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Caribbean mermaids and evil spirits with Tracey Baptiste

On the Why We Write podcast: Tracey Baptiste talks about her popular Jumbies series, diversity in publishing, and her New York Times op-ed on mermaids.

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Find the full transcript at the end of this page.

Episode notes

Trinidad native Tracey Baptiste recently published her third book in her middle grade Jumbies series. In this episode, she speaks with our MFA in Creative Writing Director Danielle Legros Georges about running wild in Trinidad as a kid, her writing, and diversity in publishing.

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If you enjoyed Danielle's interview style, check out our episodes with poet and independent publisher Enzo Silon Surin and Richard Blanco, who wrote the inauguration poem for President Barak Obama.

Check out all our episodes on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

  • Transcript

    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast at Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life.

    Danielle Legros Georges: Hi, I'm Danielle Legros Georges, the director of the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Lesley University, who has the pleasure of interviewing Tracey Baptiste.

    Tracey Baptiste: Hello!

    Danielle: Tracey, I'm really thrilled that we get a chance to talk today. I want to introduce you as a writer, an editor, a former school teacher, a New York Times bestselling author of Minecraft The Crash as well as the Creepy Caribbean series, The Jumbies which includes The Jumbies, Rise of the Jumbies and the Jumbie God's Revenge just published in September of this year. You are also the author of contemporary young adult novel Angel's Grace and nine nonfiction books for kids in elementary through high school. And you also, Tracey, happen to be on the faculty of the Lesley University MFA program in creative writing, in the concentration of writing for young people. We are so happy that you are with us.

    Tracey: Thank you. Thank you for having me. That's a really good introduction. You know, I hear introductions like that and then think, Oh, do I sleep? Like how do I get these things done? I don't know how it happens.

    Danielle: And so this is a really nice segue to my first question, which has to do with your practice as a writer and work-life balance. The first book of your Jumbies trilogy has the following, and I would argue delightful, dedication "To my children, Alyssa and Adam, without whom this book would have been finished years ago."

    Tracey: [laughs]

    Danielle: How, when, where do you write, what are the conditions of, for your writing?

    Tracey: So when I was writing the first Jumbies book, I was not writing full-time. At the time I was an editor at McGraw-Hill during that time. And so I mostly wrote on the weekends or at night, often on the New Jersey Transit bus. [laughs] Heading into and out of the city is where a lot of my writing got done because once I was home, then it was, you know, full-time mommy duty which is exhausting especially with two really, really young guys. They were really little when I was getting started. So, the first Jumbies book took nine years for me to write it and have it be in good shape just because it was just this piecemeal kind of work.

    I would work on it a little bit and put it away and work on it a little bit. And then you know how you lose momentum. I'm sure you've had this experience where if you put something down for long enough, you kinda lose momentum on it and then, it takes a little while for you to get back into the groove of it. The first Jumbies book really, really took a very long time to figure out because of that. But, there are all of these sort of in-between times that I would just work. I would just say, you know, Saturday morning from whatever time to whatever time, that's mommy's work time. And I would either make sure that they were busy, they had something else to do, they were out of the house, whatever.

    I would make other arrangements so that I could just have that time to be able to get the work done. And then when I wasn't able to do that, I would try to squeeze it in whenever I could. I mean, I feel like this is like, the plight of the modern woman anyway where, you know, the things that we really want to do, the things that we are passionate about, we kind of have to fit them into the cracks between all of the other things, the full-time job, the being a mom, the being the person who kind of holds all of the strings together as far as the household and all of that is concerned. We're still doing that kind of work and then we have to fit this stuff in, sort of in-between.

    Danielle: Right. But you apparently have successfully been able to negotiate that. Not only making that first Jumbies book but also the second and the third. I want to go into the Jumbies books. For those of us who don't have the good or misfortune of knowing what a Jumbie is, could you tell us?

    Tracey: Sure! So, Jumbies are– they're really evil spirits from Caribbean folklore. So there are a bunch of different types of Jumbies. Jumbies is kind of a catch-all phrase. These people who were really evil during their lifetime, after they die, the tradition is that three days after they die, they become Jumbies and there's all different types of Jumbies. And Jumbies, because they are this oral tradition throughout the Caribbean, there may be different types of Jumbies depending on which Caribbean Island or south or Central American country that you're hearing the story in.

    So it's never quite exactly the same, because of course, the way that the stories got disseminated, everybody would sort of take their own liberties with the core characters or their physical descriptions of the kinds of things that they have the ability to do or even the kinds of ways that people would interact with them, especially, to kind of counteract their evil. So throughout the Caribbean, there's like you know very, a wide variety of, even within like each Jumbie type, there might be a wide variety of the types of stories. But, at their core, they are these evil creatures who come out at night to cause mayhem often to kill you or eat children. Which is, you know, super fun. [laughs]

    Danielle: So why, Tracey, these children-eating characters? What led you to write the first Jumbies book? To the subject matter?

    Tracey: Oh isn't it fun though? I mean, just think about it. Just [laughs] some creature outside your window waiting to eat you. Doesn’t that sound like a good time? Actually, [laughs] my mom would tell me these stories when I was a little kid. And when I was growing up in Trinidad, people would talk about Jumbies like they could be anybody. They could be the next-door neighbor, they could be the teacher, they could be the bus driver. It literally could be absolutely anyone during the day because during the day, they look like a regular person and at night is when their Jumbie selves come out.

    And so my mom would tell me these stories and I loved them. I was completely delighted by this idea that people could change at night and become these sort-of scary, creepy things that might be out to get you. Like I really found it thrilling! And I also knew that it wasn't real. Like I wasn't really expecting that this was like an actual thing. It was just like a really fun, kind of scary story. And so when I was here, I moved to the United States when I was fifteen.

    And, obviously, I have my kids here in New Jersey and they really did not grow up with these kinds of stories and certainly not in the same way that I grew up with it where it was Jumbies were in the air, they could be anybody at any time, people would mention a Jumbie at any moment. So, I thought that it was important to introduce these creatures to my kids so that they would have some connection to their Trinidadian heritage and understand what these stories were, and so the stories wouldn't be lost.

    And at first, I really just thought it was just gonna be for Alyssa and Adam and not really something that reached a wider world but then, I think I quickly realized that there would be a lot of expat Trini parents who would want to share these stories with their own kids and I thought, "Okay, well, that's my audience." It's gonna be my kids and parents like me who've left Trinidad who are gonna find that they can pass on tradition through these stories.

    Danielle: Yeah. And not only parents too. I think adult readers will appreciate what you've done in drawing on Caribbean and African folk tales and myth, and the characters who we're familiar with appearing in your books like Bouki and Malik in Haiti. I'm Haitian, we have Bouki and Malice drawing from the Anansi trickster, West African tales, and you have La Diablesse in these books and the Suku Yon, Douen and Mama D'Leau, it's just really rich in myth and also I think you do a really wonderful job of connecting myth with the contemporary moment. So some wonderful stuff happening in this trilogy.

    Tracey: Thank you. I actually wanted to say that with, as far as Bouki and Malice is concerned, I did actually take those from the Haitian Anansi stories, for this particular story, and changed, obviously, changed one to Malik so that I can have them in there. I did that because I wanted the story to feel not exactly Trinidadian, I wanted it to feel like it could be any of the Caribbean Islands so that anybody from the Caribbean could feel like this was happening on their particular Island, they could take ownership of it. It was very, it was very much a conscious decision on my part to look at what the stories were throughout the region and try to incorporate that as much as I could.

    Danielle: Well, I absolutely felt that. It does feel expansive and pan-Caribbean or cross-Caribbean if you will, the stories do, and I think that's part of their strength. So you wrote that first book but– there was a second book and then a third book. Can you talk a little bit about how this one book then became three books, became part of a trilogy?

    Tracey: Right so [laughs] we were, it really was supposed to be a one-off, it was not supposed to be a trilogy at all. When I–when we were in the process of selling the first book we did offer a theory. I did have ideas for other Jumbie books. I really mostly had an idea for a second book but we tried to pitch it as a series because I figured– I could see the potential of carrying on these stories beyond what I had put there on the page already. And in the first book, there were a couple of things that I left open so that I would have space if there ever were the opportunity to write a second book or a third book, or whatever. But when it was bought by Elise Howard at Algonquin Young Readers she was not sure how Jumbies would take to an American audience at all. And I certainly wasn't either.

    You know, I remember in an early marketing meeting they asked me who I thought was gonna read this book and I said, "Well, besides my mom?" [laughs] "Yes, besides your mom." And I'm like "Well, people from the Caribbean." I feel like you know there are gonna be Caribbean people who are gonna read the story and want to read it to their kids but beyond that, I really didn't have any expectations. It was very much a surprise to me and to the folks at Algonquin when the first book took off as well as it did, as quickly as it did. Then we started having a conversation about doing a second Jumbie book and I hadn't done all of the Jumbies yet, I had left a few Jumbies off the first one. So it was easy then to go into the second book.

    And the thing that I decided to do with the second book was–I'm introducing new Jumbies, Mama D'Leau and Papa Bois are the two new Jumbies that come into the story in Rise of the Jumbies. And, in the first one, one of the things that I had very briefly introduced was this idea that slave ships had come to the Island and that there were people chained in the bottom of the slave ship.

    Danielle: Right.

    Tracey: And I wasn't sure how people were going to take that in the story, but nobody mentioned it, nobody seemed to bat an eye at it at all.

    So I felt that this was my opportunity to really go there, to really go into this idea of how people were taken and brought across the Atlantic from Africa. So in the second one, I just, you know, I just went for it. And I decided that I would take the mermaid and kind of reimagine mermaids as these magical creatures that became magical creatures because of the trauma that they suffered when they were taken from the west coast of Africa and brought onto these slave ships.

    So that's, you know, how the second book–and then the second book was only supposed to be just a second book. Again, there was no plan for a third one at all. And before the second one even came out my editor called me, the kids and I were both–we were all in Trinidad for the summer and I got a phone call from Elise and she said, "You know people seem to be talking about a trilogy." [laughs] And I said, "Well, you said you only wanted two books, so here we go. Here are the two books." She's like, "No, why don't you start thinking about doing another one." And, honestly, the second one was so difficult for me, just emotionally difficult, because I did that bit with the mermaid and the transatlantic slave trade, and, of course, it's not the whole story, it's just a small piece of the story in the middle.

    But it really, it took an emotional toll on me to write that and to do it in a way that was delicate because, of course, I'm writing it for really little kids.

    Danielle: Right.

    Tracey: So, I didn't have much left in me at that point to do a third book and I had no idea what I would do for a third book because I had used all of the Jumbies that I had available in the folklore. But that was 2017, and it was August 2017, and it was when Hurricane Maria was going through the Caribbean and just devastating Caribbean Islands. And when the kids and I came back to New Jersey and they were getting ready for school, I was watching the weather channel and just watching how this hurricane was just decimating these Islands and that's when I remembered Huracan. The weather channel actually put up a fact on the screen that said Huracan is the Caribbean god of storm.

    Of course, I grew up with knowing the Caribbean as the indigenous people in Trinidad and I thought, "Oh, that's right! I forgot about Huracan." And so that's where this third book came from. It directly came from watching Hurricane Maria devastate the Caribbean. And I thought, "Okay, so this is where we go next." And I had also had the idea that if we did do three books ever, that the first one would take place mostly on land, the second one would have a lot of the action taking place in the water, and the third one would take place mostly in the sky. So it was–it felt like it was meant to be, to come this way, and I got started on it almost immediately.

    Danielle: Yeah, I'm so glad that you–I'm happy for the comment around the second book and that it was taking up slavery. And slavery–and you had the challenge of how to explain slavery for the young reader, or to the young reader. I think that's a really interesting area. But I wanna go back up just a little bit. You said that in the–there was a reference to a slave ship in the first book but no one mentioned it, no one bat an eye. No one bat an eye good or no one bat an eye bad? What did you mean by that?

    Tracey: Well, nobody ever mentioned it at all. I really did think that someone would say something about the fact that I had mentioned the slave ship in the first book–

    Danielle: Like a reviewer or a reader?

    Tracey: Like a re–exactly. Or anyone! Just even in conversation that somebody would bring it up, because the thing is a lot of parents would come up to me at events, at you know, book festivals and want to talk about the book and never did I have anyone mention that and I was kind of waiting for it. So it was a real surprise to me when nobody ever worried about it and so it made me feel really great then. I was like, "Oh, okay, so I can talk about this." Like I wasn't–I honestly wasn't sure and I thought "Oh great. I can talk about this with little kids. So, here we go." So I was really excited. I was very, very encouraged by the fact that nobody thought that this was an inappropriate thing to have had in the book.

    Danielle: I see, I see. Okay. Got it. And so you thought people would have taken offense to a reference to slavery?

    Tracey: Yes, I definitely did.

    Danielle: Interesting. 

    Tracey: I certainly expected that somebody would think that this was too difficult a topic for this age group.

    Danielle: Well, it's absolutely a part of Caribbean lore. I think these Jumbies and these characters, as you mentioned, come out of our colonial history, right. So then to explicitly state it–

    Tracey: Right! For sure.

    Danielle: Right, yeah. Interesting. 

    Tracey: For sure. And I think that for Caribbean kids–I wasn't expecting that kind of conversation from Caribbean kids or Caribbean parents because we do talk about this sort of thing a lot.

    Danielle: Right.

    Tracey: But I think that for the American audience, I was expecting some pushback from there, and there really wasn't. So it made me–it definitely encouraged me for the second one to go as deep as I did in the second one.

    Danielle: Yeah, yeah. Well, really glad to have that second book in the world. I want to talk a little bit later about mermaids. At the heart of your Jumbies trilogy is your protagonist Corinne LaMer, right?

    Tracey: Yes. 

    Danielle: I love how, with her, you have centered black and brown girl presence and girlhood in young adult fiction. You're extending her some fundamental freedom and expansive realities, and by extension, to black girl characters. Thank you for this. Were you thinking that this was what you were doing, if this is the case?

    Tracey: No, I really wasn't. You know I was just–I was just writing a girl, and I was just writing a girl that I, I kind of knew. You know, I mean, growing up in the Caribbean, and especially when I grew up in the Caribbean, it's so different than it is now. The kind of freedom that I had to run around the Island, to climb trees, to climb hills, to skin my knees, and just–we'd get cuts and bruises and just like throw dirt on it and just keep on running.


    Like that was, that was my life. Like we didn't–there were no adults around. We were just–in the wild doing whatever in the summer. Because there wasn't summer camp, there was no summer camp, like nobody went to camp. Like, what is that? School’s out. Go outside and play. Ride your bike. Dig some holes.


    That was what we were doing. I remember I would spend days up in my grandmother's plum tree with my cousin. We would take like–we'd tear off these pieces of brown paper. I don't even know where we would get this brown paper, but we'd tear up pieces of brown paper and we would put salt and pepper inside of that, the kind of pepper that people make in the Caribbean, where you know that they crush up the pepper, and they make a pepper sauce.

    And so we would put salt and pepper into the little brown paper, climb up into the tree, and we would sit in the tree, pretty much all day, picking plums off the tree and eating them with the little salt and pepper thing in our hands, in the brown paper in our hands. Like all day. That was like, that was what we did! There were no adults. I don't know where the adults were. I don't know what they were doing.

    They certainly weren't looking at us because there were plenty of times we fell out of that tree, and then just climbed right back up. So I was just writing a girl that I knew, all the girls that I knew who had this kind of life where they would just be out in the world doing whatever they were doing out in the world. It did not occur to me at all that I was doing some honor really to girls. It was just– "Girl." It was just "Girl That I Knew." She is not different from all of the cousins that I had growing up.

    Danielle: Yeah, yeah. I love that character. She's curious, she's strong-willed, she's smart, she's a Caribbean girl, she's got a crew.

    Tracey: Right. The crew! The crew is very, very important to have a crew. But, I mean, but again, we were this band of children running around the Caribbean. Nobody was by themselves ever. It was always you and the eight cousins or whatever. Nobody was ever by themselves and running around.

    And probably this was why there were no adults around, because there were always a band of children, and we all kinda looked out for each other, where the youngest one–the oldest one would look out for the next one, and the next one would look after the one younger. We all were pulling each other along. So I guess this is why the adults didn't worry so much. We all came back home at the end of the day, sweaty and dirty and smelling horrible, I'm sure, but we were all together and all in one piece.

    Danielle: So she is representative of your childhood, of girlhood, and Corinne is half Jumbie. [sings]

    Tracey: Right. [laughs] She is. This idea too, this idea of making her half Jumbie, it's certainly one of the driving factors for the story plot-wise, but it's also because I'm biracial. My father is Indian. My mother is African. And so I really wanted to have the main character be biracial, the way that I was, except that, her races are human and Jumbie.

    Danielle: I really love how this takes up the question of identity. How this character, through the character, we're looking at the question of identity and mixed culture. The Caribbean is a mixed culture, a Mestizo culture. So I appreciate that in the book.

    I think that people like you, like Jason Reynolds, also on our MFA faculty, like Jacque Woodson, are really changing the face of young adult fiction and the literary landscape in positive ways, by bringing these characters who seem very natural to you, certainly to us, into a larger landscape that had been, I think one could argue, missing them, certainly, Any thoughts about that?

    Tracey: About having these, all of these different types of characters, now that we have them?

    Danielle: Yes.

    Tracey: Since we didn't have them before?


    Danielle: Yes, yes.

    Tracey: It's really interesting. We are living in very interesting times, as far as the world is concerned, where we're–the kinds of things happening socially are–feel like the opposite of what's happening in the publishing industry. 'Cause the publishing industry has been very hard-pressed of late, particularly in the field of children's literature, and particularly in the United States, to really diversify the offerings, and not just diversify the offerings on the page, but also diversify the offerings by the creators that they choose to work with.

    So there are far more opportunities now for people like me or people like Jason Reynolds and Jacque Woodson and so on, to publish more of the kinds of books that have deep meaning to us and deep connection to us for a wider audience, while at the same time, we're living in a world where the idea of who is different and who is marginalized is often being more ”othered”. There's more “othering” that's happening out in the wide world, while within the publishing industry, it's getting really very interesting to see the two things happening at the same time.

    But with that said, it's still not quite at the level that I would like to see it. I think publishing still has, and when I say publishing, I'm talking about American publishing because I know that publishing in other parts of the world is different, publishing still has quite a long way to go as far as their inclusivity is concerned. I know that people keep talking about inclusivity and how great it's been getting, and yes, it is certainly miles and miles away from what it was, but it's still not quite where it needs to be.

    There are still quite a lot of creators who are making books about cultures that they don't really know, that they are not really part of, which I find at this point to be so puzzling. When people know that this is what the audience is looking for, that people are willing to–there was, I think there was a time when people thought that if you had black or brown kids on a cover, it wouldn't sell. That's clearly no longer the case. It still kind of puzzles me why it is there aren't more creators of color getting contracts and really getting the big contracts and the big marketing push and that sort of thing.

    It's starting to happen a little bit more. You look at people like, for example, the Rick Riordan imprint at Disney, they have made a very conscious effort to do that, to cultivate creators of color talking about their own mythologies. There are some new imprints, like Salome Rees, for example.

    I can't remember who Salome Rees–who the parent company is right now, but there are a lot of imprints that are like that that are really very specifically looking to cultivate writers of diverse backgrounds writing about their own cultures, and that's really great, but we're still not quite at the level where, I feel like, we would need to be. I think I read an article recently about who the top earners were in children's literature, and they're still mostly white men, which is fine, but it should not be like all white men on a top ten list. Where's the diversity there? That's where I'm thinking is still, we still have quite a long way to go.

    But I have been extremely fortunate in that I have been able to write these stories that are not in the United States. They're not set in the United States, they're really quite alien to an American audience. To bring these kinds of stories here has been really, really lovely for me to be able to share that with kids. And anytime I go to schools, and I do a school visits, it is just a lot of fun to introduce these creatures to little kids, and see their reactions to it, and see them get connected with this culture that I grew up with.

    So for me, it is extremely satisfying to have been able to do this, and to be able to keep doing it, and to be able to make a living doing it. That's an important consideration as well. I'm able to make a living writing these stories, which is not a thing that I think I could have said even maybe 10 years ago. I don't know that it would have happened 10 years ago.

    So, yes, we do have a long way to go, but we've made so many strides forward. It's really great, and I'm super, super excited to see now, especially that there are so many more stories with people from different cultures being able to tell their mythologies. That is extremely exciting to me because I feel like there's so, so much there to explore.

    I grew up on Greek and Roman mythology, and it's really exciting for me to see stories come out of China and Thailand. And it's just, it's wonderful. There so many new books that are coming out in the next couple of years that I'm so excited to get into my own hands, frankly, and then maybe I'll share them with some other children. [laughs] I want to read them for myself.

    Danielle: Yes. I think you raised some really great points about who is allowed to tell X type of story and also raise the questions around publishing and publishers. I think it's really important that we have publishing houses that are not challenged by stories, all kinds of stories, stories that may not represent mainstream perspectives. I also appreciate what you're doing in reminding, I'll say, "mainstream readers" that such stories as Caribbean stories are not so foreign to them. Recently, this summer, there was this kerfuffle over Disney's announcing that its next live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid would feature a young woman named Halle Bailey as The Little Mermaid.

    Tracey: Right, yes.

    Danielle: Yes, Disney wrote that she was really the best person for the role, but Halle Bailey is/was black and an uproar ensued once the announcement had been made. And that was followed by some clap-back by Tracey Baptiste right?

    Tracey: [laughs]

    Danielle: In a New York Times opinion piece entitled Mermaids Have Always Been Black. Tracey, can you tell us a little bit about that opinion piece and what going on? What led you to write it?

    Tracey: So I was actually in the Bahamas when that news broke about Disney and Halle Bailey and what was going on. I did not have good WiFi at the hotel, purposefully. I was on vacation, I was taking a break. I was not really trying to be connected to anything other than me swimming in the ocean for that week, but I kept getting tagged in things.

    And so in the very narrow window of time when I did have WiFi in the evening, I would see all these notifications coming in, but I wasn't sure exactly what the story was. So when I got back home that Saturday was when I was able to really look through and see what the issue was. What was happening was that people were clapping back already, and they would tag my second book Rise of the Jumbies, which of course features black mermaids, as sort of evidence, "Here, we already have this. We're already talking about this. What do you mean you can't have black mermaids? Tracey's already done this."

    So I reached out to my editor and I said, "Why don't we do an opinion piece? I can write up an opinion piece really quickly, and we can try to get it out somewhere." And I think that Monday, they said that The Times wanted to run it. I had, I think, something like three hours to clean it up, to get all of the facts straight and the sources right with the editor of The Times, and we got it out there. The fact is, for me, mermaids have always been black. Growing up in Trinidad, everybody I saw swimming in the ocean were black and brown people.

    My father is the best swimmer I know. He would just strike out on the waves and swim out to the fishing boats, hang out with the fishermen for a few minutes, literally just put his hand on the boat and hang out there to rest his body for a few minutes, and then swim back. I would see him diving underneath the waves and just going for ages. He swims every morning still. He goes in the sea every single morning at like four, five o'clock in the morning for his swim. All the mermaids I know are black and brown people. I didn't know what anybody was talking about.

    I loved The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid is one of my favorite stories. The original Hans Christian Andersen one, which is far more brutal than the Disney version. I also did quite like the Disney version of The Little Mermaid. I am quite a big fan of them, but it was a real surprise to me to think that there could only be one type of mermaid. Then, honestly, too, there's a bit of frustration when you do look up mermaids online, if you search for mermaids, you're more likely to find a mermaid with blue or green skin than one with brown or black skin.

    There is a cultural disconnect there, and you have to think, "Well, they call the world a big blue marble 'cause we're mostly ocean, right? Ocean exists pretty much everywhere on Earth. Why would mermaids only be European?" That does not seem right to me. [laughs]

    So we did have a little bit of fun with that opinion piece, and it did come together very quickly. And the response, it has been really quite good. I actually ran into someone a couple of weeks ago, a teacher who said that she was gonna use the opinion piece in her class, her mythology class that she's doing. So, I'm glad that it has a reach that it has.

    Danielle: Yes, you ended by saying this, "We know there are black mermaids, we have seen them, we have been them. They are walking around right now everywhere, waiting for the sea." That's so lovely and poetic.

    Tracey: It's because I am always walking around looking for the sea. I was talking about myself. [laughs]

    Danielle: Okay, but I can relate. I can absolutely relate.

    Tracey: No, I know! And I think a lot of people can. I really do. I think that–I feel, and I think especially as a Caribbean kid, I feel very, very much connected to the ocean. I always want to be in the water, honestly. I don't know why I don't live near the sea. It's really weird that I don't because I love the ocean so much, and I feel so much better when I go swimming. I always come back out and I'm so much calmer after a swim. For me, it's been obvious that we are of the ocean and we are just waiting to get back in.

    Danielle: Yeah. Now, most of your work focuses or was written for young people.

    Tracey: Yes.

    Danielle: Was that a deliberate decision you made to write for this particular audience?

    Tracey: When I started thinking about being a writer, I did think that I would write for adults. When I moved to the United States when I was 15, I remember reading a book by Rosa Guy called The Friends. It was about a girl who had just moved from Trinidad to New York, like exactly as I had, and the parallels there between what was happening in that book, The Friends, and my life were so striking that I had such a good connection to it that I immediately started thinking that maybe I didn't want to write for adults after all. Maybe I wanted to write for kids, teens.

    And it was at that point, I really started thinking about writing books for younger readers. When I really got started, I thought I would be a picture book writer. Picture books, it turns out are extremely difficult to write. They are perceptive, in that they are short and they are cute, but they are extremely difficult to write. So I was not successful at first trying to write picture books, but I did find that writing for middle-grade audience really worked for me.

    I had that voice, I guess, for preteen, early teen audiences, and I found that I really enjoyed it because then I could go back into who I was at twelve, thirteen, fourteen and just channel that onto the page. And it was so much fun for me that I kind of forgot for a while about writing for older people, for grownups. I really only have a couple of short stories that are for adults.

    Danielle: And you were also a school teacher, no?

    Tracey: Yes, I was, but only second grade, because they're so cute, but they could tie their shoelaces.

    Danielle: [chuckles] Okay. But you don't write for second graders, though, you write for middle school, right?

    Tracey: No, I do have a couple of picture books that are coming out which will be for much younger kids, but that would be more preschool, kindergarten age, maybe first grade aged kids. I am working on a chapter book series, which would be for a first to second-grade audience. That is nowhere close to being finished, not even slightly. So that's not a thing that will happen for a while. [chuckles]

    Danielle: Well, you anticipated my next question, which was, what's next for you?

    Tracey: Oh! Well [chuckles] a few things. I tend to–coming from the Caribbean and being a Catholic schoolgirl, I tend to be a little over-ambitious, which I think is the thing that you probably will be familiar with, coming from the Caribbean.

    Danielle: Thank you, Tracey. [laughs] Calling me out!


    Tracey: I tend to work on several things at a time. Right now, I am doing revision for a nonfiction book about African history before colonialism. That is also for a middle-grade audience, so ages eight and up. And it really, that one is my first–that will be my first trade nonfiction book. All of the other nonfiction books that I've done, really have been for a school and library audience, which is a little bit different than selling for trade. Then I have another novel that I am working on concurrently with that one. Which is going to be, it's another middle-grade fantasy, outside of the scope of the Jumbie series entirely.

    And then, at the beginning of this year, and I don't know if you know this, Danielle, but Chris Lynch, who's one of our faculty at Lesley, one of our writing for young people faculty, asked me to collaborate with him on a young adult novel that's a romance, which is a little bit fantasy in that it plays with the idea of Celtic and Caribbean gods manipulating a young couple for their own means. That is something that Chris and I have been working on since maybe February of this year, just back and forth off and on–

    Danielle: That's fascinating. 

    Tracey: While he's doing other projects and I'm doing other projects. So that's a thing that is also in the works.

    Danielle: A lot, a lot going on, Tracey, for you, which is wonderful. So, Tracey, what moves you in a work of art or of literature?

    Tracey: I think passion is the thing. I feel like the idea that you can be deeply connected to something. And it doesn't have to be–obviously not necessarily like passion for a person, but passion for maybe an idea. Like in the first Jumbies book, the thing that I was very passionate about talking about was colonialism and the idea of having an indigenous group of people, in this case, the Jumbies, be marginalized by a dominant culture. That really is what that book is about.

    The second one, obviously, I really wanted to talk about the transatlantic slave trade and what were the after-effects of that, like how that traumatized people and how it transformed people. I mean the mermaids were literally transformed, but I'm talking about, obviously, a different kind of transformation that the audience can then take away and translate to how they see their own lives or the people around them. And in the third one, the thing that I really wanted to talk about was climate refugees, because we're looking at the climactic changes in the world that are affecting the lives of people and their ability to live in the homes that they love and have grown up in.

    So I feel like in books, the thing that I connect to myself when I'm writing is what is the core passionate thing inside of it that I really want to talk about, but as a reader, that's also the thing that I am very much connected to. When I read a book and I can see the passion that the writer has for that subject, for this thing that they really, really want to say, the thing that they really want to deeply share with me, the reader, that's always the thing that moves me.

    Danielle: Yes, okay. Tracey, we're gonna have to wrap it up. I usually ask folks one final question. Maybe I have two final questions for you. The penultimate question is, this podcast is called Why We Write. So the question is, why do you write? I think you've answered that in a variety of ways, but I thought I'd ask you the question directly. Why do you write, Tracey Baptiste?

    Tracey: I cannot not write, I think. [chuckles] I was always that kid who was telling stories from very, very young, and I feel like I would always be telling a story or always be writing a story, regardless of whether I was published or not. So I can't not do it, and that's why I do it.

    Danielle: Okay. Is there a question you would have liked me to have asked you?

    Tracey: Oh! I did not think about that at all.


    Hmm–I don't know! I think, your questions have been so good and thorough. [laughs] I feel like we've covered quite a lot of ground. I think that maybe the thing I'll circle back to is the first thing when you were talking about work-life balance because I feel like there are a lot of writers who have difficulty with work-life balance. My method of course, with the first set of Jumbies books, was to work in between days. Like whenever I could find time, I called it working in the cracks or whatever. I do get questioned about that a lot from writers about how you manage it and now that I am busy and I'm doing several projects and I travel a lot, how do I manage it? I think the thing that is, that works for me the best is not pressuring myself to write every day. I don't think that is necessary to physically write every day.

    I think that we are, as creators, we are always thinking about story and we have to also allow the subconscious mind to work on stuff while we're working on other things to like just let it do its thing. I've started to tap into that a lot more, like allowing my subconscious to work on saying and just not put pressure on myself. Just know that there are certain things that are going to be worked out behind the scenes while I am doing the other things while I'm running the kids around to their various after-school things. While I am doing the dishes, while I'm making dinner, while I'm doing the groceries, or whatever it is.

    Then I can come back to something and the story will still be there. My mind will have had the opportunity to work on it. I think that's the thing. It's like not putting pressure on myself like undue pressure on myself to create and to always be creating. If I haven't written something down today like I'm a bad writer or whatever it is. No. My brain is still working on stuff. Maybe I didn't physically write anything today and that's okay.

    Danielle: That is a lovely note to end this interview on. Tracey, thank you so much.

    Tracey: Thank you! Thank you so much for this interview, Danielle, that was great. Thank you.

    Announcer: Thank you for listening. For more information on Tracey Baptiste, Danielle Legros Georges, and our creative writing program, go to Lesley.edu/podcast. The link is in the show notes.  

    Next week, we’re talking to Cheryl Tan, author of Sarong Party Girls, an Amazon Best Book of the Month that has been called a modern-day Emma set in the glitzy city of Singapore. Here’s a clip.

    Cheryl Tan: In Singapore, you're barely done with lunch and then you already start talking about where are we going to eat dinner or what we're going to have for dinner. Covering fashion for 10 years, I realized that I had surrounded myself primarily with people who actively avoided eating and food. Somehow that made me really miss my grandmother's food and the food of my aunties and my mom. And it also made me realize that I had never learned how to cook with my aunties and my mom and my grandmothers and so I didn't know how to make the food that I grew up eating.

    I went home and I begged my auntie said, let me into kitchen with them. They were very surprised because they had always tried to teach me how to cook and I refused to do it because I had always seen that as something that my mother, like her mother and her grandmother had to do in order to be a good wife. And when I was growing up, I said, I'm not going to do any of that. I'm not going to do this good wife business. I'm gonna grow up and write books.