Five Young Black Writers You Should Be Reading Now

You wouldn't know it from the preponderance of "street lit" crowding the shelves at bookstores, but quality African-American literature is alive and well. The Root talks to the best of a hot new wave.


By Ariana Austin

The last decade has seen an upsurge in what's called "urban fiction" or "street literature." Placed among those authors at the bookstore are classics -- Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison -- all lumped together in one section under the heading "African-American Fiction." Wouldn't it make more sense for these titles to be divided by genre? Classics among classics, erotic fiction with erotic fiction, and "street lit" -- well, it should have a section all its own. Still, despite the preponderance of so-called urban fiction crowding the shelves at your local Borders, there is a vital canon of contemporary African-American literature, with writers like ZZ Packer, Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle all releasing heralded titles in recent years.

Coming up behind those darlings of the literary establishment is a new wave of young, gifted and black writers getting rave reviews, publishing deals and even a few national tours. Nick Burd, Danielle Evans, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Ernessa Carter and Gary Jackson are five writers who have all written accomplished debuts, penning stories and plays and poetry that are both literary and provocative. All have distinctive voices and write on myriad themes.

Among these young writers, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker's names surfaced as literary influences, as have contemporary writers like Junot Diaz, Packer and Suzan-Lori Parks. These writers are all embracing what Evans describes as the "post-integrationist" moment. They see themselves as being blessed with opportunities to further their writing, while free to delve into themes of their own choosing. Each offers a fresh take on classic themes, melding history, pop culture and various identities into their own unique literary moments, often juxtaposing imagined worlds with stark realities.

The Root talked to each of them about their writing process, their influences and when they realized that they could make a serious go of their writing. 

Nick Burd, Novelist/YA Author

Book: The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Burd explores sexuality and adolescence through a diverse cast of characters, including his protagonist, 17-year-old Dade Hamilton, a closeted white teenager growing up in the suburbs. "I wanted to have gay characters who were complex, not flamboyant or weak, who were empathetic," Burd says. He admires James Baldwin's ability to grasp the human angle, capture complex relationships and celebrate differences.

Residence: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Age: 30