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The Next Big Thing Project: Clarence White

March 22, 2013

Not long ago, I was asked by poet Julia Klatt Singer to join this project. I think it is an attempt to let people know what’s up in our local literary scene. It is, as much and exercise for writers, helping us clarify in our own mind and work what we are doing, what it means and what vision of toil we will follow. I’m glad that Julia “tagged me for this project. You can see her blog post on the blog page of our friend Carla Hagen, where Julia talks about her upcoming book of poetry from North Star Press. (You can see Carla’s contribution to this project just below Julia’s.) Next week, a great young talent Ramla Bile will share her work. (Be sure to click on both Julia and Ramla’s names here to see more of their work!) I am still recruiting others for this project, so keep looking. I hope you enjoy this. I HAVE!

What is your working title of your project?

I’m not sure about a title. That seems a ways off, but I was hoping to figure out some clever play on the concepts of the Great Migration and going against the current, up the Mississippi.

Where did the idea come from for the project?

I don’t know if I ever had an idea of the project as much as it just started happening. I was fortunate to be one of the 2011-2012 Givens Foundation Retreat Fellows for emerging African American writers. Phil Bryant, who is a great poet and a great guy, was our in-state mentor and during the months of our interaction, gave us a series of assignments. Somehow, as I walked through those assignments what I produced seem to have a continuity and identified a story that I was telling. It was about my family’s migration from New Orleans to Minnesota.

What genre does your book/project fall under?

Well, I think it is memoir. I think it is a lot of other things as well, but I can’t really say what. There is a definite social commentary. There is a little bit of history, a little bit of music, especially blues and jazz, and maybe a little bit of theology. I don’t consider myself an expert on any of these things, but I don’t think I can tell the story without that backdrop and context.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s a funny question to answer. I find it hard to even think of who I would want to play me. We all look at movie stars and would like to have their good looks stand in for us and the seemingly antiseptic unreality they get to sport on the silver or small screen and on the red carpet, but those images don’t embody the shortcomings and insecurities that movie star images seem to miss. At any rate, there are not many movie stars that look like me or could even fool viewers into thinking I was as perfect-looking as they. I am also at a loss to think of people who are beautiful enough to convey the beauty that I have found in remembering my family.

It’s tough. I remember Jon Hassler talking about the time Robert Redford bought the rights to his novel Love Hunter. It’s a big thrill, but Redford wanted to play the leading roll. The problem is that the lead character dies slowly and unflatteringly from multiple sclerosis. It would have meant Redford would have had to appear in that glory of decline. Maybe I have a hard time picturing anyone playing these rolls because movie making is so much about the person making it, their ego. Will my characters get lost?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

New Orleans family takes their African American Creole from that dominantly Catholic society up the Mississippi in one of the last waves of the Great Migration, to another Catholic, largely German-American, all-white community at the northern end of the Great Muddy.

Will your project be self-published or represented by an agency?

That’s for all of you to tell me. A lot of it depends on the shape it takes, but I do not anticipate self-publishing my major work. A poetry chapbook might be a better suit for self-publishing. We will see.

I also want to put together a chapbook collection of my poetry some time soon. I think that will be self-published, but I have to ask Julia and a few other poets about this.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

First draft? I’m still creating. I don’t know when I will be done, but maybe when I have enough, however much that is.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I don’t know that I could compare this work to any others. One thing is that about a decade and a half ago, there was a spate of books about black people who had flirted with or crossed the color line for at least portions of their life. I think Gregory Howard Williams’ memoir Life on the Color Line, or Danzy Senna’s Caucasia make us look at a part of the American story and the American psyche is that we are all mixed race. If any of us have family that has been on this continent for more than a few generations, we can be pretty sure that we have Aboriginal blood in us. What few people realize is that we almost all have African blood in us. Americans look different. Blacks look different than their African, Caribbean or Latino counterparts. Whites look different than their European counterparts. We don’t really talk about it, though.

I recently sat on a panel for a book discussion of Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Voodoo Dreams with a truly great writer and Minneapolis Community and Technical College English instructor Shannon Gibney. It is a story set in 19th century New Orleans. What Shannon points out is that the story reveals the truth about diversity and mixed “races”: that it is not something recent in the Americas but not many of us like to talk about it. Not long ago, a mixed marriage was between a Lutheran and a Catholic, but at some point, we stopped talking about the very dark or very light relative–or how that skin tone or hair came to be. We are too ashamed. We live in an adolescent society, still with senses of identity that are easily threatened and still uncertain.

But it is the reality of our culture, our true human race. While most white people, especially males, in our culture don’t have to live on both sides of the color line, most people of color do, even when we don’t want to admit it. We are living in two or more cultures; living many languages.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

What inspired me to write? The short answer is “my parents.” The more complicated answer is “a desire to be liked,” and an even more complicated answer is “the slow letting go of a fear of not being liked.” This is a story about my family, our values and where love comes from, but it is also one for all our families.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Sex, sex and more sex. Well, not really. But then again, this is an American book so to say it is not about race would be a lie–about just about any book we write in this country and in any of the places with strong remnants of the colonial. And the sex? I don’t know. I have friends who like love stories, movies, and books. I’m not a big fan. Not because those stories are too mushy or that I am not interested in the idea of love, romance or sex. It is just that most of those stories are not really that interesting. I think of the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously.” I guess it is billed as this great love story between two beautiful people caught in a foreign land. I thought the love dynamic was lame. It’s not because I don’t like Mel Gibson; the movie was made before we new of the personal, social and religious discomfort he has provided all of us. Billy, the character played by Linda Hunt, was far more interesting.

Maybe it is my aversion to seeing Ken and Barbie dodge bullets or upset diplomats in a place where just about every person in that country is living a more dangerous live without the benefits of colonial privilege, wealth and attention and can leave when they are done with their little adventure while the rest of the people they are “saving” had to live out their love with a greater sense of responsibility and courage and no one seemed interested in portraying that. It might be one of the perks of whiteness.

The other reason I don’t go for love stories is that my own love life, even the part that came before I ever was someone’s lover, was always more interesting. The loves of people for whom I care are more interesting. The ones with drama. The ones without. These are greater loves than the ones that are either dreamed up/imagined or given permission by the dominant white patriarchy that likely could not handle what would be published and screened if the feminine or the brown had to be considered first. It is as if the problem with most love stories that see the light of day suffer from the same thing that the sexual revolution suffered from: unwillingness to let go of the patriarchy. I’m not interested in stories that are about the permission men give for female sexual pleasure; I don’t want Bridges of Madison County or 50 Shades of Gray to be our best tepid masquerade of sexual liberation. (If we want to be honest and have more than an adolescent sophistication about sex or sexuality, there are lots of other places to look. Our own historical legacy of the very good and the very bad shows up strongly in Voodoo Dreams.)

Frankly, Willa Cather’s Antonia is much more sexy. Maybe it is because Cather did what writers can do for human life, sexuality and showing what happens when we put the woman first. It is likely that the sensual was as hidden to the publishers of My Antonia as was the possibility that Cather was lesbian, but it comes through. It is a sexual experience.

I write about my grandfather, a man who was a very staid baptist preacher. When I read a section of the piece I am working on in which he is at the center, people commented on how appealing he was, and that one did not have to depict him having or even contemplating sex in order for the strong sexuality to be apparent. Even apart from having sex, we are all sexual beings. I see “Bridges” and “50 Shades” not as an attempt at getting out of sexual oppression but part and parcel of that oppression.

I guess I have set myself up for a big challenge, creating characters who are sexual beings like Cather did. I am not sure I will be able to reach that height, and I might have to write some sex in, but I hope that folks will fall in love with my imperfect, real-life characters. If I pepper the scenes with a little sultry jazz and shake it up with some blues and rock and roll, maybe I can make it work.

That’s a long answer, but if I do this right, the characters will be more appealing. I know a lot of women who are more beautiful and sexy than most, if not all I see on television and movies. I hope we’ve all had better romances, better sex and deeper love and known the difference between all those things. I hope I can write that. I hope that we can find space where we can admit to being those people and find the place where the sacred belongs–and not tell ourselves lies to force impostors of the sacred into those spaces.

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