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Outside of Ourselves

A University of Virginia professor of poetry previews her online conversation with James McBride, author of “The Good Lord Bird.”

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When Henry, the young protagonist in “The Good Lord Bird,” falls in love, author James McBride describes the woman by writing, "She walked like a warm room full of smoke."

For Kiki Petrosino, author of four books of poetry and a professor at the University of Virginia, McBride’s description was wonderfully evocative.

“There’s such unique, emotional energy in that comparison,” she says. “I’ve never known a woman like that and yet, when I read that line, I suddenly see her and I know how Henry feels about her.”

University of Virginia professor Kiki Petrosino
  • University of Virginia professor Kiki Petrosino

Bestselling author McBride will be in conversation with Petrosino as part of the library’s Read Up, Richmond, which challenges residents to read outside their own experiences to develop an understanding of the bigger world. According to Natalie Draper, the library’s community services manager, the program is an opportunity for people from different walks of life to enter a conversation with the larger community.

“It’s a way to share the same space and make Richmond a more connected, more civil place.” A virtual audience Q&A will follow the conversation.

The authors bring different perspectives to the discussion. McBride’s father was Black and his mother was a Jewish immigrant from Poland, while Petrosino’s mother is Black and her father Italian American.

McBride is the award-winning author, musician and screenwriter whose landmark memoir, “The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” published in 1996, was both a memoir describing his life growing up in a poor Black family with 11 children that was led by his Jewish mother – his father passed away shortly before he was born – and a tribute to her.

Wildly successful, the book spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list eventually becoming required reading in U.S. schools and universities. “Miracle at St. Anna,” his debut novel, was made into a 2008 film by Oscar-winning director Spike Lee using a script also written by McBride. Centered on American abolitionist John Brown, the author’s 2013 novel “The Good Lord Bird” won the National Book Award for fiction and is currently streaming on Showtime with Ethan Hawke in a critically acclaimed role as Brown. McBride’s latest book, “Deacon King Kong,” set in a Brooklyn housing project not unlike the one where he grew up, was released earlier this year and has already been selected for Oprah’s Book Club.

None of this has escaped Petrosino. Although a poet by vocation, she considers herself a voracious reader of all genres.

“I believe that a healthy reading life across disciplines and media makes for strong art,” she explains. “I couldn't pass up this chance to speak with James McBride, a master of multiple creative forms: fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting and music.”

Her latest book, “White Blood: a Lyric of Virginia,” uses genealogical and historical records to explore the legacies of slavery and discrimination in Virginia. Her African American ancestors were part of free and enslaved communities in Northern and Central Virginia. She sees exploring her own heritage as an opportunity to think about how public and private histories collide, especially in places with such deep origins as Virginia.

“Though my work begins with my own family tree, I always want my poems to branch outward into larger conversations about identity and belonging in America.”

She’s hoping for a lively conversation with McBride about the creative process, one that goes beyond the usual, “How many pages do you write per day?” questions and instead offers the audience a glimpse into the vitality of art making. As a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University, McBride has been known to have his students write in longhand every week rather than use computers, insisting that they’ll edit in their mind better when they write in longhand, forcing them to really shape their characters properly.

When it comes to McBride's writing, Petrosino particularly admires the lyric imagination that lives in his language, which she defines as the capacity of the work to evoke emotion in the reader.

“I hope the audience will feel empowered, after our conversation, to explore the stories that fascinate them and to share these stories with others,” she adds.

Read Up, Richmond presents a live stream of James McBride talking with Kiki Petrosino on Monday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. at rvalibrary.org.