Friday, March 20, 2009

A Wish After Midnight

Zetta Elliott currently teaches at Mount Holyoke College. She's promoting her first YA novel, A Wish After Midnight following the successful publication of her award winning, children's book, Bird. I met Zetta at not long ago though it feels like we've been friends for years. When she told me about AWAM, I asked for a copy for our library, and asked if she'd do an interview. Zetta is a talented writer and impassioned woman who cares about her community, the arts and her work with youth.

Black-Eyed Susan: Tell our readers a little about yourself and your writing experience.

Zetta Elliott: I decided to become a writer when I was about 15 years old. I had an English teacher, Mrs. Vichert, and after reading my assignments for two years she said, “If you want to be a writer, you will be.” She said it so simply, without any doubt, that I believed her! I started my first novel that summer, I think, and it was just awful…I never finished it, but I kept on reading and mostly expressed myself in the papers I wrote for school. During my last year of college, I was introduced to Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid, and their writing changed the course of my life. Once I discovered the tradition of black women writers, I knew where I belonged. I took a year off while I was in graduate school and wrote my first novel, One Eye Open, in 1999. Then I moved on to writing for children…then to playwriting…then I wrote a memoir. Occasionally I write poetry. Now I’m back to writing for children, but I also have a play underway. I have to do some academic writing for my job (I’m a professor), but I’m thinking about moving into film…

BES: In the trailer you share that you wrote AWAM because you didn't see girls like Genna in other books. Expound on this.

ZE: I read constantly as a child. My parents were divorced, things at home weren’t great, and my mother basically was either at work or immersed in a book. So I followed her lead. Because Canada (where I’m from) is a former British colony, I read a lot of British literature—as a teen I read Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot. And even before then, I read novels by Frances Hodgson Burnett—A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, etc. So my imagination was definitely steeped in that Victorian storytelling tradition, plus I loved the King Arthur legends—I remember writing my senior thesis in high school on The Mists of Avalon. Basically, I wanted to disappear, and the best way to do that was to read a book full of people who were nothing like me. The trouble is, after a while you start to reproduce that invisibility when telling your own stories. It becomes difficult to dream about amazing things happening to people who look like you! So I consciously began to work against that. I wanted children to know that magical things could happen to them even if they didn’t live in a castle somewhere in England—magical things can happen to anyone anywhere. I live near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and there’s a massive tree there that I included in the trailer; when I was young, I read a book about two white kids who went to a park after a storm and found an old tree that had been split in two by lightening—Merlin was inside! That image has stayed with me a long time…and so when I look at the world of the city, I see possibilities that I first dreamt about as a child.

BES: Those of us who are Octavia E. Butler fans make an immediate connection with the time travel device and specifically Genna returning to the South during the Civil War. Did you have any concern that these connections would unduly impact these readers' expectations and standards?

ZE: I knew I couldn’t write anything as good as Kindred, but I loved that book so much that it became the model for AWAM. Butler sends Dana back to the antebellum period, and my character, Genna, returns to the city of Brooklyn long after slavery has been abolished in New York State. She’s legally free, but I wanted to contrast the 19th and 21st centuries in order to complicate the notion of FREEDOM and PROGRESS. I wrote AWAM before President Obama was elected, but I still urge my students to consider how that milestone actually transforms race relations in this country. What has actually changed between the races? Butler was interested in exposing just what it took to make a slave. Dana thinks she’s sophisticated, independent—a “liberated woman.” But she’s reduced to someone vulnerable and desperate when she goes back in time. I wanted my character to be tested in a similar way. Genna fights against her mother’s hatred of whites, and those who would reduce her to “just another girl on the block.” She has dreams, plans, ambition, yet she yearns to belong somewhere, to be valued and admired. Her return to the 19th century reveals just how strong Genna really is, and how she’s able to build community by reaching out to those around her. She wanted to escape her difficult life in Brooklyn 2001, but her return to the past makes her question the very idea of “escape”—how DO you become free? By letting go, or holding on? Is it harder to start over in a new place, or to stay put and work for change?

BES: I was struck by the date Genna returns home. This girl just can't get a break. Why September 10, 2001?

ZE: Well, again—I’m trying to interrogate the idea of progress. She left one era and returned to her own only to find NYC shaken by terror once more. If we don’t learn from the past, we’re destined to repeat it, and a lot of Americans unfortunately seem to believe that history began on 9/11. It didn’t—history took a sharp turn that day, but Americans have dealt with terrorism for hundreds of years. Domestic terrorism. I begin AWAM with the execution of Timothy McVeigh; Genna understands that when people are unhappy, they sometimes act out violently. For her, terrorism isn’t about race as much as it’s about rage and powerlessness. In the NYC Draft Riots, white mobs murder and assault blacks AND whites. And there were many brave whites who stood up to the mobs in order to help the victims of the violence. But after 9/11, terrorism became linked to race—a terrorist was represented as someone brown-skinned, a Muslim, a “foreigner.” There was this single narrow profile, and people forgot all about the KKK and lynch mobs and race riots. Many Americans could only see themselves as victims, which is understandable after such a traumatic event. But there’s history that extends before 9/11, and I wanted to give Genna a chance to apply what she learned in 1863.

BES: Let's talk about Judah. While Genna is unhappy about a lot of things in her life, she does meet someone who accepts her for who she is. Judah helps Genna to take another look at herself. She starts asking more questions about the world and how she fits in it. Physically, she embraces her beauty and stops comparing herself to others. This was in part because of Judah. Having someone accept you for who you are is powerful. Like Genna, Judah is different. He has his own ideas and goals. Can you talk about the contrast between Judah and Genna. What does he represent in this novel?

ZE: I’ve actually been surprised by the number of people who read the novel and tell me they prefer Paul to Judah! But I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, really, since I deliberately made Judah flawed and difficult to embrace at times. He does show Genna her own beauty, but it’s in keeping with HIS particular aesthetic…in a way, Judah feels he’s revealing Genna to herself and to the world, but he’s also trying to shape her. Unconditional love is extremely hard to come by, and in any relationship, it’s a challenge trying to negotiate difference. Judah doesn’t identify as American; that’s an important difference, and one that threatens to drive a wedge between them in the 19th and 21st centuries. He isn’t bound to Brooklyn, or the US; he’s an immigrant and a practicing Rastafarian, and so he believes his destiny is to return to Africa. Genna wants to be hybrid, she doesn’t want to have to choose between one future or identity over another. But she also loves Judah and wants to stay with him. Everyone in a loving relationship has to ask himself or herself: how much am I willing to give up in order to be with this person? Paul serves as an alternative for Genna; he admires her feisty spirit, and enjoys engaging her in debate even when they have differing viewpoints. I was once in a relationship with a man who identified as “Afrikan-centered,” and every time I questioned his values or practices, he’d shut down the conversation by saying, “Well, you wouldn’t understand: you’re not Afrikan-centered.” I lost so much respect for him, and yet still felt he was a good person—and he was still attractive in other ways. Judah is like that man in some ways—clinging to beliefs out of fear, refusing to even consider other ways of thinking. Genna is bound to Judah not only by love, but by their shared experience going back in time. Yet because they were separated during the journey, they’ve lost a chunk of time in which both characters suffered deeply. I think Genna feels she owes something to Judah, and that’s dangerous. Can a teenage girl follow her heart and her dreams if she binds herself to another person? Again—how does one become truly FREE?

BES: What's in store for Judah and Genna?

ZE: Judah’s Tale, the sequel to AWAM, fills us in on the horrific experience Judah had upon reaching Brooklyn circa 1863. He was captured by blackbirders and sold back into slavery—shipped to the deep South, and sold to a slave breaker after running away from his first owner. As Judah confesses in AWAM, he had to kill a man in order to secure his own freedom, and that act haunts him as he tries to build a future in the past. He’s still determined to get to Africa, and when he loses Genna at the end of AWAM, there’s even less to keep him in Brooklyn. So the sequel is about Genna’s quest to get back to Judah, her efforts to find magic—a portal between the two worlds. Judah meanwhile is living in Weeksville, connecting with the local Native Americans and with blacks who believe their future lies in Liberia. Will Judah wait for Genna? Will she find her way back to him? All that’s yet to be determined! I expect to finish the sequel this summer, so it should be available by September.

BES: I want to give our readers a chance to ask you some questions, plus we have part 2 tomorrow, but before I let you go, one last question. Let’s talk about your writing process. What are some of the principles or ideas that guide your work? Do you have any writing rituals?

ZE: I don’t have any rituals, and I don’t have a writing routine. I write all the time—first thing every morning I’m on the computer, sending emails, blogging—so I’m always working with words. But I tend to write in spurts, so a lot of the time in between is spent dreaming. Then, when the story’s ready to emerge, everything else stops and I focus only on getting the ideas and characters onto the page. I started a new story recently, and in two days wrote about 12 pages. Then I stopped. I wanted to keep writing, but the urgency was gone, so I stopped. But you have to trust that you’ll go back to work when you’re ready. It had been months since I wrote any new fiction, so I was thrilled to be “back in the saddle” again.

BES: Thanks, Zetta. Looking forward to hearing from our readers.
Readers, ask Zetta about AWAM or any other question you'd like her to answer. Each question or comment earns you an entry for a signed copy of A Wish After Midnight. 3 winners will be randomly drawn after March 25th. Read Part 2 of our interview at Color Online, Saturday.

*Part 2 is live.


Amias said...

Interesting interview.

susan said...

Interesting in what way, Amias? Interesting always begs the question why.

Steph Su said...

Thanks for the review, Susan and Zetta! It's funny, because just a couple of weeks ago, in my librarianship class, Octavia Butler came up, and her whole concept of time travel seems fascinating, I really want to read it. My questions for Zetta would be: what sort of classes do you teach at Mt. Holyoke? how do you think interactions with your students affect your writing? And finally, what path did you take to become a professor?


Zetta Elliott said...

Hi, Steph Su! DO read Kindred--it's an amazing book, and one of Butler's best, I think. I took the usual path to becoming a professor--I graduated from college, took a year off, investigated various programs and then picked NYU. When I finally figured out what it meant to be an academic, I jumped ship...but returned a year later, and have no regrets about getting the PhD. My degree is in American Studies, but I specialize in African American literature and black feminist cultural criticism. My life is all about saturation--I write about the same things I teach, and so my students often hear the same ideas that are on my blog or in my fiction. Teaching gets me outside of my head, which is very important for someone as introverted and reclusive as me. Thanks for following Susan's blog, and for your comment!

Neverending story said...

I found this interview interesting because it provided sufficient information about the characters in the book to provoke my interest both in the plot and the characters. I get that the whole time travel thing must just so work in raising so many important insights. I also found Zetta's explanation about invisibility confirmed by own concern about this. I have run a play school where most the children were African and I tried very hard to find stories with African heroes. From a completely different set of historical circumstances I battle with identity being born and raised in Africa, third generation on my mothers side, but of British decent. For example in international sports events like World cup soccer I passionately want any African team to win. Yet in so many ways I can't claim to be African. But not sure why.

susan said...

If you're born and raised in Africa, why aren't you African and British (if you also identify with this part of your heritage? Are white South Africans, African?

Rethabile said...

It is an interesting interview. I've discovered a writer and a book. I'm also interested in the "routine" or lack of it. Zetta, do you carry a notebook and do you use it? If you do, what goes in it? Quirky things people do in the subway or restaurant? Normal things people do in the subway or restaurant? Something else?

Thanks for the interview.

Lenore said...

I am fan of time travel stories, and I've never come across one from this particular perspective. I am very intrigued, but at the same time, I can't help but wonder why the author chose to go the self-publishing route.

Amias said...

Interesting in that, it seems all young black writers have the same story. Of course their stories are validated, because the ratio of black authors verses whites .. are so over the top, the Publishers should be ashamed of themselves.

Most black authors, including myself, are most inspired by what they don't see in book that they read, that is, they don't see themselves. It's almost as if we don't exist -- or our humanity is not counted in the world at large.

Indeed, the journey from there to self-publishing our own works, is always interesting, because of the commonalities of the authors.

It is sad, but brave, no matter how good we write, when we choose to self-published, most of the time we lose. We all take the chance of our books wounding up as trash in our garage. We don't have the means to promote our works, and most black readers pass us by, no I don't know why, but they do.

The exception to this rule is folks like you, who works hard to promote black authors .. I usually purchased my book via interviews of this sort.

Yes, you are right, I should have elaborated. I beg your forgiveness, old as I am, I should have known better.

susan said...

I don't think we have the same story though I agree we do see a lot of the same stories. Why, is a discussion all by itself.

Just recently on another site, the blogger asked about books by black writers that were not about race. It was an easy question for me to answer. Race often informs a writer's work, but it is not always the overriding factor. But you have to regularly read multicultural literature to know that. And majority publishing houses do a lousy job conveying that message.

There is a misconception I come up against regularly when I say I promote women writers of color. It is assumed I mean AA writers exclusively. Granted, I do know more about AA writers than others, but my shelf reflects an interest in people of color. This world is a truly technocolor. I don't see the world as blacks and whites. I want true diversity which means ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, class, faith and politics.

I want to promote writers who don't get much attention in mainstream media.

Eva said...

I really enjoyed Kindred, so I'm looking forward to a book a little bit inspired by it! I haven't read anythign by Jamaica Kincaid; where would you recommend I start?

I started skimming the interview as soon as actual plot things came up, but this was my favourite part: "I wanted children to know that magical things could happen to them even if they didn’t live in a castle somewhere in England—magical things can happen to anyone anywhere."

I grew up reading the same books (and I actually lived in England twice, although neither time in a castle!), so I completely understand. :D

Neverending Story said...

Not sure whether this is the place to continue my own identity debate as it's got little bearing on the interview. I do label myself an anglo-african on my blog but it sounds a bit pretentious. Whether white South African's are African's is a HUGE debate. Some fiercely claim to be. Many African South African's would fiercely dispute their right to do so. I was once told at a party that being a white South African of British descend I was known as a soutjie (salty) because with one leg in Africa and one in Britain my penis hung in the sea. No, I am penis-less.

Amias said...

Well you got your job cut out for you .. because there are so many good writers ignored by mainstream media.

I wish you well .. as what you are doing is very honorable.

susan said...

Neverending, we might be moving outside of the topic of the interview, but I think it's a discussion worth having. Let's create another space to have it.

Ali said...

Thanks for a great interview, Susan, I'm looking forward to reading part 2!

Zetta, I loved what you said about having periods of not writing fiction. I've been working on a novel for a couple years now, and at this point it's....resting. I know what I need to do (rearrange x and y, cut z and all references to it, etc.) but I'm not doing it. There's this fear that I'll never get back to it--and maybe I won't--but it's reassuring to hear that that's been a natural part of your process.

claire said...

What a great interview! If the author considers Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid, two of my favourites, then I have to add this book to my TBR list, for sure. (This week's Weekly Geeks has barely started, but I've added at least 4 books to my TBR already, lol.)

claire said...
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claire said...
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claire said...

Sorry for the deleted comments. Somehow, blogger posted my one comment three times.

Zetta Elliott said...

Good morning! Thanks to everyone who tuned in, and for these great comments. And thanks most especially to Susan for devoting this weekend to my book.

Rethabile, I almost never write by hand, so I don't carry a notebook with me. I always have paper on hand, but generally if I think of something, I make a mental note and hope to remember it later. I remember while writing AWAM I was on the subway heading to the Bronx, I think, and the train stopped, the doors opened, and a pair of drums stood before me. I gasped--no one on the platform that I could see, just this set of drums, waiting to be played. As the train pulled out of the station, I felt I'd been told a secret about Judah...lots of magical things happen in Brooklyn, but b/c I type close to 90wpm, I tend to write exclusively on my computer. EXCEPT for haiku--those I always write by hand.

Lucy--ironically, the best book of Kincaid's that I would recommend is titled LUCY! Her earlier books are set in the Caribbean (AT THE BOTTOM OF THE RIVER, ANNIE JOHN) and are rich with magical realism, but you get a taste of that in LUCY--by that point, the character (largely biographical) has left for the US to serve as an au pair for a white family. She's trying to escape her mother and the legacy of colonialism, but can' amazing book.

Ali--writing is like having money in the bank (maybe not the best analogy, given the current economic times). Think of the novel as your savings account--the material's gathering interest right now, and you'll be enriched by time and experience whenever you do go back to it; it isn't losing value by being left alone. Good luck!

Neverending--I'd suggest you try claiming a hybrid identity; it's a daily negotiation, identity, but in the end it is YOURS to define--identity doesn't have to be fixed; in fact, if you keep it fluid, you'll be able to fit into more communities more of the time. This is NOT selling Zadie Smith's article, "Speaking in Tongues," if you haven't already...

Amy said...

awesome interview!!

Ali said...

What a great analogy, Zetta--gathering "interest" in the bank. Thank you!

Llehn said...

Where would writers be without their English teachers? Thanks for the interview!


Neverending story said...

Zetta - I like the idea of a hybrid, fluid identity, a bit like a chameleon. Will track down the Speaking in Tongues article. Thanks. I have bookmarked your book to read to my children when they are older as I'm a read-aloud fan.

susan said...

Thanks to, we have 3 winners. Congratulations Eva and Claire! Please send me your snail address asap. Our third winner posted at Color Online. If she does not respond, I have an alternate winner.

Thank you all for reading and commenting.