Inside Black Book Clubs Book clubs are so popular these days that you could probably find a book club for just about every kind of book and every kind of reader. Continuing our series on the black literary imagination, we explore the growth of African-American book clubs.
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Inside Black Book Clubs

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Inside Black Book Clubs

Inside Black Book Clubs

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Oprah may have made book clubs cool but they've been around as long as, well, about as long as books themselves. They are so popular these days and widespread that you could probably find a book club for just about every kind of book and every kind of reader.

We continue our series on the black literary imagination with a look at African-American book clubs. For more, we've got Betty Baye, a columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville and founder of the book club, The Zoras, named for Zora Neale Hurston. Also Nakea Murray, founder of As The Page Turns book club. She's also president of The Literary Consultant Group. And Anna J, a seasoned author and member of As The Page Turns. Welcome ladies.

Ms. NAKEA MURRAY (Founder, As The Page Turns): Hi. Thanks for having me.

Ms. BETTY BAYE (Columnist, Courier-Journal; Founder, The Zoras): Hi.

Ms. ANNA J. (Author; Member, As The World Turns): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So - thank you for coming on. So, Betty, let's start with you. Zora Neale Hurston, a literary giant. She is one of the people that our expert Farah Jasmine Griffin picked as one of the most influential writers - African-American writers of all time. So The Zoras, how old is your book club? What do you focus on?

Ms. BAYE: We will celebrate our 10th anniversary next year, and it's so wonderful. But the book club started out as the Afrocentric Reader's Circle, actually, and we had decided that we were going to read books by and about African-Americans.

And then about five years in, one of our members suggested that we broaden ourselves. Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" was our first book. And Zora, as you know, was an anthropologist besides being a writer. And we decided to spread our wings some. And so these days, we read books multi-culture, across the culture, various cultures. We like all kinds of writers - African-American writers, white writers, African writers, British writers. We read the gamut of books.

CHIDEYA: So As The Page Turns, love that name.

Ms. MURRAY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Nakea first and then Anna. What about your club? What do you guys do?

Ms. MURRAY: Well, actually, our slogan that we used to advertise As The Page Turns is really celebrating African-American literary excellence. Our group promotes African-American authors, of course, both at contemporary fiction as well as urban fiction novelist.

CHIDEYA: Now, Betty, let me go back to you for a second. You finished the new book by the author of the "Kite Runner" about Afghanistan. It seems as if you have a very broad sense of what good literature is. Do you vote? Do you do it by committee? Do people get turns? How does this work? Does somebody say, oh, no, I won't read that because I know my mom and I'm blowing up her spot. She's into book clubs and these things can be tricky sometimes.

Ms. BAYE: Well, no, actually, we are very democratic. And let me not fool you, sometimes - some months we read absolute trash. I mean, other months, we go really heavy, and then other months, we just want a break. So we might read something that may not have any literary value at all but we might enjoy it. And sometimes it's interesting where you think you won't find anything; sometimes you find the liveliest conversations.

But we find ourselves in love across the board. From Baldwin and Hurston to -we've done DuBois, we've done Poitier's memoir, we've done Miles Davis, and everybody gets a turn to pick a book. Now, the problem you get is when you suggest it and we hate it, you have to come and defend it.

CHIDEYA: Now, Anna, you are an author. So how do you approach this? I mean, you could probably spend your whole day writing and then trying to publicize your books. But what makes you want to come to a book club? What does it give you?

Ms. J.: Book club kind of give me the sense of family, like the family outside of my biological family per say, like I just - we all sisters. We get together and we discuss like-minded, you know, situation.

CHIDEYA: I've been to some great book clubs, and food, do you guys serve the food or you…

Ms. J.: Oh, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. J.: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

Ms. MURRAY: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. BAYE: Well, we don't in Louisville.

Ms. MURRAY: Can't have book club without food.

CHIDEYA: You don't in Louisville. That's a conscious…

Ms. BAYE: No, we don't.

CHIDEYA: You decide not to get the pages greasy.

Ms. BAYE: No, we meet in a bookstore. We meet, in fact, in the Barnes & Noble -one of the Barnes & Nobles here, and they love us because we're book lovers. We buy a lot of books. And when I conceived this club, I thought I don't want to cook. I don't want to clean. I just want to read and enjoy. So this really is an opportunity for us not to have to work on anything except reading our books.

So we get a cup of coffee. They set up a spot for us in the bookstore. And when we finished reading, we throw our cups in the trash and we go shopping for books so we go home. And for a lot of us who are really busy, that is really, really a good thing.

Ms. MURRAY: I'll jump in for second.

CHIDEYA: Please.

Ms. MURRAY: With us at As The Page Turns, because the group started off as a small 13-member group, we used to meet in each other's homes at one point. A meal was always included because we just felt as though we wanted to have lively conversation and kind of chat-and-chew session. So food was always a comfort for the group along with our discussion.

As the group has grown to really 40-plus members, we still do include a meal with our monthly meetings along with our discussion. However, the - just the format has changed a little bit. As far as picking our books every month - when the group was smaller, pretty much each hostess used to pick a book. Now, the groups is larger, I pretty much let the group know what our book is going to be for that particular month and we try to mix it up to make sure we have a balance.

CHIDEYA: So you have the talking stick as it were about the book selection?

Ms. MURRAY: Yes. But as a matter of fact, our last meeting, we changed it up just a little. In our next three months are actually members picked. So what we did was we had everyone put in a hat a book that they would like to read and then it was picked out accordingly. So our next couple of months are actually member picks.

CHIDEYA: Anna, what's your favorite that you guys have read?

Ms. J.: "Sailor's Bed"(ph). And it's funny, I can't even think about who wrote it but that was really wonderful book and it dealt with so many issues. I like books that deal with issues that people aren't talking about on a day-to-day basis. Especially family things that aren't like out in the open, like prescription drug abuse and things like that.

CHIDEYA: So give me a sketch of the book. It sounds like it had to do with some tough issues and a family.

Ms. J.: It did. It's like the grandmother was addicted to prescription drugs and her granddaughter, at a young age, she didn't realize it until she got older. And like she made decisions based on how she was feeling at the time. So the girl went through a lot of things that she didn't necessarily have to go through how her grandmother had a silver mind.

CHIDEYA: Betty, what about you? What's been one of your favorites in recent years?

Ms. BAYE: Well, I think that, first of all, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is always a favorite. But I, absolutely, fell in love with it. We haven't read it yet; it's the October book. I read it ahead with "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by the editor - by the author of the "Kite Runner" about Afghani women. And it really gives you a sense of these current events, about this war that we are fighting.

And reading that book, I felt like I had gone under the veil and under the burqa and got the sense of Afghani women and suffering. And somehow, you know, you relate to women across cultural lines when you see that they are hurting and that they are in pain and that they are fighting to be heard.

And there's also the sense of saying, as much as we complain about some things, there is so much to be grateful for in terms of what - where we have come from as black women in America and how our struggle very often has been instructive to women in other parts of the world. And it's just a wonderful book. But I have - I enjoyed "Memoirs of a Geisha." I enjoyed the biography of Miles Davis.

I think what it is, is that if you are sort of - a book club gives you a way to be sort of an unofficial cultural anthropologist and that you tap into other people's lives. And what I love is finding like our place as African-American women with the rest of the world because we are a part of it, and our struggle is not so unique just to us but to the broader world. And I think, you know, that's kind of good to know that we are not alone.

CHIDEYA: Nakea, what about that whole idea that literature can connect you to the souls of other people whether they're real or fictional.

Ms. MURRAY: Absolutely. I would have to say that versus one book, I would have to kind of go against the grain and pick two books that I know that my members have enjoyed. We've been around since 2001, and in that time, we have read a lot of stuff but two books that got in my mind.

The first one would have to be "Child of God" by Lolita Files as well as "Harlem Girl Lost" by author Treasure E. Blue. Those two books stick out because "Child of God" actually dealt with a lot of generational curses and families and how things of generation's past can definitely affect things of the present. We thoroughly enjoy that book and the discussion really that followed reading that book was amazing and one that I definitely remember.

The reason why I would have to say also "Harlem Girl Lost" was because it was not only the contemporary side of things definitely more a street fiction or urban fiction title, but literally, the trial and tribulations of that main character went through, really all of our members were able to identify it and, really, it put us on an emotional roller coaster where we found ourselves shouting and yelling at the character. We found ourselves crying for the character, experiencing all of the pain that the main character had gone through. So that I would have to say that those were two that stick out in my mind.

CHIDEYA: And Nakea…

Ms. BAYE: And Farai, can I…

CHIDEYA: Go ahead. Please, Betty.

Ms. BAYE: I just wanted to say one thing. I hope that nobody sleeps Sister Souljah's book, "The Coldest Winter Ever."

Ms. J.: That was a very good title.

Ms. BAYE: That was so instructive. And we loved it and a lot of people know Sister Souljah as an activist, but she is also a fine writer and storyteller.

Ms. J.: Absolutely.

Ms. BAYE: And that's what's very exciting for us and very interesting for middle-aged women primarily to look into, you know, what our young sisters are going through.

Ms. J.: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: I have heard many times that that book should be turned into a movie. But, Nakea, you are a literary consultant, when you think about publicizing books, how important are book clubs to that process?

Ms. MURRAY: Actually it's very important. Normally, I do try to - when I'm working on a project, I usually try to pick out the book-club value in it before marketing to book clubs. Usually, I try to identify what are some good discussion points that will allow the author to visit with these groups, whether it's in person or via phone, and have a lively conversation. Normally, I do actually ask the author to kind of tell me why they feel as though their is book is book club friendly.

CHIDEYA: And so, Nakea, I understand that the book club motivated you to do what you do. Anna, did it motivate you to write?

Ms. J.: Definitely. It is funny because, like, way before I decided I was - I've always been a writer. It was like breathing to me. But way before I decided to even, you know, go about the publishing business, I met Nakea. And, like - and it just kind of gave me a sense of what kind of book I need to put out there for people to need, you know, for people to read because everybody pretty much buys the same stories but I like to give my books a twist. And being in a book club and the discussion kind of gave me a sense of what I need to discuss in the books that I write.

CHIDEYA: Now, Betty, final question. Of all of the meanings of book clubs - the sisterhood, the information - what's the most important part to you?

Ms. BAYE: I think the most important part, to me, is - and for many of our members - is the relaxation. We look forward to the first teen Tuesday of every month. Many of us, like I said, we have hectic lives, you know, running around. But the book club is where we come and we sort of lay our burdens down and we can take up somebody else's burdens or just laugh. So I think that is it. It is my relaxation. It is not what I have to read for work. It's what I read because I want to.

CHIDEYA: All right, ladies, that is beautiful. Thank you so much.

Ms. MURRAY: All right. Thanks for having me.

Ms. J.: Thank you, Farai. This is a wonderful experience.

Ms. BAYE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Thanks.

Betty Baye is a columnist for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, and founder of her book club, The Zoras. And she spoke with us from member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Anna J. is an author and member of the book club, As The Page Turns. And Nakea Murray founded As The Page Turns, and runs the literary consultant group. And she talked with us from the studios of Audio Post in Philadelphia.

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