At the center of Naima Coster's new novel, “What's Mine and Yours” are two determined and difficult mothers, equal and opposite forces.
There's Jade, whom Coster describes as "a woman who is trying to figure out how to pursue her own ambitions while also taking care of a child on her own." And Lacey May, "a woman who is struggling financially and trying to secure a future for her girls that she wasn't able to secure for herself."
Their paths cross at a high school auditorium in North Carolina. In fact, at a community meeting about a new integration program, one that will bring students from the largely black east side of town to the largely white high school on the west side, Jade from that east side is fighting to get her son Gee into the school. Lacey May and her daughters live on the West Side, and she's spearheading a campaign to keep the new students out. The two families' stories wind together over decades, each of them fighting to overcome shattering loss.
"I think that that results in a kind of toughness that's meant to be a survival strategy for the children," Coster says, "when both families are dealing with grief that feels so large that it could swallow them up."
On what happens when you try to put a lid on grief
Gee ... has a loss early in his life and it's something that he's gathered that he's not supposed to speak about. And I was thinking about the way that people of color are expected to be exceptional in largely white spaces. So exceptional not only in terms of the task at hand, like being good at school or standing out in the workplace, but also being exceptional in terms of having a biography or family story that feels neat or virtuous. And Gee doesn't fit that description. He's got a family history that he believes is wrong. And so that gives him a lot of feelings of self-doubt, of guilt that he has to find ways of working through.
On the mothers — Lacey May in particular
I think Lacey May is certainly a kind of figure that I've encountered in my life. And she's a woman who feels that she has thwarted potential, and that she perhaps could have accomplished more in life. But she was consumed with the business of survival, with being a wife and a mother. And so she opposes the integration, in part because she wants to hoard the opportunity and keep it for her girls. I'll also say that Lacey May holds racist ideas. It's not that she stumbles her way into a racist position.
On whether she likes the character of Lacey May
I'll say that I understand her. And I will also say that I have tenderness for parts of her. She's a lonely and alienated character and I feel for her in those respects. Would I want Lacey May as my in-law or my friend, or on the PTA with me? Absolutely not. And I think that this is one of the things that fiction can do, right? It can give us a window into the battles that each person is waging or facing. But it doesn't mean that we condone her actions, or are even interested in redeeming her.
On writing and living with characters going through trauma
I don't think I have a lot of distance when I'm working on it. I feel very immersed, and I'm not interested in making things easier for my characters, which might sound harsh to say, but I think that that's partially because life can be really hard and brutal and I'm interested in fiction that testifies to that reality. But I do think about the moments of tenderness and relief that they get — which don't cancel out all of the hardship.
On writing about the pandemic
Well, I'll be straight with you. Originally, the book was supposed to end much later in August of 2020. So I had to do some reworking of the chronology and timeline of the book and change the weather just to sort of avoid thinking about the pandemic, because I didn't have the space to do that.
This story was edited for radio by Justine Kenin, produced by Connor Donevan and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer
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