Late into The Blazing Star, the new young adult novel by self-described “South Side girl” Imani Josey, the Prince of Egypt leads the main character, Portia, into a palatial dining hall. “Personally, I wouldn’t call our Hyde Park home luxurious, but we didn’t want for anything,” Portia said. “But this room was not luxurious. It was otherworldly.”
The same could be said for The Blazing Star itself. The book’s language and imagination are luxurious indeed, but “otherworldly” is the only word for dazzling and richly depicted fictional world into which Portia is thrust when she touches a scarab-decorated artifact during her high school history class that transports her from Hyde Park to ancient Egypt. Once there, Portia eventually discovers that both her sister and their mutual acquaintance have been transported there as well. Throughout Portia’s quest to escape Egypt and return to Chicago, she forges friendships that make it harder for her to leave.
Being transported into the past also transforms Portia in magical ways. New powers shock her; she finds that white electricity now sparks painfully from the tips of her fingers. In training, Portia tries to learn how to “use and channel” her awesome abilities. The Blazing Star is as much about Portia’s struggle to use newfound powers for good as it is about her struggle to return to present-day Chicago.
“My story is considered portal fantasy,” Josey told me. “I’ve always loved fantasy… magic, unicorns, mythology, that sort of thing.” It’s no wonder she’s succeeded at her attempt to contribute to the genre; the settings, issues, and themes in The Blazing Star have occupied Josey’s creative mind for a long time. “The first part takes place in modern Chicago, where the girls live on the South Side.” For Josey, who has lived in Ashburn and Hyde Park, this choice of setting “wasn’t a stretch.”
It wasn’t an accident either. Feeling a duty to portray the lively, nuanced Chicago denied by many non-Chicagoans, Josey wanted to use The Blazing Star to counteract destructive stereotypes of life in her city. “I’m a proud product of Chicago Public Schools,” she explains. “There are so many stories that the world sees that show all of the negative aspects of Chicago; I wanted to share the dream and the vision of a Chicago unseen—a beautiful Black family working together.”
“We wanted a Black girl on the cover to stress the diversity of The Blazing Star. We also wanted our model to capture the protagonist’s agency and sense of adventure, and for the cover to showcase Black beauty,” Josey said. A “tall order,” Josey said, though she praises the work of her cover artist, who she said rose to the challenge.
To accurately portray the otherworldly setting of ancient Egypt, writing The Blazing Star required hefty research. Josey relied on an already deep-seated love of ancient Egyptian culture to alleviate the burden. “Researching the novel took about two years,” she said, “but because history is a personal interest, I can’t said I’ve ever really stopped.” Throughout The Blazing Star, characters discuss gods such as Isis, Osiris, Ra, Amun, and Set. Ancient wedding ceremonies are depicted in strange and fascinating detail. Josey’s work is precise: even relatively obscure groups such as the Seafarers and Hyksos people are seamlessly woven into her novel’s narrative.
Chalk Josey’s love of Egypt up to her family: her father was a historian, and her mother was a writer. Under these influences, Josey said she has always enjoyed learning about the past. “When I was a kid,” she said, “my mother had a few framed photos of Cleopatra, Nefertari, Makeda, and Zenobia on our walls. Nefertari, the queen of Ramses II, appealed most to me as a child.”
From personal experience, Josey believes that what appeals to a child has real power in their life. The voraciousness of young adult literature’s audience was one of her biggest motivations in writing the novel. Why are young readers so eager to be engrossed? “Adolescence is a great time of self-discovery for characters,” she said, and young readers crave these kinds of stories.
Josey’s own path of self-discovery and self-development has involved a winding path through various achievements. In addition to having been crowned Miss Chicago and Miss Cook County, Josey has also been a cheerleader for the Chicago Bulls. During her time as Miss Chicago, in 2009, Josey started blogging. Marketing came naturally to her, and she began blogging as a way of connecting with her audience. When Josey began interviewing fellow pageant girls, she found that she enjoyed blogging even more. Eight years after her blog was created, it has become “Introvert Problems,” a podcast in which Josey and her fellow contributors interview authors and other creative professionals.
Despite the many claims on Josey’s time and attention, she still manages to achieve balance. Management and prioritization are essential, Josey knows, “especially when I’m on some sort of deadline.” As a writer, Josey also knows she needs solitude to work. “Those authors who write to music? Nope, not me,” she said.
Originating in solitude, her work has now achieved worldwide appeal. Since the publication of The Blazing Star, Josey has interacted with bloggers and reviewers from Egypt, Pakistan, Istanbul, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Australia, and beyond. “My favorite part is seeing what [my readers] react to,” Josey said. “What inspires them, and what strikes a chord, are often the same themes (sisterhood, overcoming obstacles, personal development). It shows exactly how the human experience is so connected.”
Though glad about her success, Josey isn’t stopping to celebrate. Her literary career continues to blossom; since late 2016, both the Crossed Genres’ Hidden Youth Anthology and the Young Adult Review Network have featured her stories. At the moment, she is doing the hard work of editing the second installment in The Blazing Star series. Though her work is far from over, she is well on her way to making her neighborhood proud.
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