About Courage #2: Zetta Elliott

Posted on 22 December 2013 Sunday


img_11982Zetta Elliott earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003; she has taught at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, Mount Holyoke College, Hunter College, and Bard High School Early College. She currently teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Hunger Mountain. She won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest, and her picture book, Bird, was published in October 2008. Her one-act play, girl/power, was staged as part of New Perspectives Theater’s NYC festival of women’s work, GIRLPOWER, in August 2008. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by AmazonEncore in February 2010; her second YA novel, Ship of Souls, was published in February 2012. Her short story, “Sweet Sixteen,” was published in Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance in July 2012. Her most recent YA novel, The Deep is currently available on Amazon. The Kindle version is  currently only .99!  Zetta’s most recent article Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A Black Feminist Conversation on Fantasy Fiction for Teens, a conversation with Ibi Zoboi appeared in Bitch Magazine just last week.

I invited Zetta to participate in this series on courage with the following prompt.

Nyla is one courageous young woman. When you were developing her, did you purposely give her courage? In reading The Deep, what hints do readers find that say ‘courage’? Is it in her actions? The way people react to her? What she says? Who inspired the courage you developed in Nyla? 

I think you’ll find that Zetta really didn’t have to go  too deep to find inspiration for Nyla’s courage within herself.

Last month while having brunch with two writer friends, I mentioned that I am conflict averse. To my surprise, they looked at me like I’d just told the most hilarious joke! It has happened before: last spring I was interviewed by a young writer who referred to me as “a ‘no holds barred,’ uber-transparent blogger” who’s not “afraid to engage contentious commentators, or offend with what [I] say on [my] blog.”

I thought those who know me best would have a different opinion, but my cousin surprised me during a recent visit when she called me courageous. “I’m not brave at all,” I replied, and that wasn’t false modesty. I really am conflict averse and will go well out of my way to avoid confrontation (for example, I don’t get along with my family members so I moved to another country).

As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone and when I feel the need to make a point, I do so from the safety of my couch—the internet makes it very easy to be an armchair activist, and I don’t feel it takes a whole lot of courage to post an opinion piece on my blog. I speak out when I see something unjust, but I’m not leading boycotts or marching in the street. I care about certain issues but I wouldn’t say I’m on the front line. That takes guts.

Lately I’ve limited my online advocacy work; diversity in publishing still matters to me, but I have a finite amount of energy and decided I would rather channel that energy into writing. The publishing industry and its defenders have no interest in equity and only pay lip service to the idea (not the practice) of diversity. So why bother trying to engage those who refuse to listen? That’s like whistling in the wind.

At the end of November I did post one last essay on The Huffington Post. I was about to self-publish my novel THE DEEP, and wanted to draw attention to my book while responding to a Horn Book essay on the lack of Black geeks in YA lit.  THE DEEP is a companion book to SHIP OF SOULS (2012), and together the novels represent two-thirds of my “Black freaks & geeks” trilogy. I did have a contract for this urban fantasy, but when the publisher insisted on holding the book until 2015, I decided it was best to go it alone.

Self-publishing does take courage—a recent opinion piece in The New York Times gave this wry definition of self-published authors: “Treated as Crazy Ranting People: either ignored or pitied by the general public until they do something that is brilliant or threatening.” Independent authors are often treated as pariahs—our books aren’t reviewed by the traditional outlets, won’t be considered for any major awards, and most bookstores won’t stock our titles. Publishers often look at indie authors as “tainted” and no longer viable, though there are exceptions to this rule.

The truth is, even people of color who KNOW the publishing game is rigged will look askance at a self-published book. To some Black writers (and readers), self-publishing is gutless, the most shameless surrender. “Just be patient,” they’ll say after you’ve faced a decade of disappointment. “Try harder!” they’ll exhort, as if the publishing industry were an actual meritocracy. Others assume there must be something lacking in your work but won’t read your book in order to dismiss or confirm that assumption.  

So why self-publish? I explain my motivation in the acknowledgments section of THE DEEP:

I felt sure that there was a teenage girl somewhere in the world who needed this book yesterday. I never found anything like The Deep when I was scouring the shelves of my public library as a teenager, but it’s a story that might have changed my world—or at least my perception of myself. Black girls don’t often get to see themselves having magical powers and leading others on fabulous adventures.

It’s that simple. Nyla is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s recovering from a sexual assault that took placeth-1 at a school dance. Even though she fought back, like so many victims Nyla blames herself and isn’t sure she can trust herself to make smart decisions when it comes to boys. So when a strange man approaches her and tries to convince her that she has a special gift, Nyla flees. But in the end she can’t resist the opportunity to meet the other “freaks” who inhabit the deep—a dangerous underground realm policed by The League.

When I was fourteen, I was a wallflower; I had acne, difficult hair, ill-fitting clothes, and a desperate desire to escape my older sister’s shadow. For Nyla, the dim caverns of the deep offer her a moment to shine. Miles beneath Brooklyn she finds the mother who walked out on her ten years ago, and she discovers she has more power than she ever imagined. In the deep Nyla finds her destiny.

It doesn’t take much courage to write a novel like THE DEEP—it was actually a lot of fun! But I knew I was taking a risk when I put a defiant, beautiful, Black punk girl on the cover of my self-published book. The image is dark, forcing you to take a closer look. When I signed the first five copies of THE DEEP, I wrote the same thing over and over: “Be fierce!” It’s my way of saying to readers, “Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”

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Thank you, Zetta for all you so courageously continue to do!

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Posted in: Me Being Me