Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Pearl Cleage Discusses Her Newest Novel, "Just Wanna Testify"

PC: First of all, I just want to say that you are without doubt one of my all-time favorite authors. I have read all of your books. They are not only brilliantly written, but they give me a hope for my people.
You are not one of these authors who churn out two or three books a year. In fact, you always leave your fans desperately waiting on the next novel. How long does it take you to write a book? Do you write every day?

PC: It takes me about a year to write a book. I always complain about deadlines, but the truth is, i think having a deadline is an important part of the discipline required to actually finish the book in a timely fashion. I am very disciplined about my writing schedule and when I'm working on a book or a play, i write from 10 to 4 every day except Sunday. Everybody needs a day off to let your mind relax and refresh itself. I know many writers who like the finished product, but really don't enjoy the process of getting all those words on paper. I'm not like that. I actually love the process of discovering characters, figuring out the plot, deciding which word says exactly what you're trying to say. It's the only kind of work I know how to do!

My daughter always tells her friends at college that her mother is one of those idealistic people who believes that African American neighborhoods can survive, turnaround and be healthy again. Obviously, you are too. Where does that come from?

PC: I believe that the many of the problems we face in African American communities come from high unemployment. I grew up in Detroit and when the auto industry was booming and everybody who wanted to work could find at least one job, and usually as much overtime as they could handle, it was a great place to live. The unions had guaranteed workers living wages and people bought homes, educated their children, and retired with secure pensions. Once the factories moved out of Detroit because they didn't want to pay living wages and they knew they could move their factories to places where unions had little or no power, the city fell apart. The availability of drugs, from crack to heroin, made matters worse and soon neighborhoods became a contest between predators and those being preyed upon. Detroit is an extreme example, but i think many of the neighborhoods some of us have given up on across the country are so awful because people aren't working. Without work people not only can't pay their bills, they have no frame for their lives. Families fall apart, houses can't be repaired, homelessness becomes a constant reality. So... I have no illusions or romanticized ideas about the problem. What i do believe is that jobs are at the heart of the problem. I also believe that there are poor, jobless, hopeless people of every race in america and when we stop thinking of our communities in strictly racial terms, we can more likely find solutions that cross racial lines, too.

How would you describe “Blue Hamilton,” and is he someone you’ve known?

PC: I love the Blue Hamilton character. He's a fictional character, but i "borrowed" a lot of his character traits from my husband, Zaron Burnett, who is the kind of man who takes responsibility for the place where he lives. I think that Blue is a complex character. He's capable of great romantic love, but he is also willing to do the things necessary to keep the bad guys under control. He is a man capable of producing beautiful music, but he's also a man who is prepared to "eliminate" neighborhood predators who cross the line. He's a good father with high expectations for young people and a willingness to be involved in the development of young men. Plus, I love that he can remember past lives. My husband described a past life to me in conversation a few years ago, and at first I thought he was kidding. When I realized he was serious, I asked him to tell me everything he could remember. It was pretty amazing to me so I asked him if I could use that moment for Blue. He generously agreed! The truth is, all the good guys in my books and plays are similiar to my husband. He's a really good man!

You delve into topics that other African American authors only scratch the surface of (i.e. AIDS, drug addiction, domestic violence). What makes you so courageous and intent on telling it like it is?

PC: I’m always trying to tell the truth of what I know and what I see outside my window, watching my neighbors going about their lives. All the problems I write about are real to me because they are taking place all around me. If I lived in a quiet little village in New Hampshire, I'd probably be telling different stories. I write what I know -- the good, the bad, and the ugly!

I still live in the same neighborhood I grew up in which is a very different place than it was even 30 years ago. Can one person really make a difference? Any suggestions on where those of us who refuse to leave can begin?

PC: I think one person can always make a difference. These problem neighborhoods can only change one house, one street, at a time. It's difficult because during the transitions these neighborhoods are often unsafe, especially for women. I don't have any suggestions beside the obvious ones; get to know your neighbors; be in touch with your elected officials; try to get people who would be good neighbors interested in your community; and be open to a more diverse population in neighborhoods that are now primarily African American. I also find it is really helpful to plant a garden, grow some flowers, go outside and water your grass, sit on the porch and drink a glass of wine. The more people are out and about and know each other, the better it is for everyone! Plus, you can't beat fresh tomatoes and collard greens in your backyard garden!

You newest novel “Just Wanna Testify” will be released May 10th. Can you give us a “sneak peek?” I can’t wait!!

PC: “Just Wanna Testify” is set in West End and brings back many characters who have appeared in my other books, including Blue and Regina Hamilton, Peachy and Aunt Abbie, Aretha and Joyce Ann. The new characters are five beautiful women who are in town to collect a debt owed them by five young men about to graduate from Morehouse. Tall, thin and strangely attracted to tomato juice, these women are not the high fashion models they seem to be, but who, or what, are they? Only Blue Hamilton seems to know. The question is, what's he going to do about it? Okay! that's enough for one beautiful friday afternoon. Thanks for your interest and support!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for giving us something to look forward to next week - reading a just-relesed Pearl Cleage novel! I "Justa Wanna Testify" that Pearl Cleage is in a league all by herself. Some years ago, I introduced her books to my youngest sister and she, too, has proclaimed her to be one of her favorite authors. We are always left waiting for her next, immediately after finishing her latest! Her writings leave you with a sense of energy to plant tomatoes, basil and marigolds or daisies,side-by-side in the same little 4x4 plot of ground, right smack in the middle of your grassy urban lawn. It's amazing how the neighborhood will respond. In a few years, every other house on your block will have strawberry plants growing along the ground under rose bushes. A "bloom where you're planted" attitude is contageous. It's absolutely amazing how many neighbors will smile and exchange greetings when one person cultivates a "spirit of community." Our City library has a heirloom seed exchange. If more African American religious, community and civic leaders would take on an appreciation for "praising the bridge that brought them safely across" and stop fleeing to the "suburbs", as soon as, they have two nickels to rub together, young African American youth could experience and become "Blue Hamiltons" to reclaim what we so desperately need to bring back a sense of community and kinship.

I sure hope Pearl Cleague will do a book tour to the San Francisco Bay Area.