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'd ask 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 chosen after March 25th. Read Part 2 of our interview at Color Online, Saturday.


Andromeda Jazmon said...

Great interview! I have AWAM on my nightstand just waiting to be read next. I am in the middle of Octavian Nothing II right now so I think it is going to be amazing to read AWAM directly after that.

My favorite quote here: "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 am already looking forward to the next book!

Unknown said...

It is exciting to read the interview with Zetta and to hear her passion to give young readers a taste of history and magic in this engaging way. Way to go Zetta! We are waiting for the next book!

Laura Atkins said...

Fascinating stuff, and insight into Zetta's thinking behind the novel. I loved this book, and would recommend it highly to anyone - in classrooms, libraries, or for reading under a tree on a sunny day.

Doret said...

Great interview. And I didn't even skim read like I do must interviews. "The girl just can't get a break" made me laugh.

Unknown said...

What an amazing new voice, too slowly being recognized. I especially enjoy Zetta's reflections on freedom, escape, and unconditional love, especially the "aha" moment when hunches coalesce into insights. Looking forward to more and more ...

Karen said...

Sounds like a book I'd love to read! I too escaped into books, but not because of painful goings-on around me. I just loved--and still do--immersing myself in another world, in a way you can't possibly do in a movie or TV show.

Color Online said...

Thanks to, we have 3 winners. Congratulations, D'thea. Please send me your snail address to Our other two winners posted at Black-Eyed Susans.

If a winner doesn't claim her book w/i 5 days, I have an alternate winner.