Interview by Gale Greenlee
Naima Coster is no stranger to Greensboro Bound. Back in July, she was featured as one of six authors in our first official event, Women’s Work: Writers on Truth, Beauty, Creativity. Since then, she’s been juggling stops from New York to San Francisco to promote her debut novel, Halsey Street (Little A, 2018). Set primarily in the gentrifying world of Bed-Stuy, the novel introduces us to Penelope Grand, a millennial art-school dropout who returns home to care for her aging father, Ralph. His now-defunct record store was a cornerstone of the community before sushi bars and coffee shops dotted the local landscape. We also meet Mirella, Penelope’s estranged mother, who attempts to reconnect from her home in the Dominican Republic. The story, like Coster, moves. I caught up with her on one of her off days from Wake Forest University, where she teaches writing. The Brooklyn-born Durham transplant (and winner of the 2017 Cosmonauts Avenue nonfiction prize judged by the Bad Feminist herself, Roxane Gay) talked about her work, about being black and Latina, and about living on your own terms.
GG: Naima, there’s a lot going on here: music, art, booze, mother-daughter issues, father-daughter issues, race and class. It’s smoldering. How do you describe Halsey Street? What is the story about, at its core, for you?
NC: At its core, Halsey Street is about place and how it shapes us, familial obligation and the way it is carried by women. Above all, it’s about being stuck — in memory, fearfulness, loneliness, in between worlds — and figuring out how to get unstuck and live.
GG: I’m always curious where stories start. Where’d the idea for Halsey Street come from? What was the genesis?
NC: Halsey Street was from many seeds: an essay I wrote for the New York Times about gentrifying Fort Greene, called Remembering When Brooklyn Was Mine, a curiosity about a daughter character who resists her homecoming, and the streets of Bed-Stuy that I loved and where I briefly lived.
GG: Can you talk about the role of race and class in the novel? Obviously, we’re dealing with gentrification, and young, white professionals and families moving into Bed-Stuy. How important are the changing racial, ethnic, and class demographics to the story and to your characters?
NC: Race and class are integral to the novel because they make up the fabric of the [characters’] lives. These elements affect how the characters see themselves, as well as the channels and barriers to connection between them. For me, race and class dynamics are part of the social reality of life in Brooklyn and, certainly, in the United States, and they’re also part of the most intimate realities of my characters who live in this context.
GG: In terms of characters, I love your rendering of Mirella. I was really rooting for Mirella and found her to be a sympathetic character.
NC: I’m fascinated by Mirella as somebody who wants to make amends but is still standing by her decisions and the decisions she made for her own well-being. I also think she’s interesting because her daughter, in many ways, is reproducing a lot of the toxic ideas we have about motherhood in our culture. Mirella did make some mistakes that I would not endorse, but Penelope gives her a particularly hard time. I think although Penelope sees Mirella chiefly as a bad mother, the reader gets to know her as a mother but also as a young girl, a little bit, and as a woman who had dreams and aspirations in her own right. Although I started the book with Penelope, Mirella was the greatest mystery for me and the most fun to try and crack into. She’s sort of [hmm…] “monstrous” is a strong word. But to have the work of rendering her in more complicated terms than Penelope describes her was a good challenge for me as a writer.
GG: I’m wondering about your taking us to the Dominican Republic. You include some Spanish, noticeably not italicized, which I appreciated. Did you have any concern that readers might not be able to “go there” with you because of the language?
NC: It seemed important to include Spanish in this book, given who my characters are. It would feel untrue to their minds – because we are often in their minds – not to include Spanish. I was very deliberate in which words I thought had to be rendered in Spanish. And not italicizing them was also a way of showing that these words are not foreign to my characters. They wouldn’t appear in italics in their minds, and so they shouldn’t on the page. It’s a common practice. But I think it violates principles of point of view. That felt important to me. . . . I choose to trust my readers to engage in a way that’s active and requires some work from them. There are lots of things we don’t get as readers, even if it’s entirely in a language we speak — whether it’s unfamiliar vocabulary, an allusion that we don’t get or a sentence that we trip over. I think it’s a myth about reading that we get everything . . . and that the writer can somehow make a text intelligible to everyone. So I didn’t worry about it. . . . Readers will respond in a range of ways, and that’s beyond my control.
GG: How did you and your editor Morgan Parker (author of There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce) come together? You don’t get to choose your editor, and most writers of color don’t often see another person of color in that position.
NC: Morgan courted me, which was really great. She had read some of my stuff online and knew that I had a book that I was going to try and sell soon.
GG: That’s exciting.
NC: It’s very exciting, and I felt grateful for that, that she was interested in the work and was very honest about saying that she would be a good advocate for me and that she would protect my book. I believed her, and it was true. It was great because there was no messy politics and thinking about the market. I just didn’t have to deal with that . . .
GG: . . . with the business aspect? Because it is a business.
NC: Yeah. But it was about the book. There was no fussing over things that I thought had nothing to do with the richness or strength of the book as a narrative. We could focus on that instead of “Maybe Mirella should have a more exciting job . . . because her story won’t fulfill the voyeuristic desires that readers have” or “Who wants to read about cleaning houses?” There were none of those presumptions. We could just focus on what mattered, which was the characters and their relationships in Brooklyn. So I was very lucky to work with her, very lucky.
GG: Speaking of powerful women in the writing world . . . you’ve gotten some major press and some big names calling attention to your work: Jacqueline Woodson and Angie Cruz. And of course, we know about Roxane Gay and your winning the CA Nonfiction Prize. Are you basking in this? Or is this surreal? How does it feel to receive that kind of congratulatory love from women who are really doing it and are now ushering you into the fold?
NC: It’s a huge gift to me, and I experience it as acts of generosity from these women. I feel very grateful for that, and I want to learn from them in their generosity. . . . I really do think it was an act of kindness, and I have been moved by it . . . . But it’s also unreal.
GG: You’ve been traveling a lot since the book came out, and you’re going to be part of Greensboro Bound. I’m curious about one of the panels. All of the writers on that panel identify in some way as Latinx. I’m curious about that connection for you. How do you feel about Latinx identity and misrecognition?
NC: It [misrecognition] has been a feature of my life for a long time. It still never feels good, but it’s something I’m quite accustomed to. I think it has made me appreciate being understood–on the terms that I want to be–that much more. I’ve been really grateful that there have been a lot of folk in the black reader and black publishing community that have welcomed me and celebrated the novel with open arms. I think sometimes people think “Afro-Latina, what does that mean? Does that mean bi-racial, half of this and half of this?” My whole ancestry is in the Caribbean. My family’s from the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Curaçao. I often feel that people who misidentify me, or attempt to identify me before I identify, don’t know the story of the Caribbean.
GG: There are so many references to music in Halsey Street. Are there songs that make you think of Brooklyn or the Caribbean, or that remind you of home?
NC: I have to say Naima by John Coltrane because I’m named after it. . . . When I think about Brooklyn, I always think about Mos Def. So Mathematics is a song I love. . . . It has this line: “Blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle.” There’s an intersection in the book where they’re at Broadway and Myrtle . . . a major intersection. And then there’s a Dominican bachata that I always associate with my grandmother. It’s called Regresa Amor [by Raulin Rodriguez]. My grandmother used to sing it at family parties.
GG: I know this is your first novel, but it’s not your first work of fiction. If you had to pinpoint what makes Halsey Street a “Naima Coster” work, what would you say?
NC: I’d say, sensory immersion and place. Sensitivity to the inner lives of characters and the emotions that are deeply felt and often go unsaid. . . .
GG: That’s why I said “smoldering” earlier.
NC: I like that. And attention to memory, the bringing together of past and present in the same book, the same chapter and sometimes the same paragraph.
GG: What are you reading now?
NC: I’m reading Never Let Me Go [by Kazuo Ishiguro]. I understand how he got the Nobel. It’s really beautiful. I’ve also been reading The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips, which reimagines Wuthering Heights with Heathcliff as a young black boy in London. It’s a mosaic that captures different characters in different time periods. It’s about migration, race, and England, and family dynamics — a lot of the things I love, and I deeply admire Caryl Phillips. He’s brilliant.
GG: One last thing, and it’s super silly. I heard you watch Jane the Virgin. Who’s your favorite character?
NC: I love the relationships between the women. That’s the reason I watch. But I love Xiomara . . . this woman whose own mother’s disappointments have been heaped on top of her, but she’s still committed to being free and living her own way.
GG: I’m seeing an interest here – between the show and your novel – in free women.
NC: And in living on your own terms. I think about my own story as a child who became a scholarship kid at a prep school. I was thinking so much about how to earn my belonging through behavior and excellence. And it took me a long time to see how racist that is.
GG: . . . the whole politics of respectability.
NC: (Nods) So I look at Ximora, with her short shorts and her singing career, and I admire her.
Gale Greenlee is a Greensboro native and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her work explores the connection between black and Latina girlhoods, geography and social justice in kids/YA lit. When she’s not writing, she binge watches Jane the Virgin.