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Willow Smith discusses new novel

Singer, activist publishes her first historical fiction

By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:04am

BALTIMORE — Willow Camille Reign Smith came home last week.

Technically, perhaps, the 23-year-old was born in California, where she lives today. But the writer, singer and activist is the youngest child of Baltimore’s favorite daughter, Jada Pinkett Smith, and she comes from a long line of strong, confident, proud Black Baltimore women including her grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris.

In Baltimore, that’s enough reason to embrace Willow Smith as family.

And more than 300 strong, confident, proud, Black Baltimore women turned out at the Enoch Pratt Free Library to support Smith, who is on a book tour for her first novel, “Black Shield Maiden,” published by Random House.

“I love being Black,” Smith told her interviewer, Glory Edim, founder of the Well-Read Black Girl website and podcast.

“I want to inspire people who felt like they didn’t have a voice to just sing and know that deep in your heart your voice is valuable.”

Smith is the third member of her family to put pen to paper. Her father Will Smith’s autobiography “Will” written with the help of Mark Manson, was published in 2021. Last fall, her mother’s memoir, “Worthy,” made waves with its candid examination of Pinkett Smith’s relationship with her husband.

But instead of probing her own psyche, Willow Smith created a work of historical fiction to explore the possibility that Viking warriors, who ventured as far south as Morocco, might have encountered African people and their culture. While studying the legend of Erik the Red, Smith stumbled on Thorhall the Hunter, a fictional character who some historians have hypothesized was based on a real-life Black man. If Thorhall had a daughter, Smith wondered, what would she be like?

Her speculations resulted in the fictional character of the warrior maiden Yafeu, the protagonist of a book that Smith spent six years writing with her friend, Jess Hendel.

That intellectual rigor impressed Shawn Lee, 45, of Baltimore, who attended the discussion with her daughter. Lee said she first became familiar with Willow Smith from the “Red Table Talk” show that ran from 2018 to 2023 and was co-hosted by Pinkett Smith, Banfield-Norris and Willow Smith.

“I admired the way she handled all those grown-up conversations,” Lee said. “She’s a very intelligent young lady.”

Though the crowd at the Pratt was almost exclusively female, participants ranged from senior citizens to preschoolers. If older audience members became acquainted with Willow Smith primarily through her movie-star parents, the opposite is true for members of Generation Z.

They became fans of Willow Smith in 2010, when she was 9 years old and her debut single, “Whip My Hair,” peaked at number 11 on Billboard’s Hot 100. They have followed her career as a singer-songwriter with viral hits like “Meet Me at Our Spot” and a new album, “Empathogen,” released on May 3. They admire the fashionista with her father’s height and her mother’s delicate features who turned heads at the Met Gala.

“My children have grown up being fans of Willow,” said LaShelle Bynum, 64, of Baltimore. “I came to this talk tonight because I wanted to learn about her for myself.”

Here is some of what Bynum discovered: Though Smith can rock a gold chain dress over a black bikini, she thinks of herself as a bookworm and nerd.

“I was a really voracious reader when I was growing up,” she told Edim. “I was always asking my dad to take me to the bookstore.”

She is a big fan of historical fiction series, and cited Jean M. Auel’s “Earth’s Children” and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Mists of Avalon” as favorites.

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