A Conversation with Matthew Aaron Goodman, author of Hold Love Strong
Your ethnic, social and academic background is very different from those of the characters about whom you’ve written. What served as the inspiration for you to write Hold Love Strong?
At the time when I began writing Hold Love Strong, I was teaching at an alternative school in the South Jamaica section of Queens while living at a boarding house. There were 200 students with only 50 desks. We had no supplies. The kids had seen six or seven principals at the school within the span of a couple of months. There were no resources and very little stability in school and within their homes. I felt helpless, trying to figure out how to reach these kids. I was not functioning in a reality that most people experience.
Then our country was dealt another blow with September 11th. As profoundly tragic as September 11th had been, I was confronted with the reality that the kids I taught saw death and despair all around them every day. I wanted to find a way to tell the stories that we often don’t hear – the bad as well as the good – and hopefully start a dialogue about what needs to be done to help kids and families like those you read about in the book.
How did you come to create and develop the characters?
Through my work with the students I taught and my work in the prison system as a case manager, I grew to know and love the people I worked with. Like anyone else who works on a job, the people you’re working with is who you talk about when you leave the office. They were my colleagues and co-workers. So I drew off the many people I had the honor of working with and helping, all of whom I came to love, respect and care deeply about.
What was most challenging about writing Hold Love Strong?
It took eight years to complete the novel. To be honest, poetry had been my first love and I didn’t truly know how to write a novel. So I had to learn how to govern myself in writing the story, really pacing the way I told the story. I also had to get out of my own way because it can be easy to convince yourself that you can’t do something that you’ve not done before.
I also worked hard to make sure that I didn’t overwhelm the reader. Abraham’s story – and the stories of the people around him – is not easy to read. Not that we should run from them either, so I wanted to make them accessible and approachable without limiting the characters and their voices.
The voice throughout the book is that of the character Abraham, who is also at the center of the story. Abraham has a constant inner struggle with who he believes he wants and deserves to be and what he sees all around him, including friends and family members. How were you able to strike a balance the two sides of Abraham?
It really was not that difficult because I think we all struggle with balancing our lives. Take me, for instance. Although I didn’t grow up in the same social environment as the character, Abraham, I still struggled with the same sorts of issues. Where do I fit in? Is college really for me? What do I want to do with my life? I wasn’t the greatest student but I grew up understanding that education is important and I was obedient to that belief. I attended college at Brandeis, not always feeling like I fit in. I’ve lived in a number of different places, trying to make a home and life for myself. So I wanted to represent the inner struggles that Abraham was having, between what he wanted for himself and the realities of what he saw around him, based on my own experiences and what people go through every day, regardless of their circumstances.
Hold Love Strong is a fictional account of an African American family, but how real do you feel these stories truly are?
I know the stories in Hold Love Strong are based on real life because I’ve witnessed it through my work. I run a literacy group at present where I work with 15-20 African American and Latino boys and girls who have been incarcerated themselves, on probation, or their parents have been incarcerated. Working with them gives me a front-row seat to a lot of what’s happening in the world outside of what is considered the norm for many of us. And a lot of what I witness through my interaction with them is not fantasy or made up. It’s real life for them and as someone who works with them, it’s real for me, too.
What made you decide to write the story from the perspective of the 1980s-early 1990s time period?
I wrote Hold Love Strong during this period because it bridged my own youth with that of the character, Abraham. The 80s and 90s have their own respective histories and I found a lot during that era to explore through the eyes of Abraham – the onset of the crack epidemic, the growth of hip hop, the colloquialisms of the day, what we were watching on television (i.e., The Cosby Show), while revisiting my own coming of age.
AIDS and the crack epidemic are front and center in Hold Love Strong, particularly as it relates to Abraham’s immediate family. What do you say to those critics who might say that you’ve written an unfairly stereotypical account of a black family in the ‘hood?
I don’t feel that I’ve written an unfair or unflattering portrait at all. What’s unflattering is reality. When we meet one another, we construct what we think to be one another’s stories. Sure, you can get a short bio of where someone went to school, where they live, where they work. But only when we each look in the mirror do we see our own stories in its entirety. Hold Love Strong, while not representative of the whole story of any one community or family, it is the story of countless Americans.
Teenage pregnancy and single motherhood are also at the forefront of the story. Abraham’s grandmother is only 30 years old when he is born to his 13 year old mother. There are no fathers in the household, only male nephews and cousins. How close to reality do you believe a story like this to be?
The truth is in the statistics. There are an overwhelming number of households, largely African American, being headed by single mothers. A lot of the kids I have worked with throughout the years speak to the high number of households where there is no father or father figure present. I chose to tell Abraham’s story as such because it represents the positive that can and does come out of households headed by single women, particularly amidst social adversity.
The “N” word is used throughout the book, which some may find offensive or difficult to digest, particularly coming from someone who is not African American. How do you explain its use and context in Hold Love Strong?
Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, once wrote, “Perhaps the most soulful word in the world is ‘nigger’. I especially believe that our society’s preoccupation with the word is also our way of avoiding the real issues that accompany the term. I personally have my own issues with the word and do not use it in my everyday life. However, I will say honestly that I’ve been called the “N” word in a loving way more times than my own name in some instances. I’ve also been referred to as the “N” word in not so desirable terms. My reason for using the term in Hold Love Strong is quite simply being true to Abraham’s voice, not in any way, shape or form condoning or glamorizing the word.
Tell me about who Matthew Aaron Goodman is.
I’m a boy who loved playing basketball, yet grew to be a man who strived to live his dream of being a writer. I’ve never pursued writing in the celebrity sense. My goal has been to write great, meaningful, thought-provoking stories that people can relate to, enjoy reading and hopefully walk away having learned something from the experience. I’m also a person who loves my work with youth. I never walk away disappointed in my interactions with them. I learn from them as much as I hope they learn from me.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading Hold Love Strong? Are there any important lessons to be learned?
Mahatma Gandhi said “A man is but the product of his thoughts; what he thinks, he becomes.” I hope that Hold Love Strong is able to contribute to the discussion that proves our universal humanity. That is, if we can accept that we can build such destructive devices--the atomic bomb, weapons of war, etc--why is it that we struggle to believe that we can build constructive ones as well, ones that bring us together instead of destroying and dividing each other? I always find it amazing when someone says you can't understand someone else. Considering that human beings have the capacity to split two invisible atoms (nuclear energy), I think we have a much greater capacity to understand each other than we give each other credit for.