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Susan Straight: 'A Million Nightingales'

<strong>Web Extra:</strong> Hear Susan Straight Read a Passage from 'A Million Nightingales'

Susan Straight was born and raised in Riverside, Calif. But she writes from the perspective of those who came to the Golden State from somewhere else.

Straight collects stories. One in particular -- from an African-American neighbor explaining why he moved from Louisiana to rural Southern California -- is at the heart of her novel A Million Nightingales.

The neighbor packed up his family and left Lousiana in one eventful weekend, eventually settling in Riverside. His goal was to protect his daughter from a white man who -- in the segregated South of 1953 -- had made her a sexual target.

Straight's book explores the human drive to escape and find a measure of personal liberty.

A Million Nightingales follows the saga of Moinette, the child of a Senagelese-born laundress on a Louisiana plantation. Moinette is of mixed heritage; her mother was offered as a fille cadeau -- a "gift girl" -- to a visiting sugar broker, and Moinette was born nine months later.

Moinette, a "mulatresse," is sold off as a teenager to another plantation and plots her escape from her new masters, using her wits to protect herself -- and later, her own son and daughter.

Straight has three daughters of her own, and that fact was both a catalyst and an influence on the book.

"I had not ever been able to decide how my girls would have fared if they had been born at another time," she says. "And that was something I thought about for 10 years before I wrote this novel."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.