Sunday, November 21, 2010
My Interview about What Mother Never Told Me
Not too long ago, I sat down with Eisa Ulen, author and literary advocate to discuss my novel What Mother Never Told Me.
Bestselling author Donna Hill has published a delicious new page-turner, What Mother Never Told Me, a novel that honors the literary tradition of Black women writers who sought to challenge the “Tragic Mulatto” stereotype in their work. Like Harriet Jacobs, Pauline Hopkins and Nella Larsen before her, Hill examines the generational impact of sex across race and class lines in America. Set in Harlem, New York; Amboise, France; and Rudell, Mississippi, this contemporary novel explores family secrets rooted in the past. Upon the death of the grandmother who raised her, main character Parris McKay discovers “her dead mother was alive.”
This stunning revelation launches the young woman’s search for the mother who abandoned her, her truth, and, ultimately, her own identity. With an exciting new love interest and two solid best girlfriends by her side, Parris is anchored well enough to sail a bit into the unknown and perilous waters of time before she was even born: Why did her mother abandon her? Why did her mother want her to think she was dead? Who is her father? These questions compel Parris to travel halfway around the world – but the only people who know the answers may not be willing to tell her the things Mother never did.
While she tries to piece her mysterious past back together to make herself whole, Parris enters a new relationship with Nick, the jazz musician she met while singing onstage at a downtown New York club. Nick has big plans to open a new place Uptown, in Harlem, but will he have time for Parris’ journey to discover her past and the fulfillment of his own professional aspirations?
Hill has crafted a novel very much in the tradition of 19th century Black woman writer Pauline Hopkins, who wrote novels in serialized form for Colored American Magazine in the early 1900s. Hopkins was writing against the backdrop of mob violence and the emerging Anti-Lynching Campaign, which Ida B Wells Barnett would spearhead. According to Yale Professor of African American Studies Hazel V. Carby, Hopkins believed fiction to be “of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs – religious, political, and social” and a “record of growth and development from generation to generation.” Similarly, with her elegant, educated, eclectic African American characters, Hill has created a world very familiar to her legions of fans, many of whom look to her to render today’s authentic, middle-class Black life.
Hill, who explores themes from gentrification to mother-daughter relationships, has recorded a turn-of-the-21st century generation, the inheritors of the experiences of women and men in our shared past. With What Mother Never Told Me, Hill also celebrates the growth we’ve experienced so far, and the emotional and psychic development surely yet to come.
Q.With its page-turning storyline featuring a mixed-race heroine yearning to know her true parental / racial origins, your novel is written in the tradition of Black woman writer Pauline Hopkins’ serialized magazine novels (published from 1901 to 1903). What Mother Never Told Me also expresses 19th century writer Pauline Hopkins’ desire to “raise the stigma of degradation from my race.” Did you intend to write a contemporary narrative in the tradition of work like Hopkins’?
A. When I began thinking about WHAT MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME and deciding on which direction to take my characters and how I was going to shape the story, my motives and inspiration came from several sources: wanting it, in a subtle way, to address the issues of race—or more accurately—the color complex of blacks. And yes, the stigma that has been attached to color, our inner hatred of ourselves that on some levels has been fed and nurtured on the institutional racism that is part and parcel of this country. And although race and the color complex are central to the story, I always wanted to strongly address the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationships in a poor black family, a middle income black family and a white family and explore the similarities and the differences which help us as women shape views of ourselves and the world.
Q. You retained so many themes and symbols of this 19th century literary tradition, with big money, the myth of pure American whiteness, and an indictment of the men who have historically run this country. These themes are consistent in your work and in, for example, Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Like Jacobs, you examine the effect of the rape of Black women in white men’s homes – and even tie that rape to American capitalism and American politics. Was that a conscious decision on your part? Did you at any point in the writing process consider making the interracial sex in your novel consensual?
A.The rape was central to the story. The rape recast the entire life of Cora Harvey. Her dreams were destroyed, her innocence ruined, her hopes were crushed. The rape not only ruined her physically, but mentally and emotionally—forever. As with all rape victims, there is a high level of shame. For the kind of character that I constructed in Cora, and the time period (the late 1920’s) her demoralization was even greater. That one act was the catalyst that redefined three generations, initiated a lie that destroyed lives, marriages and relationships. However, what I also sought to do was to put the rape in some sort of context and not to specifically dehumanize the white man who raped Cora, not to excuse him either but rather set up the historical events that precipitated this vile act: The Stock Market Crash and The Great Depression, to show the connection between money and power and how the rape was his outrage at having lost both. This rape was about a reclaiming of power and without the historical backdrop I don’t think the impact would have been as strong. Much later in the novel the reader will come upon the diametric opposite: consensual sex between black and white for very different reasons, but again class comes into play.
Q The Tragic Mulatto stereotype, that of a confused young woman often motivated by money and a yearning to pass, is a character that generally collapses, passes out, or literally dies when the story ends. You reference just such a narrative in What Mother Never Told Me when Parris and Nick watch the film Imitation of Life on television. In your novel, however, Parris experiences a significantly different conclusion. Was your intention to usurp, or flip, the Tragic Mulatto stereotype? Did you attempt to vindicate the countless mixed-race American women who never received their fair share of the pie, so to speak? Did you attempt to do in your fiction what rarely happened in real life and achieve a kind of literary justice for Black women?
A. I wish that I could say that I sat down with all of these altruistic intentions. Looking back at the story, I would think that Emma, Parris’s mother, would fall into The Tragic Mulatto stereotype to a point and would have remained there, had I let her. What I worked hard at with Emma (who is actually my favorite character) was to try to help the reader to understand the complexity of this woman, feel her desperation and her unrelenting need to be cared about and loved by someone and in understanding that, the reader could then grapple with the difficult decisions that she made about her life—specifically as it related to her daughter, Parris. Emma could have easily become and remained tragic, walked off alone into the sunset, having lost everything. That would have been the easy way out. She needed to come to terms with the choices that she’d made. She needed to look at herself and how her decisions affected her daughter Parris and make amends. As for Parris, although she too is of mixed race, she never suffered with issues of her duality because from early in her life she had the unwavering love of her grandparents who nurtured her and believed in her. It wasn’t until she found out that her mother, whom she thought was dead all of her life, was very much alive that she began to question her own value and sense of self—and not as a mixed race woman but as a human being.
Q. This book was published 2 years after the election of the first biracial president. What impact, if any, did Obama’s campaign and personal narrative have on your work?
In the aftermath of his run and election, the issues of race and identity are still hot topics. The racism that exists within this country remains rampant, which certainly opens the door of discussion to the issues raised in WHAT MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME.
A. Much like the President, Emma and Parris both struggled to find their identity: Emma who could pass for white and Parris who struggled to uncover the real reason why her mother wanted her to believe that she was dead all of her life. The President never grew up with his father and neither did Emma. And Parris was raised by her grandparents. However, despite adversities, they were all able to rise above them and make a life for themselves. I didn’t consciously take into account the President’s life, but his certainly can serve as validation for the points that are raised in my novel.
Q. Parris and Nick are jazz artists, but they could just as easily have been Hip Hop, Pop, R&B, or Soul artists. Why is jazz such an important theme in your work?
A. This question made me smile. In all of the novels that I have written throughout the years, there are similar elements that crop up. One, my characters invariably live in a brownstone or have friends that do and they all love jazz. It wasn’t until well into my twenty year career that I realized that I was doing this or why. The question came up in my MFA class workshop last year. My advisor asked us to write about something that we treasure. And my short piece was about brownstones. It was in that writing that I realized how much I loved them because so much of my life, who I am, my friends and some of my fondest memories are tied to the brownstone that I grew up in, in Brooklyn. And as I arrived at that happy conclusion I also realized that many of my characters have a talent for music or a love of it and it was generally jazz. My father loved jazz and in the background of my life, jazz was always playing on his stereo: Dizzy, Coltrane, Miles, Ella, Billie, Betty, Nancy all the greats. And although I grew up with R&B, jazz was being imbued into my veins. I’m sure that my sharing of this great American musical tradition is in tribute to my dad.
Q. In what way(s) is What Mother Never Told Me related to another novel of yours, Rhythms?
A. WHAT MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME, is the very long-awaited sequel to RHYTHMS, which was published ten years ago. In Rhythms, the reader begins the story in the Mississippi Delta in 1927, shortly after the Great Flood and follows the generations of the Harvey family from Pearl, to her daughter Cora, to her daughter Emma, to her daughter Parris and the incredible, strong black men who loved them. Although What Mother Never Told Me is a sequel, it is definitely a stand alone book. However, to truly enjoy the full flavor of these characters and to get a deeper look at all of the whys, I would certainly recommend reading RHYTHMS.
Q. While most of your female characters have healthy relationships with men, women’s friendships are key in What Mother Never Told Me. Why? Are your girlfriends as important to you as women – old friends, new friends, and even strangers – are to Parris and the other female characters in your work?
A. Yes, the complex and powerful relationships of women to each other, both inside and outside of the confines of family was central to this novel. It is the support of “the sisterhood” so to speak that shores up these women in their trying times. Women friendships are so very important—important beyond Sunday brunch and ‘girl let me tell you’—our women friends provide an inexplicable source of reaffirmation. By this I mean, when we are in the company of our sisters, we not only see them, we see ourselves reflected in them. We are strengthened by their strength, lightened by their laughter, engaged by their conversation in a way that does not happen with men. In the company of our sisters we can be ourselves. There is a need that is fulfilled in sisterly friendships. Very often I don’t realize how much I need or have missed it until I spend an evening with my friends. It is invigorating, and stimulating and empowering in a way that you don’t have with your significant male other or male friends. The dynamics are not the same. So I wanted to incorporate into WHAT MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME the importance and value of female friendships and more importantly that those friendships can cross racial and economic and demographic lines.
Q. Despite these great friendships and healthy romantic love interests, nearly all of the female characters have lousy relationships with their mothers. Again, thinking about the Black female literary tradition, reading your book is like reading about what might have happened to the daughter of the main character named Claire in Nella Larsen’s book Passing. Did you intend to challenge the matriarchal prototype in African American life? Do you think the image of the self-sacrificing, all-loving, traditional Black mother is another stereotype that can be just as dangerous as the Tragic Mulatto?
A The dysfunctional relationship between the women and their mothers is the centerpiece of the novel. In doing this follow-up to RHYTHMS, I wanted to address these very important relationships, how the connection between mother and daughter is integral in defining who we are as women, what we think of ourselves and our capacity to love others. In each of the women’s lives we have these mother’s whose actions have in some way crippled their daughters. Certainly the black woman in general is a prototype in society at large. The media would have us believe that most black mothers are unmarried, on welfare with kids by several fathers, poor and will remain that way. Anything other than that is the exception i.e.: Michelle Obama. But the reality is that the vast majority of black women do not fall into either category and those are the forgotten women—the women that I attempted to address in my novel.
Q. Gentrification is an interesting theme in your novel. Has there been much displacement as a result of gentrification in your Brooklyn neighborhood? What has been the impact of the real estate bubble on people where you live?
A. I live in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which has over the past five to ten years seen a dramatic change in the composition of our neighborhoods. Bedford-Stuyvesant was historically one of the last “strongholds” of middle-class home-owning black folks. However, because of the soaring prices of housing in Manhattan, the young white folk with money have crossed the bridge into Brooklyn, moving first into the Downtown area and slowly encroached into Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Williamsburg and now Bedford-Stuyvesant, being better able to afford the rising rents. With them came bike paths and quarter-million dollar condos on once drug-invested streets, more police patrols, little bistros, over-priced boutiques, and a myriad of outdoor cafes, not to mention the continually expanding “healthy organic” section of the supermarket, all of which come with a price. Although the neighborhood has certainly experienced a makeover, with streets being somewhat safer and many more amenities, we really must question: where did the people go who have been replaced, and why is it now prudent to revitalize the neighborhood but at the same time making it unaffordable for the very people who made it so tempting to come here?
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Right now I am working on my MFA in Creative Writing. For my thesis I am working on a novel written in the form of vignettes, entitled Witness, which at its foundation is about gentrification of not only a neighborhood but a family in transition. In addition to my mainstream fiction I also write romances—nothing can compare to black love! I am currently finishing up a romance that is part of a series that is based on a powerful political family in Louisiana—The Lawsons of Louisiana. The first book of the series, Spend My Life With You will be available in February 2011, and the second book later in the Spring. For my next mainstream, tentatively titled Someplace Else, it again tackles the complexity of family.