Could you begin by explaining your personal connection to the book and what inspired you to write The Professors Daughter?
It started with Bernie and Me, which was the first short story I wrote at graduate school, in a workshop with novelist Paule Marshall. Its a semi-autobiographical story of a young woman named Emma who has a black parent and a white parent, but who is herself racially ambiguous. Her older brother, Bernie, is the only person with whom she can identify. When he suffers a bizarre accident and winds up brain-dead, shes left alone to navigate her place in this society so stratified by race. At the end of the story, she is confronted by that solitude. She has to grow into herself.
Bernie and Me was well received. It won the Chicago Tribunes Nelson Algren Award and was subsequently published in both Callaloo and African Voices. Paule Marshall thought it could be the genesis for a novel and encouraged me to expand it but I really didnt want to. Writing a book based on my own life struck me as both solipsistic and painful so I avoided the idea for the rest of my time at grad school. Instead, I wrote a short story about a mathematician from Iran, an Upper West Side nanny from Haiti and a slave boy on pirate ship in the Caribbean. These stories were all published, but none of them had the heart of Bernie and Me.
After I graduated, I did a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where my writing studio was in a converted dairy barn overlooking a cow pasture. Being in the relative South inspired me to write Bernard Jr.s Uncle Luscious. I wrote it in three days, without sleeping. Bernard Jr. is Emmas father. The story describes his life as a boy growing up in the Deep South under Jim Crow and takes place the summer before he goes to New Orleans to desegregate a Catholic boys school. At the end of this particular summer, he learns that his father was lynched. After I wrote it, I realized that the story I had to tell was rather large a family story and a national one. It was larger than Emma; it was larger than me. It needed to be told from multiple points of view.
Those two stories, Bernie and Me, and Bernard Jr.s Uncle Luscious, became the first two chapters of The Professors Daughter.
Did you have any idea the book would turn out as it did? How did you go about it?
No. Im not a plot-driven writer. I didnt know how the book would end when I began. I didnt even understand what it was about. All I had was a family of complex, confused characters who needed to act. If I told someone I was writing a book, and they asked me, Whats it about? What happens? I had no idea what to say. They may as well have been asking me, What are you about? Whats going to happen to you? But who knows how to answer that in one sentence? Eventually, I discovered the books meaning through the act of writing; by having the characters make choices. Issues I was grappling with, issues of identity and faith, were resolved through the painful act of writing. In a way, writing this book helped me grow up. I am not the same person I was when I began.
I went about it by forcing myself to return to my desk everyday. It was hard work, like pulling teeth. I made deals with myself. If you write for three hours, you can spend a half hour watching TV. If you get to the end of this page, you can take a shower. When that failed, I committed to another writing residency (at the Sacatar Foundation in Bahia, Brazil) where there were fewer distractions. In this way, I disciplined myself. It helped that midway through this process I got a book deal. I had to produce because Id already been paid! Plus, I felt I had something important to get out. I was writing the book I wanted to read as a teenager, after all. The one that didnt exist.
You have written many short stories. As youve explained, this book began in stories. Which do you prefer, the short story or the novel?
My commute from Brooklyn (where I live) to Harlem (where I teach) takes an hour and a half on the subway. The only way I can justify spending three hours out of my day underground is to spend it reading. I love short stories because I can start and finish them in the time it takes to get to work or back home again.
That said, I dont really have a preference between the short story and the novel. Im not so sure theyre such divergent terms, either. My favorite novels tend to be episodic Don Quixote, the big Russian novels, anything by Dickens where each chapter is its own discrete unit. I had certain books in mind as I was assembling mine: Louise Erdrichs Love Medicine, William Faulkners The Sound and the Fury and James Baldwins Go Tell it On the Mountain. We refer to these books as novels but they could just as easily be described as collections of linked stories. They all center on a family. I borrowed that structural idea, where the family is the glue for multiple perspectives.
Much of your book seems to be based on your own life even your protagonists name is similar to your own. What parts are autobiographical?
Yes, much of the book has its basis in my autobiography but all of it is fictionalized. I took certain situations or emotional states Id experienced, such as loneliness, and dramatized them, sometimes to soap operatic proportions. For example, I do have a brother whom I adore, just like Emma does, but thankfully, unlike Bernie, he never landed in a coma. (I have two other brothers, whom I adore as well, who are not characterized in the book at all.) Emmas name resembles mine because shes like me. The book takes place in Princeton, NJ, where I grew up. My father is a professor there, just like Bernard.
The truth of the book lies in its emotion, not in its facts. Its a novel, not a memoir. At a certain point I stopped thinking of Emma as me, Bernie as my brother, Bernard as my father. They became unique individuals. Reality was the point of departure for making huge imaginative leaps.
This business of writing from life is pretty ordinary, by the way. I believe most novelists do it and Im not sure it can be avoided. Its probably just a more obvious tactic in my book because I was less inventive about masking names. Theres a sage piece of writing advice: Write about what you know. For me, it was more like writing about what I wanted to know. I had to depart from a point of familiarity because I was so young at the time I began the book that I really didnt know about anything else.
What about the lynching of Bernards father? Is that based on your family history?
Yes, like much of the book, that has its basis in truth. My grandfather was killed while my father was still in utero. My father is named Albert, after him, as is my brother, who has a baby boy he named Albert too. But, my tactic was to dramatize and depart from actual events. In the book, Bernards father is a star baseball player. That has no basis in reality whatsoever. It was just an excuse to write about the Negro American League, which I was interested in at the time.
How does it make you feel to have these parts of yourself and your family exposed? How has your family reacted to your book?
Ill admit to feeling vulnerable. I pretty much coughed up my soul and put it on paper. But Im not going to feel personally rejected if someone criticizes my book. Im proud of who I am and where I come from and what I wrote. My familys proud too. Fundamentally, they understand that my motive was not to expose us, but to honor us.
The books narration blurs the lines between past and present. Was this a stylistic decision you made from the outset?
Close to the outset, yes. It happened when I realized that Emmas story was also her fathers story. Ultimately, my book is a father/daughter story, as the title indicates. In order to convey this, I had to write about Bernards origins. I didnt want to be trapped in Emmas head because she was passive and confused. That was an impasse. The book couldnt grow from there. But the historical source of her confusion, that was another matter.
As a writer, I found it really freeing to travel back in time and space. I think most of us have a romance with the era of our parents youth. In my case, imagining that time was also a nightmare. I had to be very conscious about not portraying Bernard as a victim, although he was victimized by racism in terrible ways.
Was there a character more difficult to write than the others?
Not really. Emmas my obvious mouthpiece, but I found myself in all the characters. It was a bit challenging to write from Bernies perspective in a vegetative state. Ive never been in a coma, thank God, so I had to use my imagination and draw from the closest thing Ive been to unconsciousness, which is asleep. You know how youre aware of sound when you sleep? How, for example, the bleating of your alarm clock might manifest in your dream as a crying cat? Bernie experiences sound like that. When Emma speaks to him at his bedside, he cant understand her words but he can visualize her voice. To him it is a little brown bird. The close rhythm of his own heart is a train. Sound becomes language and sight for him, because he can no longer speak or see. This made sense to me because Bernie was a musician before his accident.
Who has been the biggest influence on your work?
I was operating under two literary traditions when I wrote The Professors Daughter. The more obvious one is African-American. There is a tradition of autobiography among African-American letters, beginning with the slave narratives, in which the author has a burning need to testify to their experience. Because we are deemed inferior, subhuman and invisible, we have this need to justify our humanity. Whats unusual about black autobiography, is that it tends to be written at the start of adulthood, rather than from the vantage of the end of a life lived. It is as if we need to write our story so we can begin, so we can claim power, so we can create our own image. In that sense, writing is a political act. Several African-American novels borrow from this tradition, including James Weldon Johnsons Autobiography of an ex-Colored Man, Ernest Gainess Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Ralph Ellisons masterpiece, The Invisible Man. I had those books in mind when I wrote mine.
The other written tradition Im planted in is Catholic. This will be less obvious to most readers because race is such a hot-button issue, but to my mind, the book is more about matters of faith than matters of race. The three Bernards are all reluctant Christ-figures. The first Bernard is crucified. The second is perceived as his communitys messiah. The death of the third is what saves Emma, what sets her free. Flannery OConnor, Graham Greene and Walker Percy were big influences on me. They all considered themselves Catholic writers, as do I. Some readers compare the magical tendencies in my book to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He was an influence too, but the more direct source is my Catholic upbringing. What is more magical than the resurrection? Or the idea of the Eucharist that bread is body and wine is blood. Whats more fantastic than the life of a saint? I grew up believing in miracles, you see.
These two traditions arent mutually exclusive. Almost all of the slave narratives are of a spiritual nature. Flannery OConnor understood something about the link between the suffering of blacks and the salvation of America. She struggled with that idea in The Artificial Nigger, which is her best short story in my opinion, and the one she was most proud of.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Because Im racially ambiguous people always ask me, What are you? Its an unsettling question and an existential one. It used to bother me when people asked me that. It felt like they didnt know how to communicate with me until they had me categorized, especially since they werent satisfied if I responded, Im human. What they want to know is my race. But heres the thing. What a person looks like, or what they dont look like, is the least important thing about them.
When people ask my brother what he is, he says, Dont worry about it, which I think is a pretty good answer. Nowadays, I usually say, Im human, but what you really want to know is why I look the way I do. That puts the onus on them for asking such a dumb question: What are you? I wrote this book both to undermine that question and to answer it. I cant be pigeonholed. There is no word for me. Im a child of God. Im my history. Im brand new. Thats true of every human being on this planet. Thats what I want people to take away from my book.