What books are on your night stand?
“Memphis,” by Tara M. Stringfellow, “The School for Good Mothers,” by Jessamine Chan, and “All the Flowers Kneeling,” by Paul Tran.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois,” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Oh my goodness, it blew me away. It was devastating, but I couldn’t stop reading it. It still haunts me.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I love, love, love reading in bed freshly showered, preferably when it’s warm enough to open a window. Bonus points for the sound of rain and rustling leaves. It’s not always possible now because I have an 18-month-old baby and I am so very tired when I go to bed. Gone are the days of reading marathons until the wee hours. I used to literally sleep with books when I was single. I also read a lot in my office in the attic. I make a nest on my rug with blankets and pillows and other books. No one besides my husband is allowed to come up to my office unless they ask me for permission. A room of my own, you know? I’m a bit of an attic witch.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Story of the Eye,” by Georges Bataille. What in the world? LOL This was a doozy! I read it in high school and I’ve never forgotten it. Perhaps “favorite” is a strong word. More sexually bizarre than anything else. It was unforgettable, that’s for sure.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Oh boy. This question brings me both joy and anxiety. Let me try: Jesmyn Ward, Rebecca Solnit, Rigoberto González, Eduardo C. Corral, María Inés Zamudio, Reyna Grande, Phillip B. Williams, Jaxin Jackson, Isaac Gómez, Safiya Sinclair, Maria Hinojosa, Arundhati Roy, Paul Tran, Sandra Cisneros , Jennifer Fitzgerald, Louise Erdrich, Diane Seuss, Samantha Irby, Jason Reynolds, Natasha Tretheway, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodríguez, Pema Chodron and countless others.
Your new book is a memoir, but you’ve also published poetry and young adult fiction. What other cross-genre writers do you particularly recommend?
Elizabeth Acevedo is a national treasure. She does so many things well while being a lovely person. Read everything she writes. My friend Safiya Sinclair is also extraordinary. She’s an incredible poet whose memoir will be out soon. I’ve had a glimpse of it, and I can’t wait to read the rest. Poets really know how to write a sentence. But I’m biased, of course.
What distinguishes young adult literature from adult literature, for you?
I think it would have to be voice. Young people need to be able to connect to the protagonist on a deep level, and that means understanding their worldview at that age as well as capturing what they truly sound like. That’s why YA is usually written in first person. I think you must write YA with your inner teenager at the forefront of your mind. You need to remember how incredibly uncomfortable it can be to simply exist. The language should also be accessible but still spicy. Kids really do see through our bull and have shorter attention spans.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
Sometimes I keep reading books that I think are terrible because it’s weirdly satisfying to me. There was a book, for instance, that I threw across the room because it was so poorly written. It hurt my feelings. But then I kept reading it and telling my boyfriend how bad it was. It was a “Sex and the City” rip-off with Latina characters that felt very one-dimensional. I’ll leave it at that.
You used to write an advice column about sex and love. What authors are especially good on those topics?
Toni Morrison writes about sex and desire in a way that makes me want to close the book and pray to the sky. “Paradise” comes immediately to mind. The way Lisa Taddeo in “Animal” writes about sex makes me gasp and shudder. That book blew my mind.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I’ve been reading about the horrors of slavery since I was a child. As a girl, I read all sorts of books that were not appropriate for my age. However, there were some forms of violence that I had never read about until “The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois.” That book was an emotionally difficult but necessary read. There were details that I can’t share here out of context because they were so horrific, but the intergenerational trauma I learned about in this text left me shaken and angry.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Money. White authors often write about money (or don’t) in a way that disregards the realities of most people. It’s as if they assume that everyone simply has it. Or at least their readers. I remember reading “Fear of Flying,” by Erica Jong, many years ago, for instance, and getting very angry when the protagonist went to Europe for months with no concern for money or a job. I assumed she was relying on family money, but it was never explained. It took me out of the text because I couldn’t get over it. Maybe it’s because I grew up working class and money was a factor in everything we did. Marginalized people could never in their wildest dreams make these kinds of choices. That’s why I always write about the financial realities of my characters. I don’t expect everyone to assume what they are. Those details really matter to me.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
A beautiful image can really knock the mess out of me. I’m a poet before anything, so I need all my senses to be awakened in anything I read. The tiniest details make a world of difference.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I need them to intersect. A good book for me will make me think and feel deeply — and likely cry, likely startling my family.
How do you organize your books?
I don’t! Most of them are in my attic shelved willy-nilly because I’m disorganized as hell. Every time I need a book, I have to scan all my shelves and piles throughout the house to find it and it takes an eternity. It causes me anxiety when I really need to refer to a book and I can’t find it. I have paid my stepkids small sums to find books for me. I have notions of organizing them by genre and then arranged alphabetically, but I don’t know when I will ever have the bandwidth to actually do it. Perhaps I’ll just wait until I can ask my daughter to be the family librarian. She’s currently 18 months old.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Probably Gillian Flynn books. I’m typically not into thrillers, but her books are so pleasurable to read. I can stay up all night reading them because I simply can’t live without knowing what happens next. Her her women characters her are so flawed and broken and interesting. Those are my favorite kind of characters for reasons that are probably very obvious.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Ifemelu from “Americanah,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Amy Dunne from “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn. Complicated ladies, am I right?
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I always try to read widely, so I don’t know that my tastes have changed much. My interests are all over the place. I just love beautifully written books that will enrich my life in some form, usually written by women. Recently, I did try to incorporate more fantasy books into my life since I teach many of students who are interested in the genre, but I realized that I’m simply not built for it. None of it sticks in my brain. I have a hard time entering completely invented worlds. I need to be more grounded in something I recognize. I think it’s a “me” problem.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Gabriel García Márquez. They’ve all been major influences on my work. Imagine the banter! The cackles! The shade! The clouds of cigarette smoke!
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
An entire book by Borges, “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, “Pedro Páramo,” by Juan Rulfo, and “To the Lighthouse,” by Virginia Woolf. They are all hovering over me making me feel like a bad literary citizen. I used to be slightly ashamed of never having read Harry Potter, but I have made peace with it now. It’s not my thing. Honestly, I always feel under-read. I don’t think that will ever change for me. I have mountains of books in my office that I’m eager to take on but have little time for.
What do you plan to read next?
“The 1619 Project.” It feels like a very urgent read right now.