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Looking Back at ‘My Soul Looks Back’ – Jessica B. Harris

2nd October 2017

Jessica B. Harris, award-winning food historian and Patron of the Oxford Cultural Collective, recently published her evocative memoir, ‘My Soul Looks Back’. Here she considers her move from writing cookbooks to writing narrative. 


One of the questions authors are frequently asked is: “How long did it take you to write the book?” Usually I am able to give a relatively precise answer: two or three years, or something like that. In the case of My Soul Looks Back the answer is a bit more complex because instead of the usual cookbook or culinary history, it was memoir. My answer now is: “It took twelve years to live, forty years to think about, one year to remember, and over three years to write.”

My move from recipe to narrative was a gradual one, as the headnotes and introductory material in each cookbook got longer and longer. Finally, in 2011, I moved from recipe to narrative with High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America. The new process, while fascinating and invigorating, was not without sinkholes, pitfalls and quicksand. But with the collaboration of my editor and friend, Kathryn Belden, who believed I could do it, I finished – not without copious tears, multiple rewrites, and weeks of depression and self doubt.  The attainment of a complete and cogent narrative was occasion for a rousing chorus of hosanna complete with multiple praises given to the on high!

I was astonished, therefore, when discussing future projects and casually mentioning an article that I had done on cooking with Maya Angelou, after her passing, to hear my editor say, “Perhaps that time is what you should write about next”.  As often happens in my life, someone else, in this case my editor, had more confidence in me that I did in myself. We then set off on an adventure that involved research and remembrance of events long gone – some joyous, others painful, and still others that returned to mind after decades of being tramped down and avoided. The journey was like opening Pandora’s box, but in the end, emerging like hope after fifteen rewrites and an ocean of new tears, came My Soul Looks Back. Indeed, the narrative pondered how I got over (or ovah in the words of the spiritual from which the title is taken), and after looking back and considering the journey, I looked back, considered, and smiled.

In the Technicolor glow of the early 70s, Jessica B. Harris debated, celebrated, and danced her way from the jazz clubs of Manhattan’s West Side to the restaurants of the Village, living out her buoyant youth alongside the great minds of the day – luminaries like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. My Soul Looks Back is her paean to that fascinating social circle and the depth of their shared commitment to activism, intellectual engagement, and each other.

Harris paints evocative portraits of her illustrious friends: Baldwin as he read aloud an early draft of If Beale Street Could Talk, Angelou cooking in her California kitchen, and Morrison relaxing at Baldwin’s house in Provence. Harris describes her role as theater critic for the New York Amsterdam News and editor at then burgeoning Essence magazine; star-studded parties in the South of France; drinks at Mikell’s, a hip West Side club; and the simple joy these extraordinary people took in each other’s company. The book is framed by Harris’ relationship with Sam Floyd, a fellow professor at Queens College, who introduced her to Baldwin. More than a memoir of friendship and first love, My Soul Looks Back is a carefully crafted, intimately understood homage to a bygone era and the people that made it so remarkable.

Follow this link to purchase a copy of My Soul Looks Back

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