It was nearly two years ago that local author Amy Reed started trading ideas with her agent about how to respond to the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Both wanted to take action and encourage others to do the same, and they soon fixed on the idea of assembling an anthology of writing by YA authors for YA readers.
“We felt like we needed to hurry,” Reed says of the project’s early days. She got an immediate response from the authors she approached to contribute. “Everybody had a really clear idea of what they wanted to write,” she says. Then she and her agent quickly put together a proposal that led to a book deal.
But as Reed and her co-authors began work on what was to become Our Stories, Our Voices — an anthology of essays that Reed will launch at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Oct. 6 — they realized that the collection needed to be about more than just the election. “It had to speak to experiences that would be much broader than that,” Reed says. And so she and her colleagues went through the full traditional editorial process: drafting, editing and redrafting to produce essays that fully address what it means to be a woman growing up in the U.S., and in particular, growing up with all the forms of oppression that young women continue to face.
Reed, whose 2017 book The Nowhere Girls deals with the effects of rape culture on the lives of young women, chose to address her own experience with the gray areas of consent and her struggle to see herself among the women she championed and celebrated as a feminist. “I wrote about stuff that I had never been so explicit about before, and so it was really scary, and really vulnerable,” Reed says. “But I knew, ultimately, that it was important because I knew other people would read it and feel validated for their own experience.” Indeed, much of the work in Our Stories, Our Voices involves naming and making plain the challenges young women face.
Local author Jaye Robin Brown, who will be at the Malaprop’s event, speaks to the difficulty of squaring her femininity with the liberation and expectations of coming out. Asheville’s Alexandra Duncan relates her own experience of gaslighting to how the culture at large continually gaslights women’s experiences of the world. And each of the other essays names a facet of the sexism, racism and other marginalizations young women encounter. The collection is at once straightforward and communal.
“I hope people read our stories and they feel that they’re part of a larger community,” Reed says. She sought to accomplish that goal within the essay collection by inviting submissions from new writers who might offer different points of view. One of those authors, Tracy Deonn Walker, will also be at the Malaprop’s event.
In her essay, Walker explores how growing up in the Triangle area of North Carolina meant that she had to walk a tightrope: At school and among her white friends, she says, “I had to be a certain type of Tracy, a certain type of black person. … And when I would go home and be with my family, or go to church, I would realize that what I was bringing into those spaces” — including, for example, a love of the music of Nirvana — “I realized I was getting alienated and pressured and silenced in those spaces, too. There were things that I loved that I couldn’t talk about.”
Still, Walker’s essay details how she found groups of friends and places where she could explore her true interests. More importantly, she explains how, in college, she spoke out about her experience through a performance piece that dramatized — through the metaphor of a slave auction — the ordeals she faced as a teen. Despite her misgivings, her audience responded with love, admiration and acceptance.
Contributing to Our Stories, Our Voices has had a similar result: On the strength of Walker’s essay, Reed’s editor expressed interest should Walker ever turn to fiction. Walker drew on this encouragement to write what she calls “the book of my heart,” an urban fantasy trilogy titled Descendants, which blends Arthurian legend with what Walker dubs “Southern black girl magic.” The protagonist of the series is dealing with the death of her mother; Walker says she used her own grief from losing her mother in her 20s in order to write it. The first two books in the series are set to be published in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
“I think there is something about being brave enough to stand up and share,” Walker continues. “In a way, Our Stories, Our Voices and Amy have helped me feel brave enough to write this novel — and once again, art is helping me transform pain into something empowering.”
WHAT: The launch of Our Stories, Our Voices, featuring Amy Reed, Alexandra Duncan, Jaye Robin Brown, Amber Smith and Tracy Deonn Walker
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 6, 6 p.m. Free to attend