Shedding the Cloak of Fiction
All my life, I’ve loved to make up stories. Maybe it’s a part of my southern heritage; after all, I was born in a small South Carolina town in a period before television consumed children’s lives. I was the fourth daughter of two schoolteachers who struggled to educate us without giving us free reign to explore all of our capabilities. When I was growing up in the ’50's and ’60's, Black parents never told their children they could be anything they wanted to be. They knew better. After all, Jim Crow Laws circumscribed the lives we were permitted to live. The fewer questions we asked, the better off we were.
Early in my life, my father disappeared - without explanation - from my radar. My mother, left to fend for herself and five children, was extremely close-mouthed about her life, her feelings, and about my absentee father. What little I did learn about him came from my older sisters who simply said that he drank, and we were better off without him. Southerners are taught, as they exit the womb, that family matters are not for public consumption, and my family adhered to those rules with a passion. My mother’s shame about my father’s alcoholism reinforced her natural reticence. I grew up being told to stop talking so much, and to never disclose family business that could be used - by friends and foe alike - to harm you.
I chaffed under those rules. “Your mouth is going to be the death of you,” my mother often said, after administering a slap designed to teach me restraint, something her words could not do. I secretly identified with Superboy, believing that like him, I had been thrust down in alien soil. So, I hoarded my dreams and focused my attention away from my own life and spent my time honing the skills that led me to become a journalist.
I eavesdropped shamelessly on life around me. Everywhere I went, I paid close attention to people: at school, at church, when we went shopping in Sumter’s small downtown district, at Touchberry’s, the white owned neighborhood grocery store that extended credit to my cash strapped mother, on the bus ride to nearby Florence where a dermatologist treated me for a persistent rash on my hands. I had no inkling that the inflamed, itchy pustules that covered my fingers and hands were caused by repressed emotions struggling to find an escape route. On hot summer nights, as we sat on our darkened front porch awaiting stray breezes, sometimes my mother shared tidbits about her life, her dreams and her regrets. I vowed never to repeat the mistakes she had made.
For years, I corresponded with a pen pal in South Dakota and learned to put on paper the things I saw. Reading was my only escape from a life not to my liking. Barred from the public library by the color of my skin, I checked out and greedily devoured as many books as my school librarian would allow me to have. I also pored over the pages of the Sumter Daily Item, certain that I too could report the news. In high school, I became the on-air reporter for a weekly 15 minute radio program about activities at my school. I later became editor of the school newspaper and was awarded a small plaque signifying that I had written the best news story of the year 1963.
My early forays into high school journalism steered me toward impartial recitation of the facts. My mother’s death, shortly after my 17th birthday, activated a never ending tape of all the things she had ever told me. Things which I had ignored while she was alive. After her death, those things took on an ominous presence. It was as if a cloak slowly descended over memories of my adolescence and I forget most of the facts of my early life. Fiction became the only way I could tell stories. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have never been shy or hesitant about speaking my mind. Southern dictates never bent my strong-willed nature. After college, when I began to write fiction, I thought my stories had no relationship to me, or my family. Yet, they always elicited questions like: Are those real people? Did that really happen? Is that the story of your life? It sure sounds like it. “They’re only loosely based on people and places from my past,” I would say. “I have black holes in my memory about my childhood.” My mother’s fear of community judgement haunted me. What would people think of me if they thought these stories were about my past? I also thought my mother would turn over in her grave if people even thought I was writing about our family.
After hearing me read an excerpt from a novel at the Neuberger Museum, my agent praised the autobiographical quality of my work. “It sounds so real,” he said, touting its potential for sale as a memoir. “But it’s not true,” I argued. “It’s made up.” “Well why don’t you write about your life?” he said. “You’ve led an interesting one and people would love to read about it.” It was a statement I’d heard before. One that always puzzled me. Why would anybody be interested in my life? I’d achieved only minor successes and done nothing to merit special attention. There were people who had survived much harder lives than I had. They were the ones who wrote popular books chronicling their adventures. I was just a poor little colored girl who’d managed to survive. There was nothing in my past that gave me pride, and we tend to share only that of which we are proud.
You may think that being orphaned before the age of 18 is the worst thing that could have happened to me. And it was. But it also was the best thing that ever happened to me. My parents early death left to negotiate life’s shoals without a guide. But I was also free to sample from life’s table without parental restraint or responsibility. What I did reflected upon no one – except me. Like a kid let loose at the World’s Fair, I embraced life and somehow avoided the charms of alcohol, drugs, and fast money. However, I was seduced by the desire to love and be loved. And that, my friends, drove me onto the precipice of dangerous caverns where I dared not look down, lest I fall into a bottomless pit from which accent was most unlikely.
During my thirties, when my life seemed particularly unsatisfying and incomplete, and I couldn’t afford therapy, I began to write poetry. Fearlessly, I poured out the emotional content of my heart, certain that no one would ever see my handiwork. When I substituted for a sick friend who was teaching a continuing education course in poetry, several students asked to see some of my work. Since I encouraged them to share their work in class, I couldn’t very well refuse to share mine. Reluctantly, I read a few poems to the class and was flattered by several students who asked if they could have copies of them. I was so grateful. Finally, I had someone asking me to talk. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. Two years later, I was the author of a self-published chapbook entitled, Feelings Brought to Surface. The print run was 1,000 copies. I sold over 900 copies of that amall book.
I’ve always said I’m my mother’s child, because everyone says I look a lot like her. I had no way of knowing that I acted just like my father. As I approached my 40's, I began to have flashbacks to his funeral where several distinguished old men and women shook my hand and told me what a wonderful person my father had been. I had thought they were crazy, just like my father. How could a wonderful man abandon his family and drink himself to death in a Florida orange grove? What did those people know about my father that I didn’t?
Determined to find out, I embarked on a fact-finding mission to a place from which I had exiled myself for almost 20 years. Within a week, I had enough information to flesh out the man who was responsible for my willingness to question the status quo, my headstrong and fearless nature, my oratorical ability, social consciousness, and basic outgoing nature. Those were the things my father's genes had tattooed on mine. Things that drove me into hiding because they were at odds with my mother’s genes and training. Slowly, I began to understand that from beyond the grave, my parents still battle within me. Friendships, the love of one good man and his children, and meditation give me the courage to tackle the demons that struggle to keep the truth from my pen. Slowly, I have come to appreciate my parents’ strengths, and sympathize with their weaknesses. I’ve learned that it is my job to make peace with the genetic gifts they gave me. I am truly grateful for the person they created. My story is unique. It is worth telling, worth listening to, and worth investing with the love I feel for it -- warts and all. The writing of this story is a work in progress. Book one, "Primary Lessons," is complete. These days and nights, I struggle with book two.