One of the few things I like about DC is meeting people I would have never encountered in good ole Alabama. It is honestly inspiring being around so many people of color my age who are driven, passionate smart and fighting for a world where everyone has a voice regardless of their race.
When you think of the laundry list of things that suck about being a minority in this country, literature may not be high at the top of it. But as an avid reader, it can be a source of genuine frustration. The classics usually contain inherently racial undertones. Characters that allegedly represent your culture are often glorified black face. And that’s if people of color are even acknowledged or included in the first place.
As a black kid growing up in Alabama, it’s literally been a life-long journey to find stories that accurately reflect my identity. The African-American section in bookstores is usually just a handful of Toni Morrison books followed by a sea of tasteless romance. Even in school, the classes I took introducing me to black literature always had the same rotating selections…Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and letters from Martin Luther the King. The same 10 or so writers were always treated like an exhaustive list of black writing, rather than just the tip of the iceberg that it truly is. And if you happened to be into Sci-Fi or Fantasy or comic books, the options were even more dismal.
All this is to say, a few days ago I had the honor of being the first official customer of Duende District. I was at Artomatic, an event highlighting local artists and creative folk, and I happened to run into Angela Maria Spring just as she was leaving. She gave me the elevator speech on her store and her mission and asked me what type of books I’m into. When I replied that I’m a huge nerd and lover of Sci-Fi, she immediately pulled out Octavia’s Brood from her bag. (It’s an anthology of Sci-Fi stories from social justice movements. Because yes). As an added bonus, she also gave me a copy of White is for Witching, which sounds like an amazingly terrifying novel from British writer Helen Oyeyemi. (yes Ronnie, reviews will be coming soon).
Just to put some perspective on this, in my 20-something years of living, I have never, ever walked into a bookstore and been recommended a book I’m actually interested in reading. I knew immediately that I was here for everything Angela was doing. Then I remembered that I’m a blogger, so at this point, I’m just going to let her tell you about it in her own words.
First, could you share a little about yourself? Where are you from, and how did you end up working in the book/publishing industry?
I’m originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I moved to New York City in 2007, then to Washington, D.C. in 2010. I’m a poet, editor and writing instructor with an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. I’ve also worked in independent bookstores in all three cities, with a career spanning over 16 years. My mother and grandmother are from Panama and my grandfather is from Puerto Rico. All of them moved to NYC (Queens and Brooklyn), so I have deep roots there and though I will always belong to the mountains and fierce skies of the desert, I am equally devoted to NYC, Panama and Puerto Rico.
I got my first very first bookstore job at the Waldenbooks in Coronado Mall in Albuquerque in 2001, when I was 19 years old. It’s now closed but I grew up in that small space. I remember buying the newest Baby-Sitters Club book each month when I was six, seven and eight in the 1980s. I remember my mother reading a poem by Emily Dickinson in the aisle to me when I was 10, and she bought me the book and I filled notebooks full of poems copying her style until I found my own. I remember picking up a random new book called Game of Thrones by somebody named George R.R. Martin when I was 17 in 1999.
Since then, I’ve been a book buyer at indie bookstores in Albuquerque and Manhattan and a sales floor manager of one of the biggest bookstores in D.C.
I know you mentioned you previously worked at Politics and Prose. What motivated you to launch your own store? What’s the mission of Duende District and how is it solving an unmet need in the industry?
I’ve worked in bookstores from one end of the country to the other and have had so few colleagues who are also people of color. And when I do, they rarely make it into the senior positions that shape a bookstore’s mission and decide how to reach out to its community. They aren’t event planners or book buyers or senior managers or directors (such a D.C. concept, a “director”).
I think many of us are done waiting for an invitation to a table where we’re only one voice that no one really listens to. I have already trained a huge number of booksellers in this city and I am very good at what I do. We, people of color, deserve a high-quality bookstore experience that serves us because it was created by us. And then we’ll extend the invitation for everyone to enjoy because that’s what real intersectionality is.
It’s also time for people like us to walk into bookstores and not only see books by people who look like us and are from our cultures but the booksellers who create the entire experience and put the books in our hands should be the same. It will open up a world of possibilities for everyone.
Being in DC kind of places us in the heart of the political climate. Has the narrative around minorities in the recent election impacted your desire to create this space?
Absolutely, 100%. I’m part of an immigrant community that this president and his administration are doing their best to dehumanize. They want to take away every inch we’ve all fought for years to get in a system that was created to keep people of color down and in their “place”. But there’s no going back. This is a war and the best weapon we have is to create, to create spaces like this and do it extremely well. And it’s time for far more people of color entrepreneurs to branch out into businesses we’ve been traditionally blocked off from and for us to shape and drive the conversations we all need to have to learn and heal and love.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
My mother. Always my mother. My friends. My fellow co-founders of Duende For All, Jamie Tan and Carla Bruce-Eddings. Hannah Oliver Depp, the Ops Director at WORD Bookstores and the person who stands up with me to call out white privilege. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, one of the kindest, smartest, supportive people I know and the co-owner of Greenlight Books. Sarah McNally, also a brilliant bookseller and the best boss I’ve ever had. These are warrior women who have faced constant challenges and always come out on top. They constantly innovate, create and give back.
What’s your favorite book, and why?
This is a question all booksellers fear because all the books we sell are like our babies. But when I read Daisy Hernandez’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed, a beautifully written memoir about her experience growing up as a Latina from the immigrant community, it touched me so deeply, I immediately called my mother, crying. Her book gave definition to my own experience in a way no other book has done for me. My mom and I talked about how she had a similar experience when she first read Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican.
What types of books/genres can we expect to find in the store? There’s a growing audience for comic books and children’s books that feature minority characters, so I’m also interested in knowing if those will be available here as well. Also, will it primarily feature US writers/ English books? (sorry for sneaking about 100 questions in one here lol).
Everything that specifically bought for Duende District’s pop-up will be by people of color or empower people of color in an authentic way. I have some great graphic novels and children’s picture books! I also carry novels, poetry, teen fiction, essays, and memoirs.
I read online that you also plan to do some events. Could you share more about what’s to come?
I definitely will but I’m still in the planning process now that I’ve assembled the physical pieces of the store. I’ve partnered with 826DC for three events and we’ll leading writing exercises and Tara Campbell, the author of TreeVolution, is leading a writing workshop. The best thing to do is sign up for my email list on www.duendedistrict.com and I’ll announce them as they come!
Most of the blog’s viewers are based in the south (where I’m from). How can people outside of DC follow your store and purchase books?
I have Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts and I hope that by this summer, I’ll have an online shop. But I’ll also be mobile after this and if your community wants Duende District to do a pop-up shop, just email me at email@example.com!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers of color, or those interested in the publishing industry?
Embrace and celebrate who you are, your culture, where you’re from and your experience. Be kind and willing to listen but hold firm to yourself, don’t let anyone change who you are just to make yourself more “palatable” to white culture. Know that it’s okay to be angry but learn to channel it into creating something true from it. Understand that everyone’s identity is fluid. No one is ever just one thing, especially people of color. We are beautiful and many and the more of us enter into these fields, the more we can, and will, change this country. This is our time. It may not seem like it, but it is.
What are some books you’ll be carrying that you’re most excited about?
All of them! I’m only carrying about 60 titles right so they’re all very personal, but I’m excited to have Brit Bennett’s novel, The Mothers, Daisy’s memoir, Tammi Sauer’s Mary Had a Little Glam, the new Ms. Marvel and Natalie Diaz’s poetry collection When My Brother Was An Aztec. I hope everyone loves all the books as much as I do!
So there you have it, folks. If you’re in the DMV area, definitely, stop by Artomatic in Crystal City and check out her pop-up store. (Wed-Fri 5-10 pm; Sat+Sum 12-8pm). If you’re further away, follow her on social media (@DuendeDistrict).
There’s still so much work to be done in fighting for true racial equality, but at Duende District ‘diverse book selection’ is one thing we can finally check off the list.