Rita Williams-Garcia '80
Liberal Arts Major
Tell us a little bit about your student activism at Hofstra and why you were passionate about civic duty as a student?
My parents taught my siblings and I to have opinions, express them, and stand up for them. Hofstra during the 70's was a great place to cultivate those values. If there was a petition, I was either signing it or out in the quad or unispan getting signatures. The causes were as local as admission policies or nationwide political causes such as justice for the Wilmington 10 or protesting the landmark Bakke reverse discrimination decision. In our senior year, members of the African Peoples Organization had even taken President James Shuart captive in his Weller Hall office in response to concerns that scholarship and admissions criteria would negatively affect students of color. I have to say, President Shuart didn't panic. He listened.
You were a guest speaker at the School of Education, Health and Human Services 10th Annual Literacy and Imagination; Stories in the Classroom Grades K-12 Conference. What was that experience like coming back as an alumni to speak at your alma mater?
I was awestruck by the sight of the campus in daylight—having only recently returned to Hofstra for the evening 2008 Presidential Debate. In full daylight I could appreciate Hofstra's evolution from "commuter college" to a full university. I prepared a talk on the incalculable, unpredictable nature of literature on the reader's imagination, but I was nervous! I ended up reading a good deal of my presentation to grapple with the enormity of being at this amazing university. Here I was, speaking before graduate students at my undergrad alma mater, in a state-of-the-art facility that I couldn't have imagined 30 years ago.
You mentioned your writing career began at Hofstra…tell us about your books and why did you choose young adults and children as your audience?
My plans were always to follow my mentors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, and write post modern literary fiction. At the same time that I needed a story idea for my creative writing master classes with Richard Price and Sonia Pilcer, I also needed a book to work with at-risk high school girls, but couldn't find one. I ended up writing the first draft of my novel, Blue Tights. Over the years I've continued to write about a range of characters in contemporary situations for teens and tweens. Jumped, a 2009 National Book Award finalist, is about bystander responsibility amid girl-on-girl violence. One Crazy Summer, my most recent novel about three young girls in Oakland in the height of the Black Panther movement, is a Junior Literary Guild selection and a NY Times Editors Choice Book. I've also engaged characters whose lives are effected by subjects such as female circumcision, teen motherhood, and confronting failure. Right now, I'm switching things up and writing a gaming adventure novel for boys titled, Game On. I began writing for teens because I couldn't find the right book for an invisible teen audience. Now I simply write the stories that come to me, and they're all for teens and younger readers.
Talk about your classes with novelists Richard Price and Sonya Pilcer at Hofstra and how that improved your writing.
Taking master classes in Calkins Hall with novelists Sonia Pilcer (Teen Angel, I-land) and Richard Price (Clockers, Lush Life, The Wire) was the best learning experience I could have had as an apprentice writer. Their workshops offered that perfect balance of craft thought with practice and criticism. Those classes prepared me for "real world" writing and revision. It was Sonia who made me aware of the indescribable qualities of voice and tone, and Richard who called me on my jerky, awkward dialogue and my tendency toward over sentimentality. To this day I'm better known for more realistic writing, and reviewers never fail to mention my narrative voice and my dialogue.
Tell us what it was like to live all over the country growing up with a father in the military and some of your favorite places.
Living on Army bases was fun! By far, I loved living in Seaside, California, which was right next to Fort Ord, where my father served. Seaside and Fort Ord were fairly diverse, but predominantly African-American. We experienced a small-town middle class life of Girl Scouts, kickball games, lawn mowing, and attending Army parades. As much as my siblings and I hated packing up and leaving our friends, schools and neighborhoods, the road trips to new places were exciting. There was so much to see as we traveled across the country. Redwood trees of the Pacific Coast. Migrant workers in vineyards and fields of artichokes. The sun baked southwestern landscape. Real Native Americans. Magnolias and weeping willows of Mississippi and Louisiana. The stuff to inspire stories.
Tell us about your faculty position at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
After my 25 year stint at a media software company I needed both employment and immersion into the world of writing for my audience. Vermont College of Fine Arts' low residency MFA program was perfect. It gives me a chance to share my approach to story and character with apprentice writers, while they become stronger in their practice and approach to writing. Our students work with notables in the Teen/Children's literary field such as Newbery Award winning author, Kathi Appelt, NY Times Best-Selling author, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Governor General's Literary Award winning author Wynne-Jones and more. Our writers go on to become best-selling authors, win awards, and make impacts in children's literature. I invite creative writing majors and students who are serious about writing for children and young adults to check us out!