Points of Tension, Points of Solidarity: Naima Coster Interviewed by Yasmin Roshanian

A novel that explores love, family, racial integration in a school system, and the deep range of experiences across different communities of color.

What's Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

In Naima Coster’s second novel, What’s Mine and Yours (Grand Central Publishing), the confrontation between Black and white is Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. The novel centers on two families who are impacted by a county initiative for school integration: one that brings the Black kids from the east side of a city in the Piedmont of North Carolina, to the largely white west side. Gee is a stoic young Black man, raised by the strong-willed Jade; a single mother reeling from the loss of Gee’s father. He is intricately roped to Noelle, a girl who lives resolutely and empathetically, longing to detach herself from her mother’s racist rhetoric. As they navigate their brittle coming of age, they find themselves entombed to their mothers, unable to shed themselves from the women who shaped their earliest impressions of love.

What’s Mine and Yours is a novel of unpacking. It raises pervasive racial barriers to the forefront of our consciousness. Spanning over a decade, it begets the reconciliation between then and now; love and loss, and the eroding of early childhood trauma that lingers well into adulthood. “Life was a gust of wind, a puff of air, and nothing more,” Coster writes. She echoes the fragility of time, and no one is immune to grief. Her pages are ripe with grappling. Women make shrines for their dead. Men clench their teeth, signaling “a sound like tearing paper.” Coster imposes the question of belonging, asking what it means to belong inside a body, a family, and the edges of one’s shame.

—Yasmin Roshanian

  

Yasmin RoshanianI want to start with the body. A great loss occurs at the beginning of the novel, and the ramifications of that loss shape and bend throughout. You so skillfully describe the ways in which grief roots inwardly, inciting rage, sex, withdrawal. Other losses form when someone leaves, or abandons themselves, but the range of grief is almost always the same. How did these threads of loss and physical reprieve come together for you? How do you see the body as a template for grief? 

Naima CosterI think a lot about trauma in my work and the way my characters carry their pasts with them, and that includes everything from a feeling of rage or teeth clenching or turning to substances for escape. It’s something that I am personally interested in, both because of my own personal history and my family history. I also think about the ways that people learn to live after trauma. What are the ways in which we cope and learn? What lingering effects are still with us? What are the losses that we have to live with? Part of my intention in putting these questions in a book is to make visible something that is not uncommon, but that can feel isolating while moving through the world.

YR As Gee navigates what it means to be a Black man, the various people in his life tell him how to be one. The result is a man who feels wholly absent from himself. How does he reconcile between his own ideas of self, and the gravity of existing as a Black man? How do you reclaim your identity? 

NCI was really interested in all of the instructions for life that Gee’s getting from well-meaning people who want to see him thrive in the face of formidable obstacles. There is the racism that he faces at the high school, and the loss he suffered as a little boy. The adults in his life are trying to equip him, but he has very little space for discovery, or just being, or for self-expression. Other people in his life want him to put away his grief, when what he really needs is the space to confront it. The school play that he participates in is, in part, a way for him to connect to difficult and repressed feelings. He’s connecting to his own desires, and what he wants for his life, whether or not that fits into the survival strategies that he’s been handed. I wanted to write about the scrutiny that he’s under as a young Black man. I was also interested in writing about what it’s like to exist in a largely white space, and have parts of your history that are considered difficult, or shameful. 

YRInevitability, the criticism that forms around the integration initiative is blatantly racist. Your novel is urgent, and it serves as a cutting reminder that systemic racism has sustained itself years before social media could immortalize it. 

NC I became interested in writing about integration through the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones. I was heavily influenced by her reporting for This American Life, specifically the episodes “The Problem We All Live With,” which are about an integration initiative in Missouri. I set the novel in North Carolina because I lived in North Carolina for three years, and I wanted to write a book that could pay tribute to the place that I had made my home. I learned about integration initiatives in North Carolina, specifically in Wake County in the 2000s, that were eventually undone. When people hear that I wrote a book about integration, they often assume it’s set in the ’60s.

YROne of your central characters, Lacey May, espouses her racist convictions with such authority, concealing herself behind a flag of false nobility. Her model of excellence is exactly what pushes her daughter, Noelle, away from her. I wonder how you began to untether Noelle from her mother. Lacey May’s racism is so deeply entrenched, which is even more perplexing as she struggles to raise daughters who are half-Latina. And in turn, Noelle and her sisters grapple with the crux of their identities. They are painfully aware of themselves.

NC I think what helps untether Noelle from her mother are her other relationships. She is disconnected from her father, but she has an awareness of her Latinx-heritage. Her relationship with Gee, too, is one that puts her in keen touch with the consequences of the way her mother thinks, and acts. Her mother’s rhetoric becomes especially problematic for her because it’s directed at the boy that she cares about.

One of the things that I was trying to parse through is the complexity in relationships between people of color across lines of identity and heritage. Noelle identifies as a person of color, but she’s not Black, so her experience (and the experience of her father and her sisters) is quite different from Gee’s. I wanted to lean into the differences in their particular experiences, as well as the differences between the Ventura girls, and the ways that they relate to their identity. It’s something I also explored in my first novel, Halsey Street, and I continue to explore it here—what are the points of tension? What are the points of solidarity? What are the real differences across communities that have to be reckoned with? What is the common ground in experience? There is such a deep range of experiences across different communities of color, and within those communities, too. There is no singular Latinx experience, or Black experience.

Naima Coster by Sylvie Rosokoff

Photo of Naima Coster by Sylvie Rosokoff.

YR One notion that becomes ingrained is the theme of legacies that don’t hold. I found myself reeling for the fathers who try to imprint a form of themselves onto their children, but fail to hold them. 

NC As a parent, I think a lot about all the things that I want to leave for my daughter, and the things that I want to be my imprints in her life. I think that what we ultimately leave our children with is who we are, and who we were to them. Ray wants to buy a house for Gee, and give him a zip code that will get him into a better school and give him a brighter future. He’s ultimately unable to do so, but what he does leave his son with is a sense that he was special to him, and that he was loved. Lacey May is also trying to leave an opportunity for her children, but what she leaves them with is the way that they feel about themselves, and the way that they related to her. I think that’s what I was trying to explore—the difference between what we intend to offer one another, and how we actually treat one another.                       

YRYour use of Measure for Measure is such a simple device, but it tells us so much. Playing a character encapsulates the desire to extend beyond ourselves, and that becomes such a focal need—the characters continue to costume themselves as the years harden, complacent behind their veils. Why Shakespeare? And what does this play in particular signify for you?           

NC I was interested in Measure for Measure because it’s a play in part about how much people mess up when guided by their convictions, or their sense of justice. When I started thinking about these characters, I was really interested in what they don’t know, or can’t see. I had an earlier version of the title that was playing with this idea of what the characters don’t know, and what eludes them despite their good intentions. I liked how in Measure for Measure, the characters’ warped ideas of justice, or righteousness, alter their individual lives and cause such turmoil. When I started looking at the cast to see who could play who, it became really interesting to create points of connection between Gee and Claudio. There were a lot of resonances between Claudio’s position in the play, and Gee’s position in the book. I don’t know if they’re there inherently, or if I imagined them. We all imagine ourselves into stories that speak to us, and that makes the source material really flexible. 

YR The characters imbue a visceral vulnerability through their dialogue. One of my favorite lines comes towards the end of the novel, when Gee tells Noelle, “At least you knew who you were. I couldn’t stand being me.” I’m struck by this constant balance you craft between tenderness and desperation. What does your use of dialogue achieve for you? Is there a process you go through?

NC In dialogue, I’m always thinking about how we miss the mark in our communications with each other. If you’re talking to someone, there’s some level at which you’re trying to connect. But it can become really difficult because a conversation is rarely about just one thing. It’s about how those characters relate in the world they live in, and what they’re carrying; what they’re afraid of; what they desire. We’re always speaking from our set of politics, and dreams, and hopes, even if we’re just commenting on brunch, or a painting. I try to bring that to bear in the scenes, too; to inflect what is being said with the character’s worldview in consideration, or what is pressing for them in their lives at that particular moment. I also always try to compress my dialogue as much as possible. I pare down quite a lot. 

YR You remind us that relationships are not infallible. They require so much accountability, and recognition—what exists between the characters is a painful inability to change and repent. I was moved by the pace of phone calls and letters to depict the acute distance between husbands and wives and fathers and daughters and between sister and sister. So many crucial exchanges occur along the margins, and I love the brutality that comes with shading in a person who has become an abstraction. Why was it necessary to separate them? What becomes of them when physical borders coincide with emotional barriers? 

NC That’s a great question. I hadn’t noticed that, but I think it’s true. I was interested in asking, “What are the connections, however tenuous, that keep us linked to the people we love across distance?” Whether that’s phone calls and letters or just the stories that we hold of them, or our hopes and longings? Those things become the glue between the characters. I don’t think there’s anyone in the book who doesn’t come face to face in the present timeline with the person that they’re disconnected from, and I think that’s because I’m interested in reckonings. If we can’t always have them in real life, then we can have them in fiction.

What’s Mine and Yours is available for purchase here.

Yasmin Roshanian is a writer and editor. She is currently revising a novel surrounding Iranian-Americans as they navigate college during the onset of the Obama Administration.

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