Naima Coster and I met in passing in college at Yale. We had people in common, but I knew her first onstage. I remember watching Naima perform on the step team: her long braid was like flashes of lightning, but I sensed that even as she was moving, she would not be moved. This is a kind of torque I now recognize in her writing. Her debut novel, Halsey Street, remains true to the stubbornly slow pace of psychological change and to the centuries that bind us to others and to the street, to the body, and to the earth itself. But her writing also registers the sudden speed with which an event can snatch us up and set us spinning. Her craft is polyrhythmic, like the jazz she is named for.
Halsey Street chronicles all the ways the machinery of gentrification gets jammed by unruly human lives. The time and place is mostly Bed-Stuy circa 2010, where Penelope Grand, an art-school dropout, has returned to care for her sick father. She’s rented a room in the renovated brownstone of a wealthy white family new to Brooklyn. Her father’s beloved record store, a neighborhood icon, has been priced out of business. His wife, Mirella, has left him, returning to the Dominican Republic, where she was born, in an overdue bid for independence. In Halsey Street, losses intersect and ramify like cracks in ice, and underneath rushes a reckoning: cold, bracing, hard to bear, yet still the sign of a new season.
But calling Halsey Street “a novel about gentrification” somehow, ironically, gentrifies it via quick taxonomy. So much of what I remember from my reading doesn’t register in that description. I remember Penelope’s view from the attic window, and the obsessive sketches she makes of it in a frustrated effort to render the world as one she can desire. I remember all the ways she styles her hair. And most keenly, I remember the letter Mirella writes to Penelope: “I have learned that to be a mother is to be left behind. I did it to Ramona; you have done it to me. When you were a girl, you used to follow me around, and I did not like it. I was not fit to be followed.”
Naima has taught me, in life as in fiction, that we don’t have to be “fit to be followed” in order to make way for one another. Sometimes candor is more loving than comfort. We text a lot or email, and I’m grounded by this communication and restored to my human dimensions. Cardi B would say “regular regular shmegular.” I think writing to Naima helps me feel regular about even my wildest fantasies, ambitions, refusals, and ambivalences as an artist. She reminds me that we all have them, along with blood, breath, vision. This call was taped on a Saturday morning in January between New York City and Durham, North Carolina. We were drawn together by a snap of blistering cold.
Halsey Street isn’t a sentimental book, but it’s a book that cares for its characters. I feel that shows in your descriptions of lips, hair, thighs. How do you approach writing about bodies? Has looking as a writer conditioned the way you see bodies, say, on the street?
I love this question. I understand bodies as a major way that we come to know one another in the world. I’m not interested in bodies only in terms of possession, I’m thinking about all the connections we have with one another that are embodied. Some of them have to do with desire and some don’t. But everything from, you know, placing your hand on the hand of a parent to looking at a friend and noticing how her hair catches the light. In fiction, I understand bodies as a site to begin my study of character. Bodies tell the story of how we spend our time, who we come from, and how we’ve been read in the world by others. Of course, I’m also really interested in the inner lives of characters, and often that’s represented as really divorced from the embodied life. We can see that in so many sex scenes that we read in fiction where there’s a disconnect between what the body is doing and what’s happening in the mind, or, dare I say, in the spirit.
Yes, you dare!
I’m really interested in bringing those together in fiction because it’s true of my life—I experience my emotions in an embodied way, and so sometimes even when I’m writing I will do something at my chair, I’ll smile or I’ll frown or I’ll evoke a memory to see what kinds of sensations it brings up in my body. But I don’t think that’s something that I was formally trained to do in my study as a writer—to be attentive to bodies or to what’s happening inside a body.
There are so many body-based moments I remember in the book. Samantha’s blonde bun at the nape of her neck that leads Penelope to speculate that she might have been a dancer in her youth. Or when Penelope lingers on the thinness of Marcus’s lips. It’s racialized, it’s sexualized, and yet, there’s something about the way you render Penelope’s gaze on Marcus that cultivates, in the reader, a tenderness toward both characters—even when they’re hard to love. Do you feel you have to push yourself to write characters tenderly?
So against my better judgment, I was looking at some reviews online! And it was really interesting, because a couple of people said that they really disliked all the characters in the book. And underneath that is this idea that they’re all bad people. But I don’t believe in that. My characters are neither victims nor villains, they’re just messy people who are carrying damage but also have deep capacities for love. Of course, I wouldn’t say that my characters always see one another that way—
Not at all! One of the things the book renders well is the way characters can slip into those totalizing visions of themselves or others. There’s a poignant moment toward the end of the novel when Penelope is in a new relationship and asks herself, How long will it be until he realizes that her bad moods are her? Part of the nuance of your telling is both rendering and yet refusing to replicate that totalizing vision.
I’m so glad that came through. I mean those passages in the book to be painful to read, in the way that it’s painful to hear someone you love articulate something self-hating. As I wrote this book, I was interested in the impulse that people have to hide whatever they think might cost them the love and esteem of others. Everyone in this book is doing that. Even the gentrifiers, with their beautiful home and the veneer of a good life, have all this tension inside of their family—an isolated daughter, an overburdened mother, a deceitful father. And the Grands, in their time of glory, also had this reputation in the neighborhood as being an exemplary family but had their own domestic turmoil of envy, resentment, and emotional neglect. In life, real intimacy happens when we’re ready to share the mess of our inner lives with one another, and I think that’s also one of the ways that intimacy happens in fiction.
Speaking of the Grands, it’s so refreshing to see an interracial relationship that’s not white and non-white. There are nostalgic visions of Brooklyn that run something like Prince’s song about “Uptown”: “White, Black, Puerto Rican / Everybody’s just a-freakin.” As much as I love that rhyme, we’re not always “just a-freakin.” Being real about the tensions of the old Brooklyn is also a way to be real about the tensions of the new Brooklyn.
Yes, and that is something I’ve felt so much in my own life and story. I identify as both black and Latina—as you know—and I think that sometimes, in my own family life in New York, I’ve wanted to say, Black, Latina, samesies! To think, We’re the same, we’re connected, we roll together. It’s been harder to look at the real tensions and difficulties that come from having both of those identities. My own resistance was a signal that there might be something to uncover there. What are the points of connection, what is the solidarity between these communities, which are diverse in and of themselves? And then, where are the tensions? That’s something I haven’t seen examined as much as I’d like, in part because I think that a lot of the stories that we get about people of color are about people of color in proximity to whiteness. That’s true of my book, and I was aware of that when I was writing it. Maybe a story about Penelope is more palatable than a story that focuses primarily on Mirella and her world in Brooklyn as a Dominican immigrant. She doesn’t have access, in the same way, to a more affluent, whiter world. So many of the stories that we read by writers of color are about someone stuck between two worlds, and I think part of that is because that’s a sticky, interesting place—
—but it’s also a function of the kind of class mobility that it takes to even get to the point of being able to publish a book. As we know well, publishing involves extreme proximity to whiteness—not only white people but whiteness as an institution.
Yes, exactly. My own story is one of somebody who grew up in Fort Greene, but it’s also the story of someone who went to private school at twelve on the Upper East Side and then eventually went on to Yale. And there are so many other stories about life in Brooklyn and the impacts of gentrification that come from people who do not have a biography like mine. We want those stories, too.
I hear you. But I think you’re selling your book short if you frame it as a story about people of color in proximity to whiteness. Your structure is slyer than that. The way you weave Mirella’s story in gives us a sense of a whole other world with its own set of repressions and displacements. At the same time, since your novel is not primarily about the Dominican Republic, you are able to foreground the emotional distances that diaspora engenders.
I love that. Actually, my favorite chapter of the book is “The Mountain,” the one set in rural Dominican Republic, written from Mirella’s perspective. After I wrote that chapter I thought, Oh, this could be a whole novel! But in the context of Penelope’s life, it really is just a chapter. It’s long and has a lot of psychological weight, but it isn’t the whole story. And I feel like that’s true of diaspora as well. I think of my summers in the Dominican Republic as intermittent chapters in my life that hold such resonance, but they’re not the whole story.
And then Brooklyn becomes its own old country! Halsey Street, for you, is in a way an archive of a past self, since you spent so many years writing it. What do you feel you’ve closed the door on with Halsey Street, the book, and what questions remain open for you, as wounds or otherwise?
The question that started the book was a question about Penelope. When you learn to put yourself away over the course of your life, how do you move through the world? How does it affect your relationships? And then, how do you eventually find your life? Those particular questions have been answered for me by the book. I also don’t think I’ll write another book about gentrification. But I do think I’m going to keep thinking about how people live together across lines of class and race. I think my writing will continue to be place based, and I’m going to remain interested in the inner lives of women, and trauma, and how the past presses in on the present.
I’m working on two other book projects right now, and I always start with questions. One of my current questions is, How do you learn to be tender when life has hardened you and when your survival has been contingent on a kind of armor? I think that is a question that maybe started with Halsey Street. The end of the book brings Penelope to the verge of tenderness. So that’s the question I wanted to pick up next, in a different setting, form, and genre.
A different genre!
Yes—the book I was just describing is a work of speculative fiction.
So exciting. I’m curious about genre in relation to the question you raised about tenderness. I immediately thought of our mutual attraction to FKA Twigs. In her look and sound, it feels like she engages in a mode of speculative fiction in order to be as tender as she is. Maybe the intensity of her tenderness would feel more dangerous to perform within a mode of total realism.
Yeah, I’m really interested in how her work confounds this dichotomy between passivity and agency. Especially because we have this impulse to categorize people, and it comes up all the time in fiction, right? I’ve had people say of my characters, Oh, sometimes she’s really passive and sometimes she’s feisty!
Which is an interesting word.
She’s a “feisty Latina.” But she, like you, contains multitudes! The first time I watched the “Two Weeks” video, I just cried. I’m still learning how to look at one version of myself, and FKA Twigs is inviting us to look at twelve of her dancing.
That’s the speculative element I was trying to name. Sometimes in order to imagine the basic complexity of a woman of color we have to see her literally multiplied by twelve! In gold body paint.
Recently, we’ve both written about resistant ways of being in our bodies. You’ve written—in a secret draft that only some have seen!—“Feeling yourself is a phrase that can be used to accuse someone of arrogance, but it can also be a declaration of sweet self-content. Feeling yourself seems to me an especially important form of resistance in the face of gentrification that values certain communities, classes, ways of being over others.” I’ve written about a similarly double-edged word, ensimismada, which can describe a negative form of self-absorption or a dreamy state of being, “head in the clouds.” And I guess the strategic ethic of feeling yourself is one version of a portable Brooklyn that can’t be gentrified. What would it mean to carry Brooklyn inside of you, to be Brooklyn elsewhere, if Brooklyn becomes what it’s becoming? I’m thinking about that so much with Puerto Rico right now, after the twin catastrophes of PROMESA and the hurricane. What is a vision of survival that’s not necessarily contingent on that block staying the same?
Oh, man, that’s such a good question. I have a few thoughts. When I was growing up we were really proud to be from Brooklyn, and part of the reason we celebrated Brooklyn—not the whole reason—was knowing that it was devalued by outsiders. It gave us a special impetus to claim it as a way of celebrating ourselves. When I think about the portable Brooklyn I want to keep, there’s that toughness.
My mom has a story of a day the bus broke down in the snow. My brother and I were very small, so she had to carry one of us under each arm through the drifts and ice. I think about what that must have been like. She didn’t have good winter boots, so her feet were cold. Blocks and blocks and blocks. I don’t want to romanticize what sounds like a painful and difficult experience for my mother. But I try to stay connected to that part of my legacy—mental toughness, the hustle.
And, also, relying on others to get things done. There was a woman in our building—she and my dad alternated driving a few of us to school. We didn’t go to our zoned school because both of our parents had figured out a way to get us into a better school in the district. When I think of Brooklyn, I think of that kind of interdependence and shared life. I think of music in public spaces. There’s so much I want to keep. You did such a beautiful job of describing how you think about this in your own work, too.
But I think one of my most painful memories of being a child is being called comparona. Do you know this word?
Oh, I do. I’ve been called comparona, too.
That’s so funny—it might be a Caribbean thing. It basically means “show-off,” and I’d hear it if I was getting creative with how I was expressing myself—flourishing my hand or performing in any way. But don’t we all want to be seen and to be noticed? And I responded to this by outwardly expressing myself less, and, honestly, I think I turned to writing because I wanted to find space for myself, a way to be, as you’re saying, ensimismada, right? Now, I’m at a place in my life where I’ve been doing that in my writing for a long time. I want to figure out some ways to do it off the page, too.
Comparonas pa siempre.
Carina del Valle Schorske is a poet, essayist, and Spanish-language translator. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Lit Hub, The New Yorker online, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Point, where she is contributing editor. She is the recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, the MacDowell Colony, and Columbia University, where she is a doctoral candidate studying Caribbean literature and culture.
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