The Ms. Q&A: The Black, Feminist Subtext of Melanie S. Hatter’s Award-Winning Novel “Malawi’s Sisters”

The Feminist Know-It-All: You know her. You can’t stand her. Good thing she’s not here! Instead, this column by gender and women’s studies librarian Karla Strand will amplify stories of the creation, access, use and preservation of knowledge by women and girls around the world; share innovative projects and initiatives that focus on information, literacies, libraries and more; and, of course, talk about all of the books.


Melanie S. Hatter’s latest book, Malawi’s Sisters, tells the powerful story of an African American family dealing with racial violence that threatens to tear them apart. Chosen by Edwidge Danticat to win the inaugural Kimbilio National Fiction Prize, the book explores the complex relationships of the Walker sisters—Ghana, Malawi and Kenya. After Malawi is killed by a white man, the sisters and their parents struggle to make sense of the tragedy and make peace among themselves.  

Hatter was born in Scotland and received her master’s from the writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her debut novel, The Color of My Soul, won the 2011 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize.

She spoke to Ms. about writing race, listening to her characters and how she handles criticism.      

I read that Malawi’s Sisters was inspired by the shooting death of Renisha McBride. How did her murder, and the killings of other Black women and people of color, prompt you to write the book—and how did it impact your writing process and character development? 

MSH: [The Renisha McBride] shooting happened a year after Trayvon Martin, so I think the country as a whole was still reeling from that; I certainly was and I have a son who is just a little bit older than Trayvon Martin would be if he was still alive. And so when Trayvon was shot, it really affected me because I could see my son in that kind of situation. He would wear his hoodie and he was a tall, skinny kid and it really was terrifying.

When I heard about the Renisha McBride story… that could have been me as a young woman. It just felt very personal in some way—even though I’ve never been to Michigan, I don’t know the family in any way, there’s no real connection. But it just made me think that simply because of the color of her skin, she’s now dead and that could be me, that could be my family, that could be my son. That this white man felt justified in shooting someone who came to his door. That instead of calling the police or even just shouting through the door—“What do you need? What do you want?”—he felt that it was totally okay for him to open the door and shoot.

I just found that to be horrifying, and so it stuck with me. She was 19, and I just kept thinking about this young woman who thought she was going to get help. And then the thought of her family! What is her family going through? How does a family deal with this kind of sudden horrible loss?

Several years prior, I had started writing a story about these two sisters, Ghana and Kenya, and I really struggled to find their story. I knew one was in a troubled marriage and I knew the other was having challenging dating experiences, but for some reason, I couldn’t quite find the story. So after Renisha, [who] was on my mind for weeks afterwards, Ghana and Kenya’s voices came to me. It was almost like they were saying, “Okay, this is our story. We had a sister and this is similar to what happened to us.” That’s really how I started: [I sat] down and listened to them. I know that sounds a little weird but as writers we’re listening to our characters and ultimately they told me their story. 

I purposely set it in D.C., because I wanted to bring in that sense of the nation’s capital. There is this affluent black community in D.C. and I wanted to explore that a bit more. While Renisha was in Michigan—Michigan is a stand your ground state—I moved [Malawi from D.C.] to Florida both as a kind of nod to Trayvon but also because I felt she would go to Florida rather than anywhere else and it needed to be a stand your ground state. 

It’s interesting that you bring up affluence—because I think, a lot of times, we have these stereotypical notions about who the victims [of these crimes are] and what their socioeconomic status may be or what the may have done up to that point. Even the narratives that surround Renisha and other victims. There’s this blaming the victim that happens. 

Absolutely. I wanted to explore that—because being Black in America, it doesn’t, in many instances, matter whether you’re rich or poor. In certain situations, someone looks at you and all they see is skin color and all of their personal bias or judgment comes into play and sometimes it’s [only] after that they’ll say, “Oh, well this person’s okay because they’re well to do or they’re this or they’re that.” As in this situation, the guy opens the door and sees a person of color, they don’t know whether she’s rich or poor. They don’t know anything, but the skin color is enough of a threat that they’re just going to react to that.

And to some extent, I feel like the Walker family could be representative of the Black community. I wanted to look at a family where you have this horrific event, this huge loss. But you have real people with real emotions, real feelings. The siblings [in the book] didn’t always get along and so how do you deal with having a sibling that is annoying to you for most of your life and that you didn’t really bond with, and then they get taken in such a tragic way… how do you then deal with those emotions? I wanted that contrast between Kenya, who has this very distant relationship with Malawi, and Ghana, who had a very close relationship [with Malawi], and look at how these women deal with their emotions around how they felt about this person. So [I was] just exploring emotions and those socioeconomic angles where this well-to-do family in a well-to-do neighborhood, where we feel, at least from Kenya’s perspective, we do all the right things and we’re kind of above all the nastiness of the world. But the reality is you’re not, you’re not above it. You’re right in the middle of it, in all of its shades. And I just wanted to explore how this plays out for this kind of family.

How much did you think about how to portray the Black Lives Matter movement? While BLM is not a central focus, it is almost an additional character in a way.

I wasn’t trying to write about the movement. I wasn’t trying to be a voice for the movement. With this kind of a shooting, and this kind of a story, you cannot not include it, because it’s part of the framework of society that we’re in right now. So every time there’s this kind of shooting, the Black Lives Matter movement is there, it is a presence. And as I was writing the story and exploring the characters, it just became so obvious that Ghana would be the one to embrace this movement. I couldn’t have ignored it because it is so ingrained in these kinds of horrible tragic scenarios.

It is a theme that is growing in literature, which I think is really important with regards to representation. Can you talk a bit about how you decided on the racial makeup of the characters? I am especially curious about the choice to make Ghana’s love interest, Ryan, a white police officer.

As a woman, I like to tell stories from a woman’s perspective. [At first] the story was going to simply be Ghana and Kenya’s stories, two Black women, and then bringing in the affluence, being able to sort of explore that. As I started writing their stories, Bette’s [the sisters’ mother] voice came in. I thought it was important to get this perspective of the mother, this older woman in all of her colors and all of her mistakes and things that she’s done in her life and [her] regrets. I thought it would be really interesting to explore the perspectives of the mother of three adult women. But then of course Malcolm’s [the sisters’ father] voice started nudging in and I ended up really exploring him in a way that I hadn’t anticipated at all. He kind of pushed his way in the way men often do. [laughter] But he did provide an interesting perspective. 

I debated just briefly about Ghana’s love. They are not married, but I wanted to explore her relationship with a cop and I briefly thought: is [he] a Black cop? Because that’s one perspective. But I thought from the story perspective, a white cop could really challenge her in ways that a Black cop might not, just in terms of her becoming this Black Lives Matter voice. Now she’s in love with a white cop who is in this position of power over a lot of Blacks in the community, right? He’s got the gun. He’s in that position of being the force that is killing and keeping down people in the Black community and here she is this voice of Black Lives Matter. I wanted to push her a little bit in how she sees the world, how she sees police and policing, and make it an intimate perspective for her. So then Ryan evolved out of that and grew. [But] I never really wanted to get inside his head to the extent that he would then become a point of view character. I mean, we hear his voice and we see his perspective, but I really wanted it to come from Ghana, how she’s seeing him.

It would have sent a much different tone for the reader with regards to the sympathy or empathy that I could feel for him or for her, if it was more from his point of view. So that’s a really interesting perspective.

In a review, someone sort of took issue with me writing a Blue Lives Matter cop character and I thought, well why not? Because part of writing the story was pushing people’s thoughts around these kinds of relationships that we have. And I don’t just mean love relationships, but family relationships, relationships we have in the community, our perspectives of white cops versus Black cops or just police in general—and, you know, this “all lives matter” [perspective]. And I wanted to push some of those buttons for readers [and get them to] think about what these little taglines really mean. What does it mean to say “All lives matter”? Let’s look at that more closely than perhaps we have, think about that a little more deeply. 

How do you, more generally, handle criticism of your work? 

I would be lying if I didn’t say that it hurts a little bit when you read someone who says they don’t like it or it doesn’t work. But I feel like if it’s real criticism and they’re able to back up why they feel that way, then that’s fair. I feel like everyone comes to art, to books, with their own perspectives and their own thoughts, just as I do. I don’t love everything I read, I don’t think everything deserves five stars, but if it gets me thinking in a different way then I can certainly appreciate the effort and the work that’s gone into it. 

I was warned [not to] read the negative reviews but sometimes you can’t help it. So there’s that initial sort of stab… oh, they didn’t love it! And then you take a breath and say, it’s okay, not everyone is going to love everything I do. And that’s the good thing about the world: that we live in a world where everybody doesn’t have to love everything the same way. We can all come to things with our own ideas and opinions and that makes the world what it is.

It’d be pretty boring if we all felt the same…

Right? I mean, you hope that the majority of people are going to love your work. If everybody hates it, then that’s a killer. But even in that instance, you have to then take a step back and take a look at why they’re saying that and hope that with the next work, you can do better. 

Well, one person who loved the book with Edwidge Danticat and it won the inaugural National Kimbilio National Book prize. Can you talk a bit more about that, what that process was like? 

What’s funny is that I was really hoping to get an agent and I had sent this book out to 30-plus agents and most of them did not respond—which is a rejection, right? But there [were] some who did respond, and they responded positively, but it was still a rejection.

I was questioning whether I had done the right thing in spending the last two years or so working on this project. Have I wasted my time? Does this book just have no future? I really was starting to feel like it was never going to land anywhere. But I came across the contest for Kimbilio and I thought, what do I have to lose but the submission fee?

I submitted it and really almost forgot about it. I didn’t have that expectation that I would be in the running. I was getting all of these rejections from agents and I just thought, the book isn’t any good, I’m going to have to either scrap it or really dig in and try to figure out what’s not working. But then, December of 2017, I get this email with “congratulations” in all caps in the subject line. And I initially thought it was spam, so I almost deleted it. I opened it and sure enough, it announced that I had won the Kimbilio National Fiction Prize. It included comments [from] Edwidge about the book and I burst into tears.

It was such an incredible moment of validation and from Edwidge Danticat! I was absolutely floored that she saw value in the book, that she thought it had been written well. It was an amazing moment. This was a woman I had studied in college when I was getting my writing degree and so it truly was a moment that I will never forget. 

What impact do you hope the book has on readers, and has it kind of lived up to any sort of hopes or expectations that you’ve had?

Being published and being in the world—that’s it! But I hope that it does create conversation, that it gets people thinking either in a new way or gives them a perspective that maybe they haven’t thought about before. Because what I really hope people walk [away with] is that understanding that when you see those headlines of a police shooting or some random white nationalist attack on a Black person or a person of color, or any marginalized community, that it’s not just a headline, that there are people behind those headlines [who] are suffering.

There are families, there are communities, there are whole societies that are struggling with this kind of terrorism. I just hope that people can acknowledge that and start looking at communities that maybe they’ve looked down on or that they judged in a negative way and that they can open their minds a little bit, too. [To see that] we are, at the end of the day, all human beings trying to live in this world, and that these kinds of attacks are enormously detrimental to so many. 

Such an important message. So do you have any current or upcoming projects that you want to share?

Well, I am working on another novel. It’s actually a novel that I started before Malawi’s Sisters that I had been working on for a long time, and I felt like it wasn’t working. It just wasn’t  where I wanted it to be and I put it down and then started working on Malawi’s Sisters. So now I’m coming back to it with fresh eyes, fresh perspective, and doing a rewrite. It’s a mother-daughter story. So I have fingers crossed that I’ll get it done and it’ll come out into the world.

About

Karla J. Strand is the Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian for the University of Wisconsin. She completed her doctorate in Information Science via University of Pretoria in South Africa with a background in history and library science, and her research centers on the role of libraries and knowledge in empowering women and girls worldwide. Karla is working on her first book, a history of the Office of the GWS Librarian, due out in 2020. Tweet her @karlajstrand.