Kimbilio Nurtures Black Writers

Morgan Jerkins

While Cave Canem’s annual retreat for African American poets has been changing the literary landscape for the past twenty years, the writing community has lacked a similar resource for African American fiction writers. That is, it did until 2013, when writers David Haynes and Sanderia Smith launched the Kimbilio Retreat. Now in its third year, the retreat is held annually in Taos, New Mexico, and is dedicated to supporting and empowering black fiction writers from America and the greater African diaspora.

After acquiring funding from the English department of Southern Methodist University (SMU), where Haynes teaches, Haynes and Smith met with the leadership of Cave Canem, as well as with other peer organizations serving writers of color, such as Kundiman and CantoMundo, to develop their retreat model: a week of workshops, classes, and time to write for a small group of fellows. The two cofounders then relied on their network of African American fiction writers to recruit applicants, faculty members, and application judges. Victor LaValle and Emily Raboteau joined the advisory board during the planning stages, in 2012, and ZZ Packer and Dolen Perkins-Valdez came on as instructors for the inaugural retreat in July 2013.

The founders created Kimbilio, which means “safe haven” in Swahili, as a space to foster both writing and community. The retreat is held every July on SMU’s campus in Taos, situated between craggy mountains and cedar forests. Haynes considers Taos an ideal location because the town is “peaceful, secluded, and away from the distractions of city life or even campus life”—a beautiful, isolated setting that encourages creativity.

The retreat brings together approximately twenty fellows and a few faculty members; previous faculty have included Angela Flournoy, Jeffery Renard Allen, and Mat Johnson. “For a lot of fellows, the retreat is the first time they have been in a professional community that is safe, where their subject matter and their person is fully honored and nurtured,” Haynes says. Rion Scott, a writer and former Kimbilio fellow, agrees: “Kimbilio is like an oasis, a sort of freeing space, where nobody has to apologize for being their black self or writing about black people. That freedom allowed for far more substantive discussions. I’ve been in workshops since I was seventeen or so, and never have I been in a workshop that goes as deep as Kimbilio.”

The 2016 retreat will be held from July 17 to 23, with Danielle Evans, Asali Solomon, and David Haynes serving on the faculty. The program is open to fiction writers at any stage of their careers; applications—which require a writing sample and a personal statement—are due April 15. 

The retreat itself is part of SMU’s larger Kimbilio project, which offers readings, presentations at professional conferences, and networking events throughout the year. The initiative is committed to not only mentoring writers of the African diaspora, but also to sustaining that community of writers. The retreat is central to that community: After a week at Kimbilio, friendships are forged and writers are more encouraged to complete their books and send them out into the world. Haynes says, “It’s a powerful experience for everyone.”

Morgan Jerkins is a writer and the web editorial assistant at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, and Fusion, among many others.