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). 

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender #BookReview #UnpopularOpinion

Disclaimer: All opinions that follow in this review are my commentary on the fictional characters I name and not the social groups that the characters represent regarding gender identity or ethnic cultures

I checked Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender out from the library almost four times and tried to finish it to no avail and eventually ended up DNFing it at about 57% because through Felix’s actions and verbal and internal dialogue made this character out to be a horrible person as a friend and a son.

Cover of "Felix Ever After" by Kacen Callender
Cover of “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender

How Felix was able to idolize the parent who left while treating the one who stayed and sacrificed so completely for him was beyond me. This character treated his dad like crap and didn’t allow him the grace that Felix so readily demanded for himself, and that made me so angry at Felix since his dad was literally jumping through hoops trying to give him the most comfortable lifestyle (e.g., expensive tuition & hormone therapy) he could on a limited budget.

Unlike Felix’s mom, the dad stayed and was trying so hard to support Felix every step of the way. He made one mistake in mentioning Felix’s dead name through a Freudian slip, and Felix went off the deep end. Int hat moment, Felix didn’t offer his father the grace of trying to understand that just as he was questioning his new reality, his dad was also getting used to having a son who had transitioned. The dad even immediately apologized right after making a mistake, but Felix leaves the house and doesn’t until chapters later and the discussion is never really resolved.

Callender also does this thing where diversity appears to have been inserted into their novel to check boxes as opposed to adding depth to their story which causes the characters to be caricatures and only written at surface level.

For example, Felix’s best friend is a “Patel.” This allows him to make him generically rich, as is the stereotype in America for people with this last name (at least where I live). They add that the BFF is also generically pansexual and just “bonds with the soul” of his lover while being promiscuous. This promiscuity bleeds into the stereotype the author writes into the LGBTQ+ characters in their book. Here, Callender leans heavily into making most of the queer characters they write avid drug users and has them all swapping sexual partners within their friend group throughout the book. These tropes all feel very generic and lazy when executed in Felix Ever After because the author doesn’t examine any of these topics further in the narrative and just leaves it up to readers to chalk these tropes up to teenage angst.

Author, Kacen Callender
Author, Kacen Callender

My biggest issue, though, is nothing about Felix feels concrete ethnicity-wise. He’s supposed to be Latinx and African-American. Yet, the way he back talks and runs away constantly without his dad even trying to put boundaries on him or at the very least acknowledging the disrespect of the house rules feels unauthentic. I’ve yet to meet anyone in a Latinx or African-American household who’d ever be able to get away with this regardless of our class level. And while I admit my reality is not indicative of the Latinx or African-American experience in its totality, Felix’s character felt very surface level and as if it was built around racial tropes.

My major issue with Callender’s book, though, is Felix’s entitlement. Felix spends over 3/4 of Callender’s books feeling entitled to an art scholarship to Brown University over his peers when he RARELY goes to class and is never shown creating any art of quality. Yet, he constantly harps on others who are creating art and being praised by their teachers. 

And this is where this book started to fall apart for me. 

Felix has this thought process that only he is deserving of grace. He doesn’t extend it to his nemesis, who is a better artist than him, because he puts in the effort and time to work on his craft. He doesn’t extend it to his best friend who didn’t ask to be rich or get to choose his parents and the opportunities he’s been given. Nor does he extend grace to his father, who breaks his back to provide him with all the comforts, like hormone therapy and the ability to live as his true self without ridicule, that other transgendered teens would kill to have.

In spite of all this, Felix feels everyone should extend grace to him regardless of how foul he treats others.

My last straw with this book came when Felix decided to catfish his nemesis without proof and attempted to ruin the other boy’s life out of jealousy and spite. Even when his BFF pointed out that he had no obvious proof that his nemesis outed him, Felix doesn’t back down. Instead, he blames the nemesis for no other reason than his nemesis has been “mean” to him by pointing out the obvious fact that Felix is never working toward his goal of a Brown acceptance by creating any actual art. Why no one ever backs the nemesis up on this obvious point is beyond me.

I know many people will counter the above points by saying Felix is a teenager, and this book has meant so much to the Trans community. And I want to speak to the latter point, I understand how comforting this book is, and I take nothing away from that. However, no one should be allowed to be so selfish and emotionally violent toward others regardless of how marginalized their voices are. 

Felix is a toxic character that gets given unfathomable amounts of grace to wreak emotional havoc on his community because of his character’s background of trauma, which is not healthy in the least. 

I truly wanted to love this book as much as the hype, but Felix’s behavior left a bad taste in my mouth, so that I couldn’t recommend this book to anyone in good faith as a mental health advocate.

"What to read Next" banner

Now, if you want a book that gets trans and Latinx representation correct, check out Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Cover of "Cemetery Boys" by Aidan Thomas
Cover of “Cemetery Boys” by Aidan Thomas

Thomas’ book follows Yadriel, a young wannabe brujo, as he attempts to complete a ritual to join his family and participate in the Brujeria traditions. Unfortunately, not everyone in his family accepts his decision or his identity as a transgender male. To prove everyone wrong, Yadriel attempts to complete his ritualistic rite of passage alone and inadvertently summons the ghost of Julian Diaz, his school’s resident bad boy.

Cemetery Boys gave me everything I wanted in a book! I especially loved that the trans representation was multifaceted and layered. The Latinx representation and aspects of Brujeria culture also had me hype. I was also happy to see that Thomas handled the “toxic” traits in his characters, like Yadriel’s family not accepting his trans identity with care. Moments where Thomas shows Yadriel’s family not accepting his identity felt nuanced and realistically on the family and Yadriel’s end, which was my biggest gripe with Callendar’s book.

Now, I will say that I guessed who the villain in Cemetery Boys was within the first 30 pages or so and their motivation for committing the killings. However, it didn’t take away from the story or the tension between the two main characters. 

Regardless, read this book now! 

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!

 

A Woman in Her Prime by Asare Konadu #BookReview

Cover of A Woman in Her Prime by Asare Konadu
Cover of A Woman in Her Prime by Asare Konadu

If you’re looking for a “Backlist” read from the African Diaspora, look no further than A Woman In Her Prime by Asare Konadu. This Ghanaian Lit novel centers around the coming of age of Pokuwaa, an industrious farmer from a traditional African village, as she attempts to conceive.

Coming in at a mere 107 pages, this book is excellent for readers who are looking to read something short this week without feeling overwhelmed by their page count. 

The drama in A Woman In Her Prime centers around infertility. However, the way Konadu describes the daily activity of Brenhoma, the village Pokuwaa lives in, readers come to understand Pokuwaa’s infertility is not the main focus of the book. Instead, we see the various interpersonal relationships within Brenhoma and get a feel for how every character that’s introduced fits into village life.

The author also explores the role of traditional religious practices in the character’s lives, the “seasons” of the village as they move from harvest to planting and back, and even inserts a brief mystery to push the story forward. All these topics and actions are condensed within what could technically be considered a novella.

Author, Asare Konadu
Author, Asare Konadu

I think what most pleasantly surprises me about this book is that while Konadu positions Pokuwaa as having infertility issues, he does not make this her only characteristic in the story. Likewise, outside of a few characters, he does not let the villagers of Brenhoma harass Pokuwaa about the particulars of her womb. And these two attributes of his story were refreshing because it felt as if he not only understood that Pokuwaa is more than her womb, but as a male author he showed significantly more empathy for his character than I was expecting from him as a writer.

A Woman in Her Prime shows how important a woman’s role is in society is as the vessel of life even though society can often strip a woman of her agency. By emphasizing the traditional religious sacrifices and gender norms Pokuwaa goes through as she’s trying to conceive, Konadu allows room for commentary on the psychological toll infertility can take on a woman and her partner.

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My 2020 Instagram post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin
My 2020 Instagram post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

If you’ve read this novel before, I’d suggest following up with The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin. Each of these stories deal with infertility in women from the African Diaspora.

I’ve done a blog post for The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives which you can check out earlier on my blog and even added some additional books you may enjoy to follow up with. Check it out and tell me if you’ve read any of the books in the comment section.

My 2015 Instagram Post of "The Joys of Motherhood" by Buchi Emecheta
My 2015 Instagram Post of The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta

I read Emecheta’s book in 2015 and was BLOWN away by how simplistic the writing was. The story follows a woman named, Nnu Ego, as she grows from being a young woman in her father’s compound all the way up until she has kids of her own and onto her passing. Subjects like colonialization, women’s rights in Africa, and how cultural religion is carried out versus the colonizer’s religion are all talked about in The Joys of Motherhood. A lot of critics compare this book to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, but If you enjoyed Beloved by Toni Morrison, you’ll definitely enjoy Emecheta’s book.

Readers, have you heard of any of these books before?

The Golem and The Jinni & The Hidden Palace by Helene Wecker #BookReview

There are few times where I can genuinely say I’ve been anticipating a book as much as I have the sequel to The Golem & The Jinni by Helene Wecker.

Cover for "The Golem & The Jinni" by Helene Wecker
Cover for “The Golem & The Jinni” by Helene Wecker

If you remember my 30th birthday post from Instagram, The Golem and The Jinni was a book I mentioned in “The Lost Years” slide.

When my dad was ill, I listened to The Golem and the Ginni as an audiobook. This was the first time I’d ever used an audiobook to read. And it offered me a lot of comfort since it reminded me of being a child and having my parents read me books to fall asleep. Likewise, being able to hear George Guidall narrate Chava and Ahmad’s story added another layer to Wecker’s novel for me.

Wecker’s writing covers the story of these two magical beings’ lives through the lens of immigration and technological advances. Paying particular attention to the importance of community, the author asks the reader to imagine what it must have been like for people to leave all they’d ever known to strike out into the unknown in a foreign land.

While Chava and Ahmad are two magical beings, you can see the difference in how men and women assimilated to their surroundings in each character’s story. This is something that Wecker and I talk more about in the interview I posted with her last week.

"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." - Helene Wecker, Author of "The Golem & the Jinni" and "The Hidden Palace
Excerpt from my Helene Wecker Interview

For Chava, a golem created as the bride to a rich Jewish man striking out for a new country, coming to America forces her to venture out of her comfort zone to be independent and tackle her natural ability to provide for others. The jinni, Ahmad, is the total opposite. Having lived for several hundred years in the Syrian desert, he’s awoken in a strange land with no recollection of how he came to be in America and wants nothing to do with humans.

When these two have a chance meeting in the middle of the night in 1900, a series of events are set in motion that the reader could never imagine.

If you’re a lover of books that have a full cast of characters and that is multi-layered, this is a story you’ll love. I highly suggest the audiobook for those who enjoy hearing the voices of characters.

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Cover for "The Hidden Palace" by Helene Wecker
Cover for “The Hidden Palace” by Helene Wecker

Wecker has just come out with the next book in the series, The Hidden Palace, and I highly recommend Wecker has just come out with the next book in the series, The Hidden Palace, and I highly recommend it. George Guidall is back as the audiobook narrator, and there are more characters and more adventures in this story. I’m excited that Sophie, Ahmad’s human lover, was given a much bigger part to play in the newest book, and Wecker has included two new magical characters.

In this epic sequel, we get to see characters bounce between New York City and the Middle East in the years leading to World War I. If you’re a student of history, you will love getting to see how Chava and Ahmad react to historical events, like the sinking of the Titanic.

Grab your copy of The Hidden Palace today!

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?

Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury #BookReview

Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury is the type of book I’ve been waiting for for over 25 years.

This futuristic fantasy about a family of Black witches made my inner tween squeal with joy when I first heard about its publication. From the practice of calling on the ancestors to guide you as you come into your magic to being reliant on the connection with family, Sambury weaves together a tale that’s Blackity Black Black Black.

Book Cover for "Blood Like Magic" by Liselle Sambury
Book Cover for Blood Like Magic by Liselle Sambury

Blood Like Magic follows Voya Thomas, a newly “called” teenage witch, who is given the task to “destroy her first love” to secure her family’s magic for generations to come. This task comes from her ancestor, Mama Jova, a New Orleans witch who suffered the trauma of being enslaved and wants Voya to learn from the past.

Unfortunately, Voya has two problems: she is plagued with anxiety making it hard to make decisions, and she’s never been in love before. This immediately lets her know that her task will not be an easy one to complete. 

Interpreting “destroy” to mean “kill,” Voya decides to scout out a love match using a “genetic matchmaking” program from the futuristic tech company, NuGene. And this is where she finds a match in Luc, a NuGene intern that’s being sponsored to work by the CEO, Justin Tremblay.

And this is where Sambury’s story got good…

As a lover of magic-themed books, Blood Like Magic is one of the few Black fantasy novels that I’ve encountered that not only centers on the Black experience but also provides a complex magic system. This system exists in a world much like ours where real-world issues, such as violence against the Black community, the plight of Black girls who go missing, and gentrification take place. 

The way Voya’s family is written reminded me of growing up in a multi-generational household with my grandparents, parents, and siblings. Like Voya, this made me hyper-aware of being a part of a family unit and being in tune with everyone around me. To see this aspect of my family reflected in Blood Like Magic made my heart sing.

Author, Liselle Sambury
Author, Liselle Sambury

The author was also obviously careful in easing the reader into her dark fantasy by giving content warnings early on in the print description. This showed me that Sambury cared about her reader’s experience. This extended to the author being mindful of being fully inclusive in the future she dreams up. At various points in Blood Like Magic, readers are shown a positive representation of different types of bodies, sexualities, and ethnic groups all living together harmoniously. 

The only thing that really gave me pause in this novel was the idea that even in the future that Sambury has imagined, being Black is still seen as a threat. 

The violence that came with reading about Voya’s friend, Lauren, who we learn early on has gone missing, is something that frustrated me. Same with the feelings of mistrust that happen between the Black witch families who are marked as “pure” and don’t use violence to yield magic versus the “impure” families who do. In these moments of the narrative, I became frustrated. Even though Sambury does try to clear this up by the end of the novel, it gave me pause when juxtaposed against the solidarity shown for other racial groups in the novel who shun Black witches for their aforementioned violent natures and discord that happens in their community.

When these scenes came up, It made me think that if Black people can’t get along even in the future, what does this say about us?

Overall, though, listening to Blood Like Magic on audiobook was a great way to pass my weekend. Joniece Abbott-Pratt delivers Sambury’s words in a way that had me glued to my headphones.

This book is one I’d recommend for everyone. 

If you enjoyed this novel, I’d recommend reading Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper Cypher trilogy and watching the online show, Juju.

Book Cover for "Shadowshaper" by Daniel José Older
Book Cover for Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Older’s series, like Sambury, pairs ancestral knowledge with urban life and Caribbean magic to create a masterpiece. Shadowshaper follows Sierra Santiago, a teenager from Bed-Stuy whose family safeguards magic that connects them to spirits via paintings, music, and stories. When disappearances start to happen in her neighborhood and her Abuelo falls ill, Sierra powers are unearthed. This power is tied to a supernatural order her Abuelo is a part of. The only thing is that the anthropologist, Dr. Jonathan Wick, is now after Sierra and her newfound power.

For anyone who’s a fan of audiobooks, grab Older’s series on this medium. Anika Noni Rose performs the series.

If you have access to YouTube or Amazon Prime, check out Juju, a “mystical, dark fantasy” that Jhé “Moon” Ferguson wrote. Following three best friends, Ferguson’s script is a mix between Charmed and Insecure.

Juju is about Ally, Gigi, and Yaya, three Black millennials tackling “Adulting” and being Black women in America. On Ally’s 28th birthday, the women learn that they are the descendant of Yoruba witches who must break a generational curse placed on them by a Salem witch. 

Author,  Daniel José Older
Author, Daniel José Older

Ally is played by Cydni Jenkins and is a descendant of women who practices Santería from Cuba. Her character speaks to anxiety-ridden Millennials who compare themselves to each other. 

Nedge Victome portrays Gigi. This character is a powerful voodoo priestess from Haiti and Louisiana bayou. She’s a seductress who’s not afraid to speak her peace while tearing down the patriarchy. 

Yaya is played by Cassandra Borgella and is the backbone of her friend group. Her character is a descendant of an Obeah woman in the Jamaican mountains. By nature, she is a giver and empathetic healer.

Juju web series trailer

This series showcases the many facets of being a Black woman across the Diaspora with each of the main characters. Featuring themes, like Black mysticism, Black ancestral magic, Black sisterhood, and Black culture, Feguson’S show is a masterpiece.

Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi #BookReview

Cover of Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi
Cover of Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

I really wanted to love Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi, but the themes and tropes all felt very cliched and overdone while reading it. I honestly felt as if I was rewatching every YA and Fantasy film I’ve ever loved blended and pureed into oblivion and then served to me tied up in a neat “diverse” bow.

To make matters worse, Adeyemi’s book was served up on a gilded platter in 2018 readers as the “diverse reading pick of the year” when it was merely a decent read that just happened to fill the void in a sea of whiteness that year.

Adeyemi’s book runs off the idea that magic is forbidden, and those who are maji, or magic-users, are hated and hunted. These characters are called things, like “maggots,” and live under oppressive systems or are just outright killed. Zélie, the main character in Children of Blood and Bone, is a part of the maji group. Along with her brother are on the run as they’re being pursued by Inan, who is the prince of their land. Inan is our usual male protagonist for fantasy with a “heavy burden” in life to uphold his tyrannical father’s genocidal beliefs. And of course, with this description, it is apparent that Zélie and Inan must fall in love at some point…insert eye roll here…

To put it plainly, Children of Blood and Bone was too long and too drawn out to match the hype it been given. However, I can’t lie and say that the book wasn’t on trend for what’s hot in pop culture and the YA genre right now.

Author, Toni Adeyemi

For instance, I know that the religion that deals with Orïshas has just hit mainstream culture thanks to Beyonce’s Lemonade visual album. Due to this, everyone and their mother was scrambling to find a connection to these sacred figures in some way or other as a means to get “inspired” in their art. Still, Tomi Adeyemi’s usage of religion as a means of being the precursor to magic in the book just fell flat for me. With the overuse of the Orishas and the many poorly written and angsty passages that kept getting repeated, I felt as if I was being beaten over the head by this plot device.

Likewise, the character development in the book was too drawn out for me. The teenage angst in this book was drawn out thanks to the repetitive scenes and the book’s length. In a way, I almost wish I could get to know the characters more because it feels as if they’ve all become too close, too quick in the way they are put together, causing a lot of their relationships between the four main characters to feel forced to me.

I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but I have to be honest and say, for me, this book was decent at best and overwritten at worst. That being said, after reading this first installment in the series, I hope that the filler passages get cut from the second book. If not, It would be nice if Adeyemi could find a way to balance out the “action” and “traveling” scenes and allows the characters to find a way to interact outside of combat. I think this would help round out the characters’ relationships and clear parts of the novel up where the world-building was murky. Having the characters tell the reader about the world they live in through daily interaction and good dialogue would allow us as readers to breathe in between fight scenes. Obviously, Adeyemi is a good writer, but she seemed to have thrown a lot into this first novel.

In terms of recommending this book, I think it’s a decent start to a fantasy series and will possibly pick up the second book. Regarding the Orisha element of the novel, though, I’d personally say American Street by Ibi Zoboi deals with representing these religious figureheads so much better.

Cover of American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Cover of American Street by Ibi Zoboi

In American Street, Zoboi mixes Haitian Voudon beliefs about their Loas with a Detroit setting to tell a gritty story about Fabiola, a young Haitian girl, as she tries to bring her mother home from the detention center she’s being held at since she is an immigrants. Zoboi’s writing style is impeccable and seamless as she fits together with the urban setting of Detroit with the mystical elements of her narrative. 

Unlike Adeyemi’s book, the pacing for American Street is streamlined and clean. This will keep readers from getting bored and from becoming frustrated with the teenage characters. Not to mention, the book is just amazing, and I would highly recommend it. Children of Bone and Blood not so much.

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 🙂