Linda Villarosa has long used her writing to raise awareness. A
journalist, editor and now a novelist, she’s written about a variety of
important subjects from LGBT issues, African-Americans and HIV, to parenting
and health. In 1991, as the executive editor of Essence magazine, she co-wrote an article with her mother entitled "Coming
Out." The article — about, you guessed it, how coming out affected Linda’s
relationship with her mother — received a record number of responses at that
time in the magazine’s history.
Villarosa is also the author or co-author of three books: Body & Soul: The Black Women’s Guide to
Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being, Finding Our Way: The Teen Girls’ Survival Guide and The Black Parenting Book. Dafina Books
recently published her first novel, Passing
The book follows Angela, a young black woman whose search for identity crosses
lines of race, sexuality and family. Villarosa spoke with AfterEllen.com about
the book, what inspired the novel and the challenges of using her skills as a
journalist to write fiction.
Some spoilers for Passing for Black
Toni Morrison has famously said, "If there’s a book you really want to
read but it hasn’t been written
yet, then you must write it." Is Passing for
Black that kind
Linda Villarosa: I think so. Someone asked me last week, "I
finished your book and I was surprised at your age that you’re doing a coming-out
novel." And I thought, well, that’s just the book I had in me. I hope I
have another one, but this is the one I definitely had in me.
Also, I like coming-out novels. I like to read about people who are
struggling for something and then they get to it. That’s what this character
was doing. It felt really natural. I don’t think I’m a natural fiction writer,
I’m much more natural as a journalist, but this is the book that I had in me.
AE: As a
journalist, you’ve written about many of the things your main character Angela
experiences in the book — from coming out to how gays and lesbians are accepted
within the African-American community, to the Bible and homosexuality. How was
it different writing about these subjects in a novel? Did you have more
LV: I felt like
I had so much more freedom. I went through a lot of drafts because I had no
experience. People said: "Oh, you’re a good storyteller, you’re funny, but
it doesn’t come through in your journalism. Your journalism is so serious."
I thought that was interesting. And it’s true. My "in print" voice
had been much more serious than I found it in my real life. So it was really
nice trying to find that voice.
The other thing people say when you’re a beginning novelist is to write
what you know. These were a lot of the things I knew mushed together. I just
started to get into the flow. I thought, this is what I’m supposed to be
writing, this is stuff I know about. It’s just through a different rubric. But
it’s nice to be able to write in my own voice, which is funnier and more
upbeat, crazier than the more serious journalism that I’ve done.
AE: The book
addresses important issues such as race and sexuality, but one of the many
things I loved about it was how all of the characters are so authentically and
LV: Something I’ve found with fiction or movies [is that] you’ll see
black characters either completely flawed or perfect. I just saw Sex and the City, and Louise, the
Jennifer Hudson character, they were calling her Saint Louise. You have the
four women in the movie who are total train wrecks and you still love them, and
then you have this goody two shoes perfect black character fixing everybody
else. I was like, "I want to have black people and a white woman who are a
mess." Everybody is a mess.
AE: I thought
that contributed to its sexiness.
LV: Thanks. That just happened with the story. I had never written
a sex scene before and when I showed it to my agent, she said to me point
blank, "Did you write this?" I said, "What do you mean?"
She said, "Did someone write this for you?"
I was like: "What
are you talking about? Of course I wrote it." She said, "Wow, I didn’t
think you had that in you." [laughs] She’s my agent from my medical books,
too, so I felt like it must be pretty good.
AE: In the
article "Coming Out," which you co-wrote for Essence magazine with your mom, Clara Villarosa, you talk about the
idea of passing and how it can be both more difficult and easier to stay
closeted. I found it interesting that Angela’s lover Cait forces her out of the
closet. Can you talk about why you wrote the scene that way?
LV: It just seemed like the natural thing. It would have taken [Angela]
longer to come out of the closet because she was so unsure of what she wanted
to do. There was no pressure until Cait came along to put the pressure on her. I
thought, she’s not brave in that way, she’s not really radical, and so
she’s going to need a catalyst to get her out of the closet.
AE: In the
article, "Coming Out," you also write that you had to reinvent
yourself after realizing that you were gay and no longer fit into the straight
world. Even though that was over a decade ago, it’s interesting that this is
still one of Angela’s primary struggles.
LV: The idea of passing is really interesting to me. The first draft of
the book had nothing to do with passing. There was another title. It was
different. And when I would have people read it they said, "There’s not a theme
I read it again and I thought, so many of the people here are passing.
Angela’s passing. Tatiana’s passing. The transgendered people are passing — those
were the ones who came right to mind.
Angela’s passing in a lot of ways. She’s passing for straight. She’s
passing for black because she feels she’s not the right kind of black. She’s
struggled with her black authenticity and that’s a common theme in my thinking,
just trying to be the right kind of black. Angela had to pass in many ways. And
I thought, this makes sense.
This whole thing is about passing. Someone said [I] should read Nella
Larsen, and so I read her book Passing
and realized this is exactly what I’ve done. It helped me get the book out of my
computer and into the world, to find that underlying theme and tie it together
and move it along.
AE: What was
the original title?
LV: Someplace to Happen, which
in my family is really hilarious because it’s one of my mother’s favorite
sayings. When I was growing up, I never dressed how she wanted me to dress. We’d
be going to church and she’d say, "OK, show me what you’re wearing."
I’d come out and look like crap, and my mom wanted the whole family to
look good and have it all together for church. This is what she always said: "You’re
not going out with me like that. You look like you’re going someplace to
happen." [laughs] That’s not a common phrase.