by Nancy Freund
Sika Dagbovie-Mullins opened Sunday’s panel on Putting Black Florida on the Page quoting Tananarive Due’s 2020 short story collection Ghost Summer, saying home is a place we might not be comfortable, but we “make it work.” She then turned to her three Black panelists: Dantiel W. Moniz, from Jacksonville, Tananarive Due, and Jonathan Escoffery, both from Miami.
Dontiel said when something absurd happens in Florida, friends call her. She says, “It is what it is… Florida will always be home.” All three panelists seemed to agree with this viewpoint – even as they also agreed they’re not eager to move back to Florida from their current homes elsewhere in the US.
Sika’s question pointed at a broader subject in Black experience – that of comfort – or discomfort – in one’s life. Tananarive said a “writer fixes time and place to help people who come after understand the place through people who came before.” Her new novel The Reformatory about the Dozier School, where her mother’s uncle was killed, explores a terrible part of Florida’s history with a fictional lightness added by ghosts. She says her writing “often includes magical, improbable creatures – an amalgam of what Florida feels like to me.” For Tananarive, a blend of fiction and nonfiction creates the driving force of the novel.
Jonathan spoke of his experience as the son of Jamaican immigrants who’d made the difficult choice coming to Miami like many of his friends’ immigrant families. “Probably all my friends thought about their identity through the lens of the country they came from…” For Jonathan, the effort of recreating his family’s culture of origin extends to the page in his debut novel If I Survive You. He said he’s wondered if there are places he’d be more accepted — Jamaica, for instance – but then his parents remind him that he’s not actually Jamaican. He wonders if he’d therefore be a “weirdo” everywhere.
Tananarive laughed. Throughout her upbringing, her parents were both active in the civil rights movement, and she was taught to be outspoken. However, in her newly integrated neighborhood, not all the neighbors were accepting. She endured racial slurs close to home, then she was bussed to a Black school where she didn’t speak like her peers and was called an Oreo. She too said the feeling of not fitting in always informs her writing. “It was home, but did I ever feel like I completely belonged? Not really.” The conversation led to the bigger question, not just are we comfortable here, but are we safe?
Sika asked Dontiel about the liminality of adolescence in her short story collection, Milk, Blood, Heat. Dontiel said her mother taught her how to stay safe in white spaces – sometimes delivering mixed messages about beauty and race. As a result, she said, she has some “unlearning” to do in her writing, often considering gaze. “Am I being looked on as threat or prey?” And she’s learned that Blackness is not a monolith – even if the publishing industry may demand a certain type of Blackness in fiction, demanding that a Black writer bargains with their own identity.
Jonathan added that as he “learned” he was Black, he felt he had to learn to behave like his 13-year-old Black friends. He said, “you’re not performing it for fun. It’s to blend in, stay safe, not have a target on your head.” As a writer though, there’s only so much pain he wants to put on the page, saying, “you don’t want to exacerbate it for a book sale.”
Nodding, Tananarive said, “My first novel was called The Between.”
Nancy Freund writes novels, essays, poetry, and flash. At 16, she and Tananarive Due were roommates in Northwestern’s cherub journalism program. Nancy workshopped this week with Rebecca Makkai.