MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Summer is winding down, and sadly that means an end to TELL ME MORE's Summer Blend Book Club.
All summer long, we've been digging into characters and stories that reflect upon the experience of being mixed race or mixed ethnicity, and if you missed author Heidi Durrow, who started the series with us, and in fact launched the Mixed Root Summer Film and Literary Festival, is going to come back one more time to close things out.
But first, to the final book in our series, Susan Straight's most recent novel, "Take One Candle Light a Room." The story centers on Fantine, who grew up in a tiny rural community of mixed race families in California. As an adult, Fantine is a jet-setting travel writer who's created a life far away from the drugs and violence that plagued other members of her family, but when Fantine's godson gets into trouble, she decides to go back home and face her past.
Susan Straight joins us now from NPR studios in Culver City to talk about it. Susan Straight, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us. Congratulations on the book, by the way, and all the awards that you've received.
SUSAN STRAIGHT: Well, thank you so much. It's always fun to talk about a novel.
MARTIN: Well, the opening of your novel sets the tone for the rest of the story. It's actually a very punch-in-the-gut opening, if I can, you know, put it that way. It describes a photo from 1958, five girls who are about to get into a truck and drive across country.
For those who haven't read the book, could you briefly lay out the scene for us?
STRAIGHT: Yeah. That was a really hard scene to write. It took a long time, but I had this vision of this Apache truck. These five young women have to flee their tiny town in Louisiana in the 1950s because of a serial rapist. I mean, this is a man who feels that because these five young women are of mixed race, that their only use to him might be sex. And he's already targeted three girls, so these five remaining young women are taken onto an Apache truck and are driven to the bus station and they are sent to California.
The photo of those five women is sitting next to a photo of their daughters. These women have five daughters and, as you said, two get caught up in drugs and bad men and two marry young and have kids.
And Fantine's the only one who leaves. She's the only one that leaves that orange grove where they settled and she keeps that photo kind of as a talisman to remind her of where her people came from.
MARTIN: I want to say that, right at the beginning, that this opened something up for me because when I was an adult, I was told the story - my father told me that when she was a girl, his mother was hidden in the root cellar of their home to protect her from precisely this kind of scenario. That's why that side of the family came north.
And I was very curious about this because all of a sudden it seems to me that we're hearing more stories about this. For example, we're hearing about Rosa Parks' history as an investigator of sex crimes against black women that were never prosecuted.
And I'm wondering, you know, how did this scenario come to you?
STRAIGHT: It's that strange combination. For someone like me who's lived in the same place her whole life - I mean, I lived three blocks from where I was born and I met my future husband in the eighth grade - there are always family stories and legends passed down.
And when I was about 18, we were at this really large family gathering in the park and someone said, well, how did you all get to California? And I heard someone behind me tell this story. Well, I had this beautiful daughter and one weekend Mr. So-and-So was said that he was going to come get her, and so we had to pack up in the middle of the night and we came out to stay with our cousins.
And I've heard variations on this story so many times, that that's how people got to California. And you think, well, that must have happened in 1910 or 1920. That happened in 1950.
The combination, I think, of that story and then having my own three daughters - from the time they were very small, you know, people would comment on their hair or their skin tone. And I had one very chilling moment where someone said to me, well, that one's so pretty, she'll never have to work. And there was this really weird sexual undertone. And she was 10. I think the combination of all those three stories led me to that scene.
MARTIN: And just to clarify for those who may not be absolutely sure what we're talking about in terms of your own personal story, you have three mixed race daughters. You're white. Your ex-husband, their father, is African-American, but your families are still very close and you've been part of that family for more than 30 years.
And so what aspect of that do you think pulled through for you? Is it the fear of not being able to protect your girls? All of it, I guess.
STRAIGHT: When my husband and I were watching these three girls - and he still comes over every day. He spent two hours at my house yesterday and we talked about this very subject, is that even though they're grown now, he still feels immensely helpless to protect them, not just because of their looks, but because of the way society has always looked at women who look a certain way.
But that story of being hidden in the root cellar - to me that's iconic and that's, I think, the primal fear when you have any daughter, is how will I protect her.
And somehow to me that translated to walking down the hallway at night, looking at these three girls and also thinking, well, what will they do in the world and how will people judge them?
And there's this huge historical difference in America between looking as if you're Samoan or Hawaiian or Algerian and saying, I'm black. And so that's something that my daughters and I talked about all of their growing up, because people mistake them for everything.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
It's the final book in our Summer Blend Book Club and we're speaking to author Susan Straight about her latest novel. It's called "Take One Candle Light a Room."
Going back to the novel, as we mentioned, it centers on Fantine, who is racially ambiguous in appearance. Like you were saying, like with your daughters, people constantly mistake her for or are curious about her heritage.
She uses that ambiguous racial identity kind of like a passport. Right?
STRAIGHT: That's exactly the way I felt about it. Yeah.
MARTIN: What do you think you're saying about this, though? Do you feel that you're saying that, in fact, color is dispositive in ways that people don't want to admit? What do you think you're saying here?
STRAIGHT: I was thinking that only someone like Fantine, who wants to reject, in a sense, where she came from, might do something like this now. And I was thinking that Fantine is this modern day version of someone who's not passing, but reinventing herself, and it's the opposite of what my kids do. I mean, my kids always say no, I'm black. Or I'm mixed.
Fantine uses it, just as you said. It's kind of like this weird passport because she feels so ambiguous about coming from a rural settlement in Southern California. In the end, that's been kind of her downfall because when she rejects who she is, she's really rejecting her parents and she's rejecting her siblings, but she's also - she's really lonely.
I think Fantine is that kind of person that we say, like, there are two kinds of people in the world - those who stay and those who leave. And Fantine always knew she was going to leave.
MARTIN: Well, she's not just rejecting culture. You know, it's not just a choice of eating crayfish versus, you know, something else. Right? It's also a lot of pathology and bad stuff and that she just doesn't want to be part of until she gets drawn into it in a way that family often draws you into things.
And when you talk about that choice of sort of staying or going, what are your thoughts about how this, perhaps, reflects on the experience of African-Americans who are not racially ambiguous, but who have choices by dint of education or experience that, you know, perhaps their relatives don't have, who are deciding, do I want to get involved in cousin Booboo's problems or not? You know.
STRAIGHT: When my daughter, my oldest daughter, who just graduated from college and has to decide whether to stay or leave and she's going to leave for Texas on Saturday because she can't find a job here - and those are exactly the things you're talking about.
When she started this book, she said she didn't like Fantine very much in the beginning and then she understood her more. And in this family, it's a betrayal to leave, and so Fantine also not just is trying to be more upwardly mobile as far as living in Los Angeles, but also enjoying this utter and complete independence. I don't want to have to speak to anyone if I don't want to.
And that kind of a betrayal for a family like hers is something I was really interested in reading about because it's something you don't often read about. What do you owe your community? Right? (Unintelligible) actually what we're saying. What do you owe your family? And then that's an individual choice for Fantine.
MARTIN: And I think it is a story that will resonate with many people whether they are of this background or not.
If you want to hear an excerpt from the story, please go to our website. Go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE and we'll ask Susan to read an excerpt from the piece.
Before we let you go, I do want to ask a little bit about the dialect of Fantine's parents speaking a mix of kind of Creole and English. Fantine's cousins use language that a lot of people will really kind of think of as kind of contemporary of the hip-hop generation.
Part of the reason this is interesting to me - I'll just be honest with you - is that you'll know right now, as we are speaking, Kathryn Stockett's book, "The Help," has been made into a film. Kind of polarizing. Some people will feel that it's patronizing. They think the story's ridiculous and the dialect is kind of a flashpoint.
The Association of Black Women Historians wrote a scathing critique of "The Help," but they highlight a previous book of yours, "A Million Nightingales," what they considered to be a more accurate portrayal of black characters.
And I'm interested in your reaction to all of that. First the use of dialogue, as I said, and then this whole question about what's okay and what's not okay.
STRAIGHT: All you have to do is listen and be absolutely sure that you know your characters, and I didn't read "The Help," so I can't weigh in on that, but when I was in graduate school, I studied with James Baldwin. I was really lucky and we talked for a long time about dialogue.
The people that you're talking about in this novel were people that I grew up with. My in-laws lived on a street and down the street were two families from Louisiana and both of the men in those families didn't speak any English. They spoke mostly French, and so I think that combination of hearing it growing up and then also just wanting to say I have nothing to do in the process of dialogue. I'm trying to make the readers feel as if he or she is right there in the conversation, and so I don't try to manipulate it too much. Do you know what I mean?
Like if someone's going to speak as if they're from my neighborhood and they're my age - I just turned 50 - they're going to talk like Fantine and her friends. I mean, we use crazy words like coupe de(ph) for a car and things that came up when we were kids.
But if someone's going to be an elderly black man like Fantine's dad, Enrique, he's going to speak in this very particular mix that I've heard all my life, and I try to replicate that on the page.
Again, I can't weigh in on "The Help," but I think what I've always loved is to be the short invisible woman who sits in the corner at every family reunion or on every, you know, occasion I can and listens to how people talk.
MARTIN: Susan Straight is the author most recently of "Take One Candle Light a Room." She's also a mother of three. She's a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and she was kind enough to join us at our NPR studios in Culver City, California.
Susan Straight, thank you so much for joining us.
STRAIGHT: This was such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Fantine's light skin gets her mistaken for Algerian, Samoan and Hawaiian. It's her ticket to an independent jet-setting life. But when her godson gets in trouble, she's forced to go home. Host Michel Martin discusses Take One Candle Light A Room with author Susan Straight.
Susan Straight's most recent novel Take One Candle Light a Room is the final book in Tell Me More's Summer Blend Book Club series.
The main character Fantine grew up in a tiny rural community of mixed-race families in California. She becomes a jet-setting travel writer who creates a life far away from the drugs and violence that plague her cousins. But she's forced to go home and face her own demons when her godson gets into trouble.
In an interview with host Michel Martin, Straight says writing the opening scene was a long and difficult process. It describes a photo from 1958 of five girls preparing to hop into a truck and drive across the country.
"These five young women have to flee their tiny town in Louisiana in the 1950s because of a serial rapist," Straight says. "This is a man who feels that because these five young women are of mixed race their only use to him might be sex. And he's already targeted three girls, so these five remaining young women are taken onto an Apache truck and they're driven to the bus station and they are sent to California."
These women have five daughters, including two who got involved with drugs and abusive men, and two who married young and bore children. Then there's Fantine. She takes off for a new life but keeps the photo to remind her of her roots.
Fantine's light skin makes her racially ambiguous. It becomes her passport to create a new identity. Straight describes the character as a modern-day version of someone who's passing. She constantly reinvents herself.
"She feels so ambiguous about coming from a rural settlement in southern California. In the end, that's been kind of her downfall because when she rejects who she is, she's really rejecting her parents; and she's rejecting her siblings," Straight says. "But she's also really lonely. I think Fantine is that kind of person that we say 'there are two kinds of people in the world – those who stay and those who leave.' And Fantine always knew she was going to leave."
The Use of Dialogue And Personal Influences
Straight says the novel's characters are all people she grew up with and listened to while growing up in Riverside, Calif. Down the street from her were families from Louisiana. The men in those homes only spoke French.
In the book, Fantine's parents speak in a mix of Creole and English.
"I'm trying to make the reader feel as if he or she is right there in the conversation. I don't manipulate it too much," says Straight.
Straight still lives in Riverside, just three blocks from where she was born. She has three daughters with her ex-husband who is African-American.
"For someone like me who's lived in the same place her whole life," says Straight, "there are all these family stories and legends passed down."
She recalls a large family gathering she attended when she was 18. Someone asked how everyone got to California, and another person responded with a story of having a beautiful daughter. They heard a man was planning to "come get her" so the family packed their belongings in the middle of the night and came to stay with their cousins in the West.
Straight says a combination of that story and her own experience raising three mixed-race daughters inspired her to write this novel.
"From the time they were very small, people would comment on their hair or skin tone. I had one very chilling moment when someone said to me: 'Well that one's so pretty, she'll never have to work.' And there was this really weird sexual undertone – and she was 10," says Straight.
She says her ex-husband still feels immensely helpless to protect his daughters, though they're now grown women. She attributes that helplessness to society and how society has always perceived women who look a certain way.