Interview with author Leilani Taneus-Miller

Q1. Hello, can you please introduce yourself? Readers would love to know more about you.

I am a writer, teacher and mother who lives in Edinburgh with my children, husband, cats and dog. Born into a Haitian family, I grew up in New York, however I have lived in the UK for twenty years. I have always been an avid daydreamer and reader. I studied at University of Virginia, American University, Maryvale Institute and London Steiner House. Brown Girl is my first novel.

Q2. What were the key challenges you faced while writing your book “Brown Girl”?

I wrote the book in three months, during the first lockdown between March and June 2020. I was furloughed from my job and all my kids were home learning with their respective school. It was a real full house – Seven people, plus dog and cat in a 1970’s townhouse. Creative writing has always been a solace to me, something I turn to for expressing my secret feelings and innermost thoughts. I tend to gravitate to painting with words. But then I wanted my writing to speak to the anger and frustration that swirled around (not just in my head but in my gut) about my experience of being black and often the only black one. And this absolutely coincided with the George Floyd drama and the Black Lives Matter movement gripping public interest. W.E.B. Du Bois noted that amongst the most corrosive effects of racism was its tendency to make its victims see themselves through the eyes of people who hold them in contempt. So the first major challenge was freeing my voice to speak up (granted on the page), which was a big thing for me as I’d been trained to ignore racism – “don’t let that bother you, just move on and prove them wrong by doing great things”. Well-meaning statements like these are intended to soothe and empower, but they neither mend a broken spirit or broken bones, and they certainly don’t bring folks like Stephen Lawrence back to life. But it really is impossible for your whole being to ignore the repetitive verbal and physical abuse that is doled out to you because you are black, just as it is complicit to ignore it happening to anyone – that is ignorance. So there are two things that my novel challenges racism and ignorance, written from a young teen’s perspective, in her “I” to get the fullness of her expression, the fullness of her hurt and the fullness of her confusion.After writing the first draft, there was a lot of editing work to be done, which overall took over 2 years, as I had to fit this around working as a teacher and family life. But every time I picked it up, I still loved my main character and could still feel her telling me what she was thinking, what she would do and wouldn’t, I had to keep going. Plus, I absolutely enjoy the feeling of writing – being utterly immersed in a writing a story is like being underwater but being able to breath normally. 

Q3. What books or authors have most influenced your own writing?

Any writing that gives you a deep inside view into a person’s real body, real mind and real emotion. Writing that has a historical perspective even if the recent past. Writing that isn’t afraid to be brash or unmannered. I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s blunt storytelling depicting an otherwise uninvestigated culture, the poetic prose of Elif Shafak, the transcendent quality of Jeanette Winterson to inhabit reality, fable and fairytale unapologetically, the relentless honesty of Jamaica Kincaid and Kazuo Ishiguro’s preoccupation with memories and consciousness. I can’t stop thinking about the humorous portrayal of a hard-knock life in Charles Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ or the cruel reality set to words in Tracy Chevalier’s ‘the Last Runaway’ about being born into slavery in America. I am floored by Dillibe Onyeama’s brave retelling of the sadistic racist encounters he experienced in his 1972 novel ‘Nigger at Eton’ restyled to ‘A Black Boy at Eton’ by Penguin Books in 2022. Yet to say these writers informed my writing style seems too bold a claim. 

Q4. What’s your favourite spot to visit in your own country? And what makes it so special to you?

I do feel, mostly, that I have three countries. In USA my favourite spot is somewhere along the southern coast of Long Island, a plain of soft sand, chalky cliffs, tufted with tall wild grasses awaiting the inevitable plunge of erosion. If that spot is still there and I don’t know its name. In Haiti, my favourite spot is shared between the view when perched on that grey rock in Labadee – its bright blue sea and its salted sea spray christening me – and the sight of the purple hills drifting in and out of the vetiver-charcoal scented mist on the way up the ‘monde’ to Fermathe.In UK, it’s the cascades of lush green, swathes of purple heather, giving way to white sands and a pale turquoise sea at Claigan in the Isle of Skye.

Q5. Is there lots to do before you dive in and start writing a book?

Research on the place where the novel is set, the political and social environment of the time and interviewing people who lived in the setting at the time to get a real sense of place and belonging. Making up the characters, giving them a personality, a physique, idiosyncrasies, catch phrases, psychological faults. Outlining the plot, as in the sequence of everything that will happen cover to cover. Breathing life into it, so it becomes an amalgamation of actual and imaginary experience. 

Q6. How long did it take you to write your book ‘Brown Girl’?

Three month of writing – one spring season (March 2020-June 2020). It took much longer to edit, over two years. Initially, I challenged myself to write 500-1000 words per day, but after a few weeks I stopped looking at the word count and just did what I wanted. 

Q7. On what platforms can readers buy your books?

In bookshops, both small and large. If they don’t have it, just ask for it at the till because then they might decide to stock it. Online, including Amazon, Blackwells, Barnes & Nobles, Telegraph and Waterstones.

Q8. Tell us about the process of coming up with the book cover and the title ‘Brown Girl’?

The title has to do with the protagonist Shelly’s rainy-day activity of fisting up a pile of earth to construct a brown girl which she then places in a hodge podge house made of broken sticks and pelts with mud balls. Shelly tells it best on page 91: “I gather my materials: leaves, sticks and bark. Her home must be made entirely of brown. Then I make a small figure by squeezing mud in both fists, then joining them at the tip and there she is – brown girl. A creature made from two fistfuls of wet earth. I extend my finger through the wooden bars of brown girl’s house to check its depth, then I carefully place her within. I used to only have time to make five decent mud balls of ammunition, but this year my motor skills are doing me justice. I can make a pyramid of 12 well-rounded mud balls before the buzzer sounds within my ears. Then I am pelting Brown Girl with the ammo, until she is drowned by the very earth that has birthed her. House still intact. I am getting too good at this. The bell, the one out there, has not yet rung, and brown girl is completely immersed in a sea of brown. She is beyond recognition. I have won.”So, I suppose it’s about being born on an earth that doesn’t want you to exist, which is very much like being born a black slave all those years slavery was the done thing and the aftermath of that – having to convince the world to stop seeing black people through the imperial prism of the racial stereotypes that have been nurtured to justify the slave trade. By contrast, the cover is redemptive as it depicts, Haiti – the land of Shelly’s ancestors. Although the bowl she carries is grey and empty, lacking colour, she with her mother’s favourite flower emboldened on her cheek, walks barefooted on stones, moving forward comfortably on the earth that carved her, supported by the backdrop of greenish purple hills and blue sky which for me represents hope. 

Q9. When writing a book how do you keep things fresh, for both your readers and also yourself?

I can’t control when I get to write, being busy as a mom, wife and schoolteacher (on the rare occasion that I get desk space in natural light, I soak in gratitude and dive deep in my story-making). But I can control what I write. Ultimately, I keep things fresh by not cheating myself out of writing what I want to write. I take inspiration from what I truly see – observing nature, plants, animals and people. Remind myself that my thoughts matter because they are potentially spiritual beings. And by connecting with my characters – I once read and sort of ascribe to the idea that your characters are ghosts from the past using you to tell their story. 

Q10. Are there any secrets from the book (that aren’t in the blurb), you can share with your readers?

Dolly is a plastic doll. Don’t tell Shelly!

Thanks!

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