By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, Dec 06, 2010
In Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, Texas transplant and journalist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts tracks the storied neighborhood in history, literature, and daily life.
What was it like living in a place and writing about it at the same time?
It was a real conundrum. I’d always imagine that I was running back and forth between two worlds—the library and the street—and I knew I had to bring those two experiences into the same frame. And there was a stage when I just had to shut it all out, and Harlem just had to be where I lived. These are all the questions of the book. How do the stories we’re told in everyday life measure up with the stories that get written into history books? How are these stories transmitted?
You write about Harlem both as a literal and metaphorical place. Why did you choose this approach?
You could approach any place this way, but I think Harlem requires you to approach it like this. It’s the subject of so many literary fictions, political fictions. Even in 1925, Harlem as a black place was only 20 years old, but there was already the mythology about what it could be. The importance of Harlem, the hope and expectations for it pre-existed the place itself. Early on, when the migrations were still in progress, already there were hushed tones about it. And I was introduced to Harlem by the authors I loved—Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer. This place was on my mind a lot, even before I arrived.
Did any writing about cities or place influence you?
One book that comes to mind is Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. It’s beautiful and infectious, but once I started writing, I had to stop reading it, because she gets under your skin. Suddenly, I was writing like a 70-year-old woman looking back at her days! But one thing that stayed with me is the way she tosses off references. There’s one paragraph where she rolls off a bunch of writers—Chekhov, Pasternak—and she doesn’t give any context. When you’re writing about African-American history, you’re frequently asked to give lots of background and I kept looking back at Hardwick, wondering how I could go on the power and authority of what I knew and what some of my readers will know, rather than giving a 101 introduction to Marcus Garvey.
What’s next for you?
My next book project was going to be on Haiti. I was supposed to go in January, but after the earthquake, my reaction, mixed with the sorrow and grief, was, what was the point of a book? It’s taking me a while to think about this. Right now I’m living in New Orleans. I came here for a residency and it’s been a nourishing time. I’ve been figuring how to write and do community work—I’ve found great models for how the two can be on the same continuum. It was funny, though, when I announced that I was living in New Orleans, people asked me, “What’s your project?” And I was like, “My project? My project is just to live in New Orleans, maybe have a little garden.” I guess it goes back to what we were talking about, the separation between the living and the working, the writing and the observing. How to not make everything be a subject. It’s your life, after all.