Speculative fiction is the literature of ideas and I write speculative fiction, in part because the genres of science fiction, fantasy, “magic realism,” and horror offer readers innovative ways to examine society’s problems and possibilities. My novel Act of Grace is a contemporary fantasy born out my desire to have a more engaging and ultimately more truthful conversation about the African American experience in America. It is based on the true story of a young black woman’s extraordinary act of courage.
On a bright sunny Saturday in June 1996, my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan looked like a throwback to an old newsreel from the South in the1960’s. Positioned on the second floor promenade of the city hall building where officials had allowed them to hold a rally, fifteen members of the Klan were assembled. Below them on the street several hundred anti Klan protesters were arrayed to object to their presence. The Anti–Klan protest was supposed to be peaceful and nonviolent; however, near chaos reigned and police had to step in with tear gas. During the melee protesters caught sight of a white man watching the spectacle and pointed out that he was wearing Confederate flags on his vest and T-shirt. A group of angry students, both black and white, rushed the man.
Among them was a young African American woman named Keisha. Keisha merely wanted to shout at him “What have I ever done to you?” However, by the time she reached where he stood, another protester had hit him with a sign. When the man fell to the ground, others began to kick and punch him. Appalled, Keisha threw her body over the victim to protect him until the police finally stepped in. When asked why she came to his aid when she believed him to be a white supremacist like those leading the Klan rally, she replied, “He’s still somebody’s child. You don’t beat a man up because he doesn’t believe the same things you do.” For weeks after the event people argued about whether Keisha was a guardian angel or just crazy. My opinion was that Keisha was a compassionate and brave person, worthy of admiration and respect for living up to her values.
Five years after the incident at the Klan rally, I had a dream about a young girl named Grace who saved the life of a Klansman named Jonathan Gilmore even though rumor held that years ago a member of his family murdered several African -Americans including her father. What came out of the dream was the idea to use African and African American mythology and systems of magic to tell a century old, blood -soaked story of eye-for-an-eye vengeance that had left many generations in a small Michigan town blind. Called by the Ancestors, my hero Grace would learn to use her shamanic gifts to bear witness to her town’s violent racial history so that all involved might transcend it.
It is my hope that Act of Grace will appeal to readers who want to think about justice, community, tolerance, love, family, struggle and healing in new and different ways. I also hope that my novel enables readers of all cultures and backgrounds to have more honest and insightful conversations about these universal issues.
Karen Simpson lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and holds a Master’s in Historic Preservation. Writing, fabric art, and history are her passions. She’s a quilter and has taught African American quilting for over twenty years.
As a historian, Simpson has designed exhibits for museums and other historical institutions that deal with issues of cultural diversity and racial reconciliation. The subjects and themes for her fiction are taken from the stories she discovers while doing research.
The 2011 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards recently recognized her novel Act of Grace with a gold medal in the Young Adult Religion/Spirituality category. The novel also received a nomination for the 2012 Amelia Bloomer Project booklist, an ALA list for books with significant feminist content for young people.