Smugglivus Smugglivus Guest Author

Smugglivus 2012 Guest Author: Zetta Elliott

Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.

Who: Zetta Elliott: black feminist, professor, poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist of some truly amazing books for young adults and children. We are huge fans of Zetta Elliott’s books and are avid readers of her blog, and we’re thrilled to have her over again for Smugglivus.

Zetta Elliott Ship of Souls (final)

Recent Work: This year, Zetta release the awesome Ship of Souls – a contemporary fantasy novel set in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, which both Ana and Thea loved.

Give a warm welcome to Zetta, everyone!

2012 has been a challenging year.

This is my second time participating in Smugglivus and when I went back to review my 2010 post, I was struck by how somber the season feels this year. Christmas is still my favorite holiday and I have maintained almost all of my annual traditions: I baked dozens of cookies and hung my wreath up on the front door. I bought a little tree but after having an allergic reaction, I gave it away and ordered an artificial replacement online. No stringing popcorn and cranberries this year—instead I covered the two-foot silver tree with white lights and blue ornaments including the glittering turquoise dragonflies given to me by a friend. I listened to carols sung by Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, and laughed out loud at Jimmy Fallon’s brilliant rendition of “All I Want for Xmas.” I was tired and I did succumb to a painful throat infection, but all in all I was trying to feel festive. Then a young white man murdered 27 people—mostly children—in a small town in Connecticut and Xmas lost some of its shine.

I turned forty this year but because my birthday falls in the middle of the semester, I didn’t really stop to celebrate. I had already decided that I wanted to spend Xmas in London and when my traveling partner pulled out, I decided to go ahead and make the trip on my own. Why not? I’d recently achieved my goal of becoming debt-free and I had enough school visits lined up to help pay for the flight and the flat. I was also having a really difficult semester and felt I deserved some type of reward. For eight weeks I was menaced by an unstable male student (who was eventually suspended), and then “Superstorm Sandy” wreaked havoc on New York City, flooding my college and throwing the academic calendar into disarray.

In early December—when I should have been grading papers—I pulled The Hobbit off the shelf and started rereading it on the train. To my surprise, it felt new to me and was more playful than I remembered. I first discovered Tolkien in college and still recall getting caught sketching elves during a seminar on the Graveyard Poets. The shame I felt then is now gone; I know far too many self-proclaimed “black geeks” to worry that loving fantasy somehow makes me a “wannabe,” an “Oreo,” or some kind of racial fraud. As Mashadi Matabane explains in Laina Dawes’ new book What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, “parochial blackness is as dangerous as hell…It steals your joy. It’s something that infects our minds and our decision-making process, because it forces you to always think, ‘What are they thinking about me now?’”

The Hobbit What Are You Doing Here

Once I might have worried about what to say should someone ask, “Why London?” On the day I turned forty I also became a citizen of Nevis, the Caribbean island where my father was born. I’m conducting research for a family memoir, The Hummingbird’s Tongue, so why not head south instead of “crossing the pond?” I’ve been to London too many times to pretend I have a tourist’s curiosity. The truth is that I grew up in a former British colony (Canada) and consumed so many magical stories written by Brits that I came to believe England was the sole source of magic. I know better now, but when I feel the need to escape I still turn to those texts and the country that produced them. The appeal now, however, lies in my ability to claim space where once I could only yearn to belong. I didn’t know until quite recently that black people have been in the British Isles since they were ruled by Rome—and contrary to popular belief, they weren’t all enslaved. None of the books I read as a child reflected that truth. My memoir is partly a meditation on archipelagoes; my ancestors hail from islands and I have settled on one myself—Brooklyn (part of Long Island) serves as the setting for my own speculative fiction, which features the black characters I never found in the fantastic tales I read years ago. What binds these islands together, however, is a history of conquest—something I also try to address in my work. I’m hoping to connect with Barbadian writer Andrea Stuart while I’m in London; her book, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire, will be published in the US in January 2013.

Sugar in the Blood

Two days after Newtown I went to see The Hobbit; after sitting through half an hour of previews for mostly violent action movies featuring mostly male casts, I sat through nearly three hours of battle scenes between orcs and dwarves that bored me and would surely terrify my eight-year-old niece who just read The Hobbit for the first time. I wondered why Peter Jackson felt the need to transform the story this way and regretted spending money to see male violence amplified and glorified. I came home and pulled out my DVD of Lord of the Rings—the scenes of tenderness between Frodo and Sam and Aragorn and Boromir mollified me somewhat. But the truth is that the fantasy novels (and films) I once loved no longer offer me an escape from reality. Read through a black feminist lens, most of them now offend rather than delight. Yet I now know to watch out for comparable distortions and exclusions in my own fantasy novels. Over winter break I hope to finish The Deep, a novella that picks up where Ship of Souls left off. This time the story will be told from the perspective of Nyla—a fourteen-year-old black girl who speaks fluent German, shaves her head, and has more piercings than you can count. Who else could be relied on to save the world?

Thank you, Zetta!

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  • de Pizan
    December 25, 2012 at 11:52 am

    I really enjoyed Hobbit, but yea, it’s so incredibly male-centered as to be a little disappointing. I know that’s what the book is like–but can you name any book or movie that has an entirely female cast (besides The Women or something like that which does it on purpose as a kind of gimmick)? No, because that’s not the way the world works. Yet there are plenty of male-centered movies/books that do just that. What I have appreciated about Jackson/Walsh/Boyens, which causes the purists to howl, is that they do try to give a little more prominence to the women characters than there were in the books (even if it’s just a very small way like the woman in the village being attacked by wildmen trying to save her children by sending them away). Apparently there were some scenes of Belladonna Took which will probably be in the extended release.

  • Estara
    December 25, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    I’m not black, but I don’t feel connected much to fantasy epics written by contemporary male writers either – so I give thanks that Judith Tarr, Michelle Sagara West, N.K. Jemisin, Kate Elliott, Andrea K. Höst, Sherwood Smith, Ru Emerson, Tamora Pierce and P.C. Hodgell write and are published (for the most part).
    It’s so much better than in the 80s, when I could only find Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley in German bookshops. Have a Healthy New Year!

  • mclicious
    December 26, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    Just about everything you said is why I have always been bored by high fantasy and so much more interested in more of the magic realism/speculative fiction stuff instead, since it always seems more likely to promote the idea that fantasy comes from everywhere and belongs to everyone.

    Great post. Thank you!

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