Interview by Linda Mahal
June 15, 2021
Breena Clarke is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Angels Make Their Hope Here, set in an imagined mixed-race community in 19th century New Jersey. Her debut novel, River, Cross My Heart, was an October 1999 Oprah Book Club selection. Clarke’s critically reviewed second novel, Stand the Storm, is set in mid-19th century Washington, D.C. Her short fiction has appeared in Kweli Journal, Stonecoast Review, Nervous Breakdown, Mom/Egg Review, and Catapult, as well as Like Light: 25 Years of Poetry & Prose by Bright Hill Poets & Writers. She has contributed an essay to IDOL TALK: Women Writers on the Teenage Infatuations That Changed Their Lives.
Clarke is co-editor of the June 2021 anthology CHICKEN SOUP for the SOUL I’M SPEAKING NOW: BLACK WOMEN SHARE THEIR TRUTHS IN 101 STORIES OF LOVE, COURAGE AND HOPE, to which she has contributed two personal narratives. She has been a member of the fiction faculty of Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing since 2013. She is co-founder and co-organizer (with Cheryl Clarke and Barbara Balliet) of The Hobart Book Village Festival of Women Writers, now entering its eighth consecutive year of celebrating the work of women writers in Hobart, New York, despite the challenges of the global pandemic.
Breena graciously accepted our invitation to discuss her work just as pandemic restrictions were lifting in the U.S. and the Stonecoast MFA Summer 2021 Residency—our third virtual one—was fast approaching. Here Breena reflects on her exciting new book of Black women’s personal narratives, her commitment to documenting the full humanity and emotional range of her characters, her creative process, and her future plans.
I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truths in 101 Stories of Love, Courage, and Hope is the second anthology you’ve edited. Can you tell us the story of how you became involved in this project?
I became involved with the Chicken Soup project following a recommendation from a fellow writer. Amy Newmark, the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Chicken Soup series, contacted me and shared her idea: to provide a platform for 101 personal narratives from Black women. I'd just completed work on NOW, an online journal of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers, which featured the work of Participating Writers from the first seven years of our annual Festival. I was excited to add another ripple of community to sustain and promote literary work by women.
The authors featured in I’m Speaking Now comprise full-time writers as well as women working in other fields—emergency services, nursing, foreign policy, and the ministry, to name a few. Could you talk about the process you undertook to create this book?
One of the most rewarding parts of this project has been the variety of contributors' backgrounds. We selected the most compelling stories. One of the exceptionally informative sections of the book is the list of contributor bios. They're a stunningly accomplished group, and many readers may be surprised by their accomplishments despite the challenges they've faced. An added feature is the inclusion of quotes with each story. These quotes are from historical and contemporary Black women, and there are a lot of gems.
The Chicken Soup for the Soul series has a robust infrastructure for reaching contributors, editing the submissions, and galvanizing them into a promotional platform. I'M SPEAKING NOW: BLACK WOMEN SHARE THEIR TRUTH IN 101 STORIES OF LOVE, COURAGE AND HOPE has inherited this energetic organization. I might not otherwise have seen this as a project for me. I'm a fiction writer. Everything looks like a novel to me. But this project offered the opportunity for me to shepherd a wide array of voices from different backgrounds and bring them together to talk about their experiences as Black women in our culture. We were happy to receive submissions from the entire Black diaspora on this continent. We received nearly one thousand submissions and read them all. The most important quality was the clarity in the narrative voice.
Your contribution to the “Sisters, Friends” section of I’m Speaking Now centers around intuitions not acted upon that might have changed a childhood friend’s life for the better. It’s a powerful, vulnerable inquiry into the roles we might play or decline to play in each other’s destinies. What made you write this story, and why did you choose to publish it now, as part of this anthology?
I was motivated to write the story "The Same Block" to acknowledge the trauma that crushed the life of my neighborhood friend. I was largely unaware of the jeopardy we were in because we were girls. I chose to publish it now because, in many ways, the time for confronting these horrors is now. There is recognition and movement toward accountability. Also, I was sore that my childhood BFF couldn't fulfill her promise, and I want you to know about it.
What is one of your favorite stories from I’m Speaking Now, and what did you find so compelling about it?
I'm particularly fond of the story, "The Power of No" by Margaret Johnson-Hodge, a published writer of more than nineteen books. She shares the simple wisdom of saying no even to oneself. I also really liked "I'm an Attorney" by Alicia F. Williams. She illuminates the micro-aggressions that she's learned to overlook and overcome in the pursuit of her career.
Your three critically acclaimed novels—River, Cross My Heart; Stand the Storm; and Angels Make Their Hope Here—are set in the 19th or early 20th century. The main characters are Black people going through traumas such as enslavement, migration, and the death of a child. How has your past work sustained you today, as a writer and as a human being?
I consider my characters to be people in traumatic circumstances. Their trauma centers around that ugly time, the period of American enslavement and its aftermath. I want to emphasize the importance that my text recognizes my characters' humanity amid dehumanizing circumstances. Yes, Black characters are foregrounded in my work. These are the people I find fascinating and also underrepresented in so-called mainstream fiction. I work hard to ensure they emerge as agents of their destinies wrangling with the world they inhabit. They are, by and large, people about whom little is documented because of the oppression of slavery and the suppression of their historical narrative.
Frankly, I come to writing as an aggrieved reader. I was always going to follow Toni Morrison's advice to write the book I wanted to read. I wanted to read more and know more about Black people. But more than that, I aspire to contribute to everyone's understanding of the impact of Atlantic Slavery in determining the world we live in today. Ultimately, this is the universal theme of all the works I've published. That is the chunk of narrative I feel most compelled to write. Hopefully, I can tease and compel the reader with my writing so that they come to love my characters and thirst for more and more information.
Having three novels and soon a fourth published is, for me, the fulfillment of dreams. The fact of their existence sustains me emotionally. The volumes have a tangible presence.
Can you share a strategy or practice that you have used to revive your imagination and keep your creativity flowing during or after deeply troubling times?
My most traumatic time of life was following the death of my son, Najeeb, in 1989. However, I began writing with energy and purpose after this event. I started keeping notebooks to record my memories of him as if I were capturing them in a sort of archive. These notebooks were very comforting, and I've held onto them though I don't read them. I've never actually used the snippets in them for my fiction. Their function was primarily to help me understand my ways of thinking, which is mainly through recollection. So, I don't usually record things as they are occurring but instead wait to remember and record my remembrance of them. In other words, I don't miss seeing because I'm trying to find a word for the picture. I see then I write. It's a matter of trust, and I trust myself.
I am struck by this passage from Stand the Storm in which Annie, after purchasing her freedom, recalls having felt joy with her son Gabriel in the midst of slavery:
"Annie was ashamed to think that she had feelings of longing for the Ridley place. But the most joyful times she and Gabriel had known were the brief forays in the clear air to the upland knolls at Ridley to collect plants for their dyes. Then, if mother and son had managed to reach an open stretch with no one watching, Annie would release the boy to run and explore and fill his mouth with laughter. The two would dare to plunge their faces into beds of plants and smell and look aplenty and satisfy themselves with the beauty of the places." (196)
This scene suggests that there is a necessity for joy that exists in human beings, even when living under extreme hardship.
Writing the lives of the characters of Stand The Storm created many challenges. I felt pressure to create opportunities for the exercise of complete humanity and human response. Remember that I insist on the full range of human emotions for my characters. Of course, joy is a part of this. The depiction of the short periods of happiness enslaved people can create for themselves and their loved ones illuminates the horrors of the condition at least as compellingly as depictions of cruel acts. Also, human beings are wired for survival, and seeking the healing balm of joy and happiness is instinctual. I'm concerned not to write "slavery porn," so I am careful of graphic pictures of the enslaved. Consider, too, that joy/happiness is fleeting and most often experienced in recollection. "The key lime pie I ate yesterday was divine!"
Have you felt this instinct for happiness as our country begins to emerge from this period of intense anxiety?
I do, of course, feel the exhilaration of returning to the familiar routines, though some things feel odd now. I've been meeting weekly via zoom with my sister, Cheryl Clarke, and my friend, Esther Cohen, to discuss our writing progress. This has been a wonderful process for me: loose enough to alleviate pressure, but regular enough that I had a structure. We've been successful. I've completed a manuscript for a novel in stories, Cheryl's working on a collection of her poetry, and Esther completed her collection of narrative poems. I've also found that I'm a genuine part of my neighborhood. In the depths of the pandemic, it was unsettling to wonder if this person or that neighbor was among the hundreds of thousands of people who died. I realized others were thinking the same when they saw me. I came to understand the privileges I take for granted: my car, my backyard, my robust health.
Do you have any predictions about how life will be different going forward?
I don't think I'd like to predict what may happen in the future. The Covid-19 pandemic took me by surprise completely. That is the most intensely frightening thing about this. We ordinary people did not see this coming. It has jolted us out of our complacency about racial oppression, sexual violence, gun violence, and the suppression of the fundamental rights of citizens. I believe the aftermath of the global pandemic may bring about a correction to our comfort zones.
What are you working on now, and (if you’re willing to share) what does the future hold for you?
I've recently completed a manuscript of my collected "dog" stories. I've read a couple of them at the residencies. The encouragement I've received for these pieces from students and colleagues is why I was motivated to complete them. A novella accompanies the dog stories. I see this work as more a speculative novel than a formal historical novel. I'm excited to continue exploring the mutability of historical, fictional narratives. Of course, I just completed the editorial work on I'M SPEAKING NOW, and I will continue to do promotional work for this book.
To learn more about Breena Clarke and her work, please visit her Stonecoast MFA faculty bio, her extensive and fascinating blog, her author website, and NOW, an online journal of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers, of which she is the editor. Follow her on Twitter @Breena_Clarke. You can read more about her June 2021 release Chicken Soup for the Soul I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truths in 101 Stories of Love, Courage, and Hope here.