Jessica is a poet and bookworm, who I became acquainted with through a mutual a few years back. I was drawn to her because like me she stans the pen of the great Harlemite James Baldwin. More importantly, before book stacks and diversity became an Instagram craze, this Black woman reader was prioritizing works by people of color and women. I knew that she cared about reading and presenting these stories of intersectionality more so than the gratification that came with a cool photo.
For this first installment of Savvy Talks, an interview series focusing on Black, Indigenous, People of Color across industries, it was important for me to speak with someone in the book world because my love of books opened many doors for me.
What is the first book you remember reading?
I honestly can’t remember. All the books of my childhood tend to blur together, but I do recall the impact of the first book in Maya Angelou’s memoir series, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I read it when I was in 8th grade, I believe. It really amazed me at the time that she faced all that trauma and all those obstacles and still managed to become such a force in the literary world. I think it was around that time that the idea of writing, outside of a journal, could be something I pursued in life.
How did your love of books come about?
I like to say that I was just born with it. No one in my family is really an avid reader other than myself. I just know that going to the library and leaving with a little stack of books was always a joyful experience as a child. It didn’t matter that I never managed to get through the complete stack because I’d go right back again when my books were due and leave with another little stack.
As a child with too much imagination and not the best social skills, books were very much a safe haven. I could learn about things that my school would never teach me, and be transported to different times and places I could only dream about.
Photo courtesy of Jessica’s Instagram, Poe.tics
Is there a book that changed your life? Why or why not?
Without a doubt, it is Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. I didn’t start dabbling into it until I was in my mid-late 20s. When I read her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” something immediately clicked in my brain. “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” That is a defining quote of my life because, as a Black woman poet, Lorde had articulated everything I’d felt about my work up until that point. She also validated the idea that we can write how we choose and solely for our own pleasure. It solidified the idea I have of myself as a poet and why I write.
Who is your favorite author of all time? (What’s your favorite book by them?)
It’s really a tie between Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. They each loved Black people with such fierceness, and we are lucky to have all their words left behind. Everyone always says that Sula is a favorite Toni Morrison book. Still, it is truly my favorite because Sula Peace is that character—the original Hot Girl. At a time when women weren’t granted any liberties (and we could still argue that we’re not, but that’s another conversation), she was a woman who took her own pleasure and freedom and made it the number one priority. Everybody else be damned, even her best friend.
Morrison allowed Sula a selfishness that Black women are not often allotted. We have to be everyone’s savior and superhero. So, that’s why I love that book. Sula was truly a free Black woman.
For Baldwin, I’d say his short story collection Going to Meet the Man. It’s not a work of his that I see talked about often, but it really shows his range when it comes to writing. We also can’t forget that chilling story in the end that is the titular story. Baldwin easily captured the perverted and insidious nature of racism so clearly that I am still traumatized from reading it because while it was a fictional account, we all know that it happened all too regularly in real life.
I love to see Black people reading because it speaks to the power of language, which was denied to our ancestors. How does your Blackness tie into you being a bibliophile?
It’s the driving force behind the way I curate my personal library and what I read. It would be easy just to read whatever is “popular” with no context or consideration given to race, sex, gender, etc. However, given that my daily existence is an amalgamation of those things, they cannot be ignored, and I will not read works that do not consider those things. I will say that I didn’t consciously decide on that until I was in my 20s and realized how white the whole publishing industry is. My Blackness takes a priority when I read, when I recommend books, and when I review them. My worldview is through the lens of a Black woman, and my personal library and reading habits will always reflect that.
What do you think is the most potent thing about reading?
It sounds cliche, but reading is truly transformative. It allows you a deeper understanding of the world, people, the human psyche, and all our emotions. I also believe that it gives us the ability to dream and hope, which is why it is very important to read fiction, poetry, and not just non-fiction. Non-fiction is important, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t honestly trust someone that doesn’t read any fiction. What imagination could they possibly have?
One book of any genre that you think all Black people should read?
Sister Outsider. When you talk about radical, transformative work, this book should always be at the forefront of that conversation. These essays should be the foundation for anyone trying to shake off the poisoning of the patriarchy and every lie we’ve ever been told by this capitalist, corrupt government. Audre Lorde outlines it all and gives you the language to make those first daunting steps and never stop going.
Jessica is currently participating in the Black Resilience Booksta-Tour, an initiative hosted by @prettylittlebookshelf to uplift and celebrate the literary accomplishments of various brilliant Black authors. until July 31. Check her out on Instagram @poe.tics.