MARCH 8, 2016
HOW DO WE RESPOND to the horrific transgressions of the past? This is the central question in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The book centers around a young woman named Charlotte, and her mother Laurel, who taught herself sign language at a young age, the only black girl in a rural New England town. Sign language eventually becomes the family’s work — they are invited to participate in an experiment at the Toneybee Institute, a private primate research center. The family is tasked with teaching sign language to a chimpanzee named Charlie.
Life at the Toneybee proves complicated. Laurel’s affection for Charlie the chimp goes a little too far, while Charlotte embarks on an affair with a fiery and opinionated girl. Charlotte’s younger sister Callie, feeling invisible, begins to eat, seemingly unable to stop. The drama comes to a head when Charlotte uncovers the Institute’s dark history of eugenics, exploitation, and racism. Cleverly woven throughout is the tale of a woman named Nymphadora, whose story, set nearly 70 years earlier, further exposes Toneybee’s sordid past.
“History is a weapon,” Charlotte’s best friend solemnly declares. While the way that we process and deal with history is at the heart of Greenidge’s novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman also tackles the perversion of language, the complicated power dynamics in sexual relationships, and the delicate balance of family life.
ELEANOR DUKE: I’ve always loved the idea of having a secret language with my friends or family. Charlotte uses sign language much in the way I dreamt of doing, as a kid: she uses it to show off at school, or to connect with her family, or to tell jokes or secrets to her sister Callie. It’s their secret language.
KAITLYN GREENIDGE: I don’t speak sign language — my mom does — but I have two sisters, and I think we’ve done what a lot of families do, and developed our own dialect. When I talk to my sisters, at this point we just speak in our own version of English. Inside jokes, making references to things that happened 25 years ago. I love it, and then I also think: this is crazy! I think about it a lot, and about its uses and misuses.
That was the inspiration for the book. I wanted to explore how families communicate with each other, and the ways they can be truthful in their communications, and then the ways that those languages that grow within families can also be dishonest and hide the truth. They can calcify people’s relationships with each other, sometimes, but can also be real sources of strength and comfort. I wanted to explore both sides of the complicated nature of that communication.
You have a short story in Guernica called “Axe Wound“ that handles some of the same themes of the limits of language. Do you remember when or why you started to really think about language and its limits? How have your thoughts about it changed over time, as you’ve gotten older, and as you’ve pursued writing as a career?
They’ve become more nuanced. Eight years ago when I started writing this book, I think I had an idea that language gets misused or corrupted, but underneath there is some kind of pure, objective version of language that we are spinning away from when we use words. Now I don’t know if there is that pure, platonic ideal. I think we do the best that we can with the language that we have.
One of the things that we are tasked with in the world is to figure out which language we can use to describe our realities. I think that one of the great things about being human is that we can imagine better ways for ourselves, better worlds for ourselves. That’s something other generations, or people in other spaces, can’t even think of. That’s really cool, and language helps to do that, and that’s what I love about language, that it can build whole words like that.
But despite all of that, I think I’ve become less idealistic about what happens when language gets corrupted. Sometimes it happens for nefarious reasons, but other times it’s just because that is the tragedy and the limit of being human: we’re only human, so we can’t get at every single truth in one word or one moment.
That same tension comes up in the book between the characters Marie and Laurel — two mothers with different approaches to thinking about race. Marie says: “black people have to help each other out, and we start by knowing our history.” And Laurel says: “That’s bullshit […] People like that just love the trouble. They live for the breaking down. They don’t know anything about the building up.” Is one of them right?
I think they’re both right! When you’re a member of a marginalized group, there is strength in bonding together with other people who are also part of that marginalized group, and trying to imagine a new world for yourselves. But inherent in the act of imagining a new world is having to destroy existing systems. It’s very easy to destroy systems — or, it’s not easy, but it’s easier than building something new. It’s easier than figuring out how we’re actually going to live in this new reality, or this progressive vision we have for ourselves.
I’m 34 years old. I was born in the early 1980s, at the tail end of all the big, revolutionary movements that sprung up in the ’60s and ’70s, and at the dawn of neoliberalism’s takeover. I have seen both arguments in my lifetime; the tail end of one, and the pickup of the next. We are in a moment right now where those two arguments are in fierce conversation with each other. I think they’re both right, and we have to keep both in mind as we move forward. The seductions of revolution are wonderful and great. But revolution is meaningless if you can’t say what’s going to happen on the morning after. And that’s really hard. So a lot of people don’t like thinking about it. But you’ve got to figure it out, you know?
You worked as a tour guide at a black history site and at black history museums, and you’ve talked about what it was like to talk to people about race in that setting. You describe three ways of thinking or talking about race: people are either obsessed with progress, obsessed with the pain of history, or refuse to acknowledge the issue at all. Was bridging the gap between those approaches one of your goals in writing this novel?
Yeah, I wanted to be able to talk to all three of those impulses, and to acknowledge that those impulses are all in conversation with each other. I think all of those ways — well, except the denial, which obviously isn’t helping anybody — have to be taken into account, when facing history.
That’s a phrase that has become meaningless. People always say “we’ve got to face our history,” but actually doing it is really hard. When you can start naming the different arguments that limit us and keep us from grappling with history, it can help us move forward and actually do the work of looking at history and identifying how that history affects our present.
One moment in the your book that really stuck with me was the Thanksgiving scene, when a character says: “Your family just happens to be black […] It’s a descriptor of your family who is participating in this experiment. Not an identity.” What was it like to write that scene?
I knew that I wanted that scene to be in the novel, and it took me most of the eight years to write it. It was really hard to just sit down and write the first draft, because it was so uncomfortable. So I kept just going to work on other things, or literally just standing up and walking away from the computer, to avoid writing it, to avoid thinking through it.
I like big confrontational scenes like that. I love in movies, like August Osage County or Home for the Holidays, when they all sit down to dinner and it becomes 30 minutes of characters just confronting each other. I wanted to write a scene like that, but it was difficult. It took a long time.
You did end up writing a chapter from the perspective of the founder of the Institute, which is different from the rest of the book, in tone and frame of reference. Why did you decide to include her perspective?
Originally, the intention was to explore the use of language that I’ve heard when talking to white people about race. This language is like: “I want to give you the lip service of identifying with you, but I don’t actually want to give up any of my power in this conversation, or show any vulnerability.” The tightrope walk that happens in those conversations, I find — and this is probably me, dissociating in the moment to avoid being offended — really fascinating.
Oftentimes it’s framed as objectivity: “I am able to recognize where you are coming from and your perspective, but my perspective, which is the objective perspective, is X, Y, and Z. I understand what you’re saying, but mine should be the voice that everyone listens to.” I wanted to practice what that dance looks like, in language.
But what does it mean that this character gets 20 pages to talk? A lot of people, definitely a lot of readers of color, have already heard this voice and can recognize it, so what am I doing by putting it in here? I like that section a lot — I like the background story that I got to tell there. But I’m on the fence about it, and I’m curious to see how people react to it.
You also have a storyline weaved throughout that steps about 70 years into the past, about a teacher in the town named Nymphadora who gets wrapped up in the scandal at the Institute. Where did that idea come from?
While I was figuring out what the scandal at the Institute would be, I knew that I wanted to tell it from the perspective of a black woman who was involved, and I knew I wanted it to be around sexuality or sex in some way. For a little while I had her as a sex worker in the town. But that seemed a little cliché, and it felt like a reader could dismiss that viewpoint, as terrible as that is. So I began to think about what would happen if she had some measure of privilege in this black part of town, but she is still taken in by this thing that she believes she’s becoming a part of.
I liked writing her, I think, because she is a character who can’t fully see. She has such huge blind spots about herself. She is a character who is telling what she believes, and what she thinks is the truth, but she is blind to so much about her own behavior, and other people’s behavior.
At one point in the novel, Charlotte says to her best friend Adia, “They’re all racists.” She has a number of realizations about her sexuality, her family, and her race. Do you think it’s common for young people of color to have moments of revelation like that? Moments when the reality just hits them?
No, definitely not. I think that moment happens to very few people, and also what happens after that moment varies very widely. Nymphadora is a character who never had that revelation, even though she’s living in a time that is overtly much more racist than the time Charlotte is living in.
I’ve met people — people of all races — who have this block, who can’t see, or don’t want to see. For a lot of people, it’s just very painful, to recognize and to see. And I think, again, it comes down to language. In the popular ways we talk about racism, there aren’t a lot of tools to get past the pain. For a lot of people, that means just denying it and not recognizing it.
I spent a lot of time doing oral histories in my job at the museum, and what I heard a lot was: “When I was growing up, we didn’t feel racism. Our neighborhood was integrated, and we all played together in the 1940s.” And, you know, I would look at the census records, and I could see that it was true the neighborhood had been integrated. But also, people still experienced things and lived under institutional racism. For whatever reason, we don’t have the language to identify or talk about that pain. It either becomes complete denial, or you experience the pain and can’t figure out how to move past it. Or, very few people can.
I think the writing of black womanist scholars tries to give us the tools to move past it. Many people have been doing the intellectual and emotional work of trying to help us figure out how to move past it. But, you know, our larger context is just very invested in violence and in pain and in trauma, and so it can be hard to find those tools.
You also discuss eugenics and the history of racism in academia in this book. You still are engaged in institutions with long, complicated, often problematic histories. What tools do you use to deal with that?
I have been thinking a lot recently about the tools of pleasure and joy. I think those can be downplayed, you know? I’m from New England, and that puritan dislike of joy and of bodily pleasure is very much alive in New England. It’s something you don’t recognize when you’re in it, but when I travel to other countries, or other parts of this country, I see the difference in perspective. It’s about the body, and how people experience pleasure, and what pleasure is used for, and how people make space in their lives for the rituals of pleasure and joy.
That doesn’t mean I just deal with it by stuffing my face and running up my credit card bill, but I do think there is joy in interpersonal connection. It can be overwhelming, when you try to think about these things, to think that you’re just one person. So I come back to those interpersonal, one-on-one interactions again and again. Institutions are big, monolithic things with long histories, but they’re also made up of individual people.
My grandparents were both involved in civil rights organizing, and both of them were very much of the idea that you work from the inside of an institution. You get yourself inside, you figure out how it works, and then you work slowly, keeping conversations open, to affect change.
I don’t know if that’s the answer; I think you need both approaches. You probably need 10 different approaches. But that’s the way I choose to do it.
You have two sisters, and this story is so much about sisterhood. What is it about sisterhood that is so interesting to write and read about? What aspects of sisterhood did you want to talk about?
Sisterhood is interesting because it’s a relationship between women that has very little to do with men, initially. And I think the way sisters communicate with each other is also really interesting. At one point while I was writing this I read an article that said when families experience trauma, a family will bounce back faster if there is a sister in it. Even if it’s just one sister. And that’s just because of how women have been socialized to talk and to communicate. I find that fascinating. Of course, some people have very complicated relationships with their sisters, and it’s not all just love and ease. But the affection between sisters is, I think, really great.
I also wanted to talk about, within all those good feelings about sisterhood, the ways families are performative in a certain way. There are expected roles for people. In a healthy family dynamic, those roles can switch from person to person, and people are allowed to grow and change within those roles and deepen them. In an unhealthy one, those roles get static and nobody can change or be different. I wanted to write about what happens when those roles are no longer helpful for a family. By the end of the book, everyone is aware of how their roles in the family are limiting, and there’s a gray area about what’s going to happen next. I wanted to talk about how that change happens, and also, to have one character who wants that change, and another who clings on to those roles.
One of the mothers in the novel says: “Of course [racism] doesn’t make any sense […] Nothing about racism makes sense. If it made sense, it would mean it was real, it was the truth. It’s ironic.” Of course, racism doesn’t make sense, but it is real, despite the fact that it’s not logical. What does she mean by that?
I think she’s doing some verbal pyrotechnics […] She believes what she’s saying, but if you were to challenge her, she wouldn’t have any way to back it up or go deeper.
I think what sometimes happens in progressive circles, because we are always interrogating the world around us, is people get very caught up in the dialectic. They get caught up in the words, and in a love of language, and the play of language. I love that, when it’s done well, but I find it really hard to understand when it’s not done well.
I think when you get older, you realize that sometimes the problem is not you, sometimes the other person has not thought it though clearly enough. Hopefully that happens when you’re young and you have enough self-confidence to really question those people. But if you’re like me and you’re a bit more self-conscious, it can take longer to say: “What do you actually mean by that?”
I find that question so interesting. What do you actually mean by that? Sometimes people use it in a passive-aggressive way, but I try to only use it in a helpful way. I try and encourage us to be a little bit clearer in our language. Sometimes people delight in the obscurity of the language they’re using. At a certain point you have to be able to figure out what you’re trying to say. And if only three other people can understand all your references, I don’t know how ultimately helpful your argument will be.
But, you know, knowledge works in different ways. Maybe that argument won’t be helpful in the moment, but someone else will find a way to break it down and make it clearer. That’s the best outcome. But being obscure for obscurity’s sake, which I think sometimes people fall in love with, is not helpful. That’s what I was trying to do with that line.
What’s next for you? Are you even thinking about that yet?
I am! I’m thinking of a couple different things. I’m writing some personal essays, and I’m also thinking about two other novel projects. One is really big in my mind: it’s partly about a black magician in 18th-century New Hampshire. He was the first traveling black entertainer in the US, and he traveled and performed in the US and in the British Caribbean colonies. He had a trick called “making the egg disappear,” and he climbed a rope that was suspended in midair, and he had a trick called “the trick of the noses.” I have no idea what that one is, but it sounds so crazy. I want to connect his story to the last 200 years of black liberation — that’s a really big project. I am just collecting things right now that I want to stuff into that book, but I’m not sure what that’s all going to mean yet.
The other thing I’m working on is a book about the Persephone and Demeter myth, set in late 19th-century Haiti. These are both in the fun, research stage, but I have no idea what will happen in the writing. I’m hoping whatever it is comes quickly, and not in another eight years.