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Sadeqa Johnson is the award-winning author of five novels, including Yellow Wife. Her powerful fifth novel, The House of Eve, follows two young Black women in the 1950s who are forced to make difficult choices relating to motherhood and career ambitions. I interviewed Sadeqa for Shelf Awareness, and excerpts from our conversation are below.

What was the inspiration for The House of Eve?

The character of Ruby came out of an idea I had for a YA novel. She also was partly inspired by my family. I remembered my mother telling me that she didn’t know her mother was her mother till she was in the third grade. My grandmother had gotten pregnant at age 14 and had my mother at age 15, out of wedlock, and she had had her in secret. My mom had lived with her grandmother until she was eight, and then she found out that my grandmother was really her mother. I started thinking: How is that situation possible, and what does that do to the child?

I started researching how it was at that time, and I came upon these homes for women. They were largely for white women: teenagers and women in their 20s who were not married. They went into these homes when they were pregnant, and were usually forced to give up their babies. But I couldn’t find a Black woman in these stories.

I am a Black woman and I like to write about the Black woman experience. There is not just one single narrative, no matter what we see on TV. I was doing some research about the Black experience, and I read a book called Our Kind of People, about wealthy African Americans who knew their family history for two or three generations. They were doctors and lawyers, and I traced this research into Washington, D.C., and that was the beginning of William and Eleanor’s story.

Eleanor’s experience at Howard University is wildly different than she expects, after growing up in a mostly white town.

I was watching Toni Morrison’s documentary, The Pieces I Am. Morrison was from Ohio, and she said, “I didn’t know that [Black] people separated themselves by color until I set foot on Howard’s campus.” She lived on a block with Germans and Italians and Poles, and everyone looked out for each other. That wasn’t my experience, but I made that part of Eleanor’s experience. [At Howard], she gets a closer look at the way Black people separated themselves by color.

Of course, that is all leftover baggage from slavery: the light-skinned people who were the master’s children, who often worked in the house, and the darker-skinned folks often worked in the fields. The colorism and the social situations at Howard added an extra layer to this transition time for Eleanor–being away from home, being at school, being on the poorer end of the spectrum. There was the classism she faced as well.

Ruby falls in love with a Jewish boy, and both she and the adults in her life understand that this love might hamper her chances at a college degree.

Ruby says in the book that she was okay with being unhappy, but she was not okay with being poor. Sometimes, for girls like Ruby, it’s a choice. How long would her happiness last if she was poor?

For Ruby, I think the choices were easy. For her family members, the only jobs available were serving white people: cleaning their houses, nannying for them, chauffeuring them. The only way out was an education. And even that was sketchy–because, being poor, you couldn’t afford it. A young girl should not have to choose between falling in love and getting an education. But if she didn’t choose, she would be dependent on white folks. Being poor–or not being poor–is a strong motivator for a lot of decisions that people like Ruby had to make. Even now, really, that’s the case.

Eleanor loves her work at the Howard library, and finds a mentor in Mrs. Porter, the librarian. What was the inspiration for her character?

Mrs. Porter was based on a real person who worked at the Howard library. As a library geek, the library was my foundation for reading and writing. My relationships with the librarians totally fueled who I am today. The best secrets in books happen by accident, and when I stumbled upon Dorothy Porter’s character, I had to figure out how to weave her in.

Those scenes were a pure joy for me–writing about a woman who worked so hard to preserve African and African American and Caribbean history. I loved being able to tie Eleanor into something so historically sound, which was also very important to her character.

Shame is a common theme in the novel: both Eleanor and Ruby are shamed for their choices and also for their struggles.

Shame for women is just rampant in our culture. If my kids misbehave, people are going to blame me–not their father! Anything that happens in the family structure is the woman’s fault. My daughter couldn’t find a homecoming dress that fit her shape. I told her, “It’s not you that are wrong–it’s the dressmakers thinking that we all fit into this one category.”

I think that’s the case for Ruby and Eleanor: Ruby not fitting into Mrs. Shapiro’s world, checking any of the boxes she thought would be a good fit for her son. And as for Eleanor, she was not of this wealthy society that Rose Pride thought William should marry into. Women tend to think of this as their own fault, if they can’t get pregnant or they can’t carry a baby. Women are taught that at a very early age, and that’s something we deal with unless someone teaches you how to stop.

The House of Eve is ostensibly the story of two women, but really it’s about multiple women: Ruby and Eleanor, their mothers, Ruby’s aunt Marie, Mrs. Porter. What do you think is important about that ensemble cast?

So many of the Black women on TV look the same–they all act the same. In The House of Eve, we have different colors, different classes, different socioeconomic backgrounds. I think all these different Black characters in this story creates the melting pot. There’s all these different versions of our story that are being told.

You can read my full review of The House of Eve at Shelf Awareness – and I encourage you to give it a read when it comes out in February.

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September is flying by so far – amid work and daily adventures, here’s what I have been reading:

The Lost Summers of Newport, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoy Team W’s richly detailed historical novels (and I’ve devoured nearly all of Williams’ books). This one follows the intertwined stories of three women connected to the same Newport, R.I., mansion during different eras: architectural preservationist Andie, music teacher Ellen, and Italian-American socialite Lucia. Rife with family secrets and dripping with diamonds – great escapist reading.

The House of Eve, Sadeqa Johnson
Ruby Pearsall is on track to be her family’s first college student – but a forbidden love may derail her plans to escape her rough neighborhood. Meanwhile, Eleanor Quarles, a brilliant young woman from small-town Ohio, struggles to find her place at Howard University and with her rich boyfriend’s family. Their lives collide in an unexpected way. A powerful, sometimes wrenching novel about the struggles of Black women in the mid-1950s. So much here around shame and womanhood and making choices. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2023).

Love, Lies & Spies, Cindy Anstey
Miss Juliana Telford is more interested in publishing her research on ladybugs than diving into the London Season. Mr. Spencer Northam is far more preoccupied with espionage than with matrimony. But all this might change when they encounter one another by chance. A witty, hilarious, romantic tribute to Jane Austen and a really fun love story. Recommended by Anne.

Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead, Adam McHugh
After years as a hospice chaplain, McHugh found himself burned out, and needing not just an escape but a whole life change. His love of wine led him – several times – to California’s Santa Ynez Valley, where he began a career working in wine. An honest, sometimes snarky, well-researched, thoughtful memoir about wine and transformation. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man, Emily J. Edwards
Our titular heroine loves her job as secretary/girl Friday to NYC private eye Tommy Fortuna. But when she finds an unconscious man in the office and Tommy disappears – right after taking on a case for a wealthy client – Viv must marshal all her wits to solve the case and stay alive. A fun romp with an engaging heroine, though the dialogue read almost like a send-up of 1950s phrases. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 8).

Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration, Sara Dykman
I picked up this memoir last fall at the Harvard Book Store and have been reading it sloooowly. Dykman takes a months-long solo journey starting and ending in Mexico at the monarchs’ overwintering grounds, following their trail and giving presentations about the importance of these beautiful creatures. She’s a lovely writer, though the trip logistics dragged sometimes (as I’m sure they did in real life!). Fun bonus: she went through my dad’s tiny hometown in southwestern MO.

What Comes from Spirit, Richard Wagamese
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I., in June. Wagamese was an Indigenous Canadian writer who wrote extensively about his journey away from and back to his Native identity, as well as noticing the natural world, building community and paying attention. Short, lovely meditations – exactly my kind of thing for slow morning reading.

The Star That Always Stays, Anna Rose Johnson
When Norvia’s parents divorce, she and her siblings move from rural Beaver Island to a small Michigan city with their mother. Norvia must navigate a new school, a tricky blended family and her own shyness and anxiety, while striving to be a heroine. A sweet middle-grade story (though the middle dragged a bit); I loved Norvia’s family, especially her spunky younger sister, Dicta. Reminded me of Emily of Deep Valley.

Saving Main Street: Small Business in the Time of COVID-19, Gary Rivlin
Americans idolize small business – though we give a lot of our money to the colossal chains. It’s common knowledge now that small shops were hit hard by COVID-19. Veteran reporter Rivlin follows several business owners, including a restaurateur, a pharmacist, a Latina hairstylist and three Black brothers making chocolate, through the first 18 months or so of the pandemic. Full of fascinating anecdotes and a thorough explanation of the government’s confusing (but ultimately sort-of-effective) struggle to help small businesses. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

What are you reading?

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