A Good Influence: Writers on the Authors and Texts that Influenced Them

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[by Meredith Wiggins]

The pleasures of Shay Youngblood’s Black Girl in Paris (2000) are many and vast, but one of the most prominent is the chance to follow along as main character Eden, a would-be writer, attempts to grapple with the literary legacy of James Baldwin, whose writing inspired her to move to Paris.  The novel is rich with references to Baldwin and his body of work; he even appears briefly as a character, wordlessly blessing Eden’s efforts as a writer.

It’s clear that Baldwin’s writing means as much to Youngblood as to her protagonist.  Her choice of setting, her invocation of queer themes, her Baldwin-esque ruminations on art, sex, race, and home–all speak to a deep love that requires textual engagement to be fully explored.

Reading this novel got me interested in compiling a list of some other authors’ major influences. 

In a 2014 interview with The Rumpus, author Edwidge Danticat speaks enthusiastically of Jean Toomer’s Cane, a book she says she loves for its “free, unruly”
quality–how “it takes genre and form and bends it and forces it into
the narrative he wants it to be.”  In the same essay, Danticat also praises Toni Morrison’s Sula, which she calls “the godmother of every one of my books.”

Among Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz‘s many influences was poet and memoirist Piri Thomas (check out the HBW Blog’s recent post about him here).  When Thomas died in 2011, Díaz told the Chicago Tribune
that Thomas’s work had been instrumental in his own development as a
writer, particularly praising “[Thomas’s] lyricism [and] his unadorned,
demolishing honesty.”

Another writer featured on the blog recently, Jamaica Kincaid, told an audience at Rice University that her habit of using “And” to begin sentences in her work comes from a childhood spent reading the Bible. Another childhood favorite, according to Kincaid, was the dictionary, which she recalls “read[ing]…the way people read Nancy Drew.”