Abiola Abrams: One Daring Writer
Abiola Abrams, who you may know as host of BETJ's The Best Shorts,
is an artist to watch. Actually, scratch that. She's an artist who you should
continue to watch because homegirl has been doing her thing as a filmmaker and
writer for quite some time. She just dropped her first book, DARE, a hip-hop
inspired retelling of Faust with a feminist twist. Shorter description: a damn
In her interview with BackList, she drops knowledge on classical literature, screenwriting, and why she's definitely an O.G.
by Felicia Pride January 2008
Paperback: 368 pages
BackList: How did you come up with the idea to retell Faust in your debut novel DARE?
Abiola Abrams: All of my work has classical elements in it. My parents are Guyanese and Guyana is a former British colony. So I grew up with my mother quoting Shakespeare and through my own reading I just developed a love for timeless themes. I am also very influenced by fairytales and other archetypal storytelling. People used to try to discourage me from this path, particularly in my work as a filmmaker, saying that as an African American storyteller certain things may be too high brow. That's nonsense. We have a tradition from Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Baldwin to Toni Morrison and Ossie Davis of people hiding European classical elements in their work.
Although I am an author, filmmaker and TV personality, I still see myself in many ways as a hip hop artist. I consider you a hip hop artist as well. Your book The Message drops serious knowledge. The words we spit are just on paper. There are many of us who grew up on hip hop and participate in our own ways. I love that Michael Eric Dyson said that he is a P.I.M.P. meaning a Public Intellectual with Moral Principals. I call myself an O.G., meaning an Original Goddess.
I wanted to play with themes of temptation and consequences. The German legend Faust where a scholar makes a pact with the devil, and is done in by vanity seemed like the perfect metaphorical parallel to me of what I see happening in the entertainment industry.
The problem then becomes once written how to market such a story. A novel that is hip hop, for women, smart and motivational with a African American heroine. The book was originally listed as erotica, and I'm like with two sex scenes in 350 pages? Come on!!! It was ridiculous. I quickly realized that marketing teams need to drop things into boxes. I don't want to mislead my readers. I am looking to develop and cultivate an audience that I will have a long relationship with, so I'm not going to pull an okey doke on them just to sell more books. When I opened the galley and saw "combining the buck wild sex of Zane" and "raunchy adventure," I burst into tears. I was like, what book are they reading? Then I learned that marketing teams don't read the books!
I totally respect the phenom that is our Zane, and her myriad of accomplishments and road-building. I actually hope to work with her soon, as my mission is empowering women politically, culturally, emotionally and sexually. I have even directed feminist erotica. However, this was just not a description of Dare'Dare is not erotica or street lit. That mis-description actually turned a lot of advanced reviewers away unfortunately because they thought'oh this will just be some more poorly written street lit. The great thing is that they are all finding the book now, thanks to my phenomenally supportive team and wonderful conversations with sites like Backlist and AALBC.com. Thank you!
BackList: You've called DARE a hip-hop feminist novel. What does that meant to
Abiola Abrams: Hip hop is my music and culture too and I refuse to let it be kidnapped by a small group of corporate artists without a fight. We need more diverse voices and images. My definition of feminism, is the empowerment of everyone, regardless of gender. The focus is just on women because that's where the inequity lies. I'm glad that you asked this because I feel like I can have a more intellectual conversation on Backlist and AALBC.com.
Dare is the story of a young woman, Maya, finding herself. Maya starts off too insecure to practically face the world and ends up on the path to being more empowered. Life is a journey, so I didn't want to tie everything up in a neat bow. I wanted the heroine Maya to be like all of us, trying her best, hitting sometimes, missing others, but still being human and trying to figure it out. Someone called Dare a black Bridget Jones' Diary. I actually don't mind that description. I fought to include the affirmations and self help worksheets so that readers have tools to become stronger along with Maya. There are also book club questions in the book and on the companion web site.
BackList: What messages, if any, were you trying convey in the novel?
Abiola Abrams: My goal with all of my work is to keep readers or viewers entertained and engaged. Then I hide the vitamins inside of the candy. Although Dare is chick lit, the main message of Dare is very Wizard of Oz, meaning "you had it all along my dear." And we do.
BackList: What commentary were you trying to get across about hip-hop?
Abiola Abrams: Although the entrepreneurship in hip hop is nothing short of phenomenal I wanted to shine a light on what we're selling and the two dimensionality of the personalities and images. Like Maya in the novel, I feel that I love hip hop, but hip hop no longer loves me. At least not the pop hip hop that is most promoted.
BackList: I thought it was interesting that the main character Maya studied
sociology but the one person that she failed to observe was herself. Tell us a
little bit about writing this character.
Abiola Abrams: Yes! Most of us as women can break down for you exactly how everybody and her mother should solve their problems, me included. However, when it comes to advising and nurturing ourselves, we can be our own worst enemies. I often ask women when they ask me for advice, what would you tell your best friend? Then they usually have the answer. We know!
Creating the character of Maya Gayle Hope was a wonderful experience. There are many things that I have in common with Maya and many things that I don't. The other day I asked one of my friends where she was up to in her reading of Dare, and she said, "I'm at the part where you are bugging out in the bathroom of the private plane."
I was like, helloooo, Maya isn't me! (laughs) She said, yes she is! I said, maybe, but they all are. All of my characters from Maya and Athena to Thug and Big Rob are perhaps different parts of me. One of the cool things was that I was dealing with my own broken heart while giving birth to the character Maya and her broken heart.
I think that Maya is like a lot of us. In retrospect, a big theme that Maya and I share is the moment of realizing that you have been playing it too safe. We can't just observe this grand adventure called life, we have to live it. That's where one of the central questions of the story comes in: What would you dare to do if you knew that you could not fail?
BackList: What's been the journey like of releasing your first novel?
Abiola Abrams: The journey actually began when I was around 6 years old and used to make up my own books. I was so happy to see my name on the cover of Dare. When I first got the book and there it was, a whole cover of a brown face, my heart was beating so fast that I thought I would have a happy heart attack. Girl, I was a grinning fool. Still am. I even smelled the book!! The journey has been a lot of hard work, but I am grateful for every step and can't wait for people to read it. It was fun to write.
There are hidden gems, that hearken back to my other favorite books. For example, Maya and Athena live on Bluestone Road in my fictional town of Faust, Ohio. Bluestone Road is where Toni Morrison's Beloved takes place. I wanted to see what that street and its inhabitants might be over 100 years later. Alice Walker is also referenced and the heroine Maya calls Maya Angelou her godmother in her head. Maya is also named Maya Gayle Hope, with her middle name being a reference to the Wizard of Oz . Dorothy's last name is Gayle!
BackList: Did you find it easy to find a publishing home for this book?
Abiola Abrams: People look at my body of work and say, wow, you have so much going on, but I am basically a storyteller. The story just dictates the medium as Melvin Van Peebles told me once. This story wanted to be born as a novel.
I have written a lot of fiction and non-fiction, but this is just my first published work. For me, the entry came through film since that's where I had most of my connections. A colleague sent Dare as a screenplay to her agent and they invited me in to hear and read more. Inkwell Management ultimately signed me, and my agent Alexis Hurley is an incredible cheerleader. The insane thing is that someone I considered a friend suggested to her early on that she should hire a ghostwriter'to write my book! This person had never even read my writing, she just underestimated me.
As they went off on a search for a ghostwriter, I went into dismay. I didn't even know that there were ghostwriters for fiction! I went underground for a beat and wrote 6 chapters of the story and showed it to my agent. Alexis was blown away. She said'you're a writer! I said, yes, since I was 6 year old!! (laughs) And I studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence.
In terms of publishers, the wonderfully supportive Andie Avila was interested first and then the magnificent Selena James won the bidding at Simon and Schuster/ Pocket Books. I am so grateful for both of these women and what they do. After some changes at S&S my final editor was Abby Zidle.
BackList: Because of your background in filmmaking, will we see DARE as a movie?
Abiola Abrams: Before the book deal, when Dare was born first as a script, I had a producer on board who thankfully opted not to make the project. When I signed the book deal, I scrapped the script and started from scratch to build a multi-layered novel, character-driven, plot-rich novel.
Wow'I just realized that this is the first time that I am talking about this in the press, so BackList and AALBC.com are getting a scoop. Candida Royalle, the producer who I first showed Dare to, is a film producer and activist creates positive, woman-friendly erotica. My films have been about mental illness, interracial relationships, cultural miscommunication, being foreign'all taboo breaking topics.
I really wanted to do one film project exploring the subject of positive African American sexuality. African American women are exploited sexually throughout our popular media. The vision seems to be that the men all want to be pimps and the women all want to be "hos." However, I didn't want to create a message that sex is bad. Sex between mentally and physically healthy partners is great! It's the images that are damaging. Women are muti-dimensional'we can be both sexual and intelligent.
I wanted to create work that would be a positive representation of our sexuality. Although the bodies of women of color are everywhere, sexually speaking our voices are largely absent. Because we are not open around sexual conversations, there is a lot of misinformation and HIV and AIDS continues to spread. I wanted to create an erotic film that showed beautiful black love and would help us to raise our sexual self esteem. I originally submitted Dare to be that film, but thankfully Candida rejected it and I filmed something else instead.
I say thankfully because Dare is definitely not an erotic or sexual story. Dare is more of a crazy, sexy, smart, woman's adventure. I was trying to make a round peg fit into a square hole. The cool thing was that after I sat down to write the novel and threw the original script in the trash and started from scratch, I ended up creating something much richer and multi-dimensional than my original script. I am proud of how the story has developed.
Wow. So that's the long way of saying, yes, hopefully at some point we will see Dare the movie, with Maya, Athena, Luci, Thug, Big Rob, the parties, private jets, hip hop tour, velvet ropes, fashions, and all of Dare's sociological madness on the big screen!
BackList: What upcoming projects are you working on?
Abiola Abrams: I am so excited about everything coming up. The Dare Tour, both virtual and in person, is called the Dare to Be B.A.D. Revolution. B.A.D. stands for beautiful and daring, and it's about us living our dreams and refusing to be doormats at home and at work, while still being respectful to the women and men in our families and lives. Dare is a Black Expressions selection. My BET J show The Best Shorts, an independent film showcase and competition is going into our third season. Yay! We are the little show that could. My producers Sean Joell Johnson and Ralph Scott are fantastic, and we all believe firmly in the vision of helping each other to get our stories told, just as clearly you do. I also have a new online daily show that will launch in a couple of months called Planet Abiola. The main hub for the show will be blackplanet.com. I love the team over there. Spearheaded by Tracey Cooper, they have given me so much love. Planet Abiola will be zany cutting edge entertainment. If people are not on blackplanet, they can also find us when we launch at www.planetabiola.com, which also has my films and other goodies.
I hosted the African American Literary Awards Show presented by Yvette Hayward for the past to years in a row in Harlem, personally handing awards to writers I respect like Walter Mosley, Hill Harper and Eric Jerome Dickey. It is so exciting now to be a published author-- finally! I also have work in several anthologies, A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer, a Rant and a Prayer by Eve Ensler alongside the writings of Maya Angelou, Edward Albee and Alice Walker; the upcoming anthologies Behind the Bedroom Door by Paula Derrow (Self Magazine) and Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex by Ellen Sussman.
Collaboration, partnership and sisterhood are an important part of my artistic practice, so not only will I be a part of Renee Flagler's Divas of Literature tour along with Jackie Christie, but I am also including other authors on my Dare Tour: you, Felicia Pride, Maryann Reid, Donna Hill, Renee Flagler, Linda Nieves-Powell, Sofia Quintero AKA Black Artemis and performer Holly Bass.
People can buy Dare on Amazon.com, Powell's, Black Expressions, Barnes and
Noble, AALBC.com or wherever they buy books. The website for Dare is
www.daretogetalife.com, and that's
what I dare each and every one of us to do. Find my tour dates on
www.abiolaabrams.com as well.
This interview originally appeared on TheBackList.net
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