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In 'That Kind Of Mother,' A White Mom, A Black Son

May 6, 2018
Originally published on May 6, 2018 10:37 am

The first time Rumaan Alam appeared on NPR, Linda Wertheimer asked him how he developed "a nearly flawless ear for the way women talk." His debut novel Rich And Pretty followed two young women, best friends who grow up and, necessarily, apart.

His new, second novel That Kind Of Mother begins as another story about a female relationship — this one between Rebecca, a white poet and first-time mom, and Priscilla, a black woman who works as her nanny. Then Priscilla becomes pregnant and dies in childbirth, and Rebecca decides that she is going to adopt the child. That's when it becomes a story about family — and about race and privilege.

The son of Bangladeshi immigrants, Alam is also the adoptive father of two black boys, who he raises with his husband. We talked to him about how much of that translated into this book.


Interview Highlights

On the relationship between Rebecca and Priscilla

I think it is an inherently complex relationship, and one that is not often discussed. I am somebody who has two children of his own, and my husband and I have had three different childcare providers, and they were our employees. But we relied on them with the only thing that matters in our lives, which is our children. And so the level of trust and intimacy that is an important part of that relationship elevates it from a traditional understanding of what it is to have an employee or what it is to have an employer, I think.

On the race and class underpinnings of the book

I think that the way that we talk about complicated political issues now is much more appropriate. We talk about the intersection between race and feminism, for example, or class and race. And I think that all of those concerns are really linked in the power dynamic at the center of this book. Rebecca is a white woman; Priscilla is a black woman. They come together as a family via adoption, but there is still a lot that separates them from one another, and that is what the book is trying to press on and tease out.

On if Alam drew upon personal experiences

Certainly not. I mean, this is a — you know, the emotional truth is very much my own. But you would have to know me pretty well to understand what in the text is autobiographical. I'll tell you one thing since we're friends now: That I do make spaghetti carbonara just like Rebecca does in the book, and I always guiltily throw a package of spinach into it. But this is a story about adoption using very dramatic and heightened circumstances, and in my own experience adoption does not work this way. Our children were placed in open adoptions, and there's a certain amount of maternal agency in that choice. And in this book, I'm talking about the sudden death of a character, the sudden erasure of someone, and the adoption almost feels like it does in myths. The child just arrives, wholesale.

On "the talk" which black parents deliver to their sons about comportment with police, and setting the book during an era before it entered white American consciousness

There are two levels to this answer. One is that it's a great advantage to write about the past, because I know how the story ends even if the characters inside the text do not — and the reader knows how the story ends too. So in the text when Rebecca talks about holding up Bill Cosby as a role model, the reader understands the ways in which Bill Cosby has failed to be the role model we all maybe once believed that he was. And the notion that black parents have historically provided to their sons this intelligence about what will happen to them upon becoming black men — this is a tradition that exists within the black community that I would not have known about had I not had black sons. And it felt really like an important opportunity to explore the ways in which black Americans have been having these conversations and white Americans have not.

On writing about things he hasn't personally experienced, especially regarding race and gender

I think a lot of what that conversation is about is a particular power dynamic. And if there is a reader who is a woman, or who is a black woman, who reads this book and says "he's got it totally wrong and I'm offended," I have to accept that. I hope that that will not be the case, and I think so much of it is in the approach. I hope that readers can sense that my approach to writing about difference is from a point of a genuine desire to understand and depict something that I can't know firsthand. And I think a lot of the sensitivity around inhabiting a different perspective, whether it's race or gender or ability — people should be sensitive, and they should wade into this stuff carefully. And that's what I've tried to do.

Sophia Boyd and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Rumaan Alam writes women well. His first acclaimed novel, "Rich And Pretty," followed two young women, best friends who grow up and then part. His new second novel, "That Kind Of Mother," begins as another story about a female relationship - this one between Rebecca, a white poet and first-time mom, and Priscilla, a black woman who works as her nanny.

RUMAAN ALAM: I think it is an inherently complex relationship and one that is not often discussed. I am somebody who has two children of my own. And my husband and I have had three different child care providers. And they were our employees, but we relied on them with the only thing that matters in our lives, which is our children. And so the level of trust and intimacy that is an important part of that relationship elevates it from a traditional understanding of what it is to have an employee or what it is to have an employer, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So these two characters - their relationship is actually transformed when, suddenly, the families truly become a family. Rebecca adopts Priscilla's child. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because, obviously, there is not only the issue of their relationship, but there is a race issue and a class issue here, too.

ALAM: Absolutely. I think that the way that we talk about complicated political issues now is much more appropriate. We talk about the intersection between race and feminism, for example, or class and race. And I think that all of those concerns are really linked in the power dynamic at the center of this book. Rebecca is a white woman. Priscilla is a black woman. They come together as a family via adoption, but there is still a lot that separates them from one another. And that is what the book is trying to press on and tease out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, clearly, it's personal for you. You know, you've written about your sons, who are adopted. They're black. Your husband is white, as you've said, and described yourself - you're brown. Was this story drawn on your own experiences?

ALAM: Certainly not. I mean, this is - you know, the emotional truth in the book is very much my own. But you would have to know me pretty well to understand what in the text is autobiographical. I'll tell you one thing since we're friends now - that I do make spaghetti carbonara just like Rebecca does in the book. And I always guiltily throw a package of spinach into it. But this is a story about adoption using very dramatic and heightened circumstances. And in my own experience, adoption does not work this way. Our children were placed in open adoptions, and there is a certain amount of maternal agency in that choice. And in this book, I'm talking about the sort of sudden death of a character, the sudden erasure of someone. And the adoption almost feels like it does in myths - the child just arrives wholesale.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that I've found really interesting in the book is the culminating scene where there is the, quote, unquote, "talk." And we've become so familiar now because of Black Lives Matter with that talk that African-American parents have specifically with their young black sons about the way that they deal with the police and the way that they may be treated in different spaces. But you have set this book in the last century. And, of course, that idea, that knowledge had not really penetrated white American consciousness then.

ALAM: That's right. There are two levels to this answer. One is that it's a great advantage to write about the past because I know how the story ends even if the characters inside the texts do not. And the reader knows how the story ends, too. So in the text when Rebecca talks about holding up Bill Cosby as a role model, the reader understands the ways in which Bill Cosby has failed to be the role model we all maybe once believed that he was. And the notion that black parents have historically provided to their sons this intelligence about what will happen to them upon becoming black men - this is a tradition that exists within the black community that I would not have known about had I not had black sons. And it felt really like an important opportunity to explore the ways in which black Americans have been having these conversations, and white Americans have not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've heard a lot about the limitations of authors writing about things that they haven't experienced. There has been a lot of controversy about this, especially when we're discussing other races and even gender. Do you think that applies? I mean, do you think that that's something that you embrace?

ALAM: Sure. I think a lot of what that conversation is about is a particular power dynamic. And if there is a reader who is a woman or who is a black woman who reads this book and says, he's got it totally wrong, and I'm offended, I have to accept that. I hope that that will not be the case. And I think so much of it is in the approach. And I hope that readers can sense that my approach to writing about difference is from a point of a genuine desire to understand and depict something that I can't know firsthand. And I think a lot of the sensitivity around inhabiting a different perspective, whether it's race or gender or ability - people should be sensitive, and they should wade into this stuff carefully. And that's what I've tried to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rumaan Alam is the author of "That Kind Of Mother." Thank you very much.

ALAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.