because we’re rarely “discovered” or encouraged. We also have to believe that our experiences are the stuff of classic literature because the literary canon will give us reasons to be doubtful.
But the thing is this: books make great mentors. My mentors included Gwendolyn Brooks, Gayl Jones, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Morrison. I feel like I’ve had whole conversations with these authors. Their work validated my existence and gave me courage to write my first words. Today, with blogs, our writing and reading communities are easy to reach. Because of this, I predict an explosion of POC literature in the future. The question is, How will you contribute? Will you tell your story?
Renee Simms' writing can be found online at Our Stories Literary Journal, 42 Opus, Oregon Literary Review, and Pindeldyboz. Read Renee at her blog Writing In Real Life.