Birthplace: Washington D.C.
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Most Recently Published Work: The Warmth of Other Suns
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Can you tell us a little about The Warmth of Other Suns?
The Warmth of Other Suns is a work of narrative nonfiction about one of the biggest underreported stories of the 20th Century: the Great Migration of six million African-Americans from the South to the North and West throughout much of the century. This migration was a defection from a caste system that controlled the lives of everyone in the South until it was finally dismantled after the civil rights era. This migration changed the country North and South and reshaped American culture as we know it.
In "The Warmth of Other Suns," the story of this migration is told through three people who set out for New York, Chicago and Los Angeles along the three main migration streams out of the South. They each left under different circumstances, for different reasons, from different states, during different decades and their lives unfolded in different ways in the New World.
I don't read a lot of nonfiction but I loved The Warmth of Other Suns. When I finally picked it up I couldn't put it down.
How often do you hear similar sentiments from other fans?
Thank you for the kind words about the book being hard to put down. I hear that all the time, and it warms my heart to know that all the work that went into making the stories come alive was worth the effort. Another thing that people say is that they sometimes have to put it down and contemplate what they have just read because parts of the book -- or rather, parts of fairly recent American history -- are so difficult and at times, wrenching.
They also note the funny and ironic parts of the book that come through because each of the protagonists, despite the hardships they faced were keen observers of human behavior and had a great sense of humor. Others have said they were sad as they neared the last pages because they had grown to love the three characters and did not want the story to end
What's the key to writing engaging nonfiction?
I think the key to writing engaging nonfiction is, first, to have a passion for the subject because you will need it to get through all the hard work this entails. Second, finding fully realized protagonists who are dedicated to the truth of their experience, through whom to tell the story, because in nonfiction, you can't make it up!
Finally, telling the story as a narrative -- meaning a character-driven unfolding of things with a beginning, middle and end, rather than a dry recitation of facts based on categories or subject headings. This helps draw the reader in and stay with the story to see how everything turns out
African Americans mass exodus out of the South during Jim Crow changed the landscape of America, yet your debut is the first to focus solely on this movement. Why do you think that's so?
There are other books, most of them scholarly or focused on the economics or politics or social implications of the Migration, but few that allow us to hear the voices of the people who lived it or of that explore why and how they made the journey and the sacrifices and costs of doing so.
One reason the story hadn't been told is that the people themselves didn't talk about it, even with their children and grandchildren -- it was so painful, and many had put it in the past.
Another reason is that it went on for so long that it was hard to grasp. Reporters who might have been there at the beginning of it weren't around at the end of it to put it in perspective.
Also, from the early stages of the Migration, those who wrote about it focused on the immediate effects of it -- the overcrowding, the emergence of ghettos as the people were restricted and hemmed in, the health issues -- while not paying much attention to the people themselves and what had propelled them to make this leap of faith. So their lives went underrecognized for decades, until now.
When telling customers about the Warmth of Other Suns, I'll mention the interview you did with NBA legend Bill Russell. They understand that Russell would've never won 11 championship rings, integrated the Boston Celtics or even played in the NBA if his parents didn't migrate out of the south.
After referencing Russell's story, I can almost see when it clicks and customers truly understand the significance of this migration.
When did it click for you?
It clicked for me when I was exposed, in fairly rapid succession before embarking on the book, to two depictions of immigrant life in America: (1) Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" and (2) the Barry Levinson film "Avalon." I identified with the struggle between immigrant mothers in "The Joy Luck Club" who had left the Old Country and sacrificed everything so that their daughters could grow up free but also with the daughters negotiating life in a New World. I wondered why there weren't more works exploring that same human response to the Great Migration within our own country.
When I saw the film "Avalon" (a classic immigrant story of a man who builds a life from nothing in the New World of Baltimore but whose children grow up not understanding all that he endured), I thought to myself that if you changed the point of origin from eastern Europe to the American South, it would describe the people I was surrounded by growing up in Washington, D.C. I knew that there had to be great stories of what people who had journeyed from the South had gone through. And there were.
A book that's about everything from families, life choices to possibility, is guaranteed to be an emotional read. Even more so when it addresses the history of race relations in America. I couldn't help but get angry when African Americans faced so much injustice in the South and the North. Or sadden to see Irish, Italian, Polish, and Russian immigrants, pitted against African Americans.
While writing did you embrace the inevitable emotions?
Whenever I would first come across some absurdity of the Jim Crow caste system (like black and white people being forbidden to play checkers together) or the unbelievable acts of brutality, I had the same feelings of shock and sadness as anyone would have. But I was on a mission to tell this story and to get it out to the public, so I had to immerse myself in it to try to understand it and to make it come alive for the reader. I channeled the natural human reaction to the things I was discovering into the energy needed to tell the story. It propelled me to give it my all because of what the people had endured. And the desire to tell the story with depth and intregrity gave me the distance and perspective I needed to complete the task.
Can you tells us where the title for the book came from?
The title comes from a passage I discovered in the footnotes of the current annotated version of the autobiography of Richard Wright. He had written the passage in haste because the second half of his original manuscript had been rejected, and he had to quickly come up with a new ending if it were to get published. The circumstances forced him to distill hundreds of pages into a few paragraphs. He emerged with clear, sharp language that is sheer poetry and that expresses the fears, hopes and longing of anyone who has ever had to embark on a life-altering journey with no guarantees as to what might happen. The book had been without a name or title until that point. When I discovered that passage, I finally had both.
The Warmth of Other Suns was very well received and garnered many top honors. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non Fiction
It was a Publishers Weekly 10 top book of 2010, a New York Times 10 Best Book of the year. It's is a wonderful and much needed addition to our American history shelves.