By Leslie Lindsay
Extraordinary tale of gentrification, equality, race, and legacy that begs the question: what are you leaving behind?
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
Spotlight on family legacy, race, history
Several years ago, I read and loved Naima Coster’s debut, HALSEY STREET, and fell in love with her voice and writing. Her sophomore book is so daring, so beautifully told, but also bold and passionate, exploring comforting companionship, siblings, home, parent and child, and so much more.
Set in the foothills of North Carolina, WHAT’S MINE AND YOURS (Grand Central, March 2 2021) is beautifully written, in elegant and moving prose, but also rife with deep, perceptive description from a poet’s heart. There’s the “Black side” of town and the “White side,” school integration, and the resistance of residents. For Gee and Noelle, this integration sets off a chain reaction bonding the two together for at least the next twenty years. Families are split–in their desire to integrate, how they see it benefitting each family and race/culture. But there’s also mixed-race Latina individuals comprising this story, making it a richly textured tale of the times, leading us to question our roles in the gentrification–and integration–of the country.
Coster is an expert, master storyteller, whose characters are messy, sometimes unpredictable, authentic, and flawed, which make them all the more human. The pacing is steady and subtle, but it’s this glittering prose and story circumstances that keep readers engaged as they sort through their own feelings of motherhood, family, race, and community.
Please, join me in conversation with the lovely and talented Naima Coster:
Naima, it’s lovely to have you back. I so loved both of your books and feel like you have sort of written into this void that is about belonging. Can you talk a little about that theme and also your inspiration for WHAT’S MINE AND YOURS?
Thank you for reading the book! I am constantly writing about belonging because it’s an experience that has often eluded me in my own life, but that I’ve cherished whenever I’ve found it. That difficulty in belonging has had to do, for me, with family rifts and also with race, that hard position of being an outsider at home and then also in largely white spaces outside the home. In What’s Mine and Yours, I can explore all of those themes through characters with such a range of different experiences and backgrounds. There’s an immigrant Colombian father, Robbie, who’s disconnected from his daughters because of culture but also his addiction; there’s the ambitious young mother, Jade, who is so tough while her son, Gee, is so tender, and she worries about how he’ll fare in such a brutal world. All the characters face things that separate them from the people they love most; the alienation they feel at home makes moving through the wider world all the more complicated. I wanted to write about that loneliness and that trouble family members face when they can’t see eye to eye but share a deep foundation of love, however complicated it may be.
I’m not sure why I love that this book takes place (mostly) in North Carolina, specifically the Piedmont region, so the middle of the state? The foothills? Can you tell a little about why you chose this location and if there is a certain meaning behind the Piedmont? Like, maybe one has to climb the foothills to get to the mountain?
Well, North Carolina is just beautiful, and that’s a part of the reason. I wanted to write about the land. I lived in the Piedmont for three years, and so I set the novel there. It was what I knew best although I spent some time in the mountains and on the coast. When I arrived to North Carolina, it was so different from what I knew in New York City, and so I absorbed and observed everything I could. And eventually it became my home: I had friends and community there, I worked there. It was in my imagination as I started dreaming up the themes of the novel. Also, the largest cities of the state are in the Piedmont, so it was a way for me to set the book in the region without naming a particular city either. I could leave that open. But as I wrote I was thinking a great deal about Durham, where I had lived. It’s a great city with such a rich history, and it’s in the midst of big, swift change. It’s also a city with “no racial majority.” I was interested in the kinds of crossings but also divisions we still find in cities that pride themselves on their diversity. The same is true of New York, which has one of the most segregated public school systems in the country.
Your characters are so richly imagined. I mean, there are chips in teeth, cleft chins, and eyes that water when they smile. I love that. You share these descriptions in a subtle, organic manner and not in flat-out description. Do these characters come to you fully formed? Are they a composite of someone you know in ‘real life?’ And what tips might you impart to writers working on character?
I have a rough sense of who the characters are when they come to me. I know what they want or what they’re afraid of or what they’ve lost because it’s usually that piece of their internal world that first drove me to invent them. But their layers and their physicality come gradually. I didn’t model any characters in What’s Mine and Yours on ‘real life’ people. It would be too limiting. You can’t know the insides of someone else the way you can imagine the insides of a character. So, of course, I pick up pieces from people I know, people I read about and encounter in art, and, above all, myself. But the more I untether my characters from reality the more real I can make them, the deeper I can go. For writers working on character, I think it’s useful to flesh out as much as you know about your characters for yourself, whether that’s before or after a first draft. Just free write. And then go over what you’ve written and see where you can reconsider a decision or assumption you’ve made. The most real characters should have parts of their personality or histories that we couldn’t know or predict, that surprise us, just like people in real life.
For me, I found that I really connected to the exploration of ‘home’ in WHAT’S YOURS AND MINE. Noelle and her husband Nelson want a home they can call their own (not renting), and one they can leave to their children. Legacy is a big piece of this story. Can you talk more about that, please? What do you think we ultimately leave our children?
Legacy, to me, is both what we materially leave our children and also what we leave them emotionally or psychologically, our imprints on their consciousness with respect to how they see themselves and the world. Parents are so powerful, especially in the lives of young children. But parents are also often struggling—with thwarted dreams of their own, missed opportunities, losses, hang-ups. All the parents in the older generation of characters in this book—Ray, Jade, Lacey May, and Robbie—want to give their kids more opportunity than they had. They imagine that as a house, a good education, a chance at class mobility. They see these things as a way to access a better life, and they’re right about that. But they miss, perhaps, the opportunities to leave their kids other things that are precious but immaterial: space to process grief or share strong emotion, the freedom to choose their own path, a sense that they’re special and beloved, just as they are, no matter what they achieve in life. None of the kids in this book really feel that they’re good enough for their parents, which is a source of such pain for all the characters. The parents’ desires to give the kids a better life becomes an obsession that signals to the kids that the ways they are and live already aren’t good enough.
What challenged you most in writing WHAT’S YOURS AND MINE?
It was difficult but also exhilarating to write such a large cast of characters. The constant challenge was making sure every character felt real, interesting, complex. They don’t all get the same amount of page space, and I didn’t feel the need to put them all on the same footing in that way, but I wanted all of their experiences to matter to the story. The Ventura girls, Lacey May’s daughters, are a good example—the eldest Noelle gets much more page space in part because she is the one who is always in conflict with Lacey May. But her sister, Diane, gets a new beginning by the end of the novel, and Margarita gets some release, finally, from the pains of the past. Each sister is central even though they each get different amounts of time in the spotlight. It was critical to me that they each have a journey because their stories are interconnected—whatever one of them is working through affects the life of the whole family.
What’s obsessing you now?
I’ve been obsessed with some really terrific recent fiction. I’ve been so grateful for all the good books out right now since I’m staying home more than ever. I loved Infinite Country by Patricia Engel, a novel about a Colombian American family divided by deportation, and their journey back to one another. It was so gripping and moving. I also adored Milk Blood Heat, a debut collection by Dantiel Moniz, about girlhood, womanhood, the body, and family. Her language just sings, and her insights sear. And I can’t wait to read Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge, which is out at the end of March. It’s at the very top of my list.
Naima, this has been so great. Thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thank you for all your questions! I’m so eager for readers to find and connect to What’s Mine and Yours. Thank you for bringing the book to them.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram from more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram
For more information, or to connect with Niama Coster, please visit:
I was reminded, in part, of Leesa Cross-Smith’s THIS CLOSE TO OKAY, Therese Anne Fowler A GOOD NEIGHBORBOOD, Tayari Jones’s AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE and also, possibly Mary Beth Keane’s ASK AGAIN, YES for the multi-family, multi-generational ties. In that sense, I might also compare this writing style to that of J. Courtney Sullivan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Naima Coster is the author of two novels, What’s Mine and Yours and her debut, Halsey Street, which was a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction. In 2020, she received the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honor. Naima‘s stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Kweli, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Catapult, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
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[Cover an author image courtesy of Grand Central Publishing and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram from more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagram]