Taking up Toni Morrison’s famous literary challenge—"If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it"—Rita Woods, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Rachel Howzell Hall, three black female novelists, talk to PW about their most recent novels, each inspired by African-American history and contemporary social experience.
In her debut novel Remembrance (published in January by Forge), Rita Woods a Chicago doctor and former self-publisher, has conjured an imaginative historical novel spanning the lives of four black women—each with distinctive super powers—across three centuries and two countries. The book’s narrative converges on a mysterious fictional place called Remembrance, where history, myth, science and the supernatural meet.
Gaelle is a Haitian-born nurse’s aid in present-day Ohio. A refugee from her homeland’s recent devastating earthquake, Gaelle can sense the past through touch. She has a mysterious elderly patient, Winter, who grew up in Remembrance in the mid-19th century, and can break into the “spaces of spaces.” Margot is a teenage Louisiana slave with healing powers who escapes to Remembrance; and there’s Abigail, who can bend space to create safe spaces; she escaped the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and traveled to New Orleans. In Woods’ novel the lives of these four women are connected through slavery, displacement, and social upheaval.
"The inspiration for the novel came from a book entitled Quantum Mechanics for Dummies,” Woods says. She described a passage from the book describing that familiar feeling of being on a train while “there’s a train on the track next to you, and one of them starts to move, and you have that weird, vertiginous feeling that you’re not sure which one is moving, and if so, in which direction and how fast?” That feeling captures, Woods explains, “one of the principles of quantum mechanics, in which time, space, speed and velocity are relative: it’s a matter of perspective.”
Woods says her book is the product of “an epiphany: what if there was a character who could manipulate space, velocity and time, so that perception was relative?” She had recently visited a a cemetery in Ohio that is purported to be a stop for escaping slaves following the Underground Railroad, so she put both concepts to work. She created a character that “could manipulate time and space, and have this parallel universe that’s also a stop on The Underground Railroad. And that’s the genesis of the story.”
Though Woods’ novel has been compared to the works of novelists Christina Baker and Tara Conklin, she draws direct inspiration from the novels of Morrison and from Gloria Naylor’s novels Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. “I love them because those books are grounded in reality,” Woods says, “and yet, there’s always that little thing on the side that goes, what if this could happen? What if you really could have someone who is psychic?” Arming her heroines with paranormal abilities, she explains, is a deliberate attempt to protect her characters from the trope and trap of victimhood.
“I didn’t want them to be seen as victims. All of these horrible things happen to them, except they have these powers that I’m trying to weaponize. Not as offensive weapon per se, although Abigail does occasionally go rogue,” Woods says laughing, “but in a defensive way.”
Phyllis LeBlanc, the beautiful, mixed-race lead character in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s forthcoming fantasy novel Trouble The Saints (Tor, June), is anything but defensive: she’s a knife-wielding, Harlem-born assassin who can pass for white in a jazz-tinged, alternate-reality New York City, circa World War II. After years of wetwork (or contract killing), she’s reconsidering her occupation after reuniting with ex-boyfriend Dev Patil, a paranormal half-Indian police informant who, once he touches someone, can see future threats against them. LeBlanc becomes pregnant with Patil’s child at the same she must face a volatile racial situation in upstate New York.
Johnson is known for her award-winning short fiction and YA novels, which include receiving the 2015 Nebula Award for Best Novelette for A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i (which appeared in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy), and a 2015 Andre Norton Award for the novel Love is the Drug. Her debut YA novel, The Summer Prince, was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award.
She describes Trouble The Saints as a long-overdue examination of the feminine dimension of violence. “I desperately wanted to deconstruct a noir story,” says the Washington D.C.-born Johnson, who spoke with PW from her home in Mexico, City, where she has lived since 2014.
“I had a lot of thoughts about how violence is often used as a shorthand for strength, especially in a lot of works [with] a strong, female character. But I feel that sometimes, that strength comes at a cost,” she explains. “There’s a really complicated history of violent women in literature and film. In a lot of horror movies, there’s sort of female violence that’s sort of stylized in a way that’s chimeric. Whereas male violence is presented as good or bad, but it’s congruent with their nature.
“It’s problematic if our only notion of trying to achieve appreciation and representation for marginalized people ends up forcing them into a mold that has been created by an extremely racist, patriarchal and imperialistic culture. So it seems very natural for me to [deal with those ideas] to tell a different kind of noir story,” Johnson says.
Johnson chose to set her examination of violence, race-passing and racist oppression in an alternate historical representation of 1940s New York City. “I lived in New York for thirteen years,” Johnson says, though her research also focused on reading novels set in New York. “My priority was to try to get the feel of things,” Johnsons says, emphasizing that ”I wanted to make sure that this building existed in 1941. I also did a lot of research on numbers running, and conjure in Harlem, because that was incredibly fascinating.”
Los Angeles native Rachel Howzell Hall is the author of the Lou Norton crime series, as well as co-author, with novelist James Patterson, of The Good Sister. Hall says she’s always been fascinated by the time-honored literary whodunit. The classic murder mystery, she says, is the perfect genre in which to examine, critique, even spoof, matters of race, gender and class.
Hall’s 2019 crime thriller They All Fall Down (Forge) features Miriam Macy, an L.A. copywriter whose marriage is falling apart. She’s invited to participate in what she believes to be a TV reality show, to be held on a cruise ship bound for a ritzy island in Mexico. But when the other invitees start dying—her shipmates include a former cop, a coked-up chef, stuck-up financial adviser, on-edge nurse, a self-involved lawyer, and a sexually generous widow—Miriam morphs from a down-on-her-luck, newly single mom, to a budding crime sleuth.
Sound familiar? Hall’s novel is an updated version of Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery And Then There Were None. “I was raised Seven Day Adventist - so I grew up with the concept of punishment for the things you do wrong,” Hall says, to describe her attraction to crime fiction. She was an English and American literature major at U.C. Santa Cruz. “I read Dante’s Inferno, and The Canterbury Tales, and all of those ideas stayed with me.” But, she says, it was Christie’s “great mystery novel” that focused her thinking about how to structure a contemporary work of crime fiction.
“It wasn’t until I finished my [Lou Norton] detective series that I had the courage and the skill to even think about taking on Agatha Christie’s story and making it mine. It’s an English novel, but I wanted it to be American and contemporary. I wanted the main character to be a black woman, and I wanted to tell it from the first person.”
Hall changed Christies’ classic novel to the first person and adapted it to a new social and cultural setting. “We’re so used to white folks being the default,” she says explaining that “all novels, unless you say it explicitly, [have] white characters. And a lot of readers who aren’t African-American just assume that,” she says. “So it’s been a weird journey for me with this book, because I put an African-American character in front of a book that everyone knows, and she’s the lead, and I’m killing off white folks,” Hall says laughing.
These three writers take their inspiration from Morrison’s challenge and from her legacy as a beacon for aspiring African-American writers. Hall says: “I’m hoping one day, some baby writer, somewhere, wanting to write a crime/mystery novel featuring black women, looks up to me.”