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'Bronzeville' Author Discusses The Dualities Of 'Race, Fate, And Sisterhood'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Why do some people make it and others don't? Or rather, they struggle in ways that mystify even the people closest to them. That's the question at the heart of Dawn Turner's new book, "Three Girls From Bronzeville."

Turner is an award-winning journalist, a former reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune. For years, she wrote about other people's lives in her hometown. But for her new book, she turns her reporter's eye on herself, her best friend Debra Trice, and her younger sister Kim, as they grew up in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. But all too soon, their lives start to take very different paths, and Turner set out to try to find out why. And Dawn Turner is with us now to tell us more.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAWN TURNER: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: A lot of reviewers have already pointed to sort of the joy in your writing and how you describe the beauty of the place that you grew up in a way that, perhaps, other people didn't see. But...

TURNER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...You know, without giving too much away, you write about how some things went very wrong for your younger sister and your best friend, even as you were able to accomplish so many of the things that you set out to do. And I was wondering how you experience this book. Do you experience it primarily as joyous or as painful?

TURNER: That's a great question because I think it's so much a combination of those feelings and so much more. It is a celebration of friendship and sisterhood and how the people we love are with us forever, no matter how they leave us. And so one of the reasons why I can look at this story and say, there but for the grace of God go I, is that I have so much of myself and I see so much of myself in my sister and so much of her and me, and the same thing with Debra. And so where they ended up, yes, it was very shocking to all of us. But you don't know somebody's journey. And so when you get them in the middle of their story, you have to go back and understand the beginning.

MARTIN: You grew up in an apartment complex that was across the street from public housing.

TURNER: Yes.

MARTIN: Throughout the book, you write about how conditions in the public housing development got worse and worse as time went on and how - it's not like people didn't notice...

TURNER: Right.

MARTIN: ...But almost like they felt, like, powerless to do anything about it. What impact do you think that had on you and the people around you?

TURNER: Right. I mean, we grew up in - I think in the parlance of today, it would be called affordable housing. It was very much considered a place for working-class people for - with middle-class ideals or dreams. And so everything was pristine. It was all - the janitors chased down wayward pieces of paper with, like, a religious fervor.

But across the street - and we had a bird's-eye view of the abandonment and how the Chicago Housing Authority was the landlord of the Ida B. Wells homes. And this was a place that was a place of utter despair. And so we watched how the systems that may have worked on our side of the street completely did not work. The garbage pickup lagged. Whenever there was a streetlight that had blown out, it was not replaced immediately. The housing project was either underpoliced or overpoliced.

And so we saw that. And the people on both sides of the street were the same people. And so what was the difference? The difference was the conditions. If you live in squalor and you're told constantly that you don't matter, it becomes so hard. It's such an extra burden on you to even try to succeed.

MARTIN: There are also choices being made...

TURNER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...All along the way - big choices and, frankly, a lot of little choices.

TURNER: Yes.

MARTIN: And, you know, one of the point - pain points is that your sister and your friend, starting in adolescence, started going wild...

TURNER: Yes.

MARTIN: ...I mean, you know, cutting school, you know what...

TURNER: Right.

MARTIN: ...I mean?

TURNER: Yes.

MARTIN: And they...

TURNER: I do.

MARTIN: ...Come across, as, you know, picaresque...

TURNER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...In a way. And this is, frankly, one of these issues that repeatedly comes up in policy debates, where people say, oh, you know what? It's the circumstances. On the other hand, people say, no, it's personal responsibility. And people need to take responsibly for themselves. So I have to ask, like, why did you go one way and the girls another? I mean, was it as simple as personality, that you liked school, and you - it was a good place for you, and it wasn't for them?

TURNER: Right.

MARTIN: Or what do you think?

TURNER: Well, I mean, I - first of all, I'm so glad you picked up on - Debra and Kim were incredibly bright. And I think that the difference - at least one of the differences - I was told very early on that I was smart. For me, rules was scaffolding. But for them, they were something that you just kind of push against. But in terms of why they went one way, I don't know that I can really give a reason for that other than to say that I do think that we have to, as a society, do a better job trying to help kids or adolescents who are outliers, who don't fall into that category of, you know, the kid who is going to follow the rules, the kid who is not perfect, by the way. I was never perfect.

MARTIN: I wonder if, in part, what is so disturbing is the ratio. Like, that - why would it be of the three of you, only one of you survived in a way?

TURNER: Right.

MARTIN: I wonder, is it - is part of your sort of operating theory here that if the society cared more about people like you and your sisters and your friend, that the ratio would be better?

TURNER: Yeah. I am hoping that we can boost the number of kids who make it. And however you define make it, I mean, that's completely personal. And without giving a whole lot of way, there is a redemption story in Debra's story. And so some of this is how can we protect these kids or offer a bridge to them before the clock runs out? And sometimes you do have to hit a wall. But it does not have to mean that that is - that you're irredeemable and that you can't have a second chance. Too often, there are so many people who are denied that second chance. And part of what I'm saying also is that you can make a huge mistake, a really bad mistake, and there should be an avenue not to just be warehoused, but to be forgiven and given a second chance if both are earned.

MARTIN: That was Dawn Turner. Her new book is called "Three Girls From Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir Of Race, Fate And Sisterhood." Dawn Turner, thank you so much for talking with us.

TURNER: My sincere pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.