Kaitlyn Greenidge’s remarkable We Love You, Charlie Freeman comes out on March 7. On its surface, it is the story of a family that agrees to uproot itself from Boston and raise a chimpanzee as one of its own at a mysterious institute in western Massachusetts; underlying the plot are questions about history, family dynamics, language, politics, race, and power that build and build behind a central mystery that unravels with a skin-crawling, gothic intensity. The novel’s ending is subtle and perfect.
I met Kaitlyn in 2008, when I was in my second year at Hunter College’s MFA program and she was in her first. It was a small program, and we all took at least two classes a semester together. Most Wednesdays, the group of us also went to a nearby bar after class to debrief, eat too many bad French fries, and try to avoid pissing off the temperamental bartender.
I first noticed Kaitlyn as a writer because of the short stories she submitted to our workshops. They often included characters who were social outsiders trying to fit in—a theme that brought me sometimes painfully back to childhood—or characters awakening to some truth they hadn’t previously understood. I loved them. But it was her early scenes and chapters from We Love You, Charlie Freeman that caught my permanent attention, so much so that I asked Kaitlyn if I could possibly read a whole draft of it when it was done, simply because I was so eager to learn the fate of the characters she had begun to create. Several years later, the draft arrived, and I read it in one go.
After having spent so much time thinking about this book and these characters over the last eight or so years, I asked Kaitlyn if I could interview her on the eve of the book’s release.
The Rumpus: Do you dread the question “what was your inspiration for this book?” I do, so I won’t begin there. Instead I’ll ask you about the first grain of this book. Was it voice, character, a particular scene? What was the first aspect of it that arrived, and did that one thing remain relatively intact throughout your writing of the novel, or did it substantially change?
Kaitlyn Greenidge: My first inspiration was probably the problem of what if you were asked to raise a chimp as a child? What if you were that chimp’s sibling? I went to a lecture at a bar and the lecture included people talking about the case of this couple, married anthropologists, who tried to raise their kid with a chimp. They wrote a book about it called The Ape and the Child. This was in the 1920s, and even back then, people thought it was fucked up and they were kind of chastised. So that was interesting to me. And then I think I wrote a lot from the point of view of a girl being raised alongside a chimp and what would that feel like? The first emotion that came from that was one of resentment and anger, which are two very dynamic places to write from. They can certainly cause a lot of movement, both internally and externally, for a character.
Rumpus: How did your original concept for the book shift as you wrote it? Did it remain relatively intact from birth to finish, or were there major changes you didn’t anticipate? If so, would you feel comfortable sharing what they were?
Greenidge: The book’s plot points came to me pretty much intact. I changed some things and compressed some things as editing went along, but the overall outline remained pretty consistent. I was so worried about getting stuck writing and writing with no end in sight, I was a relentless outliner. And when I was too intimidated or scared to write the difficult scenes, I would go back to the outlines and rewrite and redraw them over and over again, to remind myself of the shape of the book. Some stuff changed. Probably the biggest, hardest change was figuring out if this was a first person narrative or a third person. It ended up being a mix of both, which I think satisfied my indecision.
Rumpus: Do you think about your reader as you’re writing? If so, who do you imagine reading (or who do you hope reads it), and does it influence you at all as you write? If not, are you now beginning to have more specific visions of who will read the novel as its publication draws closer?
Greenidge: I don’t think of a reader. Or, I sort of do. I think of fellow writers whose work I admire and enjoy, and hope that the book speaks to them. But I know that most of them probably won’t read it. The highest praise I’ve gotten for the book has been from Victor LaValle and Kiese Laymon. I didn’t know I was writing towards what they do when I started this book, but as I worked on it and worked on it I looked at the ways their work responds to and lives in the world and I hoped my book would do the same. Victor told me “I read your book and I said, this is one of my people.” Probably the highest praise I could ever get. I don’t really need to read reviews after that, you know? Outside of a few writers like that, I write the books that I would most like to read that aren’t there yet on the shelf. That’s an entirely conceited answer, but if it’s good enough for Toni Morrison, it’s good enough for me.
And I would add that when I first started writing this, I was reading Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. The author of that book talked about how it was used as currency at Rikers. I wanted to write something that was so urgent and so true, it would be as good as money in a fucked up, lost place like that.
Rumpus: I love the idea of having a group you can recognize as and call “my people” in literature. It’s exciting that you now are recognized by others as such. Who were those writers for you growing up?
And a part two. In your opinion, are we in an exciting moment in literary history—by which I mean, do you recognize possibilities in writership and readership that might not have existed when you were a child—or have we regressed? Or both? Why?
Greenidge: Oh for me, growing up, it was a mixture of people. I think it was more about encountering people who were so alien to me, they were scary. Lisa Crystal Carver had a book of essays from her zine, called Rollerderby. They were about everything I was told was trash growing up. Danielle Steele and how fun it is to dress cheaply and a little slutty and romance novels and Tonya Harding and the joys of low pop culture. That vernacular has seeped into our culture now so it doesn’t sound so revolutionary, but then, it really felt like reading something completely new. Colette had the same effect. So did Garcia Marquez and Rushdie when I first read them.
We are in an interesting place. I don’t want to overstate it, because who knows how things will reverse in the coming years. Certainly, even since we were in grad school in 2008, it feels like the conversation around literature has grown more nuanced, and that other voices, voices that have always been talking, have been amplified, and those who have always dominated have sometimes listened but more often than not, seem perturbed.
Some writers like to badmouth social media, but as a writer of color, I don’t know how I would find and connect with other writers of color so quickly. I love it for that reason. You can literally see networks and communities being built, in a way that probably happened before but it happens so much faster now. And it can happen across regions and hopefully across disciplines and schools. MFA-trained writers and those who are obsessed with NY can also connect with writers who are decidedly not in that tradition and those who are kind of like “New York doesn’t matter. There’s so many other audiences to care about.” That’s really, really special and a pretty recent change. And as much as the in-fights and the mini dramas are exhausting, I also see people really learning from each other, talking, testing ideas, embroidering ideas, strengthening arguments. I mean, it’s all happening in public and it’s being performed and god help you if your argument is perceived as not the right one of the moment. But even within those confines, I see it as a boon for some writers. Or a certain kind of writing. For the essay, for the cultural critique, it is so helpful. It is anathema for writing fiction, though.
Rumpus: You mention grad school in your last answer, and I’m always very curious about what other people’s experience of our MFA program was—or MFA programs in general, if you prefer. What did you get out of it most? What was most difficult about the experience for you? We’ve been out for six or seven years now, and I find myself gaining some interesting perspective on it. Would you do anything differently if you could return to it, or do you wish the program itself had been different in certain ways?
Greenidge: Grad school was a surprise. I went into it very wary. My sister had told me about the fiction program at University of Iowa back in the nineties. She was in playwriting, so her stories were third-hand. I have no idea if they were true. But she would tell me that students were made to compete against each other, that they’d let you in and say something like “You’re a Southern Gothic writer. And so is that other guy. You two are both the Southern Gothic writers in this program and so you’ve got to be better than him.” Or she told me some horrible story about how you found out your funding by little colored slips of paper they slipped in your mailbox and so if you didn’t get funding for a year, everyone would know and you would be publicly humiliated. I have no idea if those stories are true, and they probably aren’t. But it instilled in me this idea that MFAs were hard, hard places. I went in with the attitude, let me get what I can out of this but I’M NOT HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS. Like I was some reality show contestant or whatever, ha.
The irony is, I found people who have become some of my closest friends, who I talk to on a daily basis, who at this point I have shared weddings and funerals with. I was not expecting that at all. So, just on, like, an emotional level, it was completely unexpected.
I had an overall positive experience. I wish I had been surer of myself during it, though. I spent a lot of time not writing anything because I was convinced what I wrote was so bad. And it was bad, but I just had to write it out of my system. My class was special, in that Scott [Cheshire] and Sunil [Yapa] and Bri [Kennedy] and Carmiel [Banasky] kind of all had this will, this will to imagine themselves and all of us as great writers. That was a really beautiful dream and so vital and so necessary when what I was actually writing was such shit. It was like, no, everyone around me is saying how awesome we all will be, so let me just keep faking it until I believe it.
It was such a relief to talk to people who took writing seriously. Were we deadly earnest and super pretentious about it? Absolutely. But I don’t know where else you are supposed to do that. I mean, your partner won’t listen to you talk about your novel structure for four hours on end—I really hope they won’t. If you’re doing that to your partner, that’s a form of abuse. (That’s a joke.)
Anyways, I liked having the space to be ambitious. You were asking earlier about the change in the last few years in writing. I feel like, in 2008 when I went into grad school, ambition in writers was kind of seen like a sin. Like, you didn’t want to be that blowhard, that bombast, who reached for the biggest piece. Better to write some really wan story about an inoffensive and enigmatic childhood memory in which nothing happened, or something. Don’t be messy, don’t be heartfelt, don’t try to talk big ideas. I think we are in a moment when big, ambitious novels are being rewarded, and that’s wonderful. We need the small, quiet ones, too, though.
It was a very special time. I knew it when I was going through it. When I think of everything that happened in those two years, just personally, it’s like, what the hell was going on? Was I secretly in a telenovela? It was just the perfect amount of time to work on writing, too, for me. If I’d gone for a third year I would have soured on the whole experience and my classmates and turned bitter. I needed to go back out into the world to appreciate it. And I also needed to know if I could write outside of the structure of grad school, if I could sustain myself, if I could keep up the lie that I was a writer until it became true.
Rumpus: Let’s move on now to the book itself. The protagonist of the novel grows up in Dorchester, Boston, and the novel opens there. The rest of the novel takes place in or near “Spring City,” a fictional hamlet in a fictional county in western Massachusetts. I know you grew up in or near Boston. What was it like to write about a city and state that are childhood places for you? Have you set much of your writing in Boston or Massachusetts before, or was this a new experience? Why did you feel drawn to Boston and Massachusetts as settings?
Greenidge: I wanted to write about what it was like being black in that environment. I worked for many years as a park ranger for Boston’s Black Heritage Trail. The trail starts where the Freedom Trail, the trail about Revolutionary War-era Boston, ends. So, I spent years talking to tourists. The responses when they heard I was from Boston were, “Oh, there are black people here?” and “Wow, it’s so racist here, because of the riots.” It does not feel great to be continually erased like that. And a lot of black history and writing about black culture is about Southern black culture. Which I have a connection with, sort of, through family, but is not my primary lens of blackness.
My grandmother’s side of the family are Black Yankees, if such a term can be used. I mean, fiercely proud of their blackness but also claiming traditions of New England for their own. That type of identity is not really discussed in larger black culture. People tend to talk about black culture as a monolith, when really, like with all people, there are real regional differences. So, I thought that was interesting and wanted to talk about that. I also had grown up going to very good, nominally progressive, predominantly white schools. The narrative of those schools was, “Racism happens elsewhere. Not here. We’re too good and kind and smart for that.”
But those schools almost always had racist incidents happening on campus. The first time I was called a nigger was on the campus of one of those schools, you know? By the son of a white, feminist theater director, I would add. And adults in charge heard it happen, but were too embarrassed or I don’t even know what they were thinking, to say anything, so it just became something that happened, was never talked about, was ignored. So, I wanted to write about the inability of those spaces to talk about their own white supremacy, the way they silence it and twist words around and just cannot imagine the language to move forward.
I like writing about other places, too, though. But I love the sarcasm and the bite in New England speech. I love how everyone sounds like they are about to start yelling, but that just means they probably are about to tell you they love you. I love the metaphors and the allusions. The other day, I was on the T, and someone said to the guy in front of him, “Get out of my way, you Mayor Menino-looking motherfucker.” I love that. Like, that is the crude wit of a certain type of Boston that is dying, but that I vividly remember from my childhood and adolescence.
Rumpus: One of the narrators of the novel, called Nymphadora, is a “thirty-six-year-old unmarried, orphaned Negro schoolteacher” who is “speaking” from 1929. Here is the beginning of her first section (I love this writing).
My mother was a Star of the Morning. My father was a Saturnite. I was first an Infant Auxiliary Star, and then I was a Girl Star, then a Young Lady Star, and three years ago, right before Mumma and Pop drank a jigger of cyanide each, I became, in my own right, a full-blown Star of the Morning, Fifth House, Second Quadrant Division, North Eastern Lodge of the colored hamlet of Spring City in the town of Courtland County, Massachusetts.
This character goes on to be central to a mystery that unravels over the course of the novel. While reading, I was convinced that the “Stars of the Morning” must have been a historical African-American sororal organization because your language about it is so detailed. I generally never let myself google while I’m reading, so I refrained. And then, upon finishing, I searched and searched and found nothing, except for the idea that both Jesus and Lucifer are linked to the phrase in the Bible, which I thought was interesting. What was your inspiration for the organization, and what was your research process like in building it into your novel?
Greenidge: I worked for many years at a black history museum in Central Brooklyn called the Weeksville Heritage Center. It was an absolutely magical place to work, a huge imprint on my understanding of the world, many years on. It was my first job in NY. One of the things I did for them was a series of oral histories, which I feel so lucky to have done. We did a project with a women’s sororal group in Brooklyn. They were fascinating. They had a clubhouse they’d bought in the sixties in Bed-Stuy, a vast building that used to be a mansion for a brewery owner in the twenties and then was a sanitarium for years. Then this group brought it. Now, with all the gentrification happening in Brooklyn, developers are always trying to buy it from them. They are part of a long tradition in black communities of fraternal and sororal organizations. I’m writing this to you a week after the video for “Formation” came out—some of the black fraternal orgs are referenced in that—when Beyoncé is standing on a porch, some of the men beside her are in the ceremonial dress of some of the organizations.
They were hugely important in a legally segregated world. Free black communities in the nineteenth century relied on these organizations, but they were also important during and after the Great Migration, in the North, West, and Midwest, where segregation may not be legally inscribed but discrimination was still just as high. The organizations worked as insurance companies when white-run insurance companies might not have been selling to blacks or sold at higher rates. They worked as informal job networks and also as safety nets if members lost their jobs or had an illness. Most importantly, if you were a member, they provided a sense of self and a deep sense of history when the world around you was telling you you and your people were nothing, less than nothing, incapable of having an inner life or a history. And here was a secret society to reassert those things.
So I wanted to write about that—it’s also a very, very deep reference to DuBois—his “Double-Consciousness and the Veil” essay. He’s a minor character in Nymphadora’s life in this book, and, though I didn’t mention it, he grew up in Western Mass, in the Berkshires, and his famous essay was informed in part by that experience.
But I also wanted to explore the idea of what it would it be like if you belonged to a group like that, and still felt a deep, inner loneliness. When I wrote Nymphadora, I was thinking a lot of that John Waters quote, “I like minorities who can’t even get along with their own group.” So funny, so sad, and I understand the impulse in that. John Waters wears that as a badge of honor, but if you can’t find any other freaks and weirdos to hang out with, it can be intensely lonely and alienating and a little crazy-making to be in a marginalized group and feel as though you have no emotional resonance with others who belong to that group and are around you. And if you are proud and haughty like poor Nymphadora, sometimes it means you’ll seek that emotional connection anywhere, and hope for it with very unsuitable people.
Rumpus: One of the things I found both particularly realistic about your novel and particularly heartbreaking was the relationship between one of the narrators, Charlotte, and her little sister Callie. As an older sister myself, I recognized both the way Callie knew exactly the buttons to push to annoy Charlotte, and the way Charlotte knew exactly what type of cruelty would be most effective in dismissing her little sister. (I have a permanent guilt complex about the latter and have spent my adulthood apologizing to my now-grown-up little sister about the ingeniously evil shit I pulled with her when we were kids.) I know you have sisters as well. Did your relationship with them make its way into the book in any way, or is the relationship between Charlotte and Callie quite different from your childhood experience?
Greenidge: Yes, my relationship with my sisters definitely influenced this book. It’s probably because of them that I’m interested in stories about sisters and stories about women relating to each other in general. I am kind of a misandrist in that if a story is just about men or there are no women in it, I can’t really pay attention to it. The one exception maybe being There Will Be Blood. Anyway, sisterhood is such an interesting relationship. And there’s such a gap between how we actually experience it and how it is portrayed sometimes. I don’t know. I think a lot of writing about sisters is either super saccharine or very very dark. We make the assumption that sisterhood either means unquestioning loyalty to the point of a loss of self, or, on the other hand, deep dark deeds, usually with a man as a focal point, and deep, seething jealousies. Sisterhood can be those things, of course, but it is also a much deeper relationship. For me, there’s an inherent melancholy in growing up, in losing parts of yourself as you age and change. And oftentimes, families structure themselves around the idea that none of their members change or grow, in their personalities. You are assigned roles, and expected to play them out. And that can be so lonely-making, and confusing when you are in the process of growing. So that’s what I wanted to explore in the relationship between Callie and Charlotte.