A Toehold on the Dream: Angela Flournoy and Tayari Jones in Conversation
Looking back at the life of a Detroit family over half a century of change, Angela Flournoy's The Turner House brilliantly melds the history of a single household with the changing fortunes of an American city. Her engrossing debut has not only been named a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection but was recently included on the Fiction Long List for the 2015 National Book Awards.
As part of this summer's Harlem Book Festival, Flournoy was joined on stage at Barnes & Noble's Upper West Side Manhattan location by Tayari Jones, author of three novels, including 2011's acclaimed Silver Sparrow. The Village Voice said: "Tayari Jones is fast defining black middle class Atlanta the way that Cheever did for Westchester." Her fourth novel, Dear History, is forthcoming.
In a wide-ranging exchange, two of the most exciting writers of our era discussed The Turner House; what it means to come from Detroit; the culture of gambling; the haunting legacies of a family's past; and how an artist and storyteller grapples with the burning issues of the moment. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Tayari Jones: When I was given the galley of this book I was eager to read it, because it's set in Detroit. I have a theory that if you sit down and talk to any black person long enough, Detroit is going to come up in the conversation. I've noticed that we have Detroiters in the house who will attest that Detroit seems to be the center of the black universe.
I am curious as to how did you, a California girl, end up writing such an amazing novel about Detroit?
Angela Flournoy: Well, I think one of the reasons you talk to a lot of black people all over the country and Detroit comes up is because Detroit was one of the big hubs during the Great Migration, and after the decline of industry, a lot of people scattered elsewhere to the coasts. So you're probably meeting people (I know I did on my book tour) who are from Detroit.
But me personally: My dad was from Detroit, and most of his family is still in Detroit. So growing up, my grandparents lived in Detroit, on the east side of Detroit, and I would visit the house that my father grew up in. I was always very interested in that place and sort of the very kind of emotional and visceral relationships that people who I knew from Detroit had with that city. Even if they hadn't lived there for thirty years, they're very proud about their city, and defensive sometimes about their city.
The last time I visited before I started writing the novel was in 2009, and no one was living in the house, but my uncles were still keeping the house in pristine condition. I didn't really know why. It's one of the most depopulated areas of the city. There were no indicators that things were sort of going to turn around for that neighborhood. And from there, I just started to think: What does it mean, especially for that generation, my grandparents' generation of black people who were first-generation homeowners? What does it mean to have the house? What does it mean in terms of family? That's sort of where the beginning of the novel came from.
TJ: You talk about houses, and the title of the book is The Turner House. I'm from Atlanta, and I've recently moved to New York, and so now, like everyone in New York, I am kind of obsessed with houses, real estate, where you live, how you live. One thing I'm really thinking about is the significance of home ownership what that means in an urban setting, what that means to African Americans. Can you talk a little bit about the physical house from which you take the title? What is a house? What is the difference between a house and a home? Are they the same thing? How does it work for you? And how does it work in this novel?
AF: It's interesting, because I think that it's changing, sort of what a house means. Especially my generation being the sort of post-recession or sort of during-recession generation, the way that they view home ownership is something that they always thought they would sort of be able to aspire to and attain, but maybe they won't be able to, not as quickly. There is a lot more emphasis on home than there is on the actual house a home being a base where your family has more than a specific landmark. Certainly, for the generation in this novel, more my parents' generation and their parents, I think I call the house "the family's coat of arms." The house itself is a symbol of family unity, and it's a symbol of progress. They came from the South, they worked these jobs, and they got this house it's a symbol of a toehold in the American Dream.
TJ: What does it mean that so many people are losing their houses?
AF: I think it means a lot of different things. Certainly what I think it means as far as macro scale: I think it means that we're seeing the tail end of a lot of very not-very-great policy, urban policy, as far as housing discrimination was concerned, and those wrongs have never been righted. On a micro scale: When I was on book tour, I met people who were very emotional about the heavy stories about the homes that they've lost, and they were sort of ashamed and they felt really guilty. "We had to get rid of mom's house," wherever it was, and there was a big feeling of shame attached to that. I try to tell people (and I do believe this) that ultimately, that house still served a purpose.
The house that my father grew up in he is one of thirteen children it raised thirteen upstanding citizens and a generation after that, and it's part of the reason I'm even here, because that house was like a haven for my father in the community he was in. So I think that people should certainly not be ashamed. I can understand the frustration, but I think that sometimes especially black folks are a little hard on ourselves. We should still be proud of the work that it took to have that house, even if it's not something that we can hold on to forever.
TJ: I'm so glad that you said that. Part of the healing work of this book, I think, is how you take on a city like Detroit. Is there such a thing as poverty porn? Does that exist? You can go and click on slide shows with, "Look how horrible Detroit is," and you click, and each image is worse than the last. But I feel like even though the house is underwater, etc., you still capture the pleasure of people's everyday lives, as they live their lives in Detroit or wherever they are, or as they're migrating.
I want to ask you one question from the book: What does it mean when you say, "ain't no haints in Detroit."
AF: One of the characters, the eldest son, Cha-Cha, he believes that he has seen a ghost a "haint." Haint is the only word he knows for this ghost. He's heard stories from his parents and from his cousins down south about haints. They're the only ghosts he knows. It's sort of the inciting event of the novel, that he has this fight with the ghost. He's the oldest, fourteen. So everyone younger than him are not reliable witnesses, obviously. They're children. So they're saying, "Yeah, we saw the ghost; it was there." But their father, Francis Turner, he is very adamant about the fact that there are not haints in Detroit. He does not say that haints don't exist. He says, "There ain't no haints in Detroit." They are two different things.
For me, in the early drafts, it was really just a joke. I don't know where it came from. I like sort of internal rhyming. But in later drafts, as I thought more about Francis and particularly what he was leaving behind in Arkansas, it became: The things that we're leaving in the South, the things that we're sort of running away from, they're not supposed to be able to follow us here. They're supposed to stay there.
TJ: I have to say, you had me on that this ghost is in the house, the kids are all fighting. It's like thirteen kids, a gang of kids, and they're all fighting this mysterious blue ghost, and the father comes in and the kids are like, "There was a ghost; it tried to get Cha-Cha." And the dad's like, "No. Ain't no haints in Detroit." And he leaves. He did not come all the way up here to be dealing with the haints and all nobody comes all the way the hell to Detroit, thirteen kids, all these jobs, to have a haint in the house.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it. But in some ways it seems like kind of the futility of chasing the American Dream. There are haints in Detroit, there are haints in New York, there are haints in California. I think the haints are this thing that's kind of like the glass ceiling that happens in America it's the haint.
With this novel going from the past to the future, there are haints all the way through. So in your reading, from looking at Detroit past to Detroit present, to New York at this moment, what has changed and what has not?
AF: One of the things that the characters in this book struggle with is asking for help in sort of dealing with their demons that's one of the things I think or I hope is changing, particularly in my family, and I hope in more black families.. I think it changes in the book, and it certainly changed as far as us as a country and the American Dream. I don't know, everybody might go to sleep . . .
But I certainly think that one of the things that we see sort of happening again, we're obviously living in a moment of I wouldn't say it's a moment of increased violence against black people, because it's always been there but it's certainly a moment of increased visibility and awareness of it.
I think one thing that has changed is people's willingness to acknowledge that there are patterns. I think that part of the reason why all Francis wants to say is "Ain't no haints in Detroit" is because he doesn't want to talk about the way that some of the baggage he's taken with him is still with him. If you're not willing to talk about it, things can't really change. I think that where we are now, there are at least more people speaking up and willing to say, "This is systemic; this is a pattern." I think that's the first step. One of the things that I wanted to do in the book is really have characters who finally acknowledge that this is actually an issue; it's not a one-time thing, it's not a one-off thing, but this is something I need to address.
TJ: I was very surprised to see a woman struggling with gambling addiction in your novel. I don't think I've ever seen it anywhere. I see addiction a lot in fiction, but not gendered in this particular way. How was it to write that? And what does it mean to you?
AF: It's funny, because I never thought about the gender before. Not once did I ever think about her being a woman and being in a casino all the time. My sister is not a gambler . . . I mean, she does gamble; she's not addicted. But my sister plays poker a lot. She's very good at it. She goes to these tournaments, and she's not the only woman. But I never even thought about it. Because my sister does a lot of things she's an engineer where she's the only woman.
I was fascinated with kind of the specific rituals that people have when they gamble. I was sitting and I was really thinking about what would be Lehla's game. Would it be the slots? Or would it be roulette? I went to there's a kind of depressing place called the Riverside Casino . . .
TJ: All casinos are depressing.
AF: Lelah has been there. She's been to the Riverside Casino. They have seafood on Fridays, and the crab legs are like radioactive orange it's scary. But you sit there, and you start to see the relationships that people who come there often have with each other, and the moments they're willing to sort of be convivial and talk to people, and moments when they're very closed-off and they're very into their procedures and their routine.
TJ: She's borderline homeless when she's going in the casino. It's like the way these casinos are made to try to take your last money in the hopes that you won't need money again. And this ties in with all the ways that the people in the book are trying to get it together when they don't really have a lot of options.
But I have one question, speaking of getting it together. It's very clear to me that you had it all together. Congratulations on this first book.
AF: Thank you.
TJ: What words of advice or encouragement would you have for people who want to be sitting up here themselves, who want to write their first book?
AF: Well, first off, I would say, don't take the C train if you're coming from Bed-Stuy. You might be late! Then you won't be sitting up here talking about this story!
To be serious: We're living in an age of, I would say, professional degrees, and people feel that if they don't have, you know, an MFA, then certain things won't happen for them. What I would say is that no one asks you to write a novel. Even if you get an MFA, nobody asks you to write a novel. It's something I had to remind myself often . . . Because I started to feel like it was a job three years in and nobody caring I had to remind myself: This is something I decided to do. This is a story that I felt I had to get out.
I think that my biggest bit of advice would be just to never stop doing that, and remember that Toni Morrison said, "You write the book you want to read." If you don't write that book, then it will never exist. You'll always think about it, and no one else will get to read it. I would have never sort of fathomed that other people would want to read this book as much as they have. Every day that people come to hear me say anything about it is really amazing. But the first step, and I think the most important one is just to remember that you have a story. You have a story that needs to be told, and everything else comes after that. But the story comes first. It doesn't matter sort of where you start, but the story has to come first.
TJ: Three really quick ys or no questions. Do you write every day?
TJ: Do you write in the morning or in the evening?
AF: In the morning, unless I'm really on fire. But mostly early in the morning.
TJ: Computer or writing by hand?
AF: Longhand for the first draft.
TJ: This has nothing to do with anything, but someone interviewed yesterday and asked me this. Michael Jackson or Prince? This is an important question. This is where she's going to reveal her soul. We're all waiting for your soul here.
AF: I have a lot of midwestern love for both of them. When I was younger, I said Michael. I'm getting older, and I am starting to lean towards Prince.
TJ: Is that your final answer?
AF: My final answer is both, but yes. They do different things. Make new friends and keep the old.
TJ: We will end with that skillful evasion.
September 23, 2015