Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS

“Grief is what we pay for love. If you don’t really love somebody, you just get past it.” Zibby is joined by poet, professor, and author Honorée Fanonne Jeffers to talk about her debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, which was just selected as the next Oprah’s Book Club pick. Honorée shares how she wanted to infuse the book with memories from her childhood without stealing stories directly from her family, as well as how a prolonged period of loss and grief in her life has led her to form a deep connection with her characters. Check out Zibby and Kyle’s appearance on Good Day LA where they recommended this book here: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CSXW1bUJhVp/.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Honorée. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: Thank you so much.

Zibby: First of all, I just feel like I should say congratulations because your novel was this sweeping epic of a family over time interspersed with all these other historical allegories, scenes, quotes for a masterful several hundred pages. Bravo. Let me just start with that.

Honorée: Thank you so much. I did my best.

Zibby: You did your best, oh, my gosh. You come from the poetry world, all these awards and accolades and everything. How did this book come to be?

Honorée: I’ve always written little stories from the time that I was a little girl. Then when I decided that I was going to take the leap and become a “real writer” — that was back when I thought you can only be a real writer if you publish. Now I just feel like it’s different. If you do it for yourself, it’s fine. I’m remembering Emily Dickinson didn’t publish anything in her lifetime, and we worship her. I’m a poet. I went to graduate school to train for poetry. While I was there, even though it was in the Deep South, it was in Alabama, everybody was from the North or from California or whatever. We didn’t have any Southern teachers, any of that. I was lonely. I just started writing these little stories that reminded me of my childhood, but not taking anybody’s real life because you don’t want to get sued. Also, I don’t know if it’s ethical to do that. I started writing little stories. Then it just took off from there years later.

Zibby: You created your main character, Ailey, who I just felt so attached to after you took us through so much of her life. When all these things started happening to her, and her grief and Lydia and all this stuff, I feel like you took us on such an emotional rollercoaster with this story. I just wanted to read, if I could, one of these scenes about Lydia and some quotes and everything, if it’s okay, just a little piece.

Honorée: Yes, of course.

Zibby: You wrote — Lydia’s my favorite character, I guess — “And my mother wrote to me about Lydia. Was she dead? And if so, shouldn’t she feel it inside, something ripping her open to steal her child’s soul? But that feeling hadn’t occurred, and not knowing what had happened to my sister was so hard.” Then later, you say, “Yet Lydia’s fall was a mystery to her family, a girl like her provided with every necessity, a mother and father, plenty of love, educated at college, and on her way to becoming a social worker, a good girl like that. What had gone wrong? And when Lydia reflected on her life, meditated on it the way Elder Beasley at Red Mound told his flock that they should meditate on Jesus, think about his suffering, how he toted the troubles of the world so the rest of human beings didn’t have to, Lydia couldn’t have told you how she had ended up in the thrall of a white rock that looked harmless.” So good.

Honorée: I’ll just carry you everywhere with me. That was beautiful.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, yours was beautiful. Amazing. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s one more I wanted to read. I don’t have to. Keep going? Yes?

Honorée: You do you. This is great.

Zibby: I’ll do me, okay. This is coming from Uncle Root. This is when she’s talking about Lydia. “I know that’s the way I felt about my mother, Ailey. She died and left me when I was just a little boy, and for years, I blamed myself. If I could’ve taken her away from this farm, from my father, from all this racism and oppression, she might not have caught influenza. That frustration will probably be with me until the moment I leave this earth. But once she was gone, it took me years to see that I had to live for the both of us because she loved me so much, like Lydia loved you. Anybody could see that, Ailey. She was crazy about you. She probably loved you more than even I do, and I love you very, very much. That’s why you have to carry on, Ailey. Wherever Lydia is, she’s asking that of you. She wants that for you.”

Honorée: Okay, I’m about to cry. You get attached to those characters. They feel real. They are real in your imagination. I’m not being phony. I’m tearing up because I love these people. They kept me company in some of the most loneliest times of my life.

Zibby: You can tell your affection for them all. I’m sorry.

Honorée: I’m sorry. I didn’t bring any tissues. Somebody sent me this T-shirt. I’ve got on foundation. I don’t want to , so I’m trying to .

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Grab one of the black dresses behind you. No one will ever know. The way that you developed the characters and just all the stuff they went through, it’s a lot. There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of history imbued in each character. Tell me about how it feels now, how it feels having these characters fly into the world and enter into everyone else’s consciousness.

Honorée: It’s a little scary. People always think, when an author writes a book, that they’re just kind of putting flesh on their own relatives or someone that they know or their own life. That’s a little scary because it’s not my own life. I don’t want people looking at my family and saying, who’s Lydia? Who’s Coco? Who’s Uncle Root? Who’s Belle? At the same time, I really want people to — it’s not my family, but the vibe is how I grew up. I spent my summers in my mother’s hometown, Eatonton, Georgia, which is this little, teeny-weeny town. At the time, there were three thousand people there. It was really like a small college, almost. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody was in everybody’s business. There was gossip. People would just stop by my grandma’s house. Nobody ever called. They’d just call through the screen. Hey, y’all. I just want people to feel what I feel because that time is gone now. It’s not the same. After my grandmother died, I remember coming back to the house. The house has been sold now, which is devastating. It wasn’t in the country. She lived in town, town as it were because it was so teeny. I remember there were guys standing on the corner of my grandmother’s yard selling drugs. I thought, ooh, if grandma was still alive, she would go out there and give those boys a piece of her mind. She wasn’t scared of anybody. That whole time is gone, the home training where we don’t assume that we can call people by their first names. We’d say Miss. If you don’t know their last name, you say Miss Betty or Miss Diane or whatever. That time is gone. I wanted to give people a feel for how I grew up.

Zibby: Not to make any leaps, but the character of Gandy and what he does to the girls, did you go through something? You don’t have to talk about it. Was that from personal experience? Did you see that in families you knew? Where did that piece come from? The way you wrote about it and even how you don’t quite find out until later about some of the — it all kind of unravels. Some of it they don’t even realize is weird. When something happens to you so young, can you even acknowledge it as sexual abuse if it’s just what’s happening?

Honorée: I am an abuse survivor, but I was really careful not to put any of my own experience. It’s a strange thing because you know the feeling, but the action is not yours. Does that make sense?

Zibby: Yes.

Honorée: I know the feeling as a child. That’s probably all I want to say.

Zibby: I’m really sorry.

Honorée: I know the feeling as a child. There are so many people that I know who are survivors, and not just African American women and not just African American girls. One of the things about this book is that the question I kept asking, and even more urgently as we started going through some things as a country, that’s all I’ll say, how did we get to this place? How did we get to this place as a country? How did we get to this place in terms of race relations? How did a family get to this place? Everything that I had my characters go through, I was always asking that question. First, it was for character development. If you’re just writing technically, I don’t think people can feel what you feel. I remember I was talking to a friend of mine when I was writing. I said, “I’m crying so much,” particularly Lydia. It makes me feel good that so many people say Lydia and Uncle Root are their favorite characters. If I was Ailey, I’d be mad.

Zibby: She would be mad, yeah.

Honorée: I would be mad if that was really me with a new name or whatever. I love that people love Lydia so much because I put so much into Lydia. I wanted people to understand that drug addiction is not a moral failing. It’s an illness. People bring pain with them. That’s how they get to that place. You know what? I didn’t know that until I started writing Lydia. I had a whole feeling about people who were addicted to alcohol, addicted to drugs. I had all of these value judgements. I can be honest now because I’m on the other side of it. Then when I started writing Lydia, it was like something just opened in my heart. I wanted people to feel that same way because we’re going through a new wave. I grew up, when we were living in Atlanta, with the crackhead epidemic. Now we’re all living with the opiate epidemic. I want people to understand how we get to this place, and then the same thing with the abuse. Why does somebody tolerate something that anybody can see is abusive or wrong? How did we get to that place? That’s what I wanted to know with everybody.

Zibby: Wow, beautiful. Honorée, I don’t get it because you are obviously such a special woman and sensitive and emotional and insightful and obviously a beautiful writer.

Honorée: You are so lovely. Thank you so much.

Zibby: I mean it. Why are you having all these lonely parts of your life? Why these lonely times?

Honorée: When I was writing the book, I lost a lot of people. I’m going to try not to choke up. There was a lady, well-known in poetry circles, Lucille Clifton. She was a poet. She was a well-known children’s book author. She was my second mom and my dear friend and my mentor. She died in 2010. Then my best friend, James, so you’ll see his name in the dedication, he died in 2011. My sister died, Cece. We call her Cece, , but we call her Cece. She died in 2014. Then my marriage ended in 2015. It was a lot of pain. It was difficult. I do have very dear friends. A lot of people, they’re always shocked when I say I’m an introvert because I don’t seem to meet many strangers. As I tell people, I leave my at home locked in a room somewhere. When I meet people, I want to bless people. I want to bless people. I don’t want to be a person that somebody, after they finish meeting me, they’re like, that ruined my day. Wish I hadn’t met that lady. When I’m out, I’m out. I spend a lot of time with myself. I think most writers spend a lot of time with themselves. There are people that I dearly, dearly love. When I love, I love very hard, and so it was devastating. Then I started going through it. I was still writing the novel. Then when I finished, I was still sad because I still miss my husband. He’s always with me, but I still miss him. It’s not the same.

Zibby: I’m so sorry.

Honorée: Thank you for saying that. Thanks.

Zibby: I’ve lost a lot of people I love in my life as well starting in my twenties.

Honorée: I’m so sorry.

Zibby: Nothing ever replaces the people that have been lost.

Honorée: No, it doesn’t. Somebody said something because a friend of mine passed away. We weren’t close. You know how you have those people you just adore? You don’t see them often, but every time you see them, it’s just like no time has passed. He passed away. He hadn’t been sick or anything. I was devastated. He was so loved. There were so many people who loved him. We were up on Facebook. You know, Facebook is for the older folk. One of them said something that, it sort of helped me a little bit. She said grief is what we pay for love. If you don’t really love somebody real strong, you just get past it. You can love strangers. I love Toni Morrison. Today is the anniversary of when she passed. I still hurt when I think about, I never got to meet her. I still miss her. That’s the thing. If you really love somebody, it’s really going to be a hurting thing when they pass away.

Zibby: It’s true. I had someone on my podcast, I can’t remember who said it, but a quote that helps her a lot which has since helped me is, God never wastes a pain, which I love.

Honorée: I’ll write that down as soon as I get off the podcast.

Zibby: I put it on a sticky. It’s on my computer. It helps.

Honorée: It does. It helps. I’m a faithful person. I don’t try to shove my faith down people’s throat. I think that’s obnoxious, but I’m a faithful person. Part of my getting past my hot-mess years is, I want to make it to heaven to see my folks again. I don’t want Saint Peter to be like, “Security,” when I show up. I do believe I’ll see them all again. For now, I miss them.

Zibby: What are you doing with your writing now that this big project is over?

Honorée: I’m working on some essays. They’re all about black women because I still feel like many people don’t know us. That may be because when you see black women, we seem so tough. We don’t share our pain. We’re always keeping it together. I’m writing about that. Then there are some Chicasetta stories because I miss them. I want to talk to them again. Then of course, I’m always writing poetry. I’m always writing poetry. I wake up with a poem in my head, two, three o’clock in the morning. I write it down. Sometimes when I wake up, I’m like, ooh, this is horrible. Then sometimes I wake up and I can’t even understand how I wrote it down. I’m writing poems. I’m just real glad. Things are real busy now. I’m a little tired, but I always remind myself, I prayed for this. I’m just trying to be in gratitude. I’m off teaching this year. I really miss my students. I’m off teaching this year. My university was kind enough to give me this time off to publicize my book and work on some new things. I’m doing that. Then next year, I’m back in the classroom where nobody’s impressed with me.

Zibby: You can just assign your book as required reading, and I’m sure they’ll change their mind. Be like, if you get through this, call me. Especially as a teacher as well, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Honorée: I always tell my students you got to keep it fresh with your writing. It’s like any relationship. There is a relationship that an author has with — I’ll say her because we’re ladies. You can’t just leave it for weeks at a time and then come back. You’re not going to leave your mate for weeks at a time and then come back and think they’re going to pop some champagne for you. You have to keep it fresh. You’re a married lady, so date night. That’s what you have to do with your writing. You have to make appointments with your writing. A lot of times people don’t respect us writers. If you say, I’m trying to write, they just think you’re trying to find time to goof off. I always tell people, if you feel like somebody’s not respecting your writing, say you have a meeting. I have a meeting. If your writing is early in the morning and somebody wants you to come in or do something early in the morning, you say, I would love to, but I have a meeting. If they want you to do something later in the day, I’m sorry, I have a meeting. You have to respect your writing because if you don’t respect it, nobody else will. Also, I tell my students the race is not always . A lot of people haven’t heard of me before this novel, but my first book of poetry was published twenty years ago. I’m in my fifties. You never know when your time is. You just have to keep pushing. That’s difficult because you see your friends. Some of them will get famous. You’re all jealous and stuff. Our time, if you believe in a higher power, our time is time. If you don’t, our time is not the universe’s time. Your time is coming. You walk toward it. It will meet you. That’s what I tell folk.

Zibby: Aw, I love that. Oh, my gosh, Honorée, this has been so nice. I have so loved getting to know you.

Honorée: I feel the same.

Zibby: I wish I could give you a big hug now or something. Where are you in the world now? Are you still in Atlanta? Where are you?

Honorée: Oh, no, I’m in Oklahoma. I’ve been out here in Tornado Alley since 2002. I’m used to it now. When I first came out, I’d be covering in my closet and everything every time tornado season — I’ve been out here. I teach at the University of Oklahoma. It’s home now. Every once in a while, I got to travel back to my real home.

Zibby: If you’re ever in New York, give me a call. We’ll meet up and have coffee or something.

Honorée: I appreciate that. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Have a great day. Enjoy the ride with this book. Get some rest. Enjoy it. It’s your time. It’s your time now.

Honorée: Thank you so much. I appreciate you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Honorée: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS

THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

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