Rita Williams-Garcia concludes her award-winning trilogy about the Gaither Sisters with Gone Crazy in Alabama, which finds Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern visiting Big Ma during the summer of 1969, when a moon landing is only the second most dramatic event.
When did you realize you were writing a trilogy?
Oh my goodness. I had no idea I was writing a trilogy. I have to take this back a bit. While I was writing the first book, I got ideas for things that might happen in a second book because my understanding of the characters, who they were both on and off stage, kept growing. I began to project out about what might happen next so as soon as that started I thought, ‘I believe there will be a book two.’ But then when I started to put together book two, the same thing started happening. Family members were leaving, and Delphine was getting worried about her family falling apart, something that echoed what was going on in the wider African-American community, particularly in the aftermath of the Vietnam War when communities and families were just ravished by all the upheaval. The more Delphine worried, the more I knew there was story left to tell. So then I had notes for book three.
Can you talk about the intersection of your biography and the Gaither sisters? Did you spend summers with family in Alabama?
There’s not much closeness as regards the plot, although I am a product of the Great Migration. My grandmother, my mother, and my father all came north from the south. We did not spend a lot of time home-going, but that didn’t stop me from imagining what it would be like. My grandmother was from North Carolina and my father would tell us how she would put him on the Greyhound by himself at age eight or nine with a stack of comic books and a huge chicken to see his father, because they were separated. He was full of stories about those trips.
That’s one of the most startling things about Gone Crazy in Alabama – that their father put three young girls on a bus to go from New Jersey to Alabama by themselves!
It was a different time. Strangers looked out for children. Maya Angelou has a story about her mother putting Maya and her brother on a train in California to go to live with their grandmother in Arkansas and Maya and her brother were three and four years old at the time.
Three and four!?
Yes. It happened. It’s in her book.... Wait, let me find it. Mom & Me & Mom. Her mother had some Hollywood dreams and her children were in the way.
Wow. I thought the Greyhound bus trip had to be made up, whereas I was sure the dialogue among the sisters was completely authentic. Do you have siblings? Daughters?
Everybody asks if I just turned on a tape recorder. I do have a sister but only one, and I am the youngest. But it’s just about observing the dynamics. When you’re the youngest, for instance, you have no power, but you may be cute so you use what you have. You learn to become political and when there are more than two siblings, than there is always the possibility of forming allegiances to gang up on the one who needs to be put in her place.
Were these the first middle-grade books you wrote?
Yes, they are although, there is a little-known book, No Laughter Here, that some fifth and sixth and seventh graders have read. It was about female genital mutilation and I think that book was taken and hidden. It did make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. I’m not a rube. I knew it might but I was banking on girl activism. And I did get a lot of letters from girls who realized they had it done to them as babies and who lived in households where nothing about your genitals was ever going to be discussed so they’d write me and say, ‘I think this happened to me.’
I visited one school because a girl wrote and asked me to come. I thought I was going to have a discussion with the girls while the guys squirmed but instead it was the young men who spoke up. One boy from Yemen spoke eloquently and passionately about it being one of the reasons his family left the country – so his sister could escape this. Many family stories came out and, in the end, everybody in the classroom learned a lot. It was book activism at its best. It was beyond what I could have hoped for. I wrote that story to get people to realize this is going on in our world. In our country elementary education is free. We do not have true restrictions on what we can read and what we can know. But there are kids who are thirsting for an education, who just want to go to school and not be kidnapped or killed. So the onus is on us to take advantage of what’s available to us. We have a responsibility to know what’s going on in the world.
Or as Fern would say, “Power to the people!”
Or as I like to say, ‘Power to the reader!’
I am glad you brought up No Laughter Here because I was going to ask you about the truly serious subject matter in a lot of your novels for older readers. Not just genital mutilation but rape, and girl-on-girl violence. The Gaither Sisters stories address some heavy issues, too, like how Vietnam damaged so many young men, like Uncle Darnell. But the Gaithers’ stories are also incredibly funny. Was it a relief to switch tone?
This is a big family joke because my daughter and my son-in-law are actually trying to write sitcoms and movies. They do improv and they are really and truly students of the art of comedy. They can tell you everything about what makes something funny. When I try to be funny, it bombs. So I just let my characters be themselves and when you put opposed characters together, you can create those wonderful comedic moments. I do crack myself up.
I think you are seriously underestimating your talent for comedy. These stories are not only funny, there are scenes that are so visual you can picture a movie or a television show. Have you had any film interest?
There has been some interest in One Crazy Summer but I’ve been there before and I’ve learned to stop getting on that roller coaster ride. I’ve stopped waiting for the payout that’s going to cover my retirement. Although it cheers me when I see it happen to my friends, like this new film based on The True Meaning of Smekday. I saw the trailer for Home and I thought, ‘That looks a lot like Adam Rex’s book. They stole his idea! I’m going to start a Twitter war!,’ and then I realized they just renamed it.
When you speak to young readers about the Gaither Sisters novels, do you hear a lot of hate for their mother, Cecile? Is it okay to hate her?
Oh yes, I get complaints but it is okay. If you told Cecile you don’t like her, her feelings would not be hurt. The books are a bit unfair to her because I deliberately did not do a whole lot to explain her actions [Cecile leaves the family when Fern, the youngest, is a baby], because I wanted it to mirror real life. Children will never know their parents until they become adults themselves. Adulthood is a mystery and fraught with contradiction and complexity. To have a child completely understand the choices an adult makes didn’t ring true to me.
The bottom line is Cecile should not have been a mother, which doesn’t negate the fact that there are three little girls who are hers, but she had them when she was very young and she never grew into who she might have been as a mother because she was so traumatized in her own young life. Those bonds we make having been nurtured as a child never got made for Cecile so she does not know how to nurture her own girls. I truly believe if she had not left she would eventually harm her children and harm them dramatically, Vonetta especially. So while I don’t believe she did the right thing I also think a lot of people are ill-equipped to be parents and, going back to that particular time, I don’t know if there would have been any help for Cecile to overcome her trauma. She tries to save herself with her poetry and this very hard front she puts up, which, by the way, Fern sees through completely. Fern is the only one who knows that her mother needs a hug.
What do kids say to you about Cecile?
I get a range of comments about Cecile, mostly along the lines of ‘Why is she so mean?’ But I also get kids who say, ‘I’m glad you made her like that so I’m not the only one who has that kind of a mother.’ Kids see all these nurturing mothers on TV whereas their mother might be harsh or exacting or just plain inconsistent, and they wonder, ‘Why am I in hell?’ When they see that someone else has a very hard mother they think, ‘At least I’m not alone,’ and they know ‘I didn’t bring this upon myself.’
What do teachers and parents say about Cecile?
The adults all just want to wring Cecile’s neck. I understand that. But I kind of understand her need to be another kind of mother, a mother of words. I read a lot of Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan and Nikki Giovanni and I carry that vibe with me in my writing. Cecile kind of represents the frustration that women of that period felt as people of potential who were not allowed to flourish. And my own mother was sort of a human hurricane. She was a painter, and a beatnik. She was into Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix and we kids were like, ‘Mom, can’t you just bake some cookies?’ She could flip and say exactly the wrong thing to us, especially my brother, who was a math and science person. She didn’t know how to mother him and he was very sensitive. She was very good in so many ways and I wouldn’t be who I am without her but she could also be a huge destructive force. Sometimes all we could do was step back and watch so I know there are kids out there whose parents are challenging.
One last question: Are you very sure this is the last one? Have you talked this over with Vonetta, because isn’t she going to want a turn to narrate and correct all the things Delphine got wrong or left out?
I know she does. She is so tired of that Delphine. But I feel like I have come full circle and I need to step away. I’d have to find something that struck me as new. I have to be excited about where the characters are going to go. That’s the main thing for me. That and the little pieces of history – the things I know firsthand, the things I discover. When I find those things I want to share then I get really excited and I just can’t stop writing. But if I feel like I’m covering the same material over again? That’s not for me to do. I would not be able to finish.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia. HarperCollins/Amistad, $16.99 Apr. 978-0-06-221587-1