Poet, essayist, and now novelist Honorée Fanonne Jeffers took this year off from teaching at the University of Oklahoma to work on new projects, thanks to a fellowship from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. But for now, all her time has been taken up by the limelight since her debut novel, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” became a bestseller and was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club and longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction. “I wasn’t prepared for this at all,” Jeffers says. Her previous book, “The Age of Phillis,” which imagined the life of the 18th-century Black poet Phillis Wheatley Jones, was longlisted for the National Book Award in poetry.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
JEFFERS: The collected poems of Sonia Sanchez, a major architect of the Black Arts Movement, and “Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature” by Farah Jasmine Griffin. I’m also reading two galleys, the novel “None But the Righteous” by Chantal James, which is really good, and Maud Newton’s fantastic memoir, “Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation.” It’s well researched, well written, and juicy. I love a good juicy historical book. I like a lot of scandals and bad behavior.
BOOKS: What are your favorite juicy historical books?
JEFFERS: Of course Annette Gordon-Reed’s “The Hemingses of Monticello.” How much more juicy can you get than that Thomas Jefferson was taking advantage of his dead wife’s biracial baby sister! This isn’t scandalous but Tiya Miles’s “All That She Carried” is so good and very moving. I love women’s history because you get the granular history of intimate life. One that sticks with me after all these years is “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” by Saidiya Hartman. She takes history and crosses it with her own personal experience. I don’t know one Black woman academic who hasn’t read it.
BOOKS: Who are the poets you read the most?
JEFFERS: Lucille Clifton. People mistakenly believe that her work is not complex. Have you ever had a croissant from a good bakery? You start to pull it apart and it has these layers. That’s the way a Lucille Clifton poem is. I’m working on my French, so I’m reading the collected poems of Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, who were the major architects of the Negritude Movement. I’m also reading the French edition of Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage.”
BOOKS: Is there a book you loved that you later realized was racist?
JEFFERS: “Shogun”! When I was a young girl I loved myself some “Shogun” by James Clavell. When I came back to it I was like this is utterly and completely racist. I’m going to step on somebody’s toes but John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” has some racism as well. There’s the way he talks about Native Americans, the n-word is in there, also the how evil he made the female character. It’s actually more misogynistic. I still enjoy it but it’s cringy.
BOOKS: What other classics do you find cringy?
JEFFERS: This is going to upset people but William Faulkner. He’s incredibly racist and classicist. The way that he writes about poor white people is dehumanizing. The reason I revisited him was because of the great Toni Morrison who considered him an influence. If Morrison loves Faulkner I have to but I don’t. A friend of mine said the pleasure of reading Faulkner is finishing a Faulkner.
BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?
JEFFERS: My father was a poet so there was always poetry in the house. But I really didn’t start digging it until college, and I didn’t encounter Lucille Clifton’s work until graduate school. I ran into her in a workshop. She was a shy lady and very warm at the same time. I just started calling her, and we became very good friends.
BOOKS: Do you own anything special from her?
JEFFERS: I have a first edition of “Generations,” her memoir that was edited by Toni Morrison. Then I have paperback signed by her. She always signed everything the same “Joy! Lucille Clifton.” I have the only email she sent me printed out on acid-free paper and framed because it includes a poem that she wrote for a journal I was the guest editor of. She wrote it just for me. I can’t say how special that made me feel.