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Author Ladee Hubbard on love, family and resilience

"<em>The Last Suspicious Holdout</em>" is designed like a diary of sorts for the community with interconnecting events, people and places as the years tick by.
"The Last Suspicious Holdout" is designed like a diary of sorts for the community with interconnecting events, people and places as the years tick by.

Ladee Hubbard's brand-new collection of short stories, The Last Suspicious Holdout, takes place in an unnamed southern majority-Black suburb in the nineties and early 2000s.

It's designed like a kind of diary 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; the children grow up and become aware of the struggles they will inherit.

Ladee Hubbard spoke with NPR's Juana Summers. Below are highlights from their conversation.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

On what inspired Hubbard to write the book

Originally, this collection was going to be about the 20 years prior to Obama's election. And it's somewhat self-referential in that I was talking about myself and my generation, the generation of Black people that grew up in what was sometimes called "the post-civil rights era." So we were coming to maturity during a period of time where people were sort of living within and with the victories of the civil rights movement. And that meant that for those Black people who could afford it, there were increasing opportunities to move to different neighborhoods, go to different schools and get different jobs. And I was very interested in the real effects of that movement and the repercussions of the civil rights movement during that period.

On the book's development and structure

These stories were actually written over a long period of time. I started writing them shortly after Obama's election, which of course, had a huge symbolic meaning of various sorts to a lot of people. But the main thing was that they were always situated in the same community. So it was always the same group of people. And I always wanted it to be each story would represent a different year. So that was really all I had to go on when I started writing them. And 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. So you do see characters over time also. And part of their transformation is emblematic of some of the transformations that the community as a whole is going through.

On the resiliency of the Black community through three decades of the book

It's pretty interesting how much the cultural landscape has changed since I started writing these stories or in the issues that come up and then how much has changed in terms of how people talk about them right now. But for me, an underlying theme for them is probably, during this period, the difficulty of expressing grief. And I think that we're still dealing with the aftermath. There's a lot of things took a very long time apparently to be able to talk about them openly and honestly. And I think that it is important to know the history that came before. I think that where we are right now is very much emblematic of that. And so this is kind of a period where 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 the certain things that were going on were represented. So yeah, so it's for me, it's almost like the quiet before a community reclaims its voice.

On the tension around education and privilege within the Black community

I definitely think that is a recurrent theme of that era, and it certainly is in these stories. So part of what I was saying before is I feel like in terms of the opportunities that were presented to, again, people who could afford to take advantage of them, 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 were totally divorced from the Black majority. And of course, that's an idea that presupposes that structural racism no longer exists, which is not true. It was not true then and is, of course, not true now. It's kind of interesting that it seems more apparent now than it did 30 years ago. But I think that was a huge tension that a lot of people were grappling with. You can't have a post-racialism, that's what you would hear sometimes hear. That idea presupposes that there is no more structural racism no longer exists.

On family being both a support system and an obligation

I think the idea that you would have these very complicated feelings about your family is pretty common. It's not a monolith. It's not any more monolithic than any other community. But it's what creates you, it's part of who you are is how you sort of respond and process and deal with all of these sort of differences and different needs that people have and different ideas about what is the correct way to live. And you even if you chafe against that, it's still part of who you are. So it's not just a conversation because there are a lot of conflicts in that. But it becomes part of who you are.

On the story "Houston and the Blinking What" and the way she writes about the choices men and women make when it comes to love

I think that a lot of 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 and were not really ultimately empowering to the point where they sort of become unsustainable. So 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 just folklore and stuff like that. Because the idea of a man being given a task to do to achieve some kind of goal and 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, that they should be, as opposed to focusing a little bit more specifically on realizing their own identities.

Was writing this book an exercise of releasing frustration out onto paper?

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 a lot of really painful things about the Black experience in this country. There's also a lot of really beautiful things that I hope I express as well. But again, I think that pointing out how hard it is for me, ultimately, it's a celebration of the resiliency and artistry of people because they can they keep going and keep trying and keep trying to envision new futures. And I think that's really beautiful and poignant. And it's more poignant when you realize how hard it is for a lot of people to do that. But I think that's one of the lessons I take from my own history, is we wouldn't be here if we weren't capable of enormous acts of imaginative bravery and hope. That's what hope is. It's a lot of bravery and artistry implicit in that. I hope that the people in these stories come across - like the fact that I do consider a lot of them very beautiful human beings comes across. It's not just suffering. And it is about connections with each other as well. There are things that are sustaining, despite all of that. It's very complicated for me. To a certain extent, though, it is how I work through my emotional and intellectual issues or things that are moving and profound to me. But I think the beauty of the artistry and the amount that people have managed to create and contribute to the United States in the world as a whole is incredibly moving to me. So I think about those things a lot and I hope that comes across as well.

What Hubbard wants people to take away from The Last Suspicious Holdout

Well, one is, again about the complexity of the things that people certainly people that I knew were dealing with during that period of time. And also again, it's an evocation to resiliency and strength. So I just wanted to represent that because I felt it was very important to me. And as a writer a lot of the things that were very interesting to me ultimately did have to do with language, with the ability to access language to express what was going on and how people felt during that period. I think it was pretty hard. So resiliency and that I find something very poetic and beautiful about that. I think it's a very important period of history as well in terms of understanding or making sense of where we are right now.

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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 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.