Letter To Vanessa (Prompt 3 #swinspires)
Written by
Tayari Jones
December 2010
Written by
Tayari Jones
December 2010

Dear Vanessa,
I see you everyday at my job working at the coffee stand. Although Rutgers-Newark is a really diverse place, as far as college campuses go, it's still easy to pick a sister out in the crowd. I see you every day making coffee, ringing up purchases, organizing displays, and reading like crazy. I try not to be too nosy, but I can see that you like to read many different types of books, but pretty much all of it is by black authors. When you opened that cupboard one time, it was like you had every piece of urban literature ever written. There were other authors in there too, like Pearl Cleage,Connie Briscoe and Eric Jerome Dickey.

When you asked me about my novels, I have to admit, that I was a little nervous. I gave you The Untelling and tried not to look at your face when I would see you sitting there reading it. I shouldn't have worried. Just two days later you blew kisses said, "That's one beautiful book." I was happy enough to dance right there in front of the cash register.

It's hard to explain what it means to me as a writer, a woman writer, an American writer, a Black American writer-- to have my book read by a reader, a woman reader, an American reader, A Black American woman reader passing the time on her job with a book.

I read a really interesting article the other day by Roxane Gay where she basically went off about the fact that Best American Short Stories 2010 seemed to be all about rich white people and rich white people problems. I haven't seen the book yet, but I am sure that she's right. It's nothing new, but still frustrating and-- truth be told-- hurtful.

Nobody that is compiling an anthology or end of year list is going to ask you what books you liked best in 2010. (They probably won't ask me either!) The people making the lists, crowning the kings and queens of the year, have no idea about the books stacked in your cupboard. (They probably never heard of many the authors on my office shelves, either!)

Vanessa, I'm getting off track here, but the point is that your opinion means everything to me. I'm going to work today and since you asked, I am bringing you the manuscript pages of my new book, SILVER SPARROW. I really really hope you like it.

Yours truly,



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  • Joyce Evans-Campbell

    Tayari, I wrote from my head before. Now I'll write from my heart. I'm saddened because I've recognized this scenario. But I'm happy that I can go into many book stores, or order on line books and poetry collection, by African-American writers. I'll never forget the day when I got ticked off at a bookstore because they didn't have Zora Neale Hurston and wouldn't, or couldn't, order it. I hear your frustration in the keystrokes you've used to write this marvelous piece. Powerful and brave.

  • Joyce Evans-Campbell

    Great piece of introspective and restrospective because we're talking about years when things should have changed. But they haven't. I suppose it's easier to read those authors the look like you or the ones whose reviews are in mainstream newspapers. I do read all types of people's books. I remember once when I interviewed Gloria Naylor's book, author of "Women of Brewster's Place, " and when I asked her what books she read she said she reads everybody -- whites, blacks, Native American, etc. It's difficult to read everybody so I read authors who speak to me and especially with poets. A diversified reading list important because you grow that way. Also, I love a good story and great writing, so I'm compelled to read those writers of books I wish I had written. I don't condemn anyone for what they read. Now that I'm a member of She Writes, Tayari, I will buy and read your book. Thanks for the insightful piece. I do understand your position and your frustration.

    p.s. When I was a working journalist on the editorial board, I worked with the book editor who was editorial page editor who gave me books if I'd review them and a $25 check. Most of the books were of mainstream writers but I had a choice of the best of them. 

  • Kim Lewis

    As a burgeoning writer, this warms me tremendously! 

  • M Kathy Brown

    Absolutely the *best* in communicating the heart and reality of the kind of writers we need more of. Does that make sense? An exceptionally inspiring and truthfully poignant personal essay. Please... Keep persevering. It's difficult to look at a computer screen all teary eyed, but I simply have to thank you. You totally made my day :~))

  • Amy Wise

    The bright side is always best Tayari!  I've been shopping in that section for years =)......but yes I always find new writers that intrigue me. It still trips me out that books are shelved that way even when the stories are for everyone.  Who decides who the stories are for?  Hmmm..... 

  • Tayari Jones

    @Amy look on the bright side-- did venturing to the African American section help you discover any new writers that you otherwise may have missed?

  • Amy Wise



    You know I loved this post!  I just finished reading Lori Tharps book, Substitute Me.... the book I had to go search for in the African American Section.  Ugh!  Her book was GREAT!  Loved it!  It should have been on the shelf next to The Help.  I read both books, loved both books, both books deserve equal play.  End of story. 


  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    Tayari - I am very touched by this.  More soon.