Alicia D. Williams is a self-proclaimed jack of all trades, but in the end it was always about storytelling.
She’s worked jobs as a flight attendant, a bank teller, an actress with the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and a middle school teacher. But her most important role has been one she began to play within her own family and eventually brought into local schools and libraries: a storyteller in the oral African-American tradition.
On Jan. 19, Williams added author to her list of jobs, as she released her debut children’s novel, Genesis Begins Again. The book, which tells the story of a 13-year-old girl with a dark complexion, dives into themes surrounding insecurity, colorism and poverty, among others.
In the lead-up to Williams’ appearance at Park Road Books to celebrate the release of the book on Saturday, we spoke with the newly published author about storytelling both oral and written, and her struggle with celebrating her own success.
Queen City Nerve: You went from children’s theater actress to teacher to children’s book author. Have you always had a passion for working with kids?
Alicia D. Williams: In college I tried to major in education. I was at University of Kentucky and I was thinking I’m going to do education. I went to this school and the students weren’t listening to me, and they said, “You’re not anybody’s mom.” I’m thinking, “Maybe I’m too young for this.” They didn’t take me seriously.
In Charlotte, later on, the [Arts & Science Council] had this wonderful program [called ArtsTeach]. I wish, wish, wish they saw the need for it to keep it going. They took artists from the community — dancers, musicians, visual artists, dramatists — they took us from the community and they trained us in ArtsTeach. They had invited the schools and told the teachers if you want to be part of this program, they had this summer institute, and they brought in other artists to see how we could bring arts into the curriculum. Being able to go to Title I schools, schools where they cut these things out, and to go in there and do a residency, and come out in two weeks, you can see a transformation, that set me on the road. I’m not able to do that now with a concrete classroom, but the idea of being an artist-in-residence, a teacher artist, and going and connecting with students all over from Title I schools, that was my space.
How long has storytelling been an interest of yours?
Because I was that shy, chunky kid, I’m the one in my family that you would find in the corner in a book. I was always interested in hearing about our family, and I didn’t realize that it was such a strong theme until my grandmother, out of 30-something grandkids, gave me this book. It was one of those Thomas Kinkade books, and it was like Memories from a Grandmother to Granddaughter. She filled it up with every single memory that she had, with pictures, because she trusted with me it. And even when she died two years ago, all the stuff in that journal that she kept for me, in her last days we were talking, I would say, “Grandma tell me about that thing.” Because the story book was the thing for me.
It was not until later on, when my daughter was younger and I started to read to her, that I fell in love with the folk tales, and I started telling them with ArtsTeach.
I came from New York, and I studied drama there. It’s so hard to get in something here, and I was a little cocky, I thought, “Hey I’m from New York, I went to acting school, I did this and that,” but drama is such a connected community that it’s like, “Well have you done this yet? Have you done that?” and I’m like, “No.” You gotta break in.
I started writing my own shows. So I would take historical stories like Emmett Till and the reaction of [his mother] Mamie Till seeing her son, and I would do it as the grandmother telling his journey. They would hire me out, I would go out to the libraries, and eventually the libraries had enough that they commissioned me to do a story on Margaret Garner. So I started telling not only the oral stories and folk tales from our heritage but creating these stories for the program.
Was it tough for you to translate to the page from your oral storytelling background when you decided to write a book?
I always claimed to be a writer. For the longest time I would say, “I’m a writer and I’m going to write a book,” but eventually people stopped believing me. I would write plays. I would write my own stories and I would say, “I’m going to write a book.” But not until I said, “OK, you have got to stop talking about it.” I think I was struggling with needing validation. I think we all have this tendency to need validation, for somebody to say you’re good enough. I think me saying it was my way of expressing that. So I said, “OK, stop saying that.”
But I still wanted to be a writer. I was in Minnesota, freezing at the National Black Storytellers Festival and Conference. I wasn’t even a member, but I found out about it and I said, “I want to be a part of this.” I happened to be there and I saw a booth. I wanted to keep walking, but it was for Hamline University, and they had the dean there and [acclaimed children’s author] Eleanora Tate, and they made me stop at the table. I made every excuse. “Oh I can’t get anybody to write my recommendation letter, I never hear back, I have a daughter.” They were like, “Don’t worry.” They made me apply. So I applied, I sent them a writing sample, I wrote an essay and everything and I got accepted.
At my first workshop I must have looked like a deer in headlights. They had to explain all these different terms for me. But I worked my butt off there. I really said, “At this age, I gotta do something. What I really love is not going to happen again, they cut that program off, and I’m here, I want to write. That’s my creative outlet. I’m not going to be acting too much anymore. That’s too demanding.” So I worked my butt off in that program. I loved it.
Where did the idea for Genesis come from?
It started as an assignment at HamIine. I had no idea that I was writing Genesis. It was such a glob of one long monologue, without paragraph breaks, without dialogue. I think I made my first advisor a little nervous. She said, “Honey, you know you’re going to have to use paragraph breaks?” I tried to work on different things but I kept coming back to it. You had to have 80 pages to graduate, and that was my 80 pages, but it was a year later that I actually made it to the end. I think fear kept me from pushing it. I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m still learning, I have to research more. It wasn’t until afterwards, through that process the story started taking shape.
There are some heavy themes in the book. How important was it for you to include these things that some folks may see as adult issues?
When I created Genesis, I only saw her as this 13-year-old. Typically, we like to protect our children and say they can’t handle it, but I really do believe they can. They’re already dealing with so much. I wrote it because I witnessed it. I grew up, my mom’s light-skinned, she had this long, flowing beautiful hair and I idolized her. My whole dad’s side is dark-skinned and my whole mom’s side is light-skinned. We have people so light-skinned they can pass for white. I witnessed how when I’m around one side of the family, how we’re treated. I’ve gotten through the years, there’s subtle things like, “You look just like your dad,” or “You’ve got your dad’s hair, oh child, how are we going to do this?” or, “You have your daddy’s nose,” which says that their nose is better.
And even on my dark side, I’ve heard, “Don’t marry a dark-skinned man because you’re going to have a dark-skinned baby.” You get these images, because they’ve felt it their whole lives. Growing up, I grew up in the church, and you could not help but to hear, “Oh, she’s so cute, look at her, a little angel,” and I’d think, “What about me?”
I even see it now, and I know it’s a real thing. I researched and made sure, because I didn’t want to just write a story that was just my story. I still have fear of being told that’s not right. I watched documentaries like Dark Girls and I learned about skin bleaching. I watched my students, whether they were Indian or African-American, if they were of color, we would use these multicultural crayons, and they would not shade in their skin, they would take the lighter color. The whole perception of beauty, you get it so long just from the way people say things. So I knew this was my story, but it’s also for so many others.
I think the most encouraging thing that anybody told me was that the story connects to everyone in some way. This lady said, “Look, I’m a white woman with frizzy, curly hair and I connect.” It’s such a story that people can identify with. There’s even the whole light-skinned issue, where you’re not black enough, so they have that whole issue. It’s so unfortunate that it pits people against each other. And I know it has history in slavery with the house slaves and all that, I get it. But right now, if you search the hashtag #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin, it’s still a thing. And it’s still universal, and that’s why I was encouraged when I started really digging into the story because if you go to Brazil, it’s common. Every culture has this.
What are your thoughts now leading up to your first book release?
I don’t think I was allowing myself to get excited. I struggle with being able to say, “Hey, I have a book coming out,” without thinking that I’m going to come off cocky or in some way bragging. But I’ll tell you, it has been larger than I thought it would be. The first inkling that, “Hey something is happening,” a blogger/reviewer Colby Sharp did this whole review on it on his YouTube channel, but he also tweeted that it’s one of the best books he’s read and I think that’s when I said “Oh gosh.”
I have a friend who asks me every day, “Aren’t you excited? I’m so excited!” I’m like, “No, I have to grade papers now, I can’t even think about it. It’s not coming out soon.” I had to stop. I couldn’t sleep one night. I said, “What is the problem with accepting and being OK with having something you can celebrate? What’s the root of it?” I had to get to the heart of it, that it’s OK. So now it’s like, yes, it’s so exciting.
What do you hope people take from this book?
I really want the goal for our children — if adults get it, yeah, but I write for children to know that you are OK with who you are, you’re good enough. I think so many times we send messages and we put pressure on kids, whether it’s physical or something else, like there’s a character in the book with OCD. Through these characters, I just hope that kids understand that, yes, you’re good enough.