Sunday, January 27, 2013

Emily Raboteau's "Searching for Zion"

Emily Raboteau is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Professor's Daughter. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best African American Fiction, The Guardian, Oxford American, Tin House, and elsewhere. Recipient of numerous awards including a Pushcart Prize and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Raboteau also teaches writing at City College, in Harlem.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, and reported the following:
I researched the meaning and metaphor of Zion in different and far-flung locales of the African diaspora for this book. The “Promised Land” has special resonance for the descendants of African slaves in the west. Many feel disinherited and dispossessed as a result of their legacy of slavery, some to the degree that they have pulled up their roots and looked elsewhere for a homeland. We hear Zion sung about in Negro spirituals, gospel music and reggae songs, always as a metaphor for freedom.

Page 99 of Searching for Zion takes place in Kingston, Jamaica, where I traveled to learn more about the Rastafari faith that underscores so much of what we hear in reggae music. As a longtime Bob Marley and roots reggae fan, I was drawn in by the postmodern idea that we all share “one blood” and “one heart.” That’s why it came as a rude awakening to hear the Rastas I interviewed using really homophobic rhetoric that seemed to contradict their own principles. It seemed to me that if their vision of Zion could not include gay people, then it was spiritually bankrupt. Some of their talk referenced hateful lyrics from dancehall music, (most notably Buju Banton’s song “Boom Bye-Bye”) though dancehall also has many socially conscientious lyricists.

At this point in the book, I explore some of these contradictions after visiting a dancehall show in downtown Kingston: “The young women wore skimpy stretch-fabric dresses in satiny copper, hot pink, and electric blue. They wore strappy heels and hair extensions and danced by humping the ground, or the speakers, or the boys, for a cameraman who dragged a long extension cord behind him like the tail of a rat. The soundclash was loud enough to liquefy my organs. I moved to the sidelines, unable to decode the lyrics, feeling distinctly middle-aged. I watched the libidinous spectacle until the sun rose and the market women returned with their wares. ‘Pepper, plum, tamarind, lime!’”
Learn more about the book and author at Emily Raboteau's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: Searching for Zion.

--Marshal Zeringue