Tracey Baptiste Talks with Roger

Tracey Baptiste Talks with Roger

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Photo: Latifah Abdur Photography.

Corinne thought her troubles with the jumbies were quieted if not finished (The Jumbies), but in Rise of the Jumbies she faces the implacable jumbie Mama D'Leau, who makes the malevolent Severine of the first book look like an amateur. Weaving the legacy of the Middle Passage into this story of the supernatural, Tracey Baptiste writes a new kind of fantasy. We spoke for a few minutes at the 2017 ALA in Chicago and caught up this month by phone.

Roger Sutton: Rise of the Jumbies has plenty of historical resonance but all the fairy-tale elements, too.

Tracey Baptiste: I definitely wanted the book to have that kind of feeling. I grew up with fairy tales — the Grimm brothers, Perrault — and I loved them so much. Those were the stories I fell into when I was a child, where I could see the places around me, and just feel like everything that was happening was happening to me or near me. I wanted my book to do the same thing, but for the folklore that I grew up with. Because it was an oral tradition, there weren't any books like that, so I wanted to create that feeling for the kid that I was and for all the kids who don't have that.

RS: Shaun Tan, who grew up in Australia, told me he also loved the Grimms' fairy tales. He said that the landscape was so exotic to him — snow, mountains, things like that which he never saw. What was it like reading those stories in Trinidad?

TB: Yes, it's a completely different climate. It's a tiny tropical island. It's rainy. It's hot all the time. So reading something like "The Snow Queen" really required a stretch of the imagination. It felt like a wonder to me, like magic. It all fit into this idea of the magical fairy-tale world, because it was not realistic to me. It was only later on that I realized, "Oh, there's actual snow! This is a thing that happens someplace in the world." I didn't start traveling to the United States until I was a preteen or so, and then it was only in the summer, so I never had the opportunity to experience snow until I moved here when I was in my mid-teens. That's how I felt about all of it. The huge mountains were the same to me as giants. Magical wands spitting out sparks were the same to me as snow falling to the ground. It all felt like magic.

RS: What was it like to transform your own Trinidadian landscape into someplace like that?

TB: Growing up in Trinidad, I read a lot of books that were by Trinidadian authors or by other authors from the Caribbean. I read V. S. Naipaul's Miguel Street, for example. It's required reading for school. And Escape to Last Man Peak by Jean D'Costa — it's an adventure about these kids who go off on their own after a natural disaster. It did not seem unusual to me to set a story inside Trinidad. I grew up with literature where kids were like me, running around, barefoot in the road, going to the beach every weekend. That was regular. It did not occur to me that this might be considered strange or odd or out of sight.

RS: For many U.S. readers, though, your setting and the incorporation of Trinidadian myth and folklore are just as "exotic" as the Grimm tales were for you. Did you think about that audience as you were writing?

TB: I wasn't thinking that much about the other audience when I started writing the Jumbies books. The books were really written to satisfy a need that I had, to have these types of books in my life when I was little. And it was also to satisfy the need of passing these stories on to my children. Someone from the Algonquin marketing team asked me who I thought was going to read the book, and I said Trinidadians and Trinidadian expats, because it did not occur to me that anybody else would. So I didn't really write it to suit anybody else but myself and my fellow Trinis. It was a real surprise to me that other people found themselves enjoying this book and found themselves attached to these characters, wanting to go on this adventure with them. Obviously a welcome surprise.

RS: Obviously. After the Algonquin people picked their heads up off the desk.

TB: I know. It's bad news. I should never try marketing anything. I should never be invited to a marketing meeting ever. I am really the worst.

RS: But you had worked in publishing before this.

TB: Yes, I did. I worked at Rosen Publishing Group for a little under a year. I had also been writing series nonfiction for Rosen and Chelsea House Publishers for years before that.

RS: What gave you the courage to strike out on your own with fiction?

TB: My first novel, Angel's Grace, which was also set in Trinidad, came out in 2005, so I had been writing fiction and having my professional editorial life alongside it. Then The Jumbies came out…and then I was laid off.

RS: Oops.

TB: It didn't make sense to go back to a regular job after that, because The Jumbies did well, and people wanted other books from me. I figured this was the moment. I had gotten laid off at exactly the right time.

RS: Did you have any worries about whether you would actually write full time? I'm afraid I would just sleep late and eat Milky Way bars if I didn't have to get dressed and go to an office.

TB: I am fairly driven as an individual. This comes from being a Catholic schoolgirl and being raised by nuns. You get up in the morning, you get dressed, and you do your job. I never work in my pajamas or sweatpants. I look like I could be going to an office and fit in just fine. That's how I feel comfortable working. My office is just my office. I don't do anything else in there. It is the place for me to work and create, read, and for the dog to look out the window and bark at people. I drop the kids off at school in the morning, I come home, and I go to work. And then I stop when it's time to go pick them up from school, and that's it. That's my day. I am very focused. Blame the nuns.

RS: What are you working on now? Will there be another Jumbies book?

TB: My editor Elise Howard and I have had a conversation about it. It's not something that is definitely on the docket right now, but it is something that I am absolutely thinking about. I am working on some other things at the moment. One of them is nonfiction and the other is fiction.

RS: How careful are you about talking or not talking about your work while it's in progress?

TB: People who are close to me know exactly what I'm working on, because sometimes I need to talk through it. Sometimes I can't figure something out and need somebody to be a sounding board. As far as public knowledge, I usually don't talk about books until a publisher is ready to make an announcement. Then at that point if people want to ask me questions, I will talk. But, especially if I'm in the middle of a first draft or something, I don't like to talk about it. It ruins my momentum, my spark. And if I've said this is what I'm going to do and that's not what happens in the final, people are like, "What happened?" So I stay fairly vague.

RS: Right, it could lock you in if you're not careful.

TB: Exactly.

RS: You're at an intersection of Caribbean literature, American literature, children's literature, literature by people of color. Where's the point on that graph for you?

TB: That's a hard question. If it is a graph, it has to be an XYZ kind of graph, where it's three-dimensional, somewhere in the middle of the chaotic storm. It's difficult for me to see, right now, where I am in the grand scheme of it all. I hope that these two Jumbies books in particular are the beginning of a wave of new stories that come from the Caribbean, that focus on Caribbean mythologies and folklore. I hope more people come after me and tell these same stories in their own ways, the way writers have with European fairy tales. But other than that, I'm not really sure how it will all shake out. It's hard for me to see while I'm still in the middle of all of the chaos, doing the work and the writing and the deadlines.

RS: It's really not your job to pigeonhole yourself.

TB: That's true. It is not my job. You are correct, sir.

Video Extra: Tracey and Roger Talk at ALA 2017 in Chicago

Click here to watch.

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