As I get ready for the publication of my debut short story collection, A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times, I can’t help but reflect on the last pages I wrote: the acknowledgments. These were harder to write than I thought they’d be. Trying to remember each turn in the long journey from first idea to final edits, I was profoundly moved recalling the individuals and institutions that played roles in bringing my stories to life. While every writer must be an island unto herself when immersed in a story, if she takes a step back to look, there’s an archipelago surrounding that work, a network helping to bring a project to fruition.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
Despite the time and attention I gave it, after finishing writing this final section of my book, I came away feeling there could have been more—more names, more depth, more words of appreciation for those I met on this winding road.
That being the case, I’d like to acknowledge the literary landscape in the Bay Area, where I’ve lived while this work has come to completion—a region that’s not in any story in my collection, but a place of particular importance to it nonetheless.
Since this is a story collection, I have to acknowledge the role of literary magazines, where so many stories are discovered, edited, published, and celebrated.
We have many wonderful publications here. In my own journey, I remember mailing in my story “The Street Sweep” to Zyzzyva, which has been publishing since 1985 and has championed work by incredible authors, including Bay Area–based writers Vanessa Hua and Ingrid Rojas Contreras. I remember how thrilled I was to get an email from one of that publication’s editors saying that my story had been accepted. Published in 2018, my story went on to win the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2021. I’ve had the opportunity to do readings and events with Zyzzyva and see firsthand how its team actively works to connect writers with readers beyond the journal.
In 2018, I was invited to submit a story to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern’s Issue 52, a special edition featuring immigrant and refugee writers guest-edited by Nyuol Lueth Tong. Founded in 1998 as a literary journal, it’s now expanded to also be a nonprofit publisher of books as well as a humor website. As I write these words, McSweeney’s is leading a campaign to bring the Believer back under its umbrella—a highly anticipated homecoming that has become one of the most successful literary campaigns in Kickstarter history in just over three weeks. (That fundraiser closed today.) When my story “The Wall” was accepted, I was moved by the care that went into the beautiful hardcover issue. My story was short-listed for the 2019 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing; the winning story that year, “Skinned,” written by the brilliant Lesley Nneka Arimah, was also published in McSweeney’s.
What I appreciate about my literary scene in the Bay Area is how everyone innovates to find ways to share creative ideas with the community at large. One of my most memorable (and also one of my first) public literary events was with the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), which has several programs geared toward the written word. I was first introduced to them when asked to be a moderator for the Authors in Conversation series with the outstanding Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi upon the release of her debut novel, Kintu.Makumbi’s book was published by the Bay Area–based Transit Books, one of several local publishers, a group that includes Chronicle Books and Counterpoint Press. MoAD also hosts the incredible series Conversations Across the Diaspora with Sarah Ladipo Manyika. I had the privilege of appearing in one such discussion as a special guest with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Edwidge Danticat, and Harry Elam for an event featuring Nobel laureate in literature Wole Soyinka. The museum also hosts the African Book Club, an in-person and online gathering cofounded by author and professor Faith Adiele.
Beyond these more public-facing expressions of Bay Area literary culture, there are those that nurture work in more private ways. I’ve felt that support as a 2019–2020 Steinbeck Fellow at San José State University, but also as a member of San Francisco’s Writers Grotto and through my writing group. There are so many groups like these around the Bay Area, formal (the Ruby and the Writers’ Co-op come to mind) and informal, each a space where writers can get advice, support, and encouragement as they work through projects. I know I did.
With my book out, I sometimes imagine myself walking into one of our amazing local bookstores or the Oakland Public Library and seeing A Down Home Meal for These Difficult Times on the shelves. I picture seeing my book in an East Bay café when the day softens into a pink sunset or encountering it spread open on someone’s towel at the beach, where the crashing Pacific drowns out my sigh. Maybe I’ll find it resting on a picnic blanket in a park beneath a eucalyptus tree whose scent reminds me of Addis Ababa and gives me a feeling of being in two places at once or in between them, as the stories in my collection—set in the United States and Ethiopia—are meant to.
My book was written in many locations, and is set in even more, but Oakland and San Francisco are in so many ways among its hometowns.•