WRITERS TELL ALL
Alafair Burke is STILL at the Top of Her Game with THE BETTER SISTER, and Her Novels Are More Relevant than Ever
Matthew Turbeville: Alafair, it’s always more than a pleasure to talk to you, as well as read your books. I think I tweeted the other day if I was on a desert island with nothing but you writing all day, I’d be content. You’re releasing this new book, The Better Sister, that is incredibly timely. The book deals pretty directly with the #metoo movement, and the pros and cons of leading such a movement, including being one of the leaders and falling short of what those embracing the movement might expect. In the central character, Chloe, we see a woman who begins to unravel as she protects a son not biologically her own. What do you think are the dangers of leading a movement like this?
Alafair Burke: You can look at Twitter at any given moment for evidence of the political and cultural litmus tests that are created in a social-media-dominated world for anyone who dares to stick a neck out on a polarizing issue. Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for economic equality, some segments of social media lambasted her for showing up to Congresswearing a suit and high heels, as if she was supposed to wear…what? A plastic bag because she speaks for people who struggle financially? Chloe Taylor is a journalist and writer whose work has highlighted sexual discrimination and abuse in the workplace, and, because of that, her detractors are looking for the slightest evidence of hypocrisy. They think they find it in her personal life.
MT: I really love how you connect each of these books with a good bit of female empowerment, but you’re not afraid to dive into “gray areas,” creating complex heroines who have very complicated pasts and have reacted and acted upon certain events in often dark ways. Why do you think it’s so important to show women in such dark but enlightening settings, especially in the age we live in now?
AB: Because it’s how we live. We’re a society of imperfect people trying to run businesses, institutions, marriages, households. We have expectations for ourselves and others, but we don’t burn everything down the moment someone falls short. We react to the problem and then to the next and the next. The question is how long can we continue to live in that gray zone before making a clear decision to jump into either the black or the white.
MT: What do you think is so important in having a character unravel, and why must a character unfold and reveal different assets and complications of herself in order to feel so real and undeniable in your work? You somehow take the twists that would shock readers and use them to also make the characters so well rounded and complex. How do you do this, and while many people may think you really invented this style of writing, what books or authors have influenced you most in making this great move forward in literature?
AB: Ha! I don’t think I have ever invented anything, except that time in 2000 when I got really into a liqueur called Hpnotiq and invented a martini with it. I think the best twists in fiction (Gone Girl and Presumed Innocent are two of my favorites) are never purely about plot. They’re inextricably entangled with character. In fact, a bare-bones summary of some of the best suspense plots would sound ludicrous without an explanation of the characters involved. Mary Higgins Clark doesn’t get enough credit, in my opinion, for her groundbreaking book, Where Are the Children? That novel was psychological suspense at its best and only worked because the characters were so fully realized.
MT: Your books are undoubtedly crime novels, but as Attica Locke has recently been quoted as saying, it seems that all books are crime fiction on one level or another. With everything going on now—the country often seeming like it’s on verge of another civil war—why is crime literature so important these days, and what do you think crime fiction says which other books cannot?
AB: I agree with Attica. I just wrote one of those book lists that outlets ask for and made the case that Atonement was a thriller. My father (James Lee Burke) always points out that Hamlet is a crime story. Crime fiction allows writers to tell stories about the basic human condition. I do wonder if readers’ appetites for heroes who bend the rules might fade given the times we live in. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hunger right now for straightforward stories where the rule-followers prevail and the systems work as intended, because right now, that feels almost fantastical.
MT: One character, Olivia, most heavily featured in The Ex, has made her presence known in your last couple of novels. Other than Olivia showing up to challenge the judicial system, as well as several of your core characters in each book, what keeps you returning to Olivia again and again?
AB: Well, first of all, I love her. The book that’s really hers is The Exas you note, while readers see her merely in her professional role in The Wife and The Better Sister, where she represents the main character’s husband and son, respectively. Having Olivia serve as the defense attorney in those novels is my hint to readers that the three books are tied together thematically, even though they’re all standalones and aren’t a series in the traditional sense. Plus, if I got arrested in New York City, I know I’d call her, so I figured Angela Powell and Chloe Taylor would, too.
MT: Speaking of previous books, can you give us an update on the film version of one of my all-time favorite novels, The Wife? This was a book that stunned me as well as so many other readers, and we’re all dying to know the cast and other details! Are there any actresses you feel would fit the bill of any of the important characters?
AB: I’ve been working with Amazon Studios on the screenplay, so we’ll see how that all play out. I’m a realist and know how many moving parts have to fall into place perfectly for an adaption to happen, but I’m excited about the choices that have been made so far in terms of streamlining the novel for feature film while retaining the things that I believe make it smart and special. I don’t want to curse it by playing casting dreams too early!
MT: Without giving away too many spoilers, The Better Sisterfeels so much more redemptive than The Wife, despite its still incredibly noir nature. Did you intend for the books to turn out this way, and what do you feel the conclusion and actions of characters in The Better Sisteras opposed to The Wifehave to say about where we are in America and in our society today?
AB: That’s very hard to answer without giving anything away, but I don’t disagree with your characterization. I think compared to a couple of years ago, some of us are learning that there’s only so much we can do to control the things that are angering and frustrating us right now. All we can do is try to make the very tiny world around us a little better and kinder, and maybe that’s what some of the characters in The Better Sister come to accept.
MT: The women who led the #metoo movement have often been viewed as “hacks,” usually female actresses who immediately dropped the movement after landing movie or television deals, or in the case of Rose McGowan and her transphobia, have been seen as discriminatory and very much on the side of “If you’re not just like me, then you don’t belong.” Of course, this shouldn’t reflect the movement as a whole, and I admire how you walk a dialectic line so many other writers fail, in which you acknowledge the pros and cons of the movement, and continue to move forward understanding the good and bad will come out, but a serious issue in society (rape, sexual harassment and abuse, etc) must be acknowledged. There’s something about this dialectic that seems so necessary, especially when we have the femme fatale in noir who is often viewed as a sort of villain. How do you make taking every layer of this complicated subject and building upon it to make a grand novel possible? Your work makes us look as these women who abandon the movement for their own career as sometimes less self-servicing and more desperate for escape, as in many of your own books.
AB: Wow, that’s a lot! I guess this goes back to what I said before about people becoming targets for taking a stand. Does that mean their politics have to be perfect on every other subject, or that their personal or professional lives must become infused with a political or cultural movement? The incoming shrapnel gets launched not only by a movement’s detractors, but also by the less powerful, lower-profile believers in the movement who worry about the damage that can be done to a movement by those who become its public “face.” In The Better Sister,Chloe experiences horrific abuse on social media because of important work she has done for women. When her dirty laundry comes out as a result of her husband’s murder, her critics dine on the schadenfreude, while her former supporters feel horribly disappointed and of course even angry.
MT: I have my own pick but what do you feel of your own novels is the book that stands out most and is most important for times like these? What books have you read lately, books that also haven’t been published, and books written in the past few years that you think are most necessary now?
AB: Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird and Tana French’s The Witch Elm both come to mind.
MT: I love when I buy a copy of one or more of your books for a friend or family and they say, ‘Hey, Matthew, this was riveting, but it also made me think.’ What do you think is the main purpose of writing a novel?
AB: My primary goal is to pull readers into the plight of the characters so tightly that they think they’re going to read a couple of chapters and then end up staying up until dawn to find out what happens. If I’ve done a really good job, the reader gobbles the book whole and then regrets that it’s over. But because I enjoy novels that are set in our actual world, I usually end up tapping into some kind of interesting current societal topic to explore in the material, but it’s for purposes of plot and characterization, not to hammer readers over the head.
MT: One thing so interesting about your past two novels is the way in which these women are so interesting in rediscovering their pasts in a whole new light, and also through this preserving their present at any costs. Both timelines can be gut-wrenching as more and more is learned, and we realize that the people we want to be are never as perfect as we’d like to think. With regular people and politicians, entertainers, artists, and so on, what is so important in knowing that they are not who we want them to be?
AB: It’s tempting to think we know our own histories, but all of our beliefs—including about ourselves—are processed subjectively. How many times have you recalled some incident in front of friends or family, only to find out that they remember it entirely differently?
MT: Alafair, I’ve taken up enough of your time with these questions, but boy was it grand reading your new novel and as usual it’s a glorious time talking to you. I just want you to know the new novel is phenomenal, and I hope every one of our readers sets out to buy a copy of The Better Sister, in a bookstore near you soon. Alafair, it’s been a delight, and I hope you will continue writing at the phenomenal, record speed of yours, and please feel free to leave us with any of your thoughts. Until next time, I’m wishing you the best.
AB: Thank you so much for all the kind words and for taking the time to read The Better Sister and interview me. I wish you all the best!
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Edwidge, I’m so glad you agreed to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. I’ll start off by asking, what made you decide to be a writer?
ED: I don’t think it was a decision, per se. There were a lot of storytellers in my life when I was a girl. All the women in my family told wonderful stories, both the folkloric kind and about their own lives. These stories were funny, hilarious, even when they spoke of very sad events. The stories were also suspenseful and you were supposed to learn some important lessons from them. The storytellers of my childhood, both my own family members and the people in my neighborhood, community, and church, were the people who gave me the desire to tell stories. I was very shy so I didn’t think I could do what the oral storytellers I admired most could do before an audience. When I started reading, I realized that you could tell a story quietly on the page. I realized that there was a certain intimacy on the page that a storyteller could achieve in a way that with my type of personality I could never fully manage as a public storyteller. So, once I started reading and falling under the spell of stories that way, I really wanted to be a writer. I wanted to do for others what my aunts and the other storytellers in my life had done for me, but I wanted to do it on the page. I guess you might say that I did not really choose to be a writer, it kind of chose me. Or at least it foundme.
MT: I read somewhere that at first, in college, you intended to be a nurse, and later changed your mind.
ED: I went to a high school called Clara Barton for the Health Professions. My parents wanted me to be a doctor and most of my classmates in the Honors program I was in at Clara Barton High School ended up becoming doctors. I thought becoming a nurse would send me sooner on my way to becoming a writer, so I chose the nursing track. Part of the curriculum was to volunteer at a local hospital a few times a week and work with actual nurses and when I did, I realized that this is not something I wanted to do. I found it heartbreaking to watch people in pain, often during the final hours of their lives. I think it’s the kind of job that you really have to want to do, that you really have to love. When my mother was dying and was in and out of hospitals, I was so grateful for the kindness and patience of the nurses and how they cared for her. It was the same with my father when he was sick and dying, so I know it’s a very special profession, but one I realized quite early on I would not be in for the rest of my life.
MT: What helped push you down this very fortunate path, on the road to becoming not only a critically acclaimed author, but also a bestseller?
ED: I really don’t know if one can carve a path like that. Maybe some can. For me it’s been part luck, part persistence, and stubbornness. There was no guarantee that I would write a book and that people would want to read it. All I know is that I LOVE writing and that I would write even if no one was reading what I wrote. There were some things inside of me that I wanted to see expressed in a concrete way on the page. That is still part of the reason I write. I try to get my words as clear and as much to my liking as possible, then I let it go. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that even a book that no one seems to be reading has passionate readers. I am that reader for some writers and I know there are those readers out there for me. That and my love for the act of writing keeps me going. The rest is beyond my control.
MT: Before I begin really digging into your work, I’m curious as to all of the authors and books that you have been shaped by.
There have been so many. I’d have to start of course with Haitian writers. I edited two volumes of the Noir series published by Akashik Books and many of those writers are in those books. The writer Jacques Roumain whose seminal novel Gouverneurs de le Roséewas translated by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook as Masters of the Dew. The writers Jacques Stephen Alexis and Marie Vieux Chauvet, J.J Dominique, and Ida Faubert, among others. I write about them and some of my other influences in my book of essays CreateDangerously. The first book I read in English was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I don’t think I would have had the courage to write my first novel Breath, Eyes, Memoryif I had not read that book and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstoneand James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountainand Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In my teens, I kind of vacillated between reading Haitian literature and African American literature, mixed in with some Chinese American literature, some Judy Blume, and lots of French literature, especially the work of Albert Camus. I read those books, and others, in a kind of wonderful stew as I was trying to figure out what and how I was going to write. Those writers, among others, remain my teachers until today and they are the writers I keep reading and re-reading.
MT: Which books do you turn to when you need encouragement or reassurance in literature?
ED: I read other types of books for encouragement. I read a lot of writers’ biographies and autobiographies because they often have an arc that is interesting to look at if you are in the middle of a life as a writer. Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison for example is amazing. Everything Audre Lorde has written about herself is fantastic to read especially some of the books she wrote while she was living with cancer. So, I learn a lot from the biographies and autobiographies of writers, especially those who are no longer with us.
MT: People often comment on your first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, as being incredible (and it is, for anyone reading this interview—it’s an absolutely remarkable debut), especially considering your age at the publication, with some comparisons to the age and publication of another literary luminary, Carson McCullers. Why do you think you were able to not only develop and write a novel so well at such a young age, but have such success with publishing it and having it promoted?
ED: It’s interesting that you mention Carson McCullers. I remember having to read The Member of the Wedding in high school. One thing I came away from reading her is that smaller, intimate hurts can matter in literature. Before that we’d read Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Disciplinein that same English class and before that some Shakespeare, which seemed so much more exciting and action filled. Initially some of the reviews of Breath, Eyes Memory were pretty harsh. Some of the critics kept saying that it read like it was written by a high school student. Well I was in high school when I started writing it, and for most of the book so was the character. So, I didn’t understand why that was a problem. Anyway, it was not considered a good book by everyone. Thank goodness Oprah liked it though because it was the 16thselection in her book club and that really changed my life. (Thank you Oprah). A lot of writers find their first books cringe worthy. I’m not different with my now nearly 25-year-old first baby. There are things I would do differently now, but I do think having been close to the character’s age and level of English proficiency at the time helped make it the kind of closely confessional book that I wanted to write and that many people, especially young people, have been able to identify with. One thing any writer hopes is that a first book will hold up well, especially as times are changing so fast. I just hope it continues to hold up well.
MT: What do you think set you apart from the other aspiring writers who dream of publishing such a brilliant debut at such a young age?
ED: Initially I was lucky. My editor at Soho Press, Laura Hruska, once told me that she only started reading the manuscript for Breath, Eyes, Memory because she was trying to figure out how to address my rejection letter, whether to reject Mr. or Ms. Danticat since she couldn’t tell whether or not I was male or female based on my name. She kept reading the manuscript for clues and eventually liked it enough to offer to publish it. So that was just dumb luck combined with the fact that not many people were writing and publishing novels about Haiti in English at the time, aside from one other writer, Anne Christine d’Adesky, whose novel Under the Bonewas published around the same time as mine. Maybe there was a curiosity factor. One thing I’ve also learned over these many years is that there are some incredible writers you’ve never heard of who write incredibly well and just have not had all those things align for them in some way yet. There are many great first novels out there looking for a home and an audience.
MT: You are quite prolific, in my opinion, and so gifted. One of your major themes, or an aspect of life you focus on significantly, is that of family. There are children raised by people who aren’t their parents, children who find out horrifying things about their parents, people raised by loving parents, children who are sometimes blamed for their mother’s death in childbirth—and then you talk about your own father and your own mother in your nonfiction work. What do you feel compels you to write so thoroughly about family—and so many different types and kinds of families—and why is this so important to you?
ED: You are very kind and I thank you. A lot of us who write about countries like Haiti, or who write from any kind of space like what has been called “the margins”, are often given the task of representing millions of people with our meager words. People of my own background have confronted me to say that I have over generalized or have tried to represent all Haitians, when in the very first interview I ever did, with the reporter Garry Pierre-Pierre in The New York times, almost twenty-five years ago, I said that there are many voices in our community and I am just one. I have always lived in, near, or around a Haitian community, including now. I know we are diverse. I know we are deeply complex. So, I knew I wasn’t writing all of us. As far back as twenty-five years ago, whenever I tried to define this project or journey I was on, I would say that I wanted to raise the voices of people in my family, especially the women in my own life. I come from a family that was poor and of a rural background. In Haiti, people would say we were initially from the peyi andeyò, the outside country. In my parents’ time, your birth certificate could either say citoyen (citizen) or paysan (peasant). My father’s birth certificate labeled him paysan.
I wanted to tell my family’s story. I wanted to tell my mother’s story and my father’s story and I believed that in their stories might be echoes of the larger stories of other people. It’s like the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Mansays towards the end of the novel: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Notice the question mark there. I have always loved that there is a question mark at the end of that sentence. “Who knows?” But that is your choice to make. I knew what I was writing about might ring true with some people and not with others, but when you are one of a few writing a kind of story from a particular place, some make it the entire story of the place. So, you have folks getting angry at you because their stories are not going to read like yours and they feel reduced by your narrative. In any case, this is why I started to edit anthologies, to offer a broader sampling of the Haitian literature I know and love. And I write about my family a lot because I am writing formy family. Ultimately, I hope every word I produce and anthologize will help the next generation of my family, especially my two daughters and my brothers’ children, understand who they are, how we got there, why we are here, so that they can get a full sense of who they are as members of our family, and as part of the many communities they are part of.
MT: When thinking of all the parents in your books, and all the people who stand in as parents, they are all so different—is there anything you think all parents share in common, or is each parent completely unique unto himself or herself?
ED: I am one of those parents who can make myself sob when I think of the vulnerability of my children, of all children really. Most of the children in my life are a million times more privileged than I was as a child. But because I was so vulnerable when I was young—I was far from my parents; I grew up during a dictatorship—I can easily imagine all the terrible things that might possibly happen to the younger people I love and it frankly terrifies me, especially as we are so vulnerable as black and brown people and as immigrants in this country these days. So, I would say that I think all parents want their children to be safe, to be fed, to be free from hardship, to be educated, to have peace of mind, to have a better life than they had. You see parents making extreme sacrifices in some situations so their children can have just a few of these things, or even to have a meal or two a day. These days in the news in the United States, you see parents taking their children across a border where they know there’s a chance they might be separated from them just so that their children can escape terrible situations. Most parents would give their lives for their children in a heartbeat and many are put into positions where they have to put their love to the test in the most terrifying ways, just so their children can have a chance at being safe.
One trend I’ve noted in books and television, especially with art made by women, is the idea of the family you have versus the family you create. In your idea, which family is more important—the family of blood, or the family you bond with spiritually? Do you think that as times are changing, so are the dynamics of what we might consider the typical nuclear family?
ED: In my own life, the so called nuclear family was never really the center. Family was always defined much more broadly than that. The center of the family was often an elder around whom we could gather for love, for self-definition and for stories. I think that if you’re very lucky, you have or you acquire the family you need. Migration sometimes creates a different kind of family for us. Sometimes people have to walk away from the family they were born in because it’s killing them. I really can’t say that one is better than the other. I think community over all is important. It’s always much harder alone. What’s most important is finding the family you need to help you survive this life.
MT: In your book on death and dying, The Art of Death, and while writing about your mother’s terminal illness, you mention giving Claire of the Sea Lightto one of your mother’s doctors. Can you talk about how it felt to give so many copies of works so personal to you to your mother’s doctors, and how it felt to hear that you were special because you are a writer from one of the doctors?
ED: Actually, both my parents always wanted me to give my books to their doctors when they were sick. It’s not something I wanted to do because in my experience, when you give your books to people—even when they ask for it—you rarely hear back from them about it. They thank you for it but they rarely talk to you about the content, which is frankly fine with me. But my parents always said, if they saw a doctor more than once, “Give the doctor your book.” And I would. I think for them, it was a way to show that they were more than the person they seemed to be at the moment. Serious illness can be dehumanizing and the sicker you are, the more agency you lose; the less like yourself you seem. I think both my parents wanted to show these doctors that though their bodies were failing them, they had previously succeeded at something else and that was raising someone who could write a book. We never really talked about it in depth like that, but that’s what I’m guessing it was.
MT: Did you parents always support your goals of being a writer, or were they ever hesitant? It’s a risky business where people are met with a lot of failure. Were you ever afraid yourself when approaching this career path?
ED: My parents wanted me to study medicine for the financial perks and the prestige, but they were also worried about my becoming a writer because they’d spent most of their lives under a dictatorship. One of the most important things you learn during that kind of upbringing is that discretion can mean survival. My parents, as young people, heard about writers getting exiled or killed, so it was not something they thought wise for me to do. Even when they were living in New York, they were worried that something I might write or say would lead to some kind of punishment for our relatives back in Haiti. For my parents, the less you were seen the safer you were, so writing and publishing was contrary to all of that, in their view.
MT: I’m interested in The Art of Deathand what it means for endings—specifically, for you, what it means to end a book. How do you know when a novel or story is over, and what do you feel is the best way to end a novel?
ED: I sometimes worry that I didn’t put enough in the middle of a book, but I am pretty sure about my endings once my books are done. Before I start a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, I often have an ending in mind, something to write towards. Sometimes that ending becomes the actual ending and sometimes not, and sometimes I go back and forth until the last minute, but once a book is published, that to me forces an ending on it. I have a friend, the writer Jonathan Cott, who carefully studies last words in books. He has actually helped me value the weight of last words and last sentences. I am not sure you can really tell people the best way to end a book. The ending, I suppose, should feel earned in some way.
MT: You also edited a volume of noir stories about Haiti. A lot of your writings contains violence—some extreme violence—and I’m wondering where you think your writing (mostly fiction) stands as a whole in relation to noir and crime?
ED: When I was asked to edit those two volumes, Haiti Noir 1and Haiti Noir 2, I thought it was a great opportunity to encourage people to read more Haitian literature by both Haitian writers in Haiti and Haitian writers in the Dyaspora. The framework of genre and noir fiction was exciting because it gives the stories a kind of uniformity. Not all the stories were violent. Some of them were very philosophical in their approach. This was a fascinating way to approach Haiti as well because often Haitians have to solve their own crimes and solve their own mysteries, so these writers were reinventing a genre that we wish worked for us better in real life. In Haiti Noir 2, some of the stories were from the mid twentieth century and reworked some old themes like zombification, which Haitian writers have addressed with a lot of nuance, addressing zombification as both a political condition and a political crime, for example. Part of the joy of editing these anthologies was seeing how Haitian writers were reinventing some tropes.
MT: Speaking of crime, I also think it’s interesting how certain crimes are certain places. My ancestors, I’m sure, were unfortunately slave owners. One of America’s most prolific serial killers is from my hometown. My grandfather was a drug dealer and my other grandfather, a cop, was shot multiple times when trying to take down multiple murderers. I would have to go into depth to describe how all of this is so very set in the Deep South of the U.S., but I’m curious as to what type of crime you think is connected directly to Haiti and why you think it is that way.
ED: What a history! Sadly, the slave owning background you share with a lot of other Americans. There are of course many larger crimes committed against Haiti, including the genocide against the Arawaks and Tainos, the enslavement of Africans brought to the island, along with colonialism, and later imperialism. From the colonial era, the parting gift to Haiti from France was having to pay an “independent debt” to France after Haiti became the world’s first black republic in 1804. This debt kept Haiti from getting a fair start as an independent nation. Then the US occupations and the dictatorships, then the US sponsored coups. Then the corrupt politicians inside the country. All these are things come up in the Noir series and are addressed by the different Haitian authors via the different narratives. So, the vehicle of noir fiction tells a larger story about historical as well as contemporary crimes both against the nation and against individuals.
MT: The great Attica Locke, an amazing novelist and television writer, says that Belovedis her favorite crime novel and that essentially every novel is a crime novel. Do you agree with this, and if so, what are the very specific and possibly strange crimes you see in your own work that others might argue aren’t crimes at all, or are only slight misdemeanors?
ED: I agree, in some cases, but I personally need a broader lense to keep going. I also need some novels to be love novels, though love and crime are of course not mutually exclusive. Though there are certainly crimes in the novels I write, including in The Dew Breaker, which is a book about a torturer. If I started the book thinking I was going to write a crime novel, I would think myself incapable of doing it well. Though at the center of the book is a criminal, I could only write that particular book by telling myself I was writing a family story.
MT: I loved your most recent book, The Art of Death, which is so short but so compact with so many ideas and theories and thoughts on death and dying. At one point, you write about how death must be written from the third person and at another point you talk about how friendship and relationships transcend death, like in Toni Morrison’s Sula. You’ve thrown out a lot of ideas and thoughts about death—and I highly advise our readers to pick up a copy of The Art of Death—I do wonder what you think, first, about those who claim they have died momentarily and been brought back to life. My mother even has a friend who claims his heart stopped in an ambulance and he went to heaven, whatever that would mean to him, for a bit. What are your thoughts on this?
There is a chapter in The Art of Death about close calls. I describe some of my own close calls. I have never had the kind of near death experience where you see that bright light, die, or almost die, then come back to life. That’s never happened to me, but I know a few people who have had it happen to them and I believe it can happen. I believe it’s possible. Life is very complicated. I don’t believe that we only exist in this realm. When my father was dying, he would talk about seeing his mother, who’d died decades before, standing at the foot of his bed and we all very quickly said to ourselves, he’s close now. His mother’s come back for him. She wants to show him the way. My father was never afraid when he said he saw his mother at the foot of his bed. When my mother was dying, she would sometimes speak to my father at the foot of the bed. So, I believe that the closer to death we get, the more porous that curtain is between us and the other side.
MT: You talk about how as they get older, the fear of death lessens for most people. It seems to be the opposite for me, as a mentally ill person for the majority of my life who now, finally healed or mostly healed, am afraid that I will die before I get to actually experience life.
ED: I love how open you are. Thank you. The unexamined life of course, as Plato says,is not worth living. I was referring to a study I’d read and I certainly found that it was true for my mother, who I was also referring to. I don’t want to be presumptuous about your situation, but I think you are experiencing life every day. That’s what the dying has taught me, that it’s important to try and experience life every single day, including the fearful and really scary parts.
MT: You also write about the people jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11, and how they essentially had to choose between going down with the towers and leaping into the air. For hours, every day this footage was aired on television, which is interesting because people claimed to feel anxious and afraid of terrorists and further attacks like on the Twin Towers, so I’m wondering how you can both be so afraid of something and yet also so in awe of it, and so amazed by what you see happening. What are your thoughts on this—the inability to tear ourselves away from reliving the fears again and again of losing our own lives?
ED: I think that on some level we think to ourselves that we’re so glad it’s not us. That’s how we can watch horrors like that and not turn away. Just the act of watching builds distance, I suppose, and a kind of relief that we’re not in that position.
MT: You mention many writers and many books on death and the experience of both dying and seeing someone you love die. This also comes through in your own work, in your books that function as memoirs or critiques. What do you feel is your favorite work of fiction that deals strongly with death, and the same for nonfiction?
ED: I mention some of my favorites in the book. Everything by Toni Morrison, especially Beloved, Sula,and Song Solomon.Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitudewould also be at the top of my list.
MT: Do you think there is any hope in death? Obviously, there is relief from pain if one is sick or physically is not doing very well, but I know that some cultures around the world can view death as a reason for celebration. What are the different ways you have seen people you know personally or professionally face death as opposed to how you face the incredibly real issue of death? Do you think there is anything worse than losing the life of the person you love most?
ED: In Beloved, the character Sethe believes that death is preferable to returning to slavery. She’d rather kill her children then let them be returned to slavery. A lot of enslaved people walked back into the sea, or threw themselves off the hulls of slave ships, in order to return to their birth places in Africa. Or they tried to fly back to Africa. So, your perception of death will have a lot to do with the kind of life you are living. Both my parents really wanted to die at the end. They were both terminally ill and in pain and were looking forward to being out of that condition. They did not want to linger and suffer much longer. They faced death bravely, I thought, in part because they were people of a particular type of faith. They believed they were going to heaven. Having been through this twice now, one thing that feels to me worse than losing the person you love most is watching them suffer in excruciating pain, without the possibility of getting any better. My father was in that state for nine long months. My mom’s suffering was less, but physical pain is both agonizing to experience and agonizing to watch. People in my parent’s church community were a bit puzzled that my mother for example was not more grief-stricken than she seemed at my father’s funeral. But after nine months of watching him suffer while dying from scarred lungs and pulmonary fibrosis, she was kind of relieved to see him go. Wanting him around while he was in in agony would have been terribly sadistic and selfish.
MT: Death does permeate most of your fiction. It is also often associated with magic and folklore, usually from Haiti. What do you think is so important about folklore and superstitions—like Claire of the Sea Light and her mother’s death, for example—and why do people continue to cling to these examples of folklore, not just in Haiti but really everywhere?
ED: Most of us want to know our origin stories, our mythologies. We’re told the “official stories”, but I suspect we think there’s a secret, other, closer to the ground story that we’re not being told. That’s where mythologies emerge and knowing these myths, which are often spread via folktales, or what some might call superstition but which are really creation stories, narratives, or songs that help us make better sense of our lives. Particularly the more difficult aspects of our lives. When my father died, I kept returning to folklore stories I was told as a girl about dead fathers going into the other world. When my mother died, I kept thinking about the stories of dead mothers I heard as a girl. Suddenly I was one of those orphans in those stories. I already had some idea from these stories what that was supposed to feel like. I realized that I was told these stories to prepare me for these moments. In the same way that religious texts are supposed to prepare you for adversity. We’re told the story of Job because one day we might be Job and lose everything and everyone we love. Science can explain how things work and why certain parts of the body fail us, but it can’t really offer this other layer of spiritual explanation. What is it that Joseph Campbell said about mythology? I think he said that it is the penultimate truth, because it cannot be fully put into words.
MT: You also write in Create Dangerouslythe danger and problems of the immigrant writer. I have a couple of questions about how this work plays in today, when it seems more necessary than ever. First, how do you feel the immigrant experience, combined with war, terrorism, and—well, Trump, affect the art of the immigrant writer?
ED: I think current events always affect us in some way, and certainly affect writers. If you are an immigrant these days, writer or not, you probably have some family members who are affected by the current climate concerning immigrants, certainly all the scapegoating and the policies being enacted like the suspension of Temporary Protected Status and the limbo of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. These and other aspects of immigrant life affect us directly or affect the people we love. Some artists, writers, painters, musicians among them, choose to address these concerns directly in their work and some do not. Some have a split life as artists and activists and regularly are protesting or acting in their community in ways that directly support the daily lives of their neighbors. I think it’s up to each individual to decide the level of involvement they’re comfortable with. Some people just want to do their art as a shield against the barrage of pain in the world. Others see no use in being locked up in a room while there is so much suffering out there. I have many writer friends who are wrestling with both. People have to decide for themselves.
MT: What do you think is the effect of a writer without a defined home, and, really, how would you define home as a concept?
ED: There are 65 million people in the world right now who are migratory, who have no fixed placed to live. So, a writer or anyone without a defined home is part of a large number of people around the world right now. Once I left the home I knew until age twelve, home has become where the people I love are. Loved ones have become my roots, my anchors, my home. I keep going back to that amazing poem by Warsan Shire called Home. No one “leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” she writes. In October 2004, my eighty-one-year-old uncle Joseph, a cancer survivor who spoke with a voice box, died in immigration custody after fleeing Haiti following a brutal United Nations forces attack on his neighborhood. My uncle had had a valid US visa, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Miami International Airport detained him after he requested asylum. They took away his medications and, as his health deteriorated, accused him of faking his illness. Eventually he was taken to a local hospital’s prison ward, where he died shackled to a bed, five days after arriving in the United States. I wrote about him in my memoir Brother, I’m Dying. For my uncle, home was certainly, at that moment, the mouth of a shark. And the place where he came seeking refuge also would not let him stay. This is something many families, including young children are facing today. We don’t often get to choose where we call home, especially if we are poor and vulnerable and desperate. Some people might define home as a place to keep others out of, and others as a place to welcome others in. A lot of the way we see that difference has to do with how we define the foreigner or stranger. In an ideal world, we would be each other’s harvest and bond, as Gwendolyn Brooks has written. And we would be each other’s home when that’s needed. I also like James Baldwin’s definition of home as “not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
MT: No one really likes this question, but I’m always interested to see if someone will respond with a truly great answer. Assume for a minute that Donald Trump can read, and that you were to give him one of your books. Which book would it be?
There is probably a great answer to your question out there, but I don’t think I have it. He would have no interest in reading any of my books. He thinks I’m from a shithole country, so in addition to the fact that he does not read, that battle is already lost. But if pressed, I would give him Brother, I’m Dying. I don’t think it would make much of a difference to him. Children have died in immigration custody recently and it’s not made much of a difference to him. He is talking about separating families again. So, it would be a fool’s errand, but you asked.
MT: What effect would you hope the book would have?
The same effect I hope it would have on immigration officers who have to actually make real life decisions in the moment when someone who’s desperate and sick shows up in front of them and says I am afraid for my life, please help me. I have always hoped that the book would remind immigration officials, if they ever read it, that they have the lives of human beings in their hands. I think it would be too much to hope for Trump.
MT: This quote is attributed to so many people, most often the great Toni Morrison, but I am so interested in your answer. Supposedly Toni was the first to say something along the lines of people should write the book they’ve always wanted to read but have never found. Do you think you have done that?
ED: The Morrison quote is, I believe, ‘If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.” Everything I write is that for me, something I urgently want to read.
MT: You’ve always written some very gorgeous, beautiful Young Adult fiction that appeals to a lot of people. This fiction often features some of your most common themes, and I’m wondering how you approach writing Young Adult fiction as opposed to adult fiction. What kind of work takes longer to develop and execute, and do you feel your Young Adult writing affects its target audience as strongly as your adult fiction?
ED: I don’t differentiate too much between my books for young adults and my books for adults, or change my approach all that much. The only difference for me is that the characters are younger in my young adult books. These days young adult fiction covers so many important and urgent subjects that there is no need to filter this kind of writing. Kids are exposed to so much already online and in their daily lives. The length of time a book takes me depends on the subject of the book and the complexity of the characters. A lot of young people read Breath, Eyes, Memoryfor example at age 12 and can easily identify with it. It’s even read in some middle schools and high schools. I just hope all my books make their way to people who can appreciate them.
MT: Edwidge, I’ve asked you far too many questions, so I’ll just ask one more: what work can we expect from you next? I’m sure our readers who are familiar with your work are excited to know what you’ll publish next. And for our new readers, what work of your own would you suggest they start with?
ED: I just recently published a picture book called My Mommy Medicine. It’s about sick days at home for a mother and daughter. My next published work will be a collection of stories called Everything Inside, which will be out this August. I would say if you are just beginning to read me, start with Brother, I’m Dying. That book will frame the rest of my books for any reader.
MT: Edwidge, thank you so very much for agreeing to be interviewed with me. I do hope that you will give us at Writers Tell All the chance to interview you again in the future. You create such fascinating worlds often in such compact books. Thank you again, Edwidge.
ED: Thank you for interviewing me and thank you for being so open about your own life and process.
Matthew Turbeville: Hi Shobha, I am so excited to finally get to talk with you. I’ve loved your work since you released your first collection, and I loved your novel, Girls Burn Brighterjust as much if not more. I read that you moved to America when you were young. Can you talk about this and your journey to becoming the renowned and celebrated author you are today? Did you always intend on being a writer since you were young or is your immense talent for writing something you discovered later? When it came to being published, what was the most challenging hurdle as a non-white straight male?
Shobha Rao: Do you trust the writers who say they’ve always known they wanted to write? The ones who wrote their first story at the age of three, let’s say? Or four? I’m not sure I do. Maybe I’m just envious. I wrote my first story in my late-twenties. I always read, or course. Voraciously, as if my life depended on it. Which, in some ways, it did. But how is it born? The desire to write? Maybe it’s not even born, maybe it’s cultivated, like a field inside of you. Whatever it is took me fifteen years. From the moment I put pen to paper to my first publication: fifteen years. It’s those many years of writing, patience, cultivation, craft, and reckless faith that made me a writer, not the publication.
As for my most challenging hurdle, I suspect it is the same as every other person’s: my own demons. The voices that say: No. You can’t. You won’t. You’re not good enough. You never will be.
And who put those words inside of me? Cue the men.
MT: You released An Unrestored Womanto success and much critical acclaim. Can you talk about the process of writing a short story as opposed to writing a novel? What was it like, writing each of the stories in An Unrestored Woman, organizing stories, making the book a collection and not just a jumbled mess of great stories?
SR: I always say (and I’m sure I read this somewhere) that writing a short story is like running through a burning house and noting down everything you see. Whereas working on a novel is like entering a house on fire, sitting down in the middle of it, and writing about how it’s burning. That analogy is not an exaggeration.
With An Unrestored Woman, the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan formed the central focus of the collection. I wanted to explore how conflict – whether individual, regional, or global – affects the lives of women. What does a woman choose to fight for, die for, relinquish, refuse? What are her battlefields?
MT: One of your stories was picked as a Best American Story for the 2015 volume, edited by T.C. Boyle. That has to be something to be proud of, in addition to having published a story collection and a novel, both to great critical acclaim. Do you have a favorite story of your own, or one that means most to you? There’s been a lot of backlash against implying that a writer might find him or herself in any of their fiction, but is there any story you feel is more personal than the others?
SR: Perhaps the backlash is related to the fact that every piece of fiction has the author in it. How can it not? The act of writing is an exercise of the ego, and it is all self-portraiture. For me, the joy of fiction is that I get to hide in plain sight. All my darkest and most secret places are laid bare. Which one is more personal? That is unanswerable. They are all a part of me, fromme. It’s like asking which of my fingers is most personal to me, most dear. I happen to adore them all.
MT: How do stories generally come to you, if they originate in the same way at all? When do you decide “this is a great idea for a story” and how long is it before you decide that this story will stick, and that it will stand on its own and be something profound and hopefully true? How many stories have you seen all the way through as compared to stories you might have mapped out or begun only to dispose of later, if at all? Do you think the process of writing and scrapping this writing is a sort of teaching experience?
SR: I think the dustbin of our disposed stories is the best teacher. If my two published books sit humbly (or not so humbly) on a small corner of a shelf, my failed stories could populate a library. As they should. The stories that don’t work, the ones we throw out, teach us to value the words over vanity.
With regards to the origin of my stories, I wish I knew! They come from a sound or a scent; sometimes they rise from a sudden longing or memory. At other times, a searing image or an awful sorrow. Regardless, as storytellers, we must believe in this basic thing: we are the sea. It is all inside of us. Whether it will “stick,” knowing how to make it stick, that’s where the disposed stories come in: did you learn from them? Did you allow them to teach you? Did you study them as you would a lover’s face?
MT: As far as great story writers go, both today and in years and decades and even centuries past, who are your favorite story writers, and do you have favorite stories and story collections? What advice do you give to people who are trying to write great stories like yours, or simply don’t understand how a short story does work? What is the best advice you can give to an aspiring writer who wants to write stories as well as you, but in their own way and in their own voice?
SR: I love the novels and stories of Jean Rhys and Elfriede Jelinek and Flannery O’Connor and Roberto Bolaño and Nawal El Saadawi and…the list goes on and on, but the key is to read widely. And well. Never forget that you are a writer. So if you are sitting in a café, listen to how people talk. The cadence of their sentences, the music of their dialogue. And then mimic it in your stories. If you pass the same building on your work, imagine the lives inside. One day, imagine it is an insane asylum. On another, make it a home for orphaned children. On the next day, make it a brothel. Write the story of one life being lived inside. Write it in your head. That, too, is writing. Keep your imagination and your curiosity always engaged with the world. That, too, is writing. And if you feel like you know a character, or that you know yourself, go deeper. That, too, is writing.
MT: Speaking of finding your voice, a lot of authors take a long time—years, if not decades—to truly find their voice, trust their voice, and believe the voice they write in belongs to them. How long did it take you to find your voice?
SR: The easy answer is that it took fifteen years. The more complex answer is that we never findthe voice. It is an elusive, aggravating imp. Sometimes, in the middle of writing a sentence or a passage, you look up and realize you have no idea what day it is; you’ve forgotten what country you’re in. You’ve even forgotten there is such a thing as a country. That’s how wedded you are to the work. Is that the voice? Or is it the moments when you look up and think, I’m close, but maybe I can get closer. They are both your voice. Your effort. They both belong to you.
MT: I know the easy option out of this next question is “They’re both challenging in their own ways,” but I really am curious from your point of view—what has been more difficult for you, writing a story or story collection, or writing a whole novel? Even if you do go with “They’re both challenging in their own ways,” would you mind talking about how the process of writing Girls Burn Brighterand what challenges you faced with this novel? Did you ever feel like just giving up on the work, like so many writers have felt with great novels?
SR: I suppose if I never felt like giving up, then I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t challenging myself. I wasn’t going into the dangerous places, the necessary ones. These places are always fraught with uncertainty. But why does ‘giving up’ get such bad press? Doesn’t it take just as much courage to walk away as it does to stay? And doesn’t each abandonment (which also gets bad press) lead us closer to our next project? We learn from everything – the work we finish and the work we don’t. Each has its own nobility.
As for writing Girls Burn Brighter, I wrote it over the course of two months in the most isolated place I could find – the Badlands of South Dakota. I needed the silence. The emptiness. I needed to very clearly feel Poornima’s and Savitha’s fears. Is that how every book should be written? No. It is how one book got written. An Unrestored Womanwas written over the course of two years. With lots of stories that were thrown out or edited over the course of months.
So really, there is no one right way to write a story. Just as there is no one right way to live a life.
MT: When you begin writing, whether in a story or in a novel, what comes to you first—the story you want to tell or the character the story belongs to? Do they both come at once, sort of as a package deal? What is the most important element of developing a piece of fiction to you, and what is the most challenging?
SR: It’s all a bit of a hodgepodge. A great stew in which everything simmers. I wish I knew what came first – then I’d know where to look! I suppose the most important element, for me, is the plot (and thereby it is the most challenging). How do things happen in a story? What are the causal connections? Do they make sense? Do they have to make sense? These are always questions I struggle with; I am in awe of how the events of a story unfold. Aren’t you?
MT: When you began writing Girls Burn Brighter, did you know where it was going to take you? Is there anything you wrote that generally surprised you? And, of course, be as spoiler-free as you wish.
SR: I definitely knew where the novel was going to take me – I don’t start writing until I know the end of a story, though the beginning and the middle are always a total mystery. Even so, I was surprised by the friendship between Poornima and Savitha. Although I had set out to write the story of two friends, I had no idea of the depth of that friendship. I had no idea they would come to rely upon each other so beautifully, so utterly. They shared even their strength, even the last few droplets of their strength, across continents, across time, across ravages. I was astonished. I might’ve created them, but they taught me what it means to be a friend.
MT: When you read through your novel, do you ever pick favorite characters or scenes, and do you ever judge your characters? If you know the great writer Megan Abbott, she’s always warned me never to judge my characters. I’m wondering what your philosophy is on creating characters that are alive and breathing on the page, and how you view them and how you treat them as a god of sorts.
SR: Well, I see characters in the same way I see certain family members: I don’t always like them, but I do always love them. As for creating living, breathing characters on the page, I try to pinpoint the thing that haunts my characters. What is it that keeps them up at night; that invades their dreams? Because what haunts us is what makes us human.
And gods? No. No one is a god. We – myself, my characters – we are all fate’s playthings. But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? We can play, just as much as fate can play.
MT: Shobha, I am so thankful that you agreed to participate in an interview with me and address some basic writing issues as well as some very serious issues about how writing and art are affected by and changing the world around us. Your stories and your novel are both works that need to be read again and again, if for no other reason than the pure artistry and talent exhibited in your work. To everyone reading, Shobha’s An Unrestored Woman(her astonishing collection of stories) and Girls Burn Brighter(her brilliant novel) are available in bookstores and to order online now, as well as in audio form and ebook.
SR: Thank you!