Hey, White Girl follows a young woman as she traces the fracture of her family through the tumultuous 70’s and begins to understand the complexities of family, race, and privilege. What inspired you to write this book?
I come from a large family and each of my siblings has navigated our childhood in their own way. I’ve been fascinated by studying my own family and other families that I know and analyzing how differently siblings turn out as adults, even with the same “raising.” Cultural influences can impact children in wildly different ways depending on the age of a child, which can account for some of the differences between siblings. I believe this is especially true in tumultuous times when culture changes quickly. So I imagined studying a fictional family that way.
About the time I started thinking about this book I left a teaching job in a privileged private school to teach in an inner city classroom. I was so struck by the difference in what was available to students, and how the lack of resources was impacting educational opportunities. It became clear to me that if a child of eight is academically behind because of lack of resources, no matter their intellect, they will always struggle to catch up to the children with the resources, even if those children are not ahead of them intellectually. So I envisioned what that would look like in a school with smart Black kids who did not have the resources offered to them that most White kids had.
Making that career move also brought back memories of when I had been bussed in Richmond. I remembered the quality of the schools declining year by year. I remembered the ratio of Black and White students changing overnight. When I returned to that same area of the city decades later, there had been no change. I started researching, paying attention, and reflecting on the great inequity of schools just a few miles apart from each other. And when it came to racial differences, I wanted to explore what would happen if relationships between kids were authentic, despite their races, and in spite of adult prejudices.
I enjoyed how authentic and grounded this story felt. Was there anything taken directly from your life and placed in the novel?
I had fun looking back on the 1960s and 1970s. Nell is older than I was then, but there are plenty of scenes that I pulled from fuzzy memories, or took bits and pieces from stories I’ve heard. As I’ve mentioned, I was bussed, and many of the school references are from my own memories: the worn floors, the old furniture, the covered books, the gym suits that never fit. The encounters with other students were also informed by some of my own experiences.
I did look through yearbooks, old magazines, and advertisements to mentally put myself back in that era. I watched old TV shows on YouTube and kept a Pinterest page of images from clothes and hairstyles to the right Coke bottle shape for those years. I went back through my own mother’s recipes, and found perfumes that were popular then, because I think our senses can put us into a mindset faster than anything. And I listened to a lot of period music. Music can take you places, too.
Probably the thing that is taken most directly from my life is the feeling I’ve tried to convey about that era. This crazy juxtaposition of hope and fear. Hope, because when you’re a teenager all the world is ahead of you and almost anything is possible. This was the era of man landing on the moon, of Vatican II, of Civil Rights, of women starting to see they didn’t have to live the lives of their mothers. Fear, because sometimes the world felt like it was spinning out of control. It was the era of Vietnam, of assassinations, of fallout shelters, of racial violence. That sense of hope and fear that I could recapture with music and perfume and the metallic taste of TAB was what came directly from my life.
What were some ideas that were important for you to convey in this book?
At first, I thought it was mostly about how families learn to navigate cultural changes differently and still try to be a family. As I wrote, and reflected, and learned from my own writing, so many other convictions came to the surface. It was important for me to honor the Black experience of bussing, even though this was about a White girl bussed to a Black school. I realized that the Black kids were affected too. They had schools they were proud of and rooted for and those identities were muddied when all the students were moved around. I’d never seen this addressed before, especially from a White POV.
The more I wrote, the more I became aware of my own privilege as a White woman. I wanted to reveal that process in a natural and almost childlike way. I wanted Nell to learn for herself through her Black friends what their experience was, so she could appreciate it. I didn’t see the point of writing a book about white guilt. Nell was born White. Venetia was born Black. Neither had the choice of their birth color. They just were who they were. It was important for me to try to create characters of compassion, people we would like to emulate. And I wanted both Black and White characters to be those people.
Another idea that was important for me to convey was that Nell had fewer obstacles and more choices than her Black friends did. Often, White people are blind to that fact. We think we earn all that we get, but the obstacles for others are often hidden by our ignorance. If we sharpen our awareness, if we pay attention, if we listen, we will see what we haven’t seen before, like Nell did. And if we can change how we see the world, our eyes are opened to how we can change the world.
What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?
I’ve tossed around ideas with other writers and readers about continuing Nell’s story, or telling Donald’s story or another family member’s, and therefore expand that idea of how differently family members can absorb cultural change. But I spent over eight years working on Hey, White Girl and I actually don’t feel like I’m finished with it yet. Of course it’s published, but I believe this story needs to find its way into the greater world, and it’s my job to see that happen.
I’d like to foster discussions around the book’s themes with other adults who have lived it. And I’d like to support teachers and librarians looking for materials that will expand their students’ knowledge about our history, especially when it comes to perceptions about race, privilege, and responsibility. I suppose I want to do what Fergy asked Nell to do: change things from the White side.