Kaitlyn Greenidge – We Love You, Charlie Freeman
In the opening pages of Kaitlyn Greenidge’s fascinating debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin Books), we meet the Freemans at a moment of uncertain change. They’re a loving family that has developed idiosyncratic ways of communicating with one another. Sisters Charlotte and Callie share a constant secretive back-and-forth of sign language. Their mother Laurel has convinced her family to live inside the Toneybee Institute for Ape Research, where they’ll participate in a provocative study. Ostensibly an immersive opportunity to teach a chimpanzee sign language, the experiment instead brings this chimp right into the center of their family life—with explosive consequences.
Greenidge barrels into her story’s difficult subjects with confidence and imagination. The novel offers context for what’s happening to the Freemans by incorporating the Toneybee Institute’s history of racist experiments, including the mistreatment of a young teacher named Nymphadora. Then, as now, all of these characters struggle to find a language for what they’re experiencing and for the price they inevitably pay when they try to change their circumstances for something better.
EMILY CHOATE: Sign language plays a significant role in Charlotte’s family, and the signing works seamlessly throughout the novel. How did this element of the book develop?
KAITLYN GREENIDGE: I am interested in the limits of language and writing about a family that cannot always commentate honestly while also being bilingual seemed like a really interesting experiment. Certainly a way to explore those issues and surprise myself by doing so.
EC: Charlie, the chimp at the heart of Toneybee’s experiment, quickly brings an unsettling energy into Charlotte’s family life. You strike a particular tone with his scenes—they crackle with tension. I imagine there could be pitfalls galore when bringing a chimp into fiction, so how did you shape Charlie as a character?
KG: Writing about animals is really tough. I didn’t want the animal to take over the narrative: this is not a book about animals, per se. I had to think about what this particular animal actually means for the narrative. He’s a destabilizing force: he’s the reason the whole family is confronted with really painful things. But he’s also a figure that everyone has complicated feelings towards–love, anger, resentment, jealousy. I tried to think of those emotions and let them shape the scenes with him.
EC: Deep into the novel, a key difference arises between Charlotte’s parents: “Laurel could not conceive of anyone that she loved as not being of the same mind as her.” When not pushed to extremes, Charles “knew he could love those of a different mind.” This point seems like a central trouble among the Freemans, whose tensions feel so authentic and poignant. How did the Freemans develop, as a family unit?
KG: I thought first of Charlotte. She was an easy in for me because she was a teenaged girl—I used to be a teenaged girl and I’ve taught teenaged girls in writing workshops. As I wrote, I realized I had to figure out a way to talk about all the different perspectives within the family. That was at first daunting, but then I just embraced it. It was fun, coming up with different ways all these characters could view the same event in the book. And really coming up with reasons why Charles and Laurel might drift apart but still love each other.
EC: When we meet her, Charlotte is enduring the awkward transformations of puberty, as well as confusing social messages from her peers. She studies them for cues, while feeling her own otherness acutely. She’s self-conscious, but she’s also judgmental of others.
From your viewpoint as a storyteller (and, obviously, as an adult!), do you find it liberating to write such forthright depictions of adolescence?
KG: I like writing about adolescence because it’s such an ambivalent view point. And I do have to say, I agree a bit with what one of the character’s says, that everyone is really just their twelve year old self, on the inside. I think early adolescence is when so much crystalizes about our understanding of ourselves and our relation to the world–and you can sometimes spend the rest of your life living up to that image or trying to outrun it or trying to prove it wrong. I taught writing to teenaged girls with New York Writers’ Coalition and they wrote the funniest, saddest, grossest stories. They were a great age to teach because they would try to reference “adult” themes like sex and pregnancy but their reference points were so juvenile (I don’t use that adjective as an insult). It made for really wild reading and I just liked that tone and wanted to try and write about it.
EC: Those experiences sound perfect to tap into while building Charlotte’s charming but thorny friendship with her classmate Adia. How does the language of friendship figure into your novel’s bigger explorations of language?
KG: I think most friendships eventually develop their own language, their own shorthand. Sometimes very consciously, sometimes unconsciously. And words and phrases change meaning—if the friendship is toxic, perhaps words take on a passive-aggressive slant. I liked the idea of a very close friendship between these two girls where, at a certain level, they are still misunderstanding each other.
EC: We learn about the Toneybee Institute’s history of race-based experiments, most notably Nymphadora’s time there in the 1920’s. How do you see her storyline in the context of the Freemans’ experiences?
KG: I wanted to have two historical narratives in conversation with each other. There is always the past as it actually was and the past how it was really lived. With American black history in particular, there’s a lot of confusion around black people’s agency. Either people assume black people had absolutely no agency, no individualism, operated as one, never disagreed with each other, never had internal arguments, were just a big pulsing mess of unhappiness waiting to be oppressed. Or, more recently, with progressive attempts at rewriting history, we see people give black historical figures an absurd amount of agency, not because the writer is so progressive, but more because they don’t want to admit that slavery or racial oppression are/were “that bad.” I’m thinking in particular about that really disturbing children’s picture book about how happy George Washington’s enslaved baker must have been to make him a birthday cake. So. I wanted the Nymphadora character to be a host of contradictions–she believes she’s acting of her own free will, but, like us in the present day, she lives under a latticework of social and internalized oppression that leaves it up to debate about how many of her reactions are of her own volition.
EC: These issues remind me of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Speech, in which she said so memorably, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” Do you see literature as a form that may heal such wounding traditions of language?
KG: Possibly. But to do so, that transformative literature must be published and read. Books are wonderful things, but I think sometimes writers and readers ascribe to them too much power. They are powerful. They can change your life. But to do so, they require participation and action on the part of the reader. I think it takes more to change the power structures that Morrison is referring to than just publishing novels. It takes willingness on the part of readers to truly engage and talk about issues, and really think about them, critically.
I think of that great Junot Diaz quote, where he’s talking about how when he was growing up and came to a word he didn’t know in a book, he would shut the book and ask someone about it. He grew to believe that’s why that word is there—to get you to have a conversation with someone else. And then, he went to teach at MIT, where he found that when his students came to a word or idea they did not understand, they didn’t ask anyone about it, became ashamed, and stopped reading. That kind of attitude is so dangerous.
If a readership demands books that do not challenge, demands that characters always be likable or relatable or that they will only read books with certain kinds of endings, then the transformative power of literature kind of goes out the window. Luckily, publishing is so varied, we have the luxury of many different types of books. But I worry about the future, like everyone does.
EC: In addition to the novel’s debut, you’ve also had several personal essays appear recently. Each one that I read deals with finding some form of proxy language for deep feelings from the past—speaking through characters onstage, eating as an expression of grief, or searching for an “objective” voice in school debates. Do you think writing so much about this subject will give you new ways of understanding or approaching your voice in the future?
KG: I don’t know about my particular voice. I feel like it’s pretty loud these days. I think of that great Zadie Smith quote, where she says she’s always asked by young writers about how they can find their voice and she just wants to say back “Be quiet for a long time and listen to others. It’s not about your voice. It’s about theirs.”
What I wanted to talk about in those essays was a further exploration of how language can fail, or cannot fully describe an experience or an emotion. And I’m a pretty private person, so I am taking a perverse pleasure in creating the illusion of sharing secrets. That sounds creepily Machiavellian but that’s usually how I feel about emotions to begin with.
Kaitlyn Greenidge received her BA from Wesleyan University and her MFA from Hunter College. Her work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, the Virginia Quarterly, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, Afro Pop Magazine, and Green Mountains Review. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Work-Space Program; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and other prizes. Originally from Boston, she now lives in Brooklyn. We Love You, Charlie Freeman is her first novel.
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.