Tananarive

By Mark Hedden

The second speaker of the morning was Tananarive Due who, if she’s not a hometown girl, is one from right up the road, having grown up in Miami. She opened by explaining how she steered herself from the who, what, when, where and why of journalism to a stint as the Miami Herald’s dating columnist to writing supernatural fiction. (She decided it was best to give up the dating column once she became engaged.)

The root of it all for her, she said, was a yawning fear of death that came upon her as a twelve-year-old girl lying in bed and has not completely left her to this day.
She said that this was paired with a feeling of isolation due to the particulars of her childhood.

Her parents were/are civil rights activists in Miami in the 1960s and 1970s. While those new to Florida may think of it as the most multicultural region in the country, during that era it was the South, and open segregation was the way of the land. (Her mother was arrested and jailed in 1960 for sitting at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee.)

When she was a child her family moved into several yet-to-be-integrated South Florida neighborhoods, places where she was often the only black kid, and where 4-year-olds would throw out the N-word without hesitation. (The worst, she said, was an older boy who called her both four eyes and the N-word, which stung double.)

It wasn’t until later that she learned that white members of the local Unitarian Church would park on her street, sit in their cars, and keep a protective watch over her family’s house.

Some people create a bulwark against such feelings of loss, foreboding and loneliness through religion or denial, she said, but for her it’s speculative fiction. Her novels “My Soul to Keep” and “The Living Blood” are about the practical problems of a sect of immortals who try to keep themselves emotionally and culturally isolated from mortal humans, who they view as hopeless tragic figures. (Reading them you begin to get the idea that death may not be the worst thing.)

Her most recent novel, “Joplin’s Ghost,” juxtaposes and blends the contemporary story of a 24-year-old woman trying to make it as an R&B singer with that the ragtime pianist and composer Scott Joplin, who died alone and forgotten in a mental institution in 1917, knowing it would take another 50 years for the public to fully appreciate his work. (While talking about this “Joplin’s Ghost” she said she was trying to resist holding it up and waving it in front of the crowd, then gave up and did it anyhow. “I write for a living, ladies and gentleman,” she said, laughing.

Tananarive took questions after the talk and reading, and the last one was about the provenance of her her first name, which came from the former name of the capital of Madagascar. (The city is now called Antananarivo.) She she doesn’t mind if people spell it wrong, as her mother did the first time she tried to write it one her birth certificate.

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