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Shadows and Lights of Harlem – Interview with Author Yecheilyah Ysrayl

It’s with great pleasure that today I’m hosting author Yecheilyah Ysrayl on my blog.

Yecheilyah is the author the Stella Trilogy and many other books and she has just inaugurated a new series set in Harlem in the 1920s, the Nora White Story .
On her blog, PBS – Pearls Before Swine she maintains many weekly and monthly features helping indie authors like herself, and also the Black History Fun Facts Friday, that focuses on African Americans’ experience in the US.

The Nora White Series is set during the Harlem Renaissance, which was a grand time of awakening for African Americans. It was a time of experimentation and advancement in many fields, though it was in the arts that African Americans had their most widespread national recognition. This is the time when jazz emerged and when great authors wrote their most remembered works.

It is because of this great artistic fire that contemporary authors usually focus on the good things the Renaissance brought about. Yacheilyah has portrayed a far more complex reality.

In this interview, she tell us a bit more about it.

Shadows and Lights of Harlem – Interview with Author Yecheilyah Ysrayl – Renaissance by @ahouseofpoetry A girl in Harlem Renaissance NYC searching for her true self Click To Tweet
  1. Hi Yecheilyah. Let me first say that I really enjoyed your book. Books set in the 1920s seem to be kind of popular now, but many tackle at the ever-popular flapper figure. Yours is different in that, although following a young woman’s experience, she isn’t really the flapper kind.
    Did you intentionally avoid the archetype?

Hi Sarah. Thanks so much for having me. Your place looks great!

Not intentionally. Probably because I am not really a “flapper” woman myself so it just came through in my writing lol. On a more serious note, my focus for this book was mostly on the experiences of African Americans at that time, the things we experienced, our struggles and traumas but also our sense of community.

  1. The Harlem Renaissance is a very important part of American history, and I have seen it portrayed in other books. Authors, though, seem to mostly see the good that came from the movement. Your take is a lot more nuanced.

Yea. What I set out to do in my writing is to reveal the truth of the historical experiences of Blacks in America and not just the same regurgitated information. As you’ve stated, most impressions and revelations about The Harlem Renaissance only speak about the good but that’s not a realistic picture. It was not all good and I think this kind of balance—the good and the bad— reveals the realness of those experiences. It is less fairy tale.

  1. There are quite a few historical figures appearing in your story. I think using historical figures in an historical novel, especially when they are not the main characters, is particularly tricky, because it requires a considerable amount of research. How did you get about that aspect of the story?
langston hughes hires cropped 3

When I sat down to write Renaissance, my goal was to sprinkle historical figures throughout but to focus only on a few in depth so that it doesn’t get confusing. Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes were close friends and wrote each other often and Langston and Zora worked closely and for the same woman. Carl was also a photographer and took many pictures of Zora and Langston on many occasions. For this reason, I decided to focus most of the research on these three because of their already close relationship historically.

I studied each figure separately first through their books, biographies written of them online, articles, YouTube. Whatever I could find on them and not just the good stuff. I wanted to find their human selves. Then when I saw how closely these three were, I could study their relationship as a unit.

Self Portrait of Carl Van Vechten Crisco edit

Zora’s “Dust Tracks on the Road” (where she speaks of her relationship with both men) and “Remember me to Harlem” (letters written by Langston and Carl to each other over the course of many years) was instrumental in this. When I read these books, they inspired me to dig deeper into the things going on in their world, the background stuff, and that is when I decided to focus more so on them as the historical figures Nora would interact with. The others I was able to sprinkle in, ensuring their dialogue is on accord with the era in which they lived. This wasn’t extremely difficult because we are talking about the dialogue of my people, so-called Black people. I know them because I am them. All I really had to do was think about conversations I heard over the years from my own family or members of other Black families. (I’ve also studied some of the historical figures in the past, such as Dubois, and so was already familiar with his philosophy. All I had to do really was make sure his dialogue “sounded” like him)

  1. How did you decide how to make Nora interact with them? Was it difficult to integrate a fictional character into the true lives of true people?
Zora Neale Hurston

It wasn’t easy but as I think about it now, it wasn’t particularly challenging either because I didn’t go into the writing with that kind of mindset. I didn’t think too much of the challenges or trickiness of it. I suppose it would have been more challenging had I thought of it that way but I didn’t. For me it was a matter of a young woman meeting her idols for the first time and how she would react in that instance.

Since Nora and her mom bump heads sometimes, I decided I wanted Nora and Zora’s relationship to be more mother-daughter, whereas Nora and Langston’s is more so a school girl crush. I based this on research that led me to understand how the ladies clamored for Langston and thought of him quite handsome. As for Carl, he’s a mentor-business partner type. These are the ways I decided to have Nora to interact with these figures.

For me, historical people are normal people and that’s why I set out not to just sing their praises but to also include their flaws. I wanted to bring these “larger than life” people down to where we could see them, feel them, touch them. They bleed red like we do. They are normal like we are and I hope I’ve shown that.

  1. The Harlem Renaissance part was very interesting, but I confess that I kind of preferred the part of story regarding Nora’s parents in the South. Characters are just ‘normal people’ here, no big name appears, and I like watching their everyday life. Was this part of research any different from the research you did for the Harlem part?

Absolutely. The southern-thread is the favorite of readers and I must confess that’s probably because it was the most fun to write. Though I spent the same kind of time researching for each, I did not have to do as much research for the southern-thread as for the northern-thread because of prior knowledge. The southern-thread came easily because I am not writing about something foreign to me. I devour books and articles about Black southern life, not to mention I am also a Black woman currently living in the South. Well, I don’t consider myself Black, that’s a color and for another conversation but for the sake of understanding, you get it. I am part of the people to which I am writing. Though I’ve never picked cotton or sharecropped or feared a lynching, my people did and I carry that same bloodline, that same history. I was then, not writing about something too far removed. I was writing about myself, my people, my community. I was writing about my family. Not genetically, but inherited. What the Whites face isn’t something every Black family has not faced at one time or another. Maybe not as drastic, but to some degree.

I felt this was important to include because Renaissance means rebirth so the book is also about more than The Harlem Renaissance but a reawakening for Nora and her family in general. Nora’s leaving forces all parties (her included) to wake up and see for themselves the world in which they live. To never get comfortable and forget who they are.

  1. The ‘Southern’ part is also multi-layered in that it concerns different generations of the White family. That was something that really fascinated me, I mean, seeing how the past still haunted the present.

Yes, indeed and that is exactly what I wanted to do so I am honored that you enjoyed those parts. James Baldwin said, “We are our history, we carry our history with us.” The past is always creeping into the present. It is up to us to understand why. I believe what has been done before is what will be again.

  1. Many African Americans that settle in Harlem originally came from the South. Will Nora’s life follow this common historical pattern? How was life for an African American immigrant in NYC?
Women of the Harlem Renaissance

First, I am so not gonna reveal anything about what Nora’s life will be! You’ll have to read the next book in the series 🙂

Life for African Americans in New York at that time was pretty much divided into two main groups. There were two waves of The Great Migration and the industrial boom of the second wave produced a massive need for additional labor in shipyards and aircraft plants because of the shortage of workers. So, many Blacks did well when they migrated North, many of them to New York, and took these jobs. They could live as comfortably as one could at that time. However, this was not the case for most African Americans.

Life for most African Americans was not much different in New York as it would be in Mississippi. The racism of Northern cities was subtler than the South, obviously, but it did exist. Blacks took jobs as maids, janitors, and taxi cab drivers or any job that was the dirtiest, backbreaking, low-paying and required less skill. They were the least desirable jobs. Government policy also kept African Americans out of many neighborhoods through redlining or the restriction of neighborhoods in which people of certain racial and ethnic groups could get approved for a mortgage. In other words, there were real-estate wars taking place in which certain homes were off limits for no other reason than not wanting to have a black family to occupy them.

Long story short, you had your Black Elite, the upper echelon of African Americans, who integrated into American society and did well (for the most part, these were your highly intelligent Blacks, freed or otherwise). But also, you had African Americans who did not wish to assimilate and who were poor and working like Hebrew slaves.

lafayettetheater Seventh Avenue Harlem
  1. In the end of the book you introduce a magical element that is clearly inspired by Voodoo. I know that Voodoo believers don’t really like to talk about their beliefs. So how did you research this? How did you break that kind of resistance?”

I am not a voodoo believer so I wouldn’t say I was inspired by it. Personally, I consider it to be witchcraft. But even witchcraft exists and is very real. Not everything we brought with us to this land was good. I am not one of those “Pro-Black” nationalist who cannot speak of the negatives of my people alongside the positives. I am here to tell the truth and the truth is that there is some good, some bad, and some ugly.

So, my decision to give one of my characters a belief very different from my own makes it more real to me. I try not to let my personal beliefs infringe on my ability to use diverse characters in my stories. If I did, it wouldn’t be real. At least not to me. I wish the world was made up of good people who loved one another but that is just not the truth. That’s the realness of the world we live in. So, I step outside myself and think about the many diverse people out there, their beliefs and practices so that my characters are reflective of real people.

That said, I don’t want to give the end of the book away so I’ll keep this brief, my decision to incorporate this element is rooted in giving us more of that character’s background. Additionally, it plays on the naivete of young people and we all understand that naivete having been young before. We are driven by desire and are not as diligent in really getting to know people or paying attention so we ignore all the red flags.

Renaissance

RENAISSANCE (Yecheilyah Ysrayl) - When seventeen-year-old Nora White successfully graduates High School in 1922 Mississippi and is College bound, everyone is overjoyed and excited. Everyone except Nora. She dreams of Harlem, Cotton Clubs, Fancy Dresses, and Langston Hughes.

When seventeen-year-old Nora White successfully graduates High School in 1922 Mississippi and is College bound, everyone is overjoyed and excited. Everyone except Nora. She dreams of Harlem, Cotton Clubs, Fancy Dresses, and Langston Hughes. For years, she’s sat under Mr. Oak, the big oak tree on the plush green grass of her families five acres, and daydreamed of The Black Mecca.

The ambitious, young Nora is fascinated by the prospect of being a famous writer in The Harlem Renaissance and decides she doesn’t want to go to College. Despite her parent’s staunch protest, Nora finds herself in Jacobsville, New York, a small town forty-five minutes outside of Harlem.

Shocked by their daughter’s disappearance, Gideon and Molly White are plagued with visions of the deadly south, like the brutal lynching of Gideon’s sister years ago. As the couple embark on a frightening and gut wrenching search for Nora, they are each stalked by their own traumatic past. Meanwhile, Nora learns that the North is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Can Gideon and Molly overcome their disturbing past in time to find their daughter before it’s too late?

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Yecheilyah Ysrayl

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Yecheilyah is an Independent Author, Blogger, and Poet. She enjoys reading, writing, traveling, red wine, and movie nights. Originally from Chicago, IL, “EC” studied Professional and Technical Writing at Chicago State University and Medical Assistance at Everest College. Founder of Literary Korner Publishing, LK. Pub. Writer’s Workshop and The PBS Blog, Yecheilyah has been writing for eighteen years and publishing books for ten years. She loves to blog and dedicate her time toward helping and inspiring other writers through her book reviews and Introduce Yourself Interview Feature. Yecheilyah is a member of the Authors / Bloggers Rainbow Support Group and Rave Reviews Book Club. She writes Literary and Historical Fiction as well as poetry and anything else her mind thinks up. She is currently revising Revelation, Book Two in The Nora White Story along with other writing projects. Yecheilyah lives in Shreveport, LA with her husband where she writes full time.

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Shadow and Lights of Harlem - Interview with Author Yecheilyah Ysrayl - The true history of the Harlem Renaissance. A young girl eager to be part of if. A historical novel following the history of African americans during a pivotal part of American history
Shadow and Lights of Harlem - Interview with Author Yecheilyah Ysrayl - The true history of the Harlem Renaissance. A young girl eager to be part of if. A historical novel following the history of African americans during a pivotal part of American history

8 Comments

  • Yecheilyah
    Posted August 25, 2017 at 16:52

    Thanks so much, Sarah for having me. It’s an honor ☺.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted August 25, 2017 at 21:52

      Don’t mention it, Yecheilyah. It’s my pleasure 🙂

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted August 26, 2017 at 00:11

    What a fascinating interview! I really like the way that research underpins the book without overwhelming it. Impressive – thanks for sharing, both.

    • Yecheilyah
      Posted August 26, 2017 at 03:47

      Thank you Margot ☺.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted September 1, 2017 at 08:23

      I loved the interview too. Not easy to find authors so prepared on such unexplored matter.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted August 29, 2017 at 04:23

    It sounds like a fascinating book, with a great change of pace from the usual 1920s historicals!

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted September 1, 2017 at 08:24

      It is indeed different from many 1920s historical novels out there. It explores a different face of reality.

    • Yecheilyah
      Posted September 4, 2017 at 23:39

      Thank you for stopping in and leaving a comment on the table Carrie-Anne!

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