On the third day of the 2022 U.S. Book Show, Regina Brooks, founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, spoke with four boundary-breaking debut memoirists, who assembled for a panel cosponsored by PW and Amazon Publishing.
While everyone in the conversation shared a Black identity, "we are not any sort of monolith," said Bria Adimora Godley, author of No Acute Distress: A Memoir of Medical School, Mental Illness, and Feeling Fine, Basically (Algonquin Books, Sept.). Godley, a psychiatrist in residency at Yale and the daughter of two Black physicians who shaped her worldview, viewed her writing process as a "split screen," enabling her to examine her own life as a medical student while critiquing the conservatism, paternalism, and whiteness of the medical profession. Godley said she wrote her book because "I want people to have a greater imagination for what is possible."
Possibilities compounded as the panelists described the surprising experiences that led them to write personal narratives. Cin Fabré, author of Wolf Hustle: A Black Woman on Wall Street (Holt, Sept.), started her financial career at age 20, in the pre-internet 1990s, at an offshoot of the brokerage house Stratton Oakmont. Although she was one of the few people of color on Wall Street at the time, "that was everybody else's problem, it wasn't mine [back then]," she recalled. "Yeah, it was frickin' tough. I survived because I had a passion. I wanted to get things done."
Most books about that era represent "a good old boys', white boys' club," Fabré said, "and there's so much more to Wall Street than that." Watching Martin Scorsese's 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street brought back memories of her time as a broker and, she said, "I put my head down [to focus], like I did back then when I wanted to have that success, and I started writing." She reconnected with old associates (including many white men she worked alongside), "relived those moments," drafted a manuscript, and networked her way into a book deal. Fabré believes the diverse story of finance goes unacknowledged, and she wants to start a bigger conversation about both financial literacy and the generational wealth gap for Black and Brown communities.
An alternative perspective on another fraught industry, fashion and beauty, figures into Danielle Prescod's Token Black Girl (Little A, Oct.). Prescod grew up attending private schools in Westchester and Greenwich, Conn., and became a fashion editor at top media brands. "I spent a lot of my life groomed to be in elite institutions," she said. "It produced a major identity crisis for me, because I was Black in those spaces but not encouraged to explore what that meant."
Books, magazines, and movies had failed to represent her as an adolescent, and that had created negative "thought patterns," she realized: "I was deeply affected by the erasure of Black women, and so, naively, I thought that if I were employed by those institutions, my presence might shift some things." Once she became a fashion insider, she found "the exact opposite. I became a further vehicle for white supremacy while it was also working on me."
Prescod found her voice in a viral IGTV post, "Congrats, you woke up, now what?," an anti-racist call to action that she posted on May 31, 2020. The video now boasts more than 2.5 million views. In June 2020, Prescod and fellow Instagrammer Chrissy Rutherford founded the anti-racism consulting firm 2BG Consulting. By then—inspired by such comp titles as Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror and Margot Jefferson's Negroland—Prescod had ample material for the tales she tells in Token Black Girl.
All of the panelists traversed personal and professional categories to an astonishing degree, but perhaps the most itinerant was Aomawa Shields, who described her path as "anything but traditional." In addition to being an associate professor of astronomy at UC Irvine, Shields manages a TV and film acting career in addition to being both a preschooler's parent and the author of Life on Other Planets (Little, Brown, 2023).
"I've felt like a scientist when I'm around actors, [and] I've felt like an actor when I'm around scientists," Shields said. She learned to "embrace that hyphen" linking her identities as a actor, scholar, and writer, and she values "how the personal is informing the professional" in books like Hope Jahren's Lab Girl and Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind.
Life on Other Planets evolved out of Shields's 2015 TED talk, "How We'll Find Life on Other Planets." Agent John Maas, of Park & Fine Literary and Media, reached out to see whether she might do a popular science book, and she told him she had a memoir planned instead. She waited until she received confirmation of tenure at Irvine in June 2020, due to the truth-telling and vulnerability a memoir necessitates, and that promotion fueled her manuscript. Shields said her goal is to remind her readers that "there might not be any role models for what they want to do."
As an agent and the author of You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell, and Market Your Memoir, Brooks appeared to be in her element. "I feel like I'm seeing a piece of myself in all of you," she told the group.