As part of Women's History Month, award-winning author and scholar Dr. LaShonda Barnett hosted a book reading at Center on Halsted March 23. Barnett read from her debut novel, Jam on the Vine ( Grove Publishing ), after speaking about the formation of the book's heroine and the story's time frame, and later fielded questions during a lively Q&A.
Jam on the Vine tells the story of Ivo Williams, an out African-American woman with the dream of becoming a journalist in post-Reconstruction Texas at the start of the 20th century. The story deals with the intricacies of gender, race and sexuality during and after the Jim Crow era. Barnett earned the Emerging Writers Award at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and was also given the Stonewall Honor Award by the American Library Association in 2015. Jam on the Vine received the Editor's Choice Award from The Chicago Tribune, as well as the Belle Letters 2015 Reader's Prize, and was shortlisted by the Crook's Corner Book Prize.
Before she started the reading, Barnett said, "I wanted to read a highbrow love story that I'd never heard before. I also wanted to touch on the reality of Black consciousness. … So many stories speak about Blacks being downtrodden and poor and I wanted a different narrative. Many people have one idea of being Black ... a monolithic view when the reality is much different. At the time, the early 1900s, there were 94 Black colleges and universities in the South, while in the North there weren't any. Why not tell a story with uplift instead of tragedy?"
Barnett also spoke about her heroine, who she said was inspired by Ida B. Wells, the celebrated outspoken activist, crusader and newspaper publisher of the 1900s. Said Barnett, "With Ivo, there is love and there is joy. In stories about Black women during the period of the book, a Black woman always gets raped. … Well, not in mine."
After the reading, Barnett fielded questions from the audience with the topics ranging from gender and sexual intersectionality, the need to see new images and hear new narratives of the Black and queer experience, and the question of why those images aren't reflected in the media.
On March 24, Barnett also hosted a writing workshop at the Center.
Barnett's short stories have appeared in Gemini Magazine, SN Review, The New Orleans Review, Juked and Chicago Tribune's Guernica Magazine. Barnett has also written numerous interviews and served as editor for such anthologies as I Got Thunder: Black Woman Songwriters on their Craft and Off the Record: Conversations with African American and Brazilian Woman Musicians. She currently teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago.