February 27, 2020

Esi Sogah

‘I think every Dafina title creates a little world for the reader to sink into’
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Since launching in 2000, Kensington’s Dafina Books imprint has become known as an industry leader in publishing fiction and nonfiction that centers on race and cultural identity. In honor of Dafina’s 20th anniversary, we spoke to Executive Editor Esi Sogah, who has worked with critically acclaimed and bestselling authors such as Alyssa Cole, Kate Clayborn and Mary Monroe, in addition to acquiring titles and managing strategy for the imprint.


What was the first book you remember reading with characters you felt represented you?
I had to rack my brain for this one; the perils of reading anything and everything as a kid! But I think the first time I read a story with a black girl who I could see myself in was when they introduced Jessi Ramsay to the Baby-Sitters Club series. I read every single BSC book the second it was released and desperately wanted to be one of them, so when Jessi arrived on the scene, it was like, bingo!

When you look back at the Dafina books that have really sparked your interest as an editor, do you see any common threads or themes?
I think the unifying theme at Dafina is humanity. It’s a shame to say it, but a huge reason lines like Dafina exist is because, for a long time, black people weren’t seen as . . . people. Not to say things are perfect now, but the arts is one area where it can be easier to get someone to open up their mind and engage with someone who’s a little—or a lot—different from themselves. And I think every Dafina title, whether it’s a biography, street lit, suspense or a book club novel, creates a little world for the reader to sink into and live as someone else for a little while.

Over the last several years, we’ve seen a lot of imprints similar to Dafina be shut down or folded into other existing imprints. Why do you think Dafina has lasted?
I think the main thing is that Kensington has truly been a leader in this area, from the time Walter Zacharius created Arabesque Books. So it’s a really important part of our identity and something that every single person at this company feels strongly about continuing into the future. Also, there is a real loyalty in the readership for authors like Mary Monroe, Shelly Ellis and Kiki Swinson—born, I believe, out of finding a home when everyone else was telling you that you don’t belong.

“I think the publishing industry can fall into the trap of thinking that if you’re writing about race, then the book is a downer.”

What is your vision for Dafina going forward? Do you have any specific goals for the next few years?
I’ve got so many goals! But one thing I’m really keen on doing is acquiring novels that are specifically engaging with cultural identity as central to their plot. Happily, we already have authors on our list (for example, Aya de León and her Justice Hustlers series) doing this work, and I’m excited to see the team expand in that area. We’re also hoping to reinvigorate our nonfiction list. One of the true goals of diversity is creating diversity of thought, so we’ll be looking for nonfiction in popular subjects from points of view that haven’t been heard as often.

How have the books published by Dafina changed over the past 20 years?
When it was first established, Dafina’s slogan was “Publishing books by and about African Americans.” At a time when African American was a genre by default, having an imprint that acquired, promoted and published books categorized in this way was vital. Over the years, that catch line evolved to “Books by and about people of African descent,” acknowledging that not all of the books’ authors—or the characters they wrote—identified as African American. However, more recently, and as we move forward, we’ve felt that it’s important for Dafina’s mission to explicitly communicate the more nuanced understanding of race and identity that is reflected in the authors and books it publishes. We now characterize Dafina as an imprint with a focus on commercial fiction and nonfiction that centers race and cultural identity. I think this desire to define the imprint in ways beyond simply having people of a certain race in the books shows both the way Dafina has changed over the years and the vision for Dafina going forward.

What are your personal favorite romance tropes?
Anytime someone is snowed in—doesn’t have to be actual snow. Stranded by a broken-down vehicle, flight canceled, hotel fully booked—as long as there’s only one bed, I’m game.

I also love an amnesia storyline, which is why I was so excited to work on A Cowboy to Remember by Rebekah Weatherspoon. Her new Cowboys of California series is inspired by fairy tales, and her take on Sleeping Beauty in this first installment is just perfect.

“Publishing may be a majority-white industry, but it has never been an all-white industry.”

What is something you would like to see more of in the Dafina submissions that come your way?
I think the publishing industry can fall into the trap of thinking that if you’re writing about race, then the book is a downer. There are many serious, unflinching conversations to be had around this topic, and I want those. But I’d love to see submissions that are celebratory, as well—that speak truthfully to the characters’ experiences in all facets of their lives, including the most joyful. Even in the hardest of times, people laugh and love and play silly games with their friends, and I’d love more submissions that highlight all the cultural specifics that inform those parts of our lives. Some upcoming Dafina releases that do this well are The Gift of Family by Mary Monroe, The Seaside Café by Rochelle Alers and The Essence of Perfection by Nita Brooks.

What’s something you love about working not just as an editor or in publishing, but in this particular corner of the industry?
Publishing may be a majority-white industry, but it has never been an all-white industry. I feel strongly about the importance of increased diversity but also the importance of not erasing those of us who are here, some for decades. And what I’ve found in this particular corner of the industry is an understanding and camaraderie around this specific tension—a drive to push for growth and change without ignoring everyone who has already been doing the work.

And finally, a very important question. Serial comma: Yes or no?
I’ve never loved a question more. Serial comma until I die!

 

This interview was conducted by BookPage and sponsored by Dafina. All editorial views are those of BookPage alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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