Poets Irene Latham and Charles Waters have collaborated on two books for young readers. Their third book together, African Town, is a novel in verse for teen readers about historical events known by far too few Americans. In 1860, decades after the federal government had banned the importation of slaves, a group of 110 Africans were forcibly brought to the United States and enslaved. After the Civil War, the group’s survivors created a community that still exists today, now called Africatown. In many voices and poetic forms, Latham and Waters powerfully chronicle their story. The poets discuss the origins of the project and the responsibility they felt to do justice to the survivors—and to their living descendants.
African Town is your third literary collaboration. How did these collaborations begin?
This all started with an email from one poet (Irene) to another (Charles) in February 2015, with an invitation to work on poems for a potential book from Lerner Publishing Group. The aim was to write about universal subjects with the topic of race as a through line, which turned into Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship. The book was the brainchild of Lerner Editorial Director Carol Hinz. If it wasn’t for Carol, we never would have worked together in the first place. We’re eternally grateful to her.
How did African Town start?
It feels like our previous two books together—and the degree of difficulty involved in creating them—prepared us for undertaking this project, which was quite challenging and rewarding. We were surprised by our lack of knowledge about this vital story, and we hope our book helps remedy that for others.
We learned of this history when we were presenting together at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery, Alabama, in the spring of 2019. We were so inspired by these courageous humans—how they endured so much, and how bound they were to one another. They were ripped from their lives, and yet they continued to dream and to do. Every step of the research brought us to another “wow” moment, and we wanted to help bring the story to young readers.
Your previous books together were written for younger readers than African Town, which is for teens. How did you settle on telling this story for teen readers?
The age of the characters and the brutality of parts of this history demanded that this book be marketed as young adult, but we approached it as a “family” story. We imagine intergenerational families sharing this book and having rich discussions about our past, our future and how resilience and hope are cultivated at home—however (and wherever) one defines that word.
What research did you do to ensure you could immerse yourselves in the characters’ experiences?
Thank the universe we were able to visit Mobile, Alabama, in late February 2020, about two weeks before the country shut down due to the pandemic. We visited Africantown, spent time outside the Union Missionary Baptist Church, which was founded by the Clotilda survivors, stood next to the bust of Kossola outside the church, visited the Old Plateau Cemetery also founded by the Clotilda survivors, went on the Dora Franklin Finley African-American Heritage Trail, visited the History Museum of Mobile, pored over documents at the Mobile Public Library’s local history and genealogy library, and spent time at Kazoola Eatery & Entertainment, meeting the kind people of Mobile and soaking up the atmosphere.
As you researched, what did you learn that was the biggest revelation for you?
One of the biggest revelations was how little we actually know about the women who were onboard the Clotilda. The main sources of information were male-focused, like Kossola’s many interviews and William Foster’s journal. Holes in research are gifts to historical fiction writers, and it became important to us to recognize these incredible humans and to create rich, full female characters.
African Town speaks to readers in so many different characters’ voices, including the Clotilda herself. How did you decide who would write whom?
Our decisions about who would write which character were dictated by where each of us was in the research. We each ended up writing both Black and white characters, and then we spent a lot of time revising together. The Clotilda was perhaps one of the most delicate to write, because we cast her in an all-knowing, voice-of-the-world kind of tone. The Africans in the hold don’t necessarily know what’s happening to them, but the Clotilda does.
At the end of the book, you share details about the various poetic forms you paired with each character and why you chose them. Are there certain forms you each tend to favor? Did you learn any new ones?
We worked hard to match form with personality. With so many voices, we were looking for ways to distinguish each one. Varying the form and shape of the poems on the page helped a great deal. This is where writing our previous book Dictionary for a Better World proved helpful because that book had 47 different poetry forms. We both tend to favor free verse when writing, but we have come to enjoy nonets and tricubes among others.
Even though it was challenging to craft, we've come to respect and be proud of using tankas, a short Japanese form of five lines and 31 syllables, for the character of James. It’s such an elegant and difficult form to pull off. We were partially inspired by the verse novel Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes, which is written only in tankas. We felt the form matched James’ personality and mien. Another one we’re proud of is the form used for Cudjo Jr. It was a combination of the poetic styles of E.E. Cummings and Arnold Adoff—with our own twist on it.
How did you feel about doing justice to the real people, events and places in the book?
Both of us knew that since we were writing about many instances that happened to real people, it was vital to be as thorough as possible in research so that we might “get it right.” The mantle of responsibility felt a lot heavier than our previous two books, which dealt with our own lives. We spent hours and hours discussing personality, relationships and motivation—which, due to gaps in information available, was often left for us to imagine.
It’s been important to us to involve the descendants as much as possible, and we’re so grateful for the warm welcome we have received from the community. Our hope is to honor their ancestors, to work with them to make this history more accessible, and to share with young readers a story that impacted us on a very personal level. It wasn’t always easy to join these courageous humans on their journey, but it was life-changing. We feel so lucky to know these characters so intimately. Their resilience continues to inspire us.
The audiobook edition of ‘African Town’ is an extremely rewarding experience for listeners of all ages. Read our review.
Author photo of Irene Latham and Charles Waters courtesy of Eric Latham.