Angela Flournoy's first novel, "The Turner House," was a finalist for the National Book Award. It tells the story of an African-American family facing the question of whether to sell their childhood home in Detroit after discovering a reverse mortgage has left the house underwater.
Your novel is primarily set in Detroit in 2008, but Arkansas haunts the book. There are occasional flashbacks to the 1940s, as young Francis and Viola Turner (who will become the patriarch and matriarch of a sprawling family) journey north from rural Arkansas to seek their fortune. How closely does this mirror your own parents' families' stories?
My family from my father's side is from Arkansas, from a town near Pine Bluff (and one of my uncles used to live in Little Rock when I was younger). One of the things that I found in my research was that during the Great Migration there were channels that people followed from various Southern states to corresponding Northern states. So, a lot of people from Arkansas did end up in Detroit and other parts of the Midwest — whereas, for example, a lot of people in California came from Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, like my mother's side of the family.
Some of it was just train lines: People in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana ended up on trains running west, people from Alabama and Arkansas ended up on lines that took them more directly north. But, also, like when immigrants from different countries come to the U.S., it's who comes to a place first and brings others along.
Two years into writing my novel, Isabel Wilkerson came out with this amazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Great Migration, "The Warmth of Other Suns," and it sort of confirmed this idea, which had been a suspicion of mine. It was sort of like a gift, because when I started the novel, [Wilkerson's] book didn't exist — and then it did. I had all these ideas about the past, all of these things I researched, but being able to hear these real-life oral testimonies gave me a little bit more confidence about how this wasn't a one-off trend. This was something that was happening on a large scale, with hundreds of thousands of people.
And now, a couple of generations later, we're seeing in some places a return of African-American families to the South.
No doubt, it's a trend. You have both baby-boomer retirees and younger professionals moving back to the South. Culturally, even in my own family, our ways of being still remain very Southern, even though we're three generations now in California. ... And while there wasn't the same Jim Crow domestic terror in the North, there definitely wasn't the open-armed embrace that some had expected.
Though your dad's family is rooted in Detroit, you grew up in California. Did you know from the beginning you wanted this novel to be set in Detroit?
Yeah, the book was always going to be set in Detroit. I started writing this book in 2009, and the earliest points of origin were my own feeling of frustration and disappointment in the national housing crisis that we were a part of, which really disproportionately affected black homeowners. In some ways, it kind of set black homeownership back a generation. Like, the sort of gains that had been made during the civil rights years — you saw all of these people losing their homes.
But in Detroit, depreciation of housing values was something that had been happening on a local level for several decades and had not been getting a lot of national attention. And it's something that could have been avoided, but it was a compounding of civic decisions and government decisions and also individual prejudices being played out on a large scale. I was always interested in that, and I was just fortunate enough that some characters came along to help me give those gripes some shape, to make it feel like it's not just a Facebook rant.
Your book also calls to mind "The Case for Reparations," the landmark Atlantic piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates about black homeowners in Chicago. Like a lot of people, it made me aware of something I didn't really understand before — the huge financial burden that racially discriminatory housing policies have placed on black families. Although that article must have appeared after you'd written most of "The Turner House," right?
I think that's what's really the most exciting thing about writing a book. It seems like you're in the dark and you're alone — and once you start working on it, it seems like there are signs everywhere. So, I just remember — it must have been 2014 — when I read that, I was like, "YES! Where was this a couple of years ago?" [Laughs] Not that I was the only one thinking about it, because there have certainly been academic studies, and I have a lot of very smart friends that helped me through thinking about the role that housing segregation has played generationally as far as black wealth-building is concerned and so many other things that trickle out from there. But, yeah, when that [article] came out — that's one of the magical things that comes from being obsessed with something for a while. You start to see it everywhere.
In 2008, the Turner family is composed of 13 adult siblings and an army of children and grandchildren. Why did you want to write about such a big family?
I come from a big family on all sides. My father is one of 13, my mother was one of four or five, and I have, like, two adopted families I grew up in. I think being a part of a large family really did shape my sense of self, and my ability to become different people depending on where I am. Every family has its own communication style — things you can and can't talk about — and I've always found that fascinating. So I wanted to have a really big family [in the book] to not only show how a lot of people have interacted with the same space over 40 years, but also to show how familial expectations can be a real kind of blessing or a burden in your life, depending on your individual place within that family and your personality.
Your two main protagonists, Cha-Cha and Lelah, are 64 and 40. You're in your early 30s. What made you choose to write from this perspective of a 64-year-old man?
Well, you know, I'm a 64-year-old man on the inside. [Laughs] They were just the characters that were interesting to me. I didn't really think about how there aren't any main characters my age. I've always been a person who likes to listen in on the stories of my elders, and I have a pretty casual and friendly relationship with my mother and my aunt, so I hear a lot of stories about people around their age, like Cha-Cha. I don't know. I didn't think about it as that much of a leap at the time.
The Turner family mythologizes their parents, Viola and Francis, but in the flashbacks to their own youth we see them demythologized — as flawed young people making mistakes. Did you have a similar matriarch or patriarch figure in your life?
They're not very similar to my own grandparents. [The flashbacks] came from my interest in what it took to make a life in Detroit — coming without a lot of money and trying to make a home. It seemed really exceptional that anyone ever did it. I just wanted to explore those challenges, and to explore the story of Detroit it seemed really necessary to include that generation. It was something that was kind of nagging on me — that I couldn't have a complete story if I didn't have sections in the past, which meant I had to fully commit to the parents and making them real characters.
I wrote those sections of the book last, and I was anxious to write them because they were, you know, a departure. I wanted them to feel rooted in history, but not like I had just dumped Wikipedia information, so I put them off until the end.
I was struck by a line in one of those vignettes, in which Francis is drifting into a kind of degeneracy after arriving in Detroit alone, and he's in danger of forgetting about his teenage wife back home in Arkansas with their infant son. You say, "Here's the truth about self-discovery: It is never without cost. Not now, in the age of create-your-own college majors, the Peace Corps, and yoga retreats, and definitely not during World War II for a young black father newly migrated to a strange city." Tell me about the costs imposed by self-discovery.
I think one of the tensions that can arise if you're part of a big family, is, "How do I define myself out of this sort of pre-described role that I have? If I have always been this way to these people, how do I find out if this is actually the way that I am?"
And to figure that out usually requires some sort of disappointment, either for yourself or for someone else. I think that's something that some characters do more concretely in the book than others, and something that some characters struggle with deciding if they even have a right to do.
Flournoy and author Arna Hemenway will speak at the Arkansas Literary Festival at noon Sunday, April 17, at the Ron Robinson Theater.