Most so-called “overnight successes” are a matter of years or longer, such as the writing career of Morowa Yejidé ’92 (Moe-roe-wah Yay-gee-day). After a decade of short story publications, her novel Time of the Locust (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2014) quickly gained critical and popular acclaim. The novel was a 2012 finalist for the national PEN/Bellwether Prize In 2015 it was long listed for the PEN/Bingham award for debut fiction and was a 2015 NAACP Image Award Nominee for Outstanding Literary Work. She is currently a PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools author, visiting with classes who have been assigned Time of the Locust.
Yejidé, who is married and raising three sons, wrote the book in the spare time she didn’t have, taking advantage of occasional bouts of insomnia, hours between work in academia, and even time in the bathtub when the door was locked to all distraction for three-hour baths of plotting storyline time. Submitting the manuscript to agents and publishers more than one hundred times, she filed away the rejections and kept sending it off, undaunted.
That kind of persistence, that kind of devotion to her art, that kind of determination is part of the hard lessons learned during Yejidé’s years at Kalamazoo College, although not necessarily in the classroom.
“I’ll be honest,” Yejidé says. “My Kalamazoo College experience was of very high highs and low lows. My first two years were about figuring out who I was and how I fit in. Then I went on study abroad to Japan, and my mom died a month after I returned. My last years at K passed in a haze.”
Yejidé was an international area studies major with a minor in Asian affairs. It was the study abroad experience, she says, that attracted the Washington D.C.-native to K. She spent her junior year in Tokyo, living with a host family, not knowing that in her absence her mother had been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.
“She made everyone promise not to tell me,” Yejidé says. “She didn’t want me to rush back or have a cloud over me. I found out when I got home—and a month later she was gone. That really went into my writing, how people can say things without saying things. It was a part of the Japanese culture, too. I’ve been fascinated with how people communicate ever since.”
While Yejidé struggled through her final years at K, missing her mother, she found an understanding friend in her college roommate. Around the same time Yejidé lost her mother, her roommate lost hers as well, even more abruptly.
“Her mom was killed coming out of a pharmacy one day, struck during a police car chase,” she says. “We had these long existential discussions—is it better to know ahead or not?—and decided both scenarios were equally terrible. But it brought comfort to have someone there who understood. It all became a part of the light and the dark that K was for me. We keep in touch to this day.”
Another lesson Yejidé took to heart was her mother’s frequent advice to live her life without regrets. So Yejidé pursued her dreams, no matter how fantastic, and they carried her through those one hundred rejections as she sent out short story submissions and the manuscript of her novel.
“Time of the Locust is a magical realism, literary fiction type of novel,” Yejidé says. “It tells the story of a seven-year-old autistic boy named Sephiri and a supernatural relationship he has with his father.”
Autism is one of several important topics Yejidé explores in the novel. The boy’s mother Brenda copes with single parenthood while her son’s father Horus serves time in a maximum security prison for killing a racist police officer who shot had shot him but went unpunished. Horus is in solitary confinement , increasingly fleeing his isolation and despair by escaping in his mind. Brenda buries her stress in food, leading to obesity and diabetes.
“I love image-driven types of literature,” Yejidé says. “I’m always reading, and I’m a very curious person by nature. I was reading a photo-journalism piece with a single photo of an autistic boy looking out his window at a tree. He had this whimsical look on his face. I found myself wondering—what does his world look like?”
With that, a creative seed was planted. Yejidé unleashed her fascination with the interior world and she explored the different types of communication people with autism use.
“There’s a confinement theme,” she says. “And I played with that same idea with the boy’s mom. She, too, is grappling in the dark. She has a self-imposed prison of her obesity, weight that cuts her off from the world. The boy’s father meanwhile is in a physical prison, another hidden world, and dealing with what happens to him in solitary confinement.”
Yejidé researched her main themes by reading letters from prisoners, watching hours of video diaries, studying autistic behavior and talking with people involved in those hidden worlds.
“Our penal system is the equivalent of a small nation in population,” she says. “I wanted to know what other countries have to say about our penal system, too. When I read the prisoners’ letters, I had to read for what wasn’t there, because they get censored. And autistic kids—they can’t tell us about their world and in that way are like prisoners. Mothers? Always dead last on their own to-do lists. Brenda in the novel is an amalgamation of women who feel that if they stop all that they are doing, their entire world will fall apart.”
Yejidé’s encounter with the Japanese language served as a source for her writing on the difficulty of communication. Her first such experience came in high school, when she went to a friend’s home to do homework. Her friend’s mother was Japanese and spoke no English.
“I learned basic, rudimentary words in Japanese,” she recalls. “It became like a game to us. I ended up looking into learning Japanese, and then when it was time to go to college, I saw Kalamazoo College had this awesome Japanese program. So I applied.”
It wasn’t enough to just apply to Kalamazoo College. Yejidé had to convince her father. At that time, she says, the family lived in Okemos, Michigan, and her father taught at Michigan State University. MSU, for him, seemed the obvious choice.
“But MSU didn’t have that kind of program in Japan,” Yejidé says. “I had to give a dining room presentation to convince Dad. It worked.”
Yejidé immediately felt drawn to the quiet of the Quad, to the smaller campus and more individualized attention at K.
“As an only child, I looked for that solitude,” she says. “I loved the calm tranquility of the Quad. I wanted the in-depth experience of K, and I got it.”
Yejidé says she loved her study abroad experience, despite its dark ending with the loss of her mother. It was the first time her host family near Tokyo had ever hosted an exchange student, and their English language skills were almost non-existent.
“That’s what I wanted, that immersion experience,” Yejidé says. “We operated on the premise of ‘if you don’t talk, you don’t eat.’ I learned so much from my Papa San and Mama San. We changed each other; they are my second set of parents. They would tell me that I was special, that I would do something great someday. It was awesome to mail my book to them, even if it was in English and they couldn’t read it. I’ve gone back a few times to visit them.”
Yejidé has also returned to her K family from time to time. It was at a K “mixer” for alumni in Washington, D.C., that she learned about current classes at Kalamazoo College about autism from a current student.
“The subject came up about Bruce Mills, an English professor at K who was teaching about communication and autism, and that we should meet,” she says.
Good things come from mixers. Bruce Mills responds: “I have since taught Time of the Locust in two classes already, my spring 2015 African-American literature class and my fall 2016 first-year seminar. Morowa and I connected online and became friends on Facebook. Given my memoir dealing with autism, we had a kind of natural connection.”
Mills’ memoir, An Archaeology of Yearning, explores his relationship with his autistic son. His first-year seminar is called “Crossing Borders: Autism and Other Ways of Knowing.”
“In relation to my African-American literature course, I have been trying to connect the class to folks in the community through our ‘Engaging the Wisdom’ oral history project. It felt like an extension of such connections to have a conversation with an alumna, especially given that Morowa’s book includes characters whose lives speak to civil rights history, the criminal justice system and larger themes of disconnection, imprisonment (physical, psychological, and spiritual) and hope and healing.”
This renewed connection between Kalamazoo College and Morowa Yejidé has led to a homecoming. Yejidé will be doing a reading from her novel followed by discussion and book signing on Tuesday, February 16, at 7 p.m., at the Arcus Center. She will also meet with students in the classroom at a fiction workshop.
Moving from light to dark and back into the light again, Yejidé has no regrets about her sometimes difficult years at K. Her mother would be proud.
“K gives you a unique opportunity to find out what you’re about and what you can become, and it did that for me,” she says. “You just have to commit to that discovery, wherever it takes you.”