“I live in Brooklyn. And I believe in magic.”
These words open the preface to award-winning author Zetta Elliott’s latest young adult novel, Ship of Souls, just released from Amazon/Encore.
“I wrote Ship of Souls during the blizzard last Christmas,” says Elliott, a professor in BMCC’s Ethnic Studies department.
In fact, though, the book germinated for a much longer time, as a series of “signs,” she says—including cowry shells that appeared on the sidewalk near her home—triggered this story bringing the supernatural and the everyday into riveting focus.
Still, “I don’t consider what I’m doing ‘magical realism’,” says Elliott, countering her book’s depiction in some reviews.
“I call it ‘speculative fiction’,” she says, “and there’s a pretty big group of African American writers out there doing that now. It’s an umbrella term, and encompasses different genres: fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, horror, alternate—rather than ancient—history, time travel and others. Ship of Souls could also be called ‘urban fantasy’, because it has ghosts, and ‘fantastic’ elements.”
Those elements link the ghosts of Revolutionary War soldiers massacred in what is now Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with the souls of African slaves who labored to build Lower Manhattan, and are buried there. They call up an 18th-century ship uncovered at Ground Zero, and unite three African American teens on a dangerous quest to help a multitude of lost beings, trapped in the “nether world,” transition to their final rest—all the while, led by a glowing, other-worldly bird.
As fantastic as the plot sounds, its narrative is heart-based; metaphysical woven with physical, as when a soldier boy’s ghost aches for human touch—having been without it for 200 years—and the living boy who just lost his mother, grieves for her arms around him.
“This isn’t me.”
Elliott teaches two courses in BMCC's Ethnic Studies Department: Black Women in the Americas, and Contemporary Black Writers. She earned a doctoral degree at NYU in American Studies, “an interdisciplinary degree in social sciences and cultural criticism,” she says, and grew up in Toronto, Canada, but has lived in the U.S. for the last 15 years.
At Bishop’s University in Quebec, where she completed an undergraduate degree, “I was one of about three black women in my graduating class,” she says, “and it wasn’t until my last semester in college, that I discovered black literature.”
As a college student, Elliott also studied abroad in Arundel, near London, England, and looking back on her early life as a reader, notes that, “If you grow up being told to be silent; seen and not heard, then you read literature and think that to be heard, you have to be white—so you pattern yourself after characters in the books you read.”
She had loved Charles Dickens and other English writers as a child, she says, but it was in England that she realized, “This isn’t me,” and changed her path to become the writer she is today.
An award-winning start
In 2008, Professor Elliott’s first picture book, Bird was selected as a New Voices Award winner by Lee & Low Books, an independent children’s book publisher that focuses on diversity.
Her first play, Nothing but a Woman, was a finalist at the Chicago Dramatist’s Many Voices Project, and her first young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by Amazon/Encore in 2010.
“It’s the hottest field in publishing right now,” she says of the YA genre, adding that, “African Americans represent only 3% of all young adult authors published annually.”
Since stories often come from the writer’s experience, she explains, this means that black children and teens don’t often see their reflection on the page.
It’s easy to find “the civil rights stories; black characters generally represented as ‘noble’,” she says, “and you get books like those written by Coe Booth; racy but realistic young adult literature set in the city—kids love that. Librarians can’t keep those books on the shelf … but I would also like kids to have magical books, historical books, adventure, mystery, thrillers, romance.”
Making sense of the world
Another option is writing about teenagers, “which isn’t necessarily young adult literature,” she says, and can result in books such as the highly acclaimed Purple Hibiscus, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Whatever direction their work takes, she advises new writers to start by getting some of their life’s stories “out of their systems.”
“Sometimes as a writer, you have to do what you can to get out of your own way,” she says, and suggests that writers “purge” their life’s experiences by “writing and writing drafts they never use. Then, as you mature, you develop emotional distance between yourself and your writing.”
That "distance" enables writers to create books that navigate complicated experiences and feelings—and ultimately, reconcile the writer’s own history. “Writing in the first person is how I make sense of the world,” Elliott says.