Royal Gazette review

How a passing comment in the street led to a novel

Crystelle Mourning

I'm just going to have his baby before he gets locked up or shot up, was the comment from a teenage girl passing on the street in Washington DC.It was a tiny scrap of overheard conversation that years later led to Eisa Ulen's first book Crystelle Mourning recently published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

Ms Ulen lives in the United States, but is a descendant of the Astwood family of Bermuda. Her great grandmother was Bermudian. Ms Ulen has maintained her connection with Bermuda, and has visited the Island on an annual basis ever since she was a child. "Crystelle Mourning is set in West Philadelphia," Ms Ulen told the Bookworm Beat when she was on the Island over the Cup Match holiday. "The female character Crystelle has been haunted since the murder of her best friend, first kiss, first love whose name was Jimmy. This murder took place at a party during their senior year in highschool just when they were about to leave West Philadelphia and go off to college.

"She had been haunted by him since the murder, but the visitations have become more sensual. That is not just in a sexual way, I mean she can smell him. He has become so ever present that the line between his world and her world is starting to blur."

The haunting starts to impinge on Crystelle's ability to function in the real world. The story is set over a long weekend where Crystelle goes back to her home, across the street from Jimmy's old house. During this time she finally manages to exorcise her ghosts. "It is a literal haunting, but it is also a figurative haunting in that she is haunted by the memory of what happened, what happened shortly after the shooting and also what could have happened," said Ms Ulen. In Crystelle Mourning's acknowledgements, Ms Ulen thanks the girl who made the comment about the boyfriend so long ago, even though she doesn't know her name.

"That statement was in the late 1980s," said Ms Ulen. "I was haunted if you will by that young woman's voice. She was about my age. I don't know her name, but I thank her because I feel like her voice guided me all these years later to the story.

"I grew up in that era back in the United States when there was an increase in violence particularly between and among black men."

Ms Ulen, who is in her thirties, said that when she lived in the Washington DC, it was known as "the murder capital". Later she moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and that also had a bad reputation with one of the highest assault rates in the United States.

"I think in some ways I am trying to do what my main character is doing which is to heal and deal with those memories and that trauma," said Ms Ulen. "I did know people who were victims of that violence. I come from a middle class family, but it was a kind of violence that didn"t mind crossing lines so that all of us were affected. Everyone I grew up with knew someone who was the victim of violence."

At readings, Ms Ulen often draws strong reactions and a great deal of empathy from her listeners including tears and hugs.

"There is a lot of emphasis on boys and the shift from boyhood to manhood during that time period," said Ms Ulen. "People say "we need coming of age rituals for the boys". That is great, because that is important, but I am really interested in what happens to the women and the girls. We are affected by the violence also."

This was brought home for Ms Ulen during the early 1990s when she was teaching in a Catholic elementary school in Baltimore.

"One of my students went to a funeral at least once a month," she said. "There was always a cousin who had been shot and killed. She was a good student and maintained a B average, but every four to six weeks this girl was going to another funeral of one of her cousins. I don"t know how she did it. I don"t know how her mother and grandmother did it."

Ms Ulen said that although male issues often get a lot of press, she feels that women are suffering also. "I don't want this to become a boy/girl thing, but sometimes it is easier to miss the effects on girls because they tend not to be disruptive when they are going through that kind of trauma," she said. "With girls the psychic damage is still very prevalent, but it manifests inwards. Girls get pregnant. Girls start sleeping around. Girls date boys who hit them. So they are not the ones hitting, but they are putting themselves in situations are being hit. They don"t act out, but they are still going through it. The damage is still very real."

Ms Ulen said she was very lucky to find a wonderful editor at Simon & Schuster Inc. called Malaika Adero. She was also happy to get Michelle Rubin at Writers House in New York City as an agent.

"She publishes Zane which is the salacious stuff," said Ms Ulen. "She has also published some well known authors. She is very well known and respected in publishing particularly among African American writers and people in the book publishing industry. I feel very privileged to have been able to work with her."

Ms Ulen said that as a first time writer, she really had to have all her ducks in a row when first approaching potential agents and publishers.

"Publishing is a whole different ballgame from what it was a generation ago," said Ms Ulen. "There was a time when if you were an emerging writer and they saw talent in you, you worked with an editor and you developed a narrative. Then you sold a few books and then the next time you sold a few more, and so on. You worked with the same editor and the same company to build a career. It doesn"t happen that way anymore. I had gone through workshops and really spent time so the novel was in pretty good shape when I started sending it out. That is pretty much what you have to do these days when you submit your work to an agent, just to get representation."

For Ms Ulen, the writing process actually took longer than the actual publishing aspect. She is a freelance journalist and has written for such prestigious magazines and newspapers as Essence, The Washington Post, and Ms, among others. She currently teaches African and Diaspora Literature at Hunter College in Manhattan, New York. Crystelle Mourning is now available at the Bermuda Bookstore, and in bookstores all over the United States and online.

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