Over his life Khary Lazarre-White has acquired many titles: attorney; advocate; activist. To these he now adds another: novelist. His new novel, Passage (Seven Stories Press), tells the story of Warrior, a young African American man navigating the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem in the winter of 1993, as he confronts the forces that move around him and the voices — hopeful and otherwise — that swirl within him.
Mr. Lazarre-White recently spoke with Public Seminar about where Passage came from, the experience of writing it, and what he hopes the novel will communicate.
Public Seminar: Thank you for taking some time with Public Seminar to talk about your new novel. Passage is set in the early 1990s in New York City and tells the story of Warrior, a teenage boy who is being confronted with all of the pressures — and gifts — that come with being a racial minority in the United States. Where did Warrior and his story come from? Is he drawn from your imagination or based on people you have known?
Khary Lazarre-White: Passage is a work of fiction and so much of the novel is, of course, imagined and created. I sought to use different levels of consciousness, internal conversations, dreams, elements of parable and magical realism — the characters are both real and also representational, mythic and based in reality. Warrior comes from these worlds, but there are also many of my own experiences and elements of my journey in Warrior. As a novelist I think it is common to include what one sees into characters, and so this too is in Warrior.
PS: You open the novel with such force. The first two lines are: “It had been the same for years now. Warrior woke up angry.” What made you decide to begin this way?
KL-W: I thought it important to grab the reader. I wanted to immediately bring the reader into Warrior’s world, his consciousness. I believe that young Black men are so often discussed and so rarely heard from. So the opening is an announcement. The reader will be on this journey with Warrior and see the world through his eyes.
PS: You’ve chosen an interesting form for the novel, one in which you move back and forth from an omniscient narrator, who describes what is happening in and around Warrior, to a series of “voices” that assail and swirl around him. What made you want to write in this form? And what was that like for you?
KL-W: Each day we spend so much of our time in our own heads and minds, having conversations — the internal narrative. I sought to move between genres and voices — poetry and prose, spiritual and realistic, representational — and to, yes, have voices swirl around him. Warrior’s journey, his outcome, his very life depends on which voices he listens to, and they swirl around in his dreams, in his mind, on the streets. They walk with him; at times they pursue him. I sought to make the novel build, over the seven chapters, to a crescendo, and as the pace reaches its most intense there are these lines at the end of chapter 6: “The speaker’s hands had lost control, and the drums pulsed wildly. There was no rhythm. No order. No time.”
PS: Anger and “tradition” — or memory, or witness, or love, I’m not sure how to characterize it — are such strong themes throughout the novel. You’ve been working with young people of color for over two decades through the organization you founded, Brotherhood/Sister Sol. How did your experience there inform the ways you wanted to portray Warrior’s attempts to navigate these two themes?
KL-W: I hope that Passage speaks to young people — that some young people see it as a guide, a way through the anger and rage you ask about and the trauma that produces. When one thinks of the conditions that so many of our children are forced to endure — the poor schooling, the American plague of violence, the desperate economic poverty, the entrenched systems of racism — it is no wonder that so many are angry. It is a righteous kind of anger. But it can also consume you.
I believe that all of us must come to terms with this anger, direct it, and in some ways use it. There is nothing wrong with anger. It is a necessary human emotion. The question is: what does one do with the anger? How is it processed? We work with young people to understand their conditions and become social change makers — to survive and transform. That is a long tradition in the Black American experience. And this tradition is also one based in love, and in memory and witnessing. One of the oldest and most prominent forms of African American literature is the autobiographical narrative — using one’s story, including during slavery, to serve as witness.
PS: Speaking of “tradition,” you use a James Baldwin quote — “my memory stammers; but my soul is a witness” — as an epigraph to Passage. Were you inspired by Baldwin as you wrote? By the great tradition of African American literature in general?
KL-W: Baldwin has had and continues to have a profound effect on me — and on so many writers. He is a wordsmith — every word matters, his language is stunning and his commentary is brilliant. His voice is as needed today as it was fifty years ago. That cannot be said of most writers. And of course the African American tradition inspires me — as it does so many writers — but so does the oral tradition. I acknowledge my grandmother and my great uncle in the acknowledgements section. They were/are great, prodigious storytellers. The holders of family history. There were seven children, ages 5 to 17, who all found themselves orphaned in eastern North Carolina in the 1920s. Their grandmother, the direct elder who survived, had been enslaved for 18 years. I know all of my family history, the personal stories of family, the story of America, due to that oral tradition. And so, like many writers, I wove in family stories into Passage — and more broadly, the lived experience of stories being constantly told and retold.
PS: What role does tradition — memory, in Baldwin’s terms — play in Warrior’s story? In your own?
KL-W: Memory is what makes us, forms us; what we are left with. Warrior struggles to understand and process his memories. The reader learns early that he cannot ever remember his dreams — they are a form of memory. His struggle is to come to terms with who he is and what he has seen.
PS: Traditions, as necessary as they are, sometimes have dark sides. And in the novel you give the reader access to so many traditions — family, jazz, Christianity, the Spirituals, the Black Power movement, genealogies — as they are woven through Warrior’s own life. Some of these traditions seem to give Warrior a vision and an identity while others are illusions, constraints that mask who he is supposed to be. What is the difference, for you, between the kind of traditions that constrain and control Warrior and the kind of traditions that sustain and preserve him?
KL-W: I actually wouldn’t make that distinction. All of the traditions you mention can both be sustaining and also constraining. Think of spirituality and religion: we know that these traditions can be used to control people’s sexuality and gender, to constrain women’s bodies, for example. They have even been used to defend slavery and child labor. And yet in other forms people can find great liberation through spirituality and religion. So too of family and social justice movements.
PS: There were times when it seemed like you were writing directly to young people like Warrior and there were others when you seemed to be writing in order to give people a glimpse into the mind and heart and experience of such people. For whom did you start writing Passage? Did that change throughout the process?
KL-W: For both. I hope that Warrior’s peers see their story in his story. I hope others come to Passage and have a world they have not understood, or been blind to, revealed to them. Literature creates universal meaning through the depth of its particularity, and identification across culture, class, and time. In Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, a young male protagonist, takes us on his journey and we see the world through his eyes; in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior the story of a girl envelopes us, and her life inspires and expands all of our perspectives. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has said, “Literature is a universal language because it is specific.”
PS: Do you envision Passage as a tool you can put into young people’s hands to help them deal with all the voices they hear around them? Does fiction play a role, in other words, in the kind of very practical work to which you have devoted your life?
KL-W: I certainly hope so. I believe that literature, fiction, stories, can inspire and help us find the way. I hope that Passage can help some young people to, in part, navigate the world they encounter. Fiction inspires me as does poetry and all forms of art. While my work at Brotherhood/Sister Sol is very practical and based in the realities and struggles of the world, art and fiction are a part of it as well. One has to imagine another way, to seek inspiration — it is like the great labor movement that birthed Union 1199, which birthed their wonderful “Bread and Roses” project. Bread as practical sustenance for the body, and art or beauty as sustenance for the mind and spirit.
PS: The novel ends with what some might read as a moment of awakening or “enlightenment” for Warrior. Have you seen young people you’ve worked with have experiences like the one Warrior experiences? Have you had an experience like this in your own life?
KL-W: I have seen the beauty of young people seeing the light, being “enlightened.” It has happened in Egypt as we looked at the great pyramids of Giza and wrestled with the unknowable. It has happened in Ghana when they were confronted with Cape Coast Slave Castle and we processed the profound horror and spirituality of that place. And it has happened here in Harlem as children are supported by the incredible and dedicated staff of Brotherhood/Sister Sol — as they are guided and supported and loved. Awakenings of this kind are powerful moments; they can be unsettling as well. One can feel either grounded or unmoored.
PS: The title of the novel evokes both the Middle Passage and the narrow passage through which so many young men and women of color have to pass today. Are there more layers of meaning to the title for you? Where do you hope such a passage might lead?
KL-W: Yes, the title is supposed to evoke both. A rite of passage toward manhood, passage through the snowy city, passage through the bowels of the city and its trains, the dangerous path through and around… and also “the Middle Passage,” though that is a deeply problematic term. This horrific atrocity — the very experience that allowed millions to claim Haitian, Jamaican, Cuban, Dominican, Brazilian and American nationality, among so many others — is described in the language, and from the perspective, of traders in human beings, not of the enslaved. For “The Middle Passage” refers to the second leg in the “triangular trade.” Draw the lines on a map: number one, from Europe with goods to Africa; number two, from Africa with cargo of humans to the Americas, the middle one; and finally, the third one, from the Americas back to Europe with goods for trade. For the enslaved, for the Africans, the atrocity, the experience, was not “the Middle Passage.” It was simply “The Passage,” the only one. And so the title references this. Passage connects to Warrior’s journey, to the Black experience in America, and to his path toward survival and understanding.
PS: Thank you very much, Mr. Lazarre-White, for taking some time to talk with us about your new book.