Something that I enjoy when I read stories about people who have immigrated is to see how their identities change as they go from place to place. This transformation of character belies an unshakable strength that escapes many people who stay stagnant all their lives.
In Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine, the main character, Jyoti, transforms several times within the book to survive. Jyoti’s story shows the immigrant’s struggle and the danger of being female while immigrating.
It would seem that the author also wanted to prove a point about the flexibility of women vs. men as they move into their new lives. According to Mukherjee in a 1990 interview with the Iowa Review, women are more likely to be the family member who has to go out into the community when the family arrives to speak on behalf of their families. By doing these things, they can build ties to their new homes.
Men often spend time living in the past and remembering their homes fondly, which can sometimes hinder their progress toward building new ties with their current community. This was an interesting argument because it’s a point that Mukherjee makes about Punjabi men who have immigrated and the American men who still long for the “glory days” of their country.
If I had to choose a book I’d recommend to read after Jasmine to showcase how immigration intersects with women and those who are impoverished, Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid is an excellent follow-up to Mukherjee’s book.
In Lucy, Kincaid explores the vapid and consumeristic undertones of American culture through the eyes of her teenaged protagonist. Fleeing her British-ruled Caribbean island, Lucy Potter, a nineteen-year-old au pair, comes to New York to take care of an upper-class White couple’s children. Lucy goes through all the steps of disillusionment with her life in America after having dreamed of escaping her island life and colonialism in general.
Where Jyoti in Jasmine comes to America and seems to insert herself wherever she goes seamlessly, Lucy questions ev-ery-thing she sees and all those around her. And this singular decimation of the world Lucy inhabits is why I love this book.
Lucy is for you if you’re a lover of books where there is an exploration of character and heavy emphasis on internal dialogue. Be warned, though, Lucy is not a “go with the flow” type of character. Kincaid’s writing is definitely not about smoothing the way for a reader to have a “feel-good experience.” You will feel everything about this slim volume, and like Jasmine, you will think about the main character long after you close the book.
Tell me what books have left you thinking about the characters well after closing the book in the comment section.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I turned thirty this Fall, and I felt super reflective. This milestone made me think about some of my favorite reads and songs that got me through my 20s.
Borders used to be my go-to spot on the weekend when I was at Howard University. Whenever I went to the bookstore, I would get either a Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant or Pearl Cleage book to get me through the week to read.
Before there was an online reading community to turn to for recommendations, I stayed in that one stack designated for “African-American” books in Borders, Barnes & Nobles, and Books-A-Million. Before there was an online reading community to turn to for recommendations, I stayed in that one stack designated for “African-American” books in Borders, Barnes & Nobles, and Books-A-Million. Here is where I found DeBerry & Grant and Cleage’s books. By the time I was a junior in college, I’d read these three authors’ catalogs cover to cover and was hungry for more.
If you’re a lover of Bernice McFadden books, check out DeBerry & Grant’s books. Far From the Tree is If you’re a lover of Bernice McFadden’s books, check out DeBerry & Grant’s books. Far From the Tree is my favorite from DeBerry & Grant. This book is about “sisterhood, family secrets, and the ties that bind.” Cleage writes about two sisters who inherit a house in Prosper, North Carolina. While figuring out what to do with the house, they begin to come to terms with their tangled relationship with each other and their parents.
Babylon Sisters is for readers that enjoy mysteries and doing deep dive into Southern Black culture. Cleage’s writing exists within a specific universe/neighborhood called “Wed End” that she created in Atlanta, Georgia. Babylon Sisters is the second book in the West End series where the author tackles everything from crime in the Black community, gender roles, and other social justice topics using these really intricate character studies. They’re so good because they remind me of Walter Mosley‘s books and a touch of Black Futurism type reads where characters use Black Spirituality to draw conclusions and carry out tasks.
You have to read these books to know what I’m talking about.
My first stint in graduate school for my Masters in Literary and Cultural Studies allowed me to go more in-depth, learning about African and Caribbean Literature and reading classics from the African-American canon I’d never been introduced to in high school. I read books, like Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo and Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, in my Globalism and Transnationalism course and did an individual study of Sam Greenlee’s Blaxploitation classic, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, for my final project. But, most importantly, this was the first time I found myself delving deep into a book when I wrote my entrance paper on The Blacker the Berryby Wallace Thurman.
During this time, I felt super isolated since I was the only Black person in my program and felt behind since I was going into the program as a Psychology student. This lead me to constantly fall behind in my reading and constantly feel disconnected while I was in the program.
The one thing that I loved about the program was taking courses with my favorite professor at the time, whose specialty was Postcolonial Studies. In her class, it was the only time I felt myself coming alive and being excited to read.
My favorite book that I studied during that year was Aidoo’s book, where I got to look at feminism and woman’s rights from the perspective of Ghanaian Literature. Getting to see how Aidoo used Changes: A Love Story to talk about intimate relationships and gender roles through the lens of another culture from the Diaspora were eye-opening and made me curious about African Literature.
Reading Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid was one of the first times I felt myself becoming possessive of a character. I remember one instance where I ended up verbally sparring with my classmates about Lucy’s character and her choices in contrast to her white employer. Having to defend Lucy’s character against my classmate’s ire was one of the first times I found myself experiencing the fact that I, as a Black woman, experience life and literature differently than my white peers.
If I could give anyone advice to someone in their 20s who has the means, I would say to try and get out of your comfort zone and travel to new places. If you can, travel and travel widely.
Throughout my time in school, I’ve had the chance to travel to three locations to study abroad as student. As an undergraduate, I went to Florence, Italy and London, England to study film and literature for a semester as a junior and senior. During my graduate education, I spent the summer learning about social work practices and social justice issues in Prague, Czech Republic.
My favorite experience by far is the Fall semester I spent as a senior in London. During this semester, I read Zadie Smith for the first time and Nella Larsen, which my best friend introduced me to when we were Sophomores by gifting me a copy of her novels, Passing&Quicksand.
Going to London was amazing because I got to experience theatre and literature almost every day in a way where it was integrated into my studies and curriculum. In our courses, we’d follow the paths of literary greats’ journeys throughout the city and connect them to our interests. My semester in London was the first time I ever got to see an August Wilson play performed live or saw a Shakespeare play with colorblind casting. Experiencing these types of art after having spent almost two years at a PWI where I rarely read any literature from the African Diaspora was refreshing.
You know when we talk about older generations living through technology shifts and how seeing all those tech innovations must have affected them in their lifetimes? I was randomly thinking about this and how by the time I was in college, social media was embedded into our global culture and a part of our daily lives to the point it was becoming taught in certain curriculums.
Technology affected my life in many ways, but I’ve seen the greatest impact on my reading. In college, I was an avid YouTube watcher. I would usually spend my nights watching YouTube videos instead of doing homework or as entertainment in college and graduate school, and this lead me to join BookTube in 2011.
During that brief stint as a content creator on YouTube, I realize how many genres I’d neglected as a reader from watching other bibliophiles across the world. This time period lead me to delve deeper into reading theory books I’d just started hearing about in graduate school. It also made me read more diversely and intentionally.
The first theory book I’d ever tackled on my own was Black Skin White Masks by Frantz Fanon. This was a book I read chapter by chapter in the library. I was so proud of myself because I remember having to go over each line annotating Fanon’s words with my dictionary and Google search tab open to guide my way. Finishing this text made me feel super confident as a reader. Through posting about Fanon’s book in 2015-ish, I connected with my current reading group, with who I read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. From there, I’ve read a lot of other theory books, with the above two being my favorites, along with On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder.
Readers, what’s your favorite books that you’ve read over the last ten years?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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).
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 Afterby 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.
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 tryingso hard to support Felix every step of the way. He made onemistake 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.
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.
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.
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 Golemand the Jinni—Helene Wecker revisits her beloved characters Chava and Ahmad as they confront unexpected new challenges in a rapidly changing human world.
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?
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.
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…
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
Today marks the first time America will celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday after 156 years of it being a staple in the African-American community.
Known by several names, such as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day, or Jubilee Day, this African-American holiday celebrates the day when after two and a half years, enslaved people in Texas were told of their freedom on June 19, 1865, by Maj. General Gordon Granger and Union troops.
Yet, their White slave owners did not let them go so easily. Some owners even made a point of not telling the people until after harvest time was over. And if an African person tried to leave before that time, they’d be attacked and killed.
To combat this, Union soldiers and other government representatives had to intercede on the African people’s behalf since Confederate states, like Texas, refused to let go of the system that upheld American Chattel Slavery…kind of like how it is today…I digress, though.
It should be clear that the African people did not always have the freedom to be free, let alone celebrate Juneteenth in public as they saw fit, and had to be creative in how they rejoiced.
If you want to learn more about the holiday or just read some excellent African-American fiction, read the following books.
To Teach Kids
If you have small children, broaching the topic of American Chattel Slavery can be challenging. Using Folktales and simple chapter books can help ease the children into the topic and break down these horrific times into manageable bites for their little minds.
My favorite childhood collection of folktales is The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. This collection covers 24 African-American Folktales that were handed down from our ancestors.
These tales include stories of Bruh Rabbit, Bruh Alligator, Little 8 John, and the reimagines our people having secret magic that kept them strong as they labored while being enslaved. Hamilton draws on Black spirituals and Diasporic folklore as well in this book.
Pulitzer Prize winner and historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, does an excellent job breaking down the history of Juneteenth in On Juneteenth, a short nonfiction work. Piecing together American history, her family’s history, and episodic moments from her life, Gordon-Reed tackles the question we all have of “why now?”
If you are unclear where to start in learning about this holiday as an adult, get this book by Gordon-Reed as your starting point.
My audiobook copy of “On Juneteenth” was provided by Libro.fm.
Written over the span of 40 years, Ralph Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, or as it’s known in its longer and completed form, Three Days Before the Shooting, is the story of a racially ambiguous man, Bliss, who was raised by an African-American Baptist preacher named Alonzo Hickman. In his adult years, Bliss has chosen to pass as a White man and ends up becoming a race-baiting U.S. Senator known as Adam Sunraider (think Candace Owens, but worse). All is going smoothly until Hickman and his congregation shows up, and Bliss has to face the music of his life.
In this novel, Ellison evokes the African-American experience and crafts a tell that calls the pain of enslavement and the Jim Crow Era, the joy of the Harlem Renaissance, and everything in between.
You can read either the whole manuscript with Three Days Before the Shooting (over 1100 pages) or only read the Juneteenth edited version (400 pages) that was pieced together by Ellison’s longtime friend and biographer, John F. Callahan.
Lewis’ story cover captures what the voyage of the Middle Passage felt like and how Lewis survived being enslaved. Reading Lewis’ story gives a modern person the perspective of what emancipated would have meant to an African person who survived being enslaved. It is another short read, but it packs a punch.
Prairie View A & M Universityalso has first-handaccounts of emancipated Africans who speak to their feelings of hearing the jubilant news on June 19, 1865, that you can read through in their archives.
Written by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Caste, tackles the world that the emancipated Africans were sent into and how that world got crafted into the America we now inhabit.
Wilkerson gets to the core of the White owners’ frustration and anger at having to let their “property” go in the aftermath of the American Civil War as she dissects the American caste system. While the players have changed, the fact still rings true that America is about the “haves” and “haves nots.” With this in mind, Wilkerson notes in her book that, “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not.”
Let me know down below if you’ve ever read any of these books or if they’re on your TBR!
What was the last book you read that reminded you of yourself?
When I was in high school, my parents paid for me to go on a class trip to Europe. On the trip, I had my first real taste of a world that was culturally different from my own.
Upon my return home, I couldn’t stop talking about this trip, & I found some way to always tie the conversation back to what I had seen while I was away. Fed up, my father finally told me, that he hadn’t sent me there to come back & question he & my mother or the life they were providing for me.
I was stunned. In my mind, I’d only been sharing my observations about the vastness of the world. But to my father, I had presented my observations in juxtaposition to the life he & my mother had provided me, & this was akin to blasphemy to my proud African-American parents. This experience mirrors Tee’s awakening in Crick Crack, Monkey by Merle Hodge.
Published in 1970, Hodge’s novel is celebrated as a significant work in the Caribbean Literature canon. Set in Trinidad, Hodge’s story is a coming of age story of Tee, a young girl who is shuffled between two aunts’ houses. Tee’s Aunt Tantie and Aunt Beatrice represent the working & upwardly mobile classes of Trinidad & Tobago, respectively, & both vie for a chance to raise Tee & shape her views on the world.
While this novel is not “action-packed,” it made me think of how forcibly “whiteness” gets thrust upon Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. We as minorities often never question ourselves or our cultural traditions until we’re sent to be educated in White spaces or come in contact with a White person who strips us of our humanity.
Watching Tee’s views of places she loves unravel as she‘s forced to try to move closer to an ideal of wealth & whiteness that‘s ever present on her island helped me began to understand why my father rebuked me waxing poetic about Europe so long ago.
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.)
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 strongsense 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.
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?
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.