Alicia D. Williams on Genesis Begins Again

The author and teacher talks about her debut novel, a sensitive yet honest look at a girl grappling with colorism, internalized self-hatred, and parents she can't always count on.

Alicia D. Williams author photo
Photo by Jasiatic Photography

In her debut novel, Genesis Begins Again (S. & S., Jan. 2019; Gr 5-8), Alicia D. Williams crafts “a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a girl grappling with hard truths,” in which she explores colorism, being the new kid, and feeling more responsible than one’s parents. Thirteen-year-old Genesis is embarrassed by her dark skin, her natural hair, and how her dad disappears into drinking and gambling whenever money comes in. She just wants to belong—even if that means perming her hair and taking lemon juice baths to lighten her skin. An elementary school teacher with expertise in arts integration, Williams takes on a tough topic in this vibrant tale of a young girl finding strength in music, friendship, honesty, and self-confidence. SLJ recently caught up with the author to talk about her process and inspirations.

 

Genesis Begins Again is your debut, and it's making quite a splash! Please describe your writing process.

Haha, my writing process is still a process. Genesis was started in grad school as a big blob of thoughts without a plot. I literally had no idea where the story was going. It was initially about a girl dealing with bullies and challenges at home. My advisor would ask questions about the text and even shared what she got from a scene. Some comments would be spot-on, some would suggest I needed to analyze deeper, while others would offer a light bulb moment. After grad school, I had to figure out my process on my own. I posted big sheets of paper on my wall, wrote down each scene, the characters, and the setting. I’d include the emotional context, questions raised, and questions answered. But that approach didn’t work when I started the next project. With that one, I created mind maps, outlines, a time line in various notebooks, watched documentaries, and I read, read, read.

Genesis Begins Again book coverYour novel centers on 13-year-old Genesis and the effects of colorism on her life as a young, dark-skinned Black girl in America. How would you explain the concept of colorism to a young person who is unfamiliar with it?

In a lot of ways, I think children of color already have a strong sense of what colorism is. For example, there was a doll test done back in the 1940s by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark. In the experiment, they had two baby dolls—one white and one Black—and asked young African American children questions like, “Which is the pretty baby?” and “Which is the ugly one?” Bias tests have been performed continually since then with dolls ranging from light- to dark-[skinned] asking, “Which is the bad doll? Which is the good?” Children often associate light and white with pretty or good, and dark with mean, bad, or ugly. I’ve witnessed this bias in kindergarten classes. Whether kids unconsciously learn this through marketing and advertising, or hear it within the home, many sense colorism. But how would I explain it? Honestly and simply: colorism is when people are treated differently and unfairly based on the darkness of their skin.

Your book tackles a number of serious topics alongside colorism, including alcoholism, financial insecurity, internalized self-hatred, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. What made you decide to write a book with these themes for middle grade readers?

Wow, when you put it that way, there are a lot of them! Truthfully, I can’t say I intentionally set out to write a book with these particular issues. It happened organically as I developed the characters. As a kid, I experienced or was exposed to all of these (except obsessive-compulsive disorder) and then some. And I internalized them; I carried this guilt and shame from my parent’s choices. I blamed myself. Eventually, I became the parent in some situations, like Genesis, by trying to fix the problems. As kids, we think we’re the only one going through multiple struggles at once. And truth is, young people grapple with so much more than adults care to admit. So when these issues arose in Genesis, I kept what was true to the story simply because I wanted to help heal someone. I wanted a young person to see themselves and know they are not alone. They don’t have to carry that shame—yes, there is hope, and no, these problems are not their fault.

As a teacher and an author, how have your classroom experiences informed your writing?

Influence comes from so many different corners in the classroom. I’ve even been inspired by after-school conversations with peers. While working on Genesis, I was a teaching assistant in kindergarten. During circle time, I took note of how children viewed themselves and their world. At the beginning of every year, we’d notice the children of color, regardless of ethnicity, would never choose a brown or dark skin tone crayon from the multicultural crayon selection. Or they would lightly, barely shade in their faces. I explored the why in my story. When observing or interacting with students, I’m constantly wondering what life is like for them—at school, at home, or out and about. All of these different discoveries are filed in my mental Rolodex to be used as needed.

I really appreciated the nuanced portrayal of adults in this novel. While Genesis's family cares for her, they are imperfect and sometimes let her down. What was your thought process behind the development of these family dynamics?

Everyone has a backstory, and that backstory has a backstory. There are so many layers to who you are. You carry your own experiences and judgments, but you also carry them from your parents, your grandparents, and even great grands. History for this family goes back to slavery and how dark-skinned enslaved people were pitted against light. It’s not beautiful or one to be proud of, but it is a truth. Troy’s story is based off of this “we made it” type of belief and “we have to be ‘better than’ and articulate and intellectual because we are the Talented Tenth.” I’ve often wondered where I would’ve been if I had, say, two parents who graduated from college or ones who could afford to encourage my every dream instead of focusing on reality and struggle. Would I have been in a better place? Would I have reached my goals or even had grander goals? Then I took it a step further—where would my parents have been if their starting place was one of success or prosperity? This whole thought process made me examine Genesis’s family more deeply.

Over the course of the book, readers discover that Genesis isn't the only one with secrets and insecurities. How important was it to you that her friends and classmates were complex characters?

Crafting well-rounded figures was something that was taught to me in grad school. As readers, we crave for characters to be real, to exist. We want to know them, root for them, and have empathy and compassion. It’s my goal to always humanize my characters. So many of us have been taught to look at others as different, but the more well-rounded the character, the more we break down that wall and recognize the similarities.

Music plays a large role in Genesis's journey to finding her voice both on- and offstage; she finds guidance in some musical legends like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Tell us a little more about this aspect of the plot.

I kind of snuck my own desires into Genesis. I’ve always wanted to sing, for real. Growing up, I sang in the church choir and led 2.5 songs because no one dared to sit me down and tell me how awful I was. So Genesis sang for me. But really, singing was part of this fear she had to overcome, which also echoed the theme of her finding her voice. Singing is brave. Singing is freedom. For the story, I knew that I couldn’t rely on a lot of popular songs. What has lasted the test of time? The greats. And when I acknowledged this truth, I freaked out. Kids won’t know these singers; plus, it’ll make the story feel outdated, I thought. Still, I went with it. And it felt natural to provide the backstory of these legends. I remember watching Lady Sings the Blues as a kid, and that movie never left me. I always wondered about the root of Ms. Holiday’s suffering. If Genesis could wonder, too, then perhaps she’d find answers and make connections. And if she modeled this type of questioning, then perhaps my readers would question, too, and find similarities with people and their stories. It all plays into my secret plot of breaking down barriers: understand the heart of a person to better understand yourself.

How would you approach teaching your book in a classroom? If you assigned your book as class reading, what would you hope students would glean from it?

I’m a history teacher, so I’d take a closer look at the historical context of colorism during slavery, the idea of the “brown bag test,” and the effects of colorism today. During our Harlem Renaissance unit, I’d love to infuse an arts-integrated approach. The orchestra exercise that Mrs. Hill does in the book? Yeah, that’s what I did, too. Students can create a soundtrack of their lives using the music from this time period and the musicians in the book. Like Mrs. Hill, we can study Romare Bearden and create an identity collage comparing ourselves to a character in Genesis. I’d build a unit for students to creatively explore a theme that they strongly related to. I’d even lead them through improvisation games to help them make personal connections.

What's next for you on the writing front?

I’m really excited about my Zora Neale Hurston picture book biography, Jump at de Sun (coming out spring 2021). I am a huge fan of her storytelling style; plus I love folktales.

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