In a review in the Anchorage Daily News, Nancy Lord called Patrice Gopo’s new essay collection, All the Colors We Will See, “a very welcome addition to the open-hearted discussion we all should be having.”
When I read the book last month, some essays made me teary, while others sparked family conversations or sent me online, eager to research potentially controversial topics.
Patrice and I will be appearing together in a 49 Writers Crosscurrents event on October 18 at Alaska Pacific University to continue the conversation we began below.
WRITING FROM THE CENTER AND THE EDGE
So much of your experience is complex, global and impossible to simplify into one color or a single, hyphenated term. You grew up in Alaska, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica, went to college in the Lower 48, but also lived in South Africa (where you met your husband) and studied in places like England and Spain. As a resident now of Charlotte, North Carolina, you have witnessed the problems of non-integration and acts of regional violence, from the Charleston church shootings to domestic terrorism. Your moving essay about living in a city where you see Confederate flags displayed—sometimes aggressively, sometimes with less clear intent—captured the difficulty of not feeling safe and accepted.
In ways, you’ve been at the center of some American experiences, including unfortunate ones. In other ways, you’ve written from the edge, as many Alaskan writers do. Do you feel this distance has affected your perspective? Is there some alchemy from being alternately close and far to some aspects of the American experience?
Andromeda, thank you so much for those kind and thoughtful words about the collection. Your impression of the book helps me see that this book is doing all that I hoped and more. This is a great question because I think sometimes in order to write we must be in the very center of an experience—personal or societal. But we certainly don’t always have to be in the center. I believe in an abundance of stories. The stories written from a distance can and do offer unique perspective. I remember years ago reading a craft article about the benefits of writing with a certain coldness and distance from the issues that carry the most heat. These thoughts weren’t about removing detail or diminishing the story, etc. but were rather related to the reality that being too close to something can bring in so much emotion that it prevents the reader from truly engaging with the work.
One of the challenges I write about in my essay collection is my personal grappling with my experience of feeling on the fringe in multiple spheres of my life. I’ve honestly come to see this as a gift in these writing years, one that has enabled me to write from the edge. My experience of growing up in Alaska as the child of Jamaican immigrants has shaped the way I interact with many of the most pressing topics of our current times. Even as I now sit and live in the center of some of these American experiences, I know my background as an Alaskan enables me to bring a different angle to these conversations.
CLAIMING AUTHORITY, MANAGING EXPECTATIONS
You write revealingly about those moments when, as a girl or young woman, you were expected to be an authority on the black experience: Huck Finn, OJ, hair, interracial dating—including by teachers who thought they were being sensitive or people who wanted to pigeonhole you as expert or confidante. You capture the youthful feeling of wanting to blend in, of wishing during a college classroom panel “for people with authority to take my seat and call on the raised hands.”
Later, you embrace your authority and reject some societal expectations while boldly taking on others, by leaving the field of engineering, with conflicted emotions, and becoming a writer. Can you speak to this early resistance and the transition into being someone who is ready and willing to speak and write, not only for yourself, but perhaps also for the communities to which you belong?
As a black child growing up in a predominantly white community in Anchorage, I certainly traveled a journey through identity formation. I think in the beginning so many children want to be like their peers, they just want to fit in and not draw attention to themselves. In many ways, this was my story too. I think what happened, though, was that there were pieces of me that lay dormant, waiting for a chance to rise up and exist and be.
In college, I had the opportunity to develop friendships with a group of black women. It was there that I began to experience not just acceptance of who I am, but affirmation of me and all the many layers that form me. I think in these spaces of deep affirmation, we begin to own our particular story. And I believe as I owned my particular story and my particular experience and recognized this as a gift and something to be cherished, this is when I started to see that authority begin to grow. My quest became less about acceptance of self from others and more about the desire to hold fast to and celebrate the pieces of me and the communities to which I belong.
ALL THE COLORS WE WILL SEE
By the end of the collection, I think I understand your title, but would you like to comment on how you chose it, since it speaks to an idea that is less dualistic than black versus white identities?
I have a great love for the title of this book because I believe it’s much like an essay in that it communicates a surface story but also a deeper story. At the
surface level, the title is literally about the many colors that are part of the collection. In the book, I enjoy writing about the visual color I see in the world around me whether the color of landscapes or the sky, the color of foods or the color of my wedding dress. However, at a deeper level, “color” i
s a reference to the ways our society classifies people based on skin color. We then offer people—particularly people of color—a very narrow narrative as to what their experience must be because of the color of their skin. In the book, I push up against the boundaries of these narrow narratives and explore what it means to be a black woman whose story may not align perfectly with the narrow narrative. The title speaks to the need to create space for nuance in my story and ultimately in everyone’s story.
PLANTAINS AND CURRY, BABIES AND BRAIDS
The entire collection isn’t about census terms or recent events, of course. It’s also about food, memory, longing, travel, children, marriage, and faith—and did I mention hair? I loved the images of you braiding your little girls’ hair and how that experience connected generations and embodied how we learn to parent, the messages we intend to transmit as well as the daily experiences we try to share with our children.
Which essay was the most fun to write? Which has sparked the most conversations—puzzlement, recognition, strong opinions or surprise—in your readers?
I’m so glad that you saw this in the collection. I often say it’s a book about “race, immigration, and belonging.” That’s absolutely true, but I think that summary leaves out so much of what you mentioned.
I loved writing “Before.” It’s an essay that juxtaposes my experience napping on my grandmother’s bed in rural Jamaica with my experience placing my daughter on her great-grandmother’s bed in rural Zimbabwe. The piece puzzled me for a long time because I knew the events were connected, but I couldn’t figure out a way to write about them together. While the essay is under 800 words, it took me several years to write as I played around with form and structure.
“An Abundance of Impossible Things,” an essay about Confederate flags and living in the South in the aftermath of the Charleston Massacre, definitely sparks the most conversation with people. After I shared that essay at a reading, a woman later approached me, visibly moved, and explained how the words gave her an entry point into discussions we need to be having. I know the essay isn’t an easy one to read (and it was probably the hardest one for me to write), but the early responses tell me how important this essay is.
BECOMING AN AUTHOR
You became a writer in South Africa, home with your young babies, isolated in some ways and inspired to take up the pen. There are so many questions about this process our readers would love to know, but just to start: What helped you believe you would emerge as a nationally published author? Anything to share about how you succeeded in getting an essay collection published?
Honestly, Andromeda, back in the beginning, in those early days when I was writing short pieces in the middle of the night on my iPod Touch (like I mention in the book), I never could have envisioned where the writing might go. All I knew was that I loved words and the power of words and the work of putting words together to produce a thing of beauty. Back then I never thought that I might write a book. Instead I just started writing one essay and then another and another. A few years into my writing journey, I took a class with Lisa Ohlen Harris, a wonderful creative nonfiction teacher. During that class, she challenged me to think about the possibility of a book. She said something along the lines of, “Once you start noticing similar themes in your essays, you begin to consider a collection.” Those words pushed me forward to believe it possible that I could write a book.
In terms of pursuing the publication journey, my biggest encouragement to writers is to absolutely pursue the craft of writing. I think there is a great deal that is out of our control when it comes to the writing and publication journey, but the biggest thing in our control is our ability to develop our writing. My other thought is that it’s so important to define what success is for you. In this day and age, it’s all too easy to look at another writer and long for exactly what they have. I think it’s good for us to each take inventory of what we hope for in this publication journey. One of my deepest hopes for my book is that it will help spark much-needed conversations about race and immigration. Not everyone is hoping for that with their work.
Patrice Gopo’s new book is All the Colors We Will See (August 2018); visit her at www.patricegopo.com. 49 Writers co-founder Andromeda Romano-Lax’s newest novel is Plum Rains (June 2018); visit her at www.romanolax.com. Please stay tuned for more details of events featuring Patrice Gopo and Andromeda Romano-Lax, who will be both be visiting Alaska in mid-October.