Princeton Native Writes On the Colors of Princeton
Growing up in Princeton with a white mother and a black father who teaches at Princeton University can influence a child's upbringing and help her see racial issues from a black perspective, a white perspective, and a perspective all her own.
That's why Emily Raboteau, former Princeton resident and current creative writing teacher at the City College of New York, found her voice by writing The Professor's Daughter, which she will read from, and answer questions about, at the U-Store on Thursday, March 10.
The Professor's Daughter is a semi-autobiographical story about a young woman named Emma who is trying to deal with the issues that confront her as the daughter of a biracial couple. After her brother, Bernie, whom she looks to as her only ally, has a horrific accident which leaves him in a coma, Emma is alone in the world to find herself and her identity.
Having grown up in the Deep South and now teaching at an Ivy League school, Bernard, Emma's father, also faces issues of identity.
The book started as a short story, "Bernie and Me," which Ms. Raboteau wrote while earning her bachelor's degree in English at Yale University. However, when the author was asked how long it took to write the story, she answered, "I'd say its been in the making my whole life."
After the story won the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award and was published in both Callaloo and African Voices, Ms. Raboteau was encouraged to turn it into a book, but because it hit too close to home, she avoided the subject while in graduate school at New York University.
Soon after earning her M.S.A., Ms. Raboteau did a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where she did all of her writing inside a dairy barn that had been converted into a studio. The atmosphere inspired her to write a short story on Bernard Jr., Emma's father, which she called, "Bernard Jr.'s Uncle Luscious." She wrote the story over three days, without taking a break even to sleep.
Later those two short stories became the first two chapters of her book, The Professor's Daughter. While unsure of how the book would turn out or what ideas it would convey when she began writing, Ms. Raboteau said that the most important thing she learned from writing it is who she is.
Ms. Raboteau found that writing an entire book didn't come to her nearly as easily as writing short stories. After unsuccessfully trying to discipline herself to write a certain number of pages per day, she enrolled in another writing residency at the Sacatar Foundation in Bahia, Brazil, where she was able to finally finish the book and get it published.
"Issues I was grappling with, issues of identity and faith, were resolved through the painful act of writing. In a way, writing this book helped me grow up. I am not the same person I was when I began," she said.
There are many similarities between the book and Ms. Raboteau's own life, such as the name of the main character, and that she has a brother whom she adores. The book also takes place here in Princeton, where the author grew up. First moving here as a young child, Ms. Raboteau attended Community Park Elementary School, and graduated from Princeton High School. Her siblings also grew up in Princeton; her brother Albert, once a reporter for Town Topics, now writes for The Times, and her brother Martin is a freshman at Princeton University.
Ms. Raboteau's father, Albert J. Raboteau II, to whom the book is dedicated, is the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University. The character of Bernard is loosely based on her father, said the author, and as in the book, her grandfather was killed while her father was still in utero.
The Professor's Daughter also touches on issues related directly to Princeton, such as the Township's annual attempt to cull the deer population, as described in the chapter, "White Buffalo Woman." Ms. Raboteau marks the irony of hiring a deer cull company called White Buffalo, as the Sioux Indians have a sacred relationship with buffalo, and would only kill the animal if they were to then find a use for every part of its body, whereas the cull company kills the deer because they are viewed as pests.
But while every memory of Princeton is not a pleasant one for Ms. Raboteau, she still looks on the town fondly.
"I think, like most people, I really wanted to get out of the place I grew up in ... but it was also a blessing to grow up in this town," she said. "It's made me who I am and I'm grateful for that."
However, the book is not a novel or a memoir about the author's young adult life in Princeton, but an outlet to express the emotions that she has felt at different times while growing into an adult.
"I took certain situations or emotional states I'd experienced, such as loneliness, and dramatized them, sometimes to soap operatic proportions," said the author. "The truth of the book lies in its emotion, not in its facts.... Reality was the point of departure for making huge imaginative leaps." Ultimately, the book is a father/daughter story which takes the reader back to a time when racism was still prevalent.
"I had to be very conscious about not portraying Bernard as a victim, although he was victimized by racism in terrible ways," said Ms. Raboteau.
But for the author, the book helps her answer the question she has heard from her peers throughout her life as a bi- racial woman: "What are you?"
"I wrote this book to both undermine that question and to answer it," said the author. "I can't be pigeonholed. There is no word for me. I'm a child of God. I'm my history. I'm brand new. That's true of every human being on this planet. That's what I want people to take away from my book."
Emily Raboteau will speak on her book, The Professor's Daughter, on Thursday, March 10, at 7 p.m., in the third-floor events area at the U-Store.