Monday Interview: Award-Winning Author, Educator, Feminist & Activist Zetta Elliott, PhD

Hi everyone and merry Monday! As you know this month we celebrate women’s history, and my dearest wish for the occasion was to interview Zetta Elliot, award-winning author of the picture book BIRD. Zetta’s most recent book, A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT (will occasionally refer to it as AWAM)–Feb. 2010, published by AmazonEncore (read MR review here) garnered rave reviews (grab it if you haven’t read it!) and landed her, among other recognitions, an interview with USA Today and with The Brown Bookshelf.

By the way, her path to publication for AWAM is quite stunning (self-published, then picked up for traditional publication after quickly selling over 500 copies).

Why was I so earnest to open this special month with Zetta? I honestly wouldn’t know where to start, but would begin with the fact that with her, it’s Women’s History Month every month. Indeed, as an activist, feminist, educator and author, Zetta celebrates women who make history pretty much every week on Fledgling–her blog, whether it be through hilighting other writers, giving a shout-out about their accomplishments for some, announcing their book events or workshops for others. Zetta also gives voice to otherwise unknown young activist women who make a difference in our world, a world that often starts in your neighborhood. I suspect that she’s a mentor to a few, with or without her knowledge. I’ll admit that witnessing her tireless efforts for more fairness and equality lifts me up every time I feel down. So yeah, she doesn’t know it but she’s among the women who’ve inspired and encouraged me from 2009 until now. Every time I visit her blog, I know in advance that I’ll be intellectually fed. She’s honest about her struggles, and even her rants give the reader food for thought. So, if you haven’t checked Fledgling yet (Zetta’s blog), please don’t delay. Bookmark it? A few times a year she comes up with these amazing compilations of stats on the publishing industry (a sobering read), or unique book lists (African American speculative fiction for kids, anyone?)

Assuming that I haven’t lost you yet, and hopefully having convinced you of today’s guest’s awesomeness, let’s start this interview. Buckle your seatbelt!

Multiculturalism Rocks: Hi Zetta, I’m excited to welcome you at Multiculturalism Rocks and to pick your brain. Thank you for joining us. 🙂

Zetta Elliott: Thank you for featuring me here at your blog, Nathalie!

Considering all your accomplishments– your academic achievements, your career as a teacher, a writer, a feminist, an activist– I’ve always wanted to ask you the following: Who was your role model, your inspiration, growing up?

That’s actually a tough question because I grew up without any black feminists in my life. My grandmothers were strong women and so I probably learned a lot from them. My father’s stepmother, Rudolpha, was particularly loving and she always found a way for me to contribute—around her I felt useful, important, like I had a clear purpose. And she let me help with her memoir, so she was an important role model in that sense. My maternal grandmother took great pride in her African American ancestors, and so she instilled in me a passion for the past. In a lot of ways, I wanted very much to NOT be like the other women in my family (their lives centered around men), so I guess they also deserve credit for turning me into a feminist!

You’ve had an amazing journey as a writer, from the awards you won for BIRD (illus. by Shadra Strickland, published in 2008 by Lee & Low Books), your path from self-publication to A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT being picked up by AmazonEncore. I’m asking this on behalf of other writers: When do you know your writing is worth it, worth betting on it? What made you decide to self-publish AWAM and what kept you going?

I’m fortunate in that I’ve almost always been praised for my writing ability. I had an English teacher in high school who encouraged me to become a writer, and throughout college and graduate school I had professors who praised my work. I was insecure in many other ways, but I was always confident of my ability to write! I was also trained to critique literature, so I have a lot of experience in literary criticism. I teach African American literature, and so I’m able to situate the books I read in relationship to the larger tradition. Many editors can’t do that—they don’t have the training, the expertise in the field of black literature, and/or the cultural competence to assess my work. So when they reject my stories, I don’t take it personally. I also know that less than 2% of children’s authors published annually are African American, so that means it’s institutional and much larger than my writing (or my so-called “bad attitude”).

Winning the New Voices Honor Award was also a boost—I had submitted BIRD to that same press at least twice before, and it was rejected both times. So what made the difference? Not the story—I didn’t change it at all; it was the person minding the gate! You really have to know WHY you’re writing—if you’re in it for the money, then you’ll do whatever it takes to make your story commercial. I write for other reasons, and that takes off a lot of the pressure to conform. I have academic credentials, a strong publication record, I’ve had my plays staged around the country, and my first book won a number of awards. When the rejection letters roll in, I remember that it’s not ME—it’s THEM! I decided a long time ago that I would keep writing no matter what, even if I never won an award or a fat advance. That’s liberating!

A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT: The young adult novel is set in both the present era and in the 1800s. It’s quite unique to have a time-traveler who is a teenage Black girl. Where did your inspiration come from?

Octavia Butler’s Kindred was definitely my inspiration; it was the first time-travel novel I’d ever read that featured a black female protagonist. I also loved The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and since I live near the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, it made sense to set the novel there. I didn’t want to take my character out of the city, so I had her return to Brooklyn circa 1863—that’s a big year for African Americans: the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1 (though slavery in New York was abolished in 1827), and then the Conscription Act followed a few months later, which led to the Draft Riots in July. I had read parts of Maritcha Lyons’ diary, and knew I wanted the novel to conclude with the riots that claimed so many lives. Brooklyn’s rich in history and the black community here is very diverse, so it made sense to have Caribbean characters. A senior editor recently called Wish “unoriginal”—I dare anyone to name another time-travel novel with an Afro-Latino protagonist and a Rastafarian love interest who wants to go to Liberia!

Will there be a sequel to AWAM? The ending hit me like a bomb.

Yes! I just finished writing a novella called Ship of Souls, so now I will turn my attention back to Judah’s Tale. There are some sample chapters on the Wish blog, and I’m about ¾ of the way done. I never intended to write a sequel, but Judah never really got to tell his story in A Wish After Midnight, so a second book was necessary. Sequels are hard!

link to sample chapters: http://awishaftermidnight.wordpress.com/judahs-tale-excerpts/

A few questions about your perspective on cultural diversity within the children’s publishing industry:
Is there an accomplishment or event that made you proud lately, that “rocked” your world?

Oh dear—there isn’t much in the publishing industry that makes me proud! Mostly it makes me furious, but I’m proud of all the writers who persist and turn to self-publishing when the industry keeps on slamming the door in their face. After the A Is for Anansi conference at NYU last fall, I wrote up a proposal for a multicultural children’s literature conference in Toronto; I’m proud to say that professors at York University have taken up the cause, and that conference will take place in 2012. Far fewer black children’s authors get published in Canada than here in the US—something has to change, and having an open, honest conversation is the first step.

A frustration? Something we should address, could improve?

Everything! We have a homogeneous group of editors publishing a largely homogenous pool of authors—that needs to change.

Out of curiosity, and because who’s afraid of being non-politically correct, how many editors of color do you know? I’m wondering about cultural diversity within the publisher’s ranks… Just being curious and remembering a post you wrote on the topic.

Let’s see…I think I know four black editors: Cheryl and Wade Hudson (at Just Us Books), Tonya Martin (at McKellar & Martin), Andrea Davis Pinkney (at Scholastic). I think a black woman edited Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, but I can’t think of her name. Emily Hazel is a junior editor at Lee & Low. I think there are several Asian women working in the industry, but I’m not sure how many Latinos or Native Americans are represented in the ranks. Publishing is a mighty white world! I don’t know any other industry that has so successfully resisted diversity for so long.

I’m now talking to Zetta Elliott, the activist (note: I know, the activist hat has been on all along this interview *grin*): What cause is currently the closest to your heart?

It’s hard to choose just one because they’re all interrelated! I want to excite children of color and get them to read more—that’s hard to do when we have so few books being published, and it’s hard to get more books into their hands when the publishing industry is so resistant to change. Editors claim they want original stories about children of color, but I know half a dozen writers with speculative fiction manuscripts that have been rejected over and over. We’re telling our truths, writing our stories, and hoping the majority group will open the door—but I don’t think that’s likely to happen for all of us. People all over this country and the world are taking back their power from the elites, and that’s what writers of color have to do, too!

Zetta, thank you again from the bottom for your time and for sharing your experience. I look forward to your next projects! Meanwhile, I’ll keep hanging out at your blog to keep up to date with what’s happening in the culturally diverse publishing industry world. 😀

Contact Information
o Zetta’s Website
o Zetta’s Blog
o AWAM’s Blog
o Facebook
o Twitter
o Email: zettaelliott at yahoo dot com

Edited 3.07.2011 @ 6:17 p.m.: AWAM sold 500 copies not 5,000 in short period of time; Zetta was featured in The Brown Bookshelf in February 2009, but not during the 28 Days Later Campaign. I apologize for these mistakes! 🙂

YA Review: A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT, by Zetta Elliott, PhD

How much do you know about your neighborhood? How would you like to experience, live, one of the historical moments that shaped the United States? Does history matter?

I believe the answer to that last question is, “yes, it does.” To all the others and for the time it takes to devour her book, award winning author Zetta Elliot, PhD, makes being a participant of history possible. Allow me to develop: it’s one thing to read a historical (non-fiction)book or historical fiction, but in the back of our mind we might always keep some distance because, well, it happened ‘a long time ago’. Scrap that feeling and imagine you, living in Brooklyn in the 21st century, catapulted in 1863. With all your feelings and memories intact. Imagine the culture, emotional and physical shock.

That is speculative fiction, and that is what Zetta Elliott does to the reader of A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT. As you read about Genna’s experiences, our bicultural teenage main character, you share her pain and her tears. Nannie, a person you barely know, holds you and rock you to sleep like a baby. You have scars on your body that reminds you what it’s like to be or to have been a slave.

I thoroughly enjoyed the juxtaposition between the 1800s and the present era. Genna is there, yet she is also worried about her mother, her brothers and her family in Panama. Genna lives in a rough neighborhood, but she’s a tough, grounded girl who knows what she wants in life, and that is to become a doctor. One of the scenes of the book is so greatly written that the tension gets to you when you read about her confrontation with another young man, as she is trying to walk her way out of a building. You fear the worst. I did. And the ending of the book had me gasp. I won’t spoil it, can’t say more, but the date is crucial, and the study guide gives you much food for thought.

AWAM explores not only themes related to slavery and freedom, but also offers a window into the blessings and challenges of a first love, and of inter-racial friendships.

AWAM is not forgetting about the present while reading about past events. It’s doing more than remembering yesterday’s life conditions; it’s putting yourselves Genna, or Nannies’ shoes… NOW, then wondering: How is our history different from what is happening to today’s generation of Brown children? I think that AWAM dares the reader to take action after turning the last page, challenges him/her to be the change he/she wants to see.

In that vein and in my humble opinion, one of the many positive effects of A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT on the young reader is to also get him/her aware of the fight against illiteracy, and to show him/her how simple it is to get involved. AWAM makes the reader appreciative of how far we’ve come, but also helps grasp the amplitude of what is left to be done. It makes me happy that AWAM is already on several school reading lists.

If I were to walk by a fountain after midnight and to throw a penny in it, here’s the wish I’d make: For A WISH AFTER MIDNIGHT to be adapted on the big screen. I can’t wait for it!

About Zetta Elliott–Excerpt from her website
I earned my PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003; I have taught black feminist cultural criticism at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, and Mount Holyoke College. My poetry has been published in the Cave Canem anthology, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Check the Rhyme: an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees, and Coloring Book: an Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers. My novella, Plastique, was excerpted in T Dot Griots: an Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers, and my essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Rain and Thunder. I won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest, and my picture book, Bird, was published in October 2008. My first play, Nothing but a Woman, was a finalist in the Chicago Dramatists’ Many Voices Project (2006). My fourth full-length play, Connor’s Boy, was staged in January 2008 as part of two new play festivals: in Cleveland, OH as part of Karamu House’s R. Joyce Whitley Festival of New Plays ARENAFEST, and in New York City as part of Maieutic Theatre Works’ Newborn Festival. My one-act play, girl/power, was staged as part of New Perspectives Theater’s NYC festival of women’s work, GIRLPOWER, in August 2008. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by AmazonEncore in February 2010. I currently live in Brooklyn…

Contact Information
o Zetta’s Website
o Zetta’s Blog
o AWAM’s Blog
o Facebook
o Twitter
o Email: zettaelliott at yahoo dot com

An awesome fact about AWAM
AWAM was initially self-published, before being picked up by Amazon as one of the first books the company endorsed when it became a traditional publisher. As such, AWAM was published in February 2010 by AmazonEncore. Click her for an interview of Zetta Elliott with USA TODAY, where she tells more about that journey; And here are Zetta’s 7 Tips for Self-Published Authors, a Huffington’s Post article.

Edited on 02.24.2011: wrote “bicultural” as opposed to the initial “biracial”.