Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning' Forgiveness is good for the soul, but it's often difficult. Eisa Nefertari Ulen tackles this issue in her debut novel, Crystelle Mourning.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen's 'Crystelle Mourning'

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I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

Forgiveness is good for the soul. Though it's more for our personal healing, it is often difficult to forgive the transgressions of others.

Author Eisa Ulen tackles this issue in her debut novel, Crystelle Mourning. She spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.


Let's start out with where she's from and where she is when we see her in the present day.

Ms. EISA ULEN (Author, Crystelle Mourning): Sure. Crystelle is a woman from West Philadelphia who grows up in a community where there is a lot of love, a strong sense of family where residents work very hard.

However, she's growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which was often referred to as the crack era, that time when young black men were being shot and killed by each other at alarming rates.

And her senior year in high school, the boy who grew up across the street from her in West Philadelphia, Jimmy, is shot and killed after a party. And this is a guy who was like her first kiss, first love, and she is haunted by Jimmy; his ghost literally haunts her. And I think she is also figuratively haunted by the memories of that night and what happened shortly after the night of his murder.

So when the novel opens she's an adult, she's in her twenties, she's living in New York, but these hauntings have become more sensual. She is starting to smell him now, and the line that demarcates her world and his world is starting to blur.

The novel is set over a long weekend where she returns to West Philadelphia to in some ways exorcise him to try to come to terms with his loss.

CHIDEYA: You know, there have been so many books - Beloved comes to mind - that deal with that liminal space between life and death. What brought you in that direction?

Ms. ULEN: I'll tell you, I was sitting on a stoop in Washington D.C. It was 1988 or 1989. And as I was sitting there there were two young women who were walking past me, and one was talking to the other and she said to her girlfriend, I'm just going to go on and have his baby before he gets locked up or shot up or something. And her voice guided me to this story.

I know you remember, Farai, those years in the ‘80s and ‘90s when there was so much focus and attention on what was going on with boys and men, with all this violence. Washington D.C. was the murder capital. You heard on the national news how many young black men had been gunned down.

And I really wanted to take a look at what happens to the girls and the women left behind. And for my female protagonist, she's starting to be affected psychologically and spiritually; there is this internal conflict that has yet to be dealt with.

CHIDEYA: You paint a picture of her being someone who has transcended the ghetto, so to speak. That is something that I don't think gets talked about enough, it's like what happens when you leave one situation, one understanding of what the black community is, and you move on to another one.

Ms. ULEN: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Why did you feel like setting her life between these two different poles?

Ms. ULEN: Well this idea of hovering, of being in between, was really important for me as I was crafting this novel. Jimmy's spirit is caught between this world and the afterworld. Crystelle herself is caught somewhere between sanity and insanity, and in many ways coming from a working class community in West Philadelphia. The first in her family to go to college, she's hovering somewhere between that working class or lower income and middle or upper middle class lifestyle. And that space in between I think is an interesting one to enter.

And this idea of Crystelle returning to West Philadelphia and this need for African-Americans to return to these difficult psychic spaces - we have not dealt with the trauma of the middle passage, we have not dealt with the way that one lynching in a black family a hundred years ago still resonates among the descendants. And even though no one is talking about it, everyone is still impacted by it.

I think it's absolutely essential for African-Americans to go back home psychically and emotionally and enter those difficult spaces to begin the process of healing.

CHIDEYA: Eisa, thank you very much.

Ms. ULEN: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya today speaking with Eisa Ulen, author of Crystelle Mourning.

To hear Eisa read from her book, go to our Web site at npr.org.

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