After her aging father takes a life-threatening fall, Penelope Grand returns to her childhood hometown of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to keep a closer watch on him. She finds both her father and her neighborhood much changed. He’s become withdrawn and wistful, and the Bed-Stuy she knew is disappearing under the rising tide of gentrification.
Already emotionally adrift, Penelope must find a way to navigate the challenges of her now-unfamiliar home. She takes a job teaching at her own former elementary school, which has changed along with the rest of the neighborhood. She becomes the tenant of a white family, the Harpers, whom she can’t help seeing as part of the economic transformation that closed her father’s record store.
And perhaps most difficult of all, Penelope once again confronts the void left by her estranged mother, Mirella. Despite their antagonism, Penelope and Mirella have undeniable parallels—both in temperament and in the way their lives unfold.
Halsey Street is a novel about one woman’s experience of gentrification, alienation, and homecoming in a changing world. I was fortunate enough to speak with author Naima Coster about this novel over the phone.
The Millions: Could you talk a little bit about who you are and why you wrote this book?
Naima Coster: Sure. I grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It was a place that I always felt connected to, a part of my identity. The Fort Greene that I knew was black and brown, Caribbean, working and middle class, creative, and full of this rich, collective life.
At age 12, I started at a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side. That was my first experience of some kind of identity fracture. I felt split between two entirely different worlds that both existed in New York. That experience of being caught in between is one that gentrification reproduced for me; I saw the world of school and the world of home colliding in the Brooklyn landscape that had been so familiar.
I wrote an essay about that in 2011 that was published in The New York Times. I wanted to take some of the questions that came out of that essay and explore them in Halsey Street, which is about gentrification in part, but it’s also about seeking to find your place in your community and also figuring out how to come home to your family and to yourself.
TM: Principal Pine doesn’t appear all that often in the novel, but her first scene jumped out to me as very thematic. Penelope meets her, and there’s this charge, and she winds up having a rather averse reaction to her boss. Specifically something she says about integration and gentrification. Can you speak to that conversation a little more?
NC: Sure. One of the great things about writing fiction—as opposed to, say, writing a personal essay or an explicit polemic—is that I get to represent all kinds of stances on these issues.
Principal Pine is somewhat of an opportunist. She says “all right, well, the neighborhood is becoming more mixed in terms of race and income. Let’s see how this can benefit our students. Let’s see how we can take advantage of it.”
For Penelope, this position seems shortsighted; it definitely neglects the losses suffered by people in the community, including Penelope’s father. But Principal Pine has a point about the benefits of integration across lines of class and race for students, which is something that really interests me about the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Part of the problem with gentrification is that it so rarely results in that kind of integration in the public school system. But I got Principal Pine to be able to bring up some of those ideas in the book, and it’s one of the great pleasures for me as a writer. It’s one of the things that makes a novel enigmatic; there’s such an array of positions and responses that it can be difficult to locate the author and what kind of view the book is endorsing. So the reader is left to wrestle with all the different views that all the characters bring up.
TM: I saw Halsey Street not just as a story of gentrification but also of the main character, Penelope, trying to make sense of her parents, Ralph and Mirella.
What would you say was the genesis of these two towering figures in Penelope’s life?
NC: You know, I started Halsey Street with the intention to think about and craft Ralph. I wanted him to be a symbol for Bed-Stuy but also to have his own identity and inner life. So I wanted him to be sort of on the way out, a figure of old Brooklyn in terms of both his failing health and also his diminished sense of self. But I also wanted him to be charming and still have some power left, even if he’s out of touch with it.
So, I imagined Ralph as Brooklyn just to get started with him. Mirella was initially a present absence in the book; I didn’t know much about her when I first started writing. I knew I wanted her to be estranged from her daughter. I wanted her to have left. And I wanted her to have a version of Ralph that would conflict with Penelope’s version of Ralph.
But when I started writing into Mirella’s point of view, I discovered that Mirella had a different story—not only of Ralph and their marriage but also of Brooklyn and life in the United States. In the beginning, she was the character I considered the least, but as I wrote she began to capture more of my interest.
TM: I wanted to concentrate more on Mirella for a moment. At one point, a younger Penelope returns to the Dominican Republic with Mirella. Penelope actually really hits it off with Mirella’s mother, leaving Mirella herself somewhat adrift.
NC: Yes, she does.
TM: That struck me as a bit of a complication. I was originally thinking Mirella might have this outsider bent because she’s of two cultures, but it occurred to me that there might be a deeper reason for it. Mirella feels like she’s really an outsider, like she represents a break in this lineage of women. I was wondering if you could comment on why that might be?
NC: Yes. That chapter is one of my favorites in the book. It’s not my favorite, but it’s one of the ones that I consider the most painful.
Mirella is an outsider for many reasons. Part of it is because of her red hair. Part of it is the way she presents as ethnically ambiguous, maybe white presenting. She’s an outsider in that way, and she’s also lost quite a lot; the book doesn’t dwell on this, but it does say it. She lost her father at a young age, going from being quite wealthy and living in the city to living this rural existence.
It was really traumatic. And the book doesn’t use that word. The word “trauma” doesn’t come up in the text, because Mirella wouldn’t necessarily think of the facts of her life in those terms, but it certainly is still traumatic.
So Mirella is also marked by loss, pretty powerfully, in a way that, in that chapter, Penelope and her mother are not. There’s this sense that Mirella has lost something, that there’s something that she wants to reclaim but hasn’t been able to.
So then Mirella goes to the Dominican Republic and she gets to live in a big house, like she did when she was a girl, and begins to reclaim some of the status that she lost when she was very young.
TM: Right. Going back to Mirella for a moment, there’s a comment made about her somewhere in the story that I found particularly striking. It’s remarked that Mirella is relatively young as mothers go and that she could almost pass for Penelope’s sister. What does Mirella’s youth do for her character?
NC: Right. Well, I was thinking a lot about this: For a woman like Mirella, what are the parts of her identity that she would take pride in and consider powerful? For Mirella, as someone whose education becomes stilted when she goes to the United States—because she never goes to college and is an outsider in terms of language—and as someone who hasn’t had the same sense of accomplishment that her husband has with the store, one of the things that she comes to pride is her physical appearance. And her beauty, and her youthfulness. It becomes a source of self-satisfaction for her, and also a way that she judges other women around her.
It’s one of the things that she has to hold on to. She doesn’t have intimacy with her daughter to hold on to. So she clings to this idea that “Well, as long as I have my beauty and my youth and my red hair and my pale skin…” Because it’s one of the things that the world values; it’s something that she’s able to value about herself.
TM: I had one last question for you: If you have any advice to other aspiring artists or novelists, I think we’d all love to hear it.
NC: Yes, I’ve got some advice. First, I’d say to aim for publication without rushing toward it. Sometimes there’s the impulse to rush, and I felt that in myself. There’s so much uncertainty in being a writer, and I wanted to publish something just so that I knew that I could have a life as a writer.
Publishing is only a small piece of the writing experience. This is something that your own teacher, John Reed, was instrumental in helping me to learn. Writing is about the practice of writing. That’s the part that is exciting, gives joy, and sustains you.
Something I’ve had to do—and continue to have to do—is remember that the work is the actual practice of the writing, the creating, and that there’s no rush. The work has value in and of itself apart from any kind of end result.
It’s a nice saying, but it’s hard to accept when you’re years into a project, still devoting time to it, and you don’t know what will become of it. You have to affirm for yourself that the work is valuable. It’s really challenging, but it has been grounding and prevented me from being an anxious mess from all the uncertainty that comes with becoming a writer.
I’ve also found that having supportive friends who are writers as well is critical in affirming the value of all that time we devote to making stuff up and moving words around on the page. Being friends with other writers and readers and having community continually reaffirms the work for me and helps me to keep going.
Right now, I’m enjoying some attention, and the book has some traction. But for a long time, that’s not something that I had. I think writers need to hear “keep going” from other people now and again. It’s important to find the people who will do that for you: who will tell you to keep going, who will read your stuff, and who will meet up with you to revise your work.
Writing, for me, is a mind game. It’s about finding the discipline to sit in a chair, to work on something without knowing whether you’re going to have to throw it out later. The mind game is the harder part for me than the actual generating of pages. Revising is challenging, but it’s also exhilarating, like cracking a puzzle. But the part that feels harder to overcome is the questioning of what’s going to become of something you write, whether the time you’re spending is valuable.