What a privilege to interview Brenda Sparks Prescott, author of HOME FRONT LINES, and Dariel Suarez, author of THE PLAYWRIGHT’S HOUSE. Both novels probe into a dialectic of historical and fictional narrative and blend socio-political critique with compelling fictional characters. In this regard, I’d like to include (from a previous interview with Tim Wood) a quote from Dariel:
I will also add that there’s a tendency in the U.S. to want to separate politics from fiction. This is why so much of renowned white American fiction, especially in the last few decades, largely ignores or miserably fails at portraying race, class, and BIPOC immigrant culture, even though these things are not only prevalent in this country, but at the core of its identity. It takes vast amounts of privilege and naiveté to ignore them, to hide behind some dictum that we must remain neutral as artists. To my mind, this position makes fiction so sterile and insular as to render it almost irrelevant.”
Both Dariel and Brenda portray race, class and BIPOC immigrant culture, and in doing so integrate politics with fiction.
Lee Hope with BRENDA SPARKS PRESCOTT about her debut novel HOME FRONT LINES:
A brief summary of the plot: The primary points of view are Betty Ann Johnson’s, an African American military spouse on an Air Force base outside Washington DC, and the Montero sisters Lola, Chita and Rosita in Cuba as they respond to the imminent threat of the Cuban missile crisis while it is still shrouded in secrecy.
Lee: Home Front Lines is a profound exploration of diverse points of view during a historical crisis. What moved you to choose the Cuban missile crisis? Did that crisis affect some of your family since you grew up on military bases? How did you manage to subtly and effectively infuse your narrative with historical facts?
BRENDA: In the early days after 9/11 and the increased threat to ordinary U.S. citizens, I reflected on how we might learn how to go forward in our daily lives by looking back at a similar time in our history for which we know the outcomes. Unfortunately, I don’t know how the Cuban Missile crisis affected my family, as I was too young at the time to retain memories of it and the rest of my family is no longer alive.
It’s so tempting to overload your story with the fascinating facts you find during your research, especially as you try to make sure the story world is rich in details. One approach I took to counteract that tendency was to think about what might have been included by a contemporary writer in 1962. Another was to understand what the characters would and would not notice. For instance, as an African American dressmaker, Betty Ann knows and mentions that the fashion designer (Anne Lowe) who made Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress was also African American. In the Cuban story, I tried to avoid the cliched historical figures known through American popular culture and looked for people that would be “Cuban famous,” a nod to The Root’s idea of “blackfamous.” For instance, Chita’s sons play chess at a fictional club named for the Cuban world chess champion, José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera. I was recently delighted when he also made cameo appearances in 2020’s Queen’s Gambit series.
Lee: The very moving and complex ending, which I do not wish to reveal here, offers a brilliant, forgiving insight into your characters and race relations. During the course of the narrative, in what ways do the American military wives’ points of view contrast to the Cuban sisters? What are some overlaps? Are you trying to show the common human emotions on opposing sides of war?
BRENDA: The Cuban sisters experience personal threats to their family’s well-being, so they are more certain to act on their plans to send their children away from those threats. And while they understand the global peril of the confrontation between Russia and the U.S. on their soil, they know that the greatest danger is from or sanctioned by their own government.
The American wives organize themselves based on being able to observe the military more closely than other citizens can, but they don’t experience explicit personal threats associated with the U.S. – Soviet conflict. They also trust the U.S. president and government to do everything possible to keep them safe as American citizens. On the other hand, they are not naïve about the two-tiered reality created by systemic racism, so alongside their faith in governmental actions, they also make plans to evacuate their own children from the Air Force base where they live, which is a certain military target.
In writing this novel, I started with the assumption that mothers all over the world act to protect their children from perceived threats. I’m always interested in what makes us both the same as and different from other people (what I call the difference paradox), so this book examines how identical maternal impulses can lead to very different life outcomes when clothed in different cultural and political circumstances.
Lee: In your novel and in Dariel Suarez’s The Playwright’s House, written by a Cuban and set in Cuba, there is the looming desire to escape. In your novel, for the Cuban mothers to save their children from the communist regime and from war with the United States, and for the American military mothers, to find a path for their children to escape nuclear war. What are some of the contrasts and parallels of the escape theme in your novel and Dariel’s?
BRENDA: In my book, the women’s desire to escape is in response to a pending international crisis. The American military wives make plans to evacuate their children but express the wish to stay with their husbands if something happens. The Cuban sisters are not happy with the changes brought about by Castro, but his regime is only a few years old, so the government’s repressive tactics are not as solidified as they are in Dariel’s book. Therefore, the sisters don’t see a need to plan their own exit immediately.
Dariel’s novel is set several decades later, when the government’s policy of silencing opposing views are well in place. They are especially effective through extending punishment to anyone associated with an alleged dissident. The desire to escape in his book arises from the government’s punishment of the protagonist’s father for dissenting views and for associating with fellow artists who are trying to open up the freedom of expression. As in my novel, none of the characters seek escape at the beginning of the story, yet they come to the conclusion that it’s the only alternative for the safety of family members if the impending threats are realized.
Lee: Home Front Lines expands points of view on race and ethnicity. For instance, you include Japanese women’s points of view, including a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, in addition to the points of views of Cubans and African Americans. To what extent do you see the interchange of these diverse voices as central to your novel?
BRENDA: There are two ways that the interchange of these differing voices is critical. The first is what I referred to in a previous answer—that I thought of the different sets of characters as arising from the same company of souls with the same starting interiors but subject to very different developmental experiences and consequences. I even include a brief interlude from a Russian military wife, since her country is the one that started the crisis in the first place.
The other way representation matters in this narrative is the assertion that all of these voices are equally valid in the exploration of an incident involving the threat of weapons of mass destruction being used against civilians like themselves. The survivors of the devastation of Hiroshima in World War II serve as witnesses to the fact that the U.S. has been the only country to drop an atomic bomb (actually, two) on a civilian population. The U.S. did not enter into the Cuban Missile Crisis with a blameless past, in that sense.
Lee: An obvious contrast with your novel and Dariel’s is that the majority of your voices are women in roles as wives, mothers, seamstresses, hair stylists, cooks, journalists. Although you do include some voices of men, the women’s views predominate and give us a unique, powerful look at the roles of women of color in potential wartime. What effects do you see from this primary focus on women?
BRENDA: I was clear from the start that I wanted this book to be about the agency and ingenuity of ordinary women of color. We are starting to see more narratives entering the literature about powerful black women, but too often they are tales of exceptionalism, which can allow the continuance of unintended bias against seeing women and POC as necessary agents in socio-political situations. Books like mine help to correct the national literature bias and reinforce our place in the American narrative by using the power of fiction to invoke empathy and to delve into the interior lives of others through engaging readers in a compelling story. Getting such a story published in America, even today, can be considered a political act.
Lee: Do you see this moment with the Black Lives Matter movement as similar to the time that you write about, which was during the Civil Rights movement? Are you discouraged by the seeming lack of progress?
BRENDA: I do see the similarities with that time and every other cycle in history when Americans have openly confronted the status quo of racism. However, I am not discouraged because I choose to look for the progress we have made and are making. After all, downplaying our progress is another weapon of racism. In one example of progress, I’ve seen an evolution in the reception of my novel over time. Fifteen years ago, I was told that there were too many different kinds of non-white characters and in addition, having a transgendered character was introducing one too many “issues.” Today, the variety in representation is being praised.
Lee: Any other comments?
BRENDA: I appreciate the opportunity to participate in this interview with Dariel. I admire his book, its portrayal of the stresses on Cuban culture under the communist regime, and the importance of family in the development of both its conflict and its resolution.