(February 11, 2021) Lori L. Tharps is an author, journalist, educator, podcast host, and popular speaker who is inspired by the collision of culture and color and fueled by creativity and passion. Lori has served as writer and/or editor for magazines, including Glamour, Parents, and Essence, and has written for The New York Times, The Root.com, and The Washington Post, among others. She is the author of the three nonfiction books, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America; Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain; and Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families and the author of the novel, Substitute Me. Lori has 3 kids and describes motherhood in 3 words as: “inspiring and exhausting.”
FROM THE EPISODE: READING LIST & REFERENCES
Lori L. Tharps’s Website
My American Melting Pot, Lori’s Blog & Podcast
This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley
Black Ice, Lorene Cary
Exile Music, Jennifer Steil
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, Joanna Ho
Because I come from deadline journalism, I give myself internal deadlines, like, “You have four hours to get this chapter done.”
I credit my children for endless sources of story ideas. Almost every book I’ve written has something to do with my children.
My kids have made me really efficient. I’ve watched people with no kids struggle to get that first book written, and I’m like, “Don’t ever look at me and say you don’t have time. I don’t feel sorry for you. If it’s important, you figure it out.”
If you’re working on a beautiful novel that needs slow work, it’s not the same as turning out nonfiction. There’s kind of a boom, boom, boom, boom, boom rhythm to nonfiction. Fiction is a little more like a slow cooker; you gotta let it marinate, and there’s no way you can speed it up. If you try to speed up a slow cooker, it doesn’t work. You get hard beans, raw meat.
“Fiction is a little more like a slow cooker; you gotta let it marinate. If you try to speed up a slow cooker, you get hard beans, raw meat.”
I credit my mom with making me a writer because when I was eight, she bought me an antique, big box, Remington typewriter. That’s when I fell in love with the idea of being a writer.
My mother was a nurse, a psychotherapist, a cultural anthropology professor—she was always getting new degrees. She had a subscription to Natural History magazine, and she could explain all things through the animal kingdom. My brother and I would ask, like, “Why is it wrong to have sex when you’re young?” and she’d be like, “Well, the badger…” There’s something about a badger having an erection for hours.
Some people would call my mom a liar. She’s not a liar at all; she just exaggerates a lot. She’d tell my siblings and I about a patient who lacerated his liver on the escalator because he didn’t tie his shoes. Now we all tell our kids to tie their shoes, like, “Don’t trip on the escalator, because you could lacerate your liver.”
My mom was busy, highly educated—in the sense that she was always going back to school for something or another—but she was such a good mom. She cooked, she baked, she sewed. She had three of us, and I never felt like my mom’s work was more important to her, even though I know her work was very important. She was saving people’s lives. We knew all her patients’ names. But I felt like she loved us so much. I never, ever felt like we were in the way. As an adult, I realized we were in the way. She could have done a lot more, but she never made us feel like that. I just feel so grateful that she made us a priority, even while she was pursuing her own passions.
You can be a writer and a mother, but to be a really good writer, you don’t want to have kids because you want to be completely consumed. I get completely consumed in my story, and I want to write, and I don’t want to go play in the snow with my daughter. When she asks, I’m like, “Not really, no. I want to finish revising my novel because I’m in it.” But then that means I’m not being a good mom.
Some people say your children want to see you happy. No, they don’t! They want to be happy. That’s bullshit. I think that is the biggest crock of dookie that anybody’s ever told somebody. Children are hardwired to be selfish; they don’t have that altruistic sense, like, “As long as my mom’s happy, I’m fine being ignored.”
They don’t want Mommy to go on this business trip. They want you home. That doesn’t mean that you can’t figure out how to go on the business trip or to the writer’s retreat or whatever you have to do, but don’t fool yourself by thinking your kid wants this for you. “They just they want to see me get the Pulitzer!” Uh-uh. Your books want all of you, and your kids want all of you. You have to figure it out.
Maybe your book isn’t as good as it could have been, had you been 100 percent in it all the time. But it’s probably good enough. And kids are super resilient, so if you slip up, it’s probably gonna be okay.
You can train your children that, “When Mommy’s in her writing room, you have to respect that.”
Your books are your children and your children are your children. If you have more than one, then you know that you have to give a Kid A solo time, and you’ve got to give Kid B solo time.
If there’s directions somewhere, my mom could fix a vacuum cleaner—although she did blow hole in the wall once.
My mom knows how to fold sheets perfectly. She knows how to do laundry and get the spots out. I buy my kids all dark blue clothes. That’s my secret tip.
I write because I want to make people feel seen.
One of my sons looks Black and one doesn’t. This is not just “Oh, haha, funny—maybe one needs more sunscreen than the other.” This is, “How do you tell one child that they’re a marked man, and the other one has the freedom and innocence of just being a child?” That’s not insignificant. How I dealt with it was to say both of my children are Black; the pigment in their skin doesn’t designate them as Black, so they both get the quote unquote “talk.” When they were much younger, I wasn’t telling them, “Keep your hands on the steering wheel.” That’s not where they were. I wasn’t willing to say, “You can’t wear hoodies.” I did not want to create a wedge between my sons about who was privileged and who wasn’t. We spent a lot of time normalizing the fact that our family members are all different colors and different hair textures.
The main thing is to make sure that your children feel confident and comfortable in the skin they’re in, because for one reason or another, they’re sure to be confronted about the way they look. If you have instilled in them that they are perfect, that this is the way that God made them, then they’ll be more prepared for whatever comes their way.
One of the psychologists I interviewed for the book used the term was Normalized Difference, like flowers in a garden. There’s roses and daisies and tulips and they’re all different colors, and that’s what makes the garden so beautiful. I find myself using a lot of that kind of phrasing when I talk to my daughter. That’s why we do things like, “You’re the color of a garbanzo, and you’re the color of a toasted almond, and what color do you think I am?” And she’d say “cinnamon-dusted hummus.”