In May, Canadian feminist publisher Inanna Publications will release Kimberly Garrett Brown’s debut novel, Cora’s Kitchen. Set in 1928, Cora’s Kitchen is the story of an aspiring writer who works at a library in Harlem and is inspired by her correspondence with Langston Hughes. This moving and powerful epistolary novel examines race and gender issues in early twentieth century America, the role of artists, the powerful pull of family, and the importance of women’s friendships. The novel was a finalist in the 2016 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize as well as a finalist in the 2018 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. Please enjoy the excerpt below.
From Cora’s Kitchen:
March 29, 1928
I am a troubled woman. I’d never thought of myself that way before. But when I happened on the Langston Hughes poem while shelving books at the library today, it felt as if he was standing in my kitchen watching me hunched over the sink, washing dishes. I nearly cried right there in the aisle between the bookshelves. The words were powerful, I copied the poem onto a piece of paper before I left for the day. I wanted to have more time to think and to write a little in my journal.
But, when I got home, Dorothy met me at the door. I couldn’t even take my hat off before she rushed me to the telephone. Mr. Peterson from Peterson’s Market wanted to talk to me. Junior was an hour and half late for work, again. I apologized and made up a story about Junior having to stay after school to talk to his teacher about some homework. I promised he would be there directly, not wanting to give a specific time.
After hanging the receiver back on the stand, I contemplated waking Earl from his nap so that he could go look for Junior. But he’s ornery when he doesn’t get a nap before he has to go to work at the club in the evening. Instead, I told Dorothy to heat up the greens and ham hocks from last night, in case Earl woke up before I got back.
I headed straight down to Shorty’s. Junior and his hoodlum friends like to hang around there. It’s the only joint where young boys can gamble and drink without being run off. The place was practically empty, but it still smelled like musty cigar smoke and alcohol. I feared my shoes would get stuck as I walked over to the bar. It wouldn’t take much to run a mop across that sticky floor. But I suppose if you frequent Shorty’s you probably don’t care too much about cleanliness.
I asked the bartender and the few men sitting at the bar about Junior, but no one had seen him. Or at least that’s what they said. On my way out, I recognized a boy from our building. He ducked his head when he saw me. Young folks today don’t respect their elders as they did when I was coming up. If I had seen someone’s mother from the neighborhood, I would have spoken up mostly out of fear that she would tell my mother I hadn’t help. Nowadays, no telling how the parents might react if you tell them about their children. It’s best to mind your own business unless you know the parents well.
I checked the park between our house and the school, but he wasn’t there. A couple of girls, who looked to be Junior’s age, told me they talked to him right after school for a minute, but they didn’t remember which direction he went after their conversation. I walked up and down a few more blocks and then to Peterson’s Market to see if Junior had shown up. Low and behold, there he was sweeping the floor behind the counter.
“What you doing down here, Mama?” he asked as if he had been there all along.
I had half a mind to take off my shoe and beat the living daylights out of him, but Mr. Peterson was standing next to him.
“Mrs. James, what brings you down here?” he asked.
“I need some collards for dinner, “I said.
It made me so mad chasing all over Harlem looking for that boy. I bought three bundles of collards not to look like a fool. But I tossed them in the first rubbish bin I passed on my way home, because they smelled sour. A whole dollar wasted. Mr. Peterson ought to be ashamed of himself, selling near-rotten fruits and vegetables for twice as much as you can get at the markets uptown, but he knows no one is going to complain. He’s the only market for almost a mile. Most people don’t have money or time to search for a better deal. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, though. At least Junior has a job.
When I got home, Earl was getting dressed for work. He fussed all through dinner after I told him what happened. Junior was lucky his father left for the club before he got home from work. Hopefully, Earl will have calmed down by the time he sees Junior in the morning.
The whole incident made the words from that poem feel even more real. It seems as if my days are getting more wearisome. Sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make it. It’s too bad I can’t write like Langston. I sure would have a lot of stories about being a troubled woman. I wonder how he came up with that idea anyway. If he wasn’t away at college, I’d ask him. I miss seeing him around the library.
New York, New York
April 2, 1928
I read one of your poems a few days ago and thought I would write you a letter. The library has not been the same since you went away to school. There is no one here to talk with about poetry, books or writing.
I know it sounds odd to say no one talks about books at the library. People have conversations all the time, but they are mostly superficial discussions. Someone will say I loved this or that about a book but then will not be able to describe why. It’s like there is no appreciation for the words. No one takes the time to savor the story. A patron came in to return a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I asked him what he thought of “Song of Myself,” particularly 21, and he responded: “It was nice.”
I stood there, astonished. How can you come away from Whitman with “it was nice?” The opening takes my breath away:
I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell
are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
translate into a new tongue.
One stanza conveys the urging of body and the longing of the soul. I feel the complexity of heaven and hell within my own life.
It’s a blessing to work at the library surrounded by books and words and ideas. I have a friend who studied to be a teacher, but no school would hire her because she’s colored. She works for a white family as a maid. She helps the children with their lessons from time to time, but she will always be more mammy than tutor. So, while there are times I feel more like a clerk than a librarian, I know working here is better than cooking or cleaning for a white woman.
And yet, I don’t feel any closer to accomplishing my dreams than my friend is to teaching school. It’s as if I’m trapped in purgatory, knowing I want more from life, but unable to do anything about it. Then I feel guilty for not being satisfied. I have a good job, a roof over my head, and a family who loves me. But like Whitman says, “the pains of hell are with me.”
When I met my husband, he explained his life would be worthless if he had to give up music. Part of the pain of hell for me is I don’t think I’m being who I need to be. If I were, my writing wouldn’t be limited to my journal.
All of this comes to the surface when I read those words in Whitman’s poetry. It can’t be whittled down to simply saying, “It’s nice.”
I hope you don’t mind if I write to you from time to time. Don’t feel obligated to write back. Knowing you’re reading my letters is enough for me.
© Kimberly Garrett Brown 2022
Kimberly Garrett Brown is the founder and executive editor of Minerva Rising Press. Her first novel, Cora’s Kitchen, was a finalist in the 2018 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the 2016 Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. She earned her MFA at Goddard College. Her work has appeared in Black Lives Have Always Mattered: A collection of essays, poems and personal narratives, The Feminine Collective, Compass Literary Magazine, Today’s Chicago Woman, Chicago Tribune and elsewhere. She and her husband have three grown children and currently live in Tampa, Florida with their pampered Shih Tzu. Learn more at https://kimberlygarrettbrown.com
Photo by Giselle Holloway