Fresh Ginger and Garlic: A Conversation with Nikki Giovanni

Kwame and Nikki. Photo: Beatrice Saba.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been a vegan, a vegetarian, and a pescatarian. There have been only three periods in my adult life when I’ve indulged in the pleasures of meat. One was right after winning the Newbery, when I found myself craving cheeseburgers. The second was at Jackie Woodson’s table, where I consumed three bowls of her delicious beef stew. (This led to a lengthy reunion with pastrami and more burgers.) The third was at my once-professor and ever-mentor Nikki Giovanni’s house, where I came mouth-to-leg with the juiciest lamb I’d ever tasted (in fact, the only one I’d ever tasted).

Nikki and I have broken bread in wine bars, at fancy restaurants, in Ghana, in her book-filled home in southwestern Virginia. We eat. We toast. We liberally share libations. And we gossip. About all things personal and political. The bookends of our conversations are always the writerly things: What are you working on? Did you read this book? I didn’t like it, did you? I never gave you a C in creative writing class — why do you keep saying that? What was it like eating fried chicken with Maya Angelou? It goes on and on, sometimes, sometimes way after midnight, after a bottle or two of Browne Cabernet, after a tear and a lot of laughs, and I always leave feeling like I just went to Sunday School and Writing Workshop all at the same time. I also always feel like I’m at home. With Nikki. With words.

Here are a few of ours:

KWAME ALEXANDER: 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, which mean a lot to both of us. You have strong connections to the awards. Probably your most recognized poem, “Ego-Tripping,” was first published in a 1973 collection of the same name, Ego-Tripping and Other Poems for Young People, which was illustrated by George Ford, who would become the first illustrator ever to receive a CSK Award in 1974. How did George come to illustrate your book?

NIKKI GIOVANNI: My first editor at William Morrow was Phil Petrie. I had self-published Black Feeling, Black Talk, and Phil approached me about bringing that out together with a new book, Black Judgement. When The New York Times published my poem “Ego-Tripping” on their opinion page, Phil saw it and thought it would be wonderful to publish as a children’s book. Phil knew George Ford and invited him to illustrate it, and since I knew George’s work, I was thrilled.

KA: From Ashley Bryan to Chris Raschka, you’ve worked with some of children’s literature’s most extraordinary artists. And in 2006, your picture book, Rosa, won a Coretta Scott Illustrator Award for Bryan Collier. Do you feel a connection, artistically, with the illustrators you’ve worked with?

NG: I have admired the work of Ashley Bryan forever. Working with him on I Am Loved has been the thrill of my writing life. As to Chris Raschka, my editor at the time, Will Schwalbe, said: “Chris doesn’t work with other people.” I said, “Let’s ask, because there is only one of two answers he can give.” Chris said yes. Bryan Collier stole my heart with his work. When I was invited to write about Mrs. Rosa Parks, I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to illustrate the book. I was so pleased he won the CSK Award. Working with creative illustrators is like cooking with fresh ginger and garlic.

KA: It always comes back to food, doesn’t it?

NG: And there’s no better way to fry chicken wings than with ginger and garlic.

KA: When I wrote The Crossover, I remember telling my mom that I would love for it to win a Coretta Scott King Book Award. That was the pinnacle for me. It would mean that my work mattered, that it was a part of a legacy of books that inspired, entertained, and ultimately empowered Black America. What do the awards mean to you? Why are they necessary?

NG: I’m so glad Barbara [your mom] got to see how wonderful your work is and how you have grown. I’m a big fan of spirits, and I sometimes think she and my grandmother are sitting in heaven talking about us and being glad we got together. Awards are so wonderful for the folks we love, don’t you think?

KA: Absolutely. When I won the Newbery, my dad was the first call I made. His response was, “Yeah, we did it!”

NG: It shows them that all their work was not in vain. There is an African American spiritual that says: “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again…There is a balm in Gilead.” I think awards are a balm in Gilead, don’t you?

KA: It’s the salve that keeps us pushing forward, to keep on keeping on. The awards remind us, I guess, in some way, that what we are doing is meaningful and significant. When I think of my life as a writer, it began with my parents constantly encouraging me. They were my first teachers. My first librarians. Who were some of the librarians that you remember from your early years?

NG: Mrs. Long was my first librarian. I spent summers with my grandmother in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Mrs. Long was from Kansas or Iowa. She encouraged my reading and always encouraged me to go through the card catalog to see what else was there. I grew up during the age of segregation and would want to read books that were not in the Carnegie Branch of the Lawson McGhee Library, which was the colored library. Mrs. Long would go up to the main library to get them for me. I was almost grown before I understood what she must have gone through to get me the books I was interested in. My high school librarian, Barbara Brooks, was also a big influence. I would cut class to talk to her about what I was reading.

KA: When I first signed up to take your children’s literature course at Virginia Tech, I wasn’t interested in the topic. I just wanted an easy A. Of course, I got a C. You remember that? And all these years later, I have the job of writing children’s books. The best job in the world, actually. So, I guess you have the magic touch not only with illustrators, but with writers, too.

NG: I’m sure I saw your talent, and I think if I actually gave you a C, it was to help you see your talent, too. Knowing you, it probably upset you and made you work harder.

KA: Your first book for kids was Spin a Soft Black Song, which was one of the first books I remember as a toddler. Is it that you’ve always written children’s books, per se, or is it that you write poetry that works for kids and adults, that resonates with all of us, which is what good poetry can do? I guess I’ve kind of answered the question, but I just know that I like to think that when you and I write about children, we’re writing for everyone.

NG: Thank you, Kwame. What I love about writing is exploring. Exploring the parts of myself that I now understand better, and exploring my imagination. I like to think and dream and read. And cook. Who could ask for anything more?

KA: Speaking of cooking, I can’t wait to see what’s on the menu for our next dinner.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander is the Innovator in Residence at the American School of London and the founding editor of Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published The Undefeated. He won the Newbery Medal for The Crossover (Houghton).

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