Author Desiree Cooper says newcomers to the annual Kimbilio Fiction retreat for African-American writers “talk like they’ve been on a lifeboat and they’re just trying to hold on until they can find that place that keeps them safe.”
David Haynes, a novelist and professor of English at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, established Kimbilio in 2013 as a means of providing networking, educational and professional advancement opportunities for emerging African-American writers. The organization has since amassed a network of 60 fellows; held three writers’ retreats in Taos, New Mexico, and initiated a nationwide series of reading events featuring its fellows. Kimbilio’s next reading event will be Wednesday at Pages Bookshop, featuring fellows Cooper, Angela Flournoy and Cole Lavalais.
Haynes says the organization’s name was derived from a Swahili word meaning “safe haven.”
“For so many writers of color, traditional retreats or traditional M.F.A. programs or various other support networks have not always been welcoming and safe places,” Haynes says. “That’s been one of the real drivers behind creating spaces where we can grow and learn as a community, and really develop important and necessary mutual support networks.”
The organization is heavily modeled after Cave Canem, a Brooklyn-based society for African-American poets established in 1996. Cave Canem fellows and faculty have included Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith and U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Lavalais says Cave Canem’s influence was “broad-reaching” while she was pursuing her master of fine arts degree.
“You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing Cave Canem fellows, and as the years passed you started seeing these wonderful poets getting national attention who hadn’t gotten national attention before,” she says.
But Cooper says that prior to Kimbilio’s founding, there was no such support network for African-American writers of prose. She notes that African-American writers who go through M.F.A. programs or stay in academia often find that they’re the only person of color among their colleagues.
“Some of those voices become more homogenized over time,” Cooper says. “They either blend in more or they quit. They feel frustrated. Having Kimbilio and other organizations like that out there help you stay centered in what’s important to you to say, rather than what other people want to hear or are ready to hear.”
Speakers at Detroit’s Kimbilio event will present a wide range of material. Cooper will read from “Know the Mother,” her new short story collection about mothers. Lavalais will read from her debut novel “Summer of the Cicadas,” about a young woman struggling with mental health issues while attending a historically African-American southern college. Flournoy will read from her National Book Award finalist “The Turner House,” a multi-generational story about a Detroit family.
The three authors and Haynes also will discuss Kimbilio’s mission with the audience. Haynes says thes types of events are aimed at introducing Kimbilio to the general public and targeting a more geographically diverse pool of potential fellows nationwide. The bulk of Kimbilio fellows currently hail either from the Dallas area, where Haynes is based, or the writers’ mecca of New York City. Since last year, Kimbilio has hosted readings in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, among other cities.
As Kimbilio grows, organizers and fellows say the plan is for its activities to broaden far beyond the annual retreat and occasional reading events.
“Hopefully fellows will start kind of being Kimbilio where they are, building communities in all the cities across the country,” Lavalais says.
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Kimbilio Fiction: Detroit
6 p.m. Wed.
19560 Grand River, Detroit