Part I: From Trinidad to Brooklyn
From Trinidad to Brooklyn
I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. That's where I was born and raised, and I lived there until I was 15, and growing up on a tropical island is pretty great, actually. You know, we went to the beach all the time, and — every weekend we would go to the beach, and sometimes on the weekend we would\ fly to Tobago, which is a sister island, to hangout for the weekend and then come back.
I loved it. I had a great childhood. We had a ball, my brother and I, and my mom and dad, and so that was a lot of fun for me, and when I was 15 was when I moved to the United States. My brother was here. He was going to college, and he was sort of miserable because he was on his own, and then so at that point we decided to take the leap.
The transition from Trinidad to Brooklyn, New York was pretty startling, as you can imagine. I had been to the United States before on vacation, but it's really quite different when you're living here, and I always came in the summer, so I had never experienced cold weather, and I remember being really excited to experience winter and thinking that it was going to be short and not, like, this really crazy, long I'm freezing my behind off waiting for a bus kind of weather.
The coldness was really unexpected, but the other thing that was really unexpected is that, you know, in Trinidad and Tobago, everybody sort of looks like me. I'm half-African ancestry, half-Indian ancestry, and that's basically the entire population. I mean, there's, you know, a few other things mixed in, but that is the majority of the population, so everybody looks like me, or some version of me, and moving to the United States where there's a much wider range of people was really a bit of a shock to me.
And then there's also just the regular culture shock of, you know, Caribbean life versus American life, which is much more busy and packed with stuff and everybody's running around, and it's not like that in Trinidad. Everybody's fairly leisurely. 4:00, everything's over.
It's very family-oriented, so from 4:00, you're getting home, you're making dinner, you're hanging out with family, and that was not really what I saw happening here. It seemed to be very different.
My life as a young reader
My mom would buy me any book that I wanted, which was great because I wanted all the books, and when I was really little, like, two, three, when I just started picking up books and sort of flipping through, she bought me some Grimm's Fairy Tales, which is where this shenanigans started because the Grimm boys had their name on the cover of a book, and I wanted my name on the cover of a book.
So that's really where all the trouble started, was right from then, but I read anything I could get my hands on, going into my library and finding books that were really for younger readers, chapter books, young adult novels, and just, you know, sitting there in a corner and just reading everything I possibly could read.
So there were a lot of American books that we read, obviously, but for the most part I read British children's literature because, of course, we're a British colony, and my favorite was a series called The Naughtiest Girl in School, which was Enid Blyton, and it was about a girl who was — I think she was about 11 years old, and she was living at this boarding school, as many British kids do, and, of course, as the title says, she just got in trouble.
She kept trying to do the right thing, but she would get into trouble all the time because she was messy and she was forgetful and she was just exactly like me actually, so I just really consumed these books and got into that. It did not occur to me to write that kind of book at the time though. I just had this sort of vague idea of being a writer, so it wasn't wasn't really what I thought I was going to wind up doing.
Reading and writing Caribbean stories
I don't think I was aware of whether or not I saw myself in books when I was a kid reading.
At school, we would read V.S. Naipaul, who's a Trinidadian author, or Claude McKay, or any number of authors who were either from Trinidad itself or from other Caribbean islands, and so it was not unusual for me to have a book with Caribbean kids in it that I was reading about. So for example, Miguel Street, which is V.S. Naipaul, and Escape on Last Man Peak.
But these were required reading at school, so it was not strange for me to see other kids in a Caribbean setting within the pages of a book.
I was definitely encouraged by that because — I don't think maybe consciously, but I think that it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t. There was no, "oh, maybe this is not for you because you don't see yourself on the page." It didn’t occur to me that I could not do that, and my first three novels, Angel's Grace, The Jumbies, and Rise of the Jumbies are all set in the Caribbean. It didn’t occur to me to write a book that was set anywhere else, you know?
That that's the place I wanted to write about and I was very happy to write about, and nobody seemed to bat an eye about that, so in that way, I think I was fairly fortunate that I didn’t have sort of the mental roadblocks that can be set up for other people who are coming in and having different experiences, having different literary experiences as younger people.
Calypso: How I learned the art of storytelling
Storytelling in Trinidad and Tobago is serious business, and when I say serious business I mean people actually get paid. So every year there's Carnival, and at Carnival, calypsonians are there to make their money. It's between Christmas and whenever Carnival lands, because it's different every year because it ends at the beginning of Lent, and they make a whole new album every year that they are coming out with and singing, and all of the songs really are stories, and they're often political, or they're often cultural commentary.
You know, that is what traditional calypso is about, and listening to calypso growing up, you're listening to all of these stories all of the time, and this is how people are making their money, and also there are people on the street, like buskers, who could park someplace — we used to do this drive to an overlook in Port of Spain, and you'd just drive up and look out over the whole expanse of Port of Spain below you.
And there would be these guys who were calypsonians sort of for hire, and they would come to you, and you would pay them a few bucks, and they would ask you a couple questions about yourself, your name, your favorite color, how you're doing in school, what do you like, sports-wise or whatever it was, and they'd make up a calypso on the spot, and so this was my introduction to storytelling, was listening to calypso every year.
And because everybody had this expansive album every year — and there are many, many calypsonians, it's a lot of work, you know? They're producing a lot of work every single year to see which are the songs that are gonna take and which of the stories that are gonna take and which of the stories everybody's gonna be interested in. So that really was my introduction to storytelling.
"The Friends': Finding my own story in a book
So I came across the book The Friends when I first moved to the United States. It was perfect timing as far as that book was concerned because the book is about a girl, Felicia, who has just moved from the Caribbean to the United States [to Harlem]. was exactly my story. She had moved. She was here. She was struggling with dealing with the culture, finding her place in the culture, or trying to figure out who she was as an American or as a girl from the Caribbean, which is exactly where I was.
You know, you're sort of in between two things, and you don't really know who you are, so it was perfect, perfect timing for me to have found that book in the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, and it meant so much to me to really see myself on the page in a way that I hadn't before. I had seen other kids on the page, and I had connected with other characters before, but here I was, you know?
I was there. This was me. This was my story. This was exactly the thing that I was going through at the time, so it was really perfect, and it was then that I started thinking, "This is what I'd like to do with my writing life. You know, I would like to be that person who gives kids exactly who they are on the page." So finding that book was really, really important to me, and unfortunately Rosa Guy passed away a few years ago, which was really unfortunate because I had really wanted to just meet her and be able to say, "This is a thing you did for me," you know, and "I don't know if I would be doing this if you hadn't done that," and I just did not ever have the opportunity.
Honoring Rosa Guy
So Rosa Guy was an author from Trinidad and Tobago. She moved to the United States when she was very young, actually, and she didn’t start writing right away. It took her much longer to start writing. She had sort of a difficult childhood. There was a lot moving around, and then there was a lot of illness. You know, she was ill, and then there were other family members that were also ill, and so I think she started working when she was younger, you know, way too young, really, to have started working, really should have been in school and whatnot.
But she was somebody who pioneered groups in Harlem that helped other authors find their legs. So there are a lot of other people who can credit Rosa Guy with helping them to get to where they are. So she formed a group [the Harlem Writers' Guild] and they were a group that promoted other authors that helped to educate other authors including, you know, helping — you know, just having peers be mentors to you or assist you in a lot of ways. And so also, in addition to doing all that kind of work, which I actually don’t think she’s really recognized for, and she was the only woman in that group; she also published a huge amount of children's books — many of which centered on the Caribbean or on the immigrant experience of recent arrivals to the United States. One of her books, which was a young adult novel, was made into a Broadway musical. It was called Once Upon an Island, and it did really well here, and it actually was also produced in the UK, and it did really well there.
I only discovered that much later, much to my disappointment, because, of course, it had closed by then, and so I think they are doing a revival now, which I'm fingers firmly crossed that they actually do it because I will be there opening night with my kids, whether they like it or not.
Tapping into immigrant students' backgrounds: Trinidad and Tobago
One of the great things that happened for me, as a young student just moving to the United States was being able to talk about the culture and being able to talk about the all the stuff that I did back home.
And I think that if teachers engaged kids in that way, get them to talk about Carnival, and get them to talk about calypso — because it's huge. It's really big, and people really talk about it, and people think about calypso in a way that is very literary too. They kind of dissect the calypso and talk about what the commentary is in the calypso, and they do that from a really, really young age.
So teachers are getting kids who know how to talk about literature. It's just that the literature that they happen to really know how to talk about all these calypsos. And I think getting them to talk about that, getting them to talk about Carnival culture, getting them to talk about where those traditions come from, you're gonna get them excited about being able to share that with a new group of people and get their classmates to understand who they are and, you know, build a sense of community with them.
So that's definitely a strategy I would suggest to teachers who have new immigrants from Trinidad.
Part II: Life as a Writer
Writing biographies and non-fiction
My non-fiction writing is very eclectic and interesting. So I was a classroom teacher before I did this. Being a classroom teacher was my first job, and after I left teaching and started doing editorial work for various school and library publishers, I started writing also for the school and library publishers, and so they had me do a lot of biographies of other writers because that was sort of my thing, and I really enjoyed that.
But I also did a lot of books on character education because of my education background, and I think my last couple of books were one on Nelson Mandela, a book for really little guys, and one called The Totally Gross History of Ancient Egypt, which is just a super fun book. So that was when I was working at Rosen Publishing, and I had pitched the entire series. I said, "Let's do this series," and then I wrote one of the books for the series. So it's been sort of a weird lot of different things, as far as my non-fiction writing life has been, but I've always picked topics that I find really fascinating.
Writing about Madeleine L'Engle
The Madeleine L'Engle book, I think having read a Wrinkle In Time when I was very young, when I saw her name come up as one of the possibilities on the list of hey, here's who we would like books on, you know, these are all the people, she was the first one I circled because she's another writer who had a huge influence on me. That the idea of fantasy in a children's book was not one that I had really seen.
I'd seen a lot of realistic books, and so I really jumped on that. So when I was doing the research, it unfortunately was around the time that she was ill, and she was getting worse and worse, so I was not able to get into contact with her and be able to talk with her. I actually became friendly with her granddaughter later on, but during the process it was a little bit disconnecting because, you know, there wasn't anybody that I could talk to.
But I do remember that I was reading a nonfiction book that she had written just to prep myself to write, and she had said something like, "When you're going to be a writer or when you think about being a writer, there are really only two kinds. You can be great, or you're just mediocre," and she was thinking about this a long time ago, you know, and she's like, "I'm going to be great," and there's no in-between.
She was very much black and white. There's no shades of gray — I always have in the back of my head, don't be mediocre. You know, always push a thing and see how far you can go with it. You can pull back later, but I feel like restricting myself is just a way of being mediocre, so I always have that little quote in my head while I'm working.
Angel's Grace was a book that came out in 2005, and that was billed as a young adult, but I think it was billed as young adult because it was before middle grade was a thing, because the main character's 13, so she's not really in that sort of solidly young adult range. It's about a girl who goes to Trinidad on summer vacation and finds a photograph of a man who has the same birthmark over his heart that she does, except she can't see — the face is sort of blurry, and nobody will tell her who he is, and so it's a mystery.
Because, of course, mysteries are the easiest thing to write if you're just figuring out how to write because the plot of the book ends when the mystery is solved, so you, like, have sort of a plot built in. So that was my first attempt actually at writing a full novel.
I had written a lot of short stories and I thought I was gonna be a picture book writer, you know? And so I wrote a lot of things like that first, and then I wrote that to see if I could write a novel, and I finished it, and it was kind of amazing. I mean, the finishing, not the novel. At the time it was really quite a mess, but I sent a couple of chapters to my agent, and she asked me if I had anything else, and I didn't because I had just had my daughter.
She was literally two weeks old when I sent her the first couple of chapters, and she said, "Well, I really want something else," and I said, "I can send you a synopsis. That’s really all I have," and she sold it on those two chapters and the synopsis, which was unheard of, especially — it was literally the first book I was going to have published. It was very exciting.
I think the reason that they liked it, they liked the idea of the story, and they liked the voice. They liked the voice of Grace a lot, and that was the big appeal for them.
Memory, imagination and love: Writing about the Caribbean
I think capturing the Caribbean — or really capturing Trinidad and Tobago, because that's really what I'm thinking about when I do it — is just a matter of love, you know? I love it, and I want to be there, and I miss it, and so I just put it on the page so that I can have it close. So I think that's really what that's about.
With Angel's Grace there was a scene that takes place in Maracas Beach, and I remember while we were revising, the year it took us to revise this book, I went back to Trinidad, and we went to Maracas, and that really influenced all of the scenery that I was able to put into the book.
I wrote Jumbies over a long period of time, but I was going back and forth a little bit, but for the most part I wrote it while I was in the United States, and so it was just memory, going back and thinking about all of these different places and trying to figure out, okay, where does this scene take place? And taking a specific place and having that in mind as I approached it.
With Rise, it was really different because I hadn't been in Trinidad for a long time, and so I think a lot of that was just memory and imagination, especially a lot of it is under the sea, where I don't live, so I had to make that stuff up, but, you know, it really was just about me loving this space and wanting to have this space be on the page in a way that I could feel it, I could smell it, I could touch it, so I could taste the fruit, I could smell the island. So that's really what that was about.
Reading aloud with older kids
So my son is 11, and he would much rather play videogames than do anything else, really, so getting him to read has been a little bit of a struggle. Now my house is full of books, so there's no end of books around. I read all the time. My daughter reads all the time, so he's seeing people reading — and then I come back from conferences and I have armfuls of books and I’m constantly shoving books in his face — try this one, try that one, try the other one.
And he'll try it. He very dutifully tries, but he really just doesn't sink in as much. He'll get to the end of a book sometimes, but you can tell he's not really so much into it. So what we've actually started doing again, recently — because we used to do this, obviously, when he was little, reading aloud to him — but I started doing it again.
He'd come home from school, and, you know, we would sit together for half-an-hour or an hour, and we would read a few chapters of a book, and you can tell when he's just not into it, but about two weeks ago I had a copy of Laura Ruby's York, and we started reading that, and I have never heard him ask for a book before, so the first time he did it … I picked him up from school, and he got into the back of the car, and he said, "Are we gonna read that book today?" And I knew that was it. So that's the book that seems to have captured his imagination, so now that I know that, now my strategy will be to find books that are similar to that. Also to tell Laura to hurry up with book two because obviously he needs it, so there — that's my other strategy, is to cmake sure that she's writing a second book.
We need diverse books because …
We need diverse books because we are a diverse world.
Part III: The Jumbies
Meet the jumbies
Jumbies are not good. They are not good creatures for the most part, or at least this is how it was explained to me or told me to, the stories that were told to me. Jumbies are creatures who will eat you, given half the chance to eat you, and so growing up you had to know all the different ways that you could protect yourself from a Jumbie so that you wouldn't get dragged off.
Of course, we know what that's about. As adults, you tell these stories to children so that they stay where they're supposed to stay. You know, that's really the whole purpose behind them, but, of course, as a little kid you're thinking — your eyes are giant — you're looking around. You're ready with all of your various accoutrements to make sure that, you know, no jumbie gets you tonight, you know? And I was fairly certain that there were people in my life who I really thought were jumbies.
Ms. Evelyn, who lived next door to my grandmother, I was sure she was a soucriant. I am fairly certain that she was, actually. So there's all of these different kinds of creatures, and so jumbies are sort of a catch-all name for a bunch of different creatures. There are soucouya, lagahoo, douen, lajabless, there's Papa Bwa (?), there's Momma Chelo (?), and those are just the ones that we talk about mostly in Trinidad and Tobago.
Now throughout the Caribbean and in South America there are other types of jumbies. They may not be called jumbies. They might be called duppies. They might be called other things, but they're all part of the same type of story, and they are all fairly menacing, some to less degrees than others. Some are helpful. I actually recently found out that some of the ones that they talk about in Haiti are really quite benevolent.
That's not my experience. As far as I know they're just gonna eat you. So there are a whole bunch of different ones, and they all have different things that they do. They all have different physical features, and they all have different ways that they can be repelled, if you need to repel one, and so growing up I needed to know all of the ways because one never knew who was a jumbie. I mean, literally could be that guy on the street there. People did sort of just tell stories. People obviously told jumbie stories as I was growing up, and they would just talk about Jumbies as if it could literally be anybody walking down the street or whoever my uncles were dating. My mom used to tease my uncles that they were dating jumbies.
Creating a universal jumbie world
Research was difficult with these particular creatures because it's mostly an oral tradition, so there's not a whole lot that's written down. It was difficult to always reconcile all the little pieces together, so I read as much as I could — and a lot of it was recall, to be honest, of stories that I had heard before.
But within the reading, there were certain communities for each of the creatures that I tried to stick to as much as possible. I did change a few things and was told by some uncles that there were some things that were not really what happens with jumbies, but I figured it's a fairy tale, and you can take some artistic license. I was trying to pull together as much information as I could from the little pieces of information — so I had to have a bigger sort of rulebook of what these creatures do, how they behave, what kind of world they live in, that sort of thing.
I discovered that throughout the Caribbean and in South America there are all of these other types of creatures that have some similarities, and so I tried as much as I could to incorporate those as well because I really wanted it to feel like a story that could take place really on any Caribbean island, not just in Trinidad and Tobago, because all of us don't have it, right?
We don't have this folklore as part of the literature, as part of the canon, and so I really wanted it to be able to fit into any one of the islands easily. I really wanted kids to be able to say, "Oh, that could be St. Lucia." Or, "that could be Martinique," or whatever it was, and not think about the rest of it, not think, "Oh, this can't be me." I wanted them to have their lore and see themselves inside of it.
Talking about slavery in "Rise of the Jumbies"
Well, in the first book, in The Jumbies, I inserted in a very small way this idea that the way that the people came to the island was off of these slave ships, and it's Severine who is the one who reveals this to Corinne in the first book, and I didn't touch on it very much because I wasn't sure I could get away with it.
I wasn't sure that this was a topic that one could broach in a book for very young kids, and nobody batted an eye. Nobody said anything about it one way or the other, so with Rise I decided, well, now's my chance. I'm gonna really, really go there in a big way, but again — with something like the horror of the transatlantic slave trade — that is an extremely difficult thing to try to broach with third graders.
You know, these are kids who are really young. How do you bring that up? And I had the idea of using the mermaids as the vehicle for talking about it. So you have these gorgeous, magical creatures, and I build it into their sort of backstory that this is how they came to be, that this is the thing that has created them.
They have come from this horror, but they are now these beautiful creatures, and I thought that was a really good way to do it, and even though that is still a smallish part of Rise — because it takes place mostly in the middle of the story — and the story is still mostly about Corinne and her friends and their quest and dealing with jumbies and so on, but having that little moment with the mermaids was probably the biggest part for me, and it was also for sure the most difficult to write.
Just those pieces with the mermaids were just the hardest because it was just so emotional for me, and I also wanted to make sure that I did a good job doing it, that I was careful about the words that I chose and even how long I went on about it. You know, trying to make sure that it is the right amount of talking about it, not going on too long so that it becomes too big of a thing for the story but not having it to be too short and then it's kind of a throwaway.
So that part, even though it's sort of a small arc within the larger arc of the story was really the hardest for me to write in every possible, imaginable way. It also took me the longest to write those pieces than any other part of the book.
Corinne is 11 years old, and she has been sort of on her own her entire life. Her mom died when she was very young. Her dad is a fisherman, so he's out on the sea a lot, so she kind of is the lady of the house. She's in charge of all of the things, you know? She's the boss, really, and so when we start off in the first novel in The Jumbies, her orange trees have borne fruit, and she can go off into the market and make her way in the world because this is actually a Haitian tradition where children are given fruit trees at birth.
And then they can take those fruit trees, the produce from them, and sell them and have economic stability. So I took this Haitian tradition and put it into the story, and so Corinne is a business woman, and she's off to make her money and run her house, and then she gets waylaid by this story — she doesn't think that these kinds of creatures are real at all, so she's not expecting it.
It really comes out of left field for her, and she has to grapple with a couple of things. First that they exist, second that they are messing with her family personally, and third that she has a connection to them. So she's dealing with all of that as she is going through the first book and finding herself with a bit of an identity crisis because she's not sure how she fits into the larger scheme of things.
I think with the second book, she changes a little bit because she's much more confident in the first one. She really knew who she was at the beginning of the first one, and at the beginning of the second one she's very much on shaky ground, and I guess pun intended — when you read the book you understand the pun there — but when she starts the second one. She's not sure who she is, and she is very much trying to prove herself. She's trying to remake a name for herself and figure out who she can be for herself, but who she can be to the wider community.
A lot of times with stories, characters have an arc where they start off and they're not feeling that great about themselves or they're sort of low on confidence, and by the end they're at the higher end of the spectrum. And I think we kind of have the opposite with Corinne because she starts off feeling really good, and then she ends up trying to grapple with things, still trying to figure things out.
A revival of jumbie stories
You know, I think for me, the thing that is really important about these stories is that the people who are my age and having kids now who are Trinidadian or other Caribbean expats, or even Caribbean people who are still in their countries are not really telling these stories as much as they were — my parents' generation told these stories.
So these stories are slowly getting lost, and so I'm hoping that now that there's interest in these kinds of stories that there will be more people telling these stories. I really, really hope that that is the case, that more writers start telling stories about jumbies so that we get a whole bunch. I would love to see a whole shelf full of jumbie books. It would be really exciting for me because it is very much like that oral tradition where everybody has their own take on it.
So I kind of hope that I'm ushering in a little bit of a jumbie boom, you know? That would be a lot of fun for me.
Tracey Baptiste reads an excerpt from "Rise of the Jumbies"
Hi. I'm Tracey Baptiste, and I will be reading chapter two, the entire chapter two, from my new novel Rise of the Jumbies. An opening in the sea. Beneath a tangle of boats and nets the ocean floor quivered. Sand rose up, muddying the water. Schools of fish were shaken out of the coral. Rocks covered in barnacles and layers of sediment dislodged and knocked against each other.
As they tumbled, they opened hidden chasms like a bottle finally free of its cork. In the darkness of a newly opened chamber, a gnarled, shriveled-looking creature shifted and then shifted again, as if it was testing out its new space. Long, twig-thin fingers reached out from under the rocks and folded into the fissures of the stone above. The fingers pushed the stone, stretching the chasm wide like the jaws of a beast.
Tracey Baptiste was born in Trinidad, where she grew up on jumbie stories and fairy tales, and decided to be a writer at the wise old age of three, after her mother bought her an oversized illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales. “It was so spellbindingly beautiful, I thought I wanted to live in its pages my entire life.”
Her debut, a young adult novel titled Angel’s Grace, was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by New York City librarians.
Before she started writing professionally, Tracey was a second grade teacher. After that, she worked in educational publishing developing reading and language arts textbooks for kids, and later edited nonfiction books for kids.
Tracey is a wife and mom and lives in New Jersey, where she writes and edits books for kids from a very cozy office in her house that is filled with more toys than she can count. She does lots of author visits, and is on the faculty at Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program.