Sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Farai Chideya, the former host of NPR's "News and Notes," remixes the badass trifecta in her debut novel "Kiss the Sky," a tale of a former rock star whose constant search for happiness in all the wrong places brings her to discover the power within.Chideya opened up to Books on the Root about blackness, science fiction, and her future husband.
Books on the Root: "Kiss the Sky" revolves around Sophie Clare a thirty-something black female Harvard grad and ex-rock star. In terms of identity, she's the type of character that's not often seen in books. Were you offering commentary about the diversity of "blackness"?
Farai Chideya: Hell yeah! It's ironic that I hosted "the black show" on NPR for 2 1/2 years because various people have tried to call me out about how I was not black enough; or, conversely, to put me up on a stage as the paragon of blackness. Their interpretations of who I am have a lot to do with who they are, and I understand that, though it makes me uncomfortable sometimes. All of us are just one star in the heavens, both unique and familiar. So my blackness deeply informs who I am but does not define me in my entirety.
BOTR: Any of the book autobiographical?
FC: A lot of the biographical details of the character (she's from Baltimore and attended Harvard) are autobiographical. Like Sky, I have dealt with plenty of eating and fitness issues, from bulimia, thankfully far in the past, to stress eating, very much in the present, but working on it. The drug addiction of the character Ari is based on a specific experience I had with a friend, a very much non-romantic friend, but one I helped put in rehab.
Most of the moments when people will think, "Aha, I know who Farai is and what she's about," are not the moments that are autobiographical. I was finally able to let go later in the writing stage and just make up a lot of shit. That recklessness with the small "t" factual truth, as opposed to the big "T" emotional truth, is what makes fiction, fiction.
BOTR: Writer Colin Channer said that your book "may end up being a defining novel of the Obama generation." Do you think a body of literature will emerge or is emerging that reflects the country's changing sociopolitical landscape?
FC: Yes. The most powerful politician in the land can draw strength from being black, and speak powerfully about being black, and yet be clear that his race informs but does not circumscribe his multi-faceted identity. And I'm not talking about being mixed-race here, which of course he is. I'm talking about the cultural hybridity that has typified every aspect of his life.
President Barack Obama was prescient in that he defined himself, through his books, well before he was debated on the national stage. The act of constant autobiography, which we now see in the form of everything from books to Twitter, is part of what makes the Age of Obama sing. It's also a little scary. I have years of private diaries and journals, and I'm really glad I didn't face the pressure some teens do now to make their every moment public before they spend time understanding themselves.
BOTR: Music is like a secondary character in “Kiss the Sky”. Each chapter is named after a song from a variety of genres and there's a playlist in the back of the book. What's your all-time favorite song?
FC: I don't have one. That's why there's a playlist. Many of us today are transformed by a seemingly infinite accessibility of music. The "playlist" meme also becomes about what my friend Richard Cardran calls "folksonomies" of information. Think of a "folksonomy" as the way we navigate information based on the data consumed by people we like, or hate, or know personally, or know through media and celebrity.
On a more specific level, you see folksonomies of music on places like www.blip.fm, where you can get points for playlisting music that other folks love. At this point you basically get points for surprising picks or for obscure picks. I'm only playing around with it so far but the song I picked that got the most props was "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies, which is one of the funniest songs I know.
"Institutionalized" reminds me of a specific friend from college, and I think that's one way music functions, as a memory device linked not only with specific times and places, but with people. I may not have a favorite song of my own, but I can tell you a song associated with every one of my best friends that reflects a defining moment in our friendship. What's funny is that most of these songs are not artistically very good. They're mainly songs we both liked and shared an experience around that reminds me who they are and why they are my friend.
Rob Fields just wrote a great piece for you guys at The Root about black rock and its growth. I was definitely influenced not just by music in general, but by the way black folks have created, claimed, remixed, and remade music. I think that the Black Rock movement, including things like the Afro Punk doc and movement—and Rob's own work via www.boldaslove.us –are very important to keep track of.
All I know is that Grace Jones is playing the Hollywood Bowl on my 40th birthday, so I might just have to be in the house.
BOTR: You're in a writing group called "The Finish Party" which boasts a membership of acclaimed writers including ZZ Packer and Lalita Tademy. Sounds like it could be a little intimidating. How did the experience help to shape your first novel?
FC: I would never, and I mean never, have finished this novel without the group. ZZ is a huge political junkie and she called me out of the blue and said, "Hey, I like your nonfiction. Do you write fiction?" I had shelved my novel for a bit out of frustration, and the relief I felt to be contacted by one of the best writers in America and have a place to learn more about the craft was amazing. I was not intimidated at first. I was just desperate for help. Then I realized how serious these women are and how hard they work. And we have all moved mountains to work on our craft amid everything from illness to weddings to family issues to everyday job craziness.
BOTR: Many people were disappointed by the cancellation of NPR's "News and Notes" where you were the host. Besides writing books, what other projects do you have in the works?
FC: I'm trying to decide whether to start a company, and how to start it. It's a great idea and a great team but also a big commitment and I am thinking it through and not taking it lightly. It has a broadcast component and that would allow me to stay in touch with, benefit from, and be of benefit to the amazing listeners who I connected with at "News and Notes." Every week I get letters from listeners around the corner and around the world, literally, saying they miss the show, miss hearing me, want to know what I'm doing next. It's pretty cool and sad and hopeful to get these emails-sad because I believe under other circumstances the show could have thrived and hopeful because I can't wait to find new ways to connect with people with whom I already have a relationship and trust.
For the next couple months, I'm splitting my time between my book tour and guesting with host John Hockenberry on WNYC's "The Takeaway." The show is very different in tone from "News and Notes." It's four hours of live radio and I have to be there at 4:00 am. I used to do improv comedy in college, and I did political analysis for CNN. In some ways it calls on both those skills. You have to be totally on it-read up on the news, able to play with language, enjoy being part of a team, and able to have fun one minute and be serious the next. And you have to be awake, which is no small feat.
I also have a second novel in progress for Sky Lee of "Kiss the Sky," and I'm sketching out a science fiction novel series as well. In some ways, science fiction/fantasy is my first love in books. I was still in elementary school when I read The Hobbit and the Ring trilogy. "Ender's Game" and "Ender's Shadow" are two of my favorite books, along with works by the great Octavia Butler. "Wild Seed" is my favorite of her books. I just spent part of dinner discussing trebuchets. Seriously.
In other words, I am looking down the road at what I could do, and giving myself some space to figure out what I will do. Again, you can't do it all. You have to pick your priorities. That includes the personal. I want to start a family, and have fun. So if you meet my husband, aka funny, loving guy with a big imagination, dark sense of humor, and at least a bit of a nerd streak, give me a call. Life is too short not to ask for what you want, or try to find it, or enjoy what you have in the meantime. It's a stressful time in many ways for many of us, but I am also thrilled to have a moment when I can step back from the daily working game and experience the possibilities. What lies next is up to me, fate, and God. Not in that order.
is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at feliciapride.com.