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The Voice of the Black Community

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On the record with Pearl Cleage
Bestselling author shares inspiration behind latest project
Published Thursday, May 8, 2014
by Michaela L. Duckett

Cover of Pearl Cleage's newest book "Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lives, Lessons and Love Affiars" is a collection of her private journal entries from the 1970s and '80s.

Best-selling author Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer whose critically acclaimed body of work spans several genres.

Her first novel, “What Crazy Looks Like On An Ordinary Day,” was an Oprah Book Club pick that spent nine weeks on the New York Times' bestsellers list. Subsequent titles, including “I Wish I Had a Red Dress,” “Some Things I Never Thought I’d Do,” and “Babylon Sisters” were also bestsellers and consistent book club favorites. Cleage, who is currently in residence at the Tony Award-winning Alliance Theater in Atlanta, got her start as a playwright. Her first play, “Flying West,” about a group of black female homesteaders debuted in 1992 and was met with mass acclaim. Within two years, it became the most produced new play in the country and has been produced every year since it first debuted.

Cleage grew up in Detroit, where both of her parents were heavily involved in the civil rights movement. Her father Albert B. Cleage was a minister and founder of The Shrine of the Black Madonna, a Christian church rooted in Black Liberation Theology.

In the following Q&A, Cleage discusses the inspiration behind her latest book, a memoir titled “Things I Should have Told my Daughter: Lives, Lessons and Love Affairs.”  She also shares her overall message to her fans and why writing about Atlanta can be a challenge. Some questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

QUESTION: How did you get into writing? Was it something you always wanted to do?

ANSWER: “I’ve written all of my life… I always knew that is what I wanted to do. I’ve been writing my whole life and writing professionally since I got out of college.”

Q: What was the inspiration behind your latest book, “Things I Should Have told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs?”

A: “It’s based on my personal journals from the 1970s and '80s. It began with a conversation I had with my daughter. I told her that when my granddaughter Chloe turns 16, I wanted to give her all these journals I had been keeping since I was 11. I thought it would be valuable information for her to see this journey of her grandmother as a woman moving through this very turbulent period in our nation’s history… My daughter thought it was a terrible idea. I was struck by that…

“I thought that there were valuable pieces of information and value in the narrative of my own life and its reflection of a whole generation of women… I decided to chose a number of journal entries to kind of put this narrative piece together.”

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from it?

A: “One of the things about memoires and writing about your personal life is that if you do it well, it really resonates beyond that one life. It reflects the lives of other people. My attempt was to show that my life kind of represents the journey that a lot of us have taken… I hope that people take from the book the value of the truth and the richness of our personal lives.”

Q: What inspired you to write your first play, “Flying West?”

A: “‘Flying West’ was an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had. I was driving down the freeway in Atlanta, and I actually heard a woman’s voice in the car in the backseat behind me. I knew there wasn’t anybody in the car but me… So I was rather surprised to hear this voice. It was a woman’s voice talking about her children. She was talking about having had 10 children in slavery, and then, they were sold away… I pulled off the freeway. Being a writer, I started to write down what I had heard.

“I did some research on all-black settlements that emerged in the West after the Civil War with so many of the people who had been held in slavery and went west. I found extensive information – photographs, letters, journals and things like that. It really was a wonderful experience to be able to find out more about this time period. It was from that that ‘Flying West’ emerged.”

Q: Many of your books are set in Atlanta where you live. I’ve read that you said it can be a challenge to write about your own neighborhood. How so?

A: “The thing is that the people in my neighborhood are very protective of the neighborhood. So if I’m going to write about it, they want me to get it right. They will tell me if I don’t get it right… These are not factual stories, but they are interested in me getting the facts right and telling the story straight.”

Q: You wear many hats as a motivational speaker, teacher, playwright, poet and author – regardless of which hat you are wearing, is there an overall message you seek to get to your audience?

A: “Tell the truth. Speak the truth. That’s really the beginning and the end of it.”

Pearl Cleage's scheduled appearance at the Hickory Grove Library for a book reading on April 30 was canceled due to inclement weather and will be rescheduled on a date to be determined. Visit www.cmlibrary.org for updates.


I think in the editing for brevity, your editors took too much out. ... I would have liked to have read her whole statements.
Posted on May 9, 2014

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