Drawn to tales that depict us as we really are

Isabel Wilkerson’s first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,’’ has received rave reviews. Isabel Wilkerson’s first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,’’ has received rave reviews. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / November 21, 2010

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In 1994, Isabel Wilkerson became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for her work as Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times. Around the same time, she began work on her first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.’’ A sweeping narrative of the nearly 6 million black Southerners who fled to northern and western cities between 1915 and 1970, it was released this fall to glowing reviews. Wilkerson is a journalism professor at Boston University, where she directs the narrative nonfiction program. She lives in Kenmore Square.

What books were involved in your research?

During the final stages of the archival work, I was reading a book a day: sociological and economic texts and work by anthropologists. I read people like John Dollard, who wrote “Caste and Class in a Southern Town,’’ and Hortense Powdermaker, who wrote “After Freedom’’ — some of the best-known anthropologists of the 1930s. I spent time reading about the laws of Jim Crow, about the sharecropping system, about the economics of the South. I’ve been so steeped in the world I’ve written about that I think it will always leave an imprint on me.

I also read novels of the era. One was “The Street,’’ by Ann Petry, about life in Harlem in the 1940s. She’s not a household name, but she’s no longer obscure, fortunately. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man’’ I had read before, but I read it more closely, in a different way. I read almost everything by Richard Wright, the bard of the Great Migration.

Southern literature was inspiring as well. You can’t even think of writing anything about the South without reading Faulkner. But the voice of Eudora Welty stayed with me above all, because she has this incredible way of capturing class within the South, and celebrating it. She has this understated voice that I found very comforting.

There were two books I turned to almost every week: John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath’’ and James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’’ They were like bibles, because they were talking about people of that era and written in a tone that was of that era. The writing is just luminous. And the fact that Steinbeck chose even in a novel to remind the reader of the larger forces at work gave me a guide as to how to manage a massive amount of archival material.

What kinds of books do you read generally?

I like to read a lot of nonfiction and narrative. I particularly liked Kevin Boyle’s “Arc of Justice,’’ which is about a little-known trial in Detroit during the 1920s that involved a doctor who was accused of murder.

But I love Jose Saramago. Love him. I read “Blindness’’ on a trip to Portugal — you know, you’re going to Portugal so you’ve got to read him. I was completely absorbed in it. As a writer, I feel that the potential of nonfiction is to capture human behavior in its reality, to the degree that the people you talk to are willing to share that. It requires an understanding of how humans behave and think, and what sets them off, and what cheers them on. “Blindness’’ takes this one crisis and examines all the ways humans might react to it.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading “Rebecca,’’ by Daphne du Maurier. I needed to get as far away as I could from the thing I’ve been immersed in for so long. She’s a beautiful, beautiful writer. So I’m on the coast of England, in my mind.

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