Interview with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Interviews


Chanukka 5784 im Dezember 2023 - Beitrag vom 27.04.2009

Interview with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Claire Horst

Adrian Nicole Leblanc is a nonfiction writer following the tradition of literary journalism. A prolific author of magazine and newspaper articles – many on the effects of poverty on adolescents...

... LeBlanc redefined immersion reporting in her first book "Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx" (deutsch: Zufallsfamilie. Liebe, Drogen, Gewalt und Jugend in der Bronx).
AVIVA-Berlin spoke to Adrian LeBlanc via Email.

AVIVA-Berlin: You spent 13 years researching for your book "Random Family. Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx". Your interest in the story started when you met Boy George, one of the main characters, in court. What was so special about him?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Boy George was extremely young to have achieved such success in the heroin business, at a time when much of the drug business - or, at least, the media coverage of it - was focussing on the onslaught of crack. He was very entrepreneurial and hugely ambitious. I was interested in what it meant for a young person to be earning so much money, and how it affected his personal relationships (with his mother, for example, and his siblings) and more generally, what it meant for a young man to be the primary wage earner for his family, and also an employer for young people in a poor community. He was also one of the first wave of drug dealers to face trial under the RICO law, which had been used against the mob and was being applied to drug cases. It was referred to as the Kingpin law.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your book is a depiction of social injustice in America. The lives of the families you are showing us are defined by poverty, drug abuse, sexual abuse, incarceration. Why did you decide to write a novel instead of a sociological report?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I don´t see these lives as defined by these problems, per se, but circumscribed and organized, in large part, around surviving the barriers and damage imposed by these conditions. Poverty, racism, and incarceration impact these people gravely, and their improvisational skill in surviving the oppression interested me. Overcrowded housing, untreated addiction, unemployment, mental health issues - these contribute to circumstances in which sexual abuse may occur. As to fiction writing, I am not interested in creating a world under my imaginative control so much as exploring the world which exists - which is endlessly fascinating to me. These injustices continue to need to be documented and addressed. In addition, I`m not at all interested in staying in my room, alone. It`s hard enough to sit still to do the writing once the fieldwork is done! I love being out in the wider world!

AVIVA-Berlin: As a German reader, I am not very well informed about the social system and about the "War on Drugs" campaign in the US. Your book came out in 2003. Could you explain what the situation was like when you started working on the book and in what way it has changed since then?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: The combination of the 1972 Rockefeller Drug Laws, which charged people according to the amount of drugs they possessed when arrested, and harsh mandatory minimum sentencing policies made the prison population skyrocket, especially in New York State. Many were non-violent, first-time offenders. Vast numbers were women. As you can imagine, families were disrupted with the imprisonment of so many adults. Also, the severity of the sentences inspired adult drug dealers to employ children, who did not receive such long terms when convicted of crimes. In combination with the depressed economic climate, the rise of crack cocaine, and the ferocity of The War on Drugs - not to mention the erosion of functioning public schools - poor neighbourhoods were undergoing a radical assault.

AVIVA-Berlin: Which changes are expected from the new government?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I would like to be hopeful, but I remain concerned as much of the discussion of poverty always centers around 2the deserving poor.2 Poverty, in America, is in large part treated as a personal failure. It is not. It is a systemic product of many things. In America, racism is a primary one. However, the Obama Administration is discussing poverty. It is on the radar screen again. The new green employment plans, for example, as well as health care expansion and a focus on education (tax breaks and stipends, for instance, to help people pay for college) show a level of concern that has not been in evidence for a decade. Clinton`s abolishment of "welfare as we know it" did terrific damage, too - not only the Bush Administration is at fault.

AVIVA-Berlin: In your talk at the American Academy in Berlin you said that as a researcher, you are trying not to interfere in your objects` lives. You described it as "reptile modus": sitting there and observing silently. I have two questions about that. First, is it always possible to keep quiet – when you are observing violence etc., second, do you really believe it didn´t make a difference that you were there? Would they really just go on in their everyday lives while you were there?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I am not quiet so much as unobtrusive – "going along with the flow," as my father used to say. Rather than ask people to explain the reasoning for certain things, or ask questions about who is who, I waited to see what dynamics revealed themselves. Then I would ask, much later - sometimes years later - if my interpretation of feelings, motivations, or events was accurate. I had the luxury not to push people. This is not possible on deadline. Also, reporting is consuming - you are trying to get everything down: the people, dialogue, descriptions of what people are wearing and what the room looks like, the names of streets, the mood. Sometimes I didn`t register, fully, what had happened until I was organizing my notes after the fact.
When I witnessed physical violence, which was not so often, I would intervene if I could, but I was as frightened as everyone else and also trying to document what was going on amid that fear.
I believe that I was not a primary focus of the people I wrote, but of course they were aware of me, at certain times more than others. Yet I believe that no matter how well you get to know people, they remain a mystery. I respect this. I make the comparison to an old friend from childhood who is close to one`s family. There always remains a private life to the family that even the closest friends don`t ordinarily see.

AVIVA-Berlin: Why would they let you be there?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: This is extremely difficult to answer. It is their question, I believe. There are so many people in the book and each had their own reasons, but if I had to guess about some of them, I would say, perhaps, boredom, curiosity, company, convenience. People also like attention - this, every journalist knows.

AVIVA-Berlin: What do you feel for these people? Have they become friends?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I have great affection for many of the people in the book, and several are very dear friends of mine. Some I consider family. I am lucky to have met each and every one.

AVIVA-Berlin: What impact did this work have on you? Did it change your family life / relations with friends?
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: I consider this book my education as a journalist. I was unable to see my family and friends as often during the intensive periods of research, but most were rooting for me. My boyfriend spent time with me in the Bronx and upstate New York whenever he could. He came to know the families involved as well. The experience was a privilege, but, of course, other parts of my life received less attention and there is a cost to any obsessive commitment and work.

AVIVA-Berlin: Where are they now? What was their reaction to your book?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Jessica and Coco and their families live in upstate New York and are doing well. Each had different reactions. I think Jessica liked the early part of the book - when she was young and her life was exciting and dramatic. She felt the ending of the book portrayed her as sad, but I disagree. She had been incarcerated for seven years and the book concluded not long after her release. Cesar, who was in prison for most of the time I reported, appreciated the information about his childrens` lives - descriptions of the places they lived, where they went to school, what the outside world was like. But he felt I was too soft-hearted in my political and social analysis. Coco initially saw the project as primarily mine, but recently has talked to me about her feelings about the book. She has regrets about her behaviour as a teenage parent, and she also saw how hard things were and emerged proud. She has come through the fire, and the book recognizes this with admiration. Imagine! Raising five children - regardless of where! This is an accomplishment! The children are grown (some were toddlers when I began), so the book also tells them a lot about their own families while they were very young. They also learn things about their parents and grandparents, which is an interesting result that I hadn`t thought about. Each person also has their independent experiences with the book - feelings that have little to do with my ideas. When they tell others the book is about them, sometimes there is disbelief.

AVIVA-Berlin: What are your greatest professional influences? Is there anyone you admire, who made you work the way you do?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I have learned deeply from the work of James Baldwin and I had the great fortune to be a student of his. Dos Passos and Dreiser and Nelson Algren, too, have taught me a lot about writing about Americans. I also admire Joseph Mitchell, who was a long-time reporter for The New Yorker Magazine. Philip Gourevitch is also an inspiration to me.

AVIVA-Berlin: You are also teaching journalism at the New York University School of Journalism. What are you teaching your students?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I am a Visiting Scholar at NYU, so am not currently teaching students. But were I to teach a class, it would be called Listening: The Journalist as Instrument. I would explore all the different ways in which listening professionals are trained (psychologists, social workers, marketing people, personnel administrators, interrogators, for example) and review what might be helpful in the work of journalists.

AVIVA-Berlin: You are in Berlin as a Fellow of the American Academy. Are you working on a project concerned with Berlin? What is your impression of the city?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: I am writing up a book about standup comedy, which I have been researching for six years. But I am here to do preliminary research for a book that concerns my father`s experience in WWII.
I like Berlin very much. It is an accessible city, and I am taking it in - going to museums and concerts, but also wandering around the less touristy neighbourhoods to try to get a feel for the life on the street. I like to take the train to a random stop, disembark, and wander around.

AVIVA-Berlin: What do you think German readers can find in "Random Family"? Is it an American story only?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Poverty and disenfranchisement - `estrangement` - is not solely an American story. Each country has its particular context, but such human rights violations can be found the world over. In both the US and Germany the dominant issue of racism persists and currently it plays out virulently around immigration. Also, the youth problems here - as evidenced by the recent massacre in Winnenden - are evidence that German readers have much to reflect upon. My book may tease out thoughts and new ideas. I am so excited by the numbers of Germans who are reading and engaging with the book.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your new project is a book on stand-up comedians. You explained that you are spending a lot of time with these men, talking privately and trying to find out how they work. I still don`t really understand what is so fascinating about this topic. As I understand "Random Family", it is a book on social injustice, but with a personal hint – you are showing us a whole society through the eyes of a few families. Is there a similar aspect in your new project?
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Comedians are provocateurs, boundary-breakers. The best confront a society`s taboos and are great analyzers of the social world. They are very contemporary and also plugged in to the hypocrisy of man-kind. I believe comedians have a deep pulse on the culture, and are often far ahead of the mainstream conversation about what is really going on at the ground level of the world. It is also very much a project about masculinity - men who talk. Nonstop! Another things that interests me about stand-up, is the ways in which it is a particularly American art form.
Thank you so much for your time and interest in my work!


Beitrag vom 27.04.2009

Claire Horst