When Farrah Rochon found out that Essence had reached out to her publisher, she said she was floored. As a native Louisianian, Rochon had been going to Essence for years.
“Of all the things I go to every year, there’s nothing like Essence that just really celebrates Black culture and the positive aspects of Black culture,” Rochon said. “So I am literally giddy at the thought of being able to call myself an Essence Author.”
Rochon is one of 34 authors who will be featured at the Essence Festival of Culture’s author showcase this weekend. Their work ranges from romance to thriller to Christian fiction. In addition to book signings and speaking with attendees, the authors will sit on a series of panels and fireside chats, grouped by theme or genre, such as Black love and Black men in fiction. The panels started Friday (June 30) and continue the following three days of the festival.
Being named an “Essence Author” is particularly special because of Rochon’s New Orleans roots and her literary depictions of the city. Rochon has written more than 40 books, the bulk of which are romance novels, but she recently switched to young adult literature that features Black protagonists. “Representation is truly everything,” Rochon said.
Many of the “Essence Authors” featured at this year’s festival mentioned the importance of representation in their work.
A lack of representation within literature is inextricable from hurdles within publishing that create barriers for Black authors. Rhonda McKnight, a Christian fiction author with a dedicated following, says she can “probably count on two hands” the number of Black Christian fiction authors who have been traditionally published.
Representation is something that poet, teacher, and children’s book author, Van G. Garrett takes seriously as well. Garrett thinks deeply about the “freeing feeling” of self-expression alongside a kind of obligation: “We want to have stories that are not sad stories all the time, happy stories, but we also want to make sure that we’re doing some heavy lifting, making sure that representation is there, making sure that the work is accessible, making sure that we’re telling stories that we think young people who look like us and might not look like us will also be able to appreciate.”
Kennedy Ryan, another Essence Author of more than 20 romance novels, also discussed representation as a crucial, but complicated, thing. “Representation is something that I love. And it’s also something that people sometimes burden you with.”
For Ryan, the practice of writing romance is an act of resistance and an insistence on joy. In her work, she aims to center women’s pleasure and elevate their agency. “For me, I see romance as a genre of hope and resistance,” she said. “And then as a Black woman, I see everything I write as Black joy, an act of resistance, because there’s so many spaces in our culture that say that’s not something that we get to have.”
Romance might be a genre of joy, but Ryan nonetheless refuses to shy away from serious subjects. She describes her novel Long Shot, for instance, as an “indictment against intimate partner violence” and the ways that patriarchal structures uphold “a paternal right over women’s safety and well-being.” The structural elements, including the “guaranteed happily ever after,” of romance also work to lower the guard of the readers, which gives Ryan “a direct in to your mind, your emotions, your opinions.”
For Brendan Slocumb, a violinist from North Carolina, he wants to show Black representation in the thriller genre using musicians as protagonists. Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, was published in 2022. And like the protagonist of his novel, music became a life force.
“For me, music truly truly truly — it’s not hyperbole — it saved my life,” Slocumb said. “My friends were running the streets, breaking into people’s houses, vandalism, you know and I was right there with them. I used to pick up rocks and break windows and run away, stupid stuff.”
Music gave Slocumb an outlet. It took him to college, allowed him to travel, and got him out of his situation, he said. It’s rare to see depictions of Black people in the classical music world, and this absence makes Slocumb’s literature more urgent.
“I still feel like classical music, in general, is a rich white person’s activity and people don’t really get that yes, we can do that just as well,” said Slocumb, whose second novel, Symphony of Secrets, was released in April.
In his panel at the Essence Festival, where Jerid Woods of @ablackmanreading will moderate, Slocumb hopes to impress upon festival goers the unique perspective that Black authors bring to their writing.
“There’s nothing like writing a story from your own perspective that other people are unaware of,” Slocumb said. . “A lot of times people try to get you to switch over and shy away and make things a little bit, for lack of a better term, a little less Black. And I’m not doing that, no.”
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