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!

Yvonne Ventresca on Pandemics Real and Imagined

Here we are, in the grip of a pandemic. The illness (and the measures we take to cope) are affecting millions of people, laying low heads of state, intensifying inequality, stranding some, internally displacing others, and keeping 1.5 billion of the world’s children out of school. But VCFA MFA-CYA student Yvonne Ventresca wrote a novel titled Pandemic at a time when none of this was on the horizon. I asked Yvonne what led her to write this novel.

[Yvonne] One source of inspiration for Pandemic was my own concern after Swine Flu (H1N1) in 2009-2010. At one point during that pandemic, the vaccine became available for children in my suburban town. Public health officers organized its free distribution at the local middle school after class ended for the day. The line extended for blocks. While I waited with a mom who had a son the same age as mine, the boys ran off to play nearby while we chatted. At first, it was a relatively pleasant afternoon.

But the mood became ugly when they announced that there weren’t enough vaccinations for all the children waiting. Kids with health conditions that could make the flu more dangerous were to be vaccinated first. The families at the end of the line were told to go home until the next (unscheduled) distribution. I had arrived early, and we were within the cutoff as angry parents verbally accosted the public health officials who tried to keep order. Bear in mind that the swine flu was nothing like COVID-19. Waiting to get the vaccine was more of an inconvenience than a danger.

The high emotion that surfaced that afternoon stayed with me. Later, I found myself imagining how things could have gone horribly wrong if the outbreak had been more deadly. I interviewed the head of my local public health department about lessons they learned, and the more I researched emerging infectious diseases, the more the idea stuck with me for a story about teenagers working together to survive.

[Uma] What was your first thought when COVID-19 began to overtake the news?

[Yvonne] There was a progression of emotion for me as the news worsened. I remember thinking at first that we would have to shelter-in-place for two weeks. I bought enough supplies for at least fourteen days and refilled our family’s prescriptions, just in case. The stores weren’t crowded then—there was plenty of Lysol, but I did not predict the upcoming toilet paper shortage. I was nervous, but I naively felt ready.

As the situation became more dire, I felt a strange sense of surrealness. Years ago, when researching Pandemic, I had found the New Jersey emergency preparedness plans online, and they helped fuel my imagination for the story. I wrote about tents used as pop-up hospital facilities when capacity was exceeded, I invented newscaster dialogue about shortage of medical supplies and how limited provisions might be distributed (in my fictional world it was Tamiflu, not PPE), and I included refrigerated trucks as temporary morgues. There is still a bizarre feeling for me that this is fiction and cannot be happening. But in some ways, writing the novel helped me emotionally prepare for the horrors that have emerged.

[Uma] In your novel, Lily’s friend Jay says, “Portico will be a different place for a while.” In the real world, every place now is a different place and we don’t know how long “a while” could be. Do you think there’s something about fiction that can teach us about life? About ourselves? That can maybe lead us to become our better selves, during “a while” and after it’s past? 

Fiction, for a writer or a reader, gives us a way to process our worries through a controlled, imaginary world. We can analyze a character’s response in troubled times (Is it courageous? selfish? terrified?) and think about how we might react. We can judge a character’s actions and compare them to what we expect of ourselves. Would we do better? Can we actually do better now? Fiction allows us to hold our fears and our values up to the light and examine them in a safe space.

Fiction, perhaps, can also tell larger truths through an imagined world, especially one that is drawn from extrapolations of our own. The fictional pandemic in this novel, like the real one today, becomes a test of the characters’ humanity. Its dilemmas are not so different from ours, as we navigate the surreal real and experience its swirling news cycles, composed as they are of difficult truths and dangerous lies. Thanks, Yvonne! Be well, stay safe. Keep writing.

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.

Cultural Complexity and Women’s Aspirations in The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

candleandflameBritish Columbia writer Nafiza Azad locates her debut novel, The Candle and the Flame, in Qirat, a land located somewhere on the Silk Road. It’s peopled by royals and commoners, Shayateen who thrive on chaos, Ifrit who seek order, and humans with all their flaws and failings, joys and griefs. Qirat is a place of great beauty but what really drew me into this book is how much its cultures coexist. Deepavali lamps celebrate the Hindu holiday. The Azaan summons Muslims to prayer five times a day–in fact this is probably the best fictional rendering I’ve seen of those recursive calls of the muezzin. Rather than feeling imposed, they take on a kind of temporal force through the story, not to mention that the handsome muezzin turns out to be the love interest in an amusing subplot.

In the novel, the land of Qirat has been severed in two, the result of compromises following a terrible attack by the demonic Shayateen. It’s a backstory that feels subtly infused by the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, creating in the process a kind of aspirational mirror of the real world. The female characters are interesting and complex, sometimes pawns in a bigger game, but often engaged in a struggle for agency in their lives and for justice in their world. Fatima is the one we keep our eye on, but they’re all subtly drawn.

I found it interesting that the fractures in this world are not along religious or linguistic lines. Rather, they are rifts caused by the misdeeds of demons and people. Azad’s immaculately crafted prose weaves in the words of many languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi—seamlessly and mercifully bereft of italics.

Read in e-galley.

Power, Agency, and Life’s Big Questions in Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

cynthia_leitich_smith_editing-607x400.jpgMy friend and colleague Cynthia Leitich Smith has long been an articulate voice for change in the field of writing for young readers. Cyn is practically a publishing industry all by herself, with picture books, short stories, realistic novels, poetry, and an astonishingly comprehensive online archive of children’s and YA literature resources. Her Tantalize/Feral novels and graphic novels take a Bram Stoker inspired magical world and populate it with ghosts, vampires, were-creatures of all kinds, demon dogs, shapeshifters and fallen angels—in the process, they give power to female characters and reflect back upon the real world, raising questions of trust, betrayal, and community. Her chapter book of interlinked stories, Indian Shoes, presents a warm, funny relationship between the generations, while upending old tropes about Native peoples and Indian artifacts.

As Cynthia puts it: “the industry must move past the tendency to put creatives in genre boxes as well as to underestimate Native authors and authors of color. We are not here to exclusively write books about landmark historical events with obvious social studies tie-ins. We can rock those stories, but we can also do so much more and do it spectacularly.”

Hearts UnbrokenAnd she does. Hearts Unbroken is about Louise Wolfe, suburban Muscogee Creek girl, doing her best to make her way in a largely white high school. Lou has aspirations and talents, a loving family, and, above all, a mind of her own. The prejudice around her, both unthinking and intentional, awakens Lou’s inner activist. At the same time as she’s taking determined steps to achieve her journalistic ambitions, she is forced to question herself, and the answers aren’t always comfortable. Context is offered by a delightful younger brother, cousins and others in the extended family, a lively and contentious school community, and the whole, messy context of the real political world. A diverse array of secondary characters include irascible school paper editor, Karishma Sawkar, neglected best friend Shelby, journalism teacher Ms. Wilson, heedless ex-boyfriend Cam, and Lou’s current love interest, Joey Kairouz. It’s America in microcosm, with all the inherent contradictions you might expect. For an additional treat, readers of Rain is Not My Indian Name will be delighted to see Cassidy Rain Berghoff make a cameo appearance in this book.

Through Lou’s character, Hearts Unbroken articulates questions about representation and voice and the human tendency to pronounce judgment with limited information. Questions about history and privilege, about who has power and why. Questions that push back against the daily indignities, large and small, so often inflicted upon minorities in America, and push back as well on commonly held historical myths and emblems of public nostalgia. This novel left me, to quote Cyn herself, “heartened, optimistically Unbroken, and a believer in the power of Story.”

 

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!

When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina

whenmorningcomesTeenaged Zanele plots secretly against the apartheid-era South Africa, government on the brink of the Soweto uprising. Her best friend, Thabo, has joined a gang and extorts protection money from a local Indian store owner. The store owner’s daughter, Meena, keeps a wary eye on the world outside the door, her curiosity gradually turning to sympathy for the protesters. On the other side of town, in the wealthy white suburbs, Jack lives in comfort, insulated from the troubles of black South Africa.

Arushi Raina‘s book brings 1976 South Africa to young readers in a fresh and engaging way. Each first-person narrator has a distinct voice, and the perspective of each is, unsurprisingly, defined by race–at least initially, that is, until their stories start to intersect. That is where heartbreak lies, and revelation as well. There are no easy happy resolutions, the book suggests. All happiness comes at a cost, love and justice mixed with regret and loss. What the ending gives us, however, is a sense of life continuing, of the stories going on even after the last page has been turned. That’s a tough thing to pull off, and Raina’s characters manage to linger in the memory.

Carefully crafted and lovingly detailed, this novel in multiple voices honors the past while drawing subtle meanings for readers here and now.  Published by Tradewind Books.

 

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson on Fictionalizing Family History

One of the titles I discussed in my January VCFA lecture on historical fiction is a book I grew to know vicariously, to my great delight, as its writer navigated the many phases of its growth. No Crystal Stair is an acclaimed novel, a documentary novel, a story on the cusp between fiction and history, real and imagined.

I asked my dear writing colleague and friend Vaunda Micheaux Nelson to reflect on that process for me. Here is our exchange:

[Uma] Talk a little about the research you did –the sheer volume of it and over so much time!  And then about how this turned from nonfiction into the fictionalized blend of fact and imagination that it ended up becoming.

[Vaunda] The process extended over many years and continues, not only formal research but family history.  In brief, I acquired source material from the Schomburg Center in Harlem, Howard University, the Hatch-Billops Collection, newspaper and magazine articles, audio tapes, transcripts, court records, church documents, FBI files, census records, death certificates and other vital statistic sources, and oral histories – interviews with family members and individuals who visited the store and/or knew Lewis.  I traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Newport News, Virginia. When faced with contradictory information, I weighed what I could, and drew reasonable conclusions.

It began as a family history project.  I simply wanted to learn about my uncle and his bookstore and record what I found.  The more I discovered about Lewis’s life and contributions, the more I needed to share his story.  As a writer, I love exploring character.  And what a character Lewis was!  I enjoyed getting to know him through research, trying to figure him out.  Lewis’s life is important historically, but it’s also just a great story.

I write for children, so it was natural for me to want to share Lewis’s story with them, though I believed it would speak to adults as well.  Youth is a time that is heavy with searching, tripping, falling, getting back up, slipping, finding ground, flailing, and finally flying.  Lewis’s journey embodied this, so I suspected it would appeal to teens.  And, as a bibliophile, I was thrilled to share the story of a man who used books as a compass in his search for self.

It started as straight biography.  In my early drafts I used quotes by Lewis as chapter headings and envisioned photos as part of the final work.  But at some point in the process, and after feedback from people I respect, I realized that it wasn’t working.  I didn’t feel I’d told Lewis’s story in a way that would move readers to care about this amazing man and understand the significance of what he achieved. Those early attempts lacked the heart I hope I conveyed in the final book.  Also, there were holes and discrepancies in the information about Lewis’s life that I could not resolve.  Sources were contradictory, unclear, unreliable, and the people who might have been able to clarify or fill in the gaps were already in their graves.

I began telling the story of Lewis Michaux through the voices of those who surrounded him — family, friends, associates, and bookstore customers.  Recordings and interviews with Lewis enabled me to replicate his voice.  My husband, Drew, began calling the book “Documentary Fiction,” which seemed a good fit.  I included as much factual information as I could, while filling in the gaps with informed speculation (my best guess) about what might have happened to, or been said about, Lewis.

The new format gave me options and flexibility and allowed me to explore Lewis in a deeper way, to help readers see Lewis’s spirit, his intelligence, his charm, as well as his weaknesses.  I came to know the people around him more intimately.   One of the things I admire about Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems is that she informs readers about George Washington Carver’s brilliance and accomplishments, while capturing the essence of the man, the nature of his spirit and how he touched the lives of others. This was my intent with No Crystal Stair. Sometimes you have to do an awful lot of writing to figure out exactly what it is you have to say.  The project may have taken 15 years, but as I think back on the process, I realize it needed those years.  I  needed those years to become a better writer.  And I made exciting discoveries along the way that led me in unexpected and rewarding directions.

The excitement of acquiring audio tapes and transcripts of interviews with Lewis fueled my energy for the work.  Reading his words and hearing his voice were invaluable to understanding and developing his character.  Also, there’s a short, online clip of his brother, Lightfoot, preaching that is priceless.

Considering the controversial rallies Lewis held outside the store and his close relationship with Malcolm X, I suspected the FBI had files on my uncle.  Receiving a fat packet of FBI files after nine months of waiting was a thrill, and again gave me a happy boost at a time of frustration.

[Uma] Assuming that every book teaches a writer something, what did this book teach you?

[Vaunda] After beginning the new format, I was finding great pleasure in the project. but one day I asked myself — what is this exactly?   Teen biography?  No, I had already crossed the line into invention, and invention spells fiction.  But was it teen fiction?  By page 14, Lewis is an adult.  Where was the teenage protagonist?   Even if I found an editor who liked it, could it pass muster in an acquisitions meeting?  What publisher would buy this book?

I decided it didn’t matter.  I needed to continue the project for my family for myself.  There was much support coming from that direction — including from Lewis himself.  His spirit was there — prodding.  So I forged ahead not caring whether it would find a publishing audience.  I forged ahead because a bit of Lewis’s independent spirit had rubbed off.  In the past, I fancied myself as someone who had the strength to deviate from the norm.  I was, but I had limits.  I still do, but NO CRYSTAL STAIR confirmed the truth of that cliched advice that many give but don’t really believe – “Follow your heart.”  Or as Lewis put it, “Never lose your individuality.”

The project also gave me some things to think about with regard to the complexity of character, both in fiction and real life.   Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey are often skimmed over or neglected by black history programs in schools.  Their ideas and philosophies about the fight for equality were out of the mainstream and, threatening for some.  Malcolm and Garvey were seen as radical, explosive, enigmatic personalities.  Most of the adults in my childhood saw Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement as extreme.  Malcolm X was intimidating.   But there is much to learn from Garvey’s commitment to blacks building their own businesses, creating their own communities, becoming self-sufficient, and uniting globally.  Malcolm’s struggle for human rights “by any means necessary,” his personal evolution, his compelling speeches, and (like Lewis Michaux) his belief in education are powerful, significant, and worthy of study.  Learning about figures like Lewis, Malcolm and Garvey expanded my thinking.  Without alternative perspectives, we are in danger of believing there is only one right way of seeing and being.  It becomes too easy to fall into lock step rather than discover who we really are.

Finally this book taught me the importance of researching family history while the elders are still alive.  I am left with so many questions that Lewis, my parents and grandparents might have been able to answer.  As Lewis always said you can’t really know yourself unless you know your history and those who came before – the shoulders on which you stand.  With this project, I’ve become an advocate for recording family history, and I encourage the children I encounter uncover for the stories in their own backyards.

 [Uma] What were some obstacles you encountered?

[Vaunda] Many times I felt I was spinning my wheels, getting nowhere, looking for a needle in the wrong haystack.  I had to learn persistence, which sometimes payed off.   But sometimes, I hit a brick wall and had to accept the fact that I may never find resolution.

Lewis sometimes embellished the facts in one venue and then forgot, or didn’t care, that he’d done so — his true age, how long the bookstore actually existed.  These kinds of inconsistencies were frustrating when I was attempting to research and write straight biography.  I wanted to get the facts right.  But once I shifted to documentary fiction and allowed myself the freedom to speculate and imagine, the sense of mystery added intrigue and led me to wonder.  This wondering, I believe, brought me to truths that I might not have discovered otherwise.  However, as someone trying to uncover family history, I wish I had more answers.  My search isn’t over.

[Uma] Revision wasn’t a simple linear process for this book.  Will you talk about the work you did in revising, revisiting the same material over and over again?  How did revision make the book grow?  Change?  Deepen?  How did it surprise you?

 [Vaunda] The shift to the new format was a major but fascinating process.  Creating the voices was challenging, but some of the best writing fun I’ve ever had.  For example, the factual information regarding the incident where Lewis loses his eye went from a paragraph in the straight biography to three voices — Lewis, his brother Norris, and a police officer.  This change enabled me to convey emotion and show aspects of Lewis and Norris unseen in the original.

One of my main revision challenges was organizing the story, deciding who would speak when, and the content of what they might say to move the story forward gave me many hours of brain pain.  At one point in the process, I took the manuscript to the library when it was closed, laid it out on tables page by page, and started shifting — place this before that, that before this — no, no, that before this — or did it work better the other way around?  Initially, I placed a few chapters out of sequence.  Ultimately I decided to work chronologically to avoid disrupting the flow and momentum of the story.

Also, Malcolm is such a powerful and fascinating figure, he could easily have taken over the story.  My editor Andrew Karre and I worked together to keep him in perspective, to include only Malcolm X materials which were relevant to Lewis’s story.  Although there is much I would like young readers to know about Malcolm, I had to keep focus on Lewis’s story.   His brother Lightfoot also is a powerful character whose story could have overshadowed Lewis’s if I’d handled it differently.   I had to keep reminding myself to stay with Lewis.

[Uma] What did Lewis say that you’d want to say to readers?

[Vaunda] Lewis was promoting education, but not just as a means to job success.  He believed in the richness that knowledge can bring to everyday life.  “You have to know something to protect yourself,”  he said.  “Knowledge is power.  You need it every hour. Read a book!”

[Uma] And what do you want to say to writers who wish to write for young people?

[Vaunda] As writers we should never underestimate what kids can handle.  They’re smart and beg to be challenged.  Sometimes we make the mistake of believing young readers can’t deal with subtlety.  But that which is left unsaid is often what gets them thinking beyond the text.  The reading process becomes an interactive one, a give and take, a private affair that adds to a repository of experience they can draw from as they negotiate life.

[Uma] So there you go. Write to stretch the minds of your readers. Thank you, Vaun!