I'm a short blonde woman, nearly invisible, and everywhere I go, people tell me their stories. At the DMV, our clerk relates how her mother came from Cape Verde, off the coast of western Africa. At the gym, a woman tells me an astonishing story about how a sister poisoned a brother and stole his best friend. Trimming sunflowers in my front yard, I listen when total strangers stop and say, "I heard you're a writer — I have a story for you." An elderly woman, standing at my fence, told me about a baby born to a white high school student and a Chinese shopkeeper, back in the early 1900s, and where the baby ended up.
Everyone wants someone to listen, and I'm the only writer in my community — I write letters for people who can't, I write the funeral programs and obituaries for our family and friends, and at night, I write novels. I've spent the last five years working on Take One Candle Light a Room, a novel based on four indelible elements: a porch story, a murder, a snatch of overheard conversation, and a face I saw sometimes when I was 18.
Years ago, I wrote letters to the Veterans Administration for a close friend's father. Mr. G liked to sit on my porch after we finished composing. One day, he told me how his father died when his mother was pregnant with him, deep in the pine forests of Florida, and how when he was seven, he was tired of being hungry, so he walked with a hammer to a farm a few miles away and killed a pig. He dragged the pig back to his mother and told her he wanted some meat. The fierce anger of his desperation was still in his throat even at 65, his turquoise eyes stark against his brown skin.
Every day on my way to work, I pass a vacant lot and remember a 17-year-old girl found dead there, strangled, folded into a metal shopping cart. Her mother told the newspaper that police wouldn't care who killed her daughter, because she was just a pregnant young black woman; the hurt on her own face never left me.
When I was about 18, I overhead someone say, "Well, we came out to California in 1950-something because Mr. — had decided he was gonna come get —" A powerful white man felt he deserved the favors of a beautiful young light-skinned black woman. The family left in the night.
That same year, I rode a work bus with the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. Her skin was like hammered gold, her eyebrows like black hummingbird tail feathers, her throat and long black hair and hollow collarbones drove men crazy. They said outrageous things to her, trying to get her attention, and she only stared out the window. Once we heard a love song on the radio, and she said softly to the bus driver that she'd only loved one man, and she couldn't have him.
There are writers who travel all over the world for their stories, and writers who never leave home. I was born in Riverside, California, and though I left for college, I came back immediately, and somehow, this year, writing this novel,I realized a truth only when one of my characters said it: There are two kinds of people — those who leave and those who stay.
Fantine Antoine says this when she comes home to the isolated orange grove where her father is a man like Mr. G. She is the main character in Take One Candle Light a Room, a travel writer in Los Angeles who's deliberately distanced herself from her rural family in southern California and Louisiana. She knows how her mother and the other women in her family got to California — they fled in the night after a powerful man raped three of their girlfriends in rural Louisiana. She knows her father was orphaned on the levee of a Louisiana river during the 1927 Great Flood with a seven-year-old boy, who watched his mother shot and floating down the floodwaters, and who killed a pig with a hammer to feed himself and the other boy. They made each other into brothers, those children. Decades later, one of them had a daughter who was so beautiful, skin like hammered gold, that her life could never be normal. When she couldn't have the one man she loved, she abandoned her own son.
That son, Victor, Fantine's "nephew" and godson, grows into a dreadlocked intellectual who wants to be a music writer, a kid who loves The Who and Led Zeppelin and wants to hip the world to Gecko Turner, a Spanish musician who names himself after an iconic blues singer and writes about Nigerian prostitutes in Madrid. But Victor's riding with his childhood friends, who involve him in a shooting in Los Angeles. When he pleads with Fantine for help, she refuses at first and then finds herself driving across the country with her father to try and save her godson, a journey that will force her to face the realities of her own life and choices.
Fantine was named for a young slave who saved Fantine's ancestor, Moinette. (Moinette was the main character in my last novel, A Million Nightingales; I began that book while watching my three daughters sleep, their varying shades of gold and almond skin, hair splayed out on their pillows. I imagined what their lives might be like in the early 1800s, how they would be valued only for beauty, and how a mother would feel each night, frightened to wake up and find them sold away.) Slaves made each other into blood family, and clan is still that way today.
Being the only writer in my community means this: it feels like a moral imperative to tell the story, and to tell it right, because it was entrusted to me. African-American history, as my three daughters know, is so often an oral tradition, and the legends in our family are epic. However it happened that I got to be the one, and that I read Eudora Welty, Ernest J. Gaines, and James Baldwin when I was very young and understood that they, too, were the storytellers, I can only be mystified and grateful.
One other image began this novel: when the moon is full, and it rises in a certain way behind the palm trees that line my street, the bright light makes the palms' tossing fronds look like an enormous lit sparkler. Victor's mother shows him that image, and it makes life beautiful even from the balcony of a drug-infested apartment complex, and even if only for a moment.
A porch story, a murder, a snatch of conversation, a stranger's face: my books come from places like these, and from sights like a palm tree firework, the glimpse of a man seen out of a car window, a photograph in a newspaper, and from all the stories people tell in my community, stories that might never exist on paper if someone hadn't leaned in close and asked, "What happened then?"
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Susan Straight is the author of six novels, including A Million Nightingales and the National Book Award finalist Highwire Moon. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, and NPR’s All Things Considered. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside.
Books mentioned in this post
Susan Straight is the author of Take One Candle Light a Room