A friend on Facebook recently posted an article about the summer blues, and it was reassuring to know I’m not the only one who feels guilty about staying in when the sun is out. I’m an introvert and I need to turn inward when I’m getting ready to write, but staying inside that bubble too long can have unintended consequences. My health hasn’t been great lately, though I’ve only had one migraine so far this summer. I know what I need to do—fix my diet, keep running in the park, make sure I leave the house *every* day. I’m thinking about going off gluten and spent some time at Whole Foods this afternoon after packing books at my office. Last week I brought home a bag of office items that included a vase; I put it away but thought to myself, “Now you can start buying flowers again.” And today I did—a lovely purple bouquet was waiting for me at the store but when I got it home, it wouldn’t fit in the vase! So I used a regular glass instead. The moral? I could have been buying myself flowers all this time—it was never about having a vase. I’m too set in my ways. Routine creates a sense of security but sometimes it’s better to do things differently even if the outcome is disastrous. Yesterday I went to Pandora and set up an Emeli Sande channel—I don’t listen to music on the radio (I listen to the news, which is another reason I’ve been blue lately; time to tune OUT—or scale back my consumption, at least) and I don’t have an iPod. I’m still mourning the fact that my laptop no longer has a CD drive and can’t bring myself to trash the teetering stack of CDs in the corner of my apartment. But as I listened to Emeli and Adele and Lauryn and Beyonce yesterday, I realized how much I’ve missed R&B! I’d forgotten how good it feels to just sit and sing along to your favorite songs (“Halo” is on a loop right now) without having to deal with a corny rap interlude or raunchy lyrics. My friend helped me install a new air conditioner in the bedroom yesterday; I painted last month, I’ve got a lovely bouquet to wake up to, and this week I’ll bring home the portable stereo that sits on my desk at work—then I’ll be able to play my CDs! There has been a LOT of bad news lately and I need to balance my consumption with some cute cat and/or goat videos, some good music, and some interesting art. The summer feels like it’s slipping away; I’ve got 4 or 5 projects on the go right now, but haven’t managed to write as much as I’d like. My illustrator is producing beautiful artwork for The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and we’re finalizing edits on The Magic Mirror. Next step will be developing a catalog to send out to schools and librarians. The To Do list never ends but I’m keeping an eye on the future. I’d like to spend my birthday in London and the IBBY UK conference on belonging just happens to be around that time; sent off my abstract yesterday and will see if I can connect with some folks across the pond. I think October is Black History Month in the UK so maybe I can arrange a few school visits while I’m over there. All I need is a good playlist to keep me going…
The first thing I noticed when I reached my BookUP site in Queens last week was that there were two griffins guarding a gate on the other side of the street. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about those griffins, and so now I’m working on my second “City Kids” book (my new chapter book series) tentatively titled The Griffins at the Gate. I meet with my students tomorrow and will see how they feel about a time travel story set in their neighborhood. They’re excited about reading Rick Riordan’s hefty Olympus books so I think we’ll try writing about mythological creatures. We’re also going to make some art tomorrow, so I need to brush off my pencil and make sure I’m up for the challenge. Then I need to spend some time wandering around Jackson Heights. It’s an incredibly beautiful neighborhood but I bet there’s all kinds of magic waiting inside those gated courtyards…
I’ve had a few conversations lately with folks who are tired of the neverending diversity in publishing campaign. We’ve all decided it’s just not worthwhile to invest our valuable time and energy in an industry that truly does not WANT to change. As I say more and more these days, “It’s not a question of merit or money. It’s about POWER.” And when folks are accustomed to being dominant, they aren’t likely to share power willingly. Yesterday I met with my BookUP students out in Queens for the first time—how wonderful to walk into a classroom at 9am and find all the students reading at their desks! And most of them were boys, which is why I push back whenever folks claim that boys don’t read. Many are reluctant readers, but not all. I introduced myself as Kristin and then let them examine the dozen assigned books with my three novels mixed in. When I asked which book they wanted to read most, two boys named Ship of Souls and The Deep. Unfortunately my books aren’t part of the First Book marketplace; they don’t accept self-published submissions and my publisher, Amazon/Skyscape, is looking into submitting Wish and Ship of Souls. In the meantime, I offered to photocopy chapters and bring them in for us to read aloud.By any means necessary, right? Find a way around the obstacle.
This morning I woke up with a migraine but was so grateful to find on Facebook this speech given by Toni Morrison in 1975. She perfectly articulates what I’ve been feeling for the past few months. We do need to push for justice in publishing but we also need to keep our eyes on the prize:
Racism was always a con game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It’s the red flag that is danced before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract. To keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy. Keep it focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence is to define black people as reaction to white presence…
It’s important to know who the real enemy is and to know the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing YOUR WORK. It keeps you explaining over and over your reason for being.
It may very well be left to artists to grapple with this fact (the distraction). For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar and the names of people shipped not only the number. And to the artist one can only say: not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever. You must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power.
And I urge you to be careful for there is a deadly prison. A prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.
Wise words. After the speech Morrison took questions and made these remarks about audience:
…you write for all those people in the book who don’t even pick up the book. Those are the people who justify it. Those are the people who make it authentic. Those are the people you have to please. All those non-readers…They are the ones to whom one speaks. Not to the NY Times. Not to the editors. Not to media. Not to anything. It is a very private thing. They are the ones who say, “yea, uh huh that’s right.” And when THAT happens, very strangely or actually very naturally what also happens is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as very inward and private, the end result is its communication with the world at large.
I don’t really care about that control. Life is short. Freedom is in my mind. That’s where one is free. There’s always some other constriction. But the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well. And to make no compromises in its authenticity. And to do it better next time.
And the key – the artist’s role is to bear witness, to contribute to the record, the real record of life as he or she knows it. Perceptions that are one’s own… You exercise control only when you assert control.
I just hired an illustrator to work on my picture book about blues women, the Great Migration, and lynching. I remember telling my students about this story while teaching a course on lynching at Ohio University. More than a dozen years have passed and I’m finally putting it out into the world. Because as Morrison explains, “the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well. And to make no compromises in its authenticity.” I haven’t given up on the traditional publishing industry but I am going ahead with the stories I know they will never print. “You exercise control only when you assert control.”
We had a great panel at the Harlem Book Fair yesterday. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about just what makes me a Black geek, but I realize I haven’t actually thought much about bullying. I wasn’t one of the cool kids in school, but I was always respected—or I felt that way, at least—because I was smart, and opinionated, and when I talked in class, people listened to me. It wasn’t that way at home, however, and I realized on Friday as I prepared for the next day’s panel that the only bully I ever had to deal with as a teen was my older sister. We aren’t close; I haven’t really spoken to any of my four siblings in a meaningful way since my father died in 2004. Recently, however, I learned that my older sister was having some health issues and so I sent a brief email to offer support. She responded and we’ve exchanged a few more emails since then. I don’t often admit it, but I miss having my siblings in my life. I’m blessed to have close women friends who function as sisters, but there’s still a gaping hole where my blood relatives should be. Now that I’m middle-aged it’s easier for me to think about why my big sister was so terrible when we were teens. She paved the way for me in many ways; she was an outstanding student and so I was also expected to be academically gifted—something that didn’t happen when I attended school without her. It wasn’t always easy living in her shadow but I can see now that it probably also wasn’t easy for her to have no footsteps to follow. She had to blaze her own trail and maybe, at our overwhelmingly white, middle-class high school, that was too great a burden to bear. Maybe—despite appearing to be a total diva—she was teased and so turned around and teased me. Of course, I’m more sensitive than most of my siblings (or so I like to think), so maybe my sister said and did things without understanding the lasting impact her words would have on me. Maybe she had issues with the fact that I looked “more Black” than she did; maybe calling me “cow lips” was a way of rejecting her own thin lips. I don’t know. Whenever I go shopping, I hear my sister’s voice in my ear, chiding me for choosing items that are plain or baggy. I think my disinterest in fashion embarrassed her, but maybe she felt I was judging her for being so deeply invested in appearances (and maybe I was). Lately when I look at photos of myself, I see that I resemble my big sister. We don’t look alike, really, but sometimes I see uncertainty in my face or I assume an awkward pose and then I see traces of my sister—even though she always looks polished and strikes the most confident pose. Family is complicated! This photo was taken at my little brother’s graduation in 2008.
I have a lot of work to do today. My illustrator in Texas, Paul Melecky, finished the pictures for The Magic Mirror, so I need to edit the text and forward everything to my book designer. She’s already resizing Max Loves Muñecas! since a couple of librarians and educators asked for a thicker book that could be more easily shelved (title on spine). Work is progressing on The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun and I’m going to get my illustrator started on Billie’s Blues. And that will be IT for illustrated books, I think. At least for a little while. I need to write. Seriously. Let the day of silence begin…
My flight home from Dakar was not a happy one, but I’m not going to dwell on that here. I got home safely on Tuesday and my luggage followed two days later. My little car rapide got dinged up a bit but everything else was ok. Now that I have my power cords, I can pick up where I left off with my writing. I spent two days indoors—partly because I was waiting for my suitcase to be delivered and partly because I wasn’t ready to leave my bubble. The Novotel in Dakar was the perfect place for me; the staff was friendly and helpful but not at all intrusive (except for the housekeeping lady who would enter the room regardless of the “do not disturb” sign on the door). It was quiet and I was able to write without any real distractions—and despite ordering room service twice a day, I managed to lose a couple of pounds while I was away. On the radio today I heard a segment on noise; artists were asked to call in and describe their work routine and I was surprised to hear a woman writer confess that she needs to work against distractions so she has something on the stove, the laundry going, and the TV on while trying to write. I went out today and the noise inside the subway car—ten people talking all at once—nearly destroyed me. Too much time in the bubble! I was reading a book narrated by a child with autism and I knew exactly how he felt…but I’m not a child with special needs. I have to get back in the habit of living in the world. I put on my new dress today and my new sandals; the dress has an elastic top like the sundresses we used to wear as little girls, so I considered not wearing a bra. But I’m almost 42 so I reconsidered and put on a bra. Three blocks from my house, the center strap snapped and I didn’t feel like turning around so I didn’t make any sudden moves and trusted the elastic top to withstand gravity. As I walked around downtown Brooklyn I noticed so many women looking flawless in the summer heat—no sweat, no shine, stylish dresses and matching shoes. And there I was, coming apart, keeping my fingers crossed that I could get back home without a major wardrobe malfunction. Then I opened the door to Chipotle and a Black woman exiting the restaurant said, “That’s a beautiful dress!” And so I just stopped worrying. Who knows how many safety pins are holding those flawless, stylish women together? I have no idea what I’m going to wear to the Harlem Book Fair tomorrow. Our panel on bullies, freaks, and geeks starts at 2:10 in Conference Room B of the Countee Cullen Library on 136th. See you there!
Marissa posted this video on Facebook today—a glimpse of Dakar…
I’m a creature of habit, which means Sunday nights are reserved for Masterpiece Theatre. Here in Dakar most of the television channels show programs in French or Wolof; the only English-language channels are BBC World and CNN. I’ve already written a couple of news items into my novel, which is nearing 7000 words. I wanted to write 5K words before I left but I’m only at 3500 right now. It’s 11am and my flight leaves at 10:40pm but the airport shuttle will leave at 7. I’ll see what I can do. Last night I took a break from writing to watch 2 old episodes of Inspector Lewis. I don’t know why I return to that show again and again. The new season of Endeavour has started; maybe I can watch that online today. This morning I got an email from a friend in NYC telling me about a 3-week residency in Scotland; it’s for Commonwealth writers interested in the link between Scotland and the Caribbean during the slavery era. The deadline is this Sunday, so I’ll have to get that application started as soon as I get home tomorrow. I wish I could snap my fingers and be back in Brooklyn. It only took 8 hours to fly from JFK to Dakar but I have to fly through Paris and London to get back home, and they’re reporting longer lines at airports due to heightened security risks. Both of my Senegalese guides told me that their country values peace, and when one compares Senegal to the rest of the region, it definitely seems immune to religious conflict and terrorism. My guide yesterday took me to the Grand Mosque; I wasn’t allowed to enter but there was a lecture outside the mosque and also a graduation ceremony at the adjacent Islamic Institute for children who had finished memorizing the Koran. Meïssa quietly performed the call to prayer for me and answered my many questions about talibés (Koranic students who are required to beg in the street to earn their room and board). We talked about magic, witches, and spirits, and Meïssa urged me to read the Koran so that I can tell the difference between “true Islam” and cultural practices that have no basis in the Koran. We wrapped up the tour with a visit to Marché Kermel, which dates back to the colonial period. Like my other guide, Meïssa shared the fact that The Autobiography of Malcolm X is one of his favorite books. So Malcolm is now featured in the first chapter of my novel…I wrote down half a page of notes yesterday, and I really hope I can find a way to fit everything in somehow. The left hand isn’t used in Muslim society, but here in Dakar it’s good luck to touch a baobab tree with your left hand—some say you can even make a wish. This trip has been such a blessing, despite all my anxiety. I need to hit the grounding running once I touch down at JFK, and I promise I’ll post my photos on Facebook (feel free to “like” my page: Author Zetta Elliott). Au revoir from Dakar!
I think I’ve cracked the code. Yesterday I wrote for several hours in the evening and managed to crank out over 2000 words. And that happened because when I got home from my meeting with Meredith and Grace, two Tostan volunteers, I did NOT blog. My head was crammed full of ideas and possibilities, and for a couple of hours I just sat with my thoughts and mentally rearranged my novel outline. Then I pulled up the file, tweaked my actual outline, and got to work. I was struck by something the young women told me—rather, they thanked me for listening to them as they shared their experience. I’d never really thought about that—how challenging it might be to find a sympathetic audience once you’ve lived and worked abroad, especially when the work they do involves such complex issues. It would be particularly hard to convey that experience to someone who had never been to Africa and/or thought about the politics of international development (which is most Americans). I couldn’t thank them enough for answering my many questions; in The Return, Keem’s sister Nasira is in Senegal working with an NGO that focuses on women’s health. Tostan has a lot of different programs but they’re often reduced to (or known best for) the work they do to end female genital cutting. I want to find ways to weave Nasira’s politics into the narrative without getting on my feminist soapbox. And I want to convey the complexity of FGC, the tension between respecting tradition and reshaping cultural attitudes. My tour guide joked that he was “Muslim on the left”—he drinks beer but not during Ramadan. Then he asked me if I was Christian “on the left or right.” I usually just say that I was raised in a devout Christian family. I haven’t entirely rejected my Christian upbringing but I did make a deliberate decision not to live like my parents once I began living on my own. I admire the discipline that Islam demands of its practitioners but I struggle sometimes to understand how religion could determine every aspect of one’s life: what you eat, what you wear, how you talk, how you socialize, or marry, or parent, etc. I’ll need to talk to more Muslim teens as I work on this novel so that I better understand the way they navigate both here and in the US.
Last night I was chatting online with Sayida—a friend I met ten years ago when we both signed up to teach in Djibouti. I left after 5 weeks but Sayida toughed it out and over the years we kept in touch. Now she’s expecting her first child and her partner’s sister is a seamstress here in Dakar, so in a little while I’ll be meeting Fatou to have my measurements taken. She speaks Wolof and French only, so I’ve been using Bing translator to brush up on my vocabulary and phrasing, and I went online this morning to find a style of dress that I like. Shorten the skirt on this one and it’s parfait!