Panel for Iowa City’s Black authors to be held at Prairie Lights as part of Soul & Blues Festival

On Sept. 24, bookstore and literature hub Prairie Lights will offer a panel for some of the most accomplished Iowa-based Black writers as part of Iowa City’s annual Soul & Blues festival.

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Vaishnavi Kolluru, Arts Reporter

 


Eliza David struggled to find Black female protagonists in the stories she read. So she started writing them herself.

As a self-publishing novelist and blogger, librarian, and current University of Iowa graduate student, David is one of four Black authors featured in the “Black Authors’ Panel” through Prairie Lights’ involvement in this year’s Iowa City Soul & Blues Festival. 

“I think what motivated me to start writing romance was not really seeing a lot of Black women in contemporary romance novels — at least contemporary romance novels that were on the shelf,” David said. 

Some of Iowa City’s accomplished Black authors will meet virtually on Sept. 24 to discuss their work and the significance of Black art to Iowa City and UI communities. The Soul & Blues Festival is held every year as part of Iowa City’s “Summer of the Arts” program. This is the second year the festival will be in person since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

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David noted the lack of representation of Black artists in Iowa City and of Black people among writers leads to a lack of diversity in terms of ethnicity among characters in books. 

After becoming a writer, David realized there are multiple Black female romance writers, but their work has been largely inaccessible to her because it was not promoted adequately.

“I was introduced to so many Black women who were writing about Black women in romance that it just made my head spin,” she said. “There is this misconception that there are no Black people in romance, but if you get to know a lot of independently published authors, you will find a lot of Black women who are writing those stories.”

The crux of the problem of representation is a lack of support of writers rather than a lack of writers, David said. She highlighted the importance of events like the “Black Authors’ Panel” that aim to empower Black artists.

David noted how crucial it is to bring artists and the public back together through events like the “Black Authors’ Panel” — especially after a long period of social distancing — even if the panel is virtual. 

“What I’ve really loved about the ‘Summer of the Arts’ is this gradual rejoicing of everyone; coming back together to talk about books is always a great reason,” she said. “I say that as a writer, as a reader, as a librarian, as a human. Books bring people together.” 

The panelists recognize another significance of the festival aside from uniting readers and writers: honoring and promoting the work of Black artists. David highlighted how important it is to work toward making art more inclusive, particularly in a hub of literature like Iowa City. 

“As a Black resident of Johnson County for over 20 years, it is so important that we create platforms for other African Americans,” David said. “Iowa City is literally a City of Literature. It is so important that we amplify the voices of Black authors in literature. And where else is that better shown than here in Iowa City, where people can be together and talk about Black stories and Black authors and what their processes are?”

For most of the four panelists at the literature event, the greatest excitement is connecting with fellow artists. Donika Kelly, one of the panelists, is a UI English professor as well as an award-winning poet. 

“This is a great opportunity to participate in a literary event outside of the university,” Kelly said. “I’m just looking forward to the exciting community and that kind of thing.” 

While she was unacquainted with the other panelists, Kelly said she is grateful for the event because it makes it possible for their paths to cross. 

“This is only my third year in Iowa City, and I am still trying to figure out what [the city] is. I am excited to see what the festival brings out,” she said. 

Aside from Kelly and David, the panel will feature Gabrielle Williams, an author primarily of cookbooks, and Steven Willis, a UI graduate and poet, storyteller, actor, and dancer. Arnold Daniels Jr., whose career spans across the fields of politics, education, social service, business, and research, will moderate the event. 

David commended the festival for making it possible for such a diverse group of people to connect with one another. She spoke particularly of her friendship with Williams and how the panel will strengthen their bond. “When two people writing about two completely different things can find a common thread together and both create their own separate projects and then come together on the same panel, that is the universe working in both our favors,” David said. “I am absolutely thrilled to share the stage with Gabrielle Williams. I am thrilled to get to know the other two authors as well.” 

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