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In May I had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Magazine associate editor Jessica Stites while she was visiting NYC. While strolling through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, we tried to think of ways we could collaborate around the issue of equity in publishing. A conversation with veteran author Jacqueline Woodson was one of our ideas, and I’m happy to share this link to the interview on the Ms. blog (“Writing Children’s Books While Black and Feminist”). Here on my own blog I’ve decided to post the unedited transcript in two parts; you can also find video footage of our hour-long talk on YouTube. Enjoy!

ZE: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start with your early influences. Scholar Rudine Sims Bishop has argued that, “readers often seek their mirrors in books.” She also suggests that books can serve as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” As a child, what books offered you a reflection of yourself, and which ones opened up another world for you?

JW: That’s a good question. I don’t know the sliding glass door reference. I know about the mirror…

ZE: The sliding glass door often gets left out of it.

JW: Interesting.

ZE: So the window, obviously, is that you can look into someone else’s world, but to me that’s voyeurism. So I love that she suggests you can open that sliding glass door and enter that world and kind of exist as an equal with other kinds of people.

JW: Yeah, that’s important. I’m glad that’s in there. I think that looking back on it, now that I’m past my angry thirties of [having] no mirrors, I feel like I was able to make the journey of kind of finding myself in any book. Because that was all I had. So I would read something like Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret and I was flat-chested like Margaret so—ok, this was where we kind of met each other. And the books that really kind of opened doors for me—one book that in retrospect made me gasp was Stevie by John Steptoe. Just the fact that they talked like I did, they were brown like I was brown. They lived in the city, it looked like they lived in the apartment in the illustrations. And everything just made me say, “Whoa, I know these people!” And Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry just ‘cause my family was from the South and I think that’s a book that I’ve read so many times and each time I read it, it never gets old. I mean, I’ve revisited some of the books from my childhood and some of them feel real different than when I was reading them as a kid, but that one has held up. Zeely was one of the first books I read that was by an African American about African American people. Sounder to this day still makes me angry.

ZE: Reading it?

JW: Yeah. It’s a room I’ll walk out of.

ZE: Did you also see the film when you were a kid?

JW: I saw the film and I actually loved the film but the book was just—ugh.

ZE: What made you angry about it?

JW: It was supposed to be my people and it wasn’t and I couldn’t tell how it wasn’t. So I felt like, almost kind of like I wasn’t, like something almost was wrong with me. Because if this is supposed to be who we are and this is so different from who I am and who I know, then how am I legitimate? And you know, as an adult I realized that no one had a name except the dog. They were supposed to be Southerners but they never touched each other, and you know Southerners are always hugging and kissing and saying, “Look how you’ve grown!” And remarking on things you don’t want them to remark on.

ZE: They were a sharecropping family, weren’t they?

JW: They were sharecroppers, they were poor and sad. So this writer, who was not African American, could not get inside their story. I don’t know what his connection was. I think in the forward he talks about someone telling him that story, like an old black man telling him the story of that family. But the fact that he could create a story where he couldn’t see any hope or happiness in it…and again, I didn’t know this when I was a kid. I just knew this book made me really angry. Later on, of course, I came to—I remember If Beale Street Could Talk when I was in the 7th grade maybe. Tish and Fonny, and they lived in Harlem or somewhere in the city and it was such a loving love story. I also remember reading The Bluest Eye when I was a kid.

ZE: You talked before about your “angry thirties.” I don’t detect rage in your writing; I actually see a lot of grace. Where did that rage come from and where did it go?

JW: That’s a really good question. I think the rage was more in my life. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I really started thinking about the disparity between race and economic class, and all of those ways in which the world just wasn’t working. I think that’s when I started coming into more of a sense of myself as an outsider. And as a kid I felt it all the time because I was a Jehovah’s Witness and you know, my family was kind of different from other families on the block. But in terms of my growing consciousness of who I was and how I fit into the greater scheme of things, it was kind of shocking to realize that no, I wasn’t part of this privileged majority that had an education before college and that really had a lot of privilege and with it, entitlement. And I kind of had to learn about my right to be here. And that was through a lot of anger and then acceptance—not of that world as it was, but of the fact that yeah, I do have a right to be here and I do have something to say and I am as smart as and sometimes smarter than people who’ve been well educated or are able to pay for a lot of education. So that was definitely a period of growing, and growing through that anger, and I think the way the grace came through in the writing was it was cathartic for me. I think there were probably drafts that were angrier than other drafts and I realized I’m not going to be heard through the rage, I’ll be heard through the love. And it’s kind of what began to inform all of my life, including my writing. If that makes sense.

ZE: That makes a lot of sense, and it’s something I could probably learn from since I’m still in my angry thirties! You’re the parent of two children. In 2011, how easy is it for your children to find their “mirrors” in books? Has motherhood changed the way you write? I know you took your daughter to a literary festival not long ago, which I think is great, and I’d love to know how that went.

JW: Oh, goodness. One thing motherhood has done is it’s given me even more of a sense of urgency in terms of what’s at stake. What’s at stake for how my children will see themselves in the world. I think before I was a parent I thought about it in terms of the child and children, but I didn’t have a real personal connection to it except the connection that was me as a child and wanting what I didn’t have as a child in the literature that I created. And wanting that for other children. Then once I had my children and seeing that they needed something [got me] really thinking more deeply and urgently. My daughter does not read my books. She says, “I’m not a fan.” And maybe one day she will.

ZE: You’re kidding!

JW: Yeah, she says she likes funny stuff. I’m not that funny. But my son reads or will let us read the picture books to him. We were at Putnam yesterday and they have posters of all the Caldecott and Newbery and Coretta Scott King winners and every time he came across one of my books he’d say, “I wrote that one Mommy.” He’ll also say he wrote Make Way for Ducklings. It’s hysterical. But it definitely brought that sense of urgency to me. And I think I got funnier because my kids make me laugh so much. I never had that censor flag that I think some young writers have—you know, this is going to embarrass my family or make my parents mad at me. But I think now, with children, I do think if Toshi reads this in ten years, how is this going to make her feel or what is she going to think about me, and where I was in this place and it definitely informs how I’m writing stuff. When I was writing Beneath the Meth Moon, the new YA book about a girl addicted to meth, in terms of thinking about a young person addicted to drugs and Toshi coming to this book when she’s 14 and thinking, “How does Mom know so much about this?” but also having that experience of that world in a way that hopefully scares her away from drugs but also makes her think about the bigger world and the greater good in a way that hopefully writing does for all people. But it is a tighter personal connection in terms of thinking about how my kids come to my writing.

ZE: I notice that in a lot of your books you represent alternately configured families and we just had the Marriage Equality Act passed here in NY state. How hard is it for you to sell stories that show children who have alternate realities?

JW: I love the way you put that—“alternate realities.” It hasn’t been a huge struggle in that way. I haven’t really done the two mom/two dad thing, so I haven’t kind of pushed that boundary. I think mainly because that story hasn’t come to me yet in a way to tell it that’s—when I think of a two-mom or two-dad family, I’m thinking, “This is the first thing I’m thinking about—this kid has two moms or two dads.” And that’s not the story. Kids don’t care about that. So I’m constantly trying to think about what the deeper story is in there. Because I think novels do fail when they try to push the issue somehow, when they try to be didactic. And I never want to do that. But I do want to write about people who haven’t historically been seen in literature and I think publishers are open to that as long as they like the writing. So when I put a single mom on the page, when I put a girl being raised by her grandma on the page, when I put a dad who’s incarcerated on the page, when I put familial or regular foster care on the page, I have a sense of the deeper story. I was raised by my mom and grandma, so I know all the stories around that and not just, “I live with my grandma and here’s that story.” I think because the stories are multilayered the family can exist in the fiction in a way that is, of course, “universal,” meaning other people will read it and like it and publishers will buy it. But I have had letters from The Notebooks of Melanin Sun—the first time I put a queer mom on the page people were upset about that.

ZE: Really?

JW: Yeah, I think part of it was that it was the ’90s and the Christian right was really starting to skyrocket and it was published by Scholastic, which was a mistake in itself. You can’t really do stuff at a conservative publisher and expect it to have the kind of life it would at a place that’s more comfortable dealing with stuff like that. So again, I try not to think about any issue in the book. To me the families are families and this is what families are. To me, the mom/dad family is an alternative to my family. And so few of them exist, even on our block. That it’s kind of like, when you see that it’s like, “Wow—they’re still together? Wow—that person’s being raised by a mom and dad.”

ZE: I would love to know what you think about the Iowa marriage pledge signed by some Republicans. Have you heard about that? It has a clause that claims African American children were more likely to be raised in a two-parent family under slavery than since President Obama was elected in 2008.

JW: Oh, man. Well, [those] Republicans don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so ridiculous because in ten years, of course, they’re going to realize that that wasn’t the case. When you read something like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. In it she talks about how all the statistics at that time showed that people who were part of the Negro migration were more inclined to have children out of wedlock, to be less educated and less employed. And then twenty years later they did another study and realized that those same people were more inclined to have families that were “intact” and have higher education and have two or three jobs, who had come here with that idea of working and having a family and creating a better life. So when Republicans say that about African Americans I just have to roll my eyes, and say, “Ok, whatever you need to say about us right now to make you feel stronger, you can have it if that’s all you have.” When I took Toshi with me to Virginia for the conference, I made her listen to The Warmth of Other Suns on the way down and back up. She was like, “This is so boring.” Chris Myers is doing a video and asking kids what does it mean to be American?

ZE: For the book he did with his dad [We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart].

JW: Right. So he’s having this blog with videos on it. And I interviewed Toshi out here and she was like, “Whatever. I live in Brooklyn, I’m in Park Slope. It’s America.” And I said, “Come on, honey, you can be deeper than this.” And she said, “What? America is America.” So I said, “What does it mean to be African American?” And she said, “Well, you know, I was listening to this book with you, The Warmth of Other Suns, and I know that black people did a lot of good stuff, like we built this country. And if it wasn’t for African Americans we wouldn’t have Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson.” And I said, “Ok, how about some non-celebrities, like the president?” And she said, “Yeah, we wouldn’t even have Obama and I realize I could be president!” And that’s so interesting because I don’t think she can be president, you know, I’m not there yet—thinking a black woman could! I’m still at the point of thinking, “Wow, we have a black man as president.” But she couldn’t attach unless it was African American. “American” meant nothing to her.

ZE: You have written more than 30 books about an incredibly wide range of experiences, including foster care, teen pregnancy, witness protection programs, police brutality, and racial ambiguity, and incarceration. I notice that many of your characters move from isolation/alienation to a place of belonging. How do you develop ideas for your books, and is there a particular overarching message you want to send young readers?

JW: It’s interesting that you say they move from isolation to belonging because that’s kind of what I did in my thirties. And so I think I’m telling that story again and again in different ways and constantly figuring it out maybe just a little more deeply than the last time. Basically I start with the character, the characters have always come to me first and then I figure out what it is they want and how they’re going to get it. I feel like so much of my life is trying to figure out what they want. Asking myself all of these questions: who is this person? Where do they live? What do they look like? What are the paradoxes in their lives? In terms of a message, I never know what a book is about until someone says to me, “I read your book about blah blah blah” and I’m like, “Oh, ok, that’s what it’s about?” I feel I’m so far removed, I’m very much in the process of writing but it’s almost like being in a zone, really. And then with the characters and their world and by creating their world I walk deeper into their world and start seeing it clearer and clearer with each revision. Then as the characters get more clarity and the book starts moving along and then is finally finished, when I stand back I know I’ve written these characters and told this story but I really never know what the story’s trying to say, really, until I read the good reviews because I don’t read the bad ones.

ZE: I don’t think there are any, Jackie!

JW: I beg to differ! I don’t think I have a message aside from what I believe myself, which is that we all have a right to be here, and trying to show the many ways that people can be here and be whole. Which is what I’m constantly trying to reinforce in myself and my kids and the community. So if someone said, “Why do I write?” I think because this is the power I have, this is what I know how to do to feel powerful and to make others feel powerful.

ZE: If someone said your characters make African Americans seem noble, how would you respond?

JW: We are noble!

ZE: Some of us—some of the time!

JW: I think the fact that we’re even here and standing is amazing. Given how we got to this country. You know, in the words of Audre Lorde, “We were never meant to survive.”

ZE: “Not as human beings.”

JW: Yeah! To go from dehumanization to humanization to creating change—or not creating change. But I think it’s a miracle for a lot of people to be walking through the world given what their lives have been. But when I look at our people—not just African Americans but Caribbean Americans. Black people in this country did not come here easily, no matter how they got here. And even when you look at something like income versus wealth, and how people have been able to raise families and send their kids to college and even buy a home. We did not get 40 acres and a mule—some did, but a lot didn’t, it’s bootstraps. I always talk about, especially a lot of people in Park Slope, there is always some hidden money somewhere. Suddenly somebody has a down payment on a house…

ZE: That’s wealth.

JW: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. And for the most part we don’t have wealth. We have income and maybe we have one generation of wealth. What we have is the wealth of our history and the wealth of our survival. The fact that when all else fails, this is what we can come back to. And it helps me when I’m writing a book—I’m writing the 30th book and I’m still like, “I don’t think I can do this.”

ZE: Really?

JW: Yeah! I’m sorry, it never goes away. That’s one of the big bummers about writing. I tend to think, “That was a fluke,” or “I knew I was able to do it for that one but can I do it for this?” And also because the stories, going from Christianity in Feathers to race and identity politics to meth in a Midwestern white community…

ZE: Do you do that on purpose? Do you push yourself into areas that make you feel insecure maybe?

JW: Well, Dr. Zetta…I just get bored! I don’t want to revisit the same places because I don’t think I have any more stories to tell there. So that’s also why it’s hard to write sequels. Because it’s like, “I’ve done that!”

ZE: Oh yes…

JW: Are you in the middle of sequel writing?

ZE: I’m in the middle of two sequels. And I just read Behind You, which you kindly gave me, thank you. And I thought, “She called it a companion book.” And I remembered having a conversation with another author who said, “Stop calling it a sequel. Call it a companion book because then it can exist on its own. And you don’t have to fuss and worry about continuity.” But it has to stand on its own in terms of dramatic action and that I struggle with a lot.

JW: But you know, from one book to the other they want different things.

ZE: The characters want different things, but readers have expectations from the first book.

JW: Yeah, that’s true.

ZE: “Is she going to end up with so-and-so? And I know you didn’t make her do that!” And I just think, let me just finish the book before anyone else says anything.

JW: It’s true. I tend not to talk about it until I’m way deep in it and have a sense of where it’s going.

[Part 2 of this interview will be posted tomorrow, but you can watch the entire interview now on You Tube.]

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This week has been *challenging*! Melanie Hope Greenberg, who reads tarot cards professionally when she’s not illustrating picture books (contact her at melaniehopegreenberg at yahoo dot com), explains that today is a new moon eclipse, which can create some instability. I was really looking forward to interviewing Jacqueline Woodson today, and since I’m an anxiety freak, I made sure I had everything prepared in advance—I charged my Flip camera, brought my digital camera to take some stills, and had my questions all typed up. Got to her lovely home and within FIVE MINUTES the Flip died. Even though it said I had 2 hours worth of memory space. Grrr…I tried filming with my digital camera, but had never done that before and worried it, too, would die after five or ten minutes. Jackie was her usual gracious self, and agreed to reschedule before sending me home with new books to read. Of course, I plugged my Flip in as soon as I got home and decided to make a short film just to be sure the camera works. UPS delivered three packages from my uncle in Winnipeg containing family heirlooms—I won’t bore you with the footage of me tearing open the boxes, but this is a still of my great-great-aunt’s painting; she studied at an art academy as a young woman and this painting used to hang in my grandparent’s house. I remember the swans…I’m assuming she “passed” for white while in Toronto; no one would have known she was a Negro woman, and had she been brown-skinned, she likely would have been barred from the school. Now have photos of her painting at her easel, and a beautiful portrait taken in a professional studio. Will try to regroup this weekend so I’m ready for whatever’s in the stars for next week…

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Be sure you stop by Multiculturalism Rocks! because Nathalie’s got a great interview with Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays. Father’s Day is fast approaching, and you won’t want to miss this thoughtful piece about absent fathers, substitutes, and the role of comic books in this author’s life. Then swing by Crazy Quilts to hear about a brand new comic book—Static—that Edi discovered. I just watched X-Men 3 a few days ago (my favorite in the franchise) and wondered why all the PoC mutants were homeless/punk/bad guys while all the bright-eyed students at Xavier’s prep school were white…

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Roots & Blues, Part 2! It’s been a long time coming, but I guarantee you this interview with illustrator R. Gregory Christie is worth the wait! If you missed Part 1 of this series, do take time to read poet Arnold Adoff’s thoughtful responses regarding the inspiration for his latest book of poetry.

ZE: It has been argued that “trauma resists representation.” How did you approach the illustrations depicting the horrors of the Middle Passage? As a children’s book illustrator are you expected to make every subject “beautiful”?

It’s all about nuances and the experience a painter has gained in order to shout things softly to his audience. The metaphorical poems in Roots and Blues masterfully intermixed historical names and events into a continuous flow. I feel that the words have a similar sentiment to Blues music, by the way the atrocities and triumphs are a continuous poetic flow.  To paraphrase Tom Feelings, any subject matter can be presented to people of all ages, one has only to hear the blues to know something horrible can be told in a beautiful way.

I also believe that if you present a trauma with a melody, metaphorical words, or with attractively arranged pigments you can at least get the public’s attention, but it’s the artist’s experience and ability to use nuance that will get people to care. If done carefully, I believe that the art will be embraced as something beautiful, at least for some of the people. The poems from Roots and Blues mimicked the essence of the Blues and the history of brown folks’ “American” journey. So I, in turn, mimicked Arnold’s words in a visual form, which I suppose is the purpose of an illustration.

The visuals are muted grays and blues that I hope are in tandem with the dull pain to those words that were intermixed with pockets of joy. This is the first time I used a glazing technique for an entire book. I chose to knock the colors down a bit, kind of a bluish gray pallor cast over what was once vibrant colors. I was able to wipe away and rebuild certain places in the painting so that the glaze would in fact brighten certain areas within the images. This was done to have pockets of vibrant colors in cool and distant images.

Yes, I’m often expected to make my art beautiful (if not cute) but I tip the balance towards images that will challenge our children. Foremost I paint for myself and do this with the hope that other people will “get it.” I keep it fun and interesting but also honor myself as an artist.

ZE: In the blues tradition there’s a fine line between ecstasy and agony; talk about your strategies for capturing both emotions in your illustrations.

I am all about balance, in my life and in my art. The artwork for this book was my best attempt to capture Arnold’s flow of opposites, colorful moments as a contrast within a long, painful journey.

He has an ability to give historical facts, capture the emotion of the times, and barrage my mind with a stream of visuals. Nothing was sugarcoated in the writing; perhaps that would be a disservice to the people that went through that pain and to the young people that need to be prepared for the world’s realities. It seems to me that Arnold danced between these two conflicting emotions all the time (ecstasy and agony) while not being too nostalgic. The poems and the times they comment upon are raw. He put himself out there as an artist and I wanted to keep up with him visually.

But Poetry is one of the most difficult things to illustrate for me, because you have to be decisive when interpreting the meaning of a series of meanings. I always think that such a work can be read so many different ways and too quick of a decision towards the meaning can kill the audience’s growth. On the other hand, indecision in the illustrator can often produce a visual incongruity. In illustration I think the major point is to be able to process the mix into an interesting visual summation. Poetry seems to be a mix within a mix, an art form capable of having many tentacles. I think that it takes a delicate heart and advanced mind to embrace something that can be so mercurial, definitively stated and so personal to the reader. I feel as though such a listener wants to create his own relationship to those words, so being told what’s definitive as the meaning (visually) can come off as a killjoy.

I respected his art by approaching the series of poems as one steam of ideas. In some cases I focused on the idea of something literal…a piano player or image of a jook joint etc., and other times I attempted to comment on the spiritual side of things. One of the first pieces shows three figures connecting with land and water; eyes are closed and bodies contorted.  On one hand, it would have been easy to define the words near it as a piano player image, but I took the harder road and commented on the metaphorical aspect. I wanted to introduce the reader to the origins of it all: the respect for the land and the process of life, it’s circular direction between death and life. We come from the earth only to go back within it, so this first painting is about impossibilities and how something that doesn’t make sense sometimes has an order to it. Time must pass in order to sometimes understand that disorder. The land, people and gestures are my way of introducing the readers to what they might expect for the other parts of this book. To expect that the impossible will make sense and to take the subject matter with solemnity and inspiration. I had to pace myself and pace the imagery for the book. At times you will see the agony in the lack of facial expressions—simply eyes closed or the gesture of the hands and body—and other times the figures will be directly looking at you, engaging you as the viewer. It’s art that shows itself but invites you to find your own meaning based upon your own life experiences and whatever you can project into the historical and artistic experience.

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I know I spend a lot of time moaning about my time in Canada, but there are *many* black people who chose to tough it out and managed to excel in their chosen fields.  Who’s Who in Black Canada is a fantastic project that highlights the contributions of African Canadians, and today they’ve put the spotlight on me!  You can see my complete profile here, and this is an example of the questions they ask:

Favourite book? It’s impossible to pick just one, but Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day was important for me; it was the first book I read as a child that featured a Black protagonist, and Keats’ books continue to inform my scholarship on multicultural children’s literature.

Favourite quote? “Bear but a touch of my hand and you shall be upheld in more than this.” – from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Given the chance, what would you love to do that you haven’t done yet? Publish books for children IN Canada! I’m working on developing a conference to discuss the lack of diversity in Canada’s publishing industry.

Colleagues at York University have since taken on that conference, so all I have to do now is find a Canadian press willing to give my work a chance…

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I’m so pleased to share this interview with you!  Arnold Adoff has been a friend and mentor to me for some time now, and we can all benefit from his wisdom, insight, and experience in the publishing industry.  Stay tuned because illustrator R. Greg Christie will be featured soon.  Arnold’s words and Greg’s images are perfectly paired in this beautiful book—a wonderful gift for a child, teen, or adult.

I once had another children’s book author mock the reference to Charlie Parker in my picture book, Bird.  His point was that kids listen to hip hop, not jazz.  Talk about your decision to write about the blues—a musical genre, a time, and place (the rural South) seemingly far removed from today’s youth.

the blues is the foundation stone for all of our “popular” music(s)….
and think of that solid rock so powerful it can propel into the air and float and spin
through decades and geographies:
from robert johnson and itta bena, mississippi …
to nina simone and tupak and (even) the beatles….
this is always known and always understood….

what
is more difficult to discern…to have registered on developing sensibilities…
is that sense of history…the movements from the rural south(s) to the town and cities
of the north…
(and my riff on the george santaya philosophical line: those who not study their histories
are inevitably doomed to repeat and repeat the mistakes (and meaningless
mediocrities) which weaken into self-destruction and marginalization….)

a people grows and moves and reaches beyond itself/selves
in all forms of communication…all forms of art….
if we are aware…if we teach our young…
if we remain rooted in this moment and are able
to also trace backwards….

all the trails remain:
from baraka to langston backwards to blues….
from clapton to big joe turner and backwards…to blues….
from malcolm and martin backwards to garvey and tubman to blues….
from fifty cents to muddy waters to bessie smith to the blues….

these geographies should be part of required curriculum in every school (black and white and
in-between….)

and yes, it is always a continuing struggle…to go backwards when vast media machines
pull us forward into something new to buy….
so blues and jazz always require the active energies of one generation onto/into the next….

the blues lifts the listeners and heightens feelings and thought(s)
and
the blues is a s u r v i v a l  music…a tool…a weapon of self and self love(s)….

Technology is changing the way many people write.  As a poet, tell me what you think of Twitter and other platforms that require concise communication.  Is this a promising moment for poetry?
my thumbs are too old to (even) text…let alone tweet….but i remain open to all forms
of communication from all generations of readers and listeners and friends….
personally: i have been poeting “seriously” since around 1946…and the math tells me
thats almost 65 years…or loving language and respecting the music as well as the meaning of the language made into the pieces of poems and “poet’s prose….” i work out an idiosyncratic “shaped colloquial
speech” style which requires the space and spaces on a page…to mean something…and to sing….

this is a time of wonderful poetry… and performing crap…as in all  art forms…and in all times….
marketing and promotion and self-promotion strategies like facebook and twitter do what they were designed to do….barely communicating the bare bones of thought or piece of information…all the juice of language removed…the nuances…the conflicting and parallel meanings….
and in the end…there is only convenience…a taco in the car…moving forward again…but to w h e r e….

and in my darker moments…i can’t help wondering what will be left of the tree when the bark (and bite) is gone…and the juice is gone…and shaving down humane human communication to its thinnest
stalk…leaves only the vulnerabilities….
be controlled or be destroyed….

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Good morning!  Spring is on its way, and there are new books sprouting from the minds of creative, persistent people!  Meet Karen Simpson and learn more about her debut novel, Act of Grace.  Welcome, Karen!

First I would like to say thank you Zetta for this opportunity to talk about my novel. I truly appreciate it.
In some ways, this is an exciting time to be an emerging author. Can you give us your take on the publishing industry and your path to publication?

It has been a long, interesting journey. I had considered myself a writer since I was twelve, but I didn’t get serious until about ten years ago when I started Act of Grace. In some ways I’m glad I’ve arrived now because the past ten years weren’t particularly great for writers of color seeking a foothold at traditional publishing houses. Now e-publishing and social media have, in some ways, leveled the playing field for all writers who want to get their work into readers’ hands. Strong small presses are springing up and self-publishing has become a more viable option. I find it heartening that a very small press published this year’s National Book Award Winner in Fiction. I’m happy I’m being published and championed by Plenary Publishing, a small multicultural press that has an exciting vision for the future of African American fiction.

Tell us about Act of Grace. Why did you choose to represent racial violence in the north?

Act of Grace is the story of Grace Johnson, a bright, perceptive African American high school senior who saves the life of a Klansman named Jonathan Gilmore. Everyone in her hometown of Vigilant, Michigan wants to know why. Few people, black or white, understand her act of sacrifice especially since rumor holds that years ago a member of the Gilmore family murdered several African-Americans, including Grace’s father. Grace wants to remain silent on the matter but Ancestor spirits emerge in visions and insist she fulfill her shamanic duties by bearing witness to her town’s violent racial history so that all involved might transcend it.

Grace begins a journal, but she warns readers upfront that if they are looking for a simple or rational explanation for her actions then they need to look elsewhere. She knows that her accounts of her ability to speak to the dead, along with her connections to a trickster spirit name Oba, will be hard for most people to believe. With insight shaped by the wisdom found in African American mythology and the book, The Velveteen Rabbit, Grace recounts a story of eye-for-an-eye vengeance that has blinded entire generations in her hometown.

Grace is loosely based on a violent incident that erupted during a Klan rally held in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan some 15 years ago. Ann Arbor is a very liberal and diverse town and yet the Klan showed up and a near riot broke out. Northerners tend to want to believe that overt racism and intolerance are just southern problems. However, these problems were and still are deeply woven into the fabric of the rest of the nation. Lynchings, racial cleansing of towns, as well as overt and covert racism were also a part of northern life and history. The numbers of hate groups are increasing all over our nation, not just in the south. For example, my own home state of Michigan is ranked about fifth on the Southern Poverty Law Center list for numbers of hate groups. If we were to ask most people I don’t think they wouldn’t place Michigan that high because it’s in the north, but the facts speak for themselves.

My students and I are currently considering the legacy of slavery and the potential for redemption through storytelling/testifying. What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?

Ah…there is great power in testifying. In my novel, Grace is told by the ancestors that she must write about why she saved Johnston Gilmore’s life. She doesn’t want to say anything about her experience but she is made to speak because the ancestors know that only by relating her story can she and others heal.

I write speculative fiction, in part, because it offers innovative avenues for looking at the world’s problems. It is my hope that my novel Act of Grace leaves readers thinking about justice, community, tolerance, love, family, struggle, and healing in new and different ways. I also hope my novel will enable readers to have more honest and hope-filled conversations about these universal issues.

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