Alicia D. Williams is the author of the powerful debut novel, Genesis Begins Again. Her book tackles many issues, but it’s hard to ignore the role of colorism in this book. I spoke to Alicia about the reasons why this theme came easily to her, the similarities between her and Genesis, and how she balances work as a middle-grade history teacher with writing.
Hi Alicia, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi, my name is Alicia D. Williams, and as of January 15th, I can proudly say I’m a published author. My debut, Genesis Begins Again, has been in the oven for quite a while. I’m a middle school history teacher during the day. And I’m a proud mother of a brilliant college student who attends North Carolina A&T University.
Genesis Begins Again is so moving and heartbreaking. One of my favorite things about this book is the authenticity of Genesis’s voice. I was hooked from the first sentence: “Nobody could tell me that today wasn’t gon’ be my day.” Why did you decide to write in the first person?
My third person point of view sucked. Either I was just terrible at it (which was likely the case) or the flow didn’t feel natural. I laugh at it now, but seriously, even my grad advisor urged me to go back to first person. I was new to writing and had no clue as to what would work or not. So, when I went back to first person, I constantly read my writing aloud to get the rhythm of not just the characters, but the entire story. Afterward, there was no doubt it had to be first person.
Did you ever consider making Genesis sound less “slangy”? Why did you stick with this voice (which feels true to her, by the way)?
Glad you asked. Language is one of those things we judge people on. People view country accents as less intelligent. Ebonics or use of the “be” is viewed as “ghetto” and “hood.” There’s a stigma placed on how a person talks.
Initially, I cringed and thought the slang to be stereotypical. I even felt conflicted about having an African-American girl from the inner city talk in this sort of dialect. The truth is, I wanted to connect with that underrepresented kid who doesn’t speak perfect or “proper” English because I didn’t. I still don’t (and am self-conscious that I still drop the endings of my words and sometimes use the wrong tense in a sentence).
Secondly, I wanted people to realize that even though a person uses a different speech represented by their environment or cultural background, it doesn’t make the person bad, threatening, or less smart.
I recently watched a documentary regarding African-American history and linguists agree that language holds a historical and cultural relevance, and saying slang is incorrect speech or bad English we’re telling whole communities that generationally they’re dumb. It might grate on some ears as we determine what is acceptable. Gullah, New Orleans, New Yorkers, all these different ways of speaking, blending language and slang–it’s who we are.
Thirdly, I see my students walking across our predominantly white private school campus using slang terms like “lit,” “slay” and “Gucci.” That’s how we naturally operate, right? And there’s something to say as to who can use slang and still be viewed as “good” and those who are labeled bad and dumb because in the end, we all connect and adapt our language with different audiences. So I’m happy to know the voice rang true for Genesis.
While you address many issues in this book, colorism is a significant theme. Why did you choose to highlight this issue and to tell this story?
It wasn’t intentional. Genesis was insecure for several reasons–dark skin, kinky hair, and heavyweight– all relating to beauty. I was told that she was dealing with too many issues, which I balked at because kids deal with more than we care to admit. And yes, all at the same time. After examining the story, her dark skin was the heart of her need to be beautiful.
And why, above weight, was color an issue? Perhaps it was the memories of my childhood that danced around in my head or what I witnessed within my community. Perhaps it was the pictures scrolling across my social media feed, the gripes I had within the dating community, or even in magazine advertisements. Or, perhaps it was feeling the strain of it as an adult, still being made to feel insecure about my brown skin. But once colorism rose to the forefront of this story, I couldn’t ignore it.
Genesis struggles with math in this novel and as a math-hater myself, it was refreshing to see her improve with assistance. How did your experience as a teacher inform the way you handled her difficulty?
I can’t stand math either. I wish I did because I’m all about girls demonstrating how they rock at math, science, and STEM. It wasn’t necessarily my teaching experience that influenced this aspect; although, I believe that peer to peer teaching is a strong tool that is sometimes underused. But more importantly me homeschooling my daughter Nailah was the inspiration.
True story: I thought I was killin’ it with her lessons–except when it came to percents and decimals then things abruptly stopped. I took her to a math tutor and realized I kept my poor child on the 4th-grade level, and she was in 6th grade! Within weeks of tutoring she was testing at the 5th-grade level, and within months she was right at the 6th. She needed the right teacher and seeing how they had some college students working there, I kinda borrowed that idea.
The emotional scene between Genesis and her father, Emory, toward the end of the book, broke my heart. You manage to navigate the relationship between Genesis’ parents and between her parents and her with a great deal of compassion. Was that something you specifically wanted to accomplish, and why? (i.e., not demonizing her father, but helping readers see his pain too).
Endings are incredibly hard. I knew there had to be a resolution of some sort. A showdown. You see, my dad had his faults much like Emory, but he was a good person. If it weren’t for those demons he was fighting, then he would’ve been a better father. I imagine that this is the case with a lot of parents. We all have something we’re dealing with, right? So, it was important for readers to not see this man, this father, as a horrible person with addictions and not have an inkling on what his internal struggle was.
Truthfully, it’s the moment I wanted to have with my own dad; it was therapy for me. And I cried writing it too. There are some words I’ve always wanted to hear from my father and words I’ve always wanted to say. And incidentally, I was watching an episode from Iyanla Fix My Life, and four young adults confronted their father who I think might’ve been in and out of jail. They said some of the same things I replayed over and over in my head that I wanted to say to my own dad. So I knew, I knew that Genesis had to go there. It’s real. Not only for me or that family on TV, but for so many others.
They said some of the same things I replayed over and over in my head that I wanted to say to my own dad. So I knew, I knew that Genesis had to go there. - Author @storiestolife on her debut novel @simonkids Click To Tweet
Genesis struggles with peer pressure and wanting to be liked throughout the novel. Besides the natural human (especially as a teen) desire to be liked, would you say this desire for acceptance is intensified by her issues with self-hate?
Yes, indeed. That’s why you see her adapting and changing herself to fit in, be like the others as mentioned earlier, even through language. She picked up slang words from the cool kids, or those who she thought was cool. She would even pick up “ridiculous” and “stinking” from Yvette and Belinda. If she were more like them, then she would be less like herself.
I have such a soft spot for Sophia and Troy who are both also dealing with personal challenges. Did you have any particular inspiration for both of those characters?
No, not really. Although in middle school I did have a crush on a boy named Troy, and he did have muscles . . . And he was nice to me. That was the year that two girls wrote a list of 100 reasons why they hated Alicia. Now, that’s a true story! Anyway, I’m so much like Genesis, haha . . . Except I was the heavy kid that was teased. So, Troy being nice ultimately reflected in the book. Hey, are you crushing on Troy, too? (wink)
(I totally am!)
There are so many pop culture and musical references in this book – I loved that! Is it safe to say that you love music too?
I do I do I do. I teach dance fitness and no matter how exhausted I am–the music energizes me. And I love dancing. When I write, I usually write to music. My favorite songs to write to are John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” and “So What.”
How did you balance writing with a full-time job?
I don’t. I have to figure something out, hahaha. What I try to do is block off sacred time even if it’s only during the weekends. Yet, with lesson planning, grading, and the endless emails it is so hard. I try not to beat myself up because even if my butt isn’t in the chair, I’m thinking about a story, jotting down ideas, making outlines, or observing students . . . I’m still finding a way to write something.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading your debut novel?
Ohhh so much. And it could be different things for different people. If it can’t be all of these takeaways, then I’ll settle for some, and if it can’t be some, then hopefully one. I need my readers to know that they are good enough. Just as they are. Period. Many times we’re told what we’re not and we carry these “not’s” for the rest of our lives. Also, I’d like to remind my young readers that they don’t have to carry blame or guilt from their parent’s choices. I want them to question what beautiful is and to get the courage to define beauty for themselves. And yeah, to be okay with who they are. Never change to fit in — we must be brave. All of us.
What’s next from you, Ms. Williams? Can we expect another middle-grade novel?
My next project is actually a picture book biography of Zora Neale Hurston. This summer I’ll have more time to pen more work, what? Well, not exactly sure.
Alicia Williams is a graduate of the MFA program at Hamline University. An oral storyteller in the African-American tradition, she is also a middle-school teacher who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Genesis Begins Again is her debut novel.