Black Women in the Library Why Don’t We Read Black Female Writers As Well?

Carine Souza and Juliane Sousa, coordinator of “Mulheres Negras na Biblioteca”
Carine Souza and Juliane Sousa, coordinator of “Mulheres Negras na Biblioteca” | Photo (detail): © Guilherme Menezes

How many Black female writers have you read before? The question is more of an invitation to the group “Mulheres Negras na Biblioteca” (Black women in the library), which was founded in 2016. The objective is to propagate literature by a variety of Brazilian and foreign female authors, who have been invisible from a historical perspective in Brazil – a country in which more than half of the population are of African origin. Carine Souza, on whose initiative the project was based, talks about the challenge of getting works like this onto shelves in public libraries and into the hands of readers.

How did you identify that works by Black female writers were missing from libraries?

Before I trained to become a librarian, I had already done a degree in literature, and in one seminar on African literature I asked the lecturer about Black writers – women – and he said that he didn’t know of any. That bothered me so much that I brought together other Black female students, and we decided to research women authors and set up a reading group focused on Black women poets, in which more than 800 people became involved in the end. Later on I began my training as a librarian, and having had this experience early on I searched in the library for works by Black female authors. I looked for well-known names like Carolina Maria de Jesus, Maria Firmina dos Reis, Conceição Evaristo … and I didn’t find any of them. So I did the same thing again: I summoned my Black female colleagues and we pledged to bring books into the library and motivate people to read these women writers.

Does this perception coincide with your own growing awareness of being Black? What was that like?

During my degree and my training I was going through this process of understanding myself as a Black person. I’m a Black woman with a light skin colour who is seen by society as Black or not Black, depending on the situation. I was looking for my own identity, I was searching everywhere for Black women and was experiencing this uneasiness that I didn’t know any Black authors or have access to them. I attended many discussions about racism, negritude and the relationship between skin colours in Brazil. In the process I stumbled upon the subject of the historical erasure of Black women and the invisibility of their narratives – both in general and in literature.

In an academic study you were able to prove the absence of Black women writers in public libraries in São Paulo. How did these institutions justify themselves?

The municipal library network of São Paulo responded and told us the criteria they use for compiling collections – including for instance the fact that books feature on bestseller lists or are published by major publishers. As I see it these criteria are more of an obstacle, because they are an expression of the book market and not a policy of inclusion. I know female authors who organise their own printing, use small publishing houses, or produce their books by hand, doing all the stitching and binding themselves. These books never make it to the library. But what alarmed me the most was the answer that there is no demand for these female writers. Of course not! The truth is that the audience potentially most interested in these books, in other words Black women, does not see itself represented in the library. The general public has absolutely no awareness of these authors.

Can changes be identified in the library collections and in the reading public, now that “Mulheres Negras na Biblioteca” are active?

It’s a project in baby steps. But the bottom line is that developments are positive. In 2018 the municipal library network of São Paulo invited us to take part in an event. In return we asked them to purchase the books on our list of Black female writers, nearly 200 titles, and they complied with our request. The whole point of our activity is to get people to read these books. We organise reading clubs, we have 14,000 followers on Instagram, we’ve received feedback from numerous libraries telling us that they have been inspired by us to run projects of their own.
Racism – “Mulheres Negras na Biblioteca” project discussion group “Mulheres Negras na Biblioteca” project discussion group | Photo (detail): © Guilherme Menezes ‘How many Black female writers have you read?’ – The question is a means of mediation. People who have never given it any thought start to reflect. Some people might not like it, they say: “When I read, I don’t think about the skin colour or gender of the person writing; after all that would be prejudice.”  And we say: “The fact that you don’t have these thoughts is precisely the problem. You don’t even notice that you aren’t reading these authors, and you don’t even know they exist.” You have to put the spotlight on the authors, on their ethnicity, their time and their country, to be able to put their works into a context.

A study recently identified that more than 70 per cent of the authors published between 2004 and 2014 by mainstream Brazilian publishers were male and 97 per cent of them were white. Is what we have here, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, the “danger of a single story?”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns that the danger of stories told from a single perspective is the creation of stereotypes. Furthermore the study coordinated by Regina Dalcastagnè of the University of Brasília showed that just 6.9 per cent of characters described in novels are Black people, and only 4.5 per cent are actually the protagonist of the novel. Black women regularly find themselves in positions of subordination, and Black men are involved in criminal activity. If I only ever see this image, at some point I’ll start to believe it’s true. Everyone internalises these stereotypes. It’s very dangerous.

Can you name three Black women writers we could look at as points of reference in Brazilian literature?

I’ll start off with Maria Firmina dos Reis, who was not only the first Black woman writer, she was the first woman in Brazil to write a novel at all – in the 19th century, Úrsula (1859). That was a milestone, but it wasn’t enough for it to be covered on the school curriculum. But things are changing now. We have Carolina Maria da Jesus, whose book Quarto de Despejo (1960; Child of the Dark) became a bestseller in Brazil, and who is one of the most-read Brazilian authors overseas. She is a very important reference for Black women who write, because she doesn’t fit into any of the author stereotypes in Brazil: she lived in the favela, suffered hunger and wrote on paper she salvaged from the trash. And then there’s Geni Guimarẽs, who received the highest award in Brazilian literature, the Prêmio Jabuti, for her collection of short stories  A cor da ternura (1989; The Colour of Tenderness), an autobiographical book that deals with racism.

Author Cidinha da Silva views her classification as a Black female writer critically. How high is the risk that the Black women initiative is seen by the library as a project that puts all these authors in the same pigeonhole?

The question is justified. Cidinha da Silva writes about all sorts of subjects from a variety of perspectives, and she doesn’t like being pigeonholed. Jamaica Kincaid, a female author from Antigua and Barbuda, who lives in the USA, expresses a similar view. When she published her novel Lucy in Brazil in the 1990s, she told a newspaper that she didn’t want people to read her work because she was Black, but because she was a good author. American novelist Toni Morrison on the other hand owns her status as a Black woman writer – and that’s equally legitimate. I think this debate is very important, because if we are highlighting a variety of Black female writers together in a library, the reason for that is to achieve historical correction of this literature. We are not saying it’s all the same by any means, we just want to show that there are also Black women who write. Neither are we telling people they should only read Black female writers from now on, it’s more a case of why don’t they give Black women writers a try? Ever thought about doing that?


The interview was conducted by Tânia Caliari.

Understanding History through Playing On the Trails of the Past

You are surrounded by land that is nothing but horizon except for a small community of teepees. An Apsaalooke person is tending to their home as you approach.
You are surrounded by land that is nothing but horizon except for a small community of teepees. An Apsaalooke person is tending to their home as you approach. | © Indian Land Tenure Foundation

Understanding history through playing - Elizabeth LaPensée, assistant professor at Michigan State University and creative director for game development, is leading the way: The video game "When The Rivers Where Trails" (2019), developed in collaboration with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and supported by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, condenses contributions from more than 30 Indigenous artists, writers, and musicians into an exciting and educational adventure through a period of their history marked by the displacement of Indigenous North Americans from their traditional habitats.

The complexity of Indigenous people

The main character of the game is displaced from their home in Minnesota by land grants from the American government in the 1890s and travels halfway across the country west to California. The players can first choose their clan and go on the journey as a spiritual Ajijaak (crane), mediating Name (sturgeon), warlike Makwa (bear) or protective Bizhiw (lynx) and get to know the beauty and danger of nature, hunt and fish, meet allies and opponents. Simple in design, the game achieves strong identification with the historical figures through sparse, impressive sound design and beautiful illustration work.

Elisabeth Lapensée, "When Rivers Were Trails" is a collaborative production. How did this particular group of collaborators come together?

When Rivers Were Trails was initiated by Creative Co-Director Nichlas Emmons who works for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. By talking to educators, the Foundation saw a gap in engaging middle school and high school students in history from an Indigenous perspective. We connected and I saw it as the perfect opportunity to make an Indigenous spin on The Oregon Trail, which I grew up playing in school and had long since hoped to play off of. Instead of Indigenous non-player characters being only in relation to settlers as traders, guides, or enemies, When Rivers Were Trails shows the complexity of Indigenous people thanks to contributions by thirty Indigenous writers. With beautiful art by Weshoyot Alvitre that brings to life over one hundred character scenarios, it is a game of truths, difficult decisions, and humor.
 
The game and its stories make the past a tangible experience. In shaping history in this way, do you think the future can be shaped as well?

Through the lens of Indigenous Futurisms, we can look to the past to inform the future but must also act in the present for the sake of the next generations. Understanding treaties isn't just about history, it's about recognizing the ongoing responsibilities of treaties today with the intention of ensuring that they are upheld. In the way that When Rivers Were Trails brings forward Indigenous perspectives of the past, games can also be a space where we imagine futures. Concerns such as climate change, the continuance of languages, and the advancement of technology in ways that are more reciprocal are just some of the many possible themes for such games.

Gameplay, story, and historical facts

It has been said that while the methods of digital storytelling are effective, they also steer the narrative farther away from “traditional” Indigenous ways of passing on teachings. What do you reply to these critics?

From talking with storytellers such as Woodrow Morrison Jr. [from the board of Wisdom of the Elders, a non-profit organization that records and preserves Indigenous oral traditions and cultural arts in Oregon, Ed.] and Roger Fernandes [Native American artist, storyteller, and educator whose work focuses on the culture and arts of the Coast Salish tribes of western Washington, Ed.] , my understanding is that oral storytelling is a co-creative experience where relations are formed between story, storyteller, and listener. Games can support the same experience where the game, the designer, and the player are all responsive to one another. I see my role as a designer, artist, and writer as one of facilitation where the player(s) have a space to form their own interpretations and relate to the game experience how they want. The meaning is in the meaning you make, just like oral storytelling.
Is storytelling in a game setting much different than in a more traditional way? What can traditional media learn from games?

When Rivers Were Trails aspires to be as revisitable as oral storytelling, which calls on us to return to stories throughout different phases of our lives, where suddenly new interpretations or life experiences influence how we understand the story. With multiple endings, several random happenings, and different choices to make along the way, When Rivers Were Trails can be replayed and new meanings shaped by the player.

Work together towards a better future 

The game has been widely critically acclaimed. How was the feedback from the gaming community?

The game has been referred to as being an entertainment title but with education, which is the highest compliment for what could otherwise just be shunted aside as an educational game. When Rivers Were Trails balances gameplay, story, and historical facts. Some live gameplay sessions have had a lot of gasps from streamers, not because of anything happening immediately in the game, since it is a point-and-click 2D game after all, but because of the terrible historical accounts that they were never aware of before. This response is intermixed with laughter during moments when jokes related to The Oregon Trail or other popular culture references show up at random. It's that back and forth weaving of harshness and humor that gives players momentum to keep playing.
 
In another one of your games, "We Sing For Healing", it seems as if you are intentionally slowing the player down so the experience becomes, in all its simplicity, much more immersive. "When Rivers Were Trails" does that too in a way. So is it really about immersion and teaching by creating empathic experiences?

For me, so much of my life is so overwhelmingly busy that, unless I set aside time to slow down, it just won't happen. I hope to design experiences that give people spaces to focus, to breathe, to absorb, and to reflect. Whether or not it becomes about empathy is really the player's responsibility, because the genuine work of empathy has to happen beyond playing a game. If a game I've worked on is a pathway to expanding empathy, that's amazing. But, just like storytelling is a reciprocal co-creative process, so too is gaming.
 
When the past is being told or retold, lessons for the future are being taught, and often the future is shaped just like the past. Is that something you hope to achieve with your game as well?

I used to make jokes about making an Indigenous take on The Oregon Trail just to get it into schools so that the problematic representations I grew up with could be undone for the next generations, and Indigenous students could see themselves in a game. It was framed as joking because I didn't think it could really happen. Thanks to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, which received funding from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and to all the people who believed in the game, it has actually happened. When Rivers Were Trails has been played in middle schools, high schools, tribal schools, tribal colleges, and universities across the United States and Canada, and even internationally including in Japan. With so many players, there are many hopes.
 
One hope is that youth from all over play When Rivers Were Trails and understand the past so that they can work together towards a better future. While a game can be a catalyst to think about this future, collaborative action needs to happen ongoingly to come into form.
 
I also hope that Indigenous youth see a game with Indigenous artists, writers, and musicians and recognize that they too can make games. Then we all get to enjoy a future with many Indigenous-led games!
 
What are your plans for the near future ?

Downloads from itch.io have been so successful that we are looking into more distribution pathways. The next leap for When Rivers Were Trails is to get the Mac and Windows PC versions up on Steam, which is currently underway!
 

"When Rivers Were Trails"

Winner of the Adaptation Award at IndieCade 2019, "When Rivers Were Trails" is about the impact of colonization on Indigenous communities in the 1890's. It is a 2D point-and-click adventure game in which "Oregon Trail" meets "Where the Water Tastes Like Wine". An Anishinaabeg in the 1890’s is displaced from their traditional territory in Minnesota and heads west to California due to the impact of allotment acts on Indigenous communities, facing Indian Agents [person that was authorized to negotiate with Indigenous peoples on behalf of the US government, Ed.], meeting people from different nations, and hunting, fishing, and canoeing along the way as they balance their wellbeing.

Download the game here.