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Prose Before Bros: A book club where women of color share reading and community

Besides monthly club meetings, group members participate in reading-themed happy hours, book swaps, a book festival, and retreats.

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Nanea Woods (with tote) visits with two participants in Prose Before Bros' May "reading hour" at the Woodlark Hotel in Portland. Woods started the book club for women of color with seven people in 2018; today it has nearly 1,300 members. Photo by: Amy Wang
Nanea Woods (with tote) visits with two participants in Prose Before Bros’ May “reading hour” at the Woodlark Hotel in Portland. Woods started the book club for women of color with seven people in 2018; today it has nearly 1,300 members. Photo by: Amy Wang

At first, Prose Before Bros looked like many other book clubs. 

It started in 2018 with seven women who loved books. They picked titles to read together and discuss. They designed pins and patches for the books they’d read. They bought matching jean jackets. The club’s name signaled their focus on reading over romantic relationships.

But Prose Before Bros’ founder, Nanea Woods of Portland, had a bigger vision. As a woman with Black, Chinese, and Hawaiian heritage, she wanted to create a community for women of color, a space where they could find fellowship, particularly in a city and state where they often didn’t feel seen or supported. 


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Six years later, Prose Before Bros has become that community, with nearly 1,300 members. Its monthly book club events, with themed activities, are so popular that Woods limits attendance to about three dozen people, so as not to overwhelm the host venues. To create other ways for her community members to interact, she’s expanded Prose Before Bros’ programming to include reading-themed happy hours, book swaps, a book festival, and retreats. 

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It is, she joked, her “bookish empire.”

CURATING DIVERSE READING LISTS

Each Prose Before Bros book club event begins not with a book, but with a community member: the host. Woods works with each host for several weeks to plan the event.

“Some hosts come to me and they’re like, ‘I have a specific genre that I want to focus on,’” Woods said. Other hosts have a particular activity in mind. Whatever their interest, Woods helps them put together a list of about 50 relevant books. 

“I’m always scanning bestseller lists or tracking what’s hot,” she said. “I follow so many bookstores on Instagram.” 

Woods and the host then narrow the list to five titles. They look for diversity in themes and topics. The final five don’t have to be by women authors and authors of color, “but more than likely it ends up, that’s what our club is interested in and wants to focus on,” Woods said. She and the host look for compatibility with other titles the community has enjoyed. They prioritize recently published books that have received critical acclaim and are therefore more readily available, including from Prose Before Bros’ bookstore partner, Third Eye Books, a Black-owned business in Southeast Portland. At the next book club event, attendees vote on their next read. 

For May – Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – the short list comprised five South Asian historical novels. The vote went to The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi. Set in India in the mid-1950s, less than a decade after the country gained independence from British rule in 1947, the novel revolves around a 30-year-old woman struggling to assert her own independence amid caste and gender restrictions and familial obligations.

“Somebody tell this girl to breathe!!!!” one Prose Before Bros member wrote on Instagram above an image of the book cover, adding a trio of laughing emojis. “Loved,” another member wrote, adding two pink hearts. “So far it seems like my fellow book club readers are fans,” a third wrote, “but it fell kind of flat for me.” More opinions filled an online chat that drew nearly 70 participants.

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At the end of May, community members were invited to a henna and ice cream social, featuring hand decoration by local henna artists and treats from Kulfi PDX, a Portland business that sells frozen desserts inspired by its South Asian American owners’ heritage and childhood memories.

“READING IN COMMUNITY”

On a cool, overcast Wednesday evening in May, the ground-floor lounge at the Woodlark Hotel in downtown Portland is packed with about 60 women and a couple of men, representing a range of races and ethnicities. They fill couches, tables, and a counter along the windows facing Southwest Ninth Avenue. They’re gathered for a free monthly “reading hour,” open to any and all to raise awareness of Prose Before Bros and help attendees fit books into busy schedules.

“We started that last summer, and it’s grown to be super popular,” Woods said. “It’s our only programming that Prose Before Bros does that includes other people of our community. They don’t have to be in [our] book club. They don’t have to be a person of color and they don’t have to be a woman.” 

The reading hours take place at local businesses where attendees can buy food and beverages to enjoy while reading any book they want. “It’s a good touchpoint for folks who are a little bit introverted,” Woods said. “They want to do, you know, an alone activity but also be around other people who might be doing the same thing. So it’s like reading in community.”

For people who want to read quietly, Prose Before Bros offers a monthly "reading hour" at a Portland business; in May, it was the Woodlark Hotel. “It's a good touchpoint for folks who are a little bit introverted,” Nanea Woods says. “They want to do, you know, an alone activity but also be around other people who might be doing the same thing. So it's like reading in community.” Photo by: Amy Wang
For people who want to read quietly, Prose Before Bros offers a monthly “reading hour” at a Portland business; in May, it was the Woodlark Hotel. “It’s a good touchpoint for folks who are a little bit introverted,” Nanea Woods says. “They want to do, you know, an alone activity but also be around other people who might be doing the same thing. So it’s like reading in community.” Photo by: Amy Wang

At the Woodlark, Marjorie Bowling sits at a small corner table with a friend. Bowling found Prose Before Bros on Instagram, learned about the reading hour and thought it would be “a good adventure.” She’s brought three books, including one from Sarah J. Maas’ bestselling A Court of Thorns and Roses romantasy series; her friend also has a book from the series. Bowling, who is Hawaiian and white, says she sees Prose Before Bros as a “much needed” network for women of color, and women in Portland in general, that didn’t exist before.

After everyone has had 30 minutes to sip, snack, and socialize – “What book did you bring?” is a common conversation opener – Woods gets their attention. With a Prose Before Bros tote bag dangling from one arm, she introduces herself, thanks everyone for coming, lets them know she’s “getting content” for the Prose Before Bros Instagram account, and says she’ll set a timer for one hour of reading. Then they’ll have another half-hour for chit-chat. 

With that, everyone opens a book or, in a few cases, a device. One attendee is working on The Wives, a suspense novel by Tarryn Fisher. Another woman reads Brown Girls, Daphne Palasi Andreades’ debut novel about an immigrant community in New York City. One reader has brought Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, by environmental scientist Jessica Hernandez. Another knits while reading a propped-up screen. It’s as quiet as a library.

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SWAPS, RETREATS, FESTIVALS, AND SPINOFFS

If Prose Before Bros doesn’t fit into a reader’s monthly schedule, Woods offers another option: BIPOC book swaps, held every other month. Call them Book Club Lite.

“Those are set up to be just like book club meetings, just without the book club discussion,” Woods said. Recent activities, hosted by local businesses, have included yoga and a bookmark workshop. 

For readers who are at the other extreme, looking to go all in, Prose Before Bros offers occasional retreats. Woods, who works in event production and public relations, held the first one on a December 2022 weekend at the Society Hotel in Bingen, Wash., just east of Hood River. The retreat drew two dozen women, inspiring her to aim higher. She’s organizing an eight-day retreat in September that will take participants to Zanzibar, Tanzania, off Africa’s east coast. Why Tanzania? It’s the birthplace of Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature – the first Black laureate since Toni Morrison in 1993 and the fourth in the 123-year history of the prize.  

Woods has also dipped her toe into the world of book festivals. In 2022 she presented Portland’s first Black book festival, the Freadom Festival, open to any and all without commitment. Its name combined the words “freedom” and “read” in a nod to the importance of literacy, a skill long denied to enslaved people. Woods consciously scheduled it for the day before Juneteenth, the federal holiday commemorating the day in 1865 that word of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas. The festival ran again in 2023 and is on hiatus for 2024. 

Whether in Portland or Tanzania, connecting people is Woods’ first priority. She’s tickled to see Prose Before Bros members creating their own communities around other mutual interests: music, hiking, and reality TV, to name a few. And she’s honored that they’ve all chosen to spend some of their time as part of her community.

“It’s a beautiful blessing to have so many people,” she said. ”I want to make sure to include as many people as I can.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Wang was an editor and writer at The Oregonian for 25 years, including stints as arts editor and books columnist. She has a special interest in stories that showcase diversity in arts and literature. She lives in Southwest Portland.
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