Recently, I completed a book based on the life of my good friend Anna Simpson, who was raised by her immigrant mother in Far Rockaway, Queens, a neighborhood often defined by its social isolation, Section 8 housing and violent crime. Anna and I first met back in 1999 on the set of the independent film Our Song. I had just completed a documentary and was hanging around the set, shooting behind-the-scenes footage of the cast, crew and neighborhood kids. I was about twice Anna's age at the time and in awe of her—she was a new teen mom, juggling the job of acting in her first film with caring for her newborn. But that's not the only thing that set her apart. Call it a spark or a sense of optimism but her magnanimous personality inspired one of my most lasting and treasured friendships. Throughout these years, I've watched her move from adolescence to adulthood with remarkable grace, self-reliance and decency.
In my adult life, I've divided my time between making films, and working with teens in the media arts, sometimes as a mentor, other times as a teaching artist in classrooms or after school programs. Spending time with these young people at the cusp of adulthood inevitably prompts discussions about bias and power, violence and retaliation, resilience and change. Showing teens films and helping them make their own movies has proven to be a practical way to voice debate and oppose inequities.
When Anna and I first started to play around with the idea for a book inspired by her life, I knew her story hooked directly into themes that have always resonated with me as a storyteller and as a mentor. What are the small ways individuals find to level the playing field, to cross class lines or cultural barriers? How do we challenge the status quo if we know it to be unjust?
Our collaboration to write this book began at my kitchen table where I asked Anna to tell me her life story. Her memories were often recounted as images, fragmented by time and distance, sometimes in no particular order, other times as anecdotes with a beginning, middle, and end. After several months, we had collected hours of recorded interviews which I then transcribed.
Anna has been through and done so many extraordinary things. She told me many stories, gut-wrenching stories about surviving sexual abuse as a child, coping with domestic violence, about a culture of indifference that led to her dropping out of school. And yet through all of this, she's managed to raise her daughter, now grown and entering high school, has held jobs as an actress, a singer, a waitress, a store clerk, a security guard at a homeless shelter, and an after-school coordinator for middle school kids. Most recently, Anna received an associate's degree at an automotive school.
In the early stages of conceiving the book, I spent a long time reading through and listening to our interviews. The simplest part was identifying key events in Anna's life that might act as plot points in a broader story about a young woman's odyssey toward self-possession and discovery. The harder part was figuring out how to move the story from biography, or a simple rendering of Anna's oral history, to some other literary form.
Wondering about the more universal story that could be drawn from Anna's history, I began to notice how some of her stories echoed those shared with me by my teenage friends, as well as my own preoccupations as the child of an immigrant mother. These narratives circled around the idea of flight, of risk, of leaping the great divide between class and cultures with no guarantee of a positive outcome.
Anna was cast as one of the leads in a critically-acclaimed movie, an event I dramatized in the book along with scenes of her attending the Sundance Film Festival. But On the Come Up is not a rags-to-riches story that celebrates overnight success, wealth and stardom. What I took from the whole of Anna's life, what impressed me most about her, was the risk she took to cross class and culture lines, to journey past the familiar landscape of her home, her friendships and the containment of a neighborhood. In doing so, her eyes were opened to new perspectives from which she could re-examine her life, re-think traditional notions of family and re-affirm her aspirations.
One storyline that illustrates this idea traces the main character's gradual recognition that her relationship with her boyfriend and father of her child is both diminishing and abusive. As it was in Anna's life, aggression and violence are normalized in this fictional landscape, even mundane. To break this status quo, to see life any other way is one of the character's greatest challenges and ultimately her most essential triumph.
My hope is that On the Come Up will take you into a world that is both distinct yet relevant. It follows one girl, through one life but at its core, it's meant to remind us of all the young people whom we sit next to on the subway, pass on the street or perhaps only read about as a statistic. It's meant to remind us that our status and place in the world are not necessarily predetermined, that lines can be broken, and like Anna has proven, it's possible to leap the great divide.
Hannah Weyer is a filmmaker whose narrative and documentary films have been screened at the Human Rights Watch and the New York Film Festivals and have won awards at the Sundance, Locarno, Melbourne, Doubletake, and South by Southwest Film Festivals. Her screenwriting credits include Life Support (2007), directed by Nelson George, which earned a Golden Globe Award for its lead actress, Queen Latifah. Weyer has worked with teens in the media arts for the past 15 years and, along with her husband, the filmmaker Jim McKay, started an after-school film club at a public high school in Brooklyn. On the Come Up is her first novel.