Rita Williams-Garcia Talks with Roger

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Known for intense YA novels about contemporary Black teenagers and, most recently, novels about younger Black kids for middle graders, Rita Williams-Garcia — well, to say “tries something new” is an understatement. A Sitting in St. James is a big, rich historical novel about the lives of plantation owners in the antebellum South, but Gone with the Wind it definitely ain’t.

Roger Sutton: The last time you and I did this, we talked about Clayton Byrd Goes Underground.

Rita Williams-Garcia: We sure did.

RS: A more different book I cannot imagine. So, I guess my big question is: Rita, dear, what possessed you? This is like nothing you’ve ever written.

RWG: I know. And believe me, I’d vowed I would never, ever write about slavery. When I first got started in the ’80s, there weren’t enough contemporary-set books about Blacks out there, and I was going to be the big contemporary queen. But then what happened was: I daydreamed. I happened to be in a lecture — I won’t say whose — and my mind started to wander. I had this image of a boy grooming his horse. He was white, and the care he was taking — I thought, Oh, this is not about his horse. He’s missing his love. And then I thought, Oh, it’s not a girl. He is in love with his classmate. And I could see that he was a West Point cadet…wow, that’s interesting. I put these thoughts away because I was writing something else, and then a couple of months later I had this dream. It was a very disturbing and joyful dream. A West African woman was running with her baby, trying to evade capture. She knew that she would not make it, so she threw her baby into the ocean. There was music in the background, and the drums were really drumming and the singing was very joyful. That’s when I woke up. Usually it’s hard for me to keep my dreams, but that one stayed with me. I thought, Huh, I think I’m supposed to do something with this.

RS: There are those dreams where you think, Oh, this one is really a message.

RWG: That one clearly was. It was very disturbing. It wasn’t until I was on a panel for the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution — a young boy came to the mic and asked, “Why do they hate us?” They being white people, police. Why do they hate us? I was there for the children, and my answer was, “Because when they see us, they don’t see human beings.” I spoke so briefly, maybe one or two sentences, and I knew that was not enough. Those three events began to come together in my mind, under the banner of privilege and entitlement. And then it was Toni Morrison who really put it together for me, in the interview she did with Charlie Rose where she talked about racism and whose problem is it. She said, “White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” That’s when everything really converged and I had my story.

RS: And your story is so complex. I remember Walter Dean Myers telling me that when he began writing, all the Black stories were about “Oh, the horrors of slavery.” Your book is about the horrors of slavery, but it’s so complicated. You keep turning each situation to make us look at it in a different way.

RWG: Yeah, to me that’s the point. One of the reasons I hadn’t wanted to write a story with slavery at its forefront was that I felt like “and what?” What will readers see that they have not seen? At what point does anybody see where racism comes from? Not just what has happened, but where it comes from. At what point can we have a conversation, because we see something that we haven’t seen before? It was important for me to approach the story not from the point of view, “I’m going to depict the humanity of African American people.” No, we simply are because we are, whether everybody gets that or not. Instead, I wanted to turn the light on those who felt entitled to capture, enslave, use the bodies and souls of people, inflict cruelty at will because they felt that they could.

RS: And you set the story at a time right before the Civil War, when most of the white people in the book take the situation for granted. It doesn’t occur to them to think any other way.

RWG: Exactly. At first, I had to go back — there was the French Revolution, and then the Haitian Revolution, and now in the 1860s we’re getting set for another war. Change has to come through struggle. At some point, someone has to say, “This is wrong and needs to change.” This is where we have a revolution. I wanted to lead up to the Civil War, so we could really think about what it is we were fighting for, on both sides. What are we fighting for, and what are we entitled to? What do we gain?

RS: I was probably halfway through the book before it occurred to me what was coming. Because you had these white people so settled in their situation, with all of its conflicts and financial problems, certainly, but they’re so deep into their way of life that the reader gets that way too.

RWG: Yes, and that’s important. We really do have to look deeper if we’re going to have any kind of understanding of where we are and how we got there. What allows people to think they have dominion over others. It all begins out of entitlement — the patron feels entitled to his wife, to the girl who he takes as his wife. The entitlement of land — the Europeans came and had this feeling of manifest destiny, that this land was their land. “Because I can ‘improve’ it, it is my God-given right to take it.” When you start with that point of view, you can look at people who are different from you, who don’t believe in your God, who doesn’t look like you, and say they are wrong. "I have dominion over them because God gives me dominion over them. I can make things better for myself, for my king. So here we are. I can do what I will with these people."

RS: How did you do this without preaching? Because you don’t preach.

RWG: What you want most is for readers to have that self-dialogue. They look at the situation you present, they have their own opinions — and they’re not always going to be mine. I’m more interested in people seeing, and maybe even seeing more than I put before them, and then walking away with something that they didn’t begin with. I think that’s what I do best in this book. I’m not a person who responds to preaching, so I can’t imagine a reader would. In that way, I’m a rebellious teen at heart. Once you start to tell me what is good for me or what I should think, even if it’s “right,” I begin to resist. I want to have my own thoughts, and I want readers to have their own thoughts as well.

RS: When I think about some of the people and the issues in this book — there’s sex, there’s homosexuality, there’s lesbianism, there’s whippings, there’s incest, there’s what people call “bad language.” All of this means kids are going to love it, but it’s going to make adults nervous. Are you nervous?

RWG: What I’m most nervous about is not getting something right. I took a year off to do the research and to really make sure I had everything right. But even after the book went through vetters, there were things I had to change. I’d think: Thank God you caught that. Those are the kinds of things that make me nervous. The subject matter — I go with the publisher, which lists this book for ages sixteen and up. No matter how well you read, this is not for your seventh-grade reader.

RS: But as soon as you say that, you know they’re going to seek it out.

RWG: I know. But sure, you can read it in seventh grade, and you can know what is going on, but there’s so much you’ll miss.

RS: Did you have a debate with yourself about including the n-word?

RWG: I thought about it before I started writing. It’s such a controversial term, and my opinion has changed over the years. I used the n-word in my first book, and that book was for ages twelve, thirteen, and up. I was thinking of exactly what my characters would say, and it didn’t occur to me to correct them. But as I got older, I began to have a different opinion. My opinion changed once again as I was writing this book, because you cannot sanitize slavery. You can’t make it palatable. If you’re writing for upper teens and adults you have to write what happened, so people understand why we are where we’re at.

RS: They understand why we don’t use that word now.

RWG: People use forms of it in music, very popular in rap and hip-hop, to take the sting off and to own it, to take it back. But once you put it out there, you really can’t come down on the masses who consume it and use it. Like all the stuff that goes on on Twitter because this non-Black person sang these lyrics and used that word, and now we’re going to jump on them. No. That was put out there for consumption, and you have to own what comes along with that. I bought the record, I can emulate the artist. I’m consuming him or her.

RS: And as you said earlier, once you’ve created something and put it out there, people are going to do with it what they want.

RWG: Exactly. I have to accept that with this work as well. There will be some who’ll take pleasure in using that term in the classroom, just to cause a stir, just so they can say the word out loud. But you also can’t hide history, what that word meant and what it means. It’s meant to dehumanize. When we dehumanize, we make it possible to do whatever we want to that person, because we don’t see a person. We see the n-word, a person who is now less than what I am. Then that gives me permission to do what I want to them.

RS: Conversely, one thing you do in the book is humanize the people in power. Your creation of the matriarch — I am never going to forget that woman. She’s operatic. She’s a complete character. Who could play that role in a movie? I keep tumbling possibilities around in my head.

RWG: Jane Fonda always comes to mind when I think of Madame. Jane Fonda lived in France and was married to the French filmmaker Roger Vadim. Usually, actresses don’t play their age, but she’s of Madame’s age, and I think she would be great.

RS: And Madame is not unsympathetic as a character, because you’ve shown so many sides of her.

RWG: Right. This is the point. I’m doing for the characters what they would not do for my ancestors, and what a lot of white people today will not do for me and mine. I am adding layers of humanity, so we can understand where they’re coming from, who they are, why they are the way they are. This is to have a conversation, not simply to lay blame, but to have that conversation. We can’t have it if all I do is create monsters who do monstrous things. Because monsters aren’t real, we brush over what they’ve done, because, well, that’s a monster being monstrous. But if we take that person and make them human, we can see and understand how they developed. This is possibly somebody’s real story. We get a chance to be a little torn. At times we are rooting for them, because we are human beings, so we can’t help but root for something that we can relate to, a pain that we can relate to, or a joy that we can relate to. But then we can also see what is horribly wrong. From there we can have discussions. Take Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. That’s a Black exploitation film set in the 1800s. It’s a dark comedy, so you take it with a grain of salt, take it for what it is. It’s so unreal. It’s such a fantasy. The hero, and then the bad white man, and the Uncle Tom. What are they? They’re just tropes, types that play to a fantasy story and ending. It’s entertainment, and that’s it.

RS: Were you one of those teenagers who had a copy of Mandingo under your bed? I did.

RWG: No, but I did see the movie.

RS: The book is interesting. As a kid, you read it as this sexy, exploitative, almost horror tale. (Although Richard Wright said there was a lot of truth about slavery in that book.) I’m thinking about how your book does give us horror, but you keep complicating the characters, so that, as you say, we’re forced to think about them as humans. And that gets in the way of the titillation.

RWG: How can these humans do this to other humans? Well, I try to answer that. I try to say, “This is the thought process behind this particular person, behind these people.” Even Madame and her son come from two different points of view. They have two different things that are their focus, but one comes out of the other. They come out of a European background, but one is becoming more and more American, which is, to Madame, rootless. Equality would be anathema to Madame, because what is the world if there are no strata? The great unifier of being white, to Madame, is a given, but it’s not enough. She is a person who believes in place.

RS: And always has, even before she knew a Black person. That was part of her thinking.

RWG: It’s just who she is. To me, this is the root of her predicament. Because her husband was not able to marry her mother, he felt entitled to marry her. He thought: If I can’t have her, I will have the daughter. All of this is predicated upon class.

RS: Some of the debates or arguments or even just polite conversations between Madame and her son are delicious. The way that they’re just sticking these rapiers in each other all the time.

RWG: I thought a lot about French farce and comedies of manners, and I thought about French pastimes, including fencing. You try to create in the character the motions that really exemplify who the people are and where they come from. A lot of this jabbing back and forth is entertainment between the two, but it’s also serious, especially for Lucien, because he knows the reality of things.

RS: Do you think of your book as having a main character?

RWG: No, not a main character in a traditional sense. There’s Madame Sylvie, whose timeline creates the story. But I could also argue that Thisbe is equally important.

RS: That’s where our sympathy goes, from the beginning, with Thisbe, Madame Sylvie’s "personal servant."

RWG: Yes. I look at Madame as the basis of the book, but I don’t think of her as the main character. Each character, given their space, holds their ground in a certain way that makes us follow them. That is my hope.

RS: That’s so different from what we normally see in books for teens. If they’re not in the first person, they still tend to be focused upon one person’s experience and other things radiating out from there. But this is a big cast. Was that hard to handle?

RWG: I’m a messy person. I probably thrive in mess. I once dated a mathematician, and his pet name for me was Fractal or Chaos Theory. There’s some truth to that. I see patterns in many things easier than I see linearly. If it’s linear, it scares me, because I don’t know where else to go. It feels like a predetermined destination. If I start here, and then go there, where else do I go? How do I tell this story? If you look at any of my stories, most of them are not linear in that way. Some are a lot more focused than others, but I really need things to come together in order for me to make sense of them. I have to find connections between many things. For me, that makes a satisfying story. It’s just the way that my mind works.

RS: I think you do that very well here, like when they first start talking about the gold, I’m like, What gold? But the writing was so assured I thought, Well, Rita’s going to tell me about the gold when she’s damn good and ready to tell me about the gold. Then you do.

RWG: Each character comes with their own set of complications, their own wants, and somehow they have to all come together at this party. It all has to come together. That was a good deal of the fun. As I was going along, I could see more and more how all things converge. Thank you, Flannery O’Connor.


Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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