PART 2. See Part 1 Here.
Black Girl Magic: a term used to celebrate the power, beauty, steadfastness, and resilience of black women. Coined by CaShawn Thompson in 2013 as a hashtag.
Second Question: How does being black woman – and once a black girl – influence your work, and your imagination? Does it affect the types of stories you tell, and the characters you create?
My imagination as a black woman is very different from my imagination as a black girl. I never really saw myself reflected in the books I read, so as a kid, I only knew I existed in the world because of sitcoms like Family Matters and people like Janet Jackson who were big deals in pop culture. I was absent in stories about kids going on adventures or solving mysteries or saving the day. Yeah, Harriet the Spy and Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown were doing cool stuff, but I never imagined doing any of it because those kids didn’t look like me. Kriss Kross and TLC and Another Bad Creation looked like me, so, I wanted to be an entertainer.
As I got older, my dreams of entertaining crumbled to dust (What can I say? I was a bookworm through and through.) But by then, there was a… vice, I guess, around my imagination. I knew Zora and Toni and Alice were authors who looked like me, but I often struggled to fully identify with the characters in their stories because I didn’t share their struggles. Reading about Hermione and Katniss and Tris was great… but they didn’t look like me. That left me with two options: write about people who looked like me, but focus on their hardships, or write about people like Katniss, but make them white.
Then WNDB happened. All it took was hearing that there were people feeling the same way I felt. The lack of people like me in kids’ books really was a problem. If people who looked like Tris and Katniss could write their stories, why couldn’t I write mine? My imagination took off.
I realized I could write whatever I wanted to write. I can write whatever I want to write. My debut features a 17-year-old African American boy who comes face-to-face with how his skin color affects the way people perceive him in the world, but my second book features three characters from different ethnic backgrounds trying to figure out the nuances of romance and sexuality. There’s a bit of me in all the characters, and many of the challenges they face are pulled from my own experiences. But they’re all different from me as well.
Historically, black women have had to be a lot of things to a lot of people without any recognition of how big a feat this is. Since slavery, there’s been an expectation that we birth and raise well-behaved children while continuing to keep up our regular workloads. Through the mid-20th Century, many black women were keeping two houses and raising two sets of children: their own, and those of their white employers. Even today, many black women are juggling the roles of mother, father, teacher, protector, and provider as single parents. As such, I feel we carry an innate pull toward empathy and can easily identify with and enter into the struggles of others. This, to me, is what makes for true to life characters and stories that get under the skin regardless of its color.
Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the US to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work. Stone lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @getnicced or on her website nicstone.info
ZETTA ELLIOT: Being a Black feminist definitely shapes my work because I see the world through a particular critical lens. But I think my identity crystallized when I was about fourteen years old—and that wasn’t a good year for me! I look at pictures from my childhood and I’m always beaming: I see a brown-skinned girl with an Afro, a big smile, and lots of confidence. And then the photographs slowly start to change as I began to internalize messages about my self-worth. I grew up in a majority white community and really struggled to find Black women role models (my mother identifies as white, though she’s mixed race). My older sister was a diva and could be pretty cruel, but one of her friends took me under her wing and helped me find a hairstylist after a bad perm left me partly bald. I kept perming my hair for years until I moved to Brooklyn; suddenly I had a circle of Black women friends who wore no makeup and wore their hair natural. I had one or two fellow Black girl nerds in Toronto, but I didn’t experience real community until I moved to the US. In NYC there were so many different ways to be Black. There wasn’t the same kind of policing I’d known as a teen, and the shaming I experienced within my family became a thing of the past as I became an independent adult. In graduate school I immersed myself in literature and scholarship by Black women, and began to identify publicly as a writer. I started to “decolonize” my imagination and that changed the direction of my writing—and taught me to have some compassion for my younger self.
I’m still a medieval geek and plan to write a Black girl Viking novel; I’ll probably always feel like an outsider in some way, and my Black female characters often grapple with that desire to belong, to be loved, and accepted for who they are. Like me, they try to reconcile how they see themselves with the way they’re perceived by others. When I give a Black girl magical powers, she often has to sacrifice something in exchange. I don’t really do happy endings and I’m not much of a romantic, so my Black female characters often question their commitment to boyfriends and family members; there’s a fair bit of betrayal and abandonment, if I’m honest. But my Black female characters also evolve and build community. They discover they’re stronger and more resilient than they ever thought possible.
Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, School Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. She is the author of over twenty books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book Bird. Her urban fantasy novel, Ship of Souls, was named a Booklist Top Ten Sci-fi/Fantasy Title for Youth. Three books published under her own imprint, Rosetta Press, have been named Best Children’s Books of the Year by the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature. Rosetta Press generates culturally relevant stories that center children who have been marginalized, misrepresented, and/or rendered invisible in traditional children’s literature. Elliott is an advocate for greater diversity and equity in publishing. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
TIFFANY JACKSON: As a girl, books with happy endings frustrated me. I knew so many kids who didn’t have such perfect outcomes and wanted to see more of those type stories on the page in order to understand what my classmates and neighbors were going through. The type of stuff I witnessed growing up in Brooklyn during the 80’s and 90’s, both good and bad, could fill dozens of books. I drew from those moments, capturing what I could only imagine others were feeling by putting myself in their shoes.
Every one of the girls in ALLEGEDLY were inspired by someone I met at some point in my lifetime. So it’s particularly frustrating chronically defending their actions or choices because others can’t fathom the life of a black girl. Comments like “No way! No girl would ever do or say that…” as if I pulled situations out of thin air. Questioning them is like questioning their and my black experience, which is just down right insulting. That’s why I make it a point to keep my stories raw. I owe it to every black girl not living the fairy tale. Their stories matter.
Tiffany D. Jackson is a TV professional by day, novelist by night, awkward black girl 24/7. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Film from Howard University and her Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School University. A Brooklyn native, she is a lover of naps, cookie dough, and beaches, currently residing in the borough she loves with her adorable chihuahua Oscar, most likely multitasking. Her debut contemporary YA novel Allegedly (Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins) hit shelves January 24th, 2017.
RANDI PINK: It’s all I know. To be honest, sometimes I struggle with the weight of it. I’ve never been outwardly vocal about my position on the idiosyncrasies associated with being a black woman. I fall back in those discussions. I listen. I observe. I’ve figured out a way to navigate my world without allowing it to slice me into tiny cynical pieces. But when I set pen to paper, I fear nothing.
Every emotion that I inadvertently hold onto release themselves into my stories and my characters. Some thought-provoking, some necessary, and some downright inappropriate (thank goodness for my incredible editor, Liz Szabla).
Randi Pink grew up in the South and attended a mostly white high school. She lives with her husband and their two rescue dogs in Birmingham, Alabama, where she works for a branch of National Public Radio. Into White is her fiction debut.
IBI ZOBOI: One of the most profound things I’ve ever learned, something that changed my whole outlook on myself and my place in the world, was about the discovery of Lucy, or Dinknesh as the locals in Kenya call her. Lucy is the name given to the oldest human-like remains found on earth—what’s considered our missing link in the human evolutionary process. She lived in the area in what is now known as Kenya. She is our common ancestor, and even as an Australopithecus, she is mother to us all. It’s much more than just the clichéd “We are all from Africa.” Lucy is the seed of our collective mitochondrial DNA. And if we were to place her within our society’s hierarchical structure, she is essentially a black woman. In my work and in my imagination, I honor a metaphorical Lucy. In telling my story or centering myself as a black woman and former black girl, I am aiming to tell a universal truth about all of humanity. In doing so, I shed light on the inner lives of the least amongst us. If it’s a story about trauma and violence against black girls, I’m presenting a sort of pulse or barometer of how we are doing as a race—a human race.
Ibi Aanu Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and is a graduate of the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Her short story, “Old Flesh Song”, is published in the award-winning Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, a collection of African American speculative fiction. Ibi received an award from the Women for her short story “At the Shores of Dawn”, which was published in One?Respe! literary journal. She won a “Tricky Talker of the Year” an annual tall-tale contest presented by the Afrikan Folk Heritage Circle. Her children’s fable, “Mama Kwanzaa & Her Seven Children”, was published in African Voices Magazine. She designed and taught a course on female archetypes in world mythology to the young women of the Sadie Nash Leadership Project where she also taught creative writing and leadership classes and she’s been a volunteer mentor with Girls Write Now, Inc. Ibi presented a paper entitled, “Oya’s Brood: Mythology and the African American Woman” for a symposium on Octavia Butler at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College. She is a recipient of a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council for her original program, the Daughters of Anacaona Writing Project, partnering with local organizations Dwa Fanm, Inc. and Haiti in Brooklyn, and Fondasyon Felicite in Haiti to conduct a 3-day workshop with teen girls in Port-au-Prince. Ibi has completed a teen fantasy novel based on Haitian myth and folklore. Her short story “The Harem” is recently published in Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. She’s a recent winner of the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation and holds an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Ibi lives in Brooklyn with her husband, visual artist and educator Joseph Zoboi, and their three young children.
NADIA HOHN: In the 1980s, I was a little Black girl with Jamaican immigrant parents growing up in Canada when neither of those identities was particularly cool, attractive, or admired. I knew who I was, my parents taught me that, however I found few African-American books and fewer still, African-Canadian books, that I could access (never mind, Caribbean- or Jamaican-themed children’s books). I sought books with kids like me and about Black, African, and Caribbean people and places. I also was a bit of an introverted nerd and loved stories. I took piano lessons, loved to draw, and read a lot. I was often making up stories or writing down interesting facts and information about people and places around the world. My Black identity shaped my worldview. Yes, these identities do affect the types of stories I tell. I noticed that my stories often deal with some form of travel or journey. Travelling is in my blood—from my African ancestors in the middle passage, to my grandfather and grandmother and great grandmothers who were migrant workers in the United States and Cuba respectively, relatives who immigrated to the Jamaican diaspora, to my parents who came to Canada, and now me in the United Arab Emirates to teach. My stories feature Black characters but are not centred on their Blackness. Yet more their stories from their points of view as Black people.
From the age of five years old, Nadia L Hohn began writing stories, drawing, and making books. Nadia is the author of the Music and Media books in the Sankofa Series to be published by Rubicon Publishing in 2015. She was awarded the Helen Issobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Book Award for her picture book manuscript, Malaika’s Costume, in 2014. In 2016, Malaika’s Costume was published as a picture book by Groundwood Books and won the 2015-2016 ETFO Children’s Literature Award. Nadia Hohn loves to write (songs, blogs, journals, stories), play piano, cook vegan dishes, travel, study arts and cultures of the African diaspora especially Caribbean folk music, Orff music education, and run. Nadia is an elementary school teacher from Toronto. She is currently working on a middle grade novel and researching biographies. The French translation of Malaika’s Costume will be published in spring 2017 and the sequel, Malaika’s Winter Carnival, in fall 2017.
TAMEKA FRYER BROWN: When I write picture books, I’m always writing for little girl me. Little girl me was obedient and didn’t express herself to adults very much, a cultural expectation that had its good and not so good points. I believe this is why my stories–both published and unpublished–tend to focus on the emotional aspect of childhood, giving voice to the myriad thoughts and feelings kids experience on a day to day basis, feelings that are universal and time transcendent. As a black mother and literacy advocate, it is important to me that the number of published, contemporary stories featuring black and brown faces increases dramatically…so I write them.
Tameka Fryer Brown has gone from medical supplies sales rep, to full-time-mom, to children’s book author. Her first title for children is Around Our Way on Neighbors’ Day (Abrams Books for Young Readers). She is the author of My Cold Plum, Lemon Pie, Bluesy Mood (Viking).
BRANDY COLBERT: When I was growing up, I didn’t know a lot of black people. I lived in a small Midwestern town with an even smaller black population, and I was one of five black kids in my graduating class of 300. People weren’t so big on celebrating differences then, and although I was definitely taught by my parents that being black was something to be proud of, sometimes that was easier to understand in theory. I was expected to speak for all black people, and most of the people I went to school with (and, later, worked with) expected me to fit a certain mold because they had little to no experience interacting with black people and trusted the images they saw from the media.
I believe my race absolutely influences my work. Now that I’m older, I’m able to put into words how I felt growing up, which is really powerful. I’ve never been shy about speaking my mind, but it’s hard to get a point across when you’re the only voice speaking your truth. I’ve been dismissed countless times, from being told that I’m imagining microaggressions to being assumed inferior because of my skin color to being reduced to a harmful stereotype before someone has met me. My work allows me to create spaces for all types of black girls who’ve been ignored or told their stories don’t matter. Writing allows me to tell the stories of girls who’ve been relegated to token or background status for years, and finally put them front and center. I haven’t yet written a story explicitly about race, but I still work hard to tackle it in some form on the page. I’ve had people say that they don’t even see me as black, or that I’m not like “other black people,” and I find that so incredibly offensive. There’s not a day in my life I forget that I’m black, so I strive to make sure my characters’ blackness is woven into the story, even in a book whose plot doesn’t tackle race relations head-on.
Brandy Colbert was born and raised in the Ozarks—more specifically, Springfield, Missouri—and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Missouri State University. Her debut novel, Pointe (Putnam, 2014), won the 2014 Cybils Award for young adult fiction and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, the Chicago Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library. She was also chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for spring 2014. Her forthcoming work can be seen in the upcoming anthologies Summer Days & Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories, Feminism for the Real World, and Triangles: The Points of Love. Her second novel, Little & Lion, will be released in spring 2017 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Brandy lives in Los Angeles where she works as a copy editor for magazines and books. Her writing is represented by Tina Wexler at ICM Partners.
RENÉE WATSON: As a young girl, I didn’t see much of myself in books. It was poetry that ignited my imagination. In the fifth grade I was in love with the writings of Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, and Gwendolyn Brooks. These poets wrote about everyday people who talked in the same vernacular as the people in my neighborhood, who were cloaked in different tones of brown skin and looked like my aunts and uncles, the pastor at my church, my best friend. Seeing my life reflected in this way was validating and gave me a great sense of pride.
Reading books didn’t have the same impact. I grew up reading Beverly Cleary—who I love. Her character Ramona lived in Portland, Oregon, my hometown. I knew the streets Ramona walked in the book. My aunt lived around the corner from Klickitat Street and every time I went to my aunt’s house, I looked for Ramona. I loved how feisty Ramona was, how she broke the mold of how girls should talk, dress, act. But Ramona was white. And while I related to her, I didn’t see my actual community in those books. I didn’t have the words for this as a child, but I do remember wondering, “Where are all the black people?” in this book. I knew we existed in that neighborhood and yet we weren’t in any of the stories in a prominent way. While I could connect with Ramona as a girl who didn’t quite fit the beauty standard, who had to work on her manners and who was a girl full of questions and sometimes insecurity, there was still something missing.
This is why I write about black girls growing up in the Pacific Northwest. I draw on the books like the Ramona Series and from the poetry of black poets who put on record the black experience. I am inspired to write stories about black girls growing up in places that are sometimes misunderstood or outright overlooked. I was that black girl. So yes, being a black woman—and once a black girl—deeply influences what I choose to write about.
Renée Watson is the author of This Side of Home (Bloomsbury 2015), which was nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Her books have received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature for her picture book Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Her one-woman show, Roses are Red Women are Blue, debuted at the Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists. One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. She has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers throughout the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. She is a team member of We Need Diverse Books and currently teaches courses on writing for children at Pine Manor College. Renée has given readings and lectures at many renowned places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. In 2015 she was honored with the STEAM award for her work in arts education by Inner City Foundation of New York, Inc. Renée grew up in Portland, Oregon and currently lives in New York City.
OLUGBEMISOLA RHUDAY-PERKOVICH: I definitely write for the girl that I was, that is still a part of me. I write for my daughter and the girls that I’ve met along the way. My Blackness influences my work and my imagination because it’s who I am, and who I am proud to be. I know that I have the freedom to be the fullness of myself, and want to share that idea with other girls and women – we have so many stories, and each and every one is precious!
Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich is the author of the middle-grade novel 8th Grade Superzero (Scholastic, 2010), co-author of Two Naomis with Audrey Vernick, and contributor to the anthologies Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press, 2013), Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices (Candlewick Press, 2013), and Imagine It Better: Visions of What School Might Be (Heinemann Educational Books, 2014). Her work has appeared in Scholastic Instructor, American Baby, and Healthy Kids, among others, and she has been a contributing editor to the teen publications Word Up! and Right On. She has taught at the Brooklyn New School, the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, and she is an Alumni Admissions Ambassador for Cornell University. She holds a B.S. from Cornell University and an M.A. from New York University.
LEAH HENDERSON: Of course. I would think that everyone’s personal experience informs her writing in some way. Even if you are describing a two-headed goblin, I’m sure there might be a few traits within that creature that are modeled after someone you have encountered in your life. J (Isn’t there a bumper sticker or something that says: Be kind. I’m a writer…Or something like that?)
Being a black woman—and once a black girl—has shaped me in every way. As a person of color, our blackness is almost always there. Always first. It rarely dissolves into the background. We are often judged by it before we even open our mouths. So when I create characters, especially characters of color, I am conscious of this feeling of always being evaluated under a microscope differently than others. But I am also very well aware of the beauty, strength, intelligence and talents we possess and I always want those gifts to come through in the characters I create.
Growing up, even though I hardly saw myself reflected in the pages of the books I read, I had parents that knew the importance of my brothers and me seeing all the possibilities of us. So we visited the Black Cowboy Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, historically black colleges, notable black landmarks, Transkei—the hometown of Nelson Mandela, and countless other places around the world where we could see the accomplishments of us. I know not every child who looks like me will be blessed with those firsthand experiences, so I try to bring life to them in my stories. I want my books, not only to entertain, but to enrich a child’s life and expand their knowledge of the world we inhabit in some small way.
I try and tell the kinds of stories that my brothers and I would have loved to read as kids. Stories that don’t just show us as sidekicks, or a voiceless, splash of brown on a page. My imagination is fueled by our many possibilities sprinkled with a dash of the unbelievable. I want a blink of magic in my own life, so I add it into my characters’ lives too.
Leah has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. She hopes these experiences help add layers of richness to her writing.
Leah received her MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and currently calls Washington D.C. home. Her middle grade novel, One Shadow On the Wall (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster), is due out June 6th, 2017. You can find Leah’s book on Goodreads. And can also follow her on twitter @LeahsMark. One of the many places she is trying to leave her mark on the world one sentence at a time.