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

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Comment by maggie brooke on January 16, 2013 at 5:53pm

This sounds like a book I absolutely have to read! Thanks for the interview.

Comment by Shanae' Brown on January 16, 2013 at 11:28am

i loved The Professor's Daughter. One of my absolute favorite books. So this is a must read for me. Great interview with an amazing writer.

Comment by Julie Luek on January 16, 2013 at 8:51am

Definitely looking into this book-- it's right up my reading alley. Thanks for sharing, Emily.

Comment by Tracy Slater on January 15, 2013 at 7:38pm

Thanks for this--really interesting! Emily's book sounds fascinating.

Ellen, Pamela, it strikes me that all memoir should be hybrid in some senses; otherwise, it's just the story of one person's life (who, unless they are famous, isn't always that interesting). I think it was also Gornick (quoted in the interview above), although I may have the citation wrong, who pointed out that the situation giving rise to the book might be unique or personal, but the story itself needs to be broader, universal, in some ways, and hybridizing the genre would be one way to do this.

Comment by Dera R Williams on January 15, 2013 at 5:02pm

Great interview and I cannot wait to read the book. This is wonderful. And thanks for the tips on memoir.

Comment by Pamela Olson on January 15, 2013 at 2:34pm

Great interview and the book sounds fascinating! I have a book coming out in March called Fast Times in Palestine that's being marketed as a travelogue but also incorporates memoir and journalism. The journalism is actually the point, but I enjoy stories and journeys much more than straight journalism with its isolated anecdotes and "objective" voice (which is almost never actually objective -- we all have unconscious biases, might as well put them out in the open).

Sounds like you are putting together a similar hybrid -- and it feels like the time is coming for this kind of writing that has both integrity and entertainment value. Inshallah.

Comment by JILL TEITELMAN on January 15, 2013 at 12:36pm

A wonderful interview and the book sounds like such a compelling read!  Will have to quote the vagina metaphors!

Jill Teitelman,  author of  SAVING GRACIE.

Comment by Margaret Wacker on January 15, 2013 at 11:53am
Interesting interview and interesting comment by Ellen Cassedy. Sounds like three books I need to read.
Comment by Ellen Cassedy on January 15, 2013 at 11:49am

Fascinating interview!  I think we're seeing the birth of a new genre -- a hybrid of personal narrative, travelogue, and illumination of socio-cultural realities.  Another wonderful example: Susan Suleiman's "Budapest Diary."  Writing my We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (which is also an example of the genre) often felt like stitching a patchwork quilt. I, too, felt I had to think of myself as a literary character and create my persona as carefully as the other characters in the book. 

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