As a faculty member at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction’s summer 2015 retreat in Taos, writer Angela Flournoy delivered a craft talk entitled “Talk Isn’t Cheap” that was part literary, part musicology, and 100% unexpected. She shared that Stevie Wonder’s 1973 hit single “Living for the City” is believed to have inspired hip-hop artists to include skits on their albums. The popularity of these skits peaked in the 1990s, with a limited resurgence on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, and on Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late in 2015. Flournoy noted that over the years, rappers have used dialogue for a variety of purposes: to set scenes; to provide context, subtext, and humor; to present multiple points of view; and to function as narrative. These are all, of course, elements of craft familiar to writers. Flournoy drew parallels between writers’ use of dialogue and hip-hop artists’ use of it, comparing a range of songs and texts, from Jay Z’s “99 Problems” and Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster,” to Linda Rosencrantz’s classic hippie novel, Talk, and the hard-boiled black detective novels of Chester Himes, who wrote during the 1940s through the 1970s.
A new Kimbilio Fellow and pop culture junkie, I left Flournoy’s talk inspired to play with newfound possibilities for dialogue in my novel-in-progress. I was also curious about Flournoy, a then-thirty-year-old novelist whose debut, The Turner House, spans fifty years in the lives of a Detroit family of thirteen children as the city’s East Side declines and the family matriarch falls ill. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award, shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, among other accolades. I wanted to know more about Flournoy’s award-winning year, and, of course, her Top Five.
The Rumpus: The Turner House has received so much acclaim, and that’s a writer’s dream for a first novel. Is it also a lot of pressure?
Angela Flournoy: Ever since the day I sold The Turner House, I’ve been like, You need to write another book, even though I wasn’t even done with that book. So the pressure is really internal. [Regarding] external pressure, if I write a [second] book and it’s not good then everyone will say, “She should have taken her time.” So, you can’t win.
Rumpus: Writer Roxane Gay had this to say about ambition, success, and blackness: “We must be exceptional if we are going to be anything at all…I am ashamed that sometimes a part of me believes we as a people will be saved by those among us who are exceptional without considering who must pay the price for such salvation or who will be left behind.” What are your feelings about ambition?
Flournoy: My ambition is personal. I don’t think I need to succeed so that the race can succeed. We’ve seen that. We’ve been succeeding since we were sneaking to learn how to read. We’ve been showing ourselves to be exceptional, and it doesn’t change anything. I understand that burden; I do not feel that burden. I feel the burden on the page when writing a story to do justice to the black people I am rendering, but I don’t necessarily believe that my successes or failure will have some greater impact on the way that people view black people. I think the biggest killer of that myth was Barack Obama. Like, what else could we do? Every racist that was hiding under a rock revealed themselves in the past eight years.
For me, it’s much more on a craft level, and the level of writing things that may not be lower-case-t true, but capital-T True, to some aspect of black experience. And the biggest thing that I can contribute to any sort of understanding of black lives is to not explain it. I don’t want to write books that explain black people to non-black people. I want to write books that pick apart aspects of black life and talk about it. And that’s it.
In The Turner House, there’s certainly a lot of explaining, but that’s because there’s a lot of black people who don’t know anything about Detroit, including myself. It’s a place I’ve [gone to] my whole life, but a book is always about the writer discovering something as well. Any book that has life in it [feels that way] because that sense of discovery is going both ways. You feel it when you’re reading. You feel, Oh, this writer is not the same person they were when they started this book either. And so, there will always be some sort of exploration, but there will never be explication. I’m not interested in that.
And bigger than that, I work hard because… there is the spectre of getting a real job [laughs] which haunts me. My mom used to wake us up at four to drive us to my aunt’s house, who would take us to school so she could continue driving downtown to work at the phone company. And she wouldn’t get back until eight o’clock at night. And I’m not doing that. So, I’m working hard, not necessarily to be a credit to the race, but because that’s just the background I come from.
I believe we just need to let go of the burden and have fun. Write about whatever random-ass black thing you want to write about. Or not. The only way that our literature will continue to grow is if we accept and acknowledge that nothing we write will change the hearts and minds of people who don’t want their hearts and minds changed.
Rumpus: Talking about change reminds me of something you wrote about Ferguson: “It did not turn ugly, it got beautiful. It is not over.” Are you feeling hopeful in the wake of last year’s protests in Ferguson and around the country? And does this influence you as a writer?
Flournoy: I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates in [Between the World and Me] when he talks about struggle being something you can hang your hat on a bit more than hope. Because hope can be dashed, but struggle is continuous. And even outside of the concept of blackness, we think back to our Constitution—which is certainly flawed—and this idea of a more perfect Union. Not a perfect one, but a more perfect one and working towards it. Similarly, the thing I found beautiful [about the protests] is the commitment to struggle, that people did not just despair. People decided, No, we’re going to stay here and you’re going to have to contend with that, and you’re going to have to provide answers. That doesn’t mean that lip service does not happen and is not still happening, but I think that it takes a lot in this country just to move the needle a little bit. And I do feel like it has moved a little bit.
It might just be that more white people I know acknowledge that it’s dangerous to be a black body walking down the street. It is more dangerous than to be in your white body walking down the street. That’s a very small success, but that is a success.
As a writer, my responsibility is, again, to just show black people’s lives as nuanced and valuable and interesting and as fucked up, but also as worthy as any other lives. A year ago, there was a study that found that 75 percent of white people who use social media don’t have any black people in their social networks. So anytime someone who is not black comes up to me and says they’re still thinking about my characters, I think, Good. Because this is a fictional black person, but it’s somebody. Now you have a fictional person in your mind at least. And not someone who is just there to help white people learn something, like in The Green Mile. The Magical Negroes who aren’t as complex or as neurotic or whatever. So, I’m a believer in what literature can do on these fronts, but I also know that literature is not going to change policy, for example.
Rumpus: Circling back to writing about whatever black-ass thing you want… Can you shout out some writers who are doing this?
Flournoy: Kaitlyn Greenidge has a book coming out called We Love You, Charlie Freeman. I’m excited about that and about Chinelo Okparanta’s book, Under the Udala Trees. Arguably, she’s doing what she wants to do because same-sex relationships are illegal in Nigeria, and she’s written this book about women who love each other. Placing this in a very important moment in Nigerian history [the Nigerian Civil War] is definitely saying, I don’t give a fuck about representation. I’m going to make this story mine.
Also, Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled is set in the ‘70s in Philly and it’s a coming-of-age story that reminds me of [the Spike Lee movie] Crooklyn. It’s about being young and black and the things that come along with that. It’s beautiful because it doesn’t have to be something else besides that.
At the same time, black life is often about politics and race. So, even if the book isn’t positing itself to be about race, there are people in the book whose lives are certainly affected by racism.
And at times with a book, you’re doing a thing and you don’t even mean to do it. I was on tour and sometimes an older white woman would come up to me with a look of surprise and tell me that the Turner family reminded her of her own family so much. I didn’t write this book to prove that black families are like everyone else, but it’s proving that to some people who, for whatever reason, still didn’t necessarily believe that, or know that, or never even thought about it. And so, on that level, the book is doing something political. But for me, the political issue in The Turner House was housing segregation—that’s the one thing where I said, “This is fucked up. Let’s not do this again.”
Rumpus: Was that a kind of burden of representation for you?
Flournoy: My burden of representation had to do with the fact that black Detroiters make up eighty percent of the city, according to the last census, but there’s no literary touchstone for that. There’s no book you can harken back to that [reflects their] experience. I just wanted to write a book that could help fill that void. I’m not from there, and I felt, I have to do this place justice; I have to do these people justice. It probably could’ve been written in two years instead of four years, but it took the time it took because I was trying to be respectful. The burden of representation is a problem when it’s I can’t write this book and have a woman who is addicted to gambling [like Lelah, the youngest Turner sibling] because that makes black women look bad. You gotta get that out of here because that’s crazy respectability politics. But writing about a place that’s underrepresented and about people who feel like the decks are stacked against them as far as public opinion goes…
Rumpus: …don’t fuck that up.
Flournoy: Yeah. Nobody asked you to write this book, and you’re not entitled to it. But if you want to, you have to do the work.
Rumpus: And one aspect of doing the work is developing your craft. At the Kimbilio Fiction Fellows’ retreat, you presented a craft talk about hip-hop and dialogue, but the idea of hip-hop as a scholarly subject, especially at places like Harvard, doesn’t sit well with some people.
Flournoy: Many times, the critics are black people, and it comes down to respectability politics, again. Some people did not think jazz was real music; those people are gone now and the rest of us agree that jazz is real music. I see hip-hop as a medium that lets people tell stories in a way that is very malleable. So you can tell a story that you have to [consult] Rap Genius and get underneath to understand what is happening. Or you can tell a story that is on the surface. There’s a way in which hip-hop doesn’t explain itself, but people are always interested in feeling like they understand it. If that’s not worthy of scholarship or analysis, then, I don’t know what is.
Rumpus: Some writers have a playlist or other rituals while they’re working. Did you have a playlist when you were writing The Turner House?
Flournoy: I don’t write with any music besides whatever they play in the background of coffee shops. So I do not have a playlist in that sense. I don’t write every single day, but sometimes I go through periods of trying to write every single day—sometimes it’s just because I feel like I’ve hit some sort of groove with whatever I’m working on, or that my schedule allows for it. So, there was a year, 2011–2012, that I woke up every single morning at six and started writing by 6:30 a.m. So I would listen to music to just try and wake up. I was listening to Drake, a song called “Show Me a Good Time” that has this terrible squawking bird noise at the beginning of it. Really useful to just wake up because it was super annoying and would make me not want to go back to sleep.
And Kendrick [Lamar]! Overly Dedicated and Section.80 were both in rotation, as well as Schoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions (which is probably an apt descriptor of my musical taste in general). I also used to listen to J. Cole’s mixtapes, The Warm Up and Friday Night Lights.
And I’ve always listened to a lot of Kanye. I’m a Kanye fan; I have no opinion on Kanye’s person. I’ve long ago just had do whatever kind of thing I need to do to get through the day as a Kanye fan. That means I don’t listen to the rants; I try to avoid them. Just so that I can preserve my musical relationship with the person. And so, in 2011–2012, I was listening to [My Beautiful Dark] Twisted Fantasy, and I was downloading all of the music from that previous fall of G.O.O.D. Friday, when he was putting out music every Friday.
Rumpus: He doesn’t make it easy to be a fan unless you do that split thing. So what is it that keeps you loyal as a fan of Kanye’s art?
Flournoy: He’s an unapologetic black man in the music. And I have always been fascinated by the way he approaches sampling. It reminds me of a Kehinde Wiley painting [Wiley’s naturalistic paintings feature young black people in poses and traditions from Old Masters’ paintings]. If you think about eighteenth-century French noblemen or whatever, we were there. We weren’t actually in France with them, but we were the ones toiling in some other part of the world so they could finance their expeditions and quests. So, there was never a moment where blackness was not there, behind the scenes, so why not have it be in the forefront of these paintings? And similarly, when Kanye takes whatever he wants and repurposes it, it gives me that same feeling. Like I can be a part of any tradition that I want to. Because, at least in the past 400 years, how are black people not involved in all these years of musical traditions? Whether it’s obliquely, or with labor, or whatever else, we were.
Another thing I like about Kanye’s music is that he’s really funny, and I’m here for the jokes. I’m always here for the jokes.
Rumpus: How do you reconcile your love of hip-hop with your feminism?
Flournoy: There’s this crazy calculus I have to do every single day to consume any aspect of popular culture, as a black woman and as a black feminist. You know, this show has a problematic Asian woman character, but it also has an interesting black male lead. So I’m going to watch it, but I’m going to watch it with an asterisk. There’s never really been a time when there’s not an asterisk put on some music, but especially now that we’re living in an era of celebrities letting us know behind-the-scenes how they feel about things.
I’m from LA and maybe know all of Doggy Style by heart because I cannot not know that. That’s just part of how I grew up. It was on the radio every single day, the entire album.
This is just the plight of being in a black female body. You have to figure out what you can bear and then what you can’t. I’m not one of those people who says, “I grew out of hip-hop.” I’ve always gravitated towards hip-hop. Some of my favorite artists aren’t necessarily denigrating, but are still problematic when it comes to women. And that’s just representative of the fact that most men hold some problematic ideas when it comes to women because patriarchy is real and invasive. You can be listening to R&B, and that’s still the case. You can be listening to music without lyrics; even listening to Miles Davis, you have to contend with the reality [that he was violent toward women].
The good of hip-hop is something I keep coming back to. It often says very explicit truths about the way it feels to be black in this country.
Rumpus: I was born in ’71, and people my age sometimes wax a little too nostalgic about old school hip-hop. But this era was also problematic, though not to the degree of what you’ve known in your lifetime.
Flournoy: This summer, when I was putting my Kimbilio craft talk together, I listened to “Rapper’s Delight.” There’s so much low-key homophobia and slut-shaming happening in that song! In the early 2000s, the years of Roc-A-Fella, I was listening to Jay-Z, but I was also listening to Little Brother. So there’ve always been options. As for harkening back, sadly, I harken back to more problematic shit maybe because I love Slick Rick [laughs]. But it’s because of the imagery and the storytelling and these moments of dialogue that really push what is possible in that medium.
Rumpus: I asked about reconciling your love of hip-hop with your feminism, assuming that you do identify as “feminist.” Some black women don’t for many reasons, including the fact that we were feminists before the label existed. We had to be. The work/life balance wasn’t a choice. We’re born intersectional.
Flournoy: I don’t feel any particular way about the label. For me, the label came much later. This idea of having a “second shift”? That’s real cute… that’s not what black women’s lives have been.
Rumpus: We made it possible for white women to do that.
Flournoy: Yeah, we were the ones covering their second shift, while our kids were elsewhere. I don’t necessarily take an oppositional stance from feminism. I’ve been in situations where it became very clear that white feminism does not understand that their concerns are not everybody’s concerns. But somebody else’s lack of intersectionality is not going to necessarily make me throw away my attachment to feminism.
Rumpus: Did hip-hop play a role in your decision to become a writer?
Flournoy: I’ve been interested in this effort to decode since back when we used to dub a tape off the radio and then play it and write down all the lyrics. This helped me understand that all sorts of black lives, not just the most pretty, are worth something and could be the subject of literature or storytelling.
Rumpus: Did you ever write any of your own verses or rhymes growing up?
Flournoy: I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it would completely humiliate me.
Rumpus: Let’s say your writing is like a track. Who’s on the remix? Who are the artists you draw from and their voices are there in the background, inspiring you?
Flournoy: I’m always thinking about Toni Morrison. There’s just a way that her writing permeates through with the understanding that this is a serious undertaking, that these [characters] are worthy. They don’t have to be perfect, but they’re worthy. And in terms of a remix, when I think of somebody who [wrote] a book that I admire and I try to sort of sample pieces of it on my own, in structure more than anything, it’s probably Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which, of course, is a remix itself of E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. It’s a multi-POV novel with a big cast and kind of funny, but also serious and dealing with a family in flux.
Rumpus: Who’s in your top five?
Flournoy: I don’t know if I can give you a top five. That’s such a controversial question. My personal five… I can be convinced that maybe they’re not the most technically proficient, but… It is probably Kanye, André 3000, Nas, Jay-Z, and—this is controversial—but I’m a big Nicki Minaj fan. Terrible pop songs aside.
Author photograph © John Midgley.