What made you write the book?
There was no specific inspiration for this story, not initially. I was a first year graduate school student and had to write something. Originally the story was about a girl who was bullied because she was heavy weight, dark complexioned and had kinky hair. I was told that Genesis had too many issues to be middle grade. I was like, You don’t know real middle graders, they deal with a ton all at the same time! But perhaps, in writing it was too much or either I wasn’t executing it well. Either way, the theme of beauty started taking over the story. And for Genesis, it was her dark skin and kinky hair. And why, above weight, was color an issue? Perhaps it was the memories of my childhood that danced around in my head or what I witnessed within my community. Perhaps it was the pictures scrolling across my social media feed, the gripes I had within the dating community, or even in magazine advertisements. Or, perhaps it was feeling the strain of it as an adult, still being made to feel insecure about my brown skin. But once colorism rose to the forefront of this story, I couldn’t ignore it.
How long did it take you to write Genesis Begins Again?
Well, I started pantsying around with a blob of words in 2011 my first semester in graduate school. I had a solid eighty pages when I graduated in 2013. I continued piddling with it and finished the draft in 2014. Got a book deal in 2015. And, it still went through many many edits until 2018. So, a long long time.
How did you come up with the character's name? Title? And cover?
While visiting a school as a Teaching Artist, I perused the beautiful artwork and names on the walls. And, there was the name Genesis. I thought, Huh, Genesis as a name? I kept it. The title went through several changes. Nothing I selected actually worked. The publisher gave the book it's name. And, the publisher has an illustrator who came up with the gorgeous cover.
What is your writing process?
I'm still learning my process. But for now, I allow the project to guide me. With Genesis, it was all about the character and her world. Most of the supporting characters were built from people I've met since childhood. It's funny the memories that will come back as you develop a story. Also, I don't have a writing program, yep, I still scroll back and forth through my Word doc. In my notebook, I'll mind map, write character backgrounds, timelines, plot ideas, research notes, and questions that may arise. I have to admit, I started this project in grad school, so many eyes have seen parts of this story and helped me to dig deeper. Oh, I'll read. I'll read craft books on what I'm struggling with, read books that handles those issues well and see how those writers did it. I'm still studying craft. There is no specific process for me. I feel like I'm still a student in this area, trying to figure it out with my WIP.
How did your being a teacher influence the story?
Influence comes from so many different corners in the classroom. I’ve even been inspired by afterschool conversations with peers. While working on Genesis, I was a Teaching Assistant in kindergarten. During circle time, I took note of how children viewed themselves and their world. Also, at the beginning of every year, we’d notice the children of color, regardless of ethnicity, would never choose a brown or dark skin tone crayon from the multicultural crayon selection. Or, they would lightly, barely shade in their faces. I explored the why in my story. I also listened to their curious comments to the stories being read aloud and wondered again. When observing or interacting with students, I’m constantly wondering what life is like for them--at school, home, or even out and about. All of these different discoveries are filed in my mental rolodex to be used as needed.
Why did you choose to write the story in first person POV?
That is how the voice came to me. I tried playing around with third person POV, but it wasn't working as well. So, I went back to first and viola!
Are any of the characters based on real people?
None are specifically based on real people, but I did borrow characteristics, names, and descriptions. My mom is light skin. My dad was dark. I did inherit his dark gums. My mom says the grandmother sounds awfully like her mom. Also, there was a boy named Troy in middle school that I had a crush on, and he did have muscles. I have a very supportive teacher named Ms. Hill; although, she wasn't a chorus teacher, but a long-term substitute. Oh, I also had an English teacher named Ms. Luctenburg. And, there were two girls in middle school who wrote a list of 100 Reasons Why We Hate Alicia. Which reminds me, as the old wise woman once said, "Let your haters be your motivators."
Did you ever consider making Genesis sound less “slangy”?
Language is one of those things we judge people on. Country accents are looked at as less intelligent. Ebonics or use of the “be” is viewed as “ghetto” and “hood.” There’s a stigma placed on how a person talks. Initially, I cringed and thought the slang to be stereotypical. I even felt conflicted about having an African-American girl from the inner city talk in this sort of dialect. Truth is, I wanted to connect with that underrepresented kid who doesn’t speak perfect or “proper” English because I didn’t. I still don’t (and am self-conscious that I still drop the endings of my words and sometimes use the wrong tense in a sentence). Secondly, I wanted people to realize that even though a person uses a different speech represented by their environment or cultural background, it doesn’t make the person bad, threatening, or less smart. I recently watched a documentary regarding African-American history and linguists agree that language holds a historical and cultural relevance, and saying slang is incorrect speech or bad English we’re telling whole communities that generationally they’re dumb. It might grate on some ears as we determine what is acceptable. Gullah, New Orleans, New Yorkers, all these different ways of speaking, blending language and slang--it’s who we are. Thirdly, I see my students walking across our predominantly white private school campus using slang terms like “lit,” “slay” and “Gucci.” That’s how we naturally operate, right? And there’s something to say as to who can use slang and still be viewed as “good” and those who are labeled bad and dumb because in the end, we all connect and adapt our language with different audiences.
What advice would you give young writers?
Don't be afraid to dream and imagine. Record your memories and your thoughts, you'll use them later. Don't be afraid to feel both the good and bad, you'll use it for your characters. Write what moves you, makes you angry, what you love, what you'd want to change, to makes you happy--write it and let it be your truth. Only you can tell the story the way you can.
Be on the look out in 2021 for Jump at de Sun, my picture book biography about folklorist Zora Neale Hurston published by Atheneum Books and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara. And, Shirley Chisholm Dared, picture book biography about the first Black Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, published by Schwarz & Wade and illustrated by Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent Award Winner April Harrison.