Literary Hub

Reading Across America: A Haven for Writers of the African Diaspora

As part of the socially conscious Dallas literary scene, I have worked toward creating a space for African American writers for nearly ten years. In 2013, with novelist and Southern Methodist University professor David Haynes, I co-founded Kimbilio—Swahili for “safe haven”—to support fiction writers of the African Diaspora. But my literary advocacy developed for selfish reasons—I was alone in a new city and needed to commune with writers, especially other writers of color.

When I received my MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University, I returned to my career in sales and marketing with hopes that I would find time to write. After a few years, I had only written a few pages. I missed the literary community at my university and wondered if I’d ever finish a book and get it published. When I moved to Dallas for a position in executive sales and corporate giving, I realized that if I was going to write at all, I needed to connect with local writers and literary organizations. I also noticed that African American writers did not include Dallas on their book tours, but would stop in Austin and Houston. I wanted to make Dallas a literary destination.

I worked ungodly hours for my company, which did not leave time to develop relationships slowly, so I took a methodical approach to achieving my goal of joining a literary community. I rented and then purchased a home in the Arts District. I also looked for festivals and organizations that had 5013c status so I would be able to support them financially with corporate funding.

Then I came across the Tulisoma Book Fair, held in Fair Park over Labor Day weekend at the African American Museum and surrounding businesses and historical buildings. What I loved most about the fair is that it was a vision by then city council member Leo Chaney and the museum’s director, Dr. Harry Robinson. They launched the event not only so the community could see writers of color, but, primarily, to leave a legacy.

Tulisoma was thriving but needed more funds. Marquee names like Edward P. Jones, Walter Mosley, and Tannarive Due made appearances, and attendees included politicians, dignitaries, and many Dallas-Fort Worth residents. Through my corporation, I donated approximately one thousand dollars the first year. The next year, all the participating artists were compensated, and by the fourth year, my corporation was the title sponsor and many of their vendors had come on board. Companies supported the event not only with funding, but also through employee volunteers. As a union of corporations, politicians, and the city, it was one of the best collaborations I’ve ever experienced.

It can be challenging to convince corporations to fund the literary arts because the results are not immediately tangible, but it is possible. And support may be more than financial. When I moved on from my company, I no longer had access to funding, and the visionary council member did not get reelected. But I became a board member of Wordspace Dallas, a grassroots organization dedicated to the literary arts, and I brought my experience to the table. When I joined the board, most of their writers were white and indie. Soon afterward, a new president was elected and his goal was to expand the organization, including creating more diverse events. At the time, I was the only African American on the board, so I took on the responsibility of bringing in more African American authors. We began with local authors and those from the surrounding communities. Money was and still is an issue. We put on salons and many of them were held at my home.

I called on people I had met at conferences who I thought might come to Dallas for little or no payment, and then I asked them to donate their honorarium (if any) to the organization. The first person to say yes was Mitchell Jackson, and I could not have asked a better person. The Dallas audience is fickle—it’s a challenge to get them to attend a literary event, especially if the author is unknown to them. It’s a developed skill to ensure the author does not look out at an empty room. I informed Mitchell of this and he said, “As long as there is a place and you are there, I’m going to be all right.” That relieved so much of the pressure. To pull in audiences, I’ve relied on my sales expertise and created over-the-top events, like the time I hosted Rosalyn Story, a writer and a violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony, and asked her to incorporate a musical performance into her reading. I threatened cousins to induce them to attend events, and I’ve found people will to come to my house because they know I give good parties.

When David Haynes and I launched the Kimbilio Center for Fiction, we had many conversations about why there wasn’t a fiction community for writers of the African Diaspora similar to Cave Canem, which supports poets. We posed the question during several panels at AWP in Denver. We were informed that other organizations had tried to build such a community but had not succeeded nationally due to a lack of funding. Then one day, we met at the Katy Trail for our usual walk and talk and David said Southern Methodist University had agreed to fund an organization we didn’t even have a name for. We held meetings and asked for advice and were warned that we might not be able to get it up and running within one year. But we fell into the roles that best suited us, and for the next year, we planned and worked our tails off to hold the first retreat in Taos, New Mexico. I then pursued a PhD and published my first book, Mourner’s Bench, so I have not been as active with Kimbilio as I was at the start. But it all began because we said yes to the possibility.

Now, Wordspace and the City of Dallas: South Dallas Cultural Center have collaborated on the African Diaspora: New Dialogues series that began on February 2 with award-winning author Nicole Dennis-Benn and ended on April 4 with Tyehimba Jess, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. I feel as if I have come full circle, although there were many successes and failures over the years: I began as an activist for African American writers with an event sponsored by the City of Dallas, and now I’m hosting a series showcasing African American authors. I’m proud to host these authors in our city, which will be considered a literary destination, along with other major cities like New York and Austin. This year I was also asked to participate in the second annual Dallas Book Festival. Yaa Gyasi is the featured author. I would like to believe I played a role in that.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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