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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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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.”

“Fusion.”

“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.

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I’m tempted to break out my Best of Abba CD, but won’t.  I do hope, however, that you’ll take a chance on one of the many titles AmazonEncore published this past year; you can find the entire list here, and when you click on any title you’ll find that from now until 1/31 you’ll get 50% off the price of all Encore books and Kindle editions are priced at $3.99!  If you find an e-reader stuffed in your stocking this Christmas, I hope you’ll consider trying out Wish or Page from a Tennessee Journal by Francine Thomas Howard, or Crossing by Andrew Xia Fukuda.  Jodie over at Book Gazing included Crossing and Wish on her list of top reads for 2010—thanks, Jodie!  And thanks for supporting Encore’s mission of bringing unheard voices to the fore.

Have you ever stopped reading a book because you couldn’t bear for it to end?  That was my experience reading Hiromi Goto‘s Half World.  I was on the train and I was totally absorbed in the narrative—would Melanie make it across the bridge of crows?  Would she find the nerve to bite off the baby’s finger to pay the toll and open the portal?  This book is intense—yet it’s also funny at times, and poignant at others.  Melanie hasn’t been all that happy in her fourteen years of life: her single mother’s weak, unable to work for long, and eventually turns to alcohol; the mean girls at school chase her through the street and hurl rotten fruit at her; she’s never known her father, and her only companions are the many crows that flock to the coast of British Columbia in search of food.  Ms. Wei, a local storeowner, offers Melanie shelter from the bullies and food for her family’s empty fridge—and when Melanie’s terrifying adventure begins, it is Ms. Wei who offers a gift that sustains the teen through her many trials (Jade Rat).  I don’t want to give anything away, but if you’re looking for a novel about a teenage girl who is empowered and made more compassionate by her own suffering—this is the book for you!  Sacrifice is a major theme in the book, and in a recent interview with Ari, Goto assured readers that a sequel is underway…

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I was up late last night—I did have the TV on, but I wasn’t really following the various political analyses of the election results.  Woke late this morning, and thought I’d have a victory pancake breakfast since I managed to write two thousand words yesterday!  Was very inspired by my Monday visit to the Neue Gallery and two botanicas in Brooklyn.  When I entered the second botanica, the first thing the (male) owner said was, “Are you from Haiti?”  He wasn’t crestfallen when I told him I was from Canada, and while he searched for a wallet-sized photo of Erzulie Dantor/Mater Salvatoris, I scanned the shelves and made mental notes, which helped me write a *long* chapter yesterday.  How would Genna react to seeing a live chicken in a cardboard box—would she freak out, or try to act cool?  I’m trying to prepare several chapters for a friend of a friend who has very generously agreed to review my references to the Haitian religion, Vodou.  I’ve said before that Wish is very much about doors—especially those that are closed to my main character.  Genna is cut off from her Panamanian heritage because her father left the family, and her American mother discourages her from identifying with her Afro-Latino heritage.  Genna soon realizes that having no access to her ancestral mythology & religion means having no access to her own magic (a closed door).  She does tap into the African American legend of the flying Africans, but mostly Genna’s *grasping* at whatever strands of magic she can find in the city.  Yet as her Haitian friend Peter points out, “You weren’t interested in my culture before.  You’re only curious now because you need something.  Vodou is a religion, Genna.  It’s not something you play around with whenever you’re desperate or bored.”  So in this narrative, Vodou is—for Genna—a closed door.  Still, I need to make sure that what I’m writing is respectful and accurate, and I very much appreciate Cybil’s willingness to review my work.  I’ve got one more chapter to polish up today—it’s amazing how much better I write when I know someone else will be looking at my words!

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It didn’t feel like fall today, and I was feeling a little under the weather despite the sunshine so had a very low-key birthday.  The garden was full of blooming things–clematis, roses, and even rogue rhododendron:

Came home and took my annual birthday portrait before enjoying some cake (minus the icing) and Indian food.  Tonight’s goal is to reach 57K words.  Tomorrow I head to the National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan; I’ve got a Lenape woman in my novel and want to make sure my representation of her religious beliefs is accurate.  Strong Medicine Speaks: a Native American Elder Has Her Say was interesting, especially since my character is married to an African man and is also a healer.  But I need to dig a bit deeper.  Thanks for all the warm birthday wishes—the celebratory week continues!

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…but sometimes people are AWESOME!  Despite the torrential downpour here in Brooklyn, I feel kind of “up” today.  The film I ordered (Looking for a Face Like Mine) arrived yesterday, and in 30 short minutes I learned about the ways resisting racism can actually lead to heightened creativity.  Which is important for me, because I feel like I spend a lot of time blogging about racism in publishing and I do worry sometimes that I will become embittered and/or lose my creative impulse.  But artists (and activists) are ultimately optimistic people—we wouldn’t create/agitate if we didn’t have hope for the future and a slender belief that our work can change people’s perceptions.  I was watching TV last night and that lottery commercial with the bunnies came on—have you seen it?  I smile *every* time it airs, and I thought to myself: how many people know I love bunnies? and hummingbirds…and fairies?  My college roommate and close friend hanged herself a couple of years after graduation; she was an artist, and I’ve never really allowed myself to delve into her despair.  I focus instead on her legacy and the gifts she gave me—the print of a medieval unicorn tapestry, and the pocket book of flower fairies that still sits on my shelf.  Which leads me to Awesome Person #1, Shveta, who has written this wonderful article about her own passion for fairies:

I love faeries. I grew up reading all about them, believing in them, dreaming about them. I collected all the drawings, books, and winged figurines I could, I gobbled up lore like forbidden faerie food, I made wings out of poster board and glitter. I could rattle off bits of trivia like how the use of iron kept away unwanted visitors, that the fey inability to lie didn’t preclude trickery, and that a brownie accepted gifts of food in return for cleaning a house. When things got bad, I told myself I was fey. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that it even occurred to me there might be faeries outside Western Europe – specifically, outside the Victorian take on the Celtic and British traditions.

Shveta eventually began searching for fairies within South Asian storytelling traditions—in other words, she did THE WORK.  And THE WORK is what matters, that search for something more, a way of reshaping our world.

Awesome Person #2 is Tricia Sullivan who is a writer and blogger and committed ally.  Tricia has reached out to me more than once with words of support, and she even offered to help me find an agent!  She walks the walk, and through her I’ve come to know Kate Elliott—Awesome Person #3!  Kate has a great post up on her Livejournal blog about THE WORK she does to try to shape her children’s understanding of social justice:

Prejudice is a form of hardening the heart. Prejudice, as we unfortunately know, comes in many forms. Just as human beings show a propensity to be tolerant and inclusive so also, often at the same time, and sometimes in the same person, they show a propensity to be intolerant and exclusive. Human beings are such forces for good, and yet such forces for bad, and sometimes in the same person. The contradiction makes one dizzy. I am not immune.

My TBR pile is actually quite manageable right now (!!!) and I hope you’ll join me in supporting these two novelists (both have new books: Cold Magic and Lightborn).

Last but certainly not least we have The Rejectionist who also does THE WORK and fights the fight on multiple fronts.  I didn’t mean to suggest that banning books was somehow less important than fighting racism in publishing—and Le R. gets that.  We’re asking folks to care as much about one cause as the other.

Is it a coincidence that all these amazing women are part of the speculative fiction community?  I think not…people who appreciate alternate universes believe in our potential to reshape reality.  And I am VERY grateful to have such awesome allies in this world!

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When I wrote Wish, I incorporated one of my favorite picture books into the narrative by having Genna read Christopher Myers’ Wings to her baby brother.  This time around, I’ve got Genna searching for signs of magic, which leads her to discover Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly.  For half a year after graduating from college, I worked in a black bookstore in Toronto—to this day, certain book covers are fixed in my mind because it was my job to display the books and everything was placed on the shelf face forward to take up space.  The Dillons’ illustrations work on me like some kind of enchantment—I can gaze at them for hours!  I’m looking forward to meeting them at the upcoming A is for Anansi conference in October.  Right now I’m writing the chapter where Genna asks her mother to tell her a fairy tale and instead is handed a tattered second-hand copy of The People Could Fly…I’m at 47.5K words and am aiming for 50K by the time Masterpiece Theatre comes on tomorrow night…

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On Saturday I made sure I packed my digital and Flip cameras before leaving the house; I planned to attend a talk between Mitali Perkins and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and wanted to record the experience for this blog.  I spent the morning applying for jobs, then got myself ready to meet a friend at the Brooklyn Museum at noon.  I never watched Work of Art, the reality show where actual artists compete to have a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.  But I’m glad my friend introduced me to Abdi Farah‘s work:

He’s a very skilled artist, but the images—and these charred sculptures in particular—were kind of grim.  If you’re in the city, do check it out.  Usually when I go to the museum I head straight for one particular exhibit and then leave because it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a lot of art—too much stimuli for an HSP.  But I wasn’t alone, and so after the Farah exhibit we went to the Andy Warhol show, which is actually on two floors.  We stopped by the feminist gallery, too, and my friend assured me that the curators of the Kiki Smith show finally changed their opening write-up to acknowledge the presence of a black woman slave; they basically said, “She’s in the picture, too,” and not “the unpaid labor of this enslaved black woman made it possible for the white woman in the center of the image to pursue her artistic interests.”  But I guess we could call that progress.  By the time we reached the lobby, I was ready to step back into the sunlight.  It was nearly two, and one member of our party of three suggested lunch.  And this was the moment of truth—would I go to lunch and talk about the art we’d seen? would I go to the book festival to see my friend? or would I go downtown for the 9/11 rally at City Hall?  Ultimately, two of us chose option #3.  And I’m glad that we did.  But our preparation for the rally wasn’t ideal: we’d seen some rather edgy art and we did stop at the farmer’s market for a snack (maple syrup caramel corn for me).  Then my friend and I got on the train, reached our stop, and came up from the subway to find just one young white man railing against Islam.  My friend spotted a young black man with a placard advocating for religious tolerance, and we asked him where the rally went.  He pointed us in the right direction, thanked us for coming, and we headed for the marchers moving off in the distance.  Almost immediately we ran into a man I work with; during orientation last week, he and I realized we used to move in the same activist circles “back in the day.”  But as we joined the protestors marching toward City Hall, I was keenly aware of my age and all that had transpired in my life since I last attended a political rally in the ’90s.  I took some snapshots of the many placards, but I wasn’t holding one myself.  There were many elders in attendance, and I wondered whether they were Sixties radicals still fighting the good fight, or simply concerned citizens standing up for their beliefs.  My friend was wary of the many photographers because she’s a professor and some right-wing group now keeps track of “Anti-American academics.”  She has a right to be at that rally, but one photograph in the wrong hands could make her professional life quite difficult.  I was thinking these things as we reached the stage and listened to a number of different speakers articulating their commitment to the principles of religious freedom and economic justice.  We ran into another friend, met her friends, and there were hundreds of people around us…but I felt quite detached.  And inside, like something of a failure.  And I wondered, is it wrong to prefer the museum? the library? my desk at home as the site of my resistance?  As we headed back to the train, my friend assured me that we can be activists in different ways, but sometimes you need to put your body on the line.  I didn’t feel like I’d done that by attending the rally, and I didn’t feel we were truly united; the moment felt symbolic and important but impersonal.  Maybe unity demands that.  I try to advocate for justice in my writing, but is that enough?  In the museum there was a quote from Booker T. Washington that I thought about for quite a while:  “The study of art that does not result in making the strong less willing to oppress the weak means little.”

The next day I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival and listened to Mitali Perkins, Francisco X. Stork, and Kate Milford read from their books and talk about the survival instinct in young adults.  They’re not fearless, and they’re often the most vulnerable, but they take risks more readily than many adults.  More than this adult…

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Ok, this is the chapter that pushed me over the 46K-word mark.  It’s still a bit rough around the edges, and way too long—so I’ve posted the first section here, and will keep tinkering with the rest.  My apologies to any native speakers of Creole—I haven’t verified these translations, and still have some research to do.  Peter is Judah’s friend; he has become an important character in the sequel, and in the previous chapter he mocks Genna for believing in Hollywood’s representation of Vodou as “zombies and pins stuck in dolls.”  But it’s tricky trying to expose the stereotypes *and* write respectfully about this religion.  Anyway, back to work.  Thanks again to everyone who offered feedback about the use of Creole.

***

Peter meets me after school and takes me over to his uncle’s place.  My insides are twisting a bit, but Peter seems even more nervous than me.  He’s talking nonstop, which isn’t like him at all.  I just nod so he thinks I’m listening, but mostly I’m thinking about Judah and how happy he’ll be when I come back to him.

“My uncle’s pretty cool—I mean, he’s a doctor and everything, but he’s really down to earth and easy to talk to.  Plus he’s traveled a lot—he even studied at the Sorbonne!  Lots of Haitians go to France for their education—well, those who can afford it.  We won our independence two hundred years ago, but that colonial tie is still strong.  I’ve got an aunt who lives in Paris, and a few cousins in Montreal.  Most Haitians speak Kreyol, but some also speak French.  I’m not fluent, but I can get by.  Right now I’m taking Spanish—Mrs. Freeman says foreign languages strengthen your college applications.  What about you?”

This time a nod won’t do so I stammer out a real response.  “Yeah—I mean, no.  She told me that, too, but…”

“I guess you speak Spanish at home, huh?”

I shake my head and hope Peter won’t ask me to explain why.  Fortunately, just at that moment we arrive at his uncle’s place.  It’s one of about five brownstones tucked in between two apartment buildings.  A small white marble sign hangs from a post announcing the office of Dr. S. Celestin.  Peter opens the black iron gate for me, and I follow the stone path that leads to a door under the front stoop.  Peter comes up behind me and presses a buzzer on the wall.  The intercom crackles with static, and Peter says loudly, “Se m.”  He puts his hand on the knob and waits for the buzz that unlocks the door.

I let Peter go in first.  Now that we’re here, my stomach’s starting to do back flips.  I’m not sure what to expect.  I’m already surprised to find a voodoo priest working out of a brownstone.

Peter leads me down a short dim hallway and into a softly lit waiting room.  Tiny lights hang like stars from two tracks that run along the ceiling.  Half a dozen older women are seated on chairs that line the exposed brick walls.  Peter greets them, then leans in and says something to the young receptionist.  I can’t tell if he’s speaking Creole or French.  She keeps her eyes focused on the computer screen then nods once and picks up the phone to call her boss.

I look around for an empty chair.  The women here look like the same ones I see doing their shopping on Nostrand Avenue on Saturday morning.  Flipping through popular magazines, they look bored and impatient, not crazed or possessed.  Inside I admit to myself that I’m a little disappointed to find nothing out of the ordinary here.

Before I can sit down, Peter says, “Come on.”  The receptionist lets us into Dr. Celestin’s office then closes the door behind us.  I follow Peter’s lead and sit in one of the empty chairs facing a large glass desk.  Everything on the desk’s tidy surface is chrome.  I see my distorted reflection everywhere.

“Where’s your uncle?” I ask Peter.

“He’s just finishing up with a client.  He’ll be in soon.”  Peter sits back and gets comfortable in the black leather chair.  I sit back, too, and wonder why Peter said “client” instead of “patient.”  I lean forward and take one of the business cards stacked neatly in a chrome holder: Dr. Serge Celestin.

There is a door in one corner of the room.  Just as I am wondering where it leads, a small, chocolate-colored man in a white coat opens the door and enters the office.  He smiles first at Peter, then at me.  “Bonjou, neve,” he says to Peter before sitting in the black leather chair behind his desk.

Bonjou, tonton,” Peter replies.  “This is my friend, Genna.”

“Hello, Genna.”  Dr. Celestin’s accent doesn’t disappear the way Peter’s does when he speaks English.

I try to say hello but only a squeaky sound comes out of my mouth, so I just smile and nod instead.  Dr. Celestin folds his hands together and smiles warmly at me.  “How may I assist you today?”

I glance at Peter and wonder what he’s told his uncle about “my problem.”  But Peter’s looking at the chrome clock on the wall like it’s more interesting than anything I have to say.  I take a deep breath and begin.  “I have a friend.”

Dr. Celestin nods.  “Not my nephew.”

I shake my head.  “No, but Peter knows him, too.  His name’s Judah.”

Peter looks at me now, daring me to tell his uncle the same bizarre story I have told him.  “Judah is…gone.  And I need to find a way to get him back.  To get back to him, I mean.”

Dr. Celestin frowns and looks confused.  “I’m sorry, Genna, but I don’t see how I can help you.  I am a chiropractor.”  He points to the model spine dangling near his desk and my face flushes with heat.  Is this some kind of joke?  The doctor and I turn to Peter.  Dr. Celestin’s voice loses some of its warmth as he switches from English to Creole.  “Sa fè ou di l?”

Peter drops his eyes and mumbles at the floor.  “I told her you might be able to help her.”

Dr. Celestin turns his eyes on me even though he’s still talking to Peter.  “Li pa yonn nan nou.”

Mwen konnen, men…li diferan,” Peter says.  “She’s different.”

Dr. Celestin looks at me, his eyes searching my face for the difference his nephew claims to see.  I self-consciously reach for the scratches that hold his gaze.  “I had an accident,” I explain.  He makes a strange sideways nod and I rush on to fill the uncomfortable space that has opened between us.  “I’m here because Peter said you might be able to help me.  I know this will sound crazy, but last summer I—I went back in time.  And Judah did, too.  Then I came back and left Judah behind—I didn’t mean to, but that’s what happened.  And now I’m trying to get back to him.  I need to be there, not here.”

Peter’s uncle stares at me without blinking or saying a word.  With his eyes still fixed on my face he asks Peter, “Ou kwè l?”

Peter sighs, then runs his hand over his face as if to wipe away his own doubts.  “They both went missing in June.  Now she’s back and he’s not.” Peter pauses then adds, “I believe her.”

Dr. Celestin unlocks his graceful fingers and picks up a silver pen.  He turns it between his hands for a moment.  “You say you went back in time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where did you go exactly?”

“I was still in Brooklyn, but it was 1863.”

“And how did this…journey come about?”

“I was in the botanic garden—it was late at night, and I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I’d had a fight with my mother.  She hit me, and I walked out.”

“And this fight was about your friend, Judah?”

I nod and look at my hands twisting nervously in my lap.  “I snuck into the garden and went to my favorite fountain.  I was alone, but then I heard voices…”  I stop and wait to see how Dr. Celestin will react, but the expression on his face doesn’t change.

“What did they say, these voices?”

I frown and try to remember.  That moment feels like it happened a lifetime ago.  “They told me to run, to hide, to be careful.  To keep going.”  I pause, wondering if I should tell him about the ghosts.

Dr. Celestin must know I’m holding back because he asks, “And as these voices spoke to you, what did you see?”

“Just a little boy, at first.  He said, ‘Don’t leave me.’”  I clear my throat and try to blink back the tears gathering in my eyes.  “Then I saw a woman.  She was dressed in old-fashioned clothes.  They all were.”

“These ghosts—did they touch you?”

I start to shake my head then stop.  “I don’t know.  They vanished and then I saw a penny on the ground.  I wanted to make a wish in the fountain but something wasn’t right—the penny was too heavy, and the air was cold and…thick.  And then security showed up and the voices returned and I could feel hands tugging at my body.  Then someone fired a gun.  I felt a flash of pain…” I shrug.  None of it makes any sense.  “Then everything went dark.”

Dr. Celestin watches me for a moment, then hands me a box of tissues.  I take one and whisper “thank you” before wiping away the salty tears that are stinging my scratched face.

“Had you indeed been shot?”

“No.  When I woke up I was in an ash dump—that’s what the garden used to be.  I was on my stomach and it was snowing but my back was on fire.  I’d been beaten by someone…but I couldn’t remember what had happened to me, or why.  All I felt was the pain.”  I shudder at the memory of being tied to the bed at the orphanage, my dress cut away from my bloody, blistered skin.  “I still have the scars on my back.”  I will show them to him if he asks me to.  He’s a doctor—he knows my body can’t lie.

But Dr. Celestin doesn’t ask for proof.  He simply sets the silver pen down on the desk, folds his hands once more, and looks at me.  “It is possible the ancestors summoned you.”

“The ancestors?”

“Yes.”

“You mean those ghosts were—they were related to me?”

“It is possible, yes.”

“But…then how did I come back?  And why didn’t Judah come, too?

“Perhaps his work there is not yet done.”

A hundred other questions flood my mind but I keep my mouth shut.  Work?  It’s hard to believe Judah and I were “on assignment” in the past.  If our ancestors needed something, why didn’t they tell us what it was?  And why did they make us suffer so much?

Dr. Celestin glances at the clock on the wall.  “I do not wish to be rude, but I’m afraid I have other patients to see.”

Peter stands up but I’m not ready to leave yet.  I haven’t got what I came here for.  “So how do I get back to Judah?  I mean, is there a way to contact my ancestors—to make them pull me back in time again?”

“The ancestors inhabit the spirit world, Genna.  You cannot make them do anything.”

Desperation loosens my tongue.  “I know—I read that online.  You have to make an offering first, right?  Peter says that’s what you do.”  I reach down and force my trembling hands to unzip my book bag.  “You probably think I don’t know anything about voodoo.  But I’ve been doing some research,” I say as I pull the books out one by one and set them on the edge of his desk.  Dr. Celestin only glances at the different covers, but his disdain is obvious—A Beginner’s Guide to Black Magic, The Book of Vodou: charms and rituals to empower your life, and Doktor Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook: spells, curses, and folk magic for all your needs.  Peter looks like he wishes he could sink through the floor.  For a moment I wish I could, too.  But I don’t have time to be embarrassed by my own ignorance.  I am here because I need information.

Dr. Celestin seems to read my mind because he clears his throat and says, “The answers you seek cannot be found in any book, Genna.”

I will myself not to cry as I pull the books onto my lap.  “But…I don’t know where else to look.”

For just a moment, Dr. Celestin looks at me the way my father used to when I was a child.  But I don’t want him to pity me.  I want him to tell me how to reach Judah.  Instead Dr. Celestin softens his voice and says, “Sometimes we search outside ourselves for what is already within.”

What’s that supposed to mean?  It sounds like something you’d find inside a fortune cookie.  Anger starts bubbling up my throat.  I look at Peter but he is steadily watching the floor.

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Celestin says as he pushes his chair back from the desk and stands.  “I’m afraid I cannot help you.”

“But…I can pay you—I have money!”

“Genna—” Peter tries to shut me up but my mouth fills with more and more words.  Don’t turn me away.  Please don’t turn me away… “You help people—I know you do.  Why won’t you help me?  Is it because I’m American?”

A sad smile crosses his face as Dr. Celestin prepares to show us the door.  “No, Genna.  I cannot help you because you lack the proper konesans.”

“Connay—what?  What’s that?  I’ll get it—whatever it is, I’ll get it!”

Peter scowls but accepts his role as translator.  “Konesans means knowledge, Genna.  It’s not something you can buy at the botanica.”

Dr. Celestin looks sad and sympathetic at the same time.  “The Power you seek is reserved for those who truly believe and are willing to serve.  There are tools you must use, and it takes time to learn how to handle them with respect.  Initiation is required, and only a few are chosen.”

Suddenly I am on my feet.  The books tumble to the floor and my voice hits the roof.  “I don’t have time!  And I’ve already been chosen—you said so yourself.  The ghosts in the garden that night—they spoke to me, they picked me!”

Peter snatches up the books I just dropped and then grabs me by the arm.  “Let’s go—now.”  He tries to drag me toward the door but I yank my arm away and stoop down to grab my book bag.  I want to say something sharp that will hurt Dr. Celestin the way he has hurt me, but all I can manage is a sullen, “Thanks for nothing.”

The women in the waiting area look up as I stumble out of the doctor’s office and make my way toward the front door.  My eyes are almost blind with tears, but my ears are clear.  Behind me I hear Dr. Celestin giving instructions to Peter: Help her to understand.

I am through asking others for help.  From now on, I vow, I will handle my business myself.  No one understands what it’s like to live this way, with my body in one world and my heart in another.  I hurry away from Dr. Celestin’s brownstone and make my way up to the parkway.  By the time Peter finds me, my eyes are dry.  I’ve decided I will not shed any more tears.  Like Nannie, from now on, I’m keeping my salt.

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What do you do when you’re reading a book and the author uses a word or phrase from a language you don’t know?  Do you skip it and keep going, relying on context to figure it out?  Or do you flip to the back of the book in search of a glossary?  I’ve done a lot of writing this weekend, and one short passage includes two Haitian characters speaking Creole:

Peter looks at me now, daring me to tell his uncle the same bizarre story I have told him.  “Judah is…gone.  And I need to find a way to get him back.  To get back to him, I mean.”

Dr. Celestin frowns and looks confused.  “I’m sorry, Genna, but I don’t see how I can help you.  I am a chiropractor.”  He points to the dangling skeleton near his desk and my face flushes with shame.  Is this some kind of joke?  The doctor and I turn to Peter.  Dr. Celestin’s voice becomes hard.  “Sa fè ou di l?”

Now Peter looks at the floor.  Dr. Celestin continues.  “Li pa yonn nan nou.”

Mwen konnen, men…li diferan,” Peter says.  “She’s different.”

Dr. Celestin looks at me, his eyes searching my face for the difference his nephew claims to see.  I self-consciously reach for the scratches that hold his gaze.  “I had an accident,” I explain.  He makes a strange sideways nod and I rush on to fill the uncomfortable space that has opened between us.  “I’m here because Peter said you might be able to help me.  I know this will sound crazy, but last summer I—I went back in time.  And Judah did, too.  Then I came back and left Judah behind—I didn’t mean to, but that’s what happened.  And now I’m trying to get back to him.  I need to be there, not here.”

Peter’s uncle stares at me without blinking or saying a word.  With his eyes still fixed on my face he asks Peter, “Ou kwè l?”

Peter sighs, then runs his hand over his face as if to wipe away his own doubts.  “They both went missing in June.  Now she’s back and he’s not.”

Right now I’m thinking there will be footnotes on this page of the book so the reader can easily glance down and read the English translation: What have you told her?  She isn’t one of us.  I know, but she’s different. And later on, You believe her?  For now I’m using Bing Translator, which I don’t really trust but I don’t want to approach my Haitian friends until I’ve got something solid to present.  This chapter’s quite long, but it isn’t fully connected yet.  Peter’s uncle is a houngan, a Vodou priest, and Genna hopes he can help her open a portal that leads to the past.  I’m reading Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, but Genna’s got a totally different reading list—if she went to the library looking for books on magic, she’d likely check out The Book of Vodou: charms and rituals to empower your life, and Doktor Snake’s Voodoo Spellbook: spells, curses, and folk magic for all your needs.  Apparently the latter comes with your very own “voodoo doll.”  My point is not to delve into the sacred rituals of any religion, but to show Genna grasping at whatever “magic” she can find in the city.  Ultimately, Dr. Celestin turns her away, but Peter has another idea…

That’s where I wrapped up last night; had a headache, tried to sleep it off, but wound up taking half an imitrex early this morning.  Good call.  Now I’ve got the rest of the day to write!  It’s carnival here in Brooklyn, and I would love to hear some steel drums but can’t brave the crowds on Eastern Parkway…

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