Kaitlyn Greenidge and I meet for brunch in Brooklyn the Saturday before Christmas, just after it was announced that she is one of three dozen American writers to receive a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. It would be a huge accomplishment for any writer, but it’s particularly notable in Greenidge’s case because her debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, published by Algonquin, didn’t hit the shelves until March.
Greenidge’s novel is so engaging, and the author herself so affable, that shortly after being directed to our table, we’re already talking seriously about sibling relationships and the difficulties of watching your parents age, both of which figure heavily in her book. Then we’re on to the finer points of maintaining a good writing practice and the gratitude one feels at having a supportive mentor. In another minute, we’re discussing work by Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison, and Colum McCann, and Cathy Park Hong’s expert response to Kenneth Goldsmith’s absurd, attention-getting piece based on Michael Brown’s autopsy report, which he performed during a reading at Brown University.
All of which is to say, one danger of interviewing someone as personable and as well read as Greenidge is that the conversation is far more absorbing than the comparatively dry questions I’ve prepared for her. After an hour of talking, neither of us has ordered so much as a cup of coffee and I’ve got a list of six books I need to read and a dozen articles to look up.
This, it seems, is how Greenidge moves through the world. She’s quick to laugh and even quicker to support her points with a reference to history, a recent novel, or a news item. Often, she holds a hand aloft as she amends or clarifies something she’s just said, as if footnoting her own speech. She’s also a voracious reader who finds it just as valid and stirring to examine historical realities by reading fiction as by reading more formal histories.
Greenidge attended Wesleyan as an undergraduate, graduating in 2004, and even then, she says, she knew that she wanted to write, but opted to major in history rather than creative writing. “I consciously became a history major because it involved research and the world of ideas and because, really, all of world history could be your material.” After graduating and moving to New York, she worked first as a program coordinator and later as a research associate at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, a museum that preserves and presents the history of Weeksville, Brooklyn, one of America’s first free black communities. She decided to apply to Ph.D. programs, thinking that she might become “a history professor who wrote novels on the side.” She drops her palms on the tabletop and laughs as if surprised by her earlier notion of what it meant to be a writer. “I thought, yeah, that’s totally doable! You might as well do both because both fields are easy and provide job stability.”
In fact, in 2007 Greenidge was just weeks away from moving to Washington, D.C., to attend a Ph.D. program when she opted not to go and decided instead to stay in New York and write fiction. Her investment in history and her experience working for black history museums helped spur her to write the book.“I worked in black history museums basically my entire life—since I was 17,” Greenidge tells me. “So I spent a lot of time with the public talking about history and then talking about black history, which is a trip. Everybody has a crazy opinion about black history.”
I ask whether Greenidge explicitly set out to write about history or race, or if the novel’s investment in history and race was incidental to a more personal story she wanted to tell. She thinks about it for a moment and says, “The impetus to write the book came from the question, what if there’s a different way to write about black history than the ways that we currently have?” She notes, too, that to write about American history is necessarily to write about race, but she’s quick to dismiss a rote version of history in which black Americans are entirely without agency.
“I wanted to write something that was about race but that didn’t feel like it’d obligate the reader to feel a certain way,” Greenidge says. “Most black history that people learn is a black history of pain and degradation and awfulness. Black history is also the history of America, and it’s the history of coming to a country and remaking it in your own image. It’s the history of all of our popular culture. It’s the history of every single fucking high note in a gospel song.”
Accordingly, historical and cultural details are everywhere in the novel: family history, personal histories, the broader history of black Americans in New England, and the horrifying legacy of eugenics are woven together to tell the story of the Freeman family. It’s 1990, and the foursome—Charles and Laurel and their two daughters, Charlotte and Callie—have been invited to participate in an experiment whose aims seem, at first, straightforward. Researchers at the Toneybee Institute for Ape Research have hired the Freemans because of their fluency in sign language. The family moves from Boston to the institute’s campus in the Berkshires in order to raise a young chimp named Charlie as one of their own, with the intention of providing Charlie an immersive language experience that will, it is hoped, lead him to fluent signing. The gig even comes with a car.
The book’s opening finds the Freemans diving that new Volvo from Boston to the imposing and unnerving Toneybee campus. It’s as expertly mysterious an opening chapter as any you’d find in a great gothic novel or a thriller (Jane Eyre and The Haunting of Hill House come to mind), but the mysteries and horrors to be found at Toneybee aren’t supernatural; they’re social and—you guessed it—historical.
Soon enough, the Freemans find themselves living with young Charlie in the countryside among researchers whose aims quickly seem suspect. Who, really, is the subject of this study? Why are they making video recordings that focus on the Freemans when it’s Charlie, the chimp, who’s at the heart of the experiment?
When Charlotte learns of abominable physiognomic experiments once undertaken at Toneybee, things begin to unravel. In attempting to explain away the institution’s past—in which a Toneybee scientist drugged black residents of the county before administering intelligence tests that would later be compared to the test results of the apes housed at the institute—Toneybee’s founder presents a racist, tone-deaf letter of apology. It is addressed, ridiculously, to the “African American people,” and the 19 pages that follow present one of current literature’s best and most unsettling depictions of white noblesse oblige.
The difficulty of writing about racial tensions and the inherent politics of the endeavor aren’t lost on Greenidge. “As much as everybody loves to write about race and to say that we need to have a difficult national conversation about race, actually going directly to it and talking about it is nearly impossible for most people,” she says.
I ask Greenidge why she thinks people find it so hard to discuss race when we’re frequently reminded of racial imbalances and injustices. “We have a beautiful and wonderful ideal that everybody is created equal and that everyone is equal under the law,” she says. “No joke, I recite the Declaration of Independence in the morning when I wake up. It’s my common prayer, essentially. It’s beautiful. It’s so beautiful that it’s entrained in our culture, but what that also means is that we’re forced to face how it gets pulled through our weird, clumsy, awkward, dumb American selves. In the process, we don’t really recognize when there are real imbalances. We want to believe that the ideal already exists for us.”
In the novel, the biggest stumbling block for the Freemans is that, try as they might, that ideal—that all are created equal—isn’t applied to them by their white employers at Toneybee, who are also their landlords. This makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch as Laurel and Callie attempt to teach Charlie to sign and to coax him into behaving more like a human child. In attempting to find and foster the humanness in him, they’re also, through their own acts of patience, intimacy, and empathy, asking the Toneybee researchers, and more broadly the world, to see them as fully and unequivocally human.
There have been many novels about the ugly legacy of racism in recent years, but Greenidge offers something different. We Love You, Charlie Freeman is, in the narrowest sense, a novel about a young woman who comes of age alongside a lab chimp in rural Massachusetts and, in the broadest sense, a book about how an entire culture—the great American experiment—stumbles awkwardly forward, more or less in the direction of greater equitability.
Nate Brown is the managing editor of American Short Fiction.