Chicago Reads: Zadie Smith

On November 30th, I went to a Zadie Smith event put on by The Seminary Co-op. Zadie packed the DuSable Museum auditorium and an overflow room to share her latest book, Swing Time.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Two brown girls dream of being dancers–but only one,51hi92m66bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_ Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, about what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revi
sited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time.

While I loved hearing Zadie read from Swing Time (which I cannot wait to read), her Q&A session with Vu Tran was my favorite part of the event. She is so eloquent and her answers were so intelligent.

I especially loved her answer to a question about writing outside of your experience. The attendee wanted to know how to write “with honor” and how we could decide what experiences were meant for us to write. Misrepresentation is harmful and any writer risks criticism when they venture too far from their own experiences and without proper research. Yet…who are the “experts” who get to decide when someone has crossed over? And if no one ever wrote outside their experience, our books would be very limited. Where is the line?

I thought Zadie answered this well. She commented (and please note I am paraphrasing) that it is impossible to judge fictional characters. She has a Trinidadian professor in one of her novels, and as she said, he does not represent all Trinidadian professors. And is there a better portrayal of Trinidadian professors out there? Maybe, but who’s to say there is only one “correct” way to portray Trinidadian professors? This is a conversation, in her opinion, to be had between reader and author. Readers will always have different interpretations of a novel, and it’s their right to decide what is realistic to them and what is done poorly. However, in her opinion, if an author constantly worries about upsetting a potential reader, she will never write a single word.

Misrepresentation is a problem, but it’s a complex problem with no easy solution. Not only did I admire Zadie’s answer, but I’m glad important writers in the world are thinking about and discussing these issues.

Some other fun facts from the event:

  • The protagonist in Swing Time is never named. Zadie said she wanted to write a distant narrator (in first person) and purposely did not reveal her name.
  • The way Zadie described the beauty of dance and rhythm captured what I have always felt about dance but had difficulty conveying.
  • Zadie visited West Africa for research for this book.

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From A to Z: Laurie Halse Anderson on POV and Focus

From A to Z is an occasional series on that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.



By Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was named to the ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults in 2000. It was also banned in schools and libraries across America, eventually becoming the 60th most banned and challenged book of that decade [1].

Speak is the story of Melinda, a high school freshman struggling with the fallout of calling the police during a summer party. She becomes a pariah at school, loses her best friend, and retreats into herself as she tries to figure out how to survive in this new environment.

This book is a particularly strong example of using a first-person point of view to create intimacy and authenticity, and of using a character’s attention to unpack their internal life. This post will focus on both, showing how Anderson uses POV to control the narrator and the reader’s focus as she reveals a layered and sensitive story.

Melinda first introduces her world on her way to school:

The school bus wheezes to my corner. The door opens and I step up. I am the first pickup of the day. The driver pulls away from the curb while I stand in the aisle. Where to sit? I’ve never been a backseat wastecase. If I sit in the middle, a stranger could sit next to me. If I sit in the front, it will make me look like a little kid, but I figure it’s the best chance I have to make eye contact with one of my friends, if any of them have decided to talk to me yet.

– p. 3

In this moment, we scan the bus’s seats and run through the options alongside Melinda. We get an introduction to her frank voice and her more introspective decision-making process. We also get a first hint of the novel’s conflict, dumped in our laps when we least expect it: the confession is off-handed but honest, and we begin to form a picture of Melinda’s personality and world.

Shortly after, we meet Rachel Bruin, one of the most important people in Melinda’s life:

The kids behind me laugh so loud I know they’re laughing about me. I can’t help myself. I turn around. It’s Rachel, surrounded by a bunch of kids wearing clothes that most definitely did not come from the EastSide Mall. Rachel Bruin, my ex-best friend. She stares at something above my left ear. Words climb up my throat. This was the girl who suffered through Brownies with me, who taught me how to swim, who understood about my parents, who didn’t make fun of my bedroom. If there is anyone in the entire galaxy I am dying to tell what really happened, it’s Rachel. My throat burns.

Her eyes meet mine for a second. “I hate you,” she mouths silently. She turns her back to me and laughs with her friends. I bite my lip. I am not going to think about it.

– p. 4-5

Here, Anderson does several key things. Specific, realistic details indicate the length and closeness of the girls’ relationship. We also begin to see the hurdles Melinda faces in daily life, including economic disparities and possible conflicts at home. Most importantly, we see how Melinda’s initial impulse to speak is quickly tamped down. We watch her attempt to reach out and instead, after being brushed back, sink into herself.

As the book progresses, Melinda continues to make confessions to the reader. Anderson is a master at using Melinda’s attention to convey her thoughts and emotions, as when Melinda goes to the mall to avoid school and notices the birds trapped inside:

No one knows how they got in, but they live in the mall and sing pretty. I lie on the bench and watch the birds weave through the warm air until the sun burns so bright I’m afraid it will make holes in my eyeballs.

– p. 99

In addition to opening up questions about the line between captivity and freedom, this moment touches on the small sadnesses we encounter every day without realizing it. Melinda, too, is a girl running through the motions of being “fine” without ever truly feeling that way. These moments of reflection often spark more direct confessions:

I should probably tell someone, just tell someone. Get it over with. Let it out, blurt it out.

I want to be in fifth grade again. Now that is a deep dark secret, almost as big as the other one. Fifth grade was easy—old enough to play outside without Mom, too young to go off the block. The perfect leash length.

– p. 99

Through these moments, we’re able to get inside Melinda’s head. Her confessions feel familiar, since many of them capture similar feelings and secrets we all hold. They also feel extremely intimate, showing the jumps and pauses in her mind and letting us linger on something only as long as she does.

In one final moment, we again see Anderson’s expert use of focus:

He tilted my face up to his. He kissed me, man kiss, hard sweet and deep. Nearly knocked me off my feet, that kiss. And I thought for just a minute there that I had a boyfriend, I would start high school with a boyfriend, older and stronger and ready to watch out for me. He kissed me again. His teeth ground hard against my lips. It was hard to breathe.

– p. 135

Moment by moment, we follow Melindas exhilaration as it begins to soar and then dive into something much more like fear.

There is so much more to say about Speak. It’s a wrenching and compelling story—and, for writers, a master class in technique and first-person point of view.

Its place as both a classic and a highly vilified text makes it a particularly poignant read for 2017. Though her book speaks powerfully for itself, Anderson also pushed back against its censors, writing, “[C]ensoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them” (Speak, afterword).

In Speak, Anderson captures the voice of a teenage girl who wishes she didn’t care, but does—who is funny but fractured, strong but struggling, raw on the page but hiding behind a mask around everyone she encounters. Through guiding the reader’s focus and letting us in to Melinda’s mind and world, Anderson paints an intimate, believable portrait of a girl just trying to get things right.



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Finding the Write Place: Sawada Coffee

Finding the Write Place is an occasional series on that highlights some of our favorite places to write here in the Windy City.

Sawada Coffee

112 N Green St
Chicago, IL, 60607

Monday-Sunday: 8:00am – 5:00pm

(hours posted as of October 2016, check Sawada’s site for up-to-date hours)

Noise level: moderate-high-conversations, sound of clatter from bar, music

Availability of space: Dependent on day (I went on a Sunday, it was full with a few empty seats still)

Bathrooms: yes

Food: yes (pastries, also connected to Green Street Meats)

Wifi: free with password

Outlets: YES! (there are wall outlets at the seats along the window and hanging outlets in the center of the main table!)

Sawada coffee is a fun,small coffee shop directly attached to Green Street Meats (a must-visit if you love BBQ). And by “directly” I mean directly attached. It’s open to the GSM space, so all the noise and music and delicious smells waft over from the BBQ place.

img_20161023_130225 That being said, it’s a very fun place to have a coffee and write if you don’t mind noise. There is always music playing and depending on who has control of the GSM iPod it varies. Sometimes I go there and it’s classic rock, sometimes it’s country, sometimes it’s the Beatles, sometimes it’s indie-alt pop. I don’t mind since I am good with ambient noise, but if you’re a person who needs quiet when you write, then this place is probably not for you.

The chairs are a bit harder than I’d like for a long writing session. The ones by the window have padding and a back, but the ones at the middle table (a reclaimed ping-pong table, complete with removable divider) has hard wooden stools bolted into the floor so you can’t move them. If you want to take your coffee and sit at the long picnic benches in the main space of Green Street Meats, then that’s totally allowed.

It’s a nice place for groups, so if you have a writing group that wants to meet up on a Sunday afternoon, then definitely try out Sawada/Green Street Meats because there’s plenty of space.

I’d suggest this place for writers who don’t mind noise, want a joint eating/writing session, or writing groups to meet up for critique or hang out sessions.


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From A to Z: Writing Diversely in YA


From A to Z is an occasional series on that examines the nuts and bolts of the writing (and publishing) process.

Take a look at bookish Twitter, and you’ll see a hot topic in YA popping off nearly every day. Most YA authors are passionate about their work and their audience and it’s amazing. They care about their readers and want to get them books they will love and embrace.

However, one topic comes up more often than not, with good reason. Diversity in YA Literature is very near and dear to me as an #ownvoices author. In this post, I’ll break down some hard questions about this heated topic.

Why diversity in YA?

Picture it, Cleveland, 1986. Little me, reading book after book and enjoying those books… but wondering why my life didn’t match the life in those books. I TRIED to make it match, but I often got made fun of, like when I wore a fancy dress to a school dance in 7th grade and got laughed at because everyone else was wearing their regular school clothes. Maybe if I’d read about a school more like mine (predominately black, all honors students, 7th and 8th grades, teachers who were strict in the best possible way), with a girl like me (a black girl nerd with big glasses and light skin), I wouldn’t have looked like a complete idiot at that school dance.

My point: representation matters. And not just one type of representation (i.e. the tragic gay coming out book, or the black person living in the ghetto book, or the Indian dealing with arranged marriages book), but ALL kinds of representation. All those books have their place, and those readers deserve to see themselves… but there are many readers whose narratives don’t fit that at all. They deserve to see themselves as well, and they deserve not to be told their lives, their experiences, their realities are “unrealistic” or a “fantasy world”—unless of course, it is a true fantasy with dragons and magic and so on.

So many people are desperate to see themselves in books, little me (and “grown up” me) included. And we don’t only want to see ourselves in the narrow boxes that have become the default and accepted narratives. Why can’t a black kid have magic, go to a wizarding school, and be the hero of that story? Why not a Chinese girl having a swoony relationship while she finds herself? Or why can’t we have non-binary characters having adventures with characters in wheelchairs? Why are most of the highly imaginative stories, stories with happy endings, stories with swoony love, given mostly to white characters? Exactly!

Who should write diverse literature?

So OK. It’s been firmly established that diverse books are needed. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and Rich in Color are doing great work in getting this message out there.

Now, who should write the books? Who has permission to write these stories? My answer? People can write whatever they want, but they should ask why they want to write those stories. And then be willing to do the hard work to give the representation in those stories the nuances and fair rep that the readers deserve.

The main questions authors should ask themselves before deciding to write a marginalized character as the POV character:

Am I the best person to tell this story, and why? Is it about ego? About chasing a “trend”? About mixing up the cast because you think that’s what’ll sell? Or is it because this person’s story is burning, burning deep inside you and you must tell it? I get that. It happens.

This question is not just for white, cishet authors. It’s for anyone writing outside of their own experiences. Part of the fun of writing is exploring, right? In my opinion, people shouldn’t feel limited in who they write about… but they should be careful about writing it.

Say you’ve asked this question, answered it the best way, and you decide to go ahead and write the story. Now it’s time to ask yourself:

Am I willing to do the hard work to get this character right? This means research, research, research! Using resources such as Writing with Color, Writing the Other, or Disability in Kidlit. Getting sensitivity readers and listening to their feedback. Actually interacting with people from marginalized backgrounds, rather than allowing stereotypes to shape your character. You’ll probably still mess up, so taking critiques graciously and being willing to learn is important. And that’s just to start.

Is what I’m writing going to hurt someone? I don’t mean hurting someone’s feelings. I mean large scale hurt that can have deadly repercussions. Stereotypes that enforce negative feelings about certain groups. Those feelings causing people to act out around people of those groups. People dying because of hatred fueled by what some consider art, or freedom of expression. Except all it’s causing is pain.

This is a delicate topic. But if you’re writing for children, why would you want to hurt them?

Representation. Matters.

Now that you’ve answered those questions, are you still the right person for this story? If so, great. Now it’s up to you to do the hard work to get the representation of marginalized characters right, just as you would do the hard work regarding scene structure, plotting, and character arcs. Good luck!

Now I’ll answer a few more questions about Diversity in YA.

What is #ownvoices?

According to the Google machine: #OwnVoices is a hashtag/term coined by Corinne Duyvis, co-mod of Disability in Kidlit, for a book featuring a marginalized perspective authored by a person who shares that same marginalized characteristic.

You can read more about the hashtag, and its creator, here.

What’s so great about #ownvoices? 

I read a LOT of YA. Not as much as some people (like librarians) but I try to plow through as much as I can in a given year. My first choice is contemporary, but I’ve been branching out. And this is what I’ve been noticing about #ownvoices books: They have rich layers that give readers a nuanced glimpse into a world they may not have been exposed to. Small things that an outsider wouldn’t notice or include, but those small things (and big things) make #ownvoices books special.

What can I do to uplift #ownvoices and marginalized authors, including those who may be getting passed over in favor of dominant “more relatable” voices?

The fact is that published books about marginalized groups, especially POC, are very few. Too few. And that number goes down when factoring in books BY those groups of people. Now, I’m not saying there is a quota in publishing, but when I hear of people saying their book was passed over because “we already have a [insert marginalization] book on our list for this year”, it’s hard not to think along those lines.

Look, I get it. Publishing is hard for everyone. The amount of rejection can be soul crushing. I’m still in the query trenches myself. All the layers to go through, and you’re still not even guaranteed a place in a bookstore. It’s rough out there. But there are groups who have it decidedly worse than others, and we all need all the support we can get. This can be mentoring, or beta reading, or critiquing. Referring them to your agent. Promoting their books when they finally make it past sales and marketing. It’s going to take all of us to get more diverse books on the shelves and into the hands of our kids, but the hard work will be worth it.

Who’s with me?

I want to read more diversely. Can you recommend some diverse books and authors?

Yes! There is a Diverse Reads 2017 Challenge, which lists loads of diverse books for you to check out. Click here to find out more.

Diversity in YA is very, very important to me, not just as a writer, but as a reader. Art can and does change lives. And writing diversely, with care, is an amazing way to do so.


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Inspiration Station: On Casting Lines and Catching Readers

Inspiration Station is an occasional series on highlighting the people, places, and works of art that inspire us as writers.

(Manuscript images from The University of Chicago, The Special Collections Research Center)

Time and again, when my writing feels a little stale, a little stalled, I go back to stories that moved me. For that matter, even when life feels stale and stalled. I re-read those stories, sometimes even just paragraphs, phrases.

It’s one of the true powers of literature–the ability to speak to an individual. Words that feel like an author is reaching through time and writing those thoughts, again, just for me in this time and place I occupy, though to the author it was unknowable.

The story that I’ve read, perhaps more than any other, was written forty years ago, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT– a semi-autobiographical novella by Norman Maclean. Though, thanks to the movie adaptation by Robert Redford, Maclean is strongly associated with Missoula, Montana, he spent the majority of his life in Chicago. First attending the University of Chicago for graduate school and then becoming a professor in 1928 until his retirement at the age of seventy. It was only then, upon retirement, that he began to write down some of the stories he was renowned for telling.

He published his first work of fiction after the age of seventy. And in many ways, it has defined his legacy. That might be inspiration enough.

Then there are his words. Lyrical and truthful and raw. They speak to the poignancy of memory and the passage of time, when so many people and moments in are life have faded away yet stay with us still.

And through some kind of alchemy, he made fly fishing poetry.

A few sentences of A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT are etched in my mind, but I still pick up my old marked-up, yellowing copy of Maclean’s book to look at the words, to hear them speak to me: “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great floods and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” (The University of Chicago Press, copyright 1976)

Reading Maclean’s words on the page, it is impossible not to think of him at once, as the young man wading in Montana’s Big Blackfoot River and the retired English professor walking the pathways between ivy covered buildings in Chicago. Always a fisherman, who somehow cast his magical line and hooked the imagination of a young undergrad who had never caught a fish.

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