Southern Comfort: Louisiana’s Black Writers

Southern Comfort: Louisiana’s Black Writers
by Rosa Lili
Mosaic #1 | April 1998

Everyone knows about Louisiana cooking and New Orleans jazz, but there is also a lot to say about this state’s local writers. There’s a written tradition by blacks there which dates back to the 19th century. The first black anthology written in the United States, Les Cenelles, was authored in Louisiana and today local authors are best sellers and recently one has garnered a Pulitzer prize.

Probably most well-known in the book world is Ernest Gaines, whose Lesson Before Dying (Vintage Books) was chosen by Oprah for her book club. He is the author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane PittmanBloodline and A Gathering of Old Men . There are other books by Gaines and about him. Many of his books are set in the Louisiana and feature the experiences of growing up in the rural parts of the state.

Yusef Komunyakaa, a native of Bogalusa, La., won the Pulitzer for his Wesleyan University Press book called Neon Vernacular. It also garnered the Kingsley Tufts Award and the William Faulkner Prize from Universite de Rennes. Other books he has written include Magic City and Dien Cai Dau, about Vietnam.

Fatima Shaik has a new book, Melitte, by Dial Books for Young Readers. It was chosen by the American Booksellers Association as a fall 1997 Pick of the Lists. It is a first person history of slavery, as seen through a young girl’s eyes, that The Horn Book called a “heart-rending novel”. Shaik also authored a children’s illustrated book called The Jazz of Our Street. About a neighbor-hood brass band’s spontaneous parade, the book will premier at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival. Her third new book for kids is called The Jazz of Our Street. About a neighborhood brass band’s spontaneous parade, the book will premier at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival.

Louis Edwards is the author of two books set in New Orleans, the most recent from Dutton is called N: A Romantic Mystery. His previous book called Ten Seconds was called “a moving account of a young black man’s life,” by the New York Times. Edwards lives in New Orleans and is at work on a new novel.

Brenda Marie Obey is a poet whose recent book, All Saints: New and Selected Poems, came out from Louisiana State University Press. Her previous books, often written about New Orleans mysteries, are named In These Houses and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman.

Constant on the New Orleans scene is Kalamu Ya Salaam who began publishing in decades ago and most recently completed What Is Life?: Rediscovering The Black Blues Self . It is published by Third World Press. He is the father of Kiini Ibura Ya Salaam, whose piece about her father and brothers is a featured in Brooke Stephen’s Men We Cherish.

And a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune who has found another spirit of the south is Lolis Eric Elie who authored Smoke-stack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbeque Country, a travel journal and book of recipes with photographs by Frank Stewart.

All of these books are now in print and available at bookstores and online.

Writing in Louisiana does not seem as if it will slow down, as many local authors keep turning out books. They are becoming more well known for providing good literature in the 20th century. The sources of inspiration that have created so many writers in this local may remain as mysterious as Louisiana legends. But there is a chance, maybe, that it’s the same spirit that inspired the food and the music.

Rosa Lili is a writer who will forever live in Louisiana but pays rent in New York City.