SBBT Interview: The Remarkable World of Rita Williams-Garcia
She one of the finest middle grade and teen novelists of her generation. She’s done everything from serving on the National Book Award Committee for Young People’s Literature, gaining her own National Book Award nomination, and generally churning out fantastic fare for young readers. And now, here in 2010, she has a book out (One Crazy Summer) that is perhaps the strongest middle grade novel of the year. I recently had the great good joy to get a chance to ask Ms. Williams-Garcia some questions of my own. She was kind enough to reply, giving us insight into the Black Panther movement, her own family, and thoughts on the possibility of a sequel to one of my favorite books . . .
Fuse #8: One thing I love about your book is how it breaks apart some of the historical misconceptions about the Black Panther party. I cannot help but notice that there is a strange lack of historical children’s fiction about The Black Panthers. Indeed, aside from your book and Kekla Magoon’s 2009 title The Rock and the River, I don’t think that any exist. Could you explain some of the challenges you faced in bringing that aspect of history to life?
Rita Williams-Garcia: It’s understandable that the Black Panther Movement wouldn’t share the same national recognition and celebration as the non-violent campaigns of the Civil Rights Era. For many, the Panthers embodied their fears of black rage; this angry, militant image was the only face attributed to the party. I had to negotiate between the national image of the Black Panther Party and their community presence. Make no mistake: The Black Panthers were about revolution and were prepared to offer a complete and vigorous defense of self and community. But they began free breakfast programs, shoes and clothing drives, Sickle Cell Anemia testing. They advocated fair housing practices, spearheaded neighborhood clinics, legal aid for the poor, and they established Liberation Schools for children. It was important to chose a time to tell the story, early enough in the movement, while the ideals were strong, and before internal strife and infiltration took its toll on the Black Panthers.
I was constantly weighing, balancing. For “this” I had to raise the reality or possibility of “that.” I relied on Delphine to keep me focused on what a child would have actually seen. But I also included Big Ma’s off stage commentary about those Panthers “stirring up trouble” to reflect that not everyone within the Black community was on board.
Fuse #8: Could you talk a bit about the research you did for the book?
RWG: I came to my project with some memory and background. I remember the posters of Black Panther artist Emory Douglas plastered all over my St. Albans, Queens neighborhood. As a young teen I read Soul on Ice, and The Trial of Bobby Seal. My childish heart romanticized Angela Davis and George Jackson as starcrossed lovers. As a young woman I followed the events of Assata Shakur aka Joanne Chesimard, through her escape from prison. There was even a period of hushed talking among the adults in our home when a young relative and Panther member had hi-jacked a plane.
I couldn’t rely totally on memory and sense, but it was the right place to start. My primary research source was David Hilliard’s The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service (an anthology of the Black Panther official newspaper). The photographs of the children in the community spoke to me. I read interviews given by former members, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Ericka Huggins. I pulled down books from my home library, primarily from the women in the movement, namely, Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur, and Afeni Shakur. To find a voice and womanist point of view for Nzila, I immersed myself in the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Kattie Cumbo, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Sonija Sanchez—women of the Black Arts Movement. I called the Oakland Police Department to confirm the color of siren lights back in the sixties. I dug through old newspapers for the prices of everything from 45 records, to stamps to a whole fryer chicken. I took a sweep through my silly 1967-‘68 diary. Silly, indeed! I did a lot of online fact checking for proper spellings, dates, and to verify timelines. Well…one date I stretched…but not too far!
The period and the movement are rich with material. It was so tempting to pile it on, but Delphine became my safety net. Good old Delphine.
Fuse #8: The historical context of the story is great, but it’s the family story that people remember the best. Were any of the characters or situations in the book based on people or families you’ve known?
RWG: One situation that rang truest in OCS is the plight of the oldest daughter in black families. The sheer weight of expectation and responsibility. There is something practical and universal about this across all families, but I’m always mourning the loss of girlhood in black families.
My older sister Rosalind was responsible for my brother Russell and me. If we did something wrong, she got it because she was supposed to keep an eye on us. But that was nothing compared to my friend who lived up the block. The oldest of five, a twelve year old, she scrubbed floors, washed and wrung clothes, ironed, cooked, cleaned chitterlings, gave permissions to her siblings and also disciplined them. She was more adult than child. And then there is Cecile, who is an amalgam of folks, but mostly drawn from my mother, "Miss Essie." Unlike Cecile, my mother was very much a mother, and she didn’t let us forget it. But, she also had an artistic side and was frustrated by her life. Because of that, she could be a hurricane. My sister was my Delphine or big sister, but she isn’t Delphine-like at all, any more than I’m Fern. Or Vonetta. Even though Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are created, I know they are true.
Fuse #8: While the book stands beautifully on its own, I suspect that as more and more kids discover it you’ll be asked whether or not there will ever be a sequel. Certainly I think that there’s some room for that. Would you ever consider it?
RWG: While writing my current project, I scribble the yammerings of Pa, Big Ma, and the Gaither Girls as they come to me. The title from the sequel, P.S.: Be Eleven, comes from a postscript in Cecile’s letter to Delphine. There’s a whole heap of things going on! Pa has an announcement. Uncle Darnell returns from Vietnam. Delphine is a little too "ahead of herself" for Big Ma, and there’s a sixth grade dance among many things! I’m very excited about getting to this follow-up!
Fuse #8: You write magnificent fiction for teens, but we haven’t seen you do as much for the middle grade and younger crowd. Does One Crazy Summer mark the start of younger fare, or do you think you’ll continue to create edgier fare for older readers?
RWG: I don’t know if I’ll return to teen characters. The character has to occur to me and completely overtake me. So far, nothing.
Right now I’m writing a middle grade gaming novel aimed at boys. It’s a different voice than readers are used to hearing from me.
Fuse #8: Ah. So the question no one wants to be asked, but that interviewers love to pull out just the same, then: What are you working on next?
RWG: I’m having fun with a gaming novel aimed at middle grade boys. It’s a different reality. A different voice. A different part of my brain. Right now it’s called Game On. But I also like Beyond Arkadeeya and The Place of All Games. We’ll see!
Fuse #8: We’ll see indeed! Thanks so much to you, Ms. Williams-Garcia for answering my questions and thanks as well to Ms. Elyse Marshall for being so kind as to field the questions.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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