NPR’s Noel King talks to author Honoree Fanonne Jeffers about her new novel that explores centuries of racism and multigenerational loss. It’s called: WEB Du Bois love songs. “
NOEL KING, HOST:
“The Love Songs Of WEB Du Bois” is epic in its scope. Over nearly 800 pages, the writer Honoree Fanonne Jeffers traces the history of a family, the city in Georgia where they come from and their migration over the generations. The word epic is overused these days. But this book was meant to be an epic, and it is. I asked Jeffers, who is a poet, how she came to write a work of such length that spans centuries. She said there was a lot of stuff in there. And there was even a point where her characters started talking to her in her dreams.
HONORÉE FANONNE JEFFERS: You know, when I woke up and the words came to me, it was almost like a really long prose poem. But if people notice that it seems to be more lyrical, these songs seem to be more lyrical, more poetic, it’s because when they came to me, they came to me in a very long poem.
KING: It’s extraordinary. Before getting to the characters, I want to ask you to tell us about the city, the city that came to you first, Chicasetta. And give us an idea of how you understand this place and how you think readers will understand this place.
JEFFERS: Well, Chicatetta is a fictional town. It’s quite funny. A few people tell me that they actually tried to find it on the map. Corn…
KING: Yeah, sure (laughs).
JEFFERS: Oh, that’s funny. Yes. But it takes place in a real county, Putnam County, Georgia. And my people are from Eatonton, Georgia, Putnam County. So I can see Chicasetta so clearly in my mind because I used to go to Eatonton every summer when I was little.
KING: Now the city comes into play in a huge way because the characters in this book are from that city. They come from this city. And the main character is Ailey Pearl Garfield. She starts off as a little girl. We follow her later in life. Her mother’s family is from rural Georgia. And so she spends her summers in the city. Tell me about Ailey and how she became the person we see this story largely unfolding through.
JEFFERS: Well, I describe this story as a kitchen table epic. You know, when you think of the epic in the western lore, it’s always the heroic feats of white men.
JEFFERS: This story has already been told. I didn’t want to tell this story. I wanted to tell the story of heroic black women and dark skinned black women because I feel like although black female authors write a lot about darker skinned black women, we usually don’t see them. at the center of their own world. . And so when I thought of Ailey, I wanted cocoa brown, you know, sticking to the chocolate brown girl. I wanted her to be chubby and for people to see her as beautiful. And I wanted her to be smart. I just wanted to create someone I grew up with. I grew up with girls like that and girls we all thought were pretty in the black community. But when we came out of that community, that’s when we were expected to make ourselves small and silent and not consider ourselves as pretty as white or lighter skinned girls. So I made sure that, you know, my heroine was representative of a line of black women and that she would honor them.
KING: As you write, do you imagine anyone in particular reading the book? And does it affect the way you put things on the page?
JEFFERS: Yeah, that’s right. And this book is particularly aimed at black women. I wanted them to see each other. And I did – I imagined, what would black women feel and say to each other? Would they talk about this book the way that – you know, when I was young, we used to talk about “Color Purple.” We have spoken of beloved. And now of course you know Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are geniuses. And I don’t compare myself to them. But I wanted this book to spark conversations.
KING: And that brings me to a question that now makes me very curious. How many years have you spent writing this?
JEFFERS: Well I spent nine years on the project which was sold by my agent.
JEFFERS: And then I spent two more years editing it. The draft that was sold was only 450 pages long.
KING: It’s one of the most American books I’ve ever read. It’s a book about the United States. It’s a book about the legacy of slavery in this country. It’s a book on miscegenation in this country. It is a book that mixed marriages in this country. And it is also a book on the traumas and the loves that endure over the generations. And I’m wondering, in the 11 years it took you to put it all together, do you think you’ve personally changed from writing this book?
JEFFERS: Oh yeah. Definitely, I have changed. You know the country has changed. When I started writing this book, President Obama was in the White House. And I thought, I think, like a lot of black people thought we got past some things. I remember when I saw him put his hand on this Bible for the first time. I was on the phone with my mom, who was born in 1933. She still remembers a lynching that happened on the road to her. And we cried. We thought, that’s it. We moved on – and then we didn’t have And I gained wisdom not only about this country, but about human nature. And one of the things that interested me a lot while I was writing the book is how did we get to particular places? And what I understand is that if we, as humans of any race, don’t really keep the way we evolve, we can back down.
KING: And in what ways have you changed that you would say you’re happiest or proudest?
JEFFERS: I think I’ve become a gentler person. When I started writing this book I was very like Ailey, very critical (ph). But I have learned through my characters that everyone has faults and everyone suffers. And I became a much more compassionate person.
KING: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. His new novel is called “The Love Songs Of WEB Du Bois”. Thank you very much for being with us today.
JEFFER: Thanks. I like you.
(EXTRACT FROM THE “BLUME” OF NERIJA)
NPR transcripts are created under rushed deadlines by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative recording of NPR’s programming is the audio recording.