Angela Flournoy to shed light on Detroit at UMMA
Angela Flournoy writes about topics ranging from haunted houses and real estate prices to the Great Migration and not-so-great marriages. While not everything in her novel, “The Turner House,” may be familiar to readers at the University of Michigan, most of it probably should be. After all, it takes place just down the freeway, weaving in and out of Detroit and its suburbs and finding a home on the fictional Yarrow Street.
The up-and-coming young writer will read from her debut novel at 5:30 p.m. Thursday as part of the Zell Writers Series at UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium. Following her talk, she will be available to sign copies of the book, which emerged as an instant classic in 2015.
Heralded by major literary and news sources as one of the most promising new novelists of her day, Flournoy tells the story of 20th-century Detroit through the lens of the Turner family and their ups and downs — mirroring the city’s convulsions, shifts and changes.
As the state of Detroit has become more of a national issue, the facts and figures of urban decay in the city have become familiar, cited in everything from documentary films to political debates.
“There’s value in ‘macro’ kind of analysis because that’s how you find about trends and how things are happening on a large scale,” Flournoy said in a recent interview with The Michigan Daily.
But this singular focus left the human element out of the narrative completely.
“Most of it was non-fiction,” she said. “So it was like, ‘This is how many people lived here in 1947, how many people were here in 1978, etc.’ ”
Putting faces and relatable stories to the city’s decline was something Flournoy hoped would bring Detroit home for her readers.
“I read those books, and it was useful. But what was more useful was to imagine, ‘What does it actually feel like?’ ” she said. “The value of fiction is that it can make numbers come to life, because if you focus on the very, very particular of individual people, you really look at something from the inside out.”
Flournoy’s extensive research and intuitive understanding of the city’s varied perspectives enriches her writing. But so did her point of view as an outsider. She grew up in Los Angeles, a city with some of the same strengths and problems, but also a very different atmosphere than the Motor City.
“For me, it was actually really exciting to write about a place that I had not lived, but that I had some experience with,” she said. “I think that for writers sometimes, the thing that is closest to your own experience is the thing that you don’t really have the right perspective to write about because you want to be loyal to what really happened. You have to figure out something that you’re familiar with, that you have an understanding of, but where there’s room to still explore and discover new things.”
As Flournoy’s work spans decades of American history, her life now zigzags the country as book tours, family and work pull her in different directions. The LA native teaches in New York City at Columbia University and The New School, when she’s not meeting fans of “The Turner House” all over the United States. What little free time she has is devoted to writing, a schedule that she finds challenging and inspiring at the same time.
“I actually think that the busier I am, the more excited I am to write,” Flournoy said. “Then the next part of that puzzle, though, is actually finding the time. But I am slowly putting together the ideas, and some early, early pages of something new.”
New work and research will undoubtedly pull her into yet another community, capturing its sense of place and individual details with razor-sharp insight. But Flournoy will always keep a little space for Detroit, the inspiration for the novel that launched her career. Some Detroiters seem to think she’ll keep that inspiration, too.
“The most rewarding part of the process is, especially when I’m in Detroit, and I hear people say, ‘This is a book that feels like Detroit,’” she said. “That’s really your goal as a fiction writer ... that’s what you’re trying to do.”