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Writers Against Racism: Zetta Elliott

Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to Brooklyn in 1994 to pursue
 headshot2 Writers Against Racism: Zetta Elliott
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?

 Birdwinner Writers Against Racism: Zetta Elliott

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. 
wishcover Writers Against Racism: Zetta Elliott

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. tanita says:

    “Literature can reveal not only what’s real, but what’s possible.”

    …and this is why we write.

    Thank you, Zetta.

  2. George Edward Stanley says:

    You are indeed an inspiration, Zetta. My life has been enriched a thousandfold by your good words. Where you lead, others will always follow.

  3. rhapsodyinbooks says:

    This is such a beautifully written post. I hope more publishers take note of this marvelous writer, and the heart and intelligence with which she so obviously imbues her work.

  4. Doret says:

    Zetta writes the world she wants, we need more of that. If anyone has time (if you don’t make it) go to Zetta’s blog and check out her WIP “Munecas” It’s beyond beautiful. Its about a boy who loves dolls. I love all the boys in the story. They are characters to aspire to. They are also grounded in reality that it would be possible for young readers to dream and grow little because of them.

    I hope one of the gatekeepers discovers and appreciates the beauty that is “Munecas” and knows that there is a market.

    I loved reading all of these stories. I’ve learned so much. I look forward to seeing where the W.A.R. series goes from here. Thanks so much Amy and Zetta.

  5. missingpiece says:

    Zetta, you always challenge and inspire. Love your description of literature as being about interiors… so true.

  6. Jo Ann Hernandez says:

    There is no way to say thank you for working together to make this series happen and to include me. The one theme I seemed to hear in all these interviews is the sense of “otherness.” Here we all become connected by otherness.

  7. BS7h7 says:

    Zetta – you are an inspiration to many people, myself included. You are articulate, thoughtful and fearless. Is this the last in the series? You and Amy have brought together such an amazing group of people. Thanks to you both for all the work and commitment.

  8. laura Atkins says:

    That’s me – above, For some reason I keep getting changed to the code I have to enter to post these entries. Makes me feel like a speculative fiction character…

  9. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    Zetta, thanks for sharing your story. Sometimes, folks think people with PhD’s are privileged but it’s probably because they’ve never taken the time to hear their individual stories. The environment you grew up in was harsh, and yet you made the best of it. I wish the teacher who wanted you to speak more like a “negro” could see/read you now. I’m looking forward to reading WISH’s sequel and for editors to start knocking on your door. You deserve to be published by the best, read by all, and to be praised and honored by literary giants. Thanks to you and Amy for this fascinating tour into the lives of authors of color.

    Amy, Zetta, Doret and Susan, if per chance you have a way to easily send your daily blog input to readers, pleeeeease send them to me. Regardless of how many times I’ve signed in, I don’t receive your daily input.

  10. Zetta says:

    Thanks, everyone, for such kind remarks. It means a lot to me to be part of such a supportive community that actually VALUES diversity and even dissent. The publishing industry better get ready…they really don’t know who they’re dealing with!

  11. Lyn Miller-Lachmann says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Zetta. Your writing so vividly expresses the pain of never quite fitting in no matter where you go. I loved Bird and A Wish After Midnight and can’t wait to read Munecas.

  12. Edi says:

    Dr. Z!
    You make me want to finish reading Gladwell’s ‘Blink’ about the impact of the first few seconds, and think about all the cultural baggage through which we immediately assess people.And then, to finish his “Tipping Point” and find if maybe there will be a ‘tipping point’ to racial injustice. You make me want to keep reading and exploring and not just finding answers, but *making them: to become more purposeful in what I say and do.
    Tanita, you stole my quote!

  13. The Brain Lair says:

    Wow. That was beautiful. Like Tanita and Edi, I was struck by “Literature can reveal not only what’s real, but what’s possible.” That is why I read. That is why I try my best to find a book for every student I come in contact with, so that they can continue dreaming!

    I was also, and still am, referred to as “a stranger in the family”. I am finally learning to embrace my “otherness”! Thank you, Zetta, for showing me that it is ok to be…whoever I am!

    Amy and Zetta – thank you for bringing all of these artists to light. Some familiar and some new, all enlightening.

  14. The Brain Lair says:

    Wow. That was beautiful. Like Tanita and Edi, I was struck by “Literature can reveal not only what’s real, but what’s possible.” That is why I read. That is why I try my best to find a book for every student I come in contact with, so that they can continue dreaming!

    I was also, and still am, referred to as “a stranger in the family”. I am finally learning to embrace my “otherness”! Thank you, Zetta, for showing me that it is ok to be…whoever I am!

    Amy and Zetta – thank you for bringing all of these artists to light. Some familiar and some new, all enlightening.

  15. Veronica says:

    Very well said Zetta. I’ve often mused that science fiction is the mother of invention and it pains me that so many people of African descent ignore the genre, because as you said, spec fiction enables us to dream, to see a world of possibilities right along with the realities – a necessary exercise for advancement of any individual or group.

  16. Jesse Joshua Watson says:

    Love this post, Zetta. Too light, too dark? Isn’t that an unfortunate byproduct of generations of racism?
    Like you said, that history, the stuff you lived and saw and heard, all goes in the reference book from which you create your masterpieces.
    Thank you for your eloquent and inspiring post!