Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. When Nyani Nkrumah was a child, her mother would entertain her on the way to school by reciting Shakespeare.
Born in Boston, raised in Ghana and Zimbabwe, Nyani has just debuted her first novel Wade In The Water. Set in 1980s Mississippi, it's the story of an unlikely friendship between an 11-year-old African American girl named Ella, and a white woman named Katherine St. James, who's visiting the town as a researcher.
Nyani Nkrumah: In fact, it's a mirroring in the book, because Ella makes a comment to Katherine St. James when she arrived in town. She makes this comment that her arrival was stirring the pot and sticking those things that no one wanted unstuck at the bottom of the pot. For me, that's a sense of shaking things up, which is exactly what she does. I found the title very apropos for the Novel.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to talk about the town. It's a fictional town, Ricksville, Mississippi, but it is based, at least in part, on Philadelphia, Mississippi. Can you tell me a little more about the aspects of Philadelphia, Mississippi that you are drawing on for Ricksville?
Nyani Nkrumah: Philadelphia obviously is a real town, and Ricksville is a fictitious town. What I did in terms of trying to get a sense of what that town was, was I looked at old photographs. I went back in history and looked at 1960 photographs online, and then I compared it to 1982, because the novel takes place in 1982. I found that there isn't much change in these Mississippi rural towns between over 20 years time span.
You still have the main streets, you still have the mom-and-pop stores, you still have all these little stores, and that is what I conjured up when I was thinking of Ricksville, Mississippi. Then, of course, when we look at Philadelphia itself, I visited the town. I visited the town of Philadelphia, and there's such a civil rights history, of course, in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
These landmarks were very important. The geographic spacing was very important in the novel to basically create a sense of a rural Mississippi town where Ella and Katherine St. James could play out the story. The story really focuses on the intricacies and limitations of their friendship and I wanted to make sure that I had the surroundings right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want you to talk through with us, these two central characters, the people whose story this becomes, Ella and Katherine St. James. For our listeners, can you just walk us through who they are.
Nyani Nkrumah: Sure. It starts in 1982 with flashbacks to the 1960s. It's really the story of the unlikely friendship between Ella, who in the book, she's precocious, she's mistreated, she's a Black 11-year-old growing up in Mississippi. Then Katherine St. James, a white female researcher from Princeton that arrives in this racially divided town. The story really talks about and focuses on their friendship, but within that, there's a context of the mystery that surrounds Miss St. James.
What I was trying to do is to make sure that the reader could get a real good sense of who these people were. How I developed that was really by the style in which I decided to use. For example, when I was thinking of these two characters, I wanted to make sure that we really used first-person point of view and multiple narratives. What you have is a story which is being told first by Ella. She's the main character that tells the story, but also Katherine St. James, because I feel that both of them have something fundamental to say, and just hearing their voices has the effect of drawing the reader very quickly into the story.
Then you also have the town, which adds a level of complexity, because the people in the town have also a sense of Katherine. If you imagine, this is taking place in the 1980s, but the adults in the town have witnessed the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They're a little more suspicious than the children in the town of why Katherine is there. Really, the reason I'm doing this is to build a kaleidoscope of perspectives into the story that adds a layer of contextualization and richness, and authenticities to these characters.
When you ask me about who these characters are, I mean, Ella is smart, she's precocious, she's badly treated, very much unloved, and very much in need of love. That stems from the fact that she's not her father's child. She's a product of an affair that her mother had with a much darker-skinned man, and her parents actively dislike her. This is the character of the person that feels very drawn to Katherine St. James.
Now, Katherine St. James herself is an enigma. She's a 34-year-old white researcher from Princeton who's been doing her graduate master's thesis. When she comes into the town, she is set on interviewing two contrasting towns in Mississippi. When she comes in, she is also drawn to Ella, and she has a backstory that is also explored within the pages of the book. Then the story takes off with the dynamics between the two of them. Within that, is the mystery of who they both are, because they're both carrying secrets, and secrets that they both hold on to within their relationship that do come out slowly. It allows the reader to see, who are these two people and what are the complexities?
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to take a quick pause here, but we'll be right back with more of Wade In The Water. It's The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're back with Nyani Nkrumah, author of the new novel, Wade In The Water.
Nyani Nkrumah: I have in this story a white woman and an unrelated Black child. The reader is usually used to the converse, where you do have a Black adult and a white child. If we think of different books, we think of The Help.
Speaker 3: These women raise white children. We love them and they love us, but they can't even use the toilets in our houses. Minnie, are you in there? [toilet flashes] [unintelligible 00:07:09]
Nyani Nkrumah: We think of The Secret Live of Bees.
Speaker 4: Who have we got here?
Speaker 5: I'm Lily, and this is Rosaleen. We need a place to stay. You see, my mother died when I was little and my daddy just got killed. [unintelligible 00:07:21] we're on our way to Virginia. I don't have money for a train ticket or a motel, and not that they would take in a negro woman, even though it's a violation of the Civil Rights Act.
Nyani Nkrumah: Which are books that I totally adore. These stories have a well-worn path, which I would say they're almost stereotypical, not in the actual story per se, but in the relationship. It's a relationship we know we are used to, it's a warm Black maid or nanny and a needy child that needs love or guidance or wisdom or nurturing in some sort. In this particular book, because it's the converse where you have the white adult and the Black child, you really don't have a roadmap for how the characters are supposed to play out. For me as an author, that's been very freeing, because I got to develop the story without the restrictions of what the characters are expected to say or do because of their race.
The reason I wanted to do that is because I wanted to present a story that was tense, it was suspenseful. I wanted to make sure that the reader had a really great experience. They're going to ask, well, is Miss St. James a friend or a foe? How's it going to end? Why is Ella so drawn to her? The upside of this is the increased tension that comes from the book, which is not just from the story itself, but from how the reader is reading the story. That's one level of the book.
I would say that the book also deals with a lot of thematic areas that are deeper, they're weightier, they're themes of race and color and class, and then obviously love and friendship. The book goes through three periods of time. They go through the 1980s, which is where most of it takes place, but then there are flashbacks to the 1960s, which we all know in Mississippi, was a heavier, harrowing [unintelligible 00:09:16] period.
Then it touches really briefly at the end about looking into the future through Ella. The reason that the story weaves in between the 1980s and the 1960s is not just because I wanted to take a snapshot of history, but I really wanted to see how the past influenced the present. The legacy of the 1960s, I wanted to see how it had an impact on generations that follow. When we look at Ella and Katherine, we can really see how this history has had a legacy in their life story.
The novel is really not just about showing how our personal stories or backstories shape our innate behavior, but it's also really asking a fundamental question about whether we are tied to these individual family histories we come from, and whether it's possible to break free. Those are the larger questions for Katherine St. James and for Ella in this narrative.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This moment where you bring us in the 1980s is in some ways profoundly underexplored in our American conceptions around race, and particularly in the south, we will sometimes tell it as the enslavement period, abolition, civil rights present. I so appreciate the inversion you're talking about that allows you to not-- with a white child, Black adult, there's always that racial innocence of the white child, so you are able to explore something quite different here, but you also explore a different moment, a critical one. However, in our nation's history, I'm wondering if there was something in particular that drew you to that part of the story.
Nyani Nkrumah: Well, for me, I was very interested in doing, particularly in this novel, was moving to the 1980s, and the 1980s, you could see 20 years have passed or so since the 1960s, and what we have is a new generation. The new generation really does know what has come before through books, through their parents' stories, through documentaries, but they haven't lived it.
That generational gap between the adults in the story and Ella's generation was something that I needed to explore more, because you finding that 20 years later, these kids are actually also removed from that earlier struggle. I wanted to examine that context within the novel because Ella and her friends, for example, were much more welcoming to Katherine St. James than the adults in the town, so you see that dichotomy play out, and that's why I moved from the 1960s to the 1980s in the novel.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're so thoughtful in the ways you think about everything from the geography to the narrative, the history, the moments, can you talk to me about your writing process a bit? I'm just interested in, on a day when you're not traveling or researching, but when you're writing, what is that day?
Nyani Nkrumah: Well, I think I'm probably a very different writer than most people I hear about or I read about because I have a full-time job and my job requires a lot of travel so I'm often in different places. I could be in Panama or Haiti or-- Central African Republic is one of the countries that I'm visiting at the moment, and so it doesn't really afford me a lot of opportunity to write, just a chunk of writing, so how I've really written this book is over quite a long time.
I would say it took me about six years to get to a full draft or to get through the whole writing process. I've done it a little bit at a time, and that's the way it's worked for me, so I think of it like doing knitting and taking up lit knitting, doing a line or two and putting it down, because that's what I've had to do. I've written a paragraph here, a page here, a line here, and then a couple of months may go by and I've not even written a single thing, but I think for me, there's been an advantage in that because when I go back to look at what I've written, I've been able to take a step back.
There's some level of distance from what you've written and you can now decide that, "Oh, well, this is what I like," or, "I don't like it," and I can go through a heavy editing period. That's what I've done throughout the writing of this book, and also that's why it's taken so long to get actually off the ground.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nyani Nkrumah is the author of the new book, Wade In The Water. It's out January 17th. Thank you so much for taking the time with us.
Nyani Nkrumah: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
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