On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story

On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story

by Hannah Weyer


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On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story by Hannah Weyer

An NAACP Image Award Finalist
An ALA/YALSA Alex Award Nominee

AnnMarie is growing up fast. After years of living in foster homes and homeless shelters, the twelve-year-old girl can take care of herself and her ailing mother. At thirteen, she's competing with other girls for the attention of older boys in the hip hop and rap scene of Far Rockaway.  At fourteen, she is in love and pregnant, but dreaming big. Taking a chance, she auditions for an independent film and—astonishingly—lands a lead role. As she tries to raise her baby girl and make sense of her relationship with her baby's father, her work on the movie offers AnnMarie a doorway to a wider world—Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Sundance Film Festival.
With cinematic pacing and a vibrant voice, filmmaker Hannah Weyer’s unforgettable debut novel is a portrait of a tough, determined teenage girl striving to find the life she wants and the love she deserves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345804860
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/08/2014
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 804,147
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Hannah Weyer is a filmmaker whose narrative and documentary films have been screened at the Human Rights Watch and the New York Film Festivals and have won awards at the Sundance, Locarno, Melbourne, Doubletake, and South by Southwest Film Festivals. Her screenwriting credits include Life Support (2007), directed by Nelson George, which earned a Golden Globe Award for its lead actress, Queen Latifah. Weyer has worked with teens in the media arts for the past fifteen years and, along with her husband, the filmmaker Jim McKay, started an after-school film club at a public high school in Brooklyn. On the Come Up is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 15

All the bus rides back and forth, AnnMarie had time to think. Out to Jamaica where the school was. The Ida B. girls housed on the ground floor of a three-story cement building used by Rainbow Academy, a suspension site for violent offenders. All the last-chance kids no school wanted. The bus winding along Snake Road past the airport, planes hovering mad low in the icy sky, one after another, their bellies looming as they made their descent. AnnMarie would turn her face from the window. She thought about the little things. Like how she had to pee all the time, how she felt bloated like a whale—face, feet, hands, stomach, legs—but she couldn’t help herself. Pangs a hunger gnawing, she’d go through boxes of saltines with cheese spread, peanut butter out the jar, oranges, mangoes, cornflakes with milk. Song fragments drifted in. She’d try to piece them together, search for the words gone missing but was frustrated by her own fatigue.

She thought about the last time she got up on stage to sing. At the white school over in Cedarhurst. About Mr. Preston’s expression, that look of relief. All the white kids filing out. Principal Man never made no introductions. A whole school full of kids but they shared no conversation, not even a hello. AnnMarie puzzled over it.

What difference do it make anyway. Your feet get swelled, you gain some weight. You buy a slow girl some french fries.

On Wednesday, Crystal was the only girl sitting at the long metal table when she walked into Room 5 at half past nine.

Where is everybody? AnnMarie asked as she dumped her backpack on the floor.

Leandra went to get a sonogram, Miss Westwood said. I don’t know where the other girls are.

AnnMarie said, You okay, Miss Westwood?

I’m okay.

Ain’t you sleeping?

Not so well.

Maybe you pregnant too, AnnMarie joked.

No, AnnMarie, I’m not pregnant. I’m disappointed. I expect you girls to accomplish something here.Now take out your math sheet from yesterday and let’s go over the answers.

AnnMarie dug through her backpack, found the worksheet bunched up at the bottom.

She looked at it. I ain’t finished mines.

So finish it now, Miss Westwood said sharply.

What she tripping for, AnnMarie thought.

She tried to catch Crystal’s eye but that girl on another planet.

At Darius’ house that evening, she sat at the kitchen table with Vanessa, watching two grown men carry first his turntables, then his speakers, up from the basement and out the front door.

What they doing, AnnMarie said quietly.

Darius’ sister shrugged. They been after him for a while. Phone ringing off the hook.

Who been after him, AnnMarie asked.

Z-Sounds. He got his shit on installment. Fuck if he making the payments.

AnnMarie felt a stab of panic so she stood, crossed to the basement door and listened. Installment? He never told her nothin’ about installments. She thought he was fine with money. That they was fine. She heard his footsteps now and backed away as he strode past her and out the front door, the look on his face silencing her.

Vanessa got up and stretched. Then she went outside to watch. AnnMarie followed.

They were loading Darius’ equipment into a black van. Another homie leaned against the driver door, hands folded loose over his crotch, just leaning and waiting, his eye on Darius who stood barefoot on the front porch.

Vanessa sucked her teeth.

Shut yo’ mouth, Darius said. Why you even standing here?

Fuck you. I live here.

Vanessa was further along than AnnMarie, in her seventh month, and her sweatshirt rose up over her belly showing skin.

Look at you, y’all like some ghetto ho, Darius said as he went into the house.

Vanessa tsked, At least I ain’t getting repo’d.

AnnMarie turned, watching the van pull away with Darius’ equipment inside. She could feel the stillness settle on her shoulders, the van disappearing around the corner, Vanessa quiet now in Darius’ absence.

She went down to the studio room to ask him why. To say what happened, baby.

All the wires pulled loose from the walls, laying on the floor like black snakes uncoiled and lifeless.

Darius was putting on his shoes. He said, Don’t say nothing.

AnnMarie tsked, frowning.

Did I? Did I say something, she asked, watching him. Seeing all the pent-up, unspoken inadequacy written as anger across his face. Things gone wrong and nothing to do to stop it. ’Cept a fight, maybe. A fight be good for something. She felt it coming.

The next day, Miss Westwood was happy again, six girls at the metal table when AnnMarie walked in. Camille was saying, Shoot, I get me a C-section. No way I’ma be ripped to shreds. My va-geegee too precious.

Pietra laughed, then groaned, laying her cheek flat on the table. I already got these pains back here, she said.

Miss Westwood reached over and rubbed her lower back, saying, Listen girls, her voice rising above the chatter, giving life is a beautiful thing. A woman’s body is made to do this.

Yeah, but I ain’t no woman, Camille said, I’m still a child, Miss Westwood, and I ain’t gonna let no baby split me in two. Hell, no . . . Camille flounced down next to the teacher and leaned into an embrace.

Don’t worry, you’ll be ready, Miss Westwood said. Her eyes rested on AnnMarie for a moment but she didn’t say nothing about the fat bruise on her cheek.

After the repo van had gone, Darius had chased her up the stairs, banging her up against the wall. Stop, Darius, why you buggin’? she’d said but his backhand slap knocked her silly, sent a flash a pain across her face. White dots popping, face on fire. For a minute, she’d been blind.

Muthafucka. She’d picked a point on the floor and made her blurry eye go there, even with his mouth right up to her ear. You think you all that, up in my business all the time. Then his hand went around her throat and squeezed. What you got to say now.

Maybe she don’t notice, AnnMarie thought. Skin dark chocolate, maybe she don’t see. Then again, this a school after all, not a police station.

Wings: Insect wings are found in many different shapes and sizes. They are used for flying, but also to attract a mate or hide from predators.

AnnMarie tried to focus but couldn’t. Fuck him. Punk-ass muthafucka. Think he the bomb. Think he it. Fuck you, she thought. You no longer the father a my child. I do this my own damn self.

Most insects have two pairs of wings.

Most insects have two pairs of wings.
Most— AnnMarie stood up, walked out of the classroom and down the hall to the drinking fountain. She took a sip a water, wandered down to the front door and looked out the window see what the weather like. Sun out, tha’s good. Maybe she skip out after lunch. She went back to the drinking fountain, stared up at the bulletin board. Somebody had posted a flier. Right in between TEEN SUPPORT GROUP and ARE YOU EXPECTING?

Movie Tryouts!!
Girls Wanted.
All shapes and sizes.
No model types.
Come as you are.

Two days later, she woke up not knowing where she was. She thought she was on a school bus, rumbling over some rough road somewhere way out there, far, far out at the edge of an island, the water glistening so bright she thought her eyeballs would split open but when she let her lids peel apart, the world was dark, everything around her dark and sleepy. She felt the bed beneath her, she was in her own bed, bladder full. She didn’t want to get up so she snuggled deeper, looking at the clock radio. Three o’clock in the morning. That’d been happening lately. Three o’clock, she’d wake up with that anxious feeling. Couldn’t go back to sleep.

She tried to push it aside but there it was: I don’t want this baby. I do not want this baby. Usually she’d roll toward Darius, pull his arm over her waist, find his heart beating there and she’d be okay. But she hadn’t seen him since the fight. Two days. She wondered what he doing.

She sat up in bed, peeled back the curtain and looked out at the gray night. Below her, she watched the streetlamp flicker. A woman came around the corner and passed beneath it, then suddenly ran off in a sprint. Was she running from something or to something? AnnMarie couldn’t tell. There’d been no sound, no other person. What you running for, AnnMarie thought.

She reached over the side of the bed and felt around on the floor, found her backpack, pulled out the flier she’d taken off the wall.

She read it again. She wondered where 404 18th Street was. Flier said Manhattan. She’d never been to Manhattan before. She wondered if they needed girls who could sing.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"On the Come Up is the kind of novel I am always looking for but so rarely find. Hannah Weyer captures the voices of her characters and describes their world with clarity and humanity. An auspicious start for a talented writer." —George Pelecanos
"I couldn't put this book down. This world, this voice, this young woman are all so vividly raw and honest, my heart was broken open, and I was hooked until the very last page." —Kerry Washington, actress, Django Unchained and Ray

Reading Group Guide

The questions and information in this guide are intended to enhance your discussion of On the Come Up by Hannah Weyer.

1. The book begins with an illustration of Far Rockaway and some statistics about its geography, etymology, and population. Why do you think the author included this? What role does setting, or place, play in the story, and how does it inform the choices AnnMarie makes?

2. When the reader first meets AnnMarie she is selling homemade popsicles along the beach, wearing a t-shirt that reads "Sexy Sweet." What do these details signal about AnnMarie? Does her behavior remain consistent throughout the book, or do certain traits change over time? How would you describe AnnMarie at the beginning of the novel? At the end?

3. Crystal’s departure from Far Rockaway is the change in status quo that begins the novel. Why is this incident significant, and how does it set the tone for what follows?

4. What role does family play in the novel? What family legacy does Blessed pass on to AnnMarie?  How did AnnMarie's understanding of her "family tree" shape or influence her choices as an adolescent and teenager?

5. AnnMarie never knew her father. Did his absence influence the choices she made? Did the stories she was told about him shape her imagination and sense of safety?

6. The chapter in which Blessed relives her flight from Trinidad is entitled "Baby Love.” What does this title refer to? AnnMarie refers to her mother as a "hero thief.” What impression or thought does this conjure?

7. How does AnnMarie's understanding of and sympathy for Blessed change through the course of the book?

8. What factors motivate AnnMarie to want to start a family with Darius?

9. AnnMarie is often either victimized by violence, or retaliating against it. Is her retaliation justified?

10. One theme the book explores is how a child's sense of self-worth and self-esteem can be stripped by constant contact with violence. Where does this occur in the story?

11. What role does the neighborhood of Far Rockaway play in the story?  Describe some of its characteristics.

12. What are the destructive and constructive forces at play in AnnMarie’s life? How does AnnMarie’s exposure to new experiences shift her expectations about herself and those around her? What are some of those experiences?

13. Before meeting Darius, AnnMarie suffers many acts of violence against her — Grandma Mason, Brittany, Carlton. Yet she falls in love with a person prone to violence himself. What do you make of this? Is it true, we seek what we know? Is Darius her protector or violator?

14. When AnnMarie is with Lucinda, she manages to disentangle herself from Darius once and for all. Prior to this, what are some of the steps she takes, consciously and unconsciously, to do so?

15. Ultimately, how does AnnMarie disentangle herself from the people in her life who are violent? Is there a single identifiable point when AnnMarie's perspective begins to shift?

16. Who are the role models in AnnMarie's life? How do they directly or indirectly influence the choices she makes?

17. At the end of the book, AnnMarie leaves home to create a new one. What are some ways personal space and/or boundaries are explored in the book?

18. Though the novel is written in the third person, it echoes AnnMarie’s distinctive patois. Why do you think the author decided to tell the story this way? How did it affect your reading experience? How would your experience have changed if the book had been written in grammatically correct English?

19. The book is based on the real life story of Anna Simpson, who co-starred in the film Our Song in 2000. Why do you think the author considered Anna’s story worthy of adaptation? Do you agree?


A Conversation with Hannah Weyer, Author of On the Come Up

On the Come Upis based on the real-life story of Anna Simpson, a young woman whom you met in 1999 while your husband was directing her in the independent film Our Song. What about her inspired you to write this book?

In 1999, Anna was a fifteen year old girl living with her mother in Far Rockaway, Queens. Even though she was untrained as an actress and due to give birth a month before filming began, my husband cast her to play one of the lead roles in the film. I had recently completed a documentary and was hanging around the Our Song set with a video camera, documenting little moments with the cast, crew, and neighborhood kids. It was there that Anna and I first became friends, though our upbringing, age difference, and day-to-day preoccupations could have kept us apart.

I was in awe of Anna's determination, her ability to juggle the job of acting with caring for her newborn. When I thought back to my own teenage years, my life dimmed in comparison. Nonetheless, something clicked between us - maybe it was her charm, sense of humor and honesty but we found ourselves in a lasting friendship that has deepened over the last fifteen years.

It was a few years ago at a family picnic that the first seed was planted to write this book. As Anna and I were catching up, I told her I was in between film projects and trying my hand at writing short fiction. She said, well you know I have a story to tell and we laughed because I knew it was true. I thought about Anna, her neighborhood in Far Rockaway and the people she grew up with, how she fought to upend her social isolation, put money in her pocket and raise her child, how she defied the downward drag of domestic violence that seemed to be her fate.

This initial conversation made me wonder about all the small ways individuals find to level the playing field, turn a volatile home into a stable one, or simply find happiness when a sense of well-being isn't the status quo.

Over the next few months, Anna and I sat and talked. We collected hours of recorded interviews and it soon became clear that Anna's optimism and fearlessness would become the dominant traits of the main character of On the Come Up.

In addition to interviews with Anna, what sort of research did you do for On the Come Up? Did you read any fiction to prepare for this project?

For years, I've been inspired by artists such as filmmaker Mike Leigh, performer Anna Deavere Smith, and novelist Dave Eggers, who incorporate the collaborative process and use factual accounts as a springboard to create fiction. When I'm not writing or working on a film, I work with young people in the media arts, sometimes as a visiting teaching artist or as a one-on-one mentor. These young people have been a great source of inspiration as well. Their opinions and musings have taught me a lot about perspective, about desire and yearnings, about resilience. They remind me that our status and place in the world is not necessarily predetermined.

In terms of fiction, some recent favorites have been Chains and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Absolutely True Adventures of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. [Alexie's debut story Collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was a 1993 Discover Great New Writers selection. -Ed.] I also love sinking into the worlds created by Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos. These authors have an amazing ability to create visual imprints of place and character that live on long after you finish reading.

What challenges did you face turning true life into fiction?

During the months Anna and I spent talking and recording interviews, we had a lot of fun together. She is a warm and positive person with a great sense of humor and I find her fearlessness infectious. On a personal level, there were definitely times during our conversations when it was difficult for both of us to share in the re-living of painful episodes from her past.

On a more abstract level, I learned a lot about the nature of memory. I realized in sorting through the transcripts of her oral history, how memory - though an active process by which we reconstruct our past experiences - is also elusive, with moments in time or details lost to the past, and irretrievable. Fictionalizing opened up a personal space for me to bring my own musings into play. The novel became a kind of merging of key events from Anna's life with themes that are of interest to me - alternative family structures, the function of boundaries, and the question of escape. This creative process allowed me to move the story away from biography, and toward imagining a protagonist and a world in which these themes could be developed and explored.

Your husband Jim McKay directed the actual movie Anna starred in. What was it like taking on a project that echoed his work?

Almost fifteen years ago, Jim made his second feature film, Our Song. It is a wonderful story, filmed entirely on location, mostly in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and it mixed actors with non-actors, neighborhood onlookers, and a local marching band. I know for both of us it was one of the most gratifying experiences we've had in life because it was what produced our treasured and long-lasting friendship with Anna. For all the realist and neo-realist film lovers out there, I would imagine the most interesting connection between the film and the novel might be the discussion about the lives of non-actors who inhabit the fictional universe of neo-realist films. Where do they come from and where do they go after a movie wraps? But On the Come Up tells a more expansive story. Anna was fifteen years old when she made the movie and nearly twice that age when we sat down to dialogue about her life. Her participation in the movie is only one facet of the book, one chapter in her journey.

Is there a message you hope readers take away from On the ComeUp?

I don't think I'm alone in feeling a general sense of fear and anxiety about the state of the world. There's a lot to be worried about. You can look globally at the endless wars, genocide, corrupt systems, ideological impasse, or locally at our recent natural disasters, school shootings, or financial meltdown, all of which breed an underlying state of unease. For me, it's a daily challenge to push aside the anxiety, to find a sense of purpose and refuse cynicism.

On the Come Up is a small story. It follows one girl through one life, and yet it at its core it's meant to remind us of all the small ways that regular people, like you and me, can gain power or at least a foothold, can rekindle passions, find love or safety, push through everyday problems that at times seem insurmountable.

I love that in real life, Anna took risks to journey past the familiar landscape of her home, her friendships, and her neighborhood with no guarantee or assurance of a positive outcome. It is the odyssey itself that impressed me - that and her self-possession and pluck. There are many rags-to-riches stories that celebrate overnight success, wealth, stardom but On the Come Up is not one of them. It was my aim to emphasize the journey itself, to highlight the value of inquisition, movement, open-mindedness.

With a background in filmmaking, did you enjoy writing a novel? Do you think you will continue to write books? Any ideas for the next one?

I did enjoy writing this novel. I found it liberating. With screenwriting, there is always the tendency at some stage during the writing process to worry about casting, budget, locations, etc. I enjoyed having the freedom to go deep into the inner life of a character and find ways to express or dramatize this complexity on the page.

This past spring, I had been following the series on This American Life about Chicago high school students who live in areas of rampant gun violence. I've been thinking a lot about my own teenage friends and their lives in Brooklyn, the challenges they face growing up, and I've been mulling around a couple of themes and ideas for a new story but at this time I'm not sure what form would best hold it - book, feature, documentary.

Who have you discovered lately?

I've been reading a lot of George Saunders lately, absolutely adored We the Animals by Justin Torres [A Fall 2011 Discover Great New Writers Selection -Ed.] and discovered Louise Erdrich after reading The Round House.

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On the Come Up: A Novel, Based on a True Story 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
mshoni More than 1 year ago
After reading the last three books by Sister Souljah, which feature young people overcoming odds in ways far beyond their years, it was refreshing to have a more realistic viewpoint. AnnMarie Walker is a 13 year old living in Far Rockaway Queens, New York. This is the type of impoverished neighborhood that is so cut off from the rest of the world that just traveling to Manhattan seems like going to another country. It's literally the last stop on the A train. AnnMarie has dreams like other girls her age: dreams of being in a singing group, dreams of having the hottest fashion, dreams of being loved. Circumstances find her as a student at a school for pregnant teens, and she comes across a flier advertising for extras to appear in an independent film. Curious, she auditions and gets a role in the production. Her involvement with the film open up her world to include other people, neighborhoods, even states. The story is told in an urban vernacular that I found mostly believable. What I loved most is that this is just a story about a young girl who makes decisions just like a 13 year old, even when her responsibilities seem to far exceed her age. It's scary, beautiful, and inspiring all at the same time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you believe, in the power of the human soul, then read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A story of hope and determination. I could not put it down , definitely worth reading!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up at a friend's house, and ended up stealing it and buying her a new one, cause I couldn't put it down.  I love the cinematic tone, the voice of the woman, and the struggles resonate with me despite how different my life is from the main character.  So good if you want to get into another worth this summer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Exceptional.  AnnMarie is a riveting character because no matter what adversities she faces, her sense of humor and pluck carry her over them.  She never seems to feel sorry for herself.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
#Desperate much
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