I’m an explorer of the wonders of human behavior. If the world was comprised of five doors that read “Who, What, Where, When, and Why,” I would walk through the door that reads “Why.”
My fictional family in Time of the Locust certainly differs from my own, and that is part of the thrill for me in exploring the possibilities of the imagination and what other “lives” my imagination bears. And yet I feel that this fictional family at its core is still striving to do what many families work at every day, including my own; steering that little boat in a big ocean, trying mightily to navigate the rough seas and uncharted territory and high winds of the world. Of course I love my husband and three boys tremendously, and together we continue to weather any number of storms like growing pains, career challenges, and balancing it all. Every day we look around at what’s happening in society and ask ourselves how we will navigate and thrive. As parents of three young black males in today’s world, we discuss and wonder, sometimes anxiously, what else can we do to protect our children and make things better for them? How hard can we push the envelope to give them the greatest chance possible?
I believe that this parental desire to make things better in the face of pervasive challenge is universal and the driving force in many families. It’s one of the elements that drove me in writing Time of the Locust— trying to hammer at that dynamic through the characters. In the book, Sephiri represents that pure, eternal light that children come here with and that we as parents try desperately to keep from being extinguished. Brenda represents the undying power of a mother’s love and as a mother I can identify with that power. Many of the men in Time of the Locust represent that timeless, unbreakable spirit that will rise again and again no matter how hard forces try to break it— a spirit I’ve seen in men like my father and my husband and the spirit I hope to nurture in my sons. And although I’ve created these characters, I can stand back and admire their strength in the face of even more challenging situations than I’ve had to endure. They represent a composite of many people, known and unknown, who have lived through and risen above mountains higher than mine.
The Undiscovered Country of Autism
The uncharted or unknown has always fascinated me. That might be why I’ve always been drawn to things like astronomy and deep sea exploration and neurology. And after I had my own children I came to understand that there are larger mysteries beneath what I thought I understood as an adult. I think that children, by the universe’s design, are amazing beings that come to us with gifts and predispositions— some that seem to come from us and some that seem to come from somewhere else. It is that “somewhere else” that drew me to exploring autism. I believe that autism is one of the great mysteries of the mind, a kind of undiscovered country that we have yet to understand. And aside from reading the multitude of materials about autism, I felt I learned the most about this mysterious condition simply by observing the hundreds of home videos that parents of autistic children themselves put on the internet and reading what they shared about what their day was like, what their children were like, what autism “looks and feels” like at any given time.
I was surprised to find that I could relate to some challenges like trying to run errands with uncooperative kids in tow, mealtime triumphs or battles, and tantrums. I was in awe to find things outside of my experience like my child not looking at me or smiling, interactions with seemingly invisible things, or fixations on what seems inconsequential. But the enigmatic look in the eyes of these children, as if they are gazing into something apart from the rest of us, was something I couldn’t turn away from. The magic hidden in the worlds of these children is also evident in the beautiful art they are capable of rendering before our eyes.
Most of all, I was struck by a kind of inexplicable dialogue that seemed to exist between parents and autistic children— and I came to believe that this mysterious interaction was the same thing it is for everyone else: love. And as every parent likely knows, there is no playbook for parenthood. Sometimes you build on lessons passed down to you. Sometimes you learn as you go. You teach your child what you can and show what you know and try to connect with what you believe is inside. But ultimately you are only watching that child unfold. Still, I had the easy part in exploring autism as a writer. I only had to imagine what it might be like through the characters in Time of the Locust while others live it every day.
The Woman Writer’s Life
Since I have never had the luxury of the “writer’s life,” that wonderful routine where I get to sit at a desk in a mahogany-shelved room with a roaring fire, I’ve gotten very good at compartmentalizing whatever it is I have time to do. Sometimes I’ll pick a “sanity break” day and just go to the gym or garden or take a three-hour bath. My husband is very supportive of me in this regard and my kids are used to it, having grown up with this blocked-out “mom time” their entire lives. On other days “me time” starts near midnight when I can read or write, catch up with people on social media, or just watch a documentary—all of which work well with bouts of insomnia.
I lost my mother to breast cancer as a young woman and I learned very early that time is a gift from the universe that is not to be wasted. My mother was a big believer in relentless pushing for your goals and she was the perfect example of that principle. She could tell me— even from a hospital bed— that living my dream and moving forward without regret is the greatest gift of life. So I guess what inspires and drives me is time, understanding that it is both infinite in the scheme of all things and finite in the course of one’s physical life, and accepting that how much time I have can never be known but what I do with it is all important. “Life is a series of choices,” my mother would say. “Make the right choices for you and the world is at your feet.”