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Shelf Awareness Book Brahmin Interview, May 24, 2013

On your nightstand now:
Arnold Rampersad's biography, The Life of Langston Hughes. Rampersad is nearly as lyrical as his subject's writing. Reading the biography right after Langston Hughes's own two volume memoir (The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander) is a joyful dip into the world of a man with the biggest heart imaginable, who revolutionized American poetry by writing in African American vernacular. Stanzas like "Good morning, Daddy!/Ain't you heard/The boogie-woogie rumble/Of a dream deferred" set critics rumbling about low-down trash-talk, and why would anybody want to read that? But within a few decades he became one of America's premier poets.

Favorite book when you were a child:
Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost, a coming-of-age tale about an adventurous girl who explores deep woods on her own. I too loved to wander in the woods as a child. "Where does this path lead?" I'd wonder, eager to traipse on. And still feel the same joy today.

Your top five authors:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose beautiful Half of a Yellow Sun is a powerful portrait of Biafrans in the Nigerian civil war.

Langston Hughes. His poetry and prose still sing.

Zora Neale Hurston, the marvelous, free-spirited author of my favorite book, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Alice Walker, whose gift for showing the love beneath life's chaos astonishes and delights me.

A toss-up between James Baldwin--oh he of the razor-sharp mind--and a writer he eviscerated, William Faulkner, whose own prose is also brilliant, even as his "traditional white southern" views limited his vision.

Book you've faked reading:
Believe me, I've tried to read James Joyce's Ulysses--but never got past page 5.

Book you're an evangelist for:
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, a poetic novel about a young woman's zestful awakening to her own power.

Book you've bought for the cover:
I'm a sucker for matte covers with bits of shiny art, which, amazingly, is the cover I ended up with, through no act of my own, with Mama's Child. How does the universe do this?

Books that changed your life:
Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Franz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks both taught me about internalized oppression--and how to beat back those nasty "You're second-rate" messages in our heads with action.

Favorite line from a book:
"Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candlesticks." William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

Book you most want to read again for the first time:
James McBride's The Color of Water, because it is suffused with love, as well as the fascinating story of an unusual family. The book has two voices--white mother, biracial son--which inspired Mama's Child, also written in two voices: white mother and biracial daughter.

Why are you so riveted to race?
Because it is such a freighted topic in the United States, much like class in England. It's very hard for any of us to drop the racial lens when we interact with each other--yet the characters in my novels keep on trying. And so, in real life, do I.

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