“Language Fails Us” : Talking with Debut Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge

Kaitlyn Greenidge

In Kaitlyn Greenidge’s firecracker debut novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, a black family from Dorchester—one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods—moves to western Massachusetts to participate in a scientific experiment for the mysterious Toneybee Institute. The Freemans must raise Charlie, a chimpanzee, like a member of their own family, while the Toneybee researchers catch every moment on tape. Sisters Charlotte and Callie struggle to adapt to their new surroundings as the experiment frays the edges of their family and reveals the troubling history of the institute and the town where they now live. The result is a complex, rich, and detailed look at American blackness and the histories, both scientific and cultural, we often sweep under the rug. I spoke with Kaitlyn by phone about the limits of scientific research, writing sisters, and finding artistic success after the ripe old age of 25.
I just spent the last two years working in Roxbury [the neighborhood next to Dorchester], and it’s not a world often depicted in contemporary fiction. What made you decide to set the novel in Boston and in Western Massachusetts?
I wanted to write about a black family, and I wanted to write about an experience of blackness. Most of the narratives of blackness that are popularized in our culture are about Southern blackness or about blackness in New York City or Chicago. There’s very little allowance for regional differences, which are very real. A lot of times people assume black culture or black identity is a monolith, that all black people are the same or have had the same experience. Of course that’s impossible, and it’s definitely not true of the black experience in the US. So I wanted to talk about a part of the US where most people assume black people don’t live. Especially when I tell people that that’s where my family is from, and we’ve been there for about three or four generations, most people either react with disbelief or just can’t really process that kind of identity.
I was happy to see Du Bois in this book. Can you talk a little bit about the histories of black thought that you were pulling from, especially in the sections about Western Massachusetts?
Du Bois is a really interesting example because most people don’t think of that part of his history. If they think of Du Bois at all, they probably associate him with a city, or with Harvard, or with the Philadelphia Negro. Most people don’t think of him as growing up where he did, which I find really fascinating. I think there are even some photos of his school class where you can see it is an integrated—for lack of a better word—classroom, in that he has a white teacher and white students, but there are black students there in 18-whatever, when he was going to school. Which is kind of crazy! And it’s an experience that we don’t often talk about or see written about. I wanted to write about that.
So much of the book is rooted in exploring the effects of racism in science, in particular anthropology. Could you describe what your research process was like? Were there broad strokes that you wanted to flesh out with historical details or did it work the opposite way?
It was a combination of the two. When I was an undergrad, I read The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. It’s a really fantastic book. I think everybody should read it. Stephen Jay Gould published it in response to The Bell Curve, that book that came out in the mid-90s that was like, “Hey, guess what? We’ve discovered this new thing that somehow conveniently says that all black people are really stupid and all white people are really smart, and it’s biologically ordained.” [Mismeasure of Man points] out how this cycle is a really seductive one in American history, and it has come back again and again. It’s a deeper exploration of the places where science and imagination meet, and how destructive that can be, when science gives in to our fantasies of how we think the world should be. I think it’s a great book because it’s all about what are the limits of the scientific method, of scientific research? As I was doing this research, I knew I wanted to talk about some of the themes in that book, but explore them in fiction.
I was surprised that you made as many shifts as you did between characters and between points of view. What kinds of decisions did you make as you were writing or editing the book to piece all of the sections of the book together?
It took awhile. I knew I wanted to write about a family, and different people’s perspectives within a family. How do you represent that in fiction? I didn’t really want to do third person throughout because I like writing in first person. I went back and forth and had, for a long time, the sections with the Freeman family just all told from Charlotte’s perspective. My editor at Algonquin, who was wonderful, kept asking why things had to be that way and really pushed me to think about changing. That allowed me to explore some of the things I wanted to think about about perspective and about alienation within the family, while still keeping everybody’s distinct voice.
Did you find one voice of one character faster or easier than you found another?
Charlotte is… I like writing in the voice of a teenage girl, I like that voice. People really don’t like listening to teen girls at all! They’re probably the one segment of society where people are like, “Yeah, we don’t need to listen to what you have to say.” On that level, too, I find it really interesting to set a book with an adolescent teen girl narrator that asks to be taken seriously. That was really important to me. It took awhile to figure out whose story it was going to be, who gets to speak and why, all those questions of the book.
I found myself thinking a lot about silence in this book, not just because of your use of sign language but also the ways in which characters are ignored, overlooked, or even choose not to speak. How does language work—or not work—in this novel?
One of the things I was also interested in was the ways in which language fails us. Or I felt has failed me in the past, I should say. You can have a new experience, but you don’t yet have the language to describe it. You have an experience, or your world shifts in some way, and you literally – as a child or as a teenager – don’t yet have the language to describe what is happening to you or what you’re feeling. So you have that sense of loneliness or isolation or loss, and that can happen around really mundane things. But I think it’s just the nature of being a person, that there are going to be these times when you don’t have the words yet to describe what big change is coming.
The other side of that is when there are experiences that either a group of people or a culture don’t want to acknowledge, for whatever reason. I started this book eight years ago, right around the time that Obama was first elected, and it was like, we’re in this time that literally something has happened that most people in the country don’t have words to describe. I mean, we can say it, “a black male was elected president.” We have that sentence, but we don’t, as a culture, really have the language to describe what that’s going to look like. In the last eight years we’ve seen how much language has broken down because people can’t come up with a way to describe what’s actually happening with his administration, outside of narratives that we already have about black people in the US and about our own history, too, about ourselves as American citizens.
America is really interesting to me because it is a country that’s made itself up out of language, out of some really beautiful, really seductive language. The language of the Constitution and the language of the Declaration of Independence is all very, very beautiful and very, very compelling and very, very seductive and all things that I think most Americans want to believe about themselves. But it’s never been true about us. I think the majority of Americans probably don’t agree with the phrase “all men are created equal,” first of all. That just is one that most Americans, even though they say that they do, when you get down to it, don’t really.
As you were talking, I was thinking about how, after Obama was elected, people were so quick to say, “We’re in a post-racial society now”.
Yes, that was the phrase that people jumped on to explain what was happening in that moment. And it was obviously just a really wrong phrase to describe anything that was happening, but we hold on to language that doesn’t really describe anything. And there’s political reasons why we do that; because to describe it would be to have to reckon with it, and to have to change the status quo.
How much did you know about sign language before you started the novel and what were the challenges of trying to communicate a visual language in a written medium?
My mom knows sign language, and she used it with us when we were younger, but I don’t know sign language myself. And my mom isn’t hearing impaired, but she just really loved sign language and wanted to learn it. I wanted to include it in the book, and then as I was doing more research I found out there were dialects, but the dialects fall across identity lines. So there’s black sign language, and someone was telling me the other day there’s a joke within the deaf community about gay sign language, that gay men sign differently than straight men, supposedly. I just found all that really fascinating. So that’s why I wanted to use sign language, but it got very difficult because it is very hard to describe those gestures in writing. Especially just in our language, we only have one word for hand, so if I’m going to keep saying “your hand does this” or “your hand does that,” it makes for a very unclean line of writing. I had to figure out when and where I was going to describe the signs, and how to tell the reader that people are signing. I tried to only describe signs that I wanted to include for dramatic reasons, for craft reasons, in the book.
Having grown up in a group of sisters, I thought a whole lot about the big sister-little sister relationship between Charlotte and Callie. What kinds of narrative pattens or character patterns did you want to explore in their relationship?
I find sisters really fascinating because I’m really close to mine. A lot of times in novels that relationship is depicted as either being vindictive, like the sister rival figure, or that idolization thing that a younger sibling does—that’s very real—that a younger sibling does to an older sibling. I didn’t want to write about vindictive sisters because that was not very interesting to me, but I did want to write about the intensity of having a sister, of having a sibling, and what happens when your sibling starts to grow and change. You have this person who knows you, who has known you since before you were born, essentially, but over the course of life, they’re at a different developmental stage than you, and so they’re going to grow apart form you. That’s just kind of one of the melancholy things that happens as you grow up.
You have a sister named Kirsten who’s a playwright; do you have an artistic relationship with your sister? Do you share work or does she influence what you do, or vice versa?
We don’t share work. She’s probably an influence, just in terms of knowing somebody else who was a writer. How you get to be a writer is a really mysterious process for a lot of people. It was mysterious for me before I undertook it, you know? [It’s] been helpful just to see somebody else who is also writing, and how they go about living a writing life and what that looks like. Everybody’s career trajectory is slightly different, and so it can feel like, well, if I didn’t publish anything by the time I’m 24, then I’m never going to write.
5 under 25!
Right! Exactly! So you’re like, it’s over by my 25th birthday. So it’s helpful to see up close another writer’s career trajectory. Talent is a big part of having an artistic life, but really just continually working and producing and making things is the big indicator of whether or not you will have a life as an artist. I continually ask myself, and I think probably other artists ask themselves, too, is this about just this one project I’m working on? Or do I want to have the long term life of an artist, of continually working? Because it’s a really hard life, and it’s not getting any easier any time soon.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Photo of Greenidge by Syreeta McFadden

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