A conversation with essayist Morowa Yejidé about her new book, Creatures of Passage

By Zach Powers

DC-based author Morowa Yejidé joined The Writer’s Center for a chat about her forthcoming novel, the craft of writing, and the inspiration of our city.

ZP: My favorite literary genre (using that term loosely) is the fantastical. What draws you to imagined and magical places?

MY: DC is a place where people live out their lives, where all kinds of forces are at play. I wanted to write a story about the unseen Washington. I think DC is a landscape like no other because it is a place where the terror and wonder of life exist side by side, where hidden realities lay just below glittering myth—the perfect conditions for the fantastical. Creatures of Passage depicts the paradox of DC with both real and imagined places. With real places, the magic is in how DC is experienced or perceived (the city quadrants, rivers, and bridges). With imagined places in the book, the magic is in how DC is experienced through the mythology of that setting—as in the Isle of Blood and Desire (Anacostia) or the scrap yard.

My family came to Washington, DC, from the South at the turn of the twentieth century. I imagine the leaps of faith taken, the great triumphs, and the losses suffered. My grandmother was among the first female cab drivers in the city, one of three. The early seeds of what became Creatures of Passage grew out of wondering about the people who got into her car, the stories attached to the places she took them, and the kind of fortitude it must have taken for her to drive through the adversities she endured. The interior of the car in the book is the ultimate imagined “place”—a motif for the mystery of people traveling from one place to another, moving from one generation to another.

I was struck by how well you deploy various methods of characterization. In the first chapter we learn so much about Nephthys from the physical space of her apartment. In the second chapter there’s a paragraph that describes typical reactions people have to Amber. Is this indirect characterization something you strive for?

I think layering a story with multiple views of a character, dropped in bit by bit as we move through the book, adds a kind of richness and mimics how people are often viewed through the eyes of others. It can also have a kinetic feel as the reader realizes something about the character from another character’s point of view that then shifts, but deepens, how they look at that character’s actions/ purpose. I love to use physical spaces to cue a character’s internal world and state of mind—like in the case of Nephthys in her cluttered apartment “lair” or Amber in her house “at the bottom of the hill at the edge of the world.”

You’ve got a deep-diving third person omniscient narrator. Why did you want access to all these characters’ thoughts as you wrote?

I’ve always loved the omniscient point of view because to me it is just one more landscape alongside setting and time to be used to paint the picture of the story. Omniscient can feel unlimited and I love that sense of freedom. I use it as a tool to deliver a view into the mind in doses, in freeze-frame revelations dropped into the mix of the happenings at a given point in the story. A character’s thought at a moment in time within a situation can add marvelous layering to what drives or holds back that character as the story moves. So the character’s thought is a kind of lens that I use to scope in and out—where I invite the reader to know something that the character knows or to bear witness to what the character doesn’t yet realize. I think it heightens the mystery and drama of the storytelling and adds depth to how that character processes a situation and looks out at the world.

How do the different points of view interact? Are there any deliberate steps you took during writing or revision to make sure different chapters spoke to or against each other?

The concepts I built that drive the story help me set the rules of engagement in how the characters interact. Each chapter that frames a character is conceptually driven, and I can therefore move them around in my mind to set them against each other or create symmetry between them. For instance, the watery blue realm of Nephthys in her car is set against the fiery red realm of her brother. I like my stories to read like a hologram—where depending on how the reader “turns” there are complementary or opposing scenes, tones, and themes. Similarly, the chapter circumstance is the looking glass through which a character sees and experiences the happenings in the book (murder, molestation, searching, running, reconnecting, discovery). But I use the conceptual themes of the story and the various character arcs as my compass for how the storytelling is constructed and what drives each plot line to its end.

How do you maintain such a consistent tone throughout? When did the tone form in the writing process?

I usually set the tone of a story from the onset of the concepts that inspire me to write the story. I am very image driven in my storytelling. In Creatures of Passage, the color spectrum was also part of the tone—with varying shades of blue being the predominant because our story’s heroine is a cab driver of sorts, ferrying people around the “waters” of life. Language can be a tremendous aid in setting tone. For example, the “symbiotic language of twins” in the book is the Gullah language of the Sea Islands of Georgia and Carolinas where two of the characters come from. I also used a specific taxonomy to invoke tone and connotation throughout, where the White House is described as the “Acropolis,” the country as “the territories,” and the surrounding states and counties are “kingdoms and fiefdoms.”

What makes good writing about trauma? All the characters are living through and/or inflicting trauma, ranging from the everyday to violent. As a writer, how do you craft scenes of trauma that explore but don’t exploit these occurrences?

I think with writing trauma, the author has to decide when the eye stares, blinks, or turns away. I have found that adding trauma in specific places and cutting the trauma scene off at a very precise moment or “fading to black” can heighten the effect when read because the reader then fills in the rest of the “happening” with his/her own imagination based on the clues they’ve already been given. At the same time, I chose specific chapter scenes where the unblinking eye is trained on what the act conveys within the larger context of the characters’ lives and the story. To me, that mix between the said and unsaid, shown and not shown, is where the reader bears witness to trauma with more layers and nuance—which can actually “feel” even more ominous and terrible, and perhaps give deeper understanding to the scope of the trauma and what it means within the story.

Finally, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone working on their first novel?

As you write that novel, realize that there is no “writing life.” There’s just your life and how writing fits into it. There’s only your story and how you tell it. Hammering at your book may not be easy but realize it’s worth the fight because only you can make it the story it’s meant to be. And that means you’ve got to be willing to climb that mountain when you sit down to write. Every word. Every day.

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