"My characters are teaching me to be strong": an interview with Tananarive Due.
Due joins Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Phyllis Alesia Perry, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Jewelle Gomez, Steven Barnes, Charles Johnson, Toni Cade Bambara, and Maryse Conde in interpreting themes and experiences from the African Diaspora to write speculative fiction. Due questions the success of a middle class African American family as they struggle with the historical past, confront ancestral ties to Africa, and face-off against a convicted stalker and killer in The Between (1995). Her second novel is part of an ongoing trilogy that begins with My Soul to Keep (1998), followed by The Living Blood (2001), and ends with a forthcoming novel. The first novel traces the multiple timelines of the life of Dawit, an immortal who has lived 400 years in various parts of the world. In present-day Florida, Dawit transforms himself into David Wolde, professor of jazz, husband to mortal Jessica Jacobs, and father to their mortal Kira. Throughout the trilogy Due explores the tensions between God and being god, between mortality and immortality, and between morality and immorality. The Horror Writers Association's nominated two of her novels for Bram Stoker Awards: The Between for Superior Achievement in a First Novel and My Soul to Keep for the best novel award.
The Black Rose (2000) is a historical novel that remains true to Due's literary roots of historical theme. The Alex Haley estate provided Due with Haley's notes on the life of Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), and invited her to complete the biographical novel about this first African American woman millionaire. Walker's life began in poverty in Louisiana and ended with a successful cosmetics empire that catered to the hair and beauty needs of African American women. As a millionaire, Walker served her community through philanthropy and civil rights initiatives. The NAACP nominated The Black Rose for its Image Award in 2001. Due continues to explore historical and literary genres through the personal memoir, penning with her mother Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (2002). Together they chronicle their experiences during the 1960s.
This interview was conducted in an online chat room with corresponding transcripts on August 31 and September 1, 2002, between Los Angeles, California, and Longview, Washington.
DG: How do you identify, if at all, with the literary genres of traditional speculative fiction primarily by and about white men?
TD: I have to confess, I had read very little speculative fiction of any type when I began writing The Between. I was basically "trained" in a literary writing program at Northwestern University, where speculative fiction was not a part of our course of study. We read Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates, for example. I remember telling my class that my favorite authors were Toni Morrison and Stephen King. I got looks of approval when I mentioned Toni Morrison, and incredulous looks when I mentioned Stephen King. So I figured out right away that I would have to keep my love of horror to myself. I had not read any Octavia E. Butler, for example, before I was in college or grad school.
DG: You've mentioned a few authors already. How did they along with others influence your writing, and why?
TD: That's a very, very tough question. I would say my influences are, in no particular order, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Octavia E. Butler (although I hadn't read her until I'd finished My Soul to Keep), and Franz Kafka. Of course, I continue to be influenced by every new writer I admire. I liked John Ridley's A Conversation with the Mann (2002) a great deal, for instance. And I enjoy Walter Mosley. I see Stephen King's influence most directly because I enjoy the art of handing over a good fright, and Stephen King does that so well. The others influence me in ways I believe are much more unconscious.
Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (1988) was a strong influence for me right before I wrote The Between. I hesitated to re-read it before beginning The Good House, but in some ways I think it's silly to worry too much about sounding too much like another writer. It's impossible. If I could sound like Gloria Naylor, I would be Gloria Naylor instead of Tananarive Due. One of my clearest memories of that book was her characterization, how upset her protagonist was when her man brought her the wrong shade of makeup, or she thought he had; it pricked her racial insecurities. That was just a very contemporary issue between them presented in a way that I had not seen before. It's the little things, really. Good writers shed a light on human psychology in a way that helps you say, "Oh, yes, I see ... this is how you create a portrait of a human being."
Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), to me, was just a masterpiece. It was, in novel form, the EXACT interpretation of the poison of slavery on the psychology of black people in this country. I had never seen it presented with such a brilliant metaphor before, but yes, we're all carrying around those ghosts.
I've never read Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), believe it or not. I read A Little Yellow Dog: An Easy Rawlins Mystery (1996) and Blue Light (1998), and I have not read too many mysteries. Still, I think there is a bit of a mystery writer in me because, to me, mystery is a component of suspense--and I often write supernatural suspense. With Mosley, he has such a deft hand in presenting his scenes. They are so spare, yet he can pour on details that jump off the page.
The most obvious comparison, of course, is with Octavia E. Butler. I remember describing My Soul to Keep to someone while it was still in progress, and they asked me, "Have you read Octavia E. Butler's novel about the immortal African?" Well, at the time, I hadn't--but I was petrified that there would be too much overlap. After reading those books, of course, it's even more amazing to me how two black female writers could have such different interpretations of a similar idea. Still, given that we're both black, both women, and both drawn to speculative fiction--and now that we both live in the Pacific Northwest--I think there will be no avoiding the comparisons.
Different personalities translate in different ways on the printed page. Is this true of Butler and me? I'm sure there are ways in which we're very different, but I find her to be a lovely person. She's very concerned about the world around her, and she will admit herself that she can be pessimistic if she's not careful. It's hard to walk that balance between caring about the world and not being overwhelmed by everything that's wrong with it. I struggle with that, too, although not so much in my fiction. My fiction has a very simple function to me. I put my characters in situations where they must change their definitions of who they are, and I watch them rise to the occasion. Period. "When the way comes to an end, then change. Having changed, you walk through."
That's what's so brilliant about Parable of the Sower (1998)--a religion that worships change. If we could learn to worship change, we would be so much happier because change is inevitable. It's the ONLY given in life besides death.
My characters are teaching me to be strong, so that when my challenges come--and they always do; I'm still hurting from the death of my maternal grandmother on Christmas Day in 2000--I will be ready for them.
DG: Who is your primary audience?
TD: Since my books were published in the post-Terry McMillan black books boom--with each publisher hoping to find the next Waiting to Exhale (1992)-the majority of my touring appearances have been at black bookstores. The bulk of my readership is black readers, especially women. So while I had forged much closer social ties to other blacks among the Africans and Caribbeans I met at the University of Leeds in England, and then again when I met other black reporters at The Miami Herald, my novels have given me unprecedented acceptance in black circles in a way I could only have dreamed about as a child. I very much feel a sense of belonging. I was the speaker at a Delta [sorority] literary luncheon in Milwaukee a few months ago, and they were 600 people strong. It's really quite amazing.
I have always loved black people, even when they hurt my feelings. We can be blunt with each other--perhaps it's just a way we try to make each other strong--but there is also a strong sense of love and fellowship. I'm quite sure almost everything we are today is rooted somehow in that shared psychic experience. That's something too many people don't understand. Through that experience, we have forged a remarkable strength. I think it's a form of "tough love." Your mama had to keep you in line so massa wouldn't whip you.
DG: How did growing up with your family, along with living in Florida and Washington State influence your work?
TD: All of the strong women in my novels are different versions of my mother. I thought of her a great deal while I was writing The Black Rose, for example. And my father's intellectualism is probably reflected in David in My Soul to Keep, and the emphasis on reading that appears in The Good House. And Jessica also had a very close sister in My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood, reflections of the deep importance of that sibling connection. My sisters and I are best friends. I have two.
Florida, particularly Miami, is a wonderfully fertile ground for writers. There are so many cultures and so many bizarre stories. Elian Gonzalez is just one example of the kind of stories that occur there on a regular basis because there is so much pain in the Cuban-American community, and there is matching pain in the black community--so you end up with the Nelson Mandela fiasco, where a group of local mayors signed a document denouncing Mandela when he visited after he was freed from prison. Can you imagine? The world was celebrating, but those of us who went to support Mandela were told to "Go back to Africa!" But this is typical of Miami--it is a city full of mis-understandings and hurt feelings. There were riots in 1980, which were also very difficult for me to witness on television because my parents are lifelong civil rights activists, and I had grown up in the activist community. Those riots had to do with the beating of a black motorcyclist who had fled police, then was ganged up on by police when he came to a stop. A brutal killing, but no police officer went to jail for it.
There are traces of my experiences in Miami all throughout The Between--Hilton's wife is a judge (my parents had supported a black Miami woman who ran for judge), Hilton is a social worker and activist (both of my parents have experience there), the family had a hostile neighbor (as my family did when we moved into all-white neighborhoods in my youth), Hilton's psychologist is Puerto Rican (as was my first boyfriend in Miami, an Afro-Hispanic who gave me entree into that world), and the list goes on. Miami is a wonderful setting.
Also, as readers will see when Freedom in the Family comes out, Hilton's arguments with his wife about his having too many commitments away from home are from my observations of my parents.
One of my biggest challenges now, to be honest, is the sense of separateness, of isolation I feel out here in the Pacific Northwest. This is very much a land of pioneers. My heart and mind really had not settled here, which is why I forced myself to write a book set here. I was miserable and constantly noticing what was MISSING here rather than appreciating what was new and different. When I am gone--and I will leave in two years, when my stepdaughter graduates from high school--I will miss the beauty. It's a very green state. My stepdaughter and I took a two-hour horseback riding trip the other day, and that was wonderful.
Yet Seattle is very cosmopolitan and great fun--and with a surprisingly vibrant black literary community, since Octavia E. Butler, Charles Johnson, and August Wilson all live there--but black people who move to this part of the state have to be in a frame of mind where they don't mind being away from other black people. With me, I get my "fixes" doing book appearances [away from Washington]. It's a great place to VISIT.
When I first moved here, I pitched an essay to Essence magazine about it... for instance, how I missed the sound of black men LAUGHING. You know that sound? It's like no other.
DG: Were you subjected to racism as a child, and did it influence your novels in any way?
TD: Yes, as a child I was subjected to the word "nigger" whereas my mother, for example, had not been because she had grown up in all-black neighborhoods.
My family was always one of the pioneering families in white neighborhoods when I was young. We had eggs, rocks, and tomatoes thrown at our house, and rocks thrown in the gas tank of my father's car. One neighbor apparently threatened to shoot me and my sisters if he caught us in his yard, although my mother never told us this. My parents tried to shelter us as much as they could, but I also grew up feeling that it was not "safe" to be outside of the house. My sisters and I became very close.
The racist element is very obvious in The Between because my villain is a white supremacist (acting as an agent of some kind of natural force). There was a time I thought the bomb explosion at the end of the book was over the top, but then the Oklahoma City bombing occurred a few months before the book's publication.
In My Soul to Keep, I used Dawit's experiences as a slave to drive home some of the aspects of slavery that I think too many of us, blacks included, do not like to think about. The fact is, many more slaves would have tried to escape if not for their personal ties, their families--and that's something we forget. Dawit is a good mouthpiece for that, since the memory of the slavery era is fresh in his mind.
I didn't really discuss race too much in The Living Blood, although I did enjoy the opportunity to set so much of that book in Africa, and to present a cult of very advanced immortal Africans.
DG: Describe your writing process.
TD: I have wanted to be a writer since I was four. I wrote a picture book called Baby Bobby, and I wrote on the back page: "Baby Bobby is a book about a babby [sic]. The auhtor [sic] is Tananarive Due." I knew what a book was, about liner notes, and the author bio, and I just KNEW that was me!
In high school, I was an intern for The Miami Herald, so I decided I would pursue journalism as my day job while I struggled to be a writer. I had a very good sense that the artist's life is one of constant struggle, and struggle has never been good for my creative process. I don't remember when I began reading, but I must have been reading by then.
I wrote constantly throughout junior high and high school, mostly short stories for my friends. Northwestern University had a writing major through the English department, so I got a BS in journalism with an unofficial double-major in creative writing. It was great to be able to take workshop courses as an undergraduate.
I was lucky enough to receive a Rotary Foundation Scholarship when I graduated from college, so I got a Master's in English literature at the University of Leeds in England, which was the year I became semi-professional. I wrote constantly, beginning the novel Separate and Related, and I also wrote the first short story I "sold" that year--although I didn't begin trying to sell it until after I'd left grad school.
In Amusement, a twisted little piece and an exercise in which I was imitating the bizarre writing style of English writer Ian McEwan--I learned that I am not good at the art of imitation. What I DID do, however, was write a piece wholly different from anything I'd ever written, and a small literary magazine called The Writers' Barbecue agreed to publish it in 1990, I believe, although they went under before it could be published.
DG: What do you think of the speculative fiction of other black women including Maryse Conde's I Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (1994), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), Octavia Butler's Kindred (1988), Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring (1998), and Alesia Perry's Stigmata (1998)? Do you believe such a question unreasonably links your work to theirs simply because it is speculative fiction by women of African descent?
TD: I have read some or all of the works you described, with the exception of Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, and I'm thrilled with all of these writers. The question of links is inevitable, but we are all really so dissimilar, too. I really see myself as writing supernatural suspense more so than, say, magical realism, although there is magical realism in my work. Not all black speculative fiction is suspenseful in nature, however, which is the most obvious difference that comes to mind. I want to maintain literary standards, but writing "page-turners," creating novels in which readers can appreciate the themes and imagery if they choose, but often they're primarily reading to find out what happens next. In horror circles, some writers describe me as a writer of "literary horror." I shy away from labels as much as possible, because I think they tend to exclude as many readers as they attract--or more--but I understand that labels are a part of life.
DG: Did you always create middle class African American characters that were vital to the development of your short stories and novels?
TD: I was writing short stories about epiphanies, and many of them with white characters, as a matter of fact. I've come to learn later that this is very common with young black writers--that there is a sense that there must be a "reason" for characters to be black. When I wrote about black characters, they tended to be inner-city youths. Very silly, in retrospect. Maybe that's not as true now as it was when I was in college, 1983-1987. There were just so few examples of black characters whose lives mirrored mine--that is, [lives with a] suburban upbringing, the integration generation. I was a bit lost as a young writer. I wanted to be respected, so I tried to write what I thought would be respected. Of course, I was also shutting myself away from a great deal of my personal experiences. For example, I wrote a novella about inner-city youths called Different Blood, which was probably the best thing I'd ever written, but when I tried to sell it, I was told that it was too short, that I should make it novel length. This was right out of college, and might have been my first sale, but I had no clue how to expand it. I'd expended my knowledge of "street" culture in 90 pages, and all of my sketches to flesh it out felt fraudulent to me. I didn't have the life experience to invent the story I was trying to tell.
I was not a product of the inner-city, and I was not a product of the rural South, so as a black writer, I felt as if I had no voice. I also could not relate to the Southern rural experience--because although I'd been raised in the South, Miami is not like most Southern cities. Miami is more Caribbean than Southern, in many ways. And I knew nothing of rural life. My mother had picked tobacco for a short time as a child for her grandfather, but that experience was very remote by the time I was born.
The same thing happened in graduate school, when I tried to write a novel about a gay white playwright. It was some of my best writing to date, but in the end I didn't know enough about the gay white male experience to pull it off. I was writing about everyone but myself.
DG: Why did you hide behind a gay character or perspective rather than write from your own experiences?
TD: I was writing Separate and Related in graduate school, when I was about 21. That was a novel, actually. Never even finished! It was simply a stepping stone for me developmentally. I may still-use that title someday, Separate and Related. It was supposed to be a novel about a gay playwright dying of leukemia who moves in with his very conservative brother and the brother's wife, hoping to forge a better relationship with them, but ends up forging the bond with his nephew. Of course, while I was writing it, the AIDS epidemic showed up, and suddenly I felt as if I would be forced to make it an AIDS story, which was not what I had intended. Also, I just didn't know the character enough. I had a gay male friend in high school--and the "outsider" status of gay males is fascinating to me as another outsider--but I was too young and inexperienced to pull it off.
I'm quite certain the whole "outsider" question is what led me, in part, to identify with gay males, especially--since gay women find acceptance a bit more easily. Not much, perhaps, but the stigma isn't as strong.
DG: When did you stop focusing on inner-city youths and gays, territory unfamiliar in your own personal experience?
TD: That changed in 1992, I was working for The Miami Herald, writing short stories on the side, and I wanted to begin writing a novel, but hadn't had any ideas that really spoke to me. Then I was asked to interview Anne Rice, who was promoting her book Tale of the Body Thief (1992). I had never read Anne Rice, believe it or not, although I knew who she was. I dutifully read her novel and, like most journalists, I asked her the questions that were of use to ME as a writer. The most important question I asked her was how she responded to criticism that she was "wasting her talents" by writing about vampires--something that was of great interest to me, since it spoke to that whole question of respect. She said that criticism used to bother her at one time, but she had learned to ignore it. "You don't have to be literary or commercial as a writer--you can be both. And writing about vampires, I'm able to write about wide universal themes of life and death," she said. Well, it was as if she had personally given me permission to pursue what was uppermost in my heart: themes of life and death.
In that same year, a hurricane had brought havoc into my family's lives. My parents, grandmother, and aunt all had terrible hurricane damage, not to mention that vast stretches of the county looked like a war zone. It was terribly depressing. Shortly after that, my paternal grandmother in Indianapolis died. And shortly after that, my college love gave me the "I love you, but I'm not IN love with you" speech. I was a wreck emotionally. I felt as if all of my life preceding that point, I would forever consider my "good old days."
Around each corner, a new terror seemed to be waiting. Thus the character of Hilton in The Between did not know which reality he would wake up in from one day to the next. I wrote from a male perspective in that book precisely because I thought male perspectives were lacking in much of the black fiction I had read. I just felt a sense that I wanted this voice to be a man's voice. Also, I was probably also shielding my privacy a bit--writing closer to my experience, but also hiding behind another gender.
DG: What are the most significant metaphors in The Between, My Soul to Keep, and The Living Blood?
TD: The Between serves as a metaphor for fear of death, My Soul to Keep is dominated by the theme of fear of loss, and The Living Blood story is a parenting metaphor (both Jessica and Lucas face critical parenting issues).
DG: How were you recruited to write The Black Rose, your novel based on Alex's Haley's preliminary research of Madam C. J. Walker? Did you see any parallels between your experience and hers?
TD: Basically, my agent called me one day and asked me if I would be interested in talking to the Alex Haley Estate about the possibility of writing a novel based on the life of Madam C. J. Walker. My agency, John Hawkins & Associates, also represents the Haley Estate. I came to mind, he said, because of my experience with nonfiction as a journalist, and because of the historical elements in My Soul to Keep. I flew to New York to meet the Estate's representative in person, and I left with first three or four boxes of research to begin writing the book proposal.
At first, I was somewhat amused to be asked because of how Madam Walker built her wealth--that is, through the popularity of the straightening comb and other straightening products--because I haven't had chemicals in my hair in nearly a decade. But the more I learned about her, of course, the more her story appealed to me. She'd been orphaned, born poor, worked as a domestic, had very little education, and had built an empire. If I could somehow recreate the path of her life in fiction, I thought, it would be a valuable road map for readers, as well as helping to solidify Madam Walker's place in the collective consciousness.
She was a remarkable woman. I hung up her picture on my wall, where it still hangs, and looked at her face for inspiration while I worked. The Black Rose was a very difficult project since it had a predetermined deadline and there was no cooperation between the Haley Estate and the Walker Estate. Their relationship had existed long before I was brought in, and I had to operate in a very awkward writing environment. I could not simply call Madam Walker's great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Perry Bundles, on the phone to ask questions. There were many moments I regretted the decision to take on the project--but I kept looking toward Madam Walker for inspiration, reminding myself that if she could accomplish all that she had, I could finish the comparatively minor challenge of completing a single novel. And I believed that ultimately, I could write a good novel no matter what the challenges.
DG: How does the immortality of characters like Dawit, Jessica, and Kira in My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood test spiritual beliefs in God, heaven, hell, redemption, and more?
TD: Well, I guess that depends upon whose spiritual test you refer to: There are dual tests in any novel, I suppose, those of the characters and those of the readers. In some cases, of course, those tests may overlap--but Jessica and Dawit have so much more actual evidence of God's miraculous nature than we do. If I were Jessica, I would be that much more convinced of Christ's divinity, and certainly that much more convinced that there is much more to this world than we understand. Dawit has the same information--perhaps more--but he has chosen to file it in a place in his consciousness that separates the so-called "miracle" from true evidence of God, much in the way a scientist might assume that there is a scientific explanation, not a divine explanation, for any visible manifestation.
It's the readers, of course, that I hope to challenge most. I expected criticism from some Christian circles about the premise for immortality in My Soul to Keep based solely on the fact that Christ's story and blood are being fictionalized in an entertainment medium. But I've overwhelmingly found that Christians see the story as a reaffirmation of something they already believe--that Christ's blood was miraculous and divine. The remaining challenge, then, is how to understand how characters infused with Christ's blood can behave, sometimes, in a way that is not the least bit Christ-like.
But that's the whole dilemma posed by Creation: God created man in his image, making us all children of God, and yet we have free will. Many of us do not behave in a Godlike way, or we have twisted God's words to satisfy our own fears and blood-lust. To me, this paradox is related to the ultimate challenge we all face when we observe the world and ask how God could allow such misery among his children. All of us have to satisfy that answer in our own hearts and souls.
DG: Describe Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. What motivated you to write this memoir with your mother? Did you struggle with the inherent tensions between mother and daughter as you recounted your Civil Rights experiences?
TD: As the only writer among three sisters, I have always known it would fall to me to write about my parents, particularly my mother, to document her experiences in the civil rights movement. We were raised on the stories of their court battles, my mother's arrests, the tear gassing that damaged her eyes, the suicides of people she knew from the Movement, and the deaths of so many activists. Soon after I graduated from college, my mother and I conducted our first interview together.
But I must confess, I put it off as long as I could. As a young person, as much as I honored my parents, my first priority was to learn who I was as an adult in my own right--first, through my 10-year career at The Miami Herald, and then as a fiction writer. I have always loved fiction and tolerated nonfiction, so the task of writing a civil rights history loomed large and frightening in my mind.
With the money from my advance for My Soul to Keep, though, I took a year and half leave from The Miami Herald in 1996, and began working with my mother in earnest, keeping regular office hours on weekdays as I drove an hour each way to her house from mine in Miami-Dade County, Florida. We took many trips together, bringing along video equipment and tape recorders so we could interview the activists she knew, who were dying at an alarming rate. After I moved to Washington State, we continued to meet for trips and then sent text files back and forth on the Internet.
My family is very close as a rule, but the time I spent with my mother on this book was particularly precious. In the beginning, of course, we had our little power struggles as we had to learn to interact with each other as equal partners rather than a mother and daughter. Any child can imagine what it would be like to work with a parent on a project for years. We certainly had arguments from time to time.
But in the end, of course, all of that wholly pales compared to the closeness we have developed. For the first time in my life, I KNOW the chronology of my mother's life story. I saw glimpses of her as a young person, I better understood the emotional scars she wears, and I better understood the dynamic of my parents' relationship, which began as a civil rights partnership and has remained one all these years later. There is no price for such a gift.
Even if this book only remained in our family as a document for my children and grandchildren, I would consider the experience of writing it the best invested time of my life. The fact that it [has actually been published and now circulates] to a wider audience is something so profound that it's difficult to comprehend. I'm grateful to have written it, I'm grateful my mother has been such a diligent historian over the years, and I'm grateful that she has unburdened these episodes from her heart, so she can carry on in the world looking forward instead of feeling the urgent drive to honor the people she knew by so often looking back.
At least one person in every family should write a family history, even if it is never published for the eyes of strangers.
DG: Clearly you have a stake in depictions of blacks in film, since Blair Underwood is going to produce and star in the film My Soul To Keep. Would you do anything differently with black characters in the movie as compared to the past? Do you have any control over the process now that Hollywood has bought the rights to your book?
TD: My Soul to Keep is currently in development at Fox Searchlight, with Rick Famuyiwa attached to direct. Rick is in the process of polishing his script. Obviously, we hope the studio will approve the script soon and we can get a green light to cast more actors. I think we are very close, but I hate to say anything beyond that because I know the film process can take time.
That said, control over rights is a very, very tough question. A lot of writers seem to have disdain for the process of converting a book to a film-and I'm sure it's with good reason, based on their experiences-but working with industry professionals like Blair has been a joy. First, Blair himself is a very straightforward and spiritual person, so he means what he says. In Hollywood, sincerity is never a given, but Blair keeps his word, he respects my input in the process, and he has but Blair keeps his word, he respects my input in the process, and he has been remarkably faithful to my vision of this novel.
It's just very difficult to get black stories told in Hollywood that don't fit the well-worn grooves that investors understand: hip-hop dramas and comedies. My Soul to Keep would be one of a very few black-themed supernatural films that has ever been made, so it's quite a challenge. The sexuality of the film is also a departure from what is most often seen of black actors in film, especially males. Black females seem to have come into vogue as love interests, but it will be interesting to notice how long it will take for filmgoers of all races to realize that black men on the big screen get no love from any women, black or white.
As the script stands now, there are very few substantive changes from the book to the movie, except to cast more doubt on how many murders Dawit has committed, to make him a more relatable character. In a book, I can delve deeply into Dawit's psyche so that readers love him no matter what he does, to a degree, but film is so visual that it's much easier to break rapport with the viewers.
I'm hoping that another one of my novels, The Good House, which was published last year, will become a film, too. I have worked with Blair and his partners Nia Hill and D'Angela Steed at Strange Fruit films to begin shopping for financing for that project. Forest Whitaker is attached as the director, so, given that a director of his stature supports us, I believe we're in a very strong position. This is a very exciting development!
DG: Would you like to share anything concerning your most recent novel, The Good House (2004)?
TD: Yes, race is omnipresent in The Good House. I decided to write this book based on my experiences here in the Pacific Northwest, which is one of the least diverse places I've ever seen. It was quite a shock to come from Miami, a county that is majority minority, and then to arrive in a town where people of color are so rare. I've seen increases just in the four years since I've been here, but in the beginning it was quite stark. I decided to take advantage of my time here by setting a book in a very small town in Washington, which would help me learn to appreciate what was around me in addition to allowing me to vent.
Basically, my protagonist's grandmother was a pioneer in this town, really the only black resident to live there for decades, until someone adopted a black boy in the 1970s. And my protagonist came to live with her grandmother at 15, following her mother's suicide in Los Angeles, so I'm able to take advantage of a fish-out-of-water viewpoint in my character. Racism affected the grandmother profoundly, the root of a family secret that has had a ripple effect through the generations.
In The Good House, though, magic and curses are the metaphor. My protagonist has to learn the family secret to end a family curse that has cost many people their lives. I've always wanted to write a haunted house novel, and I've wanted to delve more deeply into the Afro-Caribbean magic systems. Make that "delve."
At its heart, The Good House is more a possession novel than a haunted house novel. Yes, I've been doing a great deal of reading about the Yoruba belief systems, vodou and Santeria. I had some experience with Santeria in Miami, of course--in fact, I dated a man who used his beliefs to carry out malicious acts against others, at least in his own mind. The Good House takes for granted that vodou and related religious systems are credible, and that the vodou really do exist. But of course, many generations of blacks have had to reconcile their beliefs in both systems. There has been a strong marriage between [Roman] Catholicism and African systems in vodou.
All magic systems have warnings about what happens when sorcery is used against others. My protagonist's grandmother made a mistake, and the subsequent generations are still paying for it. She lost her temper rooted in racist experiences.
One thing I will say, though: Often in these kind of novels, where there is a curse on a town or a parcel of land, it's because some horrible act was committed there, for example, a Native American slaughter or the desecration of a burial ground. In The Good House, the curse is borne by people based upon their RESPONSES to wrongdoing. This legacy is the heart of the African experience in America, I would say--we should remember the wrongs committed against us, but it is our own strength of character that will determine our future here.
There are certainly Christians in this novel, but Christianity is not nearly as much at the fore as it has been in My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood, and the book does not necessarily have a Christian sensibility.
DG: Could you share a bit concerning the latest works-in-progress?
TD: My next novel, a ghost fantasy entitled Joplin's Ghost, will be published this fall by Atria Books. The novel is about an up-and-coming R&B singer whose world is turned upside down by her encounters with the ghost of Scott Joplin, the Ragtime King. I based this novel on ghost sightings mentioned to me by the former curator of the Scott Joplin House in St. Louis-and I wanted to explore what I thought it might really be like to find yourself in the presence of a powerful spirit. I wanted this novel to be both frightening and erotic. Many of the chapters take place in Joplin's turn-of-the-century timeline, so it's also a story about the challenges of being an artist in two generations of the African American experience.
Also, in March 2005, I just placed another sequel to My Soul to Keep and The Living Blood entitled The Colony. This novel will reunite readers with Jessica, David, and Fana in the year 2014, when Fana is a teenager--and a strange new threat has emerged against the immortals, one with ties to the Vatican and a pivotal 19th-century battle in Ethiopia. I don't know when this book will be published, but probably in 2007. Atria will publish this novel as well.
Dianne Glave is an Aron Senior Environment Fellow in the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities. She interprets speculative fiction through the historical experiences of the African Diaspora. Her article "Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl and Midnight Robber. An Interview" appeared in Callaloo in Winter 2003.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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