Pearl Cleage's Idlewild Idylls.
In our increasingly multi-media world, content is king. Still it can be frightening to step outside the comfort zone of one particular genre to try working in another. But undergoing sweet successes in the switchover game is Atlanta-based playwright, essayist and novelist Pearl Cleage. She is as well known for her op-ed newspaper columns (she wrote for the Atlanta Tribune for ten years) and essay collections (Mad at Miles, The Cleage Group, 1990, and Deals With the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot, Ballantine, 1997) as she is for her barrier-breaking work in the theater. Now, with the release of her second novel, I Wish I Had a Red Dress (William Morrow, July 2001, $24.00, ISBN 0-380-97584-X), a follow-up to her Oprah's Book Club pick debut novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (Avon, 1997), Cleage has firmly cemented her place in African American literary history as a woman of many talents and a strong vision for social change.
BIBR: After so many years as a successful playwright and essayist, why the switch to fiction in 1997 with Looks Like Crazy?
PEARL CLEAGE: I had an idea for a black woman character who'd been living her life, went in for a regular physical and found out she was HIV positive. Before Crazy I was struck by how many people I knew who were still in denial about HIV/AIDS. I wanted to write about someone who was diagnosed and then had to figure out what to do with the rest of her life (see The Literature of AIDS, p. 48). A woman I knew was diagnosed as HIV positive. People assumed she'd be dead in a week. She quit her job, cussed out her boss, told off her landlord. But of course she didn't die, and she had burned every bridge she could think of. I couldn't fit the story into a play, and I also really wanted it to be set in Idlewild, Michigan (the popular black resort town-I remember from the 1950s and 60s). I wanted more flavor of the place than I could do in a play.
BIBR: Was the transition difficult?
PC: I started writing in the third person and wrote about 200 really awful pages. Then I started writing again in the first person. As a playwright, I'm used to writing dialogue. There's a lot of psychological questioning that goes into moving from stage dramas to novels, and you have to carry all (the weight) of our great authors, like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, with you.
BIBR: Are novels in some way more accessible than plays or even essays?
PC: I really do think they are. I hate to say that because I'm a playwright. I love theater. I love the process. I love rehearsal. I love being in the theater. But there's such a small percentage of black people who go to the theater, and we don't have as many theaters in black communities.
Also, a lot of white theaters that do our work don't do it in an environment that encourages us to come. White theaters might do one play a year, and it's always A Raisin in the Sun or an August Wilson play, and it's usually during Black History Month.
The magic that makes theater what theater is, is such an ancient thing. Reading a book is a different experience because it's not communal. It's a solitary communion between you and the writer or the character. You have total focus when reading. You don't have to worry about someone stepping over you to get to the bathroom. But what you miss is the pleasure in the theater when everybody gets the joke at the same time.
One of the things I like is a theater full of black folks! We all laugh at the same stuff. We all cry at the same stuff. We are a community that shares a history and there's a real sweetness when we come together like that. I love theater but I was pleased once I wrote a novel and realized how much more specific you can be in terms of the audience you're reaching.
BIBR: When faced with the larger audience that your fiction has brought you, do you find that the message changes?
PC: I'm always talking in some sense about questions of race and gender. But in a wider sense I'm trying to tell stories about interesting, complicated, black women characters. I want to write about people I want to read about. I'm not interested in hearing about people who've been defeated by their lives. I'm interested in people who have been engaged and do interesting things and have powerful lovers. I'm interested in writing about people like me, but I can also take poetic license so they can be like me but smarter, braver, better.
BIBR: Which conveniently takes us back to the new book! The characters in Red Dress are so vibrant and instantly recognizable. Did you know from the beginning that you would come back to characters from Crazy?
PC: I really liked these people a lot, and I love Idlewild as a setting. It's a manageable size, has a rich history, and really represents a lot of the mistakes we've made as a people: It was a perfect place, but as soon as integration came we ran because we didn't have to be in a place that was all black people. I can write about it and have people actually making changes. I tried to write about other people, but Joyce just stayed in my head. I thought I'd write another book with Eddie and Ava (from Crazy), but I really said all I had to say about them, and Joyce was the one knocking on my head.
I struggled with whether it was fair to work with the same characters. You have all these arbitrary rules as a writer, like it's cheating if you go back to the same characters. But I finally realized I don't believe any of it. If there's a story there, it should be told. I feel that there is a third Idlewild book, I think it has to do with the little girl, Aretha, who was in the first book. I think that she has a story to tell. I think that black women readers particularly enjoy encountering the same character. I like Valerie Wilson Wesley's books because I like her character Tamara Hayle. As a reader I like to go through time with these characters. But as a writer the challenge is not to repeat yourself, to let each book stand on its own.
BIBR: How do you know a particular story should be a play, rather than a novel or an essay? Does your creative process differ when working in various media?
PC: It really doesn't. I do a lot of character work, because I have strong political views, but I never want to use the creative work to beat people over the head with my politics. I write essays, but I don't want to write novels that are thinly disguised diatribes on my politics. I'm always conscious of coming at the piece through my character.
I think I have one more play to write and I know I have at least two more books. But I am also conscious of time and of having time to do what I'm trying to do. I used to worry about having time enough to write because I had so many other things to do. I used to worry that I couldn't make a living writing. I would look in the newspaper for jobs and a long time ago I found a job delivering newspapers. It was very little money, but I'd be done by 9am, and have the rest of the day to write. I always had that specter of the back-up job in my head that made me work so hard. As I finished this book, a part of my brain said to me, `You know what? It looks like you won't have to deliver those papers.'
Samiya A. Bashir, a Contributing Editor for Black Issues Book Review, is a poet and writer, and works for a number of magazines and websites including Ms. Magazine, Curve Magazine and NiaOnline.com. Her writing has appeared in The San Francisco Guardian, HUES, Seventeen, Curve, Venus, Women in the Life, Ache, Oxygen, NiaOnline, BET, American Visions, Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint (Routledge, 1995), Bumrush the Page (Crown, 2001) and Other Countries: Voices Rising (Other Countries, 2001). She is currently co editing Roll Call: A Generational Anthology of Political Black Writing, which is set for release in October by Third World Press. Bashir interviews this issue's cover subject, author Pearl Cleage, about her long writing career and her brand-new novel on page 16.
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|Author:||Bashir, Samiya A.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2001|
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