Process Notes: Rita Williams-Garcia on A Sitting in St. James

Once in a while you find a book that makes you stop and reread passages for the power of their words.

Or a book whose characters make you weep because they have the tenacious courage to hope, to claim their own humanity and agency in the face of horrific odds.

Or where a pair of characters whose love appears doomed seem to be leading you toward a trope that sank your heart, only to have the story chuckle at you and exclaim “gotcha!” before leaping off its own cliff to a far, far better outcome.

And then sometimes, you get all of these at once and you know this story has walked off its pages and has come to reside in your heart. That’s how I felt when I’d finished reading A Sitting in St. James by my dear colleague and friend, Rita Williams-Garcia. I read it in one big gulp, unable to stop, and at the end of it, I was bursting with questions.

What follows is a pared-down version of an hour-long conversation with Rita about her book, which the Kirkus reviewer saw as an example of “taking contemporary inspiration into the archives to unearth sorely needed truths.”

[Uma] A Sitting in St. James made me feel the past was in the present, raising questions about history but also about race and society in the here and now. How did you end up writing it in this way?

[Rita] Let me just say where it came from. The first thing was a daydream. I had this image of a boy, a white teen, grooming a horse, and I realized that I was back in time and that the boy was a West Point cadet. By the way he was grooming the horse, I thought, Oh, he’s thinking about someone he misses, longs for. Right away, I thought, Wait. He’s thinking about another West Point cadet.

Two boys in love in 1860-something? Hmm, I said to myself, it’s just an idea. Not every idea is going to become something. So I put it away, and every once in a while, I’d think about it. Later, I woke up from a dream, and in the dream was joyful, joyful music. It was African. I could hear a woman singing, instruments, all of that. But the scene didn’t match the joy. The woman was running with a baby. She had made it down to the shore and she threw the baby into the ocean. She was rejoicing and then she was in chains.

I got it. Many of us during the Middle Passage, if we could jump overboard, we did that, knowing that we would die. To her, death was better than captivity for her child. I told Kathi about it, and every once in a while she’d ask me what I was doing with those images. I didn’t know.

[Uma] That would be Kathi Appelt, who we know has magical story-whispering powers.

[Rita] Yes. She said, “You’ve got to do something with this.”

Meanwhile, I had pitched that other story, two West Point cadets in love, to my editor. So I started reading a lot about West Point culture. I came upon a diary of a Black cadet. I was just reading, reading. Then I was at a screening for a documentary I was in, about the Black Panthers, and at the end there was a panel. After seeing all the images of police brutality, this young boy asked, “Why do they hate us?” I was there for the children’s literature part of the panel, and the woman next to me said, “Okay, you’re here for the kids. Say something.”

I felt so badly for him, but what I said was something like “When they see us, they don’t see a human being.” What I remember is that I did not elaborate enough. I just kept thinking about that afterwards, and that’s when I finally realized that I wasn’t going to write that story I thought I was going to write. Instead I was going to write this whole big story to answer that boy’s question.

Stories always build over time for me, while I’m still reading and thinking it through. I knew it was going to be a North-South story, and my mother had always been fond of Louisiana, so at some point I knew I’d set it there. But then I knew Louisiana wasn’t the beginning. We always get this sense that whatever state we’re in, in the United States, that is its origin–but no, it’s not. The land was there long before Europeans came–the people there were not exactly crying out for European help. And the European story in Louisiana has to be French. I also knew I wanted to talk about the boy’s personal freedom to be who he was. So to get at the bigger picture of freedoms I went back to the French Revolution. And then of course, we’re going to go to the Haitian Revolution, because you had Haitians who then came to Louisiana.

Yet another daydream–I remembered a time when I was chopping cabbage. I had this thought about Hegel and something he had said about the cabbage and the blade. So I turned that into a kind of fractured fairy tale of a maiden who is given a cabbage by a lord, and she will then go off with him. It’s Madame’s fairytale of her origin, why she became who she was.

[Uma] I will never forget that scene, I want you to know. The cabbage head hacked off and the message behind it.

[Rita] The copyeditors had a hard time believing that a cabbage could cause someone to cut herself, so I had to take a picture of a cabbage cut that way to show its firm, hard surface and that clean edge. But because of the bloodthirsty mobs of the day, young Madame would have been able to make that connection, because of what was in the air.

To show all those different aspects of that history, I had to step away from the story of the boy and create this whole backstory for the place we now call the state of Louisiana, to show how it came to be. And I had to show this great mixing of people from all over the place, and the codifying that went with that. It wasn’t going to be America as we know it or even as we think we know it.

[Uma] I was very struck by who you chose to give voice to, and how. We have all these white people–and certainly all of them carry their own longings and their own horrors–but then we have Thisbe, who’s given voice by not having voice at all. I fear and hurt for her all along precisely because you build her presence through every silence, every urgent flinching, every word she chooses not to say. Can you talk about that?

[Rita] It was kind of a risk. We are in a time now when our voice is everything. We are extremely vocal, so much so that I think it’s hard for us to imagine what it is to be entombed in silence. Especially because oftentimes that silence is saving your life. There is a kind of lore that the house slaves had it better than those who worked in the fields. And in many ways that was true, the hard labor and so forth. But because you were in close proximity to the family, you had to be self-protective, and how can you be self-protective if you have no rights? I think enslaved peoople have always found ways to protect themselves and their children as much as they could, just operating on those margins. Your everything is subject to someone else’s whim or desire or whatever it might be. So that is where I started. I didn’t want to have the sassy slave that talks back. I wanted to dramatize the tightrope that so many enslaved people had to walk.

Thisbe is bright, she absorbs a lot, and she understands so much on so many levels. So that means that she has to know how to react for each situation and sometimes that means thinking fast and reacting fast. She’s not active on the surface but she’s so involved in her own struggle. She has had to navigate her life through many times when it looked as if there was no path to navigate. This is how she’s able to divert Madame when she has to. This is how she’s escaped the grasp of the son, Lucien. As much as silence is a prison, it’s also a weapon. So when someone demands that she speak, they don’t know that they could be causing harm to her.

[Uma] And there are the undercurrents between Thisbe and the sisters–Marie and Luisa.

[Rita] Yes, even though the white people are in the forefront, you get the undercurrents, tensions, and even to some degree the alliances, in the household. Marie and Luisa resent Thisbe–all she does is stand all day! And the skin color plays in as well. They are Creole mulattos, so-called at the time. Thisbe is definitely of African parentage so there is that tension as well. There is an alliance between Thisbe and Lily the cook, but Thisbe knows better than to speak any kind of Creole in Lily’s presence. So there is a hierarchy and then there are cultural differences among these people, even though they are all people of color. And then of course, Rosalie, fairskinned as she is, resents Thisbe for being so close to her grandmother. You’d think Rosalie would have greater privilege because of her skin color, but the one privilege she longs for, she can’t have.

[Uma] What about now? Why do you think it’s particularly important to give this history an unflinching look now?

[Rita] Because that boy still has to ask that question, you see, “Why do they hate us?”

Because why are we still asking who has rights in this country? Are we allowed to be citizens like everyone else? It’s all an outgrowth of the past. You think about the patrollers who used to look for runaway slaves, and we can see a clear line drawn from that all the way down to policing today. How police work with a presumption of guilt when they’re on the street or in homes in Black neighborhoods. So even though there are supposed to be laws on the books for fairness and all that, we’re still engaged in that fight.

[Uma] So what about the white people in the book who are engaged in suppressing their own? There’s the queer pain of Pearce and Byron, of course, but there’s also Jane, who proves to be irrepressible.

[Rita] I didn’t intend to write her in that way, but she just kind of came forward. The moment that she charged the postman with her horse, I understood how focused and centered she is. She’s not typically rebellious or anything, she is simply who she is, and she truly doesn’t see why she has to be something else. She is part of the issue of personal freedom that I wanted to talk about. Even though there are times we’re not sympathetic toward the white people they are subject to the laws of their society. Byron is expected to marry and be the heir. It doesn’t even occur to him to defy that expectation. That too I think is very much a part of the time. People looked the other way as long as you fulfilled your social obligations. But Jane is different. Today we might recognize her as being on the autism spectrum.

[Uma] She is complete within herself. They’re all that way, your characters, even the dislikable ones. Rosalie’s a good example, all her complications and longings.

[Rita] I hope so. To me they’re all human and I want us to see their humanity. I’m decided at some point I’m going to do for the characters–all of them, Black and white–what racist white people wouldn’t then, and won’t now, do for us. I’m going to infuse humanity so we can all see it and identify with it.

Rosalie is quintessentially in between worlds, a mixed-blood girl. She loves her Black brothers, even though they tease her, but it’s not until she’s older that she realizes what her mother means when she says Rosalie’s tears will kill them. Her black stepfather despises her–she’s a constant reminder of humiliation. She loves Byron, but she also knows her place. She is property, so she is subject to whatever the whim might be. She has taken the time away, and has learned to better herself–that is why I gave her the dressmaking skill, and societal norms given her through the books the nun gave her. And then there’s the torment between friends and siblings, also feels very real to me. We will fight for each other but we also torment and tease mercilessly. Even the Victor Hugo quote she uses with Laurent. It’s a little jab at him, as if to imply he won’t ever be able to have such elevated conversations. But she knows too that in losing him, she will be bereft of a partner as well.

To me the book is about personal freedom but you can’t escape what it means for that larger sense of freedom that we all cry out for.

[Uma] A book of the 1860s and also a book for the moment.

[Rita] Yes. But that’s why I knew early on the kind of book this wasn’t. I wouldn’t have any Harriet Tubman moments, you know. No grand rescues, no heroic figure at the center, nothing like that. Instead, I had to immerse myself in Louisiana Creole culture. That’s fascinating in itself, because the first definitions of Louisiana Creoles are the descendants of European settlers. And later you had this mixing of cultures and that became Creole identity. I found a book of Creole houses, in which I was able to see all kinds of details that were essential to my scenes. That’s how I found out what goes on the dining table or what Madame’s salon would look like. The prie-dieu where she would kneel to pray, but then I thought, Wait! At her age, she’d want to avoid doing that so she must get Thisbe to do the kneeling for her. And when I saw the garçonniere, it made my story of the boys and their relationship possible. These houses were all quite open then–not too many private spaces. But the garçonniere–there, you have a tradition of providing separate quarters for boys after the age of thirteen or so. So that would work perfectly.

[Uma] Wow. So historic architecture gave you something that worked for the architecture of your story. Rita, the research you did for this sounds pretty formidable.

[Rita] Yes, I guess it was, but I learned so much. It gave me all the intimate details that help to solidify character and set them in place. We also visited plantations. That really helped to make it all much more real. Richard Follett’s The Sugar Masters helped me develop Lucien. It helped me shape Lucien’s concerns, gave me a sense of all the things that can go wrong during planting and harvesting. But this book also detailed the cruelty enacted upon enslaved people and I needed that. Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana by Roger Shugg–the postman came out of this book. Shugg’s work gave me insights into a group or social class of people I wouldn’t necessarily like. I also got a lot of the background to slavery as an institution.

[Uma] Thank you Rita. What a gift your book is, and this conversation as well!

Process Talk: Shveta Thakrar on Star Daughter

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar is a synthesis of astral melody and desi voices from the Indian American community. “Cupcakes and kulfi” to quote the book’s young narrator, Sheetal. The voices run from strident to loving, a few with distinct, affectionately drawn Gujarati accents. The drumbeat of Hindu mythology is never far. I asked Shveta if she’d talk about how this book came to be.

[Uma] Tell me what brought this particular blend of magical and real together for you.

[Shveta] I have always believed in magic—when I was younger, I could even feel the numinous in the air—and I’ve always carried lush imaginary worlds inside me.

I love a good second-world high fantasy as much as the next reader, but when I came across Holly Black’s Tithein 2002, I knew that was what I wanted to do, too—make magic accessible in our world, something just beyond the corner of your eye, and if you were swift and fortunate enough to catch it, you might be off on an enchanted adventure, too.

Throw in the desi/Hindu aspect, and that’s my heart on the page.

I wanted to ground this particular book (and the one I’m revising right now) in our world, so readers, especially fellow desis, could feel like this might actually happen to them. We all deserve beautiful escapism and hope, especially right now, and to see ourselves and our traditions and mythologies celebrated.

[Uma] It is lovely to read a book with Indian American characters that’s not an immigrant assimilation story. Yet, Sheetal’s experience of being “a half star,” “neither here nor there,” evokes the experiences of children and teens in immigrant families. Can you talk about the power of fantasy to shed light on our own real world?

[Shveta] Thank you! That was deeply important to me and remains so. I yearned for magical tales about people like me, fun stories like white people always got to have, but instead, it seemed like all brown and Black people were allowed was stories about the pain of being marginalized. There’s a place for those books, certainly, but that was never what I wanted to write.

Maybe I’m not half a star (or am I? I’ll never tell), but I’ve always felt caught between—caught between the desi American and other American communities; caught between being the “right” kind of Indian kid (the kind who doesn’t major in German and pick up herbal medicine as a hobby and dress up in faerie wings) and the one I was; caught between the world itself and feeling like I would never, ever belong anywhere or even be loved. (I’m so grateful I hung in there and learned otherwise!) So all that flowed naturally into Sheetal’s story, and I had a feeling it would resonate for other people, too. We’re all trying to find our place in the world, after all!

So while I absolutely believe in magic and long for it, I also understand the power of telling all the truth but telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson put it. Fantasy allows us to play with wonder and whimsy while exploring our own world from a necessary remove, so we can reexamine the things we take for granted. It can work both as adventure and allegory, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so special to me.

[Uma] Every book teaches a writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

[Shveta] Not to give up; not to listen to naysayers (I was told many times when I started out that no one would ever want to read a book about someone who looked like me)…

[Uma] Yeah, I heard that too. You learn not to listen to some voices, right? What else?

[Shveta] that careful, thoughtful revision is the best gift we can give our work; that a good editor is worth their weight in stardust; and that if you listen to your heart, you will never be steered wrong.

[Uma] So true about revision. And listening to your heart. So–related to that, what should young people tell themselves that will help them find their way in this very complicated world?

[Shveta] There’s room in the world for every single one of us. Don’t ever let anyone silence your voice or tell you you’re not good enough. I’m here to say that you’re the light the world needs exactly the way you are, and you absolutely deserve love and magic. No matter what anyone else might think, you belong; I’m proof of that.

As Sheetal’s sidereal family would say, may you burn bold in the deepest night.

[Uma] Sidereal. There’s a word to carry in the heart. Thank you, Shveta.

Before Fake News Became a Thing: Reflecting on the Career of J Marks

Years ago, I came across a YA novel titled Rama: A Legend by a writer who called himself Jamake Highwater. Even back then, in the 1990’s, I wondered how come someone with a Native American-sounding name, writing about mostly Native subjects in an authoritative sounding voice, would choose to turn his attention to a retelling of the Ramayana. I didn’t know any Native writers personally at the time, but it seemed odd, somehow.

What gave this man, I wondered, the authority to fictionalize the Ramayana? Still, he seemed to bear the stamp of approval from the publishing world. The book was published by Henry Holt. Publishers Weekly called it “an authentic adaptation and abridgment of the original for an American audience,” so who was I to quibble? Anyway, over the years, I became preoccupied with other subcontinental story tropes being hijacked and hopelessly hacked, to great approval in the very market I was trying to submit to. Who had the time to worry about Jamake Highwater?

Later I heard there was something scandalous about him, something to do with his lack of authenticity, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Hoaxes of this kind had been in the air for decades, it seemed, witness The Education of Little Tree.

Then recently, pottering around the Internet, while avoiding the novel that has been beating me over the head, I stumbled upon this article in Indian Country Today. Excerpt:

In 1984, Hank Adams (the Native American activist) sent an astounding exposé on the “Indian expert” Jamake Mamake Highwater that we published in the pages of Akwesasne Notes. (Vine Deloria acted as a go-between to get it published and Suzan Harjo did some research.) What Hank Adams had uncovered was that the Native American author (who claimed Blackfoot/Cherokee heritage), a noted intellectual, a recipient of Ford Foundation grants and major publishing contracts, was not a Native American at all, but a writer named J Marks (J, Jay or Jack Marks, born Jackie Marks). 

Adams’s exposé was published in 1984. A decade later, in 1997, I may have been seeing the shapeshifting efforts of a man who was trying to retool the focus of his authority from Native traditions to Southeast Asian ones with a fictionalization of the Ramayana. Was it based on sources from Java or Bali, or maybe on the Thai Ramakien? I don’t remember and none of the reviews still available saw fit to mention a source.

A cautionary tale, this. A reminder that fakery has been with us for years. In our children’s book industry, it can leave long lasting footprints.

[Image source: abebooks.com]

Fiction, Truth, and Banned Books Week

“Make Orwell Fiction Again” reads a tote bag on the Banned Books Week web site.

What writer does not support Banned Books Week? Here’s Marion Dane Bauer on the banning of her Newbery Honor-winning novel, On My Honor, and on censorship and its effects upon writers.

As the Banned Books Web web site puts it:

Everyone is entitled to express their opinions about a book, but they don’t have the right to limit another person’s access to information.

Still, what does Banned Books Week mean in 2019? For that matter, how come Orwell is so relevant in 2019?

giverMaybe that question can be answered by thinking about another iconic banned dystopian book: Lois Lowry’s The Giver. The book delivers its most shocking moment in Jonas’s realization about his father. It is the moment that sets the rest of the story in motion, and leads to the character’s assumption of a heroic role. Anyone concerned about power and its appropriation should read Lowry’s novels set in the world of The Giver, its concerns drawn from the essence of our own, flawed human souls.

Who are our heroes today? Our children, that’s who. Today, the world’s children are taking to the streets, betrayed by the grownups who have failed to save the planet. In the end, the children are more honest than the grownups who “continue to look away.”

As for making Orwell fiction again, maybe that’s not the point.

 

Guest Post: Michelle Knudsen on the Evil Librarian series

Michelle Knudsen says:

People sometimes give me the side eye when they learn about my Evil Librarian trilogy. “You wrote Library Lion,” they say. “You love libraries! Why would you write  a book about evil librarians?”

IMG_1387.jpgLibrary Lion occupies a comfortable spot on my bookshelf. My copy is well-thumbed. It’s a book I reach for when I teach, offering nice examples of an outsider protagonist and a matter-of-fact adult ally, raising interesting and important questions about rules and contingencies. So I was curious about the path from this beloved and loving depiction of libraries to…her YA Evil Librarian series. Here’s what Mikki has to say on the subject:

First, just to set the record straight: It’s only one evil librarian, and technically (this isn’t a spoiler; you find out pretty quickly) he’s not an actual human librarian, but a demon posing as a librarian. It’s an important distinction. And when he’s in his librarian disguise, he takes his library duties very seriously. So really he’s a good fake-librarian; he’s just also an evil demon planning to do terrible things in main character Cyn’s high school—including stealing away her best friend and forcing her to live with him in the demon world forever. (The one thing that’s safe is the school musical, because it turns out that demons really love Sweeney Todd.)

Libraries have always been safe and beloved places for me. My mom would take me regularly when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island, NY, and I still remember the moment I discovered the shelf of dragon stories that it’s probably fair to say changed my life. I was a library monitor in junior high school and worked in the Cornell University Library as a college student and later as an adult. I wrote Library Lion while working at CUL, and it was inspired by the amazing people I knew there as well as the feelings of wonder and welcome of that library especially but also of all the libraries I have ever known.

I suspect the reason the idea of an “evil librarian” appealed to me was because it’s so hard for me to imagine anything negative about libraries at all. Placing something evil in such a sacred space seemed to magnify the danger in the story and underscore the wrongness of the villain that Cyn and her friends have to find a way to vanquish. I loved writing this series, but now that the trilogy is complete, perhaps the next library that shows up in one of my stories will be the regular kind—safe and magical and demon-free (except for the ones tucked securely inside the books).

Curse of the Evil Librarian (Book 3 in the YA Evil Librarian series) comes out on August 13, 2019! Congratulations, Michelle Knudsen. Wishing you a safe and joyful passage from demon-gripped libraries to whatever setting lies ahead.

Arushi Raina on When Morning Comes

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Photo © Nidhi Raina

Meet Arushi Raina, Canadian author of When Morning Comes, a YA historical novel set in South Africa at the time of the Soweto student uprising. I had a chance to trade emails with Arushi about writing in multiple voices, fiction vs. life, and the power of the children’s and YA writing community.
[Uma] What made you choose to tell this story the way you did–in multiple voices, and aimed at young readers?
[Arushi] More often than not, these artistic choices emerge when I realize the story I want to tell, in a pretty organic, or intuitive way. Some of this choice traces back to my growing up in South Africa, living with the narrative instability of a place that had just come out of apartheid and the diverse, often conflicting perspectives that different racial groups, genders, had in South Africa in the late 1990s. I grew up in a time when South Africa, and its people were trying to make sense of what, indeed Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” would be, and what to make of this country’s traumatic past.
 
And so no story I could tell of South Africa, could have one “true” narrator. At every point Jack, Zanele, Thabo and Meena’s perspectives interact, conflict, and grow from eachother. The plot, if you look closely, is solely based on the characters interactions from eachother, and the tensions between their different perspectives.
whenmorningcomes[Uma] You have said about this book, “To make it real, emotionally, I needed to fictionalize it.” Tell me what that means to you—what power does fiction hold for you?
[Arushi] I learned about the Soweto Uprising in Grade 10 History class in Johannesburg. At that time, that was maybe what I needed, understanding the facts, the first hand accounts, trying to put the timeline together, connect it with our school visits into Soweto, the Apartheid Museum. At the same time, however, non-fiction can have the affect of distancing us from the story. We are concerned about facts and objectivity – but sometimes these aspects cannot be experienced or felt. We are not following the path of a living, breathing person, in the way we typically access non-fiction. There are some exceptions, of course. Fiction, though, is very freeing. I am not trying to stick to the facts, only, to be objective. Instead, I’m trying to hit on a far more difficult thing – the emotional truth of the story, of the different stories and points of view that are in this story. How can I come to this emotional truth, with the tools I have in my hands?
[Uma] Grade 10 history class. That’s quite a timeline. Thank you for sharing that.
[Arushi] Thank you so much, as a writer yourself, for showcasing and supporting other writers. Its a small but mighty world, and I so appreciate your time, thoughtfulness and perspective.
[Uma] It’s my delight! But your comment leads me to another question. Generally, in the marketplaces of the real world, we think in terms of competition. Businesses that produce similar good or services compete with one another. In some ways, of course, that is true of writing and publishing as well. But writing is also an art and it’s a solitary pursuit. We spend quite a lot of time, let’s face it, talking to imaginary people. We’re at the mercy of our own minds! In that context, what does that notion of community mean to you? How do we participate in our literary marketplaces while still viewing other writers as community rather than competition?
[Arushi] For me, one of the most magical things that happened when I got published, was getting to meet other writers, and experiencing the kindness and generosity of writers, particularly children’s writers. I cannot even count the number of authors who have shared so much of their time, and supported me through my debut year. Some shout outs would include: RJ Anderson, Robin Stevenson, Adwoa Badoe, Rachel Hartman.
What I realized, really early on, is that writers are the best support for writers. And there’s a business rationale for this too: we live in a world where the literary marketplace is shrinking and consolidating. There are now a smaller percentage of diehard readers who read a lot. There are fewer publishing houses. You realize very early (particularly if you’re with a small publishing house) that other writers are going to be your biggest supports, your encouragement, the ones that shout out your work. In this way, they draw their readers to your work.  As a collective of writers, we’re trying to get everyone to buy and read more books, not to compete for a reader’s specific attention. The advice I give to writers who haven’t published yet is to build that support system of writing friends early on.
[Uma] Very true. I’m grateful myself to my book collective. Good luck and good writing, Arushi Raina!