September 09

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On Becoming a Black Girl Reader by T.R. Simon

I can’t remember when I wasn’t a reader.

Because I was an only child, and my father’s job required that we move every few years, I was often alone. I dealt with feeling lonely by making up stories. Everything in my room became a character: stuffed animals, dolls, Barbies, even our dogs and cats. The characters were the heart of the story, of course, but they were also my friends as I got to know and love them in stories so elaborate they could last a week or more. Each story was like a telenovela or soap opera in my bedroom, and those stories needed a lot of plot twists to hold my interest. Real life gave me plenty of ideas for those twists, but books gave me even more. Books didn’t limit me with pesky details like bedtime, the laws of gravity, or whether or not talking insects existed.  If my imagination was a spaceship, books were my rocket fuel.

One of my all-time favorites was The D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. No one had more problems than Greek gods! They were so thin-skinned and vindictive, and they saw the human world as their own personal chess board. I loved the power of the gods, but I also felt for us poor mortals, riddled with insecurity, bad decision-making skills, and a sad penchant for thinking Zeus and Hera had our best interests at heart.

I remember that around twelve I developed a soft spot for Medusa. If only people really thought about what Aphrodite had done to her, Medusa’s anger would have made so much more sense. What if Perseus had stopped for just a few minutes to listen to her and feel compassion for her lost beauty, instead of trying to kill her from the get-go? Maybe, I thought, they could have been friends. Maybe with a friend as resourceful and clever as Perseus, Medusa could have bargained her way out of Aphrodite’s curse. Maybe not. But I do know that for several weeks I spun that story around every toy in my bedroom. I was reading, then I was telling myself a story, then I was playing. I was also learning what it meant to see beyond first impressions, and not let the result of failure or victimization be the end of the story.

When I was about fourteen, my mother gave me Wuthering Heights. It was summer, and when it got too hot outside, I would come home and drop into my red plastic beanbag—my back sticky from the sodden DC humidity that no air conditioner could ever fully defeat. I finished the book in two days. Earlier that year I had begun my love affair with “old” novels like Pride and Prejudice, Emma, The Moonstone, and The Woman in White.  I found the women always smarter than everyone else, even when they were in the wrong, and I liked that after much soul searching, things worked out for the best for them, meaning in the interests of love. I relished the rich language and strange customs of Victorian England. What I noticed but didn’t dwell on was just how different almost all the characters were from me.

But something in me changed as I read Wuthering Heights. I didn’t identify with Catherine, I identified with Heathcliff. And I identified with him because, like me, he didn’t belong in Catherine’s world any more than I did. He was a dark other, and compared to Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Caddie Woodlawn, Marian Halcombe, Rachel Verinder, and even clever little old Ms. Marple, I was also a dark other. I couldn’t shake Heathcliff.

After Wuthering Heights, I went directly to Jane Eyre, and there it was again. The protagonist Jane was whip smart, independent, and certainly more fearless than I would have been in her circumstances, someone easy to admire, but the figure who caught my attention and heart was the madwoman in the attic, Mr. Rochester’s wife Bertha. Bertha and Heathcliff. Suddenly I realized that they represented where I existed in the canon of literature that I was subtly being taught to love. Like me, they existed on the margins.

This was a turning point for me. I didn’t stop loving Austen or Dahl or Christie, but I did start looking beyond my childhood bookshelf. I began looking for characters who looked and thought like me. I found writers like Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Gloria Naylor. And then, in my freshman year of college, I found Zora Neale Hurston. I read Their Eyes Were Watching God and I felt electrified. Like Austen, her culturally delicate work was literary scrimshaw, a small universe of incredible detail carved into two inches of ivory. Her Janie Mae Crawford walked me through all the feelings my independent young woman’s heart could hold. Zora Neale Hurston’s writings took feelings I had within me and made them manifest. In her writing I saw regular black folks in the glory of our language, the magic and mystery of the black south, the humor and nobility of our day-to-day existence, and the beauty of unfolding black womanhood.

By now I was a young woman and I no longer passed lazy afternoons acting my stories out with dolls. Instead, I read more. I read voraciously. When I wasn’t reading, I was in class talking about what I had read. My mind was filled with new ideas about blackness, girlhood, and how those two things played out in late 1980s America. Instead of searching for plot twists, I now read to understand the condition of being human, the condition of being black, the condition of being a women, the condition of being American. And by understanding my condition better, I also began to see how I wasn’t just any reader, I was a black girl reader. I was still part of the great human tribe of readers, but as a black girl reader I also needed to see my face and my struggles and my very particular condition rendered lovingly on the page.

By seeking and finding myself in books, I was able to make the journey from reader to writer, from my red bean bag to the pages of my own book. I became a black woman writer because books taught me how to love my mind as a black girl reader.

Zora Neale Hurston is that journey personified. To read her is to come alive to the joy of being a black girl reader. I can only hope that the Zora and Me series lets younger readers know that her work is out there, and it is waiting to help them discover just what kind of reader they are.

 

T. R. Simon is the co-author, with Victoria Bond, of the 2011 John Steptoe New Talent Author Award winner Zora and Me. She is also the co-author, with Richard Simon, of Oskar and the Eight Blessings, illustrated by Mark Siegel and winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature.  Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is the second book in the Zora and Me series and publishes September 2018 from Candlewick Press. T. R. Simon lives in Westchester County, New York.