Tina McElroy Ansa

Writer's Showcase

This week On The Same Page is honored to interview seasoned author, Tina McElroy Ansa, author of Baby of The Family, Ugly Ways, The Hand I Fan With.  She is currently shooting an independent film, along with her husband, Jonee Ansa as director, from her book, Baby of the Family.

Interview with Tina McElroy Ansa May 17, 2001

Maxine E. Thompson: Could you tell us about your upcoming independent film made from Baby Of The Family, your first novel. When will the film debut?

Tina McElroy Ansa: We are currently shooting some of the exteriors in Macon, GA. Patrice Russian doing the music, composer, and my daughter,Afrika, are collaborating on the sound track. Loretta Divine is starring, Alfre Woodard, Shirlee Ralph, (Moesha), Vanessa Williams, Pam Grier. Our company is called DownSouth Filmwork. This is our first feature film.

My husband Jonée Ansa is making his directorial debut. We collaborated on the script. Three years of work have gone into the project so far.

It's been just a relatively small budget film--under 5 million. Everyone's worn lots of hats.

Sylk Cozart is playing Lena's father. We also have Jordan Walker-Perlman, Todd Bridges, Vanessa Williams, Tonea Stewart, Ofemo Omilami and Elizabeth Omilami.

The film will be out in Spring of 2002
It is billed as a supernatural dramatic-comedy.

Maxine Thompson: Speaking of which, your books tend to deal with the supernatural. Tell us how your background lends itself to this treatment in your fiction.

Tina McElroy Ansa: I grew up in Macon, GA. In the South, we often sat around and told ghost stories. (In writing these types of stories) ...your story has to be anchored in the real world, in order to have your reader take flights of fancy and suspend reality.

I start out by creating what is the norm for this story.

Maxine E. Thompson: Your books have not been pigeonholed into one particular genre and they seem to be similar to the Latino and Native Indian type stories, which tend to fall under magic realism.

Tina McElroy Ansa:I think this is a people of color thing--this magic realism. African writers and their descendants have a sense of spiritualism, ancestor worship; for example, in our writings we often show how trees have spirits.

When I was growing up in the south, it was still a time where everything was so magical, so spiritual and so organic. We planted our gardens by the signs of the moon, by the signs of the moon, we cut our hair on the full moon, and we picked numbers according to our dreams. It was your basic Baptist iconoclastic type background, but mixed with surviving Africanisms.

Maxine E. Thompson: What inspired the novel, Baby of The Family?

Tina McElroy Ansa: In writers' workshops we're told to write what you know and family is something we all know. I write about family. I think this is something that engages us as women writers. Women writers are more concerned with things that are interior. Did we make the right decision? Our issues concern everybody. Women are more concerned about what's going on into the home as opposed to going out in the world such as the way a man will go out to war. Our stories are told as we sit around the hearth and talk about. Family talk. That's the stuff that's at our core.

I write about family. Often people think I am the only one in the world who has this kind of family. I write a great deal about mothers and daughters. I write about the women in my family.  These are subjects I really know. I write about the South. My people come from the south. I'm from Macon, GA, which is mid-sized, but in the 50's and 60's, it was a small town.

We can pick the book up and find out that many people of all cultures can relate to these type of stories. These are issues everyone grapples with; "Where did I come from?" "Did I come here this way?"

You have to follow your passion. You can learn to be a good writer, but you can't learn passion or following your instinct.

Maxine E. Thompson: Very profound statement. I like that. Which one of your characters might be your alter ego?

Tina McElroy Ansa: Lena. I guess she is kind ofa piece of me. Only I have 2 sisters and 2 brothers, (now deceased.) As you know Lena was born with a caul over her head, and she can see ghosts.

Maxine E. Thompson: Your third novel, The Hand I Fan With was a wonderful erotic love story. How did you come up with the idea of having the lover be a ghost?

Tina McElroy Ansa: I wanted to write a love story and I decided that everyone loved Lena so, that I would bring her back as a character. It was my husband who gave me the idea for making Herman a ghost though. When I was telling him about my idea, he said, "Who else would Lena fall in love with but a ghost?"

Maxine E. Thompson: How did you develop the town of Mulberry? It reminds me of Faulkner's fictional Southern town.

Tina McElroy Ansa: Mulberry is my Yoknapatawpa (Faulkner's fictional Southern town). It's a wonderful place to be when you're writing. Using a small Southern town is a wonderful literary machinery-it's a microcosm of the whole world. It's specific things and yet it speaks to the general and the universal. Mulberry is your typical little sophisticated town. They have their own Catholic school, museum, and town square. As a writer, there are very few places where you have control, but you can control your own little world when you're creating it. That also creates a sense of responsibility.

Maxine E. Thompson: Looking at the fictional literary device you used with the death of the mother in Ugly Ways, do you think African Americans deal with death differently than other cultures?

Tina McElroy Ansa: Yes, as Richard Pryor said, "A Black Funeral is different than a white funeral." I think for us funerals have always been part of the celebration of life. That too is another Africanism that has survived. 

I've received so many letters from women from all over the world about their mothers after they read Ugly Ways. This book has opened up a lot of dialogue, as this mother was more realistic of a depiction than the Mother Earth figures drawn of Black women in previous literature.

Maxine E. Thompson : I understand you live in the Sea Islands? How does this experience inform your work?

Tina McElroy Ansa: Yes, I live on St. Simon Island, 80 miles south of Savannah, GA. It's physically beautiful. Right now, I'm looking at my garden. It's one of the sea Islands near North Carolina and Georgia area. We have temperate weather. Beautiful live oak trees, palms trees, salt water marsh, a river on the north side. It calls to you. It is a wonderful environment.

During slavery, this was the home of cotton and rice plantations. The dykes built here came from Africa. You get to see the ironworks and some of the original African artisans' works here. There is a sense of the lingering pain and the hopelessness (from the ancestors), that’s so oppressive that people who visit here say they can feel it. It is so heavy, you can pluck it. It just hangs in the air. But somehow, that's balanced with a sense of music, joy, life, resurrection and transformation.

In the history of many of the Islands, before the 1860's there was a great deal of autonomy. Part of the year, the slaves on the islands were left in the hands of the black overseers. The white owners left because of the malaria. The slaves had a trait that protected them against malaria, that they had lived on the West Coast of Africa.

The people who were born here have been taught by the great grandmothers. I'm from the inland, but this is where most of the slaves first landed. The Island is called "Black People’s Plymouth Rock." We founded and participate in a Sea Islands Festival each year.

Maxine E. Thompson: What do you think of the renaissance of Black Writers/readers?

Tina McElroy Ansa: Reading was always important to our culture, particularly since reading was forbidden during slavery. My Great aunt was a spinster lady who taught adult and children how to read. They had a barbershop in the 20's. Extraordinary woman, and she would joke about adults who would come to learn to read after work. They wanted to learn to read the Bible, something with morals. For a while, after the resurgence of writers in the late 60's, with the advent of TV, we got away from reading.

But book clubs have put our authors on New York Bestseller's Lists. I think it's wonderful that we are reading again. People are getting together for readings and using books as a way to share their lives.

Maxine E. Thompson: Are you at work on another piece of fiction?

Tina McElroy Ansa: I have just completed my new novel about 3 generations of women in Mulberry. There used to be a sense of community and that's what this book is about.

My new book, You Know Better, centers around the Pine's Women.

Looking back, my mother was a sophisticated woman. She read and ordered Vogue so that we had a cosmopolitan view of the world, although we were in a small town. She imparted that to us.

Recently, my siblings and I were talking about it. Where did they get the money? My mother and the women of her generation--I call them "Big Women." My mother sewed us beautiful frilly dresses, read to us, etc.. My mother was an extraordinary woman, raising 5 children during that time period. My sister and I were the first to go to college and she always sent us money. I asked her not too long ago, how she did it. I still don't know how she did it. The women of her generation never seemed to complain and managed to keep it altogether. Our generation gets stressed out with one child.

Maxine E. Thompson: To paraphrase Alice Walker, "They knew how to make a way out of no way." That's why our literature is important. If you don't write it down, it didn't happen.

How did you become a writer?

Tina McElroy Ansa: I was a journalist before becoming a novelist. In 1971, I worked at the Atlanta Constitution. I was the first African American journalist to work there. To think that more than a hundred years ago, no one could read or weren't allowed to read, and now I'm making my living from writing, that in itself is extraordinary .

I cannot tell you the number of people who have written me through the years. A book you have written can affect peoples lives in so many ways, and such a deep way. Basically, it can help heal them.

Maxine E. Thompson: What kinds of books have inspired you? Who are your favorite authors?

Tina McElroy Ansa: Mary Washington and her anthology on Black Writers, Invented Lives and Black Eyed Susans. Of course, I like Toni Morrison. And our mother of Black Women writers, Zora Neale Hurston. Herman (the male lead in the Hand I Fan With was inspired by Tea Cake from Their Eye’s were Watching God.

Maxine E. Thompson: What parting words of advice would you give to African American writers/aspiring filmmakers?

Tina McElroy Ansa: Click off that internal censor. We don't have to wait for someone else to tell our stories; we have enough books to make our own movies.