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Denene Millner On Her Tender Family Saga And Discovering “Beauty On The Page”

by Brendan Dowling on December 21, 2023

Denene Millner’s One Blood dives into the lives of three generations of Black women, exploring how their individual struggles for autonomy and self-knowledge are connected across time. Grace is a vibrant teenager who leads an idyllic life in 1960s Virginia under the care of her beloved grandmother. Lolo is a recently married young woman in New York whose intelligence and wit buoy her family and protect her from secrets from her past. Rae, the baby that Grace gave birth to and whom Lolo adopted, is now a young woman about to become a mother herself in the early 2000s. Rae discovered she was adopted when she was twelve, but her pregnancy causes her to pose critical questions to Lolo and learn more about her own origin story. Told with incredible tenderness, One Blood spans decades to tell an incredibly moving story about motherhood, healing, and generational trauma. In its starred review, Library Journal raved, “Millner beautifully limns the experiences of a woman who must give up her child, a mother who has adopted, and Black women everywhere who must negotiate the roles of wife and mother while entertaining their own dreams.” Denene Millner spoke to us about how her own background informed her novel, how she crafted her characters, and bringing different periods of history to life.

The book focuses on the lives of three women. Was there a particular character who was the starting off point for the novel?

It was actually Lolo. When I was writing her story, I was really asking question that I wished I was able to ask my own mom. She passed away when I was thirty-four, six weeks after I had my second daughter. My mom was from the generation where kids are to be seen and not heard. So I didn’t really get to talk to her about her life, the choices that she made, her relationships, what it was like to be a woman bumping up against all of these different barriers, particularly for Black women in America. I didn’t get to ask her that when I was kid because it wasn’t an option to ask her. By the time that I had my own kids, our relationship changed. She was way more open and willing to share herself with me, woman to woman instead of mother to daughter. I was so consumed with raising babies, being a mother and figuring out how to juggle a marriage with being a mom and a career and book writing. I just didn’t get the chance after our relationship took that turn to talk to her in a meaningful way about womanhood and what it meant to move through the world almost as if you are invisible, but making sure that you grab what little bit of agency that you can. I wish that I could have talked to her about those things, and so the questions that I had for her are really the questions I asked of Lolo. Though the story is very much a figment of my imagination, the choices that Lolo make are steeped in some of the things that I believe my mother had to go through as a Black woman, being born an American in 1940 and going through the Great Migration up to New York, and trying to find her way in a society that didn’t try to make a way for her.

Grace is such a vital presence in the book and I feel like she’s a character who readers will really fall in love with. One of the descriptions of Grace that really stood out to me is, “Grace who always followed questions with more questions until her brain had its fill.” Can you talk about how you created Grace?

So Grace is the birth mom, and Grace is—how do I explain this? I’m a child of adoption. Very much like Rae, I found out when I was twelve. I never said anything and never revealed that I knew until my mom passed away. Then my dad and I had that conversation and he gave me a little background into what he knew of my origin story. My entire life—and I’ll be fifty-five in a couple of weeks—I had to make up stories about who my birth mother was. Those stories were steeped in this very much American narrative that birth mothers had babies and gave them up because they weren’t strong. They had babies not out of love, but because they made a mistake. Those children are mistakes that weren’t loved, and that’s why they got sent away, right? And that the real love comes from the parents who adopted the child and opened their home to them, and those children are forever grateful to the adoptive parents and don’t necessarily care about the birth parents, right? That’s been the narrative that I’ve known all my life as an adopted child.

With Grace I wanted to do exactly what her name is, which is to show her grace, show birth mothers grace. Even with the narrative that birth mothers give up their babies and made them as mistakes and not out of love. I wanted to flip that narrative on its head, because that’s never the way that I’ve ever thought about my birth mother. I’ve always painted the narrative about her with positivity, grace, and understanding. Having carried two babies in my own belly, giving a child away is not an easy thing to do, no matter how that child was made, no matter what the circumstances that child is born into, no matter how easy or hard it would be for the mother to raise that child or not. The simple matter of it is to carry a human being in your belly and give birth to them [and then put the baby up for adoption], it cannot be an easy decision.

I wanted to show Grace the way that I always saw my birth mother, as someone who was in love with the person who she made the baby with, that she wanted this baby, that she didn’t have control over where that baby ultimately went and what ultimately came of that baby, and that people unfairly forgot about who she was in the narrative of her daughter. I hear a lot of people complaining that Grace’s book ends so abruptly and then we don’t know what happened to her or [her grandmother] Maw Maw. “It’s really unfair that you did that In the book of Grace!” It’s like, I did that on purpose, because that’s what we tend to do to birth mothers, right? We see their narrative, we make up whatever the story is that we need to make up about them, and then we demand that society forget them. And we demand that they forget their children. And that an adopted child’s story begins not at the moment of conception or even the moment of birth, but the signing of the adoption papers. I find that deeply unfair to us as adoptive children, and that does not take away from my love for my parents. They’re my parents, and I’m forever a part of the fabric of the Millner clan, but I have an origin story just like everybody else. And that began with a woman who’s very much like Grace.

The book is paced so beautifully. The first 100 pages moves so fluidly and I was always flipping the pages wanting to know what would happen next. I was curious about how you approached the pacing of the novel, especially the first part?

This is going to sound extremely weird, but it is the truth, that book was damn near written in my subconscious. There would be times when I would just put my head down for two or three hours and then lift my head back up and I didn’t know where the heck that story came from, or where it went or why it went where it went. It was not planned. I did not have a detailed outline. I just literally would jot down a few notes. Some of those notes came in dreams. Some of those notes came to me from imagining what those women would have gone through.

I knew that the beginning would be that this girl was in a beautiful family who loved her, that they were a family of Black midwives in the South, and that they came from a strong line of healers that stretched back to Africa. I knew that I wanted it to end with Grace’s baby taken away. That was it. I am a firm believer that our ancestors are constantly around us and that they speak to us, through us. That book, more so than the other two, was very much a book that came through the ancestors. I feel like when I put my head down and then picked it back up there was just beauty on that page. It was just kismet that it happened the way that it did, that it wrote itself the way that it wrote itself. Particularly the first forty-four pages, which is what my agent sold to eight different countries. It was spirit that helped me write those pages. I have no other way to describe it,  because I read it even today and I’m just like my God, did you do that? (laughs)

A lot of it was written steeped with emotion. Rae is emotional. I look at [the Rae section] like an homage to the Black women writers of the 1990s, which is when I started writing my books. It’s very much Terry McMillan, Bebe Moore Campbell, Bernice McFadden. It’s those women that I’m paying homage to with that book, because it’s set in the 90s but also because the general feel of the way that Black women were asked to look at relationships came directly from those books, pop culture, movies of the time. The conversation that was being had about Black women and their relationships, which was you are to have a high powered career and you are to make a good amount of money for yourself, but you also should find your dark prince on the white horse. That person is supposed to rock your world, be your everything, and be able to treat you like the princess that you are. How realistic that was is a whole other proposition, which is what Rae faces in that book. But Grace, I had to do research on who she was and where she came from. A lot of it was spirit-led and emotion-led.

It just happened that way, and there was a lot of research that I did. For instance, there is the chapter that begins with “no one has respect for pregnant teen girls.” Sixteen-year-olds are to shut the hell up, do what they’re told, and if they end up pregnant, well, the scourge of the Earth they are. That piece that opens that chapter comes from me doing research the night before I wrote it. I had Googled at one o’clock in the morning “what was it like to be a sixteen-year-old unwed mother-to-be in 1968?” Literally, that’s what I Googled. I kept coming across these message boards for what are called Booth babies. Those are kids that were born in Booth Memorial Hospital, which was a consortium of homes for unwed mothers, created and run by the Salvation Army. I had never seen these before, but despite that I’d never seen them before, I was born in a Booth Memorial Hospital. That’s what’s on my abbreviated birth certificate—Booth Memorial Hospital in Queens. So I’m looking at these message boards and I’m like, “What the hell is a Booth baby? And why are all of these hospitals in Compton, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Queens, where I was born? Why are there so many of them? I thought the hospital that I was born in was just a regular old hospital that underwent a name change at some point. It’s now called Queens Memorial Hospital. I just didn’t know until one o’clock in the morning while coming across all of those people looking for their mothers and all of those mothers looking for their babies—all of whom were born in Booth Memorial hospitals—that I was born in a Booth Memorial Hospital and most likely taken from my mother, not given up. So after I finished bawling for hours, figuring out through my research what most likely happened with my mom and me, I turned around and I wrote that piece. So “The Book of Grace” is more about emotion. It’s more about my feelings for my birth mother, and my compassion for her, and the compassion that I wish that people had for birth mothers. That pacing is more emotion than anything else, emotion and spirit led.

You bring so many different times in history alive in the book. I was really drawn into the political conversations that the characters get into, especially Grace and her boyfriend Dale debating life in the south versus the north. I feel like those kinds of really lively debates spring up throughout the book. Can you talk about how you allowed for those kinds of conversations to occur throughout the book?

Well, I thought it was important. Those kinds of conversations happen in the book because they’re very real to me and my family, right? That specific conversation that you just referenced is borne of conversations that I constantly have with my eighty-eight-year-old dad, who is from Virginia. This man has seen so much, and talked about so little and talked about so much at the same time, right? We go to Virginia now to visit him and he’s constantly pointing out, “Okay, over there is where the bus with the white kids passed by us when we were walking in the snow to our one-room shack of a school. That was the only thing that we had. We had to get there early to set the fire so that we would be warm while they were riding on the bus, waving at us because they were our friends. That was the difference. They were on the bus going to the big school. We were on foot going to the small school and trying to make it comfortable for ourselves. Yeah, we were aware of civil rights. But we lived in a self-sufficient community where we owned our own things and we didn’t really think about white people like that. We just didn’t.”

I’m always fascinated by the idea that this Black man could be in the South, go through things that folks were clearly fighting for, but it not necessarily be the bane of his existence. My dad and his family did not wake up in the morning thinking about freedom. In their mind, they were free, right? They shopped for their groceries, they grew their own food. They tended their own chickens and cows. The community came together.

I was just with my dad in St. Maarten for a couple of weeks. We went on vacation. He was telling me about Hog Killing Day and I was like, “What the hell was Hog Killing Day? What are you talking about?” And he’s like, “You know, the whole community would get together, we would kill the hogs at the same time, we would have a big bonfire, and we would eat. Then we would all assist each other in creating what we needed to create to make that meat last through the winter. So we all came together on the Hog Killing Day and that’s what we did.”

But those are the kinds of stories that I get from my dad, the idea that they fought back. I come from a family of men and women who believe in carrying guns and who believe in protecting themselves and their family. That was infinitely more important to them than—I won’t say than civil rights, because that’s not the case, right? They wanted rights, they wanted to be able to live equal lives, but they lived lives where they were an insular community that loved one another and just handled issues day to day. I wanted that to come out in that conversation between Dale and Grace in this fundamental misunderstanding that some folks have on Southerners and how they live their lives.

I want to talk about your Denene Millner imprint. Can you talk about how you started it?

Oh my goodness, Denene Millner Books is my heart’s joy. It really is. I love being able to create stories that feature Black children and families in a way that stretches beyond the idea that the only worthy story to be told about the Black experience is about slavery, the civil rights movement, or “Black firsts.” I love those books. I think that those books are necessary. They are teaching us about American history and the world. But I also knew that as a mother of two daughters that I didn’t want to read those stories to my children when I was putting them to sleep at night. To read something other than kids being run over by dogs or stealing away from slavery. I wanted them to see themselves in their current iteration. What does it mean to be afraid of the tooth fairy but still want her money? To get on the bus for the first time and be scared about kindergarten? What does it mean to have parents who absolutely love you and adore you? There were some books that were an inspiration for how I saw the kinds of books that I wanted to write and the kinds of books I wanted to publish, namely Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, bell hooks’ Homemade Love, and Debbie Allen’s Dancing in the Wings. To this day, they are three of my favorite children’s books. I just knew that I wanted to write those kinds of books, but I wasn’t getting the kind of reception—or even the offers—that I thought I should get for books that explored the everyday humanity of Black children.

I was an author and I was pitching children’s books and nobody was feeling them at all. The reasoning that I kept getting was, “This isn’t realistic,” or “No one will buy this because who wants to buy a book about a little girl singing her first church solo in school?” Or “who wants to buy a book about a little boy getting a haircut, loving his haircut and feeling good when he gets out of the barber’s chair?” And this was happening to more than just me. This was happening to Black authors who are friends of mine who just could not find an audience with editors at these publishing companies. My then husband at the time, he had written a book for Agate Publishing in Chicago. I thought, “Well, if I can’t get past the gatekeepers, maybe I should build my own gate, create my own yard, and invite folks in.” So I talked myself into a dinner with his publisher, Doug Seibold. I showed up to that dinner with the idea that I would pitch a children’s book imprint to Doug, and Doug showed up to that same dinner with the idea that he would pitch a Black children’s book imprint to me. So we showed up to table with the same idea. (laughs)

At the time, I was running a parenting blog called My Brown Baby, so I had a pretty huge audience. I knew that I could count on that audience to really love the kinds of books that I had in mind. We got together, we partnered, we created this imprint, and it enjoyed a huge, huge debut with Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James.

Finally, what role the library has played in your life?

Oh my gosh. So I was the nerdiest, no-friends-having, always-in-the-house, in-my-bedroom-with-my-dolls-and-my books kid you could ever meet at night in the 1970s and 80s. The library was my very best friend—the Brentwood Public Library in Brentwood, New York. I grew up in Bayshore, but we were right on the border of Brentwood. The walk to the library was about a mile and a half and I always had a knapsack. To this day, I walk a little crooked! My dad swears it’s because I carried too many books from the library in my knapsack. (laughs) One leg is a little shorter than the other because I was walking for that mile and a half. But going to the library, being able to disappear into the shelves, find books that took me to other worlds and let me see the way that other people lived and thought, how that got to be the entry for me—I’m getting teary just thinking about it. It was the entry for me as a little nerdy girl who was studious, an A plus student, and intent on following the rules. For this girl to be able to see the world in a different way from my bedroom in Bayshore, New York—The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, the Judy Blume books, the Ramona books were books that just gave me wings, that just gave me life, that just made me giggle. For a little Black girl who felt invisible, the library allowed me to live a life that I didn’t see myself being able to live and I am forever grateful for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.