Our Reading into History Family Book Club met yesterday to discuss Ship of Souls with author Zetta Elliott and we had a marvelous time! In case you missed it, we have a few more signed copies of her book available at the NYHistory Store for fans out there. Check out what she has to say about her amazing urban historical fantasy, and get excited for our next interview with author Cynthia DeFelice who will join us via Skype on January 6 to talk about her historical fiction novel The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker.
Psst! Did you know you can try book club for free? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get a free pass to your first meeting.
In 1991 builders in Lower Manhattan discovered something surprising when they prepared to dig into the earth—thirty feet below ground on Broadway, they found 419 intact human skeletons! Archeologists and historians investigated the area and were able to identify what these builders had stumbled upon: the African Burial Ground, where free and enslaved African Americans were buried during the colonial era. The burial ground is estimated to cover six acres of Manhattan and hold the remains of 20,000 people.
The African Burial Ground speaks to New York’s role in the slave trade and New York City’s two-century status as a slave city. Yesterday, our Reading into History Family Book Club met to explore this chapter in New York’s history with Zetta Elliott’s inventive novel Ship of Souls. In this masterful blend of history and fantasy, Elliott’s book creatively imagines the mark the burial ground has left on New York—and the ghosts that remain in our city because of it.
Elliott recently shared some of her thoughts on writing, magic, and New York. Check out her interview and we’ll see you for our next meeting on Sunday, January 6!
DCHM: In your introduction you write that you’ve “always known there was magic in this city.” What do you think makes New York City a magical place?
Zetta Elliott: New York’s history is evident—I see signs of earlier generations almost everywhere I go. Just glancing at the year inscribed on a building’s cornerstone can trigger my imagination! Plus we have this incredible mix of people from all over the world. The blending of so many cultures creates an energy that crackles—it’s palpable. It makes me feel like anything’s possible.
DCHM: You note that you were inspired to write Ship of Souls by your walks through New York City. What are some of the historical spaces in the city that inspire you to write?
ZE: The first historical site I visited with my students was Seneca Village—or where it once stood before it was razed to build Central Park. I started to explore African American history in the city and discovered Weeksville, the second-largest free black community in the U.S. prior to the Civil War. That village became the site of three of my historical fantasy novels. And the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan obviously features in Ship of Souls. I now live in Philadelphia, and my latest novel takes place in the historic Woodlands Cemetery.
DCHM: In addition to your walks throughout the city, how did you prepare to write Ship of Souls? What sort of research did you do?
ZE: I’m Canadian so I didn’t grow up learning U.S. history. I needed to learn more about the Revolutionary War and so did research online and at the library. I write historical fantasy so I just need basic parameters—things that actually did happen in the past—and then I speculate and fill in the blanks.
DCHM: Ship of Souls is a unique read for our book club in that it blends historical fiction and fantasy. Why did you decide to approach these historical topics with fantasy? How do you think that fantasy can be used as a tool to explore history?
ZE: Everyone has a story to tell but only some stories get included in the official historical record. Writing historical fantasy allows me to respond to some of the silences and absences in history. I can point readers to historical events that might not be well known, and I can generate empathy by creating characters that are relatable. I’m not a historian, but I am a storyteller, and sometimes a good story is a great way to engage with a past world that seems more distant than it really is.
DCHM: When our protagonist D encounters a mysterious glowing bird from another realm, the bird tells D, “All the dead are not dead.” In what ways do you see the histories you write about in Ship of Souls as alive still?
ZE: The ancient Egyptians believed that the dead lived as long as you spoke their names—that’s why we erect statues, right? Our society attempts to memorialize certain people and events so that they remain present and acknowledged. But there are many people whose stories haven’t been told, and that injustice makes their spirits restless. I take ghosts very seriously—I think they linger because they have something to say. As a writer, it’s my job to listen. Sometimes our society tries to bury unpleasant aspects of the past—like that enslaved Africans built New York City on Lenape land. But denial doesn’t work—we have to confront the past and, when possible, make amends to those who were wronged.
DCHM: What three words would you use to describe Ship of Souls?
ZE: Quest, friendship, healing
Written by Caitlin O’Keefe
DiMenna Children’s History Museum Family Programs Assistant