Thursday, February 13, 2020

Typin' and Dreamin' (and getting merry like Christmas), by Catriona

Discuss a source of inspiration you’ve derived from a black American author. How has their work affected yours? 

I grew up a voracious reader before YA was a thing. Consequently I went straight from Enid Blyton’s school stories to bonkbusters, bodice rippers and – thank God – Virago modern classics and the Women’s Press. It was these last two imprints that threw Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in my path and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, The Bluest Eye and The Color Purple each captivated me and broke my heart.

From those books and – sorry, but it’s true – from Roots, I “learned” about Black America. It’s in the south, it’s relentlessly grim, it’s inextricably bound up with feminism. (It was decades before I read a book by an African American man.)

Thinking all Black Americans lived in the south and were grindingly poor was a misconception that had no value, but thinking Black struggles were feminist struggles was a . . . misconception? Kinda . . . that did a lot of good. I managed to swerve the dead-end of cluelessly white feminism that caught and held so many of my sisters, through no particular fault of their own and certainly through no particular virtue on my part.

So I’m going to say that Celie, Pecola and little silent baby Maya were amongst the heroines that made me the woman I am, interested in telling the stories I’m interested in telling, of women with no measure of power in the world who nevertheless have enough grit and wit to find a gap in the hedge of the labyrinth, a slack loop in the ties that bind them, and a reason – justice, honour, survival, redemption, revenge – to stamp a foot and say NO.

When it came to how to write, these weren’t the books that showed me. I couldn’t have imagined doing what Alice, Toni and . . . ah, Prof. Angelou (I can’t call her by her first name, even in writing, even now she’s gone) . . . did in their work. For that I needed to step down out of the clouds to more workman-like authors not so far beyond my ability as to be irrelevant. (Like how you don’t buy a kid her first keyboard and some Bach to listen to.)

All these years later, when feminism is going through the wave after the wave after that wave, when the Women’s Press and Virago put the right books on the shelf at the right moment for me, I’m delighted that the African American women I’m reading are writing sweet funny books – Kellye Garrett, savage funny books – Rachel Howzell Hall, and bonkers classical-music-themed, whisky-drenched, paranormal Irish cozies – Alexia Gordon.

But I wouldn’t be who I am today, in writing or in life, without the experience of sitting with Pecola while she thinks about “blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned dolls” and her own denied beauty (imagine the bombshell that was to a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned girl in a country whiter than milk); sitting with little Maya and trying to follow along when she said “Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant of being ignorant to being aware of being aware. And the worst part of my awareness was that I didn't know what I was aware of. I knew I knew very little”; sitting with Celie and nodding when Shug said so simply “Everything want to be loved.”



Ann said...

Was just thinking this morning how glad I am that I know you.

Susan C Shea said...

Shug's observation....

Thanks for the post. you were luckier than I was at that age - most of what you read wasn't published then. But I had the daily news of the great civil rights movement in the South to open my eyes at least a little. I love your post.