A major move can sometimes lead to marvelous things. Take 53-year-old novelist, playwright and lecturer Leila Aboulela, for instance. She was born in Cairo to Sudanese father and Egyptian mother, then moved to Khartoum, Sudan in her infancy. She attended Khartoum American School and at the Sisters’ School, where she learned English, and would later graduate from the University of Khartoum with a degree in Economics, specializing in Statistics, then the London School of Economics with a M.Sc. and an MPhil in Statistics. However, it is when she and her family relocated more than 6000 miles away, and she learned how to articulate the emotions that came along with the move, that her knack for writing truly kicked in.
Marie NDiaye, a novelist and playwright was born to a French mother and Senegalese father in Pithiviers, France. When her father headed back to Senegal on his own, NDiaye and her mother remained in the French suburbs. She later went on to study linguistics at the Sorbonne, however, her writing gifts came very early in life. NDiaye started writing at around 12 years old and hit the ground running five years later, publishing her first book Quant Au Riche Avenir (or “The Rich Future”) at 17 after she was discovered by Jerome Lindon, the founder of Editions de Minuit.
Yrsa Daley-Ward does it all. Seriously. As a writer, poet, actress, model and LGBTQ advocate, the multi-hyphenate has attracted admirers from all sides, whether they are looking at her face in photos, hearing her voice at open mics, or reading her delicate words in their hands. She spent a good chunk of her late teens and early 20s modeling for the likes of Apple, Topshop, Estée Lauder and Nike, but she will tell you that deep down, she was always a writer. Born to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, Daley-Ward was raised in Chorley, North of England. For a time, she lived with her religiously strict Seventh Day Adventist grandparents, before returning home to her mother and brother. As she grew, her battles with the expectations placed on her as a woman lit a fire of rebellion within her. Writing helped her articulate those unfiltered thoughts.
Taiye Selasi is what one might call a global citizen. Her mother was born in England, raised in Nigeria and currently lives in Ghana. Her father was born in Ghana (when it was still a British colony called the Gold Coast) and has lived in Saudi Arabia for more than 30 years. Selasi, herself, was born in London and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts along with her twin sister. In the past, when asked about her origins, Selasi would use humor to mask not knowing the proper response. She has since made peace with the feeling of not being “from” anywhere; she is decidedly a local in many places that feel like home. “My experience is where I’m from,” she said during her 2015 TED Talk. The 38-year-old writer, photographer and self-described explorer graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in American Studies and holds a Master’s in Philosophy in International Relations from Oxford University. Currently based in Rome and Berlin, Selasi has stretched out into just as many artforms as she has locations honoring her multi-local experience and community exploration in her work.
In 1996, Oprah Winfrey lit a fire in casual readers with her now infamous book club. It’s 33-year-old Glory Okon Edim’s turn to do the same for her digital community of book lovers. Edim’s “Well-Read Black Girl” is a curated newsletter and a Brooklyn-based book club dedicated to readers and writers of color, celebrating the uniqueness of black literature and sisterhood.
Malebo Sephodi deeply believes in being a voice for and working directly with the community around her. The South African activist, researcher and author—in 2017, she published her first book, Miss Behave—has carved a place for herself by addressing several socio-economic issues and fighting for the dignity of human rights.
Koleka Putuma uses her work to confront the difficult and sometimes taboo issues of Black people in South Africa. Her aim is to heal through this exploration. And she doesn’t care if she offends you in the process. “When we look at the country—but not only the country, in our families as well—you kind of realize that when you don’t grieve or when you don’t heal from something, collectively, as a group, or as people, things come back,” she told between10and5.com. “There’s a cycle. And even if you try and slip into a kind of amnesia, if you have not dealt with something, in one way or another, it’s gonna return.” The South African poet-playwright is breaking that cycle, namely, through her debut anthology of poetry Collective Amnesia.
Upile Chisala’s version of a powerful woman is one who has flaws. She may fall short and cry at the kitchen sink from time to time, but she is dynamic and complex, strong and soft. Her strength lies in the fact that she is many things all at once. The Malawian storyteller’s work is an expression of these multilayered women (she prefers the use of “womxn”) in their many forms, particularly African women. Chisala, 23, hails from Blantyre, Malawi, but currently lives in Oxford, England where she is working towards an MSc in Medical Anthropology at the University of Oxford. (She already received a B.A. in Sociology with minors in Women's Studies and Law & Society from New Mexico State University and an MSc in African Studies from Oxford.) Her ultimate goal is to continue telling black women’s stories for the rest of her life. She is currently writing a collection of poems tentatively called Homeward, and launched Khaya Means Home, a craft making company specializing in the gifting experience. In addition to her storytelling, she hopes to start an organization that addresses women's health issues—particularly women of color—a topic she is extremely passionate about.
Although author and University of Buffalo professor, Nnedi Okorafor, didn’t technically start writing creatively until she was 20 years old, she will tell you that she’s been a writer since the beginning of time. The Nigerian-American novelist, now 44, has penned more than 12 books centered around African-based science fiction, fantasy and magical realism. Her joy stems from writing stories about wild women, monsters, planets and moving through and messing with time. Okorafo, Cincinnati born and Chicago raised—credits her wild imagination to no one but herself. Simply put, she was a creative child who grew into a creative adult. She honed in on this creativity while receiving a BA in Rhetoric (creative writing) from the University of Illinois, U-C, a MA in Journalism from Michigan State University, another MA in Literature from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a PhD in Literature from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Alexis Okeowo’s pen is always working. Avid readers of The New Yorker will recognize the staff writer’s frequent bylines—her pieces range from election season in Alabama (her home state) and media’s lack of empathy towards Somalia’s bombings, to Mona Scott-Young’s reality TV empire and the cultural impact of Issa Rae’s Insecure. She has also written for Vogue, Time, the New York Times Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek and the Financial Times.