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!