Sonja Livingston interview with Meg Tuite
I fell in love with your exquisite poetic prose, your short flash chapters, your family, your neighbors, your you, in first person, leading us into your challenges, heartbreak, breakthroughs and overall fortitude, “grit, shame and dust,” in ghostbread. That is one memorable and mesmerizing memoir. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to your forthcoming collection, Queen of the Fall. Thank you so much for sending some of your latest work and this interview, Sonja.
It’s a lot of love I’m feeling, but have to continue with the love. I LOVE that you chose some essays about food and family and how those two can entwine themselves in self-worth, image and survival. Here are a few beauties I picked out from the work, although it is pure sugar, through and through:
“Ataúlfo mangos, they’re called, champagne or honey—perfect names for fruit as yellow as the wall hiding the courtyard from the world outside.”
“The mango asks that you sit in a place of sugar skulls, thinking for a moment of your mother and the moon overhead and what will some day come to pass.”
“But she’s taken too long and we speak now from whiskered mouths, seeing only our cage and a reward, all twenty hands pushing toward the social worker whose skin is as clean as the priest’s down the street and whose dark hair becomes a veil as the bottle flies from her hand.”
“...I have to keep myself from dropping to my knees and becoming nothing but a tongue.”
“With him, I have eaten black locust flowers linden blossoms violets daylilies serviceberries rose hips wild garlic fiddleheads nettles and sassafras leaves.”
“Jim saves the way I devour: to hold things close.”
Tell us more about how food and image are linked and your inspiration for these essays.
Thanks, Meg for the love, which I’m feeling all the way over here in western New York.
To your question: I think we pay attention to what we lack (or fear lacking) early on, and while I usually had food, there were times growing up when it was scarce. This hit me harder than it did my sisters and brothers, who didn’t seem as tuned in to their hunger. They may have been more dignified about it. Or perhaps I’m given to craving more than others.
I like to eat. I like to make noises when the food is good and to make sad faces when it’s gone. I like to start my day with the taste and smell of coffee, and every year— though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic—I try to give up some sweet thing for Lent, just for the ritual and to see if I can. I like the tradition of three-tiered wedding cakes with the little people on top and regional food like lady peas and cornbread or pierogi slathered in butter and fried onions.
I’m interested in the way desire and longing get mixed up with the biological necessity of eating, the way food becomes more than a piece of fruit or a teaspoon of sugar and is used to control or allow, to love, to share, to grieve, to renew.
You had to be resourceful to grow up in poverty. You learned how to make the most of what was in front of you. I love that food coloring was added to the mix. It wasn’t just about what was available, but how you could it make it as beautiful and rich as one of those chefs working their concoctions in any high-end restaurant. Can you speak more about this?
What a cool question. I’d never even considered NOT adding color. I think it just felt right. It’s possible Steph had heard about this ‘recipe’ at school—that was her way, to read about something and try it. Either way, we were two kids frying sugar and while we might have lacked eggs or butter to make things fluffy, we never considered not using whatever was around to the fullest. Which is what being resourceful is all about. Maxing out possibilities. To most people, a piece of cardboard is a piece of cardboard, but to others—those without games or warm boots, let’s say—that same cardboard is something to paint red and use as the backdrop in the talent show starring your pet cat, or an 1/8 of an inch of padding on which to trace your feet and cut into liners for your winter boots.
I like the way your chef analogy brings up the idea of beauty. Why do people, even those with more pressing needs, aspire to it? It didn’t matter if our kitchen table was ratty—why shouldn’t I pick flowers and place them on a wobbly table the same way I would a nice piece of furniture? Humans, whether they call themselves artists or not, seem to look to beauty for connection and meaning and to expand our lives. All of that from a vial of food coloring! You ask some good questions, Miss Tuite.
What do you see as the distinct difference between fiction and creative non-fiction?
As categories, they seem simple enough. Nonfiction sticks to personal experience, observation or research, while fiction is all about invention. Of course, fiction writers might use personal experience too, but in calling their work ‘fiction,’ they lay no claim to it. Both genres are in the business of the truth, the main difference is how they go about it. A fiction writer builds something new while an essayist enters existing worlds to sift her way to someplace new.
I may be deluding myself but I don’t tend to have genre confusion around fiction versus nonfiction. When things get murky for me, it’s between poetry and creative nonfiction. All bets are off with poetry. It might sit smaller on the page, looking all dainty or neatly contained with its little lines and bullet words, but make no mistake, a poem is a wild thing—there are times when an essay feels that same way.
How does your family react to your writing? My sister is always telling me that what I experienced in the same situation was not at all her experience. It is memory at its best and as I have written in a story of mine, “memory is a marauder”. Have you had any feedback from those in your essays?
With memoir, the writer’s voice, his persona and particular filter on the world are what make me pick a book up or put it back down. Subject is important—the experience of growing in a Pentecostal family in East Tennessee, let’s say. But as you point out, two people, even siblings, will remember and process the experience differently. How could they not? Each is a different person with distinct interests and concerns. And what a wonderful thing that is. It means they each have a unique take on the same experience. As a reader, I want to learn something about Pentecostalism in East Tennessee, but that’s a happy by-product—mainly, I’m reading to learning something true by traveling with you for a time.
As to responses, most have been positive, but there have been a case or two of obvious silence, which I understand. It’s tough to be cast as a character in someone else’s narrative. If I knew someone had written about me, I’d avoid reading it the same way I don’t want to see photographs of myself. Even with the best intentions, it still comes down to the writer’s perception. The writer focuses, crops and frames, zooms in and pulls away. Even writing about a simple memory in a fourth grade classroom, the ‘people’ still become characters of a sort, acted upon and presided over. The way we characterize people in nonfiction matters more than in other genres because we’re flat out saying, this essay is about my fourth grade teacher, my mother, my ex-husband, and so on.
Yes. That’s one of the best answers I’ve ever received on the subject. Thank you, Sonja.
What is the one component of writing memoir that speaks the strongest to you and is something you need to convey to your students who are just delving into writing essays?
That any experience can be fodder for art, as long as you arrive someplace larger than the place at which you began.
So go ahead and write about your First Communion or the time your Aunt Jane lost her teeth in the punchbowl, but remember that to make it resonate, you have to push past what seems like the obvious point of the story. This can be tough for new writers who either think that they a.) have nothing to say, or b.) know exactly what they have to say. The point is to honor your impulse, but to stay open to where the writing leads.
Can you share with us any precious feedback you received from a reader that really moved you and let you know that your childhood and adolescence were a known arena for others?
I’ve received AMAZING responses from all kinds of people, young and old, teachers and social workers, other writers, people who grew up poor or rich, but who somehow related. These connections have been the most rewarding part of publishing the book, but here are too many of those to choose from, so I’ll tell about a response that was different.
The book is used in high school and college classes and at one college visit, a student stood up and asked me whether finishing college and being successful also meant being somewhat isolated from some of the family and community I’d had before.
Her question floored me. Kids in many urban districts have a greater chance of dropping out than completing high school. For all the right reasons, we push them, talking about all the opportunities awaiting them. We don’t tend to talk about what happens when you trade in one life for another. Again, for good reasons. Yet, it’s a powerful thing, the pull of family and where we come from and know best, and the fear of losing that, of being different, an outsider. But here she was, this brilliant and beautiful young woman, pushing through a private college, the first in her family to do so, the pride of her professors—but already feeling some alienation from her old life and weighing the brightness of her future against what she might lose.
It was such a true question, with no easy answer and I loved her bravery in asking it. By the way, I have zero doubt that she let her fear stop her, but voicing it was a powerful thing.
That’s an amazing question, but something we think about as writers. I’m thankful for the outsider status, but when I was younger, it was an issue.
What would you say to a writer who is afraid to share their memoir for fear of hurting or upsetting family and friends?
First I’d say, come on over here, friend and let me buy you a drink. Then I’d quote Anne Lamott who says: You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behavedbetter.
That’s sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? And it may even be right.
This question gets back to your earlier thought: Memory is a marauder, which, in turn, reminds me of Joan Didion’s quote: Writers are always selling somebody out.
Each of these thoughts seems important and true as I wonder, more and more, who “owns” shared experiences. As a writer, I ask myself what the point is of including something potentially painful or embarrassing, and whether it’s worth the discomfort of another human being. That sounds all pure and monk-like, except that in my new book, while I cut some pieces, I ultimately decided to include an essay or two that might trouble people I care about. Why? I tell myself that something larger is served by the stories, but I also know that it’s because I’m a memoirist and, at best, we are tender-hearted scavengers.
Back to advice for the new memoirist. I say, write first, worry later. If you’re slamming the hell out of someone in the writing, it’s probably not going to be very good. If you have unresolved anger, take yourself to the batting cages before grabbing hold of a pen. When you write about others, remember their humanity. Don’t tell us what an idiot your ex-boyfriend is—sit down and describe the scene where you find the stash of love letters he’s been writing to Winona Ryder since he saw Edward Scissorhands back in 1990. See where the scene takes you. Above all else, be open and honest and readers will respond.
“[T}ender-hearted scavengers.” I love that!
What music speaks to you? If you have any favorites, can you add the links?
I love all kinds of music. I play 10,000 Maniacs or Sinead O’ Connor to return to college days. When I clean, I listen to Aaron Neville or the Flatlanders. Los Pochos and Lyle Lovett help me cook. When I want to cry, something slow by Gladys Knight or Al Green does the trick.
Here’s a link to Space Age Love Song which I’ve listened to lately to get me back to the high drama, giant hair and lined eyes of the 1980s for an essay I’m finishing up about middle school.
LOVE! Who have been your strongest inspirations? Writers, musicians, family, friends, artists?
I’m inspired by those who go about making art in the face of the world and all its weight—it’s such a hopeful act, isn’t it? All these people making paintings and songs and poems when they could be eating Cheetos and watching Netflix.
That said, writing was the thing that nabbed me. The first creative essay class I ever took was taught by Judith Kitchen, who is not only one of the best essayists around, but a wonderful teacher. My second teacher was Dinty Moore—I don’t think I’ll ever stop teaching his abecedarian essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans” because of the way it shows how flexible and finely wrought an essay can be. Both championed the genre and supported my work, which is to say that I was spoiled early on by the best of the best. As for other genres, I’m inspired by lyrical writers, Edna O’ Brien or Harriet Scott Chessman, and strong voices like Gerald Stern and Grace Paley, as well as those who blur genre lines and blow apart expectations like Nick Flynn or Anne Carson.
Who are you reading at this time?
Poetry. It seems like good vitamin for summer writing: Vitamin P. I’m reading Carol Ann Duffy, going back to H.D., and just started on Charles Wright, whose work everyone is posting these days and which, I’m sad to say, I didn’t know before.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a collection of essays inspired by little known American women. It focuses on about twenty historical or cultural figures ranging from daredevils and activists to murderers and thieves, to saints and singers and slaves. These aren’t traditional biographies so much as mash-ups of research, memory and speculation.
It’s been great to explore the various women’s lives and to try to write them in ways that I hope makes them more alive and accessible to readers. There are so many powerful stories all around us, men and women living quiet but fascinating lives. When people say they can’t think of what to write, I’m astonished. My problem is the opposite and I’m stalled while my head spins over all the options.
I can’t wait to read that collection! Sounds amazing!
Is there a quote that really speaks to you, to your life?
"Truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is." ―Nadine Gordimer
That is so true and exquisite!
Thank you so much, Sonja, for your pure brilliance, beauty and truth. I am forever a fan! Thank you for sharing with us!
Thank you, Meg, I’m a great fan of yours as well! These are such thoughtful questions—everyone should be interviewed by Meg Tuite at least once in their lives. I love your writing, your tremendous energy, and the way you help foster the writing community through your work.
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