You know what they say: timing is everything. And just as I was about to interview author Joan Steinau Lester about her novel, the whole Cheerios commercial debacle popped into public view. If you missed it, a mixed-race family was featured, and threw some people (to be generous) into a tizzy (to put it nicely).
Joan’s novel, MAMA’S CHILD, is about a white mother and biracial child and spans forty years.
Please welcome Joan Steinau Lester to Women’s Fiction Writers and share your thoughts in the comments!
Author Joan Steinau Lester Tackles A Mother/Daughter Relationship And Civil Rights Issues In MAMA’S CHILD
Joan: There wasn’t a single moment, but rather a growing number of issues I wanted to take on that gathered strength, culminating in Mama’s Child. One component was my annoyance with the plethora of memoirs by 30- and 40-somethings which trashed their bohemian/activist mothers for unconventional parenting. I wanted to write a novel presenting one such mother’s point of view, giving readers an opportunity to understand the genuine ideals which might have driven her, such as the pedagogy then emerging about the benefits of “free choice” for unfettered Free Children. But as I embarked on the project, written in first person from a fictional white mother’s POV, another voice—her biracial daughter’s—piped up: “Just like you white people to hog all the space. I want my say!” And that was Ruby, demanding her perspective be heard. Quite rightly, I thought; thus the double narrative was born, so we hear from each of the two women, Elizabeth and Ruby Jordan, in this complex mother-daughter tale.
A second motivation was my desire to flesh out the image of 60’s and 70’s civil rights activists, often portrayed now as hedonistic, spoiled young adults. Actually, they were leaning their shoulders against the wheel of history, determined to topple the long history of brutal Jim Crow laws and customs which followed slavery. Most of those in the civil rights movement didn’t even use the recreational drugs then prevalent, because they didn’t want to give the cops any excuse to bust them.
As a third motivation for Mama’s Child, the mother-daughter theme in literature has long fascinated me. What a fraught, intense, wonderful, and complex relationship that can be, and I’ve found sustenance over the years in both fiction and non-fiction that delves into the topic. As both daughter and mother myself, I wanted to take a crack at this rich material.
And finally, I wanted to write full-bodied portraits of both a mother and daughter who are good-hearted and well-intentioned, but also flawed and occasionally blinkered, adding to the spectrum of women in literature.
Amy: I know what it’s like to take snippets of my life and turn it into a novel. Did you struggle with the idea that readers or people who know you would think the Mama’s Child was a memoir? Why did you decided to make it a novel?
Joan: One of the benefits of the double narrative I ultimately used was that no-one could imagine the novel is a memoir, since a memoir is inevitably restricted to a single point of view: the author’s. Of course since there are certain parallels with my own life (my early marriage as a white woman to an African American man, our civil rights involvement, and our mixed-heritage children) readers do sometimes jump to the conclusion that the book is based on my life. Actually, I worked hard to initially create characters quite different in personality, desires, physiques, and habits from my own family, since the plot and setting were not based on “reality.” Soon, I have to say, the fictional characters became their own people in my mind, who began to act in ways that surprised even me. As I worked over many drafts, any early concern that these people might represent those in my own life vanished.
I did decide to write fiction rather than memoir because I am aware of privacy concerns of others in my family/life, and wanted to respect those; and also, I actually thought that fiction, in this case, might be more interesting than real-life!
Philip Roth said recently that novelists use the “facts” of our own lives as springboards to jump into the deep waters of imagination. I have found that to be marvelously true.
Having said all that, I’ve flinched once or twice when readers conflated the white mother character, Elizabeth, with me. I like to think I am a much kinder and more self-aware person than she! But I understand the tendency to project the author into the character of a first-person narrator who bears any demographic resemblance, and am using this experience to check my own responses as a reader.
Amy: In light of the “Cheerio’s commercial” mayhem where a mixed race family is featured, do you think that attitudes toward mixed-race families have changed? Do prejudices and stereotypes affect the way you talk about your book or promote it? What have your experiences been?
Joan: Despite the brouhaha kicked up by that charming media portrayal of a mixed family, the environment for mixed race families has changed beyond what my fictional Jordan family could have imagined fifty years ago. First, such marriages are now legal all over the U.S., which they weren’t when Solomon and Elizabeth Jordan married in 1963. It was only the Loving decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 which removed all racial barriers to marriage. Second, not only did were there no images of such families on TV, no African Americans at all appeared on television commercials.
Now, one in every ten U.S. marriages is considered a “mixed” marriage, so although such families may merit a quick double-take, people actually risked their lives walking down the street hand in hand fifty years ago.
Regarding how any remaining stereotypes affect my promotion: I have had many fascinating conversations with radio hosts and blog reviewers/interviewers, but can’t think of ways that lingering prejudices have affected the discussions. Mostly people are eager to either talk about mother-daughter relationships in general, or about how others still view mixed families with suspicion. I had wondered how I, as a white author writing about race, might be received by African American readers, but at least half of my enthusiastic reviews and interview requests have come from African American women.
Amy: As a writer, how do you approach a story? Do you outline? Write out of sequence? Just let it come as it may?
Joan: I write intuitively, meaning, yes, I let it flow, without an outline, although as I get a lot of material—many chapters—I do a brief outline of what I already have. In a novel like Mama’s Child, which spans 40 years, I note what years each chapter covers, and one or two key events, just so I can keep track of it all. In my previous book Black, White, Other, a teen novel, there were lots of characters so I kept a chart for all the protagonist’s friends, with a note about each one’s quirks/distinguishing speech tics.
I do write in sequence, although often the first few chapters, over which I labor, will eventually be scrapped entirely, with only a few paragraphs making it into the final book. This was what happened with Mama’s Child. I had originally started the novel with Elizabeth and Solomon’s 1963 meeting in Jackson, Miss, where they were both voter registration volunteers, but after years of polishing those opening chapters, I decided to jump right into the heart of the story—the conflict between Elizabeth and her daughter Ruby. I ended up opening with Ruby at age 11, in a dynamic scene involving her mother, and used scraps of those fabulous opening chapters as flashbacks. A writing teacher once said to me years ago, “Don’t start your story at the beginning. Start it in the middle.” This excellent advice has stayed with me, and I employed it here.
Amy: What is your definition of women’s fiction?
Joan: Ah, so much of the fiction I read, and certainly that I wrote, would be defined as “women’s fiction” that I’m tempted to fall back on the old paraphrase of the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of his threshold test for pornography: “I know it when I see it.” It involves work primarily concerned with relationships, so in that sense since it is often character- rather than plot-driven, that would describe much of literary fiction. I am aware how high a proportion of the fiction I love is by women, with central female characters. Will be interested to hear what others have to say about this!
Amy: Please share your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction!
Joan: Write, write, write. You will get better, the more you create.
And read, of course! Read amazing literature like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, to observe great artists at work, creating gorgeous sentences within brilliantly constructed novels. You will be inspired to reach for never-before-created images, similes, and metaphors—and above all, to write in your own unique voice. Can’t wait to read your work!
Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my thinking about writing.
Dr. Joan Steinau Lester is an award-winning commentator and author of four critically acclaimed books: Eleanor Holmes Norton: Fire In My Soul; The Future of White Men and Other Diversity Dilemmas; Taking Charge: Every Woman’s Action Guide; and her first novel, Black, White, Other: The Search For Nina Armstrong.She has won the NLGJA Seigenthaler Award in journalism and the Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Finalist Award.Taking Charge was nominated as a Best Women’s Book by the San Francisco Women’s Heritage Museum and Mama’s Child was a Bellwether Prize finalist.
After receiving her doctorate in multicultural education, Dr. Lester served as the Executive Director of the Equity Institute, which pioneered the diversity wave of the ’80s and ’90s, for sixteen years.
As a member of a biracial family, Lester’s lifelong passion has been writing about issues of racial identity. Her former husband and father of her children was black; she has been with a female partner/spouse for over thirty years. Lester’s writing has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including Essence, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, and Cosmopolitan. She lives in Northern California.
If you haven’t seen the Cheerios commercial that created a commotion among some adults (with the cutest little girl I’ve seen in a long time) here it is: