I’ve spent the holidays alone but when I’m writing, it feels like my characters are with me all the time. Last night, just before 2011 began, I passed the 11,000-word mark on Ship of Souls. I’d like to reach 15K by the end of the weekend, but find I’m focusing on continuity today instead of pushing forward. I want the story to unfold within 4 or 5 days, and that means something major happens every single day. And because one of my characters is Muslim, I have to make sure I’ve got my facts straight—what would a Muslim student do if he was unable to pray while at school? You probably follow Amy Bodden Bowllan’s SLJ blog; yesterday she honored me by putting my name alongside the legendary Virginia Hamilton and the soon-to-be-legendary teen blogger Ari. Like so many others, we use our words to create change within the field of children’s literature. I recently learned that my paper was accepted for the Diversity Panel at the ChLA conference this summer; organized by Thomas Crisp and Sarah Park, the panel will feature papers by Uma Krishnaswami, June Cummins, and Abbie Ventura. Our topic is “resisting Americanization,” and my paper will also address the pressure to gather all blacks in the US under an umbrella of “generic blackness” that’s really dominated and defined by African Americans. What happens if you’re from the Caribbean, Africa, or somewhere else in the world? Are you “still black” or must you first strip away or suppress the specific ethnic differences that mark you as a member of the diaspora? I really admire Virginia Hamilton’s mission to widen the range of African Americans represented in children’s literature; her characters are urban and rural, from the northeast, the midwest, and the South, and their genealogies are complex. She had an extraordinary imagination, and I often worry that space no longer exists in the publishing industry for black characters who don’t “fit the mold.” My characters are citizens and immigrants to the US; they have a range of religious beliefs, different sexual orientations, and competing visions of the future. D is a smart kid who’s been told he’s not black enough; when his mother dies, he’s taken in by a white foster mother and wonders if he really is losing his racial identity. You already know about Nyla; here’s a glimpse of Hakeem who’s being tutored by D.
“I guess it’s good to have a back-up plan in case you get injured or something.”
Keem nods, then surprises me by saying, “People think basketball’s my world, but…I got other skills.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
Keem fidgets a bit and looks around before answering. “I cook.”
“Food?” I ask like a moron.
“What else?” Keem replies. “My dad—he’s from Senegal. But my mom—she’s Syrian. So in our house there’s lots of different spices and different ways of preparing food.”
“What?” Keem glares at me like I’ve just said “fooey.”
“Fusion,” I explain. “That’s what they call food that blends different traditions.” Mom used to take me to this Ethiopian-Cuban place in the city. That was the best food I ever had! But I don’t want to think about Mom right now. I don’t need to start blubbering in front of this jock.
“Oh, I get it.” Keem relaxes and starts doodling on a blank page in his notebook. “Well, I figure if ballin’ doesn’t work out, I could always open my own restaurant and serve all different kinds of food—maybe soul food but with a twist.”
“You’re making me hungry,” I say with a grin. Keem almost laughs and we turn our attention back to his test.
To my surprise, it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. “Half of these answers are almost right, you know.”
Keem frowns. “You don’t get points for being ‘almost’ right.”
“I know. But see this problem? You got 90% of it right. It’s just the last step you messed up. I can teach you that in, like, five minutes. If you’d solved these four problems, your grade would have been a B instead of a D.”
Keem stares at the red X marks on his test. “For real?”
This is my moment to shine. “For real. Here—let me show you a little trick I learned in Math Club.”
When our hour is up, Keem shoves his books into his bag and slaps a ten-dollar bill on the table. “Thanks,” he says before getting up and heaving the bag onto his back. “See you on Thursday.”
“Sure,” I say. Keem nods, tucks his basketball under his arm, and walks out of the library without saying another word. I pick up the money and stare at it for a moment. Mom would want me to put it in the bank, but right now I’m thinking about getting a couple slices and a can of soda. Without Mom around, there’s not much chance of me going to college, anyway.
I leave the library and head straight for the pizza joint. In my head I’m doing the math: twenty bucks a week times however long it takes to get Keem’s grades up. Three weeks? Ten? Maybe the rest of the school year?
By the time my slices come out of the oven, I’ve already figured out how to spend the money I’ll make as a tutor. I’m so into my dreams and schemes that I don’t see this jerk Selwyn standing outside. Selwyn’s in the sixth grade, too, but he isn’t supposed to be. Mom always told me to watch out for kids who got left back. Most of them are alright she said, but sometimes they turn into crabs in a barrel, willing to drag down anyone who’s on his way up. Selwyn’s that kind of kid.
“Hey, look who it is—the brainiac. You smart enough to get the special?”
“Yeah,” I say warily.
“Good—that’s one slice for me and one for my boy.” Selwyn grabs the paper bag holding my food. I don’t let go at first, but I’ve got five dollars left in my pocket and don’t plan to fight two kids over some pizza. Selwyn tugs the bag a bit harder and I let go. “Thanks, geek,” he says with an ugly sneer.
“Hey.” All of us turn and see Keem coming out of a nearby bodega with a brown-bagged drink. He casually twists the cap off the bottle and tosses it into a wire trash bin on the corner. “Where you going with my food? D—didn’t I tell you to get me two slices?”
It takes me a couple of seconds to understand what Keem’s doing. But as soon as I figure it out, I slip into my assigned role. “Uh—yeah, Keem. And I did, but…these guys said they’re hungry, too.” I look at Selwyn and force my lips not to curl up into a smug smile.
“He’s with you?” Selwyn asks, amazed.
“Yeah,” Keem replies, standing real close so his height is more intimidating. “He’s with me.”
Selwyn waits for the punch line but then realizes Keem’s for real. And with those three words (he’s with me), I go from being prey to being protected property. I’m untouchable now!
I can’t help but smirk a little as Selwyn hands me back my food and shuffles off, leaving me alone with Keem.
“You alright?” Keem asks in his usual flat tone.
I just nod since I’m not quite able to look Keem in the eye. “Thanks,” I mumble and extend the bag holding my pizza. “Want a slice?”
“Nah.” Keem takes a swig from his bottle of Gatorade and looks over my head to the opposite side of the street.
I turn to go and let my eyes roam along the block. On the other side of the street I see Nyla with some skater kid. She’s watching us.
“There’s your girl,” I tell Keem, but then I look at his face and realize he already knows she’s there. That’s why he helped me—to impress a girl. Keem’s trying to act cool, but I can tell he’s feeling hectic inside. He doesn’t know whether he should keep up the tough-guy routine, or try being nice to me. Keem opts for the second option and puts his arm around my shoulder.
“Come on. I’ll walk you home.” Keem shepherds me down the block like I’m his little brother or something. I glance across the street and see Nyla smiling at me. For some reason I feel bold enough to wave and smile back. For just an instant, Nyla flicks her eyes at Keem. Then she turns and walks off in the opposite direction. Keem waits until we reach the end of the block and turn the corner, then he takes his arm off my shoulders. He exhales loudly like he’d been holding his breath the whole time. I think he’s going to say something about Nyla but instead his voice turns gruff and Keem says, “You got to learn to stand up for yourself, D.”
The anger in my voice surprises me more than Keem. “That’s easy for you to say—you look like a model, you’re built like a giant, and kids at school worship the ground you walk on!”
“Yeah—when they’re not calling me a terrorist behind my back. Think I don’t know what they say about me as soon as I step off the court? Or what it means when they sit up in the stands and tell me to ‘blow up’ the competition? We all got our battles, D. We all got to fight for respect.”
Before I can think of anything to say, Keem mutters “later” and heads down the block. I sink onto the stoop and eat my cold pizza alone.