Dominican and Caribbean-American author Naima Coster is unafraid to tell extraordinary stories about ordinary families, especially the women that lead them. Her sophomore novel What’s Mine and Yours follows the intertwined history of two families in North Carolina: one helmed by Lacey May and her three half-Latina daughters, the other by Jade, who is trying to give her son Gee the tools to thrive as a Black man in the real world. When their respective childrens’ schools integrate and Lacey May’s daughter Noelle and Gee begin a tentative romance, questions of class, race, privilege, and history bubble to the surface and unfold a more complex future than any of the characters ever imagined.
Sofía Aguilar and Naima Coster hopped on the phone to discuss the novel, Coster’s thoughts on motherhood, and what she’s working on next.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Growing up, who were writers you loved to read?
NAIMA COSTER: One of the writers I really loved, who I still love now, was the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. Her first book I read was Breath, Eyes, Memory, and it changed my sense of what a novel could do. The writing of Julia Alvarez was also important to me, especially In the Time of the Butterflies and Before We Were Free. It felt like a way into understanding a place that was familiar to me but that I didn’t understand because nobody formally introduced or explained the history to me. When I got older, Angie Cruz, Nelly Rosario, and Jesmyn Ward were important writers to me.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Being the author of two novels now, how do you usually approach your writing?
NAIMA COSTER: Every book is different. I begin with a strong sense of what I’m trying to explore or convey, sometimes spending years thinking about themes and characters before I actually start putting words to the page. I have a long germination process. And then I try to write the first draft relatively quickly so I don’t have time to psych myself out or get scared. I just sprint towards the finish. In revision, I let myself reimagine the work and it will change a lot. I spend as long rewriting my book as I do writing, and sometimes longer.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How would you say What’s Mine and Yours differs from or is similar to your debut novel, Halsey Street?
NAIMA COSTER: It’s similar in that it’s about family and how hard it can be to belong to a family. It’s also about fractures in family, how families come to be disconnected or alienated and then how they find their way back to each other. But Halsey Street follows two characters, a mother and daughter, very intimately. What’s Mine and Yours is more expansive. It tries to have that same kind of intimacy and closeness but there are many more characters. Mothers, their children when they’re young, in adulthood, partners, lovers, spouses who come in and out of their lives. It’s much more of a tapestry.
I try to write the first draft relatively quickly so I don’t have time to psych myself out or get scared. I just sprint towards the finish. In revision, I let myself reimagine
SOFÍA AGUILAR: You finished What’s Mine and Yours just before you gave birth. What was that experience like, especially since the book itself addresses pregnancy and motherhood?
NAIMA COSTER: The book captures my questions and thinking of motherhood from a time before I was a mother. I revised the book in the first year of my daughter’s life, a time that was raw but where I really didn’t have perspective on the experience of mothering because I was in the thick of it. The mothers in this book–Lacey May, Jade, and Noelle–all have different philosophies about what it is to be a mother. Having these three different characters allows me to illustrate and play with philosophies that aren’t necessarily mine but have their own limits and power. There’s no one take on what it is to be a mother or a good mother. That complexity makes the book feel alive and interesting to me as a writer.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Interestingly, many Latina writers write about motherhood and matriarchy, despite our larger patriarchal culture. What are your thoughts on that dichotomy?
NAIMA COSTER: There’s a scholar named Regina Mills who wrote an academic article about Angie Cruz’s first book Soledad and my first book Halsey Street. It is about Dominican women, contemplation, and interior life, how the two of us as writers are interested in that. I thought it was an amazing piece because a lot of the Latina writers that I love are very interested in the minds and interior lives of women. Not just large-scale political events but the domestic, the interior, the personal as a site that is worthy of fiction.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What were you hoping to say about the way we construct Latinx identities?
NAIMA COSTER: In What’s Mine and Yours, Lacey May’s daughters are all Latina but it means something different to each of them, which doesn’t match in a neat way to how they look or are perceived. Even within the same family, people identify differently, are presented, and read differently. I wanted to explore what that kind of dynamic can produce within a family, how it can produce connection, understanding, but also misunderstanding. Identity wasn’t just something the sisters shared, but it was messy and complicated, something they didn’t all agree on. Which I think is true on the larger scale of Latinidad.
There’s no one take on what it is to be a mother or a good mother. That complexity makes the book feel alive and interesting to me as a writer.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What does the book’s title mean to you?
NAIMA COSTER: It’s a title my editor came up with! It comes from a line in Measure for Measure, which is the play they stage in the integrated high school to bring the new and old kids together, to bridge that divide. The play is fitting for the book for a number of reasons, like how our moral judgments and convictions can get us into trouble and sow disaster. And the line is, “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours,” about holding things in common in marriage at the end of the play when a complicated set of betrothals are happening and are not understood as happy. So I love that “what’s mine and yours” suggests connection but it’s ambiguous. It could also mean things that we’ll never share or hold in common. I like the openness of that, the possibility for both intimacy and alienation.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What upcoming projects are you excited about?
NAIMA COSTER: I’m working on my third novel now, which is about two life-long friends who decide to move near one another when they’re both pregnant with their first children. They don’t have the support of their families so they want to be family to one another and show up for one another. But they have divergent experiences of motherhood because of money, the partnerships that they’re in, their distinct family histories. So it’s a book about early motherhood, female friendship, class mobility, and envy, and I’m having a lot of fun writing it.
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