by Ericka Taylor
While Bridgett M. Davis may have published her first book after the age of 40, she has a long history of accomplishment with the written word. Reviews and essays by this former newspaper reporter have appeared in The Washington Post, Essence, TheRoot.com, Salon, Writers Digest, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Davis also wrote the screenplay for Naked Acts in addition to directing the award-winning feature film.
It should be no surprise then that Davis’s debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral, was so well received, earning praise from Publisher’s Weekly and selected as a finalist for the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award. The book follows young Rae Dodson, a girl seeking her place in the world while negotiating the relationships of her loving and complicated family. Davis adeptly captures the mutual dependence between Rae and her father and the more fraught relationship Rae has with a mother who longs for “the real kind of happiness. The kind that lasts.” Rae’s relationship with her sister is not only realistically rendered, but it also creates a through-line linking Shifting Through Neutral to Davis’s second novel, Into the Go-Slow.
The absence of an elder sister—and the effect of that absence on the protagonist—features prominently in both books. Like Rae, Angie is in the process of determining who she is meant to be. Still reeling from the death of her sister a few years earlier, Angie journeys from Detroit to Nigeria with the intention of following the path of her sister’s final days. The novel skillfully tackles loss, identity, and the search for answers all while providing readers with a strong sense of how Detroit, Lagos, and various other Nigerian communities must have felt in the 1980s.
Davis is a professor of creative writing and journalism at Baruch College, the City University of New York. She generously agreed to talk with Bloom about sisterhood, writing in multiple genres, and her two novels.
Ericka Taylor: There’s no denying that the protagonists in both of your novels are distinct individuals dealing with their own particular circumstances. Nonetheless, there are themes that are common to both works. Both can be seen as coming of age pieces, and both feature the adoration of a younger sister for her elder sister. Were these dynamics that you intentionally set out to explore, or did they evolve through your writing?
Bridgett M. Davis: The sister dynamic is both intentional and, you might say, inevitable. I was the youngest of four sisters and idolized each of my older sisters for different reasons, so that familial dynamic is so resonant in my life that it naturally comes through in my storytelling. But also, in much of the literature I’ve read, the great love story of sisterhood is absent. The bond between sisters is so rich, complex, fraught and powerful that it’s ripe for exploration — particularly between African-American sisters. If it’s true we write what we want to read, then that’s exactly what I was doing.
And while Shifting was a quintessential first novel, a coming-of-age, I did want to play with the form a bit by capturing just two years in Rae’s life – when she’s 9 and when she’s 17. I’ve always felt those were the most pivotal years in a girl’s life, both precipices onto a new stage of life for a girl, both newly self-aware and often self-conscious moments. I hadn’t set out necessarily in Go-Slow to write another coming-of-age story, but now that I think about it, for me what’s exciting in a woman’s life is that journey of coming into herself, at whatever age. In the memoir I’m writing, it’s also a dual coming of age story – that of myself, and of my mother. I believe she came of age when she was 30 and decided to start her own informal lottery business—to “make a way out of no way” as she used to say, and give her family a better life.
ET: You’ve said before that you think all families are dysfunctional, but that the love and strength of Black families is rarely highlighted. Your novels showcase that love, while refusing to shy away from the challenges inherent in any relationship. They also feature especially strong and loving father-daughter relationships. Was this an intentional effort to counter the narrative of the absent Black father?
BD: I write about loving father/daughter relationships because it’s what I know from my own life, and it’s another familial bond I find endlessly fascinating. It’s bizarre to me, really, that the love a black man feels toward his daughter is so rarely found in fiction, so yes I was eager to bring a perspective to the canon that was largely lacking, but my primary goal was simply to render a world like the one I and my friends inhabit. I believe that often love in black families serves as a countering force, a protective barrier against the threats known and unknown outside our doors. My siblings and I never fought amongst ourselves, because my mother didn’t tolerate it. She used to say, “You don’t have the luxury to fight with one another; you have to band together and fight against what’s out there.”
ET: Not only does the title of your debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral, evoke driving and transitions, but each section of the book is introduced with a section from “What Every Driver Must Know,” published by the Michigan Secretary of State. Was this a theme that emerged during the writing process, or did you begin the book with that structure in mind?
BD: Because Shifting was my first novel and I was literally teaching myself to write, I didn’t figure out its structure until the end of the process, after myriad drafts. That novel took seven years to write. Of course, I knew the car theme was redolent throughout – I’ve always loved the metaphors that driving and the road evoke, thanks largely to my growing up in Motor City – but using the Driver’s Ed manual just came to me one day when I found a copy of the manual at my sister’s house. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, quoting from it, but then I read Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News just as I was completing edits on my novel. Her use of quotes from a book about rope knots gave me the courage to do something similar; once I made that choice it was uncanny how the driving instructions I quoted had resonance beyond their literal meaning.
ET: The characters in both books have clearly been developed as full, complex beings, and you could almost say the same about their settings. You vividly render Detroit of the 60s and 70s, acknowledging the joys and challenges of the city. Rae’s mother in Shifting Through Neutral revels in the music of Motown and has a special appreciation for Stevie Wonder, while also bemoaning that Detroit “was no place for a twelve-year-old girl.” Into the Go-Slow moves beyond Detroit into Lagos, Nigeria, where again you reveal the contradictions of its character. How do you approach place in your writing?
BD: Place in my work is always a character. I love the challenge of conveying a place from the inside out, to push against readers’ assumptions and expectations about that particular place, especially Detroit, which everyone thinks they know. Same thing with Lagos, Nigeria, which people have heard stereotypical things about. Places are as complex as people!
My characters reveal themselves to me through the setting. I use a combination of memory and research and imagination to render a place whole, from its cityscape to its landmarks to its inhabitants to its weather to its homegrown music to its industry – everything that helps define it; and then, once that place is rendered familiar to me, I drop my characters into the world I’ve created to see who they become. And there’s a back-and-forth; what the characters need to be for the story and how they interact within this world also influences my rendering of it.
ET: You’ve said that you initially struggled with Into the Go-Slow because you were sticking too closely to reality, which is something you advise your students against. What are the challenges that come from writing fiction that is heavily autobiographical?
BD: My two novels have both had one significant autobiographical element amidst a fictional world. The first drew from my own father to render my portrayal of the father character in the story; I wanted to create a document of who my father was, but almost in a mythical way; once I put him in a completely fictional family and context, that kept him as a character in service to the story rather than to reality. For Go-Slow, the sister Ella was loosely based on my own sister, who died when I was 21. I wanted to do likewise, to render a heightened version of her; but this time I found myself hewing to the real story of her death, and it was completely wrong for the plot. But it took so long to realize that because I was literally blinded by the facts. I finally realized the novel’s sister, Ella, needed to die in Nigeria. In truth my own sister never visited Nigeria.
And that is, I believe, the key challenge to writing fiction drawn from the author’s own experience—allowing what really happened to flatten the story, rather than letting it be source material that inspires the story. Because really, when we write autobiographically, it’s to work out some question that lingers from our lived lives. And the heart of the quest isn’t really “what happened” but what sense we can make of the emotional residue left from what happened. So Go-Slow is ultimately about grief and loss and refusing to let go, and how to eventually reconstitute oneself and move on. That’s really the “real life” experience I was drawing from; any plot, really, can explore those themes.
ET: The particulars you provide about the political, cultural, and social realities of Lagos in the 80s suggest that you conducted thorough research, in addition to incorporating knowledge from when you visited Nigeria as a young journalism fellow. How and when do you approach research in the writing process?
BD: Research is vital to me, and I do it constantly throughout the writing process. I want to know as much as possible about a place and its history, so I can render its world with assurance and authenticity. For Go-Slow, I relied on memory and old journals and letters and photographs; but I also did a plethora of research, reading books and articles and Googling away. I particularly enjoyed watching old video clips of Lagos on YouTube, and of the musician Fela’s live performances. I purposely decided not to revisit Nigeria because I wanted to hold its 1980s version in my memory. The internet makes that approach more viable than ever!
One of my proudest achievements with Go-Slow is that I set the last section of the book in a northern city in Nigeria, Kano, and that’s a place I’ve never been. I recreated it completely from research. When Nigerians read the book, they’ve told me I captured Kano convincingly, and they can’t believe I haven’t been there. That’s where research meets imagination meets characterization. I loved the challenge!
ET: Our readers are particularly interested in writers who didn’t publish their first novels until after they’d turned 40. While that holds true in your situation, you certainly weren’t a novice writer when Shifting Through Neutral came out, having also been a journalist and a screenwriter. What inspired you to make the move to novelist?
BD: Like so many writers, I’ve always wanted to write a novel, from a young age. Although I trained as a journalist, and enjoyed reporting, my real love was fiction. I did write a novel in my late 20s, and even tried to sell it. It was pretty bad, though, and in frustration I stuck it in a drawer and decided to take a screenwriting class just for the fun of it. Ten years later, I’d devoted my 30s to screenwriting and filmmaking; after making a feature film, I couldn’t wait to return to my first love. You need neither a large crew nor a lot of money to write fiction. That felt comforting, and I relished the solitude of fiction writing, and I lifted just one line from that earlier, badly written novel, which became the impetus for Shifting Through Neutral.
ET: In addition to being a successful novelist, journalist, and screenwriter, you’re also: a professor who teaches creative writing and journalism; the Books Editor for Bold As Love Magazine; the founder and curator of Sundays@, a Brooklyn-based reading series; and one of the founders of ringShout, which promotes and celebrates fiction and nonfiction by Black writers in the U.S. Plus, you’re a mother of two and wife. So many of us struggle just to carve out time to write. How have you managed to balance so many demanding roles?
BD: Really, I have no secret formula for doing a lot of things at once. I grew up watching my mother multi-task as a hands-on parent, a businesswoman, a trusted friend, a mentor to girls….and she did so without frustration or irritation, so I guess doing several things at once comes naturally to me.
But I also want other women to know that I haven’t done all these things at the same time, nor with the same intensity. Before I had children, I could devote 15 hours a day to my craft, to being on a film set or writing all day. When my children were young, mothering and my job took precedence, with early-mornings devoted to a bit of writing. As my children have gotten older I’ve been able to do more of what I call the “literary citizenship” work, which I also love. But with this new book, the memoir, I’ve had to pull back and let the writing take first place again because it’s so personal, it’s taking all the creative energy I have. And that’s okay. My guiding principle is that I’ll do what I can when I can to the extent I can.
ET: What do you see as the advantages of completing your first novel after having established yourself in different fields?
BD: I was as excited and nervous as any first-time author when Shifting was published. But I was also 44 years old, and I’d already proven myself as a screenwriter/filmmaker, a popular professor, and as a prolific journalist. I wanted my first novel to be well received, but I wasn’t attaching my self-worth to what critics and others said about it. Having achieved some measure of success in other fields, I was not solely defined by the label Novelist. It was another thing I’d accomplished, but it wasn’t all that I’d done, and it wasn’t all that I was. That helped.
And of course, all my experience writing newspaper and magazine articles, and later screenplays, and teaching all those writing courses informed my fiction writing. It was great training for crafting a novel, and that simply wouldn’t have been the case had I published sooner. Likewise, I never could’ve written Shifting when I was younger; I needed the distance from childhood, the maturity, the knowledge that comes from being a mother myself…It would have been a very different novel, and I suspect an inferior one, had I written it in my 20s or 30s.
ET: You’ve been working on a memoir about your mother’s experience as a matriarch and number runner. Do you intend to return to fiction after you complete that work, or are you ready to tackle an entirely different genre now?
BD: I’ve essentially devoted each decade of my adult life to a different genre of writing – journalism, screenwriting, novel writing, memoir. Next up for me is TV writing. I’d love to adapt my new memoir about my mom into a TV series. And while you should never say never, I don’t see myself writing another novel in the near future. I have at least two more nonfiction books I’m eager to write.
ET: What advice would you give to burgeoning writers of any age?
BD: Write. Daily. And badly, if necessary. Then, once writing regularly has become a daily habit, like calisthenics, and you’ve honed that muscle, find a writing group. Better yet, start one. The key is to have accountability to others, which helps you show up to the work and write regularly. Feedback, too, is vital because you get to hear what you’re saying in your writing rather than what you thought you were saying. And try to build a community of writers to support and be supported by. That’s also vital, for the long haul. And buy other writers’ books – people whose readings you attend, emerging writers you read about in reviews, friends’ friends who’ve published. Be a good literary citizen.
Finally, I’d say to an older writer: Never be afraid to be the oldest one in the room. That has been my experience. Whether it’s taking writing classes or literature courses or returning to school for an M.F.A., or attending writer’s conferences, whatever it is, allow yourself to be in student mode. Give yourself permission to learn the craft, at whatever age. Always be open to growing as a writer, and you will.
Ericka Taylor has served as the Assistant Fiction Editor and Assistant Managing Editor for the literary journal, Willow Springs, and is currently working on a novel.
Homepage image/author photo by Rob Fields