Author Q&A: Randall Robinson

  • March 8, 2012

Jewell Robinson interviews the law professor and best-selling author of Makeda.

On the eve of the Civil Rights movement, while struggling to survive the emotional vacuum of his family, young Gray March escapes into the safe and magical world of his grandmother Makeda’s tiny parlor. There, his life is transformed by his visits to the aging matriarch, a woman blind since birth but who has always dreamed in color. She begins to confide in Gray the things she “sees” and remembers from her dream state, and a story starts to emerge, a story that becomes increasingly more detailed, layered with descriptions and historical accuracy beyond the scope of Makeda’s elementary school education. Gradually, Gray begins to make a connection . . .

Part coming-of-age story, part spiritual journey, and part love story, Makeda is a universal tale of family, heritage, and the ties that bind. It is about the people who help to shape and mold us, and lead us into the light. Appealing to the deepest sense of who we are, Robinson plumbs the hearts of grandmother Makeda and her grandson Gray, and summons our collective blood memories, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey of the soul that will linger long after the last page has been turned.

Randall Robinson is the author of Makeda, and the national best sellers The Debt, The Reckoning, Quitting America, and Defending the Spirit, as well as the novel The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay. He is a professor of law at Penn State Law School and is the creator, co-producer, and host of the public television human rights series “World on Trial”.

Save for your very first book, The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay, all of your other books have been non-fiction. Why the return to the novel?

Fiction allows a greater range of motion with which to investigate the state of the soul.  I wanted to look not just into what had happened to black people across the arc of history, but to the price of history’s events on the health of our souls. Fiction was the better choice of form.

I never knew you to be especially interested in religion. What prompted your interest in African religions as opposed to the political subjects of your other works?

Religion is a social force affecting, shaping, giving purpose and direction to billions of the world’s peoples. You can’t hope to have done justice to a story of black people’s triumphs and troubles without taking into account the ageless power of religion.

To what extent do novelists use their personal lives and experiences as inspiration for their work?

I think that novelists are more often than not inspired by personal observations – and even experiences. After all, what else does any of us really know?

Who was the inspiration for the character of the grandmother in Makedaem>?

No one person was the inspiration for the character, Makeda.  She emerged in my imagination as a transcendent exemplar – a pillar of strength, wisdom, and cosmic memory.

Your language in Makeda expresses a unique sensibility of feeling that I don’t associate with what I know to be your upbringing, nor that of many American males. How did this sensibility –  this sensitivity – evolve in you?

Writing is a solitary business and therefore is often more tellingly honest than the viewable behaviors of day-to-day life. I am not aware of ever having been different from what you discern of me in this writing. One’s insides are often more complex and nuanced than one’s outsides.

Do you personally believe in past lives – in re-incarnation?

With respect to reincarnation, I more nearly believe in it than not. The well-documented scientist-prepared case histories are difficult to dismiss.

Jewell Robinson (sister of the author) is the Public Program Director at the National Portrait Gallery.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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