Born in Ghana to a family of storytellers (her father founded the first independent newspaper in Ghana in 1989!), Zeba Blay was destined from day one to spend her life sharing her own words and stories. Zeba is currently the Senior Culture writer at the Huffington Post and lives in Jersey City.
Girls at Library: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a life long reader?
Zeba Blay: I think when you're young and you find a book series that you really like, a world that you can return to over and over again, can really spark that love of reading. For me these were The Baby-Sitters Club and Nancy Drew. Especially Baby-Sitters Club, which painted this bizarre, foreign suburban world that I as a little girl from Ghana had never seen/imagined and was deeply fascinated by. These books feel like home -- I still have most of my collection of Baby-Sitters Club books and I still read the Super Special Sea City, Here We Come every once in a while. I'm always surprised and delighted by how juicy the middle school drama still is.
GAL: Which babysitter did you most identify with in the Baby-Sitters Club?
ZB: Claudia Kishi was my everything. She was the baddest bitch in Stoneybrook. I lived for her OVAH style, her artistic genius, and her bomb ass taste in junk food. Like her I was the child of an immigrant family with an overachieving older sister who was messy and not that great at school. And like her I pushed through anyway!! (If I'm honest though I'm probably most like Mary-Anne.)
GAL: What is the power of story? Describe some ways in which fictional narratives have impacted you and your life.
ZB: I think stories have to power to transform, to challenge, to provoke. For better or worse. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a storyteller, I'm most interested in the choices that go into telling a story, what they say about the author as well as the audience. I've always naturally been drawn to stories that seem very far removed from my own, but that's mostly because, growing up, I never really had much of a choice in that respect. I learned to empathize with, identify with and root for all kinds of protagonists, and I think that's greatly informed how I relate to others as a person and as a journalist.
GAL: What made you want to become a writer? Is there an author that helped you realize your desire to join their ranks?
ZB: I've always wanted to be a writer, like always. I come from a family of storytellers — my mom did radio and TV news stories back in Ghana, my father founded the first independent newspaper in Ghana and was the Chairman of the National Media Commission of Ghana, my sister was a fashion writer and editor at Vibe, Paper, and Essence. I kind of always knew I wanted to write — novels, cultural criticism, screenplays, TV shows. Nowadays I'm really inspired by black female TV writers like Issa Rae and Michaela Coel. I've got a lot of shit to say and I'm realizing that there are so many ways for me to say it that go beyond what I've been doing for the last ten years. It's exciting.
GAL: What challenges do you face as a writer? As a black writer? As a black female writer?
ZB: I'm challenged by the constant nagging fear that I'm not good enough, that I'm not doing enough, that something will think of that great idea and write it down better than me. I'm challenged by the fear of being pigeonholed as a black culture writer, having my opinions (especially on race) somehow invalidated because my perspective is read as inherently "emotional" rather than objective. I've always believe that the act of consuming art is an inherently personal experience -- there are no objective critics, but film criticism is very white and very male and white men tend to think of their opinions as the default, the definition of "objective." I'm not here for that.
GAL: What do you hope to achieve with #CarefreeBlackGirl?
ZB: #CarefreeBlackGirl is something that I think, like a lot of hashtags that celebrate black woman and girlhood, has the potential to drive a much more nuanced discussion than just "Black girls are cool!" It's definitely taken on a life of its own since I first tweeted/Instagrammed it in 2013. I was feeling decidedly un-carefree that day. I was actually feeling super suicidal. And there was something kind of therapeutic about #CarefreeBlackGirl, about recognizing that even though I was feeling trapped in my depression I was also still a bad bitch? Does that make sense? I'm really adamant about the idea that women, and especially black women, have the capacity to be many things at once. We can be strong and weak, carefree and burdened as fuck. That's the real beauty of it all and that's an idea and a conversation that I want to keep pushing.
GAL: How often do you read?
ZB: I try to read at least an hour a day, though I always feel that I should be reading more. When I read more, I'm a better writer. I can see it and feel it. Reading is something I love to do but because I'm so busy during the week I have to be very intentional about carving out time just for curling up with with whatever it is I'm reading at the moment. Right before bed (before checking The Shaderoom tbh), or in the wee hours of the morning before I delve into emails and work and life are my usual reading times.
GAL: What books are on your nightstand RIGHT NOW? What else do you keep on it?
ZB: I don't have a nightstand but on the floor beside my bed right now is a biography on Hitchcock that I haven't started yet, an empty bottle of Red Bull, a half empty cup of black coffee, a notebook, and a pen that's run out of ink. I'm sure this is some sort of metaphor for my life.
GAL: Do you have a current – or “forever” – favorite book?
ZB: My forever favorite book is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, which I read when I was 16 and which messed me up (in a good way) with its brilliance and complexity and imagination. I still have the softcover copy I read in 2005, that's totally destroyed and covered in underlines and scribbles and notes. It's a fantasy novel set in an alternate history in which magic is used as a weapon during the Napoleonic wars, but really at its heart it's about this rivalry/love-story between two gentleman magicians in Britain. The writing is breathtaking. And even though the protagonists are two narcissistic white dudes, the book still manages to say so many poignant things about race, about gender, about "outsiders" in society. Also, Lord Byron is a character in it and he's a messy bitch who lives for drama which, all in all, makes for the most thoroughly entertaining reading experience I've ever had. Some books are soul mates, and this is definitely mine.
GAL: Who is your favorite author?
ZB: James Baldwin, who continues to teach me, inspire me, and keep me sane in the current hellscape that is America in 2017.
GAL: Is there an overrated author that you abhor? Name them, please.
ZB: I don't necessarily think she's overrated but Sylvia Plath doesn't do anything for me. Welp!
GAL: What's your favorite word, or words? Do you find yourself using one repeatedly right now? Is there one you CAN NO LONGER STAND HEARING?
ZB: I say "WELP!" several times a day. My favorite word is "energy."
GAL: We have a friend who has a “Sanity Shelf” dedicated to books she returns to again and again, to reread for pleasure, knowledge, and solace. What books would be on your Sanity Shelf?
ZB: Any coloring book
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (surprise!)
The Complete Poems of John Keats
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (I don't know if this provides solace but it makes me want to be a better writer which keeps me sane.)
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
Antigonick by Anne Carson
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries (trashy and fun, I call it comfort reading because I don't believe in guilty pleasures)
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold a book you read? Or can you read on a device with no problem and no impact on the experience?
ZB: While I prefer reading physical books, I definitely am not picky about what form a book comes to me, as long as it comes to me. Shout out to Project Gutenburg.
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
ZB: I love book recommendations, but I also love following my intuition. I buy most of my books almost exclusively secondhand. Since I work not far from The Strand bookstore, I find myself perusing the one dollar book racks at least a few times a week and always end up leaving with the kinds of titles that draw me in which are usually books from the canon that I feel like I should have definitely read by now, autobiographies, and books about cinema, old Hollywood, and pop culture.
GAL: Do you prefer non-fiction to fiction? If so, why? If you read non-fiction, what genre do you prefer?
ZB: I go through phases. Right now, I'm craving fiction, especially fiction by writers of color because I feel so much of the fiction I have read up to this point in my life has been mostly written by white people. I love detective fiction, fantasy, and graphic novels. When it comes to non-fiction, I mostly gravitate towards film and cultural criticism by people like J. Hoberman, Manny Farber, Susan Sontag. I also really enjoy the writing of contemporary critics and essayists including Fariha Róisín and Angelica Jade Bastién.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
ZB: I actually have written a memoir and I don't want to jinx it by putting the title here... an alternative title, though, could be Spice Up Your Life: The Story Of A Spice Girls Fanatic.
GAL:What are you doing right now to feel good? Self-care tips, please.
ZB: I'm indulging and not getting mad at myself when I indulge. I'm listening to my hair, which I've been neglecting for a while now, and treating myself to weekly, day-long deep conditioning and scalp massages. I'm writing letters to people I love.
GAL: Please name three books you recommend reading, and the reasons for your choices.
ZB: Surpassing Certainty by Janet Mock -- Janet has mastered the art of the memoir.
A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer -- stressful, suspenseful, and fascinating true story about two South Korean filmmakers kidnapped by the North Korean regime to make blockbuster movies.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi -- It doesn't officially come out till February 2018, but it's unlike anything I've read by an African writer. It exhilarates me.