Breena Clarke, co-editor of Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now, recently joined Zibby for an Instagram Live. Their conversation, released here as an episode, covers how Breena and her team selected 101 stories and poems from over 2,000 submissions, why it was essential to feature a diverse range of Black female voices, and the loss of Breena’s child. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’s book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here:


Zibby Owens: Hi, everybody. I am so excited to be doing an Instagram Live, obviously, because I’m on Instagram. I have kind of a bad cold, so you’ll have to bear with me as I blow my nose and all of that stuff. My son was just with his wet head on my shirt, so I’m also all wet. Aside from that, I’m in great shape. Anyway, we’re going to be doing an Instagram Live with the Chicken Soup for the Soul coauthor, Breena Clarke. Those of you who have followed me for a little while know I’ve done multiple things with Amy Newmark who’s the publisher of Chicken Soup for the Soul. We had anthologies come out at the same time in February. That was for her book, Making Me Time. Now it’s I’m Speaking Now, which is, Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope. Let me just tell you a little bit about Breena before she joins us. Breena Clarke is the author of three novels, most recently published, Angels Make Their Hope Here set in an imagined mixed-race community in nineteenth-century New Jersey. Her debut novel, River, Cross My Heart, was an October 1999 Oprah’s Book Club selection and was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the seven essential books about Washington, DC. Her critically reviewed second novel, Stand the Storm, was named One of One Hundred Best for 2008 by The Washington Post. A graduate of Howard University, Breena’s recollections of her hometown are included in Growing up in Washington, DC: An Oral History. Her short fiction has appeared in Washington Post Magazine, Kweli Journal, Stonecoast Review, Nervous Breakdown, Mom/Egg Review, The Drabble, Catapult, and now the Hobart Festival of Women Writers online magazine that she coedits. She is cofounder of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers, an annual celebration of the work of women writers. She has been a member of the fiction faculty of Stonecoast MFA and creative writing at the University of Southern Maine since 2013 and is the coeditor of I’m Speaking Now. Let’s invite Breena to join us. I’m live with Breena, which I’m very excited about.

Again, bear with me with my little congestion here. She should be joining us momentarily. By the way, for those of you who haven’t read Chicken Soup for the Soul, which has been around forever, basically, they are always collections of essays. This one has a lot of poetry, actually, inside of the books, which are great. They’re all very short and easy to read and bring lots of different messages. I had a few favorites from this one: The Shoulders We Stand On, I Am Not Safe, Code of Silence, That 70s Cop, In the Dark of Night. As we’re waiting for Breena Clarke to join us, I’m just going to keep talking. Better than you staring at me sitting here silent. There are lots of quotes from influential people at the start of each chapter. For instance, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it. – Zora Neale Hurston.” Oh, it says she’s unable to join. I don’t know why. Breena, I know you’re trying to join and having some trouble. Make sure you’re on your phone and not your computer. That sometimes can get in the way. Otherwise, I’ll just try to invite you to join again and see if that works. I know Maureen is here, who should be helping out. We have kind of a small turnout, but I must say, this is the most beautiful day outside, so I’m hoping that everybody is out and enjoying this amazing weather instead of being inside if they can avoid it or at least getting out for a lunch break. A day with a blue sky and a nice breeze, at least on the East Coast, is rare without any humidity. It’s really, really nice. That’s why it’s so great, because Instagram obviously saves all these, and you can watch it at your leisure. We’ll see if this ends up working.

There are some more great essays. I really liked this one. It’s called I Don’t See Color. The quote at the beginning was, “Just remember the world is not a playground, but a schoolroom. Life is not a holiday, but an education. One eternal lesson for us all: to teach us how better we should love.” There’s some upsetting scenes here. There’s Black Girl, another essay. That was by Kamala Reese. That quote is, “You can’t be hesitant about who you are,” which, of course, is very true. There is a poem. Maybe I’ll just read this while we’re waiting. Again, talking to Breena Clarke about Chicken Soup for the Soul. For those of you watching, feel free to say hello in the chat or anything like that. Now I just lost one of you, so I guess I didn’t do a very good job. Anyway, Breakfast in Northport and Michelle Obama’s famous quote, “When they go low, we go high.” I’ll just read this one to you. “The weathered bell above the white painted-peeling doorway clatters an unknown tune to the backdrop of morning feet scuffling in from the excitement of a fenced-in Ferris wheel. I face the window. Residents blush. Cheeks turn pink from the autumn breeze the lake casts off. Kids with well-funded educations skip by for ice cream and cotton candy. Main Street closed off for high school marching bands, the highest form of entertainment the town allows. Their children featured in the parade, watering plants, watching themselves grow in this secret white pod of privilege. Black girl, you don’t belong here! The waitress’s body language smolders. Refusing to water my empty glass, passing our table serving incoming patrons.”

Again, I’m reading from this book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now. I’m reading from Breakfast in Northport by Zorina Exie Frey. “I pass time studying my menu of options, retorts, rebuttals, and complaints. I’m used to it. I just wait. She finally awaits, impatient, face weathered from a hard life of hate. No forgiveness, no eye contact. What’ll you have? A heaping full of respect, a side of justice and equity… Decaf coffee with cream. And the satisfaction of blessing a working-class racist with a generous tip from a black woman.” That’s one of the poems in this amazing collection called I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope. I’m doing this on Instagram Live because we were doing a pre-Juneteenth, which is now a federal holiday. Wondering what you all think about that. We’ll see if Breena’s able to join this time. I hope she is. Yay, there we go.

Breena Clarke: At last.

Zibby: How are you?

Breena: Hi. How you doing, Zibby? I’m pretty good.

Zibby: Good. How are you doing?

Breena: Struggling.

Zibby: I’m sorry. It’s so not intuitive, this process. Thank you for sticking with it.

Breena: That’s okay.

Zibby: I really appreciate. The good news is I had time to read your bio. I read an excerpt. I chatted into the wilderness about the weather.

Breena: Oh, I’m sorry. I left you hanging there.

Zibby: No, no, no, it’s quite all right. It’s quite all right. Congratulations on this collection which you coedited with Amy Newmark. Tell listeners a little bit more about how you got involved with this project and all the great things about it.

Breena: It’s been an exciting project for me. I am primarily a fiction writer. Amy Newmark reached out to me after my name had been given to her through a friend. When she told me about this project, I got really excited and said, yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go. The Chicken Soup for the Soul may not have been, on the first blush, a connection for me because I am a fiction writer. When I heard about the project and I realized their reach, I said, this is a good opportunity to provide a platform for a large number of black women to speak about their own experiences specifically. There’s a lot of universal wisdom in this book. Women are talking about their lives in every stage. We’ve got younger women, middle-aged women. We have mature women as well. There is that universal experience, but there’s a lot of specificity. People talk about the unique experiences of black women in this country. We reach women in Canada as well as in the Caribbean, so we’re really talking about black women’s experience on this continent. I think that’s very important as well. We’ve got women from all parts of the country, from the South, from the Northeast, certainly from California as well. That’s one of the things that’s exciting about it too.

Zibby: It’s exciting. What are some of the themes that you’ve found in most of these stories? Obviously, yes, there are lots about womanhood in general. You even have things about talking to moms during sporting events and all sorts of stuff.

Breena: The universal themes that women deal with, certainly. We have a section on hair. That’s a universal, of course, but it has specificity for the black woman’s experience. I think that those stories are unique. We have stories about raising our children. The stories are typical of raising children all over by anyone, but again, there is the specificity of our experience and what it is like to worry about the safety of your children, to worry about their emotional health, also, when they go into school, when they go and interact with institutions in our culture. There’s that theme. We talk about loving each other, loving men and others. We talk about the effects that the incarceration system has on our families and on our ourselves as individuals. There are stories about ancestors and ancestral traditions. That’s also important. We’ve got stories about some of the genealogical research that individuals have done to discover their own personal identity.

Zibby: Amazing. Were you involved in collecting or choosing which essays made it into the book?

Breena: Oh, yes. We received about two thousand submissions, so we had to cull them down. We did it quickly. We didn’t do it fast, but we did do it quickly because we wanted to get these stories compiled and have them before the public quickly because I think now is a time when people are interested to hear these specific stories. As we’ve said, they are personal narratives. Each one of them centers the writer’s voice, and she speaks with clarity. That really was the criteria for choosing them, the clarity of the narrative voice. As I say, we got about two thousand. We had to cull them down to this 101 stories. As I say, we got a lot of submissions. We got a lot of poetry. In order to be able to use the poems as well, we decided to choose twelve of them to go with our sections. That adds another layer that’s exciting. I also mention that each story is accompanied by a quote from a black woman. Some of them are historical figures. Some are contemporary figures. Some are little-known and others are very, very well-known. I think that that’s a treat, also, for the reader.

Zibby: I read a few as I was waiting for you earlier. There are a few more like Toni Morrison, “I get angry about things, then go on and work.” “Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of sisters? – Alice Walker.” Oprah, “Surround yourself only with people who are going to take you higher.” Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, “For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” How’d I do?

Breena: Very well. It’s the type of book that you can have at your bedside or wherever else, next to your chair. You don’t necessarily want to pick it up and read it from cover to cover. You want to go back and look. The stories are short. As we said, it’s 101. They’re short, so that’s perfect. You get a little glimpse of each woman’s life. I also mention that the section that we have at the back, which is the section of contributor’s bios, I like that too. I like that specifically because it shows you that the black women who’ve contributed to this volume come from all kinds of backgrounds. They come from very wide backgrounds. They’ve accomplished a lot in their time. I think that that too is a very interesting section of the book.

Zibby: I also like to collect anthologies. I even have this one on the shelf behind me. This was my first one. It’s a collection of essays, Moms Don’t Have Time To. I have another one coming out in November. I’m all about moms not having that much time. I love this format. I’ve always loved essays so much. I feel like it’s like someone throwing a dart. It gets the message in quickly and effectively. Some of these essays, they just lodge — Confronting My Rapist, you can’t read this for two minutes and not feel completely moved by it. I think this form is particularly — what’s a good word for it? Direct, I guess.

Breena: Yes. I think that that’s one of the strengths of the Chicken Soup series, that these essays are presented as direct statements of individual lives. There’s a lot to appreciate about them. They’re not just for other black women to read. They are especially. I always say that they have universal truths, but they also have the specific truths of the black experience as well. There’s a lot to appreciate in the volume.

Zibby: I think your next Chicken Soup for the Soul book should be about dogs because I saw your Instagram account was overtaken by your puppy pictures of Dina or Dina-Might or whatever, who is so adorable. I am equally obsessed with my black lab, Nya, who is usually right under my desk. I feel like if they don’t have one, you should take the lead on that project.

Breena: They have done a dog book in the past. I don’t know what the plans are for the future. I’m right there with you, though.

Zibby: You got to throw your hat in the ring for that one because you don’t have enough to do.

Breena: Definitely. Dogs do also figure as characters in some of my fiction. I’m working on a manuscript now that has some canine characters. Yes, I’m obsessed.

Zibby: Great. I have to go back now and read your fiction, particularly your Oprah’s Book Club book. I know it was a lot about grief and loss. I know you’ve had some truly terrible loss. I’m so sorry to hear about your losing your child when he was five. I’m so sorry. It sounds to me like you’ve thrown a lot of that emotion into your novel writing. Is that true? How has it been helpful to you?

Breena: My son’s death was a turning point for me. It was an impetus to complete work that I had always wanted to do in fiction. It was a very important turning point for me in recovering from that grief. I sort of modeled it — I read that Mark Twain had done a similar thing after the death of his daughter. Now I’ve come to find out that lots of writers have done this as well, just pouring out their thoughts and feelings. I did that. I don’t actually write about my son, but I try to take the feelings into the fiction.

Zibby: Some of these feelings are just so universal. Once you get it out, you end up helping so many other people.

Breena: I hope so.

Zibby: I literally just before you got off this podcast with this other woman, Diana Kupershmit, about Emma’s Laugh about losing her daughter. You should read it. It’s so beautiful. It’s a memoir, very different. I should introduce you guys. Not that you need friends, but it’s a similar theme.

Breena: I know what you mean because it’s a peculiar category, the parent whose child has died. There isn’t really a word for you because it’s just so — you know, widower or widow, you’re none of those things. You’re something else. You’re in another category. It’s hard to continue to explore those things that are so rich and wonderful about motherhood in the face of this loss, but that’s really the kind of thing you have to do.

Zibby: I think you should coin a term for it. Another thing you can do in your spare time.

Breena: It needs a word. It does.

Zibby: There are so many people who are in this category, unfortunately. I think some people are afraid to talk about it. Of course, once you lose someone, you never stop thinking about them. It’s not like someone bringing it up is going to make it feel sadder. You already have the sadness.

Breena: Right, that’s it exactly.

Zibby: On a totally lighter topic, I hear that you’ve taken up swimming and you’re obsessed with swimming. Is that true? Is that an old thing? I don’t know. I read that somewhere.

Breena: Yeah, it’s an old and a contemporary thing. I’ve come to swimming again because my mother, she was, as a young person, a very outstanding swimmer. Growing up, I didn’t learn to swim. Also, my son was a good swimmer. I didn’t learn to swim until I was forty-nine, so I was older. I am proof that there is no age limit on learning anything, but swimming certainly. I’ve learned to swim. I swim pretty well. I belong with an aqua aerobics group. We meet. Our problem has been, during the pandemic, the hours at our swimming pool facility have changed. I haven’t been in such a long time. It’s one of the things I have to get back to. It’s wonderful.

Zibby: Another book recommendation for you after you read Emma’s Laugh, Bonnie Tsui wrote a beautiful book called Why We Swim, which is all about the scientific benefits we get from swimming. She talks about famous swimmers and what they’ve gotten out of it. That’s another really beautiful book.

Breena: It’s called Why We Swim?

Zibby: It’s called Why We Swim.

Breena: All right, I’ll check it out.

Zibby: I don’t know why I keep recommending books to you. Maybe I should ask you, what are you reading now? What do you like to read?

Breena: I read a lot of different things. Some of the nonfiction books that I read are on topics that I’m working with with my students at the Stonecoast MFA. One of the books that I’m reading, it’s called Afro-Dog. I’m sorry, I’m going to fumble on the author’s name.

Zibby: That’s okay. Don’t worry.

Breena: It’s a book that examines ways in which dogs have been used in law enforcement and to oppress enslaved people as well. It’s a book that examines ways in which dogs have been used specifically in this fashion and examines some of that uneasy relationship. I’m kind of doing that sort of thing in my fiction. I was very interested to read that book. There’s another book. It’s kind of a hybrid book. Where is it? Here it is. It’s called Black Futures. It’s a great book. The reason I say it’s a hybrid book is because it includes texts and all kinds of various ways of text to talk about blackness in our culture. It includes photographs. It’s a big, huge book. It’s great.

Zibby: If you need even more book recommendations about dogs, I have an article coming out tomorrow in The Washington Post online, and it’ll be in the paper next week, with books about dogs. Maybe I’ll forward it to you when it comes out.

Breena: Please do. That’s my subject. Please do.

Zibby: Breena, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Breena: Zibby, I always get this question.

Zibby: I’m sorry.

Breena: No, no, but I always answer it same way. I always say the same thing. I give what I call the Nike advice. That is, just do it. People will ask you, they say, Breena, I have this novel I want to write, what do I do? Just sit down and write it. No one can do it but you, so there you go. It’s a personal process, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. You’ve got to put the words down. Whatever your medium is, you just simply have to do it. A lot of times, people will spend great hours and days discussing something that, really, they just have to put themselves in the chair and do it. That’s my advice. It sort of puts the ownness on the individual. You have to pick it up. You have to pick up the stick and go with it. Nobody else can. They can’t do it for you. You have to do it.

Zibby: I realized my biggest procrastination from writing is writing book proposals. I’ve written so many book proposals. If I had only just written those books. Instead, I have a whole book, probably, of book proposals. Luckily, we have this book here, Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now, coedited by Breena Clarke and Amy Newmark. Everybody, go pick this one up. Thank you so much for taking the time with me today.

Breena: Thank you, Zibby, for having me.

Zibby: Have fun. Have a great time with your doggies. Bye, Breena.

Breena: Okay. Bye-bye.



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