Danielle: Welcome to Fresh Fiction, Kaia, and congrats on the release of SISTERS IN ARMS. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where the idea for this book began?
Kaia: I am a lifelong history geek who whose fascination with World War II began early. The aspects of that war that interest me most are the French Resistance and the U.S. Women’s Corps (WAC). Intellectually, I knew that Black women had served in the WAC. But I had never seen a picture of them until a picture of the 6888th marching in France floated down my Twitter timeline almost 10 years ago. I immediately googled “Black women WW2 France” and the rest is history.
Personally, I have family who attended Bethune Cookman University (many years ago!), so I was familiar with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune—an amazing educator who had a major part in developing the Six Triple Eight, the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps. What did your research reveal about this incredible woman?
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was basically the godmother of the Black WAC soldiers. She positioned herself as advisor to WAAC/WAC leadership early on to ensure that Black women would have opportunities in the Corps. She foresaw how the training the women would receive, and later their veterans’ benefits, would help continue the struggle for civil rights. One example of how Bethune’s vision paid off was that of Dovey Johnson Roundtree, who was a member of the first WAAC Officers training class. Rountree later used her veteran benefits to attend Howard Law School. As a Civil Rights attorney, Rountree’s 1955 victory in the first bus desegregation case brought before the Interstate Commerce Commission laid the groundwork for the Freedom Riders’ later civil rights successes in the 1960s.
In virtually every professional setting, Black women start at a disadvantage and have to work much harder than any of their colleagues. How did the knowledge of knowing how far we’ve come (as well as how far we still have to go) impact the struggles and adversity Grace and Eliza faced as they work in the Women’s Army Corps?
I wish I had known about these women’s stories back when I had started out in the workplace. Just knowing that what they had gone through and how they responded to the microaggression with creativity and professionalism would have made all the difference. I mean, who would have thought that a twentysomething Black woman in the military told a general “over my dead body, sir” and got away with it? In the middle of World War 2 no less.
I really enjoyed the personal aspects involved in this book—Grace is trying not to get involved with a man who ranks above her and she wonders if giving up her music career was the right choice. Eliza wants to prove that she’s the accomplished journalist her father refuses to recognize at his newspaper and that she has more grit than everyone assumes. How did you develop their lives outside of the Army and what do you hope readers take away from these other experiences?
The first vision I had of the story was a gender-bent twist on the soldier boy’s last night in town before shipping out trope with the girl going off to war and the male love interest left behind safe at home. This evolved into Grace’s storyline. The biggest challenge in making that scenario happen was finding a justifiable reason for an able-bodied, good-looking Black man in that age range to not be in uniform and heading off to war himself. It took some digging but I eventually found a real-life example of someone like from back then on whom I could base that character. Luckily, he had also written a memoir about his war years experience. The other influence on Grace’s character was my late Aunt Carmen. Grace is basically my imagining of the origin story behind the feisty personality that I knew in the last decades of Aunt Carmen’s life.
As for Eliza, the lives of upper-middle-class Black people in the early 20th Century fascinate me. I thought it would be fun to see how a young woman from that background would thrive in the WW2-era military that was segregated by both race and gender.
I hope reading about these experiences sparks conversations about how the Black female experience in the workplace has and hasn’t changed, what to do when the plan for your life goes sideways, how to incorporate the strategies Eliza and Grace (and their friends) used to combat their workplace challenges, and how to navigate relationships that may or may not necessarily lead to happily ever after.
What is something you researched but you didn’t get to include in SISTERS IN ARMS?
I stumbled across several brief mentions of the queer women who were members of the 6888th Postal Battalion late in the revision process. I would have had to throw together a storyline to include that experience in the book. I didn’t think I would have done that community justice with less than a well-thought-out portrayal of these particular women in the book.
I also didn’t get to work in how the women of the 6888th boycotted the racially segregated YWCA hotel in London.
SISTERS IN ARMS is your debut novel! Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Don’t give up on the story that keeps calling you to write it. I started and stopped working on the story that became SISTERS IN ARMS so many times because I was convinced that no one would ever want to read this [insert your favorite bad word].
What other stories about Black women in history do you hope to tell one day? Do you have anything else in the works you can tell us about?
My next book is about Effa Manley, the racially mixed woman who co-owned a Negro League baseball team in the 1930s and 1940s and is currently the only woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is tentatively titled IN A LEAGUE OF HER OWN.
As for the other Black women in history I want to write about? I can’t tell you that… yet. (smile)
Rapid Fire Random Questions
Favorite animal: Monkeys and tigers
Coffee or tea: Tea. Specifically, green tea. Even more specifically, jasmine green tea. Although my new obsession for the time being is brown rice green tea.
Favorite book to re-read: Beverly Jenkins’ historical romances, especially TOPAZ.
Beach or mountains: Oh, this is so hard. I love water but I hate sand. Mountains are cool but I can’t do extreme heights. I’m going to cheat a little bit and say Girl Scout Camp with a waterfront.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?: An actress and a mother. And later, an orthopedic surgeon. But then I took high school honors chemistry and that dream quickly morphed into a musical artist manager/ A&R at a record company.
Dream vacation: Right now it’s Iceland to see the Northern Lights.
Aside from reading and writing, what are your hobbies?: Baking, sewing, crocheting, learning sign language
Five people you’d invite to your book club (dead, alive, fictional, etc.!): I would like to have a nice conversation mixed with craft, pettiness, and gossip. Which means I would invite Harlem Renaissance greats Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, WEB DuBois, Louise Thompson, and Jessie Fauset. But for real, can someone make this movie please?
Favorite movie: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
You have a totally free afternoon – no deadlines, no obligations, no Twitter notifications! What do you do?: Doze off while binging The Musketeers tv show on Hulu
A Novel of the Daring Black Women Who Served During World War II
Kaia Alderson’s debut historical fiction novel reveals the untold, true story of the Six Triple Eight, the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps, who made the dangerous voyage to Europe to ensure American servicemen received word from their loved ones during World War II.
Grace Steele and Eliza Jones may be from completely different backgrounds, but when it comes to the army, specifically the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), they are both starting from the same level. Not only will they be among the first class of female officers the army has even seen, they are also the first Black women allowed to serve.
As these courageous women help to form the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, they are dealing with more than just army bureaucracy—everyone is determined to see this experiment fail. For two northern women, learning to navigate their way through the segregated army may be tougher than boot camp. Grace and Eliza know that there is no room for error; they must be more perfect than everyone else.
When they finally make it overseas, to England and then France, Grace and Eliza will at last be able to do their parts for the country they love, whatever the risk to themselves.
Based on the true story of the 6888th Postal Battalion (the Six Triple Eight), Sisters in Arms explores the untold story of what life was like for the only all-Black, female U.S. battalion to be deployed overseas during World War II.
About Kaia Alderson
Kaia Alderson is a women’s historical fiction author with a passion for discovering “hidden figures” in African American women’s history. Her specific areas of interest are women’s military history, popular music, women in sports, upper-middle-class African American society, and women’s international travel. She holds a sociology degree from Spelman College and a master’s degree in education from the University of West Georgia. She honed her writing chops at the Hurston/Wright Foundation’s and VONA’s writing workshops.
About Danielle Jackson
Danielle Jackson Dresser is a contemporary romance author (her debut novel with Berkley will be out in 2022!), avid reader, lackluster-yet-mighty crafter, and accomplished TV binge-watcher.
Once upon a time, she was a publisher publicist and continues to cultivate her love of books and reading by chatting with the best authors in the business as the Editorial Manager of Fresh Fiction and co-host of the Fresh Fiction podcast. Danielle is one of the Boozy Book Broads, a monthly author chat show streamed live on YouTube. She also moderates panels, interviews authors, and hosts a book club at Love’s Sweet Arrow, the romance-focused independent bookstore.
Danielle lives in Chicagoland with her very own romance hero husband, darling daughter, and two tempestuous cats. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, @DJacksonBooks.