Editor's Note: To accompany the review of "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature," the Book Review asked a number of distinguished black Americans to name the works by African Americans that most moved or influenced them.
I'd have to say that Nora Zeale Hurston was one of the major influences on me, mostly because of the natural tone of her work, the use of dialect. She had a no-frills kind of writing, and that has always worked very well for me. There's not a lot of superfluous material in her work, and everything counts. She was also an author who never wrote to impress people; she was more interested in the development of plots and character. All of that has influenced me a great deal, even though I really didn't begin to enjoy her work until after I started writing. Another big influence has been James Baldwin, for many of the same reasons. He wrote about African Americans in a way I'd never experienced before. It felt contemporary; it was honest and raw. He was always probing his characters, it seemed, and he wasn't writing from some superior stance. Now, I love Toni Morrison and I think she's brilliant. But people like Hurston always seemed to be questioning their characters. Not that Toni doesn't, but when she writes, it seems me that she already understands them and is trying to explain them so her readers can understand them. With Baldwin, Hurston and other writers--and that includes Langston Hughes--they're engaged in an act of discovery as they write. There's some kind of risk involved. Which is exactly what writing has always been for me.