Thursday, April 29, 2010

Talk Back Thursdays: Linda Villarosa

Welcome to Talk Back Thursdays, Linda. Tell us a bit about your book PASSING FOR BLACK.

I've been a journalist for years and years, always writing for someone else, in a voice that wasn't exactly my own. At the New York Times, I sounded like the other writers and editors, largely white men, who work for the paper. At Essence, I wrote serious stories mostly about social issues. People who'd read my stories would meet me in person, and always say something like, "wow, you're really funny, nothing like the serious articles you write!" So I decided to write a novel to be able to sound like me.

PASSING FOR BLACK explores both race and sexuality, two concepts which are the base of many works, but not often examined together. What made you decide to pair these two subjects?

There was a groundbreaking book about black feminist studies that used the phrase "all the women are white, all the blacks are men, But Some of Us Are Brave." To borrow from that, in the popular imagination it feels like "all the gays are white, all the blacks are straight, but some of us are brave." In Passing for Black I wanted to look at the intersection of race and sexuality, a place where so many of us live, often unseen.

Angela takes a non-traditional stance on black sexuality, which is seldom represented in publishing, if at all. What made you want to write this book?

I wasn't necessarily trying to write a lesbian novel or even a coming out story. I was writing about a woman who is trying to figure out who she is, how she wants to live and who she loves. It's a universal story, a novel of self-discovery. It's also about mother-daughter relationships, friendship and the publishing industry.

"You know who's meanest- black people. Somebody's always hatin' on you or saying they're going to kick your black ass into next week...Add in racism, and it's hard growing up black." Angela Wright, the protagonist of the novel, says this to her best friend, Mae. I love how you highlighted the pressure from within a community, in addition to the external pressures.

Thank you!

You present an interesting argument when you talk about passing. People (not just blacks) find themselves dragged into stereotypes. If you don't listen to rap music, you're not black enough. If you're white and you do, then you're trying to be black. Tell us about passing. Have you ever felt like you were forced to "pass" in your life?

I'm very interested in passing. I was a black studies minor in college and loved the books by Nella Larsen and Charles Chesnutt. My grandmother, who was mixed race, passed for white, which caused pain and tension in my own family. I thought about writing a novel about passing, but I didn't want to do historical fiction. So I thought, what does passing look like in the 21st century? Who is passing?

Then I thought of all the LGBT people who pass so they don't lose their families, friends, jobs. Then I thought about black LGBT who don't feel like "real blacks"--or are told they aren't really black--because of their sexuality. That's the big idea behind Passing for Black. But it's also the story of a woman who falls in love and learns to be herself.

One of the lighter topics was the black female preoccupation with hair. Why did you decide to include this theme?

Hey, I worked at Essence for a long time! In any gathering of black women, it's not long before the group starts talking about hair.

How was your path to publication? How much does it help to be a former New York Times editor?

It took me quite a while to get Passing for Black into print. I had to make the uneasy transition from journalist (an observer) to novelist (a participant). My early draft was basically rejected all over town. I pulled it back, got two wonderful readers to give me new insight, then sent it out again. I also changed the title from Together, which was too vague, to Passing for Black. I got two offers and ended up with Kensington, which worked out well for me.

It's not that easy to get a book published with a black main character who also discovers an attraction to a woman. Neither my Essence nor New York Times connections helped me. For me it was about digging deeper, improving my writing and being persistent and single-minded about getting this book published.

Can we expect more novels from Linda Villarosa?

I would like to write another novel down the road. Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction book about HIV/AIDS in the African American community and contributing to a PBS documentary on the same subject. I also teach journalism at City College, have two children and play pick up soccer for fun. So there's plenty going on in my world!

Thank you again for joining us on Talk Back Thursdays. Linda Villarosa is the author of PASSING FOR BLACK and a former editor of The New York Times and executive editor of Essence.


Marsha Sigman said...

Great interview and how interesting does that book sound???? I love it when you find a book/author that really makes you think about issues from a whole different perspective.

ElbieNy25 said...

Another great interview Claire. As you know because of my involvement in the V-Day movement, this is right up my alley. This was also the book you talked about on your Vlog. I will def have to go check it out.

Tahereh said...

omg! fab interview claire! this book sounds great!!

Aron Ranen said...

Please take a moment to check out my BLACK HAIR documentary about the Korean take-over of the Black Beauty Supply Industry...posted it all on

you may also be interest in my NASA APollo 11 film
DID WE GO? Funded by the state of ohio

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I wish I'd seen this sooner, because it is such a good interview. I'm intrigued by the storyline but also by the way Linda followed an older concept into what's happening today. Thank you both for a great, thought-provoking read!

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