An Interview with Emily Raboteau, by Kori Davis

Reading Emily Raboteau’s first nonfiction book, Searching for Zion, will make you want to trace your family tree and book the nearest plane going to farthest destination.  It starts with tracking down an old friend in Jerusalem, but as the book unfurls, trips to Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Ghana are taken. Born to white mother and a black father, Raboteau’s journey becomes a mixture of soul searching and identity crisis as she deals with feelings of displacement in a pre and post 9/11 America. Searching for Zion was released the same year as the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have Dream” speech at the march on Washington; however, it is King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” that Raboteau truly evokes, carrying the idea of finding the Promised Land. There are disappointments around every corner in Raboteau’s narrative, and yet, Raboteau plunges into the darkness to show us light, weaving a number of different topics from different locations together to form deep connections that fight against the isolation.

Searching for Zion

Searching for Zion encompasses a wide range of topics and issues that many would consider very weighty and even taboo: The Lebanon War, America’s history with slavery, Haile Selassie, Bob Marley, etc. How did it feel to address so many engrossing and polarizing topics while also navigating your own personal story?

I kept myself from getting overwhelmed by the largesse of my topic (the meaning of Zionism in the African Diaspora as opposed to the Jewish one) by focusing on the individual stories of men and women who left home to find home elsewhere, hoping to discover the Promised Land.  My sites of exploration included Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the so-called “Black Belt” of the American South.  What drew me to these places were the communities of black folks who’d moved to (or within) them.  I wanted to know if they found the home they were seeking, in part, because I felt stateless at the time, but more than that, because I was impressed by their undertaking. I knew that the only self at my disposal should be the one in service of this particular story—that is, the young woman searching for home.  That allowed me to take off all the other hats I wear and really focus my quest.  I didn’t think of the issues I was describing as “issues” so much as complicating factors and driving forces attached to individual stories of emigration.

Zion is a somewhat fickle and elusive idea that constantly changes as the book progresses, and in the end, the idea of Zion becomes something more spiritual and internal. For people of color going through a similar crisis of identity, do you think it’s important to keep that idea of a physical place, something comparable to what your friend Tamar has in Jerusalem?

I was interested in Zion as a metaphor for freedom.  That’s how Zionism has been historically understood and practiced by Africans in the Diaspora.  We hear it in the spirituals, like “Go Down Moses.”  They saw their experience of bondage reflected in the story of Exodus.  While many enslaved people hoped that fleeing north would mean arrival in the Promised Land, many of their descendants are denied the rights of full citizenship to this day.  So the metaphor has splintered over the decades. Where is that place, if not in America?  So many immigrants continue to come to this country hoping it will be the Promised Land, but my subjects were citizens who left because they didn’t experience it as such, even under our black president.  Unfortunately, very few of them admitted to finding the freedom they sought.

I think it helps anyone, whoever they are, to surround themselves with people who make them feel understood, appreciated, and valued, but who also push them to grow.  That sounds trite, but it’s an important thing to strive for.  The most enlightened people I talked to on my journey, like my cousin Tracy in Atlanta (a Hurricane Katrina survivor) and Abiyi Ford in Addis Ababa (a former Howard professor) helped me to understand Zion not as a geographical location so much as an internal condition that drives us to care for one another.  This state can be achieved anywhere.  Even in prison.

Disillusionment of land is a running theme throughout the novel. You see and read things, such as the treatment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, or your encounter during Haile Selassie’s birthday in Ethiopia, which should point towards a cynical narrative, but you’re rather optimistic as you continue your journey. How exactly did you keep the cynicism in check?

I definitely talked to a lot of cynical and unhappy people who were disappointed not to have discovered Zion.  I also encountered routine sexism, racism, and gay-bashing practiced by people I’d hoped would be more enlightened.  But I felt that if people like my cousin Tracy, who had lost her home to Hurricane Katrina, Kati Dagadu, a Hungarian who had made a home for herself in Ghana by becoming a bead artist, Thomas Glave, who fights for gay civil rights in Jamaica, and Danny Admasu, who fights for the civil rights of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, could remain optimistic, faithful, curious, and alert, then so could I.

You went to all of these different locations and met all of these very fascinating people, from Rita Marley to Robert E. Lee. What was the process like of capturing and wrestling with all of these unique voices that you came in contact with?

The least interesting people I talked to were the most famous ones, like Rita Marley, who is so used to being interviewed that she doesn’t stray from her script.  She has her schtick, and it doesn’t take much thought on her part to rehearse it.  The more fascinating subjects to me were the regular people—cab drivers, janitors, churchgoers, and such.  I was often surprised by what they had to say, and they were usually surprised that I wanted to interview them.  One of my favorite scenes in the book takes place in the Ghana section, with a cabbie named Elolo who drove me from the capital to the slave castle at Elmina.  He mistook me for white (or something other than a black American) and launched into a lengthy and compelling disquisition against African Americans who voyage to Ghana for roots tourism.  I wasn’t expecting his voice to become as big a part of the story as it did, but he turned out to be a lot more interesting to me than the tour of the slave castle, which was my original destination.  I think Robert E. Lee, who refused to grant me an interview, knew that this would be the case.  He criticized me for coming to Ghana and wanting to talk to him, an African American immigrant, rather than an African.  Plus, he had interview fatigue.  I enjoyed the process of gathering so many different voices and perspectives from the diaspora, as a confirmation that there are as many different ways of being black as there are black people.

At the center of the book is Emily and her quest for Zion, and throughout the book, there are very powerful moments of vulnerability and naivety that yield moments of disappointment and growth. How was it to analyze yourself at a younger stage in your life? Were you nervous about illustrating so many personal experiences?

I wrote the bulk of the book while pregnant with my first child right after getting married and settled down, and in the months immediately after giving birth.  So I was in a different place emotionally while writing it than I was while living and researching it.  I spent ten years traveling, from the age of 23 to the age of 33, and the book spans those ten years of my life, when I was seeking.  I haven’t stopped seeking but I have a different lens and a different, more solid, relationship to home now that I’ve started my own family. I wasn’t nervous about illustrating personal experiences once I understood what my filter would be (the above mentioned self seeking home) but at times I was nervous about how to portray my subjects, to whom I felt a grate deal of gratitude for sharing their experiences with me.  Sometimes they said things that really indicted themselves, like the Rastas at the Twelve Tribes Headquarters who were rampantly homophobic.  In some cases, I changed people’s names to protect their identities.

This is nonfiction, but you’ve done fiction before, both short stories and a novel. Why was nonfiction so appealing this time? Did you feel at times that you were restrained by veracity?

Quite the opposite.  I felt liberated to write beyond what I knew, or ever could have imagined, because my journey took me to so many far-flung places I might not have traveled to otherwise.  I would describe the book’s genre as creative nonfiction, as distinct from fiction, because I employed a lot of the same techniques of craft we use in fiction, but wouldn’t be allowed to use in, say, journalism.  For example, I wrote several scenes of dialogue from memory rather than transcripts.

In addition to writing, you teach (very well, I might add), raise your children, and deal with another human being. How exactly do you do that while keeping your sanity? Do you have a set writing schedule?

Thanks for the compliment, but what makes you think I’m sane?  I wouldn’t describe my life as well balanced, but I’m married to another writer, which helps more than it hurts.  He understands and respects, on a deep personal level, my need for solitude, and he also helps me to structure and edit my work.  Balancing teaching, parenting, and writing is like twirling plates on a broomstick while wearing rollerskates.  I manage it by writing a very small bit each day, usually first thing in the morning for an hour after we get the kids, who are three and one-year old to daycare, and before I go to my teaching job. That method keeps me in rhythm, and exercising my writing muscles, and allows me to be inside of a project enough to work on it in my mind even when I’m not at my desk.  Actual exercise helps too.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice that you’ve read or directly received from a fellow author?

I appreciate what Beckett said:  “Fail better.”

Emily Raboteau is the author of a novel, The Professor’s Daughter (Henry Holt, Picador) and a work of creative nonfiction, Searching for Zion (Grove/Atlantic), named one of the “Best Books of 2013” by The Huffington Post and the grand prize winner of the New York Book Festival. She recently visited Antarctica to research her next novel, Endurance, about a shipbuilder and his autistic son. Her fiction and essays have been widely published and anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-required Reading, Tin House, The Oxford American, The Guardian, Guernica, The Believer and elsewhere.  Honors include a Pushcart Prize, The Chicago Tribune’s Nelosn Algren Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the Howard Foundation.  An avid world traveler, Raboteau resides in New York City and teaches creative writing in Harlem at City College, once known as “the poor man’s Harvard.”

Kori Davis is a current MFA candidate in the City College of New York’s Creative Writing Program. He holds a B.A. in creative writing from the University of North Texas. His writing has previously appeared in Resource Magazine.