The House That Zora Built

My students and I are finishing Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston this week. I decided to treat us all to documentary today. “Her life was so much bigger than this one novel,” I told them.

We were not far into the film when I felt a little bud of rage start to blossom in my throat. There she was, a woman I used to know, talking knowledgeably about Hurston. As she talked, explained Hurston’s life and work for the camera, I remembered her voice from a thousand years ago. Her work on Hurston had brought her a big advance for a book. She was smiling at me, all those years ago, talking about her new summer home. “I call it ‘the house that Zora built,’” she quipped. Then she said it again, just to make sure I heard her.

I stopped the film earlier than I planned. I was burning with the story and had to share it with my students. I didn’t attribute the quip to the talking head on the screen. Instead, I told my students that while Hurston had died poor and malnourished, there were people who had gotten rich off of her legacy, and most of those people were not black.

I always want my students to know about the mechanics of literary production, that books are available not always because they are inherently worthy, and that the lives of exceptional stories, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, are sometimes dependent upon politics, large and small. But the story of Hurston, and the house she unwittingly built for the woman who reaped the benefits of her creativity, enrages me.

The rage, of course, comes from my own complicity. I was intimidated by the woman who claimed Zora built her house. Maybe I just wanted her to like me. So, even though her joke twisted something inside of me, I smiled back. I was silent.

I won’t be silent anymore.

Ice Cream

Botham Jean was sitting in his home eating ice cream when an ex-Dallas police officer entered his apartment by accident and shot him dead. She claimed he was coming at her and that she was afraid, but the downward trajectory of the bullet reveals her to be a liar. But liar or not, Botham Jean is dead. She was convicted of murder today, the officer. Here’s hoping the length of her sentence reflects the seriousness of her crime. We’ll see. Botham Jean will still be dead. However many years she will have to serve, Botham Jean will still only have been sitting in his home, eating ice cream, when she killed him.

The news was on my mind when I walked into class today, so I shared it with my students. We were finishing up a discussion of Passing, the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen. It didn’t take long for the connection to arise: whenever we look at anyone, we never know what we think we know. We bring things—fears, fantasies, experiences—to every encounter over which we have no control. There is no such thing as an objective gaze.

The ex-officer did not see someone she recognized when she looked at Botham Jean. Obviously, in spite of the fact that they were neighbors, he was a stranger to her. But in the man she killed, the black man, she did not even see someone who could be like her in any way. She saw a threat, she saw her own terror projected, even in a person engaged in the most mundane, quiet of acts.

Those of us who are black are black all of the time, in our moments of peace, in our interior, in our silence.

After class I went back to my office and closed the door. I closed my eyes and thought of Botham Jean. I looked out of my window onto the empty campus plaza. I thought about what it was like to feel so safe that I didn’t even have to contemplate my safety. I am black now, I thought. Maybe most black at this moment, sitting with my hands in my lap, just being in this moment, listening to and watching the world, waiting for nothing to happen. And nothing did.


Last night I opened the newest issue of O The Oprah Magazine (I’m a subscriber), my heart beating fast. There it was, a feature piece written by yours truly, entitled (by the illustrious O Magazine book editor @Leigh Haber) “A Family Affair.” It’s a story about my father’s relationship with Jeanette Currie, a woman with whom he had a son out of wedlock (what an antiquated phrase, but it’s all I’ve got for now), a relationship that continued—to my great surprise—until my dad’s dying day. The theme of the issue is forgiveness. It’s also about how life can take you in alarmingly unforeseen directions. Meaning, never in a million years would I have thought that I would have anything like a positive relationship with this woman, who broke my entire family’s heart. But there it is, and our bond, as well as the one she had with my father and mother, will be a dominant thread in my next book.

I’m not here today to talk about Jeanette Currie, though. I want to say something about the incredibly generous and forgiving nature of my family—my brothers, aunt, and cousin, in particular—who have supported my need to figure out and untangle this complex story in writing, which is the only way I know how to get to the bottom of anything. I know it wasn’t easy to see this piece in print, and it will most likely get harder. They loved my father, as did I. We all still do. He left a true and inspiring legacy behind; he left a trail of heartbreak, too. He was a human being, I discovered in the years since his passing, and such, contained multitudes.

I’ve been thinking about how much harder it may be to write about the dead than the living, particularly when it comes to people who left mysteries in their wake that those who loved them must confront without the comfort of getting any sort of explanation, no accounting for the why of it all. I feel empathy for the people who will read the Oprah piece and be surprised and disappointed, even hurt, by what I wrote. But I did what I did not out of malice, but because I believe the story of my father, my mother, and Jeanette is not, after all, an unusual one, and there are many people living with the pain and confusion of such discoveries who will feel less alone by the story I’ve told. Or, at least, that’s my ambition.

If you happen to pick up the October issue of O The Oprah Magazine, I’ll be eager to hear what you think.

What happened

“Welcome home,” whispered my pastor this morning as he placed a wafer in my palm. I felt tears well up in my eyes. It was what I needed to hear.

The church I attend is quite literally my sanctuary. It is a Lutheran church. I grew up in an Episcopal church, and will probably never call myself a Lutheran. The liturgies are similar, but I notice the small differences every Sunday. I have been attending my current church for 10 years.

It’s been months since I have been able to attend church regularly, probably the same amount of time since I’ve written anything for this blog. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed you, whoever and however you are. The page is my sanctuary, too. Whenever I stray, I end up paying dearly for those lapses.

The last few months have been a whirlwind; that accounts in part for my silence. Only a small part, though. Honestly, it’s the fact that this blog has been connected to my Twitter account that got me tongue tied.

I am a writer who writes about myself. It’s scary sometimes, but I thrive on the fear, like a climber who can’t resist a steep mountain. I experience vitality through the risks I take in my writing. I don’t feel I have succeeded until I unearth the hard thing, and then say it (hopefully beautifully). Every time I give a reading or a talk, I feel that fear and know that I must take the risk. It’s a free fall. But what’s the point of playing it safe?

But Twitter. Maybe it’s just that I don’t know how to use it properly. Whatever the reason, from here on out, I ask you to meet me here, halfway, in this space. Bring yourself and I’ll give you what I’ve got, twice a month, pinky promise.

If I could write this in fire…

I am in New Haven, having come off of what feels like an incredible 36-hour bender of creativity and community. I participated in a symposium on biography yesterday that was held at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. “A bunch of serious people---and me,” I wrote to my friend Nancy, who is the curator of poetry. I was a little intimidated but I quickly got into it when it became clear that I was among my people: readers, writers—storykeepers.

A story I kept returning to over the weekend was a story shared with me by my friend Melissa, the curator of prose and drama at Yale. It concerns the miraculous rescue of the effects of Zora Neale Hurston, whose papers were on fire when a local sheriff happened by and alerted everyone that the burning manuscripts, photos, and correspondence belonged to a famous writer. “You can see the singed manuscripts in the archive,” Melissa said, and traced an invisible outline of a piece of paper in the air with her fingers. I shuddered. I make the same gesture every time I tell the story, and every time, people shudder.

For the title of this blog post, I borrow the title from “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,” an essay by Jamaican author Michelle Cliff. The essay, which appears in the book If I Could Write This in Fire, is about memory, how we know what we know, and why we tell stories. How do we find and keep the stories of those whose lives have, relatively speaking, gone unseen? What do these stories teach us about living in this world? These are the questions at the heart of my next book.

Prince was a Sexy Mother

Minneapolis! The sixth leg of this book tour. I spent the late morning tooling around Paisley Park, the sometime home and fulltime recording studio of Prince Rogers Nelson. An exciting adventure quickly evolved into a very emotional experience. Everything is as it was when Prince was alive. It was easy to imagine him working and being in his favorite spaces, which were, apparently, often full of people. He invited his community into his home, performing for them often, free of charge. We saw the basketball studio Charlie Murphy told a famous story about, in which Prince and his fellow musicians challenged Murphy and his friends to a basketball game. Prince et al. handily handed Murphy and his team their asses—and then Prince served the confused and defeated men pancakes. I love this story for what it reveals about the maternal, the feminine, that was deeply and inextricably intertwined with the captivating and daring way Prince rewrote the meaning of masculinity. I love Prince for what he unleashed in me when I was a girl, which was the experience of desiring a man whose sexuality in no way mimicked the predictable heterosexual masculinity that stifled and bored me as I was growing up. “Where are her children?” was the first thing Prince said to Van Jones upon hearing of Lauryn Hill’s troubles. It is a question only a mother would ask. I think it hits me hard right now as I am a mother on the road, aching for my children at the same time as I am thrilled to “come out” as the writer that I’ve always wanted to be. “It’s weird, isn’t it? But moms can have dreams, too,” I told Giulia before I left. I bought her a sweatshirt from Paisley Park with the symbol Prince used to represent his embodiment of the masculine and feminine. One day she’ll understand it all. I hope.


Thank you, sweet Prince.

Note to Self

Lessons I’m Taking with Me on the Road after Years of Observing Fancy Writers Visiting the University of Vermont:

Be kind to everyone who has taken the time to read your book or come to your reading. It costs you nothing and it means everything. Your hand is tired from signing hundreds of books on which people have spent $30 of their hard-earned money? Your mouth feels stretched out from smiling at adoring fans who have traveled from who-knows-where to hear you read from your own words on a page? Remember that there are plenty of writers out there who never get a hearing because their work is too bold, too strange, too quiet, too loud. Yes, you are talented, but you are also lucky. At least act grateful. If your hosts take time away from their families, friends, other work, or the Netflix series into which they are currently relaxing at the end of a long day, in order to break bread with you, be kind. You are still at work, and they are still at work. If the university that invited you has spent tens of thousands of dollars on your honorarium, particularly if that university is facing staggering budget cuts and its humanities faculty is quickly dwindling, say thank you to everyone you meet, and everyone at the table in the elegant French restaurant to which your hosts have invited you. If you are a fancy writer, be kind to the relatively unknown black woman writer who sits your right. This is even more important if you claim to be a champion of black women writers. At least don’t put your back to her. She won’t forget it.


I carried my father in a sturdy cardboard box through the Nashville airport. He sat in my bag in the guest room at my friend’s house, and then in my suitcase at the Four Seasons in St. Louis. By the time I got to the airport for my flight back to Burlington, I knew to put him in his own bin going through security. The agents were respectful and even tender.

My father, my censor. How I miss him. I went down to Nashville to prepare him for the publication of Black is the Body over three years ago. He died the next morning, before I had a chance to give him the speech I had practiced. He wasn’t a reader, my father, but he was close to people who were, and I didn’t want him to encounter the family stories in the book through other parties.

“Emily, don’t write this down,” I grew up hearing from him. “You should write all of this down,” my mother would say. In that intersection, in that can’t win for losing, I became a writer.

 My father was a keeper of many secrets. I found evidence of my mother’s interior life in the things she left behind: letters, cards, poetry, scrapbooks. My father’s private life I can only imagine. There are people whose lives were shattered by his death; I talked to a few of them last week in Nashville, the first stop of my book tour. He was 83, but his life stopped mid-story. Who knows how it will end.

Take Care

My book came out three days ago, January 29. That morning, I was on NPR’s “On Point” with Meghna Chakrabarti. In the afternoon, my editor called to tell me that we were already going into our second printing. That night, my beloved local independent bookstore hosted my first book event. The house was packed with friends, former students and their parents, my kids’ bus driver from elementary school (with whom I used to exchange books in the mornings), neighbors (past and present), university colleagues, the woman who helped us furnish our new house, my hairdresser, my dentist, members of our church community, as well as many delightful strangers. It was great day and a wonderful night. I signed 100 books.

The next morning, racing home from a radio gig in the bitter cold, I slammed my finger in the car door. I went right into panic mode as I watched the blood pool into my nail bed. Luckily, my husband was at home and talked me down from the rafters, a job he’s very good at. Many icings later, I still can’t use my index finger on my dominant hand.

I have to laugh. In between worrying about how I’m going to sign books over the several days, I laugh. I mean, I can’t write. I can barely type this. But I have to write; there is no choice. I will have to find a way to work with the wound—which is exactly what Black is the Body is about, essentially.

 So, amidst all of this dream-come-true kind of excitement, I am reminded, with each keystroke, how essential it is to take care of the things you need.

I hope to see you out there!


It’s good to be home! I am back from three full days in Ohio, where I gave two talks. On top of that, I visited Linda Krumholz’s Harlem Renaissance class this morning. I went in tired and distracted, preoccupied with the travel ahead of me. The students were so gracious and thoughtful, so kind. They were a special group and asked me the most interesting questions about my work than I have ever been asked. “Now I’m worried I’m going to forget to leave,” I joked. I saw a white male student look at the clock when I said that; it was empathetic concern, I had no doubt. 

When it was time for me to go, another male student escorted me to my car, per Linda’s request. 

“I’ve never escorted anyone before,” he joked. “Maybe you should take my arm.” We laughed.

                  “Do you have a jacket to throw over puddles so I won’t muss my dress slippers?” I teased.

We talked about his ambivalent fondness for Chick-fil-A (he identified himself as bisexual). I shared my secret shame over re-watching the first two seasons of “House of Cards.” He wants to be a writer. How? he asked. 

“Sit your butt in the seat and move your hand across the page,” I told him. “That’s all I know.”

College students: they make me laugh, keep me fresh, and give me hope. That’s why I teach.


“You’re going to get into trouble,” a friend warned me as I was getting ready to publish my last book, a story about Carl Van Vechten, a white man, and his passionate attachment to blackness. Fear of getting into trouble had made it hard for me to write the book for many years. I swore it off. I tried to keep a straight face in sober debates about whether or not Van Vechten appropriated black culture. But I didn’t care. I was drawn to his messiness. It kept me awake. I didn’t care about answers, but I did care about the questions. Finally, I gave in to my own curiosity, and the book came to be.

Writing, for me, is about questions. I write because there are many things that fascinate, bother, and intrigue me, things I am sure have the same effect on other people. Writing is a solitary practice, but it is also about finding a community. Writing would be joyless for me if I weren't sure that there are other human beings out there who wonder at the world the same way I do..

I am writing this blog for those of you who are also drawn to mystery, propelled by curiosity, and excited about all that is ineffable in this life.