Challenge. Change. podcast
Ousmane Power-Greene, professor of history and program director of Africana Studies, hopes his new novel, “The Confessions of Matthew Strong,” will leave readers with a sense that people are still fighting for racial justice despite efforts by some to halt its progress.
His work of historical fiction is a story about race and redemption. Mainly set in Alabama, the book follows Allegra (Allie) Douglass, a philosophy professor at a top-tier New York university. A suspenseful tale unfolds as Allie learns about a spate of disappearances of young Black women and receives a series of haunting letters before being kidnapped herself by white supremacist Matthew Strong.
“The Confessions of Matthew Strong” is published by Other Press and will be available Oct. 11. In the following Q&A, Power-Greene reveals the inspiration behind this novel and how his fiction-writing process differs from his academic works. He is also the author of “Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement” (NYU Press 2014).
You’ve been working on this novel for 15 years. What has inspired you along the way?
In the early 2000s, as I was thinking about telling this story as a fictional piece versus a historical piece, many people believed that the era of white supremacists was over. The election of Barack Obama sort of signaled a significant defeat [to them] because you had white people voting for a Black person to be president. I was interested in this idea that there are people deep in their religion of white supremacy.
For me, “The Confessions of Matthew Strong” as a fictional journey was a journey in thinking about what happens when people who feel completely disempowered, who once really felt like they had a sense of pride in themselves, try to have a rebirth.
The idea for this novel also came from my interest in horror and my interest in collective violence. I teach a course on collective violence, racial violence, and the Ku Klux Klan.
You dedicated this book to your grandmothers Helen Allen and Madeline Greene. How did your family and your experiences shape the novel’s characters and settings?
My grandmother Madeline Greene was born in Alabama. We don’t know much about the Greene side of the family, so this was a creative interest in exploring my family’s past. That family connection drove my interest in Alabama.
The historical interest in Alabama is because it’s one of the most important historical states in the south. It was the first Confederacy capital and is the central imagery we have for much of the Civil Rights Movement. As a historian and a person who has been fascinated with understanding Alabama reconciliation, I decided that had to be the book’s setting.
My grandmother Helen Allen had breast cancer. When I was young, I learned that recovery is a really important part of someone’s journey. I was fascinated by the challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis, specifically breast cancer. I decided to put this into Allie’s character and have this be an important part of her sense of self.
The Atlanta child murders, which are featured in the book, were a major part of my development when I was young. The idea of racialized kidnapping and killing of Black kids was horrifying to me. For African Americans, and for me personally, this was reality and I was really scared. To effectively capture fear in writing, you have to go there and it’s not easy to go there. To write a book that takes up these themes and asks people to follow Allie on this journey, not knowing how it would end, was demanding a lot from them.
How did you develop your characters, particularly Allie Douglass and Matthew Strong?
Early on, I realized that the only way to tell the story and make connections important for the book would be through a Black woman. The narrator needed to represent the crucial Black women from Alabama. Angela Davis is the major inspiration for the character, but also Condoleezza Rice and Sonia Sanchez. The idea of developing a female character was something that I saw immediately and felt was urgent. I spent a lot of time studying speeches and cadences of Black women from Alabama.
You make a lot of mistakes and face some technical challenges when you’re writing from a different vantage point. I relied on friends and family, who would sometimes tell me, “That’s not something a woman would say or do.” So, you just take that part out. When you’re a creative person, you’re constantly relying on inspiration.
To me, Allie Douglass is like the first Black female philosopher heroine. As a professional intellectual, I wanted to ensure that the challenges that she faced professionally intersected with the challenges faced more broadly in her life.
Matthew Strong’s character is historical in the sense that [there were] academics in the 1970s who were white supremacists and had talk shows. As I was developing Matthew Strong’s character, I wanted someone who was a pseudo-intellectual, not a professional intellectual.
How does creating fiction differ from your academic writing?
When you’re writing history, you’re trying to recreate the past as close to how it actually happened as possible. You’re analyzing what happened based on what evidence you have. When you’re writing fiction, it’s the opposite. You have ideas, a sentence here, a thought, an image. You don’t need to find something out — it’s in you. You have to go inside yourself to figure out why that’s so compelling. Why do you feel so passionate that your character has breast cancer, for example, or that your character is from this particular place?
The process is like meditation, closing your eyes and seeing the scene. I’m a visual writer so I see all my scenes. The challenge is getting them down. You see the entire scene happen, but you see it in splotches, and you don’t see all the characters’ faces. You don’t know how it’s going to work out. I am trying to figure out what’s happening here, who is in this room. It really is like a dream.
What is one message you want readers to take from this novel?
I think one message that readers should take away from this novel is resiliency. I hope readers finish this novel and feel a sense that there are people trying to ensure racial justice happens, and I do hope that they feel a connection to that struggle. No spoilers, but I think they’ll be inspired by how community comes together.
And I think that no matter how fragmented we are, the reality is that when there is an existential threat to our literal existence, we come together and we realize that what’s more important are the values and virtues that we agree on. The characters ultimately agree that all efforts to motivate people around race and demonize people is ethically wrong. Hopefully, people will come away from the novel with that message and they’ll be inspired to want to think about and reflect on their own lives and their work, and also educate people in their communities around racial justice.