Joan Lester draws on her background for Mama’s Child

Joan Lester. Photo by Irene Young.
Joan Lester. Photo: Irene Young

In 1962, when Joan Steinau Lester was 19 years old and living in New England, she fell in love with a young African-American writer. Her family disapproved, so the idealistic young woman ran off to New York City to join her boyfriend. The young couple married six months later — an act that was illegal in 27 states – and eventually had a son and a daughter.

Raising two biracial children in a world that still regarded segregation as matter of course was not easy, but as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, prompting a breakdown of racial barriers, society grew more tolerant. Today, one out of every 12 marriages is made up of people of two different races, according to the 2010 census. There are 4.2 million biracial children in the U.S.

Lester fought hard for that change. She was one of the hundreds of thousands of activists who battled the establishment in the 1960s and 1970s, demanding an end to racism, sexism, and militarization. Now, Lester has drawn on her background for new novel, Mama’s Child, which will be published May 7 by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.

The book tells the story of Elizabeth O’Leary, who travels to the south as a civil rights worker and falls in love with an African American activist and musician, Solomon Jordan. The two move to Berkeley and have two children, a son, Che, and a daughter, Ruby. Their eventual split forces Ruby to confront her racial identity. How black is she? How white is she? When Ruby decides she belongs more to her black father than white mother, a rift develops between mother and daughter. The family struggles to understand and define who they are and what they mean to one another.


Alice Walker, who wrote an introduction to the book, calls Mama’s Child “the most vulnerable, the most passionate, the most honest and brave of books. The tenderness of the book moved my heart.”

Lester, now 72, eventually divorced her husband and married Carole Johnson. The couple moved to Berkeley 22 years ago. For many years, Lester was a nonfiction writer, writing essays and op-eds about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. She also wrote Fire in My Soul , the first definitive biography of the civil rights activist Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Lester recently turned to writing fiction. And while Mama’s Child is not autobiographical, Lester did draws on her background for inspiration.

Mrs. Dalloway’s will be hosting a book launch party for Mama’s Child on Sunday May 5 at 4 p.m. To get the audience in the mood, Muriel Albert will sing “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Then champagne will be served.

In advance of the release of Mama’s Child, Berkeleyside asked Lester a few questions.

Can you tell us how you got the idea for Mama’s Child?
This is my second novel; the first, Black, White, Other, was teen fiction. I enjoyed writing that so much—with its central theme of an adolescent’s identity challenge, in this case ethnic/racial — that I wanted to continue exploring the theme in adult fiction, where I could go a bit deeper.

The complex relationship between mothers and daughters is one of the main themes in Mama’s Chile. What about it did you want to explore?
I am both a mother of a daughter and the daughter of a mother; both relationships are close, tense at times, full of admiration and longing, wanting to be the same and different all at once. The mother-daughter dance is an enduring theme of literature; then add in biracial dimensions and we have a good, juicy story!

Mama-330What issues around race did you want to explore in Mama’s Child?
I wanted to explore the ways people form “tribes,” belonging and not-belonging, and blaming the “other,” as well as specific cultural elements of our history. Race is one of the most charged topics in the U.S., now and ever since we forcibly imported human beings from another continent as enslaved people. Family is also charged; again, put these two together and inevitably there will be tensions.  But I also wanted to show possibilities of healing across these cultural barriers.

How have attitudes changed since you had your two children?
Oh, when I think back to the era of legal segregation in which I grew up, the change is phenomenal. And it was people like my characters Elizabeth (Lizzie) and her husband Solomon who propelled that change; messy as their own personal lives were, as they struggled for intimacy across the great divide of their backgrounds and the politics of the time, they were able to achieve a monumental task: dismantling the entire edifice of legal segregation, which had existed for the century since slavery.

One reviewer called Mama’s Child “a coming of age story for mother and daughter?” To what was the reviewer referring?
Both mother and daughter in this novel are searching for themselves: Ruby as a biracial adolescent and then young woman; Elizabeth, the mother, as a white woman trying desperately to be non-racist, but also to be an authentic woman who doesn’t toe a “political line.”

The book is set in Berkeley from the late 1970s to 2005 and is full of scenes in familiar places: Berkeley Bowl, Cal, King Middle School. You moved to Berkeley in 1991. What kind of research did you do to be able to recreate a sense of Berkeley?
I interviewed friends who’d lived here then and were active, some in the Black Panthers, read a mountain of books about the politics of the era in Berkeley, watched films and videos, did internet research for photos and descriptions of Black Panther rallies.  I also extrapolated back from my knowledge of Berkeley in the 90s, and my experience as a civil rights activist in New York during the 1970s and 80s, knowing that some of that experience was bicoastally similar.

Is there any era in which you would have preferred to live?  
No, I am ecstatic that I have lived and am living exactly now! The civil rights movement of the late 1950s through the 60s was a watershed moment in U.S. history, breaking open a cruel, rigid segregation. The creativity flowing out of the cracks, as the structure began to fall, was enormous: the women’s liberation movement, other ethnic pride movements, and gay liberation all emerged from that central core. To have fully participated then, and since, is a great honor. I feel like one of the luckiest people ever to be a part of these great waves.

You launched your career writing non-fiction. In addition to personal essays and op-ed pieces, you wrote the first definitive biography of Eleanor Holmes Norton. How and why did you make the transition to fiction?
As part of the research for the Norton biography, Fire in My Soul, I examined historical records documenting her oral family history, which told of her great-grandfather Richard John Holmes’s enslavement on a Laroline, Virginia plantation, from which he fled in the 1850s. Though of course no one knew the details of the flight he took while still a teen, he did succeed in reaching Washington D.C. and founded the Holmes family, which resides there still, and his great-granddaughter is now the District’s Congresswoman.

Through the Freedman’s Bureau I was able to find a record of his marriage in the 1870s, and bits of other information about him but of course the flight itself, and his experiences on the plantation, were shrouded in mystery. Thus I fictionalized a two-page prologue, clearly labeled as such, based on similar accounts of other fugitives.  I enjoyed crafting every word of his imaginary escape tale, and found I had a talent for fiction. So, in this most rigorous research project–a biography–I found a new calling as a novelist.

View a list of where Lester will be appearing.

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