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'One Of The Good Ones' Tackles Police Violence, Young Adulthood and Sisterhood

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Kezi Smith is a teenager. She's a Black activist with a popular YouTube channel who dies in police custody shortly after being arrested at a social justice protest. In death, Kezi is deemed, quote, "one of the good ones," a model student with a bright future. Her younger sister Happi, in contrast, is temperamental. She skips school. She drinks - and is now left to publicly mourn her sister and question her memory. "One Of The Good Ones" is a new young adult novel by two sisters, Maika and Maritza Moulite, who join me now from Miami. Hello.

MARITZA MOULITE: Hi, Lulu.

MAIKA MOULITE: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. You're two sisters. These are two sisters. Tell me about Kezi and Happi. They are often at odds.

MAIKA MOULITE: Yes. In true sister fashion...

(LAUGHTER)

MAIKA MOULITE: ...They very much butt heads because Kezi's the older sister and thinks that she knows better. And Happi's the younger sister who's trying to make her way and therefore believes she knows better for herself. And that dynamic plays out, especially due to the fact that Kezi has been killed under mysterious circumstances after attending a social justice rally.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. This is also kind of a mystery novel, as well. I mean, it's not just about this very important topic, but it kind of brings you along because there's a sort of a mystery at the heart of it. Happi, when we meet her, is having a really tough time reckoning with her sister's death. And that's clear from the very first paragraph. Can you read that paragraph for us? Do you have the book?

MAIKA MOULITE: Yes.

MARITZA MOULITE: This is Maritza. (Reading) She was mine before she was anyone else's. Now she belongs to you and them and shirts and rallies and songs and documentaries. They say she had a bright future ahead of her. And she was a star whose light burned out too soon. She was going to make a difference. That's all true, but it's not the truth. Kezi was more than her brains and her grades and her voice. She was more than her future. She had a past. She was living her present. She could have been mine - should have been mine. She was my sister before she became your martyr, after all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maritza, tell me what inspired this.

MARITZA MOULITE: It started a few years ago. Our great aunt passed away. And she was our grandma's best friend, favorite sister. And we went to say our final goodbyes at the mausoleum, and we were walking by and looking at all of the other names of the departed. And us - like, me, Maika, and our two other sisters paused because we saw a name that we recognized, and it was Trayvon Martin's. And, I mean, Trayvon Martin was part of our Miami. Like, he went to the middle school that our younger sister went to at different times. And the fact that he was gone was just so jarring to see. And we decided to write our story "One Of The Good Ones" from the perspective of sisters because we are the two older sisters of four women. And we're the best of friends even when we're beefing with each other. We just wanted to explore the emotions that the loved ones - the family, the friends, the lovers who are left behind when these people are killed. And that's where we started.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you this. You sort of decide at a certain point that the characters are going to take this road trip, and you used "The Negro Motorist Green Book" as a guide. Can you explain a little bit about what that is for people who may not know what it is and why you decided to incorporate it?

MAIKA MOULITE: Yes. So Maika speaking, by the way. We knew that, although this would be a contemporary story, there's no way for you to have a conversation about race in America, particularly as it relates to the relationships between Black people and white people and non-Black people - you have to go back in the past. For those who don't know, "The Negro Motorist Green Book" is a - it's almost like a Yellow Pages, if you will, but it was essentially this manual that Black people and some other marginalized folks as well could use in order to be able to safely travel across the United States during the times of segregation. So although our characters are rooted in the contemporary, they are able to rely on some of the stories from their family members in the past.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maritza, I want to ask you about this because you are able to weave in some really important history. Can you talk a little bit about the hanging bridge and where that story comes from in the book?

MARITZA MOULITE: Yes. So during the research of "One Of The Good Ones," we learned about sundown towns, which I had never heard of and hadn't learned about in school. But there were and are across the United States different cities and towns where Black people would not be welcomed after the sun went down. They could work there, and then they would have to be out after a certain time every single day. And if they weren't, you risked your life, essentially. And while we were doing our research, we learned about a bridge that was used to hang Black people. And the stories were just so gruesome. And we didn't get into the grisly details in our story. We didn't feel that was necessary. But we did want to just acknowledge that this history is a part of this country and that it happened to the ancestors of individuals who are alive now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Maika, I want to ask you this because you hadn't heard about this in school. I certainly didn't learn about it in school growing up in the United States. This is a book for middle schoolers and above. What do you see the role of something like this in introducing these stories that have been ignored in your fiction?

MAIKA MOULITE: Yeah. For us in particular, our family came from Haiti and, you know, came to the United States. And my sisters and I were all born here. But there's so much about Black history, whether it's Black American history, Black diasporic - you know, African history that we just don't learn about. And it's a shame because that history is still very much a part of the history of society. Our hope is that someone reading "One Of The Good Ones" or maybe any of our work will be interested in something that we said and then go do their own research to really learn about the history of whatever it was that we were discussing. But truly, especially as a Black author, there are times when you have this desire to make sure that you are helping to teach just as you are entertaining. But I think some of that desire might come from the lack of stories that highlight Black people, and then it becomes a very difficult task as a Black author where you're wondering, is this enough? But all that means is that there should be more space for us to tell the different stories that we want to tell, whether they are rooted in reality and tackling heavy topics such as race relations or tackling, you know, fantastical elements of breaking a family curse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to ask you this 'cause you're sitting side by side. You've written two books together. How does that work? How much of the family dynamic, first of all, ended up in the book? And then how do you actually write something together?

MAIKA MOULITE: I would say that writing together is the easiest part because it's just - we know what we're writing. We create this really extensive outline before we even get started so that way we know exactly what needs to be worked on. It can be, like, 15 pages. And then we just dig in. She might write one chapter. I'll write the next. I could write a paragraph. She could write two. And then we go back and read what the other person wrote and comb through it and add our own points of view and personality, so that way, it sounds cohesive, as if one person wrote it. And we can talk about other things, too. Like, in the midst of writing, we could just be saying, like, OK, what's going to happen to Jenny in this chapter? And then also, did you remember to take out the beef like Grandma asked?

(LAUGHTER)

MAIKA MOULITE: It just all kind of flows together.

MARITZA MOULITE: Even though everything Maika said is really nice and wonderful, it's super hard at the same time. So, yeah. Like, being able to write with a sister means that you can be as honest about how great a piece of writing is. And we do give each other our props in that way. But then you can also be as honest as how sucky a particular paragraph is, which we also do.

MAIKA MOULITE: (Laughter). Yes.

MARITZA MOULITE: So, I mean, it's the best, but it's also the worst.

MAIKA MOULITE: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Never truer words were spoken. Their book is "One Of The Good Ones." Maika and Maritza Moulite, thank you very much.

MAIKA MOULITE: Thank you for having us. This was awesome. Thank you so much.

MARITZA MOULITE: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.