Naima Coster’s debut novel HALSEY STREET is a story of estrangement and reconciliation that follows the effects of gentrification on the life of a family and the Brooklyn neighborhood where they reside.
HALSEY STREET is told in dual narration by Penelope Grand, a daughter who returns to her old neighborhood to take care of her ailing father Ralph, and her mother Mirella, who left the family for her native Dominican Republic when the family business failed.
Coster chose dual narration because she saw the mother and daughter as “doubles of each other.” “They are more alike than either of them can see. Though they are estranged, they are deeply informed by each other. Penelope is never without her mother. Though she wants to be, she is never free of her. Her mother is always in her mind,” said Coster.
The premise of the story was sparked by a question. “I always start my stories with a question. In this case, it was how do you find your life and yourself when you’ve learned to put yourself away,” said Coster. Both women’s lives were dominated by Ralph, who was the charismatic owner of a local record store.
“Penelope returns home to try and figure out where her place was within the family and the larger neighborhood (that has been transformed) and experiences losses of a different kind,” said Coster.
Penelope rents a room from Samantha and Marcus Harper, an affluent white couple who have a daughter named Grace. This arrangement throws the changes in the neighborhood into sharp relieve and shows what is lost when gentrification takes over. Coster deftly portrays Penelope’s clash with Marcus’ friend Marty, who is unapologetic about the way things have changes.
In learning how to approach race, Coster studied writers including Jesmyn Ward, Juno Diaz and Toni Morrison. “They gave me models I could emulate and I had to teach myself. In work where the point of view is closely anchored to the character’s perspectives you want to show the reader the character’s views and not your own. That means giving the characters the space needed to speak back to each other,” said Coster.
The greatest challenge of the book, according to Coster, was how to tell the story that had already happened by the time the book starts. “Penelope and Mirella’s estrangement feels so connected to the action of the present, so alive in terms of sensation. I had moments that were not the most climatic in the story, but that best explained the estrangement and I had to show them.”
This includes a party scene where the reader gets a glimpse at how Mirella feels ignored by the family and community and exhausted by the social demands of being Ralph’s wife, which translates into her being unresponsive to her daughter.
Coster worked with Amazon editor Morgan Parker, who gave her “fewer thoughts on plot, arc and pacing and more about deepening the book using the bones it already had.”
Parker asked why no one in the book goes to therapy, a question that Penelope’s boyfriend Jon raises later in the book.
“I thought that question really held a perspective that the reader might have and that it need exploration,” said Coster.
She is currently working on two book projects, one that focuses on social upheaval in a small North Carolina town and another that centers of the quest of a woman who is entrusted with her family’s survival.
As she faces her next writing challenges, Coster keeps her focus on enjoying the pleasure of the practice of writing. “Writing is hard, but the actual writing is joyful. It is a gift to me that doesn’t require any goal besides the writing itself. I make writing dates with others or make a delicious drink,” said Coster.
She noted that there is no guarantee that a piece of writing will ever see the light of day. “It is scary to admit that something is important if it only has worth for me. It brings up questions of self-worth and selfishness, but my work as a writer is linked to my own emotional and psychological development. One way to sustain my work is to value myself, my own mind, my own time. It is like climbing a mountain. What do you have to show for it? The place it took you to and the strength you gained going there.”
About the Author:
Naima Coster’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Arts & Letters, Lit Hub, Catapult, The Rumpus, Aster(ix), A Practical Wedding, Guernica, and has been anthologized in The Best of Kweli and This is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Naima is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the 2017 Cosmonauts Avenue Nonfiction Prize, judged by Roxane Gay. Naima studied creative writing at Yale, Fordham University, and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA. She has taught writing to students in prison, youth programs, and universities. She currently teaches at Wake Forest University and is a Senior Fiction Editor at Kweli. Naima tweets as @zafatista and writes the newsletter, Bloom How You Must.Tags: family life, Halsey Street, mothers and children, womens fiction
This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris