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.