Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to Brooklyn in 1994 to pursue
her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her poetry and essays have been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
I grew up in a semi-rural suburb just outside of Toronto, and fortunately for me, there were several interracial families on my block. There weren’t a lot of children of color at school, but my mom was a teacher there and I was recognized early on as a gifted student. When my parents divorced, my mother moved us inside the city limits and we began inhabiting a virtually all-white world. For the first time, I didn’t see mixed-race kids at my school (though there were several Asian students) and I was excluded from the gifted program. When I won a spot as a black cook in the school play (a western), the principal instructed me to “talk more like a Negro.” I ran into the bathroom and dissolved in tears, thinking he’d called me a “nigger.” I didn’t understand a lot of things about race, but I definitely knew that I stood out: I had an Afro, a single white mother who worked outside the home, and not as many nice things as my middle-class friends. In my mind, I was plump and brown-skinned (compared to my thin white peers), but when my father remarried a dark-skinned Jamaican woman, I soon became tormented for being “too light.” On weekend visits I was called “Casper,” and my love of books, my taste in music, my style of dress—everything made me nerdy and “not black enough.” My older sister (who was actually lighter than me) was designated “the pretty one,” and so I focused on disappearing at home and excelling at school; there I had a reputation for being a fierce debater, a feminist, and an expert on apartheid in South Africa. It was much easier to focus on racial issues halfway around the world than it was to confront my own confusing reality at home.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer/educator?
My father once told me I was “a stranger in the family,” and though it hurt at the time, that remark has actually become a useful way of thinking about my relationship to various communities. A lot of my early experiences were shaped by some form of exclusion; whether it was an issue of class, racial, or gender difference, I learned how it felt to be on the outside of things. I also learned, however, that being on the margins isn’t always or only a bad thing; after trying to erase myself for so many years, I now have a keen ability to quietly observe others, and that skill certainly helps me as a writer. The rejection I felt also propelled me out into the world—I never would have left home if I had felt accepted and valued by my family and my country. So I’m grateful for all the experiences that shaped me, and I suspect my personal experience of alienation has made me more sympathetic to anyone who’s been similarly excluded. It was easy for me to write about a teenage girl who struggles to deal with her unruly hair and always feels “not good enough,” because that was my experience growing up. The second time I permed my hair, I left the salon with my scalp bleeding; half my hair fell out and had to be cut off completely right before senior photos were taken! I moved to Brooklyn in order to live, for the first time, in an all-black environment; I didn’t feel conspicuous in the city, and I wanted desperately to swap my unhappy history for a new life in New York. But what I learned, as I started writing more seriously, was that I could never escape my place of origin, my family, my personal history with its bizarre blend of kindness and cruelty. All those things were ingrained in my VOICE, and a desire for justice (personal and political) now drives me to use my experiences with racism and sexism and all the other “-isms” to help others become survivors as well.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
Literature can reveal not only what’s real, but what’s possible. I particularly like the genre of speculative fiction, because it generates so many opportunities for people to question what they see in the world: What’s artificial and what’s authentic? What does progress look like—can you see a picture of it in your mind? I think I’m often misread; I don’t “look like” a professor, an intellectual, a playwright, etc. And in our visual culture, we tend not to look beyond the surface of things; we’re bombarded with so many images that we tend to think that what we SEE is complete. But literature, for me, is about interiors—the spaces inside that can’t be captured on film. Literature gives us access to the inside lives of people we might otherwise dismiss or assume that we know; books counter the use of stereotypes as a kind of shortcut to truly knowing someone who’s different than us. Literature nurtures our capacity to dream, and I think many of the problems facing our society today are caused by a simple failure of imagination.
Her first picture book, Bird, won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest; it was named Best of 2008 by Kirkus Reviews, a 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Bird won the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers. Elliott’s first young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, has been called “gripping,” “vivid, violent and impressive history;” “an important reminder about the brutal and degrading treatment of blacks…and the frightening conditions of the 1863 Civil War draft riots in New York.” Zetta currently lives in Brooklyn; you can learn more about her here.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mayra Lazara Dole who introduced me to Amy Bodden Bowllan. Amy, your tireless activism is inspiring! I’d also like to thank the participants and those who followed the series. It has been such a privilege to meet so many remarkable members of the kidlit community, and I hope we can continue to collaborate as we develop strategies for bringing rich, varied stories to young readers everywhere.