But That’s Another Story Live: On Life-Changing Books
Will Schwalbe Interviews Wayétu Moore, Leigh Bardugo, and Rich Benjamin
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. This week we’re bringing you a different kind of episode: a live panel that we taped at the Book Expo of America last summer. I sat down with authors Leigh Bardugo, Wayétu Moore and Rich Benjamin for a conversation about the books that have shaped our lives. Enjoy.
WS: We’re going to start with Wayétu Moore. Wayétu is the author of She Would Be King. She’s the founder of One Moore Book, a nonprofit that works to publish culturally relevant books and establish bookstores in countries with low literacy rates and underrepresented cultures. Wayétu’s work has been published in the Atlantic, the Rumpus and Guernica Magazine, but today we’re going to talk about a piece of writing that was particularly important to her. Now, Wayétu, I want to start by asking you a little bit about how you grew up, where you grew up, and what it was like coming to the United States.
Wayétu Moore: I immigrated to the United States when I was five years old from Liberia. My father, two sisters and I—we relocated to America and we actually lived uptown in my mom’s dorm room at Columbia—don’t tell them. And when she was finished with school, they then had to decide what we were going to do because the country was so devastated by the war. So we moved around quite a bit. We lived in Connecticut and Memphis and we settled in Texas when I was eight. And so that’s where I spent my formative years. But, obviously Liberia was always a part of me.
WS: What was the transition like to the U.S.? What was it like for you as a child to come here?
WM: It was pretty shocking. I mean, I was shy, I was a recluse, and I was still dealing with some of the psychological remnants of war, but I very quickly had to mature because in many ways my parents depended on me.
WS: When we asked you for a book that changed your life, you mentioned a really beautiful book called Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. Can you tell us a little bit about that book and how you came across it?
WM: Yeah, so I was seven years old the first time Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters was actually read to me by one of my teachers. She read it to the class, and as I said, I was shy and still dealing with some of the psychological remnants of the war. When she read it, it was the first time that a book about Africa, at that age, had been read to me that didn’t include animals. The first few books that were being read, in my two years here, it was Anansi and it always had like an elephant or something like that, but Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, presented Africans as people. And that was novel and shocking. And my teacher saw me unfold while she was reading it. So she actually later ended up giving me the book and it had a great impact on me.
WS: She gave you the classroom copy of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters?
WM: Yes, she did.
WS: Now, I was at William Morrow and Company when we first published Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. And I was just blown away by the elegance and beauty of the illustrations. They are spectacular. Can you describe the book a little bit to people here?
WM: Yeah, so it is, I would say, a version and iteration of the Cinderella story. There are two princesses and there is an older witch who tricks them on a journey that they’re making, I believe, to a well. And of course the kinder sister, she’s the one who’s chosen. The, witch ends up being the prince and it’s just a beautiful tale. The cover of the book is illustrated beautifully. It was familiar to me at seven years old because it featured an African woman who was wearing a lappa and she had a head tie on with a comb. It was so familiar that it had an impact on me because all of a sudden I saw myself and I saw people who looked like kin.
WS: I gather you have a niece who’s a big reader. Is that correct?
WM: Yeah. So recently, my sister, she called me. I have four nieces, and my sister called me and she said, “Hey, Faith has been talking about this book that was read to her by her teacher.” Just for some context, I was raised in a community that was predominantly white. It was like 10% African American population and of that black population, we knew no families that were African and so it could sometimes be lonely and Faith is raised in a similar place. It’s like a suburb, somewhat rural, north of Houston. And she is the minority within a minority, as well. Very few African Americans. And then of that population there, she’s the only African family. And so she called me and she said, “Faith has been rambling about this book and it’s about these African princesses. There’s a witch and one of the sisters is good.” I said, “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters?” and she said yes. And my niece was jumping up in the background. I actually ended up ordering the book and sending it to her. And it’s profound how 23 years later, this book still has that impact. Representation still has that impact. Being able to be affirmed through literature, seeing yourself affirmed and knowing that you exist through the arts is really poignant and important.
WS: Now I’m going to go to Leigh next. To my left is Leigh Bardugo. She is the creator of the Grishaverse, which includes the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and the Language of Thorns. And she has more to come. She also wrote Wonder Woman: Warbringer. Now you’ve probably seen Leigh’s work in many anthologies and lots of other places, and if that wasn’t awesome enough, I should mention she’s also in a band. I am new to Leigh’s work myself. I started reading one of her books and I have to say, if I didn’t have this obligation to be here right now, I would not be with you because I just can’t wait. So first I’d like to find out a little bit about where you grew up and what some of the books were that you loved as a kid.
Leigh Bardugo: I grew up in Los Angeles and we lived in the Valley, for a really long time until I was about 11 years old. Then my mom remarried and we moved to a completely different part of the city. And if any of you guys are familiar with LA, you know, it’s like you are moving to a different town essentially. Everything changes because everything is so far apart. And we moved to this part of town that was, for lack of a better word, super WASPy. I became one of two Jewish girls in my class. It was me and, believe it or not, Alona Thal, the rabbi’s daughter. And it felt like crash landing on an alien planet. It was just incredibly strange and, and I did not feel like I was speaking the same language as anybody else anymore. But, as a kid I read sort of whatever was put in front of me. I would like to tell you I was a voracious reader. I was, but I was very accepting of sort of whatever came my way and whatever I discovered. And it wasn’t until I hit junior high and the seventh grade, that reading became survival essentially. And writing did too at the same time.
WS: What was the culture shock like? How did you deal with that change from one one school to another?
LB: I feel slightly ridiculous telling this story on the heels of this, given your experience with cultural shock. But, this was a school full of kids whose mothers didn’t work and who came from intact families and who played volleyball and had money for things that I did not. It wasn’t that I was a have not. We did fine, but it was it was a culture that I just didn’t understand. I wore hand me downs. I slept on a hand me down mattress. And when I outgrew the bed, we put the mattress on the floor and that was the way it worked. But I went from being surrounded by people who I felt comfortable with, to being afraid to invite somebody over to sleep over at my house and being afraid to go to other people’s houses because I was afraid I did not know the right thing to do, the right way to speak, the right way to behave. I guess it was more of a class issue than anything else. But I think it was also a values issue. I came from this tiny, weird little school where they encourage kids to write poetry and express themselves and be very Los Angeles. And then all of a sudden I was in this place where being smart was not cool or interesting and where you were expected to sort of hide that part of yourself that was not the way you wanted to be.
WS: So the book you named is Dune by Frank Herbert.
WS: I’m sure almost everybody knows about Dune. But for those who don’t, can you describe Dune?
LB: Dune is the story of a young man named Paul Atreides who basically is forced to leave his home and everything he knows and comes to a planet known for being hostile. But it is also integral to the economy of the entire universe, essentially—or known universe. There he discovers that he is in fact a chosen one and is going to lead a revolution. So the good side of it is it’s a story that tells you that it is important to be smart and prepared and brave. The bad side of it is it’s a classic White Savior story and deeply sexist. But as a kid, it was almost like a survival guide to junior high and high school.
WS: Wow. That’s such a powerful way of looking at it. Do you remember how you found the book or who put it in your hands?
LB: This is a little bit similar to your story. I remember I was in the seventh grade, and because I was a nerd, my safe space was the library and there was one little carrel where I would go and write and read. And I came into the library at one point and I have no idea which library and put it there, but there was a table full of science fiction and fantasy books that just said, discover new worlds. And I happened to pick up a paperback of Dune and I was immersed in it immediately and I had not really read heavy sci-fi, which really, Dune is. If you try to pick it up now, he hits you with a thousand terms in the space of like 10 pages. It’s not a very gentle introduction to science fiction, but I found it so compelling and it was really the first book where I fell into a world and did not want to come out of it.
WS: Now I’m going to move on to Rich Benjamin. By way of disclosure, I first met Rich when an extraordinary proposal came across my desk at Hyperion Books. It was a proposal for a book to be called “Whitopia,” later renamed, Searching for Whitopia. Not only was I nuts for this proposal, to the extent to which I immediately bought the rights to edit and publish it, but I was nuts for its author and Rich and I have been friends ever since. And one of the great joys of my personal and reading life has been provided by Rich Benjamin.
WS: Rich is a writer, anthropologist, and cultural critic. As I mentioned, he’s the author of Searching for Whitopia and he’s now working on both a memoir and a novel, so he’s a triple threat. He’s written for the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker and many more. And you may also almost certainly have seen him on MSNBC, PBS and CNN, where Rich does a preternaturally brilliant job of keeping his cool. But today we’re going to go back. We’re going to go way back to a time before I met Rich, when he was in college. And we’re going to dive right into the book that Rich mentioned as being such an important one in his life, Beloved by Toni Morrison. So Rich, how did you come across this book?
Rich Benjamin: So I came across my favorite book in college, called Beloved. I was one of these people who had probably too much fun in college. I could’ve studied a little harder. I took an English seminar about contemporary American literature and I did not know of Toni Morrison’s reputation outside of Beloved. And we have to remember that in those days, Beloved wasn’t necessarily a slam and categorically a critical success at the time. I remember there were a lot of snide critics, Stanley Crouch being among them who said, this is not great literature and it’s getting all this acclaim because she’s a woman, because she’s this, that, and the other. So at the time, it wasn’t self evident what a brilliant book it was, but Will, when I first read it, I knew immediately that this would change my life and this would change how I think about books.
WS: I’m sure most of us know, Beloved, but if you could describe the book or your recollection of the book of little bit, that would be great.
RB: Yes. So I’ve read the book 11 times since, but my first recollection of this book is about a woman who’s escaped slavery and basically killed her daughter so that her daughter would not have that same fate. And without ruining the specificity of the plot, she buys a tombstone and the question becomes, Can she spell out ‘beloved’ in remembrance of her daughter? But it’s about so much more than that to me. It’s about flight, it’s about memory, it’s about family relationships, it’s about relationships to their ancestors, and it’s about how you account for a past that has been totally misrepresented to you.
WS: Can you tell us a little bit about your life at the time? What was your life like when you encountered Beloved? Did you know you wanted to be a writer yet?
RB: No, I did not know I wanted to be a writer. And I remember vividly—I was a senior in college and I just have this vague memory of reading the book as being assigned and I had a lot of friends. It was a very good time in my life. I was having a lot of fun, but I wasn’t in the mode of ‘what does it mean to be a writer’ and thinking about becoming a writer. So I could say my life became more serious many years after I left college and I stuck with that book. And as I’ve said, I’ve read it about 11 times since.
WS: I gather you still have the original copy that you read, is that right?
RB: I do. One of my best pastimes in life is to collect autographed books, as a book lover. So I have every one from, I have an autographed book from Barack Obama and then I have an autographed book from radical queer punk poets in Brooklyn and I just cherish autographed books. But where Beloved is concerned, I kept my discount paperback copy that I bought as a college senior over these years. And about three years ago, the New Press was having an annual function and lo and behold, they were honoring Toni Morrison. And I’m so happy I had enough of my wits about me to bring my copy from college to the event. And there she was, sitting in her wheelchair and I kind of wheedled pass the security. I kind of weaseled my way past her gatekeepers and I was just honest. I said, “This book has meant the world to me and I would be so honored if you’d sign the copy.” And then, she gave me a little of a fisheye and then she said, “Of course.” And then she took the paperback. And this is what I never expected—she started to rifle through my notes in the margin.
WS: Oh no!
RB: She said, “Let’s see what you wrote about my book. Let’s see what you think.” And I was mortified. I was hoping I hadn’t written anything idiotic about her book. And then she autographed it.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino. Thanks to Camila Salazar. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes. It really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email email@example.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.