Author Angela Flournoy will be in Seattle May 8-11 to meet readers and discuss her novel, “The Turner House,” about a large Detroit family and the family home they must come to terms with.
“We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit the houses when we’re gone. Cha-Cha knew his family was no different. The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot; its crumbling facade the Turner coat of arms.”
Angela Flournoy’s novel “The Turner House” is the story of a now-weary house on Detroit’s east side and the family that lived there. Thirteen Turner children — beginning with Cha-Cha (Charles), born during World War II; ending with Lelah, whose arrival came just months after the 1967 Detroit riots — grew up in the house, knowing every inch of its yellow-papered walls and narrow staircase, listening to its secrets. Now the children are grown and must decide what to do with the empty house (now worth far less than what their ailing mother, who’s moved to the suburbs, owes on the mortgage) — and come to terms with their memories of it.
Published in 2015 (and in paperback last year), “The Turner House” — Flournoy’s debut — received much acclaim: It was a National Book Award finalist, an NAACP Image Award nominee, and singled out as one of the best books of the year by numerous national publications. And late last year, it received an exceptional local honor: It was named the the Seattle Reads selection for 2017. In early May, Flournoy will be in town for several days of events at various branches of the Seattle Public Library, meeting local readers and talking about her book.
The author of “The Turner House” will read from and discuss her book at several events as part of the 2017 Seattle Reads program: 7 p.m. May 8 at the Columbia Branch Library; 3 p.m. May 9 at the University Branch Library; 7 p.m. May 9 at the Ballard Branch Library; 12:30 p.m. May 10 at the Southwest Branch Library; 7 p.m. May 10 at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute; and 7 p.m. May 11 at the Central Library. For more information: 206-386-4636 or spl.org
“I’m very excited about this,” said Flournoy, in a phone interview from her Brooklyn home earlier this month. A former library employee at a branch of the District of Columbia Public Library, she remembered having an All-City Read there. “I thought that would be kind of the pinnacle — the thing that everyone in the city is reading. So to have it happen is really exciting.”
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The Seattle Reads program, inaugurated in 1998, is presented by the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library (SPL), with the goal of deepening engagement in literature through reading and discussion. This year, a committee that consisted of four SPL librarians, a representative of the SPL foundation, and a member of the local bookselling community selected the book from about two dozen nominations from library staffers. Committee chair Linda Johns, a reader services librarian for SPL, said that they were looking for a compelling book and also an author who would be able to engage readers in conversation.
“I loved it!” Johns said of “The Turner House,” their ultimate choice. “This was a book that has a lot of entry points — it touches on the financial crisis of 2008, housing, addiction . . . African-American families, African-American community — but at its heart it’s a family novel, and there’s a lot of love in this book.”
And Flournoy, the committee agreed after researching past interviews, was someone “so personable and engaging, we could imagine her going out into the community in all kinds of different situations.” Flournoy came to town earlier this year, speaking at Hugo House, and Johns said the appearance confirmed their choice: “She was just perfect.”
A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flournoy grew up in Southern California but knew Detroit well; her father, who was from there, often took her and her sister to visit. Around 2010, during her second semester in Iowa, she began thinking about setting a story in Detroit.
“I had been visiting more often because I lived in the Midwest,” she remembered. “I had been thinking about the changes that I had witnessed in that city, over my time visiting it throughout my life.” She also was struck by what happened to the housing market in Detroit: how so many families, like the Turners, watched as their in-city homes crumbled in value, or simply crumbled.
“On both sides of the Turner house, vacant lots were stippled with new grass. Soon ragweed, wood sorrel and violets would surround the crumbling foundations, the houses long burned and rained away. The Turner house, originally three lots into the block, had become a corner house in recent years, its slight mint and brick frame the most reliable landmark on the street.”
Flournoy began by imagining the house — on fictional Yarrow Street, but in a neighborhood like the one in which her father grew up. “I thought about the house for about 10 months before I really thought of any characters. I thought about who might want to live in a house like that, on the east side of the city, an area that’s pretty depopulated. I started to kind of have this image in my head of a woman sneaking around the house at night.” That was Lelah, the Turner daughter who struggles with a gambling addiction (rendered in gripping prose) and needs somewhere to live after being evicted from her home — but doesn’t want her siblings to know of her plight.
The story that emerged is one that centered on Lelah and her oldest brother, Cha-Cha, a truck driver whose childhood encounter with a family ghost — “a haint, if you will” — bookends the story. “I thought, having these two people that are a generation apart would be good entry points into the larger dynamics of the family and the changing setting,” Flournoy said. The other siblings, helpfully enumerated for us on a family tree, appear in lesser roles, contributing to the cacophony of voices that is the Turner family.
Though Flournoy borrowed a few details from her father’s large family (he is, she said, the fifth of 13 children), the Turners are a fictional invention. “I decided that one thing that I had never really read was what it’s like to be part of a big family, in the 21st century. They’re not as common as they were a couple of generations ago, but they still exist, and it helped shape the person I became.”
Now all of Seattle, reading her book together, can be a part of the Turner family.