Seattle's Black Voices -- For Authors Of Color, The Local Literary Scene Is Filled With Promise

It doesn't have the presses of Manhattan, the black neighborhoods of Atlanta, the black-owned media of Chicago or the African-American churches of Washington, D.C.

Still, Seattle's black literary scene burgeons with promise.

From writers whose reputations stretch nationwide to those getting their first publishing contract, authors appear to be gaining in prominence and number here, despite a relatively small black population of only 51,000, or so, in Seattle. As the rest of the country has learned, there is a growing literary market for African-American authors.

"I think that we are in a period where black writers have their best opportunity ever in the history of the country for having their work published," said Nellie Y. McKay, professor of American and Afro-American literature at the University of Wisconsin, and co-editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (Norton, $39.95). "It is a great time to be a black writer, much better than during the Harlem Renaissance."

That revival of page-turning is evident. African-American adults buy about 40 million books per quarter, according to an American Book Association/Gallup Poll taken last year. As long as blacks flex their economic muscles, "a continuous stream of new titles are coming to press," said Max Rodriguez, editor of Quarterly Black Review in New York, creating more opportunities for writers, and for those behind the scenes.

Following are sketches of some of the African-Americans authors in Seattle who are published.


Early in life, August Wilson learned a lesson on language. Penning a poem to Nancy Ireland, a seventh-grade classmate he had a crush on, Wilson left his love note without signing his name. After reading the poem, she winked at another guy she believed was her Romeo.

"That's when I became seriously interested in writing," Wilson said, "when I saw the effect it had on someone." But next time, he decided, to at least sign his name.

Since the mid-1980s, Wilson, one of the most celebrated playwright of our time, has been signing his name to a remarkable string of award-winning plays, including two that won , the Pulitzer Prize, for "Fences" in 1987 and "The Piano Lesson" in 1990. Often, he can be found in coffeehouses on Capitol Hill, where he lives, writing into the wee hours of the morning, without being disturbed, revealing a key reason why he moved here.

Brushing aside his mother's advice of becoming a lawyer, he instead dedicated himself to writing. Once, after composing a term paper for his sister, he took the $20 she gave him and bought a used typewriter, never thinking of earning his rent this way. He was simply "expressing the spiritual part of himself," the reason, he said, he still writes today.

Upon moving to Minnesota in 1978, he was urged by a friend to write plays, and soon gained notice. But once his goal changed to writing the best play, period, instead of writing to win awards, he grew far more successful. Shortly thereafter, his breakthrough came: "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

Wilson's plays examine the crucial issues blacks have faced each decade of this century, often describing tensions between those who embrace their past and those who deny it. Founder of a black theater company in his hometown of Pittsburgh, he frequently derides the lack of opportunities for black talent in theater.

Yet, his best moment came not in winning accolades, but in seeing the reaction of a Yugoslav family after they watched "Fences." The grandfather said, with tears in his eyes, the play reminded him of his father.

"That showed me how universal art can be, and that it transcended racial, geographical, as well as language barriers. I stood there, saying, `wow,' it was really true. What I discovered with Nancy Ireland was true" - that his writing could move people. "I had written a play that could do that."

Colleen J. McElroy

Colleen J. McElroy has ridden a Harley-Davidson across the Australian desert. She's dived in the Fiji Islands. The University of Washington professor and editor in chief of the writing journal, Seattle Review, travels to write, having been to a country that corresponds with every letter of the alphabet, except L and X.

"All those stories I hear when traveling force me to learn how to describe things," said the poet, novelist and two-time winner of both the Fulbright Fellowship and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. "I can't be complacent. If I see something wonderful, I must ask, what it is that makes it wonderful?"

Starting her career as a speech pathologist in Kansas City, McElroy, now 61, married and moved to Seattle where she pursued a doctoral degree from the UW, joining the English department in 1973. She met black female writers, who supported her, and she rewarded their faith.

McElroy has produced 13 books, two plays and several television scripts during her career. In 1985, she won the American Book Award for a collection of poetry, "Queen of the Ebony Isles."

When traveling, she searches for tales that transcend race, hunting for themes that remind her of stories she heard from grandmothers, from uncles and aunts. Race, she believes, is merely a starting point for learning about someone's story, and her writing reflects the complexities of culture and ethnicity.

"If I gave a reading to a group in Jordan, and women there say, `it reminds me of my mother,' I know I've got a good poem, or story. I didn't have to write about their mother for them to recognize I was writing about someone's mother."

Her next book, due in April, a travel memoir called, "A Long Way From St. Louie," describes McElroy herself in the world's mirror. "I'm sure virtual reality is wonderful," she said of traveling, "but the real thing is better."

Charles Johnson

In college, Charles Johnson made an offer that was hard to beat: He wrote essays for $5 each. And if fellow students didn't get an A, he handed their money back. Majoring in journalism at Southern Illinois University in the 1960s, his heart was set on becoming a cartoonist, but his interest changed to philosophy. Decades later, his "philosophic novels" have made him a literary standout.

His most widely praised book, "Middle Passage," recounted the life of an educated, freed slave, Rutherford Calhoun, who escapes responsibility by boarding the first boat he could find. It turns out the boat is a slave ship headed for Africa. Calhoun's loyalty teeters between his white crewmates and African tribesmen during a rebellion.

"The awards are nice, but when I was a kid, the only thing I wanted in life was the opportunity to create in great abundance," said Johnson, who, in 1990, won the National Book Award for fiction.

He was the first African-American male to be so honored since one of his idols, Ralph Ellison, won in 1953 for "Invisible Man."

"Nothing is more exciting than the creative process," said Johnson, 49, whose writing and critical reactions consume the latest issue of African American Review. "When I'm working on an essay, I'm in heaven. The real joy is the process of bringing something from your imagination into the real world. I discover something about myself every time."

He's learned to shun the yoke of spokesman for his race, avoiding literary pigeonholing, and sparking literary debate. But, as he dreamed of doing as a child, he's created works in great abundance, including a soon-to-be released anthology on African-American males, and an upcoming novel that wonders whether the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. could have been fulfilled. His screenplay for "Middle Passage" is expected to become a John Singleton-directed movie next year.

"For me, the heart and soul of life is learning, growth, evolution and giving back to others through art. That's what it is about for me."

Julia A. Boyd

Every month, Julia Boyd gets together with her "sister circle," a group of African-American women who talk, laugh, cry and, most of all, support each other. Those visits became the inspirational basis for her three books: the bestselling "In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem" (Plume $9.95); "Girlfriend to Girlfriend: Everday Wisdom and Affirmations for the Sister Circle" (Dutton, $19.95); and her latest book, "Embracing the Fire: Sisters Talk About Sex and Relationships," (Dutton, $19.95).

"Writing is something I do because I don't know what life would be without writing. I write all the time," said Boyd, a psychotherapist at Group Health and a single mother living in Federal Way.

Boyd, who's currently on a 20-city tour, often pencils thoughts on legal pads, Post-It notes or whatever's handy, recording what often becomes a character's voice in her books.

"When there's something on my mind, I write a page or a paragraph and get it out of my head."

The "sister circle" grew out of an anthology of Northwest female artists, who met at a reading and still largely meet today - no topic taboo - just like the mystical one in Boyd's books.

"A lot of what I write are things I need for myself," said Boyd, whose first book was published five years ago. " `In the Company of Sisters' came out of my issues, my struggle to obtain healthy self-esteem. The same with `Embracing the Fire.' It came out of my struggle with relationships."

Her latest book explores the delights and pitfalls of intimate relationships. Written in a breezy, conversational style, in sister-to-sister sass, Boyd, through the pages of her book, lets readers join in a "circle" of candor.

"I wanted to talk with my sisters," Boyd said, "not at them."

Esther Mumford

In the early 1860s, when Washington was a fledgling territory, William Grose moved to Seattle and opened a lunch counter and saloon on First Avenue. With his profits from a stint in the U.S. Navy, gold panning and other work, he lived his dream here for a while, the American dream. Another entrepreneur, Rebecca Howard, owned the Pacific Hotel in Olympia, where she once hosted President Rutherford B. Hayes. When she died in 1881, newspapers as far away as Walla Walla noted her death, since the lodge where many legislators stayed was closing.

If Esther Mumford, an author of several books on local African-American history, had not recorded the lives of early black settlers, the exceptional and the ordinary, those names may have been forgotten. But she couldn't let that happen - the joy of storytelling wouldn't let her.

"I wanted to give voice to people, who had been excluded from the historical record," said Mumford, who runs her own press called Anase, named after an African tale of a spider bringing knowledge down from heaven.

Born in Louisiana, Mumford grew up listening to her grandmother's stories of the Civil War. She later joined relatives in Seattle, where she refined her interest in history and graduated from the University of Washington in 1963.

By the mid-1970s, while working on a state project, she was recording oral histories of early residents. That led her to write books, such as "Seattle's Black Victorians: From 1852 to 1901" (Anase Press, $7.95), and "Calabash: A Guide To the History, Culture and Art of African Americans In Seattle and King County" (Anase Press, $9.95).

"I think we're all enriched knowing these things about history," Mumford said. "I see what I think are a lot of kids looking lost because they don't know where they came from. Maybe what I do will help."

Charlotte Watson Sherman

Since grade school, Charlotte Watson Sherman has loved to read. But she kept her love of writing to herself. "I thought I couldn't be a writer because I wasn't from Harlem," she recalled thinking. "Whoever had heard of a black writer from Seattle?"

With time, she learned otherwise, and by 1984, one of her poems was published in an anthology of black female artists (including Julia A. Boyd) that became a "sister circle" of support. There were women who looked like her, who shared her love of language and who inspired her. One day, author Colleen J. McElroy told the women: "If you don't have this burning desire to write, then we should give it up because writing was a difficult task," Watson Sherman recalled, pushing her harder to succeed.

In 1995, she was named to a 52-member list in Granta magazine's Best of Young American Novelists program, and made Essence magazine's bestsellers list. She has written two critically praised novels, a collection of short stories, a children's book and edited an anthology of female literature, from such writers as Maya Angelou, Terry McMillan and Alice Walker.

Many of the 38-year-old's stories deal with healing emotional wounds. While researching her latest novel "touch" (HarperPerennial, $12), about how a 35-year-old woman copes with becoming HIV-positive, a friend told Watson Sherman: "Maybe you'll get a chance to see what this disease has to teach us."

Nothing except horror, the writer thought, until she interviewed a man dying of AIDS. "He exemplified conscious living, and dying, he made every moment count. For me, who can take living for granted . . . that was a transformative experience."

Her next book, "The Blues Ain't Nothing But a Good Woman Feeling Bad," is on black women dealing with depression. It's due later this year, and will be her first attempt at nonfiction.

"Everybody has emotional turmoil, or chaos, even though they present this calm mask into the world. I like the idea of diving deep into that stuff."

Debrena Jackson Gandy

Living in Malibu in the late 1980s, while attending Pepperdine University, Debrena Jackson Gandy saw something that surprised her. Despite many people having good looks and the trappings of wealth, she found "a culture of complainers." The pursuit of materialism left a spiritual void, she believed, prompting her to explore a project that was published this month called "Sacred Pampering Principles: An African-American Women's Guide To Self-Care and Inner Renewal." (Wm. Morrow, $22).

In her book, Jackson Gandy says that black women often assume the role of "consummate giver," ignoring their own needs while catering to others. She prescribes ways for black women, and women of all races, to nourish and pamper their minds, bodies and spirits through balanced living.

"I wanted to give people a guide for being fulfilled, and for experiencing joy," said Jackson Gandy, 30, of her book, which is excerpted in the latest issue of Essence magazine. The Olympia native, who lives in Des Moines with her husband and two children, is an entreprenuer. She owns a training and consulting firm; founded an annual retreat for black women called "For Sisters Only: Sharing, Healing and Renewing"; and developed a line of pampering products supplementing her book.

It was during one of her frequent speeches on personal empowerment that she began selling self-published copies of her book in 1993. One of the readers was Iyanla Vanzant, another spirituality author, who passed the book on to her agent, helping Jackson Gandy find a publisher. She hopes to guide black women, the backbone of families, into spiritual health.

"They have the means to transform black America," she said.

Mona Lake Jones

Mona Lake Jones celebrates her life through poetry. "Most of the time," the Seattle resident said, "I try to be uplifting. Certainly, all of life isn't happy, but I find a little bit of joy to celebrate in much of what I do."

Like the simmering pot of chicken and dumplin's she writes about. Like the young boy getting his first haircut. Like the "roomful of sisters, like jewels in a crown, who are vanilla, cinnamon and dark chocolate brown."

Her words move people. "A Roomful of Sisters" was commissioned to a painter by 101 Black Women of Boston, a national civic group, and exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Singer Vanessa Williams also turned one of her poems into lyrics on a recording, "Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly." Black Women In Sisterhood For Action, a Washington, D.C., a community service group, also included Jones in a calendar of outstanding African-American women.

Lecturing on college campuses about 10 years ago, Jones, who has taught students from elementary school to undergraduates, often punctuated parts of her speech with rhyme, growing into a series of poems that Essence magazine published. That led her to write "The Color of Culture", now in its sixth printing, and last year's sequel, "The Color of Culture II," both printed by Impact Communications, her husband's firm.

Jones, named Seattle's poet laureate, believes acceptance of culture - defined as showing itself "without you knowing, and tells you who you are without speaking" - helps people like themselves, and therefore, other people.

"I hope people find out about the African-American culture I write about, and that they will find reason to enjoy, respect and connect with the culture. If we could respect each other, life would be so much more fun."

Ted Joans

Ted Joans reads his poetry with rhythmic swing, speeding up or slowing down, raising his voice or lowering it, much like he did when he played jazz trumpet. In fact, Joans, who refers to himself as a jazz poet from a lifelong passion for the music, has published more than 30 collections of poems, though many are out of print.

Moving to New York City after graduating from Indiana University with a fine arts degree, he quickly joined the arts scene in Greenwich Village. He became a well-known member of what is called the Beat movement, and established the jazz poetry scene, along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Kaufman.

He was an irreverent writer who denounced racism, sexual repression and injustice. His calls for social protest often were considered controversial, but it was the best way, he felt, for breaking down barriers. Growing dissatisfied with the commercialism of the Beat movement, he became an expatriate.

"I hate cold weather, and they will not let me live democratically in the warm states of the United States, so I'm splitting and letting America perish," he wrote in "All of Ted Joans and No More."

Moving throughout Europe and Africa, Joans wrote and developed a passion for surrealism. Recently, he moved to Seattle, where he has read his work at public gatherings and taught in children's poetry workshops.

"His influence on Afro-American writers has been great," wrote Jon Woodson in "Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Poets Since 1955." "His style of colloquial, jazz poetry is the common ground of black poetry as it has been written and defined since the mid-1960s." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Author readings Readings by some of these authors can be heard on the Seattle Times InfoLine. Call 464-2000 from any touch-tone phone and enter category (4510). This is a free call in the local Seattle calling area.