Writer Mother Monster: Lori L. Tharps
February 11, 2021
Lori L. Tharps’s work meets at the intersection of race and real life. She 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 three kids and describes motherhood in three words as “inspiring and exhausting.”
Hi, everyone, and welcome to Writer Mother Monster. I’m your host, Lara Ehrlich, and our guest tonight is Lori Tharps. Before I introduce Lori, I want to thank you all for tuning in, as always, and let you know that you can now listen to Writer Mother Monster as a podcast on all major audio platforms or read the interview transcripts on writermothermonster.com. And if you enjoyed the episode, please consider becoming a Writer Mother Monster patron or patroness on Patreon. Your support helps make this series possible. Please also chat with us during the interview. Your comments and questions will appear in our broadcast studio, and we’ll weave them into our conversation.
And now I’m excited to introduce Lori. Lori L. Tharps’s work meets at the intersection of race and real life. She 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 three kids and describes motherhood in three words as “inspiring and exhausting.” I agree. Welcome, Lori.
Lori L. Tharps
Thank you. It’s so great to be here.
Lara Ehrlich 2:58
It’s great to have you. I’m so excited to meet you in person here. Tell us about your three kids. How old are they?
Lori L. Tharps
Sure. My eldest is 19—it’s so crazy to say that—and then I have a 16-year-old and a 9-year-old.
We were talking before we came online about those different ages, and you were telling me that it’s still hard when your kids are older, which I was a little dismayed to hear. I mentioned my daughter’s 4. I’m sure between 9 and 19, there’s all different kinds of difficulty.
Lori L. Tharps
I guess the first thing I want to say is that I remember when I had my first son, I lived in New York City, I was working at Entertainment Weekly magazine, and I was loving my life. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t continue my career as a journalist, just because I had a kid. At that point, I felt like anything seemed possible in New York City, in the late ’90s. I thought I was gonna get a nanny and life would go on. But I’d met a lot of women who had said, “Oh, I was a writer, too, and then I had kids and I couldn’t anymore.” I was kind of my like, that’s not going to be me. I’m gonna figure it out. Clearly, these people just don’t have enough creativity or something. And then I had my son, and I remember the first year of his life, I wrote one article, and it took me the whole year, and I thought, “Oh, this is what they meant.”
I just remember thinking there’s no way this is ever going to work because this baby sleeps in 20-minute spurts, and then I’m trying to take a nap. I just thought nothing was going to work. I had actually written my first book, Hair Story, right before he was born. It came out in February 2001, and my son was born in June 2001. Then I had my second son in 2004, three years apart.
I remember that I paid for a nanny when my second son was a very young baby. I could afford a nanny for about four hours a day, three times a week. I said, I’m going to write this book when I have this time. When my children were really young, I could figure out how to write because I could farm them out for a certain amount of time. It was small spurts of time, but I told myself, if I could just get them to leave, or I could leave, I’d have these very specific hours when I just forced myself to become a very efficient writer. I never felt like I had enough time to do all the things I wanted to, in terms of being a writer, but I knew I wanted to finish a book or an article or whatever it was I was working on, and I could hire somebody or get somebody to watch my children, and then they were literally out of sight, out of mind.
As they get older, however, the distraction of children becomes not just their physical presence but their issues. They need more than a babysitter who could take them away and let them play in the park for a few hours. They need you to help them with their homework, they need you to help them deal with social issues, they have events or classes or extracurriculars, and you want to be a good parent. So of course, you sign them up for extracurriculars, or whatever it might be, even if you try to be the parent, like me, who was like, yeah, we need to do one thing—I’m not going to be that overscheduling parent. As their lives become more complicated, it becomes harder to make them disappear.
I’m looking forward to that. Tell me more about how you wrote books when your kids were young. Hiring a nanny was an awesome idea, it sounds like.
Lori L. Tharps
To be clear, I say “nanny,” but I hate that word “nanny,” like it was this expendable person. I found this wonderful woman who was willing to take care of my child for the four hours, three days a week, and I actually ended up quitting my job because I couldn’t hire a nanny. I just could not think about giving my newborn child to a stranger. At the time, we lived in New York. I didn’t have family members. I literally begged my college friends, who thought I was crazy for even having a baby in my 20s. They thought I was just insane. I would beg different friends, like, “Could you just come and watch my kid for a minute, while I try to write something?”
I ended up quitting my magazine job and was freelancing, and, like I said, it took me a full year to write one article, that first year. Then I got into the groove of things. I didn’t want to be that woman who I met on the playground who said it’s just impossible and you’re gonna have to find another profession. I heard that multiple times, and that’s what was driving me to find X amount of hours when the kid isn’t around.
Because I came from deadline journalism, I did know how to write on deadlines, so I just gave myself internal deadlines. Like, you have four hours to get this chapter done, or you have three hours to do the research for this article and get it done. That’s what I had to do.
Actually, I always credit my children for two things. One: endless sources of story ideas. I mean, endless. Almost every book I’ve written has something to do with my children. My memoir was about my experience in Spain and finding some sort of sense of Black identity in Spain because I married a Spaniard. I wanted to be able to explain their existence, when they ask, “What does it mean to be Black and Spanish?” I was like, “Read the book.”
My fourth book, Same Family, Different Colors, was written because my children are all have different skin tones, three different hair textures, they don’t look alike. They don’t look like me. They don’t look like their father. It’s been a part of my parenting journey to constantly be asked, “Whose kids are those?” Or, “Are you the nanny?” My kids are asked all kinds of crazy questions. It made me think I’m clearly not the only person who experiences parenthood like this, but it’s gonna impact your parenting, so that was the fourth book. My children have truly inspired me, not just for my books but for my articles and blog posts.
The other thing is, they’ve 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 say you don’t have time. I don’t feel sorry for you. If it’s important, you figure it out. I heard people say they just stay up or they write during nap time. I’m not. I need my sleep. I can’t stay up all night, and I’m not a morning person, really. I can get up at 6, but I’m not that person who’s up at 4. I can pay somebody, beg somebody, do a swap with another mom, to get the kids out of your space and use that time to your best abilities.
Yeah, I’ve heard so many mothers say that motherhood makes you much more efficient. A book you might have dipped in and out of for a few years, when you’re a mom, you’re kind of committed to this book. You have to write it and in these chunks of time. You’re one of few guests who’s mentioned a deadline-driven career and how that then plays into your efficient approach to writing. Can you talk more about your journalism background and how that intersects with motherhood and the efficiency that you gained there?
Lori L. Tharps
Yeah, absolutely. I got a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. Meeting deadlines, being accurate, being precise—you learn how to do all of that. Then I worked as a fact checker for my first real jobs at different publications, which means you’re the last person that sees the writing and signs off on a story to whether or not it’s all accurate. Your name is nowhere on the story, but you’re the one that’s going to get fired if there are mistakes, because you’re expendable, right? Fact checker are expendable. There was the idea of “you’ve got to do this work, and you’ve got to get it done fast.”
I worked at a monthly and then Entertainment Weekly. I’ll never forget this. I was at Entertainment Weekly as a freelancer when Frank Sinatra died. He died on a Friday or something, and the magazine went to the publisher on a Tuesday, I think. I was in the office from Friday midnight till Monday two in the morning because I had to fact check his discography. Frank Sinatra made a lot of music. All I knew was, like, “Strangers in the Night.” It was like … oh my God! I was literally checking every title, every date. And they were like, “You deserve a real job.” They hired me after that. Like, you proved yourself.
And that was my life. Deadline, you stay until it’s done, even if it’s two o’clock in the morning, checking, checking, checking, checking again. And that’s a weekly, that’s not even daily news. This is weekly news. It’s who’s wearing what fashion item, but it still had to be super accurate. You couldn’t have mistakes. It was really drilled into me in the course of working there for those many years—precision and speed, accuracy and speed. And it has to be right. It has to be good. And even though I wasn’t necessarily loving the stories I was writing—these weren’t my passion projects or anything—the skill was so good.
When I quit and started freelancing, I got a very good reputation as being that person you could assign a story to last minute, and she’ll still get it done on time. I credit that to my deadline background. Even today, I’ve started doing some ghostwriting, which is usually a very quick book turnaround. And same thing. It’s like I have a reputation of being able to do this. Hopefully no editors are watching this. They’ll be like, “We’re gonna give you three months. Do you think you can get it done?” And I’m like, “Oooo—that’s a stretch.” But I can probably get it done in a month and a half, I’m just not going to tell them that.
Once you figure out deadlines, it means you have this much time to do this much work, and it usually looks insurmountable, but you figure out how to do it by breaking things down. It’s just like when you were in high school and had to study a whole book. You break it down, start on Friday, and you’ll be done by the time the test starts on Monday. Same concept. Once you’ve done it, you just apply that to whatever tiny bit of time to do a massive amount of writing.
That doesn’t always work. If you’re really working on a beautiful novel that just needs slow work, it’s not the same as turning out nonfiction. Nonfiction, even if it’s creative nonfiction, there’s kind of a boom, boom, boom, boom, boom rhythm to it. 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.
It’s not like this always works, but in general, you develop these muscles of saying, “Yeah, I can do this fast,” because I’ve worked in environments where you had no choice. Not only was it fast, but it had to be good and accurate. You develop a muscle, and then you can apply that to any of your writing, to a certain extent.
I want to go back to the nonfiction books that you’ve written in a second, but that’s a good transition to the novel that you wrote. I’m wondering how the process was different, as you mentioned, for writing novels.
Lori L. Tharps
I’m gonna say this, and then you’re gonna think it contradicts everything I just said, but my novel is about a woman who hires a nanny in New York City. This woman basically had the balls that I didn’t have. She was living a wonderful life. The book is called Substitute Me, and it’s about this woman who’s a PR executive in New York City, pre-9/11, when everything seemed possible, and you could have whatever you wanted out of life. She had my mentality before I had my son.
But after she had her son, she was like, “Let’s get the nanny, and let’s get back to that exciting life.” The book is told in alternating voices of the woman and the nanny she hires. The woman is white, and the nanny is Black. They’re both about the same age, they both come from similar backgrounds, so it’s their experience of what it’s like in their particular circumstances. I had this idea of writing a story about nanny culture in New York City, after I confronted it and realized that I had so many problems with it.
As a Black woman, I struggled with hiring an older Black woman to watch my children. It felt really awkward to me. Again, I just felt odd asking a stranger to do this. I hadn’t grown up with nannies. My mom has 10 sisters, so there was always somebody in the family who could watch my sister or myself. Somebody we know. There was never this idea to hire somebody to watch us, so it wasn’t part of my comfort zone.
Also, being in this Brooklyn environment with the nannies on the playground was a whole cultural, social concept that was so interesting to me. I wanted to write a nonfiction book about nanny culture in New York City, but I was having a very hard time getting any nannies to speak to me on the record. So, I thought maybe I should turn it into fiction. Maybe I should write this scandalous story about a nanny who was abused. That’s not the story that came to me. This scene popped into my head about a nanny who is better at being a mother than the mother. This never actually made it into the book, but it was a very confrontational scene. So, I had this idea, and I sat on it for a while—like years—but the scene was always playing in my head.
And like I mentioned before, I married a Spaniad. He’s from the south of Spain. One summer, we went to the south to his parents’ house, a beautiful house, kind of in the middle of nowhere. I wrote my first draft of my novel in their house because they watched my kids. They cooked, and it was lovely. I had this beautiful, beautiful room. This little, tiny desk. I guess I had my computer. It feels like so long ago, I was thinking I had a typewriter, but I had a computer, and I didn’t have the whole day or anything—like, these people were not willing to watch my kids forever—it wasn’t a writing retreat—but between getting up and the two o’clock lunch meal, I could write.
I had bought Walter Mosley’s book, This Year You Write Your Novel, which I recommend to everybody. I followed his outline—like, this is what you do, and you’ll be done—and I had an outline before I came to Spain, and I sat down and wrote it. I was like, it’s working! It’s working! I’m actually writing a novel. It’s so exciting! I printed it out in my father in law’s office. When I left, I had a full draft, and I think it was a month that I turned it out. Now, there were 17 other drafts after that, but the first draft—about three weeks to a month done.
Lori L. Tharps
Again, it was like, when was I gonna have childcare like that? And food so delicious?
Yes. Someone else cooking for you. No kidding. You said before this conversation you were putting on your slow cooker, right?
Lori L. Tharps
Yep. So it’s cooking while we’re talking.
Exactly. I laid out snacks for my daughter. You do what you’ve gotta do.
Lori L. Tharps
Whoever invented the slow cooker, the crock pot, was so smart. I have a supersonic crock pot.
Oh, yeah. They were probably a mom.
Lori L. Tharps
It took me so long to incorporate that into my schedule. My mom was like, “Why don’t you get a crock pot? Then you could just have the food ready.” Because I’d always be like, “We’re eating dinner at 10:30 because that’s what time dinner was done.” I was like, oh my god, this is a genius thing.
Lara Ehrlich 22:15
I’m still holding out. My mom keeps telling me the same thing. I’m like, I don’t want to leave it on all day.
Lori L. Tharps
What is your mom like? You said she’s one of 11?
Lori L. Tharps
Ten sisters and one brother.
Oh my gosh, poor brother. What kind of mom is your mom?
Lori L. Tharps
I always credit my mom with making me a writer because she bought me a typewriter when I was 8. She had this habit—and still does have going to rummage sales. I’m from Wisconsin. I don’t know what people call them in every state, but we call them rummage sales. Like, yard sales, tag sales, depending what part of the country you live in. But she loves them, and when I was 8, she came home with a typewriter—an antique, big box, Remington typewriter. It’s sitting right here next to me, actually. To this day, I’m like, “Why did you give it to me when I had an older sister?” My sister probably would have put it to better use and wouldn’t have abused it as much as I did. She can’t say for sure. I was never talking about being a writer or anything like that, but my mom gave me this typewriter, and that’s when I fell in love with the idea of being a writer.
My mother, God bless her. I love my mom so much. She was a nurse, she was a psychotherapist, she actually ended her career as a cultural anthropology professor. She was always getting new degrees. She had a subscription to Natural History magazine, and anything you would ask would always go back to the animal kingdom. She could explain all things through the animal kingdom. My brother and I were laughing recently because we got the same stories, and he’s eight years younger than me. We’d ask, like, why is it wrong to have sex when you’re young or whatever, and she’d be like, “Well, the badger …”—and I don’t even remember, but there’s something about a badger having an erection for hours, and somehow that was the story. I don’t remember the point of the story. I just remember the part about the badger having an erection for a really long time. Every time, you’re like, what does this have to do with anything?
My mom and her sisters were amazing storytellers. Every time they get together, it’s always people laughing and telling stories. I found out much later that most of their stories were highly exaggerated. Some people would just call my mom a liar. She’s not a liar at all. She just exaggerates a lot. She has such great stories from being a nurse.
Again, my siblings and I can all be like, “Remember the patient that lacerated his liver on the escalator because he didn’t tie his shoes when he was walking up the escalator?” Now we all tell our kids to tie their shoes. Most of the kids don’t even have ties on their shoes anymore. But it’s always like, “Don’t trip on the escalator because you could lacerate your liver.” And here we are middle-aged people ourselves and still thinking about the lacerated liver story.
Lori L. Tharps
My mom, I have to say, worked so much and did so much. She was busy, high-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 important, very important. She was saving people’s lives. We knew all her patients’ names and things like that. But I felt like she loved us so much. I never ever, 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.
I posted on Twitter that I was doing this talk, and I said that 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.
It’s that ability to be a deadline journalist: this is the time for the novel, and then you’re gonna have to come out, even though the best thing, when you’re in the flow, is to keep going.
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 who’s ever told somebody—your kids want you to be happy. Children are hardwired to be selfish. They want them to be happy. They don’t have that altruistic sense, like, “As long as my mom’s happy, I’m fine being ignored.” No, they wish they had it their way, and Mommy and Daddy would be giving them all of their attention the whole time.
It’s not even about wanting stuff. They want Mom to listen to all the stories they have in their head and hear what they dreamt last night. They don’t want you to be working. That’s not true at all.
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 it’s seasonally, like your kids get you in the summer, but come academic year, you’re kind of more about the books. Maybe it’s every other year. I get a book a year and a kid where I’m fully focused.
That would be nice, if you could parcel it out that way.
Lori L. Tharps
They’re both fully all-consuming. 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 off, it’s probably gonna be okay. They’re not gonna remember. But if you ignored them for four years, they’ll remember, and they won’t develop properly. Their brains won’t be right. My mom just told me, if you hug your children, they get better brain development. I just found that out. Make sure you’re hugging your children.
Yeah, and it’s balanced, too. That’s what it sounds like you’re saying. If you have kids, and you’re a writer, then you can’t be 100 percent for both at the same time, right?
Lori L. Tharps
Exactly. It’s not impossible at all. You can train your children in a way that’s like, “When Mommy’s in her writing room, you have to respect that,” or something. It’s not gonna hurt if you do a short writers retreat, I did a writer’s retreat just for a week, and again, because I’m supersonic, I got a lot done.
I knew I couldn’t do that retreat for a month. I mean, if it’s a 16-year-old, I’m sure he or she won’t care, but a younger child is going to miss you desperately if you’re gone for a month. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go for a week or 10 days, you know, especially if a kid is with a grandma or auntie or somebody who can really show that kid some love. It is a balance.
I don’t like using the word balance, because that would seem that there’s some sort of equality there. It’s just figuring out what works and recognizing that your books are your children and your children are your children. And if you have more than one, then you know that you have to balance that, too. You’ve got to give a Kid A solo time, and you’ve got to give Kid B solo time.
If you look at some of the greatest writers, they had kids, and some of the most prolific writers, some of them had a lot of kids. I think Jodi Picoult has four or five kids and, like, 87 books. Like, it’s totally doable. It’s not something that’s impossible. That’s why that woman who said, “No, you’re never gonna be able to do it”—that’s not the message at all. But they’re both very soul and thought consuming.
What preconceptions did you have, based on the way that your mother mothered you, about what kind of mother you wanted to be? And are you that type of mother that you expected you would be?
Lori L. Tharps
I try. My mom, like I said, is such a good example. I don’t do any of those handicrafts that she can do, and that makes me very sad. I can knit, and I’ve taught my daughter how to knit, but when I say I can knit, I know how to make, like, a long thing. It’s not even a scarf. It’s just a long thing. My mom could play the piano. She knew all the things that women are supposed to learn how to do. I mean, she can knit anything, she can sew anything. She sewed herself a dress and then made my dolls dresses out of the same material. It was so cute. She made my Halloween costumes. She was very creative.
She literally was like, “I don’t understand why you can’t do this.” Like, if there’s directions somewhere, my mom could fix a vacuum cleaner—although she did blow hole in the wall once. She thought she fixed the vacuum cleaner, plugged it in, and it was like, boom! But for the most part, if there are directions, she can figure it out. She can hang wallpaper. She could do anything. And again, she always made us feel very loved. She baked this lovely cake. She never used mixes for anything—everything was from scratch. So that’s the kind of mom I want it to be. I think I’m close to it, but I don’t think I’m as good of a homemaker as my mom. 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.
But I want it to make my children feel loved. Like on Valentine’s Day, I make them a special meal. It’s not about going out with my husband. It’s like, I love you guys. I’ll make cupcakes or something for them. I remember one time my mom came home and for dinner, we put a blanket on the floor in our sunroom, and it was raining outside, and she had brought home a baguette hard salami Brie and chocolate cupcakes for dinner. It was just so cool. You know, I still remember that meal. I must have been 9 or 10 at the most. And it was just so fun. She did cool stuff like that.
And she made sure that we had all these really amazing experiences. My sister and I both studied abroad when we were in high school. We were exchange students. I was an exchange student to Morocco, and my sister went to France. My mom never traveled like that, but she made sure that we did. That’s what I got from my mom. I had a pretty awesome childhood. I just wanted to give my children the same types of experiences as much as I could. But again, I think the most important thing that my mom did was make me feel like I was loved, and that’s what I wanted to do. She also taught me that family is so important, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with my kids, too.
It sounds like you’re doing all of those things, in your own way, including writing books inspired by your experience with your children. Tell us a little bit more about the story of Kinky Gazpacho, and have your kids read it? Like, what did they take from it? Or what do you hope they’ll take from it?
Lori L. Tharps
My husband and I met in Spain. I had always thought that I was going to live in Spain, just because of high school fantasies and things like that. I spent my junior year of college in Spain, and I had a wonderful experience, but I found it to be really difficult to be a Black person in Spain at the time. That was mostly because of what we would call microaggressions today. That word didn’t exist then, but it was a lack of understanding of the Black experience. I was in a smaller town, and wherever I went, people would point at me and call me, like, “choco-latte!” They would just say stupid things to me.
I was used to being the only Black person in a space because I grew up in Wisconsin, I went to women’s college in Massachusetts. Being the only Black person in space wasn’t new to me, but being pointed at and stared at and called crazy names was new. These names weren’t offensive, but I was being called out on the street. Like, you’re just walking down the street, and everybody’s gotta be like, “Hey, look! There’s a Black person!” It was so annoying. I never want to go back to Spain. But I married a Spaniard, and then I had a child with a Spaniard, which meant I was going to go back to Spain.
I was obsessed with figuring out how to reconcile my feelings, because I don’t feel positively about Spain anymore, like I did as a naïve high-school and college student. That’s what I set out to do: find something good about being Black in Spain. Kinky Gazpacho was kind of that search. It ended with me discovering that Spain had a Black history, Spain had African slaves—not Moroccan people, not Moors, but Black, African slaves. The same people who were enslaved to the United States were enslaved in Spain, from West Africa. It’s possible that my ancestors could have relatives who ended up in Spain instead of in the southern part of the United States. Unearthing that history and figuring out how much of Spanish culture actually derives from African culture, the same culture where my ancestry is from, was a revelation. I started realizing that there was a lot more of me in Spain, and that’s the end of the story. It’s me coming to terms with what it means to be Black in general and what it means to be a Black person in Spain and, ultimately, it’s your own. You define that for yourself. Nobody can define it for you.
If it wasn’t my life, I would want my children to read it, because it’s embarrassing. I write all these embarrassing things. I’m not ready for them to know all my flaws. I’m not ready for them to be like, “So you did what when you were in high school?” You know? You gloss over some things in your life. You don’t want your children to know all the things. So, I haven’t let them read it yet, but one day, I will want them to read it.
And actually, if my 19-year-old wanted to read it, I’d be perfectly happy for him to read it. I’ve found that my boys are not that interested. They both read my first book, Hair Story. They definitely read that. And they’ve read parts of Same Family, Different Colors, which has some of our family story in it, but it’s not so much me personally.
I want them to see that they have a connection—not just the fact that their father is Spanish, but that there’s a Black connection in Spain, too, because it’s not going to be obvious when they get there. People in Spain still haven’t acknowledged their Black history very much. There’s no Black History Month in Spain, and people are not as overtly racist. People aren’t gonna automatically say, “We don’t like you because you’re Black,” or anything like that. But they’re not necessarily going to embrace the brown skin and say, “Oh, yes, we know where this comes from,” or “we know what it means to be Black, and we appreciation for Blackness in our country.”
I do appreciate the fact that this book exists, and that when they’re ready, they can read it and have some prep work done for them, if you will. And of course, I tell them this stuff. It’s not like they have to read the book. They could get the crib notes from me. That book came out in 2008, and I’m really happy to see Black women, particularly college students who are doing their junior year of college in Spain, reach out to me to say, “I read your book and it was so helpful. Thank you so much.”
It’s great, because my memoir was inspired by Lorene Cary’s book Black Ice, because she was writing about what it was like to be a Black woman at a white private boarding school. Reading that made me feel so much better going to private school. I was like, oh my gosh, someone who has the same feelings as me and the same experiences.
I remember the day before Kinky Gazpacho was about to hit store shelves, I literally had a panic attack and crawled in bed. I was like, “Nobody’s gonna want to read this. Who’s gonna want to read this? This is so ridiculous. I can’t believe that in publishing this book. Nobody’s gonna care.” And the response to the book—there were many people who just felt like a fish out of water or looking for their themselves in different places, who responded to me.
I write because I want to make people feel seen in some way, shape, or form, and that book really did that. That’s the idea of memoir, right? The universality in these stories. I wish I could give it to my kids, because I know they need it, but nobody wants to learn from their mother. If someone else wrote a version of Kinky Gazpacho, I would get it for my kids in a second, because we’re actually going to be moving to Spain soon, and that is something that I want them to be mentally prepared for on a deeper level.
That leads into Same Family, Different Colors, too, and what you were saying about all of your kids having different skin tones. What is it about that experience and about people’s reactions to them and to you and to your husband that made it feel urgent to write this book?
Lori L. Tharps
I’ve been blogging since I’ve been a mother. I started my blog, My American Melting Pot, in 2006. When I would write about things that happened to me as a Black mother who had children who didn’t look Black, so many people would respond and be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s happened to me.” And they weren’t all Black. It was white women who had married an Asian man or an Asian woman who married a Black man, just all these different things. I knew that I could write about that and go to my online community and have people understand what I was talking about. And for me, my books are always the things that just won’t leave me alone. The things that just keep coming up again and again and again.
I thought Kinky Gazpacho was a very finite thing that just a few people who read my blog connected with, but the conversations I was having about my own family, like, “We were in a restaurant, and the waitress was like, table for two,” because my son and I were here, and my husband was behind me with my daughter and my other son. And it was like, we’re all together, we’re literally standing all bunched together. These things would happen so frequently, where people just didn’t make the connection that we were a family.
I actually have T-shirts that say “Same Family, Different Colors,” so I’m like, “Put your shirt on, so everybody knows that we’re together.” And these things just kept coming up, and I would see them talked about in other situations. I’d see transracial, adoptive families have these types of conversations. A good friend of mine is Korean and adopted a daughter from Korea, but her adopted daughter had darker skin than the other children in the family, and other Koreans would comment on it, very openly. You’re not supposed to do that. I’m seeing all of this, it’s coming together, it’s connecting, and because it was happening again in families that look like mine, families that look like my Korean friends, families that look like my Black friends who were Black but somebody came out much lighter. I’m like, there’s something here. And every time, like I said, that it doesn’t let me go, I’ve got to do something about it.
Really, truly, at the very base of it, I wanted to ask everybody how they were handling it. But I can’t just knock on someone’s door or attack them in their grocery store, unless I’m writing a book and can then say, “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
It really was my own need and desire to ask other parents, “How do you deal with this?” and ask people who I know who grew up like that how it affected them. You know, do you feel any kind of way because of the fact that your family members were different skin tones? Were you treated differently? They ran the gamut from “nope, everything is great” to “my brothers in jail, I’m a college professor, my parents treated my darker skinned brother like this and me because I’m lighter skinned, and look how it’s turned out.” Because I was living it, I recognized how significant this issue was.
The turning point for me was the Trayvon Martin court case and when it felt like the beginning of open season of Black men being indiscriminately shot, which of course it wasn’t—it has been happening in the United States forever.
But that felt like the time when you had to explain it to your children, especially if you had Black male children. But if one child looks Black and one doesn’t, that’s when it hit me how serious of an issue it was, the fact that my kids don’t look alike and that one is darker than the other. 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 did you approach that? How did you have those conversations?
Lori L. Tharps
I wrote the book. I did a lot of talking and researching and having to go inside myself and figure out what do. There is no right answer, but 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 to 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.
Of course, they’re not blind. And as they’ve gotten older, they kind of joke about it. But one thing that I did do was make sure that we always acknowledged the differences. We didn’t try to say you’re all the same. I was like, I love you the same, but my older son looks more like me, my younger son, we sometimes joke and say, “You go in the store, because you look white.” And we do we talk about whose skin tone looks like what and whose looks like this, whose looks like that, who matches, who doesn’t match.
We spent a lot of time normalizing the fact that our family members are all different colors and different hair textures. And then they go to a new school together, and people are like, are you guys twins? Here I am saying you guys are different. It’s okay, you’re different. They’re three years apart. One’s skinny, one’s a little thicker. Like they don’t look alike at all, in my opinion. This goes all the way back to this idea that you have to do what’s best for your family, because on the one hand, you could do nothing, and it could backfire. But on the other hand, you could do all this prep work, and then people think they’re twins.
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 something about the way they look. If you have instilled in them that they are perfect, this is the way that God made them, then they’re more prepared for whatever comes their way. That’s essentially what you want to do. I think that was the takeaway from that book, for all the people I interviewed. Some had really sad stories. The ones who had positive stories, really could just attribute it to their parents, making them feel perfectly normal, whatever skin tone they had.
Yeah, I was just about to ask you how writing the book prepared you for those conversations, and I think you just answered that, unless you want to go a little more into that, like do you remember a specific story that resonated with you, that you had in the back of your head when having this conversation specifically with your sons?
Lori L. Tharps
I think it was actually more with my daughter, because I think I felt it more painfully with my daughter. I think we all expect our same sex, same gender children to look like us in some way, and she looks nothing like me. In fact, somebody literally asked me if I adopted her from China. They were like, “I didn’t know black people adopted from China.” They really thought she was Chinese. People thought she was so pale, and her hair was so straight when she was born and for the first six to nine months. Then her hair kind of bent a little bit, but I was like, “Who is this thing? And how did I get her?” As she got older, she would pick up her hand and say, “Who do I look like?” She wanted us to be the same, and I wanted us to be the same, but we’re not the same.
One of the psychologists that I interviewed for the book, her 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 would talk to her. That’s why we would 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. That’s what we would do for a long time at the dinner table. Poppy could not be white to her. He was pink or something but never white.
My husband is super pale. Everyone’s like, “He’s Spanish? Or Russian.” Spanish, really, I swear. But my daughter just won’t see him as white, because she wants us to all be some variation of brown. That did help, that idea of normalizing difference. The psychologist said when you do that, when they go out into the world, if someone asks why their family looks like that, they’re just like, “Why doesn’t yours?” Because for them, this is normal, and anybody who doesn’t get that has some learning to do. That helped me a lot, because my instinct would be to say we’re all the same. All kind of brownish, right? Instead of saying you’re this color, you’re this color, you’re this color. And, you know, that’s kind of cool.
You said that you started out writing your blog about a lot of these issues about race and motherhood, and then recently you moved away from that and you wanted to write more and talk more about books. Tell me about that decision to move toward books.
Lori L. Tharps
So okay, because of 2020 being the horrific experience that it was—to say that it was stressful is an understatement—and my blog has always been a platform to talk about race and racism but in an approachable and accessible way. I used to say that I like to celebrate diversity. And obviously you can’t talk about diversity without talking about race or racism. But my goal wasn’t to talk about racism; it was to talk about diversity. I launched a podcast to accompany the blog in 2018 with the same mission, but because the podcast felt a little bit more public facing, I feel like I couldn’t talk to people and not be mentioning what was happening in the world.
After George Floyd’s murder, and what I call the Black Lives Matter 2.0 movement, I just felt it was my responsibility to really drill down on anti-racism work. And I did that. I did a special series called Don’t Be Racist. Before that, I was doing revolutionary reading theories, I was doing all kinds of things to combat the racism that seemed to be oozing into this world after the presidency of Donald Trump. Everybody was kind of licking their wounds and praying that 2021 was gonna bring some sort of hope, relief, cure for COVID.
I was thinking the next season of My American Melting Pot was going to talk about different things about diversity and trying to figure out what to do. I was participating in a creativity challenge and a question was asked: if you could do anything, write about whatever your creative thing is. You didn’t have to worry that it wasn’t going to be money making or that people were going to judge you. What would you do? And it came to me that I would talk about books all the time. I just love books and writing, and if I could do that, I would. I’m thinking, well, it’s my podcast, nobody’s paying me to do it, so why don’t I do that? There’s nothing stopping me.
But then it was, I have a responsibility to end racism in the world, and I’m clearly not ending racism in the world, and doing a podcast, as I’m sure you know, is hard. It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of pieces to put together. I found myself not wanting to get into it. I decided to podcast about something I love to make it more enjoyable.
So my podcast, I’m calling it Melting Pot Stories, so that I don’t change my URL. I call it a literary love fest for multicultural books, and we talk about multicultural stories. Authors of color or people who are writing about different cultures connecting or clashing come on the show. This Saturday, I’m interviewing Jennifer Steil, who wrote this wonderful novel called Exile Music about a Jewish family in World War II Austria, who ends up fleeing to Bolivia. This is based on the exodus of Austrian Jews who ended up in Bolivia, which I’d never heard of.
What I really want to do is talk about the stories behind the stories, not giving away the ending of the books, not making it dependent on you having read the book for this to be interesting, but really talking to the authors about what compelled them to write these stories and about the cultures in the books. I do a little just talking about books that I’m reading and literary tea in the publishing world.
I’ve only done three episodes so far with the new topics, but I’m so excited about it every day. I think I’ll be on forever, because there’s so much in my little head that I want to talk about. And there’s always a new book release or somebody doing something like a book club. People like me who love books geek out on books and writing. That’s who my show is for. It just brings me joy, and I want to spread the word and find other people like me who want to hear about multicultural books, and kids’ books, too, not just adult books, nonfiction and fiction.
I’m having Joanna Ho come on and talk about her new kids’ book, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, which is a lovely book. I could go on and on and on because I’m so excited to do this and I hope my enthusiasm brings people to listen in.
Oh, I definitely will. Everyone, check it out! Thank you so much for coming on today. This has been so fun and thought provoking, and thank you for your honest conversation and for your enthusiasm. It’s been a pleasure.
Lori L. Tharps
Thank you for having me. It’s been great. I love talking about writing and motherhood.