Thursday, 2 August 2018
Release Date: 18th July 2018
, is out July 2018, published by Sphinx, an imprint of AEON Books, priced £12.99, available from .
Powerful new novel, Right of Passage by Lee Jenkins, explores the social change and tension that marked those who lived throughout the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War era. The moving story follows Chris, a middle-class black man, and his emotional development as he attempts to find his place in white society whilst battling conflicting cultural allegiances and the contradictions of his inner life.
The book focuses on the love story of Chris and Miriam, a white fellow academic, with their irresistible mutual attraction complicated by anxiety, self-doubt and the resistance of their families. A story of love and pain, Right of Passage is set against a background of 1960s ethnic conflict, with the day-to-day experiences of black middle-class life intertwined in the narrative.
Reflecting on the themes of friendship, ethnicity, conflicting family ties, literature and the pain of love, this riveting story enables readers to recognise the problematic and unresolved racial tensions of the 1960s, and those that continue to linger in present-day society.
This beautifully written novel gives a voice to minorities in society and their fight to have control of their own lives through the investigation of poignant motifs, such as the right to an education, falling in love and embarking on earning a meaningful living.
Lee Jenkins cleverly creates an important fictional account of what it was like for a young, well-educated black man to fall in love with a white woman during a time of extensive social transformation, whilst illuminating the racism, sexism and hypocritical behaviour that interracial couples were subjected to every day.
Right of Passage expertly captures the mysterious and transforming power of love, as well as the irony, humour, and pain involved in measuring up to self-professed humane ideals at a time when global intolerance and unacceptance has had a major resurgence.
I married her—and she me. I put it this way because the mutual pledging, and acceptance, that marriage implies—almost a sacred thing—are not always actual in the way one intends to affirm them, in spite of the bright and misty-eyed affirmation of bride and groom before family and friends. The two of us had much to overcome—family resistance, public disfavor, the personal banishing of doubt and fear to support the illusion of certainty.
They were all there in attendance at our wedding, a sky-blue spring morning in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, in front of a flowing stream, in bright but not yet burning sunlight. It was a spot she used to visit as a child. We stood under a flower-draped canopy, the ceremony officiated by a rabbi and an Ethical Culture minister. We pledged our commitment to each other and exchanged rings; two friends spoke in tribute of each of us; and the ministers, seemingly happy to be able to collaborate in this ecumenical gathering, spoke of the sanctity of marriage, especially as this occasion brought together as one family disparate members of the human family. Her eyes were shining as she looked at her family, her father, and aunts, Selma and Ruth, and Ruth’s husband and children; and my family, my mother, my sister and her husband and sons, and my other sister, beaming; our many friends—we had brought together a lot of people, maybe 150—whose collective will toward affirmation seemed our final consummation. Our school colleague, Howard, was among them, and Liz and Leon, and Derek, Tina, Missy, and their new baby boy. There were others, who had traveled long distances to get there, from addresses that had not changed over the years, and many that had, friends and teachers from college, even my old professor from Iowa who used to recite Homer in Greek. He had come with his English wife, an actress, as I later learned. Then we all left in an entourage, as I led her across the grass, through the heady fragrance and showy extravagance of blossoming roses and peonies, making our way to the banquet that would last the rest of the day. As we passed, I noticed Brock, with an expression only to be described as a happy smirk; and near him was Sarah, with an intensely interested look, standing next to what I assumed was her surgeon boyfriend.
We married in 1970, and three years later we finished our doctoral studies and were lucky enough to get jobs in New York City. I am now a professor of English there, and so is she. In 1975 our son arrived, after a long wait—and not for our not having tried (though the second, now, is on the way)—a creature so beautiful we didn’t know whether he was a boy, a girl, or an angel. He didn’t look like either one of us so much as you could see that he was our product. “He’s so light,” she said, referring to his fair skin, almost as fair as hers but with a luminous, honey-hued tinge, the unspoken signature of the long-standing comingling of the races; but, of course, any time any two individuals mate, doesn’t the original ancestral Homo 331 sapiens stock get shifted around some more? He didn’t look white and he didn’t look black either. Maybe he was just what it looked like to be human.
Lee Jenkins is a psychoanalyst and author. His novel, Right of Passage, is available from AEON books, priced at £12.99 in paperback. For more information see
Q&A about Right of Passage
1. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
There were many things I thought I might be doing as an adult. Being a doctor, being a scientist were some of them. I was part of the amateur rocket flying craze in the 1950s, after the Russians put up their Sputnik. Additionally, I had always loved writing and was a good student in literature classes. I wrote stories and plays. In college I had a reading of a play I’d written, and I studied playwriting at The University of Iowa, when I graduated from college, even though my college major was philosophy. I guess this might make it seem that I’d always wanted to be a writer; but, as I’ve said, I had always been interested in many things and never thought particularly about making writing a career.
We should remember also that there are many kinds of writing. I received a Ph.D. degree in English and Comparative Literature and have been engaged in the professional writing of my discipline: articles and studies of works of literature and literary figures. When I retired as an English professor, I devoted more time working as a psychoanalyst, for which I had already trained, and in addition to doing therapy I write about issues related to mental health and African-American identity.
2. What is your writing process like?
As a practicing psychoanalyst my work days are Monday-Thursday, all day and into the night. When the weekend comes I have time to write. When I wake up in the morning, my mind is often full of ideas, and I have real mental clarity sometimes, and that’s when I might write for an hour at about 6:00 a.m. before my regular workday begins. I like to write on yellow legal pads, the really long ones, and fill them up with my small print. To me it doesn’t look like something legal is going on there, but something weighty and deep, secret and beautiful; and I look at my pads with the satisfaction of something accomplished.
3. What inspired you to write Right of Passage?
Something was pressing on me to tell the story of the most formative phases or occurrences of my life. One of those was the recollection of a romantic relationship I had with a woman I knew fifty years ago in graduate school. The story began to bring into focus a conception of myself and my self-awareness with regard to how my own growing up had shaped my character and expectations in such a way that led to the forming of the relationship I’m talking about.
4. Does Right of Passage reflect your own life in any way?
Yes, telling the story of my relationship with the woman in the story, I call her Miriam, involved remembering our situation and creating a character, whom I call Chris, who has things in common with me and an upbringing similar to mine; but he is not me and is an individual in his own right and is true to the logic of his own creation.
Nevertheless, many aspects of my own life are presented in the novel, some faithfully rendered; some altered and imagined in a way that they have a different meaning, significance and appearance; some serving as the basis for the invention of something entirely different.
5. Why create a work of fiction instead of an autobiography?
An autobiography is going to be faithful in some essential way to the facts of what actually happened, insofar as they can be accurately recalled and presented. The beauty and accuracy of the presentation are some the measures used to gauge its success and significance.
A work of fiction can be much more expansive, making use of actual occurrences, altering or expanding them, reimagining them, putting them in an imaginative world larger than the one that might have been actually lived. We often say that life is stranger than fiction, which might be true, and what can be imagined probably must in some basic way be tethered to the possibilities of what can actually happen. The imaginative recreating of these possibilities brings something into being that has not actually existed but is said to exist now. It may be even more fascinating, strange and interesting to contemplate. This is the case with science fiction and the like. Imaginative literature can do the same, take what we know and give it a reality that enlarges its possibilities, giving us something we hadn’t thought about yet is completely convincing and emotionally satisfying—like what magical realism does in literature or the way the fictions we create can parallel the fantastical prognostications of our dreams.
6. What do you love most about works of fiction?
I like that fiction gives us a picture of what human life is like, what humans look like in action giving expression to their hopes, fears and possibilities. The whole of the social, cultural and psychological life of a society can be rendered in a work of fiction. I like that fiction can push to the limits what can be imagined about how we think and interact with each other. Characterization reflects what is fascinating about being human and what it is that is uniquely human, or what it is about being human that is unique and interesting.
7. Why did you focus the book on 1960s America?
The short answer is that the 1960s is the period of time during which the actual relationship I am writing about in the novel occurred. It is the period of my own maturity, coming into adulthood.
In addition it was a vibrant period of social change touching on so many areas of interest in society. Attitudes about racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, and sexual identity were undergoing reconsideration and change. A new ethos reflecting the prospects of human egalitarianism was being explored, and the sense of a world-wide global community was being envisioned, in which others different from oneself might be met with a desire to understand rather than to condemn. Militarism, nationalism, colonialism were waning and no longer seen as inevitable forces of nationhood.
8. Why did you feel it was important to tell the stories of an interracial couple?
Having experienced an interracial relationship myself, I wanted to explore what was interesting, vital and compelling about such a relationship, and its human manifestations of togetherness. I wanted to show how the couple’s interest in each other was no different from that of other people, and I wanted to reveal, at the same time, the ways in which they might be subject to distortions of racist or prejudicial attitudes that affected them; and I wanted this phenomenon to be seen as having little to do with them and everything to do with the distortions in the minds of others.
9. What advice would you give any aspiring authors?
A writer must trust his own intuition and instincts to tell the truth about what he knows and can imagine, rather than being fearful of saying things that might be unacceptable to others. A writer’s job is to reveal and clarify what is or what could be. The writer should render these things as forcefully as they are seen and felt in his imagination.