I was only 50 pages or so into “The Turner House,” a 2015 National Book Award finalist, when I thought to myself that the author, Angela Flournoy, must have been from Detroit.
I was wrong.
A story about a living but aging matriarch, Viola; a dead patriarch, Francis; and their 13 children, “The Turner House” is set in Detroit and details the family’s current struggles living in the city as well as the history of how Francis and Viola arrived in Michigan to start their family.
The book is mainly focused on two characters: Cha Cha, Francis and Viola’s oldest child, who is experiencing somewhat of a mental breakdown and Lelah, the youngest child, who suffers from gambling addiction, which takes her through several twists and turns with her family and old acquaintances.
The plotline itself is worth giving the book a read; it delves deep into the significance and strength of family relationships, and had me thinking how my divorced parents’ families have stuck together through difficult times. It’s the setting, though, that gives the book its veracity. Nearly every detail rang true: the description of the casinos, streets and houses, for example. The discussions of white flight and deindustrialization were on point. Clearly, Flournoy has a unique, intimate knowledge of Detroit.
But again, Flournoy is not from Detroit. Though her father grew up in Detroit and she visited once or twice a year growing up, she’s from Los Angeles, lived in Iowa and now lives in Brooklyn.
So how exactly did she gain this insight? I spoke with her on the phone last week to find out.
“I read a lot of books,” Flournoy explained. “Mostly nonfiction, sort of urban histories or histories sort of like early industrialization in Detroit and then population change in Detroit. And then I also read some oral histories.”
“But also, I watched movies and YouTube videos and just random things. One of the most useful things actually was Google Maps, particularly the street view because all those photos in street view are dated, so you know exactly what a place looked like, say in 2009, which was really useful.”
I noted one crucial part of Flournoy’s research that was absent: She did not interview any Detroiters to gain an understanding of the city at the most individual level. But, Flournoy made a compelling point as to why it can actually be more harmful than helpful when your knowledge of a place becomes too vast.
“When you’re not from a city, there’s a way that you can sort of channel information without the burden of feeling like every little detail needs to be included,” Flournoy told me. “So I’m from LA, but I have not successfully written anything set in LA because the setting always feels insufficient when I write it. So that’s because my knowledge of the city is so sort of detailed that it’s hard to figure out what information to prioritize and help the reader feel like they get an understanding of the place. And so in Detroit, I had a background of the city, but I wasn’t from the city, so then when I did research, I could really choose what details about the city were important to my characters versus what was important personally to me, which I think is the challenge.”
And according to her, writing as an outsider about Detroit has paid off.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s been humbling because I really wanted to do the city justice and I wanted to really empathize with people who lived there,” she said. “But I don’t think I paint a rosy picture.”
I wrote a column in January touching on the influence and ability of outsiders to come into Detroit and monetize its culture. Clearly, Shinola (the company I discussed) and Flournoy’s book are very different things, but it had me questioning once again, both through fiction and nonfiction, who should be telling Detroit’s story. I think if I was asked a month ago who was best suited to do so (not that outsiders haven’t tried before), I would have said hands-down a native Detroiter.
After reading “The Turner House” and speaking with Flournoy, my views have certainly shifted. Anyone, even if he or she isn’t from the city, can write about Detroit — or any place, for that matter — honestly and effectively, but there is a prerequisite: the need to be open and honest about the subject you’re writing about.
When discussing this point, Flournoy recited a quote by an author who has influenced her writing greatly, Zora Neale Hurston: “Mouths don’t empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing.”
“The reason why that line was important for this book was because I wasn’t from the place,” she explained. “I had to do the work of trying to be sympathetic and the knowing part was the research. The sympathetic part was just as important, or rather maybe empathetic. I really thought it was important to try to be fair, but not be judgmental as far as various characters and their relationship to place and also their history in the place. I think if the book has succeeded on a setting level, it’s because I really tried to learn first and try to synthesize that into fiction second.”
For that reason — to confront difficult truths that make up the history of Detroit — it was obvious to me from our conversation that Flournoy has a deep affection for Detroit.
So I asked the natural question: “Have you thought about moving to Detroit?”
“I don’t love a Midwestern winter,” she replied.
Well, I tried. At least she told a story worth telling and did so with sympathetic and knowing ears.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com.