INTERVIEW: Nefertiti Austin, Author of Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

Motherhood So White. That’s what Nefertiti, a single African American woman, discovered when she decided she wanted to adopt a Black baby boy out of the foster care system. Eager to finally join the motherhood ranks, Nefertiti was shocked when people started asking her why she wanted to adopt a “crack baby” or said that she would never be able to raise a Black son on her own. She realized that American society saw motherhood through a white lens, and that there would be no easy understanding or acceptance of the kind of family she hoped to build.

Motherhood So White is the story of Nefertiti’s fight to create the family she always knew she was meant to have and the story of motherhood that all American families need now. In this unflinching account of her parenting journey, Nefertiti examines the history of adoption in the African American community, faces off against stereotypes of single, Black motherhood, and confronts the reality of raising children of color in racially charged, modern-day America.

Honest, vulnerable, and uplifting, Motherhood So White reveals what Nefertiti knew all along―that the only requirement for a successful family is one raised with love.  (description courtesy of Goodreads)

 


Lara Lillibridge: You wrote about how you couldn’t find any representation of the Black adoption experience in literature at all. Was that really your impetus for writing? Or were you already writing and just thought other people will benefit from it?

Nefertiti Austin: I hadn’t planned to write about it at all. I was sincerely looking for predecessors of what was adoption going to look like. Anecdotally, I found some stories, but in terms of a fully fleshed out: I made a decision, these are the obstacles, or these were the joys that I encountered and while, it’s one person’s experience, at least culturally, I can have a sense of, hmm, maybe I wait to tell my family later, maybe there will be push-back from my community—which I didn’t expect. And so I started writing because there wasn’t anything.

 

nefertiti austin

Author Nefertiti Austin

LL: In the book, use that framework of things being so white or so Black. How did you decide on that as the structure?

NA: Well, I mean, even now, in the parenting genre, it’s still very white—all of the experts are white. And obviously, there are exceptions, but I was telling someone who interviewed me a while ago that Black people don’t necessarily hold ourselves out as parenting experts. And so we have experiences, and I think we see it as ‘okay, well, this is my experience. And, you know, maybe unofficially, I’ve talked to enough people to know that there are a lot of commonalities within our culture.’

And when we think of experts in this country, typically people are looking for someone who’s a psychiatrist, or psychologist. And our expertise isn’t necessarily tied to a degree in child psychology or in child welfare. So for us, it’s really more lived experiences. And because our lived experiences don’t always count in mainstream spaces, I really followed the framework that was already put in place, which is that motherhood in this country is very much read white.

Parenting is very much read white, and you can go online, you can go to the library, the bookstores and you can look at like the bestsellers list and see, who are the people who regularly appear in these bestsellers lists with regard to parenting, and they’re almost exclusively white.

And so when I was looking for resources, and wasn’t able to find anything centered from my own experience, then I just really followed what would was already there, which was, wow, there seems to be a white way. And this major umbrella that covers everyone, despite the fact that there’s diversity within white motherhood, white parenting, you know, I totally get that. And then there’s everybody else. And so that’s how it feels very black and white. And again, it wasn’t intentional on my part, I just followed what was there.

LL: Well, I thought it worked very well from a writing aspect. And it gave a nice framework to things. I mean, I’m not talking about lived experience going well—I’m just talking about the structure of the book.

NA: And so then it to answer your question specifically, then it was really to show contrast—to show that while we have a lot of things in common, because parenting is very universal, there are a lot of very universal experiences, but Black parenting is different.

LL: When you talked about experts, I mean, you are a college professor, right?

NA: I don’t have a PhD though. It’s funny, I was in another [interview] and the person she asked me something, and I said, ‘Well, I have a master’s degree in African American Studies. My specializations are US history and Women’s Studies.’

And she said, ‘Oh my God, this is great. This is great, because now I can tell them that you really do you know, you really are an expert.’

LL: Your lived experience didn’t count.

NA: No, it did not count. And even having articles edited, I did have a back and forth with an editor over the summer about a question they had. And I kept saying, ‘This is my lived experience, therefore, I am an expert on what I am talking about.’

So, just because you can’t find it [in a journal or publication], it doesn’t mean it’s not real. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate. So that’s a huge issue for communities of color, is really having to prove, ‘oh, it really happened, and this really is the fallout and this really is what it looks like.’

LL: Absolutely. One thing that I really liked about your book is that you really have a larger perspective. It is your personal story, but you mixed in facts and cultural references. And it’s really more an overarching view on motherhood in this country that is much greater than just your lived experience.

NA: Right. Well, thank you for noticing. Yes, I really had hoped to be able to describe motherhood in different iterations so that it could appeal to everyone.

LL: And I think that oftentimes, when you belong to a minority community—all different kinds of minorities—people, from the majority culture look at you as like, the translator, or the tour guide, or the person that can speak for everyone in your group, which makes it hard to tell a personal story.

NA: Yes. Our community is seen very monolithically. And that’s a problem. And I make a point to in my book, and when I talk to people to say, this is my experience, I’m not speaking on behalf of every single Black woman who has adopted across the board, but this is my experience.

LL: I remember my book, Girlish, was about growing up in a lesbian home, and I got an Amazon review that said, ‘Well, this wasn’t my experience growing up with lesbians.’ And I’m like, ‘well, it’s mine.’ It wasn’t intended to represent every single household. Like, there’s no way to do that, you know?

NA: (laughs) Of course.

LL: Okay. So your book opens when you’re taking your son to a Black Lives Matter protest when Trayvon Martin was killed. And you wrote that Black mothers lived in a different America from white mothers, which is incredibly true. And I think that many white mothers just this summer started to realize that. I thought it was so interesting that you started with this protest—you wrote that years ago, right?

NA: Yes.

LL: And it took so long for people to really care.

NA: Yeah.

LL: How did you decide that this was the starting moment for your story?

NA: I had a different scene for the prologue. Initially I did not ground the story as this is a story about a mother and son. And this is also a story about a Black mother and her Black son, and how her motherhood journey is going to look different off the bat.

That actually was added later. Because in the course of writing, so many things came up. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. Oh, I forgot about this.’

And then I remembered thinking that this would be a great way to start the story, because I felt like this would really explain the title of the book, and explain that when I say that it’s different for us, this is the reason it’s different for us.

LL:  Your book is really important. It’s smart, it’s personal. But it’s also really funny. I just want to say that I loved the tone. And was that a conscious decision? Or is that just your natural voice?

NA: That’s just how I write.

LL: I loved your brother’s words, “My God, you are always doing something weird.”

That is just so like what my family would say to me.

NA: Yes, I’m used to it. (laughs)

LL: But it was fun. You know, you’re just very down to earth in the book.

In terms of the writing, something that I thought you did really well was that you managed to give people—your parents, in particular—you really gave a well-rounded view of them.

For example, regarding your father, you wrote that he was “a felon without a college degree and a drug addiction.” But you also showed the reader that “without realizing it, he gave me the ability to imagine a creative life and his way with words later carried me through my career.”

And your writing about people is very developed, there’s no good guy, bad guy. You really showed everyone as really fully formed characters. That’s something that I know a lot of writers struggle with, particularly in writing the people in our lives that we might have some emotional, complicated feelings about. Can you speak to that at all?

NA: I think one of the things that happened was my friend who was sort of ghost-editing along the way, she said, ‘You don’t have a lot of stuff about your mother.’ And, and I said, ‘Really?’

When I went back and looked I saw that she was right. And then sure enough, my editor said the same thing. And I thought, well, I guess, because I didn’t really know her.

And so, whereas I had a close relationship with my dad—he was easy—I did struggle with writing about my mother, because we didn’t have a close relationship. That’s something she wanted, it was something I did not. And so I still had my feelings about keeping her at a distance and then needing to be able to say, ‘but, you know, but for all of the choices, she made good, bad and otherwise, this is where I am today.’

So I think that in really, making sure everyone came across as full-fledged people, you know, warts and all, it was intentional on my part to make sure that I didn’t paint anyone as the worst person on the planet, because that’s not true. Most people have something redeemable about themselves. And so I was very conscious that I didn’t want it to come across as if I was mad at someone or I had some unresolved issues with either one of them.

LL: I mean, it definitely comes across that you don’t have issues.

NA: I have issues, trust me. (laughs)

LL: We all do, right? But you’re right. I mean, no one wants to read a hatchet job—or so they tell me. I’m sure someone might be interested. Now I’m joking. But you know, they say that the reader definitely wants to make their own opinion.

NA: Yes.

LL: And not to have it given to them. But it can be really hard, you know?

NA: Yes, yes, definitely. And so I had to really figure out a way to give balance more so to my mother than the other people in my life. And that’s hard. So as I think about like, my next book, and I’ve been for like six months now, longer than that, thinking about like, well, maybe I’ll write about mothers and daughters—kind of explore that a little more. And I know a lot of my hesitation is just what you’re asking me—it’s making my mother a full blown person and not let it be a hatchet job.

I was raised by my grandparents. So there’s that other piece for me, because my grandmother certainly shepherded me—but for her and my grandfather, we wouldn’t be here. So, you know, with my grandmother and my grandfather, like all people, they weren’t perfect. So I have to be able to reconcile that in my mind so that I make sure I tell full story, and I haven’t gotten there yet. Which is why I haven’t written a book proposal and I haven’t moved forward, but I’m getting there.

 LL: That was one of my questions—what you were working on next?

NA: I thinking about that. I’m not working on it, but I’m thinking about it.

LL: I feel that’s an important thing, though—that once you know where you’re going it’s a lot easier, otherwise you just sort of muck around and go in circles.

So you have this letter to your son in the book, that is, I think, really at the heart of the book, in a lot of ways.  It’s sort of a break from the rest of the book structurally right?

NA: Right.

LL: Can you talk about your decision why you did it that way, or how that came to be? I love how it turned out. It just seemed really intimate. And it really felt to me like the closest we got to the narrator, but maybe that’s because I’m a mother of a boy about the same age. And so I could put myself in that position easily, you know.

NA: I wanted to really explain why it was that I chose a little boy. I needed a way to be able to really dive into my intersectional experience without the book coming off too academic, because the first version of the book was very academic. And my editor said, ‘Okay, this is great, this is good. But, you know, if you want people to connect, they’re going to have to know your story.’

If you can tell your story, then you can ease in the other things—masculinity, all of those things—and the reader will stay with you.

And so I just switched all of that into the format of a letter, because that was my way of explaining the choices that I made. And so on a personal level, those family dinners, and then more intellectually, as I got older, being able to kind of think through, you know, why would I feel one way, you know, at 21, and then 14 years, 15 years later, I’m in a different space. What was that about? So the letter really gave me the space to be able to do it in such a way where I could keep the reader engaged.

LL: And there’s such love there, you know, I’m looking at a quote.

Even the lack of culturally relevant parenting information for Black parents and mainstream feminists who kept trying to keep Black women at the bottom of the race/gender hierarchy, or Black men who questioned my ability to raise a boy solo could not steal my happiness. I was a proud mom, and you were my son. It was a zeitgeist.

And that, to me, is just such like a moment of overcoming all of the bullshit in the world. You have this beautiful son and this feeling of hope—to me, so much about that first Obama election was just this feeling of hope that the world was finally going to move to a better place.

NA: Sure, absolutely. 

LL: And another thing that you wrote about—when you get to the end of the book, you move from the polarization of the United States into your own personal community of all different people, all different races, religions, all of these mothers supporting one another and seeing each other as actual people. And that is really like sort of what we’re all trying to do in society, right. But yet, we muck it up so much.

I live this truth every day with the white mothers at my children’s school. Over the past seven years I have developed genuine friendships with these amazing ladies. We openly discuss issues of parenting and have hard conversations about race, gender, equity, and inclusion at school and in the world. We share similar values and strive to understand each other’s positions where there are social or political differences. […] These women are as much my village as my Black mom friends.

But you give some actual, straight advice at the end. Like you advised that if you are going to adopt someone out of your out of your culture, you need to become culturally competent about your child’s heritage, be aware of your privilege, and seek to build community. Many memoirists are like, ‘here’s my story, now you figure out what to do with it.’ But you went a step further and leave us with some concrete things that we can do. It seemed really gracious of you.

NA: I wanted the book to have multiple takeaways. And, you know, definitely I wrote this book for Black women, because I wanted Black women to see themselves on the page—that was my audience, that’s who I was writing this book for. And I also wrote it for non-Black mothers, because it’s important that we see each other and the ways in which we can see each other are the ways in which we can help one another.

And so you know, talking about community, being supportive of one another, you know, those are ways that we support and uplift each other. Then by extension, we uplift the children. And we can really, I think, do an end run around, you know, even where we are today.

I live in Los Angeles, and parents at my kids’ school are meeting secretly to talk about how they don’t want to hear anything else about diversity, equity and inclusion. And it’s like, really? And I just feel like moms have so much power over our families. And we have so much influence as well.

So those pieces that you’re referencing, it’s just a chance to draw everyone in. So if you felt like I’m reading the story about a Black woman and her child, this that and the other, I still wanted anyone who picks the book up, even men, to see themselves and think these are things I can do. This is where I fit in her story.

LL: Thank you. That was beautiful. So in terms of writers, particularly new writers, there’s a line I wanted to pull out, you wrote,

 I essentially wrote my way out of a narrative of drug addicted parents abandonment and Black adoption. I hit the reset button, and you can too.

 Can you speak about, you know, just that idea of writing your way out of your history writing your way into forgiveness—into a new world?

NA: Yes. And I like to say that that’s pre-Hamilton!  My friends and I talk about breaking pathologies. You know, you hear lots of talk about that, like the family pathology stuff that just gets passed down generation after generation after generation. And so for me being able to write about my experience, and being able to be honest and vulnerable and transparent about things, is my way of making sure that the next generation—everyone’s going to make mistakes or carry things—but you know, maybe they won’t feel so different. Maybe they will feel stronger, maybe they will know that they have a different choice.

And, you tell your child, oh, ‘you could be anything.’ But then unconsciously, a lot of times parents throw a lot of roadblocks in the way because of our own fears, our own experiences. So I think I was trying just to remove all of those things. So if I can break this down and talk about it, then maybe my children and my nieces and my little cousins—hopefully won’t be saddled with that, and they can just kind of go forward, minus all the baggage.

 LL: What are your family’s thoughts about the book?

NA: Well, they really liked it. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received. But they did tell me that they definitely liked it. And then my really close friends did as well. But I had a few friends, one in particular, she was mad at me because she’s like, ‘Wow, there was so many things I didn’t know.’ And she’s like, ‘you’ve always been reserved, and I now I have a better understanding of why you’ve been reserved.’

Which was funny to me. I didn’t feel like I owed her an explanation. I mean, we’re friends and, we’ve been in touch but she’s not like my best friend.

I think I was surprised that there were these people who kind of felt more entitled to know more about every single thing than they actually did. And so that was surprising given who I am, and I’ve consistently been the same person. But overall, I got a lot of support.

I had another friend who thought this was going to be this academic story. And she said that she was pleasantly surprised—she read it twice—because it was emotional, and it was fun, and she enjoyed it. And so that was cool. I was happy that she admitted that she went into it thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to read, you know, someone’s dissertation.’ And it wasn’t that.

LL: People always say that there’s always one person that surprises them with their response to the book. And you can never predict who it’s going to be. People that you worry about are totally fine, and then someone out of left field, you’re like, ‘Where did you even come from with that?’

NA: Like, why are you upset? Yeah.

LL: How did you wind up at Sourcebooks? What was your publishing journey like?

NA: My agent sent it out—I forget to how many publishing houses—and it came down to two. And then ultimately, it came down to one: Sourcebooks. I had never heard of Sourcebooks before. But I was excited—it’s female owned, the largest independent publishing house in the country. They just did a deal with Penguin a couple of years ago, I think Penguin owns a percentage of the company now.

When I looked them up and I saw all of their books that have just done amazingly well, I thought, okay, you know, I never heard of them before, but clearly, they know what they’re doing. So I certainly was, and am still, excited to be a part of Sourcebooks.

My editors were just wonderful people, and when they didn’t understand something, they asked questions, and didn’t act like they had all the answers. I haven’t always had that experience with editors and so that was definitely nice. The level of sensitivity to the subject was great. So it was a very positive experience with them.

LL:  Did you have input into the cover?

NA: No, they presented it to me, and asked, ‘Do you like it?’ And I do! I love it.

The artist, her name is Debra Cartwright, is very well known. It was huge to get her to do the cover. She did the cover for The Hate U Give.

LL: Wow! Well, it’s a beautiful cover. And that’s great that they have such a solid team.

NA: Yeah.

 LL: And moving backward—before your book deal what was getting an agent like for you?

NA: It was a very long process. I had an agent, through a friend, he made a connection. And we were together a few years, but ultimately, we parted ways, because slowly but surely, she wanted me to water down the racial aspect of my story.

And I was still really trying to fine tune the theme, and, really what it was I was trying to say. And that’s like, you know, you get that support from your agent, and then maybe your editor as well, when you get that far. But initially your agent helps you if you don’t have a very clear theme, really kind of helps you shape that.

And so I just felt like we were seeing things very differently. And she felt that she’s a professional, and therefore, she knew what was right. But I’m looking at her as young—not that you have to have a family to get it, but it helps. And just life experience. And so I felt like, this isn’t going to work. So that was that.

Then I started the process of querying agents all over again, and I got rejected by—I queried close to 60 agents and lots of them said, ‘Oh, this is great, this is important, but…This is great, this is important, but…’  Ultimately, it was, ‘we can’t sell it.’

One agent wrote me and said that if she were younger, she would take it on, because we were going to have a fight trying to get it sold. And I got a lot of ‘your experience is too marginal.’ And that’s it’s going to be very difficult to get it sold.

And then I was recommended to be on a podcast called One Bad Mother. And it was 2018, 2017, something like that. And unbeknownst to me, a whole year later, I get a note on Twitter from someone who was an agent. And she paid me a compliment. And I responded, ‘thank you,’ and I kept going.

Then two weeks went by, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, okay, well, maybe this is an invitation to query her.’ And so I sent her a note and I referenced the tweet. And she writes me back and said, ‘I was waiting for you to query me.’ And she happened to be listening to the podcast that day. And then once she was selling my manuscript, the editor who acquired it was also listening that day.

LL: Wow—this one podcast really paved the way for everything.

NA:  Absolutely. And so that’s how I got an agent, and then that’s how we got to publication. So everything lined up.

LL: And you queried from proposal before you’d finish the book? Or did you have the whole thing written first?

NA:  Well, for nonfiction, you need a proposal, and you need to have three chapters that are finished. I had more than three, just because I thought I was writing a collection of essays, so I had a whole bunch of stuff. And then it wasn’t until my agent said, ‘well, you should consider a more narrative structure.’ So I changed the structure. But I’m still thinking my book is pretty much written because I had been writing for nine years at this point about the same subject. And then the editor said, ‘No, we need your story. So we’re going to, you’re going to start in chronological order, and you’re going to move forward.’ And so all of the stuff that I had, I was able to use a good portion of it, but there’s 1,000s of words that are sitting in a document somewhere that just didn’t make the cut.

LL: I think it can be hard for writers to sort of set their ego aside and redo everything, or to take a different tact—it can feel like so many words were wasted.

NA: You know, yeah. For me, it wasn’t an ego. I didn’t have any issues there. But my my fear was, Oh, my God, they don’t like it. And they’re not going to publish it. And my editor was like, No, no, no, no, it’s fine. It’s fine. So that was that was my fear was oh, my God, we’ve gotten so far. And now, you know, I’m completely starting over. But it was fine. It was the right time to do it. And, again, because I felt so supported and a really, really have a lot of respect for my editor, I can only think of a couple of things where I was like, ‘No, I’d like to keep that in.’ But for the most part, it was a pretty cool experience. It took a lot out of me emotionally, but the actual writing part of it was fine.

 LL: Sounds like you had a really good, mutually respectful relationship. It’s nice to hear those stories.

Lastly, do you have advice for new writers, or people that are trying to query, or just trying to get their story together are not sure what their story is?

NA: Don’t give up—perseverance is everything. And I think you do have to be an expert on your subject, and you don’t need a PhD to be an expert, but you do need to be an expert on your area. And you know, being prepared is very important, because a lot of times you are teaching the editor who you are. And if you aren’t clear, or you don’t have all the facts that you need, it’s going fall apart.

And you have to make sure that you query people who are in the genre that you are writing in, because that’s a rookie mistake that writers make. You think, ‘Oh, this person is an agent, I’m just going to query them and they will forward it on to the right person.’

That’s not how it works.

And let’s see, for a new writer, you have to read. Writers do two things: we read, and we write, and with writing you get better each time.

LL: that’s awesome. I will let you go.

 About the Author

Author Nefertiti Austin sitting in chairAuthor and memoirist, Nefertiti Austin writes about the erasure of diverse voices in motherhood in the critically acclaimed Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America. Her work around this topic has appeared in the “New York Times”, “Washington Post”, “Huffington Post”, “MUTHA”, “Gen Medium”, and many other publications. She was the subject of an article on race and adoption in “The Atlantic” and appeared on numerous shows/podcasts and radio programs, including “The Today Show”, “1A with Joshua Johnson”, and NPR.

Nefertiti is the proud adoptive mother of two children and lives in Los Angeles, Ca. and memoirist, Nefertiti Austin writes about the erasure of diverse voices in motherhood in the critically acclaimed Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America. Her work around this topic has appeared in the “New York Times”, “Washington Post”, “Huffington Post”, “MUTHA”, “Gen Medium”, and many other publications. She was the subject of an article on race and adoption in “The Atlantic” and appeared on numerous shows/podcasts and radio programs, including “The Today Show”, “1A with Joshua Johnson”, and NPR. Nefertiti is the proud adoptive mother of two children and lives in Los Angeles, Ca. Connect with Nefertiti on her website, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019), Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018) and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019). In 2019 she judged creative nonfiction for AWP’s Intro Journal Project and currently serves as a mentor for their Writer to Writer program. She also writes for children under the name L.B. Lillibridge.

 

 

 

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