Monday, March 18, 2013

Interview with Ibi Zoboi

Well, last week I started a new 'Publishing Perspectives' series here on the blog, which is to say, once a week for the next few weeks, I'll be posting interviews with people on both sides of the publishing fence, i.e., both the people who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

I love talking to writers and authors especially. Each writer is so different in how they approach the labor of finishing a book, getting published, and even in their relationship with the public. Clearly there is no one set of beliefs surrounding the craft of writing.

Today, I'm posting my interview with Ibi Zoboi. I first came to know of Ibi when we published her children's story, "The Little Golden Stone Man", set in Haiti, in the 2011 issue of Anansesem. Since then, I've been following her work and her blog, Tell My Horse. She's definitely someone whose writing career I'd be excited to watch unfold. I'm grateful to Ibi for graciously agreeing to this interview.




You're currently studying as an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. How important is pre–qualification in our field?

I don't think there is such a thing as pre-qualification in writing. An MFA does not a guarantee a salaried job once you graduate, of course. And choosing to get one is a very personal decision. The only thing a writer must do is to write very well. And I'm certainly getting those skills at VCFA. I'm not there to write one good book. I'm there to learn the craft of storytelling.

There are certain skills a writer needs to make a career out of telling a good story. The Writing for Children program is very specific and it was the first to offer such a program. I'm surrounded by award-winning faculty and students (Trinidadian writer Lynn Joseph is my classmate). I'm in my second semester and I've read nearly a hundred children's and teens' books so far. I've examined different craft concepts and themes in children's literature and worked closely on my last manuscript. Rita Williams-Garcia was my last advisor and I'm now working with Susan Fletcher.

I'm a mom of three and I'm forced to carve out a block of time to focus on reading and writing. This has been worth every (loaned) penny! And I'm committed to a life-long career of writing for children so this was a necessary investment.

Last year you won the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation. How have you used the grant to further your writing career?

The grant did not necessarily further my writing career. It's a nice addition to a bio or query letter, of course. But it did help the novel that I was writing. I'm writing about Haiti and I needed to be there on the ground to get some of the details correct. I'd been relying on blurry memory and Youtube videos before then. I visited Haiti during Fete Gede, or Day of the Dead, and Gede figures prominently in my novel. The Speculative Literature Foundation does an excellent job of highlighting and supporting genre writers (fantasy and science fiction), and I was truly honored to be their 2011 winner.

You've written a fantasy YA novel, Bandit, that's yet to be published. I love the title of the novel. Can you give us a sneak preview of what it's about?

Sixteen year-old, Brooklyn-born Anacaona Makandal has the magical gift of being able to teleport things with her mind (stealing) and make things come to life with clay (pottery). Ana comes from a long line of Clay Women and she has also inherited her magical stealing powers from her father, the last Great Bandit of Haiti—a Robin Hood of sorts, who can travel between the world of the living, the world of the spirits (the Vodou loas/deities) and the ancestors—Ginen. She is the only girl in Haitian history to inherit such a gift. A girl isn't supposed to be a Great Bandit. She’s supposed to fine tune her prodigious sculpting skills to become a Clay Woman like her mother and foremothers.

Do you think there is a gap in the market for genre MG and YA books featuring so-called characters 'of color' and is that something you hope to address as a speculative fiction writer?

Yes, there is a serious dearth of multicultural books featuring characters of color, and more specifically, black characters. I can count on one hand how many sci-fi/fantasy books for young readers from diverse backgrounds have been published within the last couple of years. Zetta Elliott does an excellent job at articulating the lack of diversity in the industry.

I was writing speculative short stories for adults first, before this YA boom. I also worked with children and teens as a creative writing teacher. When I realized that some kids had a hard time placing themselves in the future or pulling from their own cultural mythologies to write sci-fi or fantasy, I became more determined to tell these stories where inner-city black and latino kids were the heroes and heroines of their own stories.

You submitted Bandit to the Lee and Low New Visions Award contest which recognizes a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Now you're one of three finalists for the award; congratulations! What did you do to prepare your manuscript for submission?

I've been writing and calling myself a writer for the last thirteen years (Though things slowed down a bit after the birth of each of my three children). I think the time I've put into writing was the best preparation. I also got a chance to work on the first few chapters with my advisor at VCFA. What Lee and Low and Tu Books are doing is tremendous. There had been all these online discussions (and they're still happening) about diversity in children's books, and their New Voices and New Visions Awards addressed a serious need. I'm honored to be among the finalists.

The award winner will be announced on March 31. What will you do if you don't win? What will you do if you do?

I'm still working on my manuscript with my new advisor at VCFA. A book is not done until it's on a shelf. So I'm learning the very necessary art of re-writing. If I don't win, I get to work on it some more and make it even better. If I do win, I get to work on it some more and make it even better, but under a contract and a publication date. It's a win/win situation for me. I'm excited and sincere about the story that I'm telling, so I know it will get into the hands of readers with the help of some amazing folks. I've had some great ones who've helped me get this far.

Your first picturebook, A is for Ayiti, was recently published by One Moore Book. What have you learned about the art of writing picturebooks that you didn't know before?

Writing for children is very hard. A is for Ayiti is an ABC book based on Haitian culture using an English alphabet! Edwidge Danticat served as guest editor for the series and I had to go through several edits with her and the amazing publisher, Wayetu Moore. I also learned that there is a great need for more books like these. OMB's Haiti Series garnered so much support and attention. I'm so glad Wayetu Moore took on this huge task. A is for Ayiti was translated into Kreyol and copies are being sent to Haiti. I was so proud to be a part of this series.

You have a writing blog, Tell My Horse, where you dish about your writing projects and developments. How important is it for children's/YA writers to build an online platform before seeking publication?

I really don't think it's important to build an online platform before seeking for publication. I know some folks who have a huge online presence and are vocal about different topics, but still had a hard time getting published. There are also lots of debut authors who I've never even heard of. Though it does help to have some visibility. For me, it's simply a way to get some of my ideas out. I'm a writer and the internet is just one giant notebook. You get to play around with your voice and words and send it out into the world.

I'm very passionate about mythology and Haitian folklore and children's books. So this is what I write about. People who are interested in what you have to say will seek you out. They will get a sense of your core values. These things are helpful, of course. But what's most important is to write, read, write, and read some more. I don't let blogging or social media get in the way of this.



Ibi Zoboi was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and is a graduate of the Clarion West Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Her short story, “Old Flesh Song”, is published in the award-winning Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, a collection of African American speculative fiction. Ibi received an award from the Women Writers of Haitian Descent for her short story “At the Shores of Dawn”, which was published in One?Respe! literary journal. She won a "Tricky Talker of the Year" an annual tall-tale contest presented by the Afrikan Folk Heritage Circle. Her children’s fable, “Mama Kwanzaa & Her Seven Children”, was published in African Voices Magazine, and her short story "The Harem" is recently published in Haiti Noir, edited by Edwidge Danticat. Her children's story "Little Golden Stone Man" was published in Anansesem Caribbean children's literature ezine.

Ibi a recent winner of the Gulliver Travel Grant given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation and is an MFA student in the Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, visual artist Joseph Zoboi, and their three young children, and has completed a YA fantasy novel, Bandit, based on Haitian myth and folklore which she is currently honing for publication. You can follow her on Titter at @ibizoboi.

Summer Edward is a Children's Literature and Publishing Consultant. She holds an M.S.Ed. degree in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Scholarship for promising children's writers and the School of the Free Mind's inaugural Way of the Book Honor Award given to artist-authors demonstrating long and sincere commitment to changing the world through children's books. Learn more about her here .

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