Finding Identity Within Literature: Autumn Allen Interview

By Rory Lambert-Wright

March 6, 2021



How did you become a writer, and how did you end up in the BPL residence program? What does the position entail?


Autumn: My mom would always tell me to find what you love doing and find a way to make money doing it, and I always loved to read and write. But my mom was a struggling artist, and she had a friend who was a doctor, and rich, which was always more enticing to me *laughs*. I did go to Yale for pre-med but ended up not enjoying the coursework, so in junior year I looked through all the majors that would work with my remaining courses, and I went for literature. Later I ended up with a master’s in education, worked in public health for a few years, and started homeschooling and working in community education when I became a mother. It was actually just five years ago that I heard about the children’s literature program at Simmons University, and I said, “wait, you can study children’s literature in graduate school?” So I got my MFA and began writing. I was looking for grants when I found the Boston Public Library program. You’re given a stipend of 20,000 so you can focus on your book, and an office at the BPL- but of course, I didn’t get my office this year.


As an educator, what tangible impact have you seen literature have on children regarding their identity?


Autumn: Well I’ve seen the most positive effects of literature from books that reflect the identities of children I’m working with. When my daughter first read “Little House in the Big Woods”, she closed the book, crying, “I wanna be blonde, Christian, and white”, which shocked me. I thought by blocking a lot of visual media like movies and TV, I was protecting her confidence- but you can’t block what’s broadly perceived as “normal”. I once had a long conversation with my middle schoolers regarding a white-authored book about enslaved people which I felt had some inaccuracies, and we asked questions like, is black person is in a better place to tell this story? Do you think it doesn’t matter? Different books have different effects. My kids personally? Their favorite books are those where people of color are the protagonists, but the story is not about them being black. They want a story that’s about adventure with a character who just happens to be a person of color.


Do you think the role of literature in racial justice has changed in the past few decades? How do you see it continuing to change?


Autumn: Black writers in the past have had to decide whether they want to create “race literature” or more general literature. We still do that, but more are aspiring to not have to think about that, and let what we write stand for itself. Our responsibility is to create what we mean, and hope it resonates. I believe as we write what we want to write, we can develop a narrative over which we have greater control.


What can you tell us about your upcoming novel?


Autumn: My novel is called All You Have To Do. It’s a historical novel split between two characters. One is a student during the Black Power Movement in 1968, and the other is a student at private school during the Million Man March in 1995. Both are sort of struggling to be heard in these environments which are not valuing their experiences. I started in 2018, and I’m trying to pull it together into a coherent narrative. I’ve been reading it to my sister and another friend, and they’re feeling something!


For more information on Autumn’s work, you can visit her website at autumnallenbooks.com.

Check out all the art and columns of March's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass