Transcendence, A. Naomi Jackson Interviews Morowa Yejidé

A. Naomi Jackson interviewed Morowa Yejidé at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Tuesday, July 8, 2014 as part of Kweli’s Third Annual Writers’ Conference. 


A. NAOMI JACKSON: Can you talk about your process of writing your book – how the idea came to you, and then what it took to mold the idea and story into a book?

MOROWA YEJIDÉ:  I don’t have a linear process for creating a story. It starts as a concept in my mind that I take out and look at from time to time until I think I can see it clearly. So I have short bursts of writing anywhere and anytime I can. The rest of the time I am thinking about the concept or a passage. I once saw this picture of an autistic child in an article, a close-up of him looking at something.  And it seemed that there, in that look, was a world behind his eyes.  From that image, I began to wonder what the "world" of his mind could be if he could tell us. Time of the Locust is an exploration of what that world might look like through the lens of magical realism. 

NAOMI:  From Time of the Locust: Autism choked the air she and Sephiri breathed. A substance that loomed always in the sky.” Your book addresses the inability of language to connect characters who can’t bridge the gulf of autism (or incarceration) with words. How did you think about this as you were writing?

MOROWA:  I have always been fascinated with different languages, different forms of communication. Thoughts and feelings seemed just variant ways to say something, to draw an impression— like a painting. When my children were very young, before they could talk, I always had the sense that there was a language between us, one that did not require words; a certain look in the eye, a feeling, a sound. And I always had the sense that children have a universe inside their minds, apart from the world, that only they can understand. I think we all have interior worlds as children and adults. So I became curious about what goes on in a person’s mind when there is no language. At its core, Time of the Locust lays claim to the magical dialogue of the heart, that intangible language between a parent and a child that transcends mental and physical barriers.

NAOMI:  Can you talk about the specific challenges facing black people with disabilities and their families? Can you also speak about this question of “black genius” and racism as it relates to Sephiri?

MOROWA: Time of the Locust addresses a number of societal issues that impact and challenge black people in America and the Diaspora—from racism and its trauma, to the prison pipeline and the law enforcement system, to physical and mental health. I tried to tell these stories through characters and from different points of view; a verbally non-communicative autistic child via his invented “World of Water," and the underworld of supermax facilities, and the possible mental and physical implications of prolonged solitary confinement for example. I also wanted to give voice to the children and spouses of slain civil rights leaders and the unknown millions who tried to stand up for themselves and their families throughout history. I wanted to give voice to incarcerated parents and their spouses. But more than that, Time of the Locust seeks to connect commonalities among the hopes, fears, and frustrations of people everywhere—regardless of situation. Through the characters, I wanted to explore what spirituality and transcendence really mean. It's about how people struggle with challenge and how they can triumph.

NAOMI:  How did you land on Brenda’s body as a place for her to “house pain” (p. 35)? Can you talk more about the ways you thought and wrote about the way caring for her autistic child leads her to neglect her own health?

MOROWA:  I wanted to offer a window into the complexities of obesity, diabetes, and stressors as they relate to African American women—who remain the backbone of the family and are often carrying tremendous responsibilities. Often the mental strength it takes to do that eclipses everything—including self care.

NAOMI:  Throughout the book, you talk about the way anger consumes Brenda, “Since then, her rage had burned down and was molten now.” Can you talk more about rage and the way that each of the major characters (Horus, Sephiri, Brenda) deals with it, how you see anger manifesting in black communities more broadly?

MOROWA:  Black people in the United States continue to live with constant stressors, and unfortunately these stressors are dealt with in a number of unhealthy ways—one of which is repression. Thematically, Time of the Locust deals with the attempts of these characters to "bury" inner pain, how this sort of suppression can manifest in awful ways, and ultimately how these characters find their way to transcendence and peace.

NAOMI:  Can you talk more about your process of researching and writing about the practice of solitary confinement and incarceration of black men more generally? Incarceration is described in very stark, almost hell-like terms in the book. Was that intentional?

MOROWA:  Likening supermax prisons and solitary confinement to the Egyptian underworld of "Amenta" or a kind of hell was completely intentional. In researching the sordid history of prisons in America, the appalling conditions of some contemporary institutions, and the growing privatization of prisons and its implications, I came to want to know more about what these incarcerated men and women themselves had to say. This led to reading a multitude of prison letters (those that were not censored) and I was struck by the question of what was not in those letters, what was not written in those research articles and reports, and what was not revealed by media footage about what goes on "inside." I based the mythology of how the Black Plains prison functions on a fictionalized version of a real document called the Biderman Code, which was an analysis of methods of coercion and compliance published by an Air Force social scientist named Albert D. Biderman.  It was through reading the letters of prisoners, who themselves referred to this code, that I came to understand a sort of language and rulebook by which to describe supermax. Time of the Locust explores the possibilities of the lives of these mostly invisible and voiceless people.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  You have been out on book tour now for a few weeks. How has Time of the Locust been received to date?

MOROWA:  In terms of the book's reception, one of the things readers often say they like about the book is that it plunges them into different points of view and different worlds. I like literature that turns like a hologram, allowing a vivid look into something depending on which way you turn it. 

On my book tour, I have also found that if the literature is engaging, people bring their own experiences and impressions to the story. Like when a friend came to a reading and later revealed that his little sister was autistic, which was a surprise to me because he had never mentioned her before. I was filled with wonder when he described how he felt the scene with Sephiri in the tub described something of what it might be like for his little sister—who only ever seemed to be happy in the bathtub. It gave him hope that there might be a place his sister goes in her mind where she is calm and at peace.