Poet and activist Nikki Giovanni joined Books in Bloom in Columbia, Maryland, on May 13 to discuss the importance of libraries, including one in outer space.
The book festival’s headliner was introduced as someone who identifies as an “earthling” by Busboys and Poets founder Andy Shallat. This led to a conversation with Nikki discussing her work with libraries and her curation for a library on Mars.
A library was established in 2008 by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, thanks to the funding and development from The Planetary Society, where TV scientist Bill Nye is the CEO. The space shuttle left an encoded archival silica-glass mini-DVD on Mars and called it the Visions of Mars digital time capsule.
The DVD contains a collection of literature and art about Mars from mostly male authors such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Carl Sagan. California-bred science fiction author Leigh Douglass Brackett, who was dubbed the Queen of Space Opera; Canadian sci-fi author Candas Jane Dorsey, and Finnish speculative fiction author Johanna Sinisalo seem to be the only women whose texts are in the interplanetary library of over 80 literary works. The DVD was designed to last hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, according to the society.
It’s unclear if Nikki was referring to the 15-year-old library already on Mars having its collection updated. At the festival, Nikki said she was tapped to curate a library that will be on the Red Planet. Though the first collection had works in English, she said this time the library she is working on will translate works into the Navajo language as the oldest language in the U.S.
“Whatever life forms might come to Mars and say, ‘What is this?’ It’s going to be a disc. ‘Oh, that one is something called English, but let’s get this. This is our language,'” she said. “Because Navajo is probably someplace else in the universe.”
Her work coincides with the new documentary on her decades-long civil rights activism and Afro-futuristic views on outer space called Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. It debuted at Sundance Film Festival this past January and is still on a film festival tour.
“The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans,” she says on the documentary’s website. She sees connecting with other life forms as a way to evolve past the division we see with race and gender in global history, she said at the festival.
“When we go into Mars or we go all the way up to Jupiter, we won’t be lost,” she said. “We will know where we’ll be going, and we’ll be meeting the people there, the other life forms there.”
Nikki was also promoting her newest book, A Library, a children’s picture book released last year and illustrated by Erin K. Robinson. From mentioning her childhood library, she shared how her grandparents lived on a street in the “colored” section of Knoxville, Tennessee, called Mulvaney Street. The library was at the top of the street. After a small Black community was established there, she said the University of Tennessee eventually used eminent domain to force the Black families to move away.
She is now working on a book about the former Mulvaney Street—later renamed Hall of Fame Drive she says in honor of basketball coach Pat Summitt—so the historically Black neighborhood would not be forgotten. Her essay, 400 Mulvaney Street, in her 1971 book, Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-five Years of Being a Black Poet, also touches on her feelings about losing her grandparents’ home to an “urban renewal” project in the 1960s.
Going from Mars to Knoxville, she says our own stories should be considered vital since we would be the only ones to tell our individual stories.
“There is always a story. I think a lot of people forget there’s always a story,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘I want to write an important book or I want to write a best-seller’… When I was teaching, the first thing I would say to my class: ‘What is the number one best-seller?’ And not one of them ever knew, not one of them knew the number one best-seller. If you don’t know what it is, then why do you want to be it?”