A Sitting in St. James: Rita Williams-Garcia's 2021 BGHB Fiction and Poetry Award Speech

My twelve-year-old self thought she would write fast and a lot. Back then, I raced through homework to get to the next pages of my autobiographical novel: Rita at Highland ­Elementary by Rita Highland Williams. The “­Highland”? As everyone knows, a serious writer should have three names! I chose the name of my beloved ­California elementary school to cement my serious-writer status.

I wrote five hundred words of my novel each night. Then one thousand. Fifteen hundred. Were those words any good? Not my concern at the time! Just write a lot, Rita, and write fast. I’d start each session with, “Ready, set, write!” Off I’d go, a New York–born California transplant who’d found herself back in a very real New York — if not the New York she had boasted about to her West Coast classmates who’d never been to Harlem, played in snow, or braved the Coney Island Cyclone. Neither had I, for that matter, but I liked to tell a good story.

My father had just been discharged from military service on the West Coast, and we arrived back in New York in time for snow. My siblings and I had spent the past ten years playing and hiking outdoors in the sun and occasional rain. Winter coat? Winter boots? What were those? The curbside slush and sidewalk ice that greeted us were nothing like the pristine snow I’d described to my Highland Elementary classmates. Once the reality of living in New York sank in, it was crucial that I write down every adventure, classroom episode, and field trip from my sunny California childhood before those memories were lost to me. Thirty pads and composition books later, I realized I’d have to type that monster. At the rates my older sister charged to rent her typewriter, it would have cost me a fortune in lunch money to type the manuscript. I put novel writing aside and switched to short stories. Again, I wrote fast and a lot.

After college I still wrote daily, but not the three thousand words that had become my routine. Instead, I spent more time studying my literary mentors’ works, reading freely, and brooding more. And then life happened! I eventually had a book contract, but I also had a full-time job, a husband, two small children, and graduate school. I became a thief of time. I certainly didn’t write fast or a lot.

Three decades later, my children are now adults, my first husband and I remain close friends, and my full-time job is writing. At first, I thought I could pick up where my twelve-year-old self left off: Ready, set, write! Fast and a lot. But now, I couldn’t be a more different writer. Hunkering down and gunning it has been replaced by quiet time, meditation, visualizing, and research, followed by drafts and revisions. Rita, whose self-named acronym was Ready If They Attack, was and is a slow writer.

[Read Horn Book reviews of the 2021 BGHB Fiction and Poetry winners.]

I’m most grateful for my Williams-Garcia-Leyro clan and my HarperCollins family, who’ve believed in my projects and my daydreams in pursuit of telling this story. They support not only my spirit, but my journey and my process. Without the luxury of time and their confidence in me, I would have just driven straight and not made the necessary turns along the way. A Sitting in St. James would have been the same story with the same characters and outcome, but minus my complete understanding of and surrender to the characters. I would have marched my characters across the board like chess pieces and called it a ­victory. I would have ignored their teenage-like resistance as I shaped them into what they rebelled against. Jane would be “handsome Jane,” a horsewoman, but not the Jane she insisted upon being. I would have missed ­Lucien’s complicated love for his daughter Rosalie. Without more time, I would have written the same story, except we would feel differently about it and the characters. I wouldn’t be delivering this note of gratitude.

Along with having more time to dream, I was able to delve into the research. My research materials — ­invaluable! However, it was my visits to plantations that stood as an acknowledgment of the lives of the enslaved and the slaveholders that added realism and depth to Le Petit Cottage. For that, I thank the curators, guides, and staff at these plantations, who spared no detail in telling about the past, the people, their life stories, and the practices of plantation life, no matter how mundane or unthinkable. The guides acted as white-gloved caretakers and Ancient Mariners, pouring out accounts of cruelty and gentility that coexisted from the big house to the cabins and fields. If the curators and guides of these plantations could detail the past, why should we fear exploration of or critical discourse about this history? If possible, do visit the ­Whitney ­Plantation Museum on the Great River Road in Edgard, Louisiana, where the truth is haunting, beautiful, cruel, and undeniable. Put yourself in the place of our complicated shared history.

I am a grateful recipient of this truth. In my slow-churning fashion, I ask for your patience as you follow the story. My hope is that this gradual journey will be long-lasting in your memory.

From the January/February 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB21. Read more from The Horn Book by and about Rita Williams-Garcia.

Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.

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