The Experience Takes Its Shape from You: Talking with Naima Coster
Naima Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street, begins as Penelope, an artist in her late twenties, moves back to Brooklyn to care for her father. She rents a room from an affluent family not far from her family home and navigates a place transformed. Gentrification is steadily swallowing the old Bed-Stuy, with her father’s record shop, a hub of the neighborhood and the center of his life, shuttered by exploding rents. The building is now an upscale grocery. Her mother, while alive, is gone.
Halsey Street traverses time and space, from the 1970s to current day, from Brooklyn to different parts of the Dominican Republic. Across these geographies, Penelope and her mother, Mirella, push and pull through love, fury, and hurt.
Coster teaches creative writing and composition at Wake Forest University. Recently, we spoke on the phone about her writing process, the moments when the best words are in Spanish, and the subversive virtues of Danny, The Champion of the World.
The Rumpus: How did this project begin?
Naima Coster: The project started with a personal essay I published in the New York Times called “Remembering When Brooklyn Was Mine.” It was about reckoning with all the changes that I saw in the neighborhood I grew up in, Fort Greene, and trying to figure out my relationship with gentrification as someone who left and came back. I went to school in Manhattan on a scholarship, but I was still living in Brooklyn. I wanted to capture what it felt like to move between two worlds, in terms of class, race, and culture.
The moving back and forth between two worlds is embodied by the two houses on Halsey Street. I didn’t anticipate that the book would end up a mother-daughter story, but that’s the piece that carried me through.
Rumpus: Penelope and Ralph and Mirella are such vivid characters. What was it like developing them?
Coster: When I start writing, there’s quite a bit that I know about my characters, but whatever I know at the beginning is not enough to sustain the writing of a whole book. So periodically, after I had drafted a section, I would go over it, ask the question, “What else can I find out about these characters and reveal about them in the moment, and what have I assumed about them that might not, in fact, be true?”
If you start with a set of facts or qualities of a person, it’s easy to assume another set of facts or qualities that might grow out of those. I try to question those assumptions.
Rumpus: What was it like structuring this narrative?
Coster: The story of the mother, Mirella, was much more complicated and interesting structurally. The Penelope story unfolds straightforwardly in many ways—moving forward in time, even the seasons are markers. For Mirella, I tried to imagine moments that would be representative of shifts in their relationship, but also moments where there was some critical connection or disconnection happening. In terms of the connections between the two narratives, they happen mostly through thematic connections and connections between images. So if there is a moment in Penelope’s story that’s about the ways that families entertain or project an image of themselves to their neighbors, that thematic interest will lead us into Mirella and her life of entertaining and keeping up appearances.
Rumpus: All the characters treat each other well and badly at different times. Were there points when you felt frustrated with them?
Coster: I didn’t ever feel frustrated with them, because I knew the kind of story that I was going to tell, and I knew what I was going to make them do. I wanted the book to be about people who end up loving each other badly a lot of the time. It’s inevitable that you’ll injure the people you love, despite your best efforts. But not all injuries are the same, and what we do with that information is up to us—how we shift our behavior or our thinking, how we seek help or seek reconciliation. Part of the thing about the people in this book is that they can’t own up to hurting one another, so the injuries keep accumulating.
Rumpus: I know you grew up in Brooklyn and have family in the Dominican Republic, but what sort of research did you do for the book?
Coster: I didn’t do any explicit research. There are certain moments in your life that have a greater weight in your memory. I worked as a medical translator in a rural community in the Dominican Republic. I was only there for a few days, although I’d been to the Dominican Republic many times. There were these red earth mountains, and I’d never seen mountains in the Dominican Republic like that. It was a dusty place. My experience there stayed with me, and I drew on it when I was writing about Mirella’s village.
Rumpus: Gentrification is a huge presence in this book, almost a character in itself. There’s this scene where it all comes to a head and Penelope has to be kind of the spokesperson to explain to Marty, this clueless hipster white guy, all of the fallacies in his argument. As someone who grew up in Brooklyn and has experienced a lot of this firsthand, what did it feel like to write about it?
Coster: To write Penelope in that scene felt really freeing, because she’s so angry. Her expression of anger in that scene is bold and goes against our expectations for how we socialize and how we talk to our landlord’s friends, and certainly how we talk to someone who might feel that he’s in a position of authority. I wanted Penelope to be unapologetically angry, and not to think about what a properly calibrated response would be.
In terms of writing Marty, who’s sort of the unapologetic gentrifier—writing him was challenging because I knew that I believed he would say the things that he said, but I also felt aware that a particular type of reader might be resistant to that sort of portrayal. It’s astonishing how much we resist being honest about the ways that we injure each other. Even in the midst of all of this #MeToo activism, I can imagine someone reading [a story] about a boss assaulting an employee and saying, “Well, would this person really do this? He seems so nice in that conversation on page two.” This is true for cases of sexism, for cases of racism, classism. With Marty, there might be readers who, because of their politics and their place in the world, might start thinking about me and my motivations, when what I want is for them to be immersed in the characters and the scene.
The book isn’t a polemic. It tries to render the different forces that shape our lives, and that includes class, race, and migration.
Rumpus: You speak Spanish, and there are lines of Spanish in the book. How did you decide where and how and how much to put in?
Coster: I wanted the Spanish to be determined by the characters’ points of view. I didn’t want to add Spanish for “flavor,” like to salt and pepper the text. I asked myself, “If we’re in the characters’ minds, which words would come to them most readily in Spanish?” Partially, how I did that was using my own sense of the language. I believe the first word in Spanish in the book is chancleta, which is “slipper.” I never use the word “slipper,” and I know I’m not alone on that in terms of bilingual Spanish-speaking folks, from the Caribbean in particular. It felt very natural. I also thought about what words in Spanish have a special charge or meaning that isn’t quite translatable, for which the word in English would be a thin substitute. There’s this word desahogarse, and ahogarse means “to drown,” and so it’s, like, “to undrown.” What it actually means is to get something off your chest. I can’t think of a word quite like that in English. There’s “unburden,” but that doesn’t evoke the idea that thoughts and feelings are enough to drown you.
Rumpus: You’ve gotten some pushback on your use of Spanish in some reviews.
Coster: Part of my experience as a woman of color in the world feels like my beliefs and the facts of my life are often being distorted. But every reader’s experience is shaped by what’s going on inside that person. So the reader who’s infuriated by the Spanish, or the reader who just skims over it, or the reader who enthusiastically looks it up, or the reader who reads and feels represented and is delighted—the reader creates the response. The act of reading isn’t inert, where you’re sort of passively receiving something. The experience takes its shape from you.
Rumpus: You’ve written about having another black woman, Morgan Parker, as an editor for your book, and how you haven’t had many workshop leaders as teachers of color.
Coster: I’ve had only three workshop leaders of color, and I did workshops for nine years. I’ve run into women of color writers in other contexts—I took a master class with Porochista Khakpour. But I’m of two minds about this. One is that having a radical or expansive imagination can get a writer really far, especially in terms of the advice she receives. I’ve had writing professors who did not share my background but who, because of the expansiveness of their imagination and principled approach to workshop, were able to give me invaluable guidance. You don’t need a person with the same background as you to get what you need, but you do need someone whose imagination is expansive enough to make room for your vision.
This is a problem that affects writers of color or any writers who feel situated on the margins because of their experience. My other thought is that my workshop experiences are symptoms of a larger problem about equity and inclusion in higher education.
Rumpus: How does that manifest itself for you as a teacher?
Coster: As a teacher, I try to be mindful of my own blind spots so that they don’t limit my students’ learning. I don’t want the class to center me and my experiences to the point of exclusion and distortion. If you take short story workshop and everything you read is by a white man who wrote in the 1950s, it’s a distortion of what the literary landscape is like and what it’s like to be a writer. I read many black writers, so when I build my syllabus, I consider: how can I include writers of color who aren’t black as well as writers of color who are black? It’s not perfect, but I’m committed to trying.
Rumpus: Are there any books that you wish all people would read, or books that have flown under the radar that you wish more people who know about?
Coster: I love Danny, The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. It was my favorite book as a kid, but isn’t as well known as, say, Matilda or The BFG. It’s a really subversive book about this boy and his father who are poor. They’ve been exploited by the local wealthy landowner, and they start stealing pheasants from him, and they involve other members of the community, to get back at him and sustain themselves. The intimacy between this boy and his father is beautiful, but I also love that the book makes understandable the motivations of people that society might just say are bad people. If Danny and his father are stealing, what other explanations might there be, other than that they’re bad people? It’s sad that we have to ask those questions, but you just have to listen to neighbors or turn on the news to know that we do.
I love the work of Jesmyn Ward for the same reason. There’s a scene in Salvage the Bones where a few children have just stolen something from their neighbor’s house to save their dog’s life, and they’re running through the woods, and you’re just terrified for them. It’s a great, tense scene. Jesmyn Ward has done a wonderful thing. She’s rendered this story that, in the news, would be portrayed as these kids doing something reprehensible. The story would become some sort of testament to their depravity. But in the novel, you want them to be safe, and you want them to get the things that they need, and you feel that they deserve the things that they need.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Coster: I have two book projects that I’m working on, both of them fiction. One is a mosaic, a portrait of a community in the midst of a difficult transformation, examined from the perspectives of multiple characters. The other is a quest story in which a woman must protect herself and her family while also learning to be tender. And I’m always working on essays—they keep me sharp.