in conversation with BENNINGTON REVIEW
Your essay in Bennington Review explores, among other subjects, Christianity and religious upbringing in particularly nuanced ways. Do you find yourself writing about Christianity often? Are there particular challenges to writing about faith in 2016?
This essay is part of a larger collection that came about a little over a year ago when I was dealing with the death of my grandmother. With her death I’d realized that one of the last people who could answer questions pertaining to my mother was now gone. My mother suffered a lot of abuse throughout her own childhood, particularly at the hands of her father, a man I never knew. While I’ve always known about some of what happened to her, the extent of her trauma was something I only really learned about after she died. With my grandmother’s death came all these questions I’ve sort of always had surrounding her life. What really happened to her? Who was this person I thought I knew? What was her life I thought I understood?
Before I go further I must tell you of another story, a bit of folklore. One of my ancestors, a woman who was a slave to the family of a state senator, had a relationship with a white man on a neighboring farm and had several children with him. Some members of my family always believed she was raped while others thought their relationship was consensual. In any event, she had several children and one of them, the male, somehow managed to take the surname of the father, this white man who, to my knowledge, never acknowledge him or the other children in any other way.
So, in thinking about what happened to my mother I’d begun to think about her father, and in thinking about him I began to circle back over the history of my family to this story. I felt like in order to understand what happened to my mother I had to understand this beginning of our line, this story of that relationship, and in trying to understand that story I realized I had to write about it.
While I come from a religious background, I’d never thought of writing about religion before this book, but in writing these essays I realized how much Christianity was such an ingrained part of all our lives. My grandfather was a preacher, and even now I can’t reconcile how a man of religion could do the things I’m now recognizing he did, but then—when I look at the scope of history and what’s been done in the name of religion I now understand that believing in God doesn’t make one good, and committing an act in the name of God doesn’t make it right.
You publish works of fiction and nonfiction. How do you see your techniques with fiction differently from your nonfiction? How do you know which genre to explore a particular idea in?
With fiction, I tend to have an idea about something and then I run with it to see if it sticks. Sometimes the idea comes from my own life. For example, I used to have really bad muscle tremors, and before that, a long time ago, seizures. One night I had a muscle tremor and I was thinking about this feeling of being unable to control one’s body, and I wanted to explore that idea further, of a body not doing what one wanted it to do, and so I wrote a story about it.
I want to say that with nonfiction it’s generally been me trying to sort out some personal issue I’m having, but that’s not entirely true because I look at a lot of my stories and they’re so obviously about my mother, or at least about loss. I think maybe, at the time, I didn’t know how to write about her loss in any other way. I didn’t have enough emotional distance from it yet, so I used the shroud of fiction to deal with it.
I was a fiction writer who often wrote about loss, but then I moved here to Missouri. I became blown away with a lot of the racism I experienced and saw. I was struggling to deal with that, and meanwhile during this time the Darren Wilson trial was happening, and then the subsequent protests, and after that the protests at the University of Missouri. For the first time in my life the recognition of my difference was really made apparent to me in all sorts of ways. It acted as a catalyst for me to begin analyzing my own issues regarding my black identity.
Then my grandmother died and all this stuff about my mother and that history came bubbling up to the surface. I had to process all of that in some sort of way. In the past I’ve always dealt with things through writing but I didn’t know how to write about any of this through fiction. I couldn’t. I said I’d write an essay to try and suss it all out but discovered I wasn’t finished and so I wrote another one and another one and now here we are.
To me what’s interesting is that even though I was writing nonfiction, having a fiction background I think enabled me to separate myself from the subject matter, to be able to really sit down and analyze my own self-hatred regarding my identity, for instance, or this isolation I’ve always experienced in academia but never before could clarify. Writing nonfiction has freed me up in a way fiction hadn’t before, and in writing nonfiction I found myself. I found my voice.
Can you talk about the role of geographical location in your writing? What was it like to write in Boston? What is it like to write in Missouri? Do we become different writers based on the places we inhabit?
The years I spent in Boston were pretty unstable. I worked a long series of part-time and temporary jobs that never paid enough. I lived in a closet-sized apartment, my only furniture a twin mattress and one of those cheap ottomans you can get at Target. I ate a lot of bad food because I couldn’t afford much else and I was always in a state of anxiety about whether I’d make rent.
Add to this, my years in Boston were largely centered around the death of my mother. During my undergraduate years I was grappling with her cancer diagnosis and during my graduate years I was coping with grief. At the time I was working on this book idea centered around disappearances. I had wanted to write a collection of stories about people throughout history who had disappeared, each story told through the point of view of that person leading up to their disappearance. I’d written a couple of them and they took place all over—Rio de Janeiro, Burundi, Cairo. Looking back on the book idea, part of me wonders if I focused on it because it was a way for me to disassociate myself from my own environment somehow, from my own instability.
I’m saying all of this because my answer to your question is me thinking more so about a person’s environment rather than physical geography. A good environment can be conducive to a person’s writing.
Sometimes, I tell my students of my stories about being poor in Boston and they think it’s romantic—you know, a poor writer trying to make it in the big city, but it’s hard to write when all you’re thinking about is if you can pay your bills. It’s hard to really think about anything beyond a day-to-day sort of existence. I have to tell them that the best thing for their writing is to create some kind of economic stability however they can. My time in Missouri has not been great, but I’ve had a stable income and I’ve managed to be pretty productive, comparatively speaking.
Whichever way you look at it, this is a politically daunting and emotionally intense moment in the United States. How do you view your role as an artist at this time? Do we make more, fiercely, or pause and "act" more traditionally?
About a month ago I read two essays by this writer I’d never heard of before—“Talking In New Orleans in the Age of Trump” and “The Effects of White Supremacy Are Non-Transferable” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin and published in LitHub. His work floored me, and I’ve not been able to stop thinking about those pieces since. I kept coming back to those essays until finally I printed them out and have been carrying them around with me, periodically going back and rereading some of the passages.
Throughout my life I’ve turned to the words of others to help cope with the world around me. I’m grateful for that writer like I’m grateful for all the other writers I’ve found who’ve managed to say what I’ve been feeling and experiencing. To read them has been like a balm for my heart.
The only way I know how to answer your question is to say that you must write the thing, whatever it is, whatever you feel you must. It may save you to write it. It may save someone else to read it. It may save me.
Your piece sticks steadfastly to its water motif, but has stark section transitions and migrates from story to story. I am drawn to the architectural assemblage you employ in this piece. Could you share your thoughts on a writer highlighting the structure of a piece for their reader vs. an illusion of total immersion?
“Architectural assemblage” is a good phrase for this essay because that’s how I sort of went about constructing it, with a lot of my work actually. For some reason I’d gotten it in my mind that I wanted to write an essay about water. I’d been thinking a lot about what was happening in Flint and it led to me to all these other connections. Eventually, it led to me thinking about my mother, which led to me to thinking about religion, which led me to thinking about baptism. To be honest, I think I try to be really narrative driven but I never quite get there. I write a lot through thinking of the construction of images and the associations of ideas.
What was the first book you ever read that you couldn't put down? What was the last book?
After I’d learned about my mother’s cancer diagnosis I was in a used bookstore in downtown Boston and found an old first edition of Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live. I’d read a story of hers in a previous class and I thought I’d get the book. Those stories—I read through them all that night, and I read them over and over while dealing with the death of my mother. I’ve mentioned earlier how writing can save a person, and those stories saved me during that time. It felt like I knew someone who understood the bleakness I was also experiencing, and the book helped me cope.
As I write this now though, tonight, a friend of mine has passed away. Tonight, as I did with the death of my mother, I will read again Reasons to Live, but I have to say that the next book I will not be able to put down will be hers—me and Nina. I will read it again tonight. I will read it tomorrow. I will read it again and again whenever I need to remember the person she was, the friend I lost.
LaTANYA McQUEEN has recent work published or forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Passages North, Fugue, New South, and Black Warrior Review. She received her MFA from Emerson College and is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri.
SYDNEY BRADLEY is an editorial assistant at Bennington Review.