New Novel Follows A Woman’s Search For Answers About A Mother Who Died While Giving Birth

Debut author M Shelly Conner released her new book ‘everyman: A Novel’ which is a fascinating story combining themes of identity, political unrest, family, belonging, and love. In this captivating historical fiction novel, Eve Mann is a young woman coming of age in Chicago against the backdrop of the civil rights and Black Power movements, a time when everything―and everyone, it seems―longs to be made anew. 

Eve Mann arrives in Ideal, Georgia, in 1972, looking for answers about her mother who died in childbirth, and the father she never knew. This search becomes a mission to discover her identity, her name, her people, her home, launching a multigenerational story that sprawls back to the turn of the twentieth century, settles into the soil of the South, the blood and souls of Black folk making love and life, and fleeing into a Great Migration into the savage embrace of the North.

At the core of this story are the various meanings of love, how we love and most of all who we love. ‘Everyman’ is peopled by rebellious Black women straining against the yoke of convention and designated identities, explorers announcing their determination to be and to be free. On her journey, Eve’s friends, family and strangers must plumb the depths of their own hurt and reconciliations to finally give Eve the gift of her past, a reimagined present, and her name.

This is a multigenerational story that follows the historical contours of the Great Migration of African Americans during the 20th century, simultaneously revealing one woman’s struggle to locate herself within a family, and the everyman’s journey to connect with a collective that reaches back to Africa. 

As a Chicago native herself, M Shelly Conner spent her summers bouncing between her grandmother in Memphis and relatives in Los Angeles, reveling in the sprawl of the Great Migration. She received her B.A. in English from Tuskegee University, M.A. in Education from Concordia University – River Forest, and her Ph.D from the University of Illinois at Chicago where she wrote the beginnings of ‘everyman’ as her creative dissertation.

She is the creator of the Quare Life web series and has published essays on dapper queer aesthetics, Black womanhood, self-sustainable living, and their intersections in various publications, including the A.V. Club, theGrio, Playboy Magazine, and Crisis Magazine. We had the opportunity to speak with M Shelly about her debut novel, the themes she has interwoven throughout, and what she hopes Black readers in particular will receive from the story:

Author M Shelly Conner. Image by Tiffany Conner

What initially inspired you to write ‘everyman’? 

In a former life, I was a Chicago Public School teacher and my mother was a Chicago Public Librarian. She’s always been into tracing our family lineage and gradually moved from collector of family items and obituaries to full scale census research and grant awards that brought records to her library branch. This was well before ancestry DNA sites and she successfully traced our family back to my enslaved fourth great grandfather in the early 1800s.

As a teacher, I wanted my 6th/7th graders to experience a fraction of that joy and so I created a genealogy project and booklets that encouraged them to work with their families to list their relatives. I knew that they wouldn’t get the multiple generations that my mother spent decades recovering (the legacy of slavery still disrupts Black lives by making our pasts irrecoverable), but I also didn’t expect some of the more immediate obstacles. Some families were distrustful of the project and its questions. A few refused to disclose even the most basic inquiries.

I became obsessed with these untold stories. My upbringing had been cultivated within a genealogical treasure hunt as my mother incessantly dug out the most minute details of people and places. These reluctant families of some students were doing the opposite, covering up the past and the people in it as quickly as possible. I didn’t know their reasons but author Toni Morrison wrote about a willingness to forget, a national amnesia, regarding slavery. I’d like to extend the scope to include even more recent generations: People bury their memories of the dead folks who buried folks alive.

The main character Eve is looking for answers about her mother who died in childbirth – an important topic given the very present and real issue surrounding maternal mortality among African American women today. Why was it important to have this part of Eve’s story?

In the simplest rationale, Eve needed to make this journey alone and needed to have a strong motive. She needed to fill a hole inside of her and I could think of no greater absence to give my character than motherlessness. It’s how I felt in the classroom with my students as I tried to share the genealogy project: that their experience was the exact opposite of what I’d hoped for them.

The scene where Mercy dies in childbirth speaks to the systemic lack of care provided to Black women in hospitals. Even Serena Williams fought to advocate against doctors who questioned her assertion that she was experiencing postpartum difficulties.

Eve is coming of age in Chicago during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. How does your book will relate to what is happening today with the Black Lives Matter movement and the push for racial justice? 

‘Everyman’ is a testament to the lack of change regarding race in this country. The novel (written between 2007-2014) predates the Black Lives Matter movement and yet, it is hyper relevant. I was surprised when my mother, who grew up in pre-Civil Rights era Memphis (where they assassinated MLK), said that times are worse now than they were then. I thought, “I’ve watched ‘Eyes on the Prize’. I’ve seen the dogs and the fire hoses. No way!”

And now I’ve seen the tear gas. And the bullet riddled bodies of unarmed Black folk. And these images were not in black and white or in the past. They are in the now. Between answering these questions and the time of its publication, there will be murders of unarmed Black folk.

At the heart of this story is a character yearning to know more about her history, her family and make sense of the changing world around her. How do you hope readers will connect with these themes?

I hope that Black readers will realize that as we continue to reach for a future where we can live full lives, we should not participate in the eradication of our pasts as this country in particular tries so desperately to erase its troublesome past and our ancestors within it.

I hope other readers see that themes of connection with something bigger than the self are universal. This novel’s titular connection to Everyman the 15th century morality play is not coincidental. Eve is an everyman. A Black woman can serve as a universal avatar.

Can you tell us more about how the book intertwines the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in dapper queer culture? 

Morrison writes that if a book that we want doesn’t exist then we must write it. I grew up in the library reading and searching for myself in the pages especially in works in the Black literary canon. I found incomplete parts at most. ‘everyman is unapologetically Black and queer and privileges a queer/womanist narrative perspective in that women-aligned characters (femme, queer, non-binary and those most impacted by patriarchy) are its guides. 

We love the notion of ‘everyman’ focusing on “rebellious Black women straining against the yoke of convention and designated identities”. Why was this important to you personally?

My life has been populated by such women. They are incredible, as much for what they have done as for the irrefutable fact that they could have done so much more if not for “the yoke of convention and designated identities.” These women have made it possible for me, a Black girl from the south side of Chicago who loved to read, to become an author.

Purchase a copy of ‘everyman’ from M Shelly Connor by clicking HERE.

‘everyman’ book cover