VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Brooke C. Obie

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In Brooke C. Obie’s Book of Addis: Cradled Embers, the seventeen-year-old title character is on the run, escaping from slavery. Her enslaver? The first president of a newly formed country. With the nation as a whole seeking her capture, Addis becomes a symbol of hope and freedom for those who remain in bondage. As a work of historical speculative fiction, Addis’s story is situated in the 18th century, while also looking ahead to the future.

The novel is the first in a trilogy, and Obie has grand plans to tell stories of unsung Black people—stories rooted in history, especially histories shaped by slavery, genocide, and imperialism.

Obie is the former Editor-at-Large for EBONY.com. Her publication credits include Ebony, The Los Angeles Review of Books, MarieClaire.com, and The Rumpus. She holds a JD as well as an MFA from The New School’s Fiction program. Obie’s thesis, which later became Book of Addis, was a finalist for the Fulbright Fellowship.

I talked to Obie in September, and we discussed the historical basis for her debut novel, writing to dismantle white supremacy, and why Black speculative fiction is integral to her survival.

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The Rumpus: I just came back from Ohio, where my daughter is a first-year college student, and I saw more Confederate flags in one weekend than I’ve seen since I left the South in 1989. So especially in this particular historical moment, I thank you for Book of Addis.

Brooke Obie: Wow. Thank you for reading it. I appreciate you.

Rumpus: In this present moment, we also have the creators of Game of Thrones getting the greenlight for an HBO series that imagines if the Confederacy had prevailed and slavery remained legal as a modern institution. So I’m thinking about the origins of Book of Addis and how you grew up in Virginia, surrounded by Civil War history and an awareness of Black resistance. From that, you’ve created something that shows us prevailing and shows our strength. And then HBO wanting to show the complete opposite. What was your reaction when you heard about this series?

Obie: I can’t say that I was really surprised by it, at this point. I think when you have a certain kind of privilege as white male creators often have, things seem really exciting and new and interesting to you because it’s not your history and it’s not your struggle. Like you mentioned, I grew up with this. I went to Stonewall Jackson High School. I was passing the Battle of Bull Run every day. All these signs and all of these monuments to these people, like Robert E. Lee. We were going on field trips to Mount Vernon and celebrating George Washington throughout my childhood. That is something these creators never had to deal with. I’ve been dealing with it and Black people have been dealing with it every single day.

And that’s not just in Virginia. I’m in New York now. I walk down Broadway, which is an African burial ground. All of these buildings have been built on top of an African burial ground. When I first moved to New York, I was actually living—I had no idea—at the intersection where the first slave rebellion took place in this country. That was Maiden Lane and Broadway.

There’s so much of this history all around us, every day, and the impact of that history and the legacy of that history. These creators want to explore something in an uncreative way, in an offensive way that Black people and Black creatives have been dealing with since forever. I was not surprised, but it was deeply upsetting, especially considering, for me, my book had been rejected by so many editors because “people don’t want to hear about this, people don’t want to talk about slavery, people wouldn’t be interested in it.”

These two creators received a blank check to explore this history and not even from their own perspective. They could sit down and think, “How has whiteness benefited me since slavery and beyond that. How has that legacy impacted us?” That’s not something they want to deal with in an honest way. They would rather have us continue to be enslaved, continue to be oppressed, and to consider it a hypothetical, a fictional telling as opposed to what happens to us every single day.

Rumpus: I’m sure it wasn’t lost on you that the nature of your story, of us acting from a place of power and rebellion, likely factored into the rejections you received as well. Because there’s no shortage of slave stories written by us.

Obie: That’s true. That’s exactly what I wanted to do that was different. I have read and enjoyed so many slave narratives and fictionalized or Black speculative fiction stories that are rooted in slavery. What I thought was missing was this idea of winning. Even one of the main books that inspired my story—The Book of Night Women by Marlon James—is about slavery in Jamaica, and about an unsuccessful rebellion. I was just tired of losing.

To me, this legacy of Black speculative fiction is for us to be able to reimagine the world. To reimagine what could be possible. To create a hope that doesn’t currently exist. The whole point of writing this book is I need to create that hope that I don’t see, that I don’t feel, that is nowhere around me. That was my intention with crafting this kind of a book where Black people have agency.

It’s not like those things didn’t actually exist. It’s just that those are not the stories that we’re often told when we think about slavery. Even Addis is based on a real-life woman in history, Oney Judge, who was enslaved to George Washington. She fixed George Washington and his wife and [their] guests dinner, and while those people were eating their dinner, she slipped out of the house in Philadelphia, which was the capital of the country at the time, and she escaped. She escaped to New Hampshire. She lived a very long life, even as Washington was pursuing her until about two weeks before he died. He enacted the fugitive slave law to get her back and to punish other people for not helping him get her back. At one point, he found out she had several children. He wanted those children to be returned with her as well because the condition of the child followed the condition of the mother. He considered all of them to be his wife’s property.

Oney was able to defy him. She defied the most powerful person in the country and lived to tell about it. She told her story twice to journalists, the last time on her deathbed. I thought that was so powerful and so inspiring, but that’s not a story we often hear, where Black people had agency and made choices and saved themselves. Those are not popular stories. Not only because of the idea of Black people having agency, and not docilely accepting their fate in slavery, but also because Oney Judge’s story rubs up against this image of George Washington as the benevolent Founding Father, a God-like figure. Then we have to get into what’s wrong with George Washington if he’s the kind of person that would go after this woman and her children. If he would enact fugitive slave legislation as he’s writing these letters saying how much he detests slavery. Secretly, he is trying to get back this woman and helping to enact laws that punish people for escaping.

We would have to get into the fact that George Washington didn’t make his dentures out of wood. They were made out of his slaves’ teeth. We would have to get into the fact that this was actually a malicious person. When we tell the stories of slavery, the stories that often get told are stories that present a narrative that is comfortable for many people. Even if there are situations where there’s a bad, evil white person, there’s always a good one to balance everything out.

Rumpus: The white savior.

Obie: Exactly. There’s always that savior that you can project yourself onto and feel like, “Okay, if I lived back then, I would be this person.” But back then is now, and what you’re doing right now is what you would have done back then.

That’s why I wanted to create this book, to make the connection for some people. Because the connection has already been made several times over, but sometimes it’s helpful to have fiction so you can see how some of the things we’re talking about right now are relevant in this book. That was my goal. To address the legacy of slavery and how deeply entrenched we still are in these vicious cycles and how they haven’t gone away. They just evolve.

Rumpus: You took it a step further and not only did you center Black women, but Black mothers in particular. And I understand that was organic because you were inspired by a real woman. I think that’s so significant; whether we’re talking about slavery narratives or the Black Lives Matter movement, the tendency is to center Black men. But you stepped aside from that. Can you talk a little about that? Do you think it had anything to do with how your book was received by traditional publishers?

Obie: That is a very strong possibility, but it was imperative for me to focus on the Black mothers of the revolution because there has not been a movement in history that involves Black people where Black women have not been front and center in leading that. They may not get the credit, they may not get the visibility, but [they are] right there in the front with everyone else, organizing and leading.

I also highlight women like my character Nnene. She doesn’t have any children of her own and she actually chooses to miscarry. She does a ritual that she was taught to make sure that she never has to birth any live children because she doesn’t not want them to grow up in slavery. But also she is a mother figure to Addis. She’s a mother figure to Taddy. She is that person in the community who will do anything for you. Who will basically sacrifice her life for you and then, at the end of this book, she’s pretty much forgotten. She dies alone and that’s kind of representative of what we do to so many Black women. We’re not there for them when they need us. We have these expectations of them as strong, and so we don’t check on them, we don’t provide the kind of care that they need, the support that they need. We expect them to do for us and we don’t do for them in return. I wanted to highlight all of the different kinds of Black women who lead these movements.

You have Dido in the beginning of the book who kills. She killed the master to make sure that he would never touch her daughter again. And then you have that daughter who grows up without a mother and is so afraid of not being there for her child that, instead of killing the man, she grooms her daughter to endure something as horrible as assault. Everybody talks about what they would do or how they would react, but the point there is that the institution of slavery has perverted Black motherhood so much that there aren’t any reasonable choices to this unreasonable situation that they’re being put into. It’s murder or protection. There’s no right answer to that, or even killing your kids so they don’t have to be enslaved.

There is no reasonable response to something as unreasonable as what we’re given. Even today, we try to teach kids how to be respectful, how to put their hands on the wheel if they’re being pulled over, not to make any sudden movements. That isn’t reasonable. Don’t wear a hoodie in the rain. That’s not reasonable, but we’re still stuck with these tasks of trying to create this idea of safety. Mothers want to make sure that their children are safe, but there really is nothing that can be done and that’s the part that’s really, really scary. Just like the mother in Baltimore whose son was out protesting, and she grabbed him up and she was beating him in front of everyone. It became a big public spectacle, and people were cheering her on. I’m sure she doesn’t want to harm her child. She was trying to keep her child safe, but at the same time teaching him there is a way that he can behave that will save him from police brutality. And that just isn’t the case. We’ve seen that over and over again.

I wanted to show love to my mother, to my grandmothers, to all of the mothers of the revolution. I actually put it in my acknowledgments. We wouldn’t be here—there’s no way as a people we could have survived—without these women who have maintained us. These silent, faceless, invisible women. Forgotten women. There was no choice for me but to highlight these women and what they’ve been able to do in the face of complete unreasonableness.

Rumpus: I appreciate the nuance you gave these characters because so much of the narrative around slavery is us being one-dimensional. We have to be good. We can’t have these layers, and we can’t have characters that people would disagree with. As I read, I thought about those earlier narratives, which are valuable and necessary. But we had to simply say slavery was so bad, but look at how people thrived anyway. Look at how we endured. Look at how good we were. They didn’t allow for that nuance. I love the evolution that your book represents.

And then as speculative fiction, you added a whole other dimension. Can you talk a little bit about what influenced you toward that genre and the literary predecessors who inspired that choice?

Obie: Of course Octavia Butler is queen of sci-fi and Afrofuturism, and the more I read, the more I understood that we have this legacy as Black creatives of making a way out of no way. It’s just a part of our legacy. It’s what our ancestors left for us. Doing impossible things. For me, it’s not possible to live a life that you desire without being able to see the impossible. Without being able to imagine the impossible. I can’t continue on with only the hope that is in front of me. There’s nothing.

When I finished this book in 2014, Mike Brown had been murdered. We had the protests here in New York. It just never got any better.

Last year, when I was launching the book and I was on my way to Oxford University, that week Alton Sterling had been killed. Philando Castile had been killed. It’s not getting any better at all.

Now we’ve got more injustice in St. Louis right now. It’s not getting any better. That’s not me being negative. That’s not me having a negative outlook. We have Jeff Sessions who’s over at the DOJ taking away even more protections or strides forward that were made under the Obama administration, small as they were. Just no longer recording what police have been doing, no longer keeping records of that data of police brutality.

So if I have to look around me for hope, I’m not going to get it. It’s not going to happen. This book and Black speculative fiction is, for me, about survival. I have to imagine something different. I have to believe that there is something else beyond the facts that are in front of me, or else what’s the point?

I know Afropessimism is another big school of thought that more and more people are buying into, and it’s understandable. It’s completely understandable. For me, I have to have some kind of hope and the hope that I have is totally imagined. It is not based on anything in the past. It is not based on anything that is in the present. It is coming out of this future that I see where Black people could be whole and safe and enough and we don’t have to struggle. It doesn’t have to be heaven. It gets to actually be on Earth. This is something that we get to deserve now, and our children get to deserve now, just from being alive.

Black speculative fiction has just been so important to me for survival, and I know that so many other people as well have benefited from that. I have a whole syllabus on Book of Addis that has all of the books, films, poetry, museums that helped me to research and write this book. I couldn’t name them all. So many of those artists and Black creatives paved the way for this book to come into fruition.

Rumpus: Did you write other, shorter pieces that resulted in Book of Addis?

Obie: This is my first piece of fiction ever. I think maybe in elementary school I might have written some stories. But I was very, very into nonfiction writing. I went to law school, and I got into the legal writing program there. I was very focused on crafting stories, but they were all nonfiction. I was working in nonprofit law firm after law school when I started my own blog. Then I started to explore creative nonfiction. I picked up a couple of awards for that and decided I wanted to get into writing opinion pieces, interviews, and more creative nonfiction. Again, it was all about trying to find hope for myself and hopefully for other people as well that I decided to try fiction.

I also wasn’t a big fiction reader. I was very into memoirs, and self help, and all those kinds of things. I knew I had to go to school because I wanted to do it right. I went and got my MFA and that’s when I started to explore more fiction, specifically Black literary classics and more modern works. I took a class in writing in the vernacular. This book came out of that.

And I knew I wanted it to be a three-part series because I had continued to find all these amazing stories like Oney Judge’s, all of these people who I never heard of before and would never have heard of if I wasn’t doing a deep dive for this book.

There are so many stories and I’m going to try and tell as many as I can in a cohesive narrative. I want to highlight and bring all these forgotten people to life.

Rumpus: What can you share about books two and three in the series?

Obie: I’m working on the second book right now, doing my best to meet the deadline. I’m really excited about the second one because the rebellion started in the first book, so now we’re getting into the aftermath of that and how these rebellions continue and alliances [form]. We can’t replicate what happened in Haiti because Haiti was very, very specific. There were more enslaved people than there were French people on the island. They had access to resources like weapons and things like that. It was a very contained space, whereas America is so spread out in comparison. There were things that made actual physical violent revolution possible and successful in Haiti that couldn’t necessarily be replicated in America with just enslaved people.

How can alliances be formed? This is 1790s America, so we’re getting up against the Trail of Tears in the 1800s. We’re coming up against the usurpation of the Hawaiian monarchy by the US government in the 1890s. Even Haiti becoming an impoverished nation because of American sanctions against them for winning the war. There are so many people in the Caribbean, in Hawaii, in Mexico, Indigenous Americans who all have stake in America not being what it is today because there’s the genocide. You have all the stealing of territories. There is benefit to all of these people understanding how they might be able to work together to prevent some really atrocious things in history from happening. If they don’t have knowledge of those things to come, is it still possible to work together just based on what they already have seen? Just based on what’s already happened? Those are the kinds of things that we will be coming up against in the second book.

Indigenous Americans want their land back. If they join with enslaved Africans, and they win, what happens to the Africans? Are they supposed to go back to Africa, or are they allowed to stay? There are all those kinds of questions that will come up if these different groups of people who seem to have opposing interests can actually come together and work together.

There’s also the falling apart of the Constitution that’s happening for white Americans and the politics behind that. In the first book, it’s mentioned that a new president has been appointed since [the first president] Burken has been killed. And that’s not what the Constitution says. The constitution says the vice president is supposed to take over. What’s the impact of that?

You have these political factions that were actually in existence at this time in American history. Anti-Federalists, the Federalists. The people who wanted the Constitution, the people who didn’t want the Constitution. All those things will become more heightened as well. Then you have the British and the Spanish who want more territory, or who want their territory back from the Americans. There are all kinds of opposing interests that will take place in the second book. Those will play out over these political, social revolutions that take place over the second and third books. Like I said, there are so many cool stories that I want to tell.

Rumpus: I’m enjoying listening to you riff about history so effortlessly. We know that this history is out there. Yet white people are ignorant of this history and their own history. We have a vested interest in knowing these histories, and so we come up with these beautiful stories, these nuanced stories. I’m thinking about the research you’ve done and the reading and listening. We do all of this work, and we may or may not get a book deal. And yet the laziness of people like the Game of Thrones creators is rewarded.

So thank you for making that investment. Let’s imagine a Brooke a generation from now discovering Book of Addis. What do you hope she sees and experiences when she reads this story?

Obie: I hope that there is at that time a new way to look at Blackness. We have all been raised in an anti-Black society, and even the word “Black,” identifying as Black, was hard for a lot of people, and it’s still hard for a lot of people because it’s associated with death. It’s associated with evil, darkness, ignorance. There are so many negative connotations even to the word used to describe us.

From reading the book, every instance or mention of the word “Black” or darkness, those are opportunities for the enslaved people to find rest, to find safety and security to hide. They’re all positives. For the Black people in the book. Hopefully, even just those really subtle things will help somebody to rethink the anti-Blackness that they’ve been taught and to try to figure out how to filter that out. To be able to see why even classifying whites as ”no color people” in the book makes you think about what’s default and who’s extra. Who are the other people? The point for me in writing this book was to help dismantle white supremacy.

That’s sincerely my goal. That’s why when you were mentioning laziness earlier, that literally came out of the mouths of those [Game of Thrones creators] when they were talking about why they hired two Black people to come on board for their Confederate show. “We’re lazy.” They literally said that in a Vulture interview. It’s consistently rewarded to not do the research, to be ignorant of it, and to be defensive, and to rake in a lot of cash for it. As you were saying earlier about them being ignorant of their history, that is intentional. That’s why you can have these poll results that just come out last week where they’re saying most people are against white supremacy, but hold white supremacist views.

It’s because you have been taught to be ignorant to your history. That’s why Jemele Hill can’t say Donald Trump is a white supremacist, because that would require us to be able to analyze history accurately and factually. That’s not something that benefits white supremacy. The point of white supremacy is to teach people to not see whiteness. You can see other colors, you can see other races, and of course judge by those things. But you’re not taught to identify [as white] openly or vocally because it’s so subtly ingrained in you that this is just default. This is just normal.

Rumpus: How do you keep going when there is self-doubt or similar obstacles in the process of a project of this magnitude? How do you work through the tough times?

Obie: There have been quite a few tough times. All those rejections that I received from editors at various publications, people saying they didn’t think anyone wanted to read a story like this. I wanted to read a story like this. That was pretty much what kept me going at first. Toni Morrison said to write the book that you wanted to read. I needed to read this book when I was younger. I needed to know about Oney Judge, I needed to know about all of these figures that we don’t know anything about. I needed to do this research. I needed the syllabus. That was what I did initially and then I had both of my parents, who were just so awesome in reading every single draft of this book, saying, “This is actually really good.” My parents are very critical people. Having them say this is worthwhile, this is worth pursuing—that held me over.

Then when I published it, so many people responded so positively, that kept me going. Even now, just receiving emails and tweets and direct messages, that makes me want to go and finish writing the second book by my deadline. And then the awards that come. When I was at the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Awards back in August, I was on the stage with Tyehimba Jess, Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. And all of these amazing people who are being honored, and I get to be in that group. Having so many different Black journalists and Black publications reach out and do these kind of interviews. That means everything to me, because that’s what I’m doing it for.

And hopefully the people who have a story that they want to tell and have been told over and over and over again that nobody wants to see it, nobody wants to read about it, that it’s not significant—hopefully they can look and see other people who are working outside of those gatekeepers, who are working around this industry and deciding, “You don’t get a say in whether or not my story gets to be told. I’m going to tell my story any way that I can.”

I’m totally inspired by Issa Rae. I got to interview her back in 2011, when she was just doing Awkward Black Girl on YouTube. She said, “Go around the gatekeepers,” so that’s what I had in mind when I was writing this book. I had already decided before I even finished the book that it was coming out one way or the other. It could go the traditional route, or it can go another way, but it’s going to get out.

If that means I have to get up at 6 a.m. and craft a million pitch letters, be my own publicist, be my own agent, submit my book to every award ceremony that will accept self-published books, I’m on that. Hooking it to whatever news angle there is because there are a million very current news angles that this historical fiction book relates to. As long as the people who want to read it have access to it, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what keeps me going, the fact that there are other people who have stories they want to tell and don’t think that they can tell those stories because someone told them “no.” They’re not the last word.

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Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, dead housekeeping, and Apogee Journal; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →