Poet Kwame Alexander reflects on 'Why Fathers Cry at Night'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On the opening page of Kwame Alexander's beautifully written new memoir, he writes, "my mother died on September 1, 2017. Within a month, the cracks in my marriage emerged. They would eventually become impassable canyons. Within two years, our eldest would pack her belongings, clothes, books, heart and leave home and leave us. Overnight, I was barefoot on Mount Everest," unquote. We also learn on the first page that by the time he was 2, he was dressed in a dashiki. His father was a Baptist preacher of Black liberation theology who assigned books to Alexander and then quizzed him on them, which made Alexander hate books until he later found the books he loved. His mother was an educator who became a principal.
Kwame Alexander's new memoir is called "Why Fathers Cry At Night," and it's told in the form of prose, poems, letters and recipes. It's his first book for adults. He's best-known for his children's books, which include "The Undefeated," for which he won a Caldecott Medal. His Newbery Medal-winning book, "The Crossover," has been adapted into a Disney+ series on which he serves as an executive producer and writer. When we spoke last Thursday, I had a cold or a virus or something that wasn't COVID, and my voice was really hoarse, but I didn't want to miss doing this interview. I recorded my end from home. Thanks to Tonya Mosley and Dave Davies for keeping things together on the air while I was out sick.
Kwame Alexander, welcome to FRESH AIR. Forgive my voice. I have a remainder of a cold. So your wonderful book started as a book of love poems but turned into a book that's also about the end of love, the end of marriage, a troubled relationship with your father and troubles with your daughters. I want you to start by reading the opening paragraph from very early in the book, Page 7, from a chapter titled "A Letter To My Daughters." And much of this book is written to your daughters. Would you read that first paragraph?
KWAME ALEXANDER: (Reading) Ever since I was a child and discovered his framed marriage counselor accreditation certificate tucked inside a sexual intimacy in marriage manual in our garage, I have wanted to speak to my father about marriage. Now as an adult, I wonder, did he and my mother ever hold hands? How did he court her? Did he dance with her and then help her with the dishes? Did he make love to her in the kitchen? Did she rub his scalp after? How did they love is the question I've contemplated asking during those times when my own love life was discomforting or in peril. I've wanted to know more about the woman he had a child with - the woman who was not my mother, his wife. I've wanted to ask him, did he love her, too? When my mother, fed up, finally moved out, was their marriage better? Did she date? Did he? Why didn't they ever divorce? As I stand on the ledge of the unraveling of my own coupling, I have so many questions for the man who made me, but I'm too afraid to ask.
GROSS: That's a very heavy way to start. Now that you've asked those questions in your book, which your father can read, has he answered any of your questions?
ALEXANDER: Wow. Has he answered them? My father and I have, you know, had a father-son relationship, naturally, for 54 years. We had our first man-to-man conversation about three months ago, after he had read the book. And it was just two dudes, two guys, two men talking about the woes and wonders of romance. And it was a beautiful thing for me. And no. He hasn't necessarily answered any of the questions, but I feel like a door has been opened. So if those questions are going to be asked, I have a way in now, and perhaps he has a way into answering some of them.
GROSS: I want to ask you about books because you write in your book that your parents used books as both reward and punishment. Your father was a Baptist preacher. He preached Black liberation theology. He had his own small publishing company, sold his books in the churches where he preached, held an annual book fair. He also taught college, I think. Your mother was a teacher and became a principal. What were some of the ways that books were both reward and punishment when you were growing up?
ALEXANDER: Oh. Well, you know, as a young child, as - you know, as an elementary and a middle school student, you know, I liked - I used the word forced. And my father - he sort of shakes his head when I use that word. But in my remembrance, I was forced to read books that I didn't necessarily want to read, whether it be the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia or his dissertations from Teachers College, Columbia University - like, no books any 11-year-old should have to read. And I would rather have been playing Atari or hanging out with my friends. And so in my eyes, that was a punishment. Why should I have to do that? Why should I have to work for my father's publishing company as a 12-year-old and lick stamps to put on envelopes that housed catalogs for the books that he published? Why did I have to sell books behind a table at a trade show? Why couldn't I just be like a regular kid?
You know, on the flipside, my mother was the one who introduced me to Lucille Clifton and Nikki Giovanni and Dr. Seuss and made words fun and cool and interesting. And we just - we loved to hear her tell stories. She loved telling us African folktales. And so you had these sort of two sides happening in my home where books were cool and books were staid and incomprehensible and uninteresting.
GROSS: You know, by writing this book, you opened the door to a conversation you never had before with your father.
ALEXANDER: I did. And I remember the exact moment where I was able to sort of glean that, OK, we can - we're going to have a relationship that is meaningful and significant. Like, I can see where - in the past, I could not see how we were going to be father and son and go to the baseball game and play pingpong and do the - and live the kind of life where you feel good about this bond, this familial bond you have with your parent. Like, I never saw how that was going to be possible outside of words. And then one day in 2015, I won this award called the Newbery Medal. And, Terry, prior to that, maybe my father and I had talked - we had cool conversations once every three weeks or a month. After I won the Newbery Medal, we began to have a conversation every day for about an hour, and that was eight years ago. And we literally talk all the time, and it's real talk. And I understand that, you know, my father loves through words. He loves through books. And I had achieved this thing that symbolized and represented all that he cares about.
GROSS: Yeah. It's wonderful that you've, you know, opened that door. At the same time, you shouldn't have had to do it. You know, like, you shouldn't have to prove that you're a terrific writer in order to have a close relationship with your father. He's not your teacher. He's not grading you.
ALEXANDER: I don't know, Terry. That's the thing. I think I've felt like that. I've used those exact same words for so many years. But one of the things writing this book has taught me is to extend a little bit of grace, is to realize that my father loved me in the way that he knew how to love me or in the way that he chose to love me. It may not have been in the way I chose or wanted him to love me. And I thought about that as I began to think about my daughters who were going to read this book. And I think one of the reasons why I wrote it is so that they can put some context about how their dad loved, and it may not have been how they wanted him to love, how they wanted me to love, but I loved them and I cared about them in my way, and here's some of the reasons why, and here's some of the evidence. So I try to extend a little bit of grace to him, and I feel OK with it.
GROSS: Let's take a moment, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kwame Alexander, and he's a Newbery and Caldecott Medal award-winning writer. His new book is his first book for adults. It's called "Why Fathers Cry At Night," and it's subtitled "A Memoir In Love Poems, Letters, Recipes, And Remembrances." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "PROCEED IV (A.J. SHINE MIX)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kwame Alexander. His new memoir is called "Why Fathers Cry At Night." It's an unusual memoir in that it's written in prose, poems and with recipes, and the recipes sometimes include the music that he's listening to while he writes them.
Your father preached Black liberation theology. He was a Baptist preacher. And James Cone, who basically founded Black liberation theology in the '60s, described it as, you know, through Christ, the poor man is offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes him other than human. What was Black liberation theology in the way your father preached it?
ALEXANDER: It was - here's how we lived it. It was - you know, one of my favorite quotes growing up that I had to memorize - I am the greatest not because I am better than anyone, but because no one is better than me. It was - one of the schools I went to when we lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., was a school called Uhuru Sasa Shule. It's a Swahili word. It literally means, Terry, Freedom Now School. I think it was a way of life where we were raised - I was raised by my parents to never let anyone's expectations or their idea of what they think I can be limit me, to never be defined by how other people view me. It was to take control of my own destiny.
And I think it was just a way of life that was instilled in us that you matter, that you are important and never let anyone tell you otherwise. Things I remember my father saying - always act like you belong in the room. Never surround yourself with people who have less, you know, ambition and hope and expectations for you than you have. Like, all these sort of axioms and sayings and ways of living, I think, stemmed from this idea of, you know, what you've referenced, Black liberation theology, but more relevant to me as a kid was just, you know, self-determination.
GROSS: Was he a forceful preacher?
ALEXANDER: I remember him using a lot of wit and a lot of humor. I remember him raising his voice in a way that was charming and not just sort of loud and boisterous and unsettling. I remember it being comforting. I think that a lot of the way that I read and present and perform and share - it's directly connected to what I recall and remember of seeing and listening and watching him in the pulpit, and more importantly, watching the reactions from the congregation.
GROSS: You describe him also as an entrepreneur because he'd sell his books and sermons on cassette, I assume. When he preached, was he a hard sell? I mean, you know, did he push hard to have people buy his books and tapes?
ALEXANDER: It wasn't a hard sell in the sense that he had something to offer that everyone - that connected with people, that resonated. And so that wasn't a hard sell. And then in the way that he communicated, like, whereas at home, he may have raised his voice and his arguments may have been biting gibes and - you know, out in public, he knew how to use that in a way that was inviting and welcoming and made people just feel good. So it wasn't a hard sell in that sense. People wanted to take a piece of him home.
I think the hard sell for me, you know, when we had to sell his books, when we had to sell the books, when my sisters and I had to stand behind the table and, you know, there were rules - you can't sit down. You got to stand. You got to engage the customer. You got to know the book, so you got to read the jackets. If you don't read the book, read the jacket. You know, you can't eat behind the table. There were so many rules. So that's what I say, you know, to go back to what you said originally, it was a chore. I didn't understand the value of it. And of course, you know, 39 books later, apparently it worked.
GROSS: But you had to be the salesman.
ALEXANDER: I had to be the salesman. I had...
GROSS: Did you feel that was fair - in addition to having to work, but to turn you into having to convince people to buy stuff?
ALEXANDER: Terry, I'm sitting here talking to Terry Gross on FRESH AIR, a show I have admired and learned so much from over the years, talking about my life, but talking about this book. There's no way I'm here today had I not learned everything I learned at my father's dining room table, had I not learned at the table that he set up at book fairs and festivals around the world from here to London. There's no way I'm here today understanding how to be a writer, how to practice art and business, how to do the things that I do, how to build a successful career were it not for all the things that I learned from him. So whether it's fair or not - I don't even know if that's the question. The question - it is. It happened, and I'm here.
GROSS: Well, I get that. And even like, you know, he started his own publishing company for his books. When you decided you wanted to be a writer, you started your own publishing company for your books, so I understand that you really learned a lot from him and took a lot of cues from him. But I want to ask you about another - this is a very dramatic incident. So you were like - I don't know - 11 or 12 and driving to Harlem the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend where he held an annual book fair. You were driving up from Virginia where you were then living. And you fell asleep in the car and so did your father, but he was the one who was driving. This is on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the car turned over, like, a dozen times. What happened afterwards?
ALEXANDER: Well, every Thanksgiving we went to Harlem, like you said, to - for one of his book fairs to work the book fair. And this particular time, we're on our way. And like you said, we had the car accident, and we're all upside down in the car. And my - and there are semis and cars behind us. And my father does a check-in with each person to check it - to see how everyone's doing. Is everyone OK? And when he gets to me, my response is damn. And his immediate response to that is Kwame, watch your words. And I'm thinking we just got into an accident on the turnpike and you're telling me to watch my words.
And then he follows that up with now crawl out the car and get all the books that are strewed out all over the turnpike, because the books have come out of the trunk. And so I am outside of the trunk picking up books, putting them back in the crate, because we still apparently are going to have to sell these books tomorrow at this book fair. Like, again, that's the thing that mattered, the books. And I get it. That's the thing that paid the mortgage. That's the thing that paid college tuition. That's the thing that defined our family, for better or for worse. And the next day, we sold books.
GROSS: Your father was not only a preacher, he was the headmaster of one of the schools that you attended. Was it the Freedom Now School?
ALEXANDER: It was.
GROSS: So I don't know. That must be hard, because if your father is at the pulpit, and then he's the headmaster, and he's, like, the power at home, his power is, like, inescapable. And I'm wondering, like, how do you find out who you are independent of him, if he is everywhere?
ALEXANDER: And that's the beauty of having a mother.
ALEXANDER: Oh, my goodness. I miss that woman terribly. She was our balance. She was the counter to that. She was the - you know, she was the nurturer and the protector. And the - it's hard talking about her. You know, she's been gone for six, seven years. And she died on September 1, 2017. And I sat in her hospital room with her during those last four days. And I remember holding her hand, and her telling me it's in God's hands now. And me telling her because I saw the look on her face, I felt it. And she had had a stroke, and so she couldn't, you know, really do a whole lot in those last two days.
And I remember holding her hand and saying, look. If - you can go if you need to go. I will take care of everything. I've got it, and I'll take care of everything. And I didn't necessarily know what everything was, but I've come to discover and realize what that is. And that is as the oldest son, as it were, as her first born, with her no longer here, I find that I am the one who is making sure all of her children are getting the kindness, and the love, and the compassion that they deserve and that they need. And that perhaps with her being gone, they won't have that as much in that way. And it took me a minute to learn that, to remember that. And I think, you know, writing this book has certainly helped me. But thank God for my mother. Thank God for her.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. There's lots more I want to talk with you about. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kwame Alexander, and his new memoir is called "Why Fathers Cry At Night." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CURTIS MAYFIELD SONG, "SO IN LOVE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Kwame Alexander. His new memoir is called "Why Fathers Cry At Night," and it's a memoir told in prose, poems, recipes and remembrances. It's his first adult book, and it's really awfully good. His other books have been books for children and for middle schoolers. Some of them are picture books. He's a Caldecott winner and a Newbery winner.
So let's continue talking about your life. Your new memoir started as a book of love poems. And your love poems are great, but I especially like some of the poems about the end of relationships. And I'd like you to read an excerpt of one of those now. The poem is called "Love Story."
ALEXANDER: Yeah. So this piece is sort of an amalgamation of several different relationships that I've had over the years in college and beyond, and me just being in love with love and trying to understand, you know, how love ends and why it ends and not ever really fully grasping any of that.
(Reading) Five - after he introduced her to Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley, she taught him the secret to a good omelet - chili powder. They overslept regularly, skipping classes, reading to each other, planning a future. The way she woke him each day was epic and electric.
(Reading) Six - and five years later, it is over just like that. She holds his hands to her chest, tells him that she is still a word woman, that first and foremost, she will always love the way he colors her line by line, word by binding word, but that metaphors cannot pay the mortgage, that there are no stock options for literary photographers of passion and pain, that dentists don't accept concise wordplay as payment, that all the beautiful music in the world don't mean a thing if we don't have a vehicle to carry the hopes and dreams in our heart.
(Reading) Seven - the next day when he watches her drive away in the two-door metallic gift to the sound of a runner stealing home in the ninth inning, he knows the masquerade is over and so is love. And so is love.
GROSS: I really - among other things, I love the way you reference music in your poems and recipes. And I thought this is a good moment to hear an excerpt of the Nancy Wilson-Cannonball Adderley album that you referenced that has "The Masquerade Is Over" on it. It's a gorgeous track, although we don't really hear Cannonball Adderley on it. So I want to make sure that we hear the second verse that she sings, which is that your words don't mean what they used to mean. They were once inspired. Now they're just routine. So here is Nancy Wilson.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MASQUERADE IS OVER")
NANCY WILSON: (Singing) Your words don't mean what they used to mean. They were once inspired. Now they're just routine. I'm afraid the masquerade is over, and so is love. And so is love. I guess I'll have to play Pagliacci.
GROSS: Did you reference that song in this poem? - because it's not only an incredibly beautiful track but because it has those lines, your words don't mean what they used to mean. They were once inspired. Now they're just routine.
ALEXANDER: Absolutely. Absolutely. There are so many, you know, crossovers in this piece, and reading it just reminds me that in college, I listened to hip-hop and R&B, and I come home one spring break and I'm in my attic and I discover a crate of jazz records. And these jazz records belong to my father, and I know that because his name is stenciled at the top of the jazz records. And one of the records I borrow and take back to Virginia Tech is the Cannonball Adderley-Nancy Wilson album. And I'm playing it nonstop. And I invite a woman over and I play it for her on my used record player. And I make her - you know, I cook for her. The food wasn't that great. You know, I was way out of my league with her, but this was sort of my way of trying to be cool and be - and have her find me interesting. And she - we listened to the jazz and we ate the food and we kissed. And two years later, you know, she married me.
And four years after that - you know, the thing about writing a memoir is, damn, you just - you are saying all of your stuff. You're putting it out there. And this is really challenging because I've always been that person who hasn't opened up, who hasn't shared. But we're here now. So four years later, we're married, and she's about to get up to go to work. And, you know, I'm a poet. I've written my first book. I'm not making any money. My books aren't selling. Nobody knows who I am. But I'm loving this life of being a writer. But I forgot something. I forgot to pay the car note. And so she wakes up to go to work and the car is gone. It's been repossessed.
And that was the day. You know, her mom took her to work, and when she got off work, we had a talk and she said, it's over. Poetry isn't going to pay the bills. I love the fact that you want to be a poet. But it's not going to work for this family. You have a daughter. You have a wife. And so this poem - it comes out of that, out of that sadness that I was - you know, I played a significant role in that happening. So, you know, there's so many different things - the jazz, my dad's records, Pam, marriage, love and trying to figure out how to make a life out of words when they're not serving you.
GROSS: Did you think about giving up writing as a profession when that happened?
ALEXANDER: Never. And that's the sad - I don't know if it's sad.
GROSS: It's not sad. You've been incredibly successful. One of your books was turned into a Disney+ series. You're an executive producer of it and a writer.
ALEXANDER: And, you know, that's the rub, Terry - is that all of these things, you know, were happening in my career. And it's just been hugely successful, as it were. And - but I couldn't sleep. And I found myself just not being engaged with life in a real happy way. And I had to stop and say, well, what's going on? Everything is going right. But you don't feel that like you should. And when is that going to change?
GROSS: Has it changed?
ALEXANDER: Oh, it's definitely been - writing this book has been so eye-opening and awakening for me because it has allowed me to begin to see the things that have not served me. You know, I can acknowledge them. I can understand them. Now, that is not the end of the work because that really is just the beginning. So I then had to sort of begin to put in the work to bring into fruition all these things that I now know about myself and that I'm still learning about myself. So I think and I hope that it is working.
GROSS: Is there an example of what you're talking about that you'd like to say, about knowing yourself better, learning about yourself?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I mean, there's a bunch. One of the - the irony of writing a book that's a memoir by a person who typically has not been very open has not escaped me. And now I have to actually talk about it. It's like I'm learning on the job how to be a better man. So here's an example. I've got these two best friends, Marshall (ph) and Mike (ph). We've known each other for 30 years. Thirty years ago, we traveled together. We'd hang out. You know, we'd sit around and listen to music and talk about our woes and wonders. And - you know, and then I got into my business, and I'm writing books, and nothing else matters. I don't have time to hang out. I don't have time to pay the car note. I have time to write. That's my job. That's my life.
And so we remained really good friends. But that good and that closeness, you know, became two disparate, two separate things. And so for 20 years, we haven't really been that tight. We don't - you know? And so about three months ago, I called them. I said, fellas, let's all hang out. And they were like, yeah, whatever. Like you got time for us. I said, no, let's go to Puerto Rico and - my treat. We're going for four days. We're going to spend time together.
So they're on board. And so we go to Puerto Rico, and we're having the best time of our life. And we're at our table, having dinner one night. And I say, fellas, tell me. I got a question. Have I been open? And have I been vulnerable with you all? Have I shared? And they both just looked at me and laughed at the same time and said, dude, you've always been surface. And I was like, whoa. I have tried to make a concerted effort to be more open, to share, to be more vulnerable in my friendships, in my relationships with my family, with my father, even though it has been very hard because I've never done that.
GROSS: Sounds like you learned from your father with that, too. Like, it's about the work, not about, you know, opening up yourself to other people.
ALEXANDER: Are you - I feel like you're saying I'm more like my father than I think I am.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Yeah. And I am, and I once - and I understand that, and I'm cool with it. But I also want to be more, you know, like me. Like, I want to be that guy who's forthcoming and honest and open in his relationships. When I think about my - you know, my marriage, when I think about Steph, this woman I've loved and known and been married to for 23 years and so many years I've complained to myself that, you know, maybe Steph isn't as open as I wish she would have been with me - and, you know - and, of course, I now realize that, dude, it's not just Steph who may not have been open. You have not been open. And you cannot expect other people to be open and vulnerable and share with you if you have a wall up.
GROSS: You're divorced now, right?
ALEXANDER: I'm separated.
GROSS: OK. All right - time for another break. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kwame Alexander. His new memoir is called "Why Fathers Cry At Night: A Memoir In Love Poems, Letters, Recipes, And Remembrances." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "EL CIEGO (THE BLIND)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kwame Alexander. His new memoir, "Why Fathers Cry At Night," is his first book for adults. He's the author of several children's and middle school-age books, including the Caldecott Medal and Newbery honor-winning picture book "The Undefeated."
We've talked about your life as a son. I want to talk about your life as a father. You write that you learned how to father from men who failed miserably. Do you want to explain what you mean, or would you rather read that section from the book?
ALEXANDER: I'd love to read it.
GROSS: Go ahead.
ALEXANDER: (Reading) I also learned how to father from men who failed miserably - the friend of my father's who got into a violent argument with his wife in my grandmother's driveway and, upon being chased by a knife-wielding woman, proceeded to lift his 7-year-old daughter, my best friend, in front of him as a shield; a college friend's father who'd been sentenced to prison for abusing troubled teenagers during his kids' sleepovers; an old girlfriend's father, who lived around the corner her entire childhood and never once came over to see her, who never invited her to his house, who refused to acknowledge her even when she walked past his house, a monsoon of heartbreak forming behind her juvenile eyes. I wasn't any of these men, and I would never be, but I carried the weight of their failures with my own insecurities as a father.
GROSS: How did you try to counter that as a father?
ALEXANDER: Well, I tried to be there. I tried to be there with my daughters in a really present way and, again, you know, not knowing how good or bad I'm doing, just doing it, just doing the work of being a father. And, of course, you know, looking back on it, looking back on what I've - how I've been as a father and who I've been as a father, man, I've made so many mistakes. My youngest daughter - you know, she doesn't necessarily like us or like me coming to her athletic games. And I'm like, why? No, I just don't want you to come. And part of me understands that reason even if she can't articulate it - that when she was 6, she played on a basketball team, and she was the tallest person on the court because I'm 6'4". So, of course, she's pretty tall. And she asked to be taken out of the fourth quarter because she was tired. And I remember going to the bench and saying, you need to get back in that game. What are you doing? Why are you - and she's like, I'm tired. I was like, I know, but they need you.
And I remember her going out and running up and down the court, really lackluster. And her team - they happened to win. And after the game, she was so excited. And I remember going up to her and saying, I don't know why you're excited. You know, you didn't give your all. You need to be out there if you're on the court. Play with energy. And I just went. I went - I lit into her, and she just cried. And Steph came over and, you know, sort of hugged her and gave me a look and took her. And she went to ballet or violin practice, and I never thought anything about it. And the next week she played her butt off and made the all-star team, and I felt like the best father in the world. But I haven't been able to go to any of her games because she doesn't want me to come now. And she's 14 years old.
So I failed, man. I failed in my own ways. And, again, I think two things. I'm trying to learn from that. I'm trying to learn from that so I can be better now. And I'm 54 years old, and my hope is that it's not too late. And then I also hope that these two girls, these two daughters, Nandi and Samayah, will extend a little bit of grace to me that I realized I need to extend to my own father.
GROSS: Let's take a moment, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kwame Alexander. His new book is his first book for adults. It's called "Why Fathers Cry At Night." And it's subtitled "A Memoir In Love Poems, Letters, Recipes, And Remembrances." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN AND PAT METHENY'S "HE'S GONE AWAY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kwame Alexander. His new memoir is called "Why Fathers Cry At Night." It's an unusual memoir in that it's written in prose, poems, and with recipes. And the recipes sometimes include the music that he's listening to while he writes them.
At the time you wrote the book, you were not communicating - or rather, I should say your eldest daughter was not communicating with you. And can I ask you to read the few lines about that toward the end of your book?
ALEXANDER: (Reading) The other daughter who came to live with me at 15, a quiet, consistently kind, altruistic, reliable and industrious woman, told me in the middle of a familial disagreement, one of only a few heated arguments we've ever had, that she would never speak to me again. It's been three years, and she is immovable. At night, I sit in the dark in the space between hope and heart, the grief-stealing warmth, trying to remember how to love, trying to figure out the right words to bring you both back to me.
GROSS: Have things resolved? I was hoping maybe they had in the time between the book was written and now.
ALEXANDER: She sent an email to one of the folks on my team, and she said that she had heard that the book was out. And this was when it was in advance reading copy before it hit the shelves. She'd heard that it was out, and she wanted to know if she could read it because she wanted to prepare herself and her mother in case I talked about them in a way that might be embarrassing or revealing their private life - basically, if I were - if I was going to put her stuff out there in the world, to tell her business. And I just - oh, that just hurt. That hurt my heart so much because, A, I would never do that. That's the first thing. And the second thing, that she was feeling that kind of - you know, that heartache - it just - the father in me just - and I couldn't do anything to help, to it just - it hurt.
And so I sent her the book with a note. And about a month later - because there's nothing in the book that's going to embarrass her or make her feel less than or put her business out there. Like, I love her dearly. And a month later, she emailed me. And she said, I'm ready to talk. Please, send me some dates and times you're available. And the thing that just got me, that made me smile, that made me see that there's some hope here is the way she signed it. She said, thank you, comma, Dad. And that meant everything.
GROSS: So at the end of your book, you know, your marriage has broken up. Your mother has died. Your older daughter had stopped communicating with you. And this all happened within a short period of time. How has all of that changed you, all of that happening at the same time and kind of leaving you alone in a way that you hadn't been during your adult life?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. It's left me in this space of realizing that I am not a grown man, I'm a growing man. It's left me feeling renewed at the possibility of having the kind of life that I would have never thought possible. Since this book has been written, I have spent time with my three siblings in a way that we haven't spent time together since we were living in my parents' house together. I have had conversations with my father that I never would have thought I had. I have been honest and forthcoming in a way that has been painfully hard, and I have felt so good.
I've been able to sleep at night. I've been able to walk through life and feel a lot better about who I am and who I am becoming as a man. And so, you know, I have built this beautiful, writerly career. And I have used - I have strategized and planned and enacted. And now I am going to spend, you know, a great deal of time doing the same thing in my personal life so that I can have, you know, the most fruitful and uplifting and interesting, you know, relationships with the people I love and who love me.
GROSS: Well, I think this is a really nice note to end on. Congratulations on the book and all the good changes it's brought in your life. It's really been a pleasure talking with you and such a pleasure to have read your book. Thank you, Kwame.
ALEXANDER: I'm so honored, and your thoughtful and kind questions. And I just really appreciate it. Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Kwame Alexander's new memoir is called "Why Fathers Cry At Night." We recorded it last week when I had a bad cold or something, which is why my voice was so hoarse. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview about Clarence and Ginni Thomas' paths to power, or about why allergies, including seasonal allergies, appear to be getting worse and more common - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And for a behind the scenes look at our show and for suggestions from our producers, subscribe to our free newsletter. You'll find a link on the website whyy.org/freshair.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. FRESH AIR's co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.
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