Lisa B. DuBois radiates like a ball of citrus sunshine, yet her imagination is unafraid of the rum moons we all drink but only a writer or shrink cares to best describe. I first collided with Lisa on the Brooklyn literature scene devoted to Black women, and I was so struck by her enthusiasm for this work it was natural for us to get to know each other. I am an obsessive lover of the short story and its particular form, and am excited by the public cultural trend towards more attention to stories. Mrs. DuBois is a young master of its form, with characters I appreciate and respect within mere paragraphs of her writings of them, and full-circled or open-ended tales I can explore my own life and relationships through. The depth and variety of her public introductory work is profound. And, she is not stopping anytime soon…
Q: The voices in this debut collection are very wide-ranging, in age and circumstances. We have several grown women in first person, a teen girl in pitch perfect New Yorker blackish, alternating perspectives in the same story and third person narration. Why?
A: Of Love and Sound Mind is a women-activated universe. Every story has a black woman or girl seated at its center with the psychic traumas of racism, grief, abuse, divorce, acting as a propellant for the plot. When I thought about how I wanted the stories to be experienced, I realized that to try and homogenize the voices in terms of voice or point of view would lessen the impact of the collection as a whole, and diminish the voices of the readers who saw themselves in between the lines of the narrative. Women are myriad, as are their voices as they relate their experiences. I wanted to honor that truth.
Q: The same goes for structure. Some of the prose mimics screenwriting. The collection also has the epistolary form and even a eulogy. Is this a case of the imagination leading the writer or the writer deliberately attempting work in multiple forms?
A: I simply (not simply, really, because it was agonizing!) surrendered to the responsibility of being a conduit for these stories. When I did that, this collection and its totally non-conforming structure appeared! In essence, when I stopped trying to be a writer, I became a better writer. Believe me, I tried to whip these rebellious narratives into something respectable and manageable and usual, but they would have none of it! The story “Sistren” has several different versions besides the one that appears in the collection. But whenever I tried reshape the narrative toward something “other,” the tale lost its resonance.
The same is true for the story “Eulogy.” I could easily have retrofitted that story with something more, in terms of setting and character development and even plot. To use those tools however, just for the sake of some prescribed “writerly” requirement, would have defeated the purpose of the narrative which had everything to do with what happened off the page for the reader.
Q: Many story collections ultimately shape up to fit certain labels Of Love and Sound Mind resists: coming-of-age, urban, slipstream or any number of concrete filings consistent across all stories. What was the time-span between the first and last stories written? Did time play a role in their playful versatility, or some other factor?
A: The oldest story in the collection is “Moore Women” which started out about 20 years ago as a character design of the first character you meet, Miss Ackers. She is one of my all-time favorite characters…she is SO disrespectful and I adore her! The newest story is the first story in the book, “What Happened,” which I started about a little less than a year before Of Love and Sound Mind was published.
I think time certainly served to broaden the perspective from which I created these narratives and absolutely served to make me more comfortable with letting my pen, and not my ego, do what it needs to do on the page. I don’t think the writer I was two decades ago would have allowed “What Happened” to birth. The story is so emotionally raw, I think it would have scared me to death!
Yes, time was definitely the ghost writer of these stories. I also think experience and perspective made room for the some of the humor you see threaded through the collection.
***Read Kalisha’s blog post: “Black Woman Gossip (Or, Ten Great Black Women’s Story Collections) HERE.
Q: The story “By Grace,” about a man’s attempt to save his sick home-birthed newborn with a trip through Klan-infested deep South territory to get to a healer, sticks out in time certainly but also tone. Where did this story come from?
A: I have a good girlfriend whose mother was born dead in 1950s Alabama. When I first heard her older brothers tell her birth story, I was captivated by how much the tale of her origins encapsulated the elements of both nightmare and faith and how she- as a helpless, dying baby daughter- served to define what was to become the foundation and testament of her entire family’s belief system. When I asked if I could fictionalize her story, she lovingly gave me her blessing and then, well, I went for it. As much as John and Grace Perkins (her mom and dad’s real names) do the hard and terrifying footwork in the narrative, that baby girl is without a doubt, the star of that story. I am immensely proud of “By Grace.”
Q: You’ve talked of working with writers like Bernice McFadden in workshops, and you also teach fiction writing workshops. How should a writer determine if the workshop model is for him or her? Which ones might you recommend?
A: I think writers need to observe their process, not just their writing process but their people process. If being in a crowd or being vulnerable in a group distracts you or makes you want to fling yourself off a roof, then you might want to leave the workshop thing alone!
But seriously, even if a writer doesn’t think work-shopping is their cup of tea, I would still encourage them to try it at least once, if only for the creative exercise. For example, workshops are great for stretching through writing blocks. If your sweet spot is writing about psychically traumatized women of color, how much sweeter and fuller would that spot be, after you’ve written 200 words about an uncircumcised and overweight virgin reflecting his life choices as he rounds the last bend of his first 5K race? Grin.. Don’t laugh…I’ve written that story! My point is that workshopping takes us out of our heads, a place where some of us writers spend way too much time.
I’ve hung out with New York City’s Gotham Writers Workshop, which as cool. It took me out of my cultural comfort zone. Women of Color Writer’s Workshop, run by Sister Bisi Ideraabdullah in Brooklyn, is also pretty fabulous. The story “What Happened” started as a response to a writing prompt in that workshop. They use the Amherst Writers & Artist (AWA) Method, which is a very gentle and supportive workshop method. I’m big into gentle and supportive workshops. If a workshop method doesn’t support and affirm you, then run for the hills! The North Country Writer’s Workshop run out of Medgar Evers College and the Center for Black Literature is all kinds of spectacular. That’s where I met Bernice McFadden and Tonya Hegamin. Bernice and Donna Hill did a 1-day writing intensive in July called “Bring Up the Bones,” which proved to be absolutely delicious. This August, I’m going to the Hurston-Wright Foundation Writers Week facilitated by Elizabeth Nunez.
I believe that writers need to be in the company of other writers. No one else understands how we think and respond to our surroundings! Or how we cackle and clap at the sound of a great word! My personal process requires the company of my writing brethren because I am a huge people person. I love talking to people and hearing the universality of their stories. While writing is a solitary endeavor, I believe the support, sound and company of other writers is super important as it serves to distract us from the traps and blocks of our own ego.
Q: My favorite story in the collection is the last, “Eulogy.” It begins with a narrator’s announcement she faces the task of writing her mother’s eulogy, and then abruptly presents the resulting eulogy that is touching, warm, true and probably what many eulogies should actually sound like. There is forgiveness of her mother’s shortcomings, largely due to black women’s mental illness- a major theme in the collection. Was this story a successful first draft or did you shape it?
A: The second section of “Eulogy” happened first actually. It is, in fact, my own mother’s eulogy. I wrote it over the course of three agonizing days as a I struggled to pair the facts of my mother’s life with the expanse of her influence on me, her only child. Traditional eulogies so often, I think, do the dead a disservice, reading like some reporter’s dry monologue of milestones, names and dates. I wanted more than that for my mom. So the short story “Eulogy” is an extended homage to my mother but also a testament to what I call the “intimate abyss” that often exists between mother’s and daughter’s. The first part of the story was written several years later as I wondered how the girls/women in the rest of the collection, would reconcile with and forgive the women who had raised them, failed them and loved them.
***Read “Did You Eat?”- an incarnation of Lisa DuBois’s story “Eulogy” HERE.
Q: Another theme in the collection is dangerous or damaging circumstances adults make in children’s lives and how this affects children as adults later, the primary drive behind Toni Morrison’s latest novel God Bless the Child. Do you have an interest in child psychology as a study that influenced your work, or is it sensitivity as an adult writer keeping this thread at the forefront?
A: While I haven’t studied child psychology, I have studied people. The key to that study is to do it without judgement or condemnation. I’m way too flawed to not live and write from a place of compassion. At the same time, I am clear that mistakes are not made in a vacuum and when people that are parents make mistakes, it is usually the most vulnerable of their community, their children, that suffer the collateral damage and consequences. The women in Of Love and Sound Mind have some heavy stuff to deal with, but at the same time, they are strong and triumphant and weak and broken and brave and beautiful. They are us…
Q: What is next for your writing? What are you working on now and when can we expect to see some of it?
A: Writing, writing and more writing. I’m also allowing myself to read much more this summer, and that feels really good. I’m working on a short story called “Remains” right now, which will likely anchor my next collection. It’s a third person narrative about young woman tasked with driving across four states to retrieve and then scatter the ashes of her estranged father. So far I’m on target for a Summer 2017 release of my next book, so we will see how it goes. I’m also giving myself a few moments to bask in the glow of Of Love and Sound Mind. I love the women in that collection and I want to make sure I allow them their time to celebrate!
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(All images courtesy of the author).