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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Keenan: I 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.
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.”
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.
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?
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 Mistressby 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 🙂
“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!
An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.
Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.
In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.
Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.
Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.
Adira: Ms. Walton, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev! Congratulations on your debut novel! The Final Revival of Opal & Nev was a rollercoaster of a read, and I loved every second of it. Can you tell me how you went about coming up with this idea and researching to create such an intricate novel?
Dawnie Walton: I’ve always been interested in interrogating my teenage obsession with alternative and indie rock. Seeing the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk and understanding that there was an audience of other Black fans who might be interested in those explorations too was a crucial first step to even dreaming about a book like this. But it would take another 10 years, and another documentary, for the spark of Opal & Nev to really ignite. Watching Twenty Feet From Stardom, I was mesmerized by concert footage of Talking Heads and their two Black women background singers, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. I didn’t know their names at the time, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I had this image of one of them at center stage with David Byrne — not at as his backup, but as his equal partner. That image wouldn’t let me go, and was the start of the characters I developed.
A: For me, Opal & Nev were so well-written, I honestly felt like they were real music artists that I was just discovering while reading your novel. This made me curious about your influence for each character and the acts that they come in contact with as they were becoming stars.
I noticed that your Instagram page is curated with Black musicians. But were there any musical artists in particular who you drew on when creating Opal and Nev’s characters or the other musical acts in your novel?
DW: Yes! Each character is an amalgamation of real artists whose music and public images I’ve found interesting in different ways. There were three core inspirations I looked to while developing Opal’s style and substance — Grace Jones, Nona Hendryx, and Betty Davis — but there are bits of other bold, envelope-pushing Black women in there too (Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone, for instance). For Nev, I was thinking more about career trajectories and the concept of the chameleonic rock star, especially those men who’ve had success across a long span of time and changing musical directions. There’s the Brits like David Bowie, Elton John, and Rod Stewart, but also hints of Bob Dylan.
A: In my mind, I initially went to Grace Jones as a stand-in for Opal when you described her character as being “dark-skinned” and having a flamboyant style. My choice also has to do with the fact that Opal was initially meant to be a sort of “muse” for Nev like Grace Jones was for various artists throughout her time in the spotlight.
Yet, Opal immediately turns into a main attraction, and when her talent starts to rival Nev’s, she switches from an accessory to an adversary in the end. This is also something that we see happen to Sunny, the story’s editor, in her workplace. This made me think of a line in the article, “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat” by Erika Stallings, where Stallings says, “when Black women resist their status as pets, they find themselves transforming into a threat.”
While I know Stallings is talking about corporate America, was the choice in making Opal a muse for Nev meant to reflect the way Black female artists are pigeonholed into walking a fine line between being pets or caricatures of themselves versus taking on full autonomy as artists?
DW: I wanted to broach the power dynamics between the two characters. Opal initially joins Nev as a “featured singer” — the album is still his, and the songs are all from his perspective. Opal is looking for any way into the business that she can get, but, as she tells Sunny in hindsight, she was uncomfortable with that status as muse. She felt an expectation from Nev that she would inspire and sharpen his work, and yet she had her own dreams and her own work to do. So once Opal breaks out following the pivotal concert that launches them to the spotlight, that power dynamic between them suddenly shifts, and Nev finds it difficult to cope with that. His resentment is a piece of the fallout that dooms a true partnership between them.
A: As clear as I could picture Opal in my mind, I found that I couldn’t pinpoint Nev so easily. This felt symbolic to me since Nev’s character waffles between being this loveable character into morphing into someone less loveable as he gains fame.
While his character isn’t as detestable as one of the Bond Brothers, a Southern rock band in the novel, or even as verbally off-putting as Howie Kelly, the record owner Opal and Nev are signed to, Nev makes several very specific choices that call his allyship into question. Where the music industry pigeonholes Opal, Nev is giving free rein to experiment with his craft. Are we as readers meant to come away with a specific feeling or understanding from this dynamic and Nev as a character?
DW: This gets at the chameleonic quality in Nev that I mentioned earlier — the ways in which he is afforded unlimited chances and opportunities to be whatever kind of artist strikes his fancy, in a way that Opal is not. That aspect is not actively Nev’s fault; it’s simply his privilege, and the way that people like him benefit from systemic white supremacy while others like Opal are thwarted. Where things get more dicey is…well, we’re getting into spoiler territory now, LOL. So what I’ll say is that Nev’s relationship to his own privilege, especially in those moments when his ambition drives him, becomes quite eyebrow raising.
A:You touch on the theme of community in The Final Revival of Opal & Nev multiple times where Opal is concerned. From the fans, who christen themselves as “The Mercurials,” to her sister, Pearl, and best friend turned stylist, Virgil, Opal is constantly surrounded by her tribe on her journey through stardom. Yet, it seems that Nev suffers a far different fate.
Was there a specific definition for “community” that you kept in mind as you wrote each characters’ storyline, and if so, how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote each main characters’ ascent to stardom?
DW: I was very intentional in giving Opal family, both birth (Pearl) and chosen (Virgil, Miss Ernestine, Jimmy, even Sunny, to a certain degree). That community is key in supporting her, yes, but also holding her to account when she needs it. She carries that community with her wherever she goes, and as such she’s able to think more broadly, more communally, about who she is becoming, how she steps into the world, and how she uses her platform. That community mindset, in my experience, is part of that “Black abundance” Kiese Layman writes about in Heavy. So while both characters are unique, yes — different, quirky, whatever you want to call it — I would make the distinction that Nev is actually an individualist. Now, take the definition of that to an extreme, and you can imagine how their paths clash and diverge.
A: Even though Opal & Nev are the main focus of your novel, Sunny, the editor, plays a big part in my love for your book. Her passion for her craft and desire to get to the truth behind the night her father, Jimmy, was murdered was so well-written, I got chills reading her parts. How did you manage to create such a clear voice for her character and the other characters in your novel?
DW: Sunny was easy for me to channel because she’s an extension of my own conflicts, curiosities, and cultural critiques. Writing her Editor’s Notes at times felt like putting on my old journalist’s hat — being open to (but also squinting hard at) the characters and their stories, analyzing them from every angle. At other times, especially toward the end when the professional distance Sunny tries to keep begins to falter, she became a vessel for my experiences as a music fan. Through her, I write about how it feels in your body to hear live music, or how your heart might break when someone you’ve idolized disappoints you.
As for the other characters, I just tried to lock into the quirks of their voices. I thought about each one down to the curse words they would or would not say. Strangely enough, that was very helpful in differentiating them.
A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about this idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” since many publishing houses deem this as the key to having a bestseller. Even though there is a traumatic event that takes place in Opal and Nev’s story that’s a main element in your book, the story itself doesn’t necessarily revert to being about trauma. How do you approach striking such a well-rounded balance in your writing that allows readers to be informed without becoming overwhelming by horrific events you’re writing about?
DW: Black life is not 100 percent trauma or 100 percent joy, and I wanted all the Black lives in this novel to feel very real in terms of that balance. But here’s the other thing, and it’s quite simple: I loved Opal. Mess and all. And because I Ioved her I rooted for her, and I wanted my intended audience — other Black women who could perhaps see aspects of themselves in her — to root for her too, to have hope for her, to see her living out more than pain. So I gave her laughter, some luxury, and moments of leisure; I had her landing some punches of her own. There’s a chapter in the book where I send Opal on vacation to Paris for rest and perspective following a volatile tour, and I worried that I would be criticized for going on a tangent from the core plot — but for me, that chapter’s not a tangent at all. I had drawn a character who valued herself, and so self-love and care were part of her story. I worried about young Opal as if she were my responsibility, my charge.
A:Since The Final Revival of Opal & Nev revolves around music, do you have any songs or artists that you’ve been listening to or watching during Quarantine?
DW: My fascination with 1970s music continues, and the research around this particular book had me digging into the catalogs and deep cuts of Black women whose hits I already knew (like Grace Jones, Tina Turner, and Poly Styrene). And every now and then a hidden figure will pop up and I’ll get obsessed. Tina Bell, the frontwoman of the Seattle proto-grunge band Bam Bam, is relatively new to me, and so are many of the artists the scholar Maureen Mahon writes about in her book Black Diamond Queens.
A: Can you give us a sneak peek into what’s next in your writing? Will there be a film or television adaption for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev or possibly even a sequel?! 🙏🏿❤️🤞🏿
DW: A screen adaptation would be an absolute dream. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it! At the moment I’m not planning to write an Opal & Nev sequel, although I’m playing around with an idea loosely inspired by a section of the novel (about Sunny’s coming-of-age) that got cut. I still love that section, it just didn’t belong in O&N. I hope it might be something entirely new.
A: Can you offer any tools or advice for people who want to write multi-faceted stories, like yours, to help them hone their craft?
DW: The first thing I always say is that you have to be obsessed with the story you’re telling. That mix of passion and extreme curiosity will bring you back to the page again and again, even when it gets very hard, and will keep the process feeling like play. Second, if your story has multiple characters, approach each — even the ones who are questionable — with some degree of empathy. Understand the factors that led to their identities, and you’ll find a way to crack their stories wide open.
A: Ms. Walton, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me! Your novel is definitely one of my top reads of the year. I can’t wait to read what you’re working on next!
DW: Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions!
Dawnie Walton was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2018) and holds a journalism degree from Florida A&M University (1997). Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly magazines, she has received fellowships in fiction writing from MacDowell and the Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is her first novel. Visit her website at https://www.dawniewalton.com.
As a future social worker, these numbers are horrifying.
Jackson’s main character, Mary, is a child who fell through the cracks and is continuously punished for the mistakes adults around her made. And, this is something that frustrates me.
In America, individuals are given different choices when they are BIPOC that are lesser in nature than their White counterparts. From these choices, we have to make the “best” from the heap we’re given. In this book, Mary never really has a fighting chance.
Her mother fails her. The adults around her fail her. But, most importantly, the child welfare and other protective system fails her. While this book is a work of fiction, it felt too real.
I’m so grateful to Femi and everyone else in the book club for being there to talk through this tomfoolery with. 😑
If you’re a lover of thrillers and smart depictions of those who are labeled as “criminals,” Jackson’s novel is one you’re going to want to add to your TBR List.
Myers book is one I read in the 5th grade for my English class, and like Jackson’s book, it is a story that you have to be mentally prepared for before you attempt to read it even though it’s labeled as a “young adult” book.
Monster follows Steve, a teenage amateur filmmaker, as he stands on trial for a crime he didn’t commit. Told in the form of a screenplay, Myers’ story is a realistic and raw depiction of a Black boy’s struggle to retain his innocence as he’s thrust into manhood in a literal “trial by fire.”
If you’re an avid Netflix watcher, the film adaption is now available to watch.
Upstate, on the other hand, is a realistic look at how one’s family and partners deal with their long-term incarceration. Buckhanon tells the story of Antonio, a seventeen-year-old that is incarcerated for a shocking crime, and his high school sweetheart, Natasha, who is a sixteen-year-old with a bright future.
Faced with getting through a ten-year prison sentence, Antonio and Natasha believe their love can stand the test of time. While Upstate isn’t as jarring to read as Jackson’s book, readers will still be able to relate to these young lovers and their families as they spend a decade growing together and separate. If you’re an audiobook lover, Chadwick Boseman voices Antonio’s parts.
“Sir, do you have ‘man of the house’ money?!” – Kimberly Nicole Foster, @for.harriet
Nothing gets my blood boiling more than a story about an uneven partnership that teeters into the realm of abuse. Sadly, in Buchi Emecheta’s semi-autobiographical work, Second Class Citizen, her character, Adah Obi, is in just such a relationship.
Adah is a woman who knows her mind & isn’t afraid of hard work. Breaking with Nigerian traditions of her time, she pursues an education at an exclusive school & even ends up getting a government job as a librarian afterward in spite of her family’s misgiving about this independent path she’s on. Adah also ends up marrying Francis, who, on all accounts, is an inferior partner, but he is also her ticket to “freedom.”
In a For Harriet YouTube video by the same name as the above quote, Kimberly points out that patriarchy fails to address how a man can fail to meet many of the mandates for “traditional masculinity (e.g., having a job, providing for your family, being a self-starter, etc.), & still enjoy the spoils of being the “man of the house” just because of his inherent Y-chromosome. Francis, is the perfect example of this.
He is utterly useless, but he STILL demands to be respected. Sadly, the community at large co-signs his trifflingness & mandate that Adah must be submissive to him & all his hairbrained schemes just because Francis is the man of the house. Yet, Adah is the bread winner!
Reading Emecheta’s book gave me flashbacks of reading Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, my blood pressure went up & down, & I grew utterly frustrated with the tomfoolery of it all. If you love books that are engrossing with a heavy emphasis on character development, Second-Class Citizen is a must-read. However, TheJoys of Motherhoodis still my favorite book from Emecheta’s bibliography for the quiet and measured way that Emecheta writes about the loss of culture and infiltration of imperialism into the colonized people’s lives.
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.
“People can cry much easier than they can change.” ― James Baldwin
What was the last over-hyped book that left you feeling unsatisfied?
I finished Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi last week for my African-American Literature course and felt as if Auntie ‘Retha had taken up residence in my body.
While it is clear that Kendi put a lot of work into this book, it was very much a “beautiful gowns” type of text for me…or rather “beautiful sources.”
From the offset, it is jarringly clear that this book was written pre-2016 Election when many folks believed they were living in a “post-racial” world and were congratulating themselves for having elected a Black man for president. This sentiment of us being “post-racism” props up Kendi’s book’s thesis that “everyone’s a little bit racist, so no one should really be allowed to call another person out. We’re all equal in ALL ways.” #Paraphrase
And, this is where Kendi lost me.
To be fair, Kendi direct quote about Anti-racism is:
“Anyone can believe both racist and antiracist ideas…[and] to think as an antiracist: [is] to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal.”
The latter part of this is a beautiful sentiment, but that first part brings us into a sticky territory that teeters very close to absolving racist from the harm they’ve inflicted.
White people’s racism gives you 400+ years of oppression.
It gives you Tulsa and Rosewood.
It gives you the Klan/a corrupt police force, the “school-to-prison” pipeline…
a “not guilty” verdict in the Breonna Taylor case…etc.
A non-Black POC or indigenous person showing anti-Black sentiments hurts my feelings and leaves me baffled. But, it is rare that any of these groups have the power to inflict the level of harm and injustices that I experience at the hands of White people. This isn’t to say that these groups don’t need to dismantle and unlearn their behaviors.
However, the presentation of facts in Kendi’s books makes it seem as if the collective onus is on ALL of us when this work is a top-down process where the colonizer and those in power have to dismantle whole systems to truly bring us “equal.” This contrast to the BIPOC community, who could unlearn every bit of their biases and anti-Black sentiments and still be left without access to participating fully in American systems. This fact contributes to us trying to create hierarchies that would give us some semblance of “power” over each other.
Yet, Kendi’s book repeatedly ignores this fact when analyzing Black historical figures. The narrative he creates does not do enough to dismantle the notion behind “why” these individuals held these racist beliefs. And, even though I, as a #wellreadblackgirl could recognize the “why” behind these Black historical figures’ self-hating beliefs, I worried about the average reader identifying these same reasons when trying to dismantle their racism.
Add to this Kendi’s erasure of Black female scholars and their contributions to each era he spoke of the outside of him using them to prop up the idea that we’ve contributed to the “hatred” and “degradation” of Black men, and you can see why I wasn’t impressed by this book.
I feel as if Kendi’s is too ambitious in the timeline he tries to cover. Yet, I understand why it is beloved by all the #AntiracistBookClubs and why Kendi has become the darling of White America as they strive to become “Anti-Racist™️”. I would just say that there are other books that express the ideas presented in this book more precisely and in a more balanced way.