1. What made you decide to write the character Vimbai. Did you have any trepidation about writing “the Other”? What did you draw up on to create her?
Well, my interest with this book lay primarily in trying to write about the conflict between first and second generation immigrants – something I do have some experience with. I did however want to write someone different from myself, and since one of my closest friends is from Zimbabwe and we often talk about some of the common experiences and frustrations, the choice seemed obvious.
To me, the Other component was primarily about writing an American person – something I do quite a bit. Not to dismiss race as a crucial component, but what “Other” is certainly depends on one’s cultural perspective. So Vimbai was really someone I imagined my children would be like – a person who doesn’t share her parents’ culture and yet not entirely embraced by the world around her, someone who is adrift in more senses than one. And being adrift is something I know and can write about!
2. Is African folklore an interest of yours? What made you decide to explore this for a fantasy novel? With themes of the lingering effects of colonialism at play in your book, what sorts of concerns did you have about cultural appropriation as you wrote it?
Yes, it is of great interest, along with other non-Western narratives. In all my books, I try to break away with the traditional linear three-part arc, so embracing a different tradition certainly gave me a good template of doing so. As for imperialism: I don’t think one can honestly write about the world today without talking about it. I mean, we grow coffee and cocoa where we grow it because of it – imperialism shaped the world, and going about as if it was just that brief phase that ended without any long-lasting effects is disingenuous, to say the least.
As for cultural appropriation, it’s a several-fold answer. It’s always a concern, sure. First, I was reluctant to use existing myths, so I used them very sparingly and in close consultation with Tait, the aforementioned friend. The myths that characters tell each other are all made up but within bounds of existing folkloric tradition (such as characteristics of animals) or literary ones (man-fish is a Zimbabwean urban myth of sorts, explored by Marechera, and one of Vimbai’s stories is a riff on Tutuola.) Europeans tend to be very liberal while “collecting” folklore and I tried not to do it – that is, I went by definition of creative transformation rather than mere copying as described in African customary laws folklore copyright protection (summary document here: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001277/127784e.pdf).
Then, Vimbai herself is a cultural outsider to her parents’ tradition – that is, she is second generation and is culturally an American, with not as much insight into her parents’ culture as she would like. I would not be comfortable writing about Zimbabwean folklore from the insider perspective, because I am not an insider. I was careful to speak about the culture rather than for it, which I believe is a crucial distinction between talking about other cultures and appropriating them.
Finally, I do realize that my insight is limited, and the book is really much more about the immigrant experience – something I do know about first-hand. And this is something I spoke a lot to my friend about. He was very supportive of the book, but he also said, “You do realize that some Zimbabweans will not like this book because it was written by a white woman.” And yes, of course I do realize that, and you know what? It’s a valid position. I think it’s an important thing, to accept that you won’t have a unanimous approval, and to not be hurt about it. Westerners writing about other cultures either seek validation or just default to “haters gonna hate so screw them, I’ll write what I want” positions. So for me, I think it’s important to do one’s best, but not expect that everyone will love you for it. I mean, I myself am wary when Westerners write about my culture, so who am I to expect a different treatment?
3. You created a world within a house. [I’m not going to lie, you had me with naming parts of the world after Malcolm X.] How conscious were you of making the house a character as well as a reflection of Vimbai?
I kind of had to, didn’t I? If we’re going to wander through someone’s subconscious for a few hundred pages, have to make it relatable somehow!
4. Very little of this book smacks of “typical” fantasy. Was Maya’s quote “I don’t like these weird quests” a critique of fantasy? What sort of tropes are you tired of seeing in fantasy novels?
It was more of a comment on general Western narrative. Fantasy (and other) books tend to be terribly uniform in structure, to the point where any deviation starts to look like a mistake. It’s a common thing with all my books; with The Secret History of Moscow, some readers saw the endless backstories as a distraction form the main plot, and it’s of course a valid interpretation, but to me the backstories were the book. So yes, I’m aware that maybe my expectations come from being raised on a different literary tradition, with a much more diverse set of narrative templates, and quests just aggravate me, and rising tension thing gives me heart palpitations. Tropes is not what gets me tired, but rather the same constructs being played to death. Good, evil, confrontation, escalating obstacles, yawn. (And banter. Too much banter everywhere! And get your spunky heroines off my lawn.)
5. Young adult. African American interest. Fantasy. There are a number of places your book could find itself in a bookstore. Who do you imagine is the audience for this book?
I’m hoping for immigrants, but really, any audience is welcome. As long as people are reading, I am happy.
*I have a loose definition of “five” in my world