Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Q&A with Farah Jasmine Griffin




Farah Jasmine Griffin is the author of the new essay collection In Search of a Beautiful Freedom: New and Selected Essays. Her other books include Read Until You Understand. She is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University. She lives in New York.


Q: What inspired you to compile this new essay collection?


A: Some of the books that have been most important to me over the years have been collections of essays, so I always dreamed of compiling my own. But it was a dream...that one day I would be like the writers I most admired, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan and others.


Then I had colleagues, friends and former students who kept encouraging me to do so. They knew that I'd written and published a number of shorter pieces, many of which they'd been using in their own teaching and writing, and they convinced me that it would be valuable to have them under one cover.


I was grateful when Norton agreed to publish them if I was willing to add a few new essays to the collection. So I guess we could say In Search of a Beautiful Freedom is a dream come true. 


Q: You write, "I have always felt most at home in the essay form." Why do you think that's the case?


A: I'm not sure why I immediately felt most at home in the essay form, but as a young writer trying to find my way it seemed to welcome me.


I tried to be a journalist; I wrote for The Harvard Crimson very briefly. I interned at The Nation. I did some freelance writing for the Philadelphia Tribune and other newspapers. I always felt anxious about being a reporter and never satisfied with the quickness of the story format.


I wasn't a very good poet, though I wrote "poetry" since I was a girl; and I tried my hand at writing short stories, which I enjoyed but never published.


But I always wrote good essays and as I trained to become an academic -- we learn how to write articles, academic essays -- I learned how to shape ideas and arguments in 30 pages or so and that worked for me.


But I think I learned most from reading essayists and I took great pleasure in reading and writing them. And collections of essays felt like great musical albums to me. They were whole works but each essay was like a single statement.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, "Pieces on Black women writers contemplate such famous figures as Zora Neale Hurston—whose controversial opposition to Brown v. Board of Education receives a subtle appraisal—as well as such lesser-known literary lights as Ellen Watkins Harper, who published novels about Reconstruction as early as 1869." How did you choose the essays to include in the collection?


A: Choosing the essays to include in the collection was the most difficult part. Early on I had a wonderful research assistant, now a published poet, Alexis Jackson, who tracked down all of my essays, including the most obscure, printed them out and put them in a big binder. There were about three or four times as many as appear in this volume.


I read through them and got rid of any that I thought didn't hold up, or that were repetitive, and then I shared those with my wonderful editor Amy Cherry. We read them together and came up with groupings or categories of essays that seemed to fit thematically or to be about music, literature, politics or urgent social issues, black feminism, etc.


We ended up jettisoning whole categories - for instance the visual arts are no longer there, only one essay survives. We also needed to keep it at a reasonable length so there were some essays that were cut, simply because I had to make the hard choice of having a book that wasn't too large!


I guess there will be enough for a second volume at some point, especially if I keep writing, as I plan to do. 


Q: You note that the book's title refers to Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. How was your title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I wanted to pay homage to a book that really made me want to write essays. I came to that book, as did many young women of my generation, already wanting to be a writer, but Walker's book showed me how to be an essayist, showed me how to think critically about books and history and gender in ways that mattered to me.


And it gave us a mission and purpose and name: Black Feminist/Womanist. It named our aesthetic and political project, with which we would grapple for decades. It just opened so many doors, and I wanted to honor that.


Recently, after the book was already in production, one of my graduate students was doing research in the Alice Walker archives at Emory University and she found a letter that I'd written to Walker when I was a college student about how important In Search of Our Mother's Gardens was to me. I didn't recall writing and sending it but it just underscored that, yes, that book had been life changing for me.


She also found a letter, written around the same time, by another young aspiring writer, who has since become a friend and an acclaimed poet, essayist and memorist, Elizabeth Alexander.


Also, I see this critical, creative enterprise as one of constant searching, seeking and being in the process of discovery. The essay for me is a process of discovery -- it's thinking it through on the page. So I wanted to honor Alice Walker for giving me and my generation of writers/critics/scholars/thinkers/artists that sense of possibility. We owe her so much, especially that collection.


And the second part -- a beautiful Freedom -- searching for Freedom is a human impulse, the impulse of all living things to be free. And for the descendants of enslaved people in the Americas, that desire, that struggle for freedom marks our political and cultural and spiritual traditions, and I see my work as part of that.


Not just a Freedom TO, but a Freedom FROM: from want, from fear, from hunger, from danger.


Also, my sense of freedom is informed by a Black American Freedom Struggle that understands with Freedom comes Responsibility (was it Eleanor Roosevelt who said that?). To paraphrase Toni Morrison, The function of freedom is to free someone else. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have a few projects I am working on. I am working on a book about some elements of Toni Morrison's thought which reveal her to be not only a great novelist but a thinker of major importance whose ideas had a deeply prophetic dimension as they challenged us to become a more just world.


And I am also working on a book about Black women's friendships. It's too early to talk about right now, but it will be a series of stories about friendships between historic and more contemporary figures.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: That I still think reading can make us better human beings. That I think a society that bans books will tolerate other forms of Fascism and that I support the frontline librarians and teachers who are fighting the good fight against this every day.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Farah Jasmine Griffin.

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