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Gwen’s Take: Telling Our Stories

Two women I know have recently written terrific books that could easily have never seen the light of day.

By complete serendipity, each is a former colleague and friend. Isabel Wilkerson and I were both reporters for the New York Times. Michele Norris and I became running buddies while working together at the Washington Post.

I also wrote a book a few years ago, an exercise that ranks right at the top of the hardest things I have ever done. We three are also African American women who have closely followed the country’s national debates about race.

But beyond that remarkable set of similarities, our initial forays into publishing as long-form authors diverge dramatically.

For Isabel – a Pulitzer prize-winner – writing her new book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” was truly epic. We ran into each other this week at the NewsHour studios as she was preparing to tape an interview with my colleague Jeffrey Brown, and her first words to me were, “Fifteen years! Can you believe it?”

It wasn’t that we had not seen each other in 15 years. It was that it took her 15 long years to complete the project – a magisterial investigation into the African American experience. While she was writing the book, she changed jobs and cities multiple times. Her friends stopped asking her about its progress for fear it had become a sore point.

For Michele – whose voice you would recognize as a co-host of All Things Considered on NPR – the twists and turns were more compressed, but no less dramatic. Her book, “The Grace of Silence: A Memoir,” started out life as a post-2008 examination of how Americans talk to each other about race. But as she started turning the questions she was asking of strangers on her own family, she began unearthing secrets, and a story that needed to be told. (Read a review)

What these two remarkable writers have in common developed over time, and well after they had already launched their separate book projects. They came to compelling and certain conclusions about the need to illuminate the uncomfortable corners of our national psyche.

This can be a tough tasks for journalists (like me, actually) who are generally far more at home digging into other peoples’ dramas rather than their own. Ripping the scabs off untold stories is what we do, but introspection is not our gift.

Not so for Isabel and Michele. “The truth can set you free, but it can also be profoundly disconcerting,” Michele writes in her book. “I realized pretty quickly when I began listening carefully to conversations in my own family.” (Listen)

In Isabel’s book, which a New York Times reviewer called “a landmark piece of nonfiction,” one of the thousands of people she interviewed described leaving the South in search of better opportunity up North as akin to “getting unstuck from a magnet.”

Getting unstuck as a writer and revealer of the unspoken is even tougher than it sounds, especially when we are telling stories that cut so close to the bone. But how fortunate for us that Michele Norris and Isabel Wilkerson got past the difficult first questions to get to the deeply edifying answers.

This Gwen’s Take post is cross-posted from the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

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