Our list of 24 can’t-miss books for holiday gifting From a photographic history of hip-hop to magical fantasy to sports activism, it’s all here

Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.

FICTION

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)

Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)

If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.


My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.


A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.


The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.


Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)

Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.


Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange

A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.


Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.

NON-FICTION

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld

Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.


American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer

Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.


Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.


Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim

The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.


The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards

If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.


Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)


How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming

You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!


There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.


This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.


Heavy by Kiese Laymon

For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.


Becoming by Michelle Obama

The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.


Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.


Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak

Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.


Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg

Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.

These black women owned 2017 Meet the women who shook up sports, culture and more

Yes, 2017 was a rough one. But it was also a year of black women fully stepping into their power. From athletes to activists to writers to filmmakers to curators, these black women are truly Undefeated.

 

Serena Williams

Serena Williams waves to the crowd as she leaves the court with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy on Jan. 28 after winning the women’s singles final of the 2017 Australian Open against her sister Venus Williams at Melbourne Park in Australia.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

What a year it was for Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete ever. She won the Australian Open, her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, while eight weeks pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September and married longtime beau and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian in a dream wedding in November — and Nike just named a building after her. She’s already making plans to defend her Australian Open title in 2018.

 

Dee rees

Dee Rees poses for a portrait in New York City on Oct. 11.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

Dee Rees, who made the critically acclaimed Pariah and the Emmy Award-winning Bessie, has directed a new American classic with Mudbound, a sprawling post-World War II epic that follows the lives of a sharecropping family and the family that owns the land. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been resistant to movies distributed by Netflix, if there’s any kind of justice in the world, Rees, a product of historically black Florida A&M university, will be nominated for an Academy Award for best director.

 

the nigerian women’s bobsled team

From left: Brakewoman Akuoma Omeoga, driver Seun Adigun and brakewoman Ngozi Onwumere.

Courtesy the Bobsled and Skeleton Sports Federation of Nigeria

You’ll do well to remember the names: Akuoma Omeoga, Seun Adigun and Ngozi Onwumere. They have made history as the first African team to qualify for the Winter Olympics in the bobsled category. And this will be the first time Nigeria has been represented in the Winter Olympics. All three women are sprinters, and Adigun, who founded the bobsled team in 2016, competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The team will head to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February to compete for a medal.

 

tiffany haddish

Tiffany Haddish was the breakout star of the most successful comedy of the year, Girls Trip. She became the first black woman stand-up comic to host Saturday Night Live. In addition to a Showtime comedy special, she appeared in Jay-Z’s video for “Moonlight,” which satirized Friends; published a book; starred in The New York Times‘ annual “Greatest Performers” portfolio; and next year, she’ll be producing and starring in a satirical thriller with John Cho. The question for the last black unicorn isn’t “What will she do next?” but “What can’t she do?”

 

munroe bergdorf

Munroe Bergdorf is a British social activist, DJ and model who in August 2017 became the first transgender model to appear in a L’Oréal campaign. She was fired after the Daily Mail surfaced Facebook posts where she spoke out against racism and white supremacy and called for better understanding of systemic injustice. The 30-year-old hasn’t let any of that stop her, though. She signed a new contract with the U.K. beauty brand Illamasqua, is working with The Huffington Post on a new docuseries and continues to speak out against racial and social injustice.

 

sloane stephens

Sloane Stephens of the United States reacts after receiving her check for her victory against compatriot Madison Keys in the women’s singles final at the US Open tennis tournament on Sept. 9 in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Sloane Stephens made history in September when she won the US Open vs. Madison Keys. She also became only the fourth black woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, after Althea Gibson, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. What makes Stephens’ success all the more remarkable is the foot injury and subsequent low ranking she overcame to get back to the top. Another victory Stephens completed this year? Graduating from Indiana University East with a degree in communication studies.

Jesmyn Ward

Author Jesmyn Ward hit the “nerd lottery” this year when she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. She was one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with a $625,000 prize. Ward, who wrote the award-winning novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing as well as the James Baldwin-inspired essay collection The Fire This Time, teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans and lives in her home state of Mississippi.

rujeko Hockley

Curator Rujeko Hockley has been shaking up the art world with her focus on exhibiting works by black women artists. Hockley, who was the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum before heading to the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized the traveling exhibit We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, which is now on display at the California African American Museum. She was also recently tapped to co-curate the 2019 Whitney Biennial, an exhibit of contemporary American art, typically by young and lesser-known artists.

Wnba teams

Top: The Indiana Fever kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury on Sept. 21, 2016, in Indianapolis. Bottom: The Phoenix Mercury stand and kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 30, 2016, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images; David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images;

While NFL players have been garnering attention this year for kneeling to protest police brutality, WNBA players have been consistent in their social activism, and it started before 2017. In addition to kneeling, players from multiple teams have been catching fines for wearing T-shirts in support of #BlackLivesMatter and have held news conferences to speak out against police brutality.

lena Waithe

Lena Waithe

Steve Granitz/WireImage

Lena Waithe, who penned the instant classic “Thanksgiving” episode of the second season of Master of None, made history this year as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe also wrote and produced The Chi, a TV series for Showtime based on her experience growing up on Chicago’s South Side. It premieres in January, and if she isn’t nominated for multiple awards, we will eat our hats.

ava duvernay

It’s Ava DuVernay’s world, and we’re just living in it. In this year alone, DuVernay earned a Peabody, a BAFTA and four Emmys for 13th, her documentary about mass incarceration in the United States. She also produced season two of the critically acclaimed OWN drama Queen Sugar and hired all-women directing teams for each episode. DuVernay also landed on the cover of Time as part of their “First” series and will be releasing her adaptation of the classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time in March 2018.

maame biney

Maame Biney takes the corner on her way to victory in the women’s 500-meter A final for a spot on the Olympic team during the 2018 U.S. Speedskating Short Track Olympic Team Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 16 in Salt Lake City.

Harry How/Getty Images

Maame Biney, a 17-year-old from Washington, D.C., who was born in Ghana, just qualified for the Winter Olympics in speedskating, making her the first black girl to do so.
This tweet really says it all:

Author Jesmyn Ward talks about enduring hurricane season, the South, and what it means to be a MacArthur ‘genius’ She has a deep love for the South, but isn’t sure she wants to finish raising her children there

Winning a MacArthur “genius” grant can be a little bit like winning the nerd lottery.

Not only are you recognized for your intellectual prowess and contributions to society, but it’s publicly announced to every major media outlet in the country that your bank statements will be a bit bigger. MacArthur fellows get $625,000, with zero strings attached, spread over five years.

“It didn’t feel real until everyone knew, and then, of course, you speak to people that you haven’t spoken to in years, and everyone congratulates you,” said author Jesmyn Ward, one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation this month. “It’s a huge, huge honor, but it is overwhelming. It is overwhelming. Everyone immediately wants to borrow money.

“Everyone is already like, ‘Oh, so we’re rich now. We’re rich.’ ”

Ward, 40, was already a superstar. Her novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and this year her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is short-listed for it. Inspired by James Baldwin, Ward also edited a 2016 essay collection, The Fire This Time, which assembled thoughts from luminaries such as Isabel Wilkerson, Kiese Laymon, Clint Smith, Edwidge Danticat and Emily Raboteau.

Ward, who teaches at Tulane University, grew up in Mississippi with modest means. After stints in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New York, she elected to return, buying a home in DeLisle, Mississippi, a 57-mile drive to New Orleans and her university job. Salvage the Bones, which followed a poor black Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, was inspired by her own experiences living through the storm. Despite her deep love for her home state and its most vulnerable citizens, Ward is not sure how much longer she’ll remain there.

We talked about writing, the strangeness of becoming a public figure, making it through this year’s harrowing hurricane season, and the hyper-abbreviated nature of black childhood, which Ward explores in Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her latest novel follows a 13-year-old boy named Jojo, and his young mother, Leonie, who serve as alternating narrators. They’re poor and live in rural Mississippi with Leonie’s mother, who is dying of cancer, and Leonie’s father. Leonie decides to take a road trip with Jojo and her toddler daughter, Kayla, to pick up their white father, Michael, from prison. Every generation of the family is grappling with death and unresolved loss in some way, but Leonie is particularly striking because of her inability to reckon with the death of her brother, Given, who was murdered by a white schoolmate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What is the moment like when you find out that you’ve been awarded a MacArthur grant?

It’s totally surreal. When it’s happening, when they’re telling you that you’ve won a MacArthur grant, it just doesn’t feel real. It’s such a huge award and such a huge honor that it’s never the call that you expect to get. I don’t think it feels real until the announcement. When everyone else finds out, that’s when it feels real. [The MacArthur Foundation] prepares beforehand, because they send a video crew out to your house and you spend an entire day with them.

Most writers are not extroverts. Once you started accumulating this snowball of acclaim, what did that do to you?

It’s difficult, especially because I am naturally a shy person, or at least I was, in high school and afterwards for years. One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak. It’s really odd for me to now have to develop and assume a public persona and to share. I have to figure out how much of my private self am I willing to reveal. How comfortable am I, will I attempt to be, when I’m sharing my life with other people? It’s something that I have to work at.

When did you first realize there’s Public Jesmyn and Private Jesmyn?

I didn’t really realize that I would have to develop a public persona until Salvage the Bones was nominated for the National Book Award. That’s when everything changed for me, because I wrote Where the Line Bleeds as my first novel, my baby novel. A fair amount of people read it, but it didn’t get a ton of serious reviews and I didn’t do a lot of interviews. And then Salvage the Bones came out, and the reception was better, but it was before it was nominated for a National Book Award. Then everything changed, and then of course once I won, everything really changed.

I devoted years of my life to becoming a better writer. I’ve learned how to read like a writer. I worked on my craft and just tried to improve with everything that I produced, with everything that I created, but I never really thought about what it would mean to actually get better and get good enough to the point where other people start recognizing it, and then you’re reaching more people, wider range of people, reaching lots of readers. Suddenly you have an audience.

“One of my friends … while I lived in New York, would introduce me, and he would jokingly say, ‘This is my mute friend,’ because I would never speak.”

Writing is such a solitary thing, so it was a total surprise for me when I realized that my life as a writer would not just consist of me sitting in a room typing or reading.

But you know what helps? Teaching, because I’m a professor, and that helps me a lot. I was put in plenty of situations where I had to think quickly, speak quickly, plenty of situations where I had to attempt to be eloquent and to learn how to talk about something that I was very passionate about, because that’s what teaching demanded.

Is it more difficult talking to a roomful of college students or talking to reporters?

It’s definitely talking to a roomful of college students! This has not happened to me at Tulane, but I’ve definitely taught at other schools where the college students I’m teaching do not think that I am the smartest person in the room, and in fact they think they are the smartest person in the room. That’s always a little difficult to navigate.

What did you mean by “learning to read like a writer”?

For me, that meant reading poetry to attempt to figure out how figurative language can create beauty, how figurative language can make a reader feel. I read poetry to also figure how sentences can create rhythm, how paragraphs can create rhythm.

I read literary fiction to attempt to figure out what was pleasing to me as far as a prose style. I also read literary fiction to figure out how to develop a character, how to make a character come alive on the page. I read literary fiction to figure out pacing and how to balance narration and scene, and what was pleasing to me as a writer, what kind of balance was pleasing to me, whether I liked lots of dialogue and a little narration or more narration and less dialogue.

And then I read other genres, like fantasy, like sci-fi, like children’s books, middle-grade books, YA books, even romance, because I feel like those genres taught me different things about — I feel like I wasn’t necessarily reading them to learn lessons about prose and about what I felt worked well and what didn’t. I think that those books taught me things about how to create suspense, about plot.

What are you excited to be reading right now?

I have a poetry anthology next to my bed. Czeslaw Milosz. A Book of Luminous Things. That’s nice, to have books that I can open up and read a short piece and get some satisfaction from knowing that I’ve read something.

I recently read a children’s book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which was amazing. In the last two chapters, I was tearing up the entire time. It was insane, but it was such a pleasure to read that because I could just enjoy it. I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit. It’s just a lovely, beautiful book.

You have spent a lot of time thinking about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. What was it like for you living through this hurricane season?

It’s been difficult, especially seeing the devastation in Houston, seeing the devastation in Puerto Rico, seeing the devastation in Florida, being witness to the current administration’s ambivalence towards that suffering, and sometimes outright hostility that echoes some of the ambivalence and hostility that at least New Orleans, and somewhat the Mississippi Gulf Coast, that we experienced during Katrina. It’s hard, and I didn’t realize how difficult until I saw Houston was flooding, and I thought, ‘I should write something about this,’ and I couldn’t write a thing. I couldn’t write anything, and then I realized how deeply affected I was and how haunted I was by Katrina and by what happened after Katrina.

And then I realized that again, when we were preparing for Hurricane Nate. Nate was a Category 2 storm, and we were losing our minds. I was trying to get a solar-powered generator. I was stocking up and preparing in a way that you would prepare for a Category 5, and yet so was everyone else. It wasn’t just me. It was everyone else here, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in New Orleans. That’s the long shadow of Katrina. I think that every time it happens, that we’ll react like that, because of Katrina, because we’re still struggling with it. I think there’s a lot of unresolved anxiety and terror that people carry from our experiences in Katrina.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, you bounce back and forth between Jojo and Leonie, who are both young, as narrators. Jojo is forced to grow up faster than his years, and Leonie, his mother, doesn’t quite feel like a real grown-up yet.

I think that black childhood is not something that’s granted to black children in America, and so I think that my characters reflected that. Jojo, his experience reflects that in the present moment, as he’s going through it, but I feel that Leonie is the kind of character who comes to life when a black person has — when their childhood has been denied. When that childhood has been stolen, she’s the result, where she’s sort of stuck in this extended adolescence, especially with her selfishness and her inability to process hardship, to face hardship and to live with hardship and to thrive, really. That’s what happens.

“I feel like it’s easiest to turn off my writerly brain when I’m reading children’s lit.”

It’s funny, because then I think about Richie’s character, who is a ghost. He’s a ghost, and he should be nearly as old as Pop is, but yet he, too, is stuck in some sort of adolescence because his childhood was taken away from him, because he was robbed of his childhood.

I think about Mam and I think about Pop, and I wonder why they did not break, why they don’t seem broken in the way that Leonie’s broken, or that Richie is broken.

When I think about Kayla and Jojo, I don’t think that they will be broken people like Leonie or like Richie. I think that they’ll be like Mam and like Pop, and maybe the reason why I don’t think that they will be broken people, and maybe the reason why Pop and Mam aren’t broken, is because there was something there that sustained them. I think for Mam, it was the love of her family, and also these things like black spiritual traditions, voodoo and hoodoo and herbal medicine. I think that that sustained her. With Pop, I think it’s family. I think that that definitely sustained him, and maybe a sense of community that he has or a sense of responsibility that he had to that family and to that community.

You go so hard for the South. So often it’s discussed as a place where the best thing about it for black folks is that they can leave. What makes you want to stay there?

I am writing about the kind of people who I grew up with. I’m writing about people who are like my family members. I’m writing about people who are like people who live in my community. I think, because I’m writing from that place, that I can love them, but I can also be critical of them. And I think, too, that I’m very aware of how history bears on the present in the South, and of how it complicates people’s lives, and how it is this really underacknowledged force in the region. I want to acknowledge that, and I think that that’s also what is fueling some of that critical eye.

I wanted to come back for so long, and I am here now, but I have gotten to this point in my life where I can’t say that I will stay here forever.

Why not?

It’s just motivated by my kids, because I have a 5-year-old daughter and I have my son, who [is now] 1. I love my kids, and I want the best for them, and I don’t know. I feel like, in some respects, that I would be failing them if we stayed here through the years when they were teenagers, because this is not a kind place, in many ways, and I worry for them. I want them to live, and I want them to thrive, and I don’t know if this is the best place for that to happen.

Is there any place in America that’s safe for them, where they can be children?

I know that there’s nowhere in this country where they could be completely safe, but I do feel like there are places in this country that would be safer, and made safer, because of where I have worked, because of where I’ve gotten in my life. Classwise, I could afford them different opportunities that if I were poor, or if I lived in poverty, and if I were moving to the Northeast or Chicago or the West, they’d face more dangers. But there’s some opportunities that I can give them because of where I am right now.

I don’t know a single educated black person who has risen to a certain place in society who doesn’t have family members who aren’t as lucky.

It’s difficult. I do what I can, but I think that — how do I say this? I do what I can for my extended family, but I think that their ideas of what I have and the demand on what I have are different from my knowledge of what I have and what I have to give. It induces a lot of guilt, because you want to help. When you’re personally in that situation, you want to help your extended family. I feel guilty because I’m in this position, and they’re not, and then I also feel guilty that I can’t do more. But I can’t. I’m not a millionaire. I’m not a billionaire. I’m a thousandaire.

How much did the death of your brother figure into Leonie and the way she’s working through Given’s death?

I was worried about that when I discovered Given’s character, when it worked out that Leonie had a brother and that he died when they were teenagers. I was worried about writing him, because I know that readers know about my brother, and I didn’t want them to confuse me with Leonie. I didn’t want them to confuse my brother with Given, but I felt like Given was the key. Given was the key to understanding Leonie. His death was the key to understanding her — who she was, her trauma, and understanding why she does what she does. And so I felt like I had no choice, in some respects. I had to write him.

But then, those fears eased a little bit once I got further into the manuscript because their relationship took on a life of its own. It became real, and it was very different from my relationship with my brother. And so, once I got to the point where I felt like their relationship took on life, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re nothing like each other.’ But knowing that Leonie lost a sibling helped me to really understand her, understand that pain that she basically shies away from dealing with and living with.

You talk about the resilience of Mam and Pop, but I wonder if her cancer is basically her internal grief welling up inside her?

I read an article … that was about health and racism. The article was making the argument that racism is a stressor, and that that stressor affects black people’s health in many different ways, and that when you control for class, that still you see a big difference in the health outcomes for black people at a certain class and health outcomes for white people in a certain class.

That was really striking to me. They’re looking at things like heart disease, like diabetes, like maternal health. They’re looking at things like premature births, and then the health outcomes for the children. The article was really making the argument that racism has lasting effects, health effects on black people. I was thinking about that a lot while I was writing Sing, Unburied, Sing.