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Author Jamel Brinkley explores loss, love & responsibility in his new book, 'Witness'

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Author Jamel Brinkley is earning new praise as one of the best short story writers of his generation. And if you ask him why he writes, he says it comes down to obsessions and questions.

JAMEL BRINKLEY: Something will capture my imagination. It could be a particular place. It could be a voice. It could be an image. And that thing will stay with me not because I fully understand it but because I don't.

SUMMERS: Strange lovers, delivery drivers and ghosts are among the latest obsessions he explores in the new book "Witness." It's Brinkley's second collection of short stories. He says the theme of bearing witness is inspired by another writer, James Baldwin.

BRINKLEY: He talks about the ways in which being a witness and being an actor are in very close relation. But it's sometimes hard to go from being a witness to someone who's acting responsibly.

SUMMERS: Another fascination that's evident in the book is with his hometown of New York City. I asked Jamel Brinkley about what continues to draw him back there in his writing.

BRINKLEY: New York is just a place that continues to fire my imagination. It's a place that I feel I know really well, but it's also a place that continues to baffle me and to be kind of a mystery. And I think that combination of knowing something really well and that thing also being sort of utterly mysterious to you is perfect for art.

SUMMERS: One of the things that I really appreciated about the way that you wrote about New York across this collection is the impact of gentrification. I love that you wrote about in - I believe it's the first story in the collection, the drivers parading by in their eco-friendly cars and the cyclists who actually wore helmets and biking shorts who are popping up in this landscape. What were you hoping that the reader would take away from the way that the city is evolving?

BRINKLEY: Yeah, I think there are layers to it. One, there's just the fact of gentrification itself, this sense of, what does it mean to be native to a place or to be an insider or to be an outsider, which I think is actually a difficult question. But part of it is just this personal thing that's happening. What does it mean to live in this place that's eroding, changing, transforming? It's a very difficult question.

SUMMERS: I want to turn now to another story in this collection. It's called "Comfort." And as it begins, we meet this young woman. Her name's Simone. And she's waking up hungover from the night before with a man sleeping next to her who we don't immediately meet. Can you just start by telling us a little bit about Simone?

BRINKLEY: Yeah, Simone is - she's a young woman, and this story is set in the aftermath of a horrible, traumatic act. Her brother has been murdered in a situation of police violence. She's deeply unsettled, deeply saddened by what has happened to her brother, and the story is sort of tracking how she's getting through the days.

SUMMERS: At times during the story, you see and hear her sort of really wrestling with the humanity of the police officer in question, who's called Brody, picturing herself in the officer's wife's place. What is it that Simone is trying to work out for herself about what has happened here, what's happened to her brother?

BRINKLEY: What happened to her brother is a thing that you never want to imagine can happen, you know, to someone who's close to you. But unfortunately, it's something that happens all too often in our country. And I think in sort of a painful way or even in a perverse way, she's trying to comprehend what happened. She's trying to comprehend how anyone could do this. It was a difficult story to write. It came very slowly. I could only write a little bit of it at a time. In a story like this, you have to try to understand her. And so I really had to put myself close to her, and it was difficult.

SUMMERS: Your debut collection, "A Lucky Man," prompted this big discussion about the ways in which you portrayed men and masculinity in your writing. But I have to say, as I was reading this collection, I found myself really drawn to the ways in which you write women characters - their sensuality, the ways in which they navigate relationships, how they fit into and anchor families. What inspired you to write from these more feminine perspectives or centering some women in these stories?

BRINKLEY: There were at least two reasons. One had everything to do with "A Lucky Man," actually, and the reaction to that book. And obviously, the book is about masculinity. I didn't want to be boxed in as sort of a masculinity writer, and I felt like I had to show that I could do more in my writing. Another reason is that I come from a family of tons of women. My mom has several sisters, and I feel like I was very much raised by women. And I kind of wanted to turn my attention more to that dynamic.

SUMMERS: When you're writing, who is the reader that you're writing for? When you're putting these stories together, are there things that you presume about the people who are picking up this book and reading it?

BRINKLEY: You know, on some level, I don't have a reader in mind except maybe someone like myself. But when I do conceptualize a reader, I think of someone like my mom reading these stories. You know, one of the things I'm looking forward to doing in the next few days is handing a copy over to my mom and giving her the opportunity to read it. So I think about people who are close to me, who can read a story and appreciate it and see the beauty and the complexity in what's going on.

SUMMERS: You know, one thing that I found sort of interesting as I was reading is there was a presumption that I was reading works about Black people and Blackness in our world, though you never had to explicitly say that.

BRINKLEY: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I mentioned myself, and I mentioned my mom. And, you know, we're both Black readers, African American readers. It is noticeable when you see the - a work of fiction signposting when a character is not white, which of course tells you who the presumed reader is. So with these stories, rather than have their Blackness pointed to in some explicit way, I wanted it to show up in other ways - right? - the ways that they speak, certain cultural cues, the syntax of their sentences, where they live, the rhythms of the prose. Like, those are ways that you can index African Americans and African American culture, too.

SUMMERS: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, just as a reader, there was almost this level of comfort, of feeling in community with the characters in the book that - in a way that a book that might more explicitly signpost race or not prominently feature Black characters - you wouldn't feel that.

BRINKLEY: Yeah, I'm really glad to hear you say that, actually. That's exactly the kind of feeling I want you to have as a reader of this book.

SUMMERS: Earlier in our conversation, you said something to the effect of that, when you're writing, part of the writing process is about answering questions that stick with you. And I'm wondering if there was a big question you were hoping to answer in this collection and, if so, if you feel like you found that answer.

BRINKLEY: I don't know if I found any specific answers. I think the exploration of the questions has been really useful. And I think, really, that the big question for me was how to - how people can push themselves to see what they need to see instead of what they just want to see. You know? Then once you do that, can you act responsibly? Those were the big questions, and I feel like I explored those questions. Answers I'm not so sure about.

SUMMERS: Author Jamel Brinkley. His new collection of stories is "Witness." Thank you so much.

BRINKLEY: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "STREET KNOWLEDGE FEAT. TREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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