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Aunt Lute Asks: Kathya Alexander

With the release of Keep A'Livin' just around the corner, we caught up with Kathya Alexander to talk about the book and what went into the writing of it.

How did Keep A’Livin’ come about?

I initially started writing the book because there were things I wanted to explore about my own family. Things that nobody wanted to talk about. So I decided to have those conversations with these fictional characters instead of trying to get relatives to answer my questions. Most of what they’d tell me would probably be a lie anyway, so why not just have these characters tell me the stories I wanted to hear. It took me years to focus it on the Civil Rights Movement. That’s what ended up giving it structure and purpose. And the dialect came to me in a moment when I was really suffering from writer’s block. I’d always heard, when you can’t write, read. So I picked up a book one night and it happened to be a slave narrative written in dialect. That’s when the words really started to sing in my head.

What kept you writing?

Writing is something I love. And being a poor Black single mother in racist America, I didn’t have the opportunity to do many other things that I really loved. Writing was free. It was always available. And, even at its most difficult, it’s still better than washing dishes, you know? So why not write?

Can you tell us more about the verse styling you used and why you were drawn to it?

That happened after I found the dialect. It wasn’t intentional. When I went back to the language of my childhood, it was like the ancestors and the elders started speaking thru me. Phillis Wheatley, who wrote in rhyme. Paul Lawrence Dunbar was there too who I read in elementary school. And Langston. It was like they were guiding me. I remember when I first realized my writing rhymed. I was shocked! I tried changing it. Because who writes a whole novel in rhyme? That’s crazy. But that’s how the characters started speaking to me, how the writing started coming to me. And I’m the kind of writer who listens to the words in my head. What I do is write down what I hear and what I see. It’s too hard for me to just make up stuff to write on my own. So the book, and now a lot of my writing, including my plays, are in rhyme.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

It is my life mission to honor the heroes and sheroes of the Civil Rights Movement. It distresses me that so little is taught in schools about the most successful social justice movement in this country. From what kids learn today about it, you’d think that Rosa Parks sat on a bus, Martin Luther King made a speech, and then Negroes got equality. I want to make people aware of all those ordinary men and women who worked at the local level to make the Civil Rights Movement a success. I want them to know how long it took. I’ve had the opportunity in my plays to honor many more of the women of the Movement. The novel is basically told from the POV of the evening news, and the media definitely didn’t talk a lot at the time about all those women and the contributions they were making. I want Keep A’Livin’ to honor and acknowledge the local people, the grassroots activists that are often neglected in the history of that era.


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