Sibling rivalry is tough, but it’s more difficult when the favorite child you’re competing with isn’t even human. Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, follows the Freemans, a black family moving to an all-white town in order to live at the Toneybee Research Institute with Charlie, a chimpanzee their mother is teaching sign language. The book pushes readers to consider many uncomfortable realities of family: namely, that our ties to one another are more selfish and tenuous than we’d like to think. The novel’s success lies, in part, in its scope. Each member of the family offers her or his perspective on what happens over the course of their time at the institute, though the primary storytellers are Laurel, the mother who grew up in an isolated white town in Maine and is convinced that her deep bond with Charlie will bring her success despite the strain it places on her family, and Charlotte, the oldest daughter, who experiences a parallel sense of isolation and otherness while coming to terms with having a chimpanzee for a “brother.” The novel also travels back to the founding of the Toneybee in the 1920s and follows the story of Nymphadora, a black woman who lived in the town, and her relationship with Dr. Gardner, a British scientist who takes an obsessive interest in her — with horrific consequences.
The novel is an exploration of how language, historical legacies, and our concepts of race and sexuality inform who we are and, ultimately, how we love.
I spoke to Kaitlyn on the night of her book release about respectability politics, when to put the research aside and start writing, and the difficulty of finding swear words in sign language. —Amy Gall
The Barnes & Noble Review: The press packet mentioned that your mother was recruited to teach sign language to chimps. How did that come about?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: My mom is hearing but always loved sign language and studied it in college. Her first job out of college was going around the state of Maryland when they were shutting down the mental institutions and deciding who got to go and who got to stay. For years, we were just putting anyone who was undesirable into mental institutions. So she would have to figure out if these people really needed to be there or whether they were just deaf. She would show some people sign language, and it would be the first time they had been able to communicate with anyone, because their parents had been hearing and had just institutionalized them. Some people knew how to sign but were afraid to use it because they had learned it was shameful. They were literally told, “If you don’t lip-read, we’ll cut your hands off.” Which is horrifying.
When she and my dad moved to New York she saw a job that required you to know sign language, so she applied for it, and when they found out she had a young daughter — who was my older sister — they got really excited and told her that they would like her to teach sign language to a chimp and raise the chimp around her young daughter for a few months. She said no to that because she felt it was cruel to do that to an animal, who would end up bonding with the humans it was around.
BNR: Was any of that the original impetus for writing the book?
KG: No, I wrote it because I went to a reading series in Brooklyn that was about animals and deviance, and they were talking about a family that raised their son with a chimp in the 1920s and wrote a book about it, called The Ape and the Child. I thought that was really interesting and wanted to know more about that dynamic. A couple of people have written memoirs about having a chimp as a sibling, so I read those as well. But then I realized I was getting obsessed with research and not really writing, so I had to set that aside.
BNR: How do you know when to set the research aside and when to re-enter it?
KG: That was a big thing I had to learn. I’d taken creative writing classes in high school and had always wanted to do creative writing. But before I went to my MFA program, I’d primarily been working as a historical researcher, so it took a while to train myself to stop writing in that mode. I think part of it also was knowing that I wanted the book to talk about a few different topics — but I didn’t want it to read as an argument.
BNR: The novel is told via seven different perspectives: each member of the Freeman family, Nymphadora, and a short chapter from Julia Toneybee, the institute’s founder. How did you decide on that structure?
KG: What was really important to me was talking about family dynamics. I didn’t feel like I could say everything I wanted to say about family by using only one person’s perspective to tell that story. When I first started writing I thought it would just be from the daughters’ — Charlotte and Callie’s — perspectives. But it took eight years to write this book: so I aged [Laughs], and I began to become aware of what it means to be a parent, and all of the compromises you are making every second of the day when you are nurturing somebody and you never know in the moment if those compromises are going to be okay, or if they are the worst thing you could be doing to that person.
BNR: Were there perspectives that were harder to slip into or that surprised you?
KG: The perspective that took a while to get into was Julia Toneybee’s, this upper-class, white Bostonian woman. So it took a while for me to figure out how she was going to say what she was going to say. The Nymphadora parts were really fun to write, because she’s this really twisted character, and she has a lot of blind spots. I love it when you are reading a book and the character knows less than you do. That’s a really satisfying stance to write from. There are a lot of parts in her narrative that are cringe-worthy, so it took a lot of time to write through that cringe: I don’t like what this character is doing, but I also want to put it down on the page.
BNR: Was Nymphadora’s involvement with the Stars of the Morning based on moral or religious movements happening in the black community in the 1920s?
KG: The Stars of the Morning was based on black fraternal and sororal organizations. In pre−civil rights America, when there was no real access to government support, they acted as mutual aid and help societies for blacks in certain communities. They also served as job networks for people or provided a kind of insurance, since insurance companies often wouldn’t sell policies to black people, or if they sold them, it would be at extra-high rates. They worked as unemployment aid for people instead of, or in addition to, welfare. But they were also very much class-based, too, so sometimes there were organizations that were open to working-class people, but other times there were organizations that were clearly about maintaining middle- or upper-middle-class status.
I wanted to write from the perspective of someone who was in one of those organizations that is all about unity and pride in being part of a group but who, at her core, feels intensely lonely and intensely disconnected from the people around her. I thought, if someone doesn’t feel a connection to these groups, where would that disconnect come in?
BNR: It seems that disconnect comes in for Nymphadora because the Stars of the Morning has such a strong overarching value of denial as a way to achieve perfection.
KG: Yes. There is this idea that if you have been dehumanized by the larger mainstream society, the best answer to that is to keep proving that you are human even though the mainstream will never see you as human. So instead of saying, “I’m a human and I make mistakes and I fail and I should have the chance to be a whole person and experience all aspects of life,” you say, “I am the best possible version of a black person or a gay person or whatever I could possibly be, and I’ve never made a mistake in my life, and I’ve never messed up, and I’m not like those other people that you think I am.” To live your life like that requires a lot of self-discipline and a lot of denial of how you’re actually living.
BNR: That is powerfully echoed when Nymphadora looks at a magazine of white women in sexually provocative poses and says, “What I envy is not their skin but their insouciance. I envy the freedom to sin with only a little bit of consequence, to commit one selfish act and not have it mean the downfall of my entire people.”
KG: I think about that a lot. The idea of “I would just like to be able to live my life and not have people attack me for it,” which is often what happens.
BNR: Did the study that Dr. Gardner does in the 1920s, comparing chimps to black people, take place in real life as well?
KG: Not that I know of. But I’m sure someone somewhere was doing something really messed up. [Laughs] I’m always interested in how pervasive those arguments about eugenics are in America and how they come back again and again in different ways. I think the most recent overt example was The Bell Curve [a book published in 1994 by two white men that argues intelligence is an inherited genetic trait and this inherited intelligence is the most predictive factor in a person’s overall economic and social success]. That book came out when I was in middle school, and I remember thinking, Why are people giving this book credence? I remember my school having really earnest assemblies about it, as if it was something we should grapple with.
BNR: The book talks about being an outsider, on a number of levels, and whether it’s possible to be an insider without having to compromise the fullness of your humanity.
KG: Yes, the perspective of an outsider is a really rich place to write from. It’s an identity that a lot of people feel an affinity with even if, from the outside, it doesn’t look like they are an outsider. I wanted to explore that and also much how some of us try to tell ourselves that that outsiderness doesn’t apply to us or to our particular moment in time.
Charlotte and Adia, for example, are both deeply lonely teenagers and outsiders. Every teenager thinks they are an outsider, but they have actual proof — they’re the only two black girls in their class. And Adia’s way of dealing with it is to claim she is part of a larger tradition of black revolutionaries, but without really understanding what that means — quoting slogans, but without reading texts deeply or internalizing any of it. That’s the ironic thing about language: what we write to empower or heal ourselves, a reader can come along and even with the best of intentions turn it into something destructive. We can do our best to put lifelines out into the world, but we also, as readers and writers, have to be able to identify and heal those weaknesses in ourselves that might make us misinterpret or be a blind spot.
BNR: The use of sign language in the books is another treatment of the “insider vs. outsider” theme. How did black sign language originate, and how did it differ from mainstream or white sign language?
KG: It originated because deaf people were segregated for a long time, so black schools for the deaf originated their own spelling. In the 1970s, American Sign Language went through a real interrogation of their signs, and people tried to assign new signs to words so that they were less derogatory toward women and people of color. Black sign language did not go through that process, so they are still using the old signs. It’s a conundrum because while some people find those signs offensive, it is people of color using those signs among themselves to address each other.
On a side note, Evangelical Christian groups are also super into sign language. I think it stems from the idea that you would want to translate the Bible into every possible language so that everyone could get the Word of God. So, when I was trying to find signs for curse words I kept getting redirected to their sites, which was hilarious.
BNR: What’s your favorite thing about language?
KG: I like when language is playful. I’m interested in the split between academic language and colloquial language. Colloquial language can often be doing much more interesting things. A friend sent me a call for papers about #drakestudies, which was a really great thing that was just happening on Twitter when people thought a Drake lyric could apply to an academic institution. It was very straightforward and funny, and I would totally search for that on Twitter. But then the call for papers was this long, convoluted thing. Why would you take a very concise, easily understood concept and create this morass of academic language out of it?
BNR: It seems like overly academic language can also be a way of hiding something.
KG: I think it’s a way of denying emotions. For a while I would read historical analysis about abolitionism or nineteenth-century black women, and once I got through the really dense language I would find these fascinating bits of information and think, This would be so helpful for people to know. But if you aren’t getting paid to read these texts, as I was, no one is going to push through this academic tome to get to them. So, why are we writing in this way if it’s not an effective way to communicate? Writing a novel seemed like the way to get at those really complex ideas and still be accessible to everyone.