Joyce Carol Oates: 'Black Girl/White Girl' Few American writers have mapped the human heart with more care than Joyce Carol Oates. Oates' new book, Black Girl White Girl, explores the tenuous relationship between black and white roommates at a prestigious liberal arts college in the 1970s.
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Joyce Carol Oates: 'Black Girl/White Girl'

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Joyce Carol Oates: 'Black Girl/White Girl'

Joyce Carol Oates: 'Black Girl/White Girl'

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Farai Chideya, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Writer Joyce Carol Oates has won so many awards, including the National Book Award. The topic of her new book, Black Girl/White Girl, is the 1970s and a very difficult relationship between two college roommates. Joyce Carol Oates joins me now from our New York bureau. I want to welcome you on the show.

Professor JOYCE CAROL OATES (Author, Black Girl/White Girl; Professor of Creative Writing, Princeton University): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So you lead off your book with a dedication, in memoriam Minette. Minette is a fictional character in your book. So is she based on a real person or a real incident?

Prof. OATES: Minette is based upon a number of people whom I've known, especially when I was a girl and was in school. People who I admired very much across the kind of chasm or an abyss, and I think I was infused with a sense of their otherness and a kind of mystique of their being very different from myself. I wanted to create in Black Girl/White Girl some of that mystique, particularly the kind that we feel in adolescence.

And it sometimes blinds us to the passable predicament of the other person. That is, Jenna so admires Minette; Jenna believes that Minette is very strong and very self-sufficient and self-reliant, which to a degree she is. At the same time, Jenna is not able to see Minette may have weaknesses, Minette may be frightened, Minette may be, like Jenna herself, very lonely.

It's almost a reverse stereotyping in which the dominant majority racial person, who happens to be Jenna, feels very weak and substantial. She looks down upon herself, and her own white skin seems very anemic. Then she looks at Minette, who seems extremely strong. And she's sort of misreading Minette. Because there are many things about Minette that would make us, the reader, feel that Minette is out of her depth. Minette is really very frightened, very insecure.

And so this kind of reading of one another, especially when they're adolescent, I think. When we get a little older perhaps we are more empathetic and see more complexity in people.

CHIDEYA: When you talk about otherness, you have to also bring into it how people feel estranged from their families. And you draw Jenna's family particularly strongly as someone, you know, a family with privilege and her father is a civil rights and a political dissident.

And she says to him, quoting back his words, that she stands outside the white race. Is it possible to stand outside of your race?

Prof. OATES: Well, I think definitely intellectually and philosophically we can stand outside our own skins. We can stand outside our own ethnic backgrounds and our own particular lives. We have to make that effort. That's really the basis of civilization and of law. I don't think it's necessarily easy, and sometimes when people think they're doing it, they're just congratulating themselves and they're really not doing it at all.

One of the things I really liked about Minette, and I like about people who are like Minette, is that she doesn't want to be swallowed up in any stereotype. She doesn't want to be swallowed up in any large group. They really don't want condescension; they don't want people “feeling sorry” for them, quote-unquote. They just have too much pride or too much self-resilience, and I think we all admire that.

CHIDEYA: Now you spend quite a bit of time teaching and writing in Detroit. What did that teach you about race kind of on a practical level but also as a writer and how you as a white writer could write about racial relationships?

Prof. OATES: When I moved to Detroit, I had never lived in a large city before in my life. I had never lived in any city at all, basically. But certainly not a city like Detroit, which in the 1960s was enormous. It was much larger than it is now. Subsequent to the riots in 1967, the city of Detroit has become depopulated. It's lost a lot of its population, it's become very much a black city.

But in those days it was, in certain neighborhoods, completely integrated. Our neighborhood was integrated. I didn't have any anticipation that there would be a riot. It's sometimes called a race riot, but I don't think that was really it. I think it was more a rioting of very disenfranchised, impoverished people, mainly young men in their 20s who were extremely angry; they were unemployed, they didn't see any future ahead.

And I think it was more of a class uprising than it was actually racial. But it happened that those people, the youths, were black. It just sort of happened that way.

CHIDEYA: Well, a lot of people would draw that same analogy to the L.A. riots. But were you there during the Detroit riots?

Prof. OATES: Yes. We lived only about a block or two blocks from some of the rioting on a street called Livenoy(ph) Avenue, where there were break-ins and fires and so forth. So we were in the city and then the Michigan National Guard came in the next day. It was a very surreal and kind of unbelievable situation to be in where you smelled smoke, you heard sirens, you basically stayed in your house. And you really didn't now what would happen.

CHIDEYA: What of you is in Jenna? What of you is in that character who is so wise and yet so vulnerable?

Prof. OATES: Well, the one thing about Jenna that's most like myself is that she tries to be so empathetic and so accommodating. She tries to understand Minette and is infinitely forgiving of Minette and really, really is a draw unto her. She admires Minette in every way, and therefore she doesn't want Minette not to like her.

It's a kind of liberal predicament where you want to be very nice to people because you like them. You don't want to tell them any truth that's painful because then suddenly they won't like you anymore. There are things that Jenna could've said to Minette - look, let's sit down and talk about this very frankly. She could never say those words.

And so by wanting to be liked by Minette, she really causes Minette's tragedy.

CHIDEYA: Joyce Carol Oates, thank you very much.

Prof. OATES: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Joyce Carol Oates is the Robert S. Berlin Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. Her latest novel is Black Girl/White Girl. And to hear an excerpt of the book, go to our Web site,

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