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Encore: Author Ladee Hubbard on love, family and resilience

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Ladee Hubbard's collection of short stories, "The Last Suspicious Holdout," takes place in an unnamed Southern majority-Black suburb in the '90s and the early 2000s. It's designed like a diary of sorts for the community, with interconnecting events, people and places as the years tick by. The adults fight for justice and financial security while grieving lost loved ones, as children grow up and become aware of the struggles they'll inherit. And as I started to read the book, it started to feel like something of a diary for me, too, since I related to so many of the people in Hubbard's book.

LADEE HUBBARD: A lot of the characters in the story and things like that are based on my experiences. Definitely, my grandmother kept everything wrapped in plastic until company came to visit.

SUMMERS: The book, called "The Last Suspicious Holdout," covers the breadth of African American life in this community, and each story is set in a different year. When we spoke earlier this year, I asked Ladee Hubbard why she structured it that way.

HUBBARD: I am very interested in people that keep going, that survive hardships and find a way to keep believing and working towards things getting better. And so I think I wanted to represent and show that in the book over time. And part of their transformation is emblematic of some of the transformations that the community as a whole is going through.

SUMMERS: You know, that resiliency that you're talking about there comes across again and again and again in this collection - the resiliency of the Black community, much of which is born out of necessity. And it just strikes me that, you know, even though this collection begins 30 years ago, so many of the struggles that you touch on, we are still seeing them today in real time. And it sounds like that may have been intentional for you.

HUBBARD: I think it was. It's pretty interesting how much the cultural landscape has changed since I started writing in terms of how people talk about them right now. For me, an underlying theme for them is probably, during this period, the difficulty of expressing grief. I don't think people were talking very honestly about a lot of issues, and there was a lot of obfuscation in terms of how certain things that were going on were represented. So for me, it's almost like the quiet before a community reclaims its voice.

SUMMERS: You mentioned grief, and that is something that really stuck out to me as I was reading these stories. Perhaps my favorite story in your collection was "False Cognates," where you hit on, I think, something that's a really familiar tension in the Black community - right? - about education, and a father who saw education as a privilege, a lifeline, a way to get that step up, and a brother who saw it as almost selling out.

HUBBARD: Right. Well, I definitely think that is a recurrent theme of (laughter) that era. And it certainly is in these stories. It was very much exacerbated in media representations. There was, like, this idea that Black identity had become bifurcated along class lines. And so the experiences of maybe upwardly mobile, middle-class Blacks was totally divorced from the Black majority. Of course, that's an idea that presupposes that structural racism no longer exists, which is not true. But I think that was a huge tension that a lot of people were grappling with.

SUMMERS: You know, there is a common theme throughout these stories - this idea of family being both a support system, as well as at times for some of the characters, an obligation and perhaps even sometimes to the point of resentment of that obligation. I am so curious - why do you believe that is an important conversation to have, and particularly when it comes to this portrayal of Black families and Black characters?

HUBBARD: Well, because within the Black community, there's a lot of diversity. It's not a monolith. It's not any more monolithic than any other community. But it's what creates you. It's how you sort of respond and process and deal with different ideas about what is the correct way to live. And there are a lot of conflicts in that. But it's - it becomes part of who you are.

SUMMERS: The other thing that loomed so large to me in this book is the way that you approach gender and relationships. Another story I really loved was "Houston And The Blinking What." And I'm thinking about when one of the characters, Stephanie, is thinking openly about the choices that men and women make when it comes to love and the fairy tale in which men, as you write, are judged by their actions and women by the quality of their belief. I'd just love to know more about how you thought about that.

HUBBARD: Yeah. I think that is the experience of a lot of women in terms of heterosexual relationships. And it's related to race because I think that the idea of manhood is very dependent on how women behave in response to men. So that story is really just about two women sort of dealing with maybe the ideas that they had about what they wanted from their relationships with men did not serve them to the point where they sort of become unsustainable. One of the characters says that she realized her husband had become a man she couldn't trust to do a simple task, which is also a reference to fairy tales and folklore and stuff like that because the idea of a man being given a task to do to achieve some kind of goal. In a lot of those stories, the way the women are represented, their function is to sort of help the man to realize his own identity. And I think a lot of women probably are brought up to think that that is somehow empowering, as opposed to focusing a little bit more specifically on realizing their own identities.

SUMMERS: Another thing I wanted to ask you about is - in some of these stories, I came away with feeling an element of almost hopelessness and futility, this idea that no matter what some of these characters did, no matter how hard they tried, they were unable to escape poverty or imprisonment or death. And I wonder, for you as a writer, was this in any way an exercise of frustration to get those feelings out on paper?

HUBBARD: Probably to a certain extent. I mean, I think there are a lot of really painful things that Black people have been through. There's also a lot of really beautiful things that I hope I express as well. Again, I think that pointing out how hard it is for me - ultimately, it's a celebration of sort of the resiliency and artistry of people because they keep going and keep trying to envision new futures. That's one of the lessons I take from my own history - is we wouldn't be here if we weren't capable of, you know, enormous acts of imaginative bravery and hope. That's what hope is. It's just - it's a lot of bravery. It's not just suffering, and it is about sustaining despite all of that.

SUMMERS: Ladee Hubbard, author of "The Last Suspicious Holdout." Thank you so much for talking with us and for sharing your beautiful collection of stories. I enjoy them so much.

HUBBARD: Oh, thank you so much. And thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY BARBEE'S "LETS PERSERVERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.