Interview with Zetta Elliott

img_0108We welcome Zetta Elliott to the blog today. She’s an educator and a Black feminist writer of more than 20 books. After reading A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads for our group discussion (posted yesterday), we were eager to find out more about these books and how they came to exist. We’re thankful Zetta Elliott took the time to respond to our questions.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your writing journey?

Invisibility is the biggest challenge. I’ll always write–as long as I’m able–and I don’t need anyone’s permission to do that. But for a long time, I believed I needed an editor’s permission to become an author. And so for over a decade I waited and waited, and sent out query letters, and filed away all the rejections. And then I had an award-winning picture book published in 2008 and thought the doors would open wide, but the publishing industry remained closed to me. So then I started advocating for greater diversity and equity in publishing, and finally turned to self-publishing to get more of my stories into the hands of kids/teens. And then review outlets and many libraries banned self-published titles despite claiming to be desperate for diverse books…so I gave up some of my advocacy work and focused on getting more books into the world (I have two more coming out next month). I don’t think about book sales that much; I want the books to exist and to be available to those who are looking for mirrors (see below). I’m leading more workshops on indie/community-based publishing these days, and that makes me feel visible and valued because I’m showing other aspiring writers how to make their own books outside of the traditional system.

When interacting with teen readers of your books, what responses have stood out to you?

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It definitely means a lot when a teen tells me they see themselves in my books. One young woman took a picture holding up The Deep and said, “Finally, I can see myself on the cover of a book.” For me, writing a book that connects with ONE reader is enough–that’s success to me. But corporate publishers measure success in sales and awards, and they don’t market books to the kids/teens that I teach. I had another young woman write me a letter assuring me she knows there’s magic everywhere. I always tell kids that magic can happen to anyone anywhere, but books rarely reflect that. So I love that my books show kids of color at the center of a magical adventure–my books are aspirational, in a way, because they show what’s real but also what’s possible.

Are you working on a writing project you’re able to tell us about?

Right now I’m working on two books–a picture book called Milo’s Museum and a YA fantasy called The Return (sequel to The Deep). I went to Senegal two summers ago and started that novel but other projects took priority and now I’m finally ready to finish it. I wrote Milo’s Museum last spring; it’s about a little girl who doesn’t see her community reflected in the museum and so she starts her own museum in her backyard. My agent sent it out but no one was interested. I hoped to have it ready in time for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but it will probably need another week.

How did you initially get involved with the Weeksville Heritage Center?

I discovered Weeksville in the late ’90s when I was teaching a group of middle school girls in an after school program in Bed-Stuy. We were mapping our community and I was amazed to learn that some churches nearby had participated in the Underground Railroad. A trip to the Brooklyn Historical Society introduced me to Maritcha Lyons and her first-hand account of the NYC Draft Riots of 1863 led me to Weeksville and the historic houses that still stand in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. When I finished AWAM in 2003, I printed a dummy and took it over to WHC but got no response. Over the years I sent more books and always received a thank you note, but nothing else. Then Tia Powell-Harris became executive director and I met her in 2014. Within a few weeks she reached out about ways to collaborate and the next year I served 2 terms as writer-in-residence. I taught writing classes for kids and adults, hosted a salon in the 1930s house, and right now we’re working on a picture book that the center will publish themselves. Each class I worked with published an anthology, so I was able to use my expertise as an indie author. Those books are a prime example of community-based publishing.

What drew you to this time period?

I’ve always loved history and could write about any time period, really (a Viking novel is in the works), but the NYC Draft Riots were particularly interesting to me. My dissertation was on representations of rape and lynching in African American literature, and it frustrated me that people assumed acts of racial violence only happened in the South. So writing about the North was a deliberate choice and NYC has so much history that many kids/teens never learn in school (or learn in a way that’s uninteresting).

What interesting things did you learn while researching the series?

I learned SO much! It was really hard to edit and decide which events and/or historical figures to include in the novels. World building is very challenging–I wanted to give a sense of what was happening in the country AND in the larger world, but I also had to mark regional differences (Judah in the South and Genna in NYC). The hanging of Captain Gordon was interesting because many other slavers got off but Lincoln decided to make an example of this one White man who kept transporting enslaved people despite the ban on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Intersectionality is addressed multiple times in both A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads. One scene that made it especially clear was when Dr. Brant summarily dismisses Genna’s desire to study psychiatry not only because she is a Negro, but also a woman. Genna begins to see how this affects her in particular, but also how it plays out with others around her. Do you know of other authors who are also writing intersectional literature for young adults and/or how important is it that young adult writers address this?

I know that the Twinjas (publishing under the name GL Tomas) are deeply invested in deliberately and consciously writing about intersectional identities. But the truth is, even though a Black feminist scholar developed the theory (Kimberle Chrenshaw), everyone has an intersectional identity–it just isn’t always named, which is a function of privilege. So it was significant (and controversial) when Kirkus decided to start naming the race of ALL characters instead of leaving Whites as the unnamed default. Class is rarely mentioned unless a character is impoverished, and ability only comes up when a character has a disability. I’m learning to think differently about gender so that I don’t erase the specific experiences of transgender people. Some writers object to naming multiple aspects of identity in fiction, but that only preserves privilege and I do think YA authors can play a role in exposing bias in our society.

As a teacher and book club member, I appreciated the inclusion of the discussion topics, activities, and research at the end of the books. One of the questions was, “If you could change something in your life simply by making a wish, what would it be?” How would you answer that question?

Whoa–that’s a tough one! I met some teenage girls in DC last summer; they made an awesome video and their wishes were mostly for their families and communities. In this era of Black Lives Matter, it’s hard to put your own needs/desires ahead of others’. As an introvert I wish I had more daring. It’s hard for me to be open, and I’m very protective of my alone time/dream time. I crave security but that’s not the path I’ve chosen. Sometimes I wish I could embrace uncertainty instead of trying to anticipate and avoid problems before they even arise. They say, “Leap and the net will appear!” but that’s hard for me–especially as I get older. I turn 44 next month and find it harder to take risks. I sometimes joke that I’m all about artisanal pickles–I’m happy to bottle them by hand and sell at the local farmers market. Scaling up is hard…


Thanks for the interview! We eagerly await the next book in your series and wish you the best as you continue to share your stories.


Extras:
Reclaiming Black Magic

BlackademicsTVTalk 2015

You can learn more about Zetta Elliott and her writing on her website, twitter, and on Facebook.

Images provided by Zetta Elliott

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#Zettasbooks Group Discussion

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 A Wish After Midnight – Genna Colon desperately wants to escape from a drug-infested world of poverty, and every day she wishes for a different life. One day Genna’s wish is granted and she is instantly transported back to Civil War-era Brooklyn.

The Door at the Crossroads – One summer night, Genna Colon makes a fateful wish that sends her and her boyfriend Judah spiraling through time. They land hours apart in the city of Brooklyn—and in the middle of the Civil War. Genna is taken to the free Black community of Weeksville, but Judah suffers a harsher fate and is sent to the South as a slave. Judah miraculously makes his way back to Genna, but the New York City Draft Riots tear them apart once more. When Genna unexpectedly returns to her life in contemporary Brooklyn, she vows to fulfill the mandate of sankofa: “go back and fetch it.” But how will she summon the power she needs to open the door that leads back to Judah?


We’re excited to be discussing A Wish After Midnight and its sequel The Door at the Crossroads. Zetta Elliot crafted these incredible stories and we hope these two books get into many hands. We started a discussion, but would love to have others join us either on Twitter or here on the blog in the comments. If you’ve read the books, please share your thoughts. If you haven’t read the books, be aware that you will encounter what some may perceive as spoilers throughout this discussion.


***SPOILERS AHEAD***

 

Crystal: Genna explains, “Mama always told us we were black, not Hispanic. She says in America, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak. Black is black and you might as well get used to it.” Though a majority of the book happens in the past, I definitely found the book to be a commentary on contemporary times. There are many references to how people see and are seen beyond the one mentioned above. It seems sight is the most important piece of evidence when people are being judged. Genna says sometimes it’s like there’s a tattoo on her forehead that says “ghetto.” An elderly man at a garden befriends Genna and he sees in a different way. He sees what he wishes to see. He wants to see his county as a land of opportunity, but fails to see how that is not true for everyone. Genna thinks “Maybe he can do that ‘cause he’s old and white.” And then there are those who choose not to see people at all. Genna meets a woman called Nannie by the family she works for. She’s worked for them six years and they don’t know anything about her and they don’t use her given name. Nannie is nearly invisible to them unless she does something displeasing.

Audrey: There was a lot of commentary on looks, too, especially how it could be used for/against someone in the past. Paul’s biracial status and lighter complexion get a lot of commentary from Genna, Judah, and others throughout the books, both positively and negatively. In the second book, his heritage keeps him from enlisting with the white troops (he’s not white enough) and the black troops (he’s not black enough, and they know white people will attribute any success of his if he were an officer to his whiteness). Judah also got some negative commentary for wearing his hair in locs, too

Karimah: I find it interesting that you both picked up on looks in both these novels. As a light-skinned loc wearing Black woman, comments on looks & the concept of Blackness happen for me on any day ending with a Y. For me, I didn’t see either as a commentary but as what Black people from all over the diaspora deal with. It’s how we all see the world and what authors of color mean when we tell white authors that if you’re going to write a PoC, you better do your homework. While PoC’s don’t want to think about race 24/7, our skin color, our hair does require us to look at the world differently and sometimes take note of it, as Genna does when she makes a comment about the old man.

Crystal: What I love about historical fiction is learning about the time period through the eyes of a character. It makes it seem more personal and relatable. There was so much history in this book that never made it into my history classes and texts. I appreciated learning more about the Draft Riots and Weeksville. Time travel is not usually my preferred reading, but seeing contemporary life contrasted with the past was an excellent way to see how some things have changed, stayed the same, or are just called by another name.

Jessica: I went into this book having not read much about it at all, so I wasn’t expecting the twist of time travel — which I’m pretty happy about. The parallel stories of Brooklyn then and now bring clarity to both ends of history. It was fascinating to see Genna’s modern sensibilities and experiences play out way in the past.

Audrey: It was great to see the Draft Riots and Weeksville. I remember hearing about the draft riots in my history classes, but from what I recall, it had always been framed as a rich versus poor thing. The racial aspects of it had been completely glossed over. Getting Genna’s perspective on the past was powerful because she was able to point how much and how little things had truly changed. Whenever that kind of commentary pops up in time travel fiction, I love it.

Karimah: One of my favorite books of all time is Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which Elliott’s series greatly reminds me of. I know many black folk (including myself) have often theorized how we would handle being sent back 150 years ago when our lives would be in danger, and these two books and Butler’s, do a great job of answering that question. Judah’s and Genna’s different responses to their situations shows the variety of reactions I think those of us who live now would experience if we traveled back in time. Judah believes that rising up against slave masters would be so easy and has to learn the hard way that it’s not. Genna decides to take a softer approach and try to change people from the inside, and realizes that it doesn’t work as well. She does, however, become more empathetic to Nannie and others because she learns how one must make tough choices to survive. Judah, I’m still unsure of where he is headed because he has so much anger (justifiably so) and since their story is clearly not done yet, we’ll see how he continues to grow and what he ultimately learns from his horrible experience.

Jessica: Thank goodness for sequels. And I really need to read more Octavia Butler.

Audrey: It was great to have so many female characters in these books. In my experience, history classes were almost always focused on great (white) men doing great things, and we could go several class periods between mentioning white women, let alone women of color. Wish introduced us to so many different and wonderful black women and continued their development in Door.

Jessica: Definitely agree with Audrey. Loved seeing aspects of history elucidated in the book that weren’t in, like, your average history class (sigh). As an aside, I feel like I learn much more about history through reading historical fiction/YA lit and social media. Not to knock on my fabulous high school history teachers, but many things were left out or glossed over.

Karimah: This! I feel like we got the full experience of what life was like for all women in 1863, regardless of color or economic standing. I felt like Elliot showed how much and how little power women had, and how that not just white men were “doing great things”, but women were too, just in an understated manner.

Crystal: When the first book ended, I was ready to start the next immediately. Sometimes a second book doesn’t live up to the first, but that wasn’t the case here. Genna has returned to Brooklyn just in time to experience the effects of 9/11. She is trying all kinds of things to get back to Judah. She even delves into vodou. This was interesting because she gets called on her actions of picking and choosing parts of vodou and not respecting it as a religion.

Jessica: Same! I had to get to the second book, ASAP. Situating Genna’s return within the context of 9/11 worked well with the story and added a layer of history to what was going on. Also, gotta say, I was majorly stressed about Judah the entire time. When characters are separated, I’m practically skipping pages until I see them again and can stop worrying.

Audrey: Getting called out by Peter re: vodou was a great learning moment for Genna and for the readers. It was a good reminder that you can still cause offense/harm by plowing into spaces you know little about, even if you’re from a minority group, too. Coming back to Brooklyn in the wake of 9/11 was pretty fascinating for me, especially since Genna could see the hatred brewing toward Muslims and could compare it to the draft riots she got caught up in. I really liked that she started to befriend a Muslim girl in her school and that she also pushed back against her teacher and his whitewashed version of history.

Karimah: Framing Genna’s return to Brooklyn the day before 9/11 I thought was genius because that day really sets the tone of what we are experiencing today. Many of today’s teens have no memory of that day and all the turmoil that happened after. The use of 9/11, I think, was a great device to have Genna realize that while society has made some progress, things have not changed that much and that aside from technological advances making things easier, that society’s views, it’s ugliness doesn’t really change. I feel like in the first book, she romanticized her home in her desire to return, and 9/11 was the perfect reminder for her that “home in 2001” is just as racially crazy as 1863.

Karimah: I loved that Peter called her out on the vodou. I was cringing at her cultural appropriation and her unwillingness to really see her actions for what it was, but I also like that Elliott used this moment between them to show that even PoC’s sometimes have colonists thoughts because they’ve been taught the language and ideas of the oppressors. It shows that even PoC’s make the same mistakes and often struggle with realizing that what we once believed was wrong. I feel like she will grow as she learns more and comes to respect the power that she has been given.

Audrey: I really appreciated that the second book gave us a chance to backtrack and see what had happened to Judah before he was reunited with Genna in the first book. Showing what Judah’s time as a slave was like, from the auction blocks to getting whipped to trying to escape, was absolutely brutal. While I wished sometimes that he would have more compassion for other slaves (and especially for Genna), I appreciated how relentless he was in his rejection of the “good slaveholder” narrative. The “nicest” white man he encountered still had him shipped off to be tortured into compliance when he tried to run away. Both books were filled with honest moments about how horrific slavery was, from all of Nannie’s children getting sold off to what it was like to be put on an auction block.

Karimah: I totally agree. When Judah first showed up in Weeksville in “Wish”, I was so happy yet utterly heartbroken for him because of his experience with slavery. Despite it hurting so much, I was glad that Elliott included Judah’s story in “Door.” We needed to see, feel, what he experienced and what led him to become a different person. What made him keep fighting but lose hope in humanity at the same time. My heart was breaking the entire time he was in slavery, even though I knew that he would eventually escape. In fact, that one scene where he realizes he was on the Underground Railroad made me tear up because it was just so beautifully written. I was with him in that moment to be both being in wonderment of and living history.

Jessica: Yeah, that definitely made me think of privileged people’s reactions to the marginalized when it comes to anger. Tone policing, telling people to keep quiet or forgive, and so on. As if anger, grief, and bitterness at oppression and injustice isn’t valid.

Crystal: Yes, so much of what Judah experienced was painful to even read about, and I also found that moment of realization on the Underground Railroad to be powerful.

Audrey: One of my favorite things about these books was the attention to detail. Sometimes historical fiction books gloss over the finer details in order to tell the stories of grand events (and privileged people), but I felt like I got a good look of what it may have been like to be a free black woman in 1863 New York. The book was filled with great descriptions and “throwaway” lines that really fleshed out the story.

Karimah: Again, I agree with Audrey. It’s clear that Elliott took her time and researched all she could to make her world believable. I feel like if I were to go back to Brooklyn in 1863, it would look just like Elliott described it. And even Brooklyn in 2001; I feel like she captured the tension of those days & weeks after that horrible day perfectly. The feel of CA was very different than New York, so for me, Genna’s time in 2001 really brought me back and made me understand what it was truly like to live in New York right after 9/11.

Audrey: I was disappointed that Judah punched Peter when he found out Peter was gay.

Karimah: This bothered me too and for a bit felt a little out of character for Judah, but then again I do know that within the Afro-American community that people who seem to be “woke” can also be very homophobic. When we learned how he developed his belief, I felt for him, but at the same time I felt like it would make him more sympathetic. However, all characters must have their faults and this is Judah’s. It’s not great, but it’s real and I’m glad that Elliott chose to write him this way.

Audrey: I’m still a little confused on how the time travel rules work. I hope that’s explained in a future book (please say there will be another!) because right now I’m pretty confused. I don’t understand how or why Genna is bringing/not bringing people with her, and that has been bugging me. Did any of you figure it out?

Karimah: The only person I didn’t figure out was when she initially brought Judah with her. The others, I gather it’s a proximity thing, and as she get’s stronger, her pull is stronger and if people get within a certain range, she pulls them through. At least that’s how I figured it out in my head, but I’m confident that Elliott will answer that for us in the next book, because there has to be a third book. She can’t leave it with a cliffhanger!

Jessica: I was wondering that, too. Looking forward to finding out more… in the third book! 😀

Crystal: Like Karimah, I just figured it was proximity. Time travel always boggles my mind so when it’s part of the story, I try to let my thoughts slide away a bit and blur out the details. I believe at least one more book is planned so maybe more will be explained then.


Thank you for stopping by the discussion. We’d love to know your thoughts about A Wish After Midnight and The Door at the Crossroads so please share them in the comments.

Bonus: We were able to interview Zetta Elliott earlier this week so be sure and stop by tomorrow to learn more about her books and writing journey.

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Join Us for a Group Discussion

We’re happy to announce a group discussion for next month. We’ll be reading A Wish After Midnight and the sequel The Door at the Crossroads by Zetta Elliott. Our plan is to read both books and start our group discussion in early to mid-September. Near the end of September we’ll post our discussion. We hope you’ll join us in reading one and/or both of the books. Share your thoughts with us next month or on Twitter as you read. We’re excited to jump into these books and look forward to hearing from you.
wish
A Wish After Midnight

Fifteen-year old Genna Colon believes wishes can come true. When Genna flees into the garden late one night, she makes a fateful wish and finds herself instantly transported back in time to Civil War-era Brooklyn.

 

door

The Door at the Crossroads

Do you know what your heart most desires?

One summer night, Genna Colon makes a fateful wish that sends her and her boyfriend Judah spiraling through time. They land hours apart in the city of Brooklyn—and in the middle of the Civil War. Genna is taken to the free Black community of Weeksville, but Judah suffers a harsher fate and is sent to the South as a slave. Judah miraculously makes his way back to Genna, but the New York City Draft Riots tear them apart once more. When Genna unexpectedly returns to her life in contemporary Brooklyn, she vows to fulfill the mandate of sankofa: “go back and fetch it.” But how will she summon the power she needs to open the door that leads back to Judah?


 

If you want to know more, check out this great review from Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

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