If things had gone a little differently, Naima Coster would be a physician right now instead of a much-honored bestselling author. And while that likely would have been great for the world of medicine, it would have been an enormous loss to the world of literature.
Coster, who just turned 35, is the author of the novel "Halsey Street," which was a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, and a new novel, "What's Mine and Yours," which came out this month to exuberant reviews. On Tuesday, she will wrap up a monthlong Talking Volumes series on race in America.
Her books explore issues of race, racism and cultural identity through stories of everyday people's lives. The plots are gripping, the characters authentic, the situations complex. In "Halsey Street," she wrote about the toll that gentrification in New York's Bed-Stuy neighborhood took on one Latino-Black family.
"What's Mine and Yours" is broader in scope, a rich story that follows two families as they deal with the way that violence and loss have affected them over generations. Set mostly in North Carolina, the story at the novel's heart centers on the desegregation of the fictitious Central High School.
One parent, a white woman named Lacey May, fights against desegregation. Her three half-Latina daughters disagree with her stand.
The other family — a Black nurse named Jade and her son Gee — both suffers and benefits from desegregation.
Forced integration, Coster notes, is complicated. "I think we know that segregated schools are bad," she said in a recent phone interview. "They are certainly bad for kids of color, they're bad for poor kids, they work to entrench and perpetuate inequality."
But integration isn't a simple fix. "Gee is someone who shows the mixed nature of that opportunity," she said. Attending Central opens doors for him, prepares him for a life he might not otherwise have been able to build.
"But he's also haunted by the question of did he deserve what he achieved when others in his family were unable to. It's a heavy burden."
It's a burden that Coster, who is Black and Dominican-American, understands. She grew up in Brooklyn and as a teenager attended a private, mostly white high school on a scholarship.
"It was an experience that certainly opened doors for me," she said. "There's less conversation about the hardships of that experience when you are one of the only children of color in a largely white space. Or what it does for your family relationships to be the one in the family who gets to go further."
Writing with a friend
So what was all this about med school?
"It took me a long time to admit how important my writing was to me," Coster said. "I always wrote, from girlhood. I still have composition notebooks with the beginnings of novels."
But for many years she didn't think that she could devote her life to writing. Instead, she felt pressure to launch a career that would be, she said, "lucrative and stable. I went so far as to apply to and be admitted into medical schools."
Something stopped her — a growing awareness that the path she was moving toward wasn't one that felt true to her. "Writing is the thing that gives my life the greatest joy," she said.
Instead of medical school, she earned an MFA at Columbia University in New York. She teaches writing, most recently at the University of Michigan, and was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree for 2020.
Writing is a solitary act, and Coster found camaraderie through the authors she read and admired — "Edwidge Danticat and Patricia Engel and Angie Cruz were all people whose books made me feel that my books might one day be able to find their way to readers," she said.
Also helpful was working side by side with another writer. While she wrote "Halsey Street," she and her husband were living in North Carolina, where she struck up a friendship with Meghan Flaherty, an acquaintance from grad school.
Flaherty was working on what became her memoir, "Tango Lessons," and she and Coster would meet at a coffee shop, and write.
"Having her company and sharing our processes and our anxieties and hopes was deeply sustaining," Coster said.
In the coffee shop, "We just separately worked on our projects. And then when we were done we swapped drafts and we did the same thing for my current book and also the book that she's currently working on. It's great to have that camaraderie because writing can be so solitary."
"What's Mine and Yours" is written in segments, each told in third person through the eyes of a different character, and it moves around in time between 1992 and 2020. A chronological narrative, Coster says, would not have conveyed as well what she wanted to say.
"I think that the stories of our lives are not always best served by a straightforward ticking clock," she said. "If we're telling the story of a fractured relationship between mother and child, we might have to look at particular moments and how those moments speak to each other."
Because the novel is told through multiple points of view, Coster had to work hard to get to know each character deeply.
"Cracking the structure was one of the tougher things about the book," she said. "Before I even wrote the first sentence I had documents and documents of who these people were. I wrote about each of the characters, what they thought of each other, what they thought of themselves. I felt that I needed that information so when I sat down to write I could be free to discover other things, like what the characters say and what the characters feel."
She had envisioned the book centering on the two mothers, Lacey May and Jade, but "the children sort of stole the story away."
The complexities of identity
The novel deeply explores the question of racial identity. While Lacey May's daughter Noelle is white-presenting, she is the one in the family who most identifies as Latina and is most angry about her mother's opposition to school desegregation.
"I think there are many families — mixed and otherwise — where different people in the family have different relationships to their identity even though they share common heritage and roots," Coster said.
This is something she has thought about a lot in relation to her own life. In an essay she wrote for Time.com, Coster recalls how in her family, "questions of how our people identify are sticky, and answers shift with time and context. In my family, I know siblings who identify as different races, although they share the same set of parents. My own parents were both Latinx [the gender-neutral term for Latino] and Caribbean, but only my father identified as Black."
Now that she and her husband are back in Brooklyn, Coster has worked at home during the pandemic, no longer writing in coffee shops in the company of friends.
"Thankfully, I feel very connected to other writers though social media, texting, phone calls and Zoom," she said. "I have been reading more than I was just before the pandemic started — I think because books can be good company and it's a way for me to feel connected to other writers. I read at night pretty consistently. And that has been such a joy and a reminder of what books can do even in a time like now."
When: 7 p.m. Tue. via Zoom, featuring a post-show discussion with local writer Angela Ajayi.
Tickets: $5-$20 or pay-what-you-can. MPRevents.org
Talking Volumes is produced by the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio. Read more at startribune.com/talking-volumes.