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Sadeqa Johnson on her novel 'The House of Eve'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Young love can be so overwhelming. The stolen glances, the butterflies in the stomach, the drama - but mix in the racism and misogyny of the 1950s, and that cute puppy love could easily become corrosive and dangerous. That's the backdrop for the new novel "The House Of Eve." It follows the lives of two young Black women, teenager Ruby trying to escape poverty in Philadelphia, and Eleanor, a student at Howard University trying to figure out how to fit in with the elites of Washington, D.C. They both fall in love with men who society says should be off limits to them. Sadeqa Johnson is the author of "The House Of Eve." She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SADEQA JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure and an honor to be here.

RASCOE: Tell us more about Ruby and Eleanor, whose lives eventually intersect. They have different backgrounds and interests, but I feel like they have some similarities, too.

JOHNSON: I think they have similarities as well. I mean, they're both two young girls. Ruby is 15, and when I started working on the novel, the thing that I knew about her was that she was beautiful, that she had a body that was shaped like a Coca-Cola bottle, and that her mother did not want her. Eleanor, you know, is from Ohio. She comes from a loving home, but she comes to D.C. with secrets, and diving into a world that she did not know existed, which is the Black elite of Washington, D.C. during that time, it really transports her and changes her life in ways that she had not expected.

RASCOE: You know, I read in an interview where you said you've kind of been bit by the historical fiction bug. Your last novel was set during slavery. What made you want to set this novel in the 1950s?

JOHNSON: "The House Of Eve" was inspired by thoughts of my grandmother. She had gotten pregnant with my mother at 14 and had her at 15. She was unmarried. She had her out of wedlock, and there was a lot of shame. My mother told me that she didn't know my grandmother was her mother until she was in the third grade. I remember there being this turbulence between the two of them, and I couldn't put my finger on what it was, and it just really made me think of what life was like for women in those situations.

RASCOE: So I know a major aspect of this book is unwed mothers and how pregnant girls are often shipped off to these homes where they were treated so callously. Like, you researched this. How close is this story that you created to the experiences of real people?

JOHNSON: Well, when I was thinking about what did women during this time do - you know, this was pre-Roe v. Wade, you know, and so they didn't have a lot of options. And I stumbled upon these maternity homes where young women would go in at a certain point of their pregnancy. They would hide from the world and they would surrender their babies, and I say surrender because oftentimes, these women were forced to give up their children. They were told that if they didn't, that they could go to jail. But it was a way for them to start over like nothing ever happened. But as I was doing the research and I was reading all of these stories of these women, I couldn't locate a single Black woman in the story.

These homes were largely for white women, and that is what led me to these elite families in Washington, D.C. I thought, what did women in that circle do, you know, if they wanted to adopt a baby in secret? And remember, in the '40s and the '50s, even adoption wasn't something that we talked about, you know, on the forefront the way we do now. So everything was shame and secrecy and hidden and, you know, sort of back door behind the scenes.

RASCOE: Tell me about what you learned about elite Black society in the 1950s while writing this book.

JOHNSON: Well, when I was working with the character of Eleanor, I was thinking about Toni Morrison. And I remember seeing her documentary, "The Pieces I Am," and she said that she didn't know that Black folks separated themselves by color until she stepped foot on Howard University because in the Midwest, Black folks were so busy trying to get along with everybody. They didn't have time to pit themselves against each other. And as I was researching this story, I read a book called "Our Kind Of People" by Otis Lawrence Graham that talked about these very elite Black families in D.C. where they sort of only fraternized together. You know, they married each other. They hung out together. It was really, really hard to penetrate these circles, and the reason why was because they were educated and they thought, well, what do I have in common with a sharecropper? We're not speaking the same language. And so protecting that elite circle was very important to them.

RASCOE: You know, and I wanted to get into this idea of motherhood because it's so deep within this. You have Ruby's mother, you know, who basically ends up abandoning her, but her aunt Marie steps in. There comes a point where Eleanor views motherhood as a way to kind of solidify her as a woman and as a wife. But there's also all of this shame that these mothers carry, or attempting to be a mother, that I could relate to and feel in my bones. Did writing this book change anything about the way you see motherhood?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Eleanor came to the story much later. The story was actually Ruby's. I knew that, you know, she was a young girl and she was in danger and, you know, things happened to her, but I couldn't figure out how to make it a full 90,000-word story. And when Eleanor came, she came with this rage and this desperation. And I felt her saying, I'm a barren woman and I need to have a baby, you know? And like you said, there was a lot of shame around not being able to produce a child. And so working through what motherhood meant for Eleanor, on one hand, it was about having a child, but on the other hand, it was about keeping her family together and making her mark in a community that did not want her. And so that was her tie-in.

RASCOE: You know, this is obviously Black History Month, and we often celebrate the stories that are well-known. Your book is about personal stories that aren't well-documented or even acknowledged. You know, why do you think it's important that we learn about these stories, particularly about Black women, that may not have always been told?

JOHNSON: Well, for me, I have a teenage daughter who says, you know, Mom, every year we learn about Martin Luther King. We learn about Jesse Owens. We learn about, you know, Jackie Robinson, but we don't learn about, you know, the Mary Lumpkins of the world, or even Dorothy Porter, who plays a really big role in "The House Of Eve." And Dorothy Porter was a real-life woman who worked at Howard's library. She amassed the largest collection of African and African American and Caribbean art in the world. She spent 40 years on this collection, and it's housed at Howard University. And so she was a real-life hero. And when I discovered her, I thought, oh, she needs to be in my book. You know? And so when I can highlight a woman, a Black woman who people don't know about, you know, I feel that it's my duty to give them their shine.

RASCOE: That's Sadeqa Johnson. Her new novel is "The House Of Eve." Thank you so much for talking with us today.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me. It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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