The Great Lakes African American Writers Conference turns the page toward its 2021 event

As the author of "Little Lumpy’s Book of Blessings," Rev. Dr. Leah Lewis is no stranger to the path to publication—and she founded the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference to help make sure others don’t get burned along the way.

Rev. Dr. Leah Lewis (photo credit: Vince Robinson)Lewis was partly inspired by a colleague who was instructed by a publisher to send over her literature and that they would add the finishing touches to her book. When a final copy of the book was returned, everything was misspelled.

“I was told this woman paid roughly $5,000,” Dr. Lewis said. “When she got copies of the book and read what was printed, she was heartbroken. I was mortified by that story and hurt for her that she was abused in that way.”

Lewis went on to found the GLAAWC conference in 2018 with a mission to provide information and insights from leading industry professionals. “We want to give writers information and understanding about the publishing industry and about the art of literature,” says Lewis.

Local writers like Michelle Fay can heartily attest to this. Fay says her participation in the conference motivated her to take part in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge, and now a first draft of her memoir is complete.

Snapshots from the 2019 Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (photo credit: Vince Robinson)“I would not have succeeded at the challenge had it not been for the support, encouragement, and confidence that I gained from my talented cohort,” Fay says. “GLAAWC has great personal value because it helped me achieve a long-held dream of writing a book. I will never forget the thrill of showcasing my work to a room filled with aspiring authors and various industry representatives.”

This year’s installment of the conference will take place from Friday, October 1 through Sunday, October 3. Award-winning fiction writer Deesha Philyaw will be in conversation with both high school and college students about the art of writing, and she along with Jack Jones Literary Arts founder Kima Jones will give keynote speeches. Panel topics include mental health in the African American community, the importance of diversity in children’s literature, and the process of producing literary work.

For the second year in a row, the conference will be held virtually, but previously the event was held at East Cleveland Public Library. According to Lewis, both ECPL and the Cleveland Foundation have been paramount in building the success of GLAAWC and establishing a presence for the conference. “At the time [we started], there hadn’t really been an organization or an event that catered specifically to the African American experience and African American literature,” says Lewis.

Snapshots from the 2019 Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (photo credit: Vince Robinson)As an event sponsor, the Cleveland Foundation built a stronger alliance with GLAAWC through its Cleveland Book Week initiative, which coincides with the event. “Becoming a city known for growing its writers doesn’t happen overnight,” says Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards manager Karen Long of the joint effort to build Cleveland’s literary presence. “But Manhattan no longer has a lock on the publishing-in-English culture; editing and writing can proceed anywhere.”

Along with GLAAWC, Lewis also runs Little Lumpy’s Center for Educational Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve literacy amongst Cleveland youth and adults by conducting events like GLAAWC. In the future, Lewis hopes to forge institutional partnerships throughout the Great Lakes region. “It means finding a foundation within a city that is willing to fund and undergird the work of their literary artists—to support their participation in GLAAWC,” says Lewis.
Overall, Lewis hopes to expand her reach as much as possible to empower and elevate the work of African American writers: “I want people to be inspired creatively, artistically but I also want them to have a better understanding of the publishing industry and what is necessary to break into the field and set their expectations in a realistic fashion."

To learn more or register for the 2021 3rd annual GLAAWC virtual conference, click here.  

This article was contributed as part of the "Now That's Fresh" series in partnership with Literary Cleveland. This six-week class helps emerging journalists learn about the reporting process and get published for the first time.