Both Kenya’s parents were alienated from the worlds they grew up in – Kenya’s father left behind an upper middle class suburb, and Kenya’s mother left behind the housing projects. Do you think this is partly what drew them to each other? Their relationship was interesting because they seemed to have such different personalities and trajectories – to some degree, Kenya’s mother was striving for some of the middle class comforts Kenya’s father had spurned. Do you think the different ways society treats black men and black women affected their individual willingness to “play by the rules”? Do you think it was partly just their innate personalities – that Kenya’s father, especially in his youth, was more drawn to extremes, and Kenya’s mother was more steady and pragmatic?
AS: I think of both of them as heavily shaped by their early experience, as well as the relationships that they had with their parents. Sheila learned striving and sacrifice from hers; Johnbrown learned to try to be everything his parents were not. Johnbrown and Sheila’s personalities also accord with ideas I have about gender scripts and roles. When one hears of a family selling their home to live off the earth in a yurt and make their own clothes — if the parents are man and a woman – the woman is probably not the one who initiated that.
I found the depiction of racial tensions in 1980s Philadelphia interesting. Kenya was ostracized by other black students for her Africa-centric views and habits, but children will often latch onto any notable differences to exclude so I wasn’t sure if this exclusion reflected tensions that also existed in the adult world. Do you feel like different ways of being black caused serious divisions among black adults, too? Would Kenya’s parents have been ostracized by their black neighbors for their particular beliefs? You describe the real life, fatal bombing of a row house occupied by MOVE, a black liberation group, by the city of Philadelphia. As you say in the book, the mayor at the time, W. Wilson Goode, was himself black. Do you think black leaders, like Goode, who come down on other blacks, are, unconsciously or not, affected by racism? Or are such actions partly driven by a desire to get rid of the the type of blackness the MOVE group was exemplifying? Or, from the black leaders’ perspectives, was it not about race at all?
AS: Oh my God – I feel like I am taking a qualifying exam about this book! Anti-black racism affects everyone and everything, black citizens, black mayors, maybe even black presidents. It certainly inflected every aspect of what happened with MOVE. But MOVE was a very extreme example of black dissidence. Lots of people in Philadelphia back then revered Malcolm X and celebrated Kwanzaa, but mostly they didn’t use their backyards as bathrooms or build bunkers on their roof as MOVE did. I will say that I’m sure many black people were definitely embarrassed by MOVE as African Americans. At the same time, the group made for extremely unpleasant neighbors. But the fact that the police allowed a child to run back into a burning building – that the city killed eleven people and burned down 65 houses, which were never satisfactorily rebuilt – is an illustration of how dangerous it can be to appeal to what is basically a racist white power structure (yes, a black mayor, but reliant on fire and police officials appointed by a former mayor, the virulently racist Frank Rizzo) to negotiate your differences with other black people. If MOVE had been living in a white neighborhood, I seriously doubt the city would have burned the whole place to the ground.
My sense back then was that there were differences in the black community around culture – but not necessarily divisions. School is a place where “difference” is often an immediate occasion for mockery. If most adults outside of school see that someone is different, their first move is not usually to yell, “Ewwwwwwwwww!” (Usually).
As a West Philadelphia resident, I found your description of one of the local public schools, Lea Elementary, interesting – I was not aware of its dynamics in the 1980s. Because Kenya is ostracized by other black students, at first I thought there were no white students at the school, but then you mention there were a few but they were all – regardless of their academic prowess – put in the GT program. Was that part true? Today, there is an active movement – by mostly educated, white parents – to improve Lea. Do you have thoughts on the racial dynamics at Lea today? Or West Philadelphia in general? West Philadelphia is a very diverse neighborhood – the Clark Park playground, for example, is always a mix of black, white and Asian families – however, there is still a high degree of racial segregation in housing. Many blocks are 100% black and other blocks are overwhelmingly white. In the black community, there is also a lot of diversity – there are Christians and Muslims, immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as distinctions in class and education, etc. Do you think these differences, and the degree of racial housing segregation causes divisiveness, or do you think West Philadelphia is largely inclusive in its mentality?
AS: I went to Lea from the 1st grade to fourth. If memory serves (and I’ll admit it often doesn’t), there were a number of white children there who seemed to be either in separate classrooms and even a separate building from the black masses. It was my experience that what was then called the Mentally Gifted program was overwhelmingly white in an overwhelmingly black school. I also definitely had the thought that some of those white kids did not seem particularly bright, but that there were black kids not in MG that did seem bright. I’m aware of the work currently going on at Lea, and am grateful for the fancy new playground. I also recently gave a reading to some of the middle schoolers.
West Philadelphia has been diverse as long as I can remember. I always remember seeing and going to school with black, white and Asian American people – including a lot of Southeast Asian immigrants fleeing war. There was always a white post-hippie community, related perhaps to the University of Pennsylvania. It’s more diverse now because I think there are more immigrants from Latin America (this was not a significant part of West Philadelphia when I was growing up). I think there may also be even larger Caribbean and African communities.
About West Philadelphia, about Lea, about increasing gentrification (or shall we call it radical displacement) of many American cities, I will say this, inequality in the ways that matter is extremely persistent in the manner of a mutating virus.
Do you have any favorite authors or books? Any recommendations of lesser-known authors working today?
AS: In addition to being a writer I have a PhD in English; I have a ridiculous number of favorite authors and books. The book I’ve talked about the most is (poet) Gwendolyn Brooks’s novel Maud Martha. It’s one of my all-time favorites. I’ve been reading The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson, an excellent debut novel, a coming-of-age novel about two Brooklyn girls spending the summer with their grandmother in Barbados for difficult reasons. And I’ve been working my way through The Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko and feeling full of rage at the racism and sexism that rewards every 10,000-page dense book by a (usually white) man, but made it so that I didn’t even know that this incredible, difficult, mind-bending precursor to the much ballyhooed 2666 even existed.
You have a PhD and an MFA. Was your PhD dissertation a creative project or was it more analysis? If it was analytical, did you find writing that way affected your ability to write creatively? Do you find thinking about literature on a theoretical level improves your creative works?
AS: This was a PhD in English, not in creative writing – it was a scholarly dissertation. I find that having training as a literary scholar gives me more to draw on in terms of models for my writing, and thinking about where my work fits into a broader history of literature than the last 20 years. But absolutely it was very difficult to write my own work when I was having to come up with a riff about the relationship between Morrison and Faulkner for my oral exams, or talk about the relationship between slave narratives and Melville’s work. This was why I found myself signing up for two more years of student penury at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop after I graduated from Berkeley. That and I didn’t get an academic job offer.
Would you recommend an MFA to aspiring novelists? Critics have argued MFA programs can produce uniformity. Fiction, like music and the visual arts, has a large subjective element to it, and it can be tough to completely separate our personal interests as readers from what might be objectively flawed in a piece. Did you find your MFA program had enough diversity of viewpoints so that most writers could find readers who enjoyed their style and subject matter?
AS: I don’t think the diversity of viewpoints was very great at my MFA program. But whatever we are calling “literary” writing or “serious” fiction is professionalized these days. I think much of what many people in the publishing industry take for “good” is actually a set of characteristics that you learn from this specialized training. Anyway, I would recommend an MFA (for which you do not have to take out crazy loans!!!) for aspiring novelists, simply because that seems to be what people do to become published novelists.