Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, had this exchange with Rain Wright, author of Issue #11’s “The Grey House Didn’t Speak.” She shared her reflections on teaching writing, on her concern with social justice, and on how her writing is integrally connected to her family history in both its content and style.
Let’s start with teaching. You’ve written about the difficulty your first year composition students have had in putting their lives on paper for readers, how they get stuck worrying about the “red herrings” of grammar, syntax, and form and ignore the bigger goal: “Art,” you write, “sometimes attacks and sometimes nudges at ideas and insecurities that live in the realm of the ‘powerless,’ and it places words on paper or into the ear of a listener, transforming powerless to powerful.” As a teacher, how do you get them to focus on this bigger picture?
The difficulty of worrying about grammar, syntax, and form plagues students beyond the freshman level. I am plagued as an instructor and as a student. I worry about the minutia of writing, but that is why editing is a powerful tool. I had a student in my English 273 class ask me today if I cringe at spelling errors when I read over the writings that I require at the beginning of class. I explained that I have them do in-class writing to free their thoughts—that I am not looking at grammar. I look at the content to see how they are engaging with the prompt, creative writing theory, and reading. I also stress the importance of writing being a process that includes rewriting. This is difficult for students to comprehend because the idea of producing for grades, getting an A the first try, is so ingrained in our society. Pointing to the meaning of the word “essay,” which comes from the French essayer (to try), helps students. Writing is a journey, an attempt.
From my own experience, I’ve seen that students are also afraid to reveal the true and intimate stories of their lives. In “The Grey House Didn’t Speak,” you reveal much about yourself and an abusive relationship you endured. What compelled you to write this essay? How did you navigate revealing the intimate moments of your own life?
I began “The Grey House Didn’t Speak” as a means to connect to a journey story I was writing about my mother. She came to America as a means to escape the cold landscapes of England, and to leave a society she felt was too inhibited. She then moved from the continental United States to Hawai‘i to leave an abusive relationship (escape from my father). In a way I see her story as a map of places.
When I wrote my own leaving story, I had her narrative in the background of my story. They were map formations that met in intriguing ways. My map crisscrossed her map of stories, connecting on many levels. These journey stories tell me something about family, something about childhood, something about being a woman. The stories carry the weight of the mother-daughter narrative and abuse narratives.
Some journeys are necessary. Both of ours were imperative to the health of the people who depended on us. I think of my mother’s journey as almost a classic hero’s journey narrative—she left an abusive relationship and moved to a place she didn’t know with three kids in tow. She had to leave to find herself. Journey stories fascinate me. They are points of departure and points that propel change.
I recently did a reading of “The Grey House Didn’t Speak.” The story is so entrenched in who I am that I don’t always realize how much I am revealing. As I read, I watched the faces in the audience. I had a moment of self-revelation or self-awareness. It was as if I were standing in the audience. I could finally hear how intimate the story I was telling was—how much it told about a point in my life that was particularly difficult. I think I had that sudden worry that most writers navigate at times. I thought, how is the audience interpreting my character? Are they judging me? I let those thoughts go so that I could tell the story.
What happens after your essay ends? Where do you and your children fly to? What do you do?
We flew over to the island of O‘ahu. Only islands away might not seem like enough distance to escape abuse and create change, but it most definitely allowed for transformation in my life and my children’s lives. It allowed me to untangle my own complicity. Not that I am blaming myself for the abusive relationship. It goes so much deeper than blame.
In your essay, you allude to your childhood years growing up living in tents and coffee shacks on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Tell me more about your upbringing. What was it like living this way?
When my mother brought us to Hawai‘i we lived in tents. We moved to Maui first, living in a tent on the beach. We didn’t know anyone or have anywhere to stay. My mother had a way of making us feel safe in spite of this precarious situation. We felt safer than in the environment of abuse that my father created. We moved to Hawai‘i Island six months later. My mother felt that Maui was too commercialized. We lived in a tent at Kolekole Beach Park on Hawai‘i island until my mother met up with the Premies, a religious group of people who followed Prem Rawat. I believe my mother was always looked for spiritual ecstasy, a deeper understanding of life, and these people intrigued her. Only briefly. They did help us find housing, which was grounding. The places we lived during the early years of my life create a map in a manner similar to the journey stories. I write many stories from the connection of these places to my own history.
In an interview last year, you noted that your master’s thesis, A Way With Water, which tells the story of your mother and stepfather, is something you’d like to publish. Why did you feel compelled to tell their stories? Where does this project stand now?
A Way with Water, a dual narrative, traces my mother’s journey from England to the United States and from California to Hawai‘i with three children in tow to escape a physically abusive relationship; and my stepfather’s journey from Black Bottom, Detroit, to the Air Force, and finally to Hawai‘i island, as one of the first black men and jazz musicians there. The narrative examines notions of identity within a countercultural lifestyle often interacting with Hawaiian and local cultures—a dynamic that requires not only respect for the host culture, but also an awareness of how my narrative is in dialogue with other Hawai‘i writers. A Way with Water explores non-fiction, poetry, and prose to create hybrid and evolving forms within the field of memoir and biography. I am currently adding more about my stepfather (my Dad). He passed away at the beginning of August. His stories are on my mind continuously now.
I’ve published a few pieces from A Way with Water. I hope to publish the piece as a whole in the future.
In a post on your blog from 2012, you write, “The strange thing about growing up in Hawaii and not being of Hawaiian ancestry or of any of the many other interesting local ancestries is that you question if you have a right to your words. Is it authentic?” Where do you stand on this question now?
I think that people who do not live in Hawai‘i often see writing coming out of Hawai‘i as Hawaiian writing. I am not Hawaiian; I am not a Hawaiian writer. In order to locate within the term “Hawaiian writer,” there must be a connection to genealogy, culture, or ethnicity. I am considered a settler writer. My stories add to the narrative of Hawai‘i, which is political on many levels because of the history and ongoing issues in Hawai‘i. I write with the utmost respect for the host culture.
You have a lyrical style, one that consists often of repeating words or phrases from sentence to sentence to mesmerizing effect. How have you developed your style? How has writing poetry and fiction influenced your creative nonfiction work?
I am fascinated by the rhythm of language, which might contribute to the lyrical and repetitive style. I hear language in different cadence patterns. This could be because I grew up in a very musical family (I am not musical). My Dad (stepdad) was a jazz musician. He had a way of speaking that was jazz; it operated very much on 8th notes. He used many jazz techniques in everyday speaking. I don’t know if he realized it or not. I realized it only after transcribing hours of conversations I had with him. (A professor who I admire a great deal pointed the rhythm out.) My Dad spoke with syncopation—anticipation and delay. He used the uneven long-short 8th notes, and the emphasis on different beats—all when he sat around talking to people. This way of speaking and hearing is within me now. I think this is what creative writing teachers attempt to teach their students when they suggest using varying lengths of sentences—long and short.
Poetry is like music. I have a tendency to write lyrically in my poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Editing helps work out some of the repetitiveness when it is overwhelming.
I was interested in an observation you made about a writer’s desire to connect with readers on social media, yet how sites like Facebook inherently promote a kind of emotional artifice between an author and her audience. Given this, what are your thoughts on writers and the need to use social media as a platform for engaging and cultivating an audience? Can writers really develop an authentic relationship with their audience given their desire to move a product and the verisimilitude of social media?
There are some writers who use social media very successfully. I am not sure if I am one of those successful media users. I hesitate with social media. All writing, even creative nonfiction, is mimetic. Social media’s representation of life is something I am still studying to understand. It does create a document of life events.
Speaking of social media, you wrote a poem, “Rope Hangs on the Neck of My Family,” for Write for Ferguson: Protest Poetry from Hawaiʻi Review. What are your thoughts on writers using their voices for social justice in these times of hashtag activism? In your view, can words have an effect on the culture at large they did, say, in the 1960s and 70s?
Everything is political, even silence. I think Audre Lorde says something along those lines. I know that she argues that what is most important must be made verbal and shared. Writing from an intimate and personal point of view is a powerful means of communication. Last semester I asked my students about the relationship of the writer and history. We were studying Anna Akhmatova, Aime Cesaire, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, to name a few—their use of personal history that transcended personal experience—and I wanted the students to look critically at the relationship between writers and history. To question it. I am currently teaching a class that focuses on creative nonfiction. I had the class read an excerpt of Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi this week. We are not only focusing on the moral and social responsibility of representing actual human lives but also how these narratives present different views of history. How the intimate point of view can be history.
When I wrote “Rope Hangs on the Neck of My Family,” I looked at family history that had been shared from generation to generation, and then I questioned perspectives, or asked what other narratives were happening alongside these narratives. My mother’s family comes from England. I didn’t look at these narratives because I was looking for the American genealogy. I looked at my biological father’s side. There are many wonderful people who come from this side, but in my mind there is also the question of how my ancestors interacted with the violent history of America. Did they participate? I don’t know. What I do know is that many of my ancestors came from the American South, which has a long history of inequality and violence against people of color. I needed the voices of my ancestors, everything that is in my DNA/genealogy, to listen to the voices that are fighting for human lives, for equality. I needed history, present, and future to listen to #blacklivesmatter. To stand with #blacklivesmatter.
You’re pursuing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. What drew you to this program? In your estimation, what are the benefits of a doctorate degree versus a masters of fine arts in creative writing?
My ultimate goals are to teach composition and literature at the highest university level, and to contribute to the body of creative writing and critical work. Receiving a PhD is necessary to achieve these goals, and I believe that the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa English Department is the best program for me because of the Hawai‘i focus of my writing, and because of the mutual investment that the department and I have already made in each other. During my studies in the MA program, I built strong working relationships with professors in the Creative Writing and Literature and Culture Programs. These programs have directed and strengthened my creative writing, and also introduced me to critical and theoretical approaches that have greatly enhanced my awareness and knowledge. Exposure to such scholars as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison has brought new insights in the areas of race, class, and gender, and new approaches to my own work, which often addresses such issues.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on adding pieces to A Way with Water that engage with the death of my father. I am also working on short fiction pieces that I would like to publish.
Given that Mud Season Review grew out of a writer’s workshop, I have to ask: what was your worst writing workshop or feedback experience.
I don’t know if I have a worst story. I tend to love being in the midst of other writers. I did do a bit of research on how and why writing workshops are run the way they are. I wanted to know from a personal and pedagogical standpoint why they are successful—or maybe not successful. I’m still working on this research project.