When I was little, I was always that girl who knew that she wanted to spend her life telling stories. I had never met a writer then. In fact, I did not see a writer face-to-face until poet/writer/teacher Nikki Giovanni came to Spelman College when I was a senior. However, I grew up in Macon, Georgia, a mid-sized town in the South, in the 1950s and 1960s, surrounded by and immersed in African-American culture that respected reading, writing, stories and storytelling.
My grandfather told us ghost stories before we went to sleep. The folks who came to my father’s juke joints told me the stories of their lives. My great aunt Elizabeth Lee, a good Christian woman, told us morality tales to keep us on the straight and narrow. Even my mother gossiping on the phone to her friends seemed to my little ears to be fascinating and imaginative stories.
I write fiction about the lives of black folks with some connection to the tiny mythical community of Mulberry, Georgia. I write about the internal journey as well as the life journey of my characters, my people — from the 19th to the 21 Century — who are doing what each of us is doing: Fighting or not fighting to live!
As a bow and thank-you to my people — inside and outside the family — who sparked my young imagination with ghost stories told for different reasons, all my fiction has an element of the supernation at its core. Besides being a wonderful, fruitful literary device, the anchoring of my fiction firmly in the metaphyical world of spirits, belief systems, ancestors and powers has given my work the heft of authenticity and resonance. It’s the way I always wanted to see black folks’ lives on the page.
I grew up at a time when the written word was respected and appreciated by black folks. In my household, books were everywhere, and everyone was always reading different books that interested them: love stories, Westerns, adventures, contemporary fiction. I grew up hearing my family say, “Oh, you know, Tina’s going to be a writer” because I had expressed interest in writing and telling stories.
I feel my greatest contribution to African-American literature thus far is that I have done exactly what I have wanted to do: tell stories.
For the past 35 years, I have published five novels (I’m working on the 6th now.), written for newspapers and magazines, created a writers retreat for emerging and established writers, told stories as a raconteur on The Moth mainstage, and traveled the country reading from my work, lecturing and teaching. My respect for the written word, especially the stories that spring from my African-American heritage, culture, and family and my support of other writers also constitute what I feel is my greatest contribution to African-American literature.
My perspective has, necessarily, changed along with the business over the decades. In the early years of my publishing life in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, there was not nearly the competition from so many other writers looking to get published.
Today, writers have to be more flexible, ingenious, savvy and willing to do the work, which sometimes involves skills other than writing and editing, such as marketing, public speaking, kissing babies. : )
But to be a writer, one must put the writing first.