A Black infant’s abduction in 1932 New York drives Holloway’s Gone Missing in Harlem (TriQuarterly, Apr.).
What inspired the plot?
Many years before I ever imagined myself as a novelist, I saw the 1932 New York Times photograph and headline “Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped.” Its provocation lay in its generational circling of women—a grandmother, great grandmother, the baby’s mother, Anne, and the baby himself—each linked to the other in a way that indicated their kinship as well as their protective affection, and certainly the imagery and idea of mothering. Most important to my writing, though, was the dark void in the photograph’s background—a gap. It’s my nature to be drawn to the gaps. I intimately understand the task of having to live within the spaces left from this kind of loss. The photograph—its quietude, the way the stark image blended into the newsprint, the void behind the women—invited my story. I wondered what if those women were from my community? What happens when one of ours goes missing?
You contrast the treatment of the abduction in the novel with the Lindbergh kidnapping. Is it clear that Lindbergh benefited from white privilege, as opposed to celebrity privilege?
I’d claim both kinds of privilege were on display with Lindbergh and that there is a decided kinship between celebrity and whiteness. However, what I wanted the book to suggest was that if we were onlookers, reading about the Lindbergh matter in the papers and seeing the FBI mobilization from the insides of our own very different neighborhoods, what kind of expectation would we have when the same event happened to those of us with far less social or celebrity privilege? I wanted to emphasize that a child gone missing brings a full measure of personal and community angst and terror wherever it happens, and that we do live by and learn from comparisons. Consider the police presence in BLM protests and their absence when whites rioted in D.C.
Were you surprised by anything as you researched early 20th-century Harlem?
Its familiarity! I knew 1950s Harlem from visiting family there during summers; but my novel’s era is the time of my great-aunts and grandparents. It seems as if they did a good job of filling in the gaps, telling my sister and me our family’s stories—giving me just enough to mix imagination and memory some 60 years later. From the sweet and tingling chill of shaved ice to street corner groceries and crowded sidewalks, the long hallways and deep, barely lit stairwells of apartment buildings, I felt this Harlem like home.