Carleen Brice Interview
Race, Family, Identity, Earth Muffinry - A Conversation with Denver Author Carleen Brice by Yolanda Aleman
Carleen Brice was named 2008 Breakout Author of the Year by the African American Literary Awards Show, and was presented with the 2009 First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for her debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey. Her new novel, Children of the Waters, explores the issues of race and identity through the eyes of two sisters, one bi-racial and one white.
YA: Two women - an elegant, prayerful dance instructor - and across town - a plucky, divorced, junk food eating vet tech - one black and one white - are sisters, and they don't know it. What drew you to this idea for your new novel?
CB: The nugget of the story is true - my sister-in-law is biracial, and in real life she was put up for adoption and was adopted by a white family. She met her birth sister, who's white, and met the grandmother who put her up for adoption, and the grandmother apologized. So the idea of one child being kept because she was white and one child being given away because she wasn't was based on a true story. I wanted to look at it from the perspective of how much harder it would have been if Sue would've been adopted and raised by a black family and really had no idea - what you'd feel if you thought you were black and found out otherwise. I wanted to look at it from that angle because I think a lot of movies and stories that come out tend to be about the white person being shocked to discover, and having to overcome the idea that “Oh, my God, I'm part black, how will I make it?” A white person wouldn't be the only one that would have some identity issues - a lot of us have deep, strong ties to our image of ourselves as black persons or whatever kind of persons, and that foundation would be threatened or shaken in some way.
YA: It's like Billie praying to the ancestors, and not knowing some of them were white.
CB: Yes, and even the ones that she was praying to - that she thought she was biologically related to - she wasn't. . . But maybe that doesn't matter. . .
YA: You really have woven a strong spiritual/metaphysical thread throughout the novel. What inspired that?
CB: My husband has been calling me an earth-muffin crystal worshipper for a dozen years, right? (Laughs.) So much of what is in this book is my family. My grandmother in Omaha has been a member of her church since she was four years old - she's eighy-six - a member of the same church her whole entire life. There's something really beautiful about that. When I'm with her in her church, I feel that and there's a part of me that loves that and probably longs for that - and there's another part of me that's just not a joiner and doesn't want to be pigeonholed - and then there's a part of me that talks to my ancestors (laughs) and burns candles. It's my history, my family, my beliefs, without trying to say that one way is better than another way. I think we all get to pick what works for us. If there's a message in the book, as far as identity and spiritual beliefs, it's that we all get to decide.
YA: Talk about Trish, because she has this deep yearning for connection, and for family. What inspired this character and her yearning?
CB: Part of that comes from my having a half-sister I never met, these family secrets that you stumble upon. . . When I wrote Orange Mint and Honey and had the half-sister dynamic between Shay and Sunny, and then I started this book , I thought, “What is up with this?” I literally stopped and gasped when I realized, “That's what this is coming up from!” I’ve had to ask myself a lot - what makes a family? And I think that's what came out with the character Billie - “I know you're my sister, but I don't know you.”
YA: Something I found touching in the book, among the main pool of characters, there are antagonistic situations, but there are no antagonists. There are no villains in your book.
CB: I didn't want to create Trish as a racist from the South and Billie as a perfect person from the North. They are both real, flawed women. Besides, my experience of racial issues is that even those of us who don't think we have negative attitudes about other races probably do to some extent. How could we not with our country's history? My experience of it is we think we have whatever attitude we have, and then we dig a little bit and find out there's other stuff going on.
YA: A little more nuance.
CB: Yeah! You don't have to be a KKK robe-wearing person to have some strange feelings about another race. Or to believe you don't have feelings and find out that you do. I'd like to leave people questioning themselves as to what they believe about people and issues of race and gender and spirituality - all these things that I'm not sure people question enough. It just takes a few questions before you realize. “Oh! Whoa! I have to readust my thinking.” I’ve been looking at that myself. Why I make the judgments I do and (laughs) think that I don't make judgments.
YA: There's lots of meat in the novel for group reflection and discussion, which book groups will surely enjoy. Anything else you'd like your readers to remember and carry with them, after they read that last page and lift up their heads and smile?
CB: I wish people would go away with a feeling of connectedness to something or somebody - their family, their friends. . . something. I think people are pretty lonely, needing and wanting connection. . .
YA: It's a time of fragmentation. . .
CB: But I also hope it's a time of coming together. . . That was one of the things that was exciting about the election. . . I have hopes. . . I have hopes. . . And I find that a lot of people are still not hopeful. I kind of want to change their minds. (laughs.)
YA: Cultivating hope.
CB: Yeah! These concepts that we all say we believe in - love, brotherhood, peace - could really happen.
YA: Thank you, Carleen. And thank you for Children of the Waters, which is not just good writing, but good medicine.
CB: I like that! Thank you!
Carleen Brice will be autographing her book at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Historic LoDo on Thursday, July 16th at 7:30 pm. Please join us!