The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Laurie Jean Cannady

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Laurie Jean Cannady seldom talks about herself, unless you force her to, even in an interview about her first book, a memoir to be released this month that recounts her childhood and all its craving. Instead, she finds a way to mention by name almost everyone who has been a part of the book’s journey: her teachers (Rigoberto González, Laurie Alberts, Diane Lefer, and Sue William Silverman), her writer-turned-mentor Tim Seibles, believing souls from her press (managing editor Bill Schneider and executive director Phil Brady), and many others she considers gifts. She is as intent on calling their names as making known the hunger and horrors that some, like herself, are able to endure.

Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul starts with unimaginable longing: “Before I spent a moment in this world, I was hungry. Momma told me stories of my body tightening inside her body even though she was just four months pregnant with me. Food was a scarcity in Momma’s womb, my first home.” From the womb to a houseful of wanting, Cannady reminds us that all too often troubles don’t seek us out from afar but are stumbled upon in our own backyards. In this family history, as in many, sometimes it’s difficult to know who’s stirring the pot and who needs saving.

During our interview, I go back to her words and she returns to the words of others. She is sure this clarity and survival were only possible through those who helped her make something out of the burden of her past. She is highly favored, she reminds me, despite this difficulty, and I call her name again to remind her that what’s she’s written for those heralded in the book’s dedication (“…those curvy, unnerving, twist walking, body, talking, get-all-up-in-your-face women… Those ladies can’t nobody stand, ‘cause no one understands them”) is a mighty gift too.

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The Rumpus: When did you begin your journey as a writer?

Laurie Jean Cannady: My first memory is of thinking “I want to write,” I was around nine years old. I fell in love with Shel Silverstein’s poetry when my mother checked A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends out from the library. I also remember one of my poems being chosen for an MLK celebration at school. In Crave, I write about how poor we were, but my mother found the money to purchase me this frilly dress for my performance. I could see my mom and the pride she wore on her face as I read my poem. That’s really where it started. There was something about words, about poetry, that pulled me in.

Rumpus: I’m not going to argue with that—poems, of course, are compelling and move us in myriad ways. But how did you make the transition to prose?

Cannady: It happened when I learned I couldn’t write poems. (Both laughing.) I loved poetry and I loved to read it, but I just couldn’t make it do what I think poets, like yourself, are able to do. Back then, I was copying what I saw Shel Silverstein doing. When I was thirteen, I moved from poetry to playwriting, but all of my plays went the same way. The protagonist was a girl whose mom and dad were drug dealers and they were killed, so she had to take care of her four siblings herself.

Rumpus: So, a play that was mirroring a lot of what you were feeling in your own household even though your mom was there, right?

Cannady: Actually, I hadn’t realized that until you just said it. That was when my mom bought me my first typewriter and I loved that thing, but I wasn’t ever good at finishing plays.

Rumpus: That’s because you were writing your own story and it wasn’t done yet.

Cannady: Wow, that’s probably what it was. I couldn’t see beyond the story that I was living. Actually, I wrote some in high school, but there’s one scene in Crave where the guy I was dating got upset because I was writing poems about our dysfunctional relationship. After the poems were published in the school journal, he told me, “Don’t write that shit anymore because everybody thinks I’m dogging you out.” I only started writing again when I met my husband. I wrote him all these rhyming poems. He still has them too and they are horrible, just horrible, but they were what I created when I slowed down long enough and felt safe enough to start expressing myself again.

Rumpus: One of the challenges of writing memoir seems to be that you always have to think about the other people involved in your story and how they might receive the book. Was this something you struggled with? If so, what helped you to move beyond this difficulty?

Cannady: It’s still a struggle and I don’t think that’s a struggle that ever goes away. I’ve always thought about my family members and whether I have the right to tell their stories and what do I do when their stories are intertwined with mine? So, I made a list of questions that I would consider as I wrote about different people. One of the first questions I would ask myself was, “Is it essential to the plot? Does it have to be there?” and if it didn’t have to be there, maybe I could find another way to incorporate whatever theme I was thinking of. Another question I considered was, “Am I being intentionally hurtful because I’m still hurt?” Ultimately, I had to sit with the fact that this was my story. While I want to be respectful of the people that I love, especially my siblings and my mother, I had to tell my truth. I always think about that Anne Lamott quote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Rumpus: I always say, “Why protect the guilty?”

Cannady: I’ll tell you what really made it easy. My mother, she was so generous with her part of my story. I kept thinking if she’s okay with it, then I can’t be concerned with anyone else, especially since she has the most to lose in this because she was responsible for us. I had always intended to let my mother read Crave before it came out. At first she said, “No, I don’t want to read it,” then one day she said, “Send me what you have of the book.” When she got it, she said, “I just wanted to know you trusted me like I trust you. Now, I’m not going to read it until you can’t make any more changes to it.” That was the best gift she could have given me and it was brave on her part; she didn’t want to influence my truth and she knew it was different from hers. She trusted me with her story when I was a little girl and then she trusted me with my own story when I became a woman. Oftentimes the women, the men writing memoir, our child selves are still looking for acceptance, we’re still looking for someone to say, “I believe you.” And that was what my mother gave me. She was saying, “I believe you even if your truth is different from mine.”

Rumpus: You created a book trailer for Crave, and it features your daughter. Was it strange to have her inhabit a younger version of yourself, especially since this book is about trying to find a way to free yourself of much of this time she’s figuratively stepped back into?

Cannady: Out of this entire process, I think seeing my daughter in the book trailer was the most difficult thing for me. Now, this is a little girl, a ninth grader who wore a full suit the first day of classes because she wanted to be professional, like me, so it’s no shock that she’d want to portray me in the trailer. At first, I’d thought, “This will be a great idea” because she is me, just like I was my mother and my mother was her mother. But when I saw her in the trailer, I felt immense pain. I realized she was not me and I was not my mother and my mother was not my grandmother. It hit hard in my gut that this was the reason so many of the women in my family and so many of the women in this world struggle, because we are working to fit into roles that aren’t really for us. When I saw my baby in Crave’s trailer, trying to fit into the role of an abused and broken fourteen-year-old, my heart broke, for her, for my younger self, for my current self, for all of the fourteen-year-old girls, missing that sparkle in their eyes.

The producer, Samantha Asmaudu, did a wonderful job taking the images in my head and creating something readers could experience. As I watched it, all I could think about was my baby had never felt the despair that I felt during my childhood. She’d never had things stolen from her in the way that they were stolen from me and still she captured in her eyes, what I’d been carrying for forty years. I couldn’t understand how that pain could still reside in her.

Rumpus: Poet and memoirist Mary Karr said something very accurate about childhood in an interview with the Paris Review:

Childhood was terrifying for me. A kid has no control. You’re three feet tall, flat broke, unemployed, and illiterate. Terror snaps you awake. You pay keen attention. People can just pick you up and move you and put you down.

Your book actually begins with you in the womb, then you begin recreating ideas and emotions for yourself even as an infant. How did you capture that powerlessness with such precision; certainly much of this isn’t actually memory, but perception, correct?

Cannady: I had what some would consider these inappropriate stories my mother began telling me at an early age. Now, I know she told me those stories because I’d had such an early trauma and she was trying to teach me how not be victimized again. While writing, I meditated on what I knew of my mother—her dedication, her ability to make a way out of no way—and I reconstructed her history. I also meditated on memories I had and memories that were given to me in order to fill in the blanks for my story. What left me in awe while writing Crave was I felt like people in my family I never got a chance to know, were speaking to me. When I had an opportunity to meditate on my memories and the memories of others, I could hear them.

Rumpus: Their voices rang true for me as a reader as well. In the context of this book, how would you define hunger?

Cannady: I describe it as a continued and sustained yearning. Of course, there’s the literal hunger for food, but we also hungered for many other things—safety, our mother, our fathers, for the ability to just be kids, during a time when you weren’t able to just be kids. Portsmouth, where I grew up, is currently ranked the most dangerous city in Virginia. When I look at childhood friends and realize it’s not the guys we grew up with who are passing, but their children, it pains me. I can’t imagine another generation suffering in the way we suffered.

I’ve always kept close the Toni Morrison quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Portsmouth is not Chicago, the Bronx, or New Orleans. When you think about inner cities, you don’t think Portsmouth, but that inner city experience permeates so many communities around the country. In the 80s, when people went to places like Lincoln Park, my projects, they didn’t see any potential in us. They saw us as dirt and I know that to be true by the way they treated us. The same can be said of places like Ferguson and Baltimore when you consider the treatment of their citizens. I’m evidence that there were professors there. There were writers there. I know there were lawyers, singers, teachers, artists, soldiers there. We were never trash, even though so many tried to throw us away.

Rumpus: In Crave, there is a moment when you have your first proper, teenage kiss and a line from that section really struck me: “For the first time in my life, I began to understand the compromises I had to make in order to be loved.” What difficult realizations did you have to come to?

Cannady: I’m still coming to those realizations. That was a difficult lesson and it’s one women learn often, within their families, in larger communities, and in the workforce: we make concessions. I also think as a person of color I’ve made many concessions. I believe all of us want the same thing. We want to feel valued for whatever we bring to our respective communities. We want to feel safe and we want to feel loved. We want to feel like we’re part of something larger than ourselves. That often means concessions have to be made.

Now, I try not to make those types of compromises, but I’d be lying if I said there aren’t times I hear something and my heart stands up, but I stay down. There are times I see someone struggling in the way I did and I say, “I don’t want to go back there again.” In the context of Crave, this is a girl that if she had any self worth to begin with, it was stomped out of her long before her first boyfriend. Just by watching her mother, just by seeing the way other women were treated, she didn’t understand her self worth and it wouldn’t be until decades later that she would begin to understand.

Rumpus: You deal with some very tough, often still taboo, issues in this book—molestation, abuse, underage relationships, rape. For some this might be an embarrassing, even deafening past. Why did you decide to recount (which is a task in itself) and share it?

Cannady: I learned, and this is something that came to me in the last few years, that I had to forgive myself for things I did and things done to me. Also, in most situations, I wasn’t the perpetrator. I was hiding secrets for victimizers and I realized, in hiding secrets for them, I was leaving innocent people vulnerable.

As far as those subjects being taboo, are they really taboo when then continue to happen? One in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually assaulted by the time they are eighteen and some say that is underreported. How taboo is that? It’s not really as taboo as we would like to believe it is. I believe giving my story will encourage and allow others to say, “Yeah, it happened to me too” and then we can ask the most important question: how do we stop it?

Rumpus: In Crave, you write: “I’ve always been fascinated with the way children make things fit. I’ve watched in awe a child wrestling a left shoe on a right foot. She loosens strings, pulls in toes, rounds her foot, attempting to make it smaller… After the struggle is done, she can walk, but never straight and never in comfort. But she can walk.” How did this idea of “fitting” into things figure into your own childhood?

Cannady: What you find when you experience tragedies, especially at a young age, is you have no choice but to make those existences fit. What is the alternative? You live in fear? You make that fear fit, or you don’t live at all. One of the things I wanted to capture with Crave was life happened in between the trauma. In between being molested, I played outside with my brothers. In between seeing my mother abused, we ate candy, fought, and joked. Some people have this litmus test for trauma and they ask, “If you were traumatized, why would you still talk to the person who victimized you?” or “Why didn’t you tell?” Because you make it fit. You make things that should never fit, fit.

Rumpus: Being a memoirist always seems like a tricky task—how do you know your life will continue to be interesting? Do memoirists look for or even thrive on this wrought and difficult living? What if your living stops being intriguing enough (by someone’s standards—readers, the press, the author herself)? What comes then?

Cannady: I think that we all have stories, but we don’t always have the ability to tell the story when we’re in it. You can have someone like Annie Dillard with American Childhood, a beautiful book that was beautifully written, very successful, and it is without the conflicts you see in Crave, and still it is an amazing book. I don’t think that you have to have one trauma after another to write memoir and I definitely don’t think memoirists thrive on trauma.

I believe memoirists have developed an eye that allows them, in the midst of chaos to still see, record, and recount. If you live this life and walk this world, you’re going to have traumas but you’re not always going to have the ability, in the middle of the trauma, to breathe, to find the lesson or the meaning in the pain. I believe that is the job of a memoirist. Memoirists have the ability in the midst of all of us drowning, to go up for air, breathe, take account of what is happening, and then shape into a narrative what can hopefully feed the next generation.


Remica Bingham-Risher’s latest book, What We Ask of Flesh, was recently reviewed by The Rumpus. Her first book, Conversion, won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award. She has recently completed her next book of poems, Starlight and Error, and is finalizing a book of interviews with African-American poets. Currently, she is the Director of Writing and Faculty Development at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA where she resides with her husband and children. More from this author →