Recently, I was able to speak to the successful, self-published author Mr. Armani Williams, via telephone, about all things literacy. This young, black, up-and-coming artist, who hails from East Orange, NJ, expounded on the genesis of his literacy, what books he enjoyed through his life and gave me, as only someone who loves to read can do, spontaneous text-to-self connections! Most importantly, he explains how his love of literacy took him to where he is today and gives advice to children who may be struggling with reading and writing.
LWL: Who introduced you to reading?
AW: My mother! She was very adamant about my sister and I learning to read. Besides being read to by my mother and, sometimes sister, frequently, books were just always a fixture in our home. My older sister, who is six years older, had a lot of books that were eventually handed down to me. Books were always in the house and a part of my life.
LWL: Where did you go to read?
AW: My mom took us to the library every two weeks- no questions asked. She made sure we read all the books before we had to return them. I actually have a funny story about that. There was this one book from the library that I eventually turned in -although past the due date. I absolutely loved Sesame Street as a child and there was this story called Follow That Bird. It was a movie and a book. It was a story about Big Bird having to leave Sesame Street to live with other birds. Well one day I took the book home and I loved it so much, that I didn’t return the book until SEVEN years later. I dropped the book in the drop box to have some level of anonymity.
LWL: Wow. You seem to have really connected with the story. Maybe you were looking for other birds like yourself at that age? Did you have any other favorite stories?
AW: Yes. I was happy to find books and read stories that had little black kids in it. There is one story, One Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. My mom liked reading it to me and I liked reading it too. Sometimes I think I may have related to the book because there is a little black boy in the story with a red snow suit on and, at the time, I had a red snow suit so sometimes I think I saw myself in the book. I think my mom made that connection too. I also discovered, Ms. Nelson is Missing by Harry Alard in the first grade. I enjoyed the story of the book, but I also lived through that scenario in third grade.
In third grade I had a teacher named Ms. Scott. She was a very nice woman and no one in my class was mean to her. It was just that as a young gifted-and-talented group, we would talk a lot. Usually about our work, but we couldn’t control our talking. It turned out that Ms. Scott had gotten sick. At first it started off with her taking a few days off, but by March Ms. Scott was on temporary leave and I got a new teacher. My own personal Ms. Viola Swamp, except her name was Ms. Raikes. Ms. Raikes was a very mean sub. She would yell sometimes. But as an older black lady, she just had a way of shutting down class conversations with the snap of a finger. It wasn’t just that she was strict, she was old and crotchety too. She gave a lot of homework and classwork to ensure there was no time for joking, laughing or talking. There was no bonding with Ms. Swamp, I am sorry, I mean Ms. Raikes. She was just mean as hell the whole time and I can not recall one positive memory with her in the four months she was my teacher. In fact, Ms. Raikes’ name came up in a Facebook chat recently with friends and even though it is years later, I mean these people are already graduated from college, my friends still got the chills at the sound of her name.
LWL: Did you have friends you would read with?
AW: Not really. Boys were more playing Mortal Combat or X-Men than reading. I remember one time, my Dad bought me a guidebook for Sega Genesis that had all the cheat codes in it. That day I was surrounded by the boys all stretching their necks to see the cheat codes. I felt really popular that day!
LWL: Who introduced you to writing?
AW: At 10 years old I took a class at the Newark Community School of the Arts. The man teaching the class was a college professor. He announced that we weren’t going to act, but write plays. My initial thought was I didn’t know how to write never mind how to write a whole play. The idea was so far fetched for me at the time. That night I went home and thought of a concept of a woman who was married and pregnant with a drug problem and wanted to get off drugs to be a good mom. I have no idea where I got this idea, or why at 10 years old I was thinking about these things, but that night I wrote my first play. It was then that I realized I was a writer. From that point I just wrote more pieces. My professor’s name was Professor Stuart, but I haven’t seen him since 1995, when I took the class. He doesn’t know it, but I dedicated my first book to him.
LWL: What motivated you to continue to read on your own, outside of school assignments?
AW: I just enjoyed it. I liked reading about complexities of life. I came from a household of celebrating being black. We read about up-slinging African-American people, college educated people with careers.
LWL: How did you use writing as a tool? (Diary, write stories, etc.)
AW: I enjoyed the art of story telling. I wrote poems that told stories that expressed feelings. I liked to tell stories of the human condition and about people dealing with life as it happens to us all.
LWL: How, do you think, your passion for reading and writing impacted where you are today?
AW: Discovering reading and writing made me realize I was put on this earth to be a writer!
LWL: What advice would you have for a reluctant reader?
AW: Just try it and find something you enjoy. If you don’t know what to read, ask somebody; specifically your school or town librarian, they seem to know everything.
LWL: What advice do you have for a struggling writer?
AW: Never rush the creative process, it will come when it comes. Read other things in the mean time!! When I sat down to write a book, I wrote it better because I read something else prior to writing. Not that I stole ideas, it just inspires you to create. People write from their experience, including what they read. By exposing yourself to more written work, you are giving yourself more experiences to think about before writing.
LWL: How would you respond to the statement: “Books are a stupid waste of time, and so is writing about what you read in books.”
AW: Everyone’s got opinions. I would never tell someone they were wrong, I just hope that they would change their mind.