Writing About Black Lives Matter in 2019

Melanie S. Hatter on "Malawi's Sisters" and telling stories straight from the headlines

Black Lives Matter spray painted on a wall

Melanie Hatter’s Malawi’s Sisters depicts an event taken straight from the pages of our national news. Malawi, a young Black woman from an affluent family in Washington D.C., gets into a car accident in Florida. She stumbles onto the property of a white man in search of help but is shot and killed. Through this murder, Hatter explores race, guilt, grief, confronting one’s own bigotry, and respectability politics, but mostly the inner workings of a family left to contemplate what it means to lose someone in such an inexplicable way. In choosing this book as the winner of the inaugural Kimbilio National Fiction Prize, Edwidge Danticat said, “This story is both timely and well executed. We rarely see the private side of the devastating aftermath of police/vigilante/help-seeking and shot-related deaths that this writer describes here in such a suspenseful and nuanced manner. This is the kind of book that might encourage and inspire in-depth conversations and discussions, and help readers think more deeply about a subject they might have mistakenly thought they knew all about.” 

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Melanie S. Hatter is the author of two novels and one short story collection. Her book, The Color of My Soul won the 2011 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize. She is a participating author with the PEN/Faulkner Writers in Schools program in Washington D.C., and serves on the board of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation.

I spoke with Melanie about how to write about grief, how class operates within the Black community, and what Black writing organizations provide for aspiring and published authors. 

Tyrese L Coleman: Malawi’s Sisters comes straight from the headlines. You mention it in the back of the book that Renisha McBride was the push you needed to complete the novel. What, specifically, about her story made you want to get into this issue?

Melanie Hatter: It was a year after Trayvon Martin and there were a lot of headlines about shootings—vigilante and police shootings—and I think what horrified me the most was that this man thought that it was okay to just shoot someone through his door. It wasn’t someone who was climbing through his window, not someone who had broken in, not someone who was inside his home. Renisha McBride was someone who was knocking on his door. I don’t know. It just sort of hurt. It was one of those stories that stuck with me. My son is a little older than Trayvon would be, and so when that happened it felt like it could have happened to my son. And then with Renisha, I thought about myself as a young woman. I remember my car breaking down on the side of the road and seeking help. You don’t think, “Well maybe I shouldn’t go and knock on the door because they might shoot me.” You just think, “Hey, I’m in crisis and I need help.” It’s just not the way the world should be.

A couple of years prior to that, I had started a story about these two sisters, but I couldn’t quite figure out what the story was. I knew one was in a troubled marriage, and I knew that the other one was also having trouble, but I just couldn’t quite figure out what the story was. In the months that followed after Renisha’s shooting, these two characters talked to me, and I could hear them saying, “This was our sister.”

TLC: Do you see any changes with the way our country responds to incidents like police and vigilante shootings since that time? 

MH: Renisha’s shooting took place in 2013, but the book is present day. In terms of the news that inspired the book, it felt like, at least at that time, it was incessant. You would see something every other day.  Almost every other week we were hearing about a police shooting. I feel like we don’t see those headlines in quite the same way. As a society, we’re dealing with so much trauma in terms of the [presidential] races and the hatred. There’s so much of it. Some of those shootings are not getting the same kind of coverage because it’s not news anymore, unfortunately. We’re dealing with even bigger things. Mass shootings are happening and even those are starting to become part of today’s society.

I’m hoping that, through fiction, we can reawaken to reality.

What I’m hoping is that, through fiction, through this novel, we can re-awaken. Through fiction, we can awaken to reality. I’m hoping that people will read the story and start to think about the world we’re in right now and what needs to change.

TLC: That brings me to one of the things that I thought was well done, which is the different ways each character approaches their grief. What you’re saying in terms of being desensitized is that we’re all just kind of tired of grieving, a kind of grief fatigue. I see that in your character Bet where she is tired and depressed, but it feels like she’s so exhausted that she can’t even grieve. What did it take for you to get into that mind space? I would imagine that writing four characters who are all suffering from so much grief would have some effect on you.

MH: That’s an interesting question. I was IN this for a couple of years. I took a month and went on a writing retreat in Bali and this was where I wrote the bulk of the first draft. I was in this oasis, really, in Bali. I was there with about 30 other writers, mostly women, and we created this sisterhood and it was such a warm and nurturing and caring environment that I was able to kind of go into this darkness. But then, at the end of the day, come out of it and be with this sisterhood and be in this beautiful place. I think initially, at least through that first draft, I was able to have that kind of balance.

When I came back to the U.S., of course, there was this heaviness and sense of urgency around getting the story finished because there were so many headlines. It just seemed that every time I turned around, there was some version of my book happening in the news. How I emotionally got through that? I tried not to watch the news. I really found myself not tuning in. I don’t really watch the evening news anymore. I just stopped because the visual of it was just overwhelming, and I would be in tears at the end of the day, so I stopped.

The day my book was released was the same day of the massacre in New Zealand. It was supposed to be this great day of joy for me, and yet the headlines were coming out from New Zealand. It was a challenging day for me because I wanted to celebrate but at the same time it’s tough to celebrate a book talking about hatred and grief and how to deal with that.

It seemed that every time I turned around, there was some version of my book happening in the news.

TLC: The reality of the United States is that one part of the country is completely different than another. Malawi is murdered in Florida but she is from Washington D.C. and that is where her family lives. Most of the book takes place in D.C., formerly known as “Chocolate City.” A lot of us in the Washington DC area, and I assume New York and other large cities, feel incubated from other parts of the country we often see portrayed as having a “less than enlightened” look at the way society should work. In D.C., a Black family can be affluent, but that same person can go somewhere else and not be respected in the same way.

MH:  This was Chocolate City. It is changing now, of course, but I think in many ways Black D.C. was insulated because the majority of residents were Black. There was this culture of Blackness. There were all levels of economic status. You could easily grow up in D.C. and feel very privileged and that all the bad things that happen in the world don’t affect you. That was what I was looking at with Kenya, specifically. She has that sense of “we’re good people, bad things shouldn’t happen to us.” But this city is changing. Things are not quite as they were.

The shooting, of course, doesn’t happen here. It happens in Florida. The reason I put it down there was a nod to Trayvon. But it also had to be in a Stand-Your-Ground state. Florida was a place that I thought Malawi would go to. I wanted to have a Black, well-to-do, D.C. family deal with what so many communities are dealing with across the country.

TLC: For people who aren’t used to the Black affluence in the D.C. area it can be quite shocking, especially when you go to certain parts of Prince George’s county because it’s mostly Black people living in mansions and you think these people are insulated. But toward the end, Kenya and Ghana, Malawi’s sisters, create an organization that is meant to be a support group for families who have suffered from police and racially motivated violence. Part of that is how you confront respectability politics. The idea that, if I am respectable like Kenya these things won’t happen to me. And there’s one particular scene where Kenya is involved in a very minor accident, and she is afraid of the guy who gets out of his car. Can you talk about the contradictions in that scene and what you were trying to express?

MH: The thing about Kenya is that it’s all about presentation. She’s very caught up in how she looks. She really has trouble getting below that surface to the real stuff. I wanted to explore that, even in the Black community, whether we want to admit it or not, there is this bias and some feel very privileged and look down on fellow African Americans who are poor, who are not as well educated. Here, Kenya is faced with someone who has a stereotypical “Black thug look,” and it scares her because it’s not the world she knows.

It’s part of humanity. We get in this clannish kind of mindset and want to separate ourselves.

I think that often times within communities we have that sense of you’re not the same as me because you live in Southeast [D.C.] versus Northwest or because you drive this kind of a car, or because you live in that kind of neighborhood. I think it’s part of humanity. We get in this clannish kind of mindset and we want to separate ourselves. So, for Kenya, she’s suddenly aware of her own fear. It’s an irrational fear. This guy wasn’t packing a gun. He wasn’t threatening her. He had a look and that was pretty much it.

TLC: Essentially, it’s a very similar situation to Malawi’s murder. The person on the other end made assumptions and reacted without considering the situation further and then she lost her life.

MH: Entirely based on race. And again, you were talking before about rich versus poor. Well, here’s someone who comes to your door, he’s got his gun, he’s not thinking “what if she is well off” or if she is rich or poor. He’s not thinking about economics. It’s entirely race.

TLC: But it sounds like it’s also race for Kenya too.

MH: Absolutely. She’s forced to confront her thinking around how she feels about her own people, and how to manage that and deal with her own judgments, her own bias. Because it’s not just race, right? She’s also homophobic. She really is making judgments about same-sex couples, but then she’s sort of forced to think about that in a much deeper, more personal way than she might have if not for her son.

TLC: Ghana, dates a white cop (Ryan). I like the different arguments both Ghana and her boyfriend present regarding Black Lives Matter. And I thought it was interesting how Ryan calls her out on whether or not she has a real connection to the movement or if she is caught up in it because she is Black. Do you think that’s what Ghana’s doing? Do you think that people do that?

MH: Ghana is much more open-minded, but she grew up privileged. She likes to think of herself as “down with the people.” But she has to look at herself a little more closely. Are you really “down with the people” or is it just easier to be that way than to really delve into social justice? Are you really working for the people or just paying lip service? For most of her life, it’s really just been lip service but now Ghana is in a place where she’s starting to realize, wait, I really could do something that could change people’s lives.

She starts to question this concept of interracial couples. She always had a question around it. She had to check with Malawi like, “are you cool with this,” “is this okay,” because she wasn’t really sure. Now it’s coming back to her that maybe this wasn’t the right decision because Ryan represents something that “I don’t want to be a part of because I want to be down with the people and you’re not it. You’re representing the oppressive police.” What wins out? Is it, “I’m going to stand with the people and my social justice thing and push away what it is I’m feeling for this person?” Or is there a way to embrace him as this white cop and still be part of the bigger movement?

In this world that we’re in right now, you can’t write a story like this and not talk about Black Lives Matter.

The book wasn’t supposed to be about Black Lives Matter. I wasn’t writing about the movement, but in creating a story like this, in this world that we’re in right now, you can’t write a story like this and not talk about Black Lives Matter.

TLC: You work with the Hurston/Wright Foundation and this book is also a Kimbilio Fiction Prize winner. What do organizations like these do to elevate Black writers and put forth energy behind us?

MH: Organizations like ours are vitally important, even more so in these times of discord. There are so many amazing Black writers out there and there are so few opportunities to really give them the kind of platform that they deserve. I think both give that opportunity for Black writers to be in a community where they are nurtured, where they feel respected, where they feel heard and valued. There are so many amazing writers who are not getting the kind of respect at the national level that they deserve.

I love working with Hurston/Wright. I’ve been with the organization since around 2012-2013. I started out teaching the teens writing workshops and eventually joined the board. I served as chair for a couple of years. It’s a privilege to be in a position to create that kind of community and to honor some of these amazing writers. The Legacy Award is such an amazing experience. Every time I’m there, I’m just so wowed by seeing a space full of primarily Black writers. The array of talent in the room is inspiring for me as a writer.

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