A Conversation with Pearl Cleage

March 20, 2008

For over 25-years playwright, essayist and author, Pearl Cleage has led a provocative dialogue on the subjects of race and gender in America. With a string of bestselling novels and sold-out theatrical productions, Cleage’s empowering messages of self-respect and empowerment have gained her a wide and loyal following of audience for her work. In her new book “Seen it All and Done the Rest,” Cleage revisits some of the same issues found in earlier works while grappling with newer ones, including reactions to the US War on Terrorism. She recently spoke with EbonyJet.com to talk about what inspires and motivates her work as a writer.

What was your inspiration for “Seen it All and Done the Rest”?
Well I wanted to look at a person who had lived away from their own country for a number of years and had become an expatriate. However, because of the current political situation that our world is now in, a lot of political questions have come into people’s lives, which results in my central character’s return home to the United States where she has to rediscover her feeling about this country, but not just as an African American woman, but as a US citizen and what that means today in the world. .
A lot of characters in this book are dealing with issues related to self-discovery. Is that something that’s important to you?
Yes. I think that all of us as human beings are always in the process of self-discovery and re-evaluating who we are and what we want to do with our lives. In this book a lot of people are thinking about that — the older people are thinking about what they have to do and a lot of the younger people are thinking the same thing, but from a different perspective. We all have these questions, which is why several of the characters in this book are dealing with questions about what they should be doing with their lives, especially during this particular time.

Why is the issue of urban renewal such a prevailing theme in this book?
I feel we need to think about where we want to live and how to make that place real. IN the black community, we sometimes don’t see our own neighborhoods as the jewels that they are until after people from the outside come in and start buying up the property. My whole purpose is that the African American community begins to see and recognize the value in their own communities. A lot of what goes on in this book centers on the people learning to appreciate their community and take the steps to make it in to the place where they feel connected, comfortable and want to live in.

What do you want readers to gain after they finish with this book?
Well the first thing that I always want is for people to like some of these characters. When you write a novel what you’re asking the reader to do is to come and spend some time with a story that you think is important to them. I always look for my characters to guide people who are reading the book to the questions that I want them to consider. For this book one of the questions that has really been on my mind is the whole idea of what does it take to be an American? What is it like to be a citizen of a country where we’ve had such a difficult and complicated relationship? But then we look around and have something happening like the Barak Obama candidacy, which changes everything about how people think and talk about race in America. What does that mean for all of us who kind of sit on the outside and fuss at America but are never proud like this really is our country and we do have a choice in its direction.
In the book my lead character becomes a full free woman able to make the decision that she wants to make on her own terms. That’s how I want people to feel after they’ve finished reading this book. I want them to be thinking about how they will become the person that know they are meant to be. I want people to think about how they can be a free citizen of the world.

How would you describe your role in society as a writer?
I am a storyteller, which is an ancient and very honorable tradition that I belong to. It’s a very difficult, challenging and complicated business to be a good human being, but I think that one of the ways that we grow is by listening to the stories that we tell about each other. We learn what’s right from wrong and good from bad by the lessons we get through the stories that we tell. The main part of my role as a writer is to tell people stories about how they can be better people and gain a full experience from this life.

Gil L. Robertson IV


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