For years, I passed a large boulder in Prospect Park that marked the site of Battle Pass, an important scene in the 1776 Battle of Long Island. The plaque on the boulder explained that American and German soldiers (Hessians) fought in those hills at the start of the Revolutionary War. Sometimes when I walked by the boulder, I wondered, “What if that plaque were really a door that opened late at night?” In my mind’s eye, I could see dimly lit stairs leading down into the earth—but I couldn’t see farther than that.
Then, in summer 2010, I came across an article about an 18th-century ship found during construction at Ground Zero. Archaeologists suggested it had been used as landfill when lower Manhattan was being expanded in the 1800s. I had other ideas: What if the ship were underground because its passengers were underground, too?
On an ordinary day that fall, I found a beautiful cowrie shell near my home. I assumed it had fallen off someone’s jewelry or bag and simply put it in my pocket and walked on. But in December, I found a second cowrie shell: tiny, white, and fragile, yet miraculously intact. Two perfect shells—once used as currency in Africa, still used by some for divination purposes—lying on the streets of Brooklyn, waiting for me to pick them up. It had to be a sign! I’d finally found my underground passengers.
Until 1794, the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan—a cemetery located, by law, outside the city limits—served as the final resting place for 15,000 to 20,000 free and enslaved blacks. When the city expanded and needed more land, the burial ground was closed and virtually forgotten for 200 years. In 1991, 419 of those burial sites were uncovered during construction of the Ted Weiss Federal Building on Broadway. The community mobilized and fought for the preservation of the remains, and today an impressive monument marks the resting place of the unnamed souls who built the colony that became New York City.
I’ve always known there was magic here. Or rather I believed that magic was possible, so magical things have happened to me. I didn’t feel that way growing up in Canada, and I didn’t start to write speculative fiction until I moved to Brooklyn. Ship of Souls blends a number of different and disparate elements: urban teens, American history, a talking bird, and the restless souls of the dead. I wanted to write a multicultural urban fantasy (that did not include vampires), and I hoped my immigrant eyes could reveal some of the “visible secrets” of this incredible city.
Ship of Souls is essentially a story about belonging, and, like much of my writing, it is also a tribute to the borough that has nourished my imagination for almost 20 years.