Eager For It: P. Djèlí Clark Discusses His Summertime Fantasy Release, Abeni’s Song
Seeing a wide range of voices in our children’s literature is not a trend. It’s a necessity. What is a trend? Well, let’s look at fantasy novels as our example today. How many books in 2023 alone have you seen that still use that old Harry Potter model for writing out titles? Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom. Lei and the Fire Goddess. Nic Blake and the Remarkables. Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind (that one’s at least a little different). And those are just the books that got Kirkus stars!
These books are all different from one another but their titles and book jackets make them look the same. That’s where Abeni’s Song (out July 25th) by P. Djèlí Clark comes in. Its setting? Different. Its title? Different. Its book jacket? Different different different.
And its plot? See for yourself:
On the day of the Harvest Festival, the old woman who lives in the forest appears in Abeni’s village with a terrible message:
You ignored my warnings. It’s too late to run. They are coming.
Warriors with burning blades storm the village. A man with a cursed flute plays an impossibly alluring song. And everyone Abeni has ever known and loved is captured and marched toward far-off ghost ships set for even more distant lands.
But not Abeni.
Abeni is magically whisked away by the old woman. In the forest, Abeni begins her unwanted magical apprenticeship, her journey to escape the witch, and her impossible mission to bring her people home.
Don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen that plot before. So I spoke with its author, P. Djèlí Clark to find out a bit more. But first, who is this guy? Here’s a quick bio that may give you a better idea:
Phenderson Djéli Clark is the award winning and Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and World Fantasy nominated author of the novel A Master of Djinn, and the novellas Ring Shout, The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His stories have appeared in online venues such as Tor.com, Daily Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Apex, Lightspeed, Fireside Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in print anthologies including, Griots, Hidden Youth and Clockwork Cairo. He is a founding member of FIYAH Literary Magazine and an infrequent reviewer at Strange Horizons.
And now, with a bit of context, let’s chat!
Betsy Bird: Phen! Thank you so much for joining me today and congrats on the upcoming release of ABENI’S SONG! With its West African setting and epic storytelling, it stands out in the field. Why did you decide to create this tale and what inspired its different elements?
P. Djèlí Clark: Hi Betsy! Thanks for having me. Excited to get this new book out in the world! As I often tell everyone, Abeni’s Song is the story I’ve been wanting to write my entire life. In many ways it’s me rediscovering the fantasy adventures of my childhood. The one thing often missing from those books was the chance to see someone who looked like myself represented in the characters and cultures. So, when I set out to write Abeni’s Song, I filled it with the diversity I’d so longed for in my childhood, pulling on West African and African diaspora culture and folktales. I’m really happy to be creating in a time when these more diverse fantasies with different settings can be told. I think readers are eager for it.
BB: This is your first book for young readers, though you certainly contributed before to BLACK BOY JOY a couple years ago, and that was for kids. I have to assume that it’s an entirely different set of muscles writing fantasy for kids vs. adults. What did you do to prepare for writing ABENI’S SONG for children?
PDC: That’s a great question! Moving to writing a Middle Grade book was really a new endeavor for me. Not only was this a story set in a world I had to build from scratch, but I had to make it accessible to younger readers. To prepare, I did several things. First, I went back and looked up some of the books and films that I loved during my childhood—to really get in touch with how they inspired and fascinated me. Second, I got acquainted with some of the modern middle grade books to get an appreciation for the modern writers. Lastly, instead of trying to build new muscles, I worked on training the ones I already use in my writing to adapt to something new—to be just as creative and intriguing, but for a different, younger audience. The biggest help was remembering that I was once young too (believe it or not!) and recalling what was important to me back then, what challenges I faced, and what really spoke to me.
BB: I appreciate that you took my metaphor and ran with it there. Now we’ve seen a significant uptick in middle grade children’s fantasy books starring Black characters, but I think it’s fair to say that the bulk of them have featured American kids. ABENI’S SONG differs significantly. How did you conduct the research to portray the West African culture featured in this book? And just to put a different experience into the mix, you yourself spent a lot of time when you were young in Trinidad and Tobago. Are there any elements of those places in this book as well?
PDC: I’m really happy to see the increased diversity in middle grade fantasy. And I love some of those books featuring African American kids jumping through portals or doorways back in time or to other realms. Long ago, that kid was me—wanting to take my turn to step into the unknown and have adventures! Despite my love of that genre, for Abeni’s Song I decided I wanted to set it completely in another world—even if based on cultures from our real world. It definitely took a great deal of research. West Africa, after all, is a BIG place with lots of different countries and cultures. And I wasn’t shy about dipping into parts of Central Africa and elsewhere to pull on some elements. But all of this wasn’t exactly new to me, as I’ve had some acquaintance with aspects of African culture since I was younger.
My mother especially instilled this in our household, and over time I collected my own share of personal research done through books, films, and more. In fact, I have a folder I’ve kept for years of African folklore or cosmologies or stories I find interesting. Some of what went into Abeni’s Song came past conversations and experiences with friends, teachers, and mentors from those regional backgrounds.
Oh, and how can I forget the food! My trips to more than a few restaurants or meals shared at a home table definitely went into book! But, as you point out, my inspirations were more than just the African continent. There’s a rich cultural connection in the African diaspora, and I definitely drew on elements of my own Afro-Caribbean background as well as bits from Afro-Latin and African American culture. If it gets my attention, I try to bring it in there!
BB: Love that. Let’s delve into your own past, too. When you were a kid were you a science fiction / fantasy reader at all? What influenced you when you were young? What did you like to read?
PDC: LOL Was I? It was practically all I read—or watched. When I was younger, I devoured fantasy books. I read JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit over a weekend. I finished C.S. Lewis’s entire Narnia series in a few weeks. It wasn’t long before I’d gone through Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, and dozens of other stories of magic and adventure. My mother took my sister and I to the library weekly, and we checked out as many books as we wanted! If it had science fiction and fantasy in it, I was going to read it.
BB: I don’t see a “1” on the spine of this book, but I’m going to ask the question that every child reader is going to throw at you: Will there be a sequel to Abeni’s story?
PDC: Yes. Abeni’s Song is the first story in a trilogy—so there’ll definitely be more!
BB: Just wanted to mention that that is a killer cover you got for this book. Getting a good book jacket is such a roll of the dice, and you seem to have come out winning. I see that it’s by Michael Machira Mwagi with cover design by Lesley Worrell. How do you feel about the look?
PDC: Love it! Michael did such a fantastic job turning my words into a visual masterpiece. The
colors, the characters, it’s magical!
BB: Finally, what else (both for kids and adults) do you have coming out in the future?
PDC: Well, for adults, I have an upcoming novella titled The Dead Cat Tail Assassins…about
an undead assassin given an impossible job. And, of course, I’m working right now on
the second installment to Abeni’s Song—featuring some new characters and adventures!
Many thanks to Phen for answering my many questions today. Thanks too to Saraciea J. Fennell and the folks at Tor Publishing Group for setting this up. To learn more about Phen you can find him on Twitter at @pdjeliclark and at his blog The Disgruntled Haradrim. Abeni’s Song is on bookstore and library shelves everywhere as of July 25th. Look for it then!
Filed under: Interviews
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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