Isaac Harrell photo
Maya Smart — professional writer, business coach, community volunteer and wife of Virginia Commonwealth University basketball coach Shaka Smart — enjoys a new routine these days. Since the birth of their daughter, Zora, eight months ago, a typical day includes jamming to tunes from the toddler station on Pandora online radio, serving as the chair of the James River Writers board and helping disadvantaged children attend the basketball camp run by her husband. Smart answered questions by email about her passion projects, life with Zora, Richmond's perks and when she knew that Shaka was the one.
RM: What's your vision for James River Writers, and what changes can we expect?
MS: During my tenure as JRW chair, we have plans to increase the number of participants in our programs, improve communication among members of the writing community, and enhance our outreach to underserved or underrepresented writers and readers. Our newly redesigned website, affiliated social media channels and e-newsletter, which reaches 3,000 inboxes twice monthly, are a huge part of this effort.
I'm so proud to lead a group that encourages the writer in all of us and helps people of all ages and backgrounds find their voices and use the power of words to share knowledge, create human connection, and inspire change.
RM: You have placed your businesses on hold to enjoy your new mothering role, but your days are still jam-packed. Describe a regular day.
MS: On a typical day, I awaken earlier than I would like to the sound of Zora babbling gleefully in her crib. She sleeps in her own room, but a video baby monitor ensures that I can hear her every gurgle and sneak peeks at her from the comfort of my bed. When the babbling escalates to a someone-come-get-me-out-of-this-crib yelp, I sprint to her room for the first nursing of the day. Despite the early hour, there's no sweeter wake-up call. And because I'm a book person, she hears several selections from her growing library. Her favorite is a board book, Girl of Mine, by Jabari Asim.
From noon to 5, I squeeze in as many calls, emails and meetings as I can to push various community initiatives forward. I'm planning JRW's spring fundraiser and fall conference in addition to guiding policy as the organization's board chair. I make media appearances and draft letters to urge support for Prevent Child Abuse Virginia. I oversee communications and corporate sponsorships for Shaka Smart Basketball Camps in order to give more kids from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to attend camp for a week. I also try to squeeze in work on my current book project — a guide to entrepreneurship for writers.
After 5 and on weekends, it's all about Zora again.
RM: How do you unwind?
MS: I watch singing shows like X Factor and The Voice and complain about the declining talent each season, but never ever turn the channel.
RM: When you and Shaka charted your life together, what did you two envision?
MS: I always knew that Shaka would be a very successful head coach, but when we first met, I envisioned both of our careers unfolding more gradually — and in Ohio. I thought I would be a business reporter and then editor at my hometown newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal, and I thought he would work his way up the ranks to head coach at the University of Akron. The moves to Clemson, Florida and VCU in rapid succession were wonderful surprises. To win five NCAA tournament games in just his second season as a head coach wasn't a part of my initial vision for him. But watching him coach in the College Basketball Invitational in 2010 offered glimpses of good things to come. Shaka works extremely hard all year round to build his players up and equip them with the skills and fortitude they need to peak at the right time.
RM: You have been thrust into a very public role. How do you deal with that?
MS: I try to focus my attention on the positive aspects of having a higher profile in the community, such as the ability to promote the causes we care about to a wider audience. For example, the good that comes from introducing 8,000 people in the Siegel Center to Prevent Child Abuse Virginia far outweighs the discomfort of having strangers show up at our house asking for autographs.
RM: What do you enjoy about Richmond? What do you do for fun?
MS: I think Richmond has great energy. It is a very quirky, creative community that's forging a new identity beyond the Confederacy, white flight and Big Tobacco. It's got tattoos and Tumblr, indie book and music stores, and really, really good food. Zora and I love wandering around outside and popping into shops, restaurants and museums. Our Carytown route starts at Sweet Frog and makes stops at Hip to Be Round, Chop Suey Books, and Cartwheels and Coffee. Other favorite places include BBGB Tales for Kids on Kensington, Croaker's Spot on Hull Street, The Hard Shell Bellgrade on Huguenot Road and Elegba Folklore Society on Broad. We also enjoy community events that bring a cross-section of Richmonders together such as the Pancake Breakfast at Central Montessori School in Church Hill and the Art 180 students' self-portraits on display along Monument Avenue.
RM: You and Shaka have been together since your first date in November 2004. How did you know he was the one?
MS: He had me at hello. I was immediately struck by his sincerity and "Smartisms." There's no better person to have around if you need a bit of motivation. He's got a seemingly endless supply of quotes and aphorisms at the ready and delights in helping people become the best version of themselves. That gets lost in all of the attention that's paid to wins and losses. Shaka's best coaching can't be judged by game statistics or tournament records. The positive impact his players will have in their families, workplaces and communities for years to come is the real measure of his professional success. Similarly, he's a great friend and family man who exhibits extraordinary depths of care and character.
RM: How would you characterize Richmond's readers?
MS: I haven't formally studied this, but I think that pound for pound, Richmonders read (and write) more history and more local history than in any other community I've experienced. Of course, this is a function of the city's history.
RM: Is Zora named for Zora Neale Hurston? What does her writing mean to you?
MS: My mother named me Maya, after Maya Angelou, a black woman who is also a pioneering poet, writer, playwright, civil rights activist, producer and director.
Following in the tradition my mother began, I named my daughter after a trailblazing black woman writer, Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist whose folklore and fiction works, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, is central to the canons of African-American literature, women's literature and American literature.
Zora Neale Hurston is so widely taught for a couple of reasons. One, she stands as an exemplar of an independent, questioning woman. Two, her narrative voice exhibits masterful command of the black vernacular storytelling tradition. She elegantly captures the range and timbres of spoken black voices in writing.
I hope my Zora will stand firmly in her cultural heritage and exhibit the same independence, curiosity and self esteem that her namesake did.
RM: Do you have any pre-game superstitions or traditions?
MS: I usually wear jeans and a black top with sparkly black and gold jewelry. For the 2011 tournament, I piled it on. With each new game, I added something new — bangle bracelets, beaded necklaces, VCU pins, shiny shoes. Everything felt lucky!
Now that I have the baby, I've toned the jewelry down a bit because she likes to pull on necklaces and earrings, when she's not trying to eat them.