In Conversation with Roselby Marie Sosa
On Writing, Community, and Love
I recently had the distinct pleasure of talking to Roselby Marie Sosa about her new children’s book, When the Streets Were Empty. I met Roselby a little over a year ago, when I began working with her at Girls Who Code. From that first day, I was astonished by her intelligence, her creativity, and her world class storytelling abilities. Roselby has utilized this gift in several mediums, from short stories to monologues to games.
This summer, Roselby began work on a children’s book about a spirit wandering the streets of the Bronx during the COVID-19 pandemic. She collaborated with the illustrator Taiga Bluet to bring the streets of the Bronx to life, and in a few short months, the book was published. When The Streets Were Empty is a gorgeous book that will delight and move all ages. It was such a joy to talk to Roselby about the book, her relationship to writing, her thoughts on community, her love for the Bronx, and so much more. I hope you enjoy this conversation. And you can order her book here.
First of all, I want to congratulate you on releasing your first book! How does it feel knowing that something you wrote is now out in the world?
It’s a feeling of relief. It’s one of the things I wanted to do most in my lifetime. I wanted to write a book that I could read to my child one day. And now, it’s not something I need to do anymore. It’s something I have done.
That must be a beautiful feeling. Did you celebrate when the process was finished?
Yes. It's interesting because the celebrations have happened gradually. There’s when we finished the book itself with the images. Then there’s when the book first popped up in the store. And then there’s when I first got the copy in the mail. And finally there was the first time someone else got a copy in the mail! I think my biggest celebration was when I got my first copy because that was when it was real for me.
I can’t even imagine! I’ve been thinking a lot about how beautifully this book captures this difficult period. I was wondering how the idea for this project came to be. What was the impulse that led you to write this book?
I believe it was in August. At the time, I was stressed out with some things that were happening in my life. I deliberately sat down and decided to spend some time writing. I enjoy writing because I get to utilize a different part of my mind. In this case, I didn’t have something specific in mind to write. I thought to myself, “Ok I know Halloween is coming up.” I have a couple of young people in my life and I thought maybe I could write something quick for them. So I sat down and wrote this story. When I was initially writing, it felt more like a poem than a story. But then as I finished and read it, I thought,”Wow, this is really nice.” It felt nicer than something that was just written off hand. I showed it to my partner, and he was able to put my feelings into words. He mentioned that the text would be equally appealing for both kids and adults. And that was when it clicked in my mind that this was something I should try to publish. And so I did a lot of research on publishing in August.
I had to make the call if I was going to go through all of those steps, when Halloween was just around the corner. It really was gonna be flash fiction, which meant I couldn’t publish it through a regular publisher. This meant I had to self-publish it and that I would have to get everything right on my own. There would be no cushion or room for error. I had a great deal of worry about that actually happening because of the pandemic. But I looked at the stories and knew I really wanted my young family members to have it for Halloween. And I could imagine adults reading it as well. This includes my coworkers who had mentioned to me how stressful it was trying to assure their children that they were gonna be okay, while also impressing upon them that they needed to be cautious and supportive of each other. Because that naturally engenders the question “Why do we have to be so careful? Why do we have to do so much for each other if everything is okay? It makes it sound like something is not okay.”
So I really wanted all of them to have this book because I thought it would be useful. I feel very lucky that I met Taiga and that she was able to do the illustrations on such a short timeline. It was truly incredible what she was able to do. And I had so much support from my partner. He stayed up late and didn’t mind the bright light on my screen. I was lucky that in trying to do something for myself, I stumbled into being able to do something for other people. All I had to do was recognize that opportunity and double down. I had to be willing to give more of my time to make it something for other people.
That is such a wonderful summation of the feeling that comes when you share your creativity. You mentioned that your partner had helped you recognize that the story worked for both children and adults. It feels like the best children’s literature is always able to master that balance. What are the challenges that came with writing a book for a young audience?
There are definitely some technical limitations. You might want to describe a setting or a problem in the most heart-wrenching or specific terms you know, but a child likely does not know those terms yet. I can say a moment “tore at my heart” and a young child will not understand that language. This was especially top of mind because my book is really targeting early readers. So all the sentences had to be short and have familiar vocabulary. They also had to have a construction that was engaging. The hardest thing with young children is that even with words they recognize, they need repetition before they truly understand. That’s just a developmental phase. They need to hear it first to get the words, then they need to hear it again to understand the order, and then they need to hear it a third time to understand the meaning. Adults can sympathize with this feeling, when they read very complicated works.
So when you’re writing a story, you have to write it very simply. You can’t do a lot of variation in sentence structure, because you can’t have very long sentences. Instead, you have to use a lot of rhyming or near rhymes. In fact, a lot of the techniques that make poetry work are what make a children’s story work. And then of course the illustrations have to match what you write in tone and meaning. Then children have something they can touch and look at to give them clues. And then finally, it has to be engaging for the parent because if they want to read the story for the 20th time, the book will disappear from the house.
It’s really interesting to hear you elaborate on this process. I wanted to ask about your collaboration with Taiga. What was it like working with her and how did it feel to see your words brought to life so vividly?
Oh it was wonderful. Taiga is such a talented artist. Her watercolor paintings are fantastic and they’re very emotive. The pace at which she can produce is astonishing. As someone who cannot paint for their life, I was thinking it was an unreasonable ask. But Taiga shrugged it off and said she could do it. It was interesting because my attitude towards writing is very similar to her attitude towards painting. It’s something she does both for herself and for others.
Seeing it come to life was also wondrous. It was lovely to see that I didn’t need to explain very much for her to understand what I was going for. I told her that the setting was very important to me and that I wanted it to look like places where I came from in the Bronx. I wanted other people to be able to read the story and not be alienated, but I did want the kids from where I grew up to see the little markers and know that it was their hometown. Little markers like the fire escapes being different colors. That’s something they are doing in areas of the South Bronx and Morris Heights. They’re repainting them these odd colors. For other people, that will not register. But for the kids from those communities, they will know that it’s their home. This also includes the intake center on the last page. If you are someone who has experienced homelessness, you know this building. It’s where you have to go to be processed to go to a shelter in the city. Everyone in that community knows how emotional it is to walk to that building and stop there.
Even though I had to give some directions, Taiga understood the tone almost immediately from the words themselves. She understood that it was supposed to be the sort of story that instilled confidence in children. That even though you have to be cautious and practice empathy in supporting your community, how you react is within your control. And all of these traditions we use to come together; those withstand those changes. We just learn to adapt. Taiga understood that and it was so rewarding to see that it did not take extra work to help her see that. And Taiga and I aren’t even from the same country or neighborhood and we are not even experiencing the pandemic in the same way. It was also wondrous because it was the first time I saw my community painted as if they were beautiful. I had never seen the Bronx painted as if it was worth painting. And it really got me because I sent her photos of where I grew up. And she had never seen these places before. But from those photos, she made these beautiful scenes. And looking at it, I thought,” Wow. This is what other people see.” My home is beautiful and you forget that because you know how hard it is sometimes to be there. And you know hard it has been to even keep that neighborhood going. But to see it as beautiful, when only other places have been considered beautiful, was so special. I realized my hometown was beautiful because she painted it with respect.
I’m so happy you were able to have such meaningful collaboration with her. And that her work affected how you see your home. I wanted to ask more about your experiences growing up in the Bronx. How do you think growing up there shaped how you think about community?
I do not think I would have had such a constructive attitude towards my childhood, if we hadn’t practiced a community oriented lifestyle. Especially because things happen to you in the Bronx. I think many people feel this way about their own hometowns, especially if their neighborhood has struggled economically, or has dealt with discrimination and a history of violence. In my community, we’ve experienced the kinds of difficult things that others fear experiencing.
It is very hard to get through difficult moments if you are by yourself. They make you feel small and powerless and alone. And they can also invite intrusive thoughts if you’re prone to depression. If you do not have a community of people who are reaffirming your experiences and supporting your needs, it is very hard. It makes a huge difference to have people support you.
One of the biggest things I learned from the Bronx is that resources aren’t in places but rather in people. That’s just part of the community’s culture in the Bronx. It’s not that I will have my door open to anyone, because there are obviously still safety concerns. But we are constantly thinking of things we can build or provide for other people in our community. Do we only cook for our unit or do we make extra servings just in case others stop by? If I didn’t live in the Bronx, I’m sure the painful things I experienced would have overwhelmed me. I am very lucky that they didn’t.
It’s so wonderful that you were able to grow up with that conception of support and care. What role should ‘community’ play in our world today ?
I think right now we are simultaneously building stronger communities, while also breaking communities in half. While previously we might have been able to keep people with different values in our life, it is now becoming increasingly hard. What used to be easy to overcome is now impossible.Many of those relationships have now reached a breaking point. I also think of people who are in abusive relationships or dynamics, who now do not have any reprieve from their situations. And I think of situations where we were previously able to hold political differences, but now cannot because things are actively affecting our lives. We are currently experiencing curfews, we are currently at risk of getting sick, we are currently discussing violence in our communities. So for that reason, I feel like a lot of communities are breaking, but we’re also seeing how a lot of those communities were not built around mutual care and concern.
At the same time, I think we are building new communities because so many people are finding common ground in these shared experiences. And we are building connections based on our desire to have our care and concerns met. So it’s interesting to see some communities breaking while others are being born. But I think it comes down to whether your communities were built around mutual care and consideration, or if they were built on power.
I think the distinction between mutuality and power is such a vital one. Who are you in community with in your own life?
I would say I’m in community with some members of my family, some of my coworkers, and with my partner. I think I select people from all the different ecosystems of my life. I think as you go through different spaces, you try to maintain connection with the people who made those spaces easier for you. And if you’re lucky, you made the space easier for them as well. And then you just build from there. And you start to recognize what people need and figure out how you can support them. The hardest part is that initial connection and realizing,”Oh this person has a talent for something that makes it easier for me to be here. And I have a talent that helps them.” After that, the rest is only details.
I feel like so much of this ethos is built into When the Streets Were Empty. What is the specific power storytelling has to articulate some of these ideas?
Storytelling can take the literal truth and translate it into living truth. Where reality can’t go, stories can. When a child reads an old folktale, they’re not reading something that had literally happened, but reading to understand the meaning behind what happened. Storytelling helps people process and understand abstract concepts. This is especially helpful with children, who have not had many experiences yet. I tell stories to convey the meaning of moments I cannot in real life.
It strikes me how much that requires careful consideration of one’s readers. I’m so interested in how that relates to your own relationship with your work. What do you personally get from writing?
When I was young I used to write for escapism. I used to go into the bathroom, lock the door, run the shower, and just see things in my mind. I would completely dissociate from where I was and I would see scenes of things happening. Anything happening to anyone else is what I wanted to see. And then at some point, I started getting writing assignments in school. And I would just decide to write the things I had already spent so much time thinking about. As I wrote, I got a great deal of positive feedback. I then started associating my identity and my sense of worth with writing. Now that I’m an adult and don’t necessarily need that escapism anymore, I now use writing as a personal release. I love the idea that you can create something somewhere and come back the other side with something that makes people feel good. It feels like a very productive use of that creative muscle.
Writing also helps me explain myself. One of the problems that came with using writing as an escape was that people never fully understood how I was feeling. I was detached but to others it looked like situations did not bother me. People would only see me in extremes. Like when I would get into a fight with someone, people would be like,”She just freaked out of nowhere.” And it’s because I was responding to all of these situations by pretending I was somewhere else. And while that is acceptable as a child, it is not as an adult. When you’re an adult, people view you as a threat when they don’t understand you. So as an adult, I needed writing because it's the only way I had practiced expressing myself. It was all through fantasies. I had to learn to write well so the people in my personal and professional life could understand me.
That’s such a meaningful and deeply personal connection to have to a craft. I have to ask about publishing because it feels like a major benchmark in this process. What does being a published author mean to you?
It means I do not have to know someone personally to help them. I remember once telling my partner something I once experienced as a joke, and he cried. I asked him if he was ok and he said,”I don’t like picturing that happening to a young you.” And it was shocking to me because I didn't have that empathy for myself. But he did. And that’s the plus of having a book. I have a younger sister who’s 13. One of the biggest pros I have as a big sister is that whenever she is going through something, I always have a story. I always have a book on the shelf or a story in my head that can either help her separate herself from what is going on or help her understand what she is feeling. Previously, I could only do that for my sister or someone who reached out to me. With a book, I can do that for people even if I am not around or present in their life. If your kid is feeling anxious right now, you can just pull me off your shelf. And that’s really exciting to me.
That’s really exciting for all of us. Now that you’ve published this book, what is next for you?
I am trying to steadily build towards a story when I was 12 years old. I wrote it then and did not save the Word file and cried when it got deleted.
I know. I’ve since recalled the story to my sister, my partner, and others. There are certain parts of the original story that I don’t like anymore so I now tell it with edits. It now feels like a very full story and it is now the one book that is on my bucket list. First, I just wanted to write a book that my future child could read, so they would know that this is something we love to do in our family. But now I want to write this book because it's become this joke in my life. I’m trying to work up to it because the story has a bunch of emotional elements and I only really tell it in vulnerable states. It’s also a little hard to write down because it is very oral in its construction. So I wanna write a couple of stories that get me closer and closer to that one. So I think my next story is gonna be a chapter book which is a gender-bent retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Through that story, I want to explore how we are all deserving of love, despite things we might have experienced in our past.
I’m so excited for all of these projects. I wanted to end with a question that is right in line with your last answer. What is the role love plays in your life?
I don’t know if I would have gotten through my life without love. When I was born, I was the turning point in a lot of my family member’s lives, because they fell in love with me as an infant. And they thought,” She’s more than just my community. She’s a community within herself. And I’m gonna go above and beyond to care for her.” And as I grew up and went through things, the people who loved me saved me from spiraling. And if I had been alone, I probably would have survived but I would have just been surviving.
When my sister was born I had the same experience that others had had with me. She did not love me right away but I loved her. And then I loved her more and then I loved her more. And I realized it keeps going! In having that experience, I was able to recognize it the next time it happened, which was with my partner. My partner is a whole community that I pour myself into. Everyone who loves him and helps him are people who I will care for. And then I also feel that with my friends. And I know that specific love will continue to grow and grow in feeling. And just having that in my life fills me with purpose. Some people access that purpose through going to churches or other places of worship. And I wonder if I would have sought that out for myself if I had needed to. I'm not sure because I’ve never loved myself like I’ve loved other people. Which is not to say, I don’t love myself. I love myself enough to survive but nothing comes close to the purpose I find in people like my sister, my partner, and others. Loving them gave me a purpose that brought me beyond survival.
I am so grateful to you for sharing your artistry and humanity with me. And I think this book is the ultimate act of love.
Thank you so much for this.
You can order When The Streets Were Empty here. And follow the book on Instagram here.