I Lost a Whole Neighborhood: Talking Brooklyn and Loss with Amina Gautier
By Jaquira Diaz
Amina Gautier is 100 percent Brooklyn. Gautier’s first collection of stories, At-Risk won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 2010. Since then, she’s had two other award-winning books—Now We Will Be Happy, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and The Loss of All Lost Things, which was awarded the Elixir Press Fiction Award.
A friend since we first met at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, we meet every couple of months at a café or restaurant or diner and catch up. We talk about Star Wars and superheroes and stories and, well, life. Often we end up laughing our asses off. This time we discussed her latest collection of short stories, The Loss of All Lost Things, and her Brooklyn.
What is the origin of The Loss of All Lost Things? I’ve put together all three of my collections the same way—by writing and waiting. I write the stories that interest me at any given time and allow them to accumulate. I don’t ever have an outline or a plan or anything as structured as that. As far as individual stories go, I write them in bits and pieces—a bit of dialogue here, an image I think of and jot down in a spiral notebook there. I add and add words in notebooks, which I then type into various word documents. I build the documents, multiple documents at a time, without trying to make any sense out of them, until one day my curiosity leads me to check on a specific document and I see that it’s large enough (3,000 words or more) for me to begin to play around with. So I go in and I move things around until I start to see the story. Then I hunker down and write and revise.
After I’ve written a bunch of stories—fifty or so, I can take a step back and see what I was thinking. It becomes apparent that while I was writing what I liked, there were certain issues, topics, or themes to which I would return every five or six stories. It becomes clear that many of the stories speak to one another and can group themselves into various thematic piles. That’s how At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things originated, from me writing and waiting and not forcing anything.
In the title story, as the parents’ try to make sense of the loss of their son, every other loss they experience is amplified. But the story is also about the passing of time and its effect on our perspective of loss. Can you talk about the experience of writing about loss in its various forms?
I really hate to lose things. I’m not really a que sera sera person when it comes to mistakes. Therefore, I live a very preventive life. I’ve always believed that an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, to quote a familiar idiom. I firmly believe that it’s much easier to not cause a problem in the first place then it is to correct it afterwards. I think ahead and imagine how it would feel for me to lose a certain thing—a friendship, relationship, treasured item, a certain type of security etc.—and typically, the thought alone is frightening enough to make me behave in ways so as not to help that fate occur.
I’ve learned many adult life lessons through literature— simply reading about the mistakes others have made and witnessing the damage and upheaval it costs or the length it takes to repair said damage has taught me much about making foolish mistakes. I know poverty firsthand and things it taught me is just how expensive it is to make a mistake. I have long regarded mistakes and screw-ups as the special province of people who have certain types of emotional and financial support to buttress their failures. I’ve seen firsthand how one mistake can cause an entire family’s down spiral. One missed paycheck, one family member that dies without life insurance, one person that chooses the wrong spouse and one’s whole life can shift so sharply downward that a lifetime is not long enough to climb back up or simply get back to level ground.
When you mention someone has suffered a “loss,” I think we typically associate that with a physical death. And that’s a loss we can all relate to; we are naturally sympathetic when others are grieving. But what about all of the other things we can lose that define us? How is it different when the “loss” was actually forcibly taken from us? And how is that different than when we’ve “lost” something due to our own negligence? I’ve never met a single person that isn’t still in some way impacted by a long-ago loss. Look at me. I lost a whole neighborhood.
Whether it be a “small” loss—say a favorite team’s loss in a championship or a jacket you loaned a friend one night and never got back, or a larger loss—say a childhood, because you were forced to grow up sooner than expected, there always seems to be a sense of injustice, a frustrated sense of helplessness, a reimagining of how things could have gone differently.
How did you come to reading and writing?
I grew up reading everything in sight. I was a fifth and sixth grader reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Toni Cade Bambara’s “Gorilla, My Love,” Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and Richard Wright’s Black Boy. We also read The Diary of Anne Frank and Death Be Not Proud. All very heady material. Then, there were the libraries. New York is full of public libraries and I lived equidistant between two—one on Church Avenue and one on Mother Gaston (formerly Stone Avenue), so on any given day, I could take my pick. When those libraries weren’t enough, I went to Grand Army Plaza.
For a while, I was the youngest cousin—my grandmother had five siblings, so there were plenty of first and second cousins in my family—and as a result, I’d inherit all of my older cousins’ books when they outgrew them. When I was in middle school, I had a long commute to the Upper East Side, and I always read standing up on the subway. If I didn’t have a book, I read the advertisements on the train for invisible braces and foot fungus and personal injury lawyers. At home I read cereal boxes and dictionaries and phone books. I read cookie packages and cassette tape lyrics and admission catalogues. I read the pamphlets the deaf passengers handed out on the trains and the Daily Word brochures the Jehovah’s Witnesses gave out on the street. I read the Street News and the weekly circulars and sale papers. I read the coupons for C-Town, Key Food, Pathmark, and Big Red. I read all the magazines in the dentist’s and doctor’s offices.
Can you talk about your Brooklyn?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and that means something to me. My family lived in Bed-Stuy for generations until a rental scam dispersed all the black people on our block. Those that could buy homes or get nice apartments did so, and those that couldn’t moved to the projects. We moved out of Bed-Stuy and to Brownsville and East New York before my first birthday.
For a very long time, I was the only one in my family who did not grow up in Bed-Stuy. My mother, my uncles and cousins, my great-aunts and great-uncle, they all attended the same school. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunts and cousins all lived in different apartment buildings all on the same block. They went to First AME Zion Church, where my great-grandmother sang (poorly) in the choir.
I used to meet my grandmother down at the Woolworth’s in Downtown Brooklyn, which she called the Five and Dime. We’d sit at the counter and have egg creams. Any time one of my cousins graduated, we went to Junior’s to celebrate. We bought our clothes at A&S. The Albee Square Mall that I shopped in as a kid was a place where my mother used to go for concerts. Every Thursday night, I’d watch Major Owens’s son (who played Elvin) on The Cosby Show. (My first summer job was as a congressional aide for Congressman Owens.) The pizza shop I went to was frequented by Mike Tyson. Betty Shabazz visited my school when I was in fourth grade. Special Ed came too. And many others. That’s my Brooklyn.
That’s not gentrification Brooklyn, or moving to Brooklyn because you read a book or watched a movie about it that advertised its coolness. I am from Brooklyn. Every bone in my body, every vessel that carries my blood is Brooklyn. I have generations of Brooklyn flowing through me. Every time I see a street or a building, I know what’s there now and what used to be there before. I look at one thing and see all of its layers and I see the layers and know what they mean to me and to mine. Every sinew, muscle, and tissue of me is Brooklyn born, bred, and raised and because that means something that cannot be appropriated, adopted, learned or moved into, it means that I am Brooklyn and I will be Brooklyn in every place I ever live, every place I ever go because I am Brooklyn with every breath that I take and every breath that I exhale.
What is your Brooklyn soundtrack?
1. Aaliyah: “Street Thang” 2. Angie Martinez: “If I Could Go 3. Audio Two: “Top Billin’” 4. Big Daddy Kane: “I Get the Job Done (I Work, Baby) 5. Big Daddy Kane: “Ain’t No Half-Steppin’” 6. Biggie: “Juicy” 7. Biggie: “One More Chance” 8. Busta Rhymes: “Woo-ha!” 9. Dana Dane: “Cinderfella Dana Dane” 10. Eddie Murphy: “My Girl Wants to Party All the Time” 11. Fat Boys: “Fat Boys” 12. Fat Boys: “Fat Boys are Back” 13. Foxy Brown and Method Man: “Ill Na Na” 14. Foxy Brown: “Get Me Home” 15. Full Force and Lisa Lisa: “All Cried Out” 16. Fu-Schnickens: “La Schmoove” 17. Jay-Z and Foxy Brown: “Ain’t No N***a” 18. Jay-Z and Foxy Brown: “I’ll Be” 19. Junior MAFIA: “Player’s Anthem” 20. Lil’ Kim: “No Time” 21. Lil’ Kim: Big Momma Thang 22. Maxwell—Literally, every song by Maxwell. He gets his own soundtrack. 23. MC Lyte: “Lyte As a Rock” 24. Old Dirty Bastard: “Brooklyn Zoo” 25. Old Dirty Bastard: “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” 26. Special Ed: “I’m the Magnificent” 27. Special Ed: “I got it Made” 28. Special Ed: “Mission” 29. Stephanie Mills—Literally, everything she sings. She gets her own soundtrack. 30. SWV: “Weak” 31. SWV: “Downtown” 32. UTFO: “Roxane, Roxane” 33. Whodini: “One Love”
1.Nas: “If I Ruled the World” (he might have grown up in Queens, but he was born in Brooklyn!)
2. Salt’N Pepa: “Independent” and “I’ll Take Your Man” (Spinderella is from Brooklyn) 3. Run-DMC “It’s Like That” (Jam Master Jay is from Brooklyn)
Who are your favorite Brooklyn writers, or your favorite books or stories set in Brooklyn?
Alice McDermott, Stanley Elkin, Michael Harper, Joseph Heller, June Jordan, Bernard Malamud, Paule Marshall, and Judith Claire Mitchell are some of my favorite Brooklyn writers—and by Brooklyn writers, I mean that these writers were born in Brooklyn. I especially love Paule Marshall’s Browngirl, Brownstones. The first time I read it as a kid, it brought my family’s Brooklyn (the two generations of Brooklyn that precede mine) into relief for me.
I remember reading the part where Selina takes the trolley and remembering all of the stories my mother and relatives had told of the trolley. In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were traces of old trolley tracks in the street, buried but glinting beneath the tarred streets. I used to see them when I walked to school each morning and crossed the intersection. The sight of them made me feel like I was walking on layers and layers and layers of Brooklyn. I’ve met people who live in Brooklyn (but are not from there) who have tried to tell me that there were no trolleys in Brooklyn, but since I’m from here, I know better.