Author Angela Flournoy’s Novel Tells Story of Detroit

e've all attended that family get-together at mom's house where everyone starts sharing the same old stories. Those worn-out tales that keep you stuck in time, that are funny but stinging, that haunt you into adulthood. Remember when you peed your pants at your birthday party? Remember when you didn't get off the bus and no one noticed you were missing? Remember how skinny/fat/clumsy/dumb/nerdy you used to be?

That's life at The Turner House, a fictitious home on Detroit's east side, which is the epicenter of Angela Flournoy's first novel. It's a story about how families hold fast to their myths and memories-and how difficult it is to grab the future while clinging to the past.

Flournoy is a Southern Californian who fell in love with Detroit during her many childhood visits here to see her father and grandparents. "Detroit always gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling," she says about her memories of places like Eastern Market.

But when the Great Recession hit the nation in 2008, Flournoy observed the especially devastating effect it had on the city she loved. Many Detroiters who had lived in the same neighborhood for generations lost their homes or were forced to walk away from underwater mortgages.

"The concept of the family home is important to everyone," says Flournoy, 30. "Deciding what to do with a home can tear families apart."


That's the dilemma facing the novel's Turner family. The patriarch, Francis Turner, had come to Detroit from Arkansas in the 1940s during another seismic moment in American history: the Great Migration. Facing segregation, racist housing policies and high competition for jobs, he landed in the fabled Black Bottom neighborhood, sharing one pallet in a boarding house. He slept in it by night, and another migrant slept in it during the day. Francis finally found his footing and married Viola, and the couple raised their 13 children in a three-bedroom house on Yarrow Street. For them, home ownership was proof to themselves and to the folks back home that they had achieved the American Dream.

That's the Detroit that brought so many African-Americans from the South during the Great Migration. And it's the dream that we continue to be haunted by, especially since the housing crisis. The Turner house is a metaphor for a city that once represented the American ideal.

While Flournoy's book is a love letter to Detroit, it's not blind love. There are images Detroiters will recognize well: broken streetlights, house fires, vacant lots, scarce first responders and even a theft so brazen, you'll shake your head and say, "Only in Detroit!"

"I was very conscious about the way I talked about the city," says Flournoy, a graduate of the University of Southern California and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. "I didn't want a cover that showed abandoned buildings. Detroit isn't a place where everyone needs a gun. And it's not the place where everyone's a farmer now, either. I wanted an honest depiction, but I didn't want to be exploitative."

That decision proved problematic for one literary agent, who told Flournoy that the story wasn't "dark enough" to be set in Detroit. "Luckily, I found an editor who read the book and understood that it is a universal story about family," she says.

And about how hard it can be for the people who know you best to set you free. Over the years, the Turner siblings transform but continue to be haunted by the stereotypes and stories that defined them as children. The veneer of middle class pride presses each Turner child toward success, and makes each sulk in shame when they fall short of the ideal.

That's the same tumble that we've taken as a city. Like the Turners, we've had to reimagine our "house," let go of some expectations and even swallow some pride in order to get along. We've had to stare down the things that have haunted us and decide if we were going to cower in fear-or fight for our dreams.

In some ways, Detroiters have all been parented by Francis Turner, the man who, according to family legend, turned his life around, made a home for his family and brushed away fears by telling his children: "Ain't no haints in Detroit."

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