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The only good thing about having a summer cold during a heat wave is that it keeps me at home, which is where I get most of my writing done. Last week I was out and about every single day, but since waking with a sore throat on Monday, I’ve pretty much been out of commission. I had one day of fun on Thursday, but I’ve been housebound otherwise and that’s led to increased productivity: last week I wrote 4500 words and so far this week I’ve written 6000 words. I’m hopeful that between naps and coughing fits, I’ll be able to write at least 1500 words today and tomorrow. That would put this first draft of Judah’s Tale at 85K words. I am determined to NOT go over 90K. On Friday I got an offer for The Deep. I’m not sure how/if that’s going to work out, but I’ll keep you posted. Right now I want to get my voice back so I can read at tomorrow’s festival and plead my case for greater diversity when I meet with my publisher on Tuesday…

If you’re in Brooklyn, stop by St. Francis College tomorrow afternoon for the WORD Caribbean Book Festival. My reading & panel starts at 5:30. I’ve been listed as a Nevisian author so the first thing I’ll have to do is break that down…

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afterearthOn Friday I learned that the editor who agreed to acquire The Deep has since left the imprint. Another editor is willing to take a look at the manuscript, but the acquisitions board has decided to pass on my book. On Saturday I went to see After Earth (spoilers ahead); the reviews haven’t been good, but I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since the previews started last year. I’m not a huge fan of Will Smith (he’s talented but overexposed, in my opinion) and I didn’t enjoy his last collaboration with son Jaden, but After Earth intrigued me. I didn’t know M. Night Shyamalan was the director, nor did I realize that Will Smith came up with the story himself. I knew it took place long after humans had abandoned Earth but I didn’t know there was an alien menace…basically I decided to see the film because I’ve never seen a black family in space on film. Yes, there’s Uhura from Star Trek but I was never a Trekkie and I didn’t care for the recent film prequel—now that I think about it, I’m not sure I can even name any black women who got to be in space in something imagesCA8FZJ3Bother than a miniskirt. Can you? The women in After Earth (Sophie Okonedo and Zoe Kravitz) were mostly treated like eye candy, which was annoying, and the film was a bit slow and poorly written. But it was fairly original—at least it felt “new” to me because I haven’t seen a teenage black boy in a space suit fighting aliens. As Kitai, son of a gifted and revered military commander who’s injured in a crash, Jaden Smith gets to be on screen alone and much of the time he’s frightened, making mistakes, and desperate for the help his father can’t provide. We even see him cry, which is important since black boys aren’t often seen as vulnerable in our society. All boys face penalties for showing weakness, and so I liked that Kitai wasn’t stoic like his father and in the end rejects a military life despite learning he is actually stronger than he thought.

As I watched the film, I thought about my books and the kind of intervention I’m trying to make in the field of sci-fi/fantasy. My writing is rooted, in part, in an understanding of the history of misrepresentation of black people, yet when white editors/readers/reviewers engage with my work, they don’t always “get it.” And that’s ok, in a way, because I’m not writing for them. I wonder how the Smith family feels about After Earth and the reviews it has received so far. I understand why Will & Jada Pinkett-Smith founded their own production company, and while I don’t like silver platters, I appreciate their decision to develop projects for their kids to star in. If they waited on Hollywood, Jaden and Willow would be nothing more than sidekicks to white actors who may or may not have as much talent. I hope kids of color go see this film; it’s solid family fare, and who knows how long we’ll have to wait for another film that lets a slender black boy be the hero…

PS Jada, please do for black girls what Will’s doing for black boys.

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imagesThe park was beautiful this morning but I’m paying for it now–the tissue box is nearly empty and my nose is sore from constant blowing. I’ve decided not to venture back out, which means today is the day I *finally* sit down and start working on my latest round of revisions. For the past month I’ve been working on three academic articles, all of which are to be published this year. One essay (on Richard Wright) was actually written while I was in graduate school in the late ’90s! I worked it into my dissertation and then recycled it again when they held the centenary conference on Wright in 2008. And now, in 2013, the essay is going to be included in an anthology on the brilliant but problematic (for me) African American author. Revising something you wrote more than ten years ago is hard, and converting a conference paper often means taking out all the conversational bits that personalized your point of view. Preparing these essays for publication reminds me why I don’t like academic writing, yet in my profession it’s a necessary evil so I’ve refrained from reminding my editors that “the personal is political.” The other two essays are on children’s literature, which also feels odd since that’s not my area of expertise, but once they’re published I will close that chapter and return to critiquing adult lit. I’m waiting on a contract for The Deep and another offer may be on the way…or not. So instead of ruminating on the possibilities I’m trying to remember what my agenda was when I first wrote these essays. I know I had a different voice in the ’90s, but was I a different person last summer? I don’t think so, but I was writing under duress after accepting a last minute invitation to contribute to a different anthology. Those editors wanted me to act like I wasn’t the author of my own books so I withdrew the essay and now have a chance to expand it for a Canadian journal. That also makes me a little uneasy, considering the cool reception I’ve received as an author in the Great White North. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Back to work…

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Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:

DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?

ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.

On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.

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untitledKelbian Noel was born on a warm June night in Moncton, New Brunswick. From a very young age, she loved to read. She found herself engulfed in novels by Janette Oke and L.M. Montgomery, but never seemed to find herself in the pages. At the age of 11 she declared she would simply have to rewrite them and become the youngest author in history. Decades later, having studied writing in college and pursued it as a career, she rediscovered her hobby. She is excited to introduce The Witchbound Series to the world with hopes readers will love the beginning of this saga as much as she does.

Kelbian lives in Toronto, Ontario with her two children. She is the founder of Diverse Pages and blogs there often in the company of some pretty cool people.

Kelbian’s first two novels are available *now* under special pricing. On April 1, Sprung will be available for $0.99, and Roots will continue to be free until the end of the day! Visit the author’s website for more information.

1. Your Witchbound Series is quite ambitious—can you tell us about the first two books and what we can expect from the other three?
untitledWitchbound tells the story of four very different girls. The five-book series follows each character as she discovers the truth about her magical destiny, how it affects her and the people around her. What I love most about writing this series is that it focuses on people with very different backgrounds and outlines how, despite those variances, they’re exactly the same.

Re-released on March 15, 2013, ROOTS (book one) introduces Baltimore Land, a biracial (African American and Native American) girl who, for the past two years, has lived in Utah with her Wiccan parents. She’s deeply averse to her parents’ religion and believes the only purpose Wicca serves is to make her life miserable.

After she receives a message from her twin brother, who disappeared prior to the move, she runs off to find and ultimately rescue him. But she soon discovers her exile to that small Utah town was the direct result of who she is, what she can do, and the danger it could bring to her and the lives of her family and friends. Baltimore must learn to embrace her identity in order to keep herself safe, but it may mean letting her brother go for good.

untitledSPRUNG (book two) will be released on April 1, 2013. In Solana Beach, California we meet Skye Jackson, a seventeen-year-old girl who believes everything Baltimore never did. Ever since she was introduced to it, magic has come easily to Skye. She uses it for everything from extending her curfew to her personal GPS. But when she decides to teach a guy a lesson in order to avenge her friend, she comes to the realization that there’s a lot more to her powers than she bargained for.

In a race to fix her mistakes, Skye stumbles across a family secret which reveals a twisted destiny that may mean giving up magic forever.

SMOLDER (book three) is set for release this coming August. At least that’s my hope! Currently, there is a contest taking place on my website. Readers can take a stab at guessing the name of the next Elemental. So I won’t reveal it here, but I will tell you a little bit about Elemental #3.

She’s a Latino orphan from Brooklyn, New York. After graduating from high school, she decides to spend the summer learning more about her family. Her magical journey leads her to a historical building, a long-lost family member, and a destiny that makes her more than she ever believed she could be.

The fourth book in the series is entitled SURFACE, and takes place in Hawaii. The fourth Elemental is a bit of a know-it-all. Well versed in the girls’ destiny and purpose, she leads them to their final battle.

The fifth book is still untitled but recaps the first four stories from the point of view of Ramon, a character readers will come to know well throughout the series.

2. Tell us about your childhood in the Maritimes. How did you evolve into the writer you are today?

I like to think of the story of my life as both unusual and interesting. I was born in Moncton, New Brunswick to Guyanese immigrants. My father was a Baptist minister who first settled in New Brunswick to study at St. Thomas University and what is now known as Crandall University. We lived there for the first few years of my life.

I fondly remember, and still visit, the tiny town of McKee’s Mills, but vaguely remember time spent in Turtle Creek, New Brunswick and then on Ben Jackson Road in Nova Scotia. One of my earliest memories is when we lived in Scot’s Bay, Nova Scotia. I can still recall that little house on the hill, with a mile long driveway, tire swing, and cows in the pasture beside it. I was four or five when we moved.

LockeportWe ended up in Lockeport, Nova Scotia after that, where Dad was called to serve at the Baptist church in the middle of town. We were the only black family in Lockeport, as far as I knew. Those were some formidable years, but still filled with great memories. Our house overlooked the harbor and had a huge forest of bamboo-like plants we called Roman Sailors in the back yard. We’d go crashing through those in the summertime, playing “scouts” after hours of riding our bikes around town. It was that time (mid-eighties) and that kind of town where kids could pretty much roam free.

Memories of Lockeport are still firmly engrained in my mind: the “haunted” house just up the street, my first teacher (Ms. Nickerson), first best friends (Sarah and Gina), the beach, the waves, the smell of the salt water. Of course,those are accompanied with some less desirable ones. Like the first time I was told I was different from the other kids. My lips were bigger, my skin darker, and my parents talked funny. I was called the “N” word on the first day of school. I was five and didn’t even know what it meant.

Like most ministers’ kids, I had to learn to adjust and adapt to new surroundings very quickly. The years from age eight to fifteen were spent in rural Nova Scotia. In the small town of Morristown in the Annapolis Valley we were again the only black family around for miles. And there were still formidable experiences to be had. But, for the most part, the people in that town were accepting and I felt like I belonged. This is where I first discovered my love of writing. I spent hours in a cow pasture adjacent to our house, behind the church and right next to a graveyard. There was an oak tree in the middle of the field and I’d sit under it with a blue writing folder, loose leaf paper, and a pen.

untitledMy mother had been selling Christian books through one of those mail order companies. That’s when I discovered Janette Oke “Christian” romance novels. My sister introduced me to L.M. Montgomery. Every Anne of Green Gables book she brought home, I read too. I also read The Babysitter’s Club and R.L. Stine (my first intro to Speculative Fiction). But in all of those series, except for one (thank you for Jessi, Ann M. Martin!), there was no one who looked like me. I decided I’d just have to write those kinds of stories myself.

After we moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was excited to finally be around people like me. Only after years of living like and amongst “the other half,” I didn’t fit in. I was the Black girl who acted like she was white. That was fun. But I didn’t let it get me down. I was who I was and I liked it.

My first job was in the Halifax North Memorial Public Library where my love of books was fed on a weekly basis. I couldn’t get enough. But for years I forgot about my writing endeavors until I started studying it in college. In my first year, I was introduced to the works of Octavia E. Butler (who quickly became my favorite author) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Still, it wasn’t until my final year during a Literary Theory class that I picked up a pen again and started writing a story, based on a dream, about werewolves in San Francisco. Since then, I’ve never stopped.

ABOUT KELBIAN

Name: Kelbian Noel

Hometown: Toronto, Ontario

Education: B.A. Professional Writing & Communications Studies

School: York University

Major: Professional Writing

Minor: Communications

Occupation: Author & Freelance Writer/Editor

FAVORITE THINGS

Books: Kindred, Blood and Chocolate

Writers: Octavia E. Butler

Quote: There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ~ Maya Angelou

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It actually feels like spring here in Toronto—for once I’m not shivering through my visit, though I am wearing a hoodie I borrowed from my cousin. She’s out having Easter dinner with her in-laws so I thought I’d take a moment to blog. I’ve got way too much sugar in my system; in addition to Easter chocolate we’ve been snacking on English toffee and vintage candy from our youth, and yesterday I had the ultimate butter tart (no raisins!) at a cafe where I met African Canadian author Kelbian Noel. I’ll be posting an interview with Kelbian tomorrow to coincide with the release date of her second speculative YA novel, Sprung. Despite my sugar consumption, right now I’m feeling bitter and here’s why: Kelbian and I spent most of our time together bemoaning the difficulty of getting published while black in Canada. We also tried to develop some strategies for breaking through the color barrier, and one idea was to propose a panel to the coordinators of an established literary event. There’s an annual book festival in Toronto called Word on the Street and these are the stats they proudly share in their brochure.

images2012 Festival Demographics

  • 65% Female, 34% Male
  • 63% of our visitors have an annual household income of $50,000 and greater
  • 28.3% of our visitors have an annual household income of $100,000 and greater
  • Our visitors come from a range of age demographics (total number of visitors 215,000):

Under 17 – 18% of visitors

18-24 years – 14% of visitors

25-34 years – 20% of visitors

35-44 years – 16% of visitors

45-54 years – 13% of visitors

55+ years – 20% of visitors

  • 72% of our visitors have completed college/university
  • 33% of our visitors have completed postgraduate studies (This is up from 30.9% in 2011)
  • 73% of our visitors are from Metropolitan Toronto
  • 27% of our visitors are tourists from outside the GTA
  • 80% of our visitors describe themselves as avid readers
  • 85% of our visitors consider The Word On The Street a key cultural event

Now, close your eyes and imagine what this book festival looks like. A third of the visitors are middle-aged; the vast majority of visitors are college-educated and a third have advanced degrees; nearly two-thirds are middle class and one third of their visitors make more than a hundred grand a year. Kids account for a fifth of the visitors, but if they’re brought by these highly educated, wealthy adults, chances are they aren’t struggling with literacy. In case you don’t know the city of Toronto, let me share some other stats:

Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. In 2004, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranked Toronto second, behind Miami, Florida, in its list of the world’s cities with the largest percentage of foreign-born population. Miami’s foreign-born population is dominated by those of Cuban and Latin American descent, unlike Toronto’s foreign-born population, which is not dominated by any particular ethnic group.

The 2006 census indicates 46.9% of Toronto’s population is composed of visible minorities; 1,162,630 non-Whites, or 23% of Canada’s visible minority population, live in Toronto; of this, approximately 70% are of Asian ancestry. Annually, almost half of all immigrants to Canada settle in the Greater Toronto Area. In March 2005, Statistics Canada projected that the combined visible minority proportion will comprise a majority in both Toronto and Vancouver by 2012.

  • 2006: 46.9% (South Asian: 12.0%, Chinese: 11.4%, Black 8.4%, Filipino 4.1%, Arab/West Asian: 2.6%, Latin American 2.6%, Southeast Asian 1.5%, Korean 1.4%, multiple 1.3%, not included elsewhere 1.0%, Japanese 0.5%)

Poverty is also on the rise in Toronto, with almost 25% of the population living hand to mouth:

Toronto’s poverty rates are higher than the provincial and national average. Overall, recent immigrants fare the worse with nearly half (46 per cent) in poverty. One in three children (under age 15) is living in poverty and 31 per cent of youths (15 to 24). Housing costs is the big driver, with almost 47 per cent of all tenants paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Another 23 per cent pay an astonishing 50 per cent or more on rent.

So. Let’s revisit the stats for Word on the Street. I’ve never attended or presented at this event, but feedback from attendees seems overwhelmingly positive. Yet does this literary event accurately reflect the 21st-century city of Toronto? Are they actually achieving their objectives if their attendees represent such a small (and privileged) slice of the population? Do you think their featured authors reflect and/or are likely to appeal to people of color (who make up 50% of the city’s population)?

Mission

The Word On The Street Toronto is a non-profit organization that celebrates Canadian reading and writing, and champions literacy, primarily through a free, annual outdoor festival.

Objectives

  • To ensure that the people of Toronto know about the annual festival, and value it as having the best and broadest offerings within the Canadian publishing industry.
  • To ensure that The Word On The Street helps Toronto become 100% literate through its effective support for literacy awareness and programs.
  • To ensure that The Word On The Street Toronto is a valuable and vital event for the Canadian publishing industry and a top choice for Canadian authors, publishers and booksellers.

Right now I’m thinking it’s not worth my time to approach the organizers of this event. I may send them an email, however, and hip them to Pop Up—a nonprofit in the UK that brings literature to communities that are too often ignored by big splashy book festivals…

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imagesSomebody keeps moving the goal line post. And that somebody, of course, is me. I’ve written 3,000 words this weekend and figure if I continue to write a thousand words a day, I will finish The Deep before this month ends (exceeding my self-imposed 40K-word limit). I’ve worked the ending out in my mind but getting there isn’t as easy as it seems—or as quick. I’ve got Nevis on the brain, possibly because I met with my faculty writing mentor last week and I know I am *supposed* to be working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue this semester. Then my mother sent me an email and asked when the sequel to A Wish After Midnight will be ready—her friends are eager to read more about Genna and Judah. Then yesterday, while waiting for the train, I started sarahforbesbonettathinking about my niece and how she hasn’t yet read The Secret Garden. I have an illustrated copy and wondered if I should send it to her, but then I wished I could send her a book that could serve as a mirror for her pretty brown self. Could I adapt the story and set it in the Caribbean? Or what if I combined my interest in Sarah Bonetta Forbes with my love of magic and gardens? A little girl is brought from Africa to England and is placed at an estate where she discovers a secret and makes new friends…This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a project—my anxiety kicks up and I start looking ahead instead of rooting myself in the moment. Yesterday I came home from grocery shopping and found a sequel to The Secret Garden was on TV. I started to watch it and then switched to the 1949 black and white version of the original, which is on YouTube. Then I watched a three-hour special on gun violence in schools, imageswhich included an interview with a teary Arne Duncan. Then the news. Then Death in Paradise, this problematic British crime show set in the Caribbean. Then my favorite Irish film Once. The amazing thing is that all this television consumption doesn’t stop me from writing. In a way, the background noise helps me to focus on the novel. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. My students turn in their papers on Monday so then I’ll have to switch gears again and get my grading done. And, of course, our diversity panel at the NYPL is this coming Saturday. “There’s enough time.” That’s my new mantra. I’m having lunch with a group of friends today and part of me wants to bail. I need time to write! But I also need to get out of my head for a while—and I need to get these cupcakes out of my apartment. This is day twelve without cake…only 28 days to go!

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