Edim talks visibility, book clubs, and her favorite Black women authors.
By Lianna Matt
Illustration By Grace Molteni
Glory Edim’s literary crusade to bring Black women authors to the forefront started with a T-shirt her partner Opiyo Okeyo made for her. He emblazoned the words “Well-Read Black Girl” onto the fabric, along with the phrase “Erudita Puella Africae” (Educated Girls in Africa) and some of Edim’s favorite authors. It wasn’t just a shirt — when Edim wore it, it was a conversation starter. Black women who were total strangers would approach Edim about the authors on her shirt, and they would talk about how those women made them think more deeply about culture, identity, and literature.
Edim didn’t want those conversations to end, so in 2015 she created a Well-Read Black Girl Instagram account; the first post was an image of the T-shirt that was the catalyst for Edim’s movement. No caption, no long manifesto. Just the shirt stating, “Well-Read Black Girl,” a simple yet powerful statement for a simple but powerful mission to bring Black women writers — and readers — to the forefront.
The community latched on and didn’t let go.
Since then, Well-Read Black Girl has expanded to include a bimonthly newsletter and an in-person, monthly book club. Word has it Edim will even be dropping an announcement about her September literary festival soon (stay tuned!).
Largely because of Edim’s social presence and its enthusiastic following, she thinks Black women authors are finally getting more of the attention they deserve.
“It’s because of the support of social media, influencers, and literary advocates coming out and saying, ‘Hey, this is going to be talked about,’” says Edim. “It can’t be just one person; Well-Read Black Girl isn’t an individual project.”
In addition to the book festival, Edim is hoping to host monthly Twitter chats, satellite book clubs, and more author speakers — all to-dos to add on top of her day job as a Publishing Outreach Specialist for Kickstarter and her role as a board member for Housing Works, a nonprofit organization and volunteer-run bookstore, café and event space that fights AIDS and homelessness.
Despite Edim’s robust schedule, she found time to chat with me about Well-Read Black Girl’s growing community.
Lianna Matt: You have interviewed authors such as Tanwi Nandini Islam and Rebecca Traister for Design*Sponge, and you always ask a question that I’m going to ask you: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
Glory Edim: I am very inquisitive, and I like to explore what’s on the page. I’m interested [in] how people come to their realities for what inspires their storytelling, the details behind the story, giving things context.
Living in New York, you spend so much time on the subway, so I’m constantly reading on the subway. I read right before bed, but those are more academic books, books more than 600 pages — those are my kind of bedside books, if it’s a really long book that I can’t throw in my bag. I’m basically still reading the Marlon James book [A Brief History of Seven Killings]. It’s been almost a year because I’m doing two pages at a time, but it’s still very therapeutic for me.
LM: Since you started the Well-Read Black Girl Instagram account, you’ve added an e-newsletter, a book club, and have hinted at an upcoming festival. When was the moment you realized that you wanted Well-Read Black Girl to be more than a social media account?
GE: I’ve always self-identified as a Black feminist, ever since I was 18 years old. This idea of creating a really beautiful space for Black women came very naturally, and the turning point for me was seeing the reaction from different women. I wanted to be able to be very mindful of the space, and when you have something on Twitter or on Facebook or on Instagram, there’s only so far you can go in terms of connecting to people. Intimacy is [having] direct conversations in person, and that’s what makes Well-Read Black Girl very special — the one-on-one conversations with one another. I’m doing my best to recreate that intimacy online, but it’s very important to be sitting next to each other, holding the book, looking each other in the eye.
LM: You say that you’ve been a Black feminist since you were 18. How did college change how you thought about yourself and your love of literature?
GE: I think my racial consciousness grew when I attended Howard University. I remember reading my first June Jordan book — she’s a phenomenal, radical poet — and it was a really monumental turning point on how I viewed myself and how I viewed the world. She was the first person who gave me the words to articulate how I felt being a Black women.
[Jordan] wrote this incredible book called Naming Our Destiny, and she was just incredibly self-determined, and her words were powerful. All the things I felt inside — the doubts I had — were erased by reading her text. How I was feeling was valid, and I think there’s something to be said to creating that environment for Black women and girls, footed in literature with love, solidarity, and conversations that are supporting and uplifting.
My mother was very ill when I was in college, and I wasn’t able to go to her for advice — because I didn’t want to put even more on her — so I would pick up a book. I would read a poem by June Jordan or a book by Alice Walker. Books were a proxy for me. They became a space where I could have some comfort. They taught me about myself, especially in college, where you’re learning so much more about yourself. I think it’s so valuable to read things that give you a sense of being. Read to better yourself and to feel like a whole person.
LM: You talk about wanting a space for Black women. How do book clubs — or even dialogues about books — create that space, and why is it so important?
GE: I think every book club meeting allows us to engage in dialogue and have multiple viewpoints to discuss feminism, talk about multiple relationships, work dynamics, motherhood, and everyday experiences through a literary lens. Being in a room together, there’s a sense of commonality that allows us to bond and connect with one another. Because there tends to be a lot of negative stereotypes when it comes to Black women or people of color, I find it important to combat that by having positive examples and making the space very affirming and uplifting, transparent, and vulnerable. When you’re talking about a book like [Brit Bennett’s] The Mothers, there are these things that come up that exposes one’s vulnerability: That’s when we’re connecting.
I think it’s pretty obvious fiction shapes how people think and how people empathize with others. After I read a book, I gauge how truly touched by it I am. If I feel angry or I want to cry, if I feel some sort of mood or I’m talking out loud to myself, that’s how I know it’s a good book.
LM: What was one of your favorite childhood books and why?
GE: There is one book that I see in my head. It’s called Honey I Love, and it’s a book of poems. It was originally part of the Reading Rainbow Series. And the author is Eloise Greenfield. It’s [about] 14 poems, but the reason I loved it was that on the cover was a little silhouette of a black girl and you see your afro.
When I was little, I was like, “I look like this girl!” And, you know, my mom would indulge me and say, “Oh that’s you!” and read the poems replacing the “I” with my name. It was one of those things where, before bedtime or bath, Mom would read me one poem.
Really, the cover was my absolute favorite part. It’s the first time I saw a young Black girl in a book. I read The Babysitter’s Club and Little Women, but I don’t remember seeing myself until I got into college, really. A lot of the time I would imagine characters and put myself into stories, but there was never a visual representation until college, like, “That’s me,” you know?
LM: You were interviewed by Marie Claire last year and something you said struck me: “If diversity is something publishers are truly committed to, they’ll begin embracing social media in a more dynamic way and engage communities and promote Black literature.” Reading the interview, I was struck by how you emphasized social media as the way for publishers to be better publishers. Could you go more into that?
GE: Books that really sell in publishing are almost a birth-right. People’s access to opportunities like having a literary agent, or knowing how to write a proposal — those can be really intimidating things for people. Social media, to a certain degree, levels the playing field. It finds spaces to highlight new work, to workshop ideas, to find a community to support and uplift it. It can be used as a driver to help publishers notice that the audience is engaged and wants to read that work.
Too often people are like, “It’s not going to sell, it’s not going to make the New York Times list,” and those seem like really lame excuses when there are definitely ways to find new work from people of color. If people want to do the legwork, then they will. I think my platform has shown that for sure. Plenty of readers who respond and write emails are curious about it and are excited to read about the books I recommend. If I can do that with an Instagram account and enthusiasm, what can a publisher do with the power of financial support and staff behind them?
LM: Last question: Can you tell me a bit more about the September book festival?
GE: I can only tell you this: Mark your calendars for May 22, when I may or may not be making a special announcement.
Lianna Matt is a Twin Cities-based journalist who loves that she can use her job as an excuse to meet the intelligent, ambitious, and world-changing. If you’re ever looking to win her over on something, popcorn, dogs, or an open ice rink is a good place to start. Follow her on Twitter @LiannaMatt.
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.