Keenan Norris interview with Meg Tuite
What was your inspiration for this tough, amazing character, Erycha?
My inspiration for the story was an amazing young woman whom I dated several years ago and who was a very close friend for many years. She lives in New York now and works in Arts Administration at a university there. When I was with her she was a singer and dancer. I picture Erycha having the same kind of body: Not tall, not big. Her proportions would not mark her as shapely for a black girl. But she, like Erycha and like other dancers I've known since, white as well as black, reported that at the most elemental level of her body's outline, its given form, she was simply too shapely for ballet. That's always struck me as a helluva fact: That one could be disqualified from participation in an art form, never mind whatever technical expertise and love of the art one might have, solely because of one's shape. The art excludes the vast majority of black women and Latinas (Misty Copeland being an exception), and is not all that kind to the majority of white women. Economists call it "Barriers to Entry." But for all its Barriers to Entry, it is a truly beautiful, difficult and demanding craft. It's this that draws Erycha to it, even if the art form is letting her know she is not welcome.
Erycha learns through life’s brutal lessons some real eye-opening truths about her family and her life ahead. Can you expound on this?
Erycha hasn't so much been kept from the truth of her family's past as much as she has simply been witness to heated arguments that offer fragmentary and often contradictory information. In the course of my unpublished novel The Aframericans (that this story is taken from) the mysteries are revealed. Erycha, her mother and father live in a shabby, dangerous apartment complex. If you take a trip into San Bernardino or West Highland and visit around you'll get the idea. It's not for the faint of will there. Erycha learns this. She knows by the story's end that she is living in a place where violence is common, theft is common, where people are hustling and risking their lives and their freedom to pay the rent, to keep from being robbed, all that. The wider world, as represented by the Clarksons and the police, is ineffectual because they know nothing of her and nothing of her world and have no imperative to learn about either. Her imperative is to survive everything, from confused white people to grinding poverty. Erycha intends to survive her circumstances. She is learning to work the kinds of jobs that no recession or prohibition can kill. She's learning to be shrewd, to keep out of the way of the police, to not get robbed, and to defend herself.
What are you reading at this time?
Song of Solomon. Realized I hadn't actually read it, just listened to it as a book on tape with my parents many years ago.
Until Judgement Comes by Opal Palmer Adisa. An interesting book of short stories about Jamaican men.
Who would you say are your most important influences in writing?
It's been a long time since last I thought about my "influences" as a writer. I think one develops their voice and hones in on their preoccupations and passions and, in a sense, that's that. Everything I've read influences me, but what I've read in recent years is far less directly influential than when my late wonderful dad gave me Go Tell It On the Mountain and The Fire Next Time in my teens. Baldwin's prose (which I later learned was derived dually out of the cadences of the black church sermon and the long expository passages strewn throughout Henry James' novels) were an influence on my line-by-line writing. It also helped me to understand just how powerful the poetics of the Bible are and how integral they are to black speech. Faulkner's novels are another major influence. I read his major works when I was eighteen and those, even more than Baldwin's essays and novels, taught me a great deal.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on my dissertation. I teach in Northern California but I am ABD (All But Dissertation) at the University of California, Riverside. Briefly, the dissertation concerns the publishing industry, historical and current, and Black American writers' relationship to it, historical and current. I'm re-writing a novella, expanding it into a full novel. It's about the aftermath of a major earthquake centered in Oakland. The survivors migrate to a Central California coastal enclave that had been the site of one of the first black settlements in the state, but that has since been reclaimed as a government-protected nature preserve. My agent and I are looking for a publisher for Erycha's whole story, my novel The Aframericans.