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A.L.: When someone asks you those sorts of questions — who are you or where are you from — what’s your response?
E.R.: The answer depends on who’s asking and why. I think often for me, it’s a racial question. People are insecure or unsure of what my racial background is, and so often, I think what they really want to know is the answer that satisfies that question, which is that my father is black and my mother is white and that’s why I look the way I do. What about for you? Particularly as someone who wrote about Harlem but isn’t from there technically.
S.R.P.: It’s not a place I really claim to be from. Even after a decade of living in New York, I never say I’m from New York. A friend of mine from Houston, which is where I grew up, always calls me out on this. I never say I’m from Houston; I say I’m from Texas, which he points out rightly is my own mythmaking.
E.R.: Part of my journey for this book really began in my 20s, and it had to do with an unease I felt about that question: “Who are you?” “Where are you from?” I didn’t feel it was an easy answer for me, or that it was an answer that often satisfied, so at the age of 23 I went to Israel. It was during a time when I had a sense of disillusionment with America because it was right after the Bush regime had stolen the election.
I wanted to get out and see the world. I felt like, “Screw this place.” When I visited Israel, I was surprised to feel as jealous as I was of my best friend from my childhood, who had made aliyah and moved to Israel — her ability to claim a new place, a new homeland, which at that time I would have liked to have done. Of course Israel was a mess, too; it was at the time of the second intifada. I discovered black people there and was sort of shocked and amazed, because in my mind, these two identities were very compartmentalized — Jews and blacks.
And I thought, what are these people doing here? How did they get here, and why? And I thought, all right, I want to keep finding black people who left America out of a sense of disillusionment or disenchantment or hope to find the Zion on earth somewhere else and see if they discovered it, in part because I wondered, even for myself, is there someplace else I’d like to live?
A.L.: Can we talk about the historically troubled relationship between blacks and Jews and how your conception of it may have changed while writing your books?