AJay Jordan, has always been a person who likes to tell a story. She’s always sought to communicate with people in a creative way, having studied vocal performance for 14 years before moving onto film production and screenwriting which brought her back to creative writing. She loves writing magical revenge plots featuring “fantastical dope black girls and boys.” In an effort to make stories centering the experiences of marginalized people, she created The Bookshelf, an online database of 500+ books by underrepresented authors.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
I am very self conscious about the stuff that I create, and I’m never sure if it’s enough, whether it’s good enough, or enough work, or enough quality. So I feel like I create, and beyond that I stop my brain from going into imposter syndrome mode. I can say I create websites and I create stories, but if I were to get deeper—I don’t know. It’s really hard. I can see everyone else and I can see everyone else’s purpose with their actions and what they create and what they’re trying to do but it’s hard seeing myself.
I hope that I create more space for marginalized people, more specifically brown and Black people, and more specifically Black people, and more specifically Black people with dark complexions because that is what my family reflects and that’s what my children will reflect. And I guess those are the stories I would have wanted to see as a little brown girl, brown Black girl, Black Black girl. When I was creating The Bookshelf I knew right away I wasn’t going to make it just for the age category that I write for. I also wanted to make finding those books accessible for parents finding stories that look like them.
About The Bookshelf
As a writer for the past couple of years I’ve gotten to know this writing community…and through it I found it was hard to find books by people of color. Usually Goodreads is my go to place to look for books, but even then our percentages are so abysmal. I would rather there be a place where I can find a book or even discover new books that are own voices because there are so many tricky people out there who don’t share ethnicity or marginalization with these people. Nothing against them. [I’m] not saying that they can’t do their due diligence, but they’re writing from a place where they’re not experienced and that’s inauthenticity. I’m sitting here with a book that’s not on the shelf and I’m reading your story that has to do with my culture and you’re profiting from this.
— Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly) February 4, 2020
Long story short, I wanted there to be a way to find books easier. I was actually going to hold onto The Bookshelf because that was my filler name for the time being. I was going to change it to something but then Barnes & Noble dropped that bullshit changing all those classic white titles and putting brown faces on the covers and I was like, “Dang, I can’t even hold onto my database anymore and perfect it and make it better before I go live. I just have to do it now because I have to combat this issue with Barnes & Noble,” because that is such a slippery slope and a bait and switch. I wasn’t here for it.
BGC: Why do you create?
I think very linearly and I imagine a line being drawn across the paper and you draw the line up, and you draw a line down, and squiggle it or you swirl it—that’s the trajectory of that one person. I feel like if maybe I had a second book as a child, not just the one [with Black representation], that trajectory that I had maybe would have been a little bit off; it may have changed the direction of what I would be today and so I feel like that’s why I do The Bookshelf, too. Because you don’t know what you don’t know and you never know where inspiration or where something will spark some level of interest in a child.
Black people don’t have all of the same experience. For me, I am a Black American and in turn an African American, but I don’t know my lineage enough to be able to connect to my culture. So, when I say things like, “Write stories about Black people even though Black people don’t all share the same experience,” it’s for all of those people like me who don’t know their own history. I’m seeing a little bit more stories feature African fantasies, which is still abysmal in the grand scheme of things, that Black stories are like 3% of publishing as a whole or whatever that percentage was. Although I love [African fantasy] stories, I want to write stories for those who don’t have those connections who would still be able to relate.
BGC: Who is your audience?
Definitely, I want to gear my stories towards Black teens, but I feel like you’re not going to find my book in the Scholastic Book Fair. Maybe some time in the future I’ll write a middle-grade and you’ll find that at the book fair (you can get your little book and get your little bookmark to go with it).
I still want to gear toward a Black audience but at the same time I got so much inspiration from watching anime. When I watch it there’s a level of freedom. I want that freedom, but with Black characters. So I’m hoping that my audience would be those who like anime but also those who like to game (because I like to game sometimes and I get some inspiration from that, too). I want people to dress up and go to Comic Con in their costumes of my characters.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to do what you do?
This is a fair question but the gag is I don’t know if I am inspired by anyone. It’s more like a self motivation for me because I want to create something fun for people to experience. I want to create experiences but I want to have fun while creating those experiences as well. You know how in high school people would be like, “Oh this is the person I look up to. I want to be just like them.” That was not me.
I’ve always been the person to go left when everyone wanted to go right. It’s almost like I was challenging myself to be my own inspiration. I am a competitive person in all things. I will kill you in Uno, Monopoly is my game. I can look up to people but it doesn’t give me the fire to create. It’s the competition with myself or seeing others do something terribly that makes me think, “Hey! I can do that!”
I want to be better everyday. Every time I do something I try to surpass what I created because I don’t have someone to look up to and gauge myself [by]. I just work hard and hope it works out for the best.
BGC: Why is it important as a Black person to create?
My first answer is representation, because that percentage in publishing is so low that it’s almost like we shouldn’t even exist. Animals will take a higher percentage than a person of color — I think in total, too. On the flip side, those in publishing that share the same marginalization of us querying authors is abysmal, as well. Which is why it’s so hard when agents say things like, “Oh I couldn’t connect.” You couldn’t connect because you don’t share these experiences. Your own biases are getting in the way of stories that are authentic.
Representation will allow those that come after us to feel like they have the ability to do what we do. A Black little boy isn’t going to know he can become a bio-engineer unless he sees one. It’s almost like feeling like it’s OK to be here, you deserve to be here, too.
BGC: Why is it important that folks, but especially marginalized people, have access to these stories?
I think that [The Bookshelf] is a great resource for writers who want to comp their own books because sometimes literary agents ask for two titles to see where your book would sit on an actual bookshelf. I’ve even had editors tell me that they use it as comps for the stories that they’re reading for.
I’ve had teachers and librarians tell me it helps them build their lists, that they would also maybe have their students come to the website and find new books. I always tell them to do their research before you have them jump on the site because I have books from picture books all the way to adult.
I’m hoping that it will create baby writers. So those who didn’t think that they would be a writer will see these stories and will be excited to write more. It’s like a virtual hand reaching back to pull up children of color or Black children to write these crazy fantastic stories and become authors.
But also to up the percentage of reading. Reading has definitely changed my life. I was not a reader when I was a kid. I had that one picture book [that had Black representation]. My godmother even tried to pay me per chapter to read this book. I did not finish the book. It was only because I did not have the right story in my hand. It wasn’t until there was finally a book that I was like, “Wow that was actually a good book.” It was that moment that I found a book I actually liked that it changed the trajectory of my career. I don’t think I would be a writer today, I don’t think The Bookshelf would exist, I don’t think I would be as passionate about representation and trying to make these books accessible to people. None of this would exist if it wasn’t for that one book. This is serious. My life could have been completely different if not for reading that book. If that happened to me, it can happen to someone else. And if it can happen to someone else, it can happen earlier in their timeline for their life and trajectory and change their life for good. I feel like books are good things and we have to uplift them especially Black and brown and marginalized voices.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
I feel like I’m good but I feel like I’m not. I feel like I’m good because I think very linearly and I will be doing multiple projects at once and I’m like Go-Go Gadget, let’s-get-this-shit-done. Let’s do it and have fun.
At the same time when I work, sometimes I forget to eat, sometimes I forget to drink water, sometimes I forget to stretch, maybe go out into the sun and get some vitamin D. I don’t exercise because I’m so into my creative work. I’m always doing something and when I’m glued to my screen and I’m just going. I don’t feel like my health deteriorates, but I forget to take care of myself. I have to work on that because I’m not going to stop doing something until I finish X, Y, and Z and that can backfire. I have to learn to stop and be OK with stopping. But I feel like I have to keep going so I can have results.
BGC: Any advice for people who don’t see themselves reflected in the stories around them?
One thing I didn’t get to do growing up was shadow people. I didn’t get to see this job or this art, I didn’t get a chance to see what something was about. I was very much in the dark. I essentially felt along the walls and found a light switch. If you want to skip that, try to shadow someone or even interview someone who does what you want to do. Try to get as close as you can in regards to things you have similar with the person. Whether you’re a little Black girl and you want to speak with a Black woman who is an architect. If you just do the research and find them and reach out and interview them because there’s potential in you having interest in whatever that is then I feel like you will find your path to creating much easier.
Then, after talking with these people who are doing what you want to do, make sure to keep in contact with them…because if you keep those relationships you never know if it can help you down the line. If it’s a genuine interest in these different things, you never know.
BGC: Any future projects?
I am expanding The Bookshelf. I don’t know if I’m going to keep it under the same name, but it’s definitely moving in the direction of having its own website. And with that, I hope to add some other special things on that website too aside from just books. I am in the literary community and I know that writers struggle in the trenches and just struggle with writing period because writing is hard. So, I hope to add some tidbits on The Bookshelf for that and for those who just started writing and think they may want to write.
I’m drawing more. I can’t say that I’m the best artist but I feel happy with my work art right now, so I’m hoping to start doing some commissions with that but I’m probably going to limit my time on that because in order of importance The Bookshelf and my writing career take precedence.
I’m working very hard to find a literary agent that sees me and would be ecstatic to champion my book and champion my future stories. I’ve tried many different careers in my life and the only thing that has really stuck has been writing.