5 Questions with Farah Jasmine Griffin, Author of Read Until You Understand

Oct 4, 2021

author farah jasmine griffin sits in a chair smiling, looking to her left

Photo by Peggy Dillard Toone

Farah Jasmine Griffin is Chair of African-American & African Diaspora Studies; Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies and the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University. She is also Affiliate Faculty of the Center for Jazz Studies. She is the author of “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative, and the coeditor of A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African-American Travel Writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Ford Foundation and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College.

Her newest book is Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, published by Norton. She will be discussing this new book, in conversation with Robin D.G. Kelley, in our City Lights LIVE! virtual events series on Tuesday, October 5th, 2021!

Where are you writing to us from?

Although I live in New York, I am writing from my mother’s home in Philadelphia.

What’s kept you sane during the pandemic?

I’m not sure I’ve stayed sane during the pandemic, but to the extent that I have, my sanity has been aided by long walks in Riverside Park, watching movies with my husband, listening to lots of music, reading, and my students.

What books are you reading right now?  Which books do you return to? 

I just finished Gayl Jones new novel, Palmares. I am starting Wole Soyinka’s Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth and Taurana Burke’s Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement.

I return to Robin Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sealight, and, believe it or not, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.

Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book specifically?

Toni Morrison––the body of work––and W.E.B. DuBois––especially The Souls of Black Folk––influenced this book specifically. I listened to a lot of 70’s soul, funk and R&B while writing this book because it reminded me of the era in which the memoir parts take place. The Clark Sisters were on constant replay and lots of Jill Scott, MeShell N’degeocello, Alice Coltrane, and Geri Allen got me through writing and helped to clear some blocks.

If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

If I could open a bookstore it would be in South Philadelphia and it would be called Emerson’s, after my father, who was a voracious reader. The bestseller would be Read Until You Understand, of course. Seriously, I hope that all the titles I chose to sell would find their own readers and that the city’s community of readers would support the store. I grew up with independent bookstores in Philly like Robins, Giovanni’s Room, Hakims, and later House of Our Own.  Now there is Uncle Bobbie’s and Harriet’s. So Emerson’s would be a part of that legacy. 


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