Posted in African American Literature, Brooklyn, Canadian writers, Caribbean literature, children's literature, creative writing, education, fantasy, interview, kidlit blogs, libraries, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, race & gender, self-publishing, speculative fiction, urban fantasy, young adult novels on April 10, 2013 |
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Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:
DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?
ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.
On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.
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Posted in African American Literature, African Burial Ground, children's literature, conferences, education, equity, fantasy, historical fiction, history, libraries, multicultural literature, racism in publishing, schools, sci-fi, self-publishing, slavery, speculative fiction, teachers, young adult novels on November 9, 2012 |
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…and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I first heard this years ago, back when I was an avid NBA fan. Marc Jackson told a reporter that his father had given him that advice when he was young, and it made absolute sense to me at the time. I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, however, and I now know that loving what you do doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard—it just means that at the end of a busy day you don’t feel defeated. You DO get tired, and some days you DO dread getting out of bed. But for the most part, having a job you love means you feel the time and energy you spend are an investment in something important. I spent last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and was impressed over and over by the enthusiasm and dedication of the librarians and educators I met. On Friday I had dinner with three black women academics (Rachelle Washington, Michelle Martin, and Dianne Johnson) and a recent grad just starting her career in communications. It was an interesting moment—Jasmine laid out her plans for work/life/family and we elders talked about the need for self-care. Rachelle runs a “Sistah Doctah retreat” at Clemson University that provides mentoring and support for black women scholars and graduate students. There have been a lot of articles online lately about the specific challenges black women face in the academy. After my mid-week migraine I had to admit that self-care has not been high on my list of priorities this semester (I just had leftover cake for breakfast). I felt guilty lounging in a hotel room last weekend (I did grade midterms for a couple of hours) but I know that if I don’t slow down, eventually I’ll crash. The semester gets going and you try to “hold on” and “push through,” but that’s not healthy. I haven’t gotten any writing done lately, either, and that just makes me mean…
On Saturday I got some books at the Robert Mills Museum and then walked over to the Richland County Public Library to meet Michelle’s graduate students. They had compiled a list of more than *fifty* questions after reading Wish and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the novel, my writing process, and the challenges of getting published. I also got to learn about their literacy projects, which include books clubs, book drives, and puppetry! The library has its own puppet theater and I melted a little when I saw all their puppets hanging on the wall. I immediately recalled the raggedy old monkey puppet my mother saved for me when she retired from teaching. I need to figure out how to be the kind of professor who gets to play with puppets now and then. Or maybe I should’ve become a librarian! The ones I met in Columbia were so energetic—especially when talking to or about their teenage patrons. The best part of my author presentation was the Q&A and the two young women who talked about their own struggles with writing. “Did your parents support your decision to become a writer?” Uh—no! Not at all. They eventually came to tolerate my writing but you can’t expect *your* passion to mean as much to other people. I often say that being around teachers is like being around family, but the difference is that the teachers and librarians I meet *now* truly value my work. Having dinner with RCPL librarians Heather, Sherry, and Jennifer was a lot fun—we talked about Game of Thrones, trauma in picture books, having immigrant parents, and (of course) the election. Sunday was a day of rest and then I spent Monday at Westwood High School—a beautiful, brand new school just north of Columbia. My librarian host, Marti Brown, is also a student of Michelle Martin so she was familiar with my work and planned an amazing visit for me with her co-librarian Cathy. How often do you show up at a public school and find hot biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, and bacon?! I ate my fill and then gave a short talk to a nice group of teachers—as long as their day is, they still showed up early to hear about my books. Then I gave a presentation to about three hundred students in the school’s state of the art auditorium—complete with cordless mic and remote so that I was able to roam around and still advance my slides (all tech stuff was handled by members of the broadcasting club!). I told the students later that I wished the kids in Brooklyn could see Westwood High—*every* child should be able to attend a school like that. Before leaving for the airport I had a pizza lunch with the book club and heard a powerful poetry performance by Marshay, the Miss Westwood pageant-winner. They sent me off with a portable Redhawk blanket that kept me warm on the chilly flight home…one of my best school visits ever.
It was lovely to be spoiled like that but it was also good to come home. Getting out of NYC wasn’t easy—we’re still recovering from “Superstorm Sandy” and it was hard to hail a cab since most of them were taken and/or were in line waiting for gas. I got gouged by the cabbie (and lectured on why I should have kids) but I made it to the airport on time and even made my connecting flight despite a one-hour delay leaving JFK. I stepped off the plane in Columbia and looked up at a clear, blue sky—there was sunshine and a strong breeze—and I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Everyone I met asked how I had weathered the storm and I shared how blessed I felt not to have experienced any flooding or power loss. So many New Yorkers are still homeless, still without power and heat—and it’s FREEZING right now. We had a snowstorm yesterday and there are plenty of empty seats in my classroom because my students are struggling to recover from the storms. I woke up on Monday morning and there was no hot water in the hotel; I immediately went on Facebook and typed up a complaint to post on my feed and then had a reality check. This week has been rather overwhelming but I don’t have the additional challenges faced by those who live along the coast. I have heat, power, internet access, and food. I’m busy, but I’m also blessed. Trying to focus on that fact as I do what I can for those in need.
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Posted in Brooklyn, Canada, children's literature, education, historical fiction, history, middle grade novels, multicultural literature, Nevis, speculative fiction, teachers, the Caribbean on August 2, 2012 |
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I thought I might need a day to settle in but the more I travel, the easier it is to move between worlds. Dreamt about Brown Hill last night; Mrs. Daniel took me on a tour of the village the night before I left Nevis, and so I have a somewhat shadowy sense of the place. I remember steep hills and fenced yards, and tree frogs (called “crapauds” by the locals) sitting in or hopping across the road, land crabs frozen in the car’s headlights, and packs of donkeys ambling by while passing cars slammed on the brakes. Brown Hill is also home to Brown Hill Communications, a call center for Bell Canada. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to move between my various “homes”—they’re all connected. At the airport this time I *did* pick up a SKN key chain. Back in June I decided I wasn’t enough of a patriot to flash the flag, but now…I don’t know. On my way to the airport on Wednesday I met with three members of the Slave Route Project curriculum committee and it looks like I may have a chance to take an active role in helping to develop lesson plans and train teachers. Which would be awesome, except for one thing: I have a full-time job here in NYC. Still, I’m going forward with my citizenship application; I applied for my long-form birth certificate this morning, which should list my father’s name, and picked up my letter of good conduct from One Police Plaza this afternoon. Looking at these great photos from Monday morning’s workshop makes me wonder how effective I’d be in a Caribbean classroom. Kids are kids but there are cultural differences to consider along with my own lack of teacher certification. Loving to teach doesn’t necessarily make me qualified to develop and/or deliver a brand new curriculum, even though I’m passionate about the subject of slavery. When I led my postcard workshop on Monday, I couldn’t get the kids to share their work…usually there are more hands in the air than I can call on, but this group was more reserved—maybe because they didn’t know me or each other. Instead they just worked quietly and diligently, raising their hand or softly calling “Teacher!” when they had a question. And when you’re summoned, you have to respond. Teachers teach. I’m just not sure I can manage to teach all these subjects and all these students at the same time. But I guess I can try…
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I never have to wonder why I write what I write…here’s a recent review posted by a teacher on Amazon:
1.0 out of 5 stars Just the Thing to Stir Up Racial Tension
June 30, 2012
By Biblically Informed Reader
This review is from: A Wish After Midnight (Paperback)
I won this book as part of a prize in a drawing for teachers. Frankly, I am appalled. I would never use it with my students. It’s nothing but poorly written, mind-in-the-gutter, depressing trash destined to incite racial tensions, rather than to encourage unifying discussion. Surely there is something better than this to offer the youth of our nation.
I read seven more Ruth Chew novels yesterday and continue to find striking similarities between her books and mine—except I’m sure the above teacher would *love* Chew’s sanitized version of historical events…
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I know I fussed about all those school visits last month, but I miss working with kids. Yesterday I caught the bus (van) back to the hotel and it was full of uniformed school children. I sat alone at the back until we pulled up to another school and half a dozen little boys piled in and filled the back seat. The littlest one accidentally stepped on my toe and looked up at me with a blend of awe and fear—I managed to keep a straight face as he softly apologized. I wanted to ask them what they do for fun once school is out, which books they love to read, but I don’t know these kids that way. Yet. Today I head over to my cousin’s school where I’ll speak to her mixed class of 1st–4th graders. I won’t have my powerpoint presentation to fall back on, so will answer their questions and ask a few of my own. Yesterday I received a lovely email from a teacher in Harlem:
I just wanted to say a huge thank you to you for coming and visiting with my 6th grade class at **** Academy. My students had so much fun working with you, and even more fun working on their speculative fiction stories (which we hope to complete this week). You had such a huge impact on my kids. I’m watching my students push themselves to improve as writers in ways they haven’t tried before. Some students who have stumbled to find points of entry into class activities this year have finally found success and enjoyment as a result of the work you did with them in the classroom, and for that I am forever grateful.
That particular collaboration worked so well because Behind the Book knows how to select the very best teachers…
This is my last full day here in Nevis. I have a lot more work to do, but I think I’ve absorbed about as much as I can for now. It will take months for me to fully “unpack” everything I’m bringing back. Yesterday I stopped at the police station but no one had any idea of how to find a record of my grandmother’s institutionalization; I’ll try the hospital later today. I went to the registrar’s office and flipped through two big books of birth records but didn’t find my great-grandparents. Many babies born before 1900 weren’t named at birth, it seems—or not at the time of registration. So I scanned the column that listed the name of the mother…interesting to see how certain names appeared over and over, sometimes because women had multiple children and other times because certain names were clearly popular: Keziah, Eliza Jane, Dorcas, Rosetta. Just not the Jane and Eliza I was looking for.
I spent the morning at the Alexander Hamilton House Museum. They had a small section on slavery, which was interesting, and I had a great conversation with the museum attendant. She confirmed what I had suspected: that Alexander Hamilton was an octoroon! His maternal grandfather, a doctor, lost his wife and so remarried a creole woman who was mixed race (mulatto). They had a daughter, Rachel, who would have been a quadroon (one quarter black) and she in turn had Alexander! Everything’s mixed here, and everyone’s connected it seems. This plaque (right) explains that John Smith, before founding Jamestown, VA, stopped at Nevis for 6 days back in 1607…we’re all migrants and have been for centuries.
I walked over to the alley—a narrow drive with high stone walls that marks all that remains of the original slave depot. Then I met Amba and Dianne for lunch at a nearby cafe that’s on the site of Amba’s former family home. We talked for more than two hours and could have kept on going—it was great to get the perspective of other “returnees,” people who have ties to Nevis but lived most of their lives abroad. We discussed the cost of living, the artist’s need for community, and the challenge of learning new ways of doing things to shift from “outsider” to “insider.” Dianne also shared *her* family research, which indicates that our shared Hood ancestors were of Portuguese Jewish descent. My cousin in Canada confirmed this, and added that her great-aunt moved to Panama at some point. It’s dizzying, all this information! But it’s also another point of entry, another open door…
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Up at 2am. I’ve *never* had insomnia like this before. Once a month I’ll have a restless night but I’ve never found myself progressively losing sleep like this. It was happening in Brooklyn, too—over the past couple of months I started to wake at six, then five, then four. So what could it mean? Around 4am this morning I decided that it must be related to my ancestor search. Each time I find another generation and reach farther into the past, I lose an hour of sleep! The only good thing about this is that I have moments of lucidity while self-directing my waking dreams. I realized this morning that I want to open a museum. Not just an arts center, but a museum. What I haven’t found here in Nevis so far is a critical, comprehensive examination of slavery. The perspective of colonizers and slave owners is still being privileged—the one ghost story that’s mentioned in the tourist material I’ve gathered is a white woman whose fiance shot her brother in a duel and then proposed to another woman. So she shut herself up in her great house and now haunts the crumbling remains. THAT is the ghost story we’re supposed to care about? I realize the intent is not to alienate tourists who are primarily white, but I think it’s a mistake to assume that whites don’t want to know the truth about slavery. In fact, the greater risk is getting too deep, too graphic, and turning the past into another kind of exotic artifact. I mean, we have to have a conversation about language—what’s in a name? Why does the word “plantation” trigger positive associations for tourists and negative associations for me? I can already see a panel in my museum that will list “Ways to Be a Better Tourist.” All the grant-writing experience I’ve been accumulating will come in handy because I’ll need a major grant to make this happen. Everything prepares you for what’s next. I’ve been teaching this course on neo-slave narratives, and now I can select the best slavery novels for my museum bookstore. I’m going to enlarge those slave registers and line the walls with them. I’ll find an artist to develop a rendition of the mass suicide that took place in 1736 when 100 slaves jumped from the Prince of Orange slave ship anchored off the coast of Nevis. The history book I’m reading suggests it was a “cruel joke” that prompted an enslaved man to board the ship with his owner and tell the slaves that they were to be eaten once they were taken ashore. Maybe what he really said was, “Life as a slave on this island is unbearable,” and the newly arrived Africans decided death was the better option.
Ok, I better get myself ready to go. Alexander Hamilton House, lunch with Amba, and then all that other stuff. And maybe another nap on the beach…
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Posted in art, bookstores, Brooklyn, children's literature, conferences, education, multicultural literature, religion & spirituality, schools, speculative fiction, teachers on May 30, 2012 |
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I will never again book 20 school visits for one month! but I’m grateful for each and every opportunity to meet students and educators across the city. Yesterday I spent the morning at a school in Park Slope and after my presentation on Ship of Souls, I was treated to a feast—the parents put out *quite* a spread, and I was seated in a virtual throne with the kids ringed around me. Overhead dangled the names of their ancestors and loved ones who had passed on—the kids *and* their teacher were so serious about the concept of life after death. We shared ghosts stories and no one was freaked out; they fully accepted that the realm of spirits and the realm of the living sometimes merge…amazing! That particular class was remarkable in another way: every month their teacher walks them over to Barnes & Noble and they BUY a book to read as a class! You know I have issues with books being given away for free to low-income kids; I think it’s important to develop book-buying habits, and this teacher has found the way! When I asked if she encountered any resistance from the mainly black and Latino parents, she laughed. “One child was sent with $100!” Where there’s a will, there’s a way…
Speaking of ancestors, another luminary from the kidlit community has sadly passed on. Leo Dillon, illustrator extraordinaire and partner to fellow illustrator Diane Dillon, made his transition a few days ago. I got to meet the Dillons at the 2010 A Is for Anansi conference at NYU. His legacy will live on in all the breathtakingly beautiful images he created with his wife over his lifetime. Rest in peace…
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After my presentation up in Harlem this morning, the students actually begged their teacher for more homework—they wanted permission to read ahead in Ship of Souls! This class was selected by Behind the Book to receive copies of my novel, but they’d only read the first two chapters by the time I arrived today. Their teacher assigned the next few chapters, but the kids wanted to read up to Chapter 10 so they could find out what happened to D, Nyla, and Keem (I read from Chapter 9). By the time I finished my presentation, the kids were so excited I could barely hear myself think! And my voice was giving out…doing five school visits a week in addition to teaching my own courses is just too much, I think. On Thursday, by the time I got to my third and final class of the day, I actually taught sitting down. I never do that! It reduces the overall energy level of the class, but I was simply too tired to stand. I gave my students an in-class writing assignment and then graded some of their papers until it was time to reconvene. I don’t have the energy to teach public school—nor the patience. Last Monday I had a small class of about a dozen students, but two of the boys just wouldn’t stop talking—one even cursed while reciting a rap. I was waiting for their TWO teachers to rein the boys in, but it didn’t happen. If they’re disruptive again next Monday, I might ask for the students to be removed from the room. It’s not a long-term solution, but I’m only there for 40 minutes—I can’t help the kids who actually want to write poetry if the two that don’t are raising hell. Then today I was just starting my presentation when a boy raised his hand and asked to see the copy of BIRD I was holding in my hand. I gave it to him but asked that he not read it during my presentation. He ignored my request, of course, but I later learned from the teacher that that particular boy has *never* expressed interest in a book before. HE is the reluctant reader I’m hoping to reach with my writing. Maybe on Monday I better arrive at that other school armed with more copies of my books. If those two boys don’t want to write, maybe I can get them to read…
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Posted in African Canadian literature, Canada, Canadian writers, children's literature, education, libraries, middle grade novels, minority issues in publishing, multicultural literature, schools, speculative fiction, teachers, young adult novels on April 29, 2012 |
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Having a quiet morning in Toronto—as usual, it’s freezing outside but it IS sunny and I’ve been having a pretty great visit so far. I had to run through the airport to catch my flight on Thursday, but my cousin’s wedding was lovely and I got a chance to catch up with relatives I haven’t seen in a while. The next day I had a full-day visit at North Kipling Junior Middle School and it was absolutely fantastic—I gave six presentations to 18 classes, and had a pizza lunch in the library with 8 students and three educators. I even had three boys who shadowed me all day and solved any technical glitches that came up. I’m always a little anxious when I present before Canadian students because I’m never sure whether my presentation will resonate with them—I write about the US and I know NYC kids really well, but the kids in Toronto are different (only two students raised their hands when I asked who Coretta Scott King was). My first presentation was to a cafeteria filled with seven classes of 7th and 8th grade students. They were SO quiet, maybe even a little timid. I finished the presentation thinking that I’d bombed, but as I walked through the halls later, many of the students waved and smiled and said hello. One senior student in my lunch group said she had been really inspired by my talk, and the other classes were responsive and engaged. And the teachers! I always say that being around teachers feels like being around family; I was raised by two teachers and I’m an educator myself, and I have SO much respect for the men and women who get up every day with a mission to change kids’ lives. I met the district superintendent (who’s a big fan of BIRD) and she recalled sharing Ezra Jack Keats’ books with her own children when they were young because she wanted them to be exposed to children of color. The school principal is determined to integrate the curriculum instead of only inviting black authors during the month of February (YES!). And I owe the entire experience to the vice-principal, Ms. Reid, who “met” me online a couple of years ago and didn’t give up when her efforts to bring me into her previous school didn’t work out. ONE determined educator can make such a difference…
The audio edition of Ship of Souls will be released in May, and I’ve been given permission to share this photo of Benjamin L. Darcie—the man responsible for giving D, Nyla, and Hakeem a voice! I admit that I’m a little anxious—and jealous. I’m used to reading the book to kids myself and I’ve learned how to add certain dramatic flourishes to keep them on the edge of their seat. But Mr. Darcie is a professional actor, so I’m going to trust that he’s better able than I am to bring these characters to life. It would have been cool to hear actual teens reading the book, but maybe that’s a project teachers can develop in their classrooms. I still haven’t done a trailer for Ship of Souls, and goodness knows I’ve got enough on my plate already without taking that on, too. Yet spending the day in Etobicoke made me want to come “home” for a while—just for a few weeks so I can get to know these kids and then write a book just for them. A book set in *their* city, with a cast that reflects the incredible diversity of Toronto. I read Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos last week and would love to hear what other folks think of it. It’s great to finally have a spec fic novel for teens that’s set in contemporary Canada and features an all-black cast…
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The only good thing about waking at 4am this morning was finding this email from a former student in my Facebook inbox. You’ve probably heard about the teacher in Michigan who was fired for mobilizing her students around the Trayvon Martin case. Radical teaching—which is what we NEED to achieve social justice—should be celebrated, not punished. You can sign a petition and learn more here.
I know it’s been awhile, but I wanted to let you know that I am still following your work and to also, again, thank you for your inspiration and support in my scholastic endeavors. I am currently in my second semester at ___ State University and am in the process of getting my masters in the teaching of writing. I am currently interning for a class titled “Theory of Composition,” where we actually just attended a lecture given by Dr. Y. I wrote the following email to my professor, Dr. S, that I thought may be of interest to you and to also remind you, again, of the impact you’ve had on me as a learner/teacher. Having had some experience as a teacher working in foreign countries for the past three years, I know what it means to receive genuine and honest feedback; it is one of the many things that makes teaching so rewarding. So, I thought I’d send you a copy of the email I sent my professor to not only demonstrate the effect you had on me, but to also demonstrate how the messages we teach, when they are truly meaningful, can spread like wildfire to places or, in this instance, to classes you hadn’t imagined.
She then shared my blog with her professor so that their conversation about young adult lit can include a consideration of race and equity in publishing! Touched and very proud…
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