Birth date: July 29, 1978
Location: Paterson, NJ (But I grew up in Portland, Oregon)
Genre: Children’s and Young Adult Literature
WiP or most recently published work:
Recently Published: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and What Momma Left Me
Writing credits: Picture Book: A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, June 2010)
Middle Grade Novel: What Momma Left Me (Bloomsbury, July 2010)
Articles in Rethinking Schools:
Five Years After the Levees Broke: Bearing Witness through Poetry (Spring 2010)
From Pain to Poetry: The Murder of Sean Bell (Spring 2008)
How frequently do you update your site? Monthly
Is your site designed for reader interaction? No, not yet. Although I post new poems and short stories often. Teachers can also download teacher’s guides for my books.
You've had a busy year, with two new releases (What Momma Left Me and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen). Was it intentional to publish two books so closely together? What was your inspiration for both books?
No, it wasn’t intentional at all to have both books come out so close together. The books are published with different publishing houses, so that’s why the release dates were so close together.
In 2006, a year after hurricane Katrina, I led poetry and theater workshops with young people who were coping with the aftermath of Katrina. The children I worked with inspired me to write A Place Where Hurricanes Happen. Their poetry and stories stayed with me long after I returned to New York, and I wanted to write something to honor their experience.
What Momma Left Me was first a stage play I wrote in high school. I don’t really know why the story stayed with me all these years. I have always been intrigued by the notion of generational curses and blessings—do children really become their parents? And I’ve also worked with young women who either experienced or have been affected by domestic violence, and so, the story was birthed out of a combination of my own questioning and witnessing.
What Momma Left Me has a bit of a Christian leaning. Did you worry that this would alienate any readers? Why did you decide to have the prayer of the Our Father/Christianity overall play a role in the book?
I was never worried about alienating readers because I believe readers are always taking in new worlds so I figured if Christianity was not a part of the reader’s life, they would accept it as Serenity’s truth.
It was important for me to show a young person struggling with what she believes. Having Christianity play a role in the book was another way of questioning and examining what is passed down from one generation to the next.
I also tend to write close to my reality, and growing up church was definitely a part of my life. I wanted a realistic picture of the black community, and in my experience, the Christian church has always played a role—big or small—in the neighborhoods I grew up in.
I was very honored to have A Place Where Hurricanes Happen featured. The illustrator, Shadra Strickland, and I were determined to go to New Orleans and give books to students who inspired the story. We were both so excited to share the experience. It was our first time meeting and sharing the work together. So on many levels, the trip to New Orleans was special.
Top 5 reads you’re looking forward to reading in 2010?
Right now, I’m preparing to teach poetry and theater residencies for the Fall and Winter, so I’m reading poetry books so I can get material to use in the classroom. My Top 5 reads right now are Morning Haiku by Sonia Sanchez, Crowned by Ellen Hagan, Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith, and I’m also devouring Linda Christensen’s book on teaching about social justice issues through poetry, titled, Teaching for Joy & Justice. But in terms of fiction, Chimamanda Adichie’s collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, is patiently waiting for me for finish it.
100 words or less how would you describe your work?
Because of my background in poetry, my fiction tends to be lyrical. I write about topics that are important to me, and so, even though I write fiction, my stories are very close to reality.
100 words or less please share your thoughts on
Writing and activism
The two are synonymous to me. In the classroom, when I teach poetry, I am always telling students that their voices are powerful, that their voices can change the world. When I teach the poems of Langston Hughes, Martin Espada, Willie Perdormo, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou—and countless others—students see how mighty the pen is. I challenge them to think about how their writing can be used as a weapon against injustice, as a bullhorn for the silent, and a witness to the neglected.