Louise Meriwether’s 1970 novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, is an unflinching portrait of life in Harlem in the starkest year of the Great Depression. Seen through the eyes of a remarkably buoyant 12-year-old girl named Francie Coffin, it’s a world of violence and tenderness, indignities and joys, where despair lives alongside the dream of a big score. In a foreword, James Baldwin, a son of Harlem, wrote that the black-owned daily numbers game that animates the novel “contains the possibility of making a ‘hit’—the American dream in blackface, Horatio Alger revealed, the American success story with the price tag showing!”
Weird words. Yet weirdly apt, I realized while reading Bridgett M. Davis’s scintillating new memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers. The book chronicles the journey of the author’s mother from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cauldron of Detroit, where she arrived in the mid-1950s with an ailing husband and an iron determination to figure out “how to make a way out of no way.” While her husband got erratic work in the city’s auto plants, including a hellish stint as a furnace tender at a General Motors factory, Fannie charted her own course. In 1958, after a harsh introduction to the frigid and unforgiving city, she borrowed $100 from her younger brother to start her own numbers operation, the underground three-digit daily lottery that had spread from Harlem to black communities nationwide, fueled by the Great Migration. That same year, a Detroiter named Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start a record label that would become Motown.
The World According to Fannie Davis is partly a love letter to a larger-than-life woman and partly an explanation and defense of the “lucrative shadow economy” of the numbers game, which was an ingenious way for African Americans to circumvent the economic barriers white society had placed in their path. Black Detroiters were the last hired and the first fired from the city’s factories, and they were often forced into ratty housing with exorbitant rents. “It’s impossible to overstate the role of Numbers in black culture,” Davis writes, adding that the money generated by these black-controlled enterprises stayed in the black community to help launch “insurance companies, newspapers, loan offices, real estate firms, scholarships for college, and more.” Fannie Davis was known to her loyal customers not only for her honesty—she always paid winners, even when the hits were big—but also for her generosity. She was, in her daughter’s words, “consumer, lender, employer, philanthropist.” She was also a big believer in the importance of dreams, always a rich source of inspiration for players of the numbers.
But the numbers were illegal, and running an operation came with stress. There was the perpetual fear of big hits, of police raids, and, since it was an all-cash and no-tax business, the fear of robbery. Fannie owned two guns, and since secrecy was vital to survival, she drummed an edict into her children: “Keep your head up and your mouth shut. Be proud and be private.” Ultimately the biggest fear came to pass when the state of Michigan decided it wanted in on this lucrative action and, in 1972, created a legal lottery. It’s a testimony to the loyalty of Fannie Davis’s customers that they continued to bet numbers with her, and her operation survived this monster hit. It also offered Fannie an opportunity to philosophize: “Well, we already knew that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it.” Amen.
The proceeds from Fannie’s flourishing numbers operations allowed her family to live in a rambling house full of fine furnishings and friends and good times. Fannie and her husband John drove nice cars—Buicks, because flashy Cadillacs would have drawn the wrong kind of attention. Bridgett M. Davis describes herself as “a very privileged and spoiled little girl,” a member of what she calls “the blue-collar black-bourgeoisie.” Their west side neighborhood was solid. Diana Ross and her fellow Supremes owned houses just around the corner.
But trouble was in the air, and Davis doesn’t try to sugarcoat her hometown’s exhaustively documented ills. She witnessed the ravages of a declining population and job base, white flight, vandalism, arson, drugs, and violent crime. In the decade after the bloody rebellion of 1967, which left 43 people dead and much of the city in ruins, the murder rate quadrupled to more than 800 a year. The Motor City became known worldwide as Murder City. One of Davis’s brothers slid into heroin addiction, and the entire family felt the “pervasive sense of danger” pulsing in the streets.
This book, for all its abundant strengths, does have flaws. Davis writes that her mother drove a Pontiac Riviera, while GM’s Buick division produced the elegant Riviera. And she describes trips across the Ambassador Bridge to eat at Chinese restaurants in Quebec, while the Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A competent copy editor would have caught such slips, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage they do to a writer’s authority. I’m speaking from experience. In my first novel, a work of realism, I placed the University of Notre Dame in Terre Haute, Indiana, while I’ve known since boyhood that the school is actually located in unincorporated Notre Dame, near South Bend. Nearly 30 years later, the gaffe still rankles.
Davis makes a more serious misstep when she describes “booster” shops, where Detroiters sold shoplifted clothing and accessories in makeshift stores in their basements. “In a city of hustlers,” Davis writes, “where the lines of legality and illegality stayed smudged, these boosters—all women—made good livings, with numbers folks as their key clients. (One booster named her store Jackie’s Finer Designs and she had guards watching customers, to make sure no one stole the merchandise that she had stolen.) I visited a booster’s shop with Mama at least once, but she preferred store-bought clothes.” This passage unsettled on several levels. Yes, Detroit is a city of hustlers where the line separating legality from illegality has always been smudged, but this story seems to elevate booster shops to the level of the numbers game, which fed its wealth back into the black community. Sorry, but boosters were petty thieves looking to line their own pockets. And Davis misses the opportunity to explain why her mother preferred store-bought clothes over boosters’ offerings. Was it a moral stand? Merely a matter of taste and class? Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t say.
But such slips do nothing to dull the luster of this important book. It’s worth noting that Davis’s achievement isn’t arriving in a vacuum. It’s part of a recent crescendo of inspired writing by African Americans about African-American life in Detroit, including Herb Boyd’s superb blend of memoir and reportage, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, Stephen Mack Jones’s bracing debut crime novel, August Snow, Angela Flournoy’s decorated debut novel, The Turner House, and the revelatory plays of recently minted MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau. With her new book, Bridgett M. Davis has started running with some very fast company.
Jesmyn Ward hadn’t realized it’s been more than half a decade since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones made her a literary star. That’s because she has been extremely busy, both professionally and personally.
Since her Hurricane Katrina-centric novel, the author wrote the raw and emotional Men We Reaped, a memoir about losing five family members and friends to drugs, suicide, and accidents that can only happen to young, poor, black men. She also edited The Fire This Time, an essay and poetry collection about race and identity written by this generation’s brightest talents. She also moved with her husband and children back to DeLisle, Miss., the small, poverty-stricken town where she grew up. She lived there and survived Hurricane Katrina before going to Stanford and the University of Michigan to pursue higher education.
Even though Ward was busy producing non-fiction, readers anxiously awaited her fiction followup to Salvage the Bones. Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, returns to similar settings and themes as her previous works, but is wholly original. Set in modern Mississippi, the novel follows Jojo, a 13-year-old of mixed race, and his drug addict mother as they drive to pick up his father from state prison. The mix of harsh reality and magical realism create a sense of wonderment that makes readers question what they know about identity.
Ward and I spoke via phone about racial tensions, why history is so important, how hurricanes effect those who survive them, as well as what she hopes readers will remember about her novels.
The Millions: I wanted to start our conversation with Salvage the Bones. It came out in 2011 and won the National Book Award. It’s been a little more than half a decade, and I was curious about how your relationship with the book or the characters has changed since the book’s release.
Jesmyn Ward: I didn’t realize it had been so long. That’s so crazy. My characters remain with me in one way or another even after I’m done. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to those characters in a sequel, but I definitely still think about them. Especially now with Hurricane Harvey and Houston or whenever we encounter another hurricane and we witness the kind of devastation we are witnessing right now. I think about them lately because I wonder if people who read the book and read about this family who couldn’t leave see what is happening currently and think about Salvage the Bones and those characters.
Those characters still live with me. I still think about Skeet, Esch, and Big Henry, I actually roped them into the end of Sing, Unburied, Sing and it was nice to see them again. Part of the reason it’s been a surprise to me that it’s been so long since Salvage was published is because whenever I think about those characters, I can only age them by a couple of years. It’s hard for me to think of where they’d be now, 11 years later after Hurricane Katrina.
That showed up in Sing because when I was writing that moment when Esch showed up, I felt she was two years older than she was at the end of Salvage and my editor, of course, caught it. She pointed out that the character would need to be 10 years older now. She hadn’t aged at all in my head. Maybe that’s a deficiency on my part because I can’t age them. They live with me though as they existed in their books.
TM: Were you working on Sing, Unburied, Sing during the entire time since Salvage?
JW: No, not really. After I finished the rough draft of Salvage the Bones, which was in 2009, I began working on Sing, Unburied, Sing, but it was a very different book then. When I say I was working on it, I meant I was working on unsuccessful first chapter after unsuccessful first chapter. Jojo’s character was the only character that was present and real to me at that time. I didn’t know anything about his mom, his dad, or the rest of his family. In the beginning his mom was white [as opposed to black in the final version]. My understanding of who the members of his family are changed a lot. I couldn’t write a good first chapter when I didn’t have a clear understanding of who the other characters were. I spent a good four of five months writing bad first chapter after bad first chapter.
Then I decided I should work on what would become the memoir Men We Reaped. I just put those bad first chapters away. I set Jojo aside and worked on the memoir. Following that, I edited the collection The Fire This Time. While I was working on The Fire This Time was when I started working on this novel again. I did take a substantial break but I came back to it again.
It was very hard with me for Sing to find a successful entryway into the story. I think part of the reason it was difficult was because I couldn’t figure out who the people around Jojo should be and who they were. That’s where I start: I need a vague understanding of who the most important characters are and what their motivations are. That was very hard for me to pin down with this book. It took me a long time.
After I finished Men We Reaped was when I returned to Jojo. I threw out everything I had before and I just started again. Once I figured out who Leonie, Pop, and Mam were I gained some traction. I used the momentum to move into the second chapter. Then I was able to move through that first rough draft.
TM: This novel has a very serious, realistic undertone, but it also has this notion of ghosts and magical realism thrown in. When did that come into play with the story?
JW: From the very beginning, I knew that Leonie was seeing a phantom. In the very beginning, she was seeing a phantom of Michael. For the first four chapters of the rough draft she was seeing a phantom of Michael and it just wasn’t working. I figured out it wasn’t working because his presence didn’t add to the understanding of who she was. Leonie was a very difficult character for me to write because I couldn’t figure out what was motivating her to be such a horrible parent and sometimes a horrible person. All that told me about her was that she was in love with this man and perhaps she was hallucinating because of the drugs she was using. It didn’t tell me anything that I already didn’t know about her and who she loved and valued. It felt like something was wrong.
Then I began rethinking that phantom of someone she actually lost; not just a man she loved who was in prison. What if it was a family member she lost. That’s when I stumbled upon the fact that she would have lost a brother and that it was his ghost she was seeing.
Instead of going back and correcting that in the first four chapters I had already written, I wrote going forward with that idea that the phantom was her brother. I wrote with that assumption and suddenly she began to work for me as a character. She took on new life. I understand her motivation. I understood the pain in her heart that she carried with her. By her not dealing with that pain, it feeds into how selfish and egotistical she is. It makes her a worse parent because she’s so wrapped up in this pain that she isn’t able to resolve.
That’s when I knew there was one ghost: the ghost of her dead brother. At the same time I was working on the beginning of this, I read about Parchman Prison. I came across this bit that there were black boys as young as 12 that were charged with petty crimes and spent time in Parchman. I read that and I knew how brutal the prison was and that fact was heartbreaking.
I wanted a child to be part of my novel and be present in the moment. I figured the only way I can make that happen was to make him a ghost. I wanted him to exist in the present moment and not just exist in a flashback. I wanted him to be able to interact with Jojo.
JW: I think that ghosts are embodiments of the past. Especially here in the South because we’re so close to the past. So much of the past lives in the present. We live with the ramifications of the past that might not be as clear or feel as present in the rest of the country.
I sit and think of the furor we live with regarding Confederate monuments and the endless debates about whether or not to take them down. I think about all of the advocacy and opposition. We’re still dealing with monuments from a war that happened 150, 160 years ago. The violence that surrounds that history is still very present.
In the South, we may not talk about it or it may not be a part of public conversation around these issues, but the underlying understanding is that the history of this region bears very heavily on the present and informs our actions. I think the ghost story form is a great way to explore and express that.
TM: You’ve been very outspoken about racial tension in America. I know the media is discussing this more, but I think there is still a disconnect where most of the country doesn’t really understand what it’s like to be in these situations. Do you think about this when you’re writing?
JW: I do. It influences my work because my awareness of history and the legacy of racist violence in this country bears heavily on my thinking when I’m casting about for ideas for my novels. I’m always thinking about race, violence, the history of the South, and how that history bears on the present.
I saw Ann Patchett speak 10 or 15 years ago and one thing she mentioned in her speech was that how she thought writers write the same book over and over again because they’re obsessed with the same ideas. Those ideas always surface in each story they write. As I’ve written more fiction and creative non-fiction, I’ve found that is true in my case. I’m always thinking about how black people survive. How people are marginalized in the South and the way they still survive that oppression.
I do have to say that when I’m writing and I’ve immersed myself in that world with those characters, then I am just thinking about the characters in the story and who they are and how they are evolving. I’m trying to find the important moments in their lives—moments beyond which nothing is the same. That’s what I’m thinking about when I’m writing. I’m not thinking about themes or symbolism. When I’m actually writing I’m just thinking about the people.
I think about the issues and big ideas when I’m thinking about novel ideas, but once I begin writing I throw that all out the window because the work is able to come alive and these people are able to live when you immerse yourself in the world.
TM: Earlier you mentioned how devastating Hurricane Harvey is to the people of Texas. I know you were still living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Hurricane Katrina hit. If you don’t mind, I was just curious what life was like for residents after the media and most of the country move on from these tragic events? What do families go through? What is it like having to restart?
JW: It’s really difficult. Donations do make a difference because they help people who are attempting to rebuild their lives. Habitat for Humanity did a lot of work here after Hurricane Katrina. They rebuilt a lot of homes. It’s a hard question to answer because a lot of people had house insurance and made house insurance claims, but that didn’t work for everyone. Some claims were denied on technicalities. A lot of the rebuilding that people had to do down here was out of their own pockets. It was a slow process. They rebuilt as they were able to slowly save the money that they needed to rebuild.
That’s one of the reasons a hurricane appears out in the Gulf—and I don’t want anyone to go through the pain we went through—but I’m always grateful when the hurricanes don’t come for us. I still feel like a decade after Katrina, we’re not ready. There was just extreme flooding in New Orleans two or three weeks ago from just a bad rainstorm. The streets were flooding and homes were damaged. It’s a hard question for me to answer because it’s still a continuous process.
TM: Your memoir came out between Salvage and Sing. Do you ever think about more memoirs on different topics?
JW: Right now, no. I really don’t want to write another memoir. There are many reasons for that. Men We Reaped was the hardest book I’ve ever written. It required that I make myself vulnerable. It required that I make the members of my family vulnerable. I had to tell the truth and reveal all of these secrets about our lives and that was very hard to do. I don’t know if I can do that again.
It was important to me because I had to write that book to tell my brother’s story. I had to tell the story about my friends and my cousin. Men We Reaped came out before Black Lives Matter was a movement. I almost feel like at that time I was trying to express the sum of the opinions that Black Lives Matter has expressed, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to do so. That book was difficult to write because I didn’t have that vocabulary to write about these people that I loved and lost.
Fiction is easier than creative non-fiction for me. Creative non-fiction is hard for me in general whether it’s essays or a book-length memoir because I tend to shy away from the pain of what I’m writing about. It makes me write around my subject instead of focusing. Creative non-fiction is a lot of work for me and my editors because they have to make me focus on whatever I’m trying to avoid in the piece I’m working on.
So, no, I don’t want to tackle another non-fiction book, but who knows in 20 years?
TM: Is it going to be another half decade before your next work of fiction comes out?
JW: I have something percolating, but it’s probably going to take me some time to finish. It might be another four or five years before it comes out. I’m writing the first chapter of the rough draft. I’m at the very beginning of the process.
The novel is set in New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade during the early 1800s. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written before. It’s definitely challenging me as a writer and as a human being because the main characters in this are people who were enslaved. It’s really hard to sit with that. The subject matter is making it hard for me to write this novel. Hopefully it will be done in four or five years. That’s including the rough first draft and multiple revisions of that.
TM: What is your hope of what people walk away with after they finish Sing, Unburied, Sing?
JW: I hope that the characters stay with them. That Jojo, Leonie, Kayla, Ritchie, and Pop stay with them. That next time readers encounter an older black gentleman in the grocery story or the next time they unfortunately see a 14- or 15-year-old black boy like Jojo dead from police violence that maybe it’s a bit more painful and a bit more prevalent for them because they’ve seen the humanity in the characters I’ve written. Maybe that makes it a little easier for them to see humanity and personhood.
Brit Bennett’s debut novel The Mothers (Riverhead Books) tells the story of a religious African-American community in Oceanside, San Diego, and the emotional fallout that ripples through the community when young Nadia Turner decides to seek an abortion. The novel, which examines black women’s interiorities with rare insight, became a New York Times bestseller upon its release last fall. Bennett’s good fortune continued earlier this month when actor and producer Kerry Washington (of Scandal and Confirmation fame) announced that she is working with the author to produce a film adaptation. I spoke with Bennett about adapting the film, the importance of the novel in telling black stories, and the politics of representing abortion.
The Millions: Congratulations on the film adaptation! I’ve just been thinking about what might have to change in order to turn the novel into a successful film. What does cinema demand of the story that the novel doesn’t, and as you work on the screenplay, what changes do you think you’ll have to make to satisfy those demands?
Brit Bennett: Well, I’ve never written a screenplay before so this entire process is new to me. The biggest change I’m anticipating is that the story has to become more visual. I’m generally a pretty scenic writer, so I think that will lend itself well to film. But I’ll have to think about aspects of the book like the narrative voice, for example, and how to translate that to the screen.
TM: So much of the drama in The Mothers depends upon the tension you build not just through dramatic irony, but through the slow unearthing of your characters’ psychologies. It’s an unearthing that seems peculiar to the novel, since it gives you the time, space, and language to explore your characters. Do you worry about that not quite translating to the screen?
BB: I think my biggest concern is finding ways to translate character interiority onto the screen. But I think about a film like Moonlight that conveys a character who actually speaks very little yet the viewer still understands who he is and what he wants. It’s a quiet film that relies little on actual dialogue, but there’s still interiority. So it feels like a big challenge but also an exciting one. I’m looking forward to learning a new form and a new way to think about storytelling.
TM: Speaking of next projects — you’re writing about the black South for your next book, and that’s a very different context for writing about blackness. What does setting a novel in Southern California lend you when you’re writing on the black experience? Does your approach change when you think about black Southern California?
BB: The setting has been one aspect of the book that readers — particularly white readers — have been startled by. I think focusing on a black community in a Southern California beach town has been very novel to readers. That’s interesting to me, because I grew up in Oceanside. I grew up 15 minutes from the beach, and I had friends of all races — this was not anything unique to me. But people expect black stories to exist in the South or urban North. I wasn’t aware of that when I wrote the book, so I didn’t write with that in mind, or anticipating it as a conversation I’d be having with readers.
Oceanside is a beach town, a military town, so there’s a lot of racial diversity and a lot of people who are constantly coming and going. I never thought that was interesting until I went to college. I’d tell people about wildfire season and people would go, “What?” I’m like, “Yeah we would get a week off from school, we were so excited!” I went to college in the Bay Area, so aspects of life like that weren’t familiar to people in every part of California, and certainly not to people in other regions of the country. I think for me, I wanted to write about where I came from, and I was thinking about the experiences of black people as diverse, whether that’s geographical diversity or something else. People’s shock over the setting says more about what people expect from a black story than about anything I’ve written.
TM: How does setting it in a beach town subvert what people expect from a black story?
BB: My working theory on this is that what people expect from a black story is a racism-driven plot. I gather that, and my book is a story that is inflected by race, but the plot points don’t hinge on racism. That’s one way I which my book upends expectations. People think because it’s about a religious community it must be set in Mississippi…
TM: Not knowing that we have Baptist churches in Southern California too…
BB: Right! So there’s that sense. People think that San Diego is just beaches and golf courses, but Oceanside is known as the blight of the county. So I was interested in the aspects of the place that weren’t just beautiful beaches and golf courses.
Then, California in general is a place where so many people come from elsewhere — it’s a bunch of communities of transplants. So this assembling of black identity, or any racial identity, is about mixtures of people from the rest of the country ending up in this place. What gets made from that?
TM: This makes me think, part of what’s so special about a black SoCal story is that it might seem unhinged from some of the histories that haunt black communities in cities like Chicago, for example. Not to paint California as a post-racial society, of course, but how does that inform your writing?
BB: I think that’s true — there’s a newness to the black California narrative. These are not communities where generations of your family lived. For some people that’s true, but my mom’s from Louisiana, my dad’s mom is from Arkansas, and because of that there is this sense that we’re dealing with a new history. We’re also dealing with the mythology of the West as this new frontier, which the Second Great Migration bolstered, with people leaving the South for defense jobs. So there are these stories that aren’t as cemented as stories from Chicago, for example, or the American South. There’s a potential freshness from writing about black California, particularly black SoCal. When I was writing the book, I had a professor who said they’d never read a book on black San Diego — and I hadn’t, either!
TM: You seem a little surprised by people’s reactions to how the novel represents blackness. How much has your perspective on the novel changed since it came out? Have you discovered new things about it that you didn’t expect to know by reading reviews and doing interviews?
BB: I’ve thought a lot about process since I’ve been going around talking about the book. Process wasn’t something that I thought about very deliberately when I was writing, but now that people ask me about it, I have perspective on why I made certain choices.
I’ve mostly reflected on the lack of certain types of stories. I’ve had young black women tell me that this is the first book they’ve encountered that portrayed young black women with emotional depth. I’m glad people are responding that way, but that also makes me deeply sad. I had that feeling when I read The Turner House, for example, and it’s strange that these are such remarkable experiences. It’s sad that there’s something unique about depicting black girls who have interior lives. I think that’s telling of the state of literature. That’s not to say that I’m the only person who does this, but the fact that there are so few of us bums me out. Showing black people with complex emotional lives in the contemporary moment, not during slavery, or the Civil Rights Movement…the fact that this is unique reveals a lack of certain types of stories in the literary world.
That’s been the most shocking thing to me, but I’m also excited to be writing in a moment when black writers in all media are challenging the idea of a single black narrative. Whether its Moonlight, Insecure, or Atlanta, or books like The Turner House, black people are writing about the diversity of their experiences, and I’m glad audiences are responding well.
TM: I’m so glad you mentioned Moonlight, Atlanta, and Insecure. Obviously there’s a place for the novel and the narrative essay in telling our stories, but so much of the work of telling black stories these days is being done on television, or film, or in music. In a media environment where there are so many venues to tell black stories, what makes the novel special?
BB: Novels simulate the experience of thinking another person’s thoughts. I love television — I watch probably way too much — but when you’re watching TV, you’re not thinking the same thoughts. There’s no other way to do that than reading fiction. As close are you are to people you love, you will never think their thoughts or feel their feelings. That’s something the novel does that other forms cannot. I also appreciate the language of novels, and the fact that novels are a slower way to experience time. In the politically fraught moment we’re experiencing, it’s been refreshing to turn off a screen or step away from a constant influx of insane news.
TM: You mentioned earlier that we’re in a cultural moment where our stories our proliferating, and it seems like maybe that was a moment peculiar to Obama’s America. Something about his presence created the space to tell those stories, and even though it was an era of racial strife, it also set up new horizons for black storytellers. What changes now that Trump is in office, for you?
BB: That’s a really good question. It’s complicated for me, because on the one hand the best writers write towards the moment they find themselves in. Burying your head in the sand and pretending we’re not living in this moment will not serve your fiction.
That being said, I resent the idea that what I write has to be a response to a person who resents me so deeply. I rankle at this idea that I need to spend my mental and emotional space writing in reaction to Trump. There are ways in which the moment we’re in will filter into our work. I was thinking about this because the book I’m working on is in a lot of ways an Obama-era novel, because it’s about fluctuating identities, multiculturalism, a lot of these questions that seemed so pressing these past eight years. When I think about it, it feels like a response to Obama rather than to Trump or Trumpism. I don’t want to ignore the moment we’re in, or abdicate responsibility to respond to it, but I don’t even know what a fictional response to Trump would even look like! Writing about black people who have humanity is already pushing back against Trumpism. Just asserting that black humanity matters, black bodies matter, black love matters, and black joy matters. That’s my general project.
To write about black characters is to assert black humanity. By doing that, you’re pushing back against the forces of white supremacy, which have existed before Trump and will continue to exist long after him. I don’t what else engaging Trump would look like, but I guess we’ll have four years to see.
TM: Hopefully less than that.
BB: Lord willing.
TM: Part of what I enjoyed about the book is the fact that it does the unfortunately extraordinary thing of portraying black women’s interior lives. But I also enjoyed the fact that you do a great job of portraying a masculine vulnerability, and subverting the stereotypes of black masculinity that permeate our culture. How conscious were you, while writing the novel, of subverting these images that trap black men and women?
BB: It’s something I was definitely conscious of. In the case of Nadia and her mother, I was thinking about the “strong black woman,” which is often meant as a compliment. People have applauded me for being strong, and it’s something that I am deeply skeptical of. What happens when black women are weak or vulnerable?
As far as black masculinity, it was important to me to create black male characters that are complex and have interior lives, which they’re not afforded in our culture. Particularly, Luke was someone I wanted to humanize. Originally, he was a character who would abandon this girl he got pregnant—that was it. But I started to think of him as a character that reacts to this unwanted pregnancy in a way people would not expect a young man of any color, but particularly a young black man, to react. I wanted him to feel vulnerable, to feel these things people wouldn’t expect him to feel, and that he often couldn’t express to anyone.
TM: Let’s talk about the abortion. Many of the reviews and profiles I’ve read have portrayed it as something that doesn’t dominate the novel, and to many critics it seems revolutionary that you can have this abortion, and then move on from it in short order. It’s similar to how people praised Obvious Child. But it seems more complex than that: the event happens and they move on, but the abortion’s emotional impact permeates the novel. How do you think about the tension between the liberation modeled in portraying the abortion, but also the lingering psychic and emotional impact?
BB: Narratively, abortions are often depicted as events that will end a person’s life, or just a background detail. Politics or anything aside, both of those options were boring to me as narrative choices. I wanted to think about Nadia as a character who made a choice that didn’t dictate her life, and freed her to live her life. But at the same time, I wanted it to have implications and some type of emotional resonance. I didn’t want to write a story about damage, but I also didn’t want her to never think of it again.
Of course on a personal level, those are perfectly fine ways to feel. But from a storytelling point of view, they’re not interesting. I wanted to move towards what was complex, so that was a story where she made the right choice for her at the time, but continued to think about what her life would have been like if she had chosen differently. She feels that she made the right decision, but regrets that she was in the position to make the decision in the first place.
TM: The complexity of human emotion here supersedes politics.
TM: How do you feel about people appropriating The Mothers as a pro-choice advocacy novel? Of course there’s no problem with that, but the actual novel is more complex. How do you feel about people reducing the complexity of Nadia’s story?
BB: It just shows how insufficient “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are as political positions. They’re useful categories, but they’re oversimplified and flattened. They don’t reflect how complexly people actually feel about this topic. I had a few people criticize the book because they thought it was pro-life! The fact that Nadia still thought about the abortion signaled regret, which must mean the book is pro-life. The fact that you have to diminish the unwieldy aspects of actual life in order to fit into one of two categories is unfortunate.
What’s been really interesting to me, in going out and talking to people about the book, is getting to see how complexly people actually feel about this issue. It’s very different from the polarization we’re presented with when we discuss it politically. I’ve had people — men and women — talk to me about their experiences with abortion. I’ve had people tell me that their mom is pro-life, but she likes the book because Luke shows regret. People find different characters to identify with politically or emotionally, and that’s gratifying; I set out to write a book where characters have complex feelings, feelings that are representative of the American public. I wanted to represent that complexity, so when I see people trying to put the novel into a camp…that’s fine if that’s the way you choose to read, but it’s not the way that I want to read. It’s boring to me.
TM: What does that say to you about how political partisanship has changed how we process nuance?
BB: It’s one of those things…I understand that for something to be politically viable, you have to simplify it. If you are for reproductive choice, or believe that abortion should be illegal, it’s useful to have two camps. If your answer is, “It’s complicated,” you can’t advance an agenda. What’s been revealing to me is that in a moment when reproductive rights are under attack at the state level, if you write a book where a character has an abortion and continues to think about it, people react to it as a pro-life message, just because exactly that sentiment gets manipulated and weaponized politically. So I have people on the left who conflate Nadia’s regret with a pro-life political maneuver. Reproductive rights are under so much attack that people have a knee jerk reaction to anything that resembles a pro-life argument. That’s revealed a lot to me about the state of our political discourse: any nuance can be mistaken for a completely separate political position. But that’s the good thing about literature as opposed to politics. Literature lets us live in nuance, in that discomfort. I think there are a lot of things in this book that will make people uncomfortable, and that’s not a bad thing. I like reading books that challenge my beliefs, that make me uncomfortable intellectually and politically. I hope other people can have that experience too.
TM: I doubt there was ever any period in American history when nuance was a political virtue, but it seems like we’re in a moment when nuance is just beyond the pale.
BB: Well there’s a way in which, because the Trump side is so against nuance that responding with nuance almost seems counterproductive. I worry about that too — replicating the thing that you oppose politically. But when there’s one side that just disregards facts, how do you respond to that with a nuanced, reasoned argument, if you can’t agree on what’s objectively true? Then perhaps nuance only muddies the water. But who wants to be part of a discourse that has no place for that nuance?
TM: It seems like you perform a similar complexity when it comes to racial politics, if there are racial politics in this book. You’re invested in providing these characters with a certain amount of nuance around racial identities, and you portray a situation where race isn’t the organizing principle of these characters’ lives. There’s that one moment when Luke’s mother tells him that reckless black boys are dead black boys, and that’s a moment when anti-blackness comes to the fore. But then it recedes, and the drama around the abortion surmounts it. I know you were working on the novel while simultaneously writing your essays on Black Lives Matter. How do you toggle between those two modes, between politically inflected nonfiction and literary fiction? Do you see them as being two different modes?
BB: Yeah, in a sense, but I approach them the same way: opening with a question that’s interesting to me. I never want to know how I feel about something, because if you do that, it’s boring. I always want to sit down and think. I wrote the [Paris Review] essay on American Girl dolls, in particular Addy, the black girl who is a slave. As I got older, I thought that was kind of weird! Wow, I was playing with a doll that was a slave, what does that mean? That doesn’t mean Addy was bad or good — it’s just a question. I always want to write from a place of trying to figure something out.
I also want to write with empathy. That’s one reason why I’ve not written anything about Trump. I was in Houston, and this woman asked me if I had an empathetic thought about Donald Trump. I really had nothing! I was just like, I cannot…I have nothing to say about this person. That’s why I have not addressed him, because my feelings about him are very flat. Maybe over time they’ll gain some complexity. I don’t foresee that, but maybe. But I always want to write with empathy.
The thing with nonfiction is that you have to make your thinking clearer. With fiction, you can make a lot of leaps between ideas, and your readers are willing to meet you there. With nonfiction, you have to be more explicit, to show your work and thinking.
TM: I was really impressed with how you deal with the lingering racial fear or pain that’s always in the vicinity of black life, even if it doesn’t structure blackness at all times. Was it difficult to address that fear without giving it pride of place in the novel? Were you afraid of making it too prominent?
BB: Something that I began to think about further on was that I was writing a novel about a woman who decides not to be a mother to a black child, in a time when we’re discussing Black Lives Matter, and the precariousness of black youth. So that was on my mind, but…I never want to downplay the institutional and emotional impact of racism on lives of color, but I reject the idea that racism dictates your every action and thought. The idea that all your interiority is dedicated to thinking about white racism…there’s something so insulting about the idea that my life revolves around whiteness. It doesn’t! I think about race a lot, but it’s not as if you walk down the street and a burning cross falls on you. The sense that that is what it means to be black is often something that white people think — that all black people do is think about white people. I reject that as a reality. It’s not real, and it’s politically troubling.
That’s one thing I love about Toni Morrison: she’s not interested in writing about white people. She writes about black communities, and whiteness will linger or influence the story, but her characters are thinking about other black people, their own problems, their own lives. That notion of decentering whiteness from a narrative was important to me and felt realistic to how I experience life as a black woman. That was something I kept in mind while writing. The fact that that’s surprising says a lot about how people think black people experience the world.
TM: There’s a moment in I Am Not Your Negro when Baldwin proclaims, “I am not a nigger,” and he makes it very clear that the outsized image that white people assume they have in black people’s minds is more about the outsized image that we have in the white mind…
BB: Right, 100 percent…
TM: I wonder if you feel like that has an effect on how people have received your book? Is part of the surprise you’ve hinted at about white people encountering black people who live in a multiethnic society, but who aren’t always focused on white supremacy?
BB: Absolutely — there were moments when we were editing the book when I got to the part when Nadia is at a “white people party.” And you know what I mean when I say that…a lot of black people will know what I mean when I say it’s a “white people party.” That was something that my editor pushed back against. For me that wasn’t a comment about racism. That was a way to describe the make up of the party: who’s at the party, what the vibe is…
TM: Do they have a keg or not…
BB: Yeah! To me that was a detail about the world she was in. One of my best friends grew up around Irvine, and he was like, yeah, we went to the white people party at the beach! That’s what you do when you go to a beach town. Invoking race raised questions for my editor on the role of racism in that scene; but to me it was just a way of describing a party, because when you’re a black person you immediately recognize who’s in that room with you. You walk in and you notice that everyone is white — that doesn’t affect the scene, it doesn’t affect what happens between Nadia and Luke, and it doesn’t affect the choice that she makes. But it does affect her perception, because that’s how you experience race and the world in general when you move in a black body. I think that feels real about how we experience the world, but that doesn’t give race or white supremacy a larger role than it actually occupies.
TM: It’s about racial categories as describing certain cultural differences, but not determining how one behaves with other people.
BB: Right. I think often white people will assume that if you invoke race, it has to be connected to racism. If I’m telling someone a story and I say a black dude walked in, a friend might think that the guy’s being black means something racist is going on. But no, it doesn’t mean that at all! People live in raced bodies, and it’s important for me to acknowledge that. Especially if a character is white, because if a character is not raced, then I know readers will assume that character is white. So it’s important to me to race characters, even if it doesn’t affect the plot in any tangible way. So yeah, we live in raced bodies, and race is something that we notice as we move through the world, especially people of color, in a way that maybe white people don’t notice as much unless they’re in a space with non-white people. So it’s important to name and see race. Otherwise, in the absence of a racial description will be a stand in for universal humanity, which gets read as whiteness. I don’t like that absence.
TM: Then maybe the discomfort around naming race for white readers or viewers is about disturbing that universality?
BB: I think that’s part of it. Within the framework of whiteness, there are few ways to talk about race that aren’t associated with hatred. Within a black context, you can express racial pride because it’s pride that arises in conflict with white supremacy. There are people who would disagree with that and say that being proud to be black is racist, and…fine. But the idea of racial pride for black people has arisen in a very different context than white racial pride. I think that if you invoke race, white people will associate it with hate, because within a white context that’s usually what it means. There’s not really a pleasant way of evoking whiteness. In I Am Not Your Negro, Baldwin says that whiteness is a metaphor for power — we don’t have a framework for invoking whiteness that isn’t a way of wielding power. So I think that for white readers, the red flag of racism gets raised because that’s the only way they can think of race within a white context.
TM: I was struck by your description of the novel as a way to practice empathy, because it seems that so much of your novel is about how people struggle to develop empathy and intimate bonds. The Greek chorus of the church mothers is ground zero for demonstrating that struggle — you have women who should be omniscient, but never really have a perspective on or empathy for Nadia’s mother’s mental illness. How important was this chorus to you as a way to explore the limits of empathy?
BB: As far as empathy goes, so much of the novel is about gossip, which in a lot of ways is antithetical to empathy. We’re at our least empathetic when we’re gossiping, because we’re reducing people to a story, and we’re not that interested in what they were thinking or feeling. We’re only interested in them as a narrative device. So the mothers are definitely guilty of that.
I’m also interested in the way of how generations are guilty of speaking past one another instead of speaking to each other. That’s something that happens a lot as the mothers discuss the younger characters — instead of connecting with them or helping them, they often judge, in the same way that the younger characters often dismiss the mothers. So I’m interested in the way that people try to create bonds but often fail — it’s just one of the facts of being alive. We often fail to connect with people even though we want to. In the case of Nadia and Aubrey, for example, those girls are close friends who keep huge secrets from one another. That’s a sad thing, but that’s the way we create connections between ourselves.
I open every year by rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God. There’s something about it that pulls me back, eagerly, to the work. Like many people I know, I open most years hopeful and willing to be seduced by possibility. So much of that book reminds me that the brightness of a welcoming new year is brief, that there is certainly a darkness that we’ll have to survive again.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.
My first book, a book of poems, was released this summer. I’m sure that for some people who do this, it means that they spent a lot of the year agonizing over their own work. I did, but I also hit a point where I didn’t want to look at poems anymore. At least not my own. I fell in love with the poems of my peers: Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Khadijah Queen’s Fearful Beloved. There’s something really refreshing about diving into brilliant poems after spending months picking your own poems apart. The stakes are low, and you can allow yourself to sit back and be overwhelmed. Another poetry book I deeply loved this year is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. Jess is a historian, truly. The book is filled with brilliant black folklore, all centering on the redemption of ragtime performer Scott Joplin. I had fun reading the book, sure, but I was also reminded of why I found myself to poems in the first place: endless possibility.
I’m a music writer who loves reading about music. I keep a copy of Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic with me at all times, sometimes reading bits of it out loud to any willing audiences, in the backseats of cars, around dinner tables. There’s an open letter to Sufjan Stevens in the book, and I am always overwhelmed by it. Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements was really exciting for me. I’m always interested in new stories behind the bands I love, and The Replacements are so incredibly fascinating in that way. There’s always so much more to them than I expect, at every turn. I maybe love Bruce Springsteen too much to indulge in the sprawl of his memoir, though I purchased it in good faith. After a chapter or two, I realized that maybe the book was written to get folks to fall in love with him, and I’m already there.
I was lucky enough to have Angela Flournoy read at my book release party in New York this summer, which pulled me back to a second reading of The Turner House. After that, I was forced to ask myself why I don’t treat myself to new fiction, instead of falling back into the same handful of fiction books I love. I did a panel on politics with Kaitlyn Greenidge, and purchased her book We Love You, Charlie Freeman, thinking that I’d get to it sometime in the winter. But I started it the next day, and finished it within 48 hours. It reminded me of how fiction can slowly and gently surprise, unlike poems, which sometimes have to reveal the surprise early in the work. I won’t spoil anything about Greenidge’s book, but the ending was so perfect, I read over it twice. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is one of those rare things that is actually as good as everyone says it is.
I’m on the road a lot these days, more than I’d like. I’m in small plane seats and in quiet hotel rooms and in corner booths at coffee shops in cities where I know no one. It’s not ideal, but this was the year that I truly felt like I lived the motto of “read more than you write.” I’m hoping 2017 will leave me just as lucky.
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Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike got to serve as commentators for The Morning News Tournament of Books. They discuss the results, as well as some of the surprises along the way.
Discussed in this episode: The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, basketball, Fates and Furies and Arcadia by Lauren Groff, Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, Jeff VanderMeer.
Not discussed in this episode: Mike’s unfortunate prediction that A Gronking to Remember by Lacey Noonan would go all the way this year.