Page Turner: Farai Chideya on Fiction, Feminism, and Sophie

It’s hard to be a consumer of media these days and not encounter the work of author and multi-media journalist Farai Chideya. She founded the online journal Pop + Politics in 1995 (practically a lifetime ago in online years); authored three nonfiction books that chronicle some of the most pressing social justice issues of our time, including Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans; appeared as a political analyst on CNN and many other media outlets; and hosted NPR’s “News and Notes,” a daily program about African-American issues that ended too soon in a rash of budget cuts by the organization.

Now Chideya has published her first novel, Kiss the Sky, which is the story of Sophie Maria Clara Lee, a “book-smart black girl from blue-collar Baltimore” who graduates Harvard, achieves rock stardom, and then struggles with love, the music business, family, alcohol, and her own stubborn melancholy.

Page Turner talked with Chideya about her journey to publishing a novel, the autobiographical connections between herself and Sophie, feminism and personal accountability, her decision to talk more openly about her depression, and a crucial question for the next generation of feminists.

Page Turner: I understand you always wanted to be a novelist and became a journalist after your mom asked you, “What do novelists eat?” Is that true?

Farai Chideya: That’s true. I can’t blame her, because I don’t know what I would have been eating—because I had waitressed a little bit in high school and I hated it, and I probably would have been waitressing and writing. … Although my writing skills were good when I was younger, I don’t think I really had…it’s not that I didn’t even have that much to say, but I don’t know whether I would have been able to articulate it. And I think there’s something wonderful about being a very young writer who, just out of the gate, writes something that gets published. But there’s also something good about waiting awhile, to kind of store up a bunch of experiences.

So I definitely don’t envision that I would have made money as a fiction writer when I was younger. That would have been OK, too. I love journalism, but it’s the kind of thing where the inner life that I have is really conducive to writing fiction and always thinking about things in a way that is about what if as opposed to what is; whereas journalism is about what is. And neither one is bad—but if given a choice, I prefer what if.

PT: “Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, 9/11 and god”—you’ve said that that’s all a reader needs to know about Kiss the Sky before going into it. What do they need to know about Sophie in a couple sentences or less?

FC: She’s a woman who is tried by her own ambitions and doesn’t know how to make smart choices. A lot of us have felt that in different ways. Bitch is a magazine that I love, and I think that part of being a feminist as well is trying to be accountable for your own decisions—and that’s hard.

PT: Will you say more about being feminists and accountable for our own decisions, and how that plays out for you personally?

Sophie, who’s a character I created, is someone who’s constantly bargaining power away to men in her life, and then she’s angry ‘cause she’s done it. And certainly in my life—I don’t believe I’ve done that consistently, but I had one very specific relationship where I thought, “Oh, well, I’ll be in a relationship longer if I just bargain away my power.” And, yeah, it went longer, but that doesn’t mean it was better, you know? My friends were really concerned. I was very much in this position of trying to be submissive and malleable in ways that I just wasn’t.

And I feel like it’s a hard road, because the way that the world works, you will do better sometimes in terms of how you are perceived. But the question is always, “Do you live and die by other people’s perceptions?” And that’s something that is constantly a challenge to women, in general, and feminists specifically, because if you always want to be Miss Nice Lady, it’s tough.

I believe that power comes in many forms: domestic power, spiritual power, creative power. But you also have to realize what your nature is—and a lot of times we’re asked, as women, to go against our nature, whether it’s if you’re ambitious or if you’re a spitfire. It’s a tough world for a woman.

PT: What was your inspiration for Sophie? Was she inspired by certain black women in rock or punk? Women you knew personally?

FC: She’s someone who comes out of a number of different friendships as well as myself psychologically. But in terms of her life, it really was having worked at MTV and seeing celebrities and really watching the demands on them. Seeing celebrities backstage is not the same as seeing them onstage; there’s often a melancholy and a sense of regret [backstage]. You see that with people like Michael Jackson, who obviously was not a woman, but that was an extreme case of emotional and spiritual displacement.

I’ve seen that on the faces of any number of female stars. There are two women I won’t name who I interviewed very early in their careers, before they were famous, and both of them happened to be black. And even though they were by no means a total Jacksonesque mess, they were just so sad. They may be more famous and richer, and they’re just really sad—and that really struck me.

PT: Was it partly because of how old you were when you were working there that it struck you so deeply? Was that something about life that you hadn’t really encountered a lot before?

FC: I’m an observer of human beings—and that is true for fiction and nonfiction—and I actually like reporting on nonfamous people a lot more than famous people. But we human beings live in a world of emotion, and regardless of age, race, gender, or circumstance, you see similar emotions in different people. But as a woman, I wanted to portray some of these issues from a woman’s perspective.

And also, I love rock music, and there is this whole movement around black rock. I know this wonderful guy name Rob Fields who runs Bold as, which is the black rock portal, and he and I joined forces to do a black rock showcase, where I also read from my book. I feel like there’s just this energy—where there’s people like Tamar-kali, who are really straight-ahead hard rock, and so many people who take elements of rock ‘n’ roll, even on the super-pop level. … There’s just some interesting movement and some interesting women in the black rock scene and, of course, some interesting women in the rock scene, period. So I just wanted to give that a chance.

PT: A writing professor who once told me that the problems in our writing are the problems in our life. Do you think this was true for you as you wrote the novel?

FC: Absolutely. The relationship issue, number one, and the ambition issue—both of them have definitely been issues for me. And just as someone who has—I don’t even know how to think about it at this point, but someone who has dealt with depression and who takes antidepressants … I’m in this whole phase of not being anti-antidepressant, but being anti-antidepressants as a solution.

Depression, as we talk about it, is something that we actually understand very poorly and is probably dealt with by better means than medication, whether it’s meditation or spirituality or exercise. But I think about Sophie, and her melancholy definitely relates to mine, her ambition relates to mine, and her creativity relates to mine—but it’s also something that is not me. I was not in a love triangle; I have never been married; I don’t have an uncle who’s a priest—but that’s the fun of it. You take certain parts of your experience, and you put it in someone and you don’t have to take the whole thing.

PT: Have you talked about your depression a lot in the media or in your work?

FC: I haven’t, because I’ve been fairly ambivalent until recently about whether or not I should, because, as a reporter, I feel like your job is not to insert yourself completely into the story, although I have talked about it a bit. It’s not a secret, but it’s something I’m thinking about talking about more publicly.

I just feel over time that antidepressants—which I’ve been on and off since I was 25, and I just turned 40—even for people where they work perfectly or close to perfectly, very rarely last forever. Usually at some point your body will develop a tolerance to a particular antidepressant or you have to switch the combination—and also if you have underlying issues, they are not resolved by any one pill. I just feel like it’s part of a whole re-evaluation of what happiness is in our time.

This is somewhat tangential, but not completely: I was at a conference recently and this woman who was in her mid-40s had just had her first child. And I would definitely like to have a family, and I plan on having a family whether or not I give birth to any kids. She was saying that our generation—people in their late 30s through late 40s—just wanted to wait until our lives were perfect [before having a child], and that it’s just not gonna happen that, finally, if you want to have a family right as your fertility is ending, you go ahead and do it. And she’s like, “What I keep telling younger women is to just have the kids if you want the kids, because it may get easier [if you wait], but it’s not going to get simpler.”

I also feel that any kind of emotional displacement—not necessarily full-blown depression, but this sense of displacement that can affect a lot of us—has to do with feeling like we have to make perfect choices. And there is no such thing. To my great discontent [laughs], I have found that there’s no such thing as a perfect choice. And if you wait to make a perfect choice, then that’s a choice. You’re waiting and you’re waiting, and things may not happen.

That’s something else that I wanted to deal with [in Kiss the Sky]. The character of Sophie has made a choice, for better or worse, and it’s usually both. She’s gonna go for the brass ring, but then that sets off a chain reaction of other things, which are problematic.

PT: I’m of your generation as well, and growing up with a second-wave feminist mother, there was always the sense that motherhood should wait or motherhood wasn’t the priority; really mastering and controlling your career was. What do you make of the connections between feminism and that desire to control our careers perfectly and also figure out how to become or blend being mothers?

FC: I think that really is, in some ways, one of the crucial questions that this generation of feminists will answer. If not answer, at least ask. And I think that there’s a certain reaction that every generation goes through. So women in their late 50s through 70s who consider themselves feminist often were like, “Oh yeah, do your career thing,” and people who are our age are saying, “I don’t know how to balance this stuff,” and people who are younger—I don’t know what they’re going to do.

I do a lot of lecturing on college campuses, and I went to a wonderful event in San Diego, and I asked some of the people who were there, male and female, including a bunch of honor students, “Well, you guys are ambitious, would you have a family young, given all the things you want to do?” And they may not be typical, but they said no. One of them wants to be a surgeon, and she said, “Oh, I’m going to be in my mid-thirties by the time I’m done with all my school and residencies and internships.” And I said, “Well, would you consider having a kid while you were still in med school or in your residency?” And she was like, “Oh, no. Oh, no,” [laughs], and I just told them, “Look, just at least ask that question.”

And I think it’s totally fine to say no, but maybe what our generation does is we teach younger women to ask the questions about what you want your life to be. How much do you want to focus on a career? What does the career give you?

And it’s not just about having a family. Fiction writing, for me, is something that I do. I was lucky to sell this novel and get it published, and really have had some wonderful response to it. But I put in the time without an expectation of return, because this is what I wanted to do. For other people, it’s other things. Some people want to sing in a church choir, some people want to snowboard, some people want to travel the world—and maybe one of the gifts that we pass down is that it’s okay to do things that may not give you a traditional reward.

PT: You’re in the writing group The Finish Party. How did they help you the most in terms of literally crafting the book?

FC: Our group will read the same manuscript as long as it takes to get the manuscript done, and that’s a huge amount of devotion. You’re like, “I just read this,” but every time you read it, you get something new, and I know that I get that from other people. It takes a huge amount of dedication. A lot of people don’t want to read the same pages, and we’ll read up to the full manuscript—and it’s fantastic. It’s a huge commitment, and that was really just the best part for me: knowing that there were other people on the journey with me that would be steadfast.

by Ellen Papazian
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