Q: Where did the idea for Kinfolks come from?
A: I knew a number of women in the sixties who had been involved in the movement, the revolution, and who went to the extreme of having children without a husband. It was a trend going on around the country at the time. Back then people were doing anything they could to not be part of "the system"--and marriage was definitely part of the system. It seems strange now, but that's what was going on. They didn't have to take that path--these women had full lives and were very successful--but that's the choice they made. I then began to wonder about the results of those past decisions in the present day. What would happen if the children they had were actually siblings? And in fact, I knew a number of kids from those single mothers who were siblings. I didn't personally know their father, although I had heard about him, and I began to wonder what his appeal could be.
Q: Why did you write such an amusing book at such a grim period in our history? Considering the seriousness of the race problems in this country, did you ever consider addressing them and the other grave problems African Americans face in a more solemn fashion?
A: It is my considered opinion that the race crisis in America is so dreadful and persistent that it has driven many people mad--particularly those who contemplate it seriously and intently all the time in search of solutions. Taking time out to laugh at and with ourselves may be a way of staying sane. It's my way, anyway. I think it's also the way in which the blues foster mental health.
I do what I can, in whatever ways I can, to address serious problems. I have written some angry articles and stories that deal with the cruelty of racism. Now I have written a humorous, but not, I hope, frivolous book.
Q: You've written a book narrated by black women. Does it advance the cause of feminism by bashing black men, like other recently popular works?
A: God, I hope not. That was not my intention; in fact, I tried to take great care to make Gene oblivious to the situations he had left behind and to make the women fully responsible for their choices. I love black men and do not think a people already under siege and desperate are helped when one half of them is set against the other half.
Q: What do you think the feminist movement has to offer black women?
A: Not much. Mainly it sets us up to front the causes of others who tend to reap the benefits and then desert us. I have noticed that a lot of creative sisters tend to bow to white feminism as if they feel they must in order to get their work out there. I don't like that tendency. If we need a movement to celebrate our already strong sense of sisterhood and self, let's get one of our own. We don't need to hitch a ride on someone else's train. It may not be headed for a destination that is good for us.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important book published by an African American in this century?
A: Roots by Alex Haley. Not because it was an engrossing or easily readable book (it wasn't), but because its wide popularity made people go out and find their scattered relatives and start having regular family reunions. And from those reunions we are slowly developing other important things: a sense of who we are, our history, including where we came from, pride and unity, but also new relationships with kin, support networks, business networks, family projects (like history books and restored homesteads), and, hopefully, family institutions (like scholarships and credit unions).
Q: What, in your opinion, is the single most destructive force in America as far as black folks are concerned?
A: Television. It made us riot and loot in the sixties by showing us the casual wealth of most American households and making us realize for the first time that we were poor. (Rioting, of course, was not all bad, though looting was and is something to be concerned about because it says that we have caught the national lust for stuff.) We watch more TV than other groups because it's free and we have less money. It has made too many of us crave possessions at the cost of our humanity, and given our youngsters role models of ruthless violence as a means of acquiring them.
Q: What is your next literary project?
A: My next project will be a serious memoir in collaboration with my husband, John Lattany. By describing a successful way of life black people once had in the rural South, we hope to suggest some strategies for the present and the future. I also have a comic screenplay under way that contains a serious message, and am thinking about another novel.
Q: Aren't you planning to write about the inner city anymore?
A: No, because the news from the ghetto these days is all bad, and I like to give my readers hope. I do not believe the despair, degradation, and danger that have overtaken our cities is the fault of the people who are trapped there. It is the fault of the employers and successful people who have fled, and of cynical profiteers, including dope importers and distributors, and the media who keep beaming our children messages of violence and greed.
Q: Is there a theme that predominates in your fiction? What is it, and where does it come from?
A: Yes. The theme is the search for family. The Landlord trying to find a family with his tenants; Miss Lean adopting a son in The Survivors; the orphaned Bella in The Lakestown Rebellion calling the residents of her small town family and informally adopting her husband's child; Lou in Lou in the Limelight finding not one but three surrogate mothers--Jerutha Jackson, her Georgia cousin, and the nurse who looks after her. And in Kinfolks the circle of mothers who consider themselves kin because their children are kin.
All of this, of course, reflects my personal lack of close blood family and my lifelong search for family substitutes. It is probably, also, reflective of a search for affectionate mothering, because my mother's love was rather tough. I may also have expressed a fairly idealistic view of how families relate because I haven't really known much about that and have been guilty of a lot of wishful thinking. I am becoming realistic, though, and learning that family life isn't all hugs, kisses, acceptance, and support; that it often is not a picnic in a meadow, but a minefield. The love and support are often there, of course, along with a sense of responsibility for one another, but families also harbor a lot of anger, guilty secrets, resentment, hatred, and just plain craziness. Learning to accept this is, for me, part of growing up.
Q: You mean you aren't grown up? How old do you feel?
A: My new motto is "Forever Forty." Sometimes I feel about three hundred years old because I lived through decades that felt like speeded-up eras: the fifties, with their witch hunts and their conservatism; the sixties, in which my people suffered for the right to live with human dignity while the majority only wanted the right to get high; the seventies, which brought a renaissance in the arts for black folks and opened doors for us in academia and the professions; the eighties, in which this country resumed business as usual, raping and pillaging the rest of us. And now the nineties, which have shut most of the doors the civil rights struggle opened, and resemble, in their meanness and violence, the reaction to Reconstruction a hundred years ago. Looking back on it all can make one tired. And depressed.
Q: To which black women authors would you like to be compared?
A: The late Zora Neale Hurston and the late Toni Cade Bambara, for their healthy self-esteem and their humor. If I ever approach either woman's metaphysical growth I will consider myself fully successful.
Q: What about Terry McMillan?
A: I am grateful to her for building a wide readership for the work of black women writers, but I think we are about different things.
Q: Your books have been widely translated and well received and have earned numerous awards and honors, including a National Book Award nomination. What sort of pressure comes from that kind of recognition and success?
A: The pressure comes when publicity turns you into a public figure. I think that's bad for a writer; at least it was for me. It puts a false patina on our relationships with others. I'd much rather people focus their attention on what I write rather than on me as a "personality." I love being with people and having relationships with them, but being a "celebrity" sets up an artificial relationship. I used to be able to slip in and out of scenes unnoticed. I would get a chance to observe people instead of having to talk about myself all the time as you and I are doing right now. When The Landlord was made into a movie I was invited everywhere. Everyone introduced me as if my name was "Landlord," because they were mesmerized by the Hollywood connection. People become interested in you when what you really want is for people to tell you about themselves because that's where your material comes from.
Q: One reviewer wrote, "The voices and movements of these characters are so distinctive that you don't even have to look at the top of the page for clarification as to whom you are listening or watching." How do you find and latch onto these distinctive voices?
A: I don't really know. I try to have a feeling for the people and from that I get the way they would express themselves. Cherry, for example, is kind of neurotic and serious because she's a recovering drunk. Aisha is spoiled. Saint is just a good boy--everyone's ideal son--until he starts to mess up. The father, Gene, is pretentious and blind even before he actually loses his eyesight. He would have to be blind to his surroundings to leave this trail of children and not even know about them.
Q: What do you see as the main difference between the generation of Gene, Patrice, Cherry, and the other mothers, and the generation of their children?
A: The older generation is concerned about causes, about reform, and about the group as a whole. The children, for the most part, are more self-absorbed. They're not involved in any political movement, never were, and probably never will be. They're involved in their coming careers and each other and that's about it. Unfortunately there's no big movement for them to latch onto, so they've become more concerned about simply surviving or making it.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
A: I'd like them to get a good feeling. I'd like them to try to emulate the caring that's in this story and to realize that that's one of the strengths of a good community. When caring is missing, everything else falls apart. Caring is the glue that holds things together.
© Copyright 2013 by Jane Haddem. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine. All rights reserved.
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