(Photo credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis)
Emily Raboteau’s new book Searching For Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, is a deft blend of travelogue, memoir and religious history. Capturing a 10-year odyssey that led the writer to five vastly different countries, the book explores African-Americans’ search for a ‘Promised Land” even as it explores Raboteau’s own quest for a place to belong — a journey she embarked upon that brought revelation, confusion, contradiction and surprise. At one point in her travels, she writes, “My head was messed up.”
The journey ends well for Raboteau, whose book is an engaging and often witty read, placing the reader at her side as she goes on a detective’s search for black folks’ metaphorical and spiritual Zion. Yet it’s also an important work of well-researched cultural anthropology. (The bibliography lists more than 100 sources). Think of it as a companion piece to Isabel Wilkerson’s masterful The Warmth of Other Suns, which chronicles Southern blacks’ migration North for better lives. In Searching For Zion, blacks left their homes for “places in the sun” — adopted foreign lands where they hoped to become more themselves.
Raboteau, who teaches creative writing at City College and is about to give birth to a baby girl, chatted with Bold As Love Magazine about how she came to understand her father, the fiction in memoir, black travel lit and what Zion looks like in her own imagination.
You write in the book, “I inherited my sense of displacement from my father….And truthfully, because he left my family when I was sixteen, my estrangement also had to do with the loss of him.” Did writing Searching For Zion help you become closer to or understand your father more?
I think of the book as being in conversation with my father’s scholarship. He’s a historian whose work focuses on black religious experience, but I’m predominantly a fiction writer. So while my book’s topic, black Zionism, overlaps with his themes, I wrote it in a different mode than he usually reaches for. It has a strong memoir line, meaning I’m a character in the work, seeking a sense of home and belonging alongside the subjects who I interviewed around the world. I was inspired by the final essay in my father’s book, A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious Experience, which treats the murder of his father by a white man in Mississippi under Jim Crow. I find that essay beautifully narrated, intensely personal and innovative in its approach to the larger topics of loss, faith, and forgiveness. My grandfather’s murder is a touchstone in Searching for Zion, as well. It’s hard to make peace with such history (and that history’s reverberations) but I do feel closer to my father for having attempted to do so.
In the world of literary journalism and memoir, there’s much discussion about emotional truth vs. literal accuracy. The writer Kathryn Harrison has said, “a successful truth may incorporate a bit of fiction”. Do you agree? Or did you capture what people said and did as faithfully as you could?
Harrison is right. I would add that fictional dialogue only slightly resembles the way people actually speak. Even invented dialogue that tries to approximate reality, such as David Mamet’s, is a far cry from what you would see transcribed after recording a real conversation. In literary journalism, just as in fiction, writing dialogue involves a great deal of pruning and shaping in order for the reader or audience to be able to make sense of it. Straight journalism does this too, of course. I’m not talking about re-writing the words people say, which is unethical. I’m talking about crafting their words into a larger narrative. For this book I usually recorded conversations by hand or by tape, then carefully picked out the lines and sections from the transcript that worked for the story, taking care not to manipulate my subjects’ meaning. Sometimes I chose not to record a conversation if it would have made my subject uncomfortable, unforthcoming or awkward. In those cases, I reconstructed the conversation from memory as soon as possible after it transpired. I wrote that dialogue as faithfully as I could, but was it literally accurate? Heck no. I wish I had Truman Capote’s total recall but I just don’t.
What surprised you the most by the time you were done writing this book?
I hoped and expected that the book would appeal to a black readership and have been happily surprised by how many Jewish readers are interested.
Of the black communities you encountered across five countries, which would you say came closest to finding the Promise Land they’d sought?
None of them found exactly what they dreamed. The Rastas in Ethiopia found their messiah, Emperor Haile Selassie, deposed, and much of the land he granted them repossessed by the socialist revolution that unseated him. It was hard for them to learn the language, acquire business permits, and find kinship with the locals who don’t understand their religion. The black ex-pats in Ghana often found that Ghanaians looked upon them as rich American tourists rather than long lost brothers and sisters. The African Hebrew Israelites found that the State of Israel didn’t recognize them as Jews. Still, many of the people I interviewed felt freer in the new place than in the old one. Those who seemed happiest to me had integrated by shedding their expectations and immersing themselves in local culture, by opening their ears and eyes.
In some ways, your book seems to be in conversation with other “journey” stories recently published by young black women, specifically Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ Harlem Is Nowhere and Catherine McKinley’s Indigo. What distinguishes these journey stories by contemporary black women writers like yourselves, as compared to black writers of the past (Zora Neale Hurston, for instance)?
Bless your heart for calling us young! I’m lucky to count Cathy and Sharifa as friends. The three of us did a reading together last year in Brooklyn at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts where some of the similarities in our work were apparent – namely a mutual interest in exploring cultural and spiritual production in black places. I don’t see distinctions with past sojourners as much as parallels. Our work can be read as part of a larger body of black travel literature by writers including W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, (as you mention) Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Henry Louis Gates and Caryl Phillips. It’s no accident that many of us trod the same territory. Much of this work aims to reckon with history, to explore lands of promise (for relocation or escape), to examine the survival and transformation of African customs, or to broaden the reader’s individual and collective sense of identity and liberation.
You’ve said that in the African diaspora Zion is more often a metaphor for liberation rather than a physical place, but if Zion could magically become a physical place, what does it look like in your imagination?
The cherry blossom festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Antarctica, or Jerusalem without the strife.
Have you begun a new work? If so, can you give us a glimpse into what it’s about?
Yes, two projects—one fiction, one nonfiction. I’m completing a novel about a shipbuilder and his autistic son and preparing a trip to Cuba in hopes of writing a profile of Assata Shakur.