Kaitlyn Greenidge and Mira Jacob. Design: Daniel Fermín for Public Seminar
Upon the publication of her new novel, Libertie (Algonquin Books, 2021), author Kaitlyn Greenidge sat down with Mira Jacob, author and New School assistant professor of creative writing, to discuss ghost stories, letting your character make mistakes, and the problem with the word problematic. The interview was presented by the Creative Writing Program at the Schools of Public Engagement. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Mira Jacob [MJ]: I’m very excited tonight because we are going to be hearing from Kaitlyn Greenidge, who is one of my favorite writers writing today. There’s a quote about Kaitlyn’s Libertie that really hit my heart, which is: “Motherhood offers Libertie the type of freedom that Toni Morrison spoke of. Freedom from others’ control over her and from the expectations of who she should become. With its connections to a history that’s illuminated more and more each passing day, Libertie is a superb novel that informs the present and perhaps even the future.”
I love that quote for so many reasons. It speaks to me about the kind of writing that Kaitlyn does. Her work has this interesting quality: it manages to take history and make it feel like a future—like something that’s both informing your future and something that is shaping your future, even as you’re stepping into it. We’re going to be talking about that tonight.
Kaitlyn’s debut novel is called We Love You, Charlie Freeman. In case anybody happens to be stuck at home with their entire family during a pandemic, it is a great book for the whole family to listen to. It was also one of the New York Times Critics’ Top 10 Books of 2016. And her writing has appeared in Vogue and in Glamour, in Wall Street Journal, Elle, BuzzFeed, Virginia Quarterly, the Believer, American Short Fiction—and she is the recipient of fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, as well as the Lewis Center at Princeton University, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Right now, you might know her as the features editor at Harper’s Bazaar, where she interviews just about everyone you would ever want to interview and also gets a whole lineup of writers putting out work that is astonishing and interesting. She has also been a contributing writer for the New York Times. She’s going to be reading tonight from Libertie.
Kaitlyn, I know how this project started for you and I think it’s got a really interesting beginning. I wonder if you can talk about that just a little bit.
Kaitlyn Greenidge [KG]: Sure. So Libertie came from a lot of different places, but the primary place it came from was the Weeksville Heritage Center, a place I worked for many years. It’s located in central Brooklyn and it’s dedicated to the history of Weeksville, which was a free Black community founded in the 1830s, essentially to build up Black political power in New York City. At that time, to vote, you had to have a certain amount of land. I had a lot of different jobs at the museum. One of them was to assist in the oral history program. One of the descendants we interviewed was someone named Ellen Holly. She was a descendant of this other woman named Dr. Susan Smith McKinney-Steward, who was the first Black female doctor in New York state. So we went to go through this interview and I sort of assumed very naïvely that it was going to be kind of your standard Black success story. So I was shocked and intrigued because the story that this woman told was less about her really remarkable ancestor and more about this woman’s daughter. This woman named Anna who had this devastating and complicated marriage and how much that had shaped their family history.
And she really spoke about the toll of Black exceptionalism. I had worked in Black history museums for a long time, and I’d been thinking for a long time about how much of Black history that gets to the public is usually these stories of exceptions: who is the first Black person in a white space—what’s usually deemed as important Black history.
The descendant who we did this oral history with, she was really frank about the emotional and psychological toll of that.
As I did more history on this family, on this woman, on this time period, on Haiti, on Brooklyn, I got interested in all these different themes.
MJ: [Libertie] is specifically trying to tell the story of somebody who is making decisions that aren’t heroic decisions; they’re personal decisions, right? Or if they are heroic, they’re for herself which I think is one of the most amazing things about how this story unfolds. Did you get nervous in the course of writing it?
KG: I love the way that you put it; the heroic instead of the personal. I think when you write fiction that has a Black protagonist—and also, I would say, fiction that usually has a non-white protagonist—the question, I think, that creators often ask themselves is like, “I want to tell this story, but it’s probably not going to be big enough that people take notice.” I think we’ve had this conversation many times and Mira, you’re really great at talking to students about this as well. [There is] this idea that our stories are never going to be good enough if they’re just on a personal level, that somehow they have to be on sort of this grand, trans-national, big question level, and that these really intimate decisions that people make somehow exist outside of history and so can’t be discussed by writers who are interested in talking about how identity affects us.
So it took me constant reminding myself that these stakes can seem very small or extremely privileged for the characters. Libertie and her mother are the one percent of the one percent. They are free Black women who are living just before the Civil War. They’re college educated, they are extremely, extremely privileged in their extremely, extremely narrow experience. But the work of a fiction writer is to take narrow experiences and explore the emotional vastness that’s within them.
MJ: Yeah, absolutely. And there were so many details in here that I felt like you had to do an incredible amount of research to get right. Did you find yourself doing a lot of research before you even started? I’m always so curious when someone’s doing historical fiction, if it’s a situation where you’re creating this story and you’re researching as the plot holes come up—or do you do a bulk of the research before and then start writing?
KG: It’s a combination of the two. I love having a guide when I write, because I’m so worried about either getting lost when I write or running out of material. So for me, research is as much about psyching myself up to write as it is about figuring out a story. And my background, as I’ve said, was working in history museums and working as a researcher. So I find that part of it very enjoyable. There are other writers who say that research really feels very foreign or just like some sort of imposition for them. So I really think it just depends on where you are situated and where your own personal information lives.
MJ: That makes sense. And also, I feel like there’s a part of this that also has an element of—I don’t know if you want to call it magical realism, but there’s a ghostiness, certainly. Right? There’s a haunted quality in here. And I know you have a particular interest in ghosts. Did that start when you were conceiving of the book, or did that creep up on you? (Oh my God, did I use that pun? I’m so sorry.)
KG: That started, I think, as I was researching and thinking about the book more. I was thinking about ghost stories very deeply because I was teaching a couple of classes on ghost stories. And so—
MJ: Can I just say that I want to be in your ghost stories class?
KG: It was so much fun. I thought about what haunting means in a historical sense and how much of history really is a haunting. When I was doing my ghost stories class, one of the things that came up again and again was this idea that a ghost story is about a piece of the past that you can’t mention, either because it’s some sort of historical crime or some sort of family crime. So I got super interested in that part of it. And ghost stories operate on a silence of some sort. A lot of this book is about the things that these characters feel like they can’t say to each other, or sort of are feeling. Even though they’re incredibly close as mother and daughter, their relationship is full of all of these silences.
MJ: Right. All the things that they want from each other . . . Ghost stories are built on silences, right? And so the idea of a haunting here is all the things that are unsaid between the characters?
KG: Yeah. All the things that are unsaid: there’s like an emotional haunting for Libertie and her mother. One of the things that helped guide writing this story was I was thinking about mother-daughter stories that I could model it off of. And one of the ones that came up was the myth of Persephone. So this idea of a healer woman, a very powerful woman, losing her daughter to this marriage and sort of the grief between them. And so that idea of what’s going to be sort of the emotional block between these two characters, that means that they can’t speak freely to each other. And that blockage makes them make these decisions that maybe they wouldn’t make, necessarily, if they felt more free or if they understood each other more—[that] was a really important part of structuring the book.
MJ: Ah. Fantastic. Can we hear a little bit of the book?
[Click here to read the excerpt Kaitlyn Greenidge read from the opening pages of Libertie. The scene takes place in 1860 in Brooklyn, just before the Civil War.]
MJ: That was so good. How did you get all of the medical information, in addition to the historical information? How did you keep all of that in there?
KG: At a very early stage, I was like, I will drive myself insane if I try and figure out all of the possible homeopathic remedies in existence. And so what I did instead was I would write a scene where someone needed a remedy and then I would try and figure out, what’s the emotional [need]? Because homeopathy is a practice that is not necessarily bound by physical ailments. I mean, that’s a part of it, but homeopathic cures can be sort of anything. They can also be more emotional disturbances. I would write a scene where someone needed to be healed and then figure out what would be the thing they’re actually here for: Is this an emotional ailment or a physical ailment? The physical ailments, obviously, were really easy to look up. The emotional ailments, also. And what the doctors would have diagnosed in that time.
MJ: So you almost did like a placeholder, like this person needs to have an emotional fix, keep going with the scene?
KG Yeah. Or I would stop and read a big part of a book. This is not a spoiler, but later on, Libertie’s mother is trying to use her training in homeopathy to figure out how to aid formerly enslaved people who are suffering from what we would now call PTSD—but they don’t have an understanding of what that is, they just know this person is not emotionally or mentally or physically able to exist in everyday life. And so she’s trying to figure out what that is. I ended up reading a lot about what those treatments would’ve been for depression or for this alienation. And that’s where a lot of the homeopathic cures got very poetic because homeopathy’s primary idea is, like cures like. So you’re looking for things that are similar to whatever the ailment is. Like, how do I cure someone of loneliness, what is the physical version of that?
I found this really fascinating homeopathic institute website where they were talking about trying to cure depression. They were looking for animals that sort of signified, poetically, depression. And they found this seahorse that’s very famous for being deep, deep underwater. Solitary figure. Extremely alone. They picked the seahorse because the only thing the seahorse needs to be emotionally happy is a mate, and if it doesn’t have a mate, it gets very, very depressed. So their idea for a cure was, we’ll find the seahorse, we will dry out the seahorse’s body, we will ground them down. And then because it’s the essence of depression, it will cure depression if you take it. That became a basis for a cure that’s in the book.
MJ: That’s fascinating. I remember that cure, too. There are so many moving parts in this book, and there were so many things that you had to figure out. I know from talking to you that there were a couple things that you were nervous about getting right. And I wanted to talk about that with our students, who are very locked up sometimes about making sure they get something right. I want to talk about how you approach that in your work.
KG: So for me, the big question of getting something right was this question of Haiti. I’m not Haitian. I don’t speak Creole. I don’t speak French. I don’t read Creole or French. I know Haitian culture from growing up—Boston has, I think, the second biggest Haitian community in the U.S., or something. A lot of Haitians live here. Just from growing up and knowing people in middle school, I know, honestly, Creole insults. That’s it. And I know some of the history, too, from studying it, but I don’t know much of the culture.
I do know that in English, a lot of stuff is written about Haiti and Haitian cultural traditions that is completely offensive or wrong, or really superficial. Like voodoo king, voodoo queen, stuff like that. So I was really trepidatious, and I felt a lot of angst about how to do that properly. And knowing that I could spend three years reading 500 books about Haiti and still get something wrong and people would be right to call me out on that if I did. So I felt a lot of anxiety about it. I had to talk to myself about it and figure it out and be like, “Okay, so the character that I’m writing, she’s also an outsider to this culture. So she’s going to get things wrong and she’s going to have wrong interpretations of things.”
So one way that you can sort of get over this question of whether or not you get things wrong—all writers are a little bit manipulative, so it was kind of a manipulative move—but it’s sort of like, let me put something in here that a Haitian reader would recognize as one thing, and this character, Libertie, is going to misread it. And a character will come along and correct her in the book, so that a reader subconsciously trusts the person writing the book: they understand that the character herself is going to make these mistakes as the story goes on.
That’s sort of built into the commentary of the story, that Libertie is an outsider. She’s part of—I mean, it’s complicated to call it a colonizing force, but she sort of has a colonizer mentality in that she’s coming up into this country assuming that she knows more than the people who live there. And assuming that the family whom she’s married into knows more than the people who live there. And quickly realizes that that is not true.—that she’s actually in a completely different version of this country than what’s been sold to her by her husband, who’s sort of like, “Haiti is the Black promised land, this is where Black liberation is going to happen.” A very romanticized view of this country. So part of the book is what she’s getting wrong.
Starting from that place, I think, a lot of times is more helpful for a writer. I think that can sort of solve a lot of the questions about whether or not you as a writer are “allowed” to write about a culture or experience.
MJ: The way that I heard that, and tell me if I’ve got it right, is the thing that you did, then, craft-wise, is you took the worry and you triangulated it into a conversation between you, the reader, and the character.
KG: Yeah. I’m just not prescriptive for anyone else, but for me, I feel like that is more of an honest way of going about it than just sort of pretending like this book exists outside of space and time and all of the other dynamics that will be in certain readers’ minds when they pick up the book. And because I’m already sort of prone to be interested in that meta-reading of texts, it felt like a way to move through that problem.
MJ: It’s such a smart move because it allows you to dodge it in a way, but it also allows you to breathe and it allows your imagination to ask natural questions and give those space on the page without feeling either pedantic or not knowledgeable enough, right?
KG: Right. Because the flip-side of writing something that doesn’t feel true or is wrong is getting to the point where you’ve sucked all the air out of a scene.
MJ: Your piece, which I teach all the time, and my class is going to be discussing next week, called “Who Gets to Write What?”—embodies this idea that you were just talking about. If you’re not coming from a culture, how do you write about it? What are the rules you give yourself? What do people expect? Somebody resurrected a piece of mine that was up on BuzzFeed called “I Gave A Speech About Race To The Publishing Industry And No One Heard Me.” It’s basically about trying to be a person of color in the publishing industry and get work published and all the different no’s that you run into. Recently, I’ve been talking to friends and I feel like the industry is so very, very, very confused about who has the right to write what kind of fiction.
MJ: So here are the couple examples that have been sort of galling me, low level. I have a friend who is Indian American who went out with a book and it’s two Indian American characters and a Latina character and was told, “Can you change the Latina character possibly to a white character because you’re not Latina yourself?” I have another friend, a white writer, who’s gone out with a book and it’s three points of view, two white women, one Korean woman. And she was asked to remove the Korean woman’s point of view because she is white. I feel like all of this is, when I hear about it, my brain kind of goes—[explosive sound]. Can you talk a little bit about your take on that?
KG: I feel like that sort of reading comes from a really panicked way—and I think it comes from not actually engaging with what writers have been saying about who gets to write what and what you had said in your piece as well. I remember your piece very well when it first came out and it felt sort of like an arrow. It was like, “Finally, someone is talking about this, thank God.” And so I’ve had similar talks.
Now, I know a writer in passing, she’s a lesbian, she’s been in many relationships with people across the gender spectrum, she wrote a novel about lesbians and trans people sort of falling in and out of love. And she got the note that she needed a sensitivity reader. And the sensitivity reader told her, you’re not allowed to use certain parts of this language that she’s been using with her friends and loved ones. She’s a queer woman! The person said, “This isn’t a part of your experience because you are a cis lesbian woman . . . you can’t possibly have had these experiences.” And she’s saying back, “I’ve had these experiences since before you were born. I was there in 1985 when nobody was interested in this at all.”
So I think it has gone into a really prescriptive place because that’s an easy place to go. If you just had a checklist, everything would be cool, right? We really want to believe that that’s the way to go about it. But that circumvents actually engaging with any of the things that people have brought up in their critiques about cultural appropriation and writing. One mantra of the last couple years that I’ve given myself is: we do not have time for shorthand anymore. We don’t have time to reduce things to its pithiest element. We do not have time for that because that actually sets us back so far and muddies the water so much and just messes up the actual conversation. We should be looking at works and having big, messy, and complicated discussions about them.
I think the other thing that happens is this assumption that if there is conversation around a book about race and the conversation is critical—both the version of that word that means “harsh” and the version of that word that means “analytical”—there’s an assumption that you don’t want that. And I think that comes from many people’s own personal tension whenever talking about race and class and privilege. Most people don’t feel comfortable having those conversations at all.
Because people are in charge of the publishing process; it’s not like an AI is doing this. People are involved in it. I think that translates into the idea of, “I know as a publisher, we need books that reflect our actual demographic of America and sort of reflect these authors. I know we should be talking about these things. But to actually have a big freewheeling conversation about these things makes me extremely uncomfortable, because I don’t know how to control it. So I’m just going to try and keep this in a box as safe as possible and make these really strange and censoring decisions that are actually not really that helpful.”
As much as people can keep having and get comfortable having conversations around rooting and understanding race and class in art and in fiction in particular, as I’m talking to you, I’m also realizing, there’s also sort of a base question of, why and how do we read novels and what do we think novels are actually supposed to be? And a part of that question has a million different answers and all those answers can be valid at certain times.
MJ: Right, because there is this concurrent thing that’s happening, which is people being kind of politically disappointed with characters’ choices, right? Watching a fictional character make a choice and then extrapolating from that that the author is making this kind of a political choice, which is denying this kind of personal agency in the world, right? There’s a whole thing that’s happening that I find soul-deadening.
KG: Right. Exactly. And the idea that if you have a character who is a Black person or a person of color, that that ipso facto means virtue, means a virtuous person—
MJ: Wait, you’re not purely virtuous?
KG: Hell no! Exactly. And I think that’s a trap that writers of all races fall into. I don’t think it’s a trap that just white writers are doing.
Read the books that are really messy. Read the books that everybody is telling you are problematic. And actually pick a part that word. When I was teaching, the last quarter of class I had to sort of be like, “we can’t use that word to talk about books because it means absolutely nothing.” Problematic means—
MJ: It means nothing!
KG: So, actually tell me what you mean [by problematic]. And when you tell me what you mean, can you point to a place in the text where it happens? This isn’t like, “Oh, students didn’t know what they were talking about.” I think this is true for many people. They couldn’t actually point to a place in the text. And it was like, “Can you show me? Tell me a page number to back up what you’re saying, and we can have a conversation about it.” And so many times, the conversation would sort of fall a part then. I’m not putting a value judgment on that. I’m just saying, when we have these conversations, there are things we can ground them in. We can ground them with what’s actually on the page. We can ground them in literary history or literary criticism. We can ground them in an understanding of the history of a particular culture or a community. We don’t just have to be using a checklist that’s not grounded in anything except some very shaky idea of avoiding controversy.
MJ: The reason that I have problems with the word “problematic” is because I feel like the very first part of “problematic” is, “I am uncomfortable. I don’t know what to make of this.” And I feel like a lot of people go to that thing and they’re like, “Therefore, shut down.” Right?
MJ: “Therefore, go no further, because my flag is up and something about this is off.” And often that space, for me, is the space where curiosity is so essential, because that’s where you can get to another place you haven’t even thought of—is where you walk a little toward “What is the feeling around problematic? Where is the pain coming from in this?” And you walk toward it and your curiosity is engaged and it provides an illumination towards something you hadn’t seen before; you hadn’t thought of before.
KG: Exactly. I think trepidation towards approaching that question of “problematic” and feeling that vulnerability is because for so long in cultural criticism and with cultural products, when we’ve seen a piece of art or a book that is very clearly trafficking in racist or sexist tropes, we’ve been gaslit and people have been like, “actually, this is nuanced. Actually, this person who doesn’t give a shit about Black people at all and wrote a really crappy representation and will never talk to a Black person, whatever, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are still somehow doing a nuanced portrayal because they’re a published author.” So I don’t think people are coming at this from completely out of nowhere. I actually think [this is a] response to decades and centuries of being gaslit about this stuff.
But I believe part of our work as artists is to figure out how to understand that part of the conversation, and actually look at the thing that’s before us, walk closer to it, into that vulnerability. I’m not going to pretend that every piece of art or every novel written will rise up to that challenge of being vulnerable and open to it because there are books out there that you may find as a reader, “This actually feels like poison in my veins. When I read it as a person of color, as a woman, as a Black woman, as a Black person, I cannot read this.” And that, I feel, is a really valid thing. But I think where you are approaching these problematic, for lack of a better word, questions that bring up these reactions, I think walking towards it makes sense.
MJ: I think, as both a writer and a reader, when I’m able to name the thing specifically, it gives me so much less fear for my role as a writer and the whole wide world and all kind of craziness that that can ensue when you’re like, “Everyone is the enemy right now, and probably me.”
KG: Right. Yes, exactly.
MJ: We have questions from students. From Rebecca Friedman: “Hi, did you know what your ending was going to be with Libertie, or did you get there as you wrote?”
KG: It sort of shifted over time. But one of the things that guided how I was thinking about the ending was this Alice Walker quote, where she’s talking about writing The Color Purple and about what a radical act it is to give certain characters a happier, peaceful ending. I don’t know that Libertie necessarily has a happy ending, but she has an ending in which she is in a place of strength that she wasn’t necessarily before. That was really important for me, as an artistic and political choice.
As I was writing the first draft, I was also teaching the Toni Morrison novel Love. I was reading a lot of her interviews around the time that book came out, and she did this really wonderful interview with Charlie Rose. He asks her about her characters being happy and she says something like, “They know something about themselves that they didn’t know before. And so in that way, they have won.” And she said, “Winning isn’t like your character gets a fancy car at the end or a big job, or gets the girl or anything like that. Winning is, they didn’t know something about themselves before and now they understand something about themselves fundamentally at the end of the narrative. And in that way, they have ‘won.’” And then she says, sort of very playfully, as she does in her interviews, she says, “I only write about winners.” So I think about that a lot when I’m writing and thinking about what sort of choices the characters make and why you may follow a character through a story and what that might look like when you’re writing.
MJ: I feel like that answers the other question here. Somebody is wondering: “With Libertie, it’s an amazing read, in particular the way you navigate the relationships between mother and daughter, daughter and husband. I’m wondering why, once it was clear she had a passion for music and poetry and not medicine, she didn’t go ahead and pursue that vocation, either at Cunningham College or someplace else.”
KG: I think because one of the things that I wanted to talk about in the book is this question of how much your primary family relationships inform so many of your life decisions into middle age, until you’re at the point where you look back ten years and you’re like, “Oh, I made this decision because of my family relationships.” I think that’s a very common thing for a lot of people. And so Libertie knows enough to know she can’t be a doctor, but she doesn’t know herself because she’s only 18 or 19 years old. She doesn’t know herself enough to say, “I can actually say no to these things. I don’t have to just be reacting to my mother. I can actually be proactive and be creating these things.” And that’s more or less what the second half of the book is— her trying to understand that part of herself.
MJ: We’ve obviously talked about Toni Morrison at different points: I know there are a few other writers that you look to, either for ideas about voice or writing practice. And I’m wondering if you can just name a couple. Whenever I picture you, Kaitlyn, I imagine this battalion of authors behind you. You’re like, “I turned to this one for this thing.”
KG: It’s all smoke and mirrors. I read the same five people over and over again. But it’s Toni Morrison; Toni Cade Bambara is a huge influence.
MJ: What is it about Toni Cade Bambara that you like?
KG: If you want to talk about studying how somebody can use voice, her fiction is absolutely astonishing in that way. But she was also a genius in sort of a million ways. She was a cultural essayist and very clear about how she understood herself and her work in the world. A hugely influential work for me is her essay, “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow,” where she talks about, what is the work of a writer? What is the work of what I write? And what are the traditions that I’m going to actively be pulling from? She was really clear—again, sort of like Morrison, they were very close friends—she was really clear about when she was writing about Black women, that she was not writing into the tradition of white feminist literature.
She name-checked “The Yellow Wallpaper” and just was like, I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in talking about characters who are, in her opinion, wallowing in this thing. These characters are going to be actively engaged with the world around them in a very specific way. And that’s the tradition that I’m writing into because that’s the cultural tradition that I understand and see around me in the people around me. I think it’s something that every writer has to understand for themselves.
A lot of us come to writing because we love to read books and read very widely. And if you are a Black person or a person of color or a white woman or a woman of color or a Black woman, so many of the books that you’re told to read—“You love to read, read this book”—you’re not in them. Those books could be very wonderful and formative, but I think as a creator, you have to think about, where am I actually writing to and from, and what am I going to pull from? Am I going to pull from the tradition that is not necessarily my language, but I’ve been told is the language of fiction? Or do I pull from the things that are actually around me to make stories— make meaning for myself and for the people who I want to write to?
Click here to read an excerpt of Libertie, courtesy of Kaitlyn Greenidge and Algonquin Books.
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin Books), is one of the New York Times Critics’ Top 10 Books of 2016. She is currently Features Director at Harper’s Bazaar as well as a contributing writer for the New York Times. Her second novel, Libertie, is published by Algonquin Books and out now.
Mira Jacob is the author of the novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing and the graphic memoir Good Talk: Conversations I’m Still Confused About (Random House, 2019). She teaches creative writing at The New School.