Panel for Iowa City’s Black authors to be held at Prairie Lights as part of Soul & Blues Festival

On Sept. 24, bookstore and literature hub Prairie Lights will offer a panel for some of the most accomplished Iowa-based Black writers as part of Iowa City’s annual Soul & Blues festival.

Eliza David was motivated to start writing after not finding many Black female protagonists in the novels she read.

Now as a self-publishing novelist and blogger, a librarian, and a current UI graduate student, David is one of four Black authors to be featured in the Black Authors’ Panel through Prairie Lights’ involvement in this year’s Iowa City Soul & Blues Festival. 

“I think what motivated me to start writing romance was not really seeing a lot of Black women in contemporary romance novels; at least contemporary romance novels that were on the shelf,” David said. 

On Sept. 24, some of Iowa City’s accomplished Black authors will meet virtually to discuss their work and the significance of Black art to Iowa City and University of Iowa communities as part of the Souls and Blues Festival. The Soul & Blues festival is held every year as part of Iowa City’s “Summer of the Arts” program. This is the second year it is being held in person since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

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David noted the lack of representation of Black artists in Iowa City and popularization of Black people among writers leads to a lack of diversity in terms of ethnicity among characters in books. 

Upon becoming a writer, David realized that, while there were myriad Black female romance writers, their work had been largely inaccessible to her because it was not promoted adequately.

“Once I became a writer,” she continued “I was introduced to so many Black women who were writing about Black women in romance that it just made my head spin. There is this misconception that there are no Black people in romance, but if you get to know a lot of independently published authors, you will find a lot of Black women who are writing those stories.”

Identifying the crux of the problem of representation as not simply a shortage of writers but also a shortage of support for said writers, David highlighted the importance of events like the Black Authors’ Panel that aim to empower Black artists. 

David noted how crucial it is to bring artists and the public back together through events like the Black Authors’ Panel — especially after a long period of social distancing— even if the panel is virtual. 

“What I’ve really loved about the Summer of the Arts is this gradual rejoicing of everyone; coming back together to talk about books is always a great reason,” she said. “I say that as a writer, as a reader, as a librarian, as a human. Books bring people together.” 

The panelists also recognize another significance of the festival aside from uniting readers and writers: honoring and promoting the work of Black artists. David highlighted how important it is to work towards making art more inclusive, particularly in a place like Iowa City, which is a hub of literature.

“As a Black resident of Johnson County for over 20 years, it is so important that we create platforms for other African Americans,” David said. “Iowa City is literally a City of Literature. It is so important that we amplify the voices of Black authors in literature. And where else is that better shown than here in Iowa City, where people can be together and talk about Black stories and Black authors and what their processes are?”

For most of the four unique panelists at the literature event, the chief excitement is in connecting with fellow artists. Donika Kelly, one of the panelists, is a professor in the UI English department as well as an award-winning poet. 

“This is a great opportunity to participate in a literary event outside of the university,” Kelly said. “I’m just looking forward to the exciting community, and that kind of thing.” 

While she was unacquainted with the other panelists, Kelly said she is grateful for the event because it makes it possible for their paths to cross for the first time. 

“This is only my third year in Iowa City, and I am still trying to figure out what [the city] is. I am excited to see what the festival brings out,” she said.  

Aside from Kelly and David, the panel will feature Gabrielle Williams, an author primarily of cookbooks, and Steven Willis, a UI graduate and poet, storyteller, actor, and dancer. Arnold Daniels Jr., whose career spans across the fields of politics, education, social service, business, and research, will moderate the event.  

David commended the festival for making it possible for such a diverse group of people to connect with one another. She spoke particularly of her friendship with Gabrielle Williams and of how their being on the panel together would strengthen that bond.

“When two people writing about two completely different things can find a common thread together and both create their own separate projects and then come together on the same panel, that is the universe working in both our favors,” David said. “I am absolutely thrilled to share the stage with Gabrielle Williams. I am thrilled to get to know the other two authors as well.” 

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