Glory Edim remembers her most life-changing moments by the notes penned within the margins of the book she was reading at the time. "The way people use music to remember certain time periods and important moments," Edim told me. "That's how I use books."
Edim has immersed herself in the world of literature, specifically literature written by women of color, so much so that during our conversation I make a list of the books she's mentioning, the books she recommends (The Perfect Find by Tia Williams, The Mothers by Britt Bennett, Grace by Natashia Deon, I’m Not Judging You by Awesomely Luvvie).
A community manager at KickStarter by day, Edim launched her own book club called Well-Read Black Girl in August 2015. It started as a way to get together with some of her closest girlfriends in New York City. In the past year, Edim has built a following of women on the web with a devoted community of subscribers to her weekly newsletter and thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter.
"I like talking about books, and I like reading stories because in the real world when life is so, so stressful and there are so many things happening that are not pleasant, it’s nice to have a story to escape that and to an entire other world, even if it’s temporary," Edim said. "It’s a form of self-care. Let’s laugh at this. Let’s have some distance from what’s happening in the world, and have some perspective and talk about things through these stories."
Since its founding, Well-Read Black Girl has become a place for black women to support other black women. Every author from the books of the month attends a meeting and talks to the 30 or so diehard members. Edim's dream list of book clubbers: Oprah and Ava DuVernay and Shonda Rhimes.
I chatted with Well-Read Black Girl founder Glory Edim about reading black women authors, how to pick books for a book club, and the book that changed her perspective on life and success.
Tell me a little bit about how you came to start your book club Well-Read Black Girl.
It was really not this conscious decision. I am a big bookworm, and when I moved to New York I was bombarding my boyfriend with book stories. I was like, I read this book and this happened and this happened. He was the one to be like, you should start a book club, you should get out of this hole of just talking to me. It was really just him being encouraging.
Did you have close girlfriends to talk to in New York City?
I moved here in 2012, so I didn’t really know a lot of people. I had some connections from school, I went to Howard. But it was totally a transition from living in DC, where it feels like more connected and you meet people really easily, you just go to U Street. In DC, there’s not really the difference of you live in Brooklyn versus Harlem versus the Bronx to connect with people. It’s just 15 minutes away. I was having my own little issues with just trying to connect to people. My friends were here, but us getting together in one place was really hard. The book club became an easy way for us to be like, we’re all going to get together, we’re going to read this book, and we’re going to meet and have brunch and catch up. It started off that way.
It started as more of a catch-up with some friends than a statement on black women and books.
It wasn’t me trying to address anything in publishing or even trying to have a bigger stance. It really was just a book club with some girlfriends talking about Amber Rose and talking about books at the same time. On top of it, my boyfriend also made me this shirt that I started wearing to the gym and it said Well-Read Black Girl and folks were coming up to me like, "Where did you get that shirt?" They thought it was affiliated with Black Girl Magic. But that also started something. I was like, okay, this resonates with people, maybe I should really build something out.
When did you introduce the Instagram and Twitter accounts?
We started off on email in September. Our first book was by Naomi Jackson and it’s called The Star Side of Bird Hill. We ended up meeting at this place called Friends and Lovers. There was about 15 of us at that time. I had met Naomi at Greenlight Bookstore at her reading and I was just like yo, I have this Instagram, we’re reading your book, would you mind coming to speak to us? I didn’t know what her response would be because the book had just come out, it was super popular, and she was on tour at the time and traveling to Barbados to do book promotions. But she was super cool about it. My boyfriend ended up recording the whole event, so we have footage of Naomi talking. It became this really rich experience where we were fan-girling over her, there was this instant chemistry in the room. Then I put some stuff on Instagram and start doing my newsletter just to encourage other people outside of my circle to join in.
How has Well-Read Black Girl grown since then?
The listserv is a lot bigger now, but my in-real-life Well-Read Black Girls, we have a group text. It’s probably about 25 to 30 of us each time we meet. Then I have people who follow, but aren’t based in Brooklyn and want me to like bring it to London or DC or LA. So, I’m trying to figure out what that looks like and how to spread the word in that way. Right now, we have about three thousand [newsletter] subscribers. It’s crazy. But I’m also one human. People always think there are a lot of people behind it. I’m glad I’m projecting a lot bigger, but it’s just me on the internet.
I just finished Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. That was your book of the month for June, and you had a Twitter Q&A with her. How did that book resonate with you?
I’m also first generation, both my parents are Nigerian. When I was at Howard I was super stressed with trying to figure out genealogy. I really wanted to figure out how to find my American ancestors, because I know exactly who my family in Nigeria is, but I was like, is there a way to see who was brought over? I know it sounds like super ludicrous, but there is no way to find that out. In my mind, I remember being a freshman and going into the Schomburg Center and trying to figure it out. Reading Homegoing made me feel composure around that. She creates this narrative where, if this did happen, if you could see your lineage in a really clear way, this is possibly what it would look like.
I totally relate to how you want to go back to find your ancestors and figure out how your family got here. I always wonder, should I get an Ancestry.com test so I can maybe see where I come from and what my heritage is? I feel like there are so many black American kids who don’t know their history beyond slavery.
Going to Howard, you automatically feel that sense of pride in your racial identity. I didn’t realize until I left Howard how that isn’t commonplace, that doesn’t happen in everyday life unless your family is instilling that into you. Everywhere else in the world you’re operating in a space of white supremacy and you leave Howard and it just hits you. You’re in this wonderful bubble for four years with access to black pride all the time then when you leave, you have to assimilate to the regular world.
I found that really disorienting. And like you, I’m constantly trying to figure out where our traditions lie. That’s why books are so important because that’s where you get this knowledge from. When you’re reading a book, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction, it allows you to create your own narrative and amplify what you’re trying to instill. I don’t have a family yet, but when I do I’m gonna make my kid read Homegoing. I’m gonna make my daughter read The Bluest Eye. All of these books, it’s like a syllabus of life in the voice of a black women.
When did you read The Bluest Eye?
I remember when I read it at Howard. It was so heartbreaking, but it was so powerful. Pecola, she exemplifies resilience. She is this person who the world completely turned against. They do not find her beautiful, but she is able to find her own beauty and endure. I feel like as a black woman that is so much of our story: enduring. But in the endurance there is also beauty. Even in Homegoing and the way she describes the characters, she’s constantly describing them as beautiful, regal, natural. You just feel the beauty in her writing and her just being like, this what my people look like and they are outstanding.
Aside from The Bluest Eye, do you remember the first book you read by a black woman?
One of my favorite authors is Marita Golden. She wrote a book called Migrations of the Heart. It was just about her trying to figure out her American identity, but also embracing her new African identity through her marriage, and what happens when you separate and you have to return to the United States. I remember being like, wow, because it was her memoir, and I hadn’t read anything that was non-fiction that resonated with me in that way. It just made me feel like I wanna be a more vulnerable person, I want to have more experiences, I want to be more authentic and honest.
If you can tell your story and you can share the difficult things in your life and also the joyful things, they still carry the same weight and you can still be a whole person. What made [her story] so amazing is that she was under the age of 25 and she did all these things. I learned there is no rule to how you live your life or how adventurous you can be, or how things can go wrong and you can just start over and do something else. It doesn’t stop. It gave me a huge perspective on life and how you’re constantly a transforming and reinventing and growing person.
What do you love about reading stories by black women?
Every time I read something I legitimately cry, all the time. I laugh out loud. I feel like I have an intimate relationship with each story. Each person has a story inside of them, and when a black woman does it just feels powerful, it feels uplifting, and it needs to be heard. There are not a lot of spaces where black women are really just number one, we have to create these spaces, we have to have black girl magic because the mainstream world isn’t going to do it for us. We have to cultivate those spaces and care for one another and nurture one another, so when I’m reading these books I’m like, that’s my girl. That’s the person I want to support because they look like me, they feel like me, and their story resonates with me. Of course, there have been things I’ve read where I’m like, maybe it wasn’t my favorite, but because a black woman wrote it, I’m still going to support it.
And with Well-Read Black Girl, you're creating a space to introduce other women to these stories.
I’m still always taken aback by the responses I get because I feel like this should already exist in the world. If I can get someone to buy Nicole’s book, to buy Yaa’s book, to even be aware of their existence, I feel like I’ve done my duty. When I first started, it was more like let’s have fun, let’s meet together, but now I feel like people are listening to me and I have a platform. It’s not just black women. I get responses from white women, too. Even with that I’m surprised. I definitely don’t want to deter other people, I want it to feel inclusive. But first and foremost, as a black woman, that’s my priority. Us first, and if everyone else wants to come along that’s great. You can come along too, but don’t come asking me to read something by Natalie Portman or something random. If you’re an ally and you want to be supportive, I am more than welcoming of that.
A lot of your Well-Read Black girl followers are online, but what do you find important or comforting about IRL meetings?
The most important thing is affirmation, to have a space where you can just tell stories, you can see yourself in the stories, you can love yourself, love your culture, love your heritage, and what it means to be a black woman. There aren’t a lot of spaces for that to happen, and because my book club has become that space I cherish that and I want more people whether it’s online or off to have a place where you can go find someone who looks like you, someone who respects you, and someone who wants to uplift you. If there could be more Well-Read Black Girls nationwide I’m down for that. And at the same time, it holds publishers accountable too. There’s constantly all this talk about oh, there’s not an audience for that, and every time my book club comes together and meets in real life, that just discounts that narrative. There is a space and there is an audience. We are that audience.
Well-Read Black Girl is hosting an IRL event with authors Nicole Dennis-Benn (Here Comes The Sun) and Tiphanie Yanique (Land of Love) at Housing Works Bookstore next Wednesday. Follow their newsletter for their book club selection for the month of September.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.