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E.R.: You had all of these people from different tribes who came here and were yoked by this story, and it was a hopeful story — if the slaves of Pharaoh in the Hebrew Bible could get out of bondage and find a home, then so can we. And for them, it was often a geographical configuration, an idea of the North. In the Great Migration, of course Harlem is a promised land, and for so many people coming from the South during the Great Migration.
But when they didn’t find it, or when it wasn’t exactly the Land of Milk and Honey they had envisioned, I became interested in discovering where else geographically that might be, but also politically what that might mean. I was also interested in how Zion has been configured as a political freedom like we hear in the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King — like an idea of civil rights, not necessarily a place.
A.L.: Both of you began your books before you had children, and now both of you are mothers. How does being a mother affect your work, and your concept of a “promised land”?
E.R.: When you’re traveling the world as a woman alone without a man, without a child, you’re often asked two questions: “Where are you from?” which is not always an easy thing for people to identify with me, and, “Where are your children?” Here I was, a woman around 30 and people didn’t understand: “What are you looking for?” “What is your journey about?” “Shouldn’t you be a mother by now?”
S.R.P.: Because I was conducting my research — as that is loosely understood in my life as a writer — in Haiti while pregnant, it imposed a weird question. There was my child coming soon; what was I doing traveling around in a foreign country? For what? What quest was I on?
E.R.: And I think that you as a pregnant woman become a walking metaphor for creation and creativity in a way. People want to care for you, people gravitate towards you. They want to touch your belly. It does create a different response, even among strangers when you’re circumnavigating a place like Haiti — you were there in the aftermath of the earthquake, you have this land that I imagine is still rocking and reeling from that destruction, and you’re walking around with something you’re building, a newness: Life still happens, life goes on.