LUNCH & LEARN WITH NAIMA COSTER
On January 25, 2018, we gathered at the New York Times Conference Center for a Lunch & Learn with Naima Coster.
ANGIE CRUZ: It is not every day that I get to introduce a new Dominican writer. It is very possible that Naima Coster is the first Dominican American novelist being published in a mainstream press since Junot Diaz, Oscar Wao and that was 2008. Before that, it was me who published in 2005. That is pretty sad since we are such a large minority in New York City. But it is really exciting too. So it says something about the difficulty of getting those books out there. I couldn’t miss this opportunity to celebrate Naima today.
In an essay at LitHub, Naima Coster says:
“To say I wrote my first novel in order to fight against erasure of the neighborhood where I grew up may seem pretentious or distasteful to some. Even in the era of Trump, it can be unfashionable to write fiction out of a sense of political urgency, as if a writer with an agenda cannot also be interested in artfulness and pleasure. But it’s true: I wrote my first novel because I was worried about Brooklyn."
Naima Coster’s Halsey Street is a beam of light in this political climate where immigrants and Latinx communities are under attack by the current administration. It is necessary work and certainly an important read, fueled with both art and pleasure, but also with the urgency to tell a story of Brooklyn. Her heroine Penelope juggles her passions and family commitments with a razor sharp eye to a fast changing landscape, and will certainly make a real mark in contemporary letters. It’s no surprise she has already received so many positive reviews, including a starred review of Kirkus, where they called Halsey Street “absorbing and alive, the kind of novel that swallows you whole.”
Naima Coster was in conversation with Concepcion de Leon, of the New York Times. They discussed gentrification and the Dominican immigrant experience. A partial transcript follows.
CONCEPCION DE LEON: A lot of books have been written about gentrification. What about your background do you bring to this conversation?
NAIMA COSTER: That’s a really good question. Halsey Street is looking at people who are being affected by gentrification directly, so there is a character in my book whose record store closes and that’s really devastating for him and for his family. He’s not somebody on the periphery of the book. He is really at the center, although he is not one of the protagonists. I think that is something unique about the book. I also think I try to render lots of different objections or feelings about gentrification. So there is one family, newcomers in the neighborhood, and I tried to capture their experience, though it is not at the center. I was thinking a lot about when there is neighborhood change. What’s at stake, in addition to the real material and financial losses, is people working through questions about their identity. Who am I in this landscape and what does that suggest about me? Am I a beneficiary of systemic racism and how do I grapple with that? Or am I someone who has felt my neighborhood devalued consistently and now I feel a sense of increased value because there are nicer "things" in my neighborhood? Or am I the person who is feeling a sense of loss and displacement and also facing perhaps literal displacement? So I really tried to think through how different people respond
CONCEPCION: Did your perspective on gentrification change as you took on these different perspectives?
NAIMA: Sometimes the language that we have to talk about gentrification falls short. It is an umbrella term that can be used to talk about a lot of different kinds of shifts in the neighborhood. Even the terms gentrifier and gentrify fall short of recognizing the way that gentrification can be fueled by structural reasons and isn’t just a function of individual agency. I hope that people who read the book will ask more complicated questions and think about the issue in a more complicated way.
Photo credit: Ozier Muhammad