We spoke to novelist and playwright Pate about the project.
What was the process of working on this anthology like for you?
It's an idea I've had for quite awhile. I've talked to other publishers in the community over the last 10 to 15 years periodically over whether anybody would be interested in this project. About four years ago, I was in a conversation with the Minnesota Humanities Center and they were like, 'That sounds like a great idea.'
When they said they'd try to work it out and provide support, I went to work identifying writers. We had a researcher from the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota, Davu Seru, who did some work on the historical writers who had lived in other periods of time and were no longer with us. We started looking at that work, and I knew the writers that are out here now. We just began asking people to contribute.
What's time span would you say the anthology covers?
I would say 70 to 75 years. My goal was to get 100 years, but we didn't quite make it.
Were you looking for anything in particular? What was your criteria?
I started off by saying there's actually been a lot of writers who have lived here, who have written here, who live here now, who write here now. Some of these writers have published, some of them haven't. I was just curious about what that would look like together. I didn't really think about it in terms of specifics. I said to folks, 'You don't even have to be writing about Minnesota necessarily, because anybody who has lived here for any length of time is going to write under the influence of this region and the way this region affects their consciousness and their vision.'
When you talk about being influenced by the people here or what it's like to be here, do you have any thoughts about how that manifests itself in your writing or others?
I say in the introduction that I wondered how much people would talk about the weather, how much people would talk about disconnection or isolation. I wondered how much people would talk about the fractured nature of the black community in a place where -- there's a solid black community here, there always has been -- but it's rather small. It's larger now, but when I moved here it was tight and it was strong, but it was still relatively small considering the fact that I came from Philadelphia. And a lot of people came here from Chicago or other urban environments.
That's the first thing you realize: Many times you are the only black person in the room or the restaurant, in your company, in your conference room, in a meeting. That changes everything. I didn't really know how exactly. I know how it affected me. You have to come to grips with who you are and how you feel about the world and how you interact with people who are different from you and how you are going to respond to how they interact with you given that you're different from them. It's a very complex and often overlooked set of dynamics that is happening around you. So you're response could be anywhere. I was really curious about how people responded, and how they wrote about it and how they thought about it. That's what the book reveals, I think.
Did anything surprise you working on this project?
Yes, I think the quality of the writing was the first surprise. The quality of writing, the subtlety and the nuance of all of what I just finished talking about -- the reaction of being isolated, to being in this environment -- the nuance and the subtlety about how some people approached that topic and wrote about it was surprising.
Is there are a lot of diversity of African American voices in this book?
The diversity is amazing -- that's the point. To me, what makes it sophisticated is the diversity of that voice. The inability to broad stroke 'this is what Black writing is in Minnesota' -- you can't do that unless you get into this book and to talk about the differences and the nuance of one voice versus another voice.
Roy McBride, e.g. bailey, and Shá Cage are poets, but the way they write poetry is all different. The way Tish Jones looks at the world is different than Roy McBride looks at the world, and yet all of them are African American and all of them wrote in this collection.
Why do you think it's important to do this right now?
There are multiple reasons for me, but number one is breaking into history and inserting something that makes the picture of Minnesota literature more complete. It needed to happen, so when people talk about Minnesota literature they are talking about its entirety, not just the elite writers people talk about over and over again.
Number two, our society right now is going through another re-visitation -- believe it or not -- of race in this country, and the voices of these writers need to be a part of that conversation. It's background for that conversation. Artists always precede action in some way, and precede protest and engage issues.