By Ashley Wells
Today we’re pleased to welcome Echo Brown to the WNDB blog to discuss The Chosen One, available on January 4, 2022.
In mesmerizing personal narrative and magical realism, Echo Brown confronts mental illness, grief, racism, love, friendship, ambition, self-worth, and belonging as they steer the fates of first-generation college students on Dartmouth’s campus. The Chosen One is an unforgettable coming-of-age story that bravely unpacks the double-edged college transition—as both catalyst for old wounds and a fresh start.
Your first novel, Black Girl Unlimited, has been described as “a memoir infused with magical realism.” Echo Brown returns in The Chosen One, where she attends Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school. Did you plan to be the protagonist in your second novel and are the books tied together in any way?
When I decided to write about my first year at Dartmouth, I knew at that point I would be the protagonist. Both of my books are memoirs layered with magical realism. The Chosen One is both a continuation of Black Girl Unlimited and an ending to that story. At the end of BGU we watch Echo achieve the beginning of long held dream of escaping poverty. In The Chosen One, we see the realization of that dream and a steady progression of Echo’s journey toward a larger destiny.
How much of your own experience at Dartmouth did you decide to include or exclude? How do you decide where to begin taking creative freedom with a story that’s partially based on real life?
The emotional reality of my stories is always accurate. I seek to tell the story of how my reality felt as the main highlight of my work. That kind of vulnerability can be challenging. If there is something you haven’t explored or accepted internally, emotional accuracy is hard to achieve. Since that period of my life, I have done a lot of emotional work to unpack and process my experience at Dartmouth. As a result, I’m open to telling the entire emotional truth. The loneliness, feeling out of place, and trying to figure out this new world is all true to my experience. The plot itself and many of the details are re-imagined, however. For example, I didn’t struggle academically as much as the protagonist. I figured out how to “play the game” at school early on and was an alright student in college. For the novel, the protagonist needed something to push against. Failing grades were more of a plot device than the truth of my experience. What was true to me was this feeling that I couldn’t fail and I had to make it no matter what. Again: emotional truth with re-imagined specifics.
In regards to creative freedom, I take whatever liberties are needed to advance the story. I’m probably never going to write a traditional memoir since that’s less interesting to me. I’m interested in creating something new and different with my storytelling; something that’s rooted in reality, but doesn’t replicate it. That’s the power of storytelling. To represent reality, but evolve it as only words can.
Tell us about the experience of being a first-generation college student. What expectations do you navigate, and are they both internal and external?
The world is nothing but expectation when you are a first-generation college student. There’s always the question of whether you can do it. Can you break the barrier? The external barriers are intense, but in my experience, it’s the internal barriers that make or break you. It’s what you think of yourself on the inside. It’s whether you lose your connection to the power and strength that got you there in the first place. It’s also which expectations you believe. Do you believe the false prophets, as I call them in this book. Those loud voices attempting to fill you with doubt, or do you hear the ones that filled you with hope and faith in yourself. The voices you align with internally is critical to whether sink or swim.
We see Echo experience mental illness, grief, and struggle with self-worth through powerful metaphors, an alternate reality only she can see. How did you conceptualize this and how does it align with real life challenges?
I wouldn’t say I conceptualized it. I never intend to add magic, it just kind of comes to me. I think it’s an extension of how my mind works naturally. I spend a lot of time in fantasy and have done so since I was a child. The importance of fantasy in helping you imagine a different life for yourself when you come from a place like where I grew up can’t be underestimated. It’s everything. That ability to imagine and fantasize a different life can be the difference between those that make it out and those that don’t. When I started writing this story, the magic came as a natural extension of my experience and how my mind works generally.
Do you plan to continue using personal experiences in your novels? Has doing so been part of your own healing process, and do you see it helping readers find a character they can relate to and learn from?
Yes, I think so. It’s kind of my thing to mix memoir and magical realism. Reality on its own is so boring to me. It’s like, that happened, then this happened. Boring! I’m more interested in the other dimension. The spiritual arena that we can’t see but seems to be the foundation driving me forward.
With each book, I try to learn something new about myself. I learned a lot from this book. I think that learning and having the emotional reality of the story be witnessed is incredibly healing. So often, we keep our pain locked away inside where it plagues us from the depths. There’s something very liberating, however, in saying this is what happened (mostly) and this is how it felt. Take it or leave.
I don’t think much about the reader in writing. I just try to tap the pulse of the story aching to come out. I think if you think about impacting the reader in some way, that expectation can influence the development of the story in inauthentic ways and even put shackles around the story itself. The right audience will find the story. And that’s enough for me.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors? Is there anything you wish you could go back and tell yourself when you first began writing?
My advice would be: Go to the depths. Any story is really an extension of how far you’ve gone into your own humanity. Dive as deep as you can and be honest. Write without a mask or a façade. Just tell the emotional truth and let everything else fall away.
I would tell myself to relax when I first started. Like with every new venture, I put a lot of pressure on myself, but the stories just come through me. I would encourage myself to relax and enjoy the ride.
Echo Brown is the award-winning author of Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard, which was named a William C. Morris Award Finalist, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, a New York Public Library Best Book of the Year, a CCBC Choice Title, and a Rise: A Feminist Book Project Selection, among other honors. A performer and playwright, Echo created the acclaimed one-woman show Black Virgins Are Not for Hipsters. She is a Dartmouth alumna and the first female college graduate in her family.
Ashley Wells Ajinkya is an avid reader, book collector, and writer based in Minnesota. She also works in self-publishing and serves as an Ambassador for The Pad Project. In her free time, Ashley can typically be found buying more books, finding vintage treasures at thrift stores, or planning her next trip.