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'The Love Songs Of W.E.B. Du Bois,' Is Poet Jeffers First Novel


"The Love Songs Of W.E.B. Du Bois" is epic in its scope. Over the span of almost 800 pages, the writer Honoree Fanonne Jeffers traces the story of a family, the town in Georgia where they come from and their migration outward over generations. The word epic is overused these days. But this book was meant to be an epic, and it is. I asked Jeffers, who is a poet, how she took to writing a work of such length that takes place over centuries. She said a lot went into it. And there was even a point where her characters started talking to her in her dreams.

HONOREE FANONNE JEFFERS: You know, when I would wake up and the words would come to me, it was almost like a very long prose poem. But if people notice that it seems to be more lyrical, those songs seem to be more lyrical, more poetic, it's because when they came to me, they came to me in very long poem.

KING: That's extraordinary. Before we get to the characters, I want to ask you to tell us about the town, the town that came to you first, Chicasetta. And give us a sense of how you understand that place and how you think readers will understand that place.

JEFFERS: Well, Chicasetta is a fictional town. It's sort of funny. A few people tell me they actually tried to look it up on the map. But...

KING: I sure did (laughter).

JEFFERS: Oh, that's funny. Yes. But it is set in a real county, Putnam County, Ga. And my people are from Eatonton, Ga., in Putnam County. So I can see Chicasetta so clearly in my mind because I went to Eatonton every summer as a little girl.

KING: Now, the town comes into play in an enormous way because the characters in this book spring from this town. They come from this town. And the main character is Ailey Pearl Garfield. She starts out as a little girl. We follow her into later life. Her mom's family is from rural Georgia. And so she spends summers back in the town. Tell me about Ailey and how she became the person through whom we largely see this story unfold.

JEFFERS: Well, I describe this story as a kitchen table epic. You know, when we think of epic in the Western tradition, it's always the heroic feats of white men.

KING: Yes.

JEFFERS: That story's already been told. I didn't want to tell that story. I wanted to tell the story of heroic Black women and dark-skinned Black women, because I feel like although Black female authors write a lot about darker-skinned Black women, we don't really usually see them in the center of their own world. And so when I thought about Ailey, I wanted cocoa brown, you know, nudging up against chocolate brown girl. I wanted her to be chubby and to have people consider her beautiful. And I wanted her to be smart. I just wanted to create someone that I grew up around. I grew up around girls like that and girls that we all thought were pretty in the Black community. But when we went outside of that community, that's when we were expected to make ourselves small and silent and to consider ourselves not as pretty as white or lighter-skinned girls. So I made sure that, you know, my heroine was representative of a line of Black women and that she would honor them.

KING: As you write, do you envision a particular person reading the book? And does that affect how you put things down on the page?

JEFFERS: Yes, it does. And this book is particularly for Black women. I wanted them to see themselves. And I did - I envisioned, what would Black women feel like and say to themselves? Would they talk about this book in the ways that - you know, when I was growing up, we talked about "Color Purple." We talked about Beloved. And now, of course, you know, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison are geniuses. And I don't compare myself to them. But I did want this book to get conversations going.

KING: And this brings me to a question that now I find myself very curious about. How many years did you spend writing this?

JEFFERS: Well, I spent nine years on the draft that was sold by my agent.

KING: Wow.

JEFFERS: And then I spent two more years editing it. The draft that was sold was only 450 pages.

KING: This is one of the most American books I have ever read. It's a book about the United States. It's a book about the legacy of slavery in this country. It's a book about intermixing in this country. It's a book that intermarriage in this country. And it's also a book about traumas and loves that sustain over generations. And I wonder, in the 11 years that it took you to put this all together, do you think you changed personally from writing this book?

JEFFERS: Oh, yeah. Definitely, I changed. You know, the country changed. When I first started writing this book, President Obama was in the White House. And I thought, I think, like a lot of Black people thought that we had moved past certain things. I remember when I saw him put his hand on that Bible for the first time. I was on the phone with my momma, who was born in 1933. She still remembers a lynching that happened up the road from her. And we cried. We thought, this is it. We have moved forward - and then we had not And I gained a wisdom about not just this country, but about human nature. And one of the things that I was very interested while I was writing the book is, how did we get to particular places? And what I understand is that if we as human beings of whatever race don't really guard how we evolve, we can move backward.

KING: And what's the way in which you changed that you would say you're most happy about or most proud of?

JEFFERS: I think that I became a softer person. When I first started writing this book, I was very much like Ailey, very judgy (ph). But I learned through my characters that everybody's got flaws, and everybody's got pain. And I became a much more compassionate person.

KING: Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. Her new novel is called "The Love Songs Of W.E.B. Du Bois." Thank you so much for being with us today.

JEFFERS: Thank you. I appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERIJA'S "BLUME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.