Murder and gun violence have been going on in Black and Latino communities for decades. Taking herself from analysis to action, Petra E. Lewis has concluded that two things are driving urban gun violence in African Americans: low self-esteem and economics. The Sons and Daughters of Ham, Book I: A Requiem, is the first book in her powerful inter-generational and historical literary-fiction trilogy.
A son’s death. A mother’s grief. Accusations. Condemnation. Guilt. Alienation. What is left of a family in the aftermath of violence? Set in East Flatbush, Brooklyn; Trinidad; Barbados; Northern California; and throughout the globe, The Sons and Daughters of Ham is the story of a Caribbean-American family, an African-American young man, violence, choice, and destiny.
Why would someone choose to read this novel?
In the tradition of Sandra Cisneros, my friend Edie Danticat, and Junot Diaz (who I knew before he published Drown), my book is a portal into a very specific microcosm of American immigrant life: West Indian Brooklyn. I emigrated from Trinidad to the U.S. when I was three going on four, and lived in my parents’ house in East Flatbush until I won a scholarship to a boarding school in Delaware at age 12. Most writers of literary fiction hear the mantra that there can—and needs to be—a universality to the specificity of the story you tell about the place where you come from. And that has been the most gratifying thing about this book—how many people from different walks of life love it: Caribbean, African-American, Latina, Asian, Jewish, Christian, gay, straight, male, female, you name it. The topic of violence that the book focuses on is troubling, but there are many facets to the book, and told in a lively way.
What message or emotion do you want the reader to take away from your novel?
Empathy. The murder and gun violence have been going on in Black and Latino communities for decades. There have been stats that some of the violence has subsided nationwide in recent years, in some cases to historical lows—but some areas, including Brooklyn, are seeing a spike in gun violence again. It’s been going on long enough that one would expect some sweeping and substantive changes by now. There are some antiviolence organizations in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Oakland, and other parts of the country that are doing brilliant and effective work, but they remain pockets of success because they need more funding, more support, and more political will, but the murders have been going on so frequently and for so long, people are inured. There needs to be an equal amount of not just outrage, but action when it comes to the violence in our communities—comparable to the groundswell that took place in Ferguson and in the Eric Garner case in Staten Island. I wanted my book to help to create a sustained dialogue around urban gun violence. I also wanted my book to focus on not just the gun violence, but its aftermath—how it can destroy families and communities, and the resilience of the loved ones, particularly mothers, who have to endure, pick up the pieces, and continue.
The novel cover is very striking and unique. What is the story behind this image?
The cover pictures a young man dressed as an “Indian” for carnival in Trinidad. It was taken by my friend, professional photographer Shizuka Minami. There’s a back story to how Shizuka and I met that I won’t get into here, but she was born in Japan and ditched being an aeronautic engineer to study photography at the International Center for Photography in New York. When she wanted to travel down to Trinidad for carnival the first time, I connected her with some friends. She’s been back many times since and done exhibitions in galleries there. When I was finally ready to publish the first book in my trilogy, I knew that I wanted to use some of her images from Trinidad—every book in my trilogy will bear one of her images. To me that’s one of the biggest upsides to self-publishing, that you’re able to control your cover image—many people don’t realize that writers have no—or, if they’re lucky, little—say on their cover selection with traditional publishers. I didn’t pick it for that reason, but I later realized that the cover also connects with the book’s content: An “Indian-head” pipe is an important symbol in the opening scene, and Columbus Day, and Columbus and his journey undergird parts of the overall trilogy. As for the cover image and design: Readers love it!
Photo by Kevin Ryan
For more of the interview with Petra E. Lewis, order your copy of the April/May issue here.
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