By Leslie Lindsay
A gorgeous narrative from debut author, Naima Coster, about gentrification, Brooklyn, complex family relationships, and ultimately, home.
The writing in HALSEY STREET (Little A, Hardcover) is oh-so-good. The details, the pictures Coster paints with her words are pure magic. Her knowledge of the landscape–not just of Brooklyn–but of families, complex emotions, visual art, music, and so much were astounding.
Five years ago, Penelope Grand left her family home in Brooklyn to pursue an art career in Pittsburgh. She’s back to help with her ailing father. But she does not stay in his home (her childhood home), even though she’s invited, but feels she must strike out on her own. She rents the attic in a white family’s attic a few blocks away.
But Brooklyn is virtually unrecognizable. Her father’s prized music store is gone; hipsters have moved in and reclaimed the place with their fancy cafes and eateries, their natural foods store. The brownstones are soaring in price and in come the uppity white folks.
And her mother, whom Penelope has never been close to, is sending letters from the Dominican Republic in effort to forge a new relationship.
There’s love and lust and art and music in HALSEY STREET. There’s ailing parents and caretaking, a search for self and reinvention.
And the writing! Did I mention the easy, fluid, effortless writing that absolutely pulls you and has you nodding your head in recognition?
HALSEY STREET one of those reads that picked me. I had no idea how the ending was going to pan out, but I can assure you, completely resonated and hit me right where I needed it most: the heart.
Today, I am so, so honored to welcome Naima to the blog couch.
Leslie Lindsay: I adored HALSEY STREET. I’ll be honest: it was one of those books that I wasn’t quite sure about at first because maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t relate. I don’t know much about Brooklyn brownstones and I’m not a visual artist, and no…I’m not black. But HALSEY STREET pulled me in and absolutely gob smacked me. What was your inspiration for this tale?
Naima Coster: I was inspired in the writing of Halsey Street on several levels. First, I was interested in the character of Penelope, as a woman who is summoned home but is ambivalent about her return. I wanted to tell a story about one young woman coming home to a place but also to her family and to a self she’d lost along the way. Then, I was interested in the story of the place she had returned to—how Brooklyn had been transformed while she was away. With those interests, I started writing, and the story grew to contain other characters—her father, her landlords and their daughter, a kind neighborhood bartender, and most of all, her mother, who is enigmatic, estranged and haunts the book.
“AN EXCEPTIONAL DEBUT.”
–Christina Baker Kline bestselling author of The Orphan Train & A Piece of the World
L.L.: I think we all have these romantic notions about the place—the street—we grew up. In our minds it always seems bigger, tidier, and more innocent than it really is. Why do you think we romanticize that so much? And why is it never quite the same when we return?
Naima Coster: I think that when we talk about home what we’re really talking about who is we were when we were there. We’re not just talking about the trees; we’re talking about how it felt to walk in their shade. We’re not just talking about the fact that children rode their bikes along the sidewalk; we’re talking about how it felt to be one of those children or to watch over them. When we talk about places that have changed, we’re talking about a life, a whole set of feelings and experiences, that we can’t recover. My attachment to place is quite deep, because place is so linked to particular moments in time, different selves that I’ve had a long the way, that I can’t ever re-experience, but that are still a part of me.
L.L.: As I read, I was just floored with your characterizations of Penelope, Ralph, Mirella. Everyone is so flawed and complex and real. Can you give us a glimpse into how you created these characters? Any tips to writers for developing such authenticity?
Naima Coster: I think of characters as having layers, and my task as a writer is to traverse those layers, going as deep as I can, learning as much as I can, even if all my insight doesn’t make it onto the page explicitly. I constantly ask myself, “Why?” whether a character is making a major decision about her life or just fiddling with something on the table. I think the key to that complexity for me is spending a lot of time with the characters even when I’m not writing. I’ll collect observations, ideas, questions, and make notes, as I’m moving through the world. Even if I’m not putting words on the page, I’m investigating, and gathering the insights that will help me return to the page with something to say, to discover. For instance, in writing Mirella, I thought constantly about motherhood, when I watched films, read, listened to people talk about their lives. As I gathered observations, I was writing her in my mind.
L.L.: On a personal note, I was estranged from my mother for many years (mostly due to her mental illness), but also because she moved to Hawaii, leaving behind domesticity and family in search of something more fulfilling. Like Mirella, she didn’t really find it. Like Penelope, I received letters asking for reconnection. How did this piece of the story develop? And do you have ties to the Dominican Republic?
Naima Coster: I’m touched to hear that the book spoke to you on such a personal level! Thank you for sharing that. I knew that if these two women would be hurting primarily because of the ways they were estranged from each other that the book would have to chronicle the transformation of that hurt—either into an experience of healing, a deeper wound, or something in-between. I think of letters, or writing, as a way for two women who can’t control their anger, who can’t find the words to say when they are in front of each other, whose emotions run away with them, as one of the only viable ways they could express themselves with sincerity and vulnerability. Being vulnerable in front of someone you love who has also hurt you is so hard! And I do have ties to the Dominican Republic, although I’ve never received mail from there! I have family that was born and lived there, and so I spent summers as a child in DR that were beautiful and formative for me.
L.L.: Ralph…oh, I loved him. I could easily see his ‘fro, his record store, the leisure suits I imagined he wore. How would you describe his character? And what might we learn from father-daughter relationships through his and Penny’s?
Naima Coster: I see Ralph as a man who had great dreams for his life. As an orphan, he started with very little and built a formidable little kingdom in Brooklyn with his family, his brownstone, his record store. These were the things that gave him a sense of his own importance and value; without them, he flounders and becomes that little boy uncertain about being wanted, uncertain about how to live. He loves music; he’s charismatic; he’s smart and emotional and feeling, but he can get stuck in his own ambitions and desires and gloom. I think one of the lessons in his relationship to his daughter is that it’s important not to get stuck inside your own malaise if you want to remain connected to the people around you. Ralph’s entitled to his feelings of loss, but they become blinders that keep him from seeing the way his daughter, Penelope, is hurting, and the ways that she needs him. I think that’s an important lesson for a whole range of relationships—despite our good intentions, we can get caught inside our own experience and feelings.
L.L.: I read (in your acknowledgements section) that you were urged by Christina Baker Kline (love her work!) to write a novel. And that she was the one who taught you to write short stories. In your opinion, how are novels and short stories different? What makes a successful short story? It’s a form I love, but feel I fail miserably at.
Naima Coster: I think a successful short story, if it’s character-driven, drops us right into the life of the character at a moment when everything is going to change for them. There must be that sense of a radical transformation, even if it’s internal, even if it’s not linked to major action, by the end of the story, as well as a sense of why the transformation matters, which is hard to pull off in such a compressed space. A good short story often feels like a technical feat to me; the novel can be more forgiving, but there’s a never-ending risk of a reader disengaging at any point, so each page must offer discovery, of one kind or another. They’re both thrilling forms to work in, and I learned to approach each with confidence thanks to the support and wisdom of Christina Baker Kline, who has been an exceedingly generous mentor, and is a brilliant, dedicated writer. She’s the real deal.
L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day, but what would you like readers to take away from HALSEY STREET?
Naima Coster: I hope that readers can see how deeply loss forms us, whether it’s a fractured relationship between a mother and daughter, or the closing of a beloved family business, or no longer feeling at home in your neighborhood. I hope glimpsing that loss can help the reader feel compassion for characters (and people) behaving badly. I hope the reader, too, can find some hope that reconciliation, recovery are possible, however hard and slow they may be.
L.L: What’s something you long for, even a little, from your childhood? From your childhood home?
Naima Coster: My childhood home was filled with plants. I have no green thumb, and I’ve killed every plant I’ve ever had, including a succulent. I miss the green and how the plants brightened the space. I long for the time I spent with family when I was young. I have a large extended family and whenever we got together, it was loud and tender and vibrant—it was so special the way we gathered, and I felt like a part of such a rich, expansive community because I was.
L.L.: Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what you’re reading, what you ate for dinner last night, what you’re teaching, what your working on?
Naima Coster: These days I’m rereading Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, which I am teaching in a fiction writing workshop to examine voice and point of view. It’s a jarringly wild, exciting, daring book. For dinner last night, I had a lovely red pepper-cauliflower-and potato soup with a warm corn tortilla and a green salad! And I’ve got two fiction projects in the works—one that is a kind of quest story, the other that is a mosaic of interconnected pieces told from different points of view. Both are novels, both are place-based, and both follow women who are trying to carve out lives for themselves without being defined by the past. In that way, these novels build on the work I started with Halsey Street. I’m excited to keep going!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of HALSEY STREET, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street, a story of family, loss, and renewal, set in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Arts & Letters, Lit Hub, Catapult, The Rumpus, Aster(ix), A Practical Wedding, Guernica, and has been anthologized in The Best of Kweli and This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Naima is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the 2017Cosmonauts Avenue Nonfiction Prize, judged by Roxane Gay. Naima studied creative writing at Yale, Fordham University, and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA. She has taught writing to students in prison, youth programs, and universities. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and is a Senior Fiction Editor at Kweli. Naima tweets as @zafatista and writes the newsletter, Bloom How Must.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: email@example.com
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[Cover and author image courtesy of ShreveWilliams and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jonathan Jimenez Perez. Image of letters from , tree-lined street image from book pages/heart retrieved from, succulents from Pinterest, no source noted; all on 2.2.18]