First-time novelist uses her career working in social work to teach children about tough issues and appreciating differences
“You can take inspiration from anywhere,” Emily Blejwas ’06, author of Once You Know This, said. “Be awake” and “it will all feed into your writing.” It wasn’t until she was 36, though, that Blejwas felt she had enough life experiences to write a compelling novel.
At Kenyan College, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree, Blejwas studied Religion and Anthropology. From there she became a Domestic Violence Advocate for three different organizations – one in Chicago, where her book takes place. “Many women experiencing domestic violence [are] stuck for economic reasons,” she said. Not only do they face abuse, but also struggle with “healthcare, childcare, transportation, and indifference from the system.” The solution, she says, is education.
When her husband took a job in Montgomery at the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2004, Blejwas decided to pursue her Master’s degree at Auburn University, studying Rural Sociology and Economic Development.
After graduation, she accepted a job at Auburn’s Economic and Community Development Institute, where she wrote The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods, “a book on the history and culture of Alabama told through the lens of its food traditions, forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press.”
She has since then been the Director of the Gulf States Health Policy Center of Bayou La Batre, Ala., founded by Dr. Regina Benjamin – the 18th U.S. Surgeon General. The Center conducts research across the Gulf States and Blejwas oversees community engagement and outreach education efforts.
Once You Know This, published on September 19th, 2017, is a culmination of Blejwas’ professional and familial experiences. Her book is arranged in short bursts because she wrote during naptime Monday through Friday – a tactic she learned writing her thesis as a graduate student with her newborn, Stan.
Her youngest child, Katie, was 8-months old when she wrote the novel. “I made the baby in the book that same age so that I could convey that character really realistically; I based it on what she was doing,” Blejwas said. Stan, now eleven, also helped with the book by telling her what words kids use today. After he read it “I tried to get him to be really critical because he’s my target audience, but he is very sweet and would only tell me positive things,” she said.
The main character, Brittany, is 11 years old, and “has a relentless drive to make things better,” Blejwas said. She comes from a tough neighborhood and has a lot of responsibilities – her little brother Tommy, her grandmother with Alzheimer’s, and her mother who is in an abusive relationship.
“I wanted to write the truth and have an honest portrayal of what I saw when I worked in those neighborhoods and communities. It’s a mix of challenge, opportunity, resilience, and struggle,” she said. “For kids who come from a tough background, like Brittany, it will be empowering to see themselves on the page. And for kids who come from a privileged background, the book is equally important, because they will relate to Brittany on an emotional level, which teaches them that kids from different backgrounds are more like them than they knew.”
Blejwas’ passion is evident and her book is a gift to everyone who turns each page. “[Writing] is the one thing I do that I can get lost in and lose track of time. It makes me feel connected to not only myself, but to the world around me. I think everyone has that something that makes you feel – like it’s the one thing your soul craves.”