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Friday, August 07, 2015

Going All the Way

Written by  Gregg Shapiro

An Interview with Writher Jennifer Morales

Meet Me Halfway (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), the fiction debut by Jennifer Morales is subtitled “Milwaukee Stories.” Because of that, Milwaukee is as much a character in the book as high school students Johnquell and Taquan, Johnquell’s mother Gloria and his aunt Bee-Bee, elderly Frances and Mrs. Czernicki, dedicated teacher Mrs. Charles, or any of the people who populate Morales’ stories. Most of the stories are set in present-day Milwaukee, although “Prelude to a Revolution” takes us back to the late 1960s, setting the tone for the racially divided city of today. I spoke with Jennifer in April 2014 before she embarked on a book tour for Meet Me Halfway.

Gregg Shapiro: I always like to begin by asking a fiction writer who they consider some of their writing influences to be?

Jennifer Morales: I’m influenced by everything I’ve read, but I think the real influences on my fiction writing are the day-to-day storytellers in my life. My late grandmother used to love to hold court at the dining table and tell us stories that made her laugh and cry like they were happening again right there. My mom has an almost painfully acute eye for detail, and my dad, who had schizophrenia, used to tell me the most fantastic stories about his (fictional) life as an FBI agent in charge of hunting down Nazis. In my political and performance lives, I’ve also spent years listening to politicians, ministers, actors, and activists tell stories -- when they are talking, my writer ear is always attuned to how they frame a narrative for audience effect.

GS: The format of Meet Me Halfway is linked stories, with different narrators. Why did you choose that configuration as opposed to framing it as a straightforward novel?

JM: I came to fiction writing after many years of writing poetry, so I think my natural tendency is writing in shorter forms. After writing “Heavy Lifting,” the first story in Meet Me Halfway, I felt compelled to try to bring in a wide range of Milwaukee voices. I kept asking, “Who does the character in the last story need to encounter in the next one?” I wanted to show the diversity of the city and the many ways that people interact – for better or for worse – across group boundaries in a deeply divided place.

GS: You said that you wrote “Heavy Lifting” first. What was the inspiration for the story?

JM: The long answer about the inspiration for the story comes from my 23 years living in hyper-segregated Milwaukee. I came from a racially mixed family in the Chicago area and had a diverse group of friends, so I was absolutely shocked to see how sharply segregated my new home town was. In Milwaukee I served on the city’s school board and was active in community causes, as well as being a mom to a diverse bunch of kids, a writer-in-the-schools, and a middle-school Sunday school teacher, so I got to know many young people and see their struggles with the city’s racial legacy first-hand. As an elected official trying to convince senior citizens to raise their own property taxes to support the schools, I also got to hear the voices of many of the city’s elders.

From all that history, you get the short answer: I was lying on my couch one day after getting back from an exhausting MFA in Creative Writing residency and noticed my bookshelf was leaning and probably should be moved. Even though I hadn’t been able to write anything for a week, I suddenly stood up, grabbed my laptop, and wrote the first half of “Heavy Lifting,” about a black Milwaukee teen moving a bookcase for his elderly white neighbor. I don’t know where Johnquell and Mrs. Czernicki came from, but they popped into my head and threw me off the couch, so I knew I had to write their story down.

GS: How did you know that you wanted to develop the characters into a full-length book?

JM: It’s really simple: I fell in love with my characters and I wanted to know more about their lives. I kept wondering about people who played minor roles in one story – What would they do in their own story? What are they like? What do they need to learn? – and then, next thing I knew, I’d be off writing another one. Gloria’s story (“Misdirected”), about the aftermath of her son’s death, came to me last. Gloria resisted “giving” me a story for a year and a half after the other stories were done. I don’t blame her, since I killed her child [laughs].

GS: Teachers, from opposite ends of the spectrum, play a prominent role in Meet Me Halfway. There’s Mrs. Charles, a teacher who offers her students respect and support, and then there’s Stu, aka Mr. Discharge, who isn’t the most nurturing of educators. As someone who is a teacher herself, what can you tell me about your approach to writing about teachers?

JM: Teachers are my heroes. Although I teach writing workshops, I have never been a full-time classroom teacher. Those who do that job day after day, year after year in the K-12 schools have my deepest respect and gratitude. That said, teachers are human, too. They can be jerks and bigots and sometimes fail to understand their students. I wanted to reflect the full range – from the astute, caring, almost super-human ones, to the pompous, discriminatory examples.

As a former school board member, public school parent, and education researcher, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to see teachers in action, but the Stu character is based on an experience I had as a student. Stu is modeled on a racist substitute teacher I was subjected to in my high school history class – a class normally taught by a teacher I practically worshipped. He also was a Vietnam vet, like Stu, and used that status to bully us into parroting his version of U.S. history.

GS: You make use of dialect, in “Pressing On” and “Fragging,” for example.

JM: My characters speak a range of Milwaukee “Englishes.” There’s Frances, who speaks South Side white Milwaukee-ese, and Netania, who is a native English speaker whose language is inflected by her parents’ Mexican Spanish. And there are several black characters who speak different Milwaukee variations on African American Vernacular English (AAVE, sometimes called Ebonics), depending on their situation, age, and social class. There are also black characters who speak what linguists call Edited English – the language of the white professional class. I wanted to represent all those voices because I love language and I have had close relationships with people who speak each of these Milwaukee dialects.

“Fragging” deals explicitly with the clash of cultures that different forms of English can provoke. Johnquell has a conflict with Stu, the substitute, over his use of what Stu calls “gangster” English. But Johnquell is capable of speaking multiple English dialects. His school friend Taquan comes from a working-class black/Puerto Rican home and he speaks a deeper AAVE that is also influenced by his mom’s native Spanish.

I tried to use my years of working with Milwaukeeans of all colors and cultures to present each dialect with great respect. Everyone’s home language deserves to honored and heard with care because that’s our heart language – the language our families talk to us in, the language we first heard our names spoken in.

One of the reasons that I saved “Pressing On” – Taquan’s story – for last is because I think many middle-class white readers will be challenged by his voice. I wanted them to be invested in the series of stories before getting to Taquan, so that they take the time to hear him and see him for the funny, resilient, good-hearted kid that he is and root for him to succeed.

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