An Interview with Gloria Naylor
This interview was conducted by telephone on Monday, February 3, 1997, between Charlottesville, Virginia, and New York City.
In your conversation with Toni Morrison published in The Southern Review (Vol. 21.3, July 1985), you said that, in your early years writing, you felt most complete when you expressed yourself through the written word.
I was shy as an adolescent. There was a lot I wanted to articulate that just never made its way up out of my mouth, because I found it difficult to say what I was really thinking. And that went back to the time when I was seven or eight years old. I would begin to write little poems, you know, with the aa bb cc rhyme, the kind of verse you would expect from a seven or eight year old. And even as an adolescent it was still difficult for me to speak my mind. I have no problem doing that now. I’m forty-seven years old. But when I was twelve or thirteen it was a problem. I was more of a brooder. And so the things that most troubled me in my home life or at school, I would write those things out. And indeed that made me feel complete for the simple reason that it is unnatural for one to just tramp down feelings. And that’s what I was doing a great deal.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be and could be a writer?
Those are two separate things for me: wanting to be a writer and then believing that I could be a writer. I had wanted to be a writer from the time I was twelve or thirteen years old. But whether that was going to be a probable goal for me didn’t come up as an issue for me until my college years. It was in my college years that I began to learn about writers like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. Ntozake Shange was extremely popular at that point, both for the feminist critics as well as for the public at large, because For Colored Girls was playing on Broadway when I was still in college. So having those role models around me helped when I began to feel that I could be a writer. Being a writer, then, was not an unrealizable dream; it was a very plausible goal, because these women were there. They had done it, and I could perhaps add my voice to that whole stream of consciousness that I was ignorant of before, because of the way the school systems were.
I was a gifted child, and I read voraciously. But very little that I read had anything to do with my specific experience. As a reader I can make believe, as all readers do [End Page 179] with good literature. So when I read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, I could make that leap from those personal pains to my pains. But there was a distinct difference in learning that right within my own home, “my home” meaning of course my home as a community, the African-American community. Within my own home there were books being written that were directed towards me, books that were especially about my experiences. So I didn’t have to take that sort of second step to get to the goal of understanding a work. It was just one step, one step to what was my reality, and from that going on to doing my own work, as opposed to taking that leap that I had to take before reading good literature. I still have a fondness for the Victorian novels, and just long, messy stories with loads of drama in them and different sorts of natural holocausts going on. I think that early cutting of my literary teeth with 19th-century literature is something that still lives with me, because it had such a profound impression upon me when I was younger.
What do you mean by “a profound impression”? What kind of impression?
It took me into the world of those characters, and you know they were always very messy and traumatic worlds in 19th-century British novels. Or there were moral viewpoints with the likes of Thackeray or Dickens. I had not read literature like that before, and I think it just hit something within me, because I, too, am a moral writer whether I want to think about it or not; I do have a point of view. And I write dramatic novels. It’s important for me that there be drama. It’s not always external drama, but internal drama that is going on. You know I just don’t subscribe to that art for art’s sake; I don’t believe that a text is written in beautiful language for its own sake—lovely language that is in itself enough. But I don’t dismiss the people who love that sort of writing. That kind of writing has just never been my cup of tea. And it’s certainly not how I write. I think I have a strong narrative drive, and I have a moral point of view. I think, for example, of John Irving whom I have enjoyed reading since The Cider House Rules. With that novel, I believe he, for the first time in his career, began to make an overt moral stand. Of course, I picked up on the other nice things he was doing with his work. It’s like when you walk into a crowded room and there is instant chemistry, let’s say, with someone far across at the other corner; you pick up the chemistry of that one person, and you know you’re going to click in some way. Literature worked that way for me. When I read Edgar Allan Poe, something clicked. When I read Charles Dickens, something clicked. And what was clicking, if you will, was just, I think, my own birthing. I was waiting to be able to deliver. That would not have been possible if I had not gone on to discover, as I told you, writers who reflected me and my own life.
When do you think you became conscious of the formal practice of the novel—that is, the novel as a particular form, as a genre, a convention? And the innovative techniques associated with it?
Are you referring to me as reader or to me as writer? [End Page 180]
I like how you make the distinction. Will you speak of both—as reader and as writer?
I definitely see the difference between my connecting with what I’ve read or my connecting with something in order to write. My consciousness of the novel as a form for myself as a writer—believe it or not—did not occur until I worked on my third novel, Mama Day. My first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, was interconnected short stories. I told myself, well, I may not be able to write a whole book, but I can write one story. And then, well, I can write another story. The idea of sitting down and writing a novel was too intimidating for me in my early years. And then I look at what I did with Linden Hills, the next book; it feels more like a book. If you go into the form and take it apart, there’s nothing but interconnected lives that those two young boys encounter as they move throughout that neighborhood. But with Mama Day I truly felt that I was writing a novel in, at least, the traditional sense. Beginning, middle and end. And they were not connected stories, although they were connected voices. So it was as a writer that I began to tackle the form of the novel, as a novel. As a reader, twelve years old, thirteen years old, you know, I was reading those things from cover to cover. And to me they spoke novelistically.
What do you mean when you say “novelistically”?
They spoke to me as creating a whole world, creating within the context of a narrative that went throughout a universe which you stepped into. With a poem you step into a moment. With a short story you’ll step into the day in the life of, or the year in the life of. But with a novel you’ve got whole universes swirling. And you’re attempting to make sense out of that.
In a Paris Review interview, Milan Kundera spoke of “novelistic thinking” as opposed to philosophical thinking.
To think novelistically is to understand that you’re in a fictive universe. And you understand that it is a mirror to reality, that it’s not reality itself. But, to be very honest with you, biography I think of as being novelistic—and even some essays because you are creating a persona for yourself. You are creating a forum for that picture of one’s self. So to me history is just recreating what had gone before, the past, from one person’s point of view. A biography is the recreation of a life through another person’s point of view. With fiction the rules are slightly different; it is impossible to get a mirror true to life in fiction. Like they say, fact is stranger than fiction. There is so much you could not write that’s truly happening if you say you are writing fiction. To get away with the bizarre things that go on within this world, you have to come out with an essay about it. You are limited by fiction; you are limited by the convention that it be probable.
Prose fiction always has a direct or an implied narrative action. I have [End Page 181] heard general readers complaining that a certain novel didn’t have a plot, didn’t have a storyline—that a particular short story was not a narrative.
I guess that depends upon how you’re defining “narrative.” I define it as anything which drives the story forward. That might be language or characters’ internal dialogue with themselves. Lack of a plot does not necessarily mean a piece of work is missing a narrative. Nor does lack of storyline. But to me plot and storyline are really the same thing: the meat of the short story. But one must look at a plot or storyline in an expanded way to understand that a stream-of-consciousness, where you’re totally inside a character’s head, can also be narrative if it’s driving the story forward.
When I speak to fiction writers, they talk a lot about character and characters, the agents of the action. Character seems all.
Your work must be character driven, because what you’re doing, as I said, is entering a universe. Okay, then what is going on in that universe? People are running around being themselves. Your job, as a fiction writer, is to try to figure out what those actions themselves mean for each individual character. And for me specifically, before a book begins, I have to see images and pictures of things that are going on. And then I go in search of what those folk are doing. When I started work on Bailey’s Cafe, I saw—literally I saw—an older woman and an older man dancing on a pier, whenever I turned on Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. Now I don’t know at that stage what that meant. I knew it made me want to cry for some reason. And so what I do is then go in search of those characters and in search of that movement that night on that pier. And then it becomes a chapter in that book, called Mood Indigo. You know, character is all for someone like me. I live with those people. I dream about them.
Will you say more about the genealogy of Bailey’s Cafe—more about how that novel came into being? What was the writing process like for you as you created Bailey’s Cafe?
Well, it started with that image. It started with the image which turned out to be Sadie and the Ice-man who were in a situation that was hopeless. In a sense, he loved her, but she had grown to believe in a dream. She could no longer believe in reality. I had that image, and I had the music. Because the only thing I knew at that point about this novel is that it was going to be shaped by jazz. And then I first had to go to the music to pull from the music the people who I knew were there and waiting. I think of everything that I do as my being a transcriber for these lives. And I go in search of what they were doing, why they were doing it, trying to keep my ego out of it as much as possible.
Let’s go back to Mood Indigo and Bailey’s Cafe. . . . There was Sadie, after all that she had gone through, being homeless, selling her body in order to get her wine, because her wine brought her the dream of a house that she had already lost. I would have [End Page 182] loved for her to look into the Ice Man’s eyes and see salvation. That she could get off the streets. That she had someone who wasn’t going to beat her, who understood her history, who would cherish her. I would give anything for an ending like that. But my books are character driven, and that was not going to be the ending. You know, so that’s one example of my respecting what happens with my character. Another one is in Linden Hills, where a character turned on me; and I was working on Linden Hills for two years. There was a woman who was in a basement with a dead child, and for two years I thought what that woman was going to do at the end of that book was to barge up those steps and to say to her crazy husband, Luther Nedeed, “You do what you want but I’m out of here.” When the time came for me to do that scene, that character turned on me: she said she was happy to have been a wife. That’s how she got her identity. She loved cleaning that house. She loved making a way for her husband. What she was going to do was climb up those steps and not tell him “get out of my way,” as in some great feminist dream. She was going to climb those steps and start cleaning house. It floored me. It absolutely floored me. And, I asked, where did this come from? Well, when I look back on the two years of work, she had been telling me that all along. She is meant to discover women’s history. Down in that basement with her was an old Bible, photographs, and recipe books. She encountered the other generations of women. Each time Wilma resisted. I was not seeing her do that until we came to the grand moment, and she said to me, “That’s what I am. I’m happy to be a wife.” That was rough. I even stopped writing for about two weeks because I was so angry. I had already chosen the metaphor for her to barge up those steps with. I had taken everything into account, except the woman herself. My being a feminist or not being a feminist, my righteous indignation for her—none of that mattered, because she was who she was. Thank God I had enough sense to go back to the book and let her do what she wanted to do.
Is there a connection between Linden Hills and The Women of Brewster Place? One deals with the middle class and one with the poor. I am very happy to see our fiction writers deal with the black middle class. African-American fiction writers, earlier on, seemed almost to have idealized or romanticized the life of the poor as metaphor of authenticity in their novels. And all these earlier writers did not come from the underclass; many were middle- and upper middle-class themselves. Thanks for taking the step beyond the class issues that became a kind of intra-racial stereotype. Perhaps it is you and other recent women writers who have been allowing the whole spectrum of socio-economic classes to appear in African-American literature. African Americans are not a monolith—and of course we have heard that over and over.
Is there a connection between Linden Hills and The Women of Brewster Place? Definitely. And you addressed the issue at the end of your question: we are not a monolithic people. I demonstrated this dramatically by having a character in Brewster Place, Kiswana Browne, move from Linden Hills into the poorer section of town. I used that character to foreshadow the next novel in which I deal with the black middle class. I am myself from a working-class family, and so my perspective is always going [End Page 183] to include characters from that class. My family came out of the Mississippi Delta where they were tenant farmers. And in one generation they saw me graduate from Yale University with a masters degree. But for young writers, who may not have had my history, their stories are going to be rooted in what they know—the middle class. And I see that happening with the spate of new novelists who are coming along now.
And I think, too, what is going to happen increasingly as we move into the 21st century is that we’re going to see a lot of young writers who have never had a connection, no direct connection, to their Southern roots. These writers are coming out full blown and middle-class. And it’s fascinating to see some of the things they will hold on to. I just read a couple of interesting books, called Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven by Dawn Trice. Her book deals with class. I have also read Edwidge Danticat’s work; she brings a Haitian-American view of things, which is also middle-class. We can only pull from what we know. Octavia Butler is writing science fiction, but it’s really about the world we live in now. She is pulling from what she knows about this world. That’s what those young writers are going to be doing. Maybe I am sort of the foremother of that happening, because I’m old enough to be their mother. That’s for sure. Looking at all of our experiences, we discover that it is not all about the South. It’s not all about cotton. That’s sort of been made into the classic black experience. These kids don’t know about that; some of them don’t want to know about that, but they are still giving us viewpoints about how we as a people live.
And all black people in the rural South are not sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Some of them own their own farms. Some of them are professionals. Some of them are middle- and upper-middle class. Neither do all black Southerners have an intimate relationship to the growing or harvesting of cotton, sugar cane, rice, tobacco, etc.; some black Southerners are urban people.
Exactly. There is (and was) also a black middle class in the South.
But we seldom see these people in our literature. I am not speaking of the brilliant South-centered work of Ernest Gaines or Alice Walker; they are descendants, they have told us, of economically poor people that white plantation owners in Louisiana and in Georgia, respectively, exploited. What about the writers who come from middle-class backgrounds? Why don’t they write about that middle-class dimension of black life in the South?
It is said that you deal with your demons first. And maybe it’s that demon that hung over a lot of their heads. As a writer, I’m going to tell you that it’s more interesting to write about people who have struggled. Then, too, my novel Linden Hills proved that even the middle class can have struggles. There is something very seductive, though, about our roots in the South. That South is the closest we’ll ever [End Page 184] come to Africa. You know, I recall, when I went over to Senegal and I was researching a historical novel I’m going to write, I had my hair braided there. The woman, the beautician in the beauty shop, had a little low stool; they sit you on that little low stool, between their knees, and they braid your hair. A lump came into my throat, because it brought back memories of how my mother did my hair. She’d sit you between her knees.
Yes, I remember seeing my mother and my sisters braiding hair.
So I think that perhaps for some writers the South might be the closest thing we have to our connection to the Motherland. Perhaps that’s the reason. And we may have recently fallen into that trap that it’s only the poor folk who are colorful enough, you know, to give you enough drama. No, not necessarily. Drama can be internal.
Why did you study at Yale University? What attracted you there?
It was a free scholarship. They gave me a scholarship, plus a stipend to live on. It was also “Yale,” but then Cornell had accepted me, too. Finally, I went up to Cornell to teach; they never forgave me for that—they said, you see, we wanted you way back when, before any of this happened, we wanted you. That was quite funny. But I chose Yale also because New Haven was close to New York, and I didn’t want to be too far from my family at that point. Sometimes when the going got rough there, I’d just hop on the train and take it to Grand Central, walk around Grand Central, get a cup of coffee and go back, because sometimes I would just feel suffocated in that whole campus setting.
Will you talk about The Women of Brewster Place? Was that your first novel—the first you wrote and the first you published?
The book is a novel in seven stories. Yes, it was. It was the first one I wrote. But when I was sixteen years old, I used to go up into the attic of our home (I used to pull a sheet across part of the attic and call it Gloria’s Gallery). I began a novel at sixteen, but, as far as serious work, The Women of Brewster Place is the first novel I wrote.
How did it come into being? What is its genealogy?
Well, The Women of Brewster Place came into being when I finally hit Brooklyn College and I looked back on all that reading I had done and been directed to do by teachers who really cared about me. I realized that we were all working with this benign ignorance of what was out there in Black America and had been out there, since the 18th century, beginning with Lucy Terry’s “Bars Fight,” a poem about the 1746 Indian raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts. And I realized that I had been deprived through benign ignorance of knowing about this literary history. I decided that, if I [End Page 185] had one book in me, I wanted it to be all about me, and the me in this case was a multi-faceted me. So that’s how Brewster Place began, and the structure of it, as I said, came about because of my being a novice at that time. My thinking was this: well I don’t know if I can write a whole novel, but I can write a story. And then I can write another story. That’s sort of how it happened. Now what’s going to be interesting for me is to see how The Men of Brewster Place finally comes to being. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be looking at relationships between men and their families. When you do get writing about black men, normally it’s directed at men struggling with the white world for something—for dignity, for self-respect, for some gains, financial or psychological. Their opponent is always the white world. I would love to look at black men in relationship to their families. Don’t take them anywhere out there to meet what’s going on past Brewster Place, but right there—right there where they’re standing. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes out this time. Add that to the fact that I’m a very different woman from the woman who wrote The Women of Brewster Place. We’ll see.
I’d like to go back to the time when you were an undergraduate student in creative writing classes. I am very happy to see the great number of black students now entering creative writing classes. It’s a very interesting phenomenon. I am not certain one could cite a real cause and effect relationship here—that is, to the rise in the large numbers of excellent young black writers. The numbers are high—so many very good ones that I, even as editor of Callaloo, can’t keep up with them all. There are a lot of very good young black writers, too.
I’ve taught in several creative writing programs. But I have been a little ambivalent about whether these kids need an MFA or not. I tell my writing students, Okay, what we can give you is a forum. I can add a pair of very intelligent ears to what you have to say, and your peers can add something to what you have to say because you’re bouncing off of readers. But I cannot teach you to write. I cannot put into you what God left out. I am not a guru. I struggle each day like you do with the blank page or now it’s the blank screen or whatever. If I can approach it that way with the class, if they can really buy that perception of what we’re doing together, then I get nurtured when I’m teaching creative writing and the students get nurtured. But to look to me to answer The Question for them of how do you make it happen is like asking someone to dissect the spirit within our body. How are we made to live? No one knows that. You know they’ve been writing about the mystery of life from the beginning with Hawthorne and his cautionary tales about leaving alone that which is the kernel of one’s existence. If we can go along together for a semester like that, then I will have wonderful experiences, and I hope my students will also. Should these kids just take such courses, or should they get out there and pump gas, wait tables, do whatever, to live? I think a little bit of both—to have the academic structure with which they can write if they have the right writing teacher as well as having life experience. But I tell you if it were a toss up and I had to choose only one, it would be life experience. [End Page 186]
What is it that a creative writing program offers or gives students in the classroom? What do you do there together?
What we do together is to give them an audience for what they’re going to produce. That’s all we’re doing. The young writer says to me I want to move Ms. Naylor, from A to G. I don’t want to go to H or I; I just want to move my story from A to G. My job and the job of the other students in that workshop with us is to show that student how best to move from A to G. Our job is not to show him that he should really move from A to F. I am not to ask him why he is dealing with the alphabet at all. No. I respect whatever vision students bring to the class, because I demand that they respect my vision. What we try to do together is to get each individual student to the place—and to discover the best way how—that he or she wants to go. That’s how I was taught, and that’s how I proceeded over the years to teach—to say to the student, “You map out the journey, kid.” I can’t map out the journey; I can’t map out the mode in which you will travel, but I sure as heck have read enough to tell you if you get there.
I want to go back to “the written word” and how it served you in your youth. You spoke of that earlier in this interview. How does the written word serve you now?
That’s quite a question, Charles, because now it gets so tangled up—doesn’t it?—with commercialism; and it also gets tangled up with ego and one’s sense of one’s self, which has changed. It does more than pay my rent now; it also keeps me a little bit stable, because I think most creative writers, whatever their venue, are a little bit nutty. I really do.
Another way of asking that question is this: Why do you keep writing prose fiction? Writing is one of the most difficult of activities. Why do you keep doing this to yourself; why do you keep writing?
Because—and I know it sounds trite—but because I have no choice, Charles.
But what does that mean?
Some things you can choose to do, and I have no choice, meaning that if I didn’t write I would have a very flat life. It is so entwined now with my sense of myself that it was almost impossible to answer that question. Why do I do it now? I could survive, sure, if I just taught or if I just lectured. I could survive, but what kind of survival would it be? I have had the privilege of being shown a richer way in which to lead my life and that is to grapple with these words and these forms and these characters. I’m not ready to stop that now. Maybe at some point in my future it’s going to cease being prose fiction; it’s going to get turned into drama, because I’ve been [End Page 187] writing plays lately. I love working with the theater. So one day it might be that. But, I’m telling you, until I kick out of here I’m going to be communicating in some way, shape or form. To deconstruct why, I’m not sure. I just know that I’m not happy when I’m not working. Life takes on a different texture when I’m not working.
How much of your private self, your interior life, your identity as a black woman, do you think is bound up in your writing prose fiction?
A lot of it. Most of it; it goes back to how I perceive myself in the process: if I’m a transcriber or a filter, then everything I’ve ever lived or wanted to live as a black woman comes out in my work. The very act of writing is a statement about how you see yourself in the world. It’s quite arrogant to think that anybody would care about what you have to say. Unless you have that within you, to know that someone’s going to care—if no one but yourself—then you aren’t going to write. You’ve got to believe that someone needs to hear this. In the beginning I needed to hear it for myself. As you go along and the process gets all entangled in a career, then you might choose other audiences. Or it just needs to be said. All of that is arrogant. All of that means that one has a good strong sense of self.
What is “a good strong sense of self”?
Meaning that there is an ego. Here’s the irony of it, one of the many ironies of life: in order to be a writer you need a tremendous ego—you really do. As I said, just to feel that someone wants to hear what you have to say is a great deal of ego. But in order to write memorably you have to suppress your ego. That’s just like The Handmaid’s Tale—I love that book—in which one becomes a filter for those other lives that pass through. So how is that tied up with being a black woman? They’re passing through a sieve that contains Gloria Naylor, the black woman who came from parents, who migrated to New York City; and they came from parents who were tenant farmers and myriad things which make me. All of this goes into that filter, and I can’t tear it apart or snip it apart and ask: how much of this is a black woman, how much of this is a personal history, how much of this is a racial history? There is no way to know that—there isn’t. That’s why you have a job, and that’s why other critics have jobs: to simply take apart that which I think can never truly be taken apart and explained.
In your Southern Review (July 1985) conversation with Toni Morrison, both of you—at the beginning of the exchange—talked a lot about male culture and its self-willed authority. I’ll call it self-willed power. You said that the “whole sense of adventure and authority tied into maleness has a lot to do with how books are created and who’s created them—and in what numbers.”
I had told you before about how you influenced me and how The Bluest Eye . . . gave me a validity to do something which I had thought was really male terrain. [End Page 188] And all my education had subconsciously told me that it wasn’t the place for me. Okay, I’m forty-seven years old. I’m coming of age in the 1960s or so, right? I am a participant in a school system taught by people who were born in the 1920s and 1930s. They were relatively young teachers when they taught me. What on earth were we given to read to be well read? You had to read Dickens, you had to read Thackeray, you had to read Emerson and Poe and Hawthorne. The bow that they gave to Emily Bronte or Charlotte Bronte was about the only one they gave to a woman writer. Maybe you were going to read Wuthering Heights. Ninety-nine percent of everything you were given or told to read was written by men. Now, of course, you grow older, and you understand that that’s just a political choice made and that the literary canon itself is a political construct. But of course that’s what you would think. Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer—they were all doing marvelous things. Jules Verne is traveling with people around the world and under the sea and this sort of thing. Women weren’t doing that. Finally you are able to say, I can send myself on an adventure. I think that’s why the film Thelma and Louise hit so many chords. If we’re going to talk about popular culture for a quick minute, Thelma and Louise hit so many chords in people because there were women doing things that men normally do, which is to travel. You know Jack Kerouac—you know men were movers and shakers, and they were the adventurers. They were the adventurers from the inception of the novel, a form which, they say, begins with Cervantes. There he was out there conquering things, and where was poor Dulcinea? Stuck in an inn. You came of age implicitly being told it is a white male world, and everything that’s been given to us of substance, everything that has lasted, has been just that because their buddies kept them in the canon. I hope that answers your question. But that’s probably all the things that were going on in my mind when I made that statement talking to Toni Morrison. I think it is slightly different today for the students in academia, but it’s not as pervasive as it used to be. What has contributed to Western literature has been a lot more than just white males. And there would be no Western literature, I believe, without the black woman. I really don’t think so. We really would have been much deprived in this country if those voices which were always there hadn’t started being realized and being put into the pot to enrich us all. And although today white men are still the power base for the literary establishment and academia, things are slowly beginning to change. You have white women who have a say in the creation of the canon and selecting the curriculum for universities. There are also a few black men and women who are entering the power structure and making those literary decisions as well. I don’t feel, as I once did, that I lack authority to pick up the pen because: 1) I do write now, and 2) my work is being taught. And the decision to teach my work or validate it in academia does not depend totally upon white males anymore. You, yourself, are an example of that. You made the decision to print this interview with me. And you make other decisions each month with your journal, Callaloo, that affect the lives of countless black writers.
You said “if there had been no black woman” there would be no American literature. What do you mean? [End Page 189]
I don’t think there’d be American literature without black women. What is America? What is America now that we’re moving into the 21st century? It is said that the majority of Americans in six years will be non-white. Now can you keep feeding people that anemic soup of Hawthorne and Emerson and Poe? When you’re not eating properly, you feel weak, don’t you? You feel there’s something missing somewhere. And one of the things that we were missing the most was creations from the pens of black women. When I went to Brooklyn College during the late 1970s, there was an Africana studies department, and there was not a single course on black women writers. But it was there that I learned about James Baldwin and Richard Wright and Jean Toomer. Their books were wonderful, wonderful things for me to have read. But at the same point I had to ask, What about me again? And then literally across the quad there is the Women’s Studies Program. It wasn’t even a department. It was a program, and I got in there and they taught me Simone Weil, they taught me Georgia O’Keeffe and what she had done. Except for this one lone teacher, this one teacher in creative writing named Joan Larkin, no one was teaching black women. No one. All of this happened when I was in college. So I had to piece together what I knew. But things have changed slightly now. I think that it’s almost impossible to get through a black literature course without doing Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. But James Baldwin and Richard Wright are also in there. Unless it’s just a very foolish teacher. Ellison probably helped to redefine the novel in America. It was a black male that he sent on this quest. I hadn’t read anything like that before in American literature. As a matter of fact, I know nobody else had read anything like that because nothing had been written until he did that. This country is definitely a patchwork quilt. This country’s not a melting pot. We as a people are still resisting that. I don’t want to say multi-cultural; I’m trying to shy away from that word. We have resisted the hodgepodge that we are. And that’s been boiled down to issues of black and white. Where on earth are the Asians? Where are the Latinos?
And where are the Native Americans?
Yes, and the Native Americans. There is this resistance, and some black people are very happy to have it that way. But it’s just lying about the complexity—that was probably the word I was looking for—the complexity of American life and American literature. So were you talking to Maxine Hong-Kingston this morning or talking to the likes of Julia Alverez or Sandra Cisneros, I would hope that they would say the same thing to you: that without us there would be no American literature.
What is it specifically? What is it that comes from the pens of black women and other women of color?
It’s a real simple answer: themselves, their lives, the announcement that “I am here” and “I am to be reckoned with,” and that even “The things that you write, I enrich those, even though you may or may not know it.” I live here in New York City with over a hundred nationalities in this city. How can one just walk down the street, [End Page 190] see the people who are on it, and come away with a piece of work that would be about New York, and yet write only about a white male or a white female? You would have to have blinders on. Writers hardly do that; we go through our world very perceptively. We see practically everything or we see a lot more than most people see. You can’t do it, Charles. You can’t hear music, and you can’t go to the cinema without being exposed to the multiplicity that is New York—and that is America—and then you’re going to turn your back and deny that? Well, you can turn your back and try to deny that if you want to, but the work that you produce is going to be lacking in a lot of things.
Gloria, where are you in relation to other American writers? That is, how do you view yourself in relation to other writers in this country?
To be very honest, I don’t think about that a lot, and I’ll tell you why. It tends to make me too self-conscious. And as the years go by and I’m writing more and more and I’m building a reputation (you know people tell me a quite awesome reputation), it is too easy to get caught into what you are because your writing is through who you are, and that may mean that you’re a lot of things that aren’t pretty and you’re a lot of things that may not serve as role models. Then, too, your basic personality may not be the most pleasant one going, but writing through who you are means keeping a running tab on how you are developing as a person, how you are changing as a human being. I am always doing introspection in that regard. You know, how am I different from five years ago, ten years ago? And that to me, Charles, is safer than, well, how many awards have I gotten, who’s thinking about my work, or why are they thinking about my work? It’s hard enough just to write, or at least for me it is. I want to be remembered, I want my work to outlive me, and those are things that I cannot control at all. If I get into where do I stand in relationship to John Irving, where do I stand in relationship to Joyce Carol Oates, where do I stand in relationship to Julia Alverez—what in the hell does any of that have to do with the fact that I’ve got seven men now waiting for me to tell their stories? That’s how I look at it. I think now that we’re creeping into the 21st century that my work will still be taught and be studied, and that gives me a great deal of pride. I’ll no longer back down from saying that. People teaching your work and people writing about your work—these acts help you to stay around, to be remembered. And that’s what I’ve always wanted: that my work will outlive me.
Let me ask the question another way. How do you stand in relationship to the next blank sheet of paper and the typewriter or the computer?
Oh, God. Scared. So scared I can’t breathe.
Which is how you are standing now as you face the composition of The Men of Brewster Place? [End Page 191]
Where am I standing, now? I have written the introduction. You published it in the last issue of Callaloo. Scared. That’s what I tell my writing students, you know. I am right now no different from some kid whose right down there with you at the University of Virginia. I’m no different from a student who’s in Rita Dove’s class. That blank sheet is a humbler. Death, they say, is the equalizer, the ultimate equalizer. That blank sheet of paper or that blank screen can be a mother, I tell you.
Where I stand in relationship to my men of Brewster Place? I’m going to write their stories. I have to write them a letter or something first; I’ve done that. Time to time, I write my characters letters, letting them know that this or that is what I want to do and that I need their help to do it—that kind of thing. Or that I’m very excited about this or that—very, very excited. A friend sent me a quote—I think it’s from Dorothy Allison—which said “two or three things in this life I know for sure, and one of them is that telling a story to its utmost completion is an act of love.” This book was crying to be done, and I was going to do it a little bit later, but it turns out that I’m going to do it now. Something will come full circle at that point, and then I can worry about the big book that’s going to lay the cornerstone. But I’m happy now, Charles. I love having a goal, and this is going to be quite a tough goal to achieve. But I’m going to do it the way I’ve done everything: I’m going to do it slowly, do it with pride, and do it honestly. And not honestly to the people who are going to be reading it, but to the characters who have allowed me to come into their lives. I’ve never wanted to rough-shod a character. Never. Even though the question of how I treated men used to just come up all the time with The Women of Brewster Place, people just didn’t understand, and I didn’t bother to enlighten them but so much. I knew what I was going to be doing with my life, God willing. So I didn’t spend a lot of time answering those critics back in those years, but it’s a different country now from the 1980s, at least academically it’s different and critically it’s different in terms of what people expect to be reading about women. At that point, that was sort of an avant guarde thing to do: just to name a book the women of anything. But anyway, where I stand with my guys? I hope in good stead. I hope they forgive me my past sins or whatever and just come on into my life like they need to.
Listening to you in this interview this morning, I am convinced more than ever before that the writing life is not anybody’s ordinary life.
To some extent I believe that’s true. It can’t be anybody’s life, but to do it well you have to be aware of the sacrifices. And you sacrifice a good deal of your life to be with these characters. Writing is a solitary existence. You need a lot of quiet around you and within you. That’s how you get the opportunity to listen to those voices that want to break through. If you’re quiet inside yourself, and listen, those characters are going to talk. There are many things I could have chosen to do with my talents and my intelligence, but I find writing the most fulfilling. The writing life, all these years, is indistinguishable from my own life. And when I look back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.