April 12, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

From Kankakee to Literary Heights: The Journey of Kalisha Buckhanon

4 min read

Award-winning Author Kalisha Buckhanon will be a featured panelist at the 17th National Black Writers Conference in Brooklyn

Kalisha Buckhanon has defied statistical odds, with her remarkable journey from humble beginnings in Kankakee, Illinois, to literary prominence. Raised in a town marred by poverty and educational challenges, Buckhanon found solace in books.

“I found Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye when I was 12, and on the cover I saw a little black girl on a porch like the one I had, with a hairstyle I had. So it looked like it could’ve been me,” Buchanan recalled. 

When she leafed through the pages and landed on one with a character who spoke exactly the way her grandmother spoke, she was stunned.

“I heard my grandmother in my head! The landscape described and the products used were the products I knew, and I really did wonder if something spooky was going on,” Buchanan said. 

Books already were her world, but seeing her reflection through published works was a turning point. For the first time, she recalled, her own story became something possibly worth telling, adding, because representation matters.  

“It really was a huge moment for me,” she said, ”I saw my name on the spine of the book.”

Buckhanon went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college. At the University of Chicago, where she attended undergrad, she met and was nurtured by many of her literary heroes in person– another affirming moment in her burgeoning writing career:

“Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michelle Obama … I understood that if these people are real, then I can do this!” she said.

After college, Buckhanon left Chicago and moved to New York City where she attended the New School and received her MFA in Creative Writing.

Her first novel, Upstate, was published in 2005 and was sold in a publishing auction for a mid six-figure sum. Upon its publication, Essence magazine named Buckhanon one of its “Three Writers to Watch.” Upstate tells the story of a young New York couple. It won an award from the American Library Association; was called “wild and beautiful” by novelist Sapphire, the Audie Award for Literary Fiction and the Alex Award.

Buckhanon’s second novel Conception was published in 2008 and tells the story of four months in the life of a young Chicago woman who discovers she is pregnant and wants to abort her unborn child, who also narrates part of the story. School Library Journal wrote that librarians should “recommend this moving novel to readers who enjoyed Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sapphire’s PUSH.” The literary society Friends of American Writers awarded the novel the 2009 Adult Literary Fiction Prize.

Buckhanon went on to publish three more novels: Solemn, in 2016, Speaking of Summer in 2019, and Running to Fall in 2022. Much of Buckhanon’s award-winning work centers around telling the arduous and triumphant stories of Black women in America. 

“Writing about the range of what Black women go through– whether you’re someone as big as Kamala Harris or a woman struggling on welfare– has taught me that we’re all the same, [as far as] this case we were locked into,” Buckhanon said. “We have to work three times as hard to get out of that case.  But we are invisible for a long time for what we have to offer.” 

“You’ve got to be a Black woman to understand us. But that’s what bonds Black women in my work. It’s a bond that has grown in my characters and the stories I tell.”

Kalisha Buckhanon will be a speaker at the 17th National Black Writers Conference hosted by The Center for Black Literature. This year’s conference, “All That We Carry; Where Do We Go From Here?” will take place March 20 – March 23, 2024 at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. 

On Friday, March 22, from 3:00pm – 4:30pm in the Founders Auditorium, Buckhanon will join authors Patricia Spears Jones, Marita Golden and Kevin Powel for the panel entitled, “The Healing Power of Literature,” moderated by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

“I’m so excited to be in the conference,” said Buckhanon, who noted, although she has attended the conference in the past, it will be her first time as a panelist. “When I was younger, I was so excited to learn there was a center dedicated to Black literature.”

Following an 8-year hiatus from writing, when Buckhanon returned with her first book, Solemn– one she considered to be her best writing– she said no one really cared, except The Center for Black Literature: “It wasn’t anybody’s fault; it was a function of time,” she said. “But the Center was really the biggest institutional entity to give me any wide respect or recognition for that book.

“They’ve always remembered me. Everybody involved in the Center was by my side, and their value for Black Writers is very underestimated. It’s magical.”

Because, representation matters.


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