The PEN Ten: An Interview with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
1. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
My father was a Black Arts Movement poet, and so, when I first remember language, I remember his poetry readings in the early to mid-1970s in Durham, NC. I was a very little girl sitting beside my mother in the audience and hearing people shout like in my maternal grandmother’s church, down in Eatonton, GA. Only it wasn’t a preacher talking about the Bible. It was my daddy reading poetry about being Black and powerful. Sometimes, ladies in the audience would begin weeping ecstatically when he read his poems.
2. What is your relationship to place and story? Are there specific places you keep going back to in your writing?
My relationship to place is both liminal and actual.
In terms of a liminal place, I return to the boundary between what I think of as “true” African American history—that would probably be antiquity up until the late 1980s, when I came of age—and what I see as the contemporary moment, from the 1990s to the present. I’m aware that I’m changing what “contemporary” means since it’s really defined as post-World War II. But I think it’s natural for human beings to define historical eras according to their own location in the human timeline. We are egotistical creatures.
The actual place I can’t shake is central Georgia, where my maternal ancestors lived and died. Every time I come back to that place, I discover something new. And then, I am fascinated by what is liminal in that geographic location, where my mother and all her ancestors lived.
“Nobody but you can decide that you’re a writer. So even if you get a teacher who you think doesn’t encourage you or doesn’t understand your talent—because memories can change over time—nobody ‘can stop your flow,’ as they used to say, back in the 1990s. You are born a writer: Keep that truth close as you move through this difficult world.”
3. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
I would like to name a book that identifies me as brilliant and inquisitive, a “big book,” as it were. But as I look back, really, there was a children’s book that my father gave me when I was a little girl, The Emir’s Son by Martin Ballard. It came out the year I was born, and my father wrote a serious note in it, like you would write to a college or graduate student—not to a five-year-old!
I’ve kept that book for 49 years. It’s set in pre-colonial Muslim West Africa, and all the people are dark-skinned and gorgeous, and dressed in beautiful, flowing robes. It’s a book about a young man who is of royal stock, but all he wants to do is goof around with his friends. But one day, he discovers his responsibility as a leader.
Every once in a while, I take that book down from my shelf and I read it. I didn’t have a happy childhood or a good relationship with my daddy, but thinking about him choosing that book just for me gives me a tiny piece of joy.
4. What advice do you have for young writers?
Of course, read as much as you can. That’s essential. Don’t be so arrogant that you think you can become a writer without reading somebody else’s work.
But also, nobody but you can decide that you’re a writer. So even if you get a teacher who you think doesn’t encourage you or doesn’t understand your talent—because memories can change over time—nobody “can stop your flow,” as they used to say, back in the 1990s. You are born a writer: Keep that truth close as you move through this difficult world.
“I think that we all hold something inside us that we need someone else to know. That’s all a story really is: two or more people getting together, and one of them letting out what they need to be heard. . . . You can be on the phone with your good friend, and they can tell a story to you that you will remember for life—and it can change you in some way, too.”
5. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Phillis Wheatley Peters, the first African American woman to publish a book (in 1773). (I insist on adding the Peters to her name, based on information I excavated about her, when I was writing poems about her.)
I’d like Ms. Phillis to tell me what was the birth name that her parents gave her when she was born in the Gambia? My soul would be so satisfied, if I knew her true name.
6. What’s a piece of art (literary or not) that moves you and mobilizes your work?
There is a painting that uses collage, “Mecklenburg Morning” by the great Romare Bearden. Even though Bearden was from North Carolina, the image of country women in their small kitchen reminds me so much of my summers down in Eatonton, GA, staying in my granny’s house. How when I was little, I bathed in an iron tub in her kitchen. The images speak to me and give me a sweet, encouraging word. They just make me feel so good to be a Black woman.
7. Why do you think people need stories?
I think that we all hold something inside us that we need someone else to know. That’s all a story really is: two or more people getting together, and one of them letting out what they need to be heard.
Stories don’t have to be formally published. You can be on the phone with your good friend, and they can tell a story to you that you will remember for life—and it can change you in some way, too.
Stories connect us. I’m an introvert, so I used to think I could be by myself, and it wouldn’t bother me at all. I could just be in my house every day and there wouldn’t be any problem. Then the pandemic hit, and I realized I lied to myself.
I missed telling my stories to folks, and I missed them telling their stories to me. I started picking up the phone to call my friends.
8. Like your protagonist Ailey Garfield, you became fascinated with your family’s history, as well as this country’s fraught past, by engaging with narratives shared by women in your family: “I first learned of slavery and lynching and the difficult history of this country not from books but from eavesdropping on old Black folks: Florence, Luvenia, Ambrose, Iola, and too many others whose names I can’t remember.” How was it different to learn about such traumatic histories from the mouths of family members rather than from a history book? What are some things that oral histories and novels can convey that most textbooks can’t?
My family members remember history that connects with the blood, with kinship lineage. Whenever I heard about national history from, say, my mother, she would connect it with her own life.
For example, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Mama talked about how horrible that was, she told me, “Honorée, you were my baby.” Dr. King was murdered in 1968, and I was born in 1967. And she told me she wanted to go to his funeral, but she had three children to take care of, including a lap baby. Along with my father, she grieved in Kokomo, IN, where I was born. She didn’t have any relatives there, and no connection to other Black folks in that town.
I didn’t just think about the national history—I thought about, how did Dr. King’s murder affect my own mother, holding a squirming, not-even-walking baby? I was nine months old. Mama always identifies who she knew—or who was her youngest child or when she was in college—whenever she names history. And the old folks in her family did the same. That’s how I began to think of history as a living thing, and not just in books.
I think about my great-great grandma Mandy, who was a teenager when the Civil War ended, with a biracial child by a white man who had taken advantage of her. Who was Ms. Mandy? What was she thinking? Was she scared? Was she exhilarated? That’s what oral histories and novels provide. They give you the emotion of the moment. And I think that’s important, because not everybody can or even wants to wade through the historical archives.
“I wanted to write a sweeping, American epic about southern Afro-Indigenous women’s lives and their extraordinary place in the trajectory of American history. I hadn’t ever read a novel like that—I’d only read nonfiction history books that overtly located Black or Afro-Indigenous women in the center of America’s story. And I thought, let me create that kind of novel. Wouldn’t that be something? I hope I did all right.”
9. On the subject of women—while there are certainly male characters in The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, the book primarily focuses on the interwoven histories of Black women in Ailey’s family, honing in on their experiences of loss, oppression, and resilience. Why was it important for you to excavate the underpinnings of Black women’s experiences in particular?
I think the very simple answer is, I’m a Black woman. I write about myself and the people who look like me, the same way that the majority of white writers create books about white people who look like themselves. And that latter fact doesn’t make me angry or resentful at all. I think that’s completely logical: We all center ourselves in the world, even if that world is imaginary.
I think the more complex answer is, I wanted to write a sweeping, American epic about southern Afro-Indigenous women’s lives and their extraordinary place in the trajectory of American history. I hadn’t ever read a novel like that—I’d only read nonfiction history books that overtly located Black or Afro-Indigenous women in the center of America’s story. And I thought, let me create that kind of novel. Wouldn’t that be something?
I hope I did all right. That’s not a humble brag. Every time I finish writing a book—because I’ve published five books of poetry before this book—all I can see is what I could have done better.
10. “There are the incongruities of memory,” you write, when describing an early encounter between Micco, one of Ailey’s ancestors, and Samuel Pinchard, a European settler. “It is hard to hold on to the entirety of something, but pieces may be held up to light.” Given that recorded history and memories are imperfect and have limitations, how can we best become educated about the world around us and how things, as we know it, came to be? What did you learn in your research for this book, about being a thoughtful consumer of current events and history?
I spent 11 years total on this book, and one important skill that I learned is how to dive deep into human nature and witness its implications throughout history. I saw some things that made me so joyful, and then, some horrible aspects of humanity that I wish I could unsee.
And what I know is, there are always several sides to how different folks from different cultural backgrounds approach the very same moment in history. Sometimes there are lies told by the so-called victors—though I would like us to remember that if somebody “won” by stealing land or killing others, that’s not an actual victory, at least not of the soul.
Sometimes the so-called victors are telling the truth, but they are just telling it from their own point of view. And isn’t that what we all do? How many of us tell a story that ignores our own desires or ignores how we want to portray ourselves positively to others?
And so, in terms of being a thoughtful consumer, I’d say, remember that everybody has their own side. That sounds simple, but it’s not, because even if that other side is repulsive or frightening to you, you still need to learn about it. Because one day, you might be the victim, instead of the victor. And so, as my granny might say, “Pay attention, baby, and you might learn something.”
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist. She is the author of five poetry collections, including the 2020 collection The Age of Phillis, which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in poetry and was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and the PEN/Voelcker Award. She was a contributor to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward, and has been published in the Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and other literary publications. Jeffers was elected into the American Antiquarian Society, whose members include 14 U.S. presidents, and is critic at large for the Kenyon Review. She teaches creative writing and literature at The University of Oklahoma.