Author Bernice L. McFadden sits down with J.D. Myall to talk about her literary journey and the issues that matter to the black community.
Bernice L. McFadden is the author of nine critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, a book Alicia Keys has called her favorite. McFadden has also written The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice Book of 2012), and Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, and was a contender for the NAACP Image Award. She resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her latest novel is The Book of Harlan.
JD Myall: It’s an honor to talk to you; I’ll dive right in. You once said that if you were raised by different parents, you may not have become an author. How did your parents influence your love of writing?
Bernice L. McFadden: My mother taught me to read early. She bought books for me … but my home life was very tumultuous. I spent a lot of time at the library to escape the hostility … there was domestic violence. If my household was peaceful, I may not have sought refuge in books. [My parents’] relationship is probably why I am not married. I don’t place any blame. My parents did the best that they could with what they had. They unearthed a level of empathy in me that I may not have if I didn’t witness the behavior that I did.
Myall: Alicia Keys has said that your first novel, Sugar, was one of her favorite books. How did Sugar come to be?
McFadden: Sugar started from a poem. It became a short story. I was submitting a collection of short stories. I came across a book that said it was rare that a publisher would publish a collection of short stories written by an unknown writer. So it was best to write a novel first and get your name out there and then you can go back to writing short stories. So, I decided I would take Sugar and expand it. Between 1989 and 1999 – for over ten years – I submitted Sugar and got over seventy-five rejection letters … I didn’t give up because this was what I really wanted. I sent my first agent a query letter on February 9th, Alice Walker’s birthday. A magical day for me – it’s also my daughter’s birthday. When I got an agent it took him two weeks to get me a two book deal.
Myall: Did you know at the start of Sugar that the novel would center on a young prostitute?
McFadden: I did. I think there was a movie that I saw with Farrah Fawcett. She was dying and didn’t want her husband to be alone so she found a woman for him. I was struck by that idea. A lot of characters I heard in grandiose stories told at dinner tables were also in the story. It all came together to create Sugar.
Myall: Sugar was a novel that dealt with loss and forgiveness. Was that novel written to help you process those emotions in your own life?
McFadden: Probably. Most of my writing is about me having a conversation with my life and the lives of my ancestors. I wonder about them a lot. You know that saying, “God watches over babies and fools.” The ancestors watch over me.
Myall: You must be a baby, then, because your writing is brilliant. What character from your books is the most like you?
McFadden: There’s a little bit of me in every character. Certainly my lead female characters. Years back when I bought my house. I was a single woman with a house. I had lots of male friends and they all knew how to do something. It was like come on, you’re an electrician, you’re a carpenter. So for the first two months there was a steady stream of men in and out of the house. My neighbors had no idea what I did for a living and why I was always home. So my mother looks at me and says, “Look at that, they think you’re Sugar.” I have Sugar’s hard exterior and her soft mushy inside. Maybe she is like who I was two decades ago.
Myall: You once said “I write to breathe life back into memory.” Can you expand on what that means to you?
McFadden: African Americans have a long, rich history in this country, but if you were raised the way I was raised and attended the schools I attended, you wouldn’t believe that was true. Our history goes way beyond slavery. Our history is buried. In many cases, it’s nearly dead. We need writers, filmmakers and artist to resuscitate it. To remind people of the forgotten sacrifices that we have made for this country.
Myall: You have said that you drudge up the past to remind and reveal. If you spoke to your ancestors about the political climate that we face today, what do you think they would reveal to you? What would they say?
McFadden: I think that they would say the more things change, the more they stay the same. My aunts and uncles lived in Ft. Green in the seventies [before the gentrification of that region]. They wouldn’t be surprised by the madness in the government or by the killing of black and brown bodies. That was something they dealt with the same way we dealt with it. It was like air. It was always there. I think they would be surprised by the fact that we had a black president. Barack Obama would have surprised them.
I think my generation, your generation and the generations that follow are more classist than racist. But, that said, we have a generation ahead of us, the ones that came before. The elders that run businesses and run government. Many of them have an idea about race and they utilize those ideas to keep black and brown people in their place so to speak.
Myall: The media reflects the chaos of our current administration and the racial and political divides America is facing. Alicia Keys and other artists have created work to speak to these issues. How have today’s issues influenced your art?
McFadden: When I was writing The Book of Harlan and doing my research on the summers of 1967 and 1968, I was thinking, wow, this is crazy, the same thing is happening now. That was a really freaky moment for me. I’m really interested in knowing the number of black women murdered at the hands of police in the last sixty years, but I haven’t started the research because I know it will be heartbreaking.
Myall: The Book of Harlan won an NAACP Image Award in 2017. Your main character, Harlan, an African American musician, is asked to perform in Montmartre – warmly referred to as “The Harlem of Paris.” Harlan goes, and then the city falls under Nazi occupation. He ends up in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
The book boasted characters based on your relatives. Does that make this personal to you? Do you feel a personal responsibility to shape reader’s thoughts on issues like history, race and sexuality?
McFadden: Yes. I’m teaching now and one thing I pride myself on is that when kids leave my class, they have a completely different view of history, race and social justice. I had a white female student approach me after class one day and say, “Oh, my God. I’ve been lied to my whole life.” The majority of what she had been told was whitewashed to serve a purpose. But what is that purpose?
I tell students. “Here is the information. You do with it what you wish, but you can no longer say you didn’t know.”
Myall: What did you teach your daughter about racism and what it means to be a black woman at this time in history?
McFadden: Wow. I don’t know if there was a specific conversation. We had many conversations. Things were organic. It was like … did you see what happened to mommy or this person on the news? Let me tell you why these things happen. Let me tell you how to avoid these situations. The conversations that black mothers had with their black daughters were very different than the conversations black fathers had with their sons. It was different, less urgent and more organic … until the point where Sandra Bland was murdered. Then the conversations became the same.
Myall: Why was it important for you to write The Book of Harlan and what message were you hoping to convey to readers?
McFadden: This was important to me because I had no idea that Africans and African Americans had lost their lives in the Holocaust. I wasn’t taught that in school. It made sense. Black people are everywhere, so why wouldn’t they have been victims of that terrible time? It kinda made me angry … the book started with that premise. The rest of the story built up around it. And I’m paying tribute to my ancestors. I use their stories and their names. I am very concerned with legacy. You’re gonna know that I was here. You’re gonna know my people were here and that we had these very interesting lives and we contributed to this country.
Myall: Did you have any surprises while writing The Book of Harlan?
McFadden: I get surprised by how much the ancestors work to help me. Christmas 2012, I was having dinner with my mom and siblings. A cousin we rarely see came over. This cousin, James Smith said, “You know, Bernice my brother was on the cover of Time Magazine.” His brother was deceased. I said “He was on the cover of Time Magazine for what? What’s his name?” He replied, “John Smith. He said he was the reason there why there was a riot in Newark.” I pulled it up. Thank God for Google. There he was, John Smith. He became a character in The Book of Harlan. That was a big surprise that someone in my line was actually so important to history. That’s why the Dorothy West quote in my book is so important: “There is no life that doesn’t contribute to history.” It is important that writers of color really try to do everything and anything possible to preserve our history.
Myall: Your work is broadly celebrated – by Alicia Keys, in O Magazine, by the NAACP. Do you feel like your career has reached its peak or are their still mountains to climb?
McFadden: No. I haven’t reached my peak. This space is very strange because my readers’ perception of me is different than my perception of myself. I’m just this girl from Brooklyn. I know I am accomplished but I don’t feel that way. The Book of Harlan has been as optioned for film. I have a book coming out called Praise Songs for the Butterflies. I am currently writing a memoir called And God Made Woman, and I am being featured in an upcoming issue of the AAMBC Journal.
Thanks for your time and for phenomenal novels, Bernice. Your voice and the stories of your ancestors are treasured. Keep writing and breathing life back into history!