Between Friends: Emily Raboteau and Chastity Whitaker

Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora BY Emily Raboteau. Atlantic Monthly Press. Hardcover, 320 pages. $25.

As I’m reading my godson, Geronimo, his favorite book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I look above my bi-focals across a cozy apartment decorated with artwork collected from all around the globe. There, in the kitchen, stands the toddler’s barefoot mother, Emily Raboteau. Her second child is on its way. I can’t help but laugh at the image: pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen. This woman is one of my best friends. As roommates during graduate school at NYU, I’d sit on my side of the run-down apartment smoking cigarettes out the window, pacing and cussing a blank computer screen, while she’d be pecking away on the brick of her outdated laptop and steadily publishing portions of what would become her acclaimed first novel, The Professor’s Daughter (Henry Holt, 2005).

Emily’s second book, Searching for Zion (Grove/Atlantic) has just been released, two months before her baby is due. The new book has landed on The Huffington Post’s list of Best Books of 2013 and Dave Eggers calls it “one of the most important books of nonfiction you’ll read this year.” Its author sits at the kitchen table working on the new laptop she recently allowed herself to splurge on. I wonder, in all of her worldly adventures, in all her latest critical successes with both raising her first child and pushing out Searching for Zion what the hell she’s cooking up now.

Chastity Whitaker: Wow. You finally got a new computer! It’s nice.

Emily Raboteau: It is nice. It weighs the same as a box of crackers. Why’d I wait so long?

Chastity Whitaker: Because you’re cheap, honey.

Emily Raboteau: I prefer the term “thrifty.”

Chastity Whitaker: Do you remember after you sold your first book, how I made you buy all new panties?

Emily Raboteau: No.

Chastity Whitaker: Well I did. You had seven pairs, one for each day of the week, half had holes in them and you had to do laundry every Sunday just so you didn’t run out.

Emily Raboteau: I thought you were here to talk about my book, not my dirty drawers.

Chastity Whitaker: Alrighty then. Down to business. Until Geronimo was born, my nickname for you was “Kitten.” I called you that for your playful nature and curiosity about inane things that you found beautiful, but also due to your surprisingly sharp claws in both personal banter and in your fiction. In Searching for Zion, your playfulness shines throughout, but you ventured to some pretty dangerous places where most tourists wouldn’t travel on a triple dare. Your family and I worried about you a lot. Where most did you feel you had to truly extend those sharp claws to stay safe?

Emily Raboteau: In Ethiopia I had to evade some hyenas and I also had to knee a guy in the nutsack to keep him from robbing the last of my money. En route to Israel, I had to endure a body-cavity search. In Jamaica I was mugged. In Brooklyn, after 9/11, I had to accept that I was outmatched when a drunken asshole bloodied my head with a beer bottle. In the last two incidents I’d been mistaken for an Arab. But none of those situations were all that bad.

Chastity Whitaker: OK badass, but wasn’t there a time you felt afraid?

Emily Raboteau: Yes. In Haifa during Israel’s war with Lebanon in 2006. Haifa’s a northern city, right on the border of Lebanon. I’d gone to visit an absorption center where Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia were being housed, to ask about their journey to Zion and the quality of their citizenship. Everyone else in the city with the means to leave had left because it just wasn’t safe there. When a katyusha rocket landed across the street, I almost shit my pants.

Chastity Whitaker: [Laughs.] Well, good thing you had more than seven pairs of underwear on you. Your research and storytelling in this book are simply astounding, if not truly intimidating. The book took ten years to write, and it spans continents and countries in exploring the theme of “black Zionism.” How did you organize your research in order to craft the book? What was your daily process?

Emily Raboteau: I’m going to be honest. I didn’t spend ten years writing this book. Anyone who tells you they spent ten years writing their book is probably lying. I spent a lot of years traveling and gathering information, processing it, filing it, reading other books on the subject of black Zionism, taking notes, crafting a book proposal, (which in itself is a business document, not a piece of literature), teaching, picking lint out of my belly-button, falling in love, and procrastinating by screwing around on the internet and watching reality TV. Then I spent a rather brief and furious fit of time writing the thing in a nearly crippling state of self-doubt while pregnant and immediately after Geronimo was born. The book was overdue by exactly nine months and I was motivated by the fear that my publisher would demand I pay back my advance, which had long since been spent on travel.

Chastity Whitaker: Searching for Zion is classified as creative non-fiction. It’s certainly a travelogue and a work of cultural criticism, but it’s also a memoir, and often reads like a novel. Where did you draw the line between fact and fiction in your craft?

Emily Raboteau: If I didn’t know better, my friend, I’d think you were asking me if I made this stuff up.

Chastity Whitaker: God, no. What I’m asking is: in documenting your research in the poetic way you do, did ever you feel an ethical responsibility to stop yourself from inventing?

Emily Raboteau: Creative nonfiction involves a lot of tricks we use in fiction. Take dialogue, for example. I didn’t record interviews with all of my subjects. In some cases it would have made for a more awkward or less honest conversation to pull out my tape-recorder or take notes by hand. That meant I had to reconstruct and condense some of the dialogue. I re-wrote it from memory as soon after the conversation as I could. Also, I manipulated time in service of the story.

Chastity Whitaker: As a white southern woman, I don’t get it, this exodus, this diasporic drive to find the Promised Land outside of America. Baldwin’s expat urge to relocate to Paris, I get. But come on, that was Paris. Why would someone move to Ethiopia, for example? Or Ghana? To emigrate from the first world to the third world seems like the choice to suffer.

Emily Raboteau: You’re presuming first-class citizenship here. My subjects were second-class citizens whose ancestors were forced to come here in bondage, rather than first class citizens whose ancestors came here freely to find fortune. (I should add here that there are a lot of poor white southerners without first class citizenship, though they may not have the same impulse to leave America.) I asked an African Hebrew Israelite who now lives near a nuclear reactor in the Negev desert if he really thought he’d arrived in the Promised Land. Do you know what he told me? “I was born into a Detroit ghetto. If I wasn’t here, I would be dead.” I believe he was right. Or if not dead, statistics tell us he’d likely be in the prison system. A Rasta in Kingston, Jamaica said something similar. “You tourists look upon Jamaica as a paradise. But for us, it’s just a prison sentence we’re living out before we can go back home.” For him, home was Africa, the place history ripped his forbears from.

Chastity Whitaker: After the deluge of Hurricane Katrina your cousin and her large family were transplanted to the outskirts of Atlanta—to a larger house with actual yards, with all new furniture and a huge kitchen to cook up her mean-ass jambalaya. And even though her children had so many more opportunities in that cosmopolitan area as opposed to Mississippi, I saw her tears. Even though it was under a good fifteen-feet of shit and the muck, she still missed Bay St. Louis, her old home and the hurricane’s ground zero on the Mississippi coast. Despite the ugly history of this country and its continuing failure to treat its citizens equally, I see Bay St. Louis in your father’s eyes as well. How in your search for faith, truth and belonging can you best explain this longing for the land?

Emily Raboteau: I think you’re talking about different things, though they’re connected. The first is the impulse to buy or own property, which has historically been a means to enter the middle class. That ownership affords a sense of fiscal security, or is supposed to. This is what Reverend Creflo Dollar talks about in his prosperity gospel sermons, along with the imperative to get out of debt. The second is a desire for homeland, which can be expressed as a spiritual as well as a nationalist longing, a feeling or sense of belonging to a place and a people. This is what Zionists describe, what the Back-to-Africa movements draw from. The third is a connection to a hometown or family seat, the place you “come from.” This is what my father and my cousin Tracy miss about Bay St. Louis. My friend, the writer Sharifa Rhodes Pitts, has a brilliant line in her book Harlem is Nowhere, that describes the confounding relationship of black Americans to Harlem in particular, and the country at large: “This is our land that we do not own.” I can’t put it better than that and won’t try.

Chastity Whitaker: I accompanied you to Atlanta for the portion of your journey exploring Reverend Creflo Dollar and the prosperity gospel. Although I understand you were looking to make a case that Zion is now a metaphor for capital rather than freedom in the post-civil rights era black church, I find it strange that you omitted a big piece of the sermon we heard in Dollar’s church on Easter Sunday. Not only did the bouncers tell me I couldn’t smoke or chew my Nicorette gum on the grounds, but on the very day of Christ’s supposed Resurrection, the focus of Dollar’s sermon was to chastise the hoes in his congregation. And he did say hoes. It was mainly directed against women. Yet you treated his church with a great deal of compassion in your book. How could you drop five bucks into Creflo Dollar’s collection plate? I gave the plate a penny and you looked at me like I was crazy.

Emily Raboteau: I’m sorry if I gave you the stinkeye! It wasn’t a plate, though, remember? It was a bucket. And those buckets were full because the man was entertaining. He was selling hope. A wise woman in Ghana told me this: “He who sells hope is in business. Lotto, church, or president.” She was speaking about Obama, but she may as well have been speaking about Creflo Dollar. His message is that God wants his children to prosper, rather than suffer, in the land that they helped build. It’s a refreshing message for a congregation that may previously have been indoctrinated to believe Zion was to be attained only after they died. The woman-bashing deserves its own separate disquisition and makes me very, very sad, especially because it’s so typical. What is it Janie’s grandmother tells her in Their Eyes Were Watching God about women being the mules of the world? That was published 75 years ago but it’s as true today as it ever was.

Chastity Whitaker: During the writing and editing of Searching for Zion, you and your husband made a pretty daunting voyage to Antarctica. Did that trip have any influence on Searching for Zion?

Emily Raboteau: Not directly. We took that trip because a main character in my next novel, Endurance, is a marine engineer who designs propulsion systems for ice-breakers, so I needed to voyage on that kind of ship in order to understand his work. But I will say this: Once you make it through the Drake Passage, which is the most violent stretch of ocean on the planet because of the confluence of currents, so long as the seasickness doesn’t kill you, you realize you can endure just about anything. The waves are thirty-five feet high, and it takes days to pass through to terra incognita. That was hard. I wanted to die and sometimes thought I was dead already. By comparison, bombs in Haifa, hyenas in Ethiopia, racists in Brooklyn, childbirth—piece of cake.

Chastity Whitaker: Having matured from my “Kitten” to a “Mama-Cat,” do you have any advice for pregnant women or outright mothers out there who wish to write but find the balance challenging?

Emily Raboteau: Learn to give up sleep. Take advantage of your baby’s naptime. If you can manage it, pay someone else to mother your child for at least a few hours a week. Make small goals you can realistically accomplish, and a regular writing schedule, even if it’s only a half-hour a day. Don’t be precious about crafting sentences. You can add a wash of beauty after you just get the story’s bones down. I wrote the bulk of this book while pregnant and during the summer after I gave birth, by writing for two hours a day, between breast-feedings, while my husband watched the baby.

Chastity Whitaker: At present where is your personal Zion?

Emily Raboteau: I don’t believe in fairy tale endings, but I do feel at home now in New York City, in my marriage, here in my nest with my growing family.

Chastity Whitaker: In the book, feeling your pregnant belly, you say, “I felt now what I’d known from the beginning. Zion is within. I understood that I would forget this fact and, as with love, or faith, have to learn it again.” Care to elaborate?

Emily Raboteau: I was very reluctant to end my book on the note of, “then I got married and had a baby and bought an apartment and lived happily ever after,” because life doesn’t work that way, and I was attempting to write beyond myself by focusing predominantly on the journeys of others. But after all those years of wandering, looking for Zion on a map, I came to see that I was going about my quest naively and haphazardly, if not hazardously. Zion isn’t a geographical place, but a metaphor. Martin Luther King wasn’t talking about a country when he talked about the Promised Land. He was talking about an ideal striving for human relationships. We may think we’ve arrived in Zion, but unless those around us are also there, we’re deluding ourselves. It’s a place we should struggle to enter, daily, and mindfully so. Oh, stop rolling your eyes. I know damn well I sound like a greeting card. But it’s true.

Chastity Whitaker: As I watch you in the kitchen where you often write, what’s next? What are you cooking up now?

Emily Raboteau: Aside from my daughter, who I can’t wait to meet, I’m trying to cook up a hard-hitting, in-depth profile of former Black Panther, and Black Liberation Army member, Assata Shakur, who’s wanted by the FBI and living in Cuba with a million dollar bounty on her head. She broke out of prison after being convicted of murdering a state trooper. I received a grant from the university where I teach to go to Havana and talk to the woman about some of the themes we’ve been discussing, namely the complicated relationship of black America to “home” and citizenship. It turns out that wanted persons are not so easy to reach via email. I’ll probably just go down to Cuba and hope I can find her.