The Rumpus Book Club chats with Morowa Yejidé about her new novel, Creatures of Passage (Akashic Books, March 2021), how the book sprang from her love for the color indigo, trying to understand whether monsters are made or born, how the book became a life raft for her through the pandemic, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Melissa Febos, Lilly Dancyger, Mariana Oliver, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, Cai Emmons, Maggie Nelson, Wendy J. Fox, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club’s chat with Morowa Yejidé about her new novel, Creatures of Passage! I’m so excited to discuss this book.
Susanna DesMarais: Excited to hear discussion of this book!
Morowa Yejidé: Greetings. Delighted to join you all. 🙂
Marisa: Morowa, I’d love to begin by asking when you started writing Creatures of Passage, and how long its journey to publication was? And, what drew you to this story, these protagonists?
Morowa Yejidé: Well, it’s a long story in a very real sense. My youngest son is the “clock” for the book, since I started it when he was about four weeks old and I finished it when he was seventeen. I wrote it off and on for years—stopping to deal with motherhood and regular responsibilities. I even stopped to write Time of the Locust, my first novel. The story has been living in my head in one way or another for years.
Marisa: That is a long story (and a hopeful one for this thirty-seven-year-old mother—of a six-year-old child—with a novel that mostly stays in its drawer). What was the initial inspiration? Did the story change through the years?
Morowa Yejidé: I have always been drawn to images, and usually the image leads me to a concept. The idea for the book actually started with a color—indigo—and my love for its seemingly bottomless quality. That led me to the idea of time, a long-time fascination for me. And to the idea of energy—where does it go when it changes form? I suffered from insomnia for many years so I was often up at crazy hours, along with young children. My children have grown up with the book in one way or another.
The city of DC has morphed, along with my chapters. My focus on time came about as I got older and realized how quick it all goes by. Find Out is one of the oldest characters. And Amber—because I was always thinking of what it might be like to know something before it happens.
Susanna DesMarais: First, I’d like to say I just loved this book; it was magical in so many ways. And it feels to me, in retrospect, to be mythological in its very core. Did you design it around a specific myth or did it just happen that way? This taxi driver, Nephthys, who ferries people to their next journey…
Marisa: Yes, Susanna! I was about to ask a similar question: Morowa, you meld fantasy and reality in such a unique way with this book. How did you give the book this sense of magic and fairy tale/myth, while also remaining so very grounded in present-day politics and reality? I’ve never read anything quite like it—and I mean that as a very sincere compliment. I’ve been thinking about the story nonstop since I finished reading.
Morowa Yejidé: Thank you, Susanna and Marisa! Egyptology is a great, big well I drew from—the oldest well that all stories are drawn from. I used some of the concepts of Egyptian gods and their characteristics as a kind of mythology or rules of engagement for the story. So that works on the “higher order” of the story. But then, we all know everyday people who exhibit unusual or almost superhuman-like qualities. I had a marvelous time with the juxtaposition of mundane and fantastic. Probably why I love magical realism so much.
Marisa: Can you share who some of your foundational or “guiding light” authors are, in relation to this book but also in general? Whose writing do you turn to for inspiration?
Morowa Yejidé: I think my love painting the African American community in all its complexity comes from Toni Morrison. My fascination with magical realism as a way to explain the “unexplainable” comes from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I have deep respect for the incredible imagery in text of Cormac McCarthy and the symmetry of Faulkner in his storytelling.
Susanna DesMarais: It took me a while to let go of reality while reading this book, but when I did it was unstoppable. Somewhere around the middle the terrible grimness of life took on a meaning unanticipated, almost like a mystery but more mysterious in the bigger sense. Sacred mystery of the unknown and unknowing kind. I don’t know where my question is but I’d love to hear if writing this book moved you into a deeper realm than you expected, to a deeper mystery.
Morowa Yejidé: Life can be terrible and beautiful, and this contradiction deepened as I watched my children grow into young men. I spent many of my childhood summers in my grandmothers backyard in Anacostia, where there were all kinds things both wonderful and awful happening at the same time. And I think as I aged, and experienced the loss of loved ones and friends, the “Great Mystery” became the question for me that drove me in the story. We want to know what it all means, but we can only know what happens in our lifetime.
And cycles—the repetition of cycles in history—is another thing that I contemplated in the story.
Marisa: Is there a particular character who you felt closest to? A character who came to you most easily (I know you’ve mentioned that Find Out and Amber came first)? And, the opposite: is there someone who was hardest to get on the page?
Morowa Yejidé: I think I have a deep love for all of the characters and they are all dear to me. But Mercy Ratchet—because of who and what he is—was the most difficult to write. The struggle is you have to “go there” to write about what someone like that might be like. I was often sick to my stomach but it was more important to me to get at why characters do what they do.
I will also say that Rosetta breaks my heart. Poor baby.
Marisa: I struggled to align my feelings about the boy we see Mercy as, who is himself harmed, and then as the grown man who is harming others. I’ve shared before in my own writing and in Book Club chats that I experienced childhood sexual abuse; this book tackles this subject in such a meaningful way, and as a reader, I felt so thankful for that.
Morowa Yejidé: Wow, thank you for that, Marisa. I think trauma is difficult to talk about—and then there is always the question I have of whether monsters are made or born. Mercy is made a monster and I was trying to get at how it could have started.
Susanna DesMarais: But in a terrible way, Mercy is not a monster but a reflection of broken life and love. Although I did grit my teeth whenever he appeared!
Nikita Patel: Did the five ways creatures of passage die come from Egyptology? Those five ways resonated in the ways the abuse affected the characters.
Morowa Yejidé: Great question, Nikita. No those came from the wild imaginings in my head. I was trying to add yet another layer to the story—a kind of rules of engagement that the universe might have for living beings in general.
Nikita Patel: For me it added a great depth to how the characters moved through understanding their lives and stories. I kept going back to read them, and I echo Marisa in that. I also appreciated the theme of predator and prey. A very humanistic approach to all the aspects of trauma. Thank you for that list.
Morowa Yejidé: Indeed, Mercy is a tough pill to swallow—but part of the ripple effect for the other characters. The five passages mean a lot to the themes of the story and what happens to people in general, I think. Meaning, the five different ways one’s life can be shaped…
Marisa: After spending nearly two decades writing this story, what is like to have it enter the world during the pandemic? For me, as a reader, it is such a captivating read that allowed me some escape into its universe—and feel as though I was transported outside my house, which I’ve barely left in a year!—but also, as I said earlier, it is so grounded in our political realities that it still made me think in useful ways about our present moment.
Morowa Yejidé: It feels “unreal” as well! When you work on something so long, off and on, it kind of become a part of your life. My husband makes the joke that the book is the last child to be born. And, because time and contemplations of existence and the history of this country were such themes in the book, it almost felt like prophecy watching some of the craziness unfold during the pandemic. It’s a rough time for us all, and 2020 was a terrible year, so in many ways the book feels like a kind of life raft for me. Something to float on in the midst of all this. Who knows where it will go? I don’t know. But I am still thankful for the journey.
Marisa: That is beautiful. Yes, there were definitely moments in the book that felt prophetic to me, too—especially knowing now how long ago you began writing this. But then, I suppose what is new has happened before, and it’s all cycles, as you said.
Morowa Yejidé: Nothing new under the sun…
Nikita Patel: I just want to call out this passage on page 122:
And in the loneliness of his thoughts, Mercy knew—as all the neglected do—that indifference was an insidious poison, a slow drip into the mind and the heart. And each act of cruelty to himself or someone else was a hopeless helpless cry to the Void that the indifference and the lightlessness made: I am. I exist.
This entire passage, whew.
Morowa Yejidé: Thank you! We remember him, don’t we?
Nikita Patel: Definitely, this passage cuts right to it.
Morowa Yejidé: And I suppose that’s just it for Mercy, wanting the world to recognize that he existed—although this manifested in the worse possible way.
Marisa: Are you working on any new projects you can tell us about? Have you been able to write during the last year, with all that’s going on—and with the book on cusp of publication?
Morowa Yejidé: I have ideas swirling around in my head but I have not written anything down as yet. I don’t know how the next project will take shape exactly but I have faith that when things calm a bit, it will form somehow. The joke I have with myself is, Oh, I’ll think of something.
Marisa: Is it hard for you to walk away from characters who you’ve spent so long with? I imagine they must feel like family by now, or something like it.
Morowa Yejidé: Marisa, that’s so true. Walk away… it is bittersweet. But then I remember that it’s time. It’s time for the story to be out in the world.
Susanna DesMarais: I am SO telling people I talked to you! I think this book is brilliant. By the way, I loved the interplay and even intersection of the brother (shadowy, dead yet alive)) Osiris and his sister, Nephthys and her magical car. A wonderful study in contradiction and yet not contradiction at all. That thin veil between the dead and the alive, pierced.
Nikita Patel: Thank you for writing these characters, their stories. Wonderful novel.
Susanna DesMarais: Another great novel!
Marisa: Morowa, I always like to conclude by asking what you’re reading now—or what new and forthcoming books you’re most excited for.
Morowa Yejidé: I have to admit that I am back in the classics, and rereading Moby Dick. Fits my voyage feeling right about now!
Thank you! I loved the discussion!
Marisa: Morowa, thank you so much for time this afternoon—and for this gorgeous book. And thanks to everyone for joining us, and for your thoughtful questions and comments!
Morowa Yejidé: Wishing you all love and light. Thank you.
Photograph of Morowa Yejidé by Sarah Fillman.