Interview by Peter Biello
How did this novel appear to you before you wrote it? Did it live up to that expectation?
I can’t say that it appeared to me before I wrote it. It was only through the act of writing it that it began to take shape.
To what extent did getting an M.F.A. in creative writing assist you in writing The Professor’s Daughter?
To a large extent. I am not a disciplined writer. I knew I needed deadlines in order to be able to produce. The M.F.A. carved out the time and space for me to create. It also enabled me to take myself more seriously, to think of myself as a professional writer.
The novel tackles some heavy racial issues, yet in ways that seem very organic. To what extent were you conscious of your attitudes toward racism while writing the novel?
To my mind, the book is not about race. It’s about a family. In particular, it’s about the way an ugly moment in history (the lynching of the grandfather) affects the generations that follow.
How does The Professor’s Daughter mimic or mirror your own life?
Emma is my mouthpiece in many ways. She looks like me, grew up in my hometown and went to the school I went to. She is invisible in the way I felt invisible before I wrote the book. I wrote it in an attempt to address a question I am asked routinely as a racially ambiguous person: “What are you?” That’s not an easy question, though the answer people expect is a skin-deep one. (I have a black parent and a white parent.) I decided to answer this question in a more complex way, by writing a novel. It involves my history in both real and imagined ways.
Excluding other authors, from what sources do you draw inspiration?
Music. Jazz in particular. I listen to jazz while I write. Miles, Monk, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins.
Which authors or novels have inspired you to write fiction?
Cervantes, Baldwin, Dostoevsky. W.G. Sebald, Flannery O’Connor, Percival Everett.
In the review, I mentioned your use of multiple perspectives-the switch from Emma’s perspective to third person, the inclusion of Emma’s story for her Postcolonial African Novel class, her letters to Bernie, etc. What brought you to the decision to use these layers of direct and indirect storytelling?
I suppose I got bored writing from one point of view. It seemed selfish and dishonest. I was trying to get at something true. Truth, obviously, is not subjective.
What did writing The Professor’s Daughter teach you about novel writing and about what a novel is?
I don’t know what a novel is, but I do know that writing one is hard.
It seems as though The Professor’s Daughter ends on an optimistic note. Do you see it this way?
Yes, I think so. There is potential for Emma. She’s liberated because she left the country and because her brother died. She couldn’t be free while he was alive because she identified completely with him, nor could she be free, as a person of mixed race, in a nation stratisfied along manicheist racial lines.
What can your readers look forward to next?
I’m writing a novel from the perspective of a severely autistic boy who can only feelhis body when it’s submerged in water.
About the Interviewer: Peter Biello has earned a BFA in creative writing from the University of Maine at Farmington. He has lived in Massachusetts, Maine and France, and has recently moved to North Carolina to pursue an MFA in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.