Recently, I was asked some questions about my novella, Our Small Faces, by writer/journalist George Kevin Jordan as part of a conversation with MFA students at Antioch University Los Angeles. Check it out below!
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George Kevin Jordan and I at Antioch University
Did you ever consider highlighting Leroy as one of the alternating points of view? Why/why not?
I did think of using Leroy’s voice and tried writing a few chapters from his perspective. However, his voice always felt less emotionally resonant to me. I felt he was more distant, maybe because he felt more confined to South Park than Zeke or Selma did. I think he has less motivation than Selma, and less sensitivity than Zeke. So, I didn’t feel his perspective was as compelling as the other two and actually weighed down the story.
Did you write the story from start to finish chronologically or did a particular scene/plot moment inspire the story and then you wrote it from the inside out? Did you always intend on it being a novella?
I did not plan for this to be a novella. My very first draft of this story, I was writing from the perspective of adult Selma looking back on her life. I had planned for it to be a short story, (one that was due for a workshop assignment). But later I woke up with a specific line in my head – one that placed this story in a younger voice and hinted to a larger story – and I couldn’t help but follow that bait.
I did not write chronologically. I wrote this story in pieces and through several drafts. Tee’s death was the first of the scenes that made it into the novella that I completed. The last one was the scene at the fair with Selma and Leroy. It was both frustrating and interesting to write in short vignettes and piece them together. I’d wait for a moment or line of inspiration and dive in, worrying about where it fit later on.
Is there any intention to make this a longer piece? If not, will these characters recur in other stories?
The novella as it stands is actually one half of my final manuscript from Antioch. What is presented in the book includes all the chapters I wrote from Zeke and Selma’s points of view, but they do recur in the other chapters, which are in adult perspectives. (The other two voices in the manuscript are Johnny B and Tessa, who I believe are referenced in one of Selma’s chapters). I’m working on shaping this second half, which has more of the historical context of northern California and the African American community there.
Tell us about the impetus for this story?
I grew up in Santa Rosa, the town where the story is based, and always felt an unspoken racial divide. As the town grew in population and areas became gentrified, it was interesting to see all this development happen around South Park, while the people of color were basically forced into this one neighborhood. And while this neighborhood was considered the “bad” part of town, it had a rich history. It was the first area that African American families settled in was South Park. They founded a church and later, began a chapter of the NAACP.
In a larger sense, it also occurred to me that people outside of California thought of Northern CA as this liberal bubble and didn’t realize the kind of old-school racism happening here. While the movement of civil rights began in the early 60s in San Francisco (an hour south), it took years for those ideals to trickle up to the north bay.
Most of this history is used more explicitly in the adult point of view chapters that were part of the larger manuscript. From the younger point of view, I wanted to look at the immediate effects of this – the day to day instances of violence, how it begins to change a community, how it affects the sense of hope, etc.
There were hints that the story would tackle some of the issues of a bi-racial child, but other themes seemed to take center stage. Was that your intent?
Yes and no. I did want to include that in the story, but perhaps for selfish reasons. As someone of mixed race, I am really passionate about talking and writing about the mixed experience. So, I wanted this consciousness to be a part of Selma – especially in regards to colorism. I am fascinated by the way kids perceive race. Though I did want to explore that further, other themes took over. If I return to these characters that is a thread I’d like to pick up and follow through.
Tee’s death. There was heated debate about the impact of that scene. Some say it happened so fast that it felt a little rushed. Others feel that is the true mirror of life that things like that happen in a blink of an eye. What is your impression of that scene? What was your intent? And how do you feel about that scene now?
I intended for it to happen quickly. I revised that section several times to cut words and be as concise as possible. I wanted to slow the reader down in that moment. When I read this scene aloud, I pause between paragraphs. When I get to the line “Tee tripped on a rock,” I pause between sentences. So I wanted to try ti build that tension in a minimalist way. Also, I wanted to explore in the child’s POV how a traumatic moment can feel both fast and in slow motion. That is why the focus turns into Zeke’s body – his inability to hear, his eyes flashing between his parents. I believe moments like this happen in flashes – like memory building in real time. Re-reading the scene, I still feel that tension, and I’m not sure how I would expand it without losing that feeling. I don’t think it would be true to Zeke’s point of view.
Tell us a little about the process of getting this work published.
When I returned to the manuscript as a whole, I realized it was a lot to ask a reader to keep track of four points of view. So I began to think about dividing it. As I went in to revise chapters, I realized a few could stand on their own and was able to publish a few sections as short story pieces. “Island,” the first chapter, was placed in Emerge Literary Journal. I was really impressed and encouraged by the editor’s enthusiastic response, so when she founded a press, ELJ Publications, and put out the call for chapbook length work, I submitted the sections in Zeke and Selma’s points of view (organized in a way I hoped made sense). Luckily, she felt excited about the whole manuscript and worked with me to shape it into the novella. I feel really lucky to be part of a small press that is both growing while also doing its best to make each author a priority.
Give us a little of your philosophy about MFA’s and how it has or has not impacted your writing process.
One of the best things about the MFA program is that a writer has access to a community of people that understand the struggles of being a writer and generally want you to succeed. I wouldn’t have a manuscript without the guidance of Alma Luz Villanueva, who became my mentor at a moment in time I was so full of doubt that I’m surprised I kept going. Even more important is the peer connections. I’ve taken away a few incredible friends who – because we all understand this literary language and each other’s work – serve as the best readers and encourgers.
I don’t believe every writer needs an MFA, but I feel like it was an important step for me. I needed that structure and the deadlines to teach me how to move from writing as a hobby to writing as part of my career. It taught me how to take my work seriously and how to engage with the literary community at a deeper and more enriching level.
Being a writer of color, what have been your challenges working on fiction, and what have been some the opportunities that have arisen because of writing about people of color.
I have continuously bee challenged by those who still carry the belief that stories about people of color are “less than” or can only speak to a specific audience. I had a mentor tell me directly that writing about the black community was holding my work back. I couldn’t disagree more. I’d had workshop critiques that stuck on topics like, “I don’t understand this slang term you used.” I think this is because once you thwart the reader’s first impression of who the character is (which most readers automatically default to white, male, POV), people become confused. The reading becomes clouded by either an exoticification of the culture or an unwillingness to find the space to relate. Obviously, and thankfully, this is not every reader, but I think it is really important to realize the biases we approach each piece of literature with.
The mainstream literary world continues to pigeonhole writers of color and as a writer of color it is assumed all of your work is about race and/or you speak for everyone of that race. It is frustrating, and I know for many writers, it has limited their ability for their work to reach a wider audience because editors, publishers, etc., can’t seem to imagine that there are readers for this work. (Even as they are continuously proved wrong).
One of the benefits is that there is a strong community of writers of color, and spaces are being created for these writers to share work with each other and give critical feedback that moves beyond characterization and race. There are a few workshop programs like this. One of these is Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA), which is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color. I was able to attend this workshop when I started this manuscript and get great notes. Another, which I was just accepted to, is Kimbilio Fiction, which is a fellowship program for African American writers that is offers writers to return to the community several times and build relationships with established writers. Others programs like this include Cave Canem and Kundiman (both for poets). I am drawn to these communities to move beyond shallow workshop critique and get to the heart of our stories. I am shaped by the culture and community, as everyone is, and thus, these spaces are necessary to be able to express that.
What was your research process for this novella?
I did some research of local history. I pulled old news articles about the first sit-in protest at a bar downtown, about the founding of the town’s historically black Baptist church, and about the founding of the NAACP. I interviewed some of the elders in the community about their experiences growing up in the segregated neighborhood and about being African American when Santa Rosa was still a very rural area. Having grown there, I culled this information together as I wrote.
Finally can you actually read your own work? Have you read this book now that it is in print? How do you connect with the work now?
I can! When the first copy of the novella arrived, I read it all through, suddenly motivated and nervous by the idea that others were going to be able to access this story. Of course, I found small parts I would’ve still edited and words I’d like to change around, but I was proud of the overall work.
I connect with it now as a reflection of my hometown, and of the way I construct my own childhood memories. I connect to the sense of lost hope, that geography can equal fate. I connect to the desire to find community and love despite frustration and hope, and finding the motivation to push on.