An Interview with Naima Coster
In Halsey Street, Penelope Grand, a young artist, moves back to Bed-Stuy, where she was raised, to help watch after her father, Ralph. Penelope finds her Brooklyn neighborhood rapidly gentrifying. She grapples with her place in this shifting landscape, lamenting her father’s lost business, while admiring the affluent white family she rents living space from, who represent gentrification’s well-intentioned but willful displacement of residents of color. As she works through her relationship to her neighborhood, she must also grapple with her family’s past, especially with the figure of her mother, Mirella, who left Penelope and Ralph to rediscover her independence in her home country of Dominican Republic. In Halsey Street, Mirella’s voice conveys the struggle to reconcile with family despite the cultural gap between Mirella as an immigrant and her American-born daughter. Alexandra Watson spoke with author Naima Coster in August 2017 to discuss her debut novel. Halsey Street is available from Amazon.
Alexandra Watson: What is the story of this book? How did it come to be? Did it always have this shape or form in your imagination?
Naima Coster: I wanted to write about a young woman caught in between the space of gentrifier and gentrified. Someone with deep roots in a neighborhood, but who had moved away from it, and whose exposure to other experiences gave her things in common with the newcomers to her neighborhood. That woman in my book is Penelope.
The seed for Penelope’s story came from my own experience in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I grew up, when the reputation of the neighborhood was that it was rough, that it was undesirable. But I always felt a lot of pride in where I was from, and a deep connection to it. Then, as I saw the neighborhood become gentrified, I felt a lot of frustration and anger and displacement around that–but I also felt a lot of access, and ability to take advantage of those changes, in part because my parents are rent-stabilized tenants, so were actually not pushed out of that neighborhood. I couldn’t afford to live in Fort Greene on my own.
I originally thought about this as one woman’s story. Over the years, it ended up becoming a story that was also about this daughter and her mother, Mirella. I didn’t plan for the book to be written from two points of view, but it wound up being about these two women. I thought it was going to be about one woman coming to terms with her changed neighborhood, but then it also ended up being about her coming to terms with her changed family, too.
AW: Your New York Times piece about growing up in Fort Greene, “Remembering When Brooklyn was Mine,” gives some background on your relationship to Brooklyn. There’s a line in Halsey Street where Penelope observes that, “[Bed-Stuy] wasn’t like Fort Greene or Williamsburg, which were no longer themselves.” How did you choose to write about Bed-Stuy instead of Fort Greene? What difference do you see between the kind of gentrification happening in those places?
NC: Even in the time since I started the novel, Bed-Stuy has changed. The Bed-Stuy of right now is really different than the Bed-Stuy that inspired this book–a Bed-Stuy circa 2010. I started writing the book in Fall 2011, and I had lived in Bed-Stuy from 2009 to 2010, just a year, and I loved living there. Part of why I loved living there was because it felt like the Brooklyn that I had grown up with. From the people that I saw on the street to the businesses, to the energy and vibe of the neighborhood, felt very familiar to me. I loved living in a place that felt like the neighborhood I grew up in as an adult, which I couldn’t have done in 2011 in Fort Greene. I could still be living in a Brooklyn that I recognized and knew well. That year stayed in my consciousness, and writing the book was a way to keep that time alive for me.
When I lived in Bed-Stuy, it was still the no-man’s-land to outsiders, and only the young creatives who considered themselves particularly broke or particularly cutting edge seemed to be moving in. I don’t live in New York anymore, but my sense is that that is not at all Bed-Stuy right now. It’s already, in the last several years, become a much more desirable neighborhood for more affluent New Yorkers.
AW: I thought the descriptions of Penelope’s father, Ralph losing his record shop was so heartbreaking. Throughout the book, we knew that had happened because we saw the effects of it on Ralph, but the scene came later in the book. It sort of symbolized all the changes that were happening.
NC: I felt this pressure from myself to represent all of these different experiences, all these losses that came out of gentrification. But I knew that my book couldn’t hold that weight–it’s just one book, one family story. It’s a family that still has a presence in the neighborhood, and hasn’t been pushed out. But I did feel like it was important to give space in the book to the real losses that this family experienced because of gentrification, because I feel like that is so often erased, at least in representations of Brooklyn. The costs of gentrifications are rarely rendered, it’s more of the perks and the benefits to certain residents. The new Brooklyn aesthetic is everywhere, but it has made families like the Grands invisible.
AW: The Harpers are a white family who recently moved to Bed-Stuy and who rent Penelope a room in their attic when she moves back to New York to help look after her father. At the beginning, they seem like self-aware white Brooklynites. Marcus, the father, speaking of his neighbors, says, “They probably think we are the worst kind of white people.” The Harpers have this sense that they think everyone is focused on them, individually. What role did the Harpers play for you in constructing this narrative?
NC: When I was writing the Harpers, I wanted to think about people who participate in gentrification with some awareness and some level of apology, but who don’t necessarily have their behavior transformed by that awareness and apology. I think that’s somewhat true of the main character, Penelope, who has her critique of gentrification, but still likes the fancy coffee from the new coffee shop. I certainly observe it in others, and also in myself, and not just with respect to gentrification: people who have an awareness, but who are still complicit in their choices because they value their own comfort, and appetites, and their idea of what a good life is–the kind of life they feel entitled to. I didn’t want the Harpers to be straightforward villains, but I did want some of the problems with the way they view themselves and their own agency to be apparent.
AW: Then there is the sexual tension between Marcus and Penelope. It’s kind of surprising that then Penelope ends up having this mini romance with Marcus. I wonder how that plays into this idea of complicity.
NC: Penelope is drawn to the Harpers for a few reasons. She finds them as a family, and Marcus as a person, at least for a while, aspirational. They have this beautiful house, they’re married, and they have a beautiful daughter. They seem to represent to her this vision of domestic happiness that she didn’t have as a child. She begins to insert herself into their family, because so much about them seems idyllic to her, even if she has her critique of them. At least at some level, that has to do with the fact that they’re affluent and white.
AW: I also noticed, in the descriptions of the Harpers, and other people in the neighborhood — the hyper visibility of whiteness. I think in a lot of mainstream publications, the assumption is that, if the character’s color is not described, they’re white. In your book, we know when someone’s white, and whiteness is not the default. I was curious if that was something you were consciously thinking of while you were writing.
NC: I was thinking about that when I was trying to inhabit the perspectives of my characters. They’re people who do notice whiteness, and for whom whiteness is not the default. That perspective also feels true to one of the ways that I operate in the world as a woman of color. I don’t just note that people of color are people of color when I meet them. I do feel aware of whiteness. And particularly in the context of Bed-Stuy, whiteness is highly visible, which is something that the Harpers and lots of white folks who move to Brooklyn remark upon–the acute awareness that they have of their racial identity, once they’re placed somewhere where there are lots of people of color. It’s something I’ll continue to be conscious of in my writing, with the intention of destabilizing the idea of whiteness as the default–that the only people whose skin color or hair or ethnic identity needs to be noted are people of color.
AW: I had a thesis reader who got to the third chapter of the project I was working on, and said, “This character is black? I can’t believe you didn’t tell me they were black.”
NC: That’s super problematic. As a reader, I have so many times felt reminded of my status as an Other in the imagination of the writer. You know, when you’re reading Harry Potter, and it’s like “Kingsley Shacklebolt, a tall black man,” or “Dean Thomas, a black boy.” There’s no need to explain that Harry, Hermoine, and Ron and all the other characters are white. My response to that is to make sure we talk about the way race is constructed for white people, too.
AW: Along with the awareness of color, there’s an awareness of class, like when Penelope tips the bartender extra because, “She didn’t trust the grad student to tip well, and she knew the bartender needed it–the gas was always turned down too low at his place.” That reminded me of your story in Kweli, Cold, where the main character, a mother, struggles to keep the heat on her house. And that’s also something I see very little of in contemporary fiction. Tell me about the role of class identity in your book, or in your fiction in general.
NC: A lot of the fiction that seems to be popular is situated pretty solidly in middle and upper class circles. This is often true of works by writers of color as well. That speaks to this perceived preference by the publishing industry to have books about rich people or people who are well off. I think about, for example, how many books there are about a person of color who is the outsider at an Ivy League institution. The story of Penelope is one that I see more commonly in literary fiction, and the story of her mother Mirella is one we see a lot less. I think that has to do with class. Mirella cleans houses for a living, she’s an immigrant. Penelope is an art school dropout. When I write about the world that I’m interested in, I try not to render poor and working-class people invisible. Because I do consider myself as someone who in many ways is multi-class, there are all different kinds of class experiences represented in what I tend to write.
AW: I’ve never heard that term, multi-class, but that makes a lot of sense to me–operating in a lot of different class spheres–especially in our current economy.
NC: Yes, you might have access to these elite worlds because of your education, but the people in your family are struggling with issues that none of your classmates are: that affects you, too. I think ‘multi-class’ suggests that class is not a story of just upward or downward mobility, in which you’re solidly one class or another, but that you can have lots of different experiences of class simultaneously.
AW: There’s also an acute awareness of the service industry. Have you worked in the service industry?
NC: I briefly worked at a coffee shop. I had all kinds of jobs: babysitting, camp counseling, tutoring… various hustles, while writing the book and before it.
AW: Bars are an important setting in Halsey Street, because Penelope’s father, Ralph, has a drinking problem, and ends up in some trouble when he drinks much of the time. Penelope also treats her gin with a lot of care. Can you talk about alcohol in this book?
NC: This might sound obnoxious, but as Millennials, a lot of life happens in bars. At least for me, in my twenties and now in my early thirties: the formation of friendships, the dissolution of relationships, revolve in some ways around bars and alcohol. Certainly it’s central for the characters in the book, many of whom are struggling with mental health issues, though they’re never explicitly named. Alcohol is a way that Penelope copes and becomes a way she manages her loneliness. Drinking becomes an activity, a fixation, a way to spend time with herself. I guess there are lots of ties between loneliness and drinking in this book. Drinking is usually coming out of people’s isolation rather than their desire to connect.
AW: Some of the descriptions of alcohol were really beautiful, like the pour of gin.
NC: Aside from drinking because you’re lonely and sad, the alcohol in the book is also about sensation. I’m interested in how things feel in the body, whether it’s an emotion or being a little drunk. I try to be attentive to that as a writer.
AW: I felt a lot of empathy for Ralph, he kind of reminds me of my own dad. My dad is a black man, a New Yorker, a big drinker–and I also recognized the stubbornness. And I guess I feel for Ralph because he loses so much in the book.
NC: Ralph stands in for Bed-Stuy in lots of ways, but he’s also just himself–Penelope’s dad, Mirella’s husband. I do think of him as someone who life hit hard. And who really did have some unfortunate circumstances, from losing his shop to his disability. I was thinking about, how do these experiences devastate someone, and make recuperation or reclaiming agency really hard? We have such a ‘lift yourself by your bootstraps’ culture that doesn’t account for the ways people can be really devastated by trauma or loss. It’s not as simple as deciding to stop drinking, or deciding to reopen your shop. There are real material barriers to that, and larger structural forces at work, and then also, mental health issues that really put limits on people’s capacities. With Ralph, I wanted to capture how frustrating it is for Penelope to have someone in her life who has shrunken capacities because of all he’s been through. But I didn’t want him to be a pitiable character. I wanted him to be someone who had lots of internal strength but had lost touch with that internal strength.
AW: I love how we get to see the flashback, through Mirella’s eyes, of the dinner party, where Ralph is the life of the party, and very much respected by the other men in the community. That gives us a deeper, richer sense of him. It makes us feel that loss, because it feels like a loss of status, because his identity was connected so much with his business.
NC: That’s something that comes up in the book: people often get their identity from their work. So, if you’re an artist like Penelope, and it’s difficult to make a living from your work, then you wrestle with this question of, who am I? And do I occupy a respectable place in society? It can be painful. I poured a lot of my feelings about being a writer into that: I have this thing that I do, and I’m really committed to it, but it’s not particularly lucrative, and it doesn’t always map cleanly onto my job. So sometimes I feel like I have this passion that doesn’t always translate into stability or caché.
AW: Especially given the expectations of the previous generation, of striving for stability. And Mirella seems to really represent that as the immigrant parent. My feelings towards Mirealla were more complex, like Penelope’s. I was taken on a journey with her. At the beginning, I connected to Penelope’s resentment of her as a mother. But as Mirella got more of a voice in the story, as a woman who enjoys independence, I related to her. My initial reactions to her were tied up in cultural and social expectations of motherhood and the sacrifices that are supposed to come with motherhood, and then I found myself critiquing myself for that, and thinking, “Well, she has a life, too!” And I was really moved by Mirella’s longing for Penelope. At one point, you write, “You couldn’t leave a daughter behind; she was yours no matter where you were…she still craved her girl, as unthinkingly as a seabird longs for the sea.” How did you decide that Mirella needed a voice in the story?
NC: Mirella was a character who was super hard to write, to crack into her consciousness–in part because there are some biographical things that I share with Penelope that I don’t share with Mirella. I’m not a mom, I’m not an immigrant, I’m not married to a man like Ralph. But, the more I wrote Mirella, the more I discovered my empathy for her and likeness to her. Ideals of womanhood can be super limiting and can render you invisible. I’ve been at parties where people treat me as an accessory to my husband, or who are less interested in what I do than what he does. I thought about how those feelings can act on someone who already doesn’t have a high regard of herself. If you haven’t had opportunities to take care of yourself and fulfill your own ambitions, what is it like to have the demands of wife and mother placed on you? What kinds of feelings does that produce?
There are dual stories to this family: it’s true that Penelope went unmothered by Mirella, but it’s also true that Mirella did the best she could, and those are very difficult realities to reconcile. I thought about this a lot when I saw Fences. One of the most heartbreaking and difficult to digest lessons from that story is that someone can have really harmed you, but it might have been that person working to his fullest capacities. It doesn’t mean it’s okay, but it reveals something about our own limits as people.
AW: I love the way that you describe the language barriers between Mirella and Penelope and Ralph. Especially in their arguments, language becomes a weapon that some can wield more effectively than others. There’s a point where Mirella thinks to herself, “She was never meant to raise a daughter in some other tongue.” How much does the language gap play into the distances between them?
NC: The language barrier can’t be disentangled from all the other factors, it’s wrapped into differences in generation, of nationality, differences related to personality. Language is certainly an inextricable component. Language isn’t just the way that someone expresses herself, it’s also the way she understands. Penelope and Mirella have several problems of understanding throughout the book. The language barrier dramatizes that, though people encounter this working within the same language, too. I wanted to look at the alienation that being from a really different place can produce with a parent.
AW: When Penelope visits Mirella in the Dominican Republic, and she’s looking at a neighbor, Ariane, there’s this line: “[Penelope’s] body was the kind that you shape for yourself, not the kind that is the sum of all your accidents, labor, appetites, and genes.” It felt to me like Ariane was what Penelope might have been in another life, as they’re around the same age.
NC: I think a lot about that as a child of immigrants. I have family in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Curacao, and I think a lot about differences in our lives, our bodies, our work, that are in part produced by place. My husband is from Colombia, and when I went for the first time, we visited the big university in Bogotá, and it was shortly after we both finished college. And we kept thinking, What if this were where we went to college? What about ourselves would be the same? What would be amplified or different? They’re interesting questions to think about.
AW: It seems like there’s a different but still hyper-awareness around color in DR. That’s something I thought about a lot when I was studying abroad there, what shape the colorism or racism takes.
NC: In the book, I’m thinking through race from the perspective of the characters, which is not the same as my perspective. Mirella is someone who is pretty fair, and I don’t think she would ever articulate herself as having a preference for lighter skin, but she does. And even if her mother is a dark-skinned woman, and even if she marries an African-American man, I think you can observe some anti-black racism in Mirella. It creates levels of distance between her and her daughter, because they’re different colors. They’re read differently by others, but also read each other differently.
AW: There’s a very artistic sensibility throughout the book, so there’s a lot of description of color, and skin color in particular.
NC: I grew up acutely aware of color. People were constantly telling me what my skin color was. In the Dominican Republic, there are so many words to describe color or race, and that’s something I tried to reproduce in the book–it’s not just black, white, brown. People were always commenting on my color relative to my cousins, to my parents, my color after a day at the beach. And it’s certainly not just Dominicans. In my husband’s Colombian family, there’s also a lot of discussion of skin color, without much interrogation about why we’re talking about it, or the value attached to different complexions.
AW: You include Spanish in this book. Because I can read Spanish, the Spanish in the book felt really natural to me. For example, I think the first Spanish word in the book is “chancletas.” It makes perfect sense why this would be a word that’s in Spanish–because it’s a home word. I wondered how much you thought about the need to translate or explain the Spanish in the book.
NC: I didn’t feel much of an impulse to translate or explain. I think that we’ve come to expect hand-holding with books that work in multiple languages, but it’s untrue to the craft principles of point of view. I tried to let my ideas about point of view shape the way I use language. So if we’re in Penelope’s mind, and she uses the word “chancleta,” she wouldn’t translate that, she wouldn’t be like, “a slipper.” If she encountered a word in Spanish that she wasn’t sure of the meaning of, or if she was thinking about the way that the meaning of the word in English is different, that would show up. But translations wouldn’t be a part of her mind, because she has a mind that is somewhat bilingual, which is also why I didn’t italicize any of the words in Spanish when they’re in her mind. There are words that are italicized when they’re being used by someone for whom they are foreign, but if they’re not foreign to the person whose mind we’re in, then I didn’t want to mark them as foreign. I had to explain that logic to the copy-editor, who asked about the italics, and when I explained it, they were like, that makes a lot of sense! They were great about it.
AW: Speaking of editing, how was it to work with Morgan Parker as an editor?
NC: Morgan is the best! I really loved working with Morgan. If I can speak for her, she felt a strong connection to the book as being about women of color, and also about Bed-Stuy, which is the neighborhood where she lived when she was in New York. Morgan felt passionately about this story about complicated women, and Brooklyn, and race and gentrification. So when I found Morgan, I felt like I had found someone who really understood the heart of the book, and who wasn’t going to try to reshape it to fit into a narrow niche in the publishing market. So she wasn’t going to reshape it to be more of a mother-daughter story with the gentrification elements pared down. She really tried to make the book the best version of itself that it could be, instead of thinking about how it could be palatable to some idea of the market.
Morgan brought this radical imagination to the book–this belief that it could speak to a lot of people, even if it is solidly a Brooklyn story about women of color. She appreciated that and didn’t feel any kind of pressure to offset or mitigate that to make it more universal. She deeply understood the characters, and she also brought attention to issues of mental health in the book–stigmas around talking about mental health, and not having the language to talk about mental health. I’m grateful that my first book, my introduction to the world of publishing happened with her–someone who was cool, and had enthusiasm about the things that make the book what it is. She’s such an inspiration. She had this panel at AWP called “Zero Chill: Writers of Color Against Respectability.” That is everything I aspire to in life. I learned so much about respectability in my life, and I’m trying to be more about zero chill, and more about authentic expression in my writing and in my life. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. [For more from Naima on working with Morgan Parker, read her essay in Catapult, “My Editor Was Black.”]
AW: I’m not going to spoil the ending for our readers, but how did you come to the decision about what happens at the end?
NC: Sam Lipsyte told me something like, “Real life rarely waits for us to be ready.” The world can be indifferent to our personal timelines to reconcile and make amends. So we think to ourselves, ‘When I’m ready to date that person, they’ll be waiting. When I’m ready to reconcile with my mom… when I’m ready to start training for a marathon…” Then we miss those windows. The things that we hope for our lives, the universe may have different ideas about. Time is often working against us. So then, I started threading that idea through the whole book. Just because the thing you most want for your life is the thing you think you need to have a full and complete existence doesn’t mean it’s the thing you’re going to get. That idea really haunted me.
And it was hard to write about how all the characters react to the dramatic events near the end. I didn’t want to do this minimalist, no-one’s-feeling-anything, everyone’s-numb approach, but I also didn’t want to make it melodramatic. I feel like something we learn in the MFA is to be really restrained with emotion, to be really cool and keep your distance, but my life’s not like that. In my life, there’s lots of crying, people yell. I didn’t want to shy away from that in my book. In real life, people have feelings that are overwhelming.
AW: What are some of the themes you’re carrying forward into future projects? Are you working on something now?
NC: I’m working on a second novel. I’m still thinking about place and how it shapes identity. I’m still thinking about ruptures in family relationships and how people negotiate that. I’m taking on the effects of trauma a little bit more head on in the second book. For the main character, who’s much younger than Penelope, I’m thinking about how experiences of trauma have hardened her. The central question of this new book is: how do you learn how to be tender, how do you find ways of connecting and being soft and open, when you have lived in a place, and lived in a way that isn’t safe? That’s not quite the question of Halsey Street, but it’s sort of an outgrowth. It’s a lot of the same themes, but totally different characters and setting, and it’s a work of speculative fiction, which is new terrain for me.
AW: What have you been reading lately?
NC: The last book I read was On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee, a dystopian literary novel. I read the book Euphoria by Lily King, about three anthropologists who are studying others, but the book is really a study in who they are. I’m really looking forward to reading Jesmyn Ward’s new book, Sing, Unburied, Sing.
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, 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 2017 Cosmonauts 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.
Alexandra Watson is executive editor of Apogee Journal. She teaches essay writing at Barnard College and at the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in Nat. Brut., Redivider, and PANK. She is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia’s School of the Arts.