Author Pearl Cleage, 'Baby Brother's Blues'
ED GORDON, host:
Author Pearl Cleage has found success writing about her home town of Atlanta. Cleage came to novel writing late, but has found a following that has made her a bestselling writer. Her latest book, Baby Brother's Blues, continues the stories of a colorful group of characters from an Atlanta neighborhood.
Ms. PEARL CLEAGE (Author): Baby Brother's Blues is set back in a southwest Atlanta neighborhood where I've set the last three novels that I've written. And some of the characters that people have met before kind of come back around. Blue Hamilton is back, his wife Regina is back. Abby Allen Browning, who is Regina's visionary aunt, is back. And then, Baby Brother of the title is a new character, who is kind of adding his own flavor to West End, and not necessarily always in a good way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GORDON: You know, there seems to be a lot more intrigue in this one.
Ms. CLAEGE: I think that's true. Actually, the other four novels were all written in first person. In this one, the main character is not the voice telling the story, so that I get to look at a lot more. When you're writing first person, all I can see and tell as the author is what that main character can see. And I realized, when I started writing Baby Brother's Blues, that I really had a bigger story, so that I had to be able to let my readers see things that the main character might not know.
GORDON: Hey, Pearl, would you have ever imagined that you would have been able to continue this story through a number of novels? I know some authors don't like that. Others love the idea that not only the readers want to continue the story, but your muse, whatever it may be for these stories, allows you to do that.
Ms. CLEAGE: I really love it. I hadn't anticipated it at all. I really hadn't anticipated writing novels at all. I'm trained as a playwright, and I still think of myself primarily as a playwright, so that the idea that this is my fifth novel is still kind of startling to me.
GORDON: Obviously, you're living in Atlanta, so you're writing what you know. And as you drive, I suspect, just in your day-to-day life, you can see and pick up things that you, perhaps, later translate to the novels. But I was curious: is it a little salute to Detroit, your birth town, where two of the characters, Aretha and Kwame, one knows Aretha Franklin's from Detroit, and Kwame, who has aspirations of being the next mayor in your book here--of course, Kwame Kilpatrick being the mayor of Detroit?
Ms. CLEAGE: I hadn't thought about the Kwame part, but the Aretha definitely is a salute and a curtsey and a nod to Aretha Franklin, who is, you know, absolutely my queen, and always will be.
GORDON: Pearl, let's talk a little bit about something that you and I had the pleasure to participate in. And you were tapped by Oprah, and here is--what is one of those days where you really do pinch yourself and say, are you a part of this? And that was Oprah's Legends Ball. She tapped you to give a celebratory poem that will be coming out in book form. Let's talk a little bit about that. First, how you and your husband put the poem together.
Ms. CLEAGE: You know, she called me and said that she was getting ready to do what she was calling her Legends Weekend to honor 25 extraordinary African-American women, and that she was also calling together about 40 or so of us that she was calling the youngins. What she asked was if I could put something together that would allow us, as the younger group, to speak to some of these women: Dorothy Hayden, Mrs. King, and Tina Turner, and Diana Ross, and just a wonderful, wonderful group of women. And I, of course, said I would love to do it. I mean, they were the same women that I would've chosen.
I began talking to my husband, Zaron Burnett, who is also a writer, about how I might approach it. And he actually is the one who suggested to me that I think about that call and response thing that we're all so familiar with from church, where the pastor will say something, and then the congregation kind of answers in return.
And once he suggested that to me, it kind of brought the whole thing into focus for me, because I knew that if I could make kind of a choir of these youngins singing this praise song to these wonderful, legendary women, it would really be able to bring forward the feeling that she was looking for and that I was definitely trying to tap into for this work.
GORDON: We should also talk a little bit about the book We Speak Your Names. The poem, of course, is in there, but there are little descriptions of each one of the ladies that were saluted, from Dorothy Hayden, to Lena to Horne to Leontyne Price and Rosa Parks, and many, many others. But also, a brief synopsis of your thoughts of the weekend. And one of the things I found most intriguing as I perused the book was this: you talked about seeing a snippet of it on Entertainment Tonight, and that they really missed what the evening, and what the weekend was about. If you weren't there, it is really almost hard to convey what it was.
Ms. CLEAGE: It really is. That's part of why I'm really happy that we're publishing the book and that, you know, that she's decided to do a special of her own--Oprah is--where she's gonna to kind of frame how we looked at that weekend. Because it's difficult to convey to people how much it felt like something deeper than a great, big party. That it really was a tribute to people whose work and whose lives have made it possible for so many of us--I know for you and for me--to do the work that we do. And I'm very happy that she's going to really let us take another look at that.
GORDON: Mm hmm.
Ms. CLEAGE: Several of the women who were honored have passed, so that it was lovely that we had a chance to be with Mrs. King and to tell her how much we love her and what she's meant to all of us, you know, so that she could have that to take with her.
GORDON: Yeah, to be able to salute them and let them smell the roses, as we say, while they're still here.
Ms. CLAEGE: Exactly.
GORDON: Pearl Cleage, it's always wonderful to talk to you. We Speak Your Names is wonderful reading. And the novel is Baby Brother's Blues. Pearl Cleage fans will be glad to know it continues in the fine tradition that we've gotten used to. And we thank you so much, Pearl, for being with us.
Ms. CLEAGE: Thanks for having me. Always a pleasure.