When Susan Petersen, president of Ballantine books, read Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day on her St. Maarten vacation last February, it opened a window onto an unfamiliar world — the world of black women. After returning to work, Petersen asked four black staff members for advice on launching a line of books that would provide windows onto a spectrum of worlds: Native American, African-American, Asian-American. That line became One World, and this spring Ballantine is bringing out its first five One World paperbacks — all African-American titles this time: The Habit of Surviving, by Kesho Yvonne Scott; Interesting People: Black American History Makers, by George L. Lee; Long Distance Life, by Marita Golden; and reprints of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, and Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, by Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor.
”It’s a myth that minorities don’t read,” assistant publicity director Beverly Robinson says, describing a day of reading sponsored annually by the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. ”People bring a book and read quietly for an hour, and then eight or so authors read from their work. When I took my 7-year-old son, there was a room full of people there simply because they care about reading.”
Ballantine is working within that network of readers to promote One World books. Its authors will give readings at churches, black bookstores, and community centers. Recently, for instance, a social-service agency in Detroit arranged for author Kesho Yvonne Scott to read from The Habit of Surviving (a guidebook for women about coping with racism in everyday life) to a large audience of single mothers.
Ballantine isn’t worried about being perceived as a separate-but-equal branch of publishing because One World books are designed to reach beyond the communities they describe. ”Within our differences, we find similiarities,” Petersen says. ”America’s strength comes from many strains…and it’s important to understand the similarities and differences that occupy the person across from you.”
This February, Petersen took another trip, this time to India. There she found the work of a first-time novelist — an Indian woman, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen. And next February, that novel will open another window for One World readers.