Interview with: Alice Randall
Interview by: Amy Ellingson
If you were lucky enough to attend The Oxford American’s panel on country music at the annual Festival of the Book last October in Nashville, you were no doubt mesmerized by the incomparable panelist Alice Randall. Her voice is both calm and rapturous, and nearly every comment elicited audience applause (really, there was quite a lot of applause). Besides being an authority on country music—not to mention the first black female to co-write a country song (“XXX’s and OOO’s (An American Girl)” recorded by Trisha Yearwood) that charted at number one—Randall is the author of four novels, including The Wind Done Gone, a bestselling critical and controversial reinterpretation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, told from the perspective of Scarlett O’Hara’s half-black sister. (Her work also appears in The OA’s Book of Great Music Writing.)
It may come as a surprise, then, that a woman with such illustrious and literary credentials would choose to write a diet book, rife with exercise tips and healthy recipes. One look at her recent New York Times opinion piece entitled “Black Women And Fat,” proves, however, that this will be no shallow undertaking. Demonstrating the entrenched perceptions black women are up against, Randall states: “What we need is a body-culture revolution in black America. Why? Because too many experts who are involved in the discussion of obesity don’t understand something crucial about black women and fat: many black women are fat because they want to be.” This is clearly more than just a frivolous Bridget Jones’s Diary for black ladies; Randall is trying to change the perception of what is beautiful to align with what is healthy. And the debate is complicated.
The diet book takes the form of a novel, Ada’s Rules. The main character, Ada, finds herself, at almost fifty years old, overweight, over-committed, and under-appreciated. After receiving an invitation to attend a twenty-fifth college reunion from an old love—and shaken by the earlier deaths of her older sisters from “the sugar”—Ada embarks on a path to weight loss. The steps Ada takes on her journey are small (Rule 18: “Eat Sitting Down”; Rule 19: “Eat Slowly”), but when combined add up to great lifestyle change (and nifty pointers for readers). Sex and fidelity also figure into Ada’s body renaissance: Her preacher husband, Preach, hasn’t made a move in months—not toward his wife, in any case—doubling Ada’s motivation. Ultimately, however, Ada’s efforts aren’t for any man, past or present. They are for herself, her increasingly hefty twin daughters (like Ada, Randall says in the NYT piece that her goal is to be “the last fat black woman in my family”), and serve as a parable for all black women who struggle with finding enough time and impetus to get healthy.
The book is sprinkled with real advice from medical professionals at Vanderbilt University (where Randall is currently writer-in-residence) and some of Randall’s personal weight-loss cures. The woman has clearly done her research, so we decided we should too. We talked to Randall recently about the inspiration for her novel, the crisis of health among black women today, and her new favorite healthful meals.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: What got you so interested in the subject of health? And then what inspired you to write a book about it?
ALICE RANDALL: I live in the stroke belt. I am a black woman who has weighed over two hundred pounds. I got interested in health because I was worried about my own—and worried about the health of all Americans—but particularly about the obesity-fueled diseases (diabetes, cardiac complications, and cancer) that plague black Americans in disproportionate numbers. More and more I have come to believe that health disparity is the dominant civil rights issue of the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
THE OA: What do you hope your book offers to readers that a typical diet/exercise guide doesn’t?
AR: Laughter. Sex. Love. Joy. An invitation to re-imagine their own lives. Reading a novel is a pleasure. For the most part, reading a typical diet/exercise guide is a chore. I’ve been delighted that many readers have reported laughing right out loud while reading Ada’s Rules, and others have shared that it inspired them to be a bit more playful with their husbands.
THE OA: Are there any role models black females can look to for health inspiration (besides fictional ones like Ada)?
AR: Michelle Obama is an awesome fitness role model. The Surgeon General Regina Benjamin is another role model. Both of these women attend to their own health and the health of the nation.
THE OA: What do you think it will take for the type of message you convey in Ada’s Rules to reach black women?
AR: Word of mouth, and it’s happening, slowly but steadily. I’m going to be a keynote speaker at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans in July. That will speed things up.
THE OA: How much of the Ada character is autobiographical?
AR: I love Ada. She’s a lot earthier than I am and a lot less bookish. She’s got a genius for organization that allows her to take care of her parents’ home and her own home and run a daycare center and be an active First Lady of a church—if I have a gift, its an ability to sit hour after hour alone at the computer writing and loving writing.
One of the good things we share is a belief that finding and re-finding the passion in old marriage is important. And we have some of the same struggles. We both battle weight, and we both have had to deal with family members with hoarding issues. We also both have husbands who like a woman with a little meat on the bone. And we both have a daughter who teaches school—well, she has two and I have one! There’s a lot of me in Ada.
THE OA: Tell us about the class you teach at Vanderbilt, Soul Food as Text in Text. Any must reads for those of us who can’t enroll?
AR: I always start off with Anne Bower and Janet Theaphano. Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theaphano is both a great introduction to how to read beneath the surface of any cookbook and an intriguing introduction to African-American cookbooks written by women.
Our foundation text is African-American Foodways edited by Anne Bower. Bower’s central point, that soul food is always balancing an interest in preserving tradition while evolving in response to changing circumstance, clarifies much.
For pure deliciousness of reading, you can’t do better than Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine by Norma Jean and Carole, or A Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. The Dardens provide prickly politics (lynchings, Presidential miscegenation) with wonderful recipes for ice cream, confections, and cordials; to read Edna Lewis is to enter into a black version of Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons—everything is near perfect, and nothing is eaten out of season.
THE OA: Your website has recipes on it, which is perhaps unusual for an author. Did you put up these recipes in an effort to provide healthy food choices for readers of Ada’s Rules, or have you always been interested in cooking?
AR: I have long been interested in cooking. There are a thousand cookbooks in my kitchen. When I was at Harvard, I studied with Julia Child. As long as I’ve had a website I’ve had recipes on it.
THE OA: How has your cooking changed since writing Ada’s Rules?
AR: My cooking has changed profoundly. It’s gotten simpler. I savor the joy of the plain tomato varnished with olive oil and basil. I now think of cucumbers as the perfect dip for salsa. The festive ham has been replaced with the festive half salmon. And, of course, like Ada I now on occasion make delicious ice cubes with herbs frozen into them.
THE OA: Can you share one of your new favorite recipes with us?
AR: Ada’s rule number twelve is to eat breakfast. In the old days, I didn’t eat breakfast. Now I eat a cup of Greek yogurt with six or seven almonds sprinkled with a mixture of equal parts cinnamon and nutmeg and quarter part clove. It’s more delicious than French toast.
If I want a hot breakfast, this is what I throw into a skillet: a tiny bit of olive oil, chopped onion, three good hands full of spinach, then four or five egg whites!
THE OA: Have you seen any indication that a food-culture revolution is beginning?
AR: Absolutely. Women of color across the country are starting to walk and run and join yoga classes. I love the organization Black Girls Run. Black women are beginning to flock toward zumba classes.
THE OA: What has been your favorite reaction you’ve received from a reader of Ada’s Rules?
AR: Someone told me I saved her life. Another very large woman was inspired to try a yoga class. But it’s the many times a week that someone said Ada got them out working the “eight-eight-eight”—walk eight miles each week, sleep eight hours each night, drink eight glasses of water each day—that keeps me going. It’s those small, slow changes that will shift the shape of the nation, one body at a time.
THE OA: You’re a songwriter, and you mention the power of music in Ada’s Rules. What’s on your personal workout playlist?
AR: There are so, so many songs that I listen to when I exercise, but some of my favorites are:
“I Feel Good” by James Brown
“These Boots Are Made for Walking” by Nancy Sinatra
“All the Above” by Maino
“Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones
“Fancy” by Drake
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Twisting The Night Away” by Sam Cooke
“Down By the Riverside” by Mahalia Jackson
“Breathin” by 2Pac
“Willin” by Little Feat