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Jeffrey Colvin On Debut Novel, 'Africaville'


In the new novel "Africaville," author Jeffrey Colvin tells the story of a dynamic black community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that spans generations. It's mostly comprised of people from the Caribbean and African Americans from the southern United States. And we learn that people come to Africaville (ph) for a number of reasons - to find freedom or to flee oppression.

Colvin drew inspiration from his own life. He grew up in Alabama and witnessed a number of once-thriving black communities disappear due to urban renewal and migration and that are now lost to history. When I caught up with him, we discussed his inspiration for telling the story of "Africaville," which is based on a real town, and why he was drawn to it.

JEFFREY COLVIN: I had a connection to a rural community in Alabama since my grandmother raised a family in rural Alabama. So I began writing these stories about these communities. And they were set in the '60s, '70s and the '80s. And when I got to the '80s, a lot of the rural communities were starting to disappear. And I came home from college one summer, and my grandmother had moved out of her community. And the town was no longer there, and the last house had been destroyed.

I was thinking about these stories in the year 2001 when I read an article in New York Times about this town in Canada, in Halifax. And it had been in news in the '60s also because over the objection of the residents, the city of Halifax went in and forced everyone out of their homes and destroyed all of the houses and the other buildings in the town. And so I began to see connections between the stories my grandmother was telling about her former town and also the stories that former residents of Africaville were telling about their town. And so I thought this would be a very interesting exploration, a larger narrative that could expand into a novel.

MCCAMMON: I want to dig into the novel a little bit. One of the main characters in the book is named Etienne. His family is from Africaville, and his relationship to the town becomes the central focus of the middle part of the novel. And I'd like you, if you would, to read a bit from the book. In this passage, Etienne is in Montreal, attending a boarding school. And he gets into an altercation with two local boys there. They're cousins named Tyrell (ph) and Orlando (ph).

COLVIN: Sure. (Reading) Etienne stares at the little spit bubble in the corner of Tyrell's mouth. Yesterday, when he returned to the dormitory from orchestra lessons to dress for afternoon sports, he discovered that someone had sprinkled cinders from the running track into his underwear drawer. It must have been Tyrell. I think you need to get a new game, Tyrell. Why don't you tell me something I haven't heard before? Etienne looks white himself, the cousin says. But he's not, Tyrell says. He's black. Aren't you black, stringer beaner? Aren't you black, Etienne?

The Village itself was an amalgam of, as you said, people from a number of different sources. I'd like to think of it as sort of war was one sort of source for the village, the War of 1812, which was - some folks say was the largest emancipation of blacks prior to the Civil War. It was also the Revolutionary War in which blacks came up with their masters who were fleeing the revolution and also the big group of Jamaicans who had been (unintelligible).

(Reading) Tyrell makes a face. I'm glad I'm black. Etienne laughs. You don't mean that. Tyrell lands a fist to Etienne's chest, sending Etienne stumbling back. When Etienne recovers, he swings, knocking the sunglasses off Tyrell's face. Orlando and the cousin back up as the boys wrestle down to the walkway. The two boys continued tussling on the grass until a young camp assistant rushes over. The assistant hesitates, unsure of which boy to reach for. Finally, he seizes Tyrell's arm. You know you're black, Tyrell says, as the assistant helps him to his feet. Etienne frowns at the tear in his jacket sleeve. He looks over at Tyrell, still in the assistant's grip. You can't tell me what I am. I can be whatever I want. Wrestling free, Tyrell picks up his sunglasses. He puts them on his face, which is now as hard as a stone walkway. Believe that and you're a fool.

MCCAMMON: This idea of passing or the ability to pass as white - it comes up a lot, particularly, with regard to Etienne, who is a very light-skinned young man. What are you trying to explore here through Etienne and his ability to pass as a white person?

COLVIN: The novel was - is "Africaville" and is about this village. But it's also about the larger world, the way in which the village residents reacted to the larger world and the way in which the larger world reacts to the residents. And I thought that this is a theme that should continue down through the generations. And so one of the ways that became evident is when Etienne was able to do that pass and moved to different cities. He goes from Halifax to - born in Halifax. But he grew up, really, in Montreal and then later moves to the United States. And he encounters all these different environments. But some of them have very similar ways in how they see him and how he sees himself.

So I wanted to look at how a person who could pass as white still - what kind of challenges might they have in the world, what kind of personal challenges they might have, how do they view themselves, what do they think of themselves, for example, what do they hide from their friends, How much of themselves that they reveal to the world.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned earlier you grew up in rural Alabama, and part of the inspiration for writing this novel comes from stories you wrote about your hometown but, also, I believe from your travels as a Marine. How did those experiences shape this story?

COLVIN: One of the things that I became very interested in when I was going overseas in my various tours of duty was that I learned, for example, when I was in some other Latin American countries, I would walk down the street. And I would run into residents of various small towns and small villages. And people would, you know, talk to me or say hello or I would meet people on the street. And I was sort of taken with how similar these people were to my own - people that I knew from my own community. And I had a very strong connection to some of the residents of these small towns in some of these Latin American countries. That was one thing.

And the other was if I were in a place like Japan, I'd walk down the street and not be able to recognize any of the signage. But it allowed me the opportunity to sort of relax and just watch people that notice things. And so I think having a idea of how you're connected to others in the world is very important to me as a writer. And, also, this idea of noticing and, you know, how characters move and what they say and the various particulars about them was one thing that also helped me, as I began to try to piece together characters who were very different from me.

I'm not from Canada or from Halifax. I'm not from the Caribbean, for example. But I think the idea of being able to notice things in life and take it in - it's very helpful for a writer.

MCCAMMON: What do you want your readers to take away from this novel?

COLVIN: Well, one of the things I think that everyone can relate to is this idea of a connection to a home and to family. And even though a person might be far away or even, you know, far away in terms of time from a person that they knew, there are very strong connections there I think that people can relate to. And I think that that is one of the things that I think people - I think help people explore and think about as they read the book.

MCCAMMON: That's Jeffrey Colvin. His debut novel, "Africaville," is out now. Jeffrey Colvin, thank you so much for talking with us.

COLVIN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.