I’ve always found comfort in books, and they were especially comforting as a kid. Between the pages of Harriet the Spy, Matilda, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women I found camaraderie with other girls outside of my network of friends. I was inspired by the boldness of Harriet, Matilda’s intelligence, Anne’s quirkiness, and Jo’s tenacity. Reading their stories made it a little less challenging for me to navigate through an extremely awkward stage in my life. I encountered these characters during their formative years as they struggled to make peace with a world that isn’t always kind to girls challenging gender roles. And they were triumphant. Not because they always did the right thing, but because they were searching for their voices. They wanted to be heard, so they asked questions and challenged authority. And they were determined to be themselves. As my literary palate matured I held onto those characters, and gathered more from the works of Zora Neale Hurston, J. California Cooper, and Octavia Butler; voices that spoke to me as a Black women.
It was via Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God that I learned more about the risks and rewards of being a free woman. Janie’s grandmother arranged her first marriage in an effort to provide Janie some stability, an arrangement Janie found confining. After two marriages, Janie committed herself to a life orchestrated on her terms. She gave herself permission to fall in love with another man, Tea Cake, and leave for Jacksonville, FL. For the first time Janie felt free. From that day on, Janie was uncompromising in her quest for autonomy and that made people around her uncomfortable. She refused to play by the rules. And that made her dangerous. Janie provided this bit of wisdom to her friend about living a full life,
“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Despite being somewhat ostracized for her audaciousness, Janie was committed to sharing her journey with others. She walked back into her hometown dressed in overalls to share her story of love, struggle and self-preservation. In sharing her story, Janie built the pulpit her grandmother was unable to find and preached a sermon about “colored women sittin’ on high.” And in the process freed a little piece of all of us. She was the narrator of her own story, and a testimony to recognizing the humanity of Black women.
Books with narrators tend to evoke a sense of familiarity. J. California Cooper’s work is a prime example. Cooper is committed to using narrators, and her characters tend to ooze from her pages. Her work is often described as simple, of the down home variety, partly due to her colloquial style and because her books provide bits of wisdom. The narrators are often older women; the settings small towns; the subject tends to be about love; the supporting cast may not be the most trustworthy or upstanding, but Cooper guides you to their humanity. She finds redemption when most people see castaways. And what’s particularly admirable is she does this primarily in short stories. When you’re finished you don’t feel deprived. You feel loved. And you want to pass along the stories. Homemade Love is my favorite volume of her short stories and her description sums up my feelings about her books:
“I choose the name “Homemade Love” because it is love that is not bought, not wrapped in fancy packaging with glib lines that often lie. Is not full of false preservations that may kill us in one way or another. Is usually done from the bottom up, with care, forethought, planning and consideration for others.”
Consideration for others is what I would consider to be a basic tenant of humanity. No author makes me consider what it means to be human like Octavia Butler. Her genius was her ability to bend space and time coupled with the “isms” of the world in the sci-fi and fantasy genre. Butler says she was attracted to sci-fi because of the lack of boundaries, and when you read her work, you know she knows no bounds. I’ve always been particularly drawn to her parable series: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. It’s classic dystopian fiction that revolves around the economic, environmental and social destruction of the United States viewed through the eyes of the young protagonist, Lauren Olamina. Lauren suffers from “hyperempathy” a condition that causes her to experience other people’s pain. She is particularly vulnerable after her gated community is destroyed and her family is killed. Lauren finds herself alone and facing a nation constantly in pain. And with her condition it hurts. Literally.
Through Lauren, Butler asks us to imagine a more empathetic world. Her condition and the state of the country inspire her to create a religion built on the idea that “God is Change.” She gathers a group of believers and creates a community, Earthseed, with the ultimate goal to leave Earth and establish a community amongst the stars. The uneasiness of the story rests on the likelihood that the anarchy depicted in the book will one day become our reality. It feels like foreshadowing. Butler called it a warning. The difference is Lauren’s plan to leave, may not be an option for us.
Lauren is a powerful characterful. There’s something inspiring about a young Black woman building a community, positioning herself as a prophet, and leading others to freedom. Butler doesn’t offer her up as perfect. Lauren suffers from self-doubt many times over, but she keeps pushing. She’s resilient.
Janie Crawford’s free spirit, J. California Coopers’ down home characters, and Octavia Butler’s powerful female characters hold a special place in my literary toolbox. In adulthood reading has served as a refuge, affirmed my struggles and desires, and prompted great conversations about life. In a world with few spaces to explore the complex realities of the lives of Black women, reading has aided in my survival.