Talking Black Writers, “Bring Back Our Girls” and All the Buzz About Bridgett M. Davis’ New Book

2014 1002 davis stBridgett M. Davis (Photo: Rob Fields)Filmmaker, journalist, professor and author Bridgett M. Davis ranks among the most influential culture workers living in Brooklyn. One of “10 New York Authors to Read Right Now” according to Time Out, Davis crosses cultures with Into The Go-Slow (The Feminist Press, September 2014), a beautiful novel that explores themes of loss and recovery.

Her female protagonist flies from Detroit to Lagos to retrace the last steps of her activist sister, who died under mysterious circumstances, her body crushed somewhere within the profusion of humanity that daily surges through Africa’s most populous city. Chris Abani praised Into the Go-Slow as “a beautiful allegory at the heart of a realist novel.” But praise for work produced by Davis began long before she even began writing this, her second book.

Director of the 1996 award-winning independent film Naked Acts, Davis caused a stir among the poets, painters, dancers and DJs who populated Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood in its pre-gentrification heyday. She met her future husband, marketing whiz Rob Fields, at East Village landmark Nuyorican Poets Café when he was repping for the Black Rock Coalition and he buzzed all over the borough to build support among artists, thinkers and regular folk. On opening night, 600 people stood in line to see Davis’ woman-centered film, and she delivered. Naked Acts was not only the first American film to be written, produced, directed and self-distributed theatrically by a black woman, it also broke box office records for a single-screen, “exclusive” release without name actors, thanks to word-of-mouth and Rob’s guerilla-style marketing.

After winning awards from Berlin to Burkina Faso for Naked Acts, Davis earned accolades for her work as a journalism professor at Baruch College. And she and Rob started their family. And she continued to write.

In 2005, Davis published her debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral, a finalist for the Hurston / Wright Legacy Award. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to The Washington Post, Essence, O, The Oprah Magazine, Writers Digest and TheRoot.com. But she does more than write.

The term “go-slow” is a Nigerian patois for traffic jams; and so the title speaks to the dichotomy between the stasis of stalled traffic and the kinetic streets of Nigeria

In the tradition of black women writers through the generations, Davis has formed institutions to recognize the work of other ambitious black writers. She is a founding member of ringShout, A Place for Black Literature; Books Editor at Bold as Love Magazine, a site devoted to black culture; and curator for the Brooklyn reading series Sundays @ . . .

She manages all this while managing her busy family of four. And she is a friend, my friend.

I was thrilled to talk with her exclusively for Truthout.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen: I want to start by saying how excited I am about this book! I have seen the narrative develop over the years in our writers group, where you shared your work-in-progress with me and other women writers. In what way(s) did an all-female writing group support you as Into the Go-Slow started to come together?

Bridgett M. Davis: Having a women’s writing group to support me through process has been absolutely vital. Especially in the early, tentative years, I knew you and the other women in the group would immediately value the story, see its relevance and its big themes without relegating it to the category of “women’s fiction.” And yet, as women, you each were able to connect with the female characters’ struggles and ambitions in ways men simply couldn’t. Plus, the all-female group members understood my struggle to balance life demands and writing – all of that nurturing kept me buoyed, sustained me through the years.

So, I have to ask, why the change from the original working title, Lagos, to the one the novel has now, Into the Go-Slow? What is it about this title that worked for you?

In all my creative work, I always give the project a working title, a place holder that speaks to the literal content of the work. But eventually, as the story’s themes become more resonant, and I see what the work is ultimately saying, I try to find a title that speaks to that. I did that with my film, Naked Acts, as well as with Shifting Through Neutral.

With Into The Go-Slow, the term “go-slow” is a Nigerian patois for traffic jams; and so the title speaks to the dichotomy between the stasis of stalled traffic and the kinetic streets of Nigeria – where traffic may not be moving, but life is happening around it, with horns blowing, and scooters weaving in and out, with people selling goods at car windows. I wanted to convey Angie’s “stalled” life juxtaposed against her brave plunge into a metaphorical kinetic space.

Of course, the new title does in some ways reference the title of your debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral, which was published by Amistad in 2004. Both books examine themes of mobility and access to fresh new spaces for your black female protagonists. Why do you think these themes resonate so deeply with you?

Believe it or not, I hadn’t even seen the parallel between the two titles until someone pointed it out to me. I also hadn’t consciously made vehicles and traffic so prevalent a presence in both books. But what can I say? I’m from the Motor City. So much of my coming of age in Detroit was around car culture – going every year to the big Auto Show, passing by car dealerships dotted all over town, hearing relatives talk about work in the auto plants. I got my first car at 17 – a Pontiac Sunbird, and it’s the first memory I have of unadulterated joy. And later, that car was the site of some pain.

Cars have always represented both freedom and potential danger to me, and I see those as the two key sides of human experience. And so, it makes sense to me to use them as metaphors for how we “drive” through life.

Detroit figures as prominently as Lagos in your novel, so that both cities become characters in the narrative. With its current water crisis and status as the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy, Detroit circa 2014 isn’t too different from the Lagos of the 1980s. What do the problems we associate with these two different cities say about the shared condition of black people around the world?

I always saw similarities between Lagos and Detroit, and now that comparison is more acute. Isn’t it ironic that I wrote about Nigerians’ being shut off from access to water, only to see Detroiters suffering from a similar fate today? Both are places where black people live in a kind of isolation, ostracized and even penalized by an unforgiving power structure that finds them expendable. Africans have faced this condition since colonization, and of course black folks in this country have faced it since our ancestors were brought here. Britain abandoned Nigeria to its own devices after independence, and chaos ensued. White Detroiters abandoned the city to get away from black residents – no other reason – and chaos ensued. Same exploitative story, different locale.

You examine many provocative themes in your work, and we readers are lucky indeed that the book publishing industry has made Into the Go-Slow available to us. Let’s talk about availability and access a bit. What has been different about the publishing process this second time around? In what way or ways has the books publishing industry changed in the past 10 years?

The biggest change of course is e-books. Ten years ago, the idea of reading a book on a screen would’ve sounded like science fiction. That, coupled with the role of social media, has changed the way books are promoted and how they’re purchased and read. That has, obviously, reverberating consequences. So, 10 years ago, we hoped for good reviews in the major media, I created a website; my publisher sent me to a few cities and I signed books at indie bookstores and the chain stores, and hoped for the best. There was no Facebook or YouTube or Twitter or online media. There were gatekeepers and long-lead press and wishful thinking.

If I were to curate a panel of black women writers today, I’d focus on how we might capitalize on the fact that the most likely person to read a book in any format is a college-educated black woman.

Now? Because people can find out about you and buy your book via their smart phones, the traditional approaches aren’t enough (unless you’re already a best-selling author). Book tours and events still matter, because as human beings we want that face-to-face experience with the author, but it’s the online sites and social media that truly amplify your book. The New York Times Book Review can still do wonders, but in fact there are also several key online review sites that can do wondrous things for your book. I don’t know how well publishers have made the switch, to become nimble enough to penetrate that social-media space in a way that’s truly impactful.

And so, it’s left up to the author to do that.

The biggest missed opportunity I think is that publishers didn’t align themselves financially and philosophically with brick-and-mortar bookstores to ensure their survival, so as to offset Amazon’s dominance.

How has publishing for a smaller, woman-centered publishing company, The Feminist Press, been? Has the political component of this nonprofit impacted your personal experience as a writer in some way?

I really am in a love affair with Feminist Press right now. The fact that its mission is to publish literary work with a feminist thrust by diverse women across the globe means that my profile matches their agenda! FP is a small press that publishes very few books a year, so each one is an all-hands-on-deck labor of love by the entire staff. They’re invested in my book and know it intimately, so they share in a very personal way in its success. The whole staff showed up to my book party – from the publisher to the interns!

In 2006, you and I shared a panel at New York’s McNally Jackson Bookstore with author Martha Southgate, who published Third Girl From the Left that same year. We focused our discussion on the experiences we were having as black women writers in particular and talked about everything from street lit to cover art to honoring the tradition of black women writers in the United States. What would be the important topics for a group of black women writers to discuss today? Have things changed for contemporary women writers of African descent, or have things pretty much stayed the same?

Great question! Eight years since that panel, I think there’s a lot to feel good about: Just think of the women writers we’ve featured at ringShout events in recent years whose books were published by established presses and received acclaim: Tayari Jones, Emily Raboteau, Catherine McKinley, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Sheri Booker and Danielle Evans; Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ book, WENCH, was a New York Times bestseller, and Attica Locke’s mystery novel did very well. This year, Tiphanie Yanique is enjoying a wonderful, well-deserved reception for her new book.

The black community is far too familiar with loss – the premature, tragic and violent kind.

So the issues that seemed so resonant back then – street lit usurping popular and literary work, cynical covers on our books – seem less resonant. If I were to curate a panel of black women writers today, I’d focus on how we might capitalize on the fact that the most likely person to read a book in any format is a college-educated black woman.

What can we do with that power? What should we do? Seems to me we need structures in place similar to what Ava Duverney has done with AFFRM, which provides a distribution and viewing network for indie films by black directors.

Both Shifting Through Neutral and Into the Go-Slow are set in Detroit, though your latest novel takes the reader to Ikeja, Surulere and Kano – all communities in and around Lagos. Your female protagonist, Angie, makes a reverse migration. What pulled you over the Atlantic, back to the West Coast of Africa, both as a student in the 1980s and as an author today, and why did you decide to take your main character there, too?

I initially went to West Africa on a fellowship awarded after graduation. I’d taken a Contemporary West African Lit course in college and was so riveted by the writers I read that I knew when I had the chance I’d choose to travel to the Continent. Later, I got to see a few more African countries as a filmmaker. Looking back, I harbored a desire to write my own Africa novel for all those years. But from the start I was interested both in capturing African life the way I’d seen it portrayed in literature by African authors AND through the eyes of an expat. So, this novel allowed me to do both.

In your book, Angie’s sister is a true activist. Her work as a journalist in Nigeria allows her to research several injustices that directly affect Nigerian women and children, including the sale of tainted formula to pregnant and nursing mothers. What was the overall situation for Nigerian women and children in the mid-1980s, when Into the Go-Slow was set?

That particular storyline comes directly from real life. I was studying African media women as part of my fellowship when I traveled to Nigeria in the ’80s and became friends with a woman journalist who wrote about that issue. Overall, Nigerian women were just starting to amplify “women’s issues” and broaden the definition of what that meant in the ’80s. Their concerns and voices were just starting to be heard in progressive media. Of course, these fearless women had been fighting on behalf of their sisters for many years. And there were all the issues you’d imagine: high infant mortality, high maternal death rates, harsh living and working conditions, disease, poor access to water. But there were some great strides too by women, like the first female publisher of a daily newspaper, Doyan Abiola, and more women entering the work force doing “traditional men’s jobs.”

Nigeria has been prominent in the minds of Americans this summer because of the April 2014 kidnapping of about 300 schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign to raise awareness about their plight. Help us understand what is going on in the country today. What is the situation for Nigerian women and children now? How is it possible that hundreds of girls, girls who were studying to take their exams in physics, could be just – taken? How is it possible that five months later these girls have not been recovered? Can you give us some insight based on your personal connection to Nigeria?

I have not been to Nigeria since the ’80s, so I can’t speak to the current climate in the country that created an environment for such a horrendous act. I see Boko Haram’s acts as more so part of a larger, frightening trend of attacks on women and girls in the name of religious extremism – whether it’s Afghanistan or India, Pakistan or Nigeria. What does sadly feel indicative of Nigeria is President Goodluck Jonathan’s woefully inadequate and shameful response to the kidnapping. He is unfortunately part of a long line of despots and incompetent leaders running Nigeria since its brief flirtation with democracy in the ’80s.

Though your novel was written long before the Boko Haram kidnapping that sparked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Into the Go-Slow does examine themes of loss and recovery. Angie goes looking for the true tale of her sister’s adventures in Nigeria. Along with the level of ambitious, elegant prose you’ve achieved, and other elements that render your work literary, this theme of loss and recovery really does place your work in the tradition of talented black women writers. Why does this desire, this quest for the recovery of the black female narrative, still resonate today?

The black community is far too familiar with loss – the premature, tragic and violent kind. And who bears the brunt of that loss more so than the community’s mothers and aunties and sisters? Black women understand loss. So I’m not surprised that so many black women writers explore the theme of loss in their work; nor is it surprising that recovery is equally resonant in our work. Writing allows us to make sense of the senseless, to give order to what seems like the universe’s randomness, the world’s cruelties; the writing itself is a healing act, its own kind of recovery. I like the idea of writing as reclamation – getting back some of what we lost.

One other important aspect of your novel is the way you center the sacrifices of countless, nameless revolutionaries who were active toward the end of the 20th century in the post-civil rights / post-black power period of the anti-apartheid ’80s. Angie’s sister literally gives everything she has to the global struggle to free black people. A pan-African womanist, Angie’s sister is certainly no anomaly. Why did you choose to shed light on the women and men who travel the globe, crossing borders, seeking to free black people?

My own sister was tangentially involved in nationalist politics; I wanted to explore the way she chose an unorthodox life, how she rejected a system that had rejected her, and how it ultimately cost her. That led me to think of all the nameless foot soldiers that gave their lives to the struggle. I wanted to acknowledge them and acknowledge that collective post-traumatic stress syndrome so many suffered from in the wake of the Movement; I wanted to honor their sacrifice.

While Angie’s sister is a political activist, she is also a young woman, seeking as much to fulfill her own desire for romance and a personal purpose as she is seeking to liberate The People. Angie cannot fully come into her own as a woman until she can bear witness to her sister’s experiences. Do you think we all need our sisters, and our sistahs, in order to come of age as black women?

The bond between sisters, and between sistahs, is a unique relationship – something rare and unto itself. And I feel it’s too seldom represented in literature. Sisterhood – blood or otherwise – can be a passionate experience, even as it can be fraught with complications and misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. But it’s so fundamental to who we are as black women, that who would we be without them? That was the fundamental question I wanted to explore in this novel: Who are you when the person you’ve defined yourself against is gone?