Glory Edim just wanted to talk about books with her friends.
At least, that’s how her book club, Well-Read Black Girl, got started. She began posting about new books she looked forward to reading on Instagram, and decided to do an in-person discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. That meeting was transformative for Edim and the other women in attendance. “Some people were crying, people just really got into what made the book emotional for them,” she said in an interview.
It was an intimate gathering of 10 or so avid readers; now, two years later, the group has ballooned to over 40, not counting the growing online community Edim has garnered, or the book lovers who turned out to her recent events at the Brooklyn Museum or The Strand. In the future, Edim wants to open satellite chapters in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and anywhere else there’s interest.
But for now, she’s just excited to spotlight authors, both established and forthcoming. Below, she raves about some of her favorites.
How did your book club come about?
Originally, it was something that I had started with the intent of just making new friends and having it be a small thing I was doing with friends from college. My boyfriend, for my birthday, had made me this shirt that said “well-read black girl” ― I’ve always been a little bit of a bibliophile, books everywhere. So when people would see this shirt, they’d inquire about it and want to know, “Oh, where did you get it?” So I was like, oh, this is a catchy name, this is something I could use for the book club.
I work in marketing, so it was my natural inclination to end up using Instagram to spark conversation. I noticed that other people started following along, asking for suggestions or my book recommendations, so I started to do a newsletter dedicated to this idea of paying tribute to black women writers and to amplify their voices. So that’s how it got started, from a T-shirt to an Instagram to this whole movement two years later. For lack of a better word, it was kind of a selfish idea. I just love books.
So it started online, and then you started meeting in person.
One book that I was reading at the time was The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson. The Ta-Nehisi Coates book was kind of a test run, but then with Naomi’s book, I ended up meeting her […] and asking her to participate. When I made that ask, I didn’t anticipate that she would say yes. And she decided that she would come and talk to us about the book. That was the first Well-Read Black Girl event. She read a passage from the book, and she told us about her creative process, and even what happened when she had the book as a draft. I give so much credit to Naomi, because without her encouragement I probably wouldn’t have gone full-fledged and continued so adamantly about inviting people and building a community. And her friend Natalie Diaz joined her at the discussion, so it was like, two-for-one.
So Naomi was like, you should talk to Angela Flournoy, she has her new book The Turner House coming out. So then that became our next book and we invited her to come speak. So it kind of snowballed, gaining momentum slowly.
It wasn’t this massive group of people. It was very intimate. It felt like you could ask questions that were just in context. Some of the questions weren’t about Naomi’s book, it was like, how did you feel when you were a 13-year-old girl? It became a larger discussion about mental illness, and how you define black girlhood. All these things started to emerge from the book club. It was very affirming to have other women nodding, saying, “Yes, I felt the same way when I read this paragraph.” Clearly you want to talk about the book, but it’s also a great space to be like, “Hey, girl, what’s happening in your world? We support you and help you through whatever you’re going through.”
It sounds like an intimate space. How do you maintain that as the book club grows?
It’s 35 or 40 people ― it’s a lot larger. This year we kicked off a partnership with New Women’s Space, a community center, almost. They host workshops and do panels. It kind of runs the gamut. We changed the schedule so we meet the last Saturday of every month. Our first meeting there was in January, when we did Brit Bennett’s book The Mothers. And we’re reading Zadie Smith’s book Swing Time right now.
When I think about the intimacy, it is harder to maintain when it compares to the 10 women I started with. But those 10 women are still part of the group. They help facilitate the conversation. It’s very democratic, so we rotate who moderates. I’m very into fluid conversation. We break into groups to have conversations one-on-one, then come together to have a group dialogue. We go to the movies together, go to concerts together, do other things outside of the book club. Friendships are forming.
It’s also very intergenerational. I’ve had moments when moms and daughters come, too. Last summer we were reading the book We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and this girl came with her mom. Like, oh, this is so cool.
Is there any way for readers who aren’t in New York to participate?
One thing I’m testing out this year that I’m really excited about is using Facebook Live more, live streaming in order to share the experience. I’m also hoping to spread more chapters throughout the U.S. I’m going to be in LA in April, and I’m planning to host a book club and a few events up there. The same idea for D.C., Chicago and Atlanta. I’m laying the groundwork for it and finding people that are ambassadors.
How do you choose the books you read?
Initially, it was a little bit of the Oprah’s Book Club mentality. But now I’m fielding requests from different people, especially members of the book club, if they have suggestions around genres we should read. I tend to really love historical fiction and contemporary fiction, but there are so many genres ― mysteries, sci-fi, romance novels ― so I am trying to be more democratic about the process and how I select books. I don’t have a precise way, I just read a book and if I enjoy it, I want to share it.
The two primary things are emerging authors, so people who have debut books. I am looking to build space for authors who may not get a lot of mainstream press and publicity. It’s kind of tied with popularity, what does everyone want to read right now? So everyone was excited about Swing Time. Zadie Smith will not be at the book club tomorrow [laughs], but it was such a popular book last year.
Have you ever considered working classics into the fold, or do you want to focus more on new books?
Well, this month, because it’s Black History Month, I’ve been doing additional events, because not everyone can come to the book club, and I do want us to be a space where everyone can participate. So I did something at the Brooklyn Museum, and we read Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. We had a massive turnout. It happened right after the Women’s March, so there were a lot of great conversations about, what were the benefits, and how can we be more mindful of including everyone’s voice when it comes to activism and protest. We used Lorde’s essay, “The Uses of Anger,” as a blueprint, looking at how to approach things when you’re frustrated and angry.
I am looking more at more academic presses, and what they’re publishing, especially post-election. It’s paramount for us to be aware of how to shape our activism. So I had a discussion with Dorothy E. Roberts at Strand last week ― it was the 20th anniversary of her book Killing the Black Body, a much heavier, more academic book. It really tied in well with everything that’s happening right now around reproductive justice. So I am being very conscious about the books and the conversations in the context of our larger political landscape, which originally was not a goal of mine. It was more of a leisurely entertainment space. But like most people, after November I saw a shift in my consciousness and what I wanted to put out publicly.
What are some of the forthcoming titles you’re excited to read?
Let me think. Oh ― oh, I mean: Roxane Gay. Come on. Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, I’m absolutely obsessed with. I just started it. I just love her work, as an author, an activist, and just being so bold and outspoken. I haven’t had an opportunity to meet her, but just reading from Bad Feminist to Untamed State, her work is incredible. That’s something that’s on our horizon for the book club.
There’s also a book that I’ve talked about a couple of times, but it’s just so beautifully written. It’s called Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins. She actually passed away several years ago, at around age 40. Her daughter found her journals and old writing samples, and pulled it together and made this book on behalf of her mother, and it’s absolutely riveting. Kathleen was also a filmmaker, so her stories are these really tight scenes, and you can visualize everything she’s writing. That’s also a book that we’re planning to read.
There’s a book called The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso. I just got that book, and it looks really good. The epigraph is this whole statement about walls, and if that is not timely, I don’t know what is.
Both of my parents are Nigerian and I’m first generation, so I have a fondness for Nigerian writers. There’s an author, Ayobami Adebayo, her book is called Stay With Me, and this is her debut book. It’s about the political turbulence in the 1980s in Nigeria. Both of my parents were in this war ― it was our Civil War; Chimamanda Adichie has written about it. Jesmyn Ward is coming out with a new book in September, Sing, Unburied, Sing. She’s amazing ― Salvage the Bones, what? She’s on my dream list of people to meet and interview.