I still remember how exhilarating it was to be a 12-year-old with a library card, to be nestled by rows of books by writers from all walks of life, to be able to leave that space with a stack of books — for free! As someone whose parents didn’t have the means to order books from the Scholastic catalog, it fed me to finally access books, to read the works and lives of women writers who reflected parts of me, who showed me possibility, who looked like me, who existed in the world as my own image of self.
I still remember the feeling of resonance that overtook me when I read about a young Maya Angelou speaking up about being sexually abused and then silencing herself in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or when I read Celie’s letter to God and her beloved Nettie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I knew Celie was writing those letters in search of meaning, giving her tiny existence permanence through her own words. Her letters pushed me to grow on and do the same.
I still remember the day Mrs. Chun assigned Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God to our junior English class. I was 16 years old and it was the first time a book was assigned in class that centered on someone who looked like me and reflected me, a young black woman. Reading about Janie’s journey towards love and self-revelation gave me the audacity to seek self and blaze my own path towards womanhood, something I discussed with fellow Their Eyes admirer Melissa Harris-Perry.
My love of words deepened because of these women and their works. My sense of possibility extended beyond the seemingly limited horizons of my own harsh reality because of women of color writers like Angelou, Hurston, Walker, Toni Morrison, and later Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith and bell hooks.
Collectively, they exhibited — through their work — resilience and brilliance. Women of color writers lived, dreamed and loved, and persevered to sit down and write to tell it. When the world ignored them, they turned inward to their thoughts and minded themselves and commanded that they be listened to.
Writer Janet Mock explains her love of words and the library in a six-part conversation series
They crafted a blueprint that I followed, one that showed me that my life mattered, my experience mattered, and the art that would arise from that pain deserved to be heard. They showed me how to love myself, they showed me that though my experience was, in fact, my own, I carried others with me through my words, as The Feminist Wire’s review of Redefining Realness states, “Women of color writers often carry whole histories of peoples across their backs.”
My appreciation and love of story continued to deepen as I began searching for my own words to describe the triumph, trauma and tragedies of my experience. And now, I marvel at the full-circle moment I now exist in, a moment that has my own book sharing shelf space with the books of my heroes, who filled me with a sense of possibility for my own life.
Today, on this International Women’s Day, I celebrate and bow to the women writers who dared to be seen, who dared to be heard, who dared to define their lives for themselves. Without you, I would not and could not exist as a young woman of color writer, adding my voice to the collective chorus singing the experience of marginalized womanhood. I am deeply humbled to be a part of this legacy.
Today, on this International Women’s Day, I am also humbled to share the Google homepage with a hundred women from around the world — including education activist Malala Yousafzai and my dear sister and comrade Cecilia Chung — in the Google Doodle marking International Women’s Day 2014, celebrating and showing the diverse portrait of womanhood. In my blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance, I filled my frame with the works of Zora Neale Hurston, the writer who inspired me most, and the trans women writers of today.
In celebration of these women and the evolution of our literary canon, I will be sharing space with trans women writers, Ryka Aoki, author of Seasonal Velocities, Lovemme Corazon, author of Trauma Queen, Mey Rude, contributing editor to Autostraddle, and Toni Newman, author of I Rise, in a live, intimate conversation about writing our truths. Join us for a live Google Hangout on March 26 at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT!
Who are the writers who’ve shaped you? Share their names with me in the comments below!