An Interview by Carly Sorenson
Paloma Gratereaux is a junior double-major at SUNY Purchase and recent founder of the African American Women Writers Book Club. The club meets biweekly on Mondays at 6:30 p.m. in the Multicultural Center. Shortly after the club’s first meeting, the two of us sat down for a conversation about representation, reading for leisure, and Zora Neale Hurston’s long-lost nonfiction novel, Barracoon.
Carly Sorenson: What inspired you to start the book club?
Paloma Gratereaux: I’m a playwriting major but I declared as a literature major at the end of last semester. My teacher, Aviva, told me to go to a meeting for lit majors to make sure they’re on track to graduate where this one girl asked the professors what they were going to do in the classes they teach to promote diversity, and specifically to promote black women writers. The teachers did give her an answer, but it was vague. They were aware that diversity in the curriculum is a problem, but I guess it’s difficult to tackle.
So then I turned around to the girl and I was like, You should start a book club. Those were my words to her. And she’s like, I would, but I’m graduating. And in my head I was like, That sucks, but it shouldn’t stop there.
So I told Aviva and she directed me to Daisy in the Multicultural Center, and then Daisy did everything. I gave her a book list and she got it off its feet. She’s amazing at what she does. Without her, I doubt the book club would have worked. It would just be an idea.
CS: What was the process of starting a book club like?
PG: Daisy asked me if it would be weekly or biweekly, and if I wanted internship credit. I could have done that, but I didn’t have the extra time to commit to journaling and all that. I was more than happy to just do it, to provide the space as a volunteer. That was always my intention.
I publicized with flyers, and I posted about the club on the open forum. I made the flyers myself! They’re not that good, but I’m proud.
CS: What books do you plan on reading at the club?
PG: Right now we’re reading Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’ by Zora Neale Hurston, and let me tell you about that. It’s a really cool book. It was written 90 years ago but it was just published last April by Deborah Plant. She’s really into Zora Neale Hurston, that’s her specialty. So basically, 90 years ago Zora interviewed this man, Cudjo Lewis, who was the last survivor of the slave ship Clotilda. She interviewed him about his life back home and the process of being taken away on a ship, and serving someone else, and having all that stripped away from him. Cudjo Lewis wanted to save up money to go back to Africa but he couldn’t gather the funds. Instead, he started a community in Alabama called Africa Town, which is still there. They have their own language and everything. So the book is about his legacy and her interviews with him.
Deborah Plant found and edited the book. She’s coming here to Purchase to give a talk, so hopefully we’ll have the book finished in time for that.
The other books that we might read include The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tarbaby, and Love by Toni Morrison, then Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo, Betsy Brown, and Liliane by Ntozake Shange, who also wrote For Colored Girls. Just really classic titles by Black American women. I haven’t read any of them, but I feel like they’re must-reads.
CS: Sounds like a great reading list. How did you choose these particular books?
PG: Well, I knew all these names from somewhere, but I never had the chance to read them before. I wondered why that was, and I realized it was because I had no incentive. So I feel like this book club will be good for people like me, or people who have a passion for these writers. Also, I picked books that were under 250 pages, because we all have lives. I’m not going to assign a huge book.
CS: What role do you think a book club should play in the literary world? Or more specifically, what role should this book club play on campus?
PG: Oh, wow. I want it to be a safe space where we can read these books comfortably. I feel like a club is different from a class setting because it’s cozier. The Multicultural Center is super cozy, and I bring snacks and stuff. I want it to be a super chill place where if you feel some type of way, you can communicate that.
I had six girls show up to the first meeting, all black female students, and the conversations we had moved me. I told them that there are so many things I cannot relate to because I’m not a black woman in this country, so I don’t see myself as a leader in this club. I just see myself as part of it. I told them that they would be guiding the conversation, and I would provide the snacks and the books. This is for them. They deserved a place, and someone had to provide it.
Beyond that, books have so much depth to them, but how much are you really connecting to the text if your grade is on the line? I feel like books should be for leisure. In classroom settings, the stakes are too high. You look at a book and you’re like, Ugh, that’s for class. Why can’t we just have books to read? Why can’t we relearn that books are leisure? It’s a privilege, not a burden.