Excerpted from Baby Brother's Blues by Pearl Cleage. Copyright © 2006 by Pearl Cleage. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CONVERSATION WITH
Q: Baby Brother’s Blues has the same strengths of your previous novels: the compelling drama, sharp insights, strong characters, and almost mythical romantic optimism against a backdrop of harsh urban reality. Yet in this book, you move from the ﬁrst person to third person point of view, and heighten the drama with more of a taut, thrillerlike plot and more immediate personal consequences for your main, recurring characters. What brought you to this place in your ﬁction, and will you hang with this writing vibe in the foreseeable future?
Pearl Cleage: It was a big change for me to write in the third person, but this story didn’t lend itself to one narrator. With ﬁrst person, the writer and the reader can see only what the main character sees. This story had lots of activity that took place when nobody was watching so I had to become the all-seeing eye that could take the reader into each thread of the story until they all come together. It was challenging because I had to go to places where I wouldn’t have gone in ﬁrst person. None of my female narrators would have been caught dead in Montre’s, and they deﬁnitely couldn’t have been where Blue and General were working out their questions. I think going to the places where the men go made it grittier. It was great fun for me, although nerve-wracking at times until I got comfortable with it! I now feel like I’m comfortable writing in ﬁrst person and third person, which is wonderful for me as a writer. It gives me more tools to work with whatever story I’m telling. My new book, The Return of the Amazon Queens, is sort of a combination of the two. I’m using two narrators whose stories overlap. The narrators are Flora Lumumba, who was the founder of the West End Growers Association, and a new character in West End, Josephine Evans, Zora’s grandmother, who has been living in Europe for almost thirty years and has just decided to come home.
Q: This novel seems to be about war on many levels: personal, societal, political, and moral. The wars within and the wars outside of us that affect us so deeply. What moved you to explore this landscape of such profound inner and outer conﬂict?
PC: I am in great distress about the state of the world around us. Our country is engaged in so many violent conﬂicts around the world and nobody seems to know how to bring the conﬂicts to a peaceful end. I thought by having a character like Baby Brother, who was directly involved in the violence but had no political point of view, I could take a look at how that conﬂict evolves from a global level to our personal lives. I don’t think we can continue to perpetuate violence around the world and think that it won’t affect our citizens and how we act toward one another. I am also always asking readers to think deeply about the role Blue Hamilton plays and how we feel about the code of honor that he obeys. I want us to think about whether or not violence is ever justiﬁed and if it is, when and why?
Q: As a black woman who has said and written that you have been in love all of your life, what are your thoughts about and reactions to the down-low dynamic? What effects do you see it having on sisters, on brothers, on how we relate to one another in intimate relationships?
PC: I think the problem with being on the down low is not a question of love or sexuality. It’s a question of lying, and lying is always wrong. When Precious tells her son, Kwame, that the problem is his lying, not his sexuality, she is really saying what I believe. If Kwame had told the truth: to himself, to his mother, to Aretha, he could have lived the life he wanted. But he was afraid, so he lied, with disastrous consequences. I think lying is the death of love. You can’t love a person and lie to them.
Q: If you could be any character in Baby Brother’s Blues for a day, which would it be and why? What would you want to learn, experience, and/or accomplish as that character?
PC: I think I’d have to be Abbie doing that cartwheel on the beach! I’ve wanted to do cartwheels all my life and I can never get it right. I’d want to accomplish one perfect cartwheel!
Q: You write about many of the harshest realities in our country in general and the African American community in particular: domestic violence, street dangers, stripper culture, the down-low phenomenon, human trafﬁcking, and, of course, the war. Yet you manage to instill a kind of hope in your characters and your readers. How do you maintain your own sense of hope amid the madness?
PC: I love that quote from Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl that says “In spite of everything, I still believe in the goodness of people.” She wrote that just days before the Nazis came and took her whole family to a concentration camp! I share that belief. I think that most people are basically good and want to raise families, do good work, fall in love, and grow old in peace surrounded by family and friends. The problems begin when we try to force other people to believe what we believe, or when we feel entitled to their resources simply because we are strong enough to take them. I think the challenge we face now is not to give up hope and abandon the struggle for peace and truth. If we do that, the bad guys will win and then where will we be? These days when I start to feel hopeless and depressed, I try to spend time with my two grandchildren. Being with them makes me want to rededicate myself to the struggle and to ﬁnd peaceful solutions to the problems we face. I think I owe them that much.
Q: Tell us about the power of the storyteller, the novelist, and the playwright to share their vision with the world, and which vision you are most committed to sharing with your readers.
PC: I think storytelling is an ancient art that has survived because it’s through our stories that we reveal who we truly are as a community of people. I want my stories to be able to stimulate a vision in people of a different way for us to live together.
I think that one of the most important things a writer can do is to create characters that let us look at how we can be the best possible human beings. That doesn’t mean every character should be perfect, but I want my overall vision to be optimistic because I believe we are capable of “ﬁxing what’s broke.”
Q: What have you learned from the characters in Baby Brother’s Blues?
PC: I learned that men’s lives are very, very different from women’s lives! I guess I knew that already, but writing a novel in the third person and living in the heads of the men in the book really made me aware of how differently men and women approach the world. It was challenging, but I learned so much and I truly value the experience.
Q: What does Wes Jamerson, aka “Baby Brother,” represent about Black life in America today? How did you feel about him as you were writing this book? Did your feelings change as the story progressed?
PC: Wes Jamerson is a lost soul. He has a tremendous feeling of entitlement and no feeling of responsibility. It is difﬁcult to deal with people like this because they never feel that they are responsible for their actions and the consequences of those actions. I felt sorry for him, but he is never a person who is going to be a contributing member of any group, so he kind of had to end up the way he did.
Q: Kwame is living a life of deception. Is his wife, Aretha, deceiving herself as well?
PC: I don’t think Aretha was deceiving herself. She had no idea her husband was living a double life. His lies were so complete and her trust in him was so absolute that she had no idea that he was having affairs and seeking out the company of strangers. I think she was deceived, but I don’t think she was deceiving herself.
Q: Do we all deceive ourselves a little when it comes to love? Or is there room for absolute honesty with oneself and one’s partner in a relationship?
PC: I think there is room for absolute honesty and that not only is there room for it, it is necessary if the love is going to last. I don’t think that there can be lies and deception between people who say they love each other. What is the reason for lying to loved ones? I ﬁrmly believe that truth must be at the heart of any real loving relationship. Think how different Kwame and Aretha’s relationship would have been if he had told her the truth.
Q: Blue is driven so strongly by his sense of ethics, yet it led him to be unforgiving of his best friend, General. Is their friendship a casualty of an ethical war? And will Blue regret being so hard on General?
PC: I think Blue is consistent. That is part of his personality and part of what makes him able to play the role he plays in West End. You can’t hold the power of life and death over people and be wishy-washy. You have to have a strict code of ethics, honor, and conduct and stick to it. General knew the rules. He knew he broke the rules, not about Juanita, but about Baby Brother’s murder. If Blue had forgiven General, then what message would that send to the community about Blue and his men? Allowing General to kill someone–even an undesirable someone like Baby Brother–would undermine everything Blue has built. He didn’t kill General. General recognized his error and took his own life. He knew there was no other honorable choice. I think Blue will miss General, but I think he knows there was no other choice.
Q: Aretha and Regina are friends. Has Regina had any trouble staying sober after her recovery from the cocaine addiction that she overcame in Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do? Does Aretha know about this aspect of Regina’s life?
PC: Regina never had a problem with alcohol and drugs again. After she got over breaking up with Son and with Beth, she became stronger for the struggle. Regina and Aretha have probably talked about this many times. They are close friends and during the time they spent at the beach together after the murder of Baby Brother, I am sure they talked about everything!
Q: The character Brandi was very realistic, as were your descriptions of her work at the strip clubs. Have you been to a strip club? Have you known any women who do that type of dancing? Is stripping a form of exploitation, an empowered life choice, or something else altogether?
PC: I have never been to a strip club, but I’ve seen enough of them in movies, videos, and on television shows that I felt I could re-create the ambience in a believable way. I know one woman who worked in a strip club while she was in college. She didn’t particularly like it, but it paid good money and she quit as soon as she graduated. I don’t think of working in the sex industry as an empowering choice as much as I think of it as the lesser of the evils many women face when looking for employment. Since the sex industry usually involves physical intimacy with other human beings based on an exchange of money, not an exchange of emotions, I think it has the potential to cheapen those emotions and make it difﬁcult for the sex workers to be involved in other human relationships. There is also the question of violence and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s dangerous, dehumanizing work in most cases, and not a life I would recommend.
Q: How does diving so deeply into the issues of the day, the pathologies of our society and our community, affect you as a person outside of your writing?
PC: I think that looking closely at our community and thinking deeply about what I see there is part of my work. As a writer, I have the responsibility to try to understand why human beings do the things they do, and create characters that allow me to explore the wide variety of those behaviors. I don’t set out to write about issues. I set out to write about people, characters who are situated in real times and places. Because problems and challenges exist, my characters run up against them, too. At the same time, they are trying to ﬁgure out their personal relationships and their love lives. I am very concerned about the degree of violence and intolerance in our world. I hope that my writing is part of the movement of people to reclaim their countries and communities and remake them as places of safety and peace. I’d like West End to be so peaceful that they don’t need Blue Hamilton anymore so he can just relax and raise his child and love his wife, but we aren’t there yet.
Q: What, if any, bullets of insight or awareness are you hoping to lodge in the consciousness of your readers with Baby Brother’s Blues?
PC: I hope that people will ﬁnd these characters interesting enough to spend a couple hundred pages with them. I hope that, as they follow the journey of General and Blue and Zora and Baby Brother and Brandi and Abbie and Peachy and the rest of these folks, they will see themselves reﬂected in some of the challenges and some of the choices. I hope this book tells a good story that draws you in and won’t let you go until it’s done!
Q: When did you know that you were a writer, someone who would write for a living and be published? When did you feel that you had arrived?
PC: I have always known I was a writer. I started telling stories to my big sister when I was just two years old! When she learned to read and taught me at age four, I started writing my stories down in little notebooks, and I’ve been doing it ever since! I never thought about whether or not I could write for a living. I started publishing very early, while I was still in high school, but I usually got a few dollars and a few copies of the magazines in payment. I always thought I would have to do other things to pay the rent! It has been such a blessing to me to be able to write full-time and make a living at it. As for feeling like I had arrived, I think the wonderful thing about writing is that you can keep doing it, and working to get better at it, until you’re too old to hold the pen and see the pages! I’m not trying to arrive anywhere. I’m trying to work hard and be a better writer with each and every book. I love the process of writing and I hope to continue to do it for the rest of my life.
Q: What advice do you most commonly give people who tell you they want to write novels?
PC: I tell people they should keep journals to help them get into the habit of writing for at least half an hour a day. A journal helps you begin to look more closely at the world around you and how you feel about what you see. Developing a point of view and voice are crucial to the writer’s art, so a journal is a good place to start. I urge them to write each and every day and to think of learning to write the same way they would think of learning to play the trumpet . . . you have to practice if you want to get good at it! I also encourage people to think about developing their craft before they start trying to ﬁgure out how to make money. If you write well and work to write better, I believe you will ﬁnd an audience. But writing isn’t a ﬁeld to go into to be a millionaire–most writers never make enough to pay the light bill!
Q: What is it about the process of writing that sustains you? Challenges you? Fulﬁlls you? Makes you crazy?
PC: Writing is the way I answer my own questions about the world. When I look around and see that my community isn’t safe, I ask myself: Why isn’t it safe and what would it take to make it safer? When I start trying to ﬁgure out what it means to be in love, I create characters who are trying to ﬁgure it out, too; that allows me to discover the answers along with the characters and the reader. The most challenging thing, I think, is to ﬁgure out what story you are trying to tell. At the early stages, all things are possible and it is the writer’s job to focus in on the one story that you can’t stand not to share. When I ﬁnd the thread of the story I’m looking for, I am always grateful and very excited. I think there’s always a moment when you feel like you’re crazy for even trying to write this story. You hate the pages you’ve got, you have no idea where you should go next, and you don’t even like your characters anymore! At that point, you should get up, turn off your computer, leave your ofﬁce, and go outside for a while. Sit on the front steps, wave at your neighbors, drink a glass of wine with your beloved, play with your grandchildren–anything to remind you that the world that’s making you crazy is all in your head. It’s only make-believe. Real life is something else altogether and writing, even wonderful writing, is only a pale reﬂection. So when you feel crazy, just remember, “It’s only a novel . . . it’s only a novel . . . it’s only a novel.”
Q: What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
PC: I think most readers would be surprised to learn that I can cook a great Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey, homemade dressing, mac and cheese, collard greens, and all the trimmings!
1. How do you feel about the strategy adopted by Blue Hamilton to protect his neighborhood from crime? Has traditional law enforcement failed our communities to the extent that drastic alternatives like Blue’s need to be adopted to protect its livelihoods? What approach would you think most promising or effective?
2. Precious Hargrove’s quest for higher political ofﬁce is complicated by many factors, in this novel most speciﬁcally, her son’s sexuality. Do you think today’s political elections have gotten sidetracked from the issues, or is a politician’s personal and family life relevant to their conduct and effectiveness in ofﬁce?
3. The atmosphere of Atlanta’s West End is so powerfully evoked in this novel that it is almost a character in itself. Do you feel a strong sense of community where you live? How can a positive sense of community be created?
4. Blue has a very clear concept of past lives inﬂuencing our current lives. Do you believe in reincarnation? If so, how does this inﬂuence your life choices on a daily basis?
5. Do you believe, as General Richardson comes to, that signs from those who have passed on make it to the world of the living?
6. The war in Iraq rumbles menacingly in this book’s background. What conclusions about the war can we draw from the author’s portrayal of Baby Brother?
7. Abbie Browning is hesitant to put bars on her windows, feeling it would transform her home into a prison. What do we sacriﬁce in order to ensure our own security?
8. Captain Lee Kilgore claims to have originally wanted to idealistically stop drug dealers from shooting up the neighborhood, but she spiraled downward into corruption. How are good intentions degraded? How does one protect oneself from that sort of corruption?
9. Kwame Hargrove’s down-low sexual activities ultimately cause his family considerable turmoil. Would it have been better if he’d been honest about his tendencies? And if he had, how do you think his family would have reacted?
10. Conversely, what choices are available to Kwame’s wife, Aretha – a woman with a child, married to a good provider who is also bisexual? What would you do in her situation?
11. Do you share Samson Epps’ contempt for deserters from the military? Is there any situation where avoiding service could still be honorable?
12. After Regina Burns gets pregnant, she longs for her husband to rein in his covert activities. How realistic is it for people to get their partners to change?
13. Lee feels contempt for Precious’ expressed attitude about young criminals: that they are victimized products of their environment. Do we sometimes overly rationalize bad behavior? How much do you think environment determines our behavior?
14. Do you think Blue was right to urge General to take his own life?
15. At one point Blue contemplates the world in which his child will soon be born. How optimistic do you feel about the world that we are leaving for future generations?