Kaitlyn Greenidge Discusses Her Highly Anticipated Novel, 'Libertie'
Speaker 1: 00:00 The San Diego writers festival is wrapping up its second year as a largely virtual event, but it's not lost much of its luster in the process from keynote speaker, Tonya Ari Jones to worldwide best seller author James Patterson. The event is packed with insights about books, poetry, and plays. One of the celebrated authors speaking this weekend is Kaitlyn Greenidge who second novel Liberty is noted as one of the most anticipated novels of the year. Liberty follows the life of Liberty Samson, a young black girl living in post-Civil war Brooklyn. It's inspired by the real life of Dr. Susan Smith McKinney steward, who was the third black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. And the first in New York throughout the novel, Greenidge explores the roles that race, gender, and freedom play in the lives of her characters and in the world in which they live. Kaitlyn. Greenidge welcome. Thank you so much for having me. This is a story that at its heart is about freedom even Liberty's name, but often the promise of freedom is pitted against the reality, these characters face. Do you see that as the essential, struggling? Yeah. So Speaker 2: 01:14 For the characters in this book, much like for all of us, freedom is conditional. It really depends on their class, their race, their gender, their color, how they're sort of being an interpreted by the wider world. And so for the characters in this book, there's always the question of how they're going to define freedom for themselves versus how, um, the wider world and the structures they live are under is going to limit that freedom. Speaker 1: 01:38 Now, the stories got a striking opening line it's I saw my mother raised a man from the dead, and we quickly learned that Liberty's mother, a doctor helps enslaved people escape the south via transport in a coffin. Is that based on real events? It Speaker 2: 01:56 Is it's based in part on a woman named Henry [inaudible] who ran a dress shop in Philadelphia, alongside her husband who ran an undertakers business. And both of those places served as a front for the underground railroad. So there are accounts of them staging sort of mock funerals to help transport people through Philadelphia on their way to freedom. And, uh, when I found out about Henrietta and this story, I was just so struck by it. I knew I had to include that in the novel, well, Speaker 1: 02:27 Liberty has been raised to follow in her mother's footsteps to become a doctor, but she knows that her mother has an easier time practicing medicine than Liberty ever could because her mother has much lighter skin. How did colorism manifest itself at this point in history? So, Speaker 2: 02:47 Um, colorism was super interesting because in this time period that we're talking about, which is reconstruction, especially in the Northern United States, you have a whole group of people who suddenly have to sort of rethink their relationship to, um, Agnes, into being identified as black, because with the end of slavery and the rise of this sort of doctrine of the one drop rule, that if you have a single drop of black blood than you are considered black, and, uh, most importantly, that means that you're going to be subject to, um, the laws of Jim Crow. That meant that there was sort of these people who pre-Civil war were considered sort of, uh, they had different names. Sometimes it was drawn to color or people of color, or sort of, uh, colored people in general, these free people of color, these people who had mostly defined themselves as whether or not they were, um, enslaved or not, and not so much whether or not they were part of the sort of larger idea of blackness. Speaker 2: 03:41 So you have people reformulating, uh, black people, even amongst themselves, people who were not called black reformulating, their understanding to blackness and their understanding of themselves or across a race. But what is also super fascinating, I think is people sort of assume in that time period that if you were lighter skinned because of this rise of anti-black violence, um, and Jim Crow laws, if you were lighter skinned, you would want to sort of pass for white. And in fact, when we look at the writings and, and, um, sort of thinking around that time period, uh, so many people who had features that were considered white could visibly pass for white at the time actually actively said, no, I'm, I'm black. I want to sort of belong to these black communities. And I want to work within these black communities and I want to be leaders of these black communities. So it's a really complicated, I think, much more complicated than, um, modern people sort of looking back would assume around it. And I wanted to sort of explore that complication around loyalties and understanding of blackness and, and how people sort of self-defined themselves and understood their relationship, uh, to other black people in the country. Speaker 1: 04:50 And in your book Liberty, there are elements of the supernatural, why are ghosts and hauntings important to this story? How does it play into the themes of healing? Speaker 2: 05:01 When I was writing this book, I was teaching a class on ghost stories, um, for a couple of semesters. And so I was reading a lot of them and thinking a lot about a lot of them. And, and, um, one of the sort of, uh, literary theory books I was reading, uh, pointed out that hauntings and go stories are almost always about, um, a crime that cannot be discussed or admitted whether it's a crime within a family or a transgression within a family or a transgression within a larger community or, or transgression within a country. And so I was really taken with that idea of what a haunting actually is this idea of a transgression that people will not recognize as a transgression will not call a transgression and attempt to Berry, um, and, uh, how that plays into how we talk about the histories of those of us who have been marginalized in this country. Speaker 2: 05:51 And, uh, that's part of the, I mean, that is the reason why there's so much sort of haunting and go step in the book. And then I started took as my guiding light, this idea that, um, so much of what we call magical realism in novels is in fact, just realism from a slightly different point of view. You know, I think probably Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the most famous person to sort of say that about their writing, but this idea that the things that we sort of assume are the fantastical are in fact, usually just sort of the every day things that happen under neath, um, uh, certain really oppressive regimes. Speaker 1: 06:29 And is the haunting sort of a residual of the trauma of slavery? Yeah. Speaker 2: 06:34 For some of the characters, it is. So there's a character named Ben Daisy in the novel, and he's the man who is who Liberty thinks she sees her mother raised from the dead at the, at the very start of the novel. He's a man who's escaping from slavery. Um, and when he gets to this free black community, that he's sort of fought so hard to escape into and, uh, start his life in freedom. He's still dealing with the aftereffects of slavery. He's still trying to conceptualize what happened to him, that the traumatic events that he experienced and saw, and the people that he lost along the way, and he's not able to, um, you know, what we know about trauma now today. And I think what most people sort of across race and time understand about trauma of course, is like, some of us are resilient and sort of able to move on. And, and many of us are not able to move on in a way that our culture, the larger culture can understand or accept. And Ben is one of those people who is not able to move on in a way that his wider community can understand or accept. And, um, how that, what that looks like for him is sort of these, um, hallucinations that he has of these, uh, different women around him, um, when he's living in this free black community. Speaker 1: 07:46 And when you hear that Liberty is one of the most anticipated books of the year, what does that make you feel like? What kind of ideas does that bring up for you? Speaker 2: 07:56 You can't trust those things. It's not real because like at the end of the day, it doesn't, that doesn't change what, I'm, what I have to write tomorrow or what I want to write the next day or what kind of conversation I want to have with readers about the book or serve anything at all. It's nice. It's lovely to hear. It's really nice to hear. Um, you know, it's, I'm really excited that people are excited about it, but, um, in terms of the work that I, I like to do and the, and the ways that I want to connect with people, um, it's sort of like, uh, it's a, it's a nice to have, but it's not necessary to do those sorts of things. Speaker 1: 08:29 I've been speaking with Kaitlyn Greenidge author of Liberty. She'll be speaking at a virtual San Diego riders event this Saturday at 10:00 AM. Thank you so much for speaking with me.