(Excerpted from”Full of Grace” and reprinted with permission from Northwestern Magazine, Winter 2009.)

There was a moment, a very scary moment, when Angela Jackson thought she’d lost her novel. She’d been working on the book for close to 30 years and had poured her soul into the rewrites. Yet somehow she had lost the disks that contained her entire manuscript. She possessed only printouts from previous drafts; each chapter was tucked into a different place in the rambling two-story house she shares with family members on Chicago’s South Side.

The dining room table became ground zero when Jackson decided to piece her novel together again. New papers and old papers were laid out, until every inch of the wood was covered in the printed word. A bit of Chapter One was here. Chapter Twelve was there.

“My book had disappeared,” says Jackson, now in her 50s. “I took all those versions and laid out all those different chapters until I had it. I had to go into a Zen state of reconstructing my novel.”

That was in 1999. This fall TriQuarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press, published Jackson’s first novel, Where I Must Go. The New York Times, among others, immediately took interest in the historically fictionalized tale of Magdalena Grace, an African-American college student in the late 1960s who attends an elite, predominantly white college that resembles Northwestern at the time. “It is a coming-of-age tale with combustible questions about identity that still loom large,” reads to the Times‘ review of Jackson’s book.

This media attention was nice but not new. Already a well-known, well-awarded poet, Jackson has a lengthy list of prizes that includes the 1994 Carl Sandburg Literary Arts Award for poetry from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the Pushcart Prize for poetry in 1989.

Yet, on a recent Sunday afternoon, Jackson excitedly searched for her first novel in the African-American fiction section of the Borders bookstore in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. One wall was full of Zane’s blushingly sexy romance novels. Another held the work of old familiars, such as Terry McMillan and Toni Morrison, both of whom are Jackson’s longtime friends.

“It should be here,” she says, still searching for her own title among the masses of the highly popular but not terribly stimulating urban street literature. Finally she finds her book. She grabs it. Feels the smooth cover.

“Oh I should buy this,” she says, smiling. She’s giddy, excited. “Wait. I should call my sister and tell her it’s here.”

She decides she’ll call her sister later and opts against buying the book, instead leaving it to potential buyers. Jackson’s work is nestled next to a Zora Neale Hurston title, a bit of good luck that makes the author smile.

Novels garner a kind of attention that poetry never sees, explains Jackson, who is a Hurston aficionado. She thinks back to a Hurston dream she once had. “I had a vision of a black girl-woman reaching upon a library shelf and plucking down my novel the same way I reached up and got a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Jackson grew up on the eastern edge of Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Her home is on Wentworth Avenue, a street that once was the community’s core until the city of Chicago put a highway right down the middle of the neighborhood, “the Damn Ryan” Expressway, as her father called it. On her block is a church and swaths of now-empty land. It used to be a lively, jumping area until the 14-lane interstate came.

“The highway killed my neighborhood,” says Jackson, whose family is struggling to find new digs for her mom, who lives on the second floor, and the nieces and nephews who live on the first floor. “It used to be so nice ….”

These neighborhood memories inform Jackson’s work — both poetry and fiction. She is known for her 1974 book of poetry, Voo Doo/Love Magic (Third World Press). Northwestern University Press nominated her 1998 collection of poems, And All These Roads Be Luminous: Poems Selected and New, for several literary awards. Her 1980 play Shango Diaspora: An African-American Myth of Womanhood and Love was performed at Chicago’s ETA Creative Arts Foundation theater, a professional, popular performance space on Chicago’s South Side that celebrates and showcases plays and other productions by, about or including African-Americans. Her colorful language speaks directly to the diversity of the black experience in America, from playing hide-and-go-seek in the ‘hood to learning how to deal with white professors who made racial jokes.

A “cradle Catholic,” Jackson was born in Greenville, Miss., and as a child she moved with her family to Chicago, where she attended Catholic elementary school. In high school she graduated third in her Loretto Academy class, earning a scholarship to Northwestern. Her mother, a housekeeper, cook and teacher’s aide, and her father, who worked for the postal service, were glad for her to get an education.

It was 1968. She was 17. She thought she would be premed.

To read the rest, click here to read Gibbs’ profile at its original source, Northwestern Magazine.

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  • Kathleen Rawlings December 17, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Why, forty-odd years after Martin Luther King’s marches and speaches, is there a “African-American fiction section”? Now books are segregated too? I am still appalled at the amount of people who just didn’t get the message. NOT separate but equal, just equal!