Last Friday evening, Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews and the UNC LGBTQ Center hosted a launch party for the Young Adult anthology, "Cool. Awkward. Black." at the Varsity Theater. The collection of works, which was edited by fantasy author Karen Strong, was released on January 10.
Terri Phoenix, the director of the LGBTQ Center, said the center’s decision to promote the book came about out of a desire to bring attention to many lived experiences.
“We really want to raise awareness of diverse audiences and diverse experiences,” Phoenix said. “We felt that this was a good book to contribute toward that mission.”
Epilogue Events Coordinator Gaby Iori said the establishment partnered with the LGBTQ Center to spotlight the Black authors featured in the anthology.
“Epilogue is very community-focused,” Iori said. “Our goal is to uplift voices of marginalized identities, people whose voices are traditionally silenced.”
The evening began with three performances by area-based artists: Joelle Adeleke, a UNC student and head of outreach for The Bridge, an online platform for content by women of color; the inaugural Chapel Hill poet laureate, CJ Suitt, who spoke on toxic masculinity and self-acceptance; and spoken word artist Dasan Ahanu, whose poems discussed Black resilience and generational trauma.
Suitt said they enthusiastically accepted the invitation to the LGBTQ Center because the center's messages were affirming for them as a queer person.
The event’s centerpiece was a conversation between Strong, who wrote "Eden’s Everdark" and "Just South of Home," and Tracy Deonn, a UNC graduate and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Legendborn" and its sequel "Bloodmarked."
Deonn contributed a story, “Catalyst Rising,” to "Cool. Awkward. Black." Strong said she put together the anthology to spotlight tales of Black fandom, coming-of-age and queerness.
“We all need to see Black teens celebrating their passions, embracing their magic, falling in love and saving the world — or themselves,” Strong said onstage during the event.
Deonn said the stories within "Cool. Awkward. Black." aim to address a deficit in literary representation of the diversity of experiences within Black subcultures.
“We’re not just saying, ‘Oh, Blackness is a variety of things,'” Deonn said.
Suitt said he was happy to participate in an event featuring Deonn, an author of whom they have been a long-time fan.
“It just is a real honor to be able to share the stage and the space with such a phenomenal and amazing writer that I admire deeply,” Suitt said.
Strong added that intersectionality and variation were at the forefront of the multi-genre anthology, which includes fantasy, historical fiction, science fiction and contemporary pieces written by young-adult writers.
Strong also said she looked for stories that showcased positive representations of queer romance among Black teens when editing "Cool. Awkward. Black.," as opposed to the trauma-based narratives that mainstream novels usually feature about the demographic.
“I wanted that to be known very up front,” Strong said. “We have Jalen and Carter from 'Our Power, Our Joy,' on the cover. I wanted to make sure we were showing Black queer love with no apologies, and I wanted everyone to see that from the get-go.”
The event concluded with the opportunity for fans to meet with Deonn and Strong, share their experiences and get their copies of "Cool. Awkward. Black." signed.
In the ten days since its release, Strong said she was overwhelmed with the positive response the book had received.
“They listen to the story, they read the story and say, 'For the first time in my life, I don’t feel alone — I actually saw someone who looks like me, doing the things that I like to do, without any kind of backlash,'" she said.
"Cool. Awkward. Black." is available for purchase online and in Epilogue.
Editor's Note: Adeleke is a former Daily Tar Heel staffer and works for the 1893 Brand Studio.
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