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Quiet: A Syllabus

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For most of my life, I took quiet to mean a kind of shortcoming. I had heard it used too many times as a description of how others saw me. But then I realized that in the work of writers I love deeply are many kinds of quiets—those of catharsis, of subversiveness, of gaping loss or simple, sensual joy. I came to think of quiet not as an adjective or verb or noun, but as a kind of technique.

The books I chose for the syllabus below expand how we think about black expression, intimacy, interiority, and agency; about black quietude. I began with the work of Kevin Quashie, whose voice, like a tuning fork, set a tone for my reading of other books. For the nonfiction books on this list, I looked for thinkers who are deeply attentive to the everyday. For fiction and poetry, I selected writers who allow us to glimpse more clearly our own selfhoods via the unknowability of others. In all cases, these are books that are richer for asking us to listen more deeply. We might return from each one dazzled, dazed even, but always with renewed, sharpened perception.

Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture

Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior

Toni Morrison, Sula

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha

Natasha Brown, Assembly

Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes

Margo Jefferson, Constructing a Nervous System

Robin Coste Lewis, To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness

Lucille Clifton, Generations

Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk

Grace Nichols, Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Woman and Other Poems

M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks

Kathleen Collins, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God


Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, a writer, and an artist. She is an alumna of the Barbican Young Poets and recipient of an Eric Gregory Award. Quiet, her debut poetry collection, is a finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Rathbones/Folio award. It will be published by Alfred A. Knopf this month.

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Michael Neff
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