To live a life of a writer can be an adventurous, brave, scary and rewarding decision. It comes with a territory that can only be explained through the personal journey of the writer themselves. Emily Raboteau is an extraordinary writer. In her new book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, the memoir takes the reader with her as she travels through Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana and to the Deep South as she searches for her own promise land of belonging. As an award winning writer and professor at the City College of New York in Harlem, Raboteau was kind enough to share some insight about her writing, new critically acclaimed book, and tips for those who would like to pick up the pen.
1. Can your share your writing journey?
My new book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, is part travelogue, part memoir, part cultural investigation, and part history book. It’s about black folks who’ve left home out of feelings of displacement, to find the “Promised Land” elsewhere. My previous book is a semi-autobiographical novel called The Professor’s Daughter. I like that you ask about my “writing journey” because, for me, writing and reading have always been the engine for travel. Whether that’s from my armchair through the pages of a good book that transports me somewhere else, or through an assignment that sends me to a distant locale to conduct research, I love nothing more than traveling out of my element.
2. What was the motivation behind Searching for Zion?
I was interested in exploring utopian communities that had been inspired by the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible to journey to Zion. That interest sprung from the scholarship of my father, Albert Raboteau, a historian specializing in African-American religion, and also from Negro spirituals and reggae music about Zion. I grew up understanding Zion as a metaphor for freedom and I wanted to know whether or not people who attempted to get to that place felt they’d found it. I interviewed subjects in Israel, Ghana, Ethiopia, Jamaica, and across the southern United States. The biggest challenge in all my wandering was that I kept running out of money. The biggest triumph was getting to go to some amazing far-flung places where I got to talk with some amazing far-out people.
3. What do you want readers to take away from Searching for Zion?
One man’s Zion is another man’s Egypt. We may think we’re in Zion, but if our neighbor on the other side of the fence isn’t there with us, then we’re deluding ourselves.
4. What does identity and faith mean to you?
It has more to do with a person’s actions than anything else. Identity is something we perform. For example, I can only claim to be a writer if I’m actually writing. With faith, same thing, faith has meaning only when we act upon it. I used to think Zion was a geographical place – a more perfect or Godly place. Then I learned that the Promised Land, at least the one Martin Luther King spoke of, was not an actual country. It was an ideal striving for human relationships. I started my journey asking, “Where do I belong?” But that was the wrong question. I should have been asking, “What can I do for other people?” It took me a lot of years to understand that. I can’t call this wisdom if I don’t act upon it daily—that is, if I don’t try to enter Zion every single day.
5. Can you share your experience growing up bi-racial and how it impacts your writing and choice of subjects?
I think it helped give me the requisite outsider consciousness to become a writer. I wasn’t black, I wasn’t white. I became an observer. Belonging (or not-belonging) to a given community is a chronic theme in my writing.
6. What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?
– I loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun because it taught me about the Biafran War.
-Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood because it taught me about politics in Kenya.
-Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower because it taught me about philosophy in 18th century Germany. All three of these books were masterfully detailed and plotted with suspense. My favorite authors are Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, W.G. Sebald, Bessie Head and Jamaica Kincaid.
7. What is your writing process like?
I try my best to make a daily habit of it, in order to make steady progress. Talking about, planning on, and dreaming of writing are not the same as actually doing it.
8. Do you have advice for people who would like to write?
1. If you write the story that really matters to you, it’s likely that it will matter to other people.
2. Park your butt in the chair and just do it, even though you’d rather procrastinate by cleaning out the inside of your microwave because you’re scared you might fail.
3. Writing is re-writing.
9. As a professor, what do you know for sure that your students will have as takeaways?
I hope I’m successful at teaching my undergraduate students what clichés are and how to avoid them. I hope my graduate students leave my classroom understanding that writing is a vocation and that if they’re crazy enough to expect to make a career out of it, then they better work hard at it every day, the same way a professional wrestler would spend her days lifting weights at the gym.
10. Any New projects coming up?
I recently traveled to Antarctica to conduct research for my next novel, Endurance. The main character is a marine engineer who designs propulsion systems for ice-breakers, so I needed to voyage on such a ship in order to understand his job. I’ve never seen so many shades of blue as I did in an iceberg graveyard.
11. What is your favorite quote?
“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine of Hippo
Peace and blessings,