Kalisha Buckhanon is the author of four novels, including her most recent, Speaking of Summer. One December night, Autumn Spencer’s twin sister Summer disappears from their Harlem apartment rooftop. No sign of struggle, just her bare footprints in the snow. It looks as though she simply vanished. With the authorities indifferent to another missing Black woman, Autumn must pursue the search for her sister on her own. From this summary, you might assume that this novel is a traditional thriller, a search and uncover clues type novel. But Speaking of Summer is so much more than that, a mystery that doesn’t uncover itself until the end of the book.
Buckhanon weaves the complexities of trauma, sibling rivalry, family history, violence against women and issues of race into the story with such passion and skill. This thrilling novel also juggles themes of mental health and addiction, as Buckhanon masterfully adds to the conversation about these issues among women. The cultural relevance of Speaking of Summer makes this a must-read.
I had the privilege of speaking with Kalisha via email where we delved into creating vulnerable characters, exploring one's heritage, writing about trauma, her blog, Negression and of what it means to be a Black woman in America today.
Autumn is such a vulnerable character. She is confused, messy, and frustrated. She procrastinates, probably drinks too much, acts on her whims and can be terrible with money. She is extremely flawed, yet her struggles are so real and relatable. I love this about her. What drew you to Autumn? Did building her character flow naturally for you?
Autumn initially came to me as much older and next much younger. In 2014, I started going back to spend weeks and months in New York City because my life and work were not the same without it. So I was in Harlem a lot, where I had lived for years when I was becoming a working writer. I started a book about a successful Black couple who lose their daughter to a violent crime in their Harlem brownstone, so that was going on.
That next year, I joined my best old friends to put on our 20-year high school reunion, because I wanted to be president all through high school and didn’t see that doesn’t change even when you grow up. So once that whirlwind ended, I was back at my high school house sitting on the deck. It was summer, about this time. It was quiet, green, cool breezes, lots of those dotty bugs in the air that you just can’t see in the city. And I felt a little girl in that yard. I wondered about that but I didn’t want to write young characters again. I did that for my first three novels. So there was Harlem and brownstones and a little girl in an Illinois yard. Shortly after, some of the writing I thought was one novel became a short story about a couple losing a child in Chicago and some of it became Autumn in Harlem.
This novel explores what it means to survive as a black woman in America, the feeling of powerlessness at the hands of the justice system, daily violences in women’s lives, society’s indifference to missing ethnic women, patriarchal oppression and the gentrification of neighborhoods like Harlem. What was your driving force for creating this novel? What do you hope your readers take away from it?
While I was sitting out on a deck that day, after a high school reunion where me and a lot of other very loved people showed up as fully-realized adults who had the chance to make our lives, a male police officer in Texas had just brutalized Sandra Bland on her way to making her life. And whether she took her own life or there is a coverup to this day, that brutal event set the chain of events going to that point. Others do not understand that Black people seeing these recordings of many White Power sprees is as mentally tortuous as expecting a sexual assault victim to watch “The Accused.” I am not saying bad things do not happen to all people. People like Foucalt and Sontag have written about and documented torture, punishment, pain from non-colored people to non-colored people. The Bible narrates how long humans have hurt each other. But for Blacks in America, it is not a moment in history to document. It is a continuum to get accustom to. So a lot of my typing is spiritual, centering on peace in the meditation and finishing the goals. I hope Autumn shows how it feels to be made uneasy when nothing is even happening to you.
Heritage, or lack thereof, comes up frequently throughout the novel as Autumn wishes she knew more about where she came from. Without much family to speak of, she seems to feel very alone and disconnected from a huge part of herself. Do you think our personal histories and heritages are important for us to learn in order to understand ourselves better? Do you know much about your own?
I wish I knew my African heritage. I have nothing to say when I am with people who know their people are Polish, Argentinian, Chinese. Caribbeans know more than I do. They know the other part of Earth that’s somewhere deep inside them. I don’t trust those mass-marketed DNA tests. I hope to soon get down to the harder genealogical digging.
I know my American heritage better than most. I had a lot of ancestral overhead. My parents were teens when I came along and their parents were alive in our town, their grandparents were alive in our town, their siblings and aunts and uncles were alive in our town. So all those various lines flowed around me like tribes. I could ask questions. People came from down South, for funerals or just passing through. I went down South. I was handled by men and women who looked ancient to my small self, but they were so much more interesting so I stuck around them.
Of course it is important. Heritage makes us flexible and open and nonjudgmental. Civilization has advanced technologically and scientifically, but we need to work on keeping the same pace with our heritage and ancestors. We have to honor the memories.
You explore the complexities of trauma so profoundly with such intelligence and care. Do you think we are having enough conversations about violence towards women or overcoming past traumas? Do you think we as a society offer enough resources to help with these issues?
Thank you. I did all I could to take the harrowing situations in the book seriously. I definitely think we are doing so much better than the past with that and this book is evidence of that. My agent sold this to a male editor. They are both White. They loved a Black and woman main character, surviving violence. Now, we are focusing on these matters in this interview. You sat with this main character, her warts and all. Thank you.
Many other publications, large and small and legendary and young but all diverse, are featuring these matters. I work in schools and with young people a lot. I’ve seen girls speaking up. I’ve seen boys listening. These are no longer just horrors that pop up on the news or ID Channel. Non-profits are growing. We’ve seen one, with national media attention, help condemn R. Kelly for decades of sex-trafficking girls of color.
Our world has heard from women in their golden years, our elders and sages, of all colors and backgrounds. They’re heroes. They interrupt their peace and quiet to speak when divine timing says it’s right for them. E. Jean Carroll, about Trump. She doesn’t need that. What she needs is to speak her truth. I just heard of Kim Bok-Dong, kidnapped from Korea at age 14 to serve imperial Japan as a “comfort woman,” basically a prostituted slave in WWII. She did her last interview last year in her early nineties, with just a few months to live, with cancer. I’m not sure we’d have seen her 20 years ago. So the conversations are happening and we have to keep up the pace with the tangible resources, safe spaces, financial reparations. That part is still finding itself.
This quote stopped me and I wanted to ask you about it: “Just another woman in just another car in just another town only bigger than most, but still just another and no different for us in any of them, in America, where the privacy of what made us girls could only be guarded for so long.”
Can you speak more to this? How do you feel our privacy as women and girl has been violated?
I’ve never been a woman who said I was equal to a man. I do not think I am the same and that is fine for me. I do not want people to look at me as the same. It is biological and physiological, but also divine order. I’ve seen my body be lighter, less muscular, less fast. At times women’s bodies are carrying more bodies inside. We have more points of entry. Women bleed regularly until a later age, and that’s a term of maybe not weakness but at least noteworthy distraction. There has been a lot of advantage taken for those differences, for far too long to even fathom.
Black women have had to act like we love this “Strong” label even though that is associated with men almost everywhere else. Synonyms for strong are “tough, undefeatable, tireless.” It’s not matching up for anybody really. I’m not ashamed to say we need to reevaluate.
But the beauty of girlhood is this is never known, or at least it should not be. And privacy is just mystery and control—we haven’t shown anything we did not want to and we do not feel torn apart or asunder. So with less years for the girls there is some privacy that is enviable. The main character sees the girls she does not know at all, their histories could be more troubling than her own. Yet she just assumes they have shielding— from more to deal with, for a little more time.
How long did it take you to write Speaking of Summer? What does your writing process look like? Speaking of Summer is your fourth novel. Have your rituals or routines changed with every book?
I kind of went into the story coming to me in various ways before the 2015 summer. It was probably the fall of 2014 when I first started the first story I thought would be a novel and there are some parts from that in there. That point where I first said I finished the book came at the start of 2016. Of course, that was a first draft. There is also a business and industry side to handle. It’s not just people doing whatever we want and then here’s a book. So on that side, I decided on some changes that took time to come together. This delay kept me poking at it because I never think anything is perfect. Until it is print or online or in proofreading mode, it is on my mind and alterable. That point ended at the end of last year and so that’s about four years.
This is my fourth novel that was published but I’ve done a few more. The first was when I was 12 after my parents bought me this little typewriter. It was about a girl chasing after some cute actor she had a crush on. I am glad that was not published. But whether it became a book or not, they have all been my teachers. I’ve written them all under different conditions, at different times, and for different reasons. The only part that was ever consistent came at more than 100 or 200 pages, I guess the middles. I disappear. It is too important to let go at that point. My process looks like my whole life. I am always a workaholic. I’ve always been out in fun public stuff and had a lot of friends, but I never minded studying and putting myself to labor intensive projects. I like to see a table go from empty to full, a house from bad to clean, a page from blank to a book.
What drew you to writing? What do you love most about it?
I loved books. I liked reading material and I always had a lot of talking going on around me. I always liked words. If we notice them words are everywhere all the time, printed and spoken. They are like colors and other people, so almost in the same category of air. Oppressors have learned to torture people with darkness and solitary confinement, isolation for prisoners of war, to remove color and language. It’s how to smother people slowly. So I am not a fan of pushing to remember myself as a child because I’m planning how I want to be a wise woman, but it’s easy to recall I always grabbed a magazine or paper or book. It is the main thing I did when I went to any new house or old house or new place or place to wait. When my parents bought their first house, the first sense I recall of it is the old owners had left some books on a wood shelf thing. It was fancy complete volumes of Edgar Allan Poe and complex medical cases. I picked them up. They were very dusty. I still have them.
The open and free availability of language helped my God-given gifts to listen, hear, remember. I never had to ask anybody for permission or money or a ride just for a word and a story. So I guess I love the freedom of writing, freedom of speech. I just finished watching Tyler Perry’s film “Acrimony,” one of those crazy 80’s kinda movies where Taraji Henson is a pretty wronged wife. She just goes off. But the movie had vocab and definitions interspersed on title cards the whole way through. I saw one I never knew. It was ‘bewail.’ I’ve never seen that one. So I love the words. That is how all stories, oral or written start. Writers have to read and they must hear.
Can you tell us about your blog, Negression?
Negression is a body of work I’m always wanting to give more to, like most areas of my life, but it is just my own personal area to give whatever I want. No filters. I have things back there I am still writing. Maybe I will post them. And, maybe I will not. I am always experiencing culture, thinking about women and justice. So it’s a jumble of my passions. Right now I have some interviews I need to take care of with beautiful artist girlfriends. So it’s also nice for me to have a space to think of other people and their gifts.
But to the mission of Write or Die tribe, Negression is a perfect example of the job. You always need to be practicing, running layups and stretching, so to speak. I had thought of the name in a conversation with one of my old agents, a Black woman. We were venting. So this image of who we are, as I think ‘Negress’ is a beautiful word just from a language standpoint, gets contaminated in all the oppression and suppression others create. But then there is this bounty of expression inside us, and Black can women can digress like nobody else. Trying to get what I wanted from them was my first lessons in how to keep a novel going. I had to listen to five stories for a piece of cake or a dollar. I had to remember 50 details just to go pick up one thing.
So conversation and name sprouted something. People get caught up in the writing, talking about it or complaining about it and whatever. But the gift is not the “writing.” There are no set definitions or practices or outcomes for that. The gift is the imagination. Keep that going at all times. That’s what brings the outcomes. It delivers the work before you even know it’s coming.
KALISHA BUCKHANON is the author of the novels Solemn, Conception, and Upstate. Her honors include a Literary Fiction Audie Award, American Library Association ALEX Award, Friends of American Writers Award, Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, Pushcart Prize and Hurston-Wright Awards nominations, and special Young Author award from novelist Terry McMillan. She also appears on ID Channel, BET, and TV One as a true crime expert in cases involving women.