A candle burns at both ends in 'Cotton'

Oak Park author Karla Drew explores black history and identity in her debut novel

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By Ashley Lisenby

Digital Editor

Karla Drew's father asked her one day if she could picture Black America as a candle burning at both ends. One end is the younger generation, plagued by violence, the other is the older generation, plagued by the ailments of old age.

It is the image of a candle burning at both ends that creates the central theme of Drew's debut fiction novel, Cotton.

The 32-year-old Oak Park resident describes the novel as "magical realism," using The Never Ending Story and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as examples of that literary genre.

"[Cotton] has a lot of magical, fantastical elements that intertwine with realities," said Drew.

The place Drew creates in her novel is one full of human emotions that interact with a supernatural world.

Most chapters in the book represent a television show that Drew made for the reader to "watch," vignettes that introduce the reader to different characters and stories.

"One of my favorite stories is the chapter called 'The Tales of Dip & Rip'," said Drew. "It's about lynching, but the way it's written is in this very childlike, fairytale way. [The story] brings to heart what a lot of African Americans experience."

Another of the author's favorite stories in Cotton involves two sisters who create their own clothing line called Shauna & Olivia. The chapter focuses on helping women to match the growth and complete sense of identity they feel on the inside, Drew said, with the same confidence level on the outside.

The ease with which Drew explores topics of race and identity in Cotton's magically-realistic world comes from the diversity of her own life experiences.

"Growing up, I was exposed to different cultures, languages and religions," she said.

It was because of her father's job that she and her family lived in different states around the country and internationally, in places such as South Africa, helping the author be just as aware of cultural identities as racial ones.

Beyond touching on key historical moments, such as slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, Cotton highlights positive advancements within the black community as well such as education, leadership and the importance of family.

Drew said she hopes the book will help readers think about the purpose of their own lives.

"As a Christian," said Drew, "I want to encourage others to discover why they were created and why they are on the Earth."

After several years of thinking about her father's double-ended candle-burning imagery and three years of writing, the self-published novel was released in the spring. The Kindle version of Cotton is scheduled for release at the end of September.

Drew, who received a bachelor's degree in Media Affairs from Columbia College and later worked on films in Los Angeles, is in graduate school for counseling and psychology.

It was her fascination with people, she said, that encouraged her to pursue psychology.

As for writing, Drew does not think Cotton will be her last book.

"I feel this book is something that any reader of any age and generation can enjoy," said Drew. "I would consider this book a success if a person reading this book creates positive change."

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