Interview With Linda Villarosa

 
 

AE: The
scene at the end of the book in the Hair-itage House, when Angela’s
mother’s friend debates the owner and stylist about what the Bible says about
homosexuality, also reminded me a bit of "Revelations," your
follow-up article to "Coming Out." Was that an empowering scene to
write?
LV:
It was really fun. I had this horrible experience right after I wrote
"Coming Out" where I was traveling around talking about coming out to
LGBT college students. One time I went and there was — against me personally — all
these people from a Christian campus group. They were protesting and throwing
out quotes at me.

It was so horrible because I grew up Christian and I just could not
understand. It was naïve, but I had never been personally attacked by
Christians. It was like, "What in the hell, literally hell, is going on
here?"

I went back to my hotel that night and read the Bible. I looked up
these quotations and I was like: "What is this? This does not say that. This
is not what this is about." And so I started having Bible smack-downs with
people. I’d find these Bible quotations and then I’d read them back.

But a lot of people, when you do that, they’ll just say, "Well, I
can’t really support your lifestyle because of my pastor." That’s easy.
People are so unfamiliar with the Bible that they don’t know the other stuff
that we totally let go about odd food combinations and divorce. To put a
character with it was really fun, because it wasn’t as academic as it was in "Revelations."

AE: One of
the other issues you address in the book is the lesbian community’s treatment
or mistreatment of transgender men and women.
LV:
To have Cait not down with that was a little risky because I didn’t
want lesbians not to like her. But there are so many people where it’s like, "No,
this is a lesbian space." Oh my God, who
gets to decide that? How do you
decide that?

I had seen a little bit of that when I was working at the Times. There was a man who went through
his transition to become a woman. It was really great to get to know her. I had
never been to Michigan [the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival], but people would come back with the stories and I was
like, what is happening there? Where are the transgendered people? Who’s mad? I
had everybody break it down for me so that I could understand.

It was funny having friends read [those sections in the book] — "God,
that sounds like what I said."

AE: Did you
have people see themselves in the novel?
LV:
It’s funny, the people that I did take a little of their
personalities didn’t notice at all. The mother character is close to my mother —
not exactly, but close. My mother did not notice a thing. I said, "Do you
think that character’s a little like you?" And [she said], "No, I
didn’t think that at all."

But friends noticed it about other friends. They said, "Hey, that
sounds like so and so," or "Oh, that’s sounds like you." But it
wasn’t Angela, it was the mother or Mae.

AE: The
danger of being friends with a writer.
LV:
Exactly. We host a dinner every Sunday with all of our kids and some
of our friends and we invite different writers over. We warn them that anything
they say is a free-for-all, anyone can use anything.

AE: I
thought the treatment of transgender men and women was a compelling contrast to
Angela’s insecurity about what it means to be a black woman or a lesbian. At one point she says she’s "wrestled
with the tyranny of striving for authenticity." That’s a pretty strong
statement.
LV:
That’s what it felt like. When I started thinking about when you have
just made your transition as a transgendered person, that is what it feels like.
You feel like you are not real yet. You just want to be in your own new skin. And
it dawned on me: That’s what it feels like when you don’t feel you’re the right
kind of black person. You know you’re never going to be white. You can’t go
back to being the man you were; you’re now a woman, but you have to figure out
how to be comfortable in this new skin. I was like, wow, I’ve felt that before.
A lot of black people have felt that before.

AE: Was that
sense of discomfort connected to Angela’s resistance to labels? She does not
identify as lesbian or bisexual.
LV:
She’s so recently come out, she doesn’t feel the need to do that. She’s
not ready. But then again, she may never be ready because maybe she just is, "This
is me. This is me and you don’t have to call me anything. This is who I am."

She goes through all of these labels a bunch of times. She goes
through it with what to call Cait — my partner, my this, my that, my
girlfriend. And then she also goes through, "Oh my God, first I’m a
lesbian, then I’ve broken up my relationships and then I’m going to become a
mother." All of this stuff happens to her very fast, so she can’t even
grab onto a label.

AE: A bit of
whiplash.
LV:
Yeah, label whiplash. [laughs]

AE: Your mom
is the retired founder and co-owner of the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem. Did she
influence your desire to be a writer?
LV:
We influenced each other. She didn’t own the bookstore until I was in
college. I took a black history and literature course, and my mom hadn’t read a
lot of the books. I came home with all of these books, and she got so excited
and interested in black literature. She had always liked to read but she hadn’t
done it from a uniquely African-American experience. That got her to say, "I
always wanted to own a business and I think it should be a bookstore."

I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a little girl, once a week
I would spend the day and the night with my great aunt who was a high school
principle. She thought me how to read. I could read really early — before
anyone else — and I just loved to read. I remember her looking at me and — you
know how one little thing can change your whole life?

I was 6 years old and she said, "I think you’re going to be a
writer." That stuck with me forever. I always thought I was going to be a
writer of some sort.

For more on
Linda Villarosa, visit her official website, or buy her novel Passing for Black.

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