Born in Canada, Zetta Elliott moved to the US in 1994 to pursue her PhD in American Studies at NYU. Her writing has been published in several anthologies, and her plays have been staged in New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Her essays have appeared in Horn Book Magazine, School Library Journal,and Hunger Mountain. She is the award-winning author of three books for young readers: Bird, A Wish After Midnight, and Ship of Souls. Zetta Elliott is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College and currently lives in Brooklyn.
My family has a history of mental illness. My mother suffers from severe anxiety and both of her parents struggled with clinical depression. My father was what I would call “moody.” His mother, the woman for whom I am named, was committed to an asylum in the Caribbean sometime in the late 1940s or ‘50s. They say she had “fits.”
My older sister is a psychologist and she was able to detect in me the signs of anxiety disorder when I was in my 20s. She gave me some books to read and told me about cognitive behavioral therapy, and I was able to manage my condition without the help of medication. As I continued to read up on mental health, I realized that I had experienced a serious depressive episode as a teenager, though at the time I wouldn’t have called myself depressed. I was just holding on---sleeping too much, skipping classes, avoiding my friends, and immersing myself in books in order to make time pass more quickly. I needed time to speed up because I knew something better was waiting for me. I just knew it. And I was right.
Now that I am 40, I better understand the ways that anxiety and depression have shaped me as a writer. Fortunately, neither condition has been serious enough to impair my ability to function: I have been a full-time professor for eight years, I’ve written twenty plays, twenty picture book stories for children, four novels, a memoir, and numerous essays, though only a fraction of my written work has been published. When depression sets in, I often welcome it, knowing it may enhance my ability to turn inward and become reflective. Anxiety has been more challenging to navigate. The anxious person constantly asks herself, “What if…?” which can lead to endless, unproductive rumination on matters over which I have no control. Yet in order for me to write speculative fiction, I must continuously ask myself that very same question in order to generate narrative possibilities.
Lately I have begun to question whether or not I have a healthy relationship to the past (is it an obsession?). When I visit schools to give author presentations, I always show children the sankofa symbol. We talk about the bird with a gem in its mouth and I remind them that “there is no shame in going back to retrieve something of value you left behind.” As a black feminist writer of historical fiction, I sometimes feel as if I inhabit the past; there is so much that needs to be recovered and the official historical record seems to need endless revision. My literary excavations leave me (and my readers, I hope) feeling empowered in part because as a writer the past, for me, is not fixed—it is fluid, malleable.
For me, immersion in the past is necessary if I want to effectively create a fictional world that is both convincing and compelling. Yet I cannot deny that when I finish a novel and emerge from the past, I find it difficult to rejoin the real world. As a board member of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, I had the opportunity to meet Angela Davis in 2011 and I was struck by something she said. Her advice was, “to not be too ensconced in the present,” and she then told us how her parents had raised her and her siblings to “be prepared for a reality that did not yet exist.” I haven’t yet written anything futuristic but I am moving in that direction with my latest novel, The Deep, and so I keep Davis’ words at the back of my mind.
I write books for young readers that are a blend of historical fiction and urban fantasy. I am Canadian but I have spent nearly 20 years living in the US, and I am fascinated by the history of African Americans in New York City. My two young adult novels, A Wish After Midnight and Ship of Souls, are examples of speculative fiction that centers black youth, black history, and the various black cultures to be found in US cities. My teen characters are Afro-Panamanian, Rastafarian, Afro-German, Muslim, African American, Bangladeshi and Senegalese. They are queer and straight, geeks and jocks, they have dreadlocks and fauxhawks. They represent the multiplicity of blackness in NYC. They represent my hope that black youth will honor the past as they build the future.
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