Sejal Shah and Valerie Boyd first corresponded in 2016, after an essay by Shah appeared in Brevity’s special issue on race, racism, and racialization. Boyd, then coeditor of the Crux series in literary nonfiction at the University of Georgia Press, wrote to ask if Shah had a manuscript in progress. Since then, the two women, who’d previously only known each other on social media, have become friendly collaborators. Boyd edited Shah’s collection of essays, This Is One Way to Dance, for the UGA Press Crux series and has welcomed Shah as a guest at the low-residency MFA program in narrative nonfiction that she directs at the university.
In this lively conversation, which took place via Zoom in June 2021 and has been condensed and edited for clarity, they shared the books that made them want to write, discussed the differences between editors of color and white editors, and considered the importance of anthologies and key texts in writers’ lives, as well as the ways in which the absence of writers of color from these anthologies adds to their historic erasure.
SEJAL SHAH: How do you trace your lineage as a nonfiction writer?
VALERIE BOYD: I’m devoted to nonfiction—but I’ve also been influenced by fiction writers. In high school, I had an excellent AP English teacher, a Black woman named Ora Cosby Thomas. Her class was this immersive experience in American literature. Through her, I read Alice Walker, I read James Baldwin, I read Ann Petry. This is where my lineage begins—and so that’s when I first started to see myself as a literary writer, with literary aspirations. I also had an influential high school journalism teacher, Velma Smith. I became the editor of the school newspaper when I was a junior, which was a big deal because that meant I was editing seniors.
SHAH: That is a big deal!
BOYD: It was the first time a junior had been made editor of the newspaper. That’s when my dual identity as both a journalist and a literary writer emerged. The two people I did not read in Dr. Thomas’s class who have been hugely influential to me are Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. During high school, I took a trip to DC, and we were given a free day. And so of course, me being the bookworm that I am, I spent my free afternoon in a bookstore. I discovered a couple of books by this writer named Toni Morrison. I was sixteen years old. I pulled Sula from the shelf because I was drawn to the cover. I started reading it, and I think I started having heart palpitations. I was just amazed by it. I bought Sula and Song of Solomon that day—the first books I ever bought with my own money.
The next big discovery for me was my first year of college, going to Northwestern University, and taking an African American literature course with Leon Forrest, who was himself a great African American writer. Professor Forrest used to always brag about the fact that Toni Morrison was his editor. And at the time, I didn’t fully know what that meant. In Professor Forrest’s class, I read [Hurston’s] Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time. First of all, how come I haven’t read this before? I was mad and I was amazed that here was a writer, writing in the 1930s in a way that still spoke so urgently to me across the decades. I was just blown away by Their Eyes Were Watching God and found its depiction of Black southern language, Black southern poetry, beautiful. And I could relate to Janie—the way she spoke was the way my grandmother spoke. My dad was from a small town in Alabama, my mom was from a small town in Georgia. My dad’s parents were sharecroppers. They spoke in that kind of self-educated language of working-class, southern Black people.
And Zora Neale Hurston’s work said, This language is worthy of literature, this language is already poetry. It helped me to hear my grandmother’s voice in a different way, and to not be embarrassed by her language, but to see the beauty in it. . . . I immediately felt Zora Neale Hurston to be a literary grandmother. So, to sum up my literary lineage: I’m the love child of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; Alice Walker is my favorite auntie; and Zora Neale Hurston is my grandmother.
SHAH: And how does your grounding in nonfiction, particularly in journalism, fit in?
BOYD: I was the family poet; I was always writing poems that my parents would make me read at the family reunion. And my parents were very supportive of my wanting to be a writer, but they also were practical, working-class, high school–educated Black folks. They were like, “How are you going to make a living?” And so, around seventh grade, I learned that there was a job called a journalist, where you could write every day and get paid for it.
My mom subscribed to a lot of women’s magazines, and I devoured them all, but the most influential ones were Ms. magazine and Essence. I was the kid who was looking to see who the editor was. Marcia Ann Gillespie was the editor-in-chief of Essence for years, so she became a literary hero for me alongside Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston.
SHAH: When I asked you about lineage, I had been thinking a lot about mine, and Sula was such an important book. I have my two copies over here behind me! Sometimes I feel like I didn’t have the mentors I wanted, but I found them through books.
SHAH: And I think that when we share some of those books, when I meet writers for whom those books are also important—that it feels like finding a kind of kinship, right?
BOYD: Our shared lineage—it’s like doing your literary 23andMe, right? We have similar DNA.
SHAH: Right. For me, Sula was in a women’s studies class at Wellesley. Alice Walker taught there before my time, and I heard she was not a fan of the college. Still, we were excited she had been there.
You are editing Alice Walker’s journals, and that book, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, is coming out next year from Simon & Schuster. How did that relationship begin?
BOYD: It began with me discovering her as a reader in high school. Out of all the writers I was reading, she spoke to me most like a relative. Like that favorite wild, crazy-smart auntie, who was speaking to me and speaking for me. Because she wrote specifically about Black southern women, that had extraordinary resonance with me.
I also love the fact that she wrote across genres—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. I was just as influenced by her short stories as I was by her essays in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.
So, I first encountered Alice Walker as a fan of her work. Then I got to be in her presence occasionally when I worked with some colleagues in Atlanta—Beverly Guy-Sheftall and the late Rudolph Byrd—to cofound the Alice Walker Literary Society. I was still sort of a trembling fan, but when I was finishing up Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, I felt that the book would not be complete without Alice Walker’s blessing, given the critical role that Walker had played in rescuing Hurston’s legacy. And so I sent her the manuscript and asked if she would consider writing a blurb for it. The next thing I knew, I got a letter in the mail, hand addressed from Alice Walker. And it was this incredible blurb. After that, Alice and I became friendly. And then when I was on my book tour, Alice came to a book party for me, which was so generous and extraordinary. That marked the beginning of our friendship. So then, fast forward: years later, she was in Atlanta for a conversation that I was moderating with her and another writing mentor and friend, Pearl Cleage.
During a print interview for CNN digital, Alice was asked what else she was planning to do while in Atlanta. She said, “I’m going to try to get over to Emory University, where my papers are, because I want to do a collection of my journals. But it’s so difficult to read back into the past. I don’t know why I even kept the journals, I should have burned them.” The reporter was a friend of mine, so I felt free to interject, so I said, “Alice, why are you doing that alone? Why don’t you have someone working with you? Of course, every time you read a page, you’re gonna go down memory lane, but you need someone working with you to compile those.” And she said, “Well, do you know anybody?” And I was like, “Me!” She said, “Really? Okay.”
So that’s the short story of how the book came about. I’ve been actively working on it for more than six years. A lot of that work has been going to the archives and reading and transcribing every word of her journals—which span more than fifty years. The volume of it is staggering. But the book will be out in April 2022 from Simon & Schuster.
BOYD: So, let me ask you, who’s your nonfiction lineage? I understand that you also have a poetry lineage. You were a fiction writer, right? How did you get into nonfiction?
SHAH: I was drawn to poetry. I would just go to the library and take out every book. Poetry felt like magic to me. In college, I studied poetry with Frank Bidart, but I was also interested in stories. I wanted to know, how do people tell stories? I took fiction workshops, and my undergraduate thesis was half poetry, half stories. I applied to MFA programs in both genres—my immigrant parents thought fiction sounded more practical; my mother was worried about my being able to make a living. I was always interested in nonfiction, but the programs I knew about, apart from Iowa, were in fiction and poetry. (This was 1995.) I earned my MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst while taking poetry workshops and beginning to write essays. I held a tenure-track job in fiction for several years and published across genres. Ten years ago, I published my first lyric essay in the Kenyon Review Online, and that proved to be an important shift and milestone in finding my voice as a nonfiction writer.
In terms of my lineage, I keep coming back to bell hooks and Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. I think of myself as self-taught in nonfiction. I realize when I look at anthologies like Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay and John D’Agata’s The Next American Essay, the essays included aren’t who I consider my literary ancestors.
In my women’s studies class, I read Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” which has been a call to me to be braver and to speak up. On my own, I read Margaret Atwood’s “Nine Beginnings,” “Invisibility in Academe” by Adrienne Rich, “Talking Back” by bell hooks, and “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” by Geeta Kothari. It was a toxic environment for me in my MFA program given the sexual assault and harassment I experienced from a well-known former faculty member and the racist, silent workshop model and mostly white workshops. I thought, “I need the degree to teach.” These essays allowed me to stay in school; they were a life raft.
BOYD: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s nothing like finding something that speaks to you directly. Especially at a big predominantly white institution (PWI), you have to calculate the risks of speaking out in class. It’s incredible, the kind of calculations that people of color have to make in large, white institutions, the kind of things we have to do to navigate our day.
SHAH: It’s exhausting. For anthologies to look different, we would have to have different people editing them.
BOYD: Yes, I agree. You know, I’m editing this anthology now. It’s called Bigger Than Bravery—Black writers responding to the pandemic, the shutdown, and the uprising of 2020. It’s going to be essays and poems. And one of the reasons that I wanted to edit it is because of what you just said. Anthologies were so important to me growing up as a writer. There’s an anthology called Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate and published in 1983. It was my Bible—interviews with Black women writers that gave me an understanding of my lineage and a chance to meet writers I didn’t know. Another influential anthology for me is Words of Fire, edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall, who is a Black woman writer, a friend and mentor, and a legendary women’s studies scholar. Anthologies have been hugely important for me. And that’s why I wanted to edit one that captured this moment in history.
SHAH: I think it’s so important. It’s a curated gathering.
BOYD: Exactly. It is like a curated, intellectual, literary party. And some of the people you mentioned—of course, Audre Lorde and bell hooks—were really important to me as essayists and as I started to expand my consciousness of womanism. Toni Cade Bambara was also influential to me in that regard, especially her short stories.
SHAH: Did you choose your mentors? Or do you believe your mentors chose you? Or both?
BOYD: I believe both. I believe my mentors allowed me to choose them. And they did something more active than allowing; they also chose me. You know, the mentee has to make the choice. But the mentor has to accept you as a student. They all accepted me. Beyond acceptance. They embraced me.
SHAH: And none were your teachers.
BOYD: I had to cobble together my own mentors. And so maybe that’s part of what inspired me to start an MFA program where I could create a system of mentoring so that people could more easily have the mentorship that they needed.
SHAH: Could we talk about your program and how it is responding to the current landscape?
BOYD: My program is an MFA in narrative nonfiction. I see narrative nonfiction as this umbrella, which includes essays, but also journalism and memoir. And I chose to call it narrative nonfiction rather than creative nonfiction. I got my MFA at Goucher College in creative nonfiction, and I have taught in other programs in creative nonfiction. And what I found was that there was an argument about what the word creative meant when attached to nonfiction. And for some people, it meant that you could make stuff up.
But for me, coming from a background in journalism, nonfiction has to be based on facts and rooted in truth. So I started an MFA program in narrative nonfiction, at a college of journalism, which is the first MFA program to ever be housed in a college of journalism. My interest was always in bridging that false divide between journalism and literature. So I decided to not call it creative nonfiction, because I felt like that would make journalists nervous and think that it meant you were making stuff up. And the word narrative, of course, privileges the art of storytelling. And so, that’s what our program is: it is a program in what I call “factual literature.” We are giving writers the tools to do the research, whether that’s journalistic research—interviews and other reporting—or archival research. We’re fine with memoir, but it has to be researched memoir. It can’t just be from your memory. The other way our program is different from other MFA programs is that it is aggressively diverse. We are privileging diversity as an important part of being writers in the world today.
SHAH: What are some of the core texts that you teach or that are part of your curriculum?
BOYD: Many of the classic old texts of creative nonfiction leave out so many voices; those classic texts are primarily the voices of white men. So while we might talk about John Hersey’s Hiroshima, or Truman Capote, we might talk about New Journalism, or Tom Wolfe, we don’t emphasize those texts as things you must read. Our must-reads are more contemporary and more diverse.
We might start with some craft books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Jack Hart’s Storycraft. The Nieman Foundation did a book called Telling True Stories, which includes diverse and important nonfiction writers like Isabel Wilkerson. So those are the kinds of craft books that we tend to think about. And then, in terms of narrative nonfiction, we read diverse writers, from Melissa Fay Greene, who’s now on our faculty, to Wil Haygood, a Black male writer who writes about Black men’s lives; he used to be at the Washington Post and has written biographies of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. We talk about certain contemporary writers—Sarah Broom, Kiese Laymon (both of whom have visited our program), and Natasha Trethewey, who is coming to our next residency.
We include contemporary white writers like Tom French, who also has visited our program. And somebody like Philip Gerard, who was one of my MFA mentors. Philip is a white male writer based at UNC Wilmington, and he wrote a book (in which I was one of the people interviewed) called Writing a Book That Makes a Difference. So we tend to focus on writers who are writing important books and trying to deal with social justice issues. The books we emphasize are more contemporary books by women and people of all colors and cultures. White men are a part of that list too, but they do not dominate that list; they do not silence other writers.
BOYD: The program’s alums have started reading lists that they recommend now to future students. That list has evolved over time, and it is much more contemporary and diverse, I would argue, than any list of any other MFA program in the country.
BOYD: Let’s talk about the difference that the race and perspective of an editor can make.
SHAH: I worked with several excellent white editors when I was publishing in literary journals. However, you and Walter Biggins, formerly at UGA Press, were the first Black editors I’d worked with, and I’ve been publishing in national journals since 1991. You wrote to me in 2016, after reading my lyric essay “Things People Said,” which appeared in Brevity. You were the first book editor who reached out to me. There’s historically been a serious absence of editors of color in publishing.
BOYD: Editors who are people of color, we see things through a different lens. It’s been okay for white editors to not know anything about us, to not know anything about what we do, to not understand our writing, to not read our writing, to be dismissive of people of color. They have been the center of the universe. Who cares what this Indian writer in Rochester is writing? Who cares what this Black woman in Atlanta is writing? What does that have to do with me? One time I had a white student at Antioch University, where I used to teach, say, “Before I took a class with you, I [had] never had to care what a Black woman thought. It has not mattered to me in any real way.” And I think that’s true for so many white people.
SHAH: Yes. I want to tell you about this anthology, Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America, edited by Sunaina Maira and Rajini Srikanth, and published by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in 1996. There are some terrific essays and poems; I have a poem in it. Contributors include Vivek Bald, Minal Hajratwala, Amitava Kumar, Purvi Shah, Mahmud Rahman, Somini Sengupta, and Natasha Singh. Why aren’t any of these writers in creative nonfiction anthologies? Many write across genres and have published nonfiction books and journalism. Maybe we need to edit an anthology because these essays are from various perspectives, and they are missing from the major creative nonfiction anthologies.
BOYD: Beacon used to do this anthology, which I loved, every year. It was called the Beacon Best of—it was the best writing of the year by writers of all colors and cultures. Those anthologies were important to me, because they would have a guest editor every year. One year the guest editor was Ntozake Shange, and one year the guest editor was Edwidge Danticat. These editors: they’re choosing stuff that includes everybody.
BOYD: And that’s why editors of color matter. Often, white editors tend to choose white writers because of the long tentacles of white supremacy. I mean, let’s face it, even the most well-intentioned white people still think white people are the best. That’s what white supremacy teaches us ALL, regardless of our race. So, when they are sitting down to come up with an anthology, they’re thinking “Okay, who’s the best?” and they’re just naturally thinking of white people. And then they’re like, “Oh, but wait, Zora Neale Hurston was kind of good, right?”
BOYD: Their inclination is that white people are the best. And so that’s what they go to, and then we become an afterthought. And sometimes their knowledge of us is so surface that they only can think of the biggest names: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin. And that’s it. They don’t think about contemporary writers. They’re just not reading us or taking us seriously. That is beginning to change. And we’re starting to see the changes manifest. The Beacon Best series (which ended in 2001) had the right approach, because they asked writers of color to be the editors.
SHAH: Anthologies extend the life and reach of an essay or poem. I read a poem (originally published in Callaloo) by a Black poet named Angela Jackson. Her selected poems are published by Northwestern University Press. I was just out of high school, and had her poem “The Love of Travelers” not been in a Pushcart Prize anthology, I would have missed it. That poem was a touchstone for me, and I have taught it for years. Anthologies are so important.
I’ve been teaching nonfiction since I left academia. But I’ve never used an anthology. I realized there was not an anthology that I felt drawn to.
BOYD: Same with me. In Best American Essays, why are the essayists often overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white? It’s not because those people are writing the best work. It’s because the people who are making the choices think that’s the best work. It’s as simple as that.
SHAH: How did you come to edit the Crux series in literary nonfiction at UGA Press?
BOYD: I’m an editor as much as I’m a writer, so editing is an extremely important part of my career. My career as a journalist was mostly as an editor. I was arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when I left in 2004, to teach at the University of Georgia. So I’ve had a long career as an editor in newspapers and magazines. Even when I started teaching, I wanted to continue writing and editing. The Crux editing position came about as a result of just those interests colliding, and an organic relationship with Lisa Bayer, director of UGA Press. Lisa has spoken several times at our MFA program because of her knowledge as a publisher. I want our program to not just be for writers to write beautiful things that go in a drawer and that nobody sees until they die. I want our program to encourage people to publish, to write beautiful things, but also to publish beautiful things.
SHAH: I was so thrilled to get your email asking if I had a book in progress. I had never had a book editor reach out to me. Do you solicit work regularly?
BOYD: You and I were social media friends. So you posted a link to one of your essays on Facebook. I clicked on the link, and I read it. And I was like, Wow, this is good. And then I looked around and saw some of your other work. And that’s when I reached out to you, not knowing if you had a book in the works. One of my missions as an editor is to publish more writers of color. So, I’m on the lookout for that. I value our voices’ being out there and more widely heard.
SHAH: When I got your email, I was in New York City—I was there to introduce this anthology, Piyali Bhattacharya’s Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion,for the East Coast launch. I was asked to moderate the Q & A at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
BOYD: I know that book. I think I saw that book at AWP the year it came out. So I got the book. and I learned a lot about writers I wasn’t familiar with.
Recommendations from Valerie Boyd
Recommendations from Sejal Shah
The Love of Travelers
The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action
SHAH: I remember how much I liked the essays that were in it. At the launch, I emphasized the importance of anthologies and editors. To get an email from an editor made me keep going: It helped.
BOYD: It was good writing. I wanted to reach out and see what else you had, and that’s how the Crux series at UGA Press came to publish your essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance. To me, it was an organic process.
SHAH: Yeah, it also makes me think—here are some things we have in common. In talking to you about your work, and the people and the writers who are most important, it makes me feel even more grateful, but also of course, if we have Sula in common—as a common text—that would have come up in some way.
BOYD: Yeah. And I think it’s important, that whole idea of common texts. Those common texts shape our understanding of the world. They shape our worldview. And sometimes if I’m feeling disconnected from someone, I’m like, I bet you never read Their Eyes Were Watching God. . . . We don’t have common texts. And that’s why we can’t understand each other, you know?
SHAH: Yeah. That’s important. I’ve been thinking about it. Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed calls it a companion text—“a text whose company enabled you to proceed on a path less trodden.” We each have our own companion texts. But there’s something when you have a companion text in common with another writer or an editor.
BOYD: And if you have several companion texts in common, that’s when you start to feel like a soulmate when you meet somebody, partly because of those common texts. And those texts that shape us can be written texts, but also movies or even TV shows.
If somebody has never read Their Eyes Were Watching God, they’ve never read Sula, they’ve never read Alice Walker, then they don’t understand why your essay was really good and why I needed to reach out to you. Some of these white editors that we are working with don’t share our common texts. I read Flannery O’Connor, I read Eudora Welty. I read those people, and I read Sula. Unfortunately, sometimes we know their texts, but they don’t know ours.
SHAH: While texts by women writers of color are foundational for me, I rarely, if ever, see them discussed when we look at the contemporary essay as a form. They instead seem to stay in the subgenres of feminism and cultural studies. Audre Lorde and bell hooks are not small, unknown writers.
BOYD: Exactly. But they are marginalized. They’re kept in a certain place, right?
SHAH: My book would not be here without their essays. So, my book is not just about growing up Indian in Western New York. It is about finding ways to speak and keep going despite sexual harassment, a racist workplace, and years of managing a mood disorder and invisible disability, which I wrote about after leaving academia. I am here because of essays by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, and Geeta Kothari. They taught me to persist and fight. They showed me how to keep writing.