Kwame Alexander has written many books and picture books for children, tackling a range of different topics. His newest book, “The Door of No Return,” is the first in a trilogy starting in Ghana in the 1800′s. The book is written as a series of poems, following a young boy, Kofi, who is eventually captured and sold into the slave trade. Kwame Alexander joins us to talk about the 10-year process of working on this book.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Kwame Alexander has written 36 books, most of them aimed at young readers. Many of his books are novels in verse with concentrated and condensed verses that build upon each other to create narratives. Alexander’s main characters are often young people facing the ordinary challenges of growing up: crushes and bullies and competition on the sports field. But he embeds his stories with much larger themes. I sat down with Kwame Alexander in front of an audience at the Portland Book Festival to talk about his latest book, “The Door of No Return.” I asked him to introduce us to his main character, Kofi.
Kwame Alexander: This is a novel about a boy who has a crush on a girl.
“While we wait for the sound of the horn that signals the first men’s wrestling match, my best friend Abel tells a joke about a flying lion, but right before he gets to the funniest part, someone taps me on the shoulder: Amma. If you were a mango, I would peel you. Keep you for myself, then reveal you. If you disappeared, I would find you, treat you like gold, and then, mine you. If you were a secret, I would carry you between my two lips and then marry you. Is what I want to say, to the girl who makes my stomach wobble and my heart beat like a drum, but what actually comes out of my salty mouth is, ‘Would you like some nuts?’” [Audience laughing]
Miller: It’s not just Kofi, it is the struggle that a lot of your young narrators go through. They’re at a place in their lives where there’s a gulf between what they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing, what they’re living and what they are ready to express. What they’re ready to say to the world. In this case, what to say to this beautiful girl. But a lot of your characters, they’re not ready to talk to the world in the way that the words are in their brains.
Alexander: So true.
Miller: Do you remember that feeling, that gulf?
Alexander: Oh yeah, I was not cool at all. In middle school, in high school, and even college. I didn’t get cool until very recently.
Miller: So can you say you’re cool?
Alexander: Hey, I claim it! [Laughing] But the thing that I always had was words. I thought I knew how to make words dance on a page as a kid. I thought that would make me cool. So the words always gave me confidence. I was able to find my voice to build that confidence. And so I think in a lot of my characters, words are the things that helped them become confident [and] that helped them find their voice. Whether it be sort of the hip-hop poetry of Filthy McNasty in “The Crossover” or whether it be having to read the dictionary and knowing these big words in books. So I think it’s always about the power of words and how they can transform us into becoming who we ultimately want to be.
Miller: Because you’re an evangelist for books in the world, that’s one of your projects, right? I mean it’s both a mechanism in these books, but it’s also the message.
Alexander: Yeah. You mean the books?
Miller: You want to make readers of people.
Alexander: Yeah, yeah, I do.
Miller: It seems like you don’t totally agree with what I just said.
Alexander: Well, no, because when I hear that, “I wanna make readers of people”... I’ve had a traumatic experience with my father, who forced me to read the dictionary, right? When I hear words like “make.” So I wanna “trick.” I wanna... I guess “make” is a good word, Dave. [Laughing]
I wanna make kids want to read. I don’t just want them to read, I want to make them want to read.
Miller: I wanted to dig into “The Door of No Return,” but let’s talk a little about this and we’ll get back to the new novel. There’s a lot to talk about in this hour, because it almost seems like you could have been created in a laboratory - if two people wanted to make a writer. Your father, he was a publisher, he was a writer, himself, he was a storyteller, and a professor. Your mother was a school principal who taught English at a local college.
When I see those two things put together, I think either they would make a writer or they’d make somebody who, the last thing they wanted, was to be in the world of the written word. Was there a chance that it was going to backfire, that their emphasis on books wasn’t gonna work?
Alexander: So I did not want to be a writer. I wanted to get as far away from language and literature as possible, because I grew up with these verbal maniacs, as it were. I decided I was going to be a pediatrician. I went to this place called Virginia Tech, and two things happened to me at Virginia Tech: one, I encountered a course sophomore year called organic chemistry. And two: I had a professor, sophomore year, she was a visiting professor and a poet, and her name was Nikki Giovanni. So those two things converged…
Miller: One’s a push, and one’s a pull,...
Alexander: Right. And I decided, “I think I want to go back to this thing that I was sort of nurtured and molded and shaped to become.” That I was trying to get away from. You really called it, because from the time I was an infant, a toddler, they were molding and shaping me to become who I am. So my mother would read to me Lucille Clifton’s poetry, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes (this is at age three). And my favorite book at age three was… I used to run around the house in diapers. Was I in diapers at three? I guess? I don’t know. I wasn’t? [Laughing]
Miller: You were spending all your time reading, you didn’t have time to potty train…
Alexander: I used to run around the house in something, screaming my favorite poem that I wanted read all the time [Fox in Socks]. “Fox, socks, knox, box. Fox in socks, socks in box.” I loved it. And so one day I was at Riverside, this church that Rockefeller built, that had a school, a preschool. And I’m in school and it’s the end of the day and I have built a house out of wooden blocks, to show my mom who was gonna pick me up. But this kid kicked over my blocks. So I went up to him and I said, “Those were my blocks that you flipped. Lest you want a quick pay back, better fix my quick block stack.” And he started crying. And when my mother came to school, the teachers were like, “Mrs. Alexander, we have a problem. Your son Kwame is arrogant. He intimidates all the kids with his words,” and my mother said, “Thank you.” [Laughing]
I was molded and shaped, I’m like the literary “Manchurian Candidate.” And so much so, that my father now demands royalty payments.
Miller: Could you read another short?
Alexander: Where do you go from there? Right? [Laughing]
Miller: Yeah. Push forward, it’s only gonna get better.
Could you read a poem, a piece of the new novel called “Taken?” It’s also from early on, I think not that long after the part that you read before. This is soon after Kofi has been caned or hit by his teacher for not speaking English in his class. And he’s talking to this girl that he has a major crush on. This is on page 19.
Alexander [reading]: “Amma walks toward me carrying a large water pot on her head, a bundle of timber in her arms, and her baby cousin draped across her back. ‘It will not hurt long if you use this,’ she says, placing the timber on the ground and taking my arm in her hand. She rubs my bruise with a large fuzzy green leaf and a flash of warmth rushes through me like a wave. I do not feel my eyes closing, but I can feel every hair on my body jump at the sun. ‘Is that better, Kofi?’
‘Yes it is.’
‘Now do not swallow this or you will cough until you die,’ she says, handing me the leaf. I cannot tell whether she is serious or not. It is a joke. ‘It is just a clove leaf, mainly used to make the pain of a bad tooth go away. You will be fine.’ It has the smell of something in my mommy’s stew.
‘Thank you Amma.’
‘Are you and Abel going to swim now?’
‘If the river is you, I will swim,’ is what I wish I could say. Instead, I answer, ‘No swimming today, it is too dark.’”
Miller: But Kofi is a swimmer. He is a joyous fast river swimmer. And swimming figures prominently from the very beginning of this book. Without giving anything away, it’s something that lasts throughout the book.
Miller: Why did you want to have swimming be so prominent in this book?
Alexander: A lot of my novels use sports as a metaphor: basketball in “The Crossover;” as we say outside of America, “futbol” in books, or as you Yankees know, soccer; baseball in “Swing.” I like the metaphor of sports and how it’s the thing that taught me a lot about leadership and resilience and teamwork. So, when I was thinking of this book, which is set in 1860 on the west coast of Africa, I thought, “I’m gonna try swimming.” Now, of course, if you know anything about Black American culture, you know that it is lore, it is myth, it is a lot of reality that Black people don’t like to swim. Like we don’t like the water. You hear that sometimes.
I went to Ghana numerous times and on one occasion I was with Nikki Giovanni and she and I were in a place called Cape Coast on the Gulf of Guinea, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. And I say to her, “I think I know where the blues came from.” And she says, “What are you talking about Kwame?” I said, “I think the blues came from the fact that Africans who were stolen from their homeland, and they had no idea where they were headed or what was going to await them when they got there. They knew two things. They knew the water and they knew the sky, the blues.” This sort of tragedy that you’ve got to figure out how to still maintain some sort of survival and hope, right? So I knew I wanted to write about the water in this story. I knew the water was going to play a role, and of course swimming is gonna be the natural sport. I’m thinking, “well maybe Black people don’t like swimming because of our relationship to that water, to that middle passage, maybe that.”
I have a friend named Jacqueline Woodson. Do not post this on IG [Instagram] because she’ll call me and fuss at me. But Jacquie, I invited her to go on a cruise with me. She’s like, “Kwame, I ain’t going in no water. I am not gonna be on no boat.” And so, it’s a thing with Black people. I’m thinking, “I want to write about swimming.”
I’m at Jacquie’s house in Brewster, New York, she has a writing retreat, and I’m at this writing retreat working on “The Door of No Return.” And she’s working on a book, we’re writing, we’re hanging out. Her phone rings and she says, “Excuse me.” And she goes in the dining room, and she answers the phone, and she calls me and says, “Kwame, I gotta take this call. It’s Skip.” I’m like, “Skip, who?” And she is like, “Skip Gates, Dr. Henry Louis Gates.” So I’m like, “Okay, ask him: ‘Did Black people swim in Africa?’”That’s what I wanna know, right? And he says, “Talk to John and Diane at Boston University.”
Now I’m on this sort of road to research. And here’s what I find out: There are a plethora of fishing villages on the coast of West Africa. Inland where the rivers [are] there are fishing communities. And conventional wisdom says that if you have a fishing community, a fishing village, over hundreds of years when your wooden boat is out in the big sea, if your boat capsizes, you need to know how to [swim], or you are going to [drown].
And so I’m doing this research and Africans have been swimming for hundreds of years before the Europeans even came to Africa. And so I’m like, “Okay, so now I have my research that can sort of support and back up this story that I’m going to reimagine.” Then from there it was just figuring out what the metaphor would be for swimming as it relates to Kofi’s journey.
Miller: In that passage, that I had you read, he’s getting comfort from this girl he has a crush on because, as I noted briefly, he didn’t speak English in a class. He said a couple words in Twi. Can you describe the setup that you have for this teacher that he and his classmates have with, who goes by the Anglo name Good Luck Philip. What is his project?
Alexander: Language: the way we communicate with each other, how we learn things, how we begin to understand ourselves and our connection to each other, and how we convey those connections and how we show our love and the language that we speak is the vehicle that gets us from one place in life to the next. It’s a map for a community, for a culture, for a people. It’s a guide.
What happens when that guide, when that map is no longer yours? It’s someone else’s map that’s now guiding you. What kind of impact or effect does that have on your psyche, on your spirit, on your community, on your existence, on your life? And I posit that that is a significant thing that has happened, in particular as it relates to this discussion, to Black people worldwide. That we lost our language. And what does that do to you to not have that root? What happens to the tree? And so I wanted to talk a little bit about that in this book without being too heavy handed.
The story begins with the main character, Kofi, being asked a question by his teacher and he answers in Twi, their language (Twi is a language of the Ashanti people in Ghana). And his teacher hits him with a cane. He wants him to speak, to answer, in the Queen’s English. So that’s sort of where that came from. I’ve been to Ghana eleven times. And on my first trip, I asked the children that I engaged with to teach me how to count to ten in Twi. And I still remember some of those numbers: baako, mmienu, mmiɛnsa. It feels good to be able to say it, you know?
Miller: You ended up spearheading the effort, an effort to build a library in a village in Ghana. What prompted you to do that?
Alexander: My first visit to Ghana was in 2012. It’s a village in the eastern region of Ghana called Konko. And I was at this village with a friend of mine who was the queen mother, and I was reading to the children in the school… 200 kids in the school. And I was reading to the children from my first children’s picture book. This was 2012. It was called “Acoustic Rooster’s Barnyard Band.” It’s about a rooster that starts a jazz band with Duck Ellington and Mules Davis. Genius, isn’t it? [Laughing]
I’m reading this book to these 200 kids who are all sitting on this red clay and a rooster walks up beside me, y’all. It was the coolest thing. After it was over, the kids wanted me to read more and I didn’t have any other books with me. So I asked the teacher to bring me a book and she brought me this thick book called “Introduction to Computer Technology.” And that’s why I made the connection that on the blackboard, she had drawn a laptop. They didn’t have a computer. They were teaching computer technology by drawing the laptop. And there were no other books in the school, in the village, for children. So I vowed, in that moment, to bring more books back to this village.
So over the course of a couple of years, books were donated [by friends and colleagues]. We had a couple of thousand books. Me and some of the villagers and my friends who I brought along with me on the journey, we built bookcases and put them in a closet and that became the library, this closet. I came back a year later, the closet was dusty, there weren’t any windows in it. Nobody had really gone in to use it. And so I said we need to build a library, and so I began to take donations [on] gofundme.com. Some of you probably donated. Over the course of a couple of years we raised about $40,000 and so we’re gonna build this library and multipurpose room for these villagers. And by now, we had about 5,000 books to house to stock this library.
Over the course of a couple of years, the library was being built in 2017, it was supposed to open. And I took 22 librarians and teachers with me for the grand opening and the ribbon cutting, and I’m really excited, and we get there, and I go to the village the day before the ribbon cutting to check on it. And there’s no roof, and there’s no floor, and there’s no furniture. The library is maybe 40% done. And so now I’m freaking out. I called my mom, she says, “Kwamie, just have a ribbon cutting for version 1.0 of the Library.” So the next day we all come to the village, the ribbon cutting goes well, everybody sees the vision of it.
Then after they go back to the hotel, I talked to the elders in the village and I say, “Why weren’t you all able to complete the library?” And he says, “It is okay, it will be okay.” And I said, “No, I just need to know why wasn’t it done? We put a lot of money into this.” And he says, “Kwame, it’ll be okay.” And I say, “Did you not want the library?” And he says, “Eh…We could have used a health clinic.” And that’s when it hit me, I’d never asked them what they wanted. I had gone in sort of with my Western intentions that “I’m gonna save my people.” How many times have we heard and seen that? And that was a wake up call for me. And a year later, we opened the Barbara Alexander Memorial Library and Health Clinic.
Miller: How has that lesson reverberated in your life?
Alexander: How has it reverberated? I try to walk through life as a willing participant, paying attention, being connected in an authentic and real way. When I meet people, when I engage with folks, I’m just really trying to be in the moment with them, and paying attention and listening, right? And listening, because I love to talk– y’all can tell? But just trying to listen. That’s so important.
Miller: You mentioned being in Ghana with Nikki Giovanni, the amazing poet. What are the ways in which your visits over the years to West Africa informed this new book?
Alexander: Over the past 10 years in Ghana, I feel like I connected. I engage with this place. I walked the land. I ate the jollof. I listened to the music. I have friends, I have family. I’ve fallen in love in Ghana. Ghana has become a part of my life. I went to Ghana originally thinking, “This is going to be my homecoming.” Because if you ask a Black person before ancestry DNA where they were from, they would say Alabama, Virginia, where their ancestors come from… Georgia. If we were to give you a place outside of America, it would be a continent: Africa. We could never tell you where our people are from. That was stolen from us. If you ask the average non-Black person where their ancestors are from, they could give you a place. Let’s try an experiment. Dave, where are your people from?
Miller: Lithuania and Turkey and Egypt and Italy and on and on.
Alexander: I mean, he just literally gave me four countries, and he just said it, matter of factly, like he could have kept going. Black people haven’t been able to do that. Right? And so when I went to Ghana, I’m thinking, “This is gonna be my homecoming, my Lithuania, my Egypt.” I’m gonna find my roots. Now, years later, I would discover that we aren’t from Ghana, but that’s another story.
Miller: What were your own guiding principles - if that’s the right word - when you decided you were going to write, not just one book, but the first book in a trilogy in which enslaved people and enslavers were going to figure prominently. What was your own guide for how to approach this subject for yourself?
Alexander: I would posit that the slave trade does not figure prominently in this book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. And I push back on it. The tendency is for us to center “slavery”. When we define Black history, or Black Americans, we always do it through the lens of 1619. I posit, in this book I’ve tried to show that perhaps slavery, the slave trade, the trafficking of human beings, was not the beginning of us. It was our middle, right? And so I did not set out to write a book that centered the slave trade.
I set out to write a book about a boy who has a crush on a girl and he’s got a cousin who’s a bully who likes the same girl and his cousin beats him at everything at racing and wrestling and he’s a good swimmer though. So he challenges his cousin to a big swim off and he swims every day because he feels like if he beats his cousin, he’ll win some of his pride back and win the heart of the girl, Amma, that he likes. And every day after school he practices and he’s fast and he’s kicking like a fish. And the night before the swim-off, he goes to the river to get one more practice session in, even though he’s been told to stay out of the water at night because the river is cursed beneath the moonlight and he swims that night and he’s fast and he comes out of the water. And what happens changes his life, and changes history. What happens brings him face to face with the door of no return.
The things that happen to him are not the things that define him. The things that define us are the things we do, the things that we are, the way we live, hope, dream, smile, dance, eat, love, live, die, right? The things that happen to him are tragic things that happen to him and we’ll deal with that. So that would be my response to that. I will say this, Dave: it was the hardest book I ever wrote because I knew what was gonna happen on page 302. I knew what was going to happen. And so I had to stop at times, especially when I got there. I had to stop. I had to go for a walk in Regent’s Park or you know, or have some tea, or just take a step back, because it is a challenging thing.
And especially when you’re trying to write a book that you know young people are going to read, and you want young people to read. I tried to write this book in a way that my 14 year old daughter would not be totally devastated by reading it.
Miller: At the same time, you don’t pull punches. That seems like a difficult job. So I guess I’m wondering, because when I read this, without giving things away… I guess I can say that the brutality is not hidden. I’m wondering how you think about what [is] “age appropriate”, what that phrase even means? Whether we’re talking about slavery or any kind of violence or trauma, how do you think about what your readers are ready for?
Alexander: I think about what I was ready for when I was 12, when I was 11. I try to write books that I would have loved to have read and learned from when I was young. I try to write books that I can learn and love now, as an adult. That’s always sort of my north star when I’m writing books.
Miller: Has becoming a parent affected the way you think about this issue, about what kids are ready for, what young people are ready for?
Alexander: Yeah, it has. In fact, I remember asking my mom, “When should I talk to my daughter about slavery?” And she gave me two answers like, “Either when she asked, or you’ll know.” Really? And I had conversations with her that were so very short. Brief conversations with her about it when she was in second grade, not too deep, but I’d shared things with her. We’d read a picture book, and if she had questions we’d go deeper.
But in fourth grade, her teacher assigned this project for the class. The class had to break up into groups of three. They had to choose a colony and they had to create a billboard to promote the colony, one of the 13 colonies. And my daughter was in a group with another Black girl and a white girl and the white girl said, “Let’s do Virginia, and here this can be our billboard, I’ve got it worked out: Welcome to the Old Dominion where our slaves are great.” My daughter and the other Black girl got a little upset about that. There was an argument and they were taken out of the class and the teacher made my daughter apologize. And so I went up to school [and] we had a big meeting.
The teacher is a young white woman and she began to cry and I felt so bad for her. But at the same time I realized that she had never been prepared or taught how to teach this. What are we doing in our schools where we aren’t preparing teachers to teach these difficult subjects? So that’s when we had the real in depth conversation and we began to be on this process. And in fact, I wrote a book about that experience that comes out on January the fourth, It’s called “An American Story.”
Miller: Part of the plot hinges on an internal conflict between different Ashanti kingdoms, and the way that those conflicts were exploited and used by white enslavers. I have seen, in recent years, white people say things like, “Africans took part in the Atlantic slave trade, so don’t just blame white people.” When I see those things, to me, it’s almost like a flip side of, “All lives matter.” This is more like, “All people do terrible things.” Were you worried at all about fanning a kind of cynical flame?
Alexander: No. This is historical fiction. I wasn’t in 1860. I read a lot of books. I visited Ghana 11 times. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for an 11 year old boy to deal with some of the things he had to deal with. Many of them, I could personally relate to: having a crush, having a cousin who’s a bully, like that doesn’t change. I tried to write my truth. No, I wasn’t concerned. I wasn’t concerned about fanning the flames. I don’t have a whole lot of control over how other people respond or react to my storytelling. I can’t spend my time worried about that. I try to write in a way that I would have loved to have read. I would have learned something as a kid, and would love and learn something now, as an adult. So I don’t spend a lot of time on that.
But I appreciate the question, and I’m not trying to be flippant. I just don’t spend time. It’s like book banning. I get asked that question: “What do you say to those people who ban books?” Or, “What do you think about them?” I don’t say anything to them, and I don’t think about them. I don’t. There was a school in Texas that… a lot of districts in Texas have banned my books, in particular “The Undefeated.” I showed up at a school in a district in Texas and surprised a teacher and read “The Undefeated” in front of all of her students. I just try to spend my time doing things that I know that I can control and the things I can’t, I can’t.
Miller [narration]: [Kwame’s] latest book is the first in a planned trilogy that starts in what’s now Ghana, in the 1800s. It’s called “The Door of No Return.” We spoke in front of an audience at the Portland Book Festival. At one point, I asked him about the preface to the book, where he says he wrote it, “For the me nobody knows.” I asked what he meant by that.
Alexander: Well, it’s the same thing I was talking about before. When we think about Black history, what do we think about? Let’s throw some things out: civil rights, Martin Luther King, jazz, sports. Like these are all meaningful and relevant and significant and valid. But again, I posit that our lives here are a middle… are not the thing that defines us, our history, our heritage. It’s not the thing. And so I believe that we need to know more about what that beginning is. I think that’s what it’s about. The “me nobody knows,” that part of us that we don’t know. Let’s begin to learn about that, because maybe then we can begin to appreciate each other. We’ll know. Folks who are non-Black can begin to appreciate Black folks’ humanity. When you begin to think about us outside of the prism of this very inhumane thing that happened to us, right?
Miller: You also say in that preface that, “This is for the possibility that it is in us.” It made me wonder what you feel to be the connection between books, reading them or maybe even writing them, and changing who we are.
Alexander: Are we doing questions with the audience? Do we have time for that?
Miller: If you’d like that.
Alexander: I would. I mean, it’s important. To answer that question, I will say this: before the pandemic I did 200 school visits a year. I was always on the road. I spent three weeks in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania and Radnor… It’s called the Main Line. So I was the writer-in-residence for the Main Line, as it were, and all of their schools. One of the things about the Main Line, in 2015 and 2016, is that you could be driving for 10 or 15 minutes and see signs in people’s yards that said “Trump.” Okay, take that for what you want. I’m about to go into this middle school and I’m thinking, “Oh this is gonna be interesting.” Because these are the kids of the parents who were voting for Donald Trump.
I go into the school and I do my thing like I do in every school, I try to inspire, engage, empower, inform and entertain, all through words. And all these kids have read my books and I finish my speech and the kids stand up and they clap and then I thank them and I’m going off stage, and they say, “Mr. Alexander, can you come back?” Somebody called me back. So I come back to the stage. Now, we talked about the library in Ghana, right, and the money I raised? I come back to the stage, Dave, and these two kids come up from the audience and they’re holding a big check. And it’s a check for $3,500 for the library in Ghana and they say, “We were so moved by your books, we wanted to do something to help you change the world, one word at a time.”
We are more alike than we are different. If we can find a way to connect with each other, I posit that we already have the tools to do that. The books will do the work. We gotta make sure all the kids have access to all the books, right?
Miller: I want to just turn briefly to the craft itself. The style that you have been working at, and in, for a while now, because, I’ve often heard people say, “Oh poetry, it’s hard for all readers, especially young readers, to get and to understand.” And I’ve heard your push back which I actually totally agree with, which is that it’s the opposite. That what you’re writing is… these aren’t your words, these are mine, this is my praise. I find it to be propulsive and concentrated. Like you’ve taken the version of prose, gotten rid of half the stuff that turns out was extraneous, and boiled it down in ways that the young readers [and] readers of all ages can sink their teeth into and can keep moving along with. As you said, it’s a kind of trick.
So that’s what young people, or your readers, whatever age, that’s what they can get out of what you’re writing. I’m curious what you get out of this writing style? What attracts you to it, as a writer?
Alexander: I think it goes back to me being a three year old, right? And yeah, and being able to have access to just the right words, in the right order, with the right rhythm that gets to the heart of the matter.
Miller: When you get that word, when you know that you hit it right for yourself, what does it feel like – because you’re alone in your room, right?
Alexander: No, I’m not. I’m not a writer who writes alone. I just had three writers at my house last week. I love writing around people. Like I wrote “The Crossover” in Panera Bread. I did.
I have to be around people. I might have my headphones on, but I need to be around the folks when I’m writing. I’m one of those people. I had a retreat in Tuscany in 2010 with nine writers. I organized it and hired the chef and booked the villa and did all this stuff. I spent every last second I had, every bit of money I had, and I had these nine writers. We were there for three weeks and everyone thought, “Yeah, Kwame is doing this amazing thing for us and inviting us and this is gonna be great and he cares about writers.” And I do. But it was really selfish. I needed to put myself in a situation, in an environment where I could be inspired and I find that that happens when I’m around people.
Miller: How do you deal with distractions? Or they’re not distractions- they’re helpful additives, the people around you?
Alexander: Yeah, both. When they’re distractions, I just turn up my music. But yeah, I love having folks around.
Miller: Do you get a lot of mail or messages from your readers?
Alexander: I get a ton of mail. One particular letter that ended up impacting this book was from one fifth grader in Santa Monica, and I was living in London and no one knew my address. And somehow this letter got to my house in London from this fifth grader in Santa Monica. And it said things like, “Dear Mr. Alexander, if this is one of your publicists or assistants reading this letter, please tell them to stop and send it directly to you.” It said stuff like that. And then it said, “I am an avid reader and I have read each of your books countless times and I love each of them.” And she went and sort of broke down books - “Rebound,” “The Crossover,” “Swing” and “Solo” - and what she loved about each book.
It felt good to get that. And then the last paragraph of the letter said, “but I’ve been talking to some of my friends,” and she listed her friends, April and Soraya, “and we have decided that it is a shame that you have never had a female lead character, and that it is far time for you to do that. We would like you to commit right now to…”
[Audience applauding and cheering]
…and then she ended it like her parents had to help her with this, she ended it by saying, “Respectfully.” So I just finished filming a tv series on Disney+ based on “The Crossover.” Over the past couple of years I’ve spent time in LA. So I was going to LA. I showed up at her school and went into her classroom. I coordinated it with her aunt, and it was the most magnificent thing.
I get a lot of mail, I don’t respond to a whole lot of it, but when I do, I do it big.
Miller: Wait a minute. So, okay, she must have thought it was awesome that you showed up, but she had a request of you. What was your response?
Alexander: I probably was like, “Yeah I can try. Yeah I’ll try.” But my point in this is: that you will see a female main character in the trilogy.
Miller: You want questions from the audience?
Alexander: Let’s take a couple of questions, sure.
Audience Member #1: What’s your favorite poetry book you made?
Alexander: The favorite poetry book I made? Wow! Well, one of my favorites, and I hope you get a chance to check it out, it’s a poetry book that I wrote in 2008 in a place called Nashville, Tennessee, right after my daughter was born. And it’s a love letter to Black America and it’s a reminder to America and it’s called “The Undefeated.”
Audience Member #2: What advice would you give for young readers who love your books and people who want to be authors?
Alexander: Oh, that’s a great question. I would say after you ask your parents to buy multiple copies of my books. I would suggest that you go and find “All the Broken Pieces” by Anne Berg, “The Way a Door Closes” by Hope Anita Smith, “Out of the Dust” by Karen Hess, “Street Love” by Walter Dean Myers. I would say go and find some other books that are like mine and just increase your library and fall in love with those books too.
Miller: Kwame Alexander, thank you very much.
Alexander: Thank you.
Dave Miller: That was Kwame Alexander, the author of “The Door of No Return.” We spoke in front of an audience at the Portland Book Festival, put on by Literary Arts.
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