This year’s Diversity Training through Literature Fishbowl Psychiatry Grand Rounds took place on Wednesday May 9th and featured Barbara Neely, author of the Blanche mystery series, and psychologist Olivia Moorhead-Slaughter, PhD. Although the Fishbowl Psychiatry Grand Rounds is in its ninth year, this was the first time that an author appeared as a featured speaker. The program began with a discussion between Barbara Neely and Dr. Moorhead-Slaughter, a psychologist at the Park School and former intern at Children’s Hospital Boston, and was followed by questions from the audience.
Dr. Moorhead-Slaughter introduced the character of Blanche as being “forthright, wise, before her time, fearless, discerning, smart, calculating in all the right ways…and,” remarked Moorhead-Slaughter, “she can cook!” When asked how Blanche came to be, Neely replied that there were few books where the main character was a traditional, poor-working class black woman and that she modeled Blanche’s astute observational skills and ability to see everything yet go unnoticed as traits that she had often encountered in the Black community. Her inspiration for Blanche came from her two grandmothers, who were both domestic workers, and a large, very dark-skinned woman named Blanche she once met who “had ‘attitude’ written on her forehead.”
At the time that she was writing Blanche Cleans Up, Neely noticed that much of the literature about the Black American community focused solely on “poor folks in the ghetto” and that few works included stories about people raising well-adjusted children. Barbara Neely, who is also a social activist, and Olivia Moorhouse-Slaughter touched on a number of topics from the book including the tragedy behind Aminata’s struggle with her son’s crimes, the villainous Reverend Samuelson and how his character was an amalgamation of different preachers that Neely has encountered, and the difficulty that criminals from poor, black communities face in receiving opportunities to better their lives after incarceration.
When asked about her writing process Neely laughed at the description of herself as a “disciplined” writer and stated that she tends to be “slow and scared” while writing. Although finding discipline to write is challenging, such rituals as having a thermos of green tea, fountain pens, lined yellow pads, two computers – one with and one without the internet, and “having a pen and pencil on every surface of my house” helped her to form a writing routine. Neely alluded to a new book that she was working on, and although it is not a Blanche book, she hinted that Blanche’s adventures might not quite be over yet.