INTERVIEW: Melissa Valentine, Author of The Names of All the Flowers

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This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

book cover: the names of all the flowersThe book: Melissa and her older brother Junior grow up running around the disparate neighborhoods of 1990s Oakland, two of six children to a white Quaker father and a Black Southern-transplant mother. Their house is flanked by both crime scenes and boutique cheese shops, and they play across these borders during their summer adventures. But as Junior approaches adolescence, strangers react differently to his presence; he develops a hard front and falls into drug dealing. Right before Junior’s twentieth birthday, the family is torn apart when he is murdered as a result of gang violence.

The Names of All the Flowers connects one tragic death to a collective grief for all Black boys who die too young. An intimate recounting of a life lost, Melissa Valentine’s debut is a portrait of a family fractured by the school-to-prison pipeline and an enduring love letter to an adored older brother. It is a call for justice amid endless cycles of grief and trauma, declaring: “We are all witness and therefore no one is spared from this loss.”

The author: Melissa Valentine is an award-winning writer from Oakland, California. She earned her BA from Sarah Lawrence College and her MFA in creative writing from Mills College. She has been a fellow at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and her work has appeared in Jezebel, Guernica, Apogee Journal, and others. Her writing has received honorable mention from Glimmer Train and the Ardella Mills Non-fiction Award. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. 

Steph Auteri: So after I read your book, I decided to internet-stalk you a bit, and I found an interview in which you said that writing was a way to interrogate and process your life and your way of being in the world. How did writing this book help you process your own feelings of grief and loss and anger?

Melissa Valentine: This book has been with me for a long time, so it’s sort of been my friend through many phases of my life. It takes a long time to write a book and then it takes a long time to edit a book and then it takes a long time to publish a book so by the time it comes out a lot has happened. This book saw me through active grief. It saw me through figuring out how to write. It saw me through finding my way into my story.

I knew that I wanted to write something. I’d felt this ache forever. [At Sarah Lawrence], I started taking writing workshops. I want to be a novelist. I wanted to be a real writer. But I was kind of bad at it, to be perfectly honest.  I wound up taking a nonfiction class my senior year and finding a mentor, who took me under her wing. In her class is where I started to find my voice in a way and started to find my way into writing the book.

And then I went on to have a life, get a job, find a way to be in the world and I still had this ache and I still wanted to write something. In that class, I had for the first time started to write about losing my brother. The feedback that I’d get whenever I shared my family story around grief and loss always, like, people were really interested. I guess I started listening to that. It feels good to have that mirrored back. It feels good to have people say that this was needed. It just felt like the right thing for me to write.

To your question of how it helped me process grief, it is a story of grief. It starts when I’m really young and I did that on purpose so you can see my brother living on the page. So he could be a child. So we could be children together. So that he could have a life. And then, in doing that, you process so much. I had to go way back into my past. I had to summon him. I had to make him real. That was really hard at times. You’re dealing with your grief, which is lifelong. This happened to me when I was 16. I am now 36. But you never stop grieving. It really is a lifelong process. It’s not as intense as it once was… but you get triggered and suddenly it’s back. Suddenly it’s right there. So that happened many, many times throughout the process of writing this.

SA: I feel like anyone who chooses to write a memoir about one of the most difficult parts of their lives has to then deal with this constant retriggering, so how did you cope with that?

MV: Therapy? I don’t know if I dealt with it. It’s life. It’s just the pain of being alive. It’s the pain of having a story and you deal with it and you become stronger and you become wise.

SA: You write,

“we ready Black boys for prison, not life. We ready Black boys for death, not life.”

This is a sentiment that’s repeated throughout your book. Who are you speaking to in these moments? Who is your intended audience and what is the unspoken call to action hidden beneath these lines?

MV: I see my audience as you. I see my audience as my family. I see my audience as really anyone in our society. With all of the current events happening right now, with anti-blackness and the racist history of our country revealing itself… it’s for everyone.

I come from a mixed background. I have a whole side of my family that’s white and another side that’s Black, so I’m writing for all of us. That’s my audience.

But speaking more to that sentiment: We ready Black boys—and really Black children—for prison and not life. I’m really sensitive because of who my brother was. I’m really, really sensitive to people stereotyping Black men, Black people, as thugs, as criminals. This fear of Blackness is just everywhere and people are waking up to that in themselves right now, but I have been witness to it my whole life. Because of my brother and because he was someone who embodied that for people. He took on that persona where people would classify him as a thug or a criminal. A monster. A lowlife. Someone scary. I think a lot of Black men, those are the names given to them. And that’s the title of the book. The Names of All the Flowers. It’s a metaphor. We have more names than that. We can imagine ourselves as wholly human. Can you?

There are millions of Black men in prison. The numbers are really stark. You can see how mass incarceration is directly related to slavery. There are more Black and brown bodies in prison. That’s a fact. So my book really is a story I try to bring to life, that school-to-prison pipeline. Prison is a kind of death. You’re gone from society. You’re gone from your family. But I think the ultimate disappearance is death and so my brother was kind of like that classic example of what that school-to-prison pipeline is.

SA: This is not the only instance of repetition in your memoir. From the very beginning, we see other themes come up again and again: that survivor’s guilt, trauma, the inevitability of what happens to Black boys… This repetition gives your book a sort of rhythm that pairs well with the lyricism of the language you use. It’s interesting, this pairing of ugliness (in the topic) and beauty (in the writing). You even write at one point in the book:

“All this beauty and all this ugly. Damn. I drive back home oscillating between the two, holding both.”

What is the beauty you want the reader to take away with them? And how does your writing style serve that goal?

MELISSA VALENTINEMV: The beauty is our potential. The beauty is in who we are to ourselves and who we are with ourselves and who we are truly. The beauty is in our families and in our love and in our joy. There’s beauty everywhere. And that’s what I wanted to show. Childhood joy… being a kid… riding bikes… being a human being… feeling things… feeling emotions… feeling love… showing love. And on top of that potential, this idea that we can imagine ourselves to be something more.

I’m a kid in this book. It’s written from the point of view of a child. And so she wants more. She wants to be able to imagine a better life for herself and a better life for her brother… a life where this doesn’t happen and, in her imagination, that’s possible. And so the beauty is that possibility, too.

How did the writing serve that? I don’t know. That’s kind of the magic of writing. It just happened. But I was aware of a goal… I wanted to show beauty. I wanted to show joy. I wanted to show us laughing and being kids. I wanted to show the innocence as much as I could. I wanted to show the possibility as much as I could. So I guess I was self-conscious of that. The repetition is probably just me making sure the reader knows. That we’re on same page.

SA: I was struck by passages where you wrote that your brother, in his behavior, sometimes seemed to be saying,

“look at me… look at how powerful I am.”

It seemed so at odds with what you also portray as the inevitability of his fate. At the same time, I can see how grasping for a sense of control and power makes perfect sense in the face of one’s fate. In what ways does your writing give you a sense of control in your life?

MV: Look. People are reading my work and talking about my story. So I’m saying, ‘Look at me,’ too. ‘Listen to me. My life matters.’ I’m asserting that with my story. You write it by yourself and it’s a very solitary process and then, suddenly, it’s not and suddenly there’s an audience who wants to engage with you and I guess I invited that and that’s power, I think.

But yeah, even just believing in myself that my story mattered enough to write a book about it. Believing that someone might want to publish it, might want to read it. It’s power to do it, to accomplish it, and to put it before people and say, ‘Read this. Listen to me.’

SA: There is a universality to your story that is heartbreaking, but which allows readers to grasp at the true emotional impact of an ongoing systemic issue. Yet there’s also a separate conversation that’s being had about how the publishing industry—and all white readers—repeatedly ask Black writers to bleed onto the page for them. To write big-issue books as if race and racism are the only things Black writers are allowed to use to define themselves. Do you feel this push and pull? How did it affect your decision to write this book… and the way you approached writing it?

MV: I have a lot of feelings about that. In terms of my book, my story, it’s a memoir. It was always what it is. But the framing could have been different. I went deep and I went historical and I went political and I went that route because that’s how I understood it and when my brother was killed, that was what politicized me and that’s when I started paying attention. I saw: This system is wrong. So I always had that framework.

But when I got an agent… you get hands in your book. You get people saying, “You should highlight this more or write an introduction that really frames it this way.” And so I heard that. I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t agree with it, but it’s interesting because it’s, like, my story’s not good enough without that.

The road to getting a book deal was not linear. Right now, we’re at a period where everyone wants Black books, but when I was pitching my book, everyone had enough Black books. Sort of like there’s only one Black story. This is the only thing we can write about.

SA: Is there anything else you want readers to know before they pick up your book?

MV: The book is about my brother. It’s about my brother’s murder. It’s sad, but I think there’s a little bit of humor and there’s a lot of love and family and heart. I tried to really roll all of that into my book. I want readers to know that this is a book about a family. It’s not just about a murder. It’s about love and family. I don’t want readers to forget that.

the names of all the flowers is out July 14, 2020 with The Feminist Press.



About the Interviewer
headshot: Steph Auteri

Photo: Erika Kapin

Steph Auteri is a New Jersey-based journalist and editor who has written for the Atlantic, the Guardian, Pacific Standard, VICE, and other publications. Her more literary work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Under the Gum Tree, Poets & Writers, and elsewhere. She is also the author of A Dirty Word, a reported memoir about the ways in which our culture treats female sexuality like a dirty word. You can find her on both Twitter and Instagram at @stephauteri, and you can learn more at

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