Maybe it started when I read Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and plotted out a Shadowhunter named Cora, who hot-combed her hair before Sunday service while iratze runes faded on her arm after a night chasing demons. She was about eighteen years old in the Roaring Twenties, and her parents, who ran an Institute, were excited about the work of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and passed around the latest issues of the Chicago Defender newspaper.
Or maybe it started when I was a kid writing stories about black girls turning into werewolves (like “Teen Wolf,” yep) or traveling to alternate dimensions (what would become the bones of my debut novel), or doing anything in the realm of speculative fiction.
Or maybe it started when I learned to believe in magic, and realized I wanted more of it.
This is not to suggest that I’ve ever been deprived of magical words. To say I grew up around words people would be a gross understatement. My grandparents met while journalists at Ebony Magazine in the 1950s, my dad is a lawyer, and my mom is also a journalist. My childhood was filled with magazines stacked high. Bookshelves spilled over with tomes (including the grown-folk stuff my parents tried to hide, but I found anyway). My parents made sure I had books about people who looked like me as best they could, much in the same vein of young Marley Dias’s work with #1000blackgirlbooks today.
But even those efforts didn’t shield me from being the Other in a dominant culture. I still tied scarves around my head and let them dangle down back to imagine having long, straight hair. Self-consciousness still ate at me from the summer sun darkening my skin. I still wished my Swahili name wasn’t so exotic. And, though I’d never heard of intersectionality back then, I wondered if there was a character out there that understood my experience… and got to have her magic as well.
Since I learned to believe in magic, I also developed a reverence for it. I’m from Chicago, a city divided by railroad tracks, where you live in your unique North, South, or Westside universe and rarely venture out of it. This isn’t a willful decision for all Chicagoans, especially younger ones. And for those children who don’t get to venture to the Willis (nee Sears) Tower or lunch in the Walnut Room, the magic I learned to love is a first chance to see a world outside of your neighborhood. It can be a first chance to explore, or go to another time, or meet someone who doesn’t look or think like you.
I started writing The Blazing Star around 2011, quite some time after the little girl with her dangling scarves grew up. In it, I wrote about a black teen girl who travels back in time, and goes on an amazing adventure. However, when the manuscript was done, I had difficulty moving it through traditional publishing, receiving a lot of “I didn’t connect with the voice” rejections. This was undeniably frustrating, as I’ve always been expected to relate to the voice of the dominant culture, even when it’s not listening to mine.
To be frank, the traditional publishing industry has a problem with diversity. And it will fix this problem (whether kicking and screaming or otherwise), but in the meantime, I wanted The Blazing Star’s protagonist, this sixteen-year-old girl named Portia, to be out there. So I went indie. Going indie was a sacrifice (I zapped my savings, sold my car, and hauled up in my house at my computer forever to make it happen), but I don’t regret it.
I don’t regret it because I’ve been looking for Portia my entire life. For so long, I was trying to find a character who shared my dreams, but wasn’t the snappy sidekick or the silent token addition to a white cast. I was trying to find the little black girl who went on a speculative adventure, but I always believed she just wasn’t there, that finding Portia would be like seeking out that horse with a stick on its head . . . and yeah, it’s called a unicorn.
This journey has been so worthwhile because for me, displaying #blackgirlmagic also means writing it. Like Octavia Butler and Zetta Elliott, like Nnedi Okorafor, Dia Reeves, and Justina Ireland, and so many others who create and support #ownvoices stories, I knew I had to add my own voice to the mix.
Sharing Portia with publishing was my way to seek connection, to put my voice out in the world and ask, “Do you hear me?” Because as many readers and writers of color know, when there is nothing in your world to connect to, no one who looks like you, the response to your plea for love, validation, and acknowledgement is, “No, I don’t hear you.” And that needs to change.
So I released the cover for The Blazing Star on my thirtieth birthday. I’m proud that I found Portia and that she, a black girl with natural hair, the proverbial unicorn, shines on the cover as she looks off into the epic adventure of her dreams. In the book, she has agency. She has options. And she has magic.