Lisa Braxton’s debut novel, The Talking Drum, explores various power structures at work in urban America in the 1970s. The novel follows three intertwined sets of characters: Sydney and Malachi Stallworth, Della Tolliver and her boyfriend Kwamé Rodriguez, and Omar and Natalie Bassari. In different ways, the overarching impacts of racism and gentrification weigh on each character, and the changes occurring in their respective communities of Liberty Hill and Petite Africa form the backdrop for a study of class issues, racial tensions, sexism, and community resilience.
Place is central to the novel. Petite Africa is categorized as a “blighted community” that struggles with overcrowding and a lack of safe housing. Several fires in the area and neglect from the city of Bellport intensify tensions. While non-residents view Petite Africa as run down and the people as disconnected, those within the community rally together to fight the proposed building of a stadium and retail space called Harbourview Village. The predominantly Black neighbourhood of Liberty Hill sits across the river from Petite Africa and stands to benefit from the proposed redevelopment. There is excitement in Liberty Hill at the prospect of renewal, and Sydney and Malachi move to the area to capitalize on this potential. They live across the street from Della and Kwamé and open The Talking Drum Bookstore and Cultural Centre: a store for Black folks run by Black folks that focuses on the issues and voices central in the community.
The novel shifts perspectives throughout and jumps through time, memory, and space as characters reflect on their past experiences and the difficult situations they face in the present day. This movement offers a kaleidoscope of positions, outlooks, and beliefs. While this structure has the potential to become overwhelming or confusing, Braxton’s skill is apparent. She is adept at giving the reader just enough of each character and situation to move things forward, before shifting perspective to add a new layer of narrative complexity.
Things do move rapidly in the latter portions of the novel, and major plot points are addressed in quick succession. The pacing of these events is a bit intense, and readers may be left with some unanswered questions. Yet, there are moments of wisdom to pause over. For example, Omar states: “You Americans give us bags of cereal and socks when our buildings burn down, but the real need you turn your back on.” This indictment against those celebrating the demolition of his neighbourhood also serves as a commentary on how suffering, trauma, and inequality are often performatively addressed by those in positions of privilege. This condemnation of self-congratulatory aid holds particular resonance in our current moment, where a hashtag can act as a means of ‘doing something’ while often leaving systemic issues unaddressed.
Braxton does not sugar-coat community conflict or craft simple arcs for her characters. At one point, Sydney thinks about the power of “camaraderie and interdependence” in Petite Africa, lamenting her own role in altering the situation. Although she knows that Harbourview Village will bring improvements to the area around her store, she also recognizes it will “cost the people their way of life.” In this way, the novel underscores the complexities of urban renewal, offering a range of perspectives on, and relations to, the process. Above all, Braxton reminds us that determination can be a companion to loss, and love is often a force for change. The Talking Drum centres the profound resilience of communities in the face of oppression and celebrates both African and Black American culture as enduring sources of joy in a complicated and often-difficult world.
About the Author: Lisa Braxton is an essayist, short story writer, and novelist. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University, her Master of Science in Journalism Broadcasting from Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Arts in Mass Media from Hampton University. Her debut novel, The Talking Drum, was published by Inanna Publications in May 2020.
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