This month, Simon & Schuster releases Lori Aurelia Williams's debut novel, When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune. In this book, Williams writes about difficult issues, such as poverty and abuse, delicately balancing compassion and sensitivity with realism. BookPage had the opportunity to ask Williams about the world of Kambia Elaine, and why this particular piece was her chosen path for her debut as a novelist.
What prompted you to write When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune?
My siblings and I didn't know what child abuse was, but we experienced it. We lived in constant fear of my father's rages and of the beatings that he gave my mother and us. . . . As I grew older I learned that there were other children in my community who lived every day with either physical or mental abuse, abused by the people who were supposed to love and protect them. Like my siblings and I, they never gave voice to their pain. I wrote Kambia Elaine to give those children a voice.
Is Shayla modeled after a specific person in your life?
I suppose that a small part of Shayla is modeled after me. Like Shayla I was a little fat girl. I was shunned by my peers. But Shayla has something that I never had at her age; she has vision and drive. She wants to be a successful writer, and she's already laying the foundation for it. I could never have done that at her age. I was also never as innocent as Shayla. My mother talked about sex freely with my two sisters and me. To answer the question, I would have to say that Shayla is modeled after the child that I would liked to have been at her age.
Tia is obviously very aware of appearances. Why did you chose to have her fall in love with someone like Doo-witty?
Tia is greatly aware of appearances, but she is also aware of her life, and her mother's life. She is aware that her mother has made mistake after mistake looking for love in the Anderson Foxes of the world, the handsome slick-talking players, who steal your grocery money along with your heart. [Tia] chooses a man that wants nothing from her but her love, and that is exactly what she gives him in return.
Grandma Augustine is one complex lady. Did you find it difficult to successfully mingle her superstition with religion? If not Grandma Augustine, which character was the most difficult to develop?
Mingling Grandma's Christianity and superstition was easy. I grew up in a household where religion and superstition sat at the same dining room table. My mother was a deeply religious woman, but she was also very superstitious. She was the kind of woman that saw spirits, believed that there were potions that could cast or remove spells, and thought that some folks were literally full of the Devil and so did my father. He believed in voodoo, and slept with knife and fork crossed underneath his pillow each night because it was supposed to keep nightmares away. The character of Mr. Anderson Fox was the hardest for me to write. I usually leave the father figure out of my stories because I didn't have a good role model for a father growing up and didn't know anyone who did. I didn't want him to be the father from hell; I just wanted him to be a guy you couldn't depend on. It was hard for me to come up with a way to make him into a character that you could hate and love at the same time.
You never resolve the matter of whether Kambia's mother is truly her mother. Is this intentional? Does it make a difference?
It's true. I never really resolve the matter of whether or not Kambia's mother is actually her mother. I left the question open because I didn't think that it mattered all that much. I wanted Kambia to be anybody's and everybody's child. I wanted the abuse itself to be important, not the abusers. It really doesn't matter who hurt Kambia. All that matters is that she was hurt, and that the abuse took place in a very close community where all of the people knew what her mother was, and yet not one person bothered to see if what was going on in her house was affecting her in any way.
Is Shayla's innocence lost?
I don't think that Shayla's innocence is completely lost. Through her experience with Kambia she has had to make some very mature decisions, and has been forced to learn something about sex that she didn't want to know. I don't think that Shayla really fully knows or wants to understand what those words mean. The only thing that Shayla wants is to keep Kambia safe. I think that by the end of the book, a part of Shayla still remains innocent either by choice or necessity. She's not yet ready for the reality of Kambia's world.
Considering Kambia's age, her stories are very childish, almost fantastic. Why would she not adapt her stories as she grew older? Is this typical of abuse victims?
I can't tell you what is typical of abuse victims because I think most abuse victims deal with the trauma in their life in their own unique way. I can only tell you that yes, Kambia's stories are childish. She hasn't grown or matured like the rest of the girls her age. In order to break out and become like the other girls her age she would have to let go of the fantasies and accept the horrible things that are happening in her life. She's too afraid to do that. Her stories can't adapt because she can't adapt.
What's next for you?
I just finished the first draft of a second Shayla and Kambia book. It will introduce the reader to some new characters and fill in some of the blanks left empty in the first book. After that, who knows what God will grant me the wisdom to write.