The concept for Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ debut novel came to her in dreams.
On the day of its release, the award-winning Oklahoma African American writer achieved a goal that many writers only dream of when her new book, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” was announced by Oprah Winfrey as the latest selection for Oprah’s Book Club.
“I was so enraptured by the story of this modern Black family, and how author Honorée Fanonne Jeffers wove the larger fabric of historical trauma through the family’s silence through generations,” said Winfrey in a statement. “It’s a combination of historical and modern and it consumed me.”
Released Aug. 24, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” is the first novel for Jeffers, a Norman-based poet, essayist and now novelist, who has been having a dream year professionally: Her fifth book of poetry, 2020’s “The Age of Phillis,” won in March the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry and was long-listed for the National Book Award for Poetry and the PEN/Voelcker Award.
Plus, the author was named in February one of the 60 fellows in United States Artists’ 2021 class of honorees.
“I just feel so blessed. I don’t even know how to verbalize it. For this to come at at this time, when I’ve been laboring for almost a quarter of a century — my first poem was published in 1997, so 24 years ago — I just feel really lucky,” Jeffers told The Oklahoman in an interview earlier this year.
Writing from dreams
Even before “The Age of Phillis,” Jeffers earned acclaim for her poetry volumes. An English professor at the University of Oklahoma, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. She also has been awarded the Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction and been inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.
Still, Jeffers — who will celebrate her new book’s release in a virtual event hosted by Tulsa’s Magic City Books from 7 to 8 p.m. Aug. 26 — had more that she wanted to accomplish.
“When I was despairing that I could never write a novel, I began having dreams about a place in the past. I would see a plantation house, and I would see people working the fields and they would speak to me. And I would be walking among them. And I’d wake up and I’d write it down,” Jeffers told The Oklahoman. “It was weird. And it took me a really long time to work out the structure that the book was going to be.”
The title “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” references the renowned civil rights activist, sociologist and fellow writer.
“The songs are historical interludes that are woven through the contemporary coming-of-age story of this young African American woman, Ailey Pearl Garfield. We have these historical interludes going all the way back to the 18th century, pre-removal (of Native Americans), in Georgia,” Jeffers said.
“That language is different. It’s very lyrical. It’s very poetic, because it’s the language that came to me in a dream.”
Sharing African American history
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” tells a story of African American history and the Black family experience through its protagonist, as she comes to terms with her identity.
Raised in the North but summering yearly in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother’s family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage, Ailey — the youngest daughter of a Washington, D.C., physician and a Southern school teacher — reckons with ancestral trauma while growing up in the 1980s and ’90s.
As she unearths life-changing family secrets, the historical sketches, or “songs,” link Ailey to her ancestors, including Creeks, enslaved Africans and Scot slave owners.
“I think we have seen, over the past several years, particularly disturbing aspects of American history that really should not be rearing their heads because this is a great nation,” Jeffers said. “Being a woman in my early 50s, at this point, there are a series of concerns that I have — cultural concerns, historical concerns. … I draw connections between history and contemporary times.”
Called by the author “a love letter to Black women,” Jeffers’ multigenerational story deals with themes of family, class, higher education, feminism and colorism.
“You know, human beings don’t change. Laws change and how we respond to laws, or power dynamics change and how we respond to power dynamics. But human beings don’t change. People fall in love. People have children; they love their children. People have hopes and dreams. So, those things don’t change. But it’s just how does that respond to what’s going on in the history at the time?” she said.
“In my fiction, in my scholarship, in my cultural essays and my poetry … there’s a need that I have to connect with other people — to connect spirit to spirit, soul to soul.”
Failing at ‘chick-lit’
In her release-day interview with Jeffers, “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King said “people of all colors should read this book” while also referencing its almost 800-page length. Winfrey called the novel “epic” on Twitter.
But Jeffers said that’s not what she originally planned.
“My editor laughs hysterically every time I say this: I wanted to write a popular chick-lit novel,” she told The Oklahoman with a laugh. “That’s what I set out to write … just a family drama that was kind of light-ish. And then I started (writing).”
Now, her first novel is drawing comparisons to books by African American literary luminaries like Toni Morrison and fellow Oklahoma author Ralph Ellison — and the Oprah’s Book Club episode featuring Winfrey and Jeffers premieres Sept. 24 on Apple TV+.
“As a creative writer, it was my secret dream that I would one day write a book that this ‘phenomenal woman’ — to quote from the great poet, Dr. Maya Angelou — would read, enjoy, and present to the members of her book club. … I’m incredibly grateful,” Jeffers said in a statement.
Oprah Winfrey’s latest selection for Oprah’s Book Club is “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” the debut novel by acclaimed Oklahoma writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. The Oprah’s Book Club episode featuring an in-depth discussion between Winfrey and Jeffers will premiere Sept. 24 exclusively on Apple TV+ at apple.co/-oprahbookclub.
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” is available on Apple Books in both ebook and audiobook formats at apple.co/OprahsBookClub. It also is available at other online retailers and bookstores.
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” book launch virtual event
When: 7 to 8 p.m. Aug. 26.
Hosted by: Tulsa’s Magic City Books.
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