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The Hurston/Wright Foundation is in the midst of its annualWriters Week, which brings together Black writers and literature lovers from around the world. The digital conference, usually held in D.C., began on July 31 with a public reading on CrowdCast, and it continues to this Friday, Aug. 7, with workshops on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, plus 60-minute micro-classes about the craft of writing. The concluding event is a publishing panel about the diversity gap in the industry featuring panelists from Penguin Random House and other literary organizations. Award-winning writers are showcased throughout the week, including Hurston/Wright’s co-founder, novelist and nonfiction writer Marita Golden, who was born in D.C. and won the Authors Guild Award for Distinguished Service to the Literary Community.
On July 31, New Issues Poetry Prize-winnerChet’la Sebree, nonfiction writer and Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winnerEmily Bernard, and New York Times bestselling novelistDolen Perkins–Valdez, who is based in the District and was awarded a DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities grant to complete her second novel Balm, read from their work and spoke with the audience afterward.
Sebree read from her poetry collection Mistress, which centers on early 19th century figure Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. With this book, Sebree is “personifying someone who was voiceless in history,” she explained, “who was robbed of that privilege and that right.”
Perkins–Valdez shared a scene from Balm in which an animal mauling leads to questions of who is the hunter and the hunted among humankind, as the story grapples with what it means to be free. She noted that she listens to the elders in her community and the rhythm of their language. “If we don’t bring that into our work, we lose it,” Perkins–Valdez said.
Bernard is teaching a micro-class on Thursday at 6 p.m., “Writing Self Through Others,” which addresses different approaches to writing autobiographies. The connection to history in each writer’s work came up during the audience Q&A. “Finding myself in these books, feeling very close to these literary ancestors, it’s nourished me so much,” Bernard said. “I have an obligation to try to leave the same footprint. Not just take, but give back.”
That’s what Hurston/Wright is all about. The nonprofit foundation is named after the American authors Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. Hurston, a Howard University graduate, wrote the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and was a leader in the Harlem Renaissance. Wright wrote the novel Native Son and the autobiography Black Boy in the 1940s, which both highlight the oppression of Black Americans.
While the nonprofit is closely tied to history (literary legend Toni Morrison sat on its advisory board), it is also dedicated to nurturing new talent.
“I believe so strongly in the power of the written word and what it can do for people,” says Hurston/Wright’s acting executive director Audrey Hipkins, who came to the foundation after a successful career as a computer scientist and corporate executive. “It can expose them. It can make them feel comfortable. It can be their friend. Books are just amazing things.”
City Paper spoke with Hipkins to learn more about Writers Week, as well as the foundation’s programming throughout the year and its connection to the District.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WCP: What is most exciting to you about this year’s Writers Week?
Audrey Hipkins: For the last probably 25 years, we’ve always done the event in person. This is the first year we’re shifting to a virtual format. It really has opened our eyes to thinking of ways that, when things return to normal, we can serve writers who aren’t necessarily able to come to Washington.
WCP: Do you have any data on if you’ve drawn a wider audience, national or international, being virtual?
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AH: Interestingly enough, yes. In getting ready to transition to digital, we actually did a few micro-classes so we could compare technology platforms. We ended up having people as far away as Kenya. We had people from the UK, the Caribbean, Canada. And then definitely the entire United States; we were in at least 20-something states.
WCP: What’s the story about Friday’s publishing panel on diversity in the industry?
AH: One of our board members really came up with the idea of working with Penguin Random House—for writers who might not just be interested in getting their books published but also want to get into the industry. What does it take to become an editor and work your way up? We’re going to have some literary agents there that are talking about getting the books published, but then we’ll also have three people in the industry talk about what their personal journey was [and] the current personnel changes that are happening.
What does this career path look like? Especially when, traditionally, entry-level positions pay so little that it’s difficult [to] make it through those early years with that salary. So what changes need to happen in the industry?
WCP: How can folks stay connected year round with the Hurston/Wright Foundation?
AH: We are in the process of planning our virtual Legacy [Awards]. We’re really trying to make it as engaging as possible and still have some interaction with people, and not just this almost pre-recorded event from beginning to end. There are going to be ways for people to buy tickets at all different prices. Not only will we have Legacy but the night before Legacy we always have a public reading, so that will be virtual as well.
WCP: How is Hurston/Wright connected with the D.C. community?
AH: We just worked out this partnership with Howard [University] and they’re going to be sponsoring a literary arts programming fellow for us. We’re going to be paying the stipend and they’re going to be reducing their tuition. So it’s similar to a teaching assistant [position] for a fourth year PhD student. Howard has been a great partner over the years and we normally hold all of our workshops at Howard, but they’re really taking their support to the next level with sponsoring this fellowship.
And then we have very strong relationships with Politics and Prose and MahoganyBooks—since they’ve opened their physical location, we try to do at least one or two readings over there. They are sponsoring all of the book sales. So any books that are purchased throughout Writers Week and our public events are being purchased through MahoganyBooks. We also do things with Sankofa [Video Books & Cafe].
WCP: What do you like most about the District’s literary art community?
AH: I feel it’s intimate here. Something about D.C. is you have access to authors. There are enough events here where you can really get to talk to them in detail in small settings and just the opportunity for Q&A is phenomenal. I also love Split This Rock events; I love the live poetry events in the city.
WCP: What does it mean to you to be leading the Hurston/Wright Foundation and empowering Black voices during this critical time in our country?
AH: I step back and look at the legacy that we’ve created: 30 years of working with Black authors. And the fact that people reach the peak of their careers and they come back and give to the next generation.
Let’s take Imani Perry [currently the Hughes–Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University], for example. At Legacy Awards last year, she got her award and I didn’t realize that she had attended a Hurston/Wright workshop. She said that’s when she believed that she could be a writer. Marita Golden said three words, “That was beautiful.”Wil Haygood [a Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship recipient] was her instructor. She drove down from Philly every night and went home because she couldn’t afford a hotel room in the city.
As a person who’s not a writer, what I’ve come to see is that it is so important to have a safe space where you can be among your peers and a mentor that really helps you hone your craft, find your voice and speak with authenticity and conviction. I’m just proud that, behind the scenes, I can help the institution flourish.
WCP: Do others who are involved with Hurston/Wright tend to stay connected, too?
AH: Definitely. Actually, Dolen Perkins-Valdez just shared the story at our [Writers Week] orientation that her first workshop at Hurston/Wright before she even was a writer was withRavi Howard [winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence] andSanderia Faye [winner of a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award]. The three of them were just getting started and they’re all accomplished authors now. That experience meant so much to her that she has come back in a variety of ways over the years. She’s been a judge for Legacy Awards. She’s taught workshops numerous times. She usually comes to our Legacy Awards ceremony. She’s been a presenter. She’s currently chairman of the board of PEN/Faulkner. But she’s teaching at Writers Week because the Hurston/Wright experience just meant so much to her, because it started her on the path.
WCP: What piece of literature has made the biggest impact on you?
AH: As an early teen, I read this book Daddy Was a Number Runner [by Louise Meriwether]. It was actually my first time dealing with a Black character. Something just felt really comfortable about it, although it didn’t necessarily match my life. My parents weren’t number runners, and we lived in the suburbs. It’s an experience when you realize that you can see yourself in literature, especially from a Black point of view. Because, depending on where you go to school, people aren’t exposed to literature by Black people. So I just remember that feeling and wanting to find more of it.
WCP: What tips would you give to people who aren’t writers to grow through literature?
AH: Buying books is always important. Talking about books is always important. If you’re a parent, really try to instill a love of reading in your children. Push yourself to read things outside of your comfort level. I love reading about everything because it just helps to understand other cultures, and it can’t do anything but help us in the current environment.