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Interview by Toni Cade Bambara with Beverly Guy-Sheftall
SOURCE: "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks," in Sturdy Black Bridges, Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds., Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979, pp. 230-49.
An American educator, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic, Guy-Sheftall has served as director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. In the following interview, Bambara discusses her childhood, her work, and contemporary African-American women writers.
[Guy-Sheftall]: Would you describe your early life and what caused you to start writing?
[Bambara]: I can't remember a time when I was not writing. The original motive was to try to do things that we were not encouraged to do in the language arts programs in the schools, namely, to use writing as a tool to get in touch with the self. In the schools, for example, writing, one of the few crafts we're taught, seems to be for the purpose of teaching people how to plagiarize from the dictionary or the encyclopedia and how to create as much distance from your own voice as possible. That was called education. I'd call it alienation. You had to sift out a lot, distort a lot, and lie a lot in order to jam the stuff of your emotional, linguistic, cultural experience into that form called the English composition.
The original motive for writing at home was to give a play to those notions that wouldn't fit the English composition mold, to try and do justice to a point of view, to a sense of self. Later on, I discovered that there was a certain amount of applause that could be gotten if you turned up with the Frederick Douglass play for Negro History Week or the George Washington Carver play for the assembly program. That talent for bailing the English teachers out created stardom, and that became another motive.
As I got older, I began to appreciate the kinds of things you could tap and release and learn about self if you had a chance to get cozy with pencil and paper. And I discovered too that paper is very patient. It will wait on you to come up with whatever it is, as opposed to sitting in class and having to raise your hand immediately in response to someone else's questions, someone else's concerns.
I don't know that I began getting really serious about writing until maybe five years ago. Prior to that, in spite of all good sense, I always thought writing was rather frivolous, that it was something you did because you didn't feel like doing any work. But in the last five or six years I've come to appreciate that it is a perfectly legitimate way to participate in struggle. That writing, sharing insights, keeping a vision alive, is of value and that is pretty much the motive for writing now. Although I can't really say I have a motive for writing now. I'm compelled. I don't think I could stop if I wanted to.
Do you remember the very first story you wrote and the circumstances surrounding it?
No, no. I was really little. I'm talking about kindergarten. Sometimes even now, a line will come out that will take me back to some utterance made in a story or poem I wrote or tried to write when I was in pink pajamas and bunny slippers. It's weird. I've been in training, you might say, for quite a while. Still am.
Were you conditioned by your family members to assume a traditional female role? I'm asking this because of the number of black female children in your fiction who do not conform to American society's notion of what is "proper" female behavior.
I think within my household not a great deal of distinction was made between pink and blue. We were expected to be self-sufficient, to be competent, and to be rather nonchalant about expertise in a number of areas. Within the various neighborhoods I've lived in, there was such a variety of expectations regarding womanhood or manhood that it was rather wide-open. In every neighborhood I lived in, for example, there were always big-mouthed women, there were always competent women, there were always beautiful women, independent women as well as dependent women, so that there was a large repertoire from which to select. And it wasn't until I got older, I would say maybe in college, that I began to collide with the concepts and dynamics of "role-appropriate behavior" and so forth. I had no particular notion about being groomed along one particular route as opposed to another as a girl-child. My self-definitions were strongly internal and improvisational.
Take the little girl in "Gorilla, My Love," a favorite story of mine. Would you say that she was like little girls you grew up with? Does she come out of your personal experience?
I would say that she's a highly selective fiction. There are certain kinds of spirits that I'm very appreciative of, people who are very tough, but very compassionate. You put me in any neighborhood, in any city, and I will tend to gravitate toward that type. The kid in "Gorilla" (the story as well as in that collection) is a kind of person who will survive, and she's triumphant in her survival. Mainly because she's so very human, she cares, her caring is not careless. She certainly is not autobiographical except that there are naturally aspects of my own personality that I very much like that are similar to hers. She's very much like people I like. However, I would be hard pressed to point out her source in real life.
Have women writers influenced you as much as male writers?
I have no clear ideas about literary influence. I would say that my mother was a great influence, since mother is usually the first map maker in life. She encouraged me to explore and express. And, too, the fact that people of my household were big on privacy helped. And I would say that people that I ran into helped, and I ran into a great many people because we moved a lot and I was always a nosey kid running up and down the street, getting into everything. Particular kinds of women influenced the work. For example, in every neighborhood I lived in there were always two types of women that somehow pulled me and sort of got their wagons in a circle around me. I call them Miss Naomi and Miss Gladys, although I'm sure they came under various names. The Miss Naomi types were usually barmaids or life-women, nighttime people with lots of clothes in the closet and a very particular philosophy of life, who would give me advice like, "When you meet a man, have a birthday, demand a present that's hockable, and be careful." Stuff like that. Had no idea what they were talking about. Just as well. The Miss Naomis usually gave me a great deal of advice about beautification, how to take care of your health and not get too fat. The Miss Gladyses were usually the type that hung out the window in Apartment 1-A leaning on the pillow giving single-action advice on numbers or giving you advice about how to get your homework done or telling you to stay away from those cruising cars that moved through the neighborhood patrolling little girls. I would say that those two types of women, as well as the women who hung out in the beauty parlors (and the beauty parlors in those days were perhaps the only womanhood institutes we had—it was there in the beauty parlors that young girls came of age and developed some sense of sexual standards and some sense of what it means to be a woman growing up)—it was those women who had the most influence on the writing.
I think that most of my work tends to come off the street rather than from other books. Which is not to say I haven't learned a lot as an avid reader. I devour pulp and print. And of course I'm part of the tradition. That is to say, it is quite apparent to the reader that I appreciated Langston Hughes, Zora Hurston, and am a product of the sixties spirit. But I'd be hard pressed to discuss literary influences in any kind of intelligent way.
Did you grow up in New York primarily?
Let's move to some of your reactions to the literary scene. What would you consider to be some contemporary or past positive images of black women in literature, either by male or female or black or white writers?
I would define "positive" as usable, characters who can teach us valuable lessons of life, characters who are rounded and who give dimension to the type or stereotype that they are closest to. For example, Sula in the Morrison novel is interesting. She's a champion. She's an adventure, and she gives us another dimension of the bitch stereotype. She makes us aware of how many people are locked up in that particular cage. Eva, who very much resembles the stereotypic matriarch, is more than that and she too helps to break open that old stereotype and force us to look for qualities, lessons, eclipsed by the stereotypic label. I regard them as positive, for they touch deep. In the contemporary poetry—that is, the poetry that came out of the Neo-Black Arts Movement—there are female personae who are assertive and rounded and they also break open the bitch stereotype for us, so that we find under that label locked-up vibrancy—activities, combatants, the Harriet Tubman heirs, people who come from that championship tradition. That's what I would call positive and in fact there are very few works that are available to us now, say in the last decade, that are not like that. We have very little deadwood in the works that have come out of the sixties and are currently being produced. Very few flat, stupid, useless, and careless portraits.
Is there a particular black woman writer of fiction who you think best illuminates the black female experience, specifically the double oppression of race and sex?
No, and I think that's okay. I think if we were designing a course that attempted to project the profile of the contemporary black woman, particularly in respect to double or triple oppression, to someone who did not understand it, it would be necessary to pull out a lot of people because there are a lot of experiences. There is no the woman or the experience or the profile. I would assemble the works of writers like Zora Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carolyn Rodgers, Lucille Clifton, Eloise Lofton, and a good many others and particularly young writers who are coming out of the workshops, in the Southeast particularly, and out of the Berkeley group.
Do you think the black woman writer has been treated fairly by the critical community, both black and white?
I have no idea. It's not something I have any comments on because it's not something I generally think about, that is to say, the black woman writer. We know for sure that any cultural product of black people has not been treated intelligently and usefully by white critics. That's one kind of answer. The fact that a good many black women writers do not get into anthologies that are put together by black men is another kind of answer. The fact that black women critics sometimes approach black women's writing as though they were highly particular and had no connection to the group traditions, that's another kind of issue.
I'm not so much concerned with whether black women writers are dealt with fairly but rather with what they're dealing with. And I think the great accomplishment of particularly the poets of the Neo-Black Arts Movement (sister poets) and perhaps to a lesser degree the dramatists, novelists, short story writers, have contributed a great deal toward not only commenting on, correcting, and countering the stereotypic images, but in blasting open a new road, if you will, for younger writers who are coming along now: dealing with women who have not been dealt with before, raising issues that have not been tackled before, grabbing hold of a vision that we have let slip and maybe never have laid out in print before. The production itself I find far more interesting than critical response.
Near the end of her introduction to Black-eyed Susans, a collection of short stories by and about black women, Mary Helen Washington asserts with respect to the black woman writer that "there still remains something of a sacred-cow attitude in regard to black women that prevents exploration of many aspects of their lives." "There has been a desire," she goes on to say, "to protect and revere the black woman's image." She argues then that we need books about black women who have nervous breakdowns, who are "overwhelmed by sex," who are not faithful, who abuse and neglect their children, and so forth. That is, we also need stories about "real black women," stories which "interpret the entire range and spectrum of the experiences of black women." Would you agree with her assessment of the black woman writer with respect to these issues?
I don't approach literature from quite that direction. I think I understand what she's saying, but writing for me is still an act of language first and foremost. I don't know that I need to read a book about a nervous breakdown in order to understand nervous breakdowns or to protect my health. As an act of language, literature is a spirit informer—an energizer. A lot of energy is exchanged in the reading and writing of books and that gets into the debate of whether it is more important to offer a usable truth or to try to document the many truths or realisms that make up the black woman's experience.
I think I see her point and it's all very lovely but it doesn't concern me, and I'm not altogether sure it's valid or true. It is true that we're so defensive about our detractors, which I think is what one of her points is, that we are not approaching the complexity of ourselves in a fearless way. That is true, but I don't know that the nervous breakdown is what I would argue for. I would argue rather that there is an aspect of black spirit, of inherent black nature, that we have not addressed: the tension, the power that is still latent, still colonized, still frozen and untapped, in some 27 million black people. We do not know how to unleash, we do not even know how to speak of it in a courageous manner, yet. I think that is because we have been so long on the defensive and have invested a great deal of time and energy posturing and trying to prove that indeed we are as clean as they are. Since the sixties, however, a great many of us have been released from that posturing through having dialogues with each other which is a very radical and new dimension to the dialogue of cultural worker and community. It is in relation to potential that I might argue Mary Helen's same general point. Namely, that we are not terribly fearless and courageous and thoroughgoing in dealing with the complexity of the black experience, the black spirit. As a matter of fact, music is probably the only mode we have used to speak of that complexity. But I would argue the point in relation to other aspects of self rather than to nervous breakdowns and the kinds of things that Mary Helen is talking about, which is not to say that it has no usefulness, but it doesn't strike me as a priority at all.
Do you think that the black woman has an advantage or special perspective that may enable her to reveal those aspects of the black experience or black spirit to which you refer?
No, I wouldn't say that black women or children or elders or men or any other sector of the community are any more in command of it or in touch with it than any other. I find it interesting in this period, the seventies, that we have begun to embrace within our community (and we can see parallels in the national as well as international community) an interest in holistic healing systems: astrology, voodoo, TM, etc. No, I don't think that any group within the community has any monopoly on that kind of wisdom, a grasp on that new way to prepare for the future.
Speaking of parallels, have your travels revealed to you how American black and other Third World women can link up in their struggles to liberate themselves from the various kinds of oppression they face as a result of their sexual identity?
Yes, I would say that two particular places I visited yielded up a lot of lessons along those lines. I was in Cuba in 1973 and had the occasion not only to meet with the Federation of Cuban Women but sisters in the factories, on the land, in the street, in the parks, in lines, or whatever, and the fact that they were able to resolve a great many class conflicts as well as color conflicts and organize a mass organization says a great deal about the possibilities here. I was in Vietnam in the summer of 1975 as a guest of the Women's Union and again was very much struck by the women's ability to break through traditional roles, traditional expectations, reactionary agenda for women, and come together again in a mass organization that is programmatic and takes on a great deal of responsibility for the running of the nation.
We missed a moment in the early sixties. We missed two things. One, at a time when we were beginning to lay the foundations for a national black women's union and for a national strategy for organizing, we did not have enough heart nor a solid enough analysis that would equip us to respond in a positive and constructive way to the fear in the community from black men as well as others who said that women organizing as women is divisive. We did not respond to that in a courageous and principled way. We fell back. The other moment that we missed was that we had an opportunity to hook up with Puerto Rican women and Chicano women who shared not only a common condition but also I think a common vision about the future and we missed that moment because of the language trap. When people talked about multicultural or multiethnic organizing, a lot of us translated that to mean white folks and backed off. I think that was an error. We should have known what was meant by multicultural. Namely, people of color. Afro-American, Afro-Hispanic, Indo-Hispanic, Asian-Hispanic, and so forth. Not that those errors necessarily doom us. Errors may result in lessons learned. I think we have the opportunity again in this last quarter of the twentieth century to begin forging those critical ties with other communities. It will be done. That is a certainty.
Do you consider it a dilemma for the black woman today who considers herself both a feminist and a warrior in the race struggle?
A dilemma? Personally, no. I'm not aware of what the problem is for people who do feel that's a dilemma. I don't know what they're thinking because it's not as if you're a black or a woman. I don't find any basic contradiction or any tension between being a feminist, being a pan-Africanist, being a black nationalist, being an internationalist, being a socialist, and being a woman in North America. I'm not sensitive enough to people caught in the "contradiction" to be able to unravel the dilemma and adequately speak to the question at this particular point in time. My head is somewhere else.
Turning to your own writings, you said in your preface to The Black Woman, an anthology of readings by contemporary black women published in 1970, that among other evils this country "regards its women as its monsters." Have you seen over the past seven years or so any changes in this country's attitude toward women, especially the black ones?
The country at large, no. You look at That's My Mama and I think it's clear that television program really centers around the son and the activities in the barbershop. That's the most dynamic aspect of that drama. But because the mammy looms so large in the American mentality, is such a durable, persistent psychosexual obsession on the part of white people, male and female, that need demands the presence of the mama figure: on the one hand, a gracious, giving, enduring mammy, but also a Hattie McDaniel sass. Sass as a comic-menace element. The menace element is a white fiction that is meshed into our women, that has to do with their whole "momism" pathology. So they get their thing off in three ways through her: She's useful to keep the "boy" thing going; she's the mother's milk nurturer; plus the "hate mom" white thing can be projected onto her.
I don't know that I have seen any change, by and large, in white America. In terms of black America, there are authors still—I'm thinking of John A. Williams in particular, as well as many other writers who don't come to mind at the moment—who are still a little scary in terms of the assertive black woman, still look at Sapphire as a threat, and who do not come to grips with how that myth functions in American society. The bitch helps to justify, for example, hustlers and other collaborators. The presence of the bitch myth also helps those societal restraints that operate on black women, as well as the rest of the community. No, I haven't noticed a lot of change among black male writers either. Ron Milner's women are a change, though.
If you were to do another anthology of readings by contemporary black women today, what kind of pieces would you include?
The papers that I was most concerned with at that time never got into the book, and those were position papers from the Women's Caucus of SNCC, of the Panthers, of a number of other organizations that eventually did produce papers for publication through Third World Women's Alliance. I was particularly concerned with the evolution of women's groups that had begun as consumer education or single-issue action groups, began studying together and engaging in community organizing and are now, some ten years later, the core network of what will soon become, we hope, a national black women's union. I would include in a new collection writings from the campus forces, the prison forces, tenant's groups, and most especially southern rural women's works, particularly from the migrant workers and sharecroppers of the Deep South.
How did you go about selecting the pieces that were included in the collection you edited entitled Tales and Stories for Black Folks, which was published in 1972?
The first half of the book consists of stories I wished I had read growing up, stories by Alice Walker, Pearl Crayton, and particularly Langston Hughes. The stories in the second half of the book were documents that came out of a course that I was teaching (a freshman composition course, which has always been my favorite). The students had begun working with kids in an independent community school and I asked them to produce term paper projects that were usable to someone. So a great many of them took traditional European tales and changed them so as to promote critical thinking, critical reading for the young people they were working with outside of the class. And out of that group of term papers came a number of really remarkable, thoughtful pieces, such as "The True Story of Chicken Licken," which raises questions about the nature of truth or the nature of responsible journalism. The story pivoted on the idea that perhaps it was not a piece of sky that fell on Chicken Licken's head after all but maybe she got caught up in a community action and got hit on the head by the cops and then they put out a press release that she had been attacked by a piece of cloud. All of the stories in the second half of the book came out of the materials that had been submitted to me by students that year.
You are one of the few black literary artists who could be considered a short story writer primarily. Is this a deliberate choice on your part or coincidental?
It's deliberate, coincidental, accidental, and regretfull Regretful, commercially. That is to say, it is financially stupid to be a short story writer and to spend two years putting together eight or ten stories and receiving maybe half the amount of money you would had you taken one of those short stories and produced a novel. The publishing companies, reviewers, critics, are all geared to promoting and pushing the novel rather than any other form.
I prefer the short story genre because it's quick, it makes a modest appeal for attention, it can creep up on you on your blind side. The reader comes to the short story with a mind-set different than that with which he approaches the big book, and a different set of controls operating, which is why I think the short story is far more effective in terms of teaching us lessons.
Temperamentally, I move toward the short story because I'm a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner. I cannot sustain characters over a long period of time. Walking around, frying eggs, being a mother, shopping—I cannot have those characters living in my house with me for more than a couple of weeks. In terms of craft, I don't have the kinds of skills yet that it takes to stay with a large panorama of folks and issues and landscapes and moods. That requires a set of skills that I don't know anything about yet, but I'm learning.
I prefer the short story as a reader, as well, because it does what it does in a hurry. For the writer and the reader make instructive demands in terms of language precision. It deals with economy, gets it said, and gets out of the way. As a teacher, I also prefer the short story for all the reasons given. And yes, I consider myself primarily a short story writer.
You are attempting a novel, though, for the first time?
No, not for the first time. Like every other writer, I have fifteen thousand unfinished novels brewing under the bed. But having come to grips with the nature of publishing, I understand that it is shrewd and in my interest to produce a novel before I come out with another collection of short stories, so I'm doing both.
Will the novel be anything like your short stories?
Surely, it's the same mind working, after all. They're the same in the sense that the vision hasn't changed. My affinity for certain kind of people is the same.
Is the setting North or South?
It seems to be South. It seems to be everywhere. I've got a sixty-page chunk of it and there are several thousand characters running around and it seems to be vaguely Louisiana and there's also a character who's obviously from New York and there's somebody else who's obviously from the Coast and I have a couple of West Indian folk and I have an Arapaho in there as well as an Aleutian and two people from the Philippines. So I'm not sure what the setting of the novel is. But it's driving me crazy.
That leads me into the next question which is about the process involved in your writing a story. Do you have the whole idea of it before sitting down to write, or does it unfold as you're writing?
It depends on how much time you have. There are periods in my life when I know that I will not be able to get to the desk until summer, until months later, in which case I walk around composing while washing dishes and may jot down little definitive notes on pieces of paper which I stick under the phone, in the mirror, and all over the house. At other times, a story mobilizes itself around a single line you've heard that resonates. There's a truth there, something usable. Sometimes a story revolves around a character that I'm interested in. For example, "The Organizer's Wife" in the new collection. I've always been very curious about silent people because most people I know are like myself—very big-mouthed, verbally energetic, and generally clear as to what they're about because their mouth is always announcing what they're doing. That story came out of a curiosity. What do I know about people like that? Could I delve into her? The story took shape around that effort.
There are other times when a story is absolutely clear in the head. All of it may not be clear—who's going to say what and where it's taking place or what year it is—but the story frequently comes together at one moment in the head. At other times, stories, like any other kind of writing, and certainly anybody who's writing anything—freshman compositions, press releases, or whatever—has experienced this, that frequently writing is an act of discovery. Writing is very much like dreaming, in that sense. When you dream, you dialogue with aspects of yourself that normally are not with you in the daytime and you discover that you know a great deal more than you thought you did. So there are various kinds of ways that writing comes.
Then, too, there is a kind of—some people call it automatic writing—I call it inspiration. There are times when you have to put aside what you intended to write, what got you to the desk in the first place, and just go with the story that is coming out of you, which may or may not have anything to do with what you planned at all. In fact, a lot of stories (I haven't published any of these because I'm not sure they are mine) and poems have come out on the page that I know do not belong to me. They do not have my sense of vision, my sense of language, my sense of reality, but they're complete. Each of us has experienced this in various ways, in church, or fasting, or in some other kind of state, times when we are available to intelligences that we are not particularly prone to acknowledge, given our Western scientific training, which have filled us with so much fear that we cannot make ourselves available to other channels of information. I think most of us have experienced, though we don't talk about it very much, an inspiration, that is to say, an inbreathing that then becomes "enthusiasm," a possession, a living-with, an informing spirit. So some stories come off like that.
Do you make many revisions before the story is finished and ready for publication?
Oh yes. I edit mercilessly. Generally, my editing takes the form of cutting. Very frequently, a story will try to get away from me and become a novel. I don't have the staying power for a novel, so when I find it getting to be about thirty or forty pages I immediately start cutting back to six. To my mind, the six-page short story is the gem. If it takes more than six pages to say it, something is the matter. So I'm not too pleased in that respect with the new collection, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. Most of those stories are too sprawling and hairy for my taste, although I'm very pleased, feel perfectly fine about them as pieces. But as stories, they're too damn long and dense.
Let's move to a specific discussion of The Sea Birds, your most recently published collection of short stories, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Barbara Mahone, in her review which appears in the May/June 1977 issue of First World, asserts that your handling of black male-female relationships is different from at least two other black female writers, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange, because they leave, she says, "this bitter residue of bad feelings between men and women," whereas in your stories, "the net social effect" is more positive. Do you agree with her?
One might just as easily argue that the difference is that they're telling the truth and I'm not. Or one could just as easily argue that they're getting into the more painful side of the relationship and I am not. Temperamentally, I'm much more concerned with the caring that lies beneath the antagonisms between black men and black women. There is a great deal of static that informs our relationships, above and beyond the political wedge that has been jammed between us by myth makers of the oppressor class. Whereas other writers, other women, other people, are more concerned with the hurt of it all, the hurt doesn't teach me anything and I'm concerned primarily with usable lessons. The caring does teach me something and I think I can offer a usable something for someone else.
It is very facile to talk about male-female antagonisms in the Western world or in the United States in a pat fashion that enables you to sound as though you're talking about all people. It's easy to talk about the War Between the Sexes which is characteristic of the United States as it is no other place. When foreigners watch Hollywood movies and see Clark Gable drop Claudette Colbert in the mud, the response is a gasp. That is something peculiarly American, that belligerency, that warfare. A great many folk are in the process of speaking about women/men relationships in our community in that kind of generalized way of trying to make it "universal." That's very dangerous and kind of sloppy and not very valid because what distinguishes relationships between men and women in our community is the level of caring that informs the tension.
If a white woman attacks a white man in general or in particular about being a chauvinist pig, underneath that is the legacy of Europe, is the notion of a God complex with the woman as martyr who will forgive everything and manipulate shrewdly under the table with cunning and craft, but mostly she will be a martyr on the cross and that gives her moral superiority to condemn all or forgive all—to play God. Black women, on the other hand, do not deal with themselves as God, nor do they remove Him from the human frame of reference. We start with the premise "I am not God" and therefore have a right to call you on that play. That's a very different mind-set and a very different frame of reference, a very different moral code. I hope we can get to the point where we recognize, again, that if we love each other, we are concerned with development. And that means being mutually responsible to each other—criticism, hardheaded demands.
Getting back to Barbara Mahone's comment, it's not terribly useful for me to make comparisons. One could take her contrast to prove any number of things. I am simply more interested in the caring network that exists between men and women, men and men, women and women, children and elders. One of the reasons those links are links of vulnerability at one moment has to do with the level of caring and the degree to which that caring can push against the synthetic conflicts that white society orchestrates in its interests, not ours.
Of the reviews I've read of The Sea Birds, none has mentioned "The Girl's Story," a fascinating though possibly perplexing piece. Why has her family mistaken her first menstrual period for an abortion?
Well, this is a family where not much touching goes on, as is played on throughout the story. There are great distances, even though the people live close-quartered. For example, the girl hears a certain quality in her brother's voice only once in a while. She can embrace her grandmother or her grandmother can embrace her only in a very particular kind of way and it's not closeness. It's not touching. In a household like that, it stands to reason that a lot of secretiveness and isolation travel under the guise of privacy. So it's not unlikely at all that they would not know she's begun her menses.
In almost every household that I can think of when I was growing up, the onset of the menstrual period was mysterious and frightening and totally without information and totally without support from the immediate household. Most frequently, young girls could find a sympathetic godmother or maybe some older girl in the neighborhood who understood and recognized it right away and got the wagons in a circle. I know very few households when I was growing up where it would have been dealt with in any other way than it is depicted in the story—which is why the title is general, "A Girl's Story."
Yes, that was an aspect of the story that I suspect many women of past generations can relate to. It is true that many aspects of the menstrual period were and possibly still are shrouded in mystery. What's interesting, however, is that when I have used fiction that mentions this issue with students in my college classes (such as Browngirl, Brownstones, The Bluest Eye), many of them have not been very responsive. They tend to think that dealing with circumstances surrounding the first menstrual period in a work of literature is unnecessary and you find yourself saying to them that for some women the experience was traumatic. Some students even found it difficult to remember what it was like.
It might be true that the particular traumas and dangers of womanhood are not valued as a crucial part of our culture. As a matter of fact, that is why the cult of the Amazon, the cult of strength, the bear-up-under-everything woman figure came into play because we did not admit, were not allowed to, could not afford to admit pain and suffering and hardship. You're not supposed to do that if you're a black woman. In line with that, anyone who's ever visited the neighborhood chiropractor's office or who has ever watched healing services in our own community is probably well aware that black women have tremendous problems with their backs. And I wonder if part of that isn't the unnecessary burden of taking on that cult of strength, that Amazon figure, and internalizing that whole madness.
For students in the generation behind us not to be able to identify with the trauma of the first menses is open to a number of interpretations. I would like to think that their nonchalance or impatient response means that it was all very breezy and pleasant.
The initiation or rites of passage of the young girl is not one of the darlings of American literature. The coming of age for the young boy is certainly much more the classic case. I wonder if it all means that we don't put a value on our process of womanhood.
Have you been generally pleased with the reviews of Sea Birds?
All of the reviews have been very favorable. Some have been quite cogent and favorable. Some have been stupid and favorable. I found the First World review that was in the Chicago Tribune by Bruce Allen critically constructive. It focused on the flaws and the faults of the book and I found it very helpful. The piece that Ruby Dee wrote (I'm not sure where it will appear; I imagine in the Amsterdam News) I found the most moving in the sense that she makes highly particular the public and personal values. It just had me in tears. It helped me to answer some of the questions one always has in one's mind while writing: whether it works, what doesn't work, to what degree is it overdone, to what degree is it too understated, questions of that sort. The Ruby Dee piece was somp'n, honey.
One of the characteristics of your fiction which is apparent in Gorilla, My Love, an older collection of short stories, as well as in The Sea Birds is the extent to which—though one knows you're there—you can remove yourself from the narrative voice. You don't intrude. Is that deliberate?
Well, I'm frequently there. You see, one of the reasons that it seems that the author is not there has to do with language. It has to do with the whole tradition of dialect. In the old days, writers might have their characters talking dialect or slang but the narrator, that is to say, the author, maintained a distance and a "superiority" by speaking a more premiumed language. I tend to speak on the same level as my characters, so it seems as though I am not there, because, possibly, you're looking for another voice.
I rarely get the impression that your fiction comes directly out of your personal experience, even though it's obvious that what you have written about has been filtered through your consciousness. I don't have the impression that these particular characters or that particular incident are very close to what you may have actually experienced. Is that correct?
Yes, that's correct. I think it's very rude to write autobiographically, unless you label it autobiography. And I think it's very rude to use friends and relatives as though they were occasions for getting your whole thing off. It's not making your mama a still life. And it's very abusive to your developing craft, to your own growth, not to convert and transform what has come to you in one way into another way. The more you convert the more you grow, it seems to me. Through conversion we recognize again the basic oneness, the connections, or as some blood coined it: "Everything is Everything." So, it's kind of lazy (I think that's the better word) to simply record. Also, it's terribly boring to the reader frequently, and, too, it's dodgy. You can't tell to what extent things are fascinating to you because they're yours and to what extent they're useful, unless you do some conversion.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I'm working on several things—some children's books, a new collection of short stories, a novel, some film scripts.
"Children of Struggle" is a series I've been working on that dramatizes the role children and youth have played in the struggle for liberation—children of the Underground Railroad, children of Frelimo, children of the Long March, of Granma, of El Grito de Lares, The Trail of Tears, and so forth.
The major question that corners me at the moment is what constitutes development for the systematically underdeveloped. I've tackled the question in several forms. I'm thinking now of putting together a critique of pedagogical perspectives, examining the premises of Freud, Montessori, Piaget, learning theories, educational models, to reveal how the training of children is being approached as a management problem rather than a development question; two, that there really are few sound development theories at all. First, we're children to the Freudians, then we're neurotic. No model of adulthood or maturity there. Or, we're innocent babes to be protected from controversy, problems, disturbances; then we're responsible adults, somehow; then we're senile, useless crones. Fanon and of course Friere (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) offer another view of the process. But they are too incomplete.
I'm doing a film script about a particular group of combatants in the 1850s (Tubman, Douglass, John Brown, etc.) with the focus on the much neglected figure of Mammy Pleasant, who bankrolled so many of the Kansas actions and set up an intelligence network on the Coast. Fascinating woman!
The new collection begins where Sea Birds leaves us, stories that dramatize the international operation of colonialism and celebrates too the international nature of liberation struggles. One is set in Ponce and Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, another in the New Hebrides, another in Laos, another in the Kenyan countryside. I hope to get to Brazil this year and back to Africa as well.
As for the novel—it's still a mystery to me. I started out with a simple story of a carnival society that decides to stage an old slave insurrection as their contribution to the pageant. It's developed into—well, you can imagine. Hard work, writing. A continual act of discovery!
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