AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
At the center of Naima Coster's new novel - it's called "What's Mine And Yours" - are two determined and difficult mothers, equal and opposite forces. There's Jade...
NAIMA COSTER: A woman who is trying to figure out how to pursue her own ambitions while also taking care of a child on her own.
CORNISH: ...And Lacey May.
COSTER: A woman who is struggling financially and trying to secure a future for her girls that she wasn't able to secure for herself.
CORNISH: And their paths cross at a high school auditorium in North Carolina - in fact, at a community meeting about a new integration program, one that will bring students from the largely Black east side of town to the largely white high school on the west side. Jade from that east side is fighting to get her son Gee into the school. Lacey May and her daughters live on the west side, and she's spearheading a campaign to keep the new students out. The two families' stories wind together over decades, each of them fighting to overcome shattering loss.
COSTER: I think that that results in a kind of toughness that's meant to be a survival strategy for the children when both families are dealing with grief that feels so large that it could swallow them up.
CORNISH: Naima Coster told me she wanted to explore what happens when you put a lid on that grief, the ways it can still shape your life like it does for Jade's son Gee.
COSTER: Gee, as we've mentioned, has a loss early in his life, and it's something that he's gathered that he's not supposed to speak about. And I was thinking about the way that people of color are expected to be exceptional in largely white spaces - so exceptional not only in terms of the task at hand, like being good at school or standing out in the workplace, but also being exceptional in terms of having a biography or family story that feels neat or virtuous. And Gee doesn't fit that description. He's got a family history that he believes is wrong. And so that gives him a lot of feelings of self-doubt, of guilt that he has to find ways of working through.
CORNISH: He is one of the kids in a school play. It's a Shakespeare play, "Measure For Measure." And he plays the character of Claudio, who's a prisoner through most of the play. And you write that he's fit for the part because the key is, quote, "quietly transmitting endurance and fear," which is a combination of words that I - surprised me and then felt very familiar (laughter) - like you said, that is virtuous instead of something that actually comes from trauma.
COSTER: Yeah, like sort of being able to persist through difficult circumstance with some kind of composure or poise without thinking about, like, well, what's the underside of that and where do those feelings go? How do they show up? How do they play out in relationships?
CORNISH: The other pair of characters that is important to this book are their parents, their mothers, specifically. The mother of one of the girls, Lacey May - this is a portrait of a woman who becomes that person who, you know, stands up at some school council meeting or school committee meeting, really rages against the idea of integration-style policies. And this is an interesting person, I think, to work backwards from - right? - to try and figure out, how does this person get to that point?
COSTER: I think Lacey May is certainly a kind of figure that I've encountered in my life. And she's a woman who feels that she has thwarted potential and that she perhaps could've accomplished more in life, but she was consumed with the business of survival, with being a wife and a mother. And so she opposes the integration, in part because she wants to hoard the opportunity and keep it for her girls. I'll also say that Lacey May holds racist ideas. It's not that she stumbles her way into a racist position.
CORNISH: Do you like this character?
COSTER: That's a great question. I'll say that I understand her. And I will also say that I have tenderness for parts of her. She's a lonely and alienated character, and I feel for her in those respects. Would I want Lacey May as my in-law or my friend or on the PTA with me? Absolutely not. And I think that this is one of the things that fiction can do, right? It can give us a window into the battles that each person is waging or facing. But it doesn't mean that we condone her actions or are even interested in redeeming her.
CORNISH: I should say we're talking about this in slightly academic terms 'cause I don't want to give away too much. But it's also just beautiful writing and made me feel for all these characters almost immediately, which is painful because they're going through a lot of trauma.
COSTER: (Laughter) They're really sad. And I was like, when will anyone be happy in this book?
CORNISH: How do you live with characters like that?
COSTER: I don't think I have a lot of distance when I'm working on it. I feel very immersed. And I'm not interested in making things easier for my characters, which might sound harsh to say, but I think that that's partially because life can be really hard and brutal. And I'm interested in fiction that testifies to that reality. But I do think about the moments of tenderness and relief that they get, which don't cancel out all of the hardship.
CORNISH: That's a nice thing to hear in this moment after the last 12 months. I don't know how you've spent them. Had you been doing work on this book, still, at the end of last year?
COSTER: I was working on this book at the beginning of the pandemic. I was also taking care of my daughter, who at the time was under a year old. And we lost child care. It was really hard and exhausting and lonely and full of fear.
CORNISH: I hear that. One of the characters in the book is talking about having a new baby.
CORNISH: And someone asked her how it is. First thing out of her mouth is, it's terrible. I think you and I - our child is probably the same age. I also had a baby at the start of the pandemic. And she also ends that phrase by saying, and this child is perfect.
COSTER: Yes. And that line is actually one that I put in after having the baby because I...
CORNISH: Oh, really? (Laughter).
COSTER: Yeah. I drafted the book when I was pregnant. And so, you know, that scene was just the character glowing and happy and effortlessly breastfeeding in the corner. And then after actually having had a child and going through the postpartum period, I said, I have to revise this. And...
CORNISH: Is that when you added the bags under her eyes?
CORNISH: I noticed that as well. And I was like, there are too many truths in this chapter (laughter).
COSTER: And I didn't realize I'd been idealizing the experience. But in revision as a new mom, I could see that I had.
CORNISH: Did you have a temptation to dip further into the pandemic, writing-wise?
COSTER: Well, I'll be straight with you. Originally, the book was supposed to end much later, in August of 2020. So I had to do some reworking of the chronology and timeline of the book and change the weather just to sort of avoid thinking about the pandemic because I didn't have the space to do that.
CORNISH: Also, your characters needed a break.
COSTER: Yeah (laughter).
CORNISH: Like, if someone in this book got COVID on top of all that...
COSTER: Yeah. They need a little joy and rest before gearing up for COVID.
CORNISH: Naima Coster - her new novel is "What's Mine And Yours."
Thank you for talking about it with us.
COSTER: Thank you for having me.
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