An Interview With Melanie Hatter
Photo © Carolina CabanillasIn Melanie Hatter’s Malawi’s Sisters, winner of the inaugural Kimbilio National Fiction Prize (Four Way Books), three sisters from a well-to-do Washington DC family follow separate paths in life. The oldest, Kenya, follows in her parents’ footsteps, first becoming a successful attorney like her father and then a homemaker like her mother. Middle sister Ghana veers far from the path of the ideal child turned successful professional by dropping out of college and embarking on a career as a masseuse, while youngest sister Malawi is in and out of relationships and various scrapes, finally moving south to Florida to get away from her illustrious family in order to forge her own path, and create her own identity, ultimately to fatal ends. Sitting in a pew at her sister Malawi’s funeral, Ghana questions the racially provoked violence that led to her sister’s senseless murder:
She carried a burden in her genetic coding, the burden of dark skin, the double whammy of being black and a woman. The assumption that she would steal, that her hair was dirty, that she was lazy and sexually promiscuous. That she had no right to speak her mind. That her life was worth less than a white life just because she was black. That she didn’t really matter. Something was deeply wrong with a world where a white man saw a black woman at his door and shot to kill. An act of kindness would have cost him nothing — to ask what she needed, to make a simple phone call for a tow-truck.
Malawi’s Sisters takes place in the aftermath of Malawi’s fatal shooting, detailing the myriad ways each family member attempts to process Malawi’s murder, and the ways in which public response shapes and challenges their worldview and their relationships with others going forth.
Please give us a little background on the real life events that inspired you to write this novel.
In November 2013, in Michigan, a 19-year-old black woman was shot and killed when she sought help at the door of a white man after her car had broken down. I was horrified that a white man felt justified in shooting a woman knocking at his door, just because of the color of her skin.
When did you know you would tell this story?
Renisha’s story stayed with me for months after the news broke. Like many, I was still shocked by the shooting of Trayvon Martin the year before, but something about this woman being killed when she was simply seeking help stuck with me. Some years earlier, I had started a story about two sisters, Kenya and Ghana, but had trouble finding my way through their story. I moved on and started writing something else. Then it was as if Ghana and Kenya started whispering to me again, telling me that they had suffered the loss of their sister, and the story of Malawi took shape. I took a month and participated in a writing retreat (sponsored by author and motivational speaker Mastin Kipp) in Bali in 2015 and that’s where the bulk of the book was written.
Your novel, partially inspired by the real life shooting of Renisha McBride, transposes the shooting from Michigan to Florida. Why was it important for Malawi’s death to take place in Florida?
This was partially a nod to Trayvon Martin who was killed in Florida. I wanted the shooting to take place in a “stand-your-ground” state, and I felt that Malawi, in trying to get away from her family, wanted to remain relatively close and be somewhere warm.
The novel uses multiple points of view, but is limited to only that of the Walkers (but never spouses or significant others like Ryan or Sidney, for example). Was there ever a draft in which you used Malawi’s POV, or Ryan’s or Caroline’s? Could you speak a little about your point of view decisions?
I had a full draft of the novel before I considered adding Malawi’s POV. And I give credit to my writing group who asked the question: why not include her voice? So that’s where the prologue came from. I briefly considered including Caroline’s POV, but decided I wanted to keep the focus on the parents and sisters. Originally, my thought was to have just the three women — Bet, Ghana and Kenya — but as I started writing, Malcolm’s voice started nudging me and became a bigger presence in the book than I had thought he would be.
I imagine some readers would assume it would be easier when there’s an actual event to work from, but having the pressure to remain true to certain details could present its own difficulties. What were the difficulties, if any, of incorporating factual events into a fictional account?
There wasn’t a particular difficulty that I remember. People still talk about Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride — the list feels endless — and black men and women are still being murdered simply for being black, so the story felt like it was happening in real time. In fact, the first few drafts were in present tense because the characters spoke to me as if what they were experiencing was happening right now. (My editor later encouraged me to go with past tense, which ultimately, I think works better.)
This entire novel is about the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Malawi, yet the reader never sees the shooting and, in fact, sees very little of Malawi. How did you make the decision to limit her time on the page, and to what effect? Why was it important to you that the reader see Malawi only briefly?
Because it isn’t really her story. It’s about her family and how they respond to this traumatic incident. I wanted readers to see her through her family, through their different relationships with her, rather than get to know her directly, and I liked having a little mystery around who Malawi was.
There is a magnitude of loss featured in your short story collection Let No One Weep For Me and in this novel. Characters lose their loved ones to cancer, to floods, heart attacks, infidelities, and both your short story collection and novel feature unexpected relationships and bonds between characters. A man agrees to let his fiancee’s dying ex-husband move in with them; a depressed widow discovers she can fly; a victim of domestic violence seems to leave her husband to spend time in a corner store with a female friend. Where do you come up with your characters and the scenarios in which you will place them?
Ideas can come from anywhere — The story about the dying ex-husband actually came from a true story told to me by a friend. I was so amazed by these individuals that I had to create a story about them. My short story, “Taking the Shot,” about a woman held hostage in Colombia, was inspired by a news story, and “Something Worth Saving” was inspired by my love of police shows like Criminal Minds and CSI. Some of the relationship stories in my collection came from personal experiences with men. Most of the time, my stories begin with the characters, with people who fascinate me, and how they deal with challenging or troubling situations.
What are some works of literature that inspire you and that you return to again and again?
I’m always so eager to read new things that I often don’t spend much time re-reading books. That said, I will pull books by Toni Morrison, Ernest Gaines, and Alice McDermott from my bookshelf and read scenes or snippets, especially Song of Solomon, A Lesson Before Dying, and Charming Billy. Poetry was a big influence for me growing up. My favorite poem is “Assisi” by Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig. The language and imagery is so beautiful, it almost makes me cry each time I read it.
What have you learned about the process of bringing this book to fruition? If you could revisit yourself before you completed this novel, what words of advice would you whisper in your own ear?
Have faith in yourself and your work. I learned, or perhaps was reminded, that writing is so subjective. What one person loves, another may feel indifference. I submitted Malawi’s Sisters to dozens of literary agents, and while some gave me positive comments on the story or the writing, ultimately they all rejected it. And then Edwidge Danticat thought it was worthy of being the Kimbilio National Fiction Prize winner! Her comments made me cry because I had reached a point where I thought no one would love the book or believe it was worth investing any time to bring it to publication. I saw the announcement about the Kimbilio prize somewhere online and I figured I had nothing to lose but the entry fee — it was the only contest I entered.