Expo Showcases Seattle’s Black Literary Scene

by Carla Bell

Warmth and amber sunlight poured in through the many open windows of historic Washington Hall last Saturday afternoon. There was buzz of conversation and shuffle of feet across the hardwoods in an atmosphere of honor and studious absorption, as authors and book lovers took part in the second Seattle Urban Book Expo (SUBE).

Farm to Table

The Hall’s Lodge Room felt like an open air marketplace. More than 350 attendees—an increase of 42 percent over last year’s turnout—milled about shoulder to shoulder, reading back covers and flipping through pages while comparing life paths with authors from as far away as Argentina like friends.

“So, you’re from New Orleans, you say? What part?” a woman asked Gui Jean-Paul Chevalier, as she clutched several books in one hand and reached for his book with her other. Chevalier is author of Radical Human, which discusses “the resilience of human spirit, and finding bravery and strength to protect our value.”

Gui Jean-Paul Chevalier (left) speaks with an attendee about his book Radical Human. [Photo: Carla Bell]
On the cover of Number 344317, Zackery Driver’s personal story of overcoming abuse, addiction, and incarceration, is an eerily prophetic image of the author as a carefree child with smiling eyes and happy expectation looking out from superimposed prison bars. Struck by this contradiction and visibly disturbed, a woman asked Driver, “Do you have a picture of the way you look now?” At this, the author, also known as “Shuja de Peace,” produced his detainee identification card and placed it atop the front cover of his book, and there he was, a man, bearing the same boyish smile, unashamedly.

Chronicles of Pain: Leaving the Pain of the Past Behind is a compilation of journals through which Life Chronicles Publishing CEO Sharon Blake overcomes “every kind of abuse imaginable.” Reflecting on her journey thus far— the wounds and recoveries, the faith, humility, and grace to tell her story, Blake said “[y]ou gotta’ want to do this.” She expresses in so many words that real lasting and transformative work depends so much on the motivations.

Listening to these storytellers, many of whom had overcome unimaginable life experiences, there was a sense of being near something precious, like the finally ripened fruit of a persistent seed cultivated through harsh conditions, and time. An organic fruit of holistic goodness for the storyteller first, and then the multitude. A kind of perpetual, nurturing, and strengthening feast.

Offerings from Anomaly Studios [Photo: Carla Bell]
Toronto Book Expo

For Stacey Marie Robinson, founder of the annual Toronto Book Expo (TBE) and CEO of independent Kya Publishing in Toronto, Canada, participation in SUBE was special. This year Kya, which means a diamond in the sky, celebrates its 10th year in operation.

Robinson met SUBE founder Jeffrey Cheatham II last year through social media. She recalls the flurry of activity throughout that weekend of the 2016 Toronto Book Expo, with the NBA All Star Game occurring in the city at the same time.

“[The Toronto Book Expo] went from just 10 local writers in its first year to 35 writers this year!”, and with more American than Canadian writer participation, an interesting and serendipitous outcome for Kya and the Toronto Book Expo (TBE), one-day event. Robinson thinks these participation numbers could be a sign deeper engagement within the American writing community, or they could be no more than a reflection of population differences, maybe both. Either way, she’s thankful for support from American writers. This year the TBE was pleased to accommodate about 200 visitors. The 2018 TBE is scheduled for Sunday, August 5th, just after the Toronto Caribbean Carnival.

Robinson and Cheatham, two pioneers of industry in this re-emergence of so-called “urban literature,” often discuss plans and strategies to draw and retain black and brown interest in literary events in these similar cosmopolitan cities of Seattle and Toronto. In what has become a tradition, Cheatham has attended the TBE for two years, and this year Robinson attended SUBE.  

“This has evolved into a nice business friendship with great possibility for collaboration,” says Robinson.

Seattle Urban Book Author Showcase 

The Seattle Public and King County Libraries hosted two related events prior to last Saturday’s SUBE: the Authors’ Showcase and Authors Question and Answer session.

During the Showcase, in response to a question about influence and inspiration for her writing, NyRee Ausler, author of the Retribution series, named her family as the greatest factor in helping her move past introversive tendencies that hindered her progress. Now she’s got a following.  Readers are interested in the lives of her characters, and she keeps them guessing with dramatic and unpredictable story lines. Her next book will center on a black policeman, she said. Though fictional, this work may help us to view American policing through a different lens and invite desperately needed dialogue on the subject.

Of the current political environment and his creative response to it, Kenneth Martinez of Seattle Escribe said that he wants to counter the current atmosphere of finger pointing with a show of beauty, value and respect for varied cultures and language. Seattle provides a sense of insulation, he said, being the liberal city that it is, and this encourages him to push the envelope of his creative expression, and “to take more risks.”

Driver, the author of Number 344317, explained that he attended SUBE because he really just wanted to be with his people, and that the trust vibe he got from Cheatham was an important factor in his decision. Asked about this idea of urban authorship, Cheatham articulated the thoughts of many.  “Urban” is like a euphemism, code language to mean black and brown people. Driver added, “The term was placed on us, but I see myself as (simply) an author,” to which there were smiles and applause.

In spite of decades of mainstream efforts to control artistic expression of black and brown art, many creative and literary artists have achieved success across lines of race and ethnicity. August Wilson, Maya Angelo, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and other “urban” writing elite are contained within no single genre. Their gifts and talents are far too many to be so constricted.

An author with her selection at the Seattle Black Book Expo. [Photo: Carla Bell]
Photo: Carla Bell

The specific events or people that inspired the authors to write

Driver’s writing ability had been evident to others all along, but his content and choice of language has always won many points.

Until 2009 when the circumstances of her life really demanded an outlet, Blake hadn’t planned on writing. In the years since, she’s become a veteran writer and publisher.

Rivers’ 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Evans, at then Whitworth Elementary greatly encouraged her, and has influenced along the path that led her to the place where she is today. She wrote over 100 short stories in that school year. She recently reconnected with Mr. Evans, “Bob” he insists now, as her colleague.

“It’s not validation or empowerment that helped facilitate my visual art”, says Porter, “I don’t know if it was a specific event…or person…but I would say it was always time: time to create, time to develop, time to grow, time to practice, time to act.”

Looking Back and Growing Stronger

Cheatham attributes this year’s turnout to the good work of media and organizational partnerships, and authors’ interest and participation, globally even. SUBE looks ahead to SUBE 2018 and maintaining its standard of vigorous promotion and support of black and brown authors.

You can find more information about SUBE on Facebook  and Jeff Cheatham at his website Jay The Author, Kid’s Book Author  

Carla Bell is a Seattle-based freelance writer, abolitionist, restorative justice and civil rights advocate, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.