Hello friends and welcome to Color the Shelves!
Today’s post is one that means a LOT to me, not only because it packs a lot of meat and we are being fed (mayhaps I’m hungry) since we have BOTH an excerpt and an interview. But the real reason it means a lot to me is because I had the honor to interview Roseanne, an African author who wrote a West African inspired fantasy (Morocco included heh, because we’re at the northern most part of the west) talking about her experiences writing said book. Said book is A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN which sounds absolutely brilliant. And said experiences resonated deeply withing my soul and made me want to read the book even more. Now, I will stop talking, because you’re not here for me, and leave you with the excerpt first and the interview after that.
The Dancing Seal was one of those establishments that was both older and dirtier than it had any right to be, with a questionable layer of grime covering every visible surface as well as the staff. However, the food was great and the entertainment even better, which was what had brought Karina to the restaurant near the Outer Wall of Ziran.
As Aminata sulked beside her, Karina kept her eyes trained on the musician currently commanding the crowd, a stout, oud-playing bard with a mustache so perfectly coiled that it had to be fake. Appearance aside, the man had skill, and from the easy way he swaggered around the circular stage in the center of the room, he knew it.
The audience for the evening consisted mostly of travelers and merchants, their faces lined from years of trekking the unforgiving desert roads. In the chatter of the crowd, Karina recognized Kensiya, a language of the Arkwasian people from the jungles north of the Odjubai; T’hoga, a language spoken on the Eastwater savanna; and even the occasional word in Darajat screamed at frightened Eshran servers. Every major group in Sonande was represented that night.
But best of all, no one knew who Karina was. Seated on low cushions around tables laden with thick bean stews and steaming cuts of lamb, the audience howled suggestions at the bard, each raunchier than the last, and sang off-key to every piece he played. Solstasia made even the most miserly freer with their purses, so many in the audience were well into their third or fourth drink of the evening even though the sun had yet to set.
The bard’s eyes met Karina’s, and he grinned. She cocked her head to the side, angelic innocence spreading across her face in response to the brazen suggestion on his.
“Are you going to stand there looking pretty, or are you going to play something worth listening to?” she challenged. Another howl went up through the audience, and the man’s dusky cheeks purpled. Despite its less-than-sanitary appearance, the Dancing Seal was one of the most respected music venues in Ziran. Only the best musicians could win over the crowd here.
The bard proceeded to play a raucous song that detailed the doomed love affair between a lonely spirit and a poor slave girl. Karina leaned back on her cushion as she examined the man. Her original appraisal had been correct; he was quite talented, twisting the melody in time with the shifting mood of the audience and biting into the tune at the story’s climax. If she had to guess, he was likely Fire-Aligned; that Alignment had a flair for the dramatic.
Smoothing her headscarf to ensure not a single strand of her hair fell out of place, Karina leaned toward her companion. “Do you think he oils his mustache every day to get it that shiny?”
“I think we’ve been here too long,” replied Aminata, angling herself away from the suspicious liquid that covered their table.
“We’ve been here ten minutes.”
Karina rolled her eyes, wondering why she’d expected any other response from her maid. Convincing a fish to swim on land would be easier than convincing Aminata to relax for even a single night.
“It’s Solstasia, Mina. We may as well enjoy ourselves.”
“Can we at least go somewhere that isn’t filled with people who could stab us?”
Karina began to retort that technically any room that had people in it was filled with people who could stab them, but the bard switched to a song Baba used to play for her, and a dull pain like a mallet banging the inside of her skull cut her off. Squeezing her eyes shut, Karina breathed out through her teeth and gripped the edge of the table until splinters dug into her skin.
Aminata frowned, realizing at once what had triggered the migraine. “We should go before it gets worse,” she suggested in that careful tone people used whenever Karina’s grief discomforted them.
This was likely the last moment of freedom Karina would have until Solstasia ended. Migraine or no, she couldn’t let the oppor-tunity pass her by.
A cheer resounded through the restaurant as the bard strummed his last note. He collected his donations in a velvet coin purse, then strode over to their table and dropped into a low bow.
“I hope you found my performance tonight as pleasing as I find your appearance.”
Fighting back the wave of dizziness that often accompanied her migraines, Karina raised an eyebrow at the man. Perhaps she might have found his appearance pleasing as well had she been nearing seventy. As it was, she was only seventeen, and he reminded her of the toads who croaked in the fountains of the palace. The corners of her mouth tilted up, but she didn’t smile.
“It was impressive.” Karina’s gaze slid to the coin purse on his hip. “If I may ask, exactly what do you plan to do with your earnings? ”
The bard licked his lips. “Give me an hour of your time, and you’ll see firsthand what I can do.”
Aminata gave a barely concealed snort as Karina replied, “I think I know of the perfect home for your coins.”
“And where may that be, my sweet gazelle?” he leered. Karina checked his left palm—no emblem, meaning he was Unaligned. This man was from somewhere very far from here—the Eastwater savanna, perhaps.
“In my pocket.” Karina leaned forward until her nose was inches from his, close enough to smell the orange essence he definitely oiled his mustache with. “I’ll play you for them. One song. Audience decides the winner.”
Surprise followed by annoyance flickered across the bard’s face. Karina bit back a laugh.
“Do you even have an instrument?”
“I do. Aminata?”
Aminata sighed, but dutifully passed the leather case in her lap to Karina. The bard sneered when he saw the state of Karina’s oud; thin cracks lined the instrument’s pear-shaped body, and the floral patterns Baba had carved into its neck had long faded beyond recognition. But holding the last gift her father had ever given her sent a wave of calm flooding through Karina, dulling the ache in her head.
“If I win,” said Karina, nonchalantly tuning one of the oud’s eleven strings, “I get all the money you earned today.”
“And when I win,” said the bard, “you will give me the honor of calling you mine for the rest of the night.”
It took all of her self-control not to visibly gag. “Deal. In the spirit of Solstasia, I’ll allow you to pick the song.”
The bard’s eyes narrowed, but then his grin widened. “‘The Ballad of Bahia Alahari.’”
The pain in Karina’s head throbbed anew as her heart constricted. Baba had loved that song.
Refusing to let her opponent see he’d rattled her, Karina simply said, “After you.”
“The Ballad of Bahia Alahari” was a mournful tune that told the story of how the first sultana of Ziran had battled her own husband, the Faceless King, when he had sided with the Kennouan Empire during the final battle of the Pharaoh’s War. Within minutes, the audience had tears streaming down their faces, many even openly sobbing. However, a number of patrons, many of whom were noticeably non-Zirani, seemed unaffected by the performance, and Karina kept her attention on them as her opponent played.
With one last haunting note, the bard lowered his oud as a raucous cheer filled the air.
“Your turn,” he said, his eyes roaming over her body with a predator’s gaze. Karina stepped forward, moving her hands into position and ignoring the snickers at her instrument’s destitute state.
Yes, her opponent was good.
But she was better.
Too fast for anyone to stop her, Karina leaped from the stage onto the table in front of her, earning startled yelps from its occupants, and slammed her sandaled foot on it in a steady rhythm that echoed throughout the restaurant. Though Karina wasn’t facing her maid, she knew Aminata was clapping along, scowl and all. In seconds, everyone in the room had joined her in the beat, banging whatever they had on hand against their tables.
Grinning a grin that would put a hyena’s to shame, she began to play.
It was still “The Ballad of Bahia Alahari,” but Karina bent the melody almost beyond recognition. Where the bard had focused on the stifling yet beautiful grief the song was known for, Karina pushed the beat to a frenzy, playing at a speed normally used for the fastest dance songs. She brought the song to a crescendo where she should have quieted and bit into the parts that were meant to be soft. Through it all, the song never lost the undercurrent of sorrow for which it was famous—but it was sorrow converted into manic energy, the only kind of sorrow she knew.
Karina sang the first verse in Zirani, turning in a circle as she played so every person could hear.
For the second verse, she switched to Kensiya. A delighted cry went up from the group of Arkwasians, engaged in the performance for the first time that night. Then she went to T’hoga, and back to Kensiya. With each verse, Karina made sure to hit a different major tongue of Sonande. The only language she did not sing at least a line in was Darajat. None of her tutors had considered the language of Eshra important enough to teach her, and she lacked the incentive to learn it on her own.
The cheers of the audience drowned out Karina’s last notes. She smiled sweetly at the bard, who looked ready to toss his instrument to the ground.
“I’ll be taking that.” Karina grabbed his purse and bounced it in her hand. There had to be at least a hundred daira in there.
“I want a rematch!” the bard demanded.
“Rematch with what? What else do you have to lose?”
His face twisted into a pained grimace as he pulled a heavy object from his bag. “I have this.”
In the bard’s hands was the oldest book Karina had ever seen. The green leather cover sported bite marks around the edges, and time had yellowed the pages with mold. Faded almost to invisibil-ity, the title read in Zirani, The Tome of the Dearly Departed: A Comprehensive Study on the Curious Matter of Death within the Kennouan Empire.
“The man who sold this to me couldn’t even read the title,” said the bard. “He didn’t realize that he had pawned away a true remnant from the time of the pharaohs of old.”
A shiver ran down Karina’s spine as she eyed the Kennouan glyphs embossed on the book’s cover. Reading had never been her preferred pastime, and she neither needed nor desired a dusty old book about a culture long lost to history.
“If this book is so special, why are you gambling it away?”
“Anything worth obtaining is worth sacrificing for.”
Karina wasn’t one to turn down a challenge, no matter the prize. Baring a smile that showed all her teeth, she unstrapped her oud from her back.
“One more round.”
Hello Roseanne, and welcome to Color the Shelves! I’m so happy to have you on my blog today so chat about your upcoming debut A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN, the first book in a west African inspired duology. This means extra to me as an African reader. So, first things first, what are 5 facts you’d want your readers to know about the book before going into it?
Thank you so much for having me, Fadwa! The five things I want readers to know going into it is :
1- I was born in Ghana and raised in the United States, so A SONG OF WRAITHS AND RUIN was heavily inspired by the Ghanaian folktales my aunties would tell me growing up. Those stories were always full of the kind of intrigue, betrayal, romance, and adventure that would put Game of Thrones to shame. I did my best to recreate the feelings of those stories in ASOWAR!
2- ASOWAR also heavily features ownvoices anxiety rep. When I came up with the idea, I felt like frank depictions of Black characters dealing with mental illness were next to non-existent, doubly so in fantasy. I wanted to write a character where his illness wasn’t a metaphor for his magic but something that both informed and challenged it, the way I experience mine in real life. That character became Malik!
3- Though I drew heavily from Ghanaian cultures because those are the ones I’m most familiar with, ASOWAR is actually not meant to be based on any one particular culture. I kept my inspiration centered on the cultures found in the western Trans-Saharan corridor and West Africa. My goal was to write a story that felt like a folktale, so people in our world would recognize certain cultural markers without it being a literal fantasy version of Africa.
4- This book went through ten drafts in four years, six of them being either full or majority rewrites!!!!! Though the characters, the setting, and the finale always stayed the same, the execution for how we got there kept on changing.
5- A few comps to the book include An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. The book contains content warnings for mild self-harm ideation, fantasy violence, emotional and physical abuse, anxiety and panic attacks, and parent death.
I know from experience that research for us is drastically different. Especially coming from countries that have been colonized and whose historical materials have been destroyed. So writing a story inspired from your own culture, how did you deal with that particular hurdle?
The most important part of researching for me was separating the information I learned from primary sources and the information I learned from secondary sources. Because much of the research on Africa has been created by the very people who colonized and brutalized our continent, I tried to make sure anything I learned from a secondary source could be verified through a primary source. For elements where I couldn’t find a primary source, I tried to only use secondary sources from people within those cultures. I consulted literally dozens of articles, books, documentaries and more across the process of creating ASOWAR. Two books I found particularly helpful were The Almoravid and Almohad Empires by Amira Bennison and The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa by Patricia McKissack and Fredrick McKissack.
Another big challenge is that so much of African history, especially in West and North Africa, is passed down orally, so the information is out there but is hard to access if you aren’t in direct contact with a storyteller. At first I was almost too terrified to write, but then I realized that part of the gift of fantasy is being able to weave something new from a foundation of the familiar.
It also helped me to remember that it is literally impossible for any one writer, no matter how talented, to capture the universal African experience in one book, if such a thing even exists. I offer this story as a humble addition to the wonderful and ever-expanding canon of African fantasy, and my sincerest wish is that one day there are so many books that mine is never expected to be everything for everyone.
(Fadwa: maybe this whole answer made me tear up a little bit)
One of the challenges of writing African inspired fantasy is that in a lot of African countries, what is very real you might seem like “fantasy” to an outsider, so fantasy looks different to different people. how do you work that very delicate line?
The thing about the Black Fantastic is that in so many of our cultures, magic, the supernatural, and spirituality are intricately connected with one another, yet are often conflated with evil in the Western media. We see this a lot with Western depictions of Vodun and other African Spiritual Traditions (ASTs) that portray them as backwards practices full of curses and communing with the devil instead of as alternate ways of experiencing the world that are just as valid as Christianity or any other Western spiritual practice.
I wanted magic in my book tied to spirituality for this reason. In ASOWAR, there are seven gods who rule over each day of the week, so the day of the week a person is born decides their god and thus their kind of magic. I based this off of a tradition among the Akan people of Ghana, my mom’s people, where the day of the week a child is born dictates one of their names and has great significance. The characters in my book challenge and contend with the idea of what it means to be a spiritual person, a person of faith. Some of them are very spiritual, some are not, others are in between. And thus, the way they grapple with spirituality informs the way they relate to their magic, or lack thereof.
One thing that was important to me was not using any god found in any AST because I didn’t want outsiders to take it as a commentary on any specific religion’s validity. For me, walking that delicate line looked less like worrying about what the West believes “African magic” should look like and more figuring out how to honor these belief systems with the nuance and integrity they deserve.
Following up from that previous question, have you faced any push-back from within your community while writing your own experiences?
There hasn’t been any pushback yet, though truthfully I am certain that is simply because the book isn’t out yet! We did have a sensitivity reader who helped me with elements of Moroccan culture I used, and I learned a lot about the most respectful ways to handle elements in cultures adjacent to yours but not the same. It was a good lesson on remembering that even as an African, I had my own internalized beliefs and misunderstandings I needed to work through and that I needed to be extra careful with what ended up on the page.
One element I am expecting pushback for is the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters in the book. It’s on the page, but honestly, I could have gone deeper and am going deeper in Book 2. Though my experiences with my culture have been deeply homophobic and patriarchal, I decided from the outset that was not something I wanted to replicate in my fantasy world simply because so many LGBTQ+ folks of African descent deal with that enough in the real world. If people can suspend disbelief for magic and talking hyenas, they can suspend disbelief that an African-inspired society did not construct homophobia in any way we recognize.
(Fadwa: I love this last bit. More fantasies where homophobia isn’t a thing, yes please!)
And last but not least, a question that I love asking authors: what is something you’d like to tell your readers or something you’d like them to take away from your story?
I want everyone who walks away from this book to question the lies they’ve been told about themselves and the world. I want them to learn to draw strength from the parts of their identity they’ve been taught to hate and to truly analyze the structures they’ve believed are immutable and unchangeable that constrict us all.
And for every Black and African reader, I want them to know that we deserve to be the center of every kind of narrative. We deserve stories that depict us in our multitudes, and that respectfully show the thousands of years of rich history and culture we have to draw on across our continent. Never settle for a flat and un-nuanced portrayal when you deserve the moon and stars and everything in between. And if anyone ever tells you no one will read a book where Black Africans get to be the heroes, the royals, the love interests, the villains, and anything else they want to be, you have my permission to laugh loudly in their face.
About the author
Roseanne “Rosie” A. Brown was born in Kumasi, Ghana and immigrated to the wild jungles of central Maryland as a child. Writing was her first love, and she knew from a young age that she wanted to use the power of writing—creative and otherwise—to connect the different cultures she called home. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor’s in Journalism and was also a teaching assistant for the school’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her journalistic work has been featured by Voice of America among other outlets.
On the publishing side of things, she has worked as an editorial intern at Entangled Publishing. Rosie was a 2017 Pitch Wars mentee and 2018 Pitch Wars mentor. Never content to stay in any one place for too long, Rosie currently teaches in Japan, where in her free time she can usually be found exploring the local mountains, explaining memes to her students, or thinking about Star Wars.
Rosie is represented by Quressa Robinson of Nelson Literary Agency.
About the book
Publication date : June 2nd, 2020
Publisher : Balzer + Bray | Harpercollins
Genre : Young Adult | Fantasy
Page Count: 480
Synopsis : The first in an fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction.
For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.
But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.
When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?
That’s it until next time.
Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.