Wednesday March 17th | Author's Corner | Illini Union Bookstore | 4:30 p.m.
As the first annual Early Spring Literary Festival winds to a close almost as quickly as it started, you dear reader, have the chance to meet some of the writers who make the U of I such a unique pocket of literary goodness. In fact, one of the reasons we have to be excited about the ESLF (there's gotta be a better way to abbreviate this thing) is because it provides us with a surprisingly rare chance to meet and appreciate the work of fellow community members who contribute their own unique voices to a larger literary community.
Yet, of the four writers (Philip Graham, LeAnne Howe, Jabari Asim, Michael Madonick ) scheduled to read this Wednesday, odds are, you're already most familiar with Jabari Asim. This is because, on top of being a poet and a fiction author, Asim is a literary and culture critic who has found his way onto popular venues such as The Tavis Smiley Show and The Colbert Report. Rare as it is for one person to be so successful in such a variety of genres, rarer still is the idea that he'd have the time to answer a few questions from a local online rag like this one.
Thankfully, Professor Asim didn't quite see it that way.
Smile Politely: When I heard you were scheduled to read as a part of this event, I was a little shocked given that you're most well known for your literary and cultural criticism, but you've published fiction, poetry, opinion pieces, children's and young adult books (the list goes on). What is the common thread that links the many genres you find yourself writing in?
Jabari Asim: I guess the common thread is storytelling. Even during my column-writing days I often began with a character or conflict that I found compelling and tried to develop it into something that readers would find equally interesting or provocative. I suppose that I would write even if I had no success in getting published-not because of some lofty, deep-seated principle but because I can't help it.
Smile Politely: Do you ever feel boxed in by the sometimes prescriptive implications of genre?
Jabari Asim: No, I think the challenge is to work around the conventions of the genre or to butt your head against them until they give way.
Smile Politely: Can you recall when you started to take up writing in earnest? What spurred
Jabari Asim: I don't know if it was a specific instance that made me commit to writing, but I do recall that I was 20 years old when I decided to devote myself to it. I had always been addicted to reading and I was also reaching that point in my maturation where it became important to pursue a career in something that kept me engaged. Nothing kept me engaged like writing. I was encouraged by a couple of professors I had at Northwestern, Gayle Pemberton and Leon Forrest. Both of them advised me to stick with it and also suggested useful books to read. A discussion of Richard Wright's poetry with Prof. Forrest became a gentle primer on the importance of practicing and practicing and practicing some more.
(Watch Dr. Asim on Rap Sessions.)
Smile Politely: What will you be reading from on Wednesday?
Jabari Asim: I'll be reading from A Taste of Honey, my collection of linked stories recently published by Broadway/Random House. I had published a novel for middle schoolers some years ago, and I've published short stories here and there in anthologies, but this is my first serious effort to engage adult readers of fiction.
Smile Politely: You have been on numerous television and radio shows over the years — how is reading in a "literary" setting different from these public appearances?
Jabari Asim: I prefer reading in a "literary" setting because your audience is at least a little predisposed to be sympathetic because it is likely composed of avid readers. Even if they don't like your stuff, they are fond of writers in general. They tend to pay attention, and it's very nice to have attentive listeners. The questions tend to be better too.
Smile Politely: As a visitor of Champaign-Urbana, what has your impression of the place been so far?
Jabari Asim: I love Champaign-Urbana. My wife and I are both native Midwesterners, so we had no trouble adjusting to the rhythms and pace of life here. And our children have been having a lot of fun.