Zibby Owens: I’m here with Malcolm Hansen who’s the debut author of They Come in All Colors: A Novel. He is the winner of the BCALA, Black Caucus American Library Association, Literary Award for a first novelist and was nominated for a 2019 NAACP Image Award. Malcom was born at the Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and adopted by two civil rights activists. He grew up in Morocco, Spain, Germany, and the US. He attended Stanford after only two years of high school, after which he worked for several years in the software industry before traveling throughout Central and South America and Europe for a decade. He then returned to the US to complete an MFA in fiction from Columbia. He currently lives in New York City with his wife and two sons.

Welcome, Malcolm. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Malcolm Hansen: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what They Come in All Colors is about?

Malcolm: Absolutely. First, is it okay if I use swear words?

Zibby: All right, thanks for the heads up. Get the kids out of the car.

Malcolm: Yeah, this is for moms who swear. It’s about a fifteen-year-old named Huey Fairchild who royally fucks up. We learn early on, pretty quickly in the story, what it is he’s done. Basically, he’s poisoned who is, at that point, his best friend and induces anaphylactic shock, almost kills him. The question that the story deals with is, why did he do that? What we learn is that there’s been a betrayal, and in the eyes of Huey Fairchild, a big deal. He spins the story explaining himself to us. In a sense, it’s a mea culpa. He’s explaining why it is that he’s done what he’s done. Over the course of that explanation, we discover — he takes us back seven years to one summer when he was seven years old. It’s actually eight years back. He recounts the circumstances and events that he went through that summer and that helped shape him as a person at that point in his childhood. As that thread unfolds, we also discover the nature of the betrayal. Both of these things get unfolded. We come to understand why Huey has done the thing that he’s done and why the nature of the betrayal had the effect that it had one him and thereby understanding him a little bit better.

Zibby: What inspired you to write this book? This is your first novel. Why this one?

Malcolm: I think because it had an urgency to it that I couldn’t ignore. I was disappointed as a younger reader, and even as an adult reader, with stories that dealt with pretty heavy interracial issues. I wasn’t happy with how those were written and how they were dealt with. I wanted to take a stab at it. I wanted to see if I could do better.

Zibby: I just have a random question. When he was spending that summer, when Huey was spending the summer in the fields digging with these — you spent a lot of time describing these two-feet holes and the sticks. Can you explain to me what they were doing in the fields?

Malcolm: They’re stackpoles. A stackpole has to be dug because it’s the backbone for a haystack. The haystack gets built around the stackpole or else the haystack doesn’t stand up. His father’s a peanut farmer on the South in Georgia. His entire summer is with his single helping hand that they have, Tobias Muncie, working in the fields putting in these damn stackpoles that are going to be, once they harvest their peanuts, where they set them out to dry.

Zibby: I get it. Sorry, I feel like I was in these fields for so long. I’m like, what exactly — how do the mechanics of this work? Thank you. I know it was in the book, but it’s always good to have you explain it. It’s so ironic then, as somebody who’s worked on a peanut farm, to then poison his classmate years later with peanut butter in a sandwich and how he made that whole connection. As a mother of children with peanut allergies, I was horrified to read it. It turned my stomach, but I like how you —

Malcolm: — Brought it all back.

Zibby: Yeah, brought that back. You decide to have Huey, who has this very — also, this book takes place a long time ago. This in the early sixties, right?

Malcolm: Yeah.

Zibby: Then he moves from this farm, stackpole, trying to get into the one pool in the neighborhood existence — you can feel the heat bearing down on you. You can just feel it. I feel like I’m in these fields. Then Huey zooms up to New York City and is suddenly basically attending St. Bernard’s, or I don’t know where you had him go, but a school on the Upper East Side and trying to fit in with that whole scene, which is just such a juxtaposition from the other part of the book, two completely different worlds. What made you have Huey come up here?

Malcolm: There are a few opportunities there that I felt I had to take. One was the last wave of the great migration. His mother is on that last wave. These are African Americans fleeing Jim Crow South, trying to make a better life for themselves up North. That’s Huey’s mother in a nutshell. Why the Upper East Side? Within the framework of the North, it epitomizes the establishment and old money. I wanted, in a way, for Huey to come full circle. Although he escapes the South, he finds himself still confronting with the same types of racial issues that he dealt with down there, albeit in a different way. I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition. Here he is up North. He still finds himself very much, in a way, right where he started.

Zibby: You have such a moving scene too with his mother the day after he gets accused of — I won’t give it away, but after something happens in school. They go home and he’s just like, “I hate it here. What are we doing here?” It’s just him and his mom. She sort of says to him, “You think I’m really out here having a blast as the housekeeper and nanny to this family and taking care of this lady’s twins so she can go get a pedicure? My life pretty much sucks too, but what can we do about it?” It was so visual too. He’s sitting there wondering, “Did you make a better dinner for the people you take of than you’re making for me?” It was a heartbreaking moment, really.

Malcolm: It’s a fictional school. I want to say that up front. He’s in this very prestigious, elite school that he’s in. I think that we get the idea. Of course, as we learn within a few years of that experience, it shapes him. That provides another layer of complexity to this character as he evolves.

Zibby: Wow. Can I ask a little more about your background which I find so fascinating?

Malcolm: Absolutely.

Zibby: You were born in Tennessee to a home for unwed mothers. You were adopted by civil rights activists and then moved all over the world. Tell me a little about your upbringing and then how it’s shaped your writing. When did writing fall into this? When did you start writing? and the whole thing.

Malcolm: I was adopted to an interracial couple, first of all. My adoptive father is white. My adoptive mother’s black. They were both very political. Although, my father was arguably more of an activist than my mother was. He was the Arkansas project director for SNCC, very active. Both he and my mom left the country when I was one. A lot of it had to do with the way in which this country was politically then. He had basically, I think in his eyes, he had given the civil rights movement some of his best years. He was confronting the new realities of that movement and how the movement was — as a white individual, he was beginning to feel that his place was kind of in question, what his role was. So he left. They first went to Morocco briefly and then to Spain. My earliest childhood memories are in Spain. Then they settled down in Germany on an American military base. My mother worked as a civil servant, past tense. She’s since passed. She worked as a psychologist. My father was, at that time, a graduate student. They stayed there for the next several years. They actually separated there. My mother came back before he did, relocated in Virginia, again on a military base, this time on a naval base, continued working as a civil servant as a psychologist. Substance abuse was her area of specialty. My father came back to Boston pursuing his doctorate at that time. I came back when they separated. My mother having returned before he did, I came back and lived with her in Virginia.

Zibby: And with your brother as well?

Malcolm: And with my brother. You can probably place some of that with a story that you might have read, a short little thing. When my father joined us back stateside a few years later, my brother and I both came and lived with him in Boston and stayed with him from there on.

Zibby: Wow. When did you find writing? When did you realize that you loved it? Or do you? I assume you love it because you do it, but I doesn’t assume that.

Malcolm: You’re right. Although, I do love it. I will say that. I have a very quirky relationship with the whole — I wasn’t an early reader. My father, I felt, was a very heavy-handed father. Both his activism, his politics, and his ideas about schooling were things that I resisted, I think, by nature. I’m a very resistant person. I have to kind of come to certain realities on my own. Early on, I resisted them. Then sure enough, I came around. Then I began to see the light in its ways and then became quite a heavy reader. I always felt like I had something that I wanted to write, but I lacked the courage to do it. It took me going on a professional route after I graduated college and seeing the flesh and blood of what the realities of the professional life looked like, even for a business or a profession that was valued and supposed to be exciting and new. I’m referring to internet and software in the mid-nineties. I was very disillusioned with it and didn’t find much meaning in it and figured that if I was going to be miserable, I may as well be miserable pursuing my dreams. I think that was the first step.

Zibby: That’s a funny way of looking it. Maybe your dreams won’t make you so miserable anymore. I mean, I’m hoping. Did it work?

Malcolm: Well, you know what? I went all in. I worked, as I said, in software for a few years. I had some money saved. Then at the point in which I chose to break from that profession, I sold everything that I had, I’ve been a motorcyclist since my adolescence, and rode down to Ecuador over land on motorcycle. I made a promise to myself that I didn’t know what I wanted to do next with my life, but that on that trip I would figure it out. I ran out of money in Ecuador. I pulled the bike over. I found a place to stay. I bought a typewriter, and I started writing. I didn’t stop. I told myself that I wouldn’t return to the States until I had a manuscript, so that’s what I did four years later.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like that’s from another era, that story.

Malcolm: It is.

Zibby: The typewriter and the dirt roads and the motorcycle.

Malcolm: There were cumbersome laptops, but I didn’t have one with me. I quickly got a laptop, so I wasn’t with the typewriter for very long.

Zibby: Okay, good. You can borrow mine if you still need one. Wow, that’s crazy. You wrote a letter on your website, which I wanted to talk about also. As a boy, you said you felt neither dark or light enough. Meanwhile, can I ask you a silly — this might sound ridiculous.

Malcolm: Absolutely.

Zibby: Your adoptive parents are biracial. Do you know what your biological parents were?

Malcolm: It’s something that pursued me through adolescence. I resisted. I told myself I didn’t care and I couldn’t be bothered. There are too many more immediate issues in my life that I had to give my attention to, to look back. Of course when I got married and we started having kids, that changed that. I was like, well, there are some things you need to know for the benefit of your kids, health wise. I was convinced to initiate that search for my biological parents. I did and discovered a little bit about my father and my mother. Thankfully, through the Georgia adoption agency, there are some pretty detailed records that I had access to. It was a trove. It was an amazing experience. Unfortunately, my biological father died in a drowning incident early on in his life. My biological mother is still with us, but because of — I was given up for adoption not just because she was a young mother. She was seventeen years old, I think, when she gave birth to me. It was an interracial relationship that she had had. We’re in ’69 in Georgia, and so there were racial motivations behind my adoption. She proceeded to —

Zibby: — Was your mother — what race was your —

Malcolm: — She was white.

Zibby: You’re mother’s white?

Malcolm: She’s white, yes.

Zibby: And your father?

Malcolm: Was black. She couldn’t — something that wasn’t permissible, being a child out of wedlock with a black man. She went on and had another life. We have been in correspondence. We had one letter exchange. She answered some of my more urgent questions. She was very kind about it and very gracious about it. I had wanted a picture, and she wasn’t able to share that with me. She wasn’t at a place where she could reveal her identity because she has a life. It doesn’t permit her being able to go back in that way. She has kids and all kinds of things that don’t know about that part of her past. I understood that. It’s not easy, but I understand it. Such is life.

Zibby: That is hard. To get that phone call or just — I’m just putting myself in your shoes and thinking how much you would just want — I would feel like it would answer so many questions if I could just meet this person. It’s such a crucial part of your identity, as much as you want to put it aside. Where you come from is just one of these base things. Then for her to still deny that to you, that just seems so mean. I mean, I understand. I understand. She wants to pretend it didn’t happen.

Malcolm: For me, I have to remind myself that I think my takeaway is that the past is still with us. I feel that my personal experience bears that out in a very poignant way. There are very real consequences for me that relate to nothing more than racial improprieties or social improprieties that are still with us, that still weigh on people and affect what they feel that they can and can’t do, and places that they are not willing to go. Interestingly, her mother is still alive. My maternal grandmother is still alive. She’s a huge maternal figure in the household, as I’ve come to learn, and obviously was there when she was seventeen years old, part of this whole playing out. It’s a second novel, maybe.

Zibby: I was just going to say. This is a movie. This whole thing is a movie. You should just skip the fiction and go straight to memoir.

Malcolm: What I really enjoy doing is I enjoy creating a world where I can somehow bring the emotional truths to these types of experience to the characters that I create and in that way get — because there is something that, when you craft these fictional stories, that you can bring to light in ways that we don’t — there aren’t too many other ways that we do this in our world. I feel that’s very special. That’s why I love fiction writing.

Zibby: To be honest, fiction writing essentially is like an exercise in therapy for basically everyone who writes. I’ve talked to so many people now. It’s really how we all work through different issues. It’s as if you’re a child. Not you, but I’m thinking about my kids. In play therapy, they have you draw a picture and that brings out all your feelings. Here we are as grown-ups and we’re writing. Here are the characters, but I’m going to put all of my feelings onto these characters and in that way get them out and deal with them and help other people while I’m at it.

Malcolm: I told my wife for many years early on, pre-publishing, that, you know what? Even if it all failed, it was still therapy for me.

Zibby: You needed it.

Malcolm: I was allowed to go to places where I wouldn’t be able to go otherwise. One of my big learning experiences in the writing process was realizing that not all writing is fun writing. There was actually some places that I had go creatively that were actually quite painful and difficult. That was a big learning process for me.

Zibby: Now you’re trying to figure out how to bring all of this and all of your sorted feelings, especially about race coming from essentially two mixed races marriages in way, to now you’re having children. You have an essay on your website where you’re about to go swimming with your son. How much do you tell him about what’s been in the news? What should you stop? What do we give our kids to grapple with? I don’t know. How are you feeling about it in terms of being a parent now?

Malcolm: It’s really complicated. It’s not easy. It’s no easier than it was when I was a kid. I had to sort through it all, a father who thought he was helping me and perhaps wasn’t helping me in the way that I needed to be helped or as much as he thought he was helping me, but he did what he could. I try to do the same with my two sons and try to be aware of my own limitations and not to impose on them too much of my reality and what I carry with me from the past. I try to let them be themselves as much as possible. I try to take a minimalistic approach to parenting in the sense of I try not to be heavy-handed. Although admittedly, I struggle with that. When racial issues come up, we’ve had conversations, but I try to let them muddle through that as much as possible. I try not to dictate what reality is. Certainly, the racial landscape has changed so much, especially for people of multiracial descent, especially for people who are fair-skinned and don’t look their race. As you can imagine in the early/mid-sixties, it’s like we were still very much under the principle of this one-drop rule. It doesn’t matter how you look. If you know that you have a black individual somewhere in your ancestry, that’s what you are. That defines you.

That’s changed to a degree where we have a more nuanced and fluid sense of identity. It’s helpful in some ways. The language is more evolved, but things certainly crop up. The fact of the matter is that my two children don’t look as if they have African American ancestry, and so it’s something that they have to be aware of. I try to just remind them of that. It’s really hard to do because my wife is Swedish. My mother’s passed. Their paternal grandmother who was black, albeit my adoptive parent, is no longer there even as a figure, someone to point back to. My elder son has a vague, distant memory of her one Christmas, but that’s it. Trying to make that part of their family, known and real and immediate and urgent and important, it’s a struggle. I feel like that’s probably the most important obligation I have. Then what they do with that is very much up to them. I love the fact that they’re at a school where there are other people that are multiracial. That’s a big deal because I didn’t have that. They don’t feel so, I think, completely different. They can see other brown-ish individuals of ambiguous race. They’re working through it. What’s fascinating is, what’s it going to look like when they’re parents and I’m the grandad? We realize just how fluid all of this is. We can’t be married to our beliefs too much because things are always changing.

Zibby: That’s the whole thing too. I feel like we’re at a point right now with so much divisiveness in the country and people wanting to draw so many lines. There’s so much hate and anger. Yet the US has traditionally been known as this melting pot. Everybody has a little bit of everything. Even as you were talking, it made me think of the Holocaust because you could be killed if your great-great-grandmother was Jewish. It doesn’t matter how much. It’s in there. They can figure it out. It’s almost the same. There’s some similarities there. As someone who sort of embodies the mixed-race persona in a way, and especially as you write about all these different issues, where do you come out on this whole racial anger situation when so many people are a combination of things?

Malcolm: For me, it was important that — part of why I wrote this story and part of why it was really urgent to me was because I didn’t want for people to forget about a period — well, let me just back up a second. I’ve had people tell me, “You’re so lucky,” both from the point of view of “You have such a cool racial background,” and “so cool” is the descriptive word, or that I have the source of all of these stories, these experiences that have been painful and difficult once as being something that, “Oh, that’s so cool. This is now part of your treasure chest that you can explore and create stories from.” But there’s a lot of pain there. There’s a lot of sadness. I grappled with a lot of just not really knowing who I was and not really knowing how — even to this day, it never goes away. That’s a very big part of the story. This main character, Huey Fairchild, kind of comes along. He’s not where he started, but he’s not all the way there by any stretch. It’s important to capture a time in our history where looking like I look didn’t feel and wasn’t the way that it was today. In case anyone forgets, I want the story to be there to help people remember. Hopefully, it’ll put you in the flesh, in the shoes of this individual, and you will get to see a firsthand account of what reality looked like for someone who looked like that at that time in our history. It shouldn’t be that far from us.

Zibby: Tell me a little about your writing process. Where do you like to write?

Malcolm: I’m an early morning person. I’m just now getting back into the groove. The first year after publication was just crazy. I was just done. I wasn’t sure that I would ever write anything again because it literally squeezed me for all I was worth. I put everything that I had into it. It felt like it was my one — and treated it like it was my one chance. I treated it like, I’m going to assume that I only have one story to tell. This is it. Damn it, I better put every last ounce of energy that I have to dedicate on this topic to this character in this book because once it’s done, it’s done. I was done. I was toast. I felt like I had no more to give after that first year. Slowly, I’ve been coming around and I feel like I’m becoming more rejuvenated and have kind of gotten insight into what I want to tackle next. What I did this past summer, my wife and kids went off to see their grandparents in Sweden. I hunkered down here in the city and just pulled the curtains closed and said, I’m going to figure out this next book. This is my chance. You know what life is like with kids. You have to make that happen. It doesn’t just happen on its own. I felt like that was a very productive period for me. I was able to get back to a place of creativity and energy and urgency. I have more in me. The mornings are where it’s at. The earlier I can get started, the better. I like to really harvest those first juices of the day. I’m that person. I try to get in two shifts, pre and post. Then come eight or nine, I’m done.

Zibby: Eight or nine at night?

Malcolm: Yeah.

Zibby: Well, yeah.

Malcolm: I’m not done with the writing. The writing will end around six or seven. Your brain and everything else is just — you’ve given the day everything that you have to give. You’re ready to call it a day.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Malcolm: Yeah, I do. I was actually thinking about this. One of the things that has really helped along the way is to never throw anything away. Be a hoarder of words. Treat them, even though they come out and you might not be happy with them and you might be frustrated with them and you might be completely dissatisfied and disappointed and depressed, assume that they mean something and that you just haven’t figured out what they mean.

Zibby: I like that. Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for your beautiful novel.

Malcolm: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Of course.