Q: What do you think the major appeal of The Hand I Fan With has been?
A: Varnette Honeywood [the artist whose work appears on the cover] said there was a lot of sex in the book, but Lena really needed it. But what struck Varnette as much was the spirituality in the book. It was the first time she had seen a book depict the way black women really celebrate their spirituality and their religion. So many of us practice religion with "a little of this and a little of that," a lot of things we'd be drummed out of our churches for doing.
Q: How do you make eroticism and spirituality compatible?
A: When was the last time you hollered out Jesus' name? (Laughter) That's what I want to do in my work--remind us human beings of our connection to spirit. The spiritual and the erotic are so interwined, but most women don't really have time to sit and think about it. Lena is an example of that; she never has time to sit and think or notice what's going on around her. True eroticism is everything about us, what moves us, what touches our spirits, not just the trappings.
In writing about Lena, I had a chance to examine all of the sensations that give us pleasure--the feel of a silk stocking, the delicious smells of Herman, her lover. When I opened myself up to the world, everything became erotic--the clothes Lena wore, the furniture, the way Herman stands back in his legs, their lovemaking, Lena cooking Herman a meal. It's the eroticism of everyday life.
Q: One of the things that is interesting about the book is that Herman really unlocks that door for Lena, the door to discovering herself and sensual pleasures. Early on, there's the symbolism of the locked room Lena discovers that is Herman's space. Later, there are passages where, through her love for Herman, Lena notices things on her property for the first time.
A: Oh yes, she's got a hundred acres and she doesn't even have time to watch the seasons change! But quite frankly, Lena is like all of us, too busy, too caught up in what we're doing to really see what's right under our noses.
Q: But Lena is rich.
A: Another reader once said to me, "I wonder if people will be able to identify with Lena because she's got so much." But I don't think Lena is so different from the rest of us. We may not recognize it, but we have acquired a lot of stuff, our lives are full of stuff. But where I think women will relate to Lena regardless of her material possessions is that Lena is the hand everybody fans with.
Q: It doesn't matter what you have.
A: It's what everybody expects you to give. Especially with black women, you're expected to give everything you have and you're expected to give it effortlessly . . . not to make demands, not to keep a little something for yourself. That's considered selfish. I was raised that way; it would be unseemly to ask for anything for myself, unseemly to serve myself before being sure everyone else had what they wanted.
Q: Lena is born with a caul over her face. In many cultures (African American, European, Native American, Caribbean), it is believed that a person born with a "veil" is clairvoyant or may have special powers. Yet Lena is divorced from the spiritual side of herself and struggles through Baby of the Family with a sense of always being different and being afraid of that difference. Yet by the end of The Hand I Fan With she learns to make peace with this aspect of her life. What is the significance of the caul in your books?
A: As we move into another century, I think all of our citizens, but particularly black folks, have to claim what's ours. We've got to acknowledge who we are as a people, what and where we came from, what we believe in, what got us to where we are today. We've got to stop jettisoning things that are important--whether it's the blues, what we call superstitions, our folklore, what our mothers wore fifty years ago. This is our stuff, and it's very much time at the end of the century, at the end of the millennium, for us to remember who we are and what we need to carry of ourselves into the next era.
It's also very important to claim our sense of spirituality, our connection to Mother Earth. These are the things that got us through the horrors of the Middle Passage, delivered us to these shores, and got us through slavery and up into freedom. And to just throw these things over our shoulders, to discard them like so much trash, as Lena's mother did with her child's caul, is suicidal.
Q: What else did you consider in writing about Herman and Lena?
A: I think when you write a love story in the nineties you've got to think about the quality of the relationship, but you also think, I don't want the woman being saved by a man--she's a woman in her own right. But then I stopped and thought, Hey, wait a minute--we all need saving right now in this world. We could all use not necessarily a savior in the religious sense of the word, but someone to guide us, to help us along this path called life. So in that sense I really do think that Herman saves Lena rescues her inner life, resurrects her sexual life--but it is something she asked for, something she wanted.
Q: Speaking of the earth, Lena's connection to nature is very powerful. What's your inspiration for writing about nature?
A: I could not have written this book without my garden, without being in my garden. Sometimes it's so beautiful and rich when you've been working it with compost that you just want to take a bite out of it.
But it's not just the gardening that gives me a sense of being connected to the earth, it's also living on an island, a place that not only is lush and green and beautiful but also contains so much of our history.
Q: When Lena and Herman are making love in the field in the "Blackberry" chapter, you see the images of the earth and eroticism and spirituality coming together. It is reminiscent of a passage in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God when Janie is lying on the earth.
A: I wanted The Hand I Fan With to be a paean to Zora Neale Hurston, who, whether we admit it or not, is truly the literary mother of all contemporary black women writers (and many white women writers as well). When I discovered Hurston in college, it changed my life . . . to know that writing could be literature and still sound like colored folks. That was a very powerful experience for me. Hurston freed us up to claim our places as black women writers, whether you agree with her politics or not.
She wrote of a people, of being connected to a place. She always made herself a part of the place where she was--the small towns of Florida, a ritual in Haiti. The Hand I Fan With is a tribute not only to Their Eyes Were Watching God but to everything Hurston embodied--her sense of connectedness to her people and the earth, her love of the southem ways, her sense of being centered.
Q: One of the things you write about in the book that is connected to eroticism is the notion of "the change." In your second novel, Ugly Ways, the change Mudear underwent meant more than menopause, but in Lena's case "the change" is depicted as not the end of Lena's sexual life but an opening up to her other powers.
A: The human race has got to stop kicking and screaming our way through this world. We've got to stop struggling against change. We've got to stop saying, "When I lose those ten pounds or wear that ideal size, then I'll have a man and then I can start having a life." We've got to stop looking for something outside of our experience of the moment to be perfect so we can say, "This is it!" And if Lena's moment is the change of life, then that's the best possible thing that can happen to her. We've got to--and I sure include myself in this-- grasp and enjoy the adventure of life in this moment.
Q: Lena doesn't have children, yet there are wonderful passages about her passing on the wisdom of her life to young people.
A: Lena's relationship with these children was so important for me to capture, and doing so absolutely changed my thinking about my own life. Writing about her relationship with these young people gave me somewhere to put my feelings about children, to express the wish I have that we all act as the village that's raising our young people. Herman tells Lena, "You don't have to have any babies out your own body to be a mother." And the realization of that absolutely saved my life, gave me a whole new perspective on the need we all have to mother these young children and the absolute obligation we have to do that, whether they are "ours" or not.
Q: What is there about Mulberry that allows you to go back again and again and explore so many different lives?
A: I live in a small town on an island off the coast of Georgia that's twelve miles by four miles, and among the things that I discovered when I moved here were the intricacies, the minutiae, the lessons that are present in a small community of any kind. There is something about the intensity of this world that's easier to write about than writing a story set in Atlanta or New York or Los Angeles. That's a different kind of complexity. And for me a small town is a manageable complex universe. You know you can get to know the people. But I've found even when writers write about a big city, they invariably write about a small community--whether it's just a household or the whole of Brooklyn.
Q: What's next?
A: I hope my novels are all connected, part of a whole, with one idea leading to another. So my next novel, You KNOW Better, is about our children, our young people. In it, I explore how are they living now, how they got to this point, and how we can best reclaim and love them.