A Q&A with Kwame Alexander, Author of September/October Kids’ Indie Next List Top Pick “The Door of No Return”

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The Door of No Return Hardcover by Kwame AlexanderIndependent booksellers across the country have chosen Kwame Alexander’s The Door of No Return (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) as their top pick for the September/October 2022 Kids’ Indie Next List.

The Door of No Return follows Kofi, a young boy in a village in Upper Kwanta, whose dreams of water may be the key to his freedom after a sudden death during a festival between rival villages.

The early part of this book could serve as the story of Kofi, an 11 year old boy in Upper Kwanta. When the story becomes one of enslavement, it’s felt viscerally,” said Gwen Papp of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Kwame Alexander will break your heart in half the words other authors might need.”

Here, Alexander discusses his process with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: The Door of No Return is the first book in a trilogy. In your author’s note you share, “This is historical fiction. It is a novel inspired by history based on the real lives of the Ashanti people who are native to a region of West Africa now known as Ghana. It was a hard story to write, but it was one that needed to be told.”

You shared the words of poet, philosopher, and abolitionist, Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “be an opener of doors” and you said you’ve “tried to be that here.” Can you talk more about your process as a writer, choosing the title of the book, and the door you’ve opened through the work?

Kwame Alexander: I spent about ten years thinking about the book because usually I can’t start writing until I know the beginning, middle, and the end. I don’t need to know exactly how I’m going to get to the end, but I need to know what it’s going to be and how it is going to start. I think through that process until I have a clear understanding and appreciation for that. 2012 was my first trip to Ghana/West Africa, and sitting under the coconut tree and talking to some of the kids in the village — and me wanting to talk about the weight of history, and them wanting to talk about Kanye West and music and food. I just started thinking to myself, “wait a minute.”

As a Black American, you walk around with this sort of weight of being Black, and you think that is the connection between you and Africa — between you and the motherland — and it doesn’t have to be. That burden was taken off when I found myself in Africa because people just want to talk about the daily woes and wonders of life. The toils and the triumphs. They just want to talk about “what good food did you have,” “what do you think about this song,” and “do you want a coconut?”

So during this ten-year period of me having my first visit to Ghana and where we are today, I found myself being able to appreciate the beauty and normalcy of kids whose eyes are full of hope and growing up in this place that happens to be on the other side of the world that we know of as Africa. I thought to myself, “how I could capture that in a book?” So during that ten year writing process, which is mostly thinking, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. Once I figure that out, I still have to deal with history, so I can deal with my imagination and writerly desires to craft this new language around Africa. But I still have to deal with the history. That’s when the research kicked in and that’s when the dark days of writing a story I knew wasn’t going to end too well — that’s when it kicked in. The whole process was ten years. 

The Door of No Return as a title was a process of 1) what is the title that is going to be marketable and sell, because like Jay Z said, “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” I understand the value of being able to have a product that is packaged in a way that is appealing and makes people want to pick it up. So can we come up with a title that is going to be marketable? 2) Can we come up with a title that is going to be relevant and related to what the book is about? 3) Can we come up with a title that I feel is authentic and meaningful and significant?

BTW: In “The Storyteller” Kofi says, in reference to the stories of his papa’s father, the village storyteller, “I remember the stories like a pigeon remembers its way home.” In 2018, you opened the Barbara E. Alexander Memorial Library and Health Clinic in Ghana, as a part of LEAP for Ghana, an international literacy program you co-founded. The Door of No Return offers a way home. Can you talk more about the importance of Historical Fiction and the space it creates for remembering and truth telling?

KA: The way we get to appreciate not only ourselves, but also each other, and begin to appreciate the journey of other people and other communities, other nations, others with a different kind of history than ours — which is necessary because ultimately it is about being a better human being and the first prerequisite for being a better human being is able to appreciate other human beings — we have to be able to acknowledge the humanity of other people. The way we acknowledge it is we have to know it. You can’t know what you don’t know. So how do you know it? I believe between the pages of a book are some of the best ways to begin to learn and develop knowledge and an understanding of the world we live in and your place in that world.

BTW:  In “Conversations With My Grandfather” Kofi’s papa’s father says “A family tie is like the river, it can bend, but it cannot break,” and “there is much responsibility with knowing, grandson.” Kofi’s energy, many questions, and eagerness to seek the truth might suggest to readers that your voice as the author is reflected through him, as does the wisdom, traditional storytelling, and poetic delivery of the grandfather. Can you talk about your process of shaping the narratives and bringing to life the spirits of the characters within the text?

KA: As I write a book, I am still living my life. I’m walking around being a willing participant in my life — whether it be dreams or conversations with my kids — I am being impacted. My experiences in my world are going to find their way into the book. It is unavoidable. When I think about that particular line, about the family bending like the river, that probably came at a time when I was having some interactions with my siblings and my father. And my father reminding me that you can’t choose your family — and you maybe don’t like them but you have to love them. In that particular moment, Kofi is being reminded of that interaction with his cousin. So that is art imitating life and life imitating art.

BTW: The Door of No Return is set in 1860 in a region of West Africa now known as Ghana. The text references invaders, forced assimilation, and systematic colonial attempts of erasure. The message of colonialism is spoken through the character Mr. Philips, who as a “teacher” demands “Queen’s English” from the children.

In “Signals,” Kofi’s papa’s father says, “Kofi, we dream to heal our memory or to face the unimaginable truth. Dreams are hints from the beyond, but they can also be warnings.” Can you talk a bit about the healing journey you’ve offered your readers through the text?

KA: During the pandemic I found myself not writing. I found myself locked down watching Netflix and Disney+. I couldn’t write. The feat itself felt like the end of days — and I am a writer. I traffic in words, hope, upliftment, empowerment. I didn’t know how to find my way back to the art. I remember reading a Toni Morrison quote and she said “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I read that and remembered why I have to write. My motto is changing the world one word at a time. If you believe that, then that is what you have to be about. These are the times where the world needs it. Find your chair. Find your desk, paper, and pencil. And write and heal. It is my hope that this book in particular has enough heart and humanity in it — and is written well enough — that when you read it some part of you will be informed, inspired, and healed. 

BTW: In your author’s note you said, “I wrote it for the me nobody knows, for the you who is still becoming, for the possibility that is in us.” The first book of this trilogy is already one many wish they’d had when they were younger, and the gift of these stories will fill homes. Can you give your fans a sneak peak of what’s to come next in the trilogy?

KA: I can tell you that I have been told countless times in my career, in particular by young girls, that I need to write a book with a female lead. I can say that book two will more than likely have a female lead and after you’ve read book one, you will definitely know who it should be and who it possibly will be.