Naima Coster author of ‘Halsey Street’ to lead a Master Class in Fiction at UNCG
*Editor’s note: For clarity, an amendment has been made to reflect that Naima Coster has lived in the area for just under three years not one year.
Wake Forest professor Naima Coster eschews autobiography in her fiction. “I love putting myself inside a character,” she told me last week. “I don’t have that kind of interior access to real people, so I don’t model characters on ones I’m close to.”
Coster’s debut novel “Halsey Street” is published by Amazon’s literary imprint Little a and is available in hardcover, paperback, audiobook and on Kindle (but you can support local businesses by buying it at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books and Winston-Salem’s Bookmarks). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Arts & Letters, The Rumpus, and has been anthologized in The Best of Kweli. She recently received the 2017 Cosmonauts Avenue Nonfiction Prize, judged by Roxane Gay.
“Halsey Street” has been lauded as “brilliant” by award-winning novelist Porochista Khakpour, “beautiful” by Bitch Media’s Evette Dionne and “a quiet gut-punch” by Kirkus Reviews. Calling the book very different from its “elevator pitch summary” of “a young black artist who doesn’t make art moves back home to a gentrifying Brooklyn to care for her failing father.” SFGate’s Anthony Domestico wrote it consistently surprises in “its stylistic assuredness, moral complexity, and emotional power.” All praised its complex treatment of Brooklyn’s gentrification.
Although Coster’s protagonist is Penelope Grand, who leaves Pittsburgh to find her old neighborhood unrecognizable and must deal with her father Ralph, who once owned a locally famous record store and now keeps the family home like a museum. One of its strongest sections is about Penelope’s mother Mirella, who left her husband and returned to the Dominican Republic. Knowing Coster’s award-winning nonfiction and that her mother is Dominican, I asked her the question that caused her to say that “Halsey Street” isn’t autobiographical. “The only thing that reflects my family dynamic is that my mother is from the D.R. and my father does identify as black,” she said. “But that’s just surface stuff. What that means and how it plays out was driven much more by my interests than my biography.”
Then there’s Brooklyn itself. “As I wrote, I thought about how art shapes memory, and about old records of Brooklyn like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing that framed narratives for people across the country.” She also thought, less fondly, of how newer Brooklyn narratives “render invisible some of the people and communities and facts of life that I wanted to in some small way record for right now, because not everyone lives the lives shown on Girls.”
I asked Coster if she’s named after the track on John Coltrane’s 1959 Giant Steps that Coltrane he dedicated to his wife, Juanita Naima Grubbs. Which led to another question: which was harder to write about, the music that Penelope’s father loves or the art that Penelope has temporarily walked away from?
Coster said yes, she’s named after the Coltrane tune, which has “gotten me undue cred with jazz lovers all of my life!” And that, in this particular case, writing about music was harder. As you may have noticed, she tends to speak in paragraphs.
“My writing about visual art was mostly about process, things I could study and learn to describe, such as how one holds a brush, different materials, and different techniques, whereas, with music, I was mostly writing about how it sounds and what kind of emotions it elicits.” With music, she said it was much harder “to write descriptions that were specific but which captured something transcendent.”
Because Southerners ask this of Yankee transplants, I inquired how Coster is adapting to the Triad. She said she’s been living here for just under three years and is still very much a newcomer. “And Wake is very different from Winston-Salem, which is very different from Durham. It’s been very interesting to be here and see all these different ways of life. There feels like so much to mine and explore.”
She also said she’s working on two projects, one a “quest story” in which she set herself the challenge of writing about a protagonist encountering physical obstacles.
“Both are inspired by my time here, and the ways I’ve been trying to learn about the actual landscape and the social and political one. It’s been a really formative time in my writing, which is great to see.”
For the North Carolina Writers’ Network 2018 Spring Conference on April 21, Naima Coster will lead the Master Class in Fiction, “Cracking Character: Voice, Choice, and Inner Life” at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Enrollment for that class has closed, but information about NCWN and the conference can be found at www.ncwriters.org.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.