"The View" host Sunny Hostin elevates the beach read with Black stories at the forefront

This summer, Hostin invites you to "read a wonderful beach read and escape" in places that you didn't know existed

Published May 3, 2023 12:30PM (EDT)

Sunny Hostin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Sunny Hostin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When Sunny Hostin isn't co-hosting "The View," the attorney and three-time Emmy Award winner is often writing — typically into the early morning hours when everyone else in her house is asleep. She spoke to me about writing her novel, "Summer on Sag Harbor," available now, and why its setting — the wealthy, historically Black community in Sag Harbor, N.Y. — has much to say about race, class and romance. 

Hostin told me on "Salon Talks" that her books have been described as "elevated" beach reads. Hostin has embraced the term because, beyond an escape, she wants to provide a welcome to readers of color and an education to readers who don't know Black communities like this exist. In "Summer on Sag Harbor," the protagonist, Olivia Jones — who first appeared in Hostin's prior bestseller, "Summer on the Bluffs" — inherits a home in the Hamptons community of Sag Harbor.

Hostin, who has herself spent 20 summers there, said she "got the blessings" of the community's elders to tell readers about Sag Harbor, shedding more light on the complex history of racism in real estate. "Black folks were only allowed to buy in certain areas in this country, especially beachfront, and Sag Harbor was one of those areas," Hostin said. " And they started a group of investors with Black lawyers and doctors and teachers and nurses, then they bought this stretch of land in the late '40s, early '50s and basically built a community and they were welcomed."

At times, Hostin has dealt with bigotry outside of the sheltered community as a woman of color. "[Sag Harbor] is definitely different and it is a safe space. I've raised my kids going out there, and it's their happy place, or one of their happy places, as well. But when you leave that safe haven, you notice it right away," she said. "20 years ago, I wasn't on 'The View,' and I certainly noticed a bit of a difference like, 'What is she doing here?'"

Hostin, who has a Black father and Puerto Rican mother, writes with a nod to code-switching. "I do play with those things because I think it's important to mete out those biases that we have within ourselves that I think the majority of people don't realize they have," she said.

Watch or read the transcript of the "Salon Talks" episode with Sunny Hostin below to learn more about why readers prompted her to write this sequel, as well as her takes on marriage, therapy and the firings of former Fox News and CNN hosts Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

"Summer on Sag Harbor" is a follow-up to your bestseller "Summer on the Bluffs." Tell me about Sag Harbor.

It's small and it's on a private beach. I've been summering there for 20 years, probably. It was first introduced to me by Barbara Smith, B. Smith, who used to own all the restaurants. She had a house right on the beach and invited me out, and I fell in love. It's been designated now a historically Black beach community, and that's an actual historic landmark designation. The community worked really hard to get that designation, and it's really important to the community because I don't think a lot of people know about this. I don't think they know it exists.

"I was ecstatic that it's been described as an elevated beach read."

They will know now because of the book, but I definitely got the blessings of the elders in the community to just tell people about the history, about the fact that Black folks were only allowed to buy in certain areas in this country, especially beachfront, and Sag Harbor was one of those areas. And they started a group of investors with Black lawyers and doctors and teachers and nurses, then they bought this stretch of land in the late '40s, early '50s and basically built a community and they were welcomed. I think that's a really cool story.

It is. And important to note that even though the Hamptons, as it's known, is a wealthy enclave, what you just described is that this was a place for regular folks.

Well, I will say that they were wealthy folks. That's the one thing. You had to have money to be able to buy there. So I think that's why it was a group of doctors and a group of lawyers. It was really founded by the Black elite. I think a lot of people don't know that either, that there is a Black elite. There's a Black elite that has been summering on Martha's Vineyard since the late 1800s. Highland Beach, which is where the next book is, is in Maryland, and Frederick Douglass had his summer home there. It's a world of history that I don't think people know about, which is why I wanted to write about it.

You say you got the blessing of the elders.

I had to.

Too many people in this country don't consider the viewpoint of our wise and older folks.

I know. I do a lot of research for my books because they are historical fiction and I thought it was really important to get their blessing because I'm an outsider, because I've only been going there for 20 years. They settled this place a long time ago, and Mr. Pickens, his name's Bill Pickens, a real person, died recently, but I made sure that I had his blessing because he was the unofficial mayor of Sag Harbor. You had to have his blessing to hang out there, even. He was just a wonderful historian whose great-grandfather was one of the first Black students at Yale. So he had this wealth of knowledge, and I actually read him the first chapter of the book, and he gave me his blessings, and he said, "Well, you're telling a lot of people about our little place." I said, "Yeah, I think we should share it." And he agreed.

I was wondering why they would agree to it. Obviously, you've done it with respect, but it's like people don't want you to know.

"Black folks were only allowed to buy in certain areas in this country, especially beachfront, and Sag Harbor was one of those areas."

They don't want you to know, and that's why I always ask permission. I mean, even for Martha's Vineyard, it became such a phenom, and I was surprised. People started visiting that had never visited before and they printed out the book cover on T-shirts and started going all around to the places that I write about in the book. But it was a welcome thing because I had asked the elders, I had asked the store owners, and they were like, "Bring it on." And one of the store owners actually, he owns C'est La Vie, and he's an incredible man, and he said his sales went up 100% because people were not only buying the book, they were buying all these things in his little shop.

As a person who spent a lot of my life in that area on the Shinnecock Indian reservation, I had a good time recognizing some of the places and names that you wrote about. There's a safe space that you've written about, which is real. But, this is also a place where there are a lot of people not of color and people who are wealthy. When you step out of that as a woman of color, what has that experience been like for you?

It's definitely different. And it is a safe space. I've raised my kids going out there, and it's their happy place, or one of their happy places, as well. But when you leave that safe haven, you notice it right away. But it gives me great pleasure that that exists, that there is this safe place. Joy Behar does not live far from this community. I always visit her when I'm there, and she said, "Well, let me visit you." Our place is right on the beach, so I said, "Come on and visit." She was like, "I didn't even know this existed." And I said, "Yeah, you didn't." And she's like, "This is a beautiful beach. I should have bought here."

But you can't.

Well, the interesting thing is, I write about this in the book, there is gentrification going on now. I think a lot of it is welcome, and some of it isn't because some of it is predatory in the sense that if someone wants to just buy a home, like Joy because she loves the community, she is welcome. 

What we're seeing happening in Sag Harbor is that you have these big corporate, conglomerate backers that are buying up properties from families that are having some trouble paying for their property taxes or having some trouble paying the mortgage down the line in their families. That saddens me because that is true gentrification. And perhaps these homes are now being sold to people that don't understand how special this community is when they become a part of it, and that's disappointing. I write about that because that's a very real phenomenon. I was told that Sag Harbor initially was 100% Black ownership in this area, and now it's about 60/40. That's a very big change.

Do you experience racism in the broader community there as a woman of color who can afford to be there? 

"20 years ago, I wasn't on "The View" and I certainly noticed a bit of, 'what is she doing here?'"

I have. No question, I have. I think for me, certainly, it's different because I'm a public-facing person. I'm pretty recognizable everywhere I go, so people are a little more careful as I have seen that dynamic change as I've become more recognizable. But initially, 20 years ago, I wasn't on "The View," and I certainly noticed a bit of, "What is she doing here?" That kind of thing.

I recently read Toni Morrison's "Recitatif." She played with language and ideas about stereotypes and racism, and you're never told the race of the main characters in the story. It's really fascinating to read that and try to explore one's own biases. Whether you're a person of color, whether you're like me who passes as white but is not actually white, whose mother was brown and an American Indian, whose father is white. I noticed you do some of this play with words in your writing.

I do.

Is that a way to make people feel comfortable no matter where they're from, or is it code-switching that you put in there for certain people to appreciate?

The latter. I put in the code-switching because I, like you, am mixed race. My mother's family is primarily from Spain, so they're European and my father's African American. Growing up, I got the "What are you?" question often. I've even had people say, "Just say you're Latina. It's so much easier." Or, "Just say you're Hispanic. It's so much easier." I love Toni's work. I'm certainly not as talented a writer, but I do play with those things because I think it's important to mete out those biases that we have within ourselves that I think the majority of people don't realize they have. 

I don't think this country is a fundamentally racist country. That's just my belief. I don't think you go to people and you say, "Are you a racist?" And they raise their hands. I've never met anyone that has done that, but I think people have implicit bias that they don't even realize they have, and I like to toy with that.

When we talk about code-switching, I have found in my life that that happens in my own use of language, not just as a writer, but in my interactions with people. You have to be a chameleon.

You do.

I noticed it in myself that I speak differently when I'm around certain communities. It's not just an ethnic or racial code-switching. I feel like it's when you have this mixed ethnicity and you may appear one way or another, it's actually much bigger than that.

"I wanted to explore the notion of therapy because it's so stigmatized in the Black community."

It is much bigger than that. It's about who are you? What is your identity? How do you identify? And no one can really tell you or should really tell you how to identify. You get to determine that for yourself. Especially with women, we're told how to be so much, or what you should be, what you should look like, how much should you weigh, this entire thing. I wanted to explore those issues in the book because this book is really about Olivia's journey. It's a love letter to my readers, really, because a lot of my readers felt that Olivia got the short end of the stick. I got questions like, "Is it because she's the darkest-skinned sister?" And I was like, "No, but maybe I should explore that because she was written in a way that she didn't understand herself, and she definitely underappreciated her value."

I think as women, sometimes we do that. We don't talk about what we really need. We don't talk about what we want, our desires, what we deserve. And so this book is about her journey into finding out about herself. I also wanted to explore the notion of therapy because it's so stigmatized in the Black community. I don't know if people realize that, but there's a stigma. Taraji P. Henson, I've spoken to her a lot about a lot of the work she's doing to destigmatize it, so I wanted to insert that in the book after speaking with her, actually. I have Olivia going to see a therapist and just trying to normalize it because it's been hard the last couple years in this country. I think women are suffering, children certainly are suffering, but women are suffering, and they need help.

Let's get into the characters a little bit. I don't know about Olivia or you, but if I was engaged to Anderson, I wouldn't make it. This is Olivia's fiance. He is an annoying guy.

A lot of our guys are annoying though. Aren't they?

Yeah, they are, and you've talked about marriage on "The View." Recently, you described your own marriage compared to some of your co-hosts as "a hot mess."

It's hard. I've been married almost 25 years. It'll be 25 years in August. It's like, I think the first five were terrible. Michelle Obama just recently said 10 of her 30 years were terrible. That's just real talk about marriage and relationships, and I write to that. Anderson is flawed. There's no question he's flawed. A lot of our partners are, but he loves her. What do you do with that when you don't feel deserving of that love? Because Olivia struggles with deserving that kind of love and attention. Plus, he's annoying, but he loves her. So do you deserve to maybe be with someone that isn't as opposite as you are, or do you accept the love?

You accept the love, but the guy who listens to his podcast with no headphones . . .

Yes, my husband does that sometimes. I'm like, "No."

He could be hot. He's hot. She writes that he's got the chiseled face and blue eyes.

He's really hot.

He's smoking, but no amount of smoking would allow me to put up with the dirty shoes.

He's a tough one. And he hasn't been really truthful about who he really is, and she already has trust issues.

Anything else you want to say about the book and inspirations for it, other than your own experience? 

"I've been married almost 25 years. ... I think the first five were terrible."

Really, it was my own experience and also a response to my readers that said, "We want to know more about this character." It made it easy for me. I always knew the three places the trilogy would be set in. I knew the settings. For me, my home is my sanctuary. I live with 12 chickens and two big Newfoundlands and two kids and a husband and a cat, so I know that home is sanctuary for people. I knew that a home would be another character in the book, just like it was in "Summer on the Bluffs," but I didn't know that I was going to write to Olivia's journey. I thank the readers for telling me that they felt something was missing.

Well, that's great that you have such a great relationship with your readers and such an engaging one. Nowadays with social media, most authors do, but some more than others.

It makes it so easy. I will tell you one of the reasons why I'm so engaged with the readers is because my book came out during the pandemic, and it was a pandemic escape read for a lot of people. I did a virtual book tour and I met with book clubs, 50 of them. They all bought the book, they read the book, and they had really good questions, but the resounding theme was, "I want to know more about Olivia." And so I was thinking during the tour, "That's my next book."

I can't bury the lead anymore in news departures. I watched the clip from yesterday from your show and your take on Tucker Carlson, and then there was Don Lemon

"I can say my experience with Don was not an experience with a misogynist."

I know. 

And the late night hosts had a massive party.

They did. They were calling it the "Monday Massacre."

Reacting to the news on "The View," you said, "Karma doesn't lose anyone's address."

Doesn't ever. You get in this world what you put in. That's what you get in return. I am a firm believer in that. I mean, I'm Catholic, I'm a faithful person, but you have to look at what you put out in the world when you get something like that back. Now, I think there's a false equivalency that was drawn between Tucker and Don because the terminations happen on the same day. 

Tucker lied to his audience intentionally, and he did it for money, in my view. I worked at Fox News. I've been on air with Tucker. I don't think he believed most of what he was saying, but he did it anyway. He intentionally misled people. In the process of that, helped in dividing this country a great deal, and also in a sense helped with the degradation of our democracy. I think that's unforgivable as a so-called journalist. 

Don is an actual journalist. I worked with him at CNN for many years, and our offices were directly across from each other. I consider him a friend, and when I'm in Sag Harbor, he has a home there, and I often visit with my 20 friends. He allows everyone in, as does Joy, but I can say my experience with Don was not an experience with a misogynist. Don loves his mom. He loved his sister. When his sister died, he was devastated. And he loves me, and he treats me as a friend and a sounding board.

He's always respected the women that I've seen him around. So I know that he made some comments that were ageist for sure and were sexist, but he apologized. I've never heard Tucker Carlson apologize for anything. And Don also got training, formal training. And I wonder if we are in the world now, where I thought cancel culture had gone away. And how do you get canceled from your career of 17 years after you've apologized for something and put in the work of making yourself a better person? This is just Sunny. I was disappointed to see that. I don't think it was deserved.

It's like no one is safe.

No one is safe.

And there's no second chances anymore. Some don't deserve them.

"To be clear, Tucker should've been canceled because he destroyed our democracy."

To be clear, Tucker should've been canceled. Because he destroyed our democracy or helped destroy our democracy. He was very dangerous. He mentioned the Great Replacement theory 400 times on his shows. And that's a very divisive concept, and it's a racist concept. It's the notion that liberals or Democrats are bringing in immigrants to vote to replace white people. And it's a crazy thing to fearmonger in that way and tell people, "There won't be space for you because of these people." And that's what he did, and never apologized for the falsehoods. And he costs his employer $800 million, almost $800 million. So I don't think it's that Fox News is trying to be a better corporation. I think they made a business decision that it wasn't worth keeping him on air because it costs too much money. That's just my theory.

Well, I'm sure Don will land on his feet.

I hope so. Yeah.

I see you get a little emotional about that because I can feel it.

Yeah, he's my friend.

And the same when you were speaking about women in therapy. I think there is a message here: If you need help, get help.

Or read a wonderful beach read and escape.

You like the term beach read? Some authors are fussy about that.

I do. It's gotten great reviews, and I'm so blessed to be able to say that. One of the reviews compared me to Elin Hilderbrand, who is the queen of beach reads, and I read all of her books, so I was ecstatic that it's been described as an elevated beach read.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

MORE FROM Alli Joseph

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Don Lemon Sag Harbor Salon Talks Summer On Sag Harbor Sunny Hostin The View Tucker Carlson Tv