Local author Alexandra Duncan will celebrate the release of Blight, her third YA science-fiction novel, with a homecoming of sorts: Her launch on Tuesday, Aug. 1, will take place at Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, where she first discovered one of her callings.
“I was a senior at UNC Asheville, and I did an internship there, and I did storytime,” she explains. She would pick a children’s book and read it to an audience of kids every week, she says, “and that was one of the things that led to me becoming a children’s librarian.”
With her launch approaching, Duncan’s day job continues to be a perfect complement to the writing life. In addition to its practical benefits, such as unlimited access to research tools and the opportunity to keep up with publishing trends, it’s also given her repeated exposure to readers.
“One of my favorite parts of my job is readers’ advisory,” she says, “finding out what their interests are and trying to match them up with the right book. It’s always fun when I get to do that, especially for teenagers, because I love the literature for that age group.”
More significantly, being a librarian connects with a deeper current in Duncan’s life and work: a passion for social justice. Becoming a librarian, she says, “was a way that I could make my community a better place and contribute to making the library an open and welcoming place for everybody.”
Duncan’s interest in issues of social justice dates back to when, as a teen, she made mission trips to Haiti and Nicaragua, and worked to advocate for causes she found important. And while she doesn’t intentionally weave social justice issues into her work, they’re an inescapable part of her first two novels, Salvage and Sound. They crop up in Blight as well.
A fast-paced thriller, Blight is the story of Tempest Torres, a security guard for an all-powerful agribusiness, who must race against time to warn the world about a genetically engineered crop blight that’s spreading and killing everything in its path.
Still, for Duncan, the essence of Blight is “a search for roots and for meaning. As a Latina, Torres is Duncan’s third woman of color protagonist in three novels, a choice the author has made consciously. “Literature is often so white, so populated just by white people, and I want to reflect more of what the world actually looks like,” she says.
Duncan aims for more than representation, however. She carefully researches her characters’ backgrounds and puts her work in the hands of sensitivity readers to make sure her portrayals are authentic. In the case of Blight, a sensitivity reader suggested that Torres should wrestle with cultural erasure — the process in which people of color are required to to scrub the traces of their background in order to conform. “I said, ‘Oh! You’re brilliant!” Duncan recalls.
This notion of cultural erasure dovetails with one of the other themes of Blight: the havoc that genetic engineering and monoculture farming have wreaked on the natural world. Torres’ internal struggle to rediscover her cultural heritage thus twins with her fight to recover a natural world on the verge of collapse.
Duncan’s suspenseful writing paired with an interest in deeper issues has struck a chord with many readers. Salvage received a lot of recognition — including being named a Junior Library Guild selection — and advanced reviews of Blight have been overwhelmingly positive.
That admiration has spilled over into her library work, as well. Duncan tells the story of a teenager who came to her branch to ask whether a location in Salvage was modeled on Asheville’s River Arts District.
“I said, ‘Yes! That’s exactly what it was!’” she says, laughing. “That was a really cool experience. An odd experience, but it’s really nice.”
WHAT: Alexandra Duncan launches her third YA sci-fi novel, Blight
WHEN: Tuesday, Aug. 1, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Spellbound Children’s Bookshop, 640 Merrimon Ave., Suite 204, spellboundbookshop.com