Archive for the ‘history’ Category

osiris god of the underworldI’m 1200 words away from reaching my 10K-word goal for this month. I was a little worried that this novel, unlike Wish and Ship of Souls, didn’t have any connection to African American history. The Deep feels much more contemporary—it picks up a few months after Ship of Souls ended (in March 2011) and so I’m writing about the tsunami that devastated Japan and the mass shooting in Norway. Yesterday I worked on a scene that takes place at the Central Library here in Brooklyn; Nyla has been chosen to join The League but she resists her guide’s efforts to lead her underground. I was somewhat obsessed with ancient Egypt as a child so I don’t know why it took me so long to make the connection between the deep and the underworld. I’ve decided to name the guide Cyrus/Siris/Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. Far better than Alistair, which is the name of the annoying, yappy dog in my building. My theory of Afro-urban magic requires me to incorporate African spiritual practices into contemporary urban fantasy. There isn’t much room for that in The Deep but maybe I can tweak the plot. That’s the good thing about having a third of the novel still to write—there’s plenty of room for improvement…


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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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Collage is harder than it looks! I’m trying out an art project with my nieces in Nova Scotia—the Mickalene Project. They couldn’t see the exhibit at the BK Museum so I thought this would be a fun way for them to learn about her work and make some art of their own. I’m a writer and I haven’t been writing lately, which sucks. Apparently I wrung the sponge dry in September; I wrote about 10K words but fell short of my 20K-word goal. This month I’ve barely cracked 1K, yet here I am cutting and pasting and playing with glitter. On the train I’m reading Hanging Captain Gordon, which is about the only slave trader hanged for his crimes against humanity in NYC in 1862. I *loathe* naval history but have to become familiar with the blockades and revenue cutters and smugglers operating along the Atlantic coast. Putting Judah on a ship is hard but having him on a slave coffle is harder. How far did they walk? Were battles being fought all around them? Sometimes I wonder why I write historical fiction—all the fact-checking is time-consuming and tedious. And I only wind up using 10% of all this research. I started reading Sugar in the Blood last week and immediately began dreaming of Nevis again. But I need to focus on Judah’s Tale right now so those dreams will have to wait…

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In June I was filmed at the African Burial Ground National Monument for an episode of CUNY TV’s Study with the Best. The show aired on channel 75 here in NYC last Sunday and will air again this Saturday at 7pm. You can also watch it on You Tube or below (my 5-minute segment starts at 7:30 min.):

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Classes start tomorrow so my head is no longer in SC—but before I shift gears, here are some of the photos I took at the Middleton plantation. As soon as I stepped on the bus Saturday morning, the conversation about Gone with the Wind began…to his credit, our driver tried to separate fact from fiction: apparently Rhett Butler was a real person but the film was not shot on site in the South—it was shot in Hollywood. HOLLYWOOD, people. When we reached Middleton Place I was almost relieved to see that the “big house” was no longer standing; the Union army burned it during the war and then an 1886 earthquake reduced the ruins to rubble. And it was never one of those white-pillared houses at the end of a long lane of live oaks (this photo is of McLeod Plantation on James Island). The main house and two flanking guesthouses were made of brick; one guesthouse was left standing but I skipped that tour, opting instead to learn about African Americans’ lives on this rice plantation. My tour guide was a white man from upstate New York—very nice, very informed. But all the interpreters in the Stableyards were also white…which seemed odd. But then how many black folks do you know who’d volunteer to dress up and act the part of a slave? Doug the cooper gave me lots of great information about woodworking tools, which will help since Judah is apprenticed to a carpenter in the sequel to Wish.

Visiting plantations is always challenging because I go in expecting to be misled, which means I’m skeptical of the script that most docents are trained to follow. My guide, Alan, had done a lot of extra research on his own and Doug clearly knew a lot about making barrels. But both insisted that the task system on the rice plantation was preferable to the gang labor system used on cotton plantations. Instead of being forced to labor in the fields from sun up to sun down, 6 days a week, on a rice plantation you were “done” once you finished your assigned task. So a cooper had to make 3 barrels a day, which generally took at least 12 hours. I’m not sure I see that as “better” or “easier” than picking cotton all day. And if you’re planting rice, you have to stand in the muck and snake-filled water until you finish half an acre. When you finish your task, you still have to tend your garden and hunt or fish to make sure you and your family don’t starve. There was no mention of runaways or rebellions…Eliza’s House, a refurbished slave cabin, had a very good exhibit on slave life, but the cabin was decorated to reflect how a freedman might live—and it was quite cozy. I always leave a plantation feeling that the suffering of enslaved people was diminished. Middleton Place hosts a lot of weddings because of its extensive gardens, which were built by 100 slaves over a ten-year period—an extra “task” on top of their regular workload…

My afternoon tour was completely different—my guide was a black man from SC and Al tried to teach us Gullah while explaining how gentrification is changing the racial demographics in Charleston. He also regaled us with songs from Porgy & Bess; we were driven past Catfish Row and saw Porgy’s tomb in a cemetery on James Island. The Massachusetts 54th regiment camped on the grounds of the McLeod Plantation, which is currently being renovated; its slave cabins were occupied into the 1990s by migrant workers. We saw modern housing projects next to massive antebellum mansions where wealthy planters summered to avoid malaria and yellow fever; the Middletons actually went up to Rhode Island from May to September, and I may work that into my novel as well. Charleston was first settled by English planters from Barbados, so the architecture reflects that influence—lots of sorbet-colored houses with long porches that run the length of the house. In the black communities, houses were built one behind the other on a single plot of land, which indicated the residents were all related. The best part of my day was when I met Mrs. Louise Jefferson who was weaving sweetgrass baskets and selling her wares at the Charleston visitor center. I bought a beautiful basket (similar to one Camille Cosby purchased from Mrs. Jefferson) and encouraged this kind elder to record her life story. For just a few moments I felt like I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen, listening to her stories and laughing at her jokes…

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After spending a little over an hour at the Slave Mart Museum here in Charleston, I was ready to come home. It wasn’t so much a case of information overload as it was a readiness to write…what did I say about timing? It’s everything, so having PMS and listening to the voices of formerly enslaved people can lead to more than a few tears and some rather dramatic ideas for the novel. I highly recommend the Slave Mart Museum; the young women working there are extremely helpful—within minutes of asking for help I was given a list of African American tour guides and walking directions to the Avery Research Center, where I spent the afternoon. As soon as I walked in, I met two interpreters from the Middleton Plantation, which I’ll be touring tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the shuttle service taking me out there is called “Gone With the Wind, More Than Just a Memory”…but I’m hoping that the black interpreters will balance whatever romanticized (a)historical nonsense I may have to endure. Charleston reminds me of Louisiana—same architecture, same aesthetic, same strange segregation. I walked around this afternoon and felt like I was in the Garden District of New Orleans…kept wondering when I was going to see some black folks. The Avery Research Center shed light on the determination of African Americans to uplift the race through education. On the top floor there was an impressive exhibit of sculpture, quilts, and textile art by Bernice Mitchell Tate. The second floor displayed sweetgrass baskets woven in the Gullah community, and there was a recreation of a 19th-century classroom that tugged at my school marm heartstrings. The Avery Normal Institute was founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association, and I recalled writing a play back in 2006 about a free black woman from New England who moved to the Sea Islands before the Civil War ended to teach in an AMA school for emancipated slaves. Don’t think I ever finished that play, but I’ve already got the AMA in Judah’s Tale. In a way, I could easily write about South Carolina without being here—after touring the Slave Mart I had to come home because my bag was bulging with all the books I’d purchased. I could just hide away in this hotel room, with the windows that face an opposing brick wall, and slip into the past by plowing through those books. But being here gives me the chance to add certain details that might not appear in a book. Just standing in that slave market conjured scenes and introduced me to characters I’d never have “met” in Brooklyn. Tomorrow morning I tour the rice plantation and then in the afternoon I’m doing the Sea Island/African American history tour. I hope my head doesn’t explode before I get a chance to write some of this into the book. Part of me wanted to pull out my laptop and set myself up in the recreated classroom at Avery…sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century!


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Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Carol Ottley-Mitchell, author and publisher of the Caribbean Adventure Series. Carol kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her books and her role as publisher/promoter of Caribbean children’s literature.

Describe your evolution from reader to writer to publisher–did any particular book inspire you as a child? Why write for children and why focus on the Caribbean?

Evolution…perfect description. I read voraciously as a child, everything I could put my eyes on. My drive to write my own books developed when I had my children. They inherited my love of reading and fell in love with Roald Dahl, the Magic Tree House, and many others. I wanted them to also read books that reflected their heritage, so I searched for books with children of color and—even more importantly to me—children of the Caribbean. I was frustrated with the choices. There are good Caribbean-based books for children out there, but I found that many of the ones I came across were difficult to read or emphasized stereotypes that were not necessarily a part of how I saw myself as a Caribbean person. The straw that broke the camel’s back may have been one book, I believe it was a Macmillan publication, in which a family was having a snack and the children were snickering about what Daddy was drinking, which turned out, from the illustration, to be “Rum.” I could not see how this added value to a story aimed at 6-year-olds and I determined to do better.

I went up to Brimstone Hill in St. Kitts (one of my favorite places in the world) one April and I thought—what a great place for a kid to have an adventure, and the Caribbean Adventure Series was born!

The second reason that I write about the Caribbean is that I believe in writing about what I know. I have lived in the US on and off for 15 years, but I have never quite assimilated. I would not feel comfortable writing about a society that I appreciate but often don’t understand. This may also explain why after living for three years in Ghana, I have only written one story set in Africa.

African American author Sherley Anne Williams once despaired that there was nowhere in the past she could go (as a black woman) and be free. Your three black child protagonists journey into the past but race never seems to be a problem for them–even in the 1600s. How do you want black children to relate to the past?

The first book in the Caribbean Adventure Series, Adventure at Brimstone Hill, kind of wrote itself. There was never a drawing board with a master plan of how it would end. Not the textbook approach to writing, I know. When I got to the point where the children travel into the past and meet the British General, I was stuck for quite a while. It wasn’t writer’s block; I was battling with a big question. How would a white General react to two black children showing up in his office with a monkey, no less? Did I want to introduce a discussion of slavery and black-white relations into this particular book? I decided to stick to my plan to create a light book that portrayed children in the Caribbean the way that they may see themselves. Many black Caribbean children have the benefit of growing up in an environment where they are the majority, where the successful adults around them also look like them. So it would be natural for the children to meet a Caucasian on their island and question his legitimacy rather than their own.

While the Caribbean Adventure Series is not intended to influence how children relate to the past from the point of view of race, it does reflect how I would recommend that our children relate to their past. It is important for children to understand why we of African descent are in the Caribbean, not in a way that engenders bitterness or self-hatred, but in a way that develops the self-confidence that comes with knowing one’s history.

What are the greatest rewards and the biggest challenges of being a publisher?

Rewards? The children, always the children. When we were in Ghana, children who had read the books or been at one of my readings would approach me to compliment the books or to say “Auntie, when is the next book coming out?” This never gets old and makes my day, perhaps my year, and inspires me to keep writing and to keep looking for good children’s books to publish.

Challenges? How much time do I have? Just kidding. If I had to pick one thing, I would say that the biggest challenge is marketing. Now that my publishing company CaribbeanReads has six books in distribution, we have a good understanding of the process of getting the books from raw manuscript to the press. The difficult part, once you have the book, is to get the word out that you have published a fantastic book and to get people (besides your family and friends) to buy a copy.

What is your vision for the future re: literacy in the black community and/or the African diaspora?

The future of literacy in the African diaspora has to be viewed from both a demand and a supply side. We need to read, read, read. As black people, we often have to overcome initial expectations about our abilities and our level of intelligence. We should not overcompensate, but we need the tools to ensure that when we go into that job interview, into the board room, or show up for school that we can contribute in a way that forces others to forget their preconceptions and question their prejudices. Being able to speak intelligently about our area of expertise and more is an important part of that and reading widely helps.

On the supply side, we need to have more books written that portray black people—our past, our present, and our future—in a balanced, reality-based light.  I remember a friend of mine from Ghana saying that from years of watching African soap operas, she thought that relationships were supposed to be male-dominated and violent and so accepted such relationships as being natural. What we read about ourselves and how we see ourselves portrayed affects our psyche. No race is uniform and our literature should reflect that.

It has been great chatting with you!

Carol is an Information Technology professional. Her main profession is as General Manager of Leyton Microcomputer Services, an Information Technology firm based in St. Kitts. Born in Nevis, Carol has lived in several Caribbean countries. She spent a large part of her formative years in Trinidad, where one of her favorite pastimes was competing with her father to see who could compose the best humorous lyrics to existing songs. This was just the beginning of her interest in creative writing. Currently, Carol lives and writes in Virginia. Carol is married with two children who are her inspiration and her biggest critics. (Author Photo by Jaxon Photography)

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