Halsey Street touches on a lot of themes, like mothers and daughters, racial and cultural identity, and gentrification. How did you decide to write this story?
While I was at Fordham, I got a short memoir published in The New York Times. It was called “Remembering When Brooklyn Was Mine,” about a fading Brooklyn and one that was being remade. That made me want to spend more time figuring out what it’s like to feel stuck between two Brooklyns. I invented Penelope [Halsey Street’s protagonist] and knew the story would be about her resistance to her homecoming, and about her finding her place—in her old Brooklyn neighborhood and within herself. Then I started writing her mother’s point of view, and it also became about these two women trying to find their way back to each other.
Did you always see yourself as a writer?
I did, but in college at Yale I was premed. Because I was a smart girl of color, I wanted to be helpful to society, and being a doctor would be something my family understood as having made it. I got into med school, but I deferred. And I deferred again. Then I went to Fordham for my master’s in English. So it’s been nice to have the book come out and reassure my family that I’d be OK, even if there’s still uncertainty. And of course it feels like a huge victory for me too.
What’s been the reaction to Halsey Street?
The reception I’ve experienced overall has been really positive. But I have also been made really aware of how some basic facts of my characters’ lives can be seen as controversial or troubling. Like my use of Spanish when it would be natural for the characters, or to show the trouble with communicating across generations and languages. Or the fact that Penelope is someone who is attentive to color and race. I get frustrated when I read literature and there’s no mention of race or ethnicity until a black character comes out. So for me as a writer, if we live with the powerful fiction of race, I want to be honest about rendering that for various people, not just people of color.
Do you identify with Penelope?
I identify as both black and Latina, like Penelope. And as a scholarship kid since middle school, I also feel like I’m in this bubble, stuck between two worlds. But I don’t always agree with Penelope. The points of view [around gentrification]in the book are deeply flawed. I don’t like the terms gentrifier or gentrified; they’re flattening and not true to nuances. And they don’t acknowledge how gentrification is driven by structural forces and not just individual agency. But when people talk about gentrification, partially what they’re talking about is a sense of erasure, or theft, or appropriation. It’s a complicated position, which is why I wanted to have people on different sides of it and not have the narrative comment directly.
Is that idea of leaving open questions something you teach your students at Wake Forest?
Yes. I think some people teach writing like it’s this mysterious thing, or you’re just kind of born with it or not, which I don’t believe. I teach a first-year writing class and one about American identity, race, and belonging. I think that one really challenges students because it’s one of the first times they’ve been instructed to ask questions about what it means to be American. By the end of the semester, they’ve deepened their thinking and have more questions. I think it’s unsettling for some of them, in a good way.
Do you want to continue teaching?
I definitely want to continue working to cultivate young writers. Teaching is a way for me to remain connected to the value that fiction has for readers, and the value the practice of writing has for writers.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got two book projects that are cooking right now; they’re both novels. One is a quest story, and the other is about a community in North Carolina, which is inspired by a short story I published about my time in Durham. I think they both build on the work of Halsey Street, but I don’t know which one I’ll finish next.
Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Alexandra Loizzo-Desai.