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…
Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
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!
I can still smell the sea. I’ve washed off the salt spray that was on my skin but I can still smell the Atlantic Ocean. I missed breakfast this morning; I napped from 9pm until midnight and then was wide awake until dawn. I slept for a couple of hours and then got myself ready for today’s tour. My guide, Mass, picked me up at 9:30 and we drove over to the nearby port to catch the ferry to Gorée Island. We sat up top and I worried that the ride might be as choppy as the ferry I take from St. Kitts to Nevis; Mass chose a seat at the very front of the boat, which meant we were facing everyone else. I felt rather conspicuous and noticed some folks were staring or sizing me up. Puking up my granola bar would not have impressed the locals, though a couple of women came and sat near me so they could remind me to stop by their shop once my tour was finished. Mass made a point of calling me “sister” and let me know that he would look out for me since I was Black (“I can tell by your nose,” he said before reminding me that the Fulani are fair, too). He became quite indignant when the vendors tried to take advantage—or when I refused to haggle. I know it’s tradition but I hate it and I’d much rather pay an artist a reasonable price for their work. Whether or not they see me as Black or a “sister,” I’m still in a privileged position so why bicker over money? That’s how the negotiation process feels to me and, as you know, I’m conflict averse…
Gorée is a small island with a long history—and it’s very beautiful, which I didn’t expect. Once the ferry pulled away from the dock Mass led me into the captain’s cabin—how nice to see a female first officer steering the ship! We sailed smoothly past brightly colored dugout canoes manned by lone fishermen and massive cargo ships from all over the world. Dakar is the largest port in (French?) West Africa, I believe Mass said, and I tried to imagine what the coast looked like 500 years ago when the main cargo was human beings. Just last night I received a finished illustration from the artist who’s working on my book The Magic Mirror. He has perfectly captured the terror of an enslaved girl being brought aboard a slave ship, shackled, separated from her family. I wrote that story in 2000, I think, when I was finished with coursework at graduate school and so ready to share my newfound knowledge of Black women’s history with the kids I tutored after school. How I wish more kids from the U.S. could visit Africa! Dakar is “glorious chaos”—so many contrasts, so much industry and energy and history. Modern buildings everywhere, stark white like in Miami. Impressive, newly paved highways with painted vans whizzing by—the back door open so that men can stand on the rear bumper! One of my purchases today was a tin can replica of these cars rapides (I still can’t post photos but the ones on the web are just as good). We drove all over the city and I could always look out the window and see the sea since Dakar is a peninsula. One moment I would be thinking about Nevis—whenever I saw the gorgeous bougainvillea or a flaming flamboyant tree—and the next minute I would think about Brooklyn and how the market in Dakar is like Fulton Mall or 125th St. on steroids. Diaspora, baby. So much continuity, no matter where we are…
Gorée came into view and I saw a row of stately palm trees, some decrepit buildings, and a sheer cliff that made escape from the island seem impossible. A round, stone fort was on one end of the island but once we passed it, the brightly colored French colonial buildings came into view. Boys swam alongside the pier in clear, blue water and Mass told me he used to do the same as a boy, calling out for tourists to throw coins he could retrieve. Mass is from Gorée and so he’s an expert on the island but also incredibly proud. And he should be—Mariama Bâ was also from Gorée and the island is home to a school named in her honor that only accepts the most academically gifted girls from throughout Senegal. The region’s first medical school and university were on the island, and though Christians are in the minority, a Christian was just elected to represent the 1800 residents. There are 16 different ethnic groups in Senegal but people intermarry and there’s no religious conflict, it seems. It’s Ramadan and I tried to be discreet whenever I took a sip of water from my bottle since Mass was abstaining from food and drink. A chapel on Gorée has been converted into a mosque and as we drove around the city I noticed men praying by the roadside under the shade of a tree.We also stopped at a modern, new cathedral that had four African angels over the front doors.
The Maison des Esclaves is much smaller than the castle at Elmina but built for the same purpose. Men, women, and children were separated and packed into windowless cells. Jeunes filles had their own holding area with a toilet—rapist slave traders wanted their prey to be clean(er). If the young women became pregnant, they were often moved to Saint-Louis, the colonial capital. You can see the Door of No Return at the end of the tunnel in this photo. Mass insisted on taking a photo of me in the doorway but it felt odd…I thought of Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx and the moments when photography seems inappropriate. They’ve had to build a retaining wall to prevent erosion so you no longer drop from the doorway into the sea. But it’s still powerful, standing on that threshold. I had imagined a scene with Nyla on Gorée but I’m not sure that works any longer. We stopped at the abandoned train station in Dakar as well, but it’s much smaller than I imagined. I haven’t started to write yet. It’s a bit much, taking in all this data…processing the experience as a person and as a writer. I could say more about Gorée but I think I’m done for today. It’s after midnight so I will turn in and see if I can sleep through the night…
When I return from Senegal I’ll have a few days to prepare for this fantastic panel at the 2014 Harlem Book Fair. The research I’m doing here in Dakar is for The Return, Book 3 in my “freaks & geeks” trilogy. But many of us (including Walter Dean Myers) have been writing about black geeks, blerds, black weirdos, and outsiders for years because we know that their particular perspective matters. I hope you’ll join us if you’re in the NYC area; all panelists will be selling and signing books afterward.
The Next Chapter: Black Geeks, Heroes, Heroines & Bullies in Middle Grade & Young Adult Books
2:10pm – 3:15pm
Countee Cullen Library/Conference Room B
Moderator: Nina Angela Mercer
Panelists: Zetta Elliott, Jerry Craft, DuEwa Frazier
Today’s young adult and middle grade market is saturated with stories of vampires, girl cliques, coming of age stories, and teenage redemption. But how do these stories include diverse characters written by authors of color who present themes for “alternate” groups of young readers, ie. Geeks, punks, nerds, sci-fi fans and the like? These diverse, award-winning authors write on a variety of themes which speak to the interests and backgrounds of today’s young readers. The authors will discuss issues in diversity within the children’s book market, how to reach struggling readers, including boy readers, and ways in which librarians and educators can develop programs of high interests for teen readers.
On Monday I had orientation for my summer job with BookUP NYC. Fellow author Sofia Quintero had been trying to bring me on board for some time, and it felt wonderful to walk into the National Book Foundation offices and immediately see familiar faces: Eisa Ulen, Daniel José Older, and I got a big hug from Elisha Miranda. Everyone was warm and friendly, and eager to provide tips to those of us who are new to the program. I’ll be working with 20 middle school students in Jackson Heights; I taught in Queens years ago and loved it so I’m hopeful about this new gig. And who wouldn’t want to get young readers excited about books? After orientation ended I walked over to campus and packed some personal items from my office. My hard drive is being wiped so I ensured I had all the files I needed and then I made a mental note of the number of boxes I’ll need to ship all my books back to Brooklyn. From campus I walked to the bank and deposited a check from a Canadian school that ordered my new books. Earlier in the day I spoke with a publisher who wants to acquire one of my picture book manuscripts; it’s tight, but I’m hoping we can get this book out for Spring 2015. I’m also working with a talented illustrator, Bek Millhouse, on another picture book that I plan to publish at summer’s end. Over the course of that one day I felt myself transitioning into my “new” life. The professor hat is coming off…
The next day I packed and went to the airport, ready to shift from the familiar to the unfamiliar. I’ve been anxious about this trip because I’ve never traveled to Africa on my own; my limited French made it hard to do preliminary research and I worried I had too many days and too few plans. Yet when I reached the gate at JFK, I was immediately struck by the number of children traveling with their parents—an observation I also made when traveling to Nevis for the past few summers. That, of course, made me think of my father and his refusal to take any of his kids “back home.” I see Keem’s relationship with his emotionally distant father being central to this new novel, and I think I’ll wind up using all the details of my flight to plot the first chapter of The Return. It was interesting to see some children dressed in their best clothes—suits for the littlest boys and frothy dresses for the girls. Others girls wore sequined head scarves and the older kids wore the stylish clothes of typical American teenagers. Two men removed their shoes and prayed on the carpet in a less crowded corner of the waiting area. I kept wondering what Keem would make of the scene. He’s 17, heading to Senegal for the first time. Would he feel like he belonged? Or would he experience the envy I always feel when I see small children “going home” with their parents? I was also struck by the Black woman working behind the desk at the gate; she seemed annoyed and managed to remain professional but clearly didn’t have much respect for the lively crowd waiting to board the plane. I found myself wondering if she was African American and what opinions of Africans she might hold. The shrieking toddler seated behind me on the plane had surprising stamina for a late night flight but she finally fell asleep and when the plane landed this morning, the first thing I saw out the window was a large sculpture on a distant hill. The feminist critique of the statue by Senegalese scholars is interesting and I don’t think I need a closer view. So far today I’ve booked a tour guide for tomorrow, changed some dollars into francs, and paid a hotel clerk for getting me an adapter for the electrical outlet. I forgot my camera so I’ve been snapping shots on my phone but I have no internet connection on it so I can’t share photos while I’m here (I pulled these off the web). Tomorrow’s my tour and on Friday morning I meet two women who work for Tostan, a progressive community development organization that also works to end female genital cutting. This afternoon I took a short nap and elevated my feet since my ankles are swollen; I think room service is next, a couple hours of writing, and then an early bedtime. There’s a nice patio but it’s really humid outside and that just makes me even more drowsy. This trip was made possible by a grant from my college—quite a generous parting gift! I’m an anxious traveler but I realize there’s really no need to fear the unfamiliar because if you take a moment and look around, you’ll probably find it’s more familiar than you first thought…
On Monday I woke up and accepted the fact that I was not going to lose weight before my appointment with a professional photographer the next day. I’d been thinking about this moment for weeks—in order to “look like an author,” I knew I had to have the right outfit. I generally have a school marm sense of style (when I’m not wearing a big t-shirt and stretchy pants at home) but to be a “funky artist” I knew I needed to put more effort into styling my hair and I felt I ought to wear makeup and so I bought an almost red lip pencil (for $2.99!) because I can’t bring myself to wear lipstick. Tuesday was a muggy day so I thought about bringing my powder to the botanic garden to avoid unsightly T-zone shine, and I took a blazer because—despite the heat—I thought I might need to conceal my flabby arms. But in the end I finally surrendered and stopped trying to hide who I am. I don’t generally wear makeup; I don’t actually know how to put it on and I don’t really want to learn. I’m about ten pounds overweight and have been for a few years now. I’m not stylish and just happened to find a not-too-frilly dress at H&M while running errands the day before the shoot. Valerie was such a pro—she started taking photos right away to gauge the light and get the right lens. And when I started freaking out about my hair (which was crazily uneven because I cut it myself) she assured me that I looked fine. By the time we had walked around the botanic garden, stopping to take shots in various places, I’d forgotten about all my flaws. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I’d stopped obsessing over them. Yesterday Valerie sent me 70 beautiful photos and of those I narrowed it down to about a dozen that I feel best represent who I am. I asked friends to weigh in on Facebook and my new Bio photo got the most votes. It’s not my favorite, but when my friends look at that photo they recognize me and that matters. I’m pretty sure I’ll use all of these photos for different projects. The one above feels most like a mirror and brings to mind Zora’s famous words: “I love myself when I am laughing…” I try to be a role model for young people—especially girls—so part of me hates to have so many insecurities. But being insecure and slightly neurotic IS who I am…it’s part of being human and it’s part of my artist identity. This is what THIS author looks (and acts) like!