An Interview with Marita Golden
- By Cathy Alter
- May 23, 2017
The novelist talks Alzheimer's, resilience, and the enduring power of love.
The intersection of the personal and the political, the bonds of friendship among black women, and the stresses on and resilience of the black family are all frequent players in Marita Golden’s fiction and nonfiction. Themes, she believes, that are as individual as they are shared. “I write from the center of my experience as a black woman,” says Golden, “and I know that story speaks to everyone and is universal.”
Golden’s new novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, further explores the communal experience with an unflinching portrait that the impact of Alzheimer’s disease has on an African-American family. Yet with tendrils that touch so many — from those afflicted to those caring for them — Alzheimer’s is an unending cruelty that extends far beyond the printed page.
Here, Golden tells the story of the Tate family and opens on the day that Diane Tate brings her 68-year-old husband, Gregory, diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, to live in a memory-care facility. The Wide Circumference of Love is the story of the profound impact of Gregory’s disease on Diane and her grown children, as well as on Gregory himself. Ultimately, as Gregory’s memory fades, Diane and her children must reexamine their connection to the man he once was — and learn to love the man he now is.
Golden’s writing is as poetic as it is heartbreaking. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has said: "It is always heartening to see women step up to the writer's table. When the results are as adroit and affecting as Marita Golden's work, it is more than satisfying — it is a cause for celebration." Co-founder of the Hurston Wright Foundation, an organization that is a resource for African-American writers and annually recognizes the best of that year’s writing, Golden is the author of 16 works of fiction and nonfiction and a recipient of numerous awards.
How did you discover the link between Alzheimer’s and the African-American community?
I was researching the novel and was about two years into the project when I discovered the statistic that African Americans are twice as likely to develop AD [Alzheimer’s disease] as whites. The much higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity all basically over time kill brain cells, which is a part of AD and how it develops. Hispanics also have a very high instance. Currently, every 66 seconds, a brain develops AD, and two-thirds of those brains belong to women. All this means that African-American women are especially vulnerable to the disease. By 2050, 40 percent of all cases of AD in the U.S. could be African Americans and, after that, Hispanics
You spent four years researching the book. What did you do to gather your content?
I spent time in a memory-care unit in Greenbelt, MD, watching how AD residents were cared for. I talked with them. I talked with their families and the professionals who cared for them. I read numerous books written by caregivers, as well as read all the research I could get my hands on.
You are a writer of both nonfiction and fiction. What about this project led you to choose a fictional telling?
The inspiration to write the novel came to me unbidden. I had written about a hundred pages of another novel and then hit a wall and put it aside. A few weeks later, I found myself writing a novel about an African-American family confronted with the disease. Once I found the twice-as-likely statistic, I decided to write a reported piece for the Washington Post Magazine — a story that will be published in June. I am happy that I was able to tell the story in two very different genres.
What most surprised you while researching and writing the book?
Well, I was not prepared to hear as many stories as I did of caregivers who were spiritually transformed by the experience of caring for their loved one. There is, of course, anger, fear, confusion, a sense of being overwhelmed, but I also found that the most effective caregivers knew how to care for themselves physically and mentally and were able to see the big picture of what was happening. They appreciated and recognized that their loved one, while diminished cognitively, was often enhanced spiritually and emotionally, and even through the fog of AD were often present in the moment with and for them in ways they had never experienced before. Often these people felt enlarged by supporting their parents or sibling or mate at this time of transition.
Is your fictional family based on one particular family you met, or a composite of many?
It’s completely imagined but, of course, some of the stories families shared found a way into the novel.
Did the research and writing process make you more or less afraid that you’d face your own particular decline due to Alzheimer’s?
I now feel that AD is just another way that we die. It has unique aspects that are especially cruel, such as the enormous emotional and financial burden on the family that can last for years, and, in a sense, the person with AD dies twice. But it made me think deep and long and hard about how I want to live and how I want to die, how important it is to plan for illness and to talk with my grown children about all this. I now care less about whether someone will care for me than who I can care for. I trust that I have lived a life that has assured my angels are working overtime.
[Editor's note: Marita Golden is a member of the Independent's board of directors.]
Cathy Alter’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Washingtonian, TheAtlantic.com, the New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the author of Virgin Territory, Up for Renewal, and CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.