Breena Clarke is this year’s featured after-lunch speaker. She was interviewed by Liz Bedell.
Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?
Firstly, No biting, especially not insects. I come naturally to writing I would say. I have always been inspired by books, since my very first trip to the public library. These buildings in my childhood in Washington, D.C. were pleasant places. I majored in theater, acting at Howard University and I wrote and directed and performed plays. So I’ve always felt like a writerly person. But the thing or series of events that made me into a committed, daily, working writer began with the early death of my son, Najeeb. Motivated to record all of his life that I could remember, I began keeping small notebooks capturing thoughts and observations. A friend said that writing is like a muscle. The more exercise it gets, the stronger it becomes. I suppose I exercised my writer’s imagination through these books that I still have and that have never actually served any purpose other than as personal writing. The important part is that I began a training regimen for my mind. I consumed the good books written by others and launched into my own inquiries. I set aside time for writing, for developing an idea.
What is the most rewarding part of being a writer?
Non seriously, but with humor at self: Reading what you’ve written a few days earlier that reads well and you think, “Hey, this girl is good, who is she?”
Seriously, but not wanting to sound self-satisfied: When someone comes up to you and tells you how moved they were when they read your work or heard you read. This is the moment of greatest satisfaction for me. It comes right before the “hey, who is this girl?” moment.
And the most frustrating part of being a writer?
I don’t know that yet. I haven’t gotten there yet. My mind is still sharp, and my energy is good, so I feel productive as a writer. Productivity relieves writerly frustration for me.
Can you tell us about your most recent novel? What inspired it?
I was inspired to write ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE by an interest in imagining the lives and community of people living outside the strictures imposed by racist white America. It’s set in mid-19th century New Jersey. Loosely based on the so-called Ramapo Mountain people, who were said to have been a tri-racial maroon community in the mid-Atlantic region, the people of Russell’s Knob privilege no color above another. And though they are insular, they welcome those who escape from oppression in the white towns. I enjoyed speculating on this somewhat utopian vision of racial amalgamation rather than separation. The novel has at its climax the horrible events of the New York City Draft Riots (July 13-16, 1863).
Hobart Festival of Women Writers announces a presenter change. Breena Clarke, novelist, teacher and Festival co-organizer will replace Sonya Huber. Ms. Huber is seriously ill and unable to attend Festival 2017.
Breena Clarke is the author of three novels, most recently, Angels Make Their Hope Here, set in an imagined mixed-race community in 19th century New Jersey. Breena Clarke’s debut novel, River, Cross My Heart(1999) was an Oprah Book Club selection. Her critically reviewed second novel, Stand The Storm,set in mid-19th century Washington, D.C., was named one of the 100 best books for 2008 by The Washington Post. Her short stories have appeared in Kweli Journal and The Stonecoast Review among others. Breena Clarke is a member of the board of A Room Of Her Own Foundation; is a member of the fiction faculty of The Stonecoast MFA Creative Writing program at The University of…
ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HEREis set in an imagined community in a mountainous area roughly north and west of Paterson, New Jersey in the 19th century. Russell’s Knob is a hidden, secretive place settled by people who might be described today as bi-racial or tri-racial. The inhabitants describe themselves as runaways and stay-aways. They are people who reject the limiting definitions of racial identity and character of 19th century, mid-Atlantic, North America and live outside of the “white” towns. They are spoken of derisively as “amalgamators” and “race mixers” though their true history is as complex as is the history of settlement in the region.
They’re discussing ANGELS MAKE THEIRHOPE HERE and its depictions of fathers, surrogate fathers, patriarchy vs. matrilineal constructs and parenting in the time of slavery.
. . . the most damaging aspect of the institution of slavery is the destruction of familial relationships through separation and the inability of enslaved parents to protect their children. It is in the interest of preserving families that the people of Russell’s Knob built a community, preferring to live apart from the mainstream in order to stay together with loved ones.
Parenting in the time of slavery is necessarily fraught with peril. In Breena Clarke’s novel, ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE, young Dossie’sparents do the most difficult thing imaginable. They send their child off to uncertainty rather than have her suffer as an enslaved person on the Kenworthy plantation. They embrace a hope that, with the help of others, she can become free and live a better life (even if they don’t actually know what that better life would be). For them, the knowable horror of Kenworthy plantation is worth risking this child’s life and separating from her forever.
Passing across racial boundaries is a longstanding theme in American fiction.
In the imagined 19th century town of Russell’s Knob, which is the setting for the novel, Angels Make Their Hope Here, race identification is fluid. In a town of amalgamators, race mixers – the complex national and racial identities of the inhabitants do not hinder their cohesiveness, community and camaraderie. But the maroons of Russell’s Knob hector white skin privilege in this small community because of their ancestors’ experiences of the First European Contact, the Middle Passage and chattel slavery in the Americas. In Russell’s Knob you are some combination of what your parents bring with them. You are, in appearance, a blend of the physical characteristics of all of your forebears. If being white-skinned confers no special privileges in this tri-racial town, forays into the wider, whiter world are fraught with danger.
“Maybe you could get in, Pet,” Jan said.
“What? Oh, shut up, Jan! You probably could, too.” Pet said. “You got the price.”
“But not in the Alta Club. That’s a place for pale white-skinned men like you and your father,” August said to Pet, “only.” August looked straight into Pet’s face. He had the eyes all the Vanders have that people call molasses bullets because they’re the color that molasses becomes in the deep wintertime and they are hard like ice.
“What does it matter?” Pet asked. He felt the one glass of whiskey he’d drunk sear his stomach and roar to his head. He chose to be dumb to August’s provocation. But a realization crept up on him that his pale face had kept him from knowing some deep tenets that Jan knew – that August knew – because their faces said something different from his face in the town. And he didn’t know what they knew, or did he?
“I ain’t white,” Pet said.
“Well, you look white,” Jan came back at him.
“You and your papa.” Again August spoke in a sly voice of instigation. “You the only ones look white enough to pass through those doors.”
“I aint no white man,” Pet said as he’d said so many times before.
“Pet, don’t be dumb about it. You know what you look like. You know what people take you for.”
from ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE
Now available in paperback with Reading Group Guides including a Conversation with Breena Clarke http://bit.ly/1K09XEZ