Shaquille Smith: Your website says that you are the author of several best sellers and are a contributor to two anthologies and you speak at schools, churches, and community organizations to share your story with women and youth. That makes you a very inspiring individual.
Tracy Brown: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.
SS: So, Let’s talk about Tracy growing up. Give me three adjectives about young Tracy.
TB: Oh, wow! Okay, so Tracy was mischievous and inquisitive and funny.
SS: She still is!
TB: Some things never change I guess! I was class clown in high school.
SS: You grew up here on Staten Island.
TB: I did. I went to McKee. At the time they had a computer graphics program and I studied that. I really enjoyed my time at McKee. I really came of age there. Not in a High School Musical kind of way, but certainly came of age at McKee in ways that grew me up and matured me at a faster rate than most of my friends. For better or worse.
SS: So high school was your turning point.
TB: Definitely, definitely.
SS: You were going for computer design?
TB: I was. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to be an attorney. I had this image in my mind of being a female Johnny Cochran. With a fabulous shoe and a great briefcase, breezing into the courtroom and getting defendants off. I wanted to be a defense attorney, but then I became a mom while I was in high school and I kinda dashed my hopes of going away to school. But I was still determined and I ended up going to John Jay College of Criminal Justice for a year for legal studies. I also blossomed there as well. It was my first time really off of Staten Island, so it was my first time really seeing New York City as the vast diaspora that it is of all these different people and cultures, music, fashion and it broadened my horizons in a way that I never saw New York City the same after that.
SS: It’s a big deal going from SI to – even though you live so close it’s a completely different world.
TB: [nodding] yeah, a major culture shock.
SS: When did you decide you wanted to write best selling novels?
TB: Well, writing has been the common thread throughout my whole life. I wrote as a way to escape life. I wrote poetry if I had a crush on a boy or if I was being picked on or if I was angry. I grew up in New York City during a very hostile, racial time between blacks and jewish people, police brutality, and crack was crazy. My way of expressing all my angst in the midst of all those things was through writing essays, songs. Then in the early 2000s I started going to all of these poetry slams. For the first time I started to share my work with the public and that led to me writing my first novel. On a whim I sent it out to a few publishing companies and the response was really shocking. Out of the four people I sent it to, I got three offers. Having never gotten a degree in English or been trained in writing, which is something I enjoy doing, it was really jarring at first. It was like, wow, this could be a whole different life for me that I never thought I would have. I never envisioned myself as a professional writer growing up. I kind of stumbled into it in a sort of fate or destiny kind of way.
SS: That’s good. I like how that happens.
TB: Me too.
SS: It was a hobby and then…
TB: Yeah, just magically became something that I love to do. Because I’ve always had escapism. I’ve had friends in my head all my life and now it’s funny because I go places and other people are playing with my imaginary friends. You know, Sunny this, Jada that. These are just people I’ve conjured up in my head and to be able to share that with the masses, and even be critiqued for it for better or worse, is really great. It embodies my message of “Dream big”. Because the little girl growing up in the projects in the Harbor going to Mckee high school and being a teen parent and the odds stacked against me, never dreamed that something I just liked to do to get me through life would become my bread and butter.
SS: Yeah, that’s a blessing to have that.
TB: Yes, certainly.
SS: How did your surroundings influence you and your writing?
TB: New York City was alive in the 80s. I have a friend, she’s from California and she came to New York in the early 90s and I told her “You missed it.” New York in the 80s, it was colorful, it was fluorescent neon colors, it was boomboxes on the shoulder, and breakdancers and graffiti. It’s hard to not be inspired when you go outside and see something like that everyday.
I think reading “The Coldest Winter Ever” (by Sister Souljah) was the first time that I- I always liked to read. Mostly the classics like “Little Women” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, I ate books like that for lunch all summer long when I was kid. But when I got older and started reading books that depicted the hood where I was from, and I’m like “Oh I know chicks like winter, I know guys like Santiago out there getting money and pulling up in a candy apple red Benz.” I saw that. That gave me the courage to depict what I saw. I know a lot of people think that Staten Island is Mobwives, Wu-tang Clan.
SS: Yeah, one black neighborhood. The same neighborhoods.
TB: Yeah, right, right. People have their preconceived notions about what it is. One of my favorite writers and creators is Tupac. He said that he felt like a reporter on the scene and it was his duty to tell it from his perspective. That’s how I feel my writing is. These characters are not perfect, they are flawed but they’re based on people and situations that I’ve seen and encountered in my life and this is my report. This is my point of view.
SS: What are some things you’ve told your children growing up that a white mother wouldn’t have to tell their kids?
TB: Well, having two sons I’ve had to have that conversation where I tell them that if they ever get arrested or approached by the police, don’t talk back. Don’t resist. Just get to the precinct and call me, don’t say anything. I’ve had that conversation. It’s striking to me that other ethnicities haven’t had to have that conversation with their children. I had that talk with them at a very young age. And also with my daughter. I think in this day and age children have a certain level of privilege. When I was growing up, everyone was broke together. We all had skips and jelly shoes on. As we got older it turned into Jordan’s and you had to have this and you had to have that. My parents shut that down. Nowadays, children have a certain sense of entitlement. I had to break it down to my kids. “I’m a single mom, this is the hood, there may be flatscreens on the wall, but guess what guys…”
SS: And about the police conversation, that’s a very big thing, especially now with all that’s in the news. We’ve had this conversation where you were stuck in traffic during the riots and you smiled the whole way home.
TB: I loved it. I had a day job for a very long time and I was working late one night and going home in a town car and usually it’s about a 45 minute ride door-to-door, but this night I was sitting in traffic for so long and the driver was more annoyed than I was. I was a little bit too at first but when he told me what was holding us up, that it was the #blacklivesmatter movement and you could see the people walking on the FDR with their signs, shutting it down. I was so glad, it was the only time I sat back and chilled and didn’t care how long it took to get to the tunnel. It was great. My son was out there marching with them. I marched for Trayvon with Justin. All of us marched for Eric Garner on Staten Island. It’s definitely something that is close to my heart, being a mom of two black males. My daughter I worry about in various ways, but my sons, you know, as you step outside as a young man of color there is automatically a preconceived notion about who you are, what you’re about, and that can be dangerous.
SS: To what your intentions can be. That is very dangerous. So, we know about Tupac and Sister Souljah but who are some other authors and books that inspire you and your writing?
TB: Biggie Smalls to me is the best storyteller of all time. You got five minutes for a song. He can take that five minutes and paint such a vivid picture down to the emotions, just “your heart beat sounds like sasquatch feet” like, come on- there’s no better storyteller than Biggie Smalls. But as far as writers go, I enjoy Terry McMillan. She’s cheeky and I like her voice. I’m really a fan of Mitch Albom. He wrote “The Five People You In Heaven”, and every book he puts out I feel like I have to have it. I’m immediately drawn to him. Overall I like anything that gets my attention. Right now I’m reading “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s about what’s going on right now. It’s a letter to his son. The author is writing a letter to his son about what it means to be a black male in America in this day and age. He mentions Eric Garner and Michael Brown and all of those things. How it’s difficult to explain to your child that someone can hurt you on the basis of their prejudice and they won’t be held responsible. I haven’t been able to put it down today. I started it last night.
SS: I know I saw it on Instagram last night.
TB: On Goodreads! I love Goodreads!
SS: I was looking at your Goodreads and- one of my friends is obsessed with Toni Morrison.
TB: Oh, yeah. Toni is deep! She is deep! You have to put on your thinking cap for Toni Morrison.
SS: But you have her as overrated. I was like, wow Tracy!
TB: I know, that’s a bold move from a writer… To me- what I like to say is that I’m not smart enough for Toni Morrison. In no way does that take away from Toni Morrison. To me, I’ve read her work several times. I thought some of her work was very profound. I thought the Bluest Eye was excellent. I came away from Beloved very confused until I saw the movie and then I understood it because I needed the imagery. Because maybe she’s too wordy for me. I’m just not smart enough for Toni Morrison perhaps, but I appreciate her.
SS: I wouldn’t say that. Everyone prefers a different writing style. But, she is an incredible woman. Let’s get back to becoming a writer. Do you think that you’ve faced any discrimination because of your ethnicity and gender?
TB: Yeah, definitely. On both ends of it, from blacks and whites on the ethnicity part. Because coming in the industry as an “Urban” fiction writer, which they have different terms for it: street lit, urban lit, hip-hop fiction, African-American. There are all of these labels that they put on our work. I would go to these conventions with some of the other Urban fiction writers and would be so disrespected. It would be like going on the chitlin circuit. In the 60s they used to call the chitlin circuit where the black entertainers had to go through the backdoor and were treated like second-class citizens. This didn’t just happen at white establishments, some of our black elders- I remember in particular Quan and I went to a place and it was so unwelcoming. The tone of it. He had his Harlem gear on and when we walked through the door they thought here comes the ignorance. But when he got on the mic and started to talk and he blew them away. He was eloquent, he was intelligent and he knew what he was talking about. His depiction of the hood had them entranced. By the end of it they were kissing our behinds. It just showed them that just because there are a few lines of cocaine on the cover of the book, that the book itself is trash because there is a story within in it. I also don’t like the labeling of fiction by race or ethnicity.
SS: I was going to ask you about that. I think it’s important that we have an African American section. Your thoughts weren’t in agreement. Why?
TB: I don’t see why that section is needed. To me it is condescending and it’s segregation. We’re all American and this is fiction in America, then why are we specifically saying African-American fiction only. I promise you that if there was an Asian-American section and an Italian-American fiction, I wouldn’t have a problem. Maybe I feel like reading Italian this week, but it’s only the AA fiction section that’s segregated like that. It’s such a cross-section. The Autobiography of Malcolm X next to Zane. Those are not even the same thing and what makes either of those strictly AA fiction. I’ve read Little Women and there was not a black person in the book. It wasn’t white-american fiction to me. It was just a fiction novel. A great one. I’d like to next to Sandra Brown and Dan Brown, not necessarily over in the AA section.
SS: Speaking of characters. Do you think that you have to write white characters to appeal to the masses?
TB: No, not at all. Sometimes I think they’re interesting. I have a very interesting one in my current novel. I really like her. She’s not what you would expect. I like her a lot. She’s typical Staten Island white girl. I like the way she would fit into a life with one of my characters. It’s different. It’s my first time really doing that and I like her. But I’ve had plenty of books where you won’t see a white character.
SS: I was thinking about that when I asked the questions. I told myself, “I don’t think she has any white characters.”
TB: No, I don’t. But then again sometimes I don’t have any latin characters. It’s whatever is true to the story at the time. I don’t feel the need and I think that’s where writers go wrong. My editor Monique Patterson is fantastic because she always reminds me that at the end of each day, this is my story. A lot of people try to put their agendas on all different types of creatives. But I’m not going to do what you say. At this story in this particular time there may have not been any white people, but maybe in another story there might be.
SS: We have two more questions. I know you’re a traditionalist. I want you to explore gender norms and getting rid of them.
TB: My daughter does too. She’s been really talking to me about that.
SS: I totally agree with both you and your daughter. I think that as a traditionalist I think that your values are really important because that’s what society has made us.
TB: They are, they are, certainly. I think my issue is that the women, as a result, this is– I’ve been reading, again, this book “Between the World and Me” and then I just read another book called “The Book of Negroes”, it’s about the African Pilgrimage from, obviously, Africa to America as slaves write one woman’s particular journey. But while reading this story, and this current book, it really showed me how the slave trade did a real number on the black family. And how the black man has been removed from the head of the family and the black woman in being mother and father has had to take on this hardness.
We’re even depicted that way in the media. Us being bitter and angry all the time. I think that here’s some shred of truth in that because we’ve had to be- I’ve had to yell and curse at my son “yo get the f– over here”, because their father wasn’t there to say it. Whereas if their father may had been in the house, I might have given him a little biscuit or something to make him feel better. That’s what moms do and I feel comfortable in that traditional role, but I find an absence of in my daily life now. Men who are men in the traditional sense that I’m looking for. That understand that I’m not touching the garbage until you come home because that’s not my job. But I get that life is not like that anymore and I promise you I go to the nail salon and I sit next to men all the time, but I remember a time when that was not the case y’know?
SS: Yeah, it’s become the norm for society and I think that, with that happening, the world is becoming a more accepting place and hopefully it will keep continuing so that everyone can walk down the street feeling safe being themselves.
TB: Yes, be themselves. I remember talking to my girlfriends like “I’m gonna write this blog about feminism” and they were like “oh no!-
TB: “Because you’re gonna say this and people are gonna be pissed off.” and I knew that somebody might be but I wanted to start a conversation like this is what I feel, tell me why I’m wrong and I’m open to acknowledging I can be wrong. I think people are so afraid of “oh, I don’t wanna make anyone mad so let me not say this publicly,” But behind closed doors we have these feelings. Donald Trump is the first political candidate in a long time to say what many people are feeling and, quietly, they’re at the polls voting for him. They won’t come out in the open and say their beliefs, like the KKK with their hoods on, they won’t come out in the front and say, “Yeah kill the n******.”
TB: But behind closed doors that’s how they feel so, with that blog, that was my way of saying “Let’s, for better or worse, have a conversation,” I like that kind of honesty, that brutal let’s talk about it.
SS: I agree I agree with that
TB: Yeah it moves things forward and then you can grow. There’s no other way to grow if we’re being fake.
SS: So, let’s talk about your writing. I have read “White Lines” part one and two, and your writing is a page turner.
TB: Oh, good! Good, good, good, good.
SS: You wanna just keep going and you want to binge read them. You originally thought “White Lines” would be a standalone book?
TB: I did, I did. And I thought of doing a sequel for a very long time. Because I like the realness, and I felt like the way part one ended was very real. They had been through a lot. They had hurt each other in major ways and they kind of came back together, not “together”, but getting there- it was a start. I thought the ending left it up to the reader to decide if they get it together or not? I liked that, but the outcry for part two came and the way that I approached it was that I was focused on Sunny.
SS: Yeah, and now we have part three coming out soon.
TB: Yes, I’m very excited about this one.
SS: You have raving reviews from some very notable publishers.
TB: I’m very excited about that.
SS: So that definitely pushed you into that conversation that we’ve been talking about with what happens with black literature and I hope that it will evolve you into something bigger.
TB: Certainly, certainly. I feel I have a greater story to tell. Part of it is, are these salacious novels, these books that are juicy, page turners and what have you, but I think that my experience as a woman and what I’ve seen in life so far let’s me know there’s a bigger story in me to tell and I’m grateful that I have a platform to tell it on. There’s so many artists out there- I refer to artists constantly because so many of us are artists. We draw, we paint, we create, we sing, we dance but that’s not the thing we focus our lives on. Instead, we’re going to some 9 to 5, or we’re parents, etc.
When I see someone really living in their art, it’s encouraging because when you can do that I think you contribute something to the greater conversation of life. That you can really depict something in a way that changes someone’s mind. I’m grateful for the platform to do what I do and for the bravery it took for me to do it full time cause I had a day job for a very long time and I left it because I believed in what I am doing. I talk about this dreaming big, but unless you live it, talk is cheap, y’know? So I’m dreaming big and I feel like it’s a brave thing to show my children that you don’t have to be a slave to some job. I would get on the ferry and see these 70 year old women, fabulous! I’m not trying to take anything away from them, they were fabulous! But they were also seventy years old and dragging themselves onto the 8:15 ferry day after day, sitting in the same spot with that same cup of coffee. You walk up to order and the guy knows immediately, “light and sweet right?” Cause you’re there everyday doing the same thing. And they’re tired, in the winter months, they’re tired! You know they don’t wanna be doing this! You know that as young girls they weren’t saying “I wanna be a receptionist at “blank agency” for 30 years,” it was not their dream. So that, it shook me with fear.
SS: It inspired you
TB: I didn’t want to be like that. God forbid if I happen to go back to that. Then I’m gonna go back with some damn good stories to tell. I’ll be that receptionist like, “Girl, let me tell you about the books I used to write,”
SS & TB: [laugh]
SS: You gotta make the best of it
TB: Yes, I got some stories to tell now.
SS: Okay, so Sula Collective is a magazine for and by people of color.
TB: Love it.
SS: It is run by college students, and is read by college students. What is your message to these young people of color, who are wanting to become writers, artists, creative individuals- they’re all creative individuals. What is your message to them?
TB: This is the time when the mind is the most fertile. Tell your story from your point of view, whether it’s with pen and paper, or a canvas, or the dance floor, whatever it is, use your point of view. Don’t try to be the next Oprah, or Michael Jackson, or Amy Winehouse. Be you and express yourself and give your contribution to the world in your own unique way. Be bold enough to be transparent. I think a lot of us, myself included, go through life trying to seem like we have it all together and showing vulnerability often gets equated to being weak. Those two things are not the same. I can be vulnerable and still be strong, it doesn’t make me weak that I’m expressing fear or that I’m guilty of something. We all are. Be brave enough to show that side of humanity in whatever it is that you do. That would be the only advice that I can give because there’s no formula saying, “This is how you write a best selling novel, this is how you make it from zero to a million in a year.” When you find your personal path within yourself, that’s when success comes. Success is not the million dollar home and car. Success is when you’re sitting around and you’re thinking “I’m doing what I love, everybody around me that I love is good,” That’s success, that’s happiness. Chase that.
Tracy Brown is the author of several bestselling novels and is a contributor to two anthologies. Tracy’s work has been featured in newspapers and magazines across the country and has been heralded by readers around the globe. She speaks often at schools, churches, and community organizations to share her story with women and youth. Her message is that they should always dream BIG. She is one of the directors for Staten Island based non-profit organization, We Are Ladies First, Ltd., devoted to informing, empowering, and inspiring women in the community. You can find out more about her on her website: here. You may also pre-order her new, upcoming novel: here.
Interview conducted by Shaquille Smith.
Recorded by Daija Renee.
Transcribed by Kassandra (K.) Piñero and Mia.
Edited by Kassandra (K.) Piñero.