Before her marriage to Salman Rushdie in 2021, before publishing five celebrated books of poetry, before debuting as a fiction writer at age 45, Rachel Eliza Griffiths typed in earnest on a “sky-blue Smith Corona” at her childhood home in Delaware.

“I was 10 or 11 years old, and those hammers banging away—that was one of the most blissed-out spaces for me growing up,” says Griffiths during a Zoom call from the U.K. She is there to work with her British publisher on that fiction debut, Promise (Random House, July 11), which follows Black sisters Hyacinth and Ezra Kindred as they come of age in northern Maine at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Narrated by Cynthy, the novel examines the perils and pleasures of Black girlhood in the increasingly hostile village of Salt Point. Danger is everywhere in Promise—from the sheriff who mimes shooting the Kindred family from the window of his police cruiser to the schoolteacher who snubs her Black students in order to elevate the white ones.

For Griffiths, the origins of Promise are rooted in wanting to understand what it would have felt like for someone her mother’s age to grow up in New England in the late 1950s. “I wanted to write a love letter, particularly to the space of Black girlhood,” she says.

“I wanted to think about the world when my mother grew up, and she was born in 1954,” Griffiths adds. “What would she have been told as a girl about how to be a woman? How to have an imagination, how to give herself permission, how to have an inner life?”

Even as the violence in Salt Point worsens, Cynthy’s parents and their family friends the Junketts go to great lengths to instill joy, pride, and love in their daughters. “The North is so often thought of as freedom,” Griffiths explains, “but there are quite a lot of pockets in the North where that is not the case. I wanted to have a story where the sisters grow up in a home that has been happy, has nurtured them through reading and cooking and nature, through their imaginations.”

Griffiths adds, “I don’t believe that [the Kindreds are] resilient because they suffer. They’re resilient because they know how to love. And I feel like, in my own personal life, resilience comes from a very deep centering of joy and wonder and imagination and action and agency and accountability.”

While researching Promise, Griffiths turned to novelists like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin for inspiration, since they lived and wrote through the same time period. But it was Zora Neale Hurston’s work that helped Griffiths tap into the interiority she most wanted to capture.

“I was very struck by [a scene in] Their Eyes Were Watching God that I just find devastating,” she says. Griffiths describes an exchange between the protagonist, Janie, and her grandmother, who tells her, “you know, you can never be the flower, you’re going to be the mule. Don’t think for a minute that you can be vulnerable in this world.”

This scene both propelled Griffiths back to her own childhood and became an organizing principle for the themes in Promise. “That happened to me often growing up, where, [at] a certain time of vulnerability or sweetness, our mothers or aunties or grandmothers or teachers would say the stereotype of the strong Black woman: She can’t be depressed, she can’t be anxious, she can’t just be tired. She’s got to hold it all together. Well, what does that do over generations, you know?”

Promise is in many ways haunted by this same idea of inheritance—for better and for worse. Cynthy’s family migrates north because a horrifying act of terror destroys their home in a Black settlement. The memory informs the decisions Cynthy’s parents, especially her father, make to keep the family safe.

Late in the novel, Cynthy has a conversation with her grandmother Ginny as they struggle to process new grief together. “We can pass hurt, same as we can pass new life,” Ginny tells her granddaughter. The line doesn’t just evoke the scene in Their Eyes Were Watching God that inspired Griffiths. In a way, it also serves as a thesis Griffiths has developed throughout her career, in every medium she has mastered.

“My main subject is, in a way, myself—it’s Black women and these other narrative possibilities for joy, for being soft, for being ill, for being strong,” she says. “And that all of these things can be true at the same time.”

Although Griffiths earned her MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, she found success first with poetry, then photography. Her black-and-white portraits of other poets are particularly striking: mysterious, evocative, variously draped in shadow or bathed in crystalline light.

Documentary self-portraits fill her last collection, the award-winning Seeing the Body, in which she processes the grief of her mother’s death. That collection also opened a portal for Griffiths to finally begin writing fiction for publication.

“I don’t think I was really ready until my mother died,” says Griffiths of beginning Promise. “That’s when I was like, You write a novel, or you never write a novel. Time’s up for you. You have the chops now, and you’ve gone through quite a bit to really trust yourself as a fiction writer. I took that very seriously,” she adds.

To finish writing Promise, it seems Griffiths also had to invite the joyful, creative abandon of her 10-year-old self sitting at her typewriter back into the room. “So much of that energy is in my book,” she says.

For a moment, she reflects on what it means to publish her first book of fiction now, after so many years of working in other genres and media. “I’m a debut novelist. I’m terrified. It’s also such an amazing thing to start over, and I feel like I’m starting over,” she says.

As for the novel’s long genesis? “It arrived on time. I think it was better not to push it and to be the age I am now, where I know my voice, and I know that it changes.”

Kristen Evans writes about books and culture for the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, and elsewhere.