Young writers are finding ways to speak out through character. Pulled from the news, fiction and fact condense into compelling personal accounts. But Naima Coster isn’t politicizing a message. Her work is far more reaching, more tender, and more carefully wrought. This Yale, Columbia, and Fordham graduate draws the straight line of success from classwork to her beliefs and book sales. Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street, a Finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, encompasses one family’s downward spiral while its dual perspectives expose a community’s erasure and rapidly changing identity. Coster’s lead woman, Penelope Grand, and her mother Mirella, emphasize their struggles and the importance of loyalty.
Penelope serves as Coster’s voice, allowing the author’s observations about race, class, and gender to proliferate the novel. In truth, Penelope is simply attempting to manage, make art, and embark on a relationship while juggling varied cultures. Coster understands balancing differing worlds and she cultivates a liminal place out of her own experience. Originally from Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, she received a prized education in a prestigious all-girls Manhattan high school.
The navigation isn’t easy. Neither is writing a work called forth as a seminal representor of gentrification’s impact. But Coster gracefully moves through these pressures, citing an emphasis on self-care, time with friends, and a commitment to focused storytelling.
A lovely woman with a notable glimmer in her eyes, Naima Coster shares her eloquent thoughts and hearty laughs in a quiet Antioch University Los Angeles office where she is a guest mentor for the MFA creative writing program. Coster’s stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Catapult, Arts’ Letters, Aster(ix), Kweli, and other publications. Other accolades include teaching writing in youth programs and to students in jail and at universities. Naima Coster tweets at @zafatista, writes the newsletter, Bloom How You Must, and lives with her family in Washington DC.
My experience in workshops have been very formative for me. They gave me a sense of what I needed to work on as a writer but even more importantly, in some ways, helped me understand popular sensibilities of other writers that I could then just keep in mind as I was working.
Andrea Auten: I loved reading Halsey Street. And I love how you personalized the breaking down of a neighborhood, and its changes, and its impermanence. The way it can be invaded and tenderly expressed, the same in the intimacies of a family. Could you tell me about the journey between the animate and the material in building Halsey Street?
Naima Coster: It’s a really interesting question. I think that interest in the material started for me probably with thinking about place, and the different ways that place can send us a message about who we are, or how we’re perceived, or can be something that people use to try to understand what’s going on in a neighborhood and a people. So, I thought mostly about the materiality of Brooklyn, and Bed-Stuy in particular, and how as it changed; the story of people in Brooklyn is changing. But I thought that that was also true of houses. Like how people craft their homes, and are able to care for them, or are not. It was especially relevant for Penelope, for someone who has a lot of trouble talking about her emotions or putting them into words and engages with the world mostly in physical ways. So, whether it’s the physical act of holding a paintbrush or running around the neighborhood and noticing what’s around her, it felt like a way to hold emotion, and psychological depth in the book when the characters couldn’t always.
AA: Yeah, right. I really did feel that.
NC: I’m glad that you did.
AA: I could get inside her, and I don’t think that was just because I’m an artist either. Are you an artist? Do you do any visual art?
NC: I don’t do any visual art, but I would’ve always liked to, and maybe I still will one day, although I feel daunted by it. Writing about a visual artist was a way to vicariously experience all of that. So, I did some research. I watched videos of people painting. I read art magazines. I just picked them up when I was in the bookstore, and went through them, and I had a friend who’s an artist read the book just to let me know what I’d gotten wrong.
AA: Had you gotten much wrong?
NC: Not from her reading of it, and I think part of that was because I was careful about what I elaborated on, and what I didn’t. She said that the art school experience that I described really resonated with her—which is interesting— because that was just an imaginative exercise, sort of thinking about and pulling from what I know about elite institutions, about artists, if not visual artists, but some of the ways artists can grandstand around each other. I was glad that it rang true with her.
AA: That leads me to my next question because I was taken with Penelope’s art, and it’s true that Halsey Street isn’t a book about art. It’s a book about an artist confronting these other issues and her response to the RISD crits (critical evaluations). You know, those Rhode Island School of Design students wear these shirts that say “Crit happens!”
NC: Oh! That’s Great!
AA: Yeah, right? Those crits are excruciating in the arts programs. Musical theatre boards can be like American Idol on steroids with that type of rigorous review. What do you think about artistic criticism for students studying the disciplines?
NC: My experience in workshops have been very formative for me. They gave me a sense of what I needed to work on as a writer but even more importantly, in some ways, helped me understand popular sensibilities of other writers that I could then just keep in mind as I was working. That didn’t mean I would write to that sensibility, but I could be aware of when I was doing something that might offend or unsettle or interest that sensibility. While I found them helpful, I think that something that can [get lost] in the room in the middle of a crit is how vulnerable all the people in the room are, and what they’re bringing with them into the room.
So, for someone like Penelope who’s bringing in already a sense of being alienated from her privileged peers—and there being no way that that’s meaningfully accounted for in the classroom—the crit is on her in this particular way. I think that’s true for everyone in a crit, or in a workshop. Everyone has a past, things that are going on in the present that affect how they hear feedback, and also how they give it to others. That’s not always an element that we wrestle with. We sort of just think of everyone as a writer because everyone is, and we can forget some of the more human feelings and fears that people bring with them into the room. And human prejudices, human—all of the things that are a part of us because we’re not just objective readers with good taste.
It’s difficult to figure out how to write a book that raises really provocative questions. It also makes some claims, I think, but making sure that it’s all subtle, and filtered through character in a work of fiction, but also making sure that the subtlety and the ambivalence aren’t so great that the book ends up saying nothing about gentrification, or about the theme.
AA: You were able to present gentrification without smacking the reader. I appreciate that. How did you dwell long term in a hard piece? It must have been really draining. What did you do to keep your energy up?
NC: Oh, that’s a good question. I think that’s something that always kept the book alive to me and kept the themes from feeling tired, was constantly uncovering new layers of character. So, I think I would’ve run out of steam if I just sort of fought through gentrification, and the book would’ve become too large and unwieldy because there are just too many things to say and explore, and my book couldn’t hold the pressure of telling some sort of authoritative account of gentrification in Brooklyn. But I was continually interested in what it meant for Penelope, and what it meant for her as she’s embarking on this relationship with her landlord, as she’s watching her father’s decline, as she’s meeting other artists. That kept it interesting and alive for me, following her character.
You ask how did I get inspired? Well, I didn’t work on it constantly for four years. There were ebbs and flows to my work on it, although it was more or less consistent, and I felt that the time that I was away from it made me sort of itch to get back to it and write. I ingested a fair amount of art during this time, so film and books, and that kept me really energized, and interested in things that I wanted to try on. Also, just having writing partners, and encouraging people, I found was really helpful when I didn’t always have the internal clarity about it. Meeting with other people who were spending their time in the same way, worrying about the same things was really affirming, and encouraging. Maybe not every writer needs that, but I certainly do.
In the beginning, I had an idea or a vision for the book, and then once I switched point of view, I thought that what the heart of the book was going to be was going to shift. It wasn’t just that the book would remain the same, but told through these two points of view. But what was ultimately at the center changed, which was challenging, but also really rich.
AA: Oh yes, because how did you keep from raging?
NC: Part of the fun of a novel is that the characters can have a range of responses and hold a range of emotions. There can be Ralph (Penelope’s father) in the book who’s sort of unapologetic in his lamentation of how the neighborhood has changed and his critique of gentrifiers, and then there’s Penelope who’s got this ambivalence and is in this in-between place. She gets to rage in the book which is different than the book raging. But I gave her permission to do it, and to do it without punishment. She’s not punished when she lashes out at her landlord and his friend who wants to buy in the neighborhood. Those moments, I thought, became really critical ways to suggest something about gentrification without making the book into a polemic. Even with her relationship with the Harpers, there are moments of tenderness and sweetness that I think keep the book from totally villainizing them. I would say that the book doesn’t totally condone their presence, their way of being, but kind of leaves that as an open question for the reader.
AA: There’s this moment with Mrs. Harper and I think Penelope is just using her observant power to figure some things out. Oh, this woman. How somewhat narcissistic in her needs; her problems are the largest in the room. How that was something Penelope had seen in other places, and I thought that was really… I don’t think tender is the word I want, but poignantly handled. It wasn’t this explosive point. It was just like, this is an observation. I thought that was really well handled. Not rage-y, really well handled.
NC: Thank you. It’s difficult to figure out how to write a book that raises really provocative questions. It also makes some claims, I think, but making sure that it’s all subtle, and filtered through character in a work of fiction, but also making sure that the subtlety and the ambivalence aren’t so great that the book ends up saying nothing about gentrification, or about the theme. Or that the book only says it’s complicated, rather than it’s complicated and this is true. Like, there’s a cost to displacement, so that was a delicate balance for me, and I imagine it’ll continue to be in my work.
AA: That struggle: in your LitHub article, “Who Gets to Write about Gentrification?” You say Penelope on her own might not be enough, and Mirella—the demanding character who stole more of your time-challenged expected behaviors. How did changing perspective impact your writing experience?
NC: Well, I think changing perspectives challenged my sense of what the book was about. In the beginning, I had an idea or a vision for the book, and then once I switched point of view, I thought that what the heart of the book was going to be was going to shift. It wasn’t just that the book would remain the same, but told through these two points of view. But what was ultimately at the center changed, which was challenging, but also really rich. I also thought it was good to get away from some things that were easy for me to default to. It was so easy to default to writing about someone with a similar educational trajectory to me. I didn’t drop out of art school, but someone who had a higher education. Penelope and I are not the same age, but someone who’s roughly in my age range.
So, it really helped challenge my sense of who I could write about, who was interesting to me, who I could follow, and also points of connection between the characters because there are as many points of connection between me and Penelope as there are between me and Mirella. Also, with some of the other characters, even if they’re not as fully formed, and I find that they’re pieces of me. Whether that’s questions, experiences, emotions, in all of the characters, even the ones who seem really biographically different.
AA: You had mentioned something about having found out your book was described as quiet and having some ambivalence about finding that out. I’d love to hear more about that if you could share.
NC: Yeah, so I’ll clarify that I heard it in two different ways. I heard it in a wonderful review from Kirkus Reviews that I loved, and I loved the use of it there because it didn’t seem like a condemnation, and it wasn’t cited as a flaw of the book. I thought that was just a really insightful, encouraging review. But I did hear it in other places as a critique. So, quiet. I wasn’t really sure what was meant by it, but what I think it means is that it’s about the internal world of these two women, and their thoughts and feelings and impressions. That, I thought, shouldn’t be a reason for critique at all. In large part because so much great fiction is about the internal world of characters, but perhaps characters who we have minds that are interesting, or energetic, and I think these women are actually quite loud in their convictions and beliefs. So it felt gendered…as much as it felt about some…I guess publishing world sensibility about what people read. Sort of like the minds of great men aren’t called quiet, but I might be wrong about that. But that’s my sense.
AA: There’s a lot to be learned right in the comments you’ve just made. Also, in this more tumultuous place, a white woman loved a book you were reading, and said, “Oh, I love that book. It’s about race without being about race.” I thought that was awful, truly awful. You state quite clearly that your book is about race. In this moment, I wonder about white fragility, and what’s appropriate to even ask you? So, I thought I’d be upfront about where I am with that.
I believe in educating myself, a big follower of bell hooks. I believe in doing the work, researching, reading, using books, such as yours, to increase my understanding. I do the best I can to not bring my questions or guilt or shame or grief caused by my people to people of color in my scope. I also believe in growing this sense with other white people in my scope. So, with that in mind and with regards to white fragility, how might your book work best? If we can talk about that. Or if you don’t even want to talk in that regard, I mean, I do want that question answered, but I go back to the first point of what’s appropriate to ask you?
NC: That’s an interesting question. I think that it’s great that you’ve brought up white fragility and race because I think they do shape readerly responses to literature just like they shape our lives at all kinds of levels: political level, at the level of the neighborhood; but we’re not always transparent about how that affects the assessment of a work of art, or whether a reader says something like I didn’t relate to this book. Or I was offended by this book. Or I just couldn’t get into it. Sometimes those responses can be totally shaped by race and racism, by white fragility.
So because I can’t control what is in a reader, nor would I want to, I do think that the reception of my book is beyond my control, and that readers will bring what they bring to the text, and I can only really think about how I craft the text itself. I saw some of this play out when I was reading online reviews of my book, sort of reader reviews, and then I stopped. Just because every writer I knew told me that was a bad idea, and I don’t regret stopping, but it was interesting to see how much racial politics were informing people’s view of the book in a range of ways. From deeming it important and urgent, to deeming it highly relatable, and including experiences that they had gone through in their neighborhood, people thanking me for the portraits of Brooklyn, to people deeming the book racist, or the characters unrelatable, or the use of Spanish alienating and frustrating, [or] not worth the money paid for the book. So, all those responses had nothing to do…or were not inevitable responses to my book, but were coming out of whatever the reader brought to the text. I am not going to change what I want to write in order to be palatable to any reader, or certainly not a reader who’s bringing white fragility to the text. But, you know, knowing that those responses are shaped by
so many other factors has been really helpful.
AA: Thank you, because it leaves me with: How do we all talk to one another, especially in this current political climate?
NC: Yeah, and I think that there has to be room for readers, classmates, teachers, to do some self-reflection about what they’re bringing to their assessments of texts, of other people, of art, and to think about how internalized oppression is shaping the way we interact with each other, and with creative work. Whether that’s sexism or racism or transphobia, whatever it may be, knowing that those things can’t be a part of us, and a part of our culture without affecting the way we talk about books and art and artists.
AA: Right, right, and the canon that has been given to us with our Eurocentric education. Looking at your teacher and how old your teacher is, and assuming how that person was educated and what they had to unlock. If we’re going to try not to bring how we were educated into the next generation, we have to unlock what was given to us.
NC: Yeah, and it shapes not just how we respond as readers, but also what we create as writers. I’m always struck by how beautiful a lot of the characters in fiction are, how conventionally beautiful, and thin. That’s another way that our ideas about who’s worth following shaped the work because it certainly doesn’t reflect the world we live in, that everyone is slender, and long- haired.
I think a lot just about how I have been given, and I’ve taken the time and space to really value my own mind, which I think a writer has to do, and I don’t think it’s something that women of color are always encouraged to do. I think in some ways my education gave me some sense that what I have to say and what I think matters and is valuable and might be useful to someone else. That has been no small thing.
AA: I invited one of our BA creative writing students from [the Antioch program] to hear you read. She had just attended Michelle Obama speaking in LA on the Becoming tour and was so thrilled. She’s an older student, a person of color, and an emerging writer. What would you like her, and others like her, to know?
NC: So many things. I would highlight the importance of finding a supportive community. Whether that’s a community that you can retreat to, to talk about some awful feedback you got, whether it’s in class, or from an editor, and just to have people who believe you. People who will believe you—and believe your assessment if you feel it’s something that was happening was because of who you are—and not just because of the work, just to have a community of people who will believe you, and encourage you, I think is really critical.
Also, there are a lot of people of color in the publishing world who are looking out for each other, who are amplifying each other’s work. Whether on Twitter, or through inviting people to speak, or buying their books, sharing resources. It’s very encouraging that there are sites of power that people are creating and sharing with one another. I would tell her that it’s important to keep going, and it’s a simple thing. I had a professor who said it all the time to us, and it really frustrated us—those of us who were his students—because we thought: can you just introduce us to an agent? Or tell us how to make it better? But he would always encourage us to keep going. Once I was out of the structure of school and working on a novel myself, I realized how much that had to become a mantra for myself when it really wasn’t easy to keep going. So, I would tell her to keep going, and that a supportive community will help with that, and to give herself whatever else she needs to keep going as best she can.
AA: In the college world, have you been confronted with surprising messages? How are students gaining a better understanding, coming together, listening, trying to make room for marginalized voices to speak?
NC: Yeah, I’m really cautious about constructing any sort of overarching narrative that explains America today. Something like students are taking charge and resisting more and more, or things are getting worse and worse. I always resist those overarching narratives. In part because I don’t feel qualified to construct them, but also because I am skeptical about how they often seem a-historical or just to erase complexity. What I do know is that both resistance and awareness, as well as ignorance and hatefulness, are consistent.
AA: Your education was a powerful driver for your parents, and then clearly, you continued it. How do higher academics empower women? And did your degree work push you away from anyone?
NC: Push me away from anyone? That’s a good question. I think that it’s always difficult when one has experiences that really differentiate them from their community or their family. Whether that’s having a different language and culture to claim than the generation before or educational level, it can create rifts and difficulties as well as new possibilities, but I wouldn’t say that it pushed me away from anyone. But it certainly established some differences between me and people in my community, and me and my family. But also lots of points of connection and similarity. It’s not all rifts. But in terms of how my education has empowered me, I think a lot just about how I have been given, and I’ve taken the time and space to really value my own mind, which I think a writer has to do, and I don’t think it’s something that women of color are always encouraged to do. I think in some ways my education gave me some sense that what I have to say and what I think matters and is valuable and might be useful to someone else. That has been no small thing.
AA: In the Kenyon Review, you mentioned once feeling anxiety, doubt, and a sense of failure when creating your art. Other times, you bring up hard times with the body. But when I read the powerful Paris Review piece, “Who Gets to Be Brooklyn Born?” or this beautiful piece about a wedding on the train tracks, I don’t find the lingering wisps of doubting your professional ability. Oh, that piece on your wedding! There was something about those two pieces right there, and I just was hit with your power.
NC: Oh, thank you!
AA: How are you handling your power these days?
NC: Yeah, I think I’m still learning to recognize my power, and to handle it. I have moments where I’m more in touch with it than others, and publishing a book has not changed that in terms of when I feel connected and empowered, and when I don’t. I do think that writing is a place for me where I feel most powerful and in touch with it. That’s probably why I started writing, honestly, as a child, because it felt like a way to establish my own authority, and my own version of things, and again, to value my mind. And so I think I’m still learning how to hold on to a sense of my power, and not forget about it, and then remember it, and forget about it. I think that the writing helps me to remember.
AA: And it seems like it’s growing with you. Even just reading the Cobain piece—
NC: You read so widely, thank you!
AA: I really enjoyed it too. What do you say to women who are feeling meek, beaten down, or worn out?
NC: Oof. Yeah. I guess I would say I’ve been there. And so have many of us. It’s a difficult experience, but not one in which you’re alone. Something that I think a lot about is how to honor my feelings, but also push myself beyond them in terms of action. Sometimes feeling meek, but doing the brave thing anyway is helpful. So, I try to do that a lot, to not always act out of my feeling. I’ve acknowledged the feeling, but sometimes you do the things anyway. I had a woman give me the advice where she was like, “sometimes you just put on a dress and sit at the grownup’s table.” I was talking to her about feeling sort of meek, and she’s much older than I am and further along in her career, but she said that there were times when she had to do that, as well. I think that that can be really helpful and can be a way of shifting feelings. Not always full, but introducing new feelings, too.
AA: I like it. The dress could be Doc Martens and jeans. What’s next, Naima?
NC: Yeah. I have two books in the works. One that I’m working on much more actively right now. That one is set in North Carolina, and it’s similar to Halsey Street in the sense that it’s about how place shapes people, how things that are happening in a community reverberate throughout, and it’s about two families. It’s a family drama with all of the themes that really interest me, so the interior lives of women, relationships across lines of difference, intergenerational trauma. It’s thematically really similar, but a whole different set of characters, a different place, and was formed by my time in North Carolina, which was really precious to me.
And then the other book is sort of a quest story that I started as a challenge for myself as a writer. That also has a lot of the same themes, but it’s about a young woman who has to go on a journey, and not just a figurative one, a literal journey to protect her family. It’s a different kind of book for me, but out of the same sort of questions. And the question of that book, I’ve shared this elsewhere, but I’l share it with you anyway—the question of that book is, how do you learn to be tender when life has required that you be hard? That’s the question that I’m kicking around throughout the book while this woman is on an adventure. I often start writing with a question in mind.
AA: Thank you, so much, Naima. This was really fun.
NC: Thank you for your thoughtful questions.
Andrea Auten is a writer and a visual and performing artist. A writing specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles, she is the community outreach, social media associate managing editor, and youth content coordinator for Lunch Ticket. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and lives with her husband, sons, and beloved writing partner, Dusky, the family cat. Find her at andreaauten.com.