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Boss Up!: Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Memphian Dolen Perkins-Valdez is super dope. I have had long-time great admiration and respect for her.

#ACCESS901 columnist Joy Doss

First, she is one of the only people I know who went from Memphis to Harvard University, where she double majored in African-American Studies and East Asian Studies. She also is the highly regarded author of the historical fiction work “Wench,” which was her debut as a novelist.

To hit the New York Times bestseller list on your first go-round…goals goals GOALS!

“Wench” explores the lives of four young, enslaved women of color, who are mistresses of their wealthy white masters. They are Southerners, who spend summers at Tawawa House, a resort in the free state of Ohio.

How did she come up with this idea? Reading.

Good writers oftentimes are avid readers. As she was reading the “Biography of a Race” about W.E.B. Du Bois, she came across the passage where Du Bois called Wilberforce University in Ohio, where he was teaching at the time, a “strange place.”

It was a place where Southern men took their black/slave mistresses on “vacation.”  She was fascinated and wanted to pull this thread a bit more.

She did some digging, but there was scant recorded information. She decided to make it up. She bounced it off a good girlfriend, who advised her to write it or she would!

And here we are. Inspiration is any — and everywhere friends! She says the lesson she learned from writing “Wench” was, “…to follow my nose. If you’re curious about the story, readers will be curious about the story.”

Perkins-Valdez, a professor of Creative Writing at American University, admits that, “Growing up I didn’t know a writer and didn’t know writing was a possibility.”

Then in college she wrote a short story she describes as a “silly romance story.”

She says, “I started to think maybe I can do this!” She applied for Jamaica Kincaid’s workshop at Harvard, but was rejected. “I thought I just may not be a good writer. But I didn’t let that discourage me. I ended up enrolling in an MFA program for that reason. I knew I had a lot to learn.”

Lemons meet lemonade.

The major “aha!” came after college graduation, when she was home in Memphis for a bit.

“I would be sitting at my desk writing all day long. I would get up and write from about 8 a.m. until about 4 p.m. One day, I walked to Baskin-Robbins near my apartment … and (after talking with the lady who worked there) I realized I had lost track of the days!”

That’s when she realized that she could do this all day every day because that’s how much she enjoyed writing.

People always tell us to follow our passion. If there’s something you love to do and would do for free, then that’s your path.

But, no one said the path would be paved or without some fails. For instance, in her very first MFA workshop, her story got torn to shreds.

Speaking candidly, Perkins-Valdez says, “It was really painful, but also really sobering because I realized just how much I had so much to learn. I had never known how hard it was to write a good story…. It’s good to have that humility but you have to keep moving forward.”

However, she only recommends the MFA program if you can afford it. Do NOT rack up the debt.

Other pearls of wisdom:

▪ It’s harder to find an agent than a publisher. Agents reject about 95% of the manuscripts they read. It’s not because you aren’t a good writer, but because they have their own interests. It has to be something they want to read.

▪ Don’t forget about the smaller presses. Many of them are doing wonderful work.

▪ Everyone’s process is different. Her timeline from start to finish is about five years, some take two years. But it can also depend on your other commitments – kids and family, job, other writing projects.

Perkins-Valdez is a married mom of two. She has several commitments and a job-job. So how does she push through? Again, she is transparent.

“Honestly, I don’t! Balls drop all the time. I just do my best and try not to be too hard on myself. Also, I have a lot of support, so that helps too.”

Perkins-Valdez also published a second historical fiction novel, “Balm,” in 2015, which is true to her five-year timeline. So, there should be something coming up soon right? Yes!

She is working on another project but will be a contributor in the upcoming anthology “Suffragette City” about the 1915 women’s suffragette march in New York City. The book is scheduled to released will be released in October to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the march and the 101st anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

“I’m happy that the editors included by voice because I wanted a black woman’s voice to be heard.”

We hear you. We see you. And we stan! #becauseofthemwecan.

Both books are available via all outlets – bookstores, Amazon, Audible, Kindle. Follow her here: @dolenperkinsvaldez on IG and @dolen on Twitter.

BOSS UP – A 5-part series in celebration of Women’s History Month

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