My message as first Black/Afro-Latin Writer in Residence

by Adiba Nelson, fall 2023 Writer in Residence

I find it hilariously ironic that as Pima County Library’s most recent Writer in Residence, I have no idea where to begin with this blog post.

Rumor has it that starting at the beginning always works so I’ll give that a shot.

Getting the word that the library wanted me to serve as the Writer in Residence for the last quarter of 2023 was one thing. I was thrilled, honored, and selfishly, felt somewhat validated as a writer in this tiny town we all call home. Realizing that I was going to be the library’s first Black/Afro-Latin Writer in Residence? Well, that had some serious weight to it.

As I’m sure many of us realize and understand, there is a weight that comes with being the first anythingwhether you identify as a man, woman, trans, non-binary. First is heavy. For me, being the first Black Writer in Residence holds a bit more heavy than usual simply because of the history of Black folks’ access to education and specifically, books, in this country. My paternal grandmother, born to slave parents, had no more than a third-grade education. My maternal great-grandmother, also a slave, had zero education. Literally, none. She didn’t even learn how to write her name until she was an adult, raising her grandchildren. So, to be a descendant of these two women, being chosen to lead other writers in their work—that’s some weight.

I held the weight with all the preciousness it deserved, but I was not prepared, or rather I should say I did not realize that other people—Tucson’s Black elders—understood that weight too.

"I just came to see you."

On my first day as the Writer in Residence, an elder Black woman came in. She had scheduled a consultation with me. I greeted her as I would greet any Black elder.      

“Hi Miss Jane! How can I help you today?”

“You can’t help me, honey.”


“No honey. You can’t help me. I don’t want nothin’ from you. I just want to look at ya. I just came to see you – put my eyes on you.”

“Oh! Thank you!”

“No honey, thank you. When I read in the newspaper that the library was going to have their first Black Writer in Residence, well I just had to make sure I came down here and saw you with my own eyes. You know when I was growing up we couldn’t even go into the library, so to see you here, the first, well I just needed to come and see you with my own eyes.”     

This happened a few times during my residency. Tucson’s Black elders, just needing to come and “put eyes on me”. That might sound weird to some of you reading this but to me it was an honor and a reminder that I am not so far removed from a time when the mere idea of a Black woman, reading, no less, writing, was deemed laughable and could land you in jail, or worse, dead.

This is legacy work

Part of my work as Writer in Residence was to lead workshops, and I led three of them. While I thoroughly enjoyed each of them, my favorite was the Sofrito For The Masses workshop. For those of you that don’t know, there is still a lot of gatekeeping in the publishing industry. BIPOC writers are still not adequately represented, there is still a lot of vernacular checking and correcting, and the words “we don’t have that” is used entirely too much. This particular phrasing subliminally lends itself to the idea that you, BIPOC writer, are lucky to be here. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. The graph below shows the imbalance in the industry.

 Writing in the Margins

The message I imparted: don’t be afraid to tell your truth and put yourself on the page. It is ok to write how you speak. Come prepared with lists and names for when they tell you “we don’t have that.” As BIPOC writers, we are creating the legacies our ancestors dreamed of.

At a time when countless books are being banned everyday, librarians are being threatened for simply doing their job, it is of the utmost importance that truth continues to live on the page. Do not whisper your truth. As we say in the Black community, say it with your chest. Own it. Let it save you. Let it save others. Does what you’re writing feel authentic to who you are? Is this your truth? What will happen if you don’t write this book? Is this a book you needed growing up?

If it gets banned it just means you told an uncomfortable truth. But it is still truth.

This is especially true for writers of marginalized communities—BIPOC writers, LGBTQIA+ writers, disabled writers. We are living in a time when we need their truths more than ever, as we sit on the precipice of continuing to right the ship or turn the clocks back. I don’t mean to get political but writing, at its core, is exactly that. It is an act of defiance, of truth telling, of healing, of legacy work, of ancestral work.

Though it may not have been intended, my time as Writer in Residence, choosing me for the role, is the library’s legacy work, and I look forward to seeing that legacy grow.

Adiba Nelson is an award-winning author, speaker, burlesque performer, star of the Emmy Award-winning documentary, “The Full Nelson”, disability rights activist, and mother to her disabled teen daughter, Emory. Learn more about Adiba on her website