“You can’t control what’s going to happen to the book you’re about to publish,” says Rumaan Alam from his artful living room in Crown Heights. The novelist is days away from the release of his second book “That Kind of Mother,” from HarperCollins, but the pressure of a sophomore effort’s expectations seem to have evaded him. A good mind-set helps. That, and the fact that he’s already hard at work on book number three.
Alam, who broke out with 2016’s “Rich and Pretty,” turns to a subject he knows firsthand — adoption as the cornerstone of experience for his protagonist, Rebecca. The book follows Rebecca as she and her husband, both white and parents to a biological son, come to adopt a black baby.
“It began with wanting to write about the tension between ambition and parenthood,” says Alam. Rebecca is a poet who tries balancing her emotional need to work with being a mother to two young children. “And then it became much more about adoption, and then it became about race.”
Alam and his husband, photographer David Land, are an interracial couple who are parents by adoption of two black sons.
“It’s almost impossible to decide [what is personal and what is not],” he says. “If I were not a parent by adoption myself I don’t think I would’ve been drawn to write about adoption, right? And if I were not a parent, I’m not sure I would’ve been drawn to write about parenthood.”
One thing he cannot know of firsthand is motherhood, a decision he ventured into cautiously but keenly.
“I think that in the cultural imagination, motherhood has a primacy that fatherhood just doesn’t; and that’s not to say that there aren’t many fathers who are active and engaged and for whom that is their life’s passion. But somehow, in the imagination, there’s something different about maternity,” Alam says. “Because I live in a family with no mother, that’s also an interesting wrinkle because there’s a lot of the absence of that figure in my own household. And, in a way, that has underscored to me how that figure is so dominant in our texts.”
The struggle Rebecca faces between her professional ambitions and her role as a parent is also something Alam wanted to shine light on from the perspective of a woman.
“This tension between ambition and parenthood, that’s not a reckoning that many men face,” he says. “There are plenty of men who say ‘oh I need to be there for my kids and I can’t do x or y professionally,’ but for the most part that’s a struggle that belongs to women in society. At this point I think that is such a prototypical experience: you really don’t have to look very far to find women in your own life who have made these particular sacrifices around being a parent.”
That’s not to say he didn’t have his hesitations. “It’s a big gamble — I think there are a couple of big gambles in this book,” he says. “One is writing about womanhood, one is writing about blackness: two things that I don’t know anything about from an intimate perspective. I know plenty of women, obviously, and my own children are black, so these are things that are very important to me, but things that I cannot know as a firsthand reporter. You would have to be crazy to wade into that without some trepidation, because it’s very easy to get those things wrong.”
Exploring such topics was worth the risk for Alam. “I think it’s a way of saying to the reader that I’m trying something, I’m trying to understand. And especially in a business where we understand that so many readers are women,” he says. “It felt important to really try to get at the experience rather than skirting around it.”
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