When I was a first year teacher, I was introduced to Vanguard author Rita Williams-Garcia by a fellow teacher through her young adult novel Like Sisters on the Homefront in 1998. I never imagined then that one day I would be able to have dialogue with her about her writing and career as an author. To say this is humbling does not quite capture just how I feel.
As I researched Rita’s writing career, I learned that her first YA novel was published when I was in junior high and would have been a great read for me as a teen. Sadly, I never encountered Blue Tights then. After all, this was the day of the card catalogue that would soon give way to the electronic database search that really only helped if you knew the title and author. Now thanks to the Internet and Amazon, we can get recommendations on what to read based on what we’ve searched and read in the past.
Reading the reviews of Vanguard author Rita Williams-Garcia, you notice a common thread. Rita connects with her characters and shows us that connection so that we feel as if we really know Gayle, Denzel, Joyce, Akilah and Victoria. As I read different articles andinterviews about how she came to write each story, I felt a connection to Rita’s quest to publish her first book with the rejections from editors who didn’t take well to the realism of her story about Joyce. Reading and creating stories since she was a toddler in a playpen, publishing her first piece in Highlights magazine at the age of fourteen, and tutoring high school girls in reading as a college student, Rita was meant to be a writer. It is truly in her blood. She studies people and imagines what if and out of those what if moments, a story is born.
On her website, she states, “Writing stories for young people is my passion and my mission. Teens will read. They hunger for stories that engage them and reflect their images and experiences. . . . My readers are always sharper than my characters. They are always telling the characters a thing or two. I like that. That’s why I enjoy writing for teens. Teens think. They question.”
Rita, this year marks twenty years since your first novel Blue Tights was published. What are you doing to commemorate that milestone in your writing career?
RWG: Twenty years has come and gone! It really snuck up on me. I’m just glad to still be here and to have my books in print. I am looking into having an audio recording done, but to honor this milestone I keep giving thanks and praise every day.
Do you still have the original manuscript of Blue Tights stored somewhere?
RWG: Yes, I still have the original manuscript and a few pages of the first typewritten draft from 1980. Talk about a relic. It still has white-out for my type-O’s.
What have you seen change positively and negatively since that time especially in Af Am children’s literature?
RWG: The biggest change is being able to find African American lit for children and young people in libraries and bookstores. We’re here. We’re out on the shelves with our diverse stories. Characters don’t bear the weight of having to represent all African-Americans, or of meeting publishers’ black quota for the year. We have a presence, yet there’s still a need for even more stories and more writers to explore different genres.
If you would have asked me twenty years ago about negativity in African American literature for young people, my lips would still be flapping. I would have begun with them not letting us tell our stories as we know them, and how they let people outside the race and culture write whatever they wanted and call it an African American story. That was one of my main gripes. “Why can’t I tell a story I know to be true, but ‘she’ can write this fake mess?” Ahem. I’ve calmed down over the years. My view has broadened as writing from the other side has gotten better. Truer. More and more I see that we are not a people unto our selves. We make up a good deal of the American experience, culture and expression. I feel both loss and gain. This is the way of forward movement.
Do you consider yourself a pioneer?
RWG: Our pioneers are Kristen Hunter, Alice Childress, Rosa Guy, Joyce Hansen, Mildred Taylor, Joyce Carol Thomas, Brenda Wilkinson, Virginia Hamilton, Julius Lester, and Walter Dean Myers. Manchild in the Promised Land is our Catcher in the Rye. These are our pioneers, while those still with us remain quite a force in young adult literature after thirty and forty years of publishing.
I broke through along with Jacqueline Woodson in the late 80s. Contemporary urban black girls were hard to find in literature in the early 80s. They weren’t non-existent-just hard to find. Honestly, if I had found Alice Childress or Rosa Guy’s novels, Blue Tights wouldn’t have been written. I had Hemingway plans as a teenager. It hadn’t occurred to me to write about teens. Since I couldn’t find the right book to speak to a group of girls I worked with in college, I came up with Joyce, her big butt and low self esteem. The girls in my group didn’t want to read about a victimized, heroic girl or a “good” girl. They wanted a real girl. They wanted to identify. I always keep this in mind, and that was hard back then. Publishers were leery of this type of character who wasn’t exactly a role model-as one reviewer put it. They wanted more traditional race and triumph stories. Regardless of class, my characters tend to struggle with self and choice, and not with race, although they’re never divorced from issues that surround black teens. I just don’t write from that point of view where the character is suddenly aware of or suddenly confronted with their race. Unless we’re separated from community, our race is a given and we live it. We don’t treat our racial identity as a new condition. Instead, I pit my characters against themselves. Teen readers often identify with left turns, misunderstandings, and the need to grow. Denzel isn’t necessarily likeable or honorable. He is smug, superior and we root for his downfall. Yet, we come to understand he is battling his own self-doubt. I tend to give my characters the power to affect their situation. I think No Laughter Here is the only story with a problem bigger than its characters.
I realize I also talk about sexual matters in my work, which can be uncomfortable for some. Stories like No Laughter Here, Every Time a Rainbow Dies, and Like Sisters provide a place to have meaningful discussions. I think we have to respect and trust teens more than we do. They are capable of articulating their point of views, their concerns and experiences through sincere, respectful dialogue-yes, especially with their parents and with themselves. You know, that moment of truth when you’ve learned something about yourself or what you think from a book. A book can open that door without the reader feeling judged. As much as I’d love everyone to read my novels, a book is an option, and a reader can put a book down if it isn’t for them. They should have that choice, too.
While a teacher I was recommended your title Like Sisters on the Homefront which I loved. Of all of your books, which title is your favorite?
RWG: Don’t ask me to choose between my children! I love them all-even the ones with characters I want to shake-and you’ll meet those young ladies in Jumped. Every one of my titles is dear to me for different reasons. That’s only right. They are their own separate stories. Their own paths. But, yes…there is something about Like Sisters that stays with me.
While I am known for saying that the book is always better than the movie, I can’t help but wonder are there plans to make any of your books into a movie? Which of your books would you most like to see become a movie?
RWG: My readers overwhelmingly have asked for a screen version of Like Sisters, and I quite agree! In fact, I’ve been pursuing a television movie deal, along with my partners for the past twelve years. We’ve come close, but it’s a tricky business! We haven’t given up. Stay tuned.
You’re known for your books written for young adults, but you also have a picture book entitled Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee. Do you have plans to write any more books for younger readers?
RWG: I love the wonder and surprise of picture books and am working on one titled, Carmelina Angelina about Carnival in Brazil. Picture books are a good way to see new things in the world whether you’re three or thirteen. They’re challenging, but well worth it when the story is just right. And, I’m pleased to say, Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee (WI-YOO-ZEE) is back in print. Reading CWW aloud gives me a chance to interact with children. We have lots of fun.
What do you see for yourself as a writer for the next 20 years? Any storylines or specific issues you want to address? Is there a series in the works or do you plan to write for adults?
RWG: An adult novel way down the road is possible, but honestly, I don’t find the interior thoughts of adults interesting, although I won’t rule adult novels out entirely. I can, however, see myself writing theatrical plays in the future. I’ve been reading and watching plays since I was a girl. Lillian Hellman, Lorraine Hansberry, Shakespeare, Ntozake Shange, August Wilson… My first effort will be about my father’s discharge from service after his Viet Nam tour of duty. I’ve been thinking about that even more, following the passing of my dad. I’m also learning to write screenplays. Why not write movies? I like the idea of having my work come to life. As for writing series, I’m too antsy! If I could keep my mind still for more than a minute, I would consider it. But once I finish with my characters I need to go elsewhere.
Twenty years from now, I’ll probably direct my resources and energy toward creating a space for other people to write. Most likely, young people.
I read that you have a novel called Jumped coming out sometime this year. Can you give us a sneak peek on the book’s summary?
RWG: Taking personal responsibility and looking beyond her own self interest are low on Leticia’s “to do” list. When she witnesses big Dominique promising a 2:45 beat-down on Trina, a carefree, self-absorbed flirt, Leticia wastes no time. She whips out her cell phone, AKA Celina, and calls her girlfriend Bea to share the hot gossip.
Look for Jumped in 2009! If I had my way the cover art would be of pink sweat suit bottom with the word “JUMPED” printed across it, the same way clothing designers print their names or messages over the seat. One of the MFA students suggested it and she’s right!
The 2008 ALA awards were announced recently which prompted a conversation on a listserve. You’ve received an abundance of awards from ALA and others for your writing. I’m curious as to your thoughts on awards and recognition. How does the recognition from committees stack up against an e-mail praising you for one of your books or a character that resonated with a reader?
RWG: Early in my career, I used to tell Rosemary, my editor, “Don’t go nominating me for any Corettas. I just want to write my stories.” Little did I know! Being on lists and receiving awards have allowed my books to reach readers. This is important because my books are often challenged due to content (rape, abortion, FGM), so I need all of my angels.
But I tell you, there is nothing like getting a letter or email from a reader. I still show them to my grandmother when I see her on Sundays. I used to write stories at the foot of the stairs in Grandma’s house when I was twelve. I share all of my important news with my 90 year-old Grandma, and hearing from my readers ranks high on my list of important events. I rarely miss an opportunity to reply to a letter or email, and usually start them off with how thrilled I am to receive their letters because it’s true. A few years ago when I was working long hours for my former company, I was often too tired to think about my writing, let alone remember that I did write. Then I’d get an email and remember I had a rich writing life being enjoyed by readers. Many a time these letters have come to my rescue, and I like them all; whether the reader enjoyed the book, needed more information, or took issue with the book and characters. Ultimately, it’s the reader’s book. It’s about what they receive and how they interpret it.
You mention that you listen to music as you gather ideas. What type of music do you listen to for inspiration? Who are your favorite musical artists?
RWG: Each novel sends it’s own music to me. Like my characters, I don’t choose the music; both music and characters find me. Some nearly thirty years ago just as hip-hop was happening, Tanya Gardner’s “Heartbeat” was the anthem for Joyce in Blue Tights while gospel carried me through Like Sisters. Herbie Hancock was there for me through Fast Talk. These days I’m listening to soul, pop and R&B for One Crazy Summer which is set in Oakland, late sixties.
I collect R&B or soul compilations to bring me back to the day. I’ll scream, “That’s my song!” and forget myself in public. My friends and children are no longer mortified if I have to “tighten up” or dance to whatever dance song is playing. I like neo soul, be-bop, gospel, Afro-Brazilian, Reggae, and Ska. I put on jazz and classical music to wind myself down. I love vocalists because I can’t carry a note pinned to my sweater. Aretha, Nancy Wilson, Alicia Keyes, Morganna King, Yolanda Adams, Johnny Hartman, Frank Sinatra, Valerie Joyner Boyd. I keep Amy Winehouse in prayer.
You also mention that you love art. Who are some of your favorite artists? Have you ever looked at a piece of art and saw a story there that you were compelled to tell?
RWG: I can thank my mother, Miss Essie, for my love of both art and crafts. She painted plates, furniture, the garage door-anything, in bold colors with big messy strokes. She always put two unlikely things together. It was no wonder I felt at home with Picasso. My favorite artists are Romare Bearden, Picasso, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold, Vincent Van Gough, Jean Michel Basquiat, and silhouette artist Kara Walker. I especially appreciate texture. Story quilts, sculpture, pottery, blown glass. These days, I can’t get enough of trees. All shapes, all leaves. Paintings, sculptures, or actual trees.
Objects of inspiration are unpredictable-praise God. A box of Jiffy Cornbread Mix inspired my short story “Clay.” Remembering the sound of my mother’s wooden spoon stirring cornbread meal in a Pyrex bowl. Remembering other mothers on the block stirring cornbread meal in time for dinner. So I wrote about a small black community held together by the mysterious art of motherhood, which is in an anthology called Second Sight.
I’m also inspired by film, music and other books. The motion of “The Telling” in Like Sisters comes from the elders’ rocking chair in Alex Haley’s Roots. Sixo, a runaway slave in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, while being burned alive had a final triumph, a final laugh. His image reminds me to not be afraid of painful places that hold triumph. In that way I’m inspired to write scenes from No Laughter Here and Every Time a Rainbow Dies.
You encourage young writers in the making to devour books. What’s on your To Be Read List? Name five books you’ve read in the last year.
RWG: Waiting to be read: Jorge Amado’s The War of Saints, Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms, Pat Murphy’s The Wild Girls
5 titles read in the past year: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, If the Creek Don’t Rise by Rita Williams (not me!), Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson and Trash by Sharon Darrow
Rita, this was such a wonderful opportunity for me to pick your brain and glean from your experience as an author. Any final words for our readers?
RWG: Everyone, pick up a good book and dive in! It’s been a pleasure chatting.
The Buzz . . . Critical Praise for No Laughter Here
“This exquisitely written short novel tackles an enormous and sensitive subject… Unapologetic, fresh and painful.” ~ Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)
“Combines a richly layered story with accurate, culturally specific information ….. [a] skillfully told, powerful story.” ~ ALA Booklist (Starred review)
No Laughter Here opens with 10 year old Akilah anticipating a letter from her true friend Victoria who is back in Nigeria for the summer. Stuck at home going to summer camp and working on her math, Akilah’s days are spent in the company of her mother who is a social worker with a firm grasp on her daughter, the self-proclaimed Girl Warrior. Akilah is fortunate to have a mother who allows her a semblance of a girlfriend relationship from time to time where they discuss Akilah’s pending maturation. Reading about Akilah and her mother reminded me of the episode of The Cosby Show where Rudy gets her first period and how she had her girlfriends as well as her mother to talk to about the myths versus the facts about menstruation.
In contrast to Akilah is Victoria who’s family does not discuss with Victoria to prepare her for what will really happen to her in Nigeria while there for the summer. Add to that the trauma of what Victoria goes through as a result of female genital mutilation and it’s no wonder that when Victoria comes back to New York City, the sound of her laughter is gone.
In age appropriate language, the author does a remarkable job of talking about this issue in a sensitive way without casting judgment on those who practice female genital mutilation. Exposing readers to an idea that might be foreign to them, the book is also a great way for mothers and daughters to talk about human sexuality and the changes that the body goes through during adolescence. The book has heart and you hope that Akilah’s love is enough to bring back the sound of Victoria’s laughter.
The Buzz . . .Critical Praise for Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee
“A very gratifying first picture book from Williams-Garcia, one that plays with the willowiness of language while following the shenanigans of a young African-American girl trying to escape the bite of a comb wielded by her mother.” ~ Kirkus Review
“This wonderfully written book will entertain preschoolers with a dose of imagination combined with fun and adventure.” ~ Black Issues Book Review
I loved the book Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee as I could definitely relate to not wanting to get my hair combed as a kid either although my mother never chased me to get my hair combed. I wasn’t always in a rush to get my hair hot combed though especially when she was on the phone and got to rambling with her girlfriend, because my neck or ears were sure to pay the price.
This story is filled with fun language that will have young readers giggling at the zany words. Language is fun and Rita Williams-Garcia celebrates that in this creative tale.
Blue Tights (1988)
Fast Talk on a Slow Track (1991)
Like Sisters on the Homefront (1995)
Every Time a Rainbow Dies (2001)
No Laughter Here (2004)
Catching the Wild Waiyuzee (2000)
Into the Game (1993)
Wishing It Away (1997)
Crazy as a Daisy (1998)
Cross Over (1998)
About Russell (1998)
Making Do (2003)
A Woman’s Touch (2003)
Make Maddie Mad (2004)
Mr. Ruben (2004)
Visit Rita Williams-Garcia at her website to stay up to date with her writing and events.