Laila Ibrahim - Two Generations of American Women Connected by the Past

Laila Ibrahim - Two Generations of American Women Connected by the Past

Laila Ibrahim grew up in Whittier, California on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, and moved to Oakland, California to attend Mills College where she studied Psychology and Child Development. After getting a Master's Degree in Human Development, she realized she wanted to do more hands-on work with children, and opened up her own preschool: Woolsey Children's School. Her education and experiences as an educator and parent provide ample for her writing – especially her study of Attachment Theory and multiculturalism. She identifies as a devout Unitarian Universalist – which is sort of like being a radical moderate – and worked as the Director of Children and Family Ministries at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland for five years. She lives in a small co-housing community in Berkeley with her wife, Rinda, a public school administrator. She is the proud mother of wonderful young adult daughters. Laila self-published Yellow Crocus in 2011 after agents repeatedly told her that no one would want to read a story about the love between an enslaved black woman and her privileged white charge. Over the years the readers have proven them wrong. She became a full-time writer in 2015. As our Author of the Day, Laila tells us all about Golden Poppies, which continues the story of the Freedman and Johnson families in the 1890's.

Please give us a short introduction to what Golden Poppies is about.

It is 1894. Jordan Wallace and Sadie Wagner appear to have little in common. Jordan, a middle-aged black teacher, lives in segregated Chicago. Two thousand miles away, Sadie, the white wife of an ambitious German businessman, lives in more tolerant Oakland, California. But years ago, their families intertwined on a plantation in Virginia. There, Jordan’s and Sadie’s mothers developed a bond stronger than blood, despite the fact that one was enslaved and the other was the privileged daughter of the plantation’s owner.

With Jordan’s mother on her deathbed, Sadie leaves her disapproving husband to make the arduous train journey with her mother to Chicago. But the reunion between two families is soon fraught with personal and political challenges.

As the harsh realities of racial divides and the injustices of the Gilded Age conspire to hold them back, the women find they need each other more than ever. Their courage, their loyalty, and the ties that bind their families will be tested. Amid the tumult of a quickly changing nation, their destiny depends on what they’re willing to risk for liberation.

What inspired the story? Was there anything in particular that made you want to tackle this?

Soon after Yellow Crocus was re-published in 2014 I was struck by the idea that I wanted to know how we got to ‘this’ cultural moment. It was during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. I wanted to see for myself the direct connection between the caste system that was set in place in the 18th century and our current lives in the 21st century. With that in mind, I decided to visit descendants of these families approximately every 20 years.

Why did you pick 1894 Chicago and California as the backdrop for your story?

California is my home state and I’ve been acutely aware that the “American” experience here is very different from what is taught in United States History. I wanted to explore that more through fiction. I’d sent part of Sadie’s family to Oakland in Mustard Seed knowing I’d want to come close to my own home.

I started by reading Oakland The Story of a City by Beth Bagwell. That led me to the Pullman Strike and the Pullman Porters. As the saying goes: “The rest is history”. —and a novel.

Tell us more about Jordan Wallace and Sadie Wagoner. What makes them so special?

I am someone who has a deep, deep affection for anyone I ever held as a baby. I feel that same way about these characters. I knew them when they were young, and now I get to know them as adults—women struggling to live their own best lives.

Why did you title this book Golden Poppies?

I am a California poppy gal. I literally buy a pound of them each year and sprinkle them around. I started the tradition after reading the book Miss Rumphius. It is one small way I can make the world more beautiful.

I don’t know how long I will keep using flower titles, but this title and theme came easily.

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

I love to do jigsaw puzzles, cook, and handwork like knitting and sewing. My daughter is getting married on 7/11. Making her wedding gown has been a delightful and challenging project. In this time of sheltering in place, the wedding has been scaled back to immediate family in our backyard. She has handled the change with grace. The look on her face when she tries on the dress is sheer joy.

Golden Poppies is the third in the Lisbeth and Mattie series. Can it be read as a standalone? How do the other books in the series tie in with this one?

They can be read standalone, though I think they are more meaningful when read in order. I’ve been heartened to see reviews from people who have loved it and have not read the other novels.

The books move forward in time, and take on the points of view they younger characters as time moves forward.

How much research did the book require from you to make the history ring true?

SO MUCH HISTORY!! I love it now, but research did not come to me naturally. My favorite thing to do is read the front page of newspapers (thank you I find a little nugget and then research it some more. Often a day of research or even an entire book will become a sentence or a paragraph in the background.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I’ve been an avid fiction reader for as long as I can remember—and never thought I would write fiction until the idea for Yellow Crocus struck me when I was 33. The characters haunted me for years; scenes popped into my mind. I resisted writing it until I turned 40. Then I gave myself over to the project for a year without knowing how it could possibly work out. Fourteen years later I am deeply grateful to 40-year old me for taking on the daunting task.

Is there something that compels you to write? And do you find that writing helps you achieve a clarity about yourself or ideas you've been struggling with?

I definitely feel compelled, or called, to write. What is the nature of that call is an ongoing mystery that is called by many names: God, spirit, the muse, creation, goddess. I don’t have one name for it, but I definitely feel it.

Each novel is autobiographical in a metaphorical way. I find that the issues I am struggling with in my personal life or in our beautiful and broken world come through loud and clear. And I find a great deal of comfort in my character's strength and faith.

Are any of the characters in the book based on real people?

Lydia Flood, Ida B. Wells, and Susan B. Anthony are characters in Golden Poppies.

Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?

In my ideal schedule I start writing at 8:30. I take a 30-minute break at 10:00. Then write until 12:00. I don’t get dressed until after I eat lunch. And ideally, I don’t check my email or text until I’m done writing for the day.

My first drafts are more of a screenplay than a novel. I often do that without getting out of bed—in almost a dream state. I find the conversations that drive the story flow easily out of me. I flush out the setting and narrative later.

What are you working on right now?

My next novel will feature two of the characters from Golden Poppies and be set in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1915 and 1918. I’m researching housing laws, birth control, World War 1 and—most amazing and relevant—the 1918 flu. The central tension I seem to be honing in on is unintended pregnancies and the painful position it puts these women in.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?


Goodreads: Amazon

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 Adam Nicholls & Jay Nadal - Private Eyes, Detectives and Psych Thrillers
FEATURED AUTHOR -  Adam Nicholls grew up in the southwest of England, where he studied creative writing while working a variety of full-time jobs. When his Mason Black series was first published, he quickly became a bestseller and then went on to create a name for himself in the thriller genre. Adam now lives with his wife in Bristol.