Sunni Patterson and Megan Holt at Words and Music Festival [Courtsey of Sunni Patterson]

Short List of NOLA Black Writers Everyone Needs to Know

07:00 February 19, 2024
By: Michelle Nicholson

Best Black Writers in NOLA

The current literary renaissance in New Orleans has already surpassed that of the Bohemian movement of the 1920s and is garnering national attention.

What makes the current movement so special is its truly New Orleans flavor—its authentic sense of community, lacking in competitiveness and abundant in creativity and mutual celebration. There are certain members of the community who have played, and continue to play, key roles in creating and promoting this movement. Here is a very abridged introduction to some of our most influential Black writers—ones you absolutely must know.

The Matriarch & Patriarch of Literary New Orleans

Kalamu ya Salaam [Photo by Alex Lear]

Hailing from the 7th Ward, Dillard University professor Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy has made significant contributions to the canon of New Orleans literature as a folklorist, educator, and Louisiana's 2021-2023 poet laureate. Her 2005 Red Beans & Ricely Yours won the T.S. Eliot Prize and PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and her recently published Black Creole Chronicles made Southern Reviews' list of "The Best Southern Books of April 2023." Mona Lisa has dedicated her life to preserving Black Creole culture and making that experience knowable to an international audience: "I'm about how words / work up a gumbo of culture, / stamped and certified African, / delivered on southern American soil" (from her poem "Word Works"). Read her books but also be sure to see her perform live or via YouTube.

Poet, memoirist, editor, publisher, musician, music producer, arts administrator, social critic, activist, photographer, filmmaker, playwright, educator, etc. Kalamu ya Salaam and his "pen of peace" have served the people and artists of New Orleans in every imaginable way. Rightfully, he is known by many around town as "Baba Kalamu." In 2002, he was added to The HistoryMakers: The Digital Repository for the Black Experience. Kalamu published his first collection of poetry, The Blues Merchant, in 1969. In 1972, he won the Richard Wright award for literary criticism, and his recent hybrid collection of poetry, essays, and speeches, Be About Beauty, received the 2019 PEN/Oakland award. Cosmic Deputy is an excellent introduction to his massive body of work.

New Orleans' High Priestess of Poetry

Sunni Patterson and Megan Holt at Words and Music Festival [Courtesy of Sunni Patterson]

Featured in I Am New Orleans, edited by Kalamu ya Salaam, Sunni Patterson was for many years a strictly spoken-word poet. She is also a healer, cultural worker, activist, spiritual life coach, and initiated priestess, so it is no surprise that it took time for her to compile her 2022 debut poetry collection We Know This Place. Her 2007 performance of "We Made It" on HBO's Def Poetry has over 693 thousand views, and her performance of "Wild Women" on TEDWomen in 2017 has accumulated over half a million as well. She is featured on Grammy award-winning hip hop albums and was a 2020/2021 John O'Neal Cultural Arts Fellow. Whether speaking before the U.N., teaching a workshop, or gracing mics at community events across the globe, Sunni is forever gifting others with her gifts: "Body made of stars / Goddess grandeur is all I know / Maat feathers golden flow / Just meet me at the river / Watch me work" (from her poem "Ancient Futuristic").

NOLA's Power Couple in Poetry & Prose

Jarvis DeBerry and Kelly Harris-DeBerry [Courtesy of Kelly Harris-DeBerry]

Jarvis DeBerry, currently the opinions editor for MSNBC, spent 22 years as a reporter and then as a columnist and editorial writer for The Times Picayune. In a 2020 review of Jarvis' first full-length book, I Feel to Believe, Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, claims, "Every city has its truth tellers, and Jarvis DeBerry is one of the finest that New Orleanians—including those who claim her by sheer love—could hope to read." Jarvis and his team won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and he has collected numerous awards from press clubs in Louisiana and Mississippi and the National Association of Black Journalists. He is also a member of the NOMMO Literary Society, and his poetry has appeared in anthologies, including Step into a World: A Global Anthology of New Black Literature.

In 2020, Kelly Harris-Deberry also celebrated the launch of her debut poetry collection Freedom Knows My Name, which critic Christopher Romaguera describes as "an outstretched hand to a conversation that can't stop, to a chorus we all know, to a mantra so many of us need." Combining her skills as both a former hip hop artist and a recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center and Cave Canem, the poetry in the book carries music both deftly on the page and on its audio version, accessed via a QR on the back cover. Further, Kelly is an accomplished journalist and scholar who appears on podcasts and presents at national conferences. She spends most of her time, though, supporting other writers as a poetry mentor for the Breakthrough Writing Residency, as a literary coordinator for Poets & Writers, and as a national advisor to Literary Maps, an initiative of the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Arts.

New Orleans' Literary Ambassador

Maurice Carlos Ruffin [Photo by Vaughn D. Taylor]

The list of New Orleans East-native Maurice Carlos Ruffin's awards goes on and on. His first novel, We Cast a Shadow, was named one of the Best Books of the Year by NPR and The Washington Post. In 2023 alone, he was the recipient of the Louisiana Writer Award and the Black Rock Senegal Residency. The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You, his collection of short stories set in New Orleans (a 2021 New York Times Editor's choice), became the One Book One New Orleans selection and was chosen to represent Louisiana at the National Book Festival. Maurice has spent years supporting other writers, currently as a professor of Creative Writing at LSU and as a part of the Narrative 4 Artist Network. His newest novel, The American Daughters, about which Publishers Weekly claims, "Readers won't be able to resist this stirring story of freedom by any means necessary," is available for presale on Amazon.

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