By Zoe Zolbrod
Angela Flournoy’s debut novel The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was published this spring and has met with much acclaim, becoming a May 2015 Indie Next pick and garnering a stellar review in the New York Times. Set in Detroit in 2008, the book tells the story of a large family who must decide what to do with the house they grew up in. The home holds individual meaning for each sibling and also reflects the fate of the black working class in the city, and it’s now worth a fraction of what their ailing mother still owes on the mortgage. Flournoy, who is from California, drew inspiration for the novel from her father and his 12 siblings, who were all born and raised in Detroit. I spoke with her by phone for Belt.
BELT: Birth order plays such a big role in characters’ fates in this book, in part because of how it affects the siblings’ relationships to each other and their parents, but in part because, since they were born over a period of 23 years, the 13 Turner kids came of age at different historical moments. What strategies did you use to keep track of what was going on in Detroit and the country at impressionable ages of each child?
Angela Flournoy: I didn’t have a conscious strategy. The way that I thought about their personal philosophies, their relationship with the city, their relationship with their parents, they were all connected, so … I decided that these are who these people are before they did anything on the page. They’ve already been informed by where they were at important moments. Lelah [the youngest sibling] was four at the time of the 1967 uprising, so she has a very different relationship with the city than Cha-Cha [the oldest sibling] who was an adult during that time. It was organic. It was always intricately linked together, where they were in the family order and where they were in the city’s history.
BELT: I kept referring to the family tree at the front of the book as I was reading. Did you have any visual aids you used to keep track of the siblings?
Flournoy: The family tree at the beginning is actually the last thing I wrote. I didn’t have that while I was working. I did have an index card just with the birth order and each person’s age in 2008. That, and it helped working with a copyeditor who was very smart and detail oriented. Some of the ages actually had to change from early drafts, because if people were the age I wanted them to be during the ‘67 uprising, they had to be a different age in 2008. I should have had something like in those cop shows, when they’re trying to track a crime syndicate, and they have those lines connecting everyone. I didn’t have that. I had a corkboard, but it was full of corny inspirational quotes, it wasn’t full of organizational aids.
BELT: I notice you give props to the books Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit and Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes in your acknowledgements. When in the process did you come upon those books? Are there other books that you drew on?
Flournoy: Those were the two that I felt were the most useful. Origins of the Urban Crisis was one of the first books I checked out of the library. I was at University of Iowa at the time, so I was able to hold onto books for an entire 10 months. I checked out anything that had to do with Detroit that I felt would in any way be useful, but there are lots of not-great urban histories of Detroit written to be sensational that play on a sort of fear, particularly of black residents of the city. So those were no good. But Origins of an Urban Crisis, I read it early, and it mirrored what I had heard from my family about housing, particularly about how housing discrimination played a part in how the city developed and how the city unraveled.
I joke with a friend of mine that everything in this country can be traced back to housing discrimination. There are in a lot of ways in which housing discrimination in big cities directly contributed toward inner city poverty and graduation rates. The New York Times last week had an op-ed about housing discrimination and how the country still hasn’t righted those wrongs. But Origins of an Urban Crisis was the first time I had seen the numbers. Just, how many black homeowners there were in the ‘40s, when you had this big population boom. People were coming to Detroit from the south and they were making money. But there were not having access to wealth-building because they couldn’t buy housing. If they did buy housing it was with these predatory contracts where you buy a house on contract, you pay for it every month, and if you miss one month, you lose everything, you lose the house. So just having those numbers behind me — obviously they don’t all come into play when you’re working with fiction — but they were a way for me to understand that the stories that I heard growing up they’re not just a few people griping or conspiracy theories.
BELT: It was interesting reading The Turner House now because a lot of similar stories about housing discrimination are coming out in the wake of the violence in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. I live in Chicago, and there was just a big story on the redlining and stuff that happened here. Which leads into my next question. The eldest son Cha-Cha is financially secure after his three decades of driving trucks for Chrysler. He’s not wealthy, but he has a nice house in the suburbs, he’s going to be able to retire, he has enough extra to help members of the family. It’s interesting that his dad got him the job with Chrysler and had a similar job, and yet Francis [his father] and Viola [his mother] weren’t able to achieve financial security. Viola’s left now with less than nothing — she owes more on her house then she owns. Can you talk about the economic and sociological factors that explain this gap?
I’ve met Detroiters on my book tour, I’ve met them all along the Eastern Seaboard — DC, New York, Baltimore, Boston — and they all have that story of the moment when they felt like they had to leave, especially for older black men around my father’s age.
Flournoy: I think that’s something that’s interesting about having so many people in a family that have the same parents, but they’re not really of the same generation. Cha-Cha benefited from the time he grew up in. He got what was considered at the time a good job. Your pension was iron clad, and if you worked all these years, if you put in the time, you would be taken care of later. And Lelah, being forty years old — I’m thirty, but she’s closer to me, where there’s just no guarantee. There’s maybe not even a guarantee about social security. There’s not those safety nets, so there’s that difference between them. The baby boomers are maybe the only generation where all those promises are being met. It actually did work out for Cha-Cha. He has gripes about maybe he could have been more ambitious. He never got to leave the city, or travel, or make certain decisions. But he worked hard, and it paid off. For Viola, the difference is that the assumption was that you invest in your home, and your home would be worth something. And because she basically lived through white flight, which was followed by … I don’t like to call it black blight, because white flight was a choice. They didn’t leave because the neighborhood didn’t have services and schools, white flight precipitated the schools going. Whites moved out of the neighborhoods because they believed that blacks would lower the quality of the neighborhood, and then the quality of the neighborhood became lower, it wasn’t the other way around. I’m getting far from the question.
BELT: I think you answered the question. Cha-Cha was basically an anomaly, escaping the worst of the housing discrimination and coming up at a time when working class jobs provided security. I really felt the burden he was carrying as the eldest, helping out his siblings at the same time he was trying to raise his own kids. And what a burden it is when the wealth of your parents has been destroyed. They played by the same rules and it didn’t work out for them.
In the acknowledgements of your book as well as in the recent New York Times op-ed you wrote, you mention that your father was part of a big family from Detroit, and you visited often from your home in California to see your relatives. A good handful of the Turner kids left Michigan. There’s been in some sense a second great migration out of the industrial north. What cultural legacy lingers for people, like you, whose parents or parent were raised in Detroit before starting families elsewhere?
Flournoy: I do think that there’s a sort of Detroit diaspora. The day my book came out I did a reading in Eso Wan Books, which is in Leimert Park here in L.A., and the owner moved here from Detroit. He talked about — he’s about my father’s age — similarly leaving in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s because there just weren’t a lot of economic prospects. It wasn’t necessarily that he wanted to. For my father it was either join the military or get a really grueling physical job. He had a job working for a manufacturer that he was not physically capable of doing. It was similar to the job Cha-Cha has in the flashback where he’s working at the assembly plant, where he had to lift up a large part of a car in a short period of time, in seconds, when it was coming down the line. And I remember him telling me that at about six months in he was like, I’m not going to be able to do this for the rest of my life. So he joined the Air Force. And he had always planned to come back to Detroit, but there were never the economic opportunities, the widow never opened for him. And he still now dreams of retiring and moving back to Detroit.
You know, in California, there are lots of people who moved here from somewhere else. But I think leaving does not necessarily affect people the same way when it feels like a choice. I’ve met Detroiters on my book tour, I’ve met them all along the Eastern Seaboard — DC, New York, Baltimore, Boston — and they all have that story of the moment when they felt like they had to leave, especially for older black men around my father’s age. And I do think that, certainly for my father, changes the way you talk about a place to your children. Because it is a place where you wonder, what would have happened if I stayed, what would my life have been like? Also, I think the difference is that a lot of black people had parents or grandparents who migrated from the South during the Great Migration. They had thought that they made their move up North, that this was it. They didn’t necessarily anticipate having to move again, they planted roots in this new place. But there are stories now of a lot of black people moving back to the South. I do think that it’s, when the economy changes, people’s reality have to change also.
BELT: The book opens with a prologue in which the adolescent Cha-Cha has an encounter with a haint (ed: Southern colloquialism for “ghost”) in his bedroom on Yarrow Street. His father Frances, who migrated to Detroit from Arkansas, adamantly declares “There ain’t no haints in Detroit!” This phrase serves many functions in the Turner family as well as in the book. One way I interpreted it was as a symbol of a patriarch’s ability to shape reality for his family, as well as a symbol of the opposite, of the powerlessness of a patriarch to shape reality in the face of forces beyond his control — history, haints, racism. As it turns out, there are haints in Detroit. Are there haints in California too? Are their haints in Chicago, where Brianne, the daughter of the youngest Turner, is about to move? What does that mean about our relationship to place, and to the past, and to the people in our lives?
Flournoy: That’s an interesting question. I think you’re right. The ways in which that statement “There ain’t no haints in Detroit,” is Francis’s attempt to yeah, shape reality, and also to make his move, his migration, worthwhile. This is supposed to be a new place, and there’s a new set of rules, and we’re not playing by those old set of rules anymore. As far as black Southern spirituality, that’s supposed to be part of the past. That’s part of what you leave behind. I wanted to play with this idea of, can you start over? Or are there cultural memories that you can’t escape, that stay with you. I wanted there to be this doubt about the haint. Is it or isn’t it real? I didn’t want it to be concrete one way or another because, I’m not sure. Is there such thing as cultural memory, or is that something you can wipe the slate clean of? I’m leaning towards, no you cannot, but I don’t necessary write my fiction so I can get a thesis across. I just wanted to pose that question through the haint.
BELT: One last question. You talked about seeing some Detroiters on your book tour on the East Coast and the West Coast, and I wondered if you’ve done any events in Detroit and what the reaction was there.
Flournoy: I did two events in Detroit. I did one in the Scarab Club downtown right across from the DIA. It was great to be in that place, that formerly very influential art institution. And then I did another reading in Rosedale in a new book shop called Pages. I would say that there were more lifelong Detroiters at the second reading, the one in Rosedale. It’s interesting because when you’re going through the business of living your life, you don’t necessarily think that what has happened to you is exceptional, or that what has happened to you might be — both exceptional and also part of a larger trend. And so just to hear people talk about, you know: “My father told me this story about living in Detroit in Black Bottom,” and you know, “I remember when I was in junior high school on the mornings of the uprising, a similar feeling of nervousness. We didn’t know what it was, we didn’t know what to call it, just a feeling that something bad was about to happen.” It was really great to talk to people who felt like the novel was really doing something I hadn’t necessarily intended, which was telling the story, especially of these everyday working class black people, telling their story in a way that made it feel important to the overall story of Detroit. Which, I argue, in the last 100 years, I don’t know if there’s a more important story for Detroit than the story of working class black people. It completely changed — it could have been for the better — the future of the city.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.