Emily Raboteau spent ten years traveling five nations in order to research her latest book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, a work of creative nonfiction about black people who left home to find the “Promised Land.” She lives in New York City and teaches creative writing at City College in Harlem. She Writer Carleen Brice, author of two novels and two nonfiction works, was so impressed by Searching for Zion that she offered to interview her. Here, Emily discusses the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, writers who have influenced her, and finding Zion within.
Carleen Brice: Your first book was a novel, The Professor’s Daughter. In what ways are writing a novel and a memoir alike or different?
Emily Raboteau: Writing a novel is like pulling a saw out of your vagina. Writing a memoir is like pulling a saw out of your vagina while others are looking on. I’ll leave it at that.
Carleen Brice: You write about reading Obama’s Dreams of My Father in Searching for Zion and your publisher is saying your book is like Eat Pray Love if it had been written by Zora Neale Hurston. What memoir(s) influenced yours? Is there a book you had in mind while you wrote?
Emily Raboteau: I’d be over the moon with 1% of Elizabeth Gilbert’s sales figures, wouldn’t you? My book is about 20% memoir, 10% history, 70% cultural investigation. I think of it too as a travelogue and was influenced by travel writers including Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux, V.S. Naipaul and Ryszard Kapuscinski. My topic was a heavy one so I looked to Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad to help leaven the tone with humor. Zora was an influence, of course. Thank God for her. Her anthropological texts on Haiti and Jamaica are amazing. It bothers me that most travel writers, at least the ones we’ve heard about, are men.
Carleen Brice: In Searching for Zion, you travel to Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia and Ghana. Why those countries for your search?
Emily Raboteau: My journey started in Israel, where I was surprised to discover two groups of black Jews – the African Hebrew Israelites and the Ethiopian Jews. I was curious about the exoduses they’d made to get to the Holy Land. After writing about those communities, I found I wanted to continue writing along this theme: Zionism, not as we usually think of it in relation to the Jewish Diaspora, but in relation to the African one. Zion has been a metaphor for freedom since slave-times for black people in the West. We hear about Zion time and time again in reggae, but I didn’t know much about the faith that underscores that music, so I went next to Jamaica. Then on to Ethiopia where a community of Rasta has emigrated with the belief that Zion is to be found there. Ghana was part of the puzzle because it draws a lot of African American roots tourists and ex-pats seeking to connect with the land their forebears may have come from. I was most interested in talking to folks about whether or not they found the Promised Land they’d dreamed of.
Carleen Brice: I love that you write about your own assumptions and misperceptions. Like when you meet the young man with the purple lip and imagine it to be some lovely tribal symbol and your friend tells you it’s probably medicine for herpes. What was the biggest misperception you had about “Zion” before you started writing?
Emily Raboteau: That it was a place I could discover on a map. It may sound banal, but what I took away from all those years of travel was simply the lesson that the ultimate Zion is within.
Carleen Brice: What advice would you offer memoir writers about the craft and/or about trying to get published?
Emily Raboteau: I’ll share a lesson about memoir writing that I found really helpful from Vivian Gornick’s terrific book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. We all wear many hats. For example, you may simultaneously be a mother, daughter, sister, formerly alcoholic, cancer-surviving, circus clown. But if you’ve decided to write a memoir about your life, you must choose only one of these hats. Decide which of your selves is the self in service to the story you absolutely have to tell. For me, in this book, that was the young woman searching for home.
For more about Emily and Searching for Zion, visit www.emilyraboteau.com.
Emily Raboteau photo credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis