Interview With Liselle Sambury, Author of Blood Like Magic

The Book

A rich, dark urban fantasy debut following a teen witch who is given a horrifying task: sacrificing her first love to save her family’s magic. The problem is, she’s never been in love—she’ll have to find the perfect guy before she can kill him.

Cover of Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury
Cover of Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

After years of waiting for her Calling—a trial every witch must pass in order to come into their powers—the one thing Voya Thomas didn’t expect was to fail. When Voya’s ancestor gives her an unprecedented second chance to complete her Calling, she agrees—and then is horrified when her task is to kill her first love. And this time, failure means every Thomas witch will be stripped of their magic.

Voya is determined to save her family’s magic no matter the cost. The problem is, Voya has never been in love, so for her to succeed, she’ll first have to find the perfect guy—and fast. Fortunately, a genetic matchmaking program has just hit the market. Her plan is to join the program, fall in love, and complete her task before the deadline. What she doesn’t count on is being paired with the infuriating Luc—how can she fall in love with a guy who seemingly wants nothing to do with her?

With mounting pressure from her family, Voya is caught between her morality and her duty to her bloodline. If she wants to save their heritage and Luc, she’ll have to find something her ancestor wants more than blood. And in witchcraft, blood is everything.

The Interview

Adira: Ms. Sambury, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you! Congratulations on your debut novel, Blood Like Magic! 

As a lover of the fantasy genre, the idea of a family of modern Black witches is something I haven’t gotten the chance to experience in my 25+ years of reading until this year. This led your book to be one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.  Can you tell me what influenced you to write Blood Like Magic and what publishing your first novel was like for you?

Liselle Sambury: At the time I decided to write Blood Like Magic, I was feeling homesick for Toronto and wanted to write something set there. And I had the idea of writing about a family of Black witches floating around in my head. I’ve always loved the paranormal, and witches definitely held a particular draw for me. Like you, I hadn’t really encountered Black witches in my reading, and when I saw them in movies and TV shows, they were often sidelined or slighted characters. I loved the idea of being able to focus solely on the story of a Black witch. 

Checkout Liselle Sambury’s AuthorTube channel!

A: The magical lore and technology in your novel set your book apart from anything I’ve read or watched on television in recent years. How did you go about crafting this world for Voya, your main character, and her family to inhabit?

LS: Once I decided that I wanted to set the book in the near future, I made a concentrated effort to blend the technology and the magic together as best as I could. I was worried about being told “why not just make this a fantasy and take the sci-fi parts out?” But that wasn’t the world I wanted to craft. I was excited about being able to blend the two genres.

As for creating them, I started out with simple rules for both the magic system and how the genetics technology would work. From there it was a lot of layering on and building up in each revision. I would get feedback and would make adjustments to make sure that everything that needed to be explained or fleshed out was getting that treatment.When it came to Voya and her family, that was a lot more organic. I had a good idea of a lot of the characters in my head, and so I just wrote their stories as I imagined them. Later on, I definitely had to do more tweaking to make sure all their goals in the story and motivation behind how they behave was clear and made sense for their characters.

A: Voya and Luc’s characters tugged on my heartstrings. Along with the rest of the characters, you emphasize that each character you’ve written has many intersecting identities (e.g., Being a dark-skinned and voluptuous Black woman who dealt with anxiety for Voya and being a Mexican and transgendered for Luc) that color how they view the world and make decisions. Did you set out to showcase specific things with each character’s personality, or was this something that just happened organically?

LS: A lot of the characters were nearly fully formed in my head, but some things just came out as I wrote them. But one thing I made sure of, is that once I formed a character’s identity, I did my best to do my research and due diligence to make sure they would be represented well. So, it was all well and good to know that Luc is trans and Mexican-Canadian, but I had to think about how that would affect his worldview, and how he moves through the world and interacts with other characters. And I thought about, okay, if this is a dark-skinned Black character, how am I portraying them? Am I falling into any traps of colorism? I love my cast of diverse characters and I wanted to make sure that real world people reading the book could experience representation that was as accurate and respectful as possible. 

A: My favorite part of Blood Like Magic is how you showcase “community” and get the nuanced nature of what it means to grow up across the African Diaspora, drawing on a collectivist nature where the group’s needs and desires are sometimes placed before the individual. This idea of community is a big thing for Voya as she tries to complete the task her ancestor, Mama Jova, set for her. As an author, were you working from a specific definition of community? And if so, did it influence how you developed your characters or any of the action in the book?

LS: I wasn’t working from any definition of community. I was really just writing what organically felt right and important to the characters. I also grew up in a house with a blended family and so that colored a lot of my experience, and in the book, I expanded it further to the community in which Voya grows up. 

A: Keeping with the theme of community, your magic system is based around the “intimacy” of your characters “knowing” their ancestors and safeguarding their family’s history. You acknowledge in your work that across the African Diaspora, this isn’t an easy thing for a lot of Black people to do because of the act of Slavery. When you were world-building, how did you compensate for your witch characters who may not have had a connection to their ancestors? Would this keep the character from becoming a witch?

LS: When I was worldbuilding, I was thinking of the question around if you could have a connection to your ancestors. And that’s something that every witch has, but that non-magical people do not. I liked bringing in that dichotomy of a world full of magic and connection to your heritage that Voya has while also acknowledging that those of us in the real world may not have that because of colonization and enslavement. It felt important to me to say so, because I think some people don’t understand that disconnection and the pain of feeling that your heritage is lost to you.

Hear Liselle Sambury and Tracy Deonn talk about approaching feedback & world building

A: You did a magnificent job in creating a diverse and inclusive future by showcasing the natural use of gender pronouns in everyday settings and having characters from various body types and heritages on display. Yet, the one place that felt as if it teetered on the edge of being regressive was the Black community. 

In Blood Like Magic, violence permeates the Black community at the hand of its members and outsiders. This can be seen in the separation into “pure” and “impure” families to the reliance on specific acts of violence that are visited on members of the community and used in magic rituals. 

When constructing Voya’s world, why was it important to show that Black bodies are still targeted with violence inside and outside their communities even in the future?

LS: Within my own worldview, I am familiar with the fact that there can be a lot of social progress in one area and not as much in another. And I’m also aware that even within already marginalized communities, Black people can be further marginalized. So, while there is progress in things like the consequences of racial-based violence, being in the future hasn’t made it stop.

I think this is grim in some ways, but it also felt real to my experience with the amount of years that have passed, and the racial injustices Black people continue to deal with. I think of Voya’s community as being complicated and there are extra challenges because those past traditions they are handing down can be overseen by the very ancestors who created them.

I feel like it is difficult to grapple with the effects of white supremacy and white power structures as a Black person, and it affects both external violence, and also how things are done within communities. The violence that exists within Voya’s community is a direct result of people trying to protect themselves based on what they suffered in the past. That is the insidious nature of it, and it can create a very complicated community in which sometimes things that seem obviously terrible, are traditions that are carried on because trauma persists. I definitely wanted to showcase the nuance there.

A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about the idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” since many publishing houses deem this as the key to having a bestseller. With topics, such as referencing American Chattel Slavery, substance abuse, and missing Black girls, Blood Like Magic walks very close to the edge of dealing with Black trauma without it being the primary catalyst for the novel’s plot. How did you approach balancing these topics without having this aspect of your book take the narrative over completely?

LS: When I first wrote Blood Like Magic, I didn’t set out to tackle a lot of those topics. Those were things that became salient to me while I was writing, and so they were incorporated into the novel. That being said, I was definitely aware of that idea of pigeonholing, and went into my novel wanting to show a fun (though dark because it’s my style) story of a family of Black witches and what this one girl is struggling with. That has always been the core of what I’m trying to do. So, as I added in more serious topics, I never worried about it overtaking the book, because they’re all parts of a world in which the focus is a girl grappling with how to carve out her future under the pressures of her family. 

I do think those stories that deal with trauma are important and necessary, but they’re not the only stories that we have, which I think is important. And I do think that publishing is improving in that I see more of those stories coming out now. 

An Author panel with Liselle Sambury, Chrystal D. Giles, Sarah Days, Louisa Onomé, & Shakirah Bourne

A: Luc’s status as a “sponsored” son of the NuGene CEO, Justin Tremblay, is one that bought up a larger conversation in the novel about colonialism and even, to a degree, the exploitation of children and the lack of resources (even in the future) in the Global South.

While I know your book is set primarily in Canada and references parts of the American South, will readers ever get to see where Luc grew up in Mexico to observe the toll of how magic and NuGene’s technological advancements have changed the trajectory of this area’s culture?

LS: This isn’t something that I plan for readers to see directly in that setting, but they will definitely see Luc reckoning with that system and how it affects Mexico and other countries with that program.

A: I know that you are an avid creator on #AuthorTube and have offered a lot of advice and reflections on your writing process in your vlogs. But, can you tell readers who may not be familiar with your content what the most valuable writing advice you’ve learned from writing your debut is?

LS: I have two! One is for before the book deal, and at that stage in my career the advice of being persistent was the most helpful. Sometimes it takes several books to where you want, and sometimes you need to take breaks, and that’s all part of the process, and the persistence of keeping at it is what will help you the most.

The second one is for after the book deal, and that was to focus on the one thing you can control: the writing. To write the best book you can, and to focus less on things like marketing and sales because you can’t control that. At the end of the day, you can come away knowing that you did your absolute best.

A: I saw on your YouTube page that you’re working on edits for the Blood Like Magic sequel. Is there anything you are able to share about the sequel?!

LS: The sequel will be out next year, and readers can look forward to Voya reckoning with the decisions made in the first one. We’ve also only really seen three of the five major Black witch families, and in the sequel, you’ll get to see them all. I’m really proud of what I’ve done with it and think it will be a satisfying series conclusion.

About Author

Photo of Author, Liselle Sambury
Liselle Sambury

Liselle Sambury is a Trinidadian Canadian author who grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and her brand of writing can be described as “messy Black girls in fantasy situations.” In her free time, she shares helpful tips for upcoming writers and details of her publishing journey through a YouTube channel dedicated to helping demystify the sometimes complicated business of being an author.

Interview With Debbie Rigaud, Author of Simone Breaks All the Rules

The Book

Late bloomers unite! Simone Breaks All the Rules fresh and funny #OwnVoices novel from rising star Debbie Rigaud is perfect for fans of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Booksmart.

Cover of "Simone Breaks All the Rules" by Debbie Rigaud
Cover of “Simone Breaks All the Rules” by Debbie Rigaud


Simone Thibodeaux’s life is sealed in a boy-proof container.

Her strict Haitian immigrant parents enforce no-dating rules and curfews, and send Simone to an all-girls school. As for prom? Simone is allowed to go on one condition: her parents will select her date (a boy from a nice Haitian immigrant family, obviously).

Simone is desperate to avoid the humiliation of the set up — especially since she’s crushing on a boy she knows her parents wouldn’t approve of. With senior year coming to a close, Simone makes a decision. She and her fellow late-bloomer friends will create a Senior Year Bucket List of all the things they haven’t had a chance to do. On the list: kissing a boy, sneaking out of the house, skipping class (gasp!), and, oh yeah — choosing your own prom date.

But as the list takes on a life of its own, things get more complicated than Simone expected. She’ll have to discover which rules are worth breaking, and which will save her from heartbreak. 

Author Interviews

Can you tell me a little about your writing process and inspiration behind Simone Breaks All the Rules?

It’s a pleasure to speak to you. Certainly, I can tell you. This is a book that has been on my heart for years. It was just about a decade ago that I wrote a very rough draft of the prologue, which is like Simone’s whole origin story. And over the years, I built the plot, tore it down and rebuilt another. This is one of those books I had to let out my system, particularly after the summer I had multiple conversations with friends about growing up in overprotected households. We exchanged war stories and laughed a lot, but underneath the laughter was a lot of head shaking and even some bitterness. I wanted to explore those feelings around the matter more.

A: Simone has a strong community built around her as the child of Haitian immigrants, and with her squad of friends, she calls the “HomeGirls.” How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel?

To me, community is a network of familes coexisting and becoming interconnected by extension. I say families, but I mean that in all forms of “related” people. But communities don’t necessarily have to be place-based. They also can be connected by common experiences, common interests or goals. I leaned on this aspect of community as I wrote the book. Yes, Simone is from the Haitian-American community, but by strongly relating to her HomeGirls, she finds an emotional home in their welcoming, newly-formed late bloomer community.

A: Were the items on the bucket list inspired by any real-life events from your teenage years? If so, did you have any experiences that were your favorite to use for Simone and the HomeGirls?

Like Simone, I was raised in a strict but joyful Haitian-American household, and during my teen years, I’d marvel at all the things friends were allowed to do and go. TV shows with teen house party scenes,  dates, etc. especially had me wondering whether other teens were really out there living their best life. Simone’s bucket list includes a couple of those best life events I yearned for. Simone gets to experience way more than I did, which was fun to write. But that feeling of watching the clock when you’re having an adventure, and coming up with alibis and yes, lies to throw your parents off your scent, are very much pulled from my own experiences.

I Read YA North Texas Teen Panel

A: I was watching a live stream you were a part of for the I Read YA North Texas Teen Panel from March, and Leah Johnson said something that really resonated with me about your novel, which was that it is “so culturally specific without feeling voyeuristic.” This assessment felt so spot on because Simone’s love of her Haitian culture and how you use the Haitian Creole dialect and history inspired me to want to look up all the cultural references from your book. Was there a greater role you wanted your usage of the Haitian Creole language and Haitian history to play in reader’s understanding of your novel?

Even though Simone isn’t fluent in Haitian Creole, nor does she speak it all that much, she understands the language fairly well. From the perspective of someone a generation removed from their parent’s country, language has a way of interplaying with emotions. It’s a wildly expressive outlet, because your parent may only speak it when you’re in trouble, for example. I wanted to convey that in this book because it deals with so many hot button emotional triggers. No one can rile you up or make you catch the fuzzy feels more than a parent or guardian who knows you best. You’ll find that Creole or Kreyol punctuates the more contentious or humorous scenes. And not to worry, I had to look up some of the phrases while writing this. Plus I consulted with a language scholar of Haitian descent, who read over the book. Shout out to Professor Cécile Accilien!

A: Even though there is a slight “tug of war” between what Simone wants and what her parents desire for her, Simone remains mindful of how much her parents have sacrificed for her as immigrants. As a parent yourself, how did you go about writing this balance into your story when writing from the perspective of a teenager?

Interesting that you mention it, because there is this balance of carrying two buckets—one that draws from my teen years and the other from the well of adult/parental experience. A lot of times I tipped that balance in favor of teen me. Even during the audiobook recording, which I narrated, you may hear in my voice when those feelings bubbled up. I felt a lot closer to a teen than a parent in those moments. The teen part of me was still very much present in those moments. It was a sweet reminder that no matter how adult you are, you’ll always be a child to the one who raised you.

A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about this idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” because many publishing houses deem this as the key to bestsellers. What I found so refreshing about your work as a Black woman is that Simone’s story allows her to have the type of “ideal teenaged experience” that I’ve always seen on television or in rom-coms. Why was it essential for you to tell Simone’s story from this angle?

Cover of "Truly Madly Royally" by Debbie Rigaud
Cover of Truly Madly Royally by Debbie Rigaud

It is because of the diverse body of work Black kid lit authors who came before me that I am able to ground Simone’s story in this much joy. Their work showed the world that we are more than our trauma. Their characters knew terrible heartache, but also sweet joy. Their voices spoke of our ambitions, even if those ambitions remained tragically out of reach. It’s a privilege to be able to give Simone the space to work on herself, express her desires and claim her ambitions. Just like a lot of her white counterparts in kid lit, she is not so overburdened by the trauma threatening her existence that the act of indulging a prom fantasy is a luxury. And even if something traumatic were to befall her, it would be clear that she is so much more than her trauma. And this is also thanks to writers who are still engaged in the labor of birthing Black characters who view themselves through their own eyes.

A: On the Writer Writer Pants On Fire Podcast, you and Mindy McGinnis talk about how YA authors are called to help in “guarding the hearts of young people” as your write. You do an excellent job at pairing social justice with romance in your books, like Zora in Truly Madly Royally and Ben’s character in Simone Breaks All the Rules, without turning them into a trauma-filled narrative. 

How do you approach striking such a well-rounded balance in your writing that allows readers to be informed without centering trauma as an author or for your readers?

Thank you for that feedback; I appreciate it. I write contemporary, and just like all of us, my characters aren’t immune to the times we live in. They are impacted by society and a part of them is understandably shaped by society. They contribute to society in ways that align with their interests and personalities. Keeping all this in mind helps me touch on social justice themes in a way that is accessible to the reader. 

YouTube Episode of Writer Writer Pants On Fire with Mindy McGinnis

A: Do you have any advice for young writers or tools that you’d recommend for them?

My advice is to recognize the storytelling happening all around you. Studying storytelling in all forms and on all platforms can help you become a better writer. In the same way your education and training happens in and out of the classroom, writing instruction comes from the world of literature and outside of it. Pay attention to storytelling in all forms and in all the platforms that interest you. Why is there a strong emotional connection to a particular story? What makes the voice so engaging, the characters so layered? It’s a fun exercise and you’ll get great at identifying what storytelling structures and themes work and don’t work for you!

A: Thank you for answering my questions and sharing your art with us, Mrs. Rigaud! I can’t wait to read your next story!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. It’s been a pleasure connecting. 😀

About the Author

Author, Debbie Rigaud
Author, Debbie Rigaud

YA author Debbie M. Rigaud began her writing career covering news and entertainment for magazines. She’s interviewed celebs, politicians, social figures and “real” girls. Her writing has appeared in Seventeen, CosmoGIRL!, Essence, J-14, Trace, Heart&Soul and Vibe Vixen, to name a few. Her first YA fiction writing was published in the anthology HALLWAY DIARIES (KimaniTru Press/September 2007). 

Interview With Tanaz Bhathena, Author of The Wrath of Amber Duology

Author, Tanaz Bhathena
Author, Tanaz Bhathena

Adira: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me about The Wrath of Ambar duology, Ms. Bhathena!

Tanaz Bhathena: Thanks for reading the books and your thoughtful questions! ❤

A: Can you tell me a little about your writing process and the inspiration behind writing Hunted By the Sky and Rising Like a Storm? Was the process for the two novels similar to each other or to when you wrote your contemporary novels, A Girl Like That and The Beauty of the Moment

TB: In terms of the inspiration for HUNTED and RISING: I really wanted to write a fantasy series that was set in medieval India, a historical period that I was obsessed with as a teen. I also wanted to bring fierce girls and women to the forefront of the narrative; I was very inspired by a North Indian welfare organization called the Gulabi Gang, which had vigilante roots. 

Photo of Sampat Pal Devi & the Gulabi Gang

Source: Gulabi Gang website
Sampat Pal Devi & the Gulabi Gang

On the writing process for the duology: In terms of plot and characterization, it was not very different from writing a contemporary novel. The main difference really was with the worldbuilding, which was really quite fun and also a process that required a lot of thinking as this was a secondary world historical fantasy and not historical fiction. Though historical accuracy isn’t paramount in such fantasy, in many ways, it can be more challenging as you really need a deep knowledge of the world you’re developing and have to think about using your research in creative and inventive ways. 

A: My favorite part of reading your duology was how rich and layered the setting and magic system of Ambar was. How did you go about researching and carrying out your world-building for Ambar? Were there any specific books or resources you drew upon when you created the magic system and mythology for the duology?

TB: Thank you! I used primary historical sources such as Ayeen Akbary by Abul Fazal Mobarak and reading historical non-fiction by authors like Ruby Lal, Abraham Eraly, and William Dalrymple. I also researched museum archives online, and made dozens of secret Pinterest boards about Mughal and Rajput miniature paintings, clothing, jewelry, and weapons. 

Cover of "Hunted By The Sky" by Tanaz Bhathena
Cover of “Hunted By The Sky” by Tanaz Bhathena

I used existing mythology from Hindu and Zoroastrian sources (such as the Mahabharat and the Shahnameh) to create my own myths and magical creatures. I also took inspiration from a popular Indian mythical trope of the avatar: where gods take on human or animal forms and come down to earth. My magic system is more of a soft magic system, which doesn’t have hard rules, but there is a definite logic to how it works. Magic also comes at a deep cost to its users. 

A: Your story is told through a split narrative between Gul, the series “Chosen One,” and Cavas, her love interest that has his own checkered past. What was your inspiration behind creating these two different characters, and did you find it hard to balance them against one another to build up to their romance and the plot twist that comes in Rising Like a Storm?

TB: I love writing multiple perspectives, so I knew from the beginning that there would be at least two if not more characters narrating this series. Both Gul and Cavas are important voices to this series because both are being persecuted in different ways. Their unique perspectives add layers to the book that wouldn’t otherwise be evident through a single person narrator. 

A: As an aspiring mental health worker, I appreciated how well you approached the topic of trauma in your books, especially in Rising Like a Storm, in regard to Gul and Cavas and how they handled what could be seen as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they are pushed into the new roles of leading the charge against the Sky King and their enemies. Why did you feel it was necessary to take the characters through the process of acknowledging and grieving their losses before you allowed Gul to unlock her magic and pushed Cavas to face new dangers?

TB: When you write about something as immense as a political revolution or a war, you need to also reveal the physical and mental toll it takes on people. I feel it’s important for readers to see that courage isn’t inherent, that it takes time to develop. Gul and Cavas facing their fears is pivotal to the storyline, but that could only happen once they understood why those fears existed in the first place. 

Drawing of the Sisters of the Golden Lotus by artist, Aishwarya Tandon

Source: Aishwarya Tandon & FierceReads.com
Drawing of the Sisters of the Golden Lotus by artist, Aishwarya Tandon

A: A large part of Gul and Cavas’ storylines is their families and the communities they draw on to prepare to fight the Sky King and their other enemies. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote your main characters and side characters, like the Sisters of the Golden Lotus, and areas such as the Tenements, in your duology? 

TB: Community to me is about family—the one you’re born into or the one you find for yourself—and this definitely plays into the storyline. While I was placing my characters in difficult situations, I also wanted to show them having support systems: they were not entirely alone. 

A: As a lover of the fantasy genre and a child of the 90s who had a limited amount of reading material in the fantasy genre that centered on characters with Black, Indigenous, or other people of color (BIPOC) who I could relate to, your mantra of “decolonizing [the] imagination” to not center the West rings so true to me. An area where I saw this happening is in your usage of language throughout The Wrath of Ambar duology. Was there a conscious choice on you and your editor’s part not to go the traditional route of italicizing or explaining phrases for Western readers that aren’t English? If so, is there a significant role you wanted language to play in your novels and world-building? 

Drawing of Gul & Cavas, the main characters in The. Wrath of Ambar duology done by Aishwarya Tandon

Source: Aishwarya Tandon & FierceReads.com
Drawing of Gul & Cavas, the main characters in The. Wrath of Ambar duology done by Aishwarya Tandon

TB: Yes, it was a conscious choice on our parts to not italicize non-English words—doing so felt like othering them. Language is a huge part of worldbuilding as it’s a gateway into a place and its people and their culture. I wanted readers to feel like they were in an Indian-inspired setting and language was a big way to bring in that immersive experience.

A: Keeping with the topic of “decolonizing imagination,” I watched a panel you did with the Carl Brandon Society called “Our Literary Mothers – Desi Authors on Influence and Inspiration,” and a topic that really resonated with me from that panel was how you and your fellow Desi panelists point out that as authors of color, you’re each telling your stories even when you draw on cultural mythology. However, you’re not always going into the writing process to “teach” the reader about your race or culture or to act as a spokesperson for any one marginalized group you belong to. As an author, have you ever felt pigeonholed to mold your writing to the will of what you think the reader may want or to protect the image of your culture or religion while staying true to the integrity of the stories your writing?

TB: All the time. It’s really a delicate balance—staying true and authentic for readers who are familiar with a culture, while also trying to be as clear as possible for those who aren’t. One thing I like to do is leave clues within a sentence to help readers interpret what a word means, without dumbing things down. I also add a glossary at the end because I feel it’s a nice little reference for readers who want to know more about the culture and it can be their starting point to Google and YouTube deep dives!

Carl Brandon Society Talk – Our Literary Mothers: Desi Authors on Influence and Inspiration Salon

A: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or resources that you’d recommend to help perfect the craft of writing?

TB: Advice: Finish the book, it won’t write itself. 

Cover of "Rising Like A Storm" by Tanaz Bhathena
Cover of “Rising Like A Storm” by Tanaz Bhathena

A couple of resources: Absolute Write Water CoolerPoets & Writers. But the best advice I can give is read a lot of books! You will learn more from reading books than you will from any creative writing class. 

A: I loved The Wrath of Ambar duology and am sad the series has ended. Are you working on any other books I can put on my TBR List?

TB: I’m hoping to be able to announce something in the coming year. 😁

A: What’s on your Summer TBR Reading List?

TB: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

and Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee.

Thank you for your time, Ms. Bhathena!

Rising Like A Storm is out now!

 

Interview With Helene Wecker, Author of “The Hidden Palace”

The Book

In this enthralling historical epic, set in New York City and the Middle East in the years leading to World War I— the long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Golem and the Jinni—Helene Wecker revisits her beloved characters Chava and Ahmad as they confront unexpected new challenges in a rapidly changing human world.

Cover of The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker
Cover of The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker

Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, able to hear the thoughts and longings of the people around her and compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a perpetually restless and free-spirited creature of fire, imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and pretend to be human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Having encountered each other under calamitous circumstances, Chava and Ahmad’s lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other. 

Each has unwittingly affected the humans around them. Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, whose brief encounter with Ahmad left her with a strange illness that makes her shiver with cold, travels to the Middle East to seek a cure. There she meets a tempestuous female jinni who’s been banished from her tribe. Back in New York, in a tenement on the Lower East Side, a little girl named Kreindel helps her rabbi father build a golem they name Yossele—not knowing that she’s about to be sent to an orphanage uptown, where the hulking Yossele will become her only friend and protector.

Spanning the tumultuous years from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of World War I, The Hidden Palace follows these lives and others as they collide and interleave. Can Chava and Ahmad find their places in the human world while remaining true to each other? Or will their opposing natures and desires eventually tear them apart—especially once they encounter, thrillingly, other beings like themselves?

Author Interview

Author, Helene Wecker
Author, Helene Wecker

Adira: Mrs. Wecker, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you! The Golem & the Jinni means so much to me as a reader since it was one of the books that kept me company while I sat with my father when he would go to treatment for dialysis. Because of this and the magical landscape you created, Chava and Ahmad are two of my favorite characters of all time.

Helen Wecker: Thank you so much! I’m truly honored, and I’m glad that The Golem and the Jinni could keep you company during a difficult time.

A: Can you tell me a little about the inspiration behind The Golem & The Jinni and The Hidden Palace and how you went about researching for your books?

HW: I started writing The Golem & the Jinni while I was at grad school for creative writing. I’d decided that for my master’s thesis I would write a series of short stories that combined tales from my own family history and from my husband’s family history. I’m Jewish and he’s Arab American, and I’ve always been struck by the similarities in our backgrounds, specifically around issues of immigration to America, language, and culture. But the stories I was writing were very realist and sort of uninspired. When I complained to a friend about it, she pointed out that I adore stories that combine realism and fantasy, and she challenged me to do that with my own work. So I decided that instead of a Jewish girl and an Arab-American boy for my main characters, I’d turn them into the most emblematic folkloric figures I could think of from each culture: a (female) golem and a (male) jinni. That opened up the whole story, and the characters developed their own personalities and struggles, instead of merely being stand-ins for myself and my husband.

Cover of The Golem & The Jinni by Helene Wecker
Cover of The Golem & The Jinni by Helene Wecker


The research process was gargantuan, especially for the first book. I’d picked 1899 because I wanted this to feel like an “old world” immigration story, a folktale set in our real history — but I’d originally thought I was writing a short story, not a novel. Once it became clear that this was going to be an actual book, I had to stop and take stock of what I really knew about 1899 New York, which wasn’t much. So I went to the Columbia University library and just started reading everything I could find about the neighborhoods and the tenements, to establish a baseline of knowledge. From there I branched off into specifics like the history of Syrian and Jewish immigration to the U.S., and the stories and folklore they brought with them, and the different religious sects and backgrounds they came from. For The Hidden Palace, I spent a lot of time researching Sophia’s travels in the Middle East. I read up on Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence, and the history of Palmyra (which is a few novels in itself), and how World War I eventually drove Lebanon into starvation. New subjects kept popping up for me to research, like the Western Union telegraph system and its messenger boys, and turn-of-the-century Jewish orphanages (I based mine on a real New York orphanage, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum). I tried to use primary sources whenever I could — which was easier than it would’ve been a decade ago, considering how much has been digitized and made available on the Internet — and I tried to fact-check everything that wasn’t a primary source. I took the research process pretty seriously even though I’m writing fiction, because I know how much the details contribute to the overall lived-in feeling of the books, and it’s important to me to get them right.

A: Why did you decide on a “golem” and “jinni” to embody your main characters? Likewise, why did you choose Chava, the golem, to be the female protagonist and Ahmad, the jinni, as your male protagonist?

HW: Hope it’s ok that I rolled this part of the question into the answer above…

The pushcart market in the East Side Ghetto of New York's Jewish Quarter was a hive of activity in the early 1900s.

Source: Ewing Galloway/Getty Images & NPR
The pushcart market in the East Side Ghetto of New York’s Jewish Quarter was a hive of activity in the early 1900s

A: Of course!

I only ask this because it reminds me of a conversation I had in my Globalism and Transnationalism Literature class in graduate school, where we discussed how women and men assimilate differently into their new communities as immigrants.

For example, while it is harder for Chava to assimilate because she is at the mercy of her empathic connection to others, as a woman, she can blend into her Jewish community easier through her inquisitiveness about the human world and her work as a baker, which forces her to interact with her neighbors. For Ahmad, though, like many other men who start anew as immigrants, he’s so stuck on the image he holds in his memory of his home country, he couldn’t adapt to his new surroundings. This leads Ahmad, unlike Chava, to shut himself away from the community of Little Syria for much of the series.

As an author, did you intentionally follow this pattern for female and male immigrants for Chava and Ahmed or any of the other characters in your books?

HW: That really is a fascinating question. I remember that during the research process, I read a few academic studies about this exact thing: that immigrant men who’d come to the U.S. for economic gain would consider themselves less tied to America, and held onto the idea of “going home” someday, much more than the women whose role it was to create a new home for their husbands and children. The expectations were so different, and so deeply gendered!

For my characters in particular, these tendencies came about as a result of their individual histories. Ahmad has a past, a life before New York, and Chava doesn’t; she can’t long for an earlier life because this is all she knows. She’s drawn to help others both by her nature and as a result of her empathic abilities, so she has more of an inner incentive to assimilate, while Ahmad — who arrives in New York against his will — is much more conflicted about humanity in general.

Now, was I more likely to make Chava an empath because I’d created her as female, and more likely to make Ahmad a loner because I’d created him male? Almost certainly! Gendered expectations strike again!

Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood

A: Be it a religious, ethnic, or a community built around a character’s magical species, so much of what you write about in The Golem & The Jinni and The Hidden Palace centers around the theme of community. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and changing settings in your novels?

HW: I define community in its broadest sense as a group of people whose interactions are framed around a shared element. You can have communities based on physical proximity, on one’s geographic or cultural origins, on shared life experiences, on something as inconsequential-seeming as a hobby. I think that we all belong to any number of these communities, all of which intersect and layer on top of each other. Our ties to them may wax and wane as our lives change. The problems come in when a person belongs to two or more communities that are antithetical to each other in some way. In my books, Chava and Ahmad become a community of two; their experiences are so distinctive that they literally have no one else who can understand them. Yet they each also belong to human communities (Chava more willingly than Ahmad) that would never accept them if they knew the truth. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to bring another golem and another jinni(yeh) into The Hidden Palace: so we could see a different intersection of these communities, these shared experiences. Chava is drawn to Yossele despite her better judgment, because the lure of that common experience is simply too strong to deny. And Dima is forcibly cast out from her original community and seeks out Ahmad in hopes of creating a new one, though it doesn’t go as planned.

A: In The Hidden Palace, you speak of the “changeability” of stories as they are retold in your Prologue. When your series takes place, humans are starting to discover electricity and make massive leaps in technology, which has changed the way humans can tell and preserve our cultural myths and ways of worship. How does this change in technology influence your method of storytelling and the action in your stories from the time the series begins in The Golem & The Jinni and then later in The Hidden Palace?

HW: The change that had the greatest impact was probably the increase in speed of communication. The telegraph had been around for decades, but by the turn of the century the service was much quicker and more streamlined, as well as completely commonplace. And then the telephones, of course, which by the 1910s were practically a household necessity, in the same way that personal e-mail exploded in the mid- to late ’90s. It made it easier for my characters to communicate with each other, even over distances. Though I did sometimes have to come up with reasons why my characters still met and talked in person, instead of just picking up the phone!

Central Park is another favorite site for the characters in Wecker’s series


A: One thing I loved about your novel is the way you center language. Your usage of language spans from having characters in the Jewish community be engrossed in learning Hebrew and harnessing its power for good and sinister purposes to having Ahmad be frustrated by the distance that grows between him and the imaginary language of the jinn. Was there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel?

HW: In The Hidden Palace I tried to use language as a signifier for community and belonging, or the lack of it. The fact that Ahmad can’t speak his own language anymore, for instance: it’s one thing to say “I have no one to talk to,” but in his case it’s literally the truth! It’s just another way in which he feels he’s assimilating to humanity against his own will. And in the case of Kreindel, the young girl who’s at the Jewish orphanage uptown, language is a tie to her father’s memory and the religious values that he taught her. So she wants to learn Hebrew as a holy language, but the orphanage insists on teaching it as a spoken language, which to her is a form of blasphemy. So in refusing to speak their language, she rejects the community that’s offered to her. And Ahmad and Chava have their own “language,” too, a private blend of human languages which they pepper with idioms and metaphors that they overhear in their walks around Manhattan. It’s just another way that they’re a private community of two.

The Washington Arch in New York City was one of the series favorite sites to visit.
The Washington Arch in New York City was one of the series favorite sites to visit.


A: While your first book is a bit easier going, The Hidden Palace tackles more hard-hitting topics, like pogroms in Eastern Europe, the rights of women and factory and railroad workers, and even what it looked like for those who had their countries turned into war zones in World War I. How did you prepare yourself as a writer to shift your perspective from being a tale of “good and evil” and a matter of two characters attempting to find their place in society in The Golem & The Jinni to touching on the more challenging subject matter in The Hidden Palace?

HW: To be honest, I sort of backed into it without a lot of planning beforehand. At first I’d envisioned The Hidden Palace as more good vs. evil, like The Golem and the Jinni, but the plot grew way too big and I had to cut it down to size. Eventually I realized that the book didn’t need a clear-cut villain for them to fight against, that the characters themselves could create the necessary conflict. But the thing about good vs. evil is that it provides a handy trajectory to plot a book around, so instead I had to weave that trajectory together out of the various threads I’d created. In the end it was a matter of trial and error, as always, as each of the main characters got their turn at playing the “villain” as they reacted (often poorly) to the changes in the world around them.

Sunlight streams through the windows in the concourse at Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 1954.
Sunlight streams through the windows in the concourse at Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 1954.


A: Speaking of “hard-hitting” topics, since the publication of The Golem & The Jinni, immigration has become a hot-button issue in America. Did this change the way you attempted to tackle this issue in The Hidden Palace or the trajectory any of your characters’ stories took?

HW: In the end, it didn’t change the book so much as it made the subject matter feel more immediate and urgent. I also felt the echoes of the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis that it caused; in fact, I was researching the Palmyra sections of the book just as ISIL took control of Palmyra in 2015 and went about destroying parts of the ruins. Around that time I wrote a version of Dima in which she was a refugee who’d barely escaped Syria with her life. But it made the character too instantly sympathetic and messed with her motivations, so I changed her back before too long.

A: Are there any authors that influenced your writing or that you’d recommend readers put on their Summer TBR List?

HW: Oh, too many to list! I discovered Ursula K. LeGuin far too late in life, and I’ve been slowly working my way through her collected works. What a staggering mind that woman had. Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series is lighter than LeGuin, and a hell of a lot of fun. It features a humanoid construct that’s built for servitude and defense but escapes its masters, so of course it reminds me of Chava, though it curses a hell of a lot more than Chava does!

A: I love this series so much and can’t wait to read the next book in the series. Are you working on any writing projects you can share with readers?

HW: At the moment, I’m still recovering from the process of getting The Hidden Palace out the door! But I hope to start researching for the next book before too long, and I really hope that it doesn’t take another seven years before Book Three is finished!

A: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me, Mrs. Wecker!

HW: Thank you! I loved the questions!

Readers, comment below and tell me what do you think life was like in New York during the early 1900s?

Interview With Olivia Keenan, Author of Face Me: a declaration

Poetry Collection

Face Me: a declaration by Olivia Keenan

Face Me: a declaration reveals the complexities of a mixed race identity through religion, sex, American history, and colorism. The poems in Face Me reject any white supremacy that dictates Biblical interpretations, historical truths, and beauty standards. This collection of poems follows a journey that begins in uncertainty, but concludes in celebration. Within its pages, declarations are unwaveringly signed and spoken. Black bodies are praised and exalted. Faith is reexamined and reclaimed. And Face Me exists not as a question, but as a command. 

Interview

Thank you so much for your time and for offering me the opportunity to read your poetry collection, Face Me: a declaration, Ms. Keenan! So far, I’ve read it twice, and each time something new jumps out at me.

Adira: What was your inspiration for Face Me: a declaration? Did you always know you wanted to write this work in the form of poetry, or did you have another medium in mind?

Olivia KeenanI have been writing poetry since I was in middle school, and I have always been especially inspired by slam poetry. A lot of the poems in the book came from slam poems I wrote and performed during open mics at my university. Therefore, it was always a book of poems, but many of the poems were inspired by pieces I wrote to be performed as spoken word. 

Author, Olivia Keenan
Author, Olivia Keenan

A: I ask this because you have some stunning pictures included in your collection that offer readers a glimpse of the very body you are seeking to reclaim in your poetry. Is there a story behind these photos?

OK: Yes, there is a story behind the photos. I took a photography class in high school, and I think that is where I learned about the power of photos, especially when accompanied with words. Therefore, I wanted to incorporate photography alongside the journey of the poems. While the poems were inspired by slam poetry, the photos were inspired by the poems. 

I have four sets of photos: one of my face, one of my feet, one of my hands, and a final one of my stomach. The same picture or a similar picture of each of these body parts shows up in each section of my book. So, I wanted the photos of the first part to not only embody the themes of the first section (shame, hurt, pain), but to also show a sense of growth within the other photos from the second and third section. 

A: There are three sections in Face Me: a declaration: “exposition,” “development,” and “recapitulation.” 

In each section, you take care in showing the speaker, who is a Black woman of mixed-race heritage, as she’s gradually coming undone and then carefully stitching herself back together again to reestablish her identity on her own terms. In the final section, readers see the speaker reveling in her agency and taking ownership of her body. 

As a writer, did you find that your experiences as a Black woman of mixed race impacted the topics you explored in your collection? If so, were there any real-life moments or emotions that found their way into your writing?

OK: I love this question! And I love the way the question encapsulates the purpose of the three sections in the book. The poems are full of my experiences; sometimes the book feels like an autobiography of my journey through high school and college. For example, most of the poems in the first section are inspired by my experiences in high school and the beginning of college, which was a time where I was most ashamed of my body and myself. I discuss being Black in suburbia and suburban high schools, and being mixed in a very segregated city. I go to the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson, and when I first entered, I had an idealized view of Jefferson from my previous education. My experiences in high school and the beginning of college were heavily influenced by my desire, or need at times, to please white people (especially white men). So I think the first section is most influenced by those themes. 

In the second section, my experiences as a freshman in college are dominated by an enlightenment of sorts. I start to question the religious groups I am a part of, and to question my desire to please white Americans (such as Jefferson). The section also includes experiences I’ve had with men in college, and exposes how I feel about my body when I, too, look at it through a white gaze. Therefore, I think this section reveals moments when I recognize where my shame is coming from, or when my hurt and pain come from white superiority. 

In the final section, my most recent emotions come to light. But these experiences are somewhat more abstract. The section more so signifies a period of reclamation and celebration of the body and mind. It isn’t a one-time experience, but rather months of reflection. 

A: You start your collection off with “click.” Here, your speaker appears to be parsing through her feelings about the murder of a Black man while also showing moments where she is unsure about her own Blackness. She does this while also succumbing to moments where her implicit bias toward other Black people peeks through in times of panic. Why was it important for you to start your poetry collection simultaneously tackling all three of these issues?

OK: I think it was important for me to start the poetry collection with this because it was one of the poems that kicked off the whole project. Most of the poems are heavily edited and revised. This poem was written hastily at like 3 AM during the summer of 2020. It is not heavily edited, and it tackles things through a stream of consciousness style of writing. I wrote it minutes after watching a video of the murder of George Floyd on Instagram. I wanted to show right away the desperation of my poetry, and how one instance of violence towards Black people impacted me in so many ways. It made me scared, and confused, and ashamed, and angry. I thought a poem that dealt with so many issues, in such a desperate way, would start off the book appropriately– in order to show readers why I needed to write to parse through so many layers of emotions. 

A: One of the things that drew me to Face Me: a declaration originally was your reading of “princess mobutu” on Instagram.

The line where you state, “I am not a slave story/ I am not enslaved to a story,” feels apropos in a time where African-Americans and Americans alike are beginning to come to terms with the fact that our race has been pigeonholed into having our stories start (and sometimes end) with American Chattel Slavery as the nation’s only reference point to who we are expected to be. 

With this in mind, is there a specific audience or moment in American history that you are speaking to with your work?

OK: I’m glad you pointed out that line, because I think it embodies most of what I was trying to get across in the poem. The specific, intended audience of the poem is girls like me: especially little Black girls who need a Disney princess who looks like them. Unfortunately, most of the representation I saw of Black people in movies as a young girl had to do with slavery or struggling through racism. Rarely did I just see a Black woman enjoying life, or being rescued by the prince, or being a superhero! Therefore, that line is Princess Mobutu claiming she is not “enslaved” to any stories of struggle and pain. Princess Mobutu claims her own story, and that is a character I know I would have benefitted from seeing as an impressionable young girl. 

A: The theme of fetishization of Black and female bodies appears to play a major role in poems, like “white boys still don’t let me sign the damn declaration of independence” and “Me and Jefferson.” 

In these two poems, I’m reminded of the tug-of-war between how historians see Sally Hemings and her historical battle to establish agency over her body as a Black woman who was enslaved and engaged in a “relationship” with her enslaver, Thomas Jefferson, to your speaker. Even though these Hemings and your speaker exist in two separate eras of American history, the fact that they’re both wrestling to have ownership over their bodies and sexualities under the White male gaze doesn’t feel too far off.

Was this connection between your speaker and Sally Hemings intentional in your work? 

OK: There is definitely a connection between my speaker and Sally Hemings in my work, but I also intentionally keep it ambiguous. As I mentioned previously, I am a student at the University of Virginia, which is a place where Thomas Jefferson is heavily discussed, both to be idolized and criticized. So it wasn’t until I was in college that I made the connection between Sally and I, but all of the emotions in the book towards my body and the white male gaze have been there my whole life — before I ever knew who Sally Hemings was. I wanted to demonstrate how history repeats itself, even as a university student in 2021. But I also wanted to keep any connections nameless, because I know many Black women of all ages and time periods can relate to wrestling with their own bodies and sexualities in a much similar way. 

I also mention Jefferson a lot, and I make sure to mention him by name. And I think when people see Jefferson juxtaposed with a Black woman, they immediately think of Sally Hemings. I wanted this effect, once again, to accentuate the cyclical history of fetishization of Black female bodies.

A: The same way historians grapple with the question of Sally Hemings ability to have a “consensual” relationship with Thomas Jefferson because of her status as an enslaved woman feels similar to how Christianity has modified the original meaning of the Song of Songs in the Bible’s Old Testament to fit their message. 

While there’s little evidence of it in the text, many Christians and Jews have taken to using the Song of Songs as an allegory for “Christ’s love for His bride, the church” instead of a poem about mutual desire and a woman being in command of her sexuality. In the “recapitulation” section of Face Me: a declaration, though, we continuously see your speaker reclaiming passages of this Biblical text and remaking it to fit her sexual desire.

As a person of faith who lives in a time when sexuality, especially for women and female-bodied persons, is heavily guarded by the messaging in traditional Christianity, why did you feel it was important to insert this message of female agency and ownership into your poems?

Photo of Sally Hemings
Photo of Sally Hemings

I think it was important for me to insert this message into my poems because the book begins in a place of shame and rejection. And I wanted to include all the ways I’ve felt ashamed, because being a Black female in America is so multi-faceted and intersectional. I’ve felt rejected by America and American history, or white individuals in my life, or educational institutions, and I’ve especially felt rejected from Christianity. Therefore I think most of my shame was rooted in Christianity, particularly from what I’ve been told by white Christians. 

Throughout the beginning of the book I seem to think that my “liberation” can be found if I please the white gaze, or even if I succumb to being sexualized by the white gaze. At the same time, I felt ashamed for merely being sexual, or having sexual desires. The book concludes where I reclaim the beauty of my body, and understand that I can find liberation when I reject the white gaze. Rejecting the white gaze also means rejecting shame I’ve accumulated from Christianity. So I am also liberated from sexual shame, and can reclaim the beauty of my sexual being and desires. 

A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?

OK: My poetry is heavily influenced by slam poetry, both of my own and of others’. It is therefore influenced by contemporary Black poets who also partake in slam poetry and spoken word. Some of these poets include Danez Smith, Jericho Brown, and Raych Jackson. I think some of my descriptions and understandings of God are influenced by The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Mary Oliver. My interactions with the history of Thomas Jefferson are inspired by Mistress by Chet’La Sebree. The photos are influenced by black and white photography in general. But I particularly love the book Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and how that book uses photography with poetry and the written word. 

A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?

OK: My biggest advice is to take advantage of the time you have to write. I don’t think I would have been able to write a book if not for COVID. Because of COVID, all of my plans for the summer of 2020 were cancelled, and then when the school year started, most of my extracurricular activities were postponed too. This meant I had a LOT of time to write, and I took advantage of that time. Even when I wasn’t writing specifically for my book, I was taking time to journal or write random poems. I think my consistency with writing when I had time also improved my mental health and self-confidence during a difficult year. Finding time to write about literally anything is one of the best moves I made in the past year! 

A: I want to commend you on how raw and evocative your writing is in Face Me: a declaration. There’s so much depth to your work that I keep thinking about the poems well after I’ve closed the collection’s pages. Are you working on anything new readers can look forward to?

OK: I am not working on anything right now — I think I am pretty tired! But I am an English Major with a concentration in Poetry writing, so I will have to write a manuscript in my final semester of college (in two years). I think that by that point I will feel refreshed again, and hopefully another collection will come then! I also do open mics at my university, so maybe I will have a few new performance poems in the upcoming year!  

A: Thank you so much for your time and the opportunity to review your poetry collection, Ms. Keenan. I can’t wait to see what you publish next!

Thank you so much for your wonderful and thoughtful questions! I loved answering these, and I appreciate you taking the time to do all of this 🙂 

Interview With Dawnie Walton, Author of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev

The Book

An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

Book Cover of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

The Interview

Adira: Ms. Walton, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev! Congratulations on your debut novel! The Final Revival of Opal & Nev was a rollercoaster of a read, and I loved every second of it. Can you tell me how you went about coming up with this idea and researching to create such an intricate novel?

Dawnie Walton: I’ve always been interested in interrogating my teenage obsession with alternative and indie rock. Seeing the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk and understanding that there was an audience of other Black fans who might be interested in those explorations too was a crucial first step to even dreaming about a book like this. But it would take another 10 years, and another documentary, for the spark of Opal & Nev to really ignite. Watching Twenty Feet From Stardom, I was mesmerized by concert footage of Talking Heads and their two Black women background singers, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. I didn’t know their names at the time, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I had this image of one of them at center stage with David Byrne — not at as his backup, but as his equal partner. That image wouldn’t let me go, and was the start of the characters I developed. 

In this video you can see Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt singing and dancing as background vocalist for the Talking Heads.

A: For me, Opal & Nev were so well-written, I honestly felt like they were real music artists that I was just discovering while reading your novel. This made me curious about your influence for each character and the acts that they come in contact with as they were becoming stars. 

I noticed that your Instagram page is curated with Black musicians. But were there any musical artists in particular who you drew on when creating Opal and Nev’s characters or the other musical acts in your novel?

Author photo of Dawnie Walton
Author, Dawnie Walton

DW: Yes! Each character is an amalgamation of real artists whose music and public images I’ve found interesting in different ways. There were three core inspirations I looked to while developing Opal’s style and substance — Grace Jones, Nona Hendryx, and Betty Davis — but there are bits of other bold, envelope-pushing Black women in there too (Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone, for instance). For Nev, I was thinking more about career trajectories and the concept of the chameleonic rock star, especially those men who’ve had success across a long span of time and changing musical directions. There’s the Brits like David Bowie, Elton John, and Rod Stewart, but also hints of Bob Dylan. 

A: In my mind, I initially went to Grace Jones as a stand-in for Opal when you described her character as being “dark-skinned” and having a flamboyant style. My choice also has to do with the fact that Opal was initially meant to be a sort of “muse” for Nev like Grace Jones was for various artists throughout her time in the spotlight. 

Yet, Opal immediately turns into a main attraction, and when her talent starts to rival Nev’s, she switches from an accessory to an adversary in the end. This is also something that we see happen to Sunny, the story’s editor, in her workplace. This made me think of a line in the article, “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat” by Erika Stallings, where Stallings says, “when Black women resist their status as pets, they find themselves transforming into a threat.” 

While I know Stallings is talking about corporate America, was the choice in making Opal a muse for Nev meant to reflect the way Black female artists are pigeonholed into walking a fine line between being pets or caricatures of themselves versus taking on full autonomy as artists?

DW: I wanted to broach the power dynamics between the two characters. Opal initially joins Nev as a “featured singer” — the album is still his, and the songs are all from his perspective. Opal is looking for any way into the business that she can get, but, as she tells Sunny in hindsight, she was uncomfortable with that status as muse. She felt an expectation from Nev that she would inspire and sharpen his work, and yet she had her own dreams and her own work to do. So once Opal breaks out following the pivotal concert that launches them to the spotlight, that power dynamic between them suddenly shifts, and Nev finds it difficult to cope with that. His resentment is a piece of the fallout that dooms a true partnership between them.

Some Inspiration for Opal Jewel

A: As clear as I could picture Opal in my mind, I found that I couldn’t pinpoint Nev so easily. This felt symbolic to me since Nev’s character waffles between being this loveable character into morphing into someone less loveable as he gains fame. 

While his character isn’t as detestable as one of the Bond Brothers, a Southern rock band in the novel, or even as verbally off-putting as Howie Kelly, the record owner Opal and Nev are signed to, Nev makes several very specific choices that call his allyship into question. Where the music industry pigeonholes Opal, Nev is giving free rein to experiment with his craft. Are we as readers meant to come away with a specific feeling or understanding from this dynamic and Nev as a character?

DW: This gets at the chameleonic quality in Nev that I mentioned earlier — the ways in which he is afforded unlimited chances and opportunities to be whatever kind of artist strikes his fancy, in a way that Opal is not. That aspect is not actively Nev’s fault; it’s simply his privilege, and the way that people like him benefit from systemic white supremacy while others like Opal are thwarted. Where things get more dicey is…well, we’re getting into spoiler territory now, LOL. So what I’ll say is that Nev’s relationship to his own privilege, especially in those moments when his ambition drives him, becomes quite eyebrow raising. 

A: You touch on the theme of community in The Final Revival of Opal & Nev multiple times where Opal is concerned. From the fans, who christen themselves as “The Mercurials,” to her sister, Pearl, and best friend turned stylist, Virgil, Opal is constantly surrounded by her tribe on her journey through stardom. Yet, it seems that Nev suffers a far different fate.

Some Inspiration for Nev

Was there a specific definition for “community” that you kept in mind as you wrote each characters’ storyline, and if so, how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote each main characters’ ascent to stardom? 

DW: I was very intentional in giving Opal family, both birth (Pearl) and chosen (Virgil, Miss Ernestine, Jimmy, even Sunny, to a certain degree). That community is key in supporting her, yes, but also holding her to account when she needs it. She carries that community with her wherever she goes, and as such she’s able to think more broadly, more communally, about who she is becoming, how she steps into the world, and how she uses her platform. That community mindset, in my experience, is part of that “Black abundance” Kiese Layman writes about in Heavy. So while both characters are unique, yes — different, quirky, whatever you want to call it — I would make the distinction that Nev is actually an individualist. Now, take the definition of that to an extreme, and you can imagine how their paths clash and diverge.   

A: Even though Opal & Nev are the main focus of your novel, Sunny, the editor, plays a big part in my love for your book. Her passion for her craft and desire to get to the truth behind the night her father, Jimmy, was murdered was so well-written, I got chills reading her parts. How did you manage to create such a clear voice for her character and the other characters in your novel?

DW: Sunny was easy for me to channel because she’s an extension of my own conflicts, curiosities, and cultural critiques. Writing her Editor’s Notes at times felt like putting on my old journalist’s hat — being open to (but also squinting hard at) the characters and their stories, analyzing them from every angle. At other times, especially toward the end when the professional distance Sunny tries to keep begins to falter, she became a vessel for my experiences as a music fan. Through her, I write about how it feels in your body to hear live music, or how your heart might break when someone you’ve idolized disappoints you. 

As for the other characters, I just tried to lock into the quirks of their voices. I thought about each one down to the curse words they would or would not say. Strangely enough, that was very helpful in differentiating them.  

A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about this idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” since many publishing houses deem this as the key to having a bestseller. Even though there is a traumatic event that takes place in Opal and Nev’s story that’s a main element in your book, the story itself doesn’t necessarily revert to being about trauma. How do you approach striking such a well-rounded balance in your writing that allows readers to be informed without becoming overwhelming by horrific events you’re writing about?

DW: Black life is not 100 percent trauma or 100 percent joy, and I wanted all the Black lives in this novel to feel very real in terms of that balance. But here’s the other thing, and it’s quite simple: I loved Opal. Mess and all. And because I Ioved her I rooted for her, and I wanted my intended audience — other Black women who could perhaps see aspects of themselves in her — to root for her too, to have hope for her, to see her living out more than pain. So I gave her laughter, some luxury, and moments of leisure; I had her landing some punches of her own. There’s a chapter in the book where I send Opal on vacation to Paris for rest and perspective following a volatile tour, and I worried that I would be criticized for going on a tangent from the core plot — but for me, that chapter’s not a tangent at all. I had drawn a character who valued herself, and so self-love and care were part of her story. I worried about young Opal as if she were my responsibility, my charge.  

“Black life is not 100 percent trauma or 100 percent joy, and I wanted all the Black lives in this novel to feel very real in terms of that balance.”

A: Since The Final Revival of Opal & Nev revolves around music, do you have any songs or artists that you’ve been listening to or watching during Quarantine?

DW: My fascination with 1970s music continues, and the research around this particular book had me digging into the catalogs and deep cuts of Black women whose hits I already knew (like Grace Jones, Tina Turner, and Poly Styrene). And every now and then a hidden figure will pop up and I’ll get obsessed. Tina Bell, the frontwoman of the Seattle proto-grunge band Bam Bam, is relatively new to me, and so are many of the artists the scholar Maureen Mahon writes about in her book Black Diamond Queens

Cover of Black Diamond Queens by Maureen Mahon, a book Walton used to help her with background research

A: Can you give us a sneak peek into what’s next in your writing? Will there be a film or television adaption for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev or possibly even a sequel?! 🙏🏿❤️🤞🏿

DW: A screen adaptation would be an absolute dream. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it! At the moment I’m not planning to write an Opal & Nev sequel, although I’m playing around with an idea loosely inspired by a section of the novel (about Sunny’s coming-of-age) that got cut. I still love that section, it just didn’t belong in O&N. I hope it might be something entirely new.

A: Can you offer any tools or advice for people who want to write multi-faceted stories, like yours, to help them hone their craft?

DW: The first thing I always say is that you have to be obsessed with the story you’re telling. That mix of passion and extreme curiosity will bring you back to the page again and again, even when it gets very hard, and will keep the process feeling like play. Second, if your story has multiple characters, approach each — even the ones who are questionable — with some degree of empathy. Understand the factors that led to their identities, and you’ll find a way to crack their stories wide open. 

A: Ms. Walton, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me! Your novel is definitely one of my top reads of the year. I can’t wait to read what you’re working on next!

DW: Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions!

Author Info

Dawnie Walton was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2018) and holds a journalism degree from Florida A&M University (1997). Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly magazines, she has received fellowships in fiction writing from MacDowell and the Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is her first novel. Visit her website at https://www.dawniewalton.com.

Interview With Angeline Boulley, Author of Firekeeper’s Daughter

II: Mrs. Boulley, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you! Congratulations on your debut novel! 

A: Thank you so much! Please call me Angeline. (I’m not a Mrs.)

Cover of Firekeeper’s Daughter bay Angeline Boulley

II: I just finished Firekeeper’s Daughter, and it absolutely blew me away! Can you tell me what influenced you to write this novel and what the process of writing and publishing your first novel was like for you? 

A: It has been such a long process! I first had the idea when I was 18, but I didn’t start writing it until I was 44 and my own children were teens and pre-teens. I spent ten years writing and revising. Finally in 2019 I was ready to get an agent and try for a book deal. So I had a very long incubation period for the story but everything took off quickly at that point. I had an agent three weeks after I started querying. I did a modest revision over the summer based on my agent’s feedback. The manuscript went out on submission in mid-September and two weeks later there was a 12-party auction. Two weeks after that, there was a film option deal with the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions for a Netflix series.

II: As a biracial Anishinaabe and Ojibwe woman who also has French roots, there is a strong sense of community that Daunis Fontaine frequently references within Firekeeper’s Daughter. How would you define community, and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote the characters and setting in your novel? 

A: I define community as people bonded by their connection to land, family, teachings, and history. I wanted Daunis’s heritage to reflect the history of Sault Ste. Marie. Her background is that mixture of Anishinaabe, French, and Italian that made the town what it is now. I did this because our struggle for identity is also a struggle for a community to recognize the contributions of all. 

II: My favorite part of your novel is the way that you center Ojibwe and Anishinaabe culture. This can especially be seen in the way that Daunis and her family use the Anishinaabemowin language throughout the novel. Was there a conscious choice on your part to not go the traditional route of italicizing the Anishinaabemowin phrases and categorize these lines as “out of the norm” for readers to truly have to immerse themselves into Daunis’ world and see from her point of view? If so, is there a greater role you wanted language to play in your novel? 

A: Yes. It was a conscious decision not to italicize because Anishinaabemowin is not a “foreign” language. I wanted the language to feel very organic, where readers could figure out what a word meant through context instead of a glossary. The story is told from Daunis’ point of view and the language is a big part of her cultural teachings and upbringing. I couldn’t have readers inside her mind without immersing people in the language. I was extremely fortunate to have Dr. Margaret Noodin from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee be part of the editing process with my publisher. She loved the story and saw its potential as a teaching tool for people learning Anishinaabemowin. So, yes, I saw a greater role for language to play in the novel.  

Author Interview with Angeline Boulley

II: You mentioned on your website that you were apart of the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) Young Adult Mentorship Program for the 2018 class. This non-profit’s movement to diversify the publishing industry has brought forth amazing novels from voices that were once pushed to the publishing field’s margins. As a Native writer who is writing in this “new era,” do you ever feel pressure to represent the broad spectrum of Indigenous culture within your work? And if so, how do you pushback on that narrative of the “single story” that Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color are still forced into despite the WNDB movement?

A: No. I don’t feel pressure to represent a broad spectrum of Indigenous culture. I am committed to telling stories set in my tribal community, while acknowledging the diversity within bands, clans, and families. I’ve been vocal about pushing back on the “single story” narrative. I bring up in interviews and conference panels that there are so many stories from underrepresented communities. BIPOC authors may have other storytelling formats – beyond the typical Three Act Structure – that are like treasures readers haven’t experienced before. I’ve also discussed how important it is for the publishing world to recognize the richness, depth, and nuance that can come when an author writes from their lived experience.  

II: Who are some of your favorite authors or literary influences that have inspired your work?

A: Growing up, I loved Nancy Drew and tried to solve each mystery before she did. Reading Robert Cormier’s I am the Cheese was a revelation – it took such a dark turn and sparked my interest in telling stories that didn’t end with everything neatly wrapped up with a pretty bow. This, of course, led to my reading Lois Duncan and Shirley Jackson. My author idols currently are Louise Erdrich, Courtney Summers, Marcie R. Rendon, Tommy Orange, Terese Mailhot, Roxane Gay, Melissa Alberts, and Francisco Stork. (I could go on and on!)

Thank you so much for your time Angeline! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions! I can’t wait to read more of your work!

Angeline Boulley

Firekeeper’s Daughter is out now! Purchase it now!

About The Author

Angeline Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a storyteller who writes about her Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is a former Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Angeline lives in southwest Michigan, but her home will always be on Sugar Island. Firekeeper’s Daughter is her debut novel.

Interview With Athena Dixon, Author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman

A: Thank you for your time, Ms. Dixon! I got a chance to read your essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and your poetry collection, No God In This Room, last month, and both pieces really resonated with me!

What was the process like writing and getting The Incredible Shrinking Woman published? Did you find your experience with an independent press different than working with a larger publisher?

AD: The manuscript started as a series of individual essays in 2012. I was going through a pretty rough breakup and I found poetry wasn’t giving me the space I needed to express everything I was feeling. I began writing personal essays as a remedy. In 2016, I attended a creative non-fiction conference and started toying with the idea of pulling together a book. I threw together every essay I’d written over that four-year span and started trying to make sense of it. It didn’t go too well and I went back and forth in adding and subtracting pieces from it. I continued to write and publish work from time to time and in late 2019 I thought I’d come up with a decent manuscript. I researched presses I thought would be a good home for the book and came up with a list of four. I did not pursue publishing with a larger press at all. Fortunately for me, Split/Lip was on my first-choice list and wanted to give the book home. 

Working with an independent press has been great! From the very beginning I’ve felt that they were not only interested in the book, but also me as a person. Writing personal essays can be a very scary thing and having a group of people working on your project who respect that is a gift. Being with an indie press allowed me to have a stronger voice in the kinds of edits I was willing or unwilling to accept. I also had amazing freedom in deciding on my cover design, promo events, and blurbs. It felt more like a collaboration than someone doing me a favor by publishing my work. 

Book Cover of The Incredible Shrinking Woman by Athena Dixon

A: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing The Incredible Shrinking Woman

AD: I generally consider myself my first audience and from there I hope to find a connection with people who’ve had similar experiences. I hope that I am writing for people who feel on the fringes or invisible—kinda like background music. Those people who help make the world go ‘round but aren’t necessarily the ones in the spotlight. I think it is important to craft stories for audiences who are dynamic and interesting in ways that may not always get attention. There is a world of people who feel as if they don’t have a voice and I hope that in my exploration of my own invisibility and shrinking I am helping them be seen and heard as well.  

A: In a virtual craft chat with The Writer’s Center, you mentioned “wanting to be seen and then being afraid when you [were] seen [and] working through what you’re asking people to see.” Did this sentiment play into naming your essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman?

AD: The collection had several names, but this one seemed to fit the best once the final slate of essays was solidified. When I began writing, I thought I was writing about something completely different, but as the manuscript progressed it seemed more and more, I was writing about ideas of shrinking and invisibility. I’d never considered just how much time I’d spent trying to fit into boxes and roles that never seemed to contain all I believe I am. But I also had to confront what it means to be seen. Asking for it and actually having it are worlds different. There’s a bit of a play on words with the title, too. There is the active shrinking that takes place, but there are also elements of a sideshow or exposure in the use of the word incredible. 

Virtual Craft Chat with Athena Dixon

A: My favorite essay in your collection is “Reader’s Insert.” In the piece, you say:

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve slipped myself into roles that don’t quite fit, roles that aren’t quite real…I’ve always felt invisible, so accurately telling the story of me starts with a disappearing act. 

Invisible. It’s a word that has gotten blowback from friends and family in ways I never expected. I suppose they think they see me. But I don’t think anyone really does. At least in terms of a whole person, that is.”

This quote resonated with me because, as a Black woman, there seems to be a substantial gap between the expectations placed on us individually and as a group versus the actual empathy that is offered to us as human beings. Instead, we seem to be rendered as invisible or treated as pieces of a whole. Did your perception or definition of yourself change as you wrote this collection of essays and came into your voice as a writer?

AD: My greatest fear putting the collection in the world was being exposed and judged. I thought people would see me as weak or damaged in some way, but I found that I grew more confident personally and creatively as the collection took shape. I think it is partially because I was able to let go of some experiences that had been weighing me down and also realizing there are dynamic parts of me I should share with the world despite my fears.  As well, by examining some of the issues in the collection, I was able to see parts of myself I couldn’t while I was in the thick of it. I learned I am much stronger than I knew and that I have so much to offer to not only myself but also the world. I think writing the book helped me unlock portions of myself I’d hidden away in order to fit what I thought the world wanted to see of me. 

A: Your essay, “Native Tongue,” was another favorite for me. One of the things I loved about your essays is the way that you give voice to those Black girls who aren’t labeled as being “conventionally Black” in the way you described your cousins as being with their “Salt N’ Pepa hairstyles” or even your best friend, Greta.  Why was it important for you to tell this particular story of coming into your Blackness in “Native Tongue?”

AD: It was important for me because I think sometimes there’s an idea that if you are born into a particular background you settle in smoothly. For me, I always felt loved and cared for, but I struggled to find where I fit within the confines of the culture around me. I so badly wanted to be like my cousins and my parents, but I never considered the idea there were other avenues that were tailored to me. And I think it was important to recognize and acknowledge my own narrow view of what I thought Blackness entailed. 

A: There’s a line in “Vagina, Slightly Used,” where you say:

 “It’s because I’d felt so invisible my entire existence that I gathered greedily what was laid out before me. I’ve always felt like my being deemed desirable by a man was a fluke.” 

In the same way you give voice to the “non-conventional” Black girls, you represent for women who are believed to take up too much space physically with their bodies and those Black women who are denying themselves a “fairytale ending” because the world said we can’t/don’t deserve one. 

Currently, soundbites of “image consultants,” like Kevin Samuels, and celebrities, like B. Simone, are going viral for shaming Black women for daring to believing we deserve a happy ending. Do you feel as if there is starting to be a movement to commodify the inherent “shame” that Black women, like yourself and I, are fed throughout our lives by mass media and brands?

AD: I do. I think people are so intent on solidifying their own importance, and pockets, that they are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to do so. I think it’s easy to prey on people’s insecurities while setting impossible standards they can never achieve because the goal posts always move. There is a part of me that feels some of this is a backlash to the “less desirable” women starting to gain confidence or ignoring what society thinks they should be. The shameful part of it is when other Black people, who know discrimination and harm first hand, take part in it denigrating their own people for the sake of profit and popularity.  

A: The Incredible Shrinking Woman is raw and has so many visceral moments that left me, as a reader, swept up emotionally in your words because of their authenticity and how true they rang in my lived experience as a Black woman. How were you able to draw on so many powerful emotions as a writer, and not become bogged down by them long enough to get your thoughts onto the paper?

AD: I was able to do that in some instances, but there were a few times that I got lost. I couldn’t read “Liturgy” without crying for about a year after I wrote it. Part of that was because I hadn’t really dealt with that grief. Fortunately, I’d processed, or started to process, most of the other topics I covered in the book. I look at my subjects as a bruise. If I can touch it and there is only an ache then I feel safe writing about it. If there is marked pain, then I know that I am not ready to fully explore that topic for public consumption. 

A: Music is heavily attached to your writing with your father being a DJ. What’s on your playlist now?

AD: I have a playlist for everything, but there are few things I have on repeat right now. “Everything I Wanted” by Nuq, “Moment” by Victoria Monet, “Good & Plenty” by Alex Isley, “I Mean It” by PJ, “Vibe” by Cookie Kawaii, and “Whoa (Remix)” by Snoh Aalegra feat Pharell Williams. I’ve also been using “Whatever Lola Wants” by Sarah Vaughn and “All Blues” by Miles Davis to craft a few pieces on my plate at the moment. 

A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?

AD: My absolute favorite book is Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I think it’s the perfect blend of storytelling and language. I come back to it often. I count is as the first time I read a piece of prose that made me understand there was no shame or fear in using your voice and dialect exactly as it was and that while language has rules that doesn’t mean how you craft it makes it any less valid. It was also the first book that overwhelmed at first, but I came back to and loved. I also find a of inspiration in Sonic Memories by Cija Jefferson, How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman, Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, and anything by Kiese Laymon. Each of them has a way of making life beautifully elevated without being inaccessible. 

A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?

AD: I would say write for yourself before anyone else. If there is no heart or passion behind what you are writing your audience can tell. If you don’t like what you are writing why would your readers? 

A: Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Dixon! I can’t wait to read more of your work!

Athena Dixon’s Bio

Author, Athena Dixon

Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is the author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press 2020) and No God In This Room  (Argus House Press 2018). Her work also appears in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (Haymarket Books).

Athena’s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018), and a Tin House Workshop attendee (Winter 2019).  Athena is a member of the Moving Forewards Memoir Writers Collective. Additionally, she has presented at AWP (2013, 2020), HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) and The Muse and the Marketplace (2019) among other panels and conferences.

She is Founder of Linden Avenue Literary Journal (2012-2021). Athena is the co-host of the New Books in Poetry Podcast via the New Books Network.

She writes, edits, and resides in Philadelphia.

Author Interview With Louisa Onomé, Author of “Like Home”

Synopsis

Fans of Netflix’s On My Block and readers of Elizabeth Acevedo and Angie Thomas will love this debut novel about a girl whose life is turned upside down after one local act of vandalism throws both her relationships and neighborhood into turmoil.

Book Cover of Like Home by Louisa Onomé

Chinelo, or Nelo as her best friend Kate calls her, is all about her neighborhood Ginger East. She loves its chill vibe, ride-or-die sense of community, and the memories she has growing up there with her friends. Ginger East isn’t what it used to be though. After a deadly incident at the local arcade, most of her friends’ families moved away. Kate, whose family owns the local corner store, is still there and as long as that stays constant, Nelo’s good.

When Kate’s parent’s store is vandalized and the vandal still at large, Nelo is shaken to her core. And then the police and the media get involved and more of the outside world descends upon Ginger East with promises to “fix the neighborhood.” Suddenly, Nelo finds herself in the middle of a drama unfolding on a national scale.

Worse yet, Kate is acting strange. She’s pushing Nelo away at the exact moment they need each other most. Now Nelo’s entire world is morphing into something she hates and she must figure out how to get things back on track or risk losing everything–and everyone–she loves.

Interview

A: Congratulations on your debut novel, Like Home, Ms. Onomé! What was the process like writing your first book?

LO: Thank you! The process was honestly pretty fun. I love every stage of writing a book because I tend to treat them as separate opportunities to fine-tune a story. When I was drafting, I had the most fun making things up and throwing things together to see what stuck. My process is a little chaotic. When I was revising (which I learned to do effectively while writing this book), I enjoyed asking myself tougher questions about how each character or each plot point was showing up. Overall, it was such a great learning experience.

A: The neighborhood of Ginger East felt so authentic to the story you’re telling about gentrification and coming of age in a place that others have written off as being “rundown” or “unfavorable.” Did you have any specific places that inspired the creation of Ginger East?

LO: Ginger East was loosely inspired by the neighbourhood I grew up in just west of Toronto. While the place I lived was more residential and had a mix of household incomes, it also had a growing immigrant population and was enriched by the experiences people brought to the neighbourhood. I was honestly very fortunate to have had that experience.

A: There is a strong sense of community that Chinelo constantly references within Like Home. How would you define community and how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote Chinelo and the characters of Ginger East in your novel?

LO: I define community as a place where you are seen and heard for who you authentically are. As such, Nelo really feels at home in Ginger East, not only because she grew up there and doesn’t know anywhere else, but because the people there understand her as well as she understands the area. It was important for me to define it that way because sometimes, as shown in Like Home, we live in communities where not everyone has our backs, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a part of the fabric of that neighbourhood. 

Spike Lee Tirade Against Gentrification ‘Get the F.. Outta Here’ Pratt Institute lecture Brooklyn, NY

A: My favorite part of Like Home is the passion you gave Chinelo for her neighborhood at such a young age. It reminded me a lot of what Spike Lee said at a lecture he gave in 2014 at Pratt Institute in honor of African-American History Month. 

During the lecture, Lee touched on how gentrification was ruining the local neighborhoods in the boroughs of New York City in his rant asking, “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?… What about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore!” 

Why was it so important for Chinelo, a sixteen-year-old teenager, to evoke the same disdain and possessiveness over the gentrification of her Ginger East community in your novel as Spike Lee, a then fifty-seven-year-old man, did for his neighborhood of Fort Greene?

LO: That’s such a great quote! In Like Home, Nelo’s possessiveness comes strictly from her inability to accept change. She’s sixteen and all she knows is the place she grew up. To see it change so brazenly without any regard for the people who live there, her family and friends, it begins to make sense how she would have such anger over new businesses moving in or rent prices increasing. Something she knows so well is being pulled out from underneath her by people she knows don’t care about people like her. That feeling of being neglected, of not really being seen, is a strong pain point for her and I think is something a lot of marginalized people can relate to.

A: In the same vein, Chinelo is facing an uphill battle trying to convince people in her age and friend group that fighting against Ginger East’s gentrification is important. This is in direct opposition to Maree, one of Chinelo’s ex-best friends, who becomes a social media influencer and capitalizes off her connection to what she deems her “old trashy neighborhood.” Why was it essential for you to include a character like Maree in Like Home and the discussion of gentrification in contrast to Chinelo?

LO: Great question! It was important to me because a lot of us have to deal with people like Maree in our daily lives. There is a recognition there, unfortunately. Maree represents the largest block that Chinelo has to face when it comes to attitudes about Ginger East and places like it: apathy. It’s one thing to try and change a place, but it’s harder to try and change someone’s mind. Chinelo believes if more people cared, then it would be possible to make a difference, but Maree exists in direct opposition to that in many ways. 

A: Black girlhood is a multi-faceted thing that can hold joy and beauty. However, it also can be a scary time in a Black girl’s life. Like Home strikes this wonderful chord where it is perfectly nostalgic of what being a teenager is like in the age of social media while also honoring the fact that Chinelo’s character is the child of immigrants and held to a different standard than others in her age group maybe. Were there any parts of your childhood as a Nigerian-Canadian author that you used as inspiration to writing Chinelo’s character?

LO: Yes I agree! It’s such a delicate time, but so multi-faceted. There were small instances I mined from my experience as a Nigerian-Canadian that I put into Nelo’s experiences, such as the chain messages from family, but not a lot of overt things. Instead, her Nigerian-Canadian identity is more in her way of being and existing in the world. I guess it’s like that for everybody, though.

A: In a blog post you did for the “Her Story: Ladies in Literature” series on Pop Goes the Reader’s last year, you made mention of the fact that when reading, you “[identify] with the quieter characters; ones whose motivations maybe are subtler, or ones who aren’t at the forefront of a conflict….[since] our motivations aren’t always lived out loud.” 

This quote really resonated with me because when reading about Chinelo, her character felt relatable. There’s a debate currently in the book community about how #OwnVoices authors are often asked to draw on traumatic or stereotypical experiences to get published, which does not always leave room for a “quiet character” in areas like Black Literature. Did you feel any pressure to make Chinelo or the story you wrote fit into either of these categories?

LO: Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that resonated with you. I’m thankful in that I didn’t feel that kind of pressure to make Chinelo anything other than who she is. I modelled her after the girls I had seen and the girl I had been growing up in the Greater Toronto Area. I know so many Chinelos. She’s not an uncommon figure around here: someone who has opinions, doesn’t always speak when spoken to, and prioritizes her friends and family above all else. I didn’t want to write a character who was meant to be some sort of martyr or one-size-fits-all representation for Black girls, because as we know, Black people aren’t a monolith. I hope readers can find comfort in knowing that even though Chinelo isn’t necessarily what you’d expect of a YA protagonist, she still has value.

Author, Louisa Onomé

A: Often, when I’m reading stories about activism in YA, it feels as if it’s taking place in a parallel universe based on how outlandish the methods and situations authors give their characters to carry out. Yet, the way you write about the grassroots movement Chinelo and her community put together to protest the gentrification of Ginger East feels very “do-able.” Is there a message about community involvement and activism that you want readers to take from Like Home?

LO: Yes, for sure. Oftentimes, labels can be somewhat daunting for those of us who just want to help in any way we can. I’d love for readers to take away the fact that all forms of help are different, and you don’t need to have the loudest voice to move the needle. I think it’s important to recognize that starting where you are, doing what you feel most comfortable with, is still good enough. 

A: What are some of your writing influences or authors you deem as “must-reads?”

LO: My biggest writing influences are usually music or video games, because I love to try and recapture emotions. But also, I’m such a fan of Nicola Yoon’s work. I think her writing is so sincere and so magical. I’m a big fan of the characterization in Mary H.K. Choi’s work too. 

A: What advice would you give to young writers looking to break into the publishing industry?

LO: Just like with reaching out and helping with causes you care about, it’s important with writing to start where you are. Write what makes you happy, write what makes you sad, write easy things, write hard things, find readers you can trust, take feedback, leave feedback, grow, continue to learn. Be as ready as possible for when your number is called, because it will be!

Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to interview you, Ms. Onomé!

Like Home is out now!

Author Interview With Morgan Rogers on Honey Girl

Thanks to the team at @BookSparks for giving me the opportunity to interview Morgan Rogers on her debut novel, Honey Girl, which was released TODAY! Comment below if you’ve read the book.

Check out SheReads.com for more exclusive content!

Cover of Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.

– Blurb from Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

What surprised you most about the process of writing this first novel?

The thing that surprised me most about writing this novel was that it did not become this novel until maybe the fourth or fifth iteration. There were things about Grace Porter that didn’t surface until my very last time editing. Some of her motivations and wishes and desires were still hidden until I had both the input from my amazing editor and also an entirely different headspace. I always hear the phrase, “writing is re-writing,” and I think the depth of that truth didn’t really hit me until I was knee-deep in revisions and realizing, like, wow, I needed so much more time to figure out how to say this, but now I can. Surprise!

Author, Morgan Rogers

In an interview she recorded with Balticon 34 in April 2004, Octavia E. Butler talks about wanting to “desensitize” readers with her writing and show them the “world as she wishes it worked” in her novels. One of the things I really loved about Honey Girl is that you don’t waste time explaining or trying to convince the reader that Grace Porter, your main character, and the rest of her friends, who are LGBTQ+, deserve to exist when it comes to their sexuality. 

Instead, your writing creates these characters as messy and flawed human beings doing mundane day-to-day activities, like going to graduate school, trying to live up to their parents’ expectations, and falling in love. Why did you feel this was a significant angle to take with your writing? And did you feel, like Ms. Butler, that you were simply writing the world as you saw it or as you wanted it to be in your writing?

I know in theory it’s significant, but honestly, it doesn’t feel that big to me. Grace Porter is queer. Grace Porter is a lesbian. All her friends are queer. Queer people do really mundane things like work and go to school and date and even disappoint their parents for reasons other than being queer! I wrote a world that is very similar to mine, because I’m a queer person with queer friends and we just do really boring things like complain in our group chats and forget to pay bills. It doesn’t feel revolutionary to me because we are out here living our not-very-exciting lives, but then I remember in the larger scheme of things, us living our lives is revolutionary.

All of that is to say, I didn’t go in with any particular mindset except portraying queerness the way it is in my little corner of the world, and now in Grace’s, too. In academia and the corporate world adjacent to it, the reality is very cis-heteronormative and white, so that’s the reality I put on the page. I wish the world did not work that way, but it does. So, to answer the question, I feel like I was writing the world as I saw it and also how it really is, which is a world in which queer people, especially queer people of color, live and breathe and survive for as long as we can.

There is a strong sense of community and collective care that is frequently referenced in Honey Girl. At times, Grace is treated with more love and acceptance from her “chosen family” than her blood relatives. What made you create such a multilayered approach to family and community care when portraying Grace’s support system?

I say this all the time, seriously, but I feel like “found family” or “chosen family” is such an important component of the varied queer experience. It’s so hard to be alone, especially with people who are your blood, and may still love you, but can’t really understand something that makes up such a huge part of you and influences the other intersections of your identity. You need queer friends and queer friends that feel like family because those are the people you lean on and learn from and support on your respective journeys.

For Grace, her chosen family provides her with unconditional love and unconditional honesty. She makes a lot of mistakes, and she gets in her head a lot, and they are right there to be like, hey, you are not the only person going through this thing. They all have their own lives and issues, and though not every problem revolves around their LGBTQ+ identity, because they are all sharing this queer identity, they are able to be their full, authentic selves when they are vulnerable and asking each other for help.

At the same time, I wanted to show Grace’s mom and dad as people she thinks should be infallible and all-knowing, but she has to realize that’s not possible. Parents are not perfect. Parents don’t know everything, or even half of everything. They are flawed people who make mistakes like anyone else. Sometimes those mistakes can be apologized for and relationships redeemed and repaired, and sometimes not. Sometimes the best thing is for people to break off from their parents entirely. It was important in Grace’s journey for her to start to think about the type of relationship she wanted with her parents that was best for all them and didn’t sacrifice her mental and emotional health.
Basically family, in all of its manifestations, can be really complicated and intricate and nuanced, and there are so many different ways to build one or multiple with the different people in your life.

What books have you read recently and loved, that inspired Honey Girl in some way or that you very much look forward to reading?

Recently I’ve read and loved Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant, Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West, Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, and of course, Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir.

There are so, so many books coming out this year that I want in my eyeballs immediately. I can’t list them all, so here’s five:

The Other Black Girl – Zakiya Dalila Harris

This Close to Okay – Leesa Cross-Smith

The Unbroken – C. L. Clark

A Queen of Gilded Horns – Amanda Joy

Dead Dead Girls – Nekesa Afia