By Ashley Franklin
2020 is a year that has certainly taken away more from many of us than it has given. During a time when we have lost friends, loved ones, stability, and sometimes our peace of mind, it seems like a tall order to talk about joy. Yet, here I am, on a quest to continue capturing moments of joy in my writing. How? How am I supposed to overcome the societal conditions that feel as though they have been pressed down, shaken together, and molded into a soul-sucking vice that has nearly silenced my creative voice? I’ve had to look internally to assess what truly brings me joy at a time when external happiness is waning.
You see, I am an emotional writer. I often turn towards memories and the emotions they evoke for the seeds of my writing. When that fails, I look to the world for inspiration for what to plant. But this 2020 soil is hostile, and every idea I’ve planted lately has refused to sprout. My grandmother recently passed away. Even at my good-and-grown age of 35, she still reminded me to “Be a good girl.” Time doesn’t heal all wounds. It just provides enough new source material to be sufficiently distracted. Besides, I was sure she’d taken the last scrap of goodness in the world with her. The scales of sadness were certainly tipped. I stared at a blank screen. I stared at a blank page. My voice, entangled with grief, was trapped in a void.
It would be impossible for me to turn inward to capture joy for my writing if I didn’t have a source of joy to pull from. The pandemic has left me feeling disconnected, so I turned inward to my memories. I remembered two songs: One by my stepfather, Bishop Bruce V. Parham, called “This Joy” and another, “Count it All Joy,” by The Winans. Yes, these are gospel songs. (They’re pretty dope. Google them if you don’t know them.) I know them because I grew up in the church. That is a part of my identity. And then I remembered this verse from the Quran: We have certainly created man into hardship. (90:4). As a Muslim convert, this is also a part of my identity. Together, these changed my perspective. While I cannot control what happens in the outside world, I can certainly control how I let it affect me. I control how (or if) I respond to inevitable hardships. That’s how I preserved my joy. That’s how I rescued my voice.
I try to capture moments of joy in my writing because I believe these moments are crucial during the inevitable times of turmoil that we all face. I once struggled with knowing whether I should create Muslim or non-Muslim characters. I did not experience Islam as a child, but I live the life of a Muslim adult. As a strong believer that #OwnVoices stories are crucial, I did not want my voice to sound ingenuine to outside ears. I commonly think of plot first and then develop a character to fit within that plot. I went back and forth, not wanting to be a source of erasure, so carefully weighing the impact of each choice. Do I make non-Muslim characters for the little Black girl I was who yearned for characters who look like her? Do I make Muslim characters for my boys so that they can see themselves reflected? What about all of the children who are yet struggling to figure out where and how they fit in? I was conflicted. This led to many abandoned drafts.
It took time for me to realize that both of my voices are valid. They are a part of who I am. They are what make up my unique experience, and one voice doesn’t need to be invalidated to uplift the next. Besides, if my focus is truly on capturing moments of joy in a Black child’s life, there are numerous opportunities I can explore with both Muslim and non-Muslim characters. This is how I can use my unique voice to share, reflect, and introduce joyous representations for young readers.
My joy quest also positions me to challenge the expectation that the main characters in picture books have to solve their problems on their own. That’s not how I was raised. I was raised by a community of mothers, aunts, uncles, extended family, and play relatives galore. Whether it was the church community who helped rear me or the Muslim community who helped mold me, community was key. My problem was their problem, and they were there with open arms and ears to help me find my way. This should absolutely be reflected more in picture books. In my debut, Not Quite Snow White, Tameika’s parents are instrumental in helping her overcome her insecurities. Yes, she is the one who must rise to the occasion, but it is not without the backing and support of her community. It makes her success that much sweeter because she is able to celebrate with those who were and continue to be in her corner. For Tameika, community, family, and joy will also play a vital role in the sequel: Better Together, Cinderella.
My depictions of joy won’t be singular because my voice is not singular. I will continue to make a joyful noise for the readers who need to hear it, see it, and believe it during times of hardship and times of ease.
Ashley Franklin is the author of NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE (2019), “Creative Fixes” from the anthology ONCE UPON AN EID (2020), “Situationally Broke” from the anthology WHAT WE DIDN’T EXPECT (2020), and BETTER TOGETHER, CINDERELLA (2021). Ashley received her master’s degree in English literature from the University of Delaware. She is an adjunct college instructor, freelance writer, and proud mom. Ashley currently resides in Arkansas with her family.