by Kim Coleman Foote
Bridgett M. Davis insists she’s “so not a Superwoman” but rather a careful planner. That, she says, is how she has successfully held several demanding careers in three decades. She wrote and directed the award-winning indie film, Naked Acts; worked as a newspaper reporter; and is currently Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, CUNY, in New York City.
Davis’s second novel, released this September by The Feminist Press, is Into the Go-Slow, a saga of two sisters in 1980s Detroit and Nigeria. Bridgett’s first novel, Shifting Through Neutral, was a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist. Time Out has hailed her one of “10 New York Authors to Read Right Now.”
While the “so-not-a-Superwoman” assertion can be contested, as you can see, I would hope that Bridgett agrees that she’s been a trailblazer as well as a role model for women who struggle to balance work—especially in the arts—with family (yes, Bridgett is a wife and mother too!). Not to mention that she lives up to being a “good literary citizen,” in that she’s helped organize ringShout, a group that promotes black literature, amongst other pursuits.
I first met Bridgett this spring at the PEN World Voices Festival, where she discussed Into the Go-Slow during the panel, Bad Women: When Women Break the Rules. I was intrigued by more than just the panel’s premise. Bridgett explained that the novel follows two complex black female characters: sisters from Detroit. There is Ella, who overcomes drug addiction and dives into journalism with a feminist angle in Nigeria, only to meet a tragic ending. There is her younger sister Angie, who follows in Ella’s footsteps, trying to recapture Ella’s life while pushing through her grief.
Because I write fiction and memoir about historical and contemporary Africa and love reading books set in Africa, I eagerly awaited the novel’s publication. I’ve been overjoyed by the recent explosion of publications in the U.S. by African fiction writers, especially since the demise of the Heinemann African Writers Series, but I’ve yearned for more stories about how those of us in the Diaspora experience Africa. As in my case, Bridgett’s fiction was informed by her personal experiences there in her early 20s. She explored women-centered journalism there on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which funds a year of travel abroad.
I was fortunate to catch Bridgett just before the start of her very busy book tour, to ask about her beginnings as a writer, her many creative ventures, the new novel, and why Nigeria—which she hasn’t returned to since the 80s—has captured her thoughts for so long.
Kim Coleman Foote: When did you start writing fiction?
Bridgett M. Davis: I’ve been writing stories since I was a child. I can remember creating little plays and having my friends act them out. The first real short story I wrote was in 7th or 8th grade. The first line was, “The scent of cherry blossoms permeated the air as Lucretia Jackson strolled along the wide streets of Washington, DC.” I still remember so vividly the excitement of crafting a world from a mashup of real-life and make-believe. Later, I wrote a short story in college that received an award, and that small validation cemented my desire to write fiction.
I didn’t commit to creative writing, however, until I quit my job as a newspaper reporter in Philly, packed up a U-Haul, and moved to New York. That’s when I made the choice to freelance so that I could carve out time to write a novel. People thought I’d had a nervous breakdown—[that was] the only way folks could explain why I’d left a good job at a major daily to become unemployed!
KCF: And look at everything that’s resulted! Do you have any literary heroes (writers as well as characters)?
BMD: My number one literary hero is Louise Meriwether. My sister put her coming-of-age novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, into my hands when I was 10 or 11, and nothing was ever the same for me. Suddenly I understood that little black girls like me could exist in fiction, that little girls like me were worthy of stories that placed them at the center, that little black girls like me could narrate their own stories. I’m sure on some visceral level I decided to become a writer once I read that book.
The protagonist in Number Runner is an 11-year-old girl named Francie Coffin, growing up in 1930s Harlem, and she was definitely my first character hero. She was tough and smart and vulnerable and funny. I just loved her.
There have been more literary heroes along the way. Not surprisingly, Toni Morrison is one. Sula is still an all-time favorite character for me. Her independence and sense of self as a black female were astonishing to find between the pages of a book.
Gabriel Marquez, Louise Erdrich, Marilynne Robinson, Kathryn Harrison, and Arundhati Roy are all writers of whom I am in awe—each for different reasons. I read the novels of each when I was at a particular point in my own journey as a writer, and so each gave me a certain gift of craft, but really more so of possibility.
The one book I reread every few years is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Everything about that book is a tour-de-force—the changing POVs, the structure, the pacing, the way characters speak, the deep sense of place.
KCF: How did you decide on Africa and particularly Nigeria, for your Watson Fellowship?
BMD: Africa felt like the most logical and natural choice. I’d been reading novels by African writers ever since taking a college course in contemporary West African lit, and so the continent already loomed large in my imagination. I wanted to see African life as I’d read about it in the work of Achebe and Emecheta and Aidoo. And while I had no interest per se in discovering my own roots, I loved the idea of visiting the continent where my ancestors originated. Given the chance to visit anywhere in the world, I chose Africa—no second choice.
Plus I was already committed to journalism as a career and decided I’d study African media women. I learned that the countries with the most active organizations for women in media were Kenya and Nigeria, so I went to both. I also spent time in London and Paris, doing research at the University of London’s SOAS and UNESCO.
KCF: Why do you think Nigeria has had such an influence on you for so long?
BMD: Lagos is such an unforgettable place, first of all. It’s boisterous and flashy and messy and willful and complicated and just endlessly fascinating. Also, the impact it had on me was a confluence of my own impressionable age and the place itself at that moment in time. We were both young—Nigeria was barely 25 years away from independence—and both still filled with possibility and potential.
The way I felt about my own life gelled with the way Nigerians felt about their country; I felt a common sense of hope and anxiousness, and it endeared me to the place and to the people I met there. Also, exposure to a different culture—to a different type of black culture—was so eye-opening to me as someone who’d grown up black in America. Being there helped me foment a sense of my own global identity outside of the US definition (I was more than a black American) even as it helped me understand my American-ness. I felt a kind of dissonance, but a happy one.
KCF: In Into the Go-Slow, Angie and Ella more or less blended in physically on the continent (I was jealous!!). I could imagine that you yourself were mistaken for Fulani in Nigeria. Can you talk about how this contributed to your personal experience, if at all?
BMD: Yes, people would often tell me I looked Fulani, that I was Fulani. I must say that I was surprised at how good that felt! Even though I had no conscious need to know my “roots,” I loved hearing that I looked as though I belonged to a certain tribe.
Thinking about it later, I realized the depth of our need to belong, and the traumatic, collective loss for black Americans robbed of knowing from whence we came. That’s why these days, ancestry sites and DNA testing are so popular. It’s a fundamental, innate desire to want to know your origins.
KCF: Knowing more about your motivations for going to Africa is really insightful, because Into the Go-Slow isn’t the “quest for roots” story readers might expect. Angie is on a heritage quest of sorts as she tries to recreate Ella’s life in Nigeria, but neither she nor Ella seemed to yearn for an ancestral connection. Was this a conscious choice?
BMD: It was both a conscious and unconscious choice. I never felt compelled to tell the “finding your roots” story because I wanted to create African-American characters who experienced Africa the way I had—as a contemporary place with a complex, fascinating cultural history. A place that existed on its own terms, not as a backdrop for my characters’ personal identity crisis.
The young women in my novel do not go to Africa to find themselves; they go there in order to be more themselves. Of course, Angie and Ella do each connect to their African heritage in an organic way, as a kind of by-product of simply being there and engaging the culture.
KCF: A few times in the novel, Angie questions what it means to “be black in the world.” Yet, it seemed to me that her ultimate challenge was to discover what it means to be Angie, since she virtually lived four years of her life through Ella. Can you talk more about Angie’s conception of “blackness” and why it mattered so much to her in 1980s Detroit?
BMD: I believe that for all African-Americans, the question of how to be black in the world is intertwined with self-identity because it’s about how you move through the world, and the choices you make. It’s about the lens through which you see yourself. You’re a human being with an internal life, and you’re also part of a continuum of blackness in this country. How will you self-identify? Are you part of the tribe, or are you a unique individual?
Ideally, we could be both, but it’s tricky because we live in such a race-conscious society. Our blackness is always apparent, and as such, assumptions are always made about us. Most of us find ourselves with a foot in each world, living a double consciousness as Du Bois spoke of, code-switching when necessary. That’s a complex way of being that can take years to comfortably inhabit. Angie is just coming to understand that complexity.
She comes of age on the heels of the Black Power, Civil Rights, Black Arts, and Pan-African movements that gave many blacks a way to self-identify. She has no such easily identifiable movement to join. What she sees are aging activists and Buppies. So who is she? Because she hasn’t quite figured that out, she clings to a nostalgia for those earlier movement days. You can understand why; it seems so much easier! And so, Angie has to figure out how to be black in the world—separate and apart from how her sister chose to be—in order to figure out how to be herself. Like writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, “I had to be a nationalist before I could be a humanist.”
KCF: The novel portrays the complexities and contradictions of Nigerian society: wealth and technology rub shoulders with poverty and poorly planned infrastructure, and corruption, bribery, and American influences (MJ!) abound. Angie also looks to 1970s Nigeria with nostalgia, though those who lived through it busted that bubble. In a way, Detroit is Lagos’s counterpart: a once thriving black metropolis on the decline. I thought this was a fitting comparison.
BMD: I always saw Detroit and Lagos as mirror images of one another. I often would tell people that to understand Detroit, you should think of it as a small African country abandoned by its colonizers, imploding from poor self-rule, and then ostracized and blamed by the rest of the world for not thriving. It’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” American-style.
BMD: That said, there are many differences between the two places, of course. I haven’t been to Lagos in two decades, but I can tell you this about Detroit: It’s going into bankruptcy, yes, but it’s still a major city of nearly 700,000 residents. You cannot generalize about that many people, no matter how many times the media focuses on images of ruin porn.
The city was neglected by our government on every level, so yes it has [a large percentage of] poor residents with few options, [but] it also has activists, public servants, hipster arrivals, teachers, artists, homesteaders, and longtime residents who refuse to give up. The city is transforming and becoming that new kind of American city—smaller, gentrified, and what the sociologist Thomas Segrue calls a victim of “trickle down urbanism.” Working-class folks are not benefiting from the “revitalization.” And Detroit is just the canary in the coal mine. People need to understand that their own cities are next.
KCF: There are many similarities between Angie, Ella, and you. You grew up in Detroit and pursued women-focused journalism in Nigeria in the 80s. Your uncle trained horses too, and you experienced the loss of your sister, to whom you dedicated the novel. Did writing the novel help you gain insights about yourself or your own experience in Nigeria?
BMD: This novel was, in its way, more autobiographical than my first novel, Shifting Through Neutral. I actually used excerpts from my journals to help me recall experiences in Nigeria and to create characters and scenes. And yet, the plot is fiction. For instance, my sister died from an embolism, not from a car accident. She never traveled to Nigeria. But her death certainly still haunts me, and writing this book gave me a way to explore my own grief and explore who I was in the aftermath of her death. My central question was: Who are you when the person you’ve defined yourself against is gone?
And yes, I got to figure out what my experiences in Nigeria actually meant, lo these many years later. With context and hindsight and Google, I got a chance to deepen my understanding of what was happening to that young, naïve woman back then. That was a thrilling process.
KCF: Okay, so I’m excited to know: did you ever see the legendary Fela perform, like your characters did?
BMD: I never met Fela [personally], but I did spend time in his club, the legendary Africa Shrine. I can recall being so near the stage that I could see the muscles tense in his neck as he blew his horn. He was so mesmerizing! I also saw him perform on the University of Lagos campus, amidst a throng of enthralled college students. What was so astonishing to me, even then, was the love and respect young Nigerians had for him. He really was Africa’s rock star, and ironically, for many years Americans didn’t even know who he was.
KCF: Well, now in New York, at least, Fela seems like a household name since the musical and now the new documentary on his life. And Afrobeat-themed parties are on the rise! Do you have any plans to go back to Nigeria in the near future?
BMD: Now that the book is done, I’d love to return to Nigeria. I specifically chose not to while I was working on the novel because I wanted to retain my memories of 1980s Nigeria. That was important to me.
KCF: Your film, Naked Acts, and Into the Go-Slow both deal with characters’ weight struggles. All three of your creative works deal with tensions between a mother and daughter and between sisters. Why do you think you’re drawn to these themes?
BMD: Family tensions fascinate me, in part, because I grew up in such a loving household. I’m sure we were as dysfunctional as any American family, but with a tremendous overlay of expressed love. I do not agree with Tolstoy, that every happy family is happy in the same way. And so, I’m endlessly fascinated by imperfect households where family members love and disappoint one another in equal measure. I have little interest in stories about black life that place pathology and meanness at their center. Not my experience, and not my thing.
The interest in women with weight issues comes from my own family. My sisters and my mother were all overweight. From some luck-of-the-metabolism-draw, I didn’t struggle with weight. I feel as though that has given me a unique perspective and sensitivity to how stereotyped and misrepresented large black women can be in the culture. So I guess you could say I’m taking aim at that.
KCF: How has your background in journalism and film influenced your fiction?
BMD: I’m so grateful for my journalism and film background. Film writing forces you to respect structure and paradigms, even as it emphasizes visual storytelling. And journalism makes you unafraid of rewriting, research, and editorial critique. All of that combined has been vital to my evolution as a novelist.
KCF: So…you’re a fiction writer, journalist, wife, mother, filmmaker, professor, and…?? Sounds like the quintessential “Superwoman” life. How do you prioritize, and what’s your secret to making time for writing?
BMD: I’m so not a Superwoman! The things I’ve done sound impressive when you list them, but the truth is I’ve done these things across three decades. I do subscribe to that philosophy that you can do it all, just not all at the same time. So that’s how I prioritized my life choices: I left daily journalism to teach so I could have more time to write. I made a film before I married and had children because I needed the film to be my only priority. And I was over 40 when I published my first novel—by the time my son was entering kindergarten—because teaching full-time with a young child meant I had a small window of time for writing.
My secret to carving out time to write isn’t a secret at all; I rise early and I write while the house is quiet, before my kids and husband wake up. And I try very hard to not judge myself for how long the process takes. I wrote my first novel across seven years; Into the Go-Slow took nine years to write, because sometimes all I could grab was a half-hour in the morning. And because I rewrote the book three times.
KCF: I can certainly relate to spending years on a novel! Did you face any other challenges, though?
BMD: My biggest challenge came from the fact that the story is based on my own experience. For so long, I kept trying to tell these disparate stories—a young woman’s loss of her beloved big sister, and a young woman’s experiences traveling to a foreign place—but I couldn’t figure out how to braid them together. I was stubborn, though, and refused to pick one storyline, as I was advised to do. But because I was holding on to the facts of my own sister’s life and death, it took me forever to realize what the story needed: Ella goes to Nigeria, dies there, and Angie follows in her footsteps to discover what really happened to her. Bingo! That’s when the story took off, and I re-wrote the novel in five months.
KCF: Small independent presses have been getting increasing attention for their ability to champion less mainstream writing and work intimately with their authors. Yet, they don’t necessarily have the clout or budget of larger publishers. What was it like to go with The Feminist Press after having had your first novel published by HarperCollins?
BMD: First of all, the 10-year gap between publications is what makes my experience so vastly different this time. The industry has changed, and I’ve changed. Publishing with HarperCollins, and working with the wonderful editor Dawn Davis was a first-time novelist’s dream, because it felt so validating.
This time around, I feel more confident about my self-worth as a writer, and what matters to me most is yes, working with an editor who gets what I’m doing, but also having a press behind me that takes a long view. The Feminist Press is committed to my novel long past the opening week, and even the first three months. FP is a mission-based nonprofit press; while it’s certainly important to sell as many books as possible, it’s equally important to further the cause of providing a platform for feminist work. Plus, given how small its staff is, I’m awed by their dedication and their effusive support of me, and the loving care given to every detail of the novel. I’m not just published by FP; I’m a member of FP’s community of writers, and that is a great feeling.
KCF: What changes have you seen in the way books are being published and promoted nowadays?
BMD: It’s a different world from when I published my first novel ten years ago. Back then, I created a little film for the book—we didn’t call them book trailers yet—and the publicist didn’t quite know how to share it. There was no YouTube! It almost feels quaint now, the naïve hope that if I went to a few cities on a book tour and got some press, that that would somehow be enough. Boy oh boy, has social media changed that notion!
Everyone now talks about your online presence and your social media strategy and the need to get certain press so you can amplify public awareness. All that is true. But I’m amazed at the pressure put on writers themselves to generate that awareness. It seems so frenzied, and I can’t help but think it lets publishers off the hook a bit. Yes, I know all about Amazon’s strong-arm tactics and the rise of e-books and the shrinking of major publishers’ staffs, etc., etc., etc., but those elements are out of a writer’s control, so I do not take any of that on as my burden.
Let me add: I also do NOT subscribe to the notion that it’s my friends and their friends’ job to help me get on the NY Times bestseller list. I find that an unfortunate measure of success. I did not write my book to get on a particular list. I wrote it so people would read it, and so I could engage with readers about the ideas my book tackles. Those readers come from all kinds of surprising places.
And so, I’m most proud of the fact that during those ten years between books, I spent time becoming a good literary citizen. I bought other writers’ books and spread the word about authors that I felt deserved attention. I helped found ringShout, a group devoted to just that very thing. We launched an annual event that’s in its 5th year as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival. I mentored junior faculty who’re creative writers at my university. I joined writing groups. As Books Editor for Bold As Love Magazine, I wrote about authors doing great work. I started and became the curator for a monthly reading series to showcase writers of color.
Being a good literary citizen is paying off for me now that my own book is out in the world. THAT to me is what’s most empowering and rewarding about promoting my book—the opportunity to add my own work to a larger conversation that I’ve already been part of.
KCF: That’s such an admirable way of approaching it. Can you share some details about what you’re currently working on?
BMD: I’m writing a memoir about my mother. She was a number-runner (a bookie for an underground lottery business) who raised five children, gave us a middle-class life, and became a philanthropist and mentor to young women as well. I want the world to know more about this incredible African-American woman who made such a difference to so many people’s lives. It’s a challenging project, but I’m excited about it too.
KCF: I’m hooked already! And I can imagine why Daddy Was a Number Runner had such an impact on you when you were young. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
BMD: Just thank you for such great questions, and for this opportunity.
Kim Coleman Foote is a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Ghana, where she conducted research on the slave trade for a novel. Her fiction, essays, and experimental prose have appeared in Obsidian, The Literary Review, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, and elsewhere. She has received writing fellowships from the Hambidge Center, Vermont Studio Center, Illinois Arts Council, and Hedgebrook, amongst others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chicago State University and currently lives in Brooklyn. For more information, visit www.kimcolemanfoote.com.