“An impressive debut novel.”—Essence
“BLACKGAMMON is a lustrous meditation on race, love, sisterhood, success and life, and I fell headlong into its exotic would from the moment I began reading it. If you’ve ever lived outside the United States—or wondered what it must be like—then BLACKGAMMON is a must-read. Heather Neff is a unique voice in African-American fiction.”—Tananarive Due, author of The Black Rose and My Soul to Keep
“BLACKGAMMON is a phosphorescently intelligent novel. Heather Neff weaves her language and her narrative from gilded threads. This is a debut of momentous ambition and winged achievement. Her characters are rendered with assurance and detail. Her descritpions glimmer like gems.”—Colin Channer, author of Waiting in Vain
A sweeping, unforgettable debut novel that traces remarkable parallel voyages of self-discovery, BLACKGAMMON reveals the intertwined lives of two African-American women–soul sisters whose vow to stay true to each other will carry them through love, loss, and triumph on the way to finding out who they really are . . . and who they were meant to be.
After twenty-five years of self-imposed exile in Paris, legendary African American artist Chloe Emmanuel faces a daunting prospect: the chance of a triumphant return to the United States. She came to the City of Light in search of freedom . . . the freedom to paint, freedom from a love that nearly destroyed her, freedom from the racial strife in the country she once called home. Swept into the seductive world of high fashion and art gallery intrigues, Chloe finds that Paris poses its own set of challenges — the pressures of living up to her acclaimed reputation, the difficulty of expressing her feelings without a brush, the vow always to remain strong and directed, and the hope of never again allowing a man to turn her away from her dreams.
While Chloe reflects on her life, her relationships, and the meaning of her art, she begins to wonder: Is her artistic success linked to her “inability to love,” as an enigmatic lover once suggested? If that is true, Chloe must somehow help her younger “sister” and closest friend, Michael Davies Northcross, who is confronting a devastating personal crisis of her own.
A distinguished African-American professor in England, married to a brilliant British scholar, Michael has modeled her life on the lies that Chloe has lived. When a visiting professor challenges not only her marriage but her reasons for staying devoted to a white man, Michael must sort through the half-truths and deceptions– and find her way back to that fragile place where real love exists.
Unwilling to sacrifice the dreams they dared to make real, Chloe and Michael are forced to the limits of their strength and independence. They must gamble everything to recapture what they have lost . . . in a dazzling game called BLACKGAMMON.
The only way I’m going to survive is to finally tell the truth. I’m going to destroy every illusion you’ve ever had about me. I’m going to introduce you to a woman you don’t know, despite our twenty-five years of friendship… I have only this one night, Michael, to right a lifetime of wrongs. You deserve to know that Chloe Emmanuel is an imposter. You need to know this in order to save yourself. And, perhaps, to save me…
An Interview with Heather Neff
Where did you get the idea for BLACKGAMMON?
I wrote the first pages of a story called “Saint Lucien” back in 1978, just a few weeks after finishing my Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Michigan. I was thinking about going to live in Paris, and I began to imagine the life of a young woman named Chloe, who travels to France and has a bittersweet affair with a womanizer named Lucien.
Of course, I really did go to live in Paris, but I never met anyone like Lucien. While living in that wonderful city I did meet students from around the world. I worked for a translator and had the opportunity to travel to the south of France, Italy and Spain.
Along the way I kept working on Chloe’s story. Over the years it grew and changed. When I returned to the United States I began working on another book – the story of Michael Davies and her husband, Drew Northcross. It seemed fated that the two women should eventually meet. And of course, they did!
Why did you want to live in Paris?
I think my love affair with Paris began when I was about three years old. My parents used to read the Madeleine books to me, and many years later when I first arrived in France, I often had the feeling that I was actually coming “home!”
I also love French film, including the works of Truffault, Godard, and especially Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.” I really believed that Paris was a magical place where every dream could come true.
Did your dreams come true in Paris?
Some did. I met and married a wonderful man while I lived there. I learned a new language and had a number of fascinating experiences. There were some difficult times, too – but I learned a lot about life during those years.
How did your many years in Switzerland compare to your time in France?
While living in Switzerland I worked as a translator and ran language programs at several corporations. I was also working on my Doctoral degree, which meant that I spent many hours doing research. Although I traveled a great deal during my semester breaks, I was generally too busy to spend much time on creative writing!
It’s been thirty years since you first visited Paris. How has the city changed over the years?
I’ve had the privilege of teaching an Eastern Michigan University course called “American Writers in Paris” for the past few years. I take a group of students to Paris in the early summer, just at the time of the solstice, when the sun sets around 11p.m. and the city is brimming with flowers. If anything, Paris is a far more beautiful and exciting city than it was when I first visited. Several great new museums have opened — most notably, the Musee d’Orsay, the Quai Branley and the Picasso — and a great deal of care is now being taken to clean and preserve the facades of Paris’ historic buildings. Even better, many thousands of people are making use of the free bicycles that are placed throughout the city. There’s less traffic and a real sense of pleasure in walking.
Most importantly, I now enjoy the city through the lens of five decades of life. The art, music and diversity of peoples means even more to me than it did in the early days. I feel that there’s a novel on every corner, a symphony in the clouds passing by, and a great film in every conversation in every bistrot and cafe. Very few cities on earth are as inspiring and invigorating as Paris!
Is there a place in the city that you particularly love?
There are too many places to list! I would, however, urge anyone visiting the city to make time to see the Musee Carnavalet, which houses historical artifacts from the history of Paris (and it’s free!). The Paris Mosque, in the fifth arrondisement, has an exquisite tea room, restaurant and gift shop. It’s also the site of the hammam, or steam bath, that Chloe visits with Malika. I love to stop by the nearby Arena de Lutece, a small outdoor ampitheater that dates back to ancient Rome. And my favorite museum in Paris, the Musee Cluny, which houses the exquisite Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, also holds the tombstone of Harry Potter’s Nicolas Flamel!
Ernest Hemingway wrote in “A Moveable Feast” that “…there is never any ending to Paris…Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it…” This is absolutely true.
What is your specialization as a university professor?
I primarily teach courses on African American literature, which is a fascinating subject because black authors are so engaged in a critical discussion of the world we live in. Every semester there are new books to teach, new subjects to consider and new voices to be heard, including my own! I teach my novels “Accident of Birth,” “Haarlem” and “Leila: the Weighted Silence of Memory” in my courses.
What are your hobbies?
I’m an avid fitness walker, and also enjoy cycling and gardening. I like to sew, paint in acrylics and oil, and I compose music for each of my characters on the piano.