Lisa Braxton can be described as a “communications queen.” She’s been a radio news reporter, newspaper reporter, television news reporter and anchor, an editor of scholarly publications and a public affairs manager. It wasn’t until she left daily journalism in the early 2000s that she had the time to fulfill her dream of writing a novel. The Talking Drum debuts next week. The novel focuses on three couples and how they’re affected when an urban redevelopment project takes over a neighborhood. Here, she reflects on her writing journey and the exciting activities that have taken place leading up to her book launch. READ HER INTERVIEW TO FIND OUT HOW TO WIN A SIGNED COPY OF THE TALKING DRUM!
You’ve gotten an amazing amount of publicity for your book. You must be thrilled.
I am so excited about the attention that The Talking Drum is getting. The booking if featured in Ms. Magazine. “Themes of race, class, and culture are skillfully woven throughout,” the reviewer said. I never thought the book would get into a national magazine and one with such a great history and reputation. I’m practically giddy. Crime Reads ran an excerpt from the book also had me write a feature piece. And I am so honored by the review I received in Foreword Reviews.
Why did you decide to set the novel in the early 1970s, and did you need to do much research to recreate that time period?
I grew up during that era so I knew it pretty well. I didn’t have to do a lot of research to create that time period. I just had to think back on my childhood and the world around me at that time. It was when the Black Power movement was pretty strong, so I thought that was a rich era in which to place my story. It wasn’t many years after Dr. King was killed. It was also around the time that the Festival of the Black Arts took place in Dakar, Senegal, and I wanted to place one of my characters, Omar, at that festival. Duke Ellington—orchestra leaders, composer, pianist was at the Festival of the Black Arts, and plays a pivotal role in Omar’s life.
Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
For the longest time I had no idea how the novel would end. For years I didn’t know. I had written hundreds of pages and was feeling kind of nervous as to how I would end it and if I would find a way to end it well. After writing, I can’t remember, how many drafts, as I was winding down the story in the final chapters it occurred to me, but it wasn’t an easy process of discovery.
You begin with a quote from Amos Bronson Alcott, “Civilization degrades the many to exalt the few.” Why did you choose that particular line?
Historically the individuals who have power, influence, and money, have been able to control and suppress the voiceless and powerless to their own gain. Civilizations, cultures, communities, and societies have crumbled, become subservient or have been wiped out because of greedy entities motivated by kingdom building. For example, during the 1970s, when people’s homes and businesses were taken for development projects there weren’t as many safeguards in place for them as there are now. Legal safeguards were waived, power was abused to take land. Officials offered vouchers to move people to other properties only to have insufficient numbers of vouchers made available to families. Families that used the vouchers were often moved into public housing, inferior structures, rundown places. I reflect some of that in The Talking Drum.
Are you working on anything now? Is your process or routine different?
I’m working on a second novel, going further back in history, taking place in the mid-1850s in Boston. My writing routine isn’t different but I’m writing with more precision. When I was writing The Talking Drum my first draft was close to 800 pages, more than double the number of pages I needed to tell the story. I was going off on different tangents before I honed the story. In writing the draft of my second novel I’m able finding the direction of the plot more easily.
What was the last book that thoroughly moved you? What was it about that book that spoke to your spirit and your heart?
The Street, by Ann Petry was the last book that thoroughly moved me. I had not experienced what Petry’s main character, Lutie Johnson went through, but from the beginning I understood what was at stake for Lutie. She wanted to provide a good and safe home for her son and become more upwardly mobile. Whenever a female character is striving for better, whether depicted in a movie or book, I’m there with the character urging them on. I know what it’s like to have ambition that you feel so strongly that you won’t let anything or anyone stop you. Petry’s novel had me on the edge of my seat as a read through pages that were filled with suspense and tension. All the while I was hoping for the character Lutie Johnson to beat the odds.
ABOUT THE TALKING DRUM: It is 1971. The fictional city of Bellport, Massachusetts, is in decline with an urban redevelopment project on the horizon expected to transform this dying factory town into a thriving economic center. This planned transformation has a profound effect on the residents who live in Bellport as their own personal transformations take place. Sydney Stallworth steps away from her fellowship and law studies at an elite university to support husband Malachi’s dream of opening a business in the heart of the black community of his hometown, Bellport.
For Omar Bassari, an immigrant from Senegal, Bellport is where he will establish his drumming career and the launching pad from which he will spread African culture across the world, while trying to hold onto his marriage. Della Tolliver has built a fragile sanctuary in Bellport for herself, boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and daughter Jasmine, a troubled child prone to nightmares and outbursts.
Tensions rise as the demolition date moves closer, plans for gentrification are laid out, and the pace of suspicious fires picks up. The residents find themselves at odds with a political system manipulating their lives and question the future of their relationships.
The Talking Drum explores intra-racial, class, and cross-cultural tensions, along with the meaning of community and belonging. Examining the profound impact gentrification has on people in many neighborhoods, and the way in which being uprooted affects the fabric of their families, friendships, and emotional well-being, the novel not only focuses on the immigrant experience, but the way in which the immigrant/African American neighborhood interface leads to friction and tension. This book thus provides a springboard to important discussions on race and class differences, on the treatment of immigrants, as well as the government’s relationship and responsibility to society.
“With an insider’s eye for nuance, Lisa Braxton captures both the powerlessness and the resilience of communities threatened by urban development. At once tragic and hopeful, The Talking Drum is a heartfelt exploration of the deep roots of gentrification, brimming with vitality and richly drawn characters.”
–Wil Medearis, author of Restoration Heights
“The Talking Drum, set in the early 1970’s, deftly weaves the stories of three young, struggling couples living near Petite Africa, a community of African and West Indian immigrants. Issues of gentrification, race, gender politics, and class inform this propulsive story, but at its heart, this is a novel about who you love and who becomes your home. A moving and skillful debut.”
–Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One Is Coming To Save Us