What books are on your night stand?
“The Ministry for the Future,” by Kim Stanley Robinson; “Mendings,” by Megan Sweeney; “Against Technoableism,” by Ashley Shew; “Under a White Sky,” by Elizabeth Kolbert; “Reading Territory,” by Kathryn Walkiewicz.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
Toni Morrison — for her sheer bravery, breathless wordsmithing, intellectual range and incomparable understanding of our emotional and social realms. Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins came to mind as a close second. Her best-known novel, “Contending Forces” (published in 1900), is about a Black family in the turn of 20th-century Boston contending with the historical traumas of Southern slavery and lynching. Hopkins was a literary path-breaker, working as a periodical editor and publisher and as a race-issues novelist when these roles were barely open to women. She wrote about the impact of history on people’s lives and relationships in the present day of her era, and because she sought to highlight these historical questions for a wide Black reading public, she experimented with various forms, from the romance to the western.
Which books by contemporary historians — both academic and amateur — do you most admire?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s exquisite history, “A Midwife’s Tale,” has been my model since graduate school. Walter Johnson’s penetrating history of the U.S. domestic slave trade, “Soul by Soul,” and Seth Rockman’s intricate labor history of late-18th-century and 19th-century Baltimore, “Scraping By,” have long impressed me as prime examples of the historian’s craft.
Who writes especially well (fiction or non) about ecology and its relationship to race? What books have shaped your views on the subject?
When I found Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” on the shelf of my high school library at around age 15, I felt both embraced and disturbed by it. It was, and is, a pivotal work of Black environmental writing. Like me at the time, the protagonist, Janie, feels an intimate association with a pear tree in her grandmother’s yard (in my case, it was an apple tree). Janie follows a winding path as she matures in 1930s Florida, an inhospitable time and place for Black women. In the end, she suffers through a hurricane that hits her community hard because of their racial and class position on the margins of society and their physical location in an environmental exposure zone. The triumph of this novel is that Janie survives abuse, loss and natural disaster to craft her own personal tale — a story of resilience that reveals the intertwined elements of race, gender and environment. And of course, Octavia Butler, whose work is everywhere now for good reason, wrote piercing novels about race and displacement that double as climate fiction.
What is your favorite book to assign and discuss with your students at Harvard?
Harriet Jacobs’s narrative, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”
What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves?
“Red, White & Royal Blue,” Casey McQuiston; “Book Lovers,” Emily Henry; “State of Terror,” Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny; “Woke Racism,” John McWhorter.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?
Dana in Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite books and authors?
Reading became my escape and joy in elementary school. My favorite author was Madeleine L’Engle, whose books I came to know through the wonderful gift of a fifth-grade teacher, who read “A Wrinkle in Time” aloud to our class. I devoured that series, identifying with Meg, the plain older sister who had her own hidden gifts. In middle school I would ride the city bus to the public library and check out L’Engle’s novels for teens. The title I read and reread was “A Ring of Endless Light,” which featured a love affair with dolphins. I was a huge Trixie Belden mysteries fan, too, and a regular reader of Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, probably like most other bookish girls growing up in the 1980s.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Walker, with the stipulation that I can just listen in while they talk, AND, for a dessert party, Beverly Jenkins, Alyssa Cole and Talia Hibbert.
Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I didn’t get very far into Richard Powers’s “The Overstory,” but I’m determined to try again. (It took me at least two attempts to finish Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as well as Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower,” which are now among the books that have had the greatest influence on my thinking.) Clearly the problem is not him; it’s me!
Whom would you want to write your biography?
A kindhearted person.