Owning Brooklyn: An interview with Naima Coster

Excerpt as published on The Paris Review written by Carina del Valle Schorske

Naima Coster and I met in passing in college at Yale. We had people in common, but I knew her first onstage. I remember watching Naima perform on the step team: her long braid was like flashes of lightning, but I sensed that even as she was moving, she would not be moved. This is a kind of torque I now recognize in her writing. Her debut novel, Halsey Street, remains true to the stubbornly slow pace of psychological change and to the centuries that bind us to others and to the street, to the body, and to the earth itself. But her writing also registers the sudden speed with which an event can snatch us up and set us spinning. Her craft is polyrhythmic, like the jazz she is named for

Halsey Street chronicles all the ways the machinery of gentrification gets jammed by unruly human lives. The time and place is mostly Bed-Stuy circa 2010, where Penelope Grand, an art-school dropout, has returned to care for her sick father. She’s rented a room in the renovated brownstone of a wealthy white family new to Brooklyn. Her father’s beloved record store, a neighborhood icon, has been priced out of business. His wife, Mirella, has left him, returning to the Dominican Republic, where she was born, in an overdue bid for independence. In Halsey Street, losses intersect and ramify like cracks in ice, and underneath rushes a reckoning: cold, bracing, hard to bear, yet still the sign of a new season.

But calling Halsey Street “a novel about gentrification” somehow, ironically, gentrifies it via quick taxonomy. So much of what I remember from my reading doesn’t register in that description. I remember Penelope’s view from the attic window, and the obsessive sketches she makes of it in a frustrated effort to render the world as one she can desire. I remember all the ways she styles her hair. And most keenly, I remember the letter Mirella writes to Penelope: “I have learned that to be a mother is to be left behind. I did it to Ramona; you have done it to me. When you were a girl, you used to follow me around, and I did not like it. I was not fit to be followed.” 

Read the entire interview HERE

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